At the end, it wasn’t that he didn’t realize he had a problem, that he was in trouble. It was just that, even knowing that, he couldn’t stop himself—or believed he couldn’t, which amounted to the same thing.
Ray asked him once, in that sympathetic-but-detached way of his, with the unspoken disclaimer if you’re okay talking about it, but it’s no big deal if you’re not, why he didn’t make a last-ditch effort to stop, go to rehab, ask for help.
“Honestly?” Gerard had replied, shrugging, “I didn’t think I’d survive that, either. And it seemed like going out that way would be a hell of a lot harder. It was like…” He’d paused, searching for a metaphor that fit. “It was like being in a river, getting carried toward a, a fucking waterfall or something, but the shore is all, like, jagged rocks and shit. You can take your chances on the rocks, and hope you don’t get ripped to pieces, or you can just…lay back and let the current do its work, y’know?”
The reality, of course, was a lot less poetic than any metaphor. Nothing poetic about it all, really—just pills and booze, and when that didn’t cut it anymore, cocaine. And then, at last, there was the final catastrophic bender, the one he never came out of.
Not alive, anyway.
The first thing to come back to him is his sense of smell.
He read somewhere once that it's the strongest, that you remember what you smell better than anything else. Whether that's true or not, he recognizes the scent instantly--salt water and clean air.
Feeling comes next--he's lying on something damp and smooth overall, but made up of tiny, hard grains. When sound joins in, it confirms his suspicions with the slow, steady rise and fall of waves rolling and breaking on a beach.
Sight only returns as far as a muted gray light, and he worries for a moment, until he realizes that's because his eyes are closed.
Gerard opens his eyes to see pretty much what he expects--sand and sky and water--except that all the colors are weirdly washed out, like an old, faded photograph. There are no signs of life anywhere around him, no other people, no birds or crabs or insects, and no sound but the noise of the waves.
I've been here before, Gerard thinks as he rolls into a sitting position. It's different with nothing here, but...I was seven and Mikey was four, and we spent a week here one summer. And every day, we tried to go as far out in the water as we could and still stand up. We never made it very far, because Mikey would always get scared, and I'd stay with him. But if I'd been on my own, I could've kept going--I could've—
“…could’ve gone as far out as I wanted,” he murmurs aloud.
He stumbles a little when he gets to his feet, but steadies himself, brushing damp sand from his palms, and moves forward. It never once occurs to him to wonder what he’s doing—it suddenly seems like both the easiest and most logical thing in the world to walk into the water, past his knees, past his waist, past his shoulders. When the waves close over his head, he holds his breath out of pure reflexive instinct, but only for a moment. The urge to struggle against the water passes like it was never there, and then he lets go, all the fight going out of him as he sinks further into welcoming darkness.
…And the next thing he knows, he’s standing in the middle of a field, not even damp. It’s twilight-dark, and the sky overhead is completely blank, with no sign of a moon or any stars. There’s a light breeze, and he’s only wearing a t-shirt, but he’s not that cold, so it’s okay.
Gerard turns in a circle, looking around. In three directions, he can’t even find the horizon—the dark, nondescript ground and the slightly lighter but equally nondescript sky just sort of blur together until he can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.
In the fourth direction, there’s a city.
Gerard’s never been a great judge of long distances, so he’s not sure exactly how far away the city is, but it seems pretty far. In the dark, at this distance, it’s all tall, crumbling spires, outlined darkly against the sky. As he stands there, looking, there’s a sudden flash of light, throwing the buildings into sharp relief for a moment, and a faint noise that sounds like it might be an explosion.
That makes Gerard hesitate—but there’s nothing around but the city, so if he’s not gonna just stay where he is, he may as well head in that direction. See what it looks like from closer up, at least.
It’s hard to keep track of time with nothing but his footsteps to mark its passage by, but Gerard’s sort of used to having no idea what time it is. Consequence of spending so much of his time drunk or high. It stopped bothering him a long time ago.
Anyway, he doesn’t have any idea how long he’s been walking when he first sees the eyes.
He thinks they’re eyes, anyway, yellow and faintly luminous. That’s all he can tell at first, until maybe his eyes adjust a little further, or maybe it gets a little lighter—for all he knows, this could be dawn instead of twilight, or maybe things like day or night have no meaning here and it gets darker or lighter based on some totally different system. Whichever it is, he can see a little more clearly now, and that’s when he notices that yeah, those are definitely eyes, and they belong to a pack of wolves.
There’s no panic in the realization; it’s just another piece of input, one more thing to factor in to his perception of this whole experience. Oh. Wolves. So that’s how it is.
At first, there’s just a few of them on either side, barely visible in Gerard’s peripheral vision. Then, when he looks again, there are more. He can hear them breathing, and the soft padding noises of their feet, but that’s the only sound that comes from them—until a low growl alerts Gerard that there are wolves behind him, as well.
Gerard keeps walking, a little faster but not running, because what the hell else are you going to do when you’re unarmed in a strange place with wolves at your back?
One of the wolves behind him speeds up a little, gets close enough that Gerard feels hot breath on his back. That makes it more real, suddenly, and thus a lot more scary. Gerard’s first impulse is to freeze. His second is to break into a run. He clamps down on both and keeps walking at a steady pace.
“I just walked into an ocean and came out okay,” he says out loud, doing his best to keep his voice calm and steady. “Who says I need to be afraid of a bunch of wolves?”
A laugh comes from somewhere to his left—it sounds human, and it’s high-pitched, with an edge to it that might be hysteria. “Fair enough. But who says you don’t?”
Gerard turns his head. There’s a girl walking among the wolves, a hand resting on one’s back like it’s a pet. In the dim light, she looks totally monochrome—dark dress, white skin, dark hair and eyes.
“…Hi,” Gerard says. “Um. Are these your wolves?”
She laughs again at that. “In a sense, I suppose they are. But I didn’t send them here, and they don’t answer to me alone.”
“Oh.” So on the one hand, that might mean she can’t, like, sic the wolves on him, but on the other, it might mean she can’t call them off if they go for him on their own.
“You’ve done well not to run,” the girl continues sweetly. “They like to chase things that run.”
“It didn’t seem like the best idea,” Gerard replies, darting another glance around at the wolves.
The girl looks over at him and smiles widely, showing white teeth. “It’s unnerving, isn’t it? Not knowing whether or not they’re about to attack?”
“Don’t tease him, sister.”
The new voice comes from Gerard’s right, and when he turns, there’s another girl there. She looks almost exactly like the first, only where the other has a manic grin and a sharp, sweet voice, this one’s voice is low, and her expression is solemn, almost sad.
The other one makes a face at her, childishly petulant. “Spoil my fun, why don’t you. As usual.”
“It’s not my fault you get your fun from tormenting people,” the second girl says calmly, and then looks at Gerard. “They won’t harm you. And neither will we.”
“Okay,” Gerard says. “That’s…good to know. Thank you.”
One of the wolves growls, and the second girl turns her gaze on it, her melancholy look never changing. “You won’t,” she repeats simply. “He’s not for you.”
The wolf snarls at her, then breaks into a run. The others follow suit, and Gerard does freeze then, but not one of them touches him, the ones behind him veering to either side to run around him instead.
“There,” the second girl says. “Now we can talk.”
She turns to Gerard, and holds out both hands with an expectant look. Gerard hesitates a moment, and then puts his hands in hers. She smiles faintly, which doesn’t do much to counteract her air of sadness—it’s like the sadness is her default state, and any other emotions she shows are just getting laid over that, like a thin coat of paint that doesn’t really hide what’s beneath it.
“Do you know where you are?” she asks.
Gerard takes a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking about that, actually.“
“And?” she prompts gently.
Gerard hesitates. Thinking while he walks along in this place has been one thing. Saying it is another. Saying it will make it real.
“Well, the last thing I remember before the beach is getting pretty cosmically fucked-up. And since then, things have been like a really weird dream, but I feel more lucid than I have in…a long time actually.” Gerard looks down at their joined hands as he speaks; his skin looks almost as pale as hers, and feels almost as cold. “So I figure…either I’m having the trip of a lifetime, or.” He swallows hard, and finishes, “I’m dead?”
The girl gives him that sad smile again, and squeezes his hands gently. “It’s best when you realize it on your own, trust me. The ones who have to be told are always the saddest.”
There’s a dizzy, yawning sensation in the pit of Gerard’s stomach, like being on a roller coaster just before the first big drop. When he speaks, his own voice sounds distant, muted. “Overdose?”
The girl nods, and tilts her head to one side questioningly. “Did you mean to? It’s difficult to tell, sometimes.”
“No,” Gerard replies, though it doesn’t come out as certain as he means it to. “I mean, I wasn’t thinking about OD-ing. I wasn’t thinking about anything.”
“What if you had been?” she presses. “Would you have done it intentionally?”
“No,” Gerard says again, more firmly this time. “No, I wouldn’t have done that to—”
It crashes in on him then, the dreamlike state he’s been in broken by cold realization—he can’t say he would never do that to Mikey, because unless this is a trip or a dream, he did.
He closes his eyes, gripping the girl’s hands, and whispers, “I can’t go back, can I?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” she replies softly. ”What’s done can’t be undone. But there’s something for you here, if you want it. Something you can be. I know you’ve wished for that, and you can have it, here.”
Gerard can’t bring himself to care about what there might be here, at the moment, can’t think of anything but what he’s done and what he left behind. All the same, those words resonate with him. They’re worth remembering, important somehow, even if he can’t tell why, and he instinctively files them away to come back to later.
“What about Mikey?” he asks. “Will he be okay? Does…does he know yet?”
The girl shakes her head. “That’s not for me to say. I’m sorry.”
She sounds it—sounds as though she’s on the verge of tears, actually. Gerard looks at her, at her white, white skin and her dark, dark eyes and her expression of perpetual sadness. “Who are you?”
The girl leans in, kisses him on the cheek, and Gerard feels tears prick his eyes, sharp and sudden.
“Regret,” she whispers, close to his ear, and then draws back. “Now you need to talk to my sister. Try not to be afraid of her; she can’t help but be what she is.”
“Your sister?” Gerard echoes, turning. The first girl, the one with the sharp smile, is still there, looking faintly bored as she watches them.
“Still here,” she says, and holds out her own hands. “Come on, then. My turn.”
Gerard lets go of the other’s—Regret’s—hands, though he’s a bit reluctant to take her sister’s. When he does, his heartbeat—he still has one, interestingly enough—speeds up, and his mouth goes dry.
She smiles at him, all teeth. “And who do you suppose I am?”
Gerard swallows past the dryness, and answers steadily. “Fear?”
She nods. “Very good. As I said: the wolves are mine, in a sense.” She frees one hand to touch his chin, tilting his head from side to side as she studies him. “You don’t scare easy, do you? That’s good, you’ll need it.”
“I take it there’s things I should be afraid of here?” he asks, meeting her eyes. “The wolves?”
“And other things.” When Gerard gives her a questioning look, Fear shakes her head disapprovingly. “If I told you everything at once, it wouldn’t be any fun.”
Gerard considers asking who it’s supposed to be fun for, her or him, but he thinks he can guess the answer. “Is there anything else you will tell me?”
“Just this: fear exists for a reason. You can try to deny it, you can buckle under it—or you can use it. Trust your instincts, and remember that a wolf is more likely to give chase if you run from it.”
Like Regret, she leans in and kisses his cheek—the opposite one from her sister, and Gerard’s not as surprised by the little jolt of adrenaline that goes through him.
“What should I do?” he asks as she draws back.
“For a start?” Fear raises one arm, and points toward the horizon. “Head for the city.”
“You’ll find what you need there,” Regret adds, moving to stand beside her sister. “Or it will find you.”
Gerard glances toward the city on the horizon, at the distance between there and where he’s standing, and then back at the sisters, who are standing close together now, arms around each others’ waists.
“Will you come with me?” he asks.
Regret shakes her head. “Not us. But we can send someone to take you there, if you’ll wait.”
Gerard hesitates. “What if the wolves come back?”
“They won’t,” Fear says, but then adds unhelpfully, “Probably.”
“As I said, they won’t harm you,” Regret says, more reassuringly. “They have rules to follow, whether they like it or not.”
“All right.” Gerard looks back toward the city, squaring his shoulders resolutely. “All right. And, um, thank you both.”
No answer comes, and when he turns to look, there’s no sign of either girl.
“People come and go so quickly here,” Gerard mutters to himself—though, really, this isn’t much of a Wonderland so far.
So he waits. The sky gets light enough for him to see pretty clearly, but if this is sunrise, there’s no sign of the sun. It seems more like ambient light, coming from all around, and it’s bright but pale, the colors still washed out. Every so often there’s another flash of brighter light and another distant explosion from the direction of the city.
Gerard’s not sure how long he waits, but he feels pretty comfortable, not hungry or tired or anything. He also—and this takes a while for him to really be sure of—feels completely clearheaded and sober, and okay with that. For the first time in years, that constant itch under his skin, the feeling that he needs a drink or something stronger…isn’t there. It feels like the addiction’s been taken out of him, somehow, like a wound being lanced until the blood runs clean again.
That hammers it all home: that he’s dead, that he’s left everything he knew behind and couldn’t go back if he wanted to. Whether he’d want to is a question he puts off for now; on the one hand, there’s everything he’s glad to leave behind, and on the other, there’s Mikey. When he realizes his hands are shaking, realizes there are tears running down his cheeks, he doesn’t bother trying to stop it or wipe the tears away—just waits for it to pass, and it does.
When the girl on the horse shows up, she startles him, appearing as quickly and quietly as Fear and Regret did. One moment he’s alone, and the next, there’s the sound of hoofbeats muffled by grass, and when Gerard turns his head, she’s there.
There’s a sword strapped to her hip, and both she and the horse wear armor, the metal dark but well-polished. She’s young-looking and thin, with short, dark hair and a certain boyishness—Gerard’s almost not sure she is a girl, except that intuition pushes him that way.
“Hello,” he says, and she looks at him in silence for a moment before replying.
“Hello,” she says, in a voice that pushes Gerard’s impression more strongly towards both female, and young. “You’re going to the city.”
“I can take you there,” she tells him, and pats the horse’s neck with a tiny smile. “He can bear us both.”
She holds out a hand, and Gerard walks over and takes it. He expects it to be work getting up there—he’s never been on a horse—but the girl pulls him up easily, with more strength than it seems like she should be capable of, and waits patiently until he gets settled.
“Hold on to me,” she says, and Gerard takes that as permission to put his hands on her waist (although it’s not like he could accidentally grope her or anything through a suit of armor, so maybe he doesn’t need to worry much about formality). “Ready?”
Gerard squirms a bit more in a vain attempt to get comfortable, then nods. “As I’ll ever be.”
The girl doesn’t speak once they start moving, and Gerard’s content to let the silence stay unbroken. He holds on to her and watches the city get closer, and when another bout of shakiness hits, he puts his head down and concentrates on breathing steadily, and if the girl notices, she doesn’t say anything.
Another flash of light and muffled explosion comes from the direction of the city, and Gerard looks up, lifting one hand to swipe at his eyes briefly before speaking.
“Is—is there fighting going on in the city?” he asks, and the girl shakes her head.
“Not within the city itself. It’s the soldiers in the trenches.”
“Soldiers?” Gerard echoes questioningly.
“The ones who die in battle,” the girl replies solemnly. “Sometimes they don’t want to lay down arms when they get here. Or don’t realize they can.”
“Oh,” Gerard says. “Doesn’t anyone tell them?”
“They don’t listen,” she says. “The only one who could make them stop is the Mother, and it suits her to let them fight.”
“The Mother?” From the way she says it, it sounds like some official title. “Who’s that?”
“You’ll meet her,” the girl says, and for the first time she sounds abrupt, terse. “Everyone does.” Without waiting for a reply, she raises a hand to point. “Do you see the hill west of the city, and the house there?”
Gerard looks, and nods. “Yeah.” It’s less of a house than a sprawling mansion, maybe two miles out.
“Don’t go there,” the girl says simply.
“In all the time I’ve been here—over five hundred years—no one who has gone into that house has been known to come out again.”
“…That’s a good reason,” Gerard agrees.
The grass they’ve been riding over turns abruptly to bare, hard-packed dirt as they near the outskirts of the city. The damage that Gerard could catch glimpses of before is clearer now—the place looks like a fucking war zone. Within another mile or so, the horse slows to a walk, picking its way carefully over rubble so high and dense it’s like a barricade in places. The girl steers them through it confidently, finding paths Gerard would never have seen.
“What happened here?” Gerard asks. “I thought you said the fighting wasn’t in the city?”
“It used to be,” the girl says. “The soldiers used to have free reign here, until they were exiled to the trenches almost a century ago, and the damage to the city left to stand as a reminder of why. Skirmish parties still cross into the city sometimes, but there’s a—I forget what they call it, a sound that lets people know to seek cover.”
“A siren,” Gerard supplies. “So…is it really safe for people to be here?”
She shrugs. “As safe as any place in this land. Between the soldiers and the wolves, many consider the soldiers the lesser danger.”
Eventually, the wreckage gets clearer, until there are just a few scattered piles of debris here and there. The girl reins the horse in, turning to look at Gerard. “For my own part, I don’t often go farther into the city than this—it and I are ill-suited to one another. Can you find your way from here?”
Gerard slides down, stumbles a little. “I’m…not sure where I’m going from here, really. I was told to head for the city, that’s it.”
The girl smiles sympathetically. “I see. You might try the House of Wolves. They’re kind to newcomers there.”
“Thanks,” Gerard says, and then, “Uh. The House of Wolves?”
“Don’t worry,” she says solemnly. “The only wolves there are in the name.”
Gerard nods, somewhat reassured. “Okay. Thank you for the ride. And everything you told me.”
“There’s much to learn here,” she says, looking down at him. “If we see one another again, and you have questions, I’ll answer them if I may.”
“Thanks,” he says again, with a faint smile. “Oh, and if we do see each other again—I’m Gerard.”
“I am Jeanne,” she says, and turns her horse, but looks back at him before she departs. “Go well, Gerard.”
The House of Wolves doesn't look like much when he finds it: it's small and dark, huddled in the shadow of taller buildings like it's trying to hide. The name is spelled out in lurid neon letters across the front, but several are shorted out, so that it actually says OUS F W LV S, with the S flickering ominously. There's also a figure outlined in twisted neon tubes--a wolf standing on his hind legs and wearing a suit, like the one from those old cartoons, that used to literally wolf-whistle at showgirls.
Gerard can hear music spilling out into the street; fast and heavy, with a jazzy, swinging sound to it--but it's just a little too fast, with something frantic and almost desperate about it.
Inside, it’s smoky, dim, and crowded. The bar takes up one whole wall, lit by flickering lights in brass sconces. In the middle are rickety wooden tables and chairs with cracked leather seats, and on the wall directly opposite the bar, there’s the stage.
The band is the sort of big jazz ensemble Gerard expected from what he could hear outside--guitars and drums, but also piano and horns and a big standing bass.
Sheer force of habit carries Gerard towards the bar, but when the bartender leans his way and calls "Get you anything, pal?", he blinks, caught off-guard.
"...Coffee?" he says after a moment, and the bartender produces a mug and fills it from a pot sitting on a burner nearby.
"Sure you don't want anything stronger?" he asks as he sets the mug in front of Gerard.
Gerard pauses, and then shakes his head. "No," he says, almost tentatively, sounding it out. It sounds right—a little weird, but right. "No, I'm good. Thanks. But, um, I don't have any--"
The bartender waves a hand at him dismissively. "Yeah, you and at least half the people who show up here. No one thinks they're gonna need money in the afterlife anymore. I'll start a tab. Name?"
The bartender scribbles it down on a pad, then holds out a hand. "Brian Schechter. Welcome to the House."
"Thanks," Gerard says, shaking. Brian's short, but with a bearing and a direct look that makes the shortness not seem to matter much. "So how's the tab thing work?"
"You find a way to pay me back," Brian tells him. "Or you don't, and eventually I cut you off, but it's not like turning a big profit is something I have to worry about here—no mortgage or taxes or anything like that."
Gerard sips his coffee. "So what sort of things do people do to pay you back?"
Brian shrugs. "Trade, if they've got anything worth trading. Labor if not--the staff and the band all use their jobs to pay off their tabs."
"Yeah?" Gerard turns to sit sideways, glancing at the band. One of the guitarists catches his eye—dark-haired, with tattoos visible on his neck and hands. He’s small but energetic, snapping his head back and forth to the beat and moving around as much as he can without stumbling into his fellow musicians.
The other guitarist, in contrast, is tall and broad-shouldered, standing with his feet planted apart. He's only in motion from the shoulders up, headbanging like he's playing heavy metal and not swing, a mass of curly, dark-red hair flying around his face.
“Yeah,” Brian says. “Hey—you’re pretty new, aren’t you? I don’t just mean here, I mean…”
Gerard nods, turning back toward him. “Fresh off the boat. Only there wasn’t any boat. Which I guess is good, because, like you said, I didn’t bring any money.”
Brian cracks a grin at that, but there’s no humor in his voice when he says, “You met the twins, I guess?”
“You mean Fear and Regret?” Gerard asks. “Do—do they talk to everyone?”
“Everyone I’ve ever asked about it,” Brian says.
“What about the wolf pack welcoming committee?” Gerard asks. “Everyone get that?”
Brian arches an eyebrow. “Depends. Are we talking seeing the wolves from a distance, or up close and personal?”
“Pretty fucking close,” Gerard says. “They followed me around for a while.”
“…Huh. Not everyone gets that.”
It’s Gerard’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Does it mean anything that I did?”
Brian shrugs. “Search me. People see ‘em on their way into the city all the time, but not usually up close. In any case, they don’t come into the city, but if you leave for any reason, I’d be careful. And stay away from the big house on the hill, they’ve have been known to hang around there.”
Gerard nods. “I got warned away from that place already. I caught a ride into the city with a girl—”
“Jeanne?” Brian guesses, with a faint smile. “She’s a good kid. Keeps to herself, but she helps newcomers out now and then.”
“She seemed nice,” Gerard says. “I’ve been wondering, though, between the wolves and the soldiers—”
“You can be hurt here, but not killed,” Brian says, obviously used to that question. “You get shot, you fall off a building—or, say, you get mauled by a wolf—you’ll feel it, and then you’ll heal. It’s slow and not fun.”
“…Okay,” Gerard replies. “I’ll, uh, try to avoid things like that, then.”
“Good plan. Like I said, the wolves stay out of the city—as for the soldiers, most buildings around here have shelters for when they cross the barricades. You hear a siren, just look for a line of people heading for the basement.”
“Sounds like fun,” Gerard says dryly.
“Buckets of it,” Brian replies, and then glances down the bar, spotting someone trying to catch his attention. “So, hey, you being new, I’d say the best thing for you to do right now is just sit for a while. Give yourself time to adjust, y’know? You need anything, I’ll be around.”
“Thanks,” Gerard says, and smiles a little. “Nice meeting you, Brian.”
He takes Brian’s advice, and he’s still sitting at the bar when the band breaks and most of them head that way. In the sudden press, Gerard turns at the wrong moment and catches an elbow in the chest from the smaller of the two guitarists, who's gesturing with both hands as he talks to the other one.
"Whoa, sorry, pal," he says, one hand landing on Gerard's shoulder. "You okay?"
"Fine," Gerard says a little weakly, rubbing his chest.
“He does that a lot,” the taller guitarist says, looking at Gerard right over the top of the shorter one’s head. “Just be glad you didn’t get it in the face, man.”
“One time, Toro,” the other one protests with a glance over his shoulder, and then turns back to Gerard, shaking his head sadly. “You elbow a guy in the face once, on accident, and he never lets you forget it.”
“Well, I guess it is my own fault for having been sitting down at the time,” the taller one concedes. “Since that’s the only way you could reach my face.” Leaning past the smaller one, he holds out a hand to Gerard. “Don’t mind Iero, here, he was born running his mouth. I’m Ray.”
“Gerard,” Gerard says, shaking, and then looks at the other one. “And you are?”
The shorter one grabs his hand and shakes enthusiastically enough that Gerard’s arm hurts a little afterwards. “Francis Anthony Iero, Jr., but call me Frank. And I am sorry about the elbow—can I buy you a drink to make up for it?”
“If you want.” The back-and-forth between the two guitarists makes Gerard feel a bit like a spectator at a verbal ping-pong match, but they both seem friendly, not to mention pretty normal, which is a refreshing change. “Coffee?”
Frank doesn’t wait for Brian to come their way, just leans over the bar and yells. “Hey, Schechter! Gin and tonic for me, coffee for the new guy, and—Toro, beer?—a beer for Toro.”
“Some day you’re gonna learn that I’ll serve you faster and more cheerfully if you order like a civilized person, Iero,” Brian calls back, staying where he is.
“You know you love it!” Frank returns.
“How’d you know I was new?” Gerard asks, and it’s Ray who answers, with a slight shrug.
“Between the two of us, we know pretty much everyone who comes here. Besides, you’ve got that look.”
“You got a place to stay yet?” Frank asks, having stopped harassing Brian.
“No,” Gerard says. “I haven’t been here very long, and this is the first place I’ve been since I got to the city.”
Frank looks at Ray, raises his eyebrows a little, and jerks his head toward Gerard. Ray raises his own eyebrows, makes a considering face, and then nods.
“We’ve got a couch, if you’re interested,” Frank says.
Frank and Ray live in a slightly shabby but moderately-sized two-bedroom apartment in a building right next door to the House of Wolves. It’s reached by a spiral metal staircase from the lobby, which creaks alarmingly but holds steady as the three of them make their way up. Every so often, with the noise of the club gone, Gerard can hear the crash and echo of another explosion.
“You’re sure this isn’t a problem?” Gerard asks Ray while Frank rummages in a closet for extra bedding.
“Not at all,” Ray says. “Best way to get along here is if people look out for each other. And this is how Frankie and I met, actually—I crashed with him when I first got here, and then just sort of stuck around.”
“Oh,” Gerard says. “So he…”
“I died first, yeah,” Frank says candidly, coming back with a blanket. “1938, and Toro here didn’t show up ‘til ‘79—sorry, man, couldn’t find a pillow anywhere.”
“That’s fine,” Gerard says. “Is it, um—”
“We don’t talk a lot about how or when we died, but it’s not, like, a forbidden subject,” Ray tells him. “Ask what you want. Worst case, you’ll get a ‘I’d rather not answer that’, but we won’t get upset with you for asking.”
“All right.” Gerard doesn’t ask any more for now, and doesn’t offer any information about his own death. If either of them asks about it, he’ll deal with it then.
Frank spreads the blanket out on the couch, then turns. “Okay, I’m gonna hit the sack. You need anything, I’m on the right, Ray’s on the left.”
He heads into his bedroom, and Gerard glances at Ray, who shrugs again. “I’m good for a while if you want to hang out.”
Gerard shakes his head. “I should probably try to get some sleep. It’s…been a long, weird day.”
“Yeah, I remember my first day here,” Ray says. “Like Frank said, anything you need. Night, man.”
On Gerard’s first night in the city, he has a nightmare.
Nightmares are nothing new for him, really, and at least it’s not the one where he sees people he loves dying, or the one where he can’t breathe, where he feels like he’s being choked. It seems like kind of a raw deal to be still having nightmares in the fucking afterlife, though.
He’s never had this one before. There’s fire, serious, no-fucking-around inferno fire all around him but not touching him. There are certain things he knows, in the way you can know things in a dream without questioning how you know them. He’s supposed to be finding something, or doing something. There are other people here somewhere, lost amid the fire the same way he is, and if he can find them, they’ll help him. But no matter where he turns he can’t get away from it, can’t see or hear anything but roaring flame.
He finally gathers his courage and just runs, hoping that he can make it through, come out on the other side in one piece.
He does. But on the other side, there’s nothing. Absolute nothing, just a vast, yawning void, the ground dropping away abruptly into darkness and emptiness. He teeters on the edge, trying to catch himself, find a balance—but there’s nothing, no safe ground to reach. Just the fire behind him and the darkness in front of him, and try as he might, the only way this is going to end is with him falling into one or the other.
He manages to stand for another moment, caught between the two, and then his foot slips and he closes his eyes, bracing himself for the fall.
Gerard wakes up gasping, with that weird falling sensation, like he’s crashing back into his body after being somewhere else.
“Hey,” someone says, and he jumps a little. Frank’s leaning in the doorway of his bedroom, bare to the waist and rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. There are tattoos on his chest and stomach and arms, making him look like some kind of bizarre human art exhibit as he stands there.
“Hey,” he says again. “Trouble sleeping?”
“Nightmare,” Gerard croaks out, his voice a bit thick. “Did I wake you up?” Mikey used to tell him he’d been screaming, sometimes, even when he hadn’t been screaming in the dreams.
“Nah.” Frank shakes his head, moving a little further into the room. “Woke up on my own and thought I’d check on you, a lot of people have bad dreams when they first get here. Ray’s got a theory.”
“Yeah?” Gerard sits up on the couch, pulling his legs up, and Frank takes that as an invitation, dropping down to sit facing him.
“Yeah, he thinks your…he calls it ‘consciousness’, I think ‘cause he can’t make up his mind whether he thinks it’s your mind or your soul or both, y’know? But anyway, he thinks it needs time to adjust to the whole…” Frank gestures vaguely, “thing of being here. And when you’re awake you can just concentrate on functioning, but when you’re asleep your consciousness is just, y’know, idle, so that’s when it tries to work everything out.”
“…Toro says it better,” Frank concludes, letting his hands drop.
“No, I think I get it,” Gerard says. “Seems like a good theory. I mean, it’s not like I’m at all qualified to judge, but…it’s a big change to go through, it makes sense there’d be some sort of aftereffects.”
“Ray’s a smart guy,” Frank says, and smiles a little wryly. “You should talk to him about it, he’s better than me at having conversations with words like ‘consciousness’ and ‘aftereffects’ in ‘em. I just know it’s tough at first, but it usually gets better.”
“I hope so,” Gerard says. The fire dream wasn’t as bad as some of the ones he used to have, but he’s still not looking forward a repeat viewing.
Frank gives him a considering look. “Think you can get back to sleep?”
Gerard shrugs. “’M not sure.”
“If you think it might help—Ray and I bunked down together for a while when he was new, and it helped him out a little.” Frank glances at Gerard, as if trying to gauge his reaction. “So, I mean. If you wanted.”
Gerard glances at Frank, unsure what spirit the offer’s being made in. On the one hand, from the way Frank’s been so far, Gerard has the feeling he tends to be pretty direct about what he wants. On the other, he did say he’d died in the 30s, when anyone who wasn’t completely heterosexual had to, like, talk about sex in code.
“Can’t hurt to try,” he says. “If you don’t mind…”
Frank shrugs, standing up. “Nah, man, bed’s big enough for two. C’mon.”
He says the last part over his shoulder, already heading back towards his room, and Gerard takes a moment to study the tattoos on his back—a grinning jack-o’-lantern, high up between his shoulder blades, and a pair of guns, heavy-looking revolvers, crossed over each other on his lower back. Gerard hesitates a little longer, and then gets up, trailing after Frank into the bedroom.
There’s low, flickering light coming from an old-fashioned oil lamp on the bedside table, and the bed is very obviously well-slept-in, the sheets rumpled. Gerard sits down on the edge of it, feeling awkward. Assuming he can take this offer at face value, it’ll be the first time in a long time that he’s gotten into bed with someone without sex being involved. There were times when he ended up falling asleep in a friend’s bed without meaning to, and nothing (mostly, he’s pretty sure) happened, but usually when someone, like, invited him in, sleep wasn’t the primary objective.
Frank climbs into bed across from him, looking pretty unself-conscious about the whole situation, and, when he goes to pull the covers up and notices that Gerard’s still just sitting there, shoots him this little …well? look with his eyebrows.
Gerard gives a little mental shrug and scoots back, swinging his legs up into the bed. Frank pulls the covers up, then reaches for the lamp. “Oh, hey—light on or off, you care either way?”
It’s a tiny, single flame, but the way the light flickers and dances over everything in the room is unsettling after the dream. “Um. Off?”
Frank turns the lamp down obligingly, and then rolls onto his side, facing away from Gerard. Gerard lies on his back with his eyes open, until they’ve adjusted to the darkness, until he can make out the curve of Frank’s shoulder in his peripheral vision and, if he turns his head and concentrates, almost make out the lines of his tattoos.
He’s almost a total stranger, but he’s warm and close and human, and it’s amazing how much that helps. Gerard closes his eyes, tries to clear his mind, and falls asleep to the sound of Frank’s breathing, deep and slow.
Gerard wakes up warm and really comfortable, even though one of his arms is asleep and that’s gonna be a bitch pretty soon. It takes him a minute or two to realize that the reason he’s so warm and comfortable is that he and Frank are basically spooning, and that realization wakes him up completely.
As far as Gerard can tell, he’s the instigator, having wrapped himself around Frank’s back at some point. But as he’s lying there, Frank stirs a little, grabbing Gerard’s hand, which is on his hip, and tugging it more firmly around his waist. He snuggles back into the curve of Gerard’s body at the same time, which calls Gerard’s attention to the fact that he’s totally and embarrassingly hard.
Gerard squirms away a little, but apparently he’s not subtle enough, because Frank stirs again, muttering something—and then tenses a little, dropping Gerard’s hand. Gerard pulls his arm back from Frank’s waist and shimmies a little further away just as Frank rolls over, blinking sleepily.
“You sleep okay?” he mutters, not looking or sounding like he’s about to accuse Gerard of feeling him up in his sleep or anything.
“Yeah,” Gerard says. “Great, actually. Thanks.”
“No problem,” Frank says, and stretches a little. “Slept pretty good, myself.”
They’re still lying pretty close together—close enough for Gerard to kiss Frank if he leaned in, which makes it a little awkward to look at his face. Looking down doesn’t help at that much, because he keeps getting struck with crazy urges to reach out and trace the lines of Frank’s tattoos.
“You’ve got a lot of tattoos,” Gerard says, for lack of anything better, and Frank grins.
“Guilty as charged.”
He stretches again, this time with an air of showing off, and Gerard’s gaze catches on something that’s not a tattoo. There are four circular marks scattered across Frank’s ribcage, and they look an awful lot like bullet wounds. Gerard raises a hand towards them, unthinking, and then freezes, blushing.
“It’s okay,” Frank says after a moment, and Gerard starts to say “I’m sorry—” and Frank says, “No, seriously, it’s okay,” and grabs Gerard’s hand, pressing it against the scars himself. His skin is warm under Gerard’s hand, and their eyes lock, Gerard’s wide and a bit startled, Frank’s steady and unblinking.
“If I were gonna be weird about people looking at ‘em I’d sleep with a shirt on,” Frank tells him, and then, “Uh. Unless I just made this weird for you, in which case…sorry?”
“No, it’s fine.” Gerard eases his hand away, looking down again. Lower down on Frank’s skin, below the scars, there are two birds tattooed just above the waistband of his shorts.
“These are neat,” Gerard says, pointing to one of them. “Any reason they’re an angel and a devil?”
“Not really.” Frank says, looking down at his own stomach. “Seemed like a good idea at the time. Which might’ve been while I was a little drunk.”
Gerard can’t help but laugh at that—somehow, getting a random tattoo never seemed like a good idea to him no matter how drunk he was. Without meaning to, his hand brushes Frank’s skin again, lower and lighter than when Frank put Gerard’s hand on his scars, and Frank twitches—and then pushes forward a little.
Gerard looks up at that, to see Frank looking down, lower lip caught between his teeth. He looks uncertain, but he’s not pulling back or saying anything, and Gerard feels pretty sure that if Frank had objections, he’d be voicing them.
Gerard lowers his eyes and touches Frank again, deliberately, tracing the inked curve of a wing. Frank’s breath catches, but he holds still, and when Gerard moves his hand, sliding his fingers experimentally along the curve of Frank’s hipbone, Frank arches into the touch, unmistakably.
The silence is suddenly tense, electric, but Gerard finds himself reluctant to break it. He looks up to see Frank swallow and open his mouth, as if to speak—and that’s when the knock on the door comes, making them both jump.
“Hey, Frankie—Gerard skip out, or is he in there with you?” Ray calls through the door, and Frank sits up, easing away from Gerard a little before he answers.
“Yeah, he’s here.”
“Well, there’s coffee if either of you gets out here before I drink it all,” Ray says, and then Gerard can hear him moving away from the door.
Gerard looks back at Frank, who raises his eyebrows. “Bastard’s not kidding, he’ll do it.”
Gerard hesitates for a second, but…coffee. He scoots to the end of the bed and sits up, stretching, and then says casually, “So, you got ink anywhere below the waist?”
Frank’s already out of bed, moving towards the door without bothering to put a shirt on, but he turns, giving Gerard a speculative look.
“Stick around and maybe you’ll find out,” he replies.
Breakfast is a highly informal affair. The apartment’s kitchen is tiny, and neat, but with the kind of old tile and linoleum that’s too cracked and dingy with age to ever really look clean, and the three of them crowd around a small, rickety table: Frank still shirtless and barefoot, Ray in ripped, faded jeans and a stained t-shirt, and Gerard in the same clothes he’s worn since he got here, seeing as they’re still the only ones he has.
There’s coffee, true to Ray’s word, along with cereal, but only evaporated milk. Gerard eyes it all speculatively.
“So, where’s the food here come from?” he asks.
“Warehouses in the city,” Ray says. “No one seems to know how it works, but no one’s ever gone looking for anything they need and not found it.”
“Only dried or canned stuff, though,” Frank adds. “Nothing grows in the city. We’ve got Pop-Tarts somewhere, if you want.”
Ray snorts, jerking a thumb in Frank’s direction. “He’s fucking crazy about Pop-Tarts, they didn’t have ‘em when he was alive. Anyway, I was thinking—if you want to see more of the city at any point, we can show you around, but if you’d rather just chill here for a while, that’s cool.”
“Um,” Gerard says. “I really don’t want to impose, but…I think taking it easy for a while would be a good idea.”
“Quit it with the imposing, would you?” Frank’s in the process of digging a crumpled packet out of his pocket. He pulls out a cigarette for himself, and then offers the pack to Gerard, raising his eyebrows in a silent invitation. “Trust me—you wear out your welcome, you’ll know it.”
Gerard smiles a little, reaching for a cigarette. “Thanks.”
You need time to adjust to being here, Frank had said. He’d also said that it was weirdest when you were asleep. But Gerard suspects that when Frank got here, he didn’t also have to deal with being consistently sober for the first time in years. Everything still seems just a little too bright, a little too sharp around the edges, and it makes Gerard’s eyes water and his head hurt.
Gerard spends a lot of that day alternately curled up on the couch or wandering aimlessly around the apartment, trying not to get in Ray or Frank’s way. They both seem to accept that he’s having a hard time adjusting without feeling the need to ask questions, and go about their business quietly.
There’s a bookshelf in the living room, and Gerard skims the titles—lots of book about music, some mystery novels, and the odd paperback that looks more like softcore porn than anything. Gerard eventually picks one of the mysteries, but can’t concentrate on it. There’s a pair of glass doors that lead onto a balcony against one wall, and he ends up mostly just staring out at what he can see of the skyline. It’s just as fantastic up close as it was from a distance, spires and towers that are damaged but still standing rising over the hulls of smaller or more thoroughly ruined buildings.
Frank wanders by at one point and finds Gerard sprawled on the couch, lying on his stomach with his head turned to the side. Without saying anything, Frank perches on the arm of the sofa, holds a mug of coffee in front of Gerard’s face, and, when Gerard reaches out to take it, lets his hand settle on Gerard’s head and pets his hair a little.
Eventually, Frank tugs gently at Gerard’s hair and says conversationally, “Now, this isn’t a natural hair color for someone your age. And even if it were, I kinda doubt it’s the one you started out with.”
“Nope—I’m a brunette,” Gerard murmurs, sipping slowly from the mug to avoid spilling. “But I started dying it in high school. Black, mostly, but I switched to blonde a couple months ago.”
“How come?” Frank asks, running his fingernails over Gerard’s scalp now, almost like scratching a cat. Gerard closes his eyes and just basks in the feeling for a moment before answering.
“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Frank chuckles and tweaks Gerard’s ear playfully, then goes back to stroking his hair.
“Toro and I are gonna jam for a while,” Frank says after a few more moments. “We’ll be in his room if you need anything, okay?”
Gerard nods, and Frank smoothes a hand over his head one more time before getting up. A few minutes later, he hears the sound of two guitars filtering out from Ray’s bedroom.
Hearing the two of them play together with no other instruments, their sound strikes him immediately as a partnership, different styles woven together. Knowing when they both come from, he can hear the jazziness of Frank’s style, the sort of thing that conjures up mental images of honkey-tonks or speakeasies, and the rock-and-roll sound of Ray’s, just a little heavy and dark even while he’s playing acoustic.
Gerard lies where he is and listens, and looks at the city.
He’s still looking an hour later, when Ray and Frank emerge, only by then he’s sitting up, arms braced on his knees.
“Hey, man,” Ray says, walking toward the sofa. “You okay?”
Gerard looks up, a little startled at being spoken to. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I’m good—hey, Ray?”
“Do you—do you have anything I could draw with?” Gerard asks.
At the end, one of the worst things about being so out of it all the time had been that it got hard to draw. Not in the sense that he couldn’t, but the end result never seemed to be what he wanted. In the last few month of his life, he’d mostly given it up.
So when Ray hands Gerard a notebook and a pencil, he’s mildly terrified.
“Out of practice?” Ray guesses, and Gerard nods. Ray’s response is to say for about the millionth time that if Gerard needs anything he should say so, and then leave Gerard to concentrate. Frank, on the other hand, leans over the back of the sofa about ten minutes later to see if Gerard’s drawn anything yet.
Gerard has, as it happens, just lowered pencil to paper; at Frank’s sudden appearance, he starts, and ends up just scratching a jagged line across the page.
“…Sorry,” Frank says, sheepish.
“It’s okay,” Gerard says. “But…this’ll probably be easier if I don’t have any distractions.”
“Yeah, sure,” Frank says easily. “I’ll leave you alone. But I, uh, meant to ask—”
Gerard cranes his neck to look at Frank. “…Yeah?”
“Think you might be looking to sleep in my room again tonight?” Frank asks, sounding far too nonchalant to actually be unconcerned about it. “Because I figure I should maybe put clean sheets on the bed, or something. If you are.”
Gerard ducks his head, hiding a tiny, nervous smile.
“I think so,” he says. “I slept pretty well last night, once I was there.”
“Cool,” Frank says. “I’ll…go make the bed, then.”
He disappears, and Gerard looks down at the notebook for a minute, feeling his smile grow, and then turns to a new page in the notebook.
A while after that, he hears Ray and Frank head toward the front door, and Frank calls out that they’ll be over at the House of Wolves for a couple of hours. Gerard nods distractedly and doesn’t move, and when they come back, he’s still perched in the same spot, pencil scratching lightly against the paper.
According to Gerard’s less-than-infallible internal clock, it’s still pretty early that night when Frank stretches and announces he’s turning in. It has all the subtlety of a cartoon anvil dropping on someone’s head, but Ray, who’s tuning his guitar on the other side of the living room from Gerard, doesn’t even look up, just lifts a hand briefly as Frank walks past.
Gerard hesitates, but stays where he is, cross-legged on the couch trying sketch the skyline. It’s been slow going, but what he has so far is easily one of the best things he’s drawn in at least a year.
After Frank’s announcement, though, he distracted, and not kidding himself about why. The shower’s running in the background, even though Frank took a quick shower before he and Ray went down to the House, and Gerard wonders if that’s a normal post-show ritual or if Frank’s, like, showering because of him. Which makes Gerard wonder if maybe he should shower, considering he hasn’t since he got here.
The shower stops, and Gerard hears Frank pad back across the apartment to his bedroom, without saying anything to either Gerard or Ray. A little while after that, Ray stops noodling around on his guitar and exchanges a quiet goodnight with Gerard before heading for his own room.
And a little while after that, Gerard tucks the notebook away and walks towards Frank’s room. The door’s already ajar, lamplight spilling out, and he nudges it open gently.
Frank’s sitting up in bed, sheets pulled up to his waist, a cigarette in one hand. He looks up when Gerard pushes the door open, and smiles a bit crookedly.
“Hey,” he says. “Wasn’t sure if you were gonna come in or not.”
Gerard smiles back, crossing the room to stand by the bed. “Well, after you made the bed and everything...”
Frank reaches over to where there’s an ashtray on the bedside table, crushing his cigarette out, and then holds his hand out to Gerard. “C’mere?”
Gerard takes his hand and settles on the bed facing Frank, tucking his legs up under himself. He feels awkward, like a teenager who’s snuck upstairs at a party and doesn’t know what to say or where to put his hands.
“Hey,” he says, for lack of anything better.
“Hey,” Frank replies. “So, uh. You done anything like this before?”
Gerard looks down at their joined hands. “By ‘like this’, I’m guessing you mean with a guy?” Frank nods. “Yeah, I have. You?”
Frank shakes his head. “I knew it happened. And since I’ve been here, a lot of people don’t seem to care…it’s not how it was when I came from, y’know?”
“But I never…I dunno, never really got why you’d want to, unless there were no girls around for a long time, like prison or the Navy. I mean, I like girls.” He looks at Gerard carefully for a moment, and adds, “But I like you, too. So.”
Gerard squeezes his hand. “You’re allowed to like girls and guys, you know. People figured that out by the time I was around.”
“Yeah?” Frank smirks. “I could get behind that idea, I guess. So, anyway…I don’t really know what to…”
Gerard leans forward, and cuts him off with a kiss.
He catches Frank mid-sentence, open-mouthed and surprised, and brings his free hand up to Frank’s face, stroking the line of his jaw. Frank’s hair is still damp from the shower, and he smells clean and fresh, but his mouth tastes like cigarette smoke, thick and just a little bit dirty.
Gerard pulls back after a few seconds, smiling nervously. “Some things aren’t all that different.”
In reply, Frank lifts a hand to cup the back of Gerard’s neck, tugging him into another kiss. It’s a kiss with intent, no fooling around, like if Frank’s going to do this, he’s going to do it. Gerard leans into it, tilting his head until they fit together just right, and when Frank slides his hands tentatively under the hem of Gerard’s shirt, Gerard lifts his arms to let Frank pull it up and off. Gerard has the idea things might go smoother if he lets Frank take the lead, and when Frank presses against his chest, Gerard lets himself be pushed down on the bed.
Frank kicks the covers away, impatient and clumsy, and then he’s braced above Gerard, wearing nothing but a pair of what looks like an early ancestor of boxers (Gerard thinks, vaguely, that they might be called jockey shorts). Frank gets a knee between Gerard’s legs and a hand on either side of his head and then pauses, hovering over him.
“So, uh,” he says, and Gerard grins and leans up to kiss him again, reaching between them.
“Here,” he mutters, and “Let me,” and slips a hand past the waistband of Frank’s shorts. Frank whines and thrusts into the touch instantly, and Gerard has time to wonder how long it’s been since Frank’s been with anyone before Frank tugs impatiently at the zipper of his jeans. Gerard’s actually not sure how long it’s been since he was with anyone while sober, and the length of time between the moment Frank’s hand slides into his jeans and the moment Gerard gasps and comes all over his hand is embarrassingly short.
Frank’s still going, rocking into Gerard’s grip, until Gerard pulls his hand away, gasping “Wait, wait—”
Frank pushes forward into the touch that’s no longer there, overbalances, and collapses on top of Gerard.
“…What the hell, man,” he mutters against Gerard’s shoulder.
“Hang on,” Gerard says, and pushes at Frank’s shoulder until he gets the idea and rolls over. “I want to blow you.”
“Huh?” Frank seems either not sure of the phrase or just too far gone to think clearly, but when Gerard pulls Frank’s shorts off and slides down between his legs, he gets the idea pretty fast. “—Oh. Oh, fuck, Gerard—”
It’s not the smoothest blowjob Gerard’s ever given. Frank’s hips twitch erratically, like he’s trying to keep from thrusting up into Gerard’s mouth, and when Gerard pulls back to tell him it’s okay, he pushes up too fast and then hisses “Fuck, fuck, sorry,” when Gerard chokes.
Gerard eases back, bracing his hands on Frank’s hips and pressing a quick kiss to his stomach, just over one of the bird tattoos. “‘S okay. Just…with me, this time.”
He goes down again, tugging gently on Frank’s hips and steering them into a rhythm. Frank runs his fingers through Gerard’s hair for a few seconds, but it’s too short to grip, and his hands end up wandering further down; tracing Gerard’s jawline, cupping the back of his neck, flattening one palm between his shoulderblades. He’s talking, but not really saying anything, just gasping out a stream of words that’s half nonsense, half profanity. At the end, he pushes at Gerard’s shoulder in what’s probably meant to be a warning, but Gerard stays where he is, swallowing, which brings another string of incoherent obscenity from Frank.
When Gerard crawls back up the bed; Frank’s sprawled out and breathing heavily, eyes closed, but he rolls toward Gerard and slings an arm loosely around his waist.
“Jesus fuck,” Frank mutters. “That was…I’m keeping you, okay?”
Gerard laughs, and leans in to kiss him. “I’m good with that.”
Frank sleeps in the next morning, rolling over and burying his face in his pillow with a grumpy noise when Gerard declares his desire for coffee, so Gerard heads out to the kitchen alone. Ray’s already there, sitting at the small table with dark circles under his eyes, like he hasn’t slept too well. He nods amiably, but doesn’t speak until after Gerard sits down.
“So,” Ray says, eventually, his tone pleasantly neutral. “You and Frank?”
Gerard sips his coffee, and nods. “Looks like.”
“Huh,” Ray says. “Can’t say I saw that coming. You’re sticking around, then?”
“If you guys really don’t mind,” Gerard replies. “Seems better than being somewhere on my own. I have sort of been wondering, though…”
Ray raises his eyebrows encouragingly, waiting for Gerard to go on.
“Isn’t there anything else here? I mean, the city, the trenches, the fields outside—that’s not all there is to the afterlife, is it?”
Ray shrugs. “Question for the ages. I figure it can’t be, because there’s no fucking way everyone who’s ever died is in this one city, right? But if there’s anything else, no one here seems to know what or where it is.”
“No one’s ever gone looking?” Gerard asks.
“Plenty of people have,” Ray says. “Some don’t come back at all, and the ones that do all have the same story—they got a certain distance outside the city, and the wolves showed up and chased ‘em straight back in.”
Gerard’s brow furrows at that. “What, they, like, keep people here?”
“…Popular opinion is that it’s more like a safety in numbers thing,” Ray says. “That they go after people who stray from the pack. But…yeah, some people think they might be keeping us here.”
“Huh.” Gerard looks down, rubbing his thumb along the rim of his coffee mug. “So that’s why people stay here, even with the soldiers and the state the city’s in?”
“Pretty much,” Ray says. “It’s not perfect, but it’s what we’ve got, y’know? We make the best of it.”
Frank wanders into the kitchen with his hair sticking up while Ray’s talking, and steals Gerard’s coffee, but kisses the back of his neck in passing.
Gerard smiles faintly. “Yeah? I guess there are worse things you could do with your afterlife.”
Gerard spends most of the morning drawing, feeling better and better about it as he goes. He feels like what he’s coming up with is pretty good, but it’s been a while since he had that much confidence in his own abilities, so he figures an outside opinion or two won’t hurt.
Frank seems uncertain, when Gerard asks. “I don’t know anything about art—” he begins.
“That’s fine,” Gerard assures him. “I’m not looking for, like, an expert opinion, I just want to know how it looks to someone who’s not me.”
Frank and Ray both leaf through the pages Gerard’s filled so far in the notebook Ray gave him, side by side on the couch while Gerard sits across from them and fidgets.
“These…these are really good, man,” Ray says after a minute or two.
“You think so?” Gerard asks, pleased.
“Yeah,” Frank chimes in. “I mean, if you can do this just sketching in a notebook, I’d love to see what you could do with, like, paint and shit. If you’re the sort of artist who paints, I mean.”
Gerard nods, smiling. “I was. Art was…sort of what I did, before, but…I hadn’t been doing so well with it, for a while.”
“Well, it looks to me like you’ve got it back,” Ray says.
Gerard starts to reply, only to be cut off by a sudden noise. It seems to come from all around, rising in both volume and pitch, and Gerard’s never heard a sound quite like it anywhere outside of a movie, but there’s really only one thing a sound like that can be.
“Is that—” he begins, raising his voice to speak over the noise.
“Soldiers,” Frank says, already on his feet. “Come on.”
Gerard rises, then whirls around at the sound of gunfire, looking out the balcony doors to where the buildings surrounding the apartment complex open up into a sort of plaza. As he watches, a cluster of figures rushes across the open space, and then another, seemingly in pursuit, as more gunshots ring out.
“Shit, they’re close,” Frank says from behind Gerard, and grabs his arm. “Come on.”
They head down the rickety metal staircase, the siren echoing loudly around them, and into the building’s basement. There are other people down there already, huddled in groups and talking quietly amongst themselves, mostly, though some of them exchange nods with Ray and Frank.
“Now we just wait for the all-clear,” Ray explains to Gerard. “The soldiers don’t, like, intentionally hurt civilians, but they’re careless—stray bullets, grenades going through someone’s window, shit like that.”
Gerard settles with his back to the wall and his knees drawn up, looking around nervously. “How often does this happen?”
“It’s pretty random,” Frank says. “Usually doesn’t last too long, though—once the siren’s going, it’s not too long before Mother War shows up and chases ‘em back to the trenches.”
Gerard blinks. “Mother War?”
“People say she’s the twins’ mother,” Frank explains. “Trust me, you’ll know her if you see her—she wears a hoop skirt and a gas mask, she kinda stands out.”
“The Mother,” Gerard mumbles to himself, remembering what Jeanne had said. “And, what, she controls the soldiers?”
“According to local legend,” Ray says.
“It’s not a legend,” someone says, and Gerard looks over to see a man and woman sitting close together, hands clasped.
“We were here when the soldiers were exiled,” the woman goes on. “It was close to a hundred years ago, after a great war in the land of the living.”
Gerard’s eyebrows go up. “A great war almost a hundred years ago, huh? If time moves the same way here—” he looks back toward Ray and Frank, “World War One?”
“Makes sense,” Ray agrees. “I’ve heard it had to do with how big the war was—that so many soldiers were showing up at once, the city couldn’t handle it.”
The man nods. “There have always been soldiers here, and the destruction has always grown worse as they brought the weapons of their time into the fight. But that war…” he shakes his head. “They came here in tens of millions, with their machine guns and bombs and poison gas, and almost destroyed the city.”
“What happened?” Gerard asks.
“We begged Mother War to intercede,” the woman says. “We begged Fear and Regret to convince her. She didn’t put a stop to their fighting—wouldn’t or couldn’t, no one knows for sure—but she made them leave the city, and whenever they cross the barricade, she drives them out again.”
As she speaks, the sirens fall silent, as abruptly as they started. Gerard looks around at the others again.
“Does…that mean they’re gone?”
“Yep.” Frank reaches out to clap him on the shoulder, grinning crookedly. “Congratulations, you made it through your first skirmish.”
A few days pass, and then a week, during which Gerard wanders around the apartment a lot, draws a lot, and has a lot of sex with Frank.
Ray and Frank renew their offer to show him more of the city, but Gerard finds himself reluctant to leave the apartment. It’s becoming familiar, and it feels safe, neither of which can be said for the rest of the city. He’s curious about what else there is to learn about this place, but for now, it’s enough to ask Frank and Ray any questions that come to mind. When he does venture out, it’s to go down to the House of Wolves and watch the band, maybe talk to Brian or camp out in a corner and try to sketch people, but spending time in a club is the sort of thing that’s mostly lost its appeal.
Drawing is still better and easier than it’s been for a long time. It’s funny, in a way that’s not really funny at all, that he used to feel like he had to get drunk or high for inspiration. Now, it’s like coming out of a fog that he was in so long he forgot how things look normally, and his hands itch to draw everything he sees. He’s been writing again, too, something he hasn’t done much of since college. Nothing very good yet, but maybe he just needs time to warm up.
He’s taking it easy and giving himself time to warm up with Frank, too. Neither of them feels the need to push things too far too fast, but there’s an easy affection between them that’s better than anything Gerard’s had in a long time.
Gerard has more nightmares, but he wakes up from every one of them with Frank wrapped around him and breathing against his ear if Gerard hasn’t woken him up, or Frank shaking Gerard and calling his name if he has.
Sometimes his dreams aren’t nightmares, just weirdly vivid, and usually from the point of view of someone who doesn’t feel like himself. There’s one where he’s running, running like the devil and laughing like a maniac even though he’ll be in trouble if whoever he’s running from catches up to him, and one where he’s lying in a hospital bed, listening to the beeps from the monitors that are measuring out his life.
Sometimes it’s restlessness instead, and Gerard lies in bed staring at the ceiling or watching Frank sleep. If it seems like sleep just isn’t going to happen, sometimes he’ll slip out of bed and go out to the living room to read or draw or just pace back and forth.
He goes out on the balcony one night—morning, actually, or close enough, the way the sky’s lightening—and leans against the railing, looking down at the empty streets below.
—Only no, he realizes, they’re not completely empty. There’s a woman—Gerard wouldn’t be able to tell for sure, because of the gas mask, but between that and the hoop skirt, he has a feeling he knows who she is.
He leans over the a little further, trying to get a better look at her. All she’s doing is walking slowly through the street, but there’s something about her that makes the back of his neck prickle.
He starts a little when he hears the door open, and takes a step back from the railing.
“Hey,” Frank says, coming up to stand behind him. “Didn’t mean to spook you.”
He slides an arm around Gerard’s waist, all warm skin and solid strength, and Gerard leans back into him. “Hey. That woman down there—is that her? Mother War?”
“Huh?” Frank stretches up to look over Gerard’s shoulder. “—Shit. Yeah, that’s her.”
“You said people say she’s the twins’ mother?” Gerard asks. “Doesn’t anyone know for sure?”
“There’s not a lot that anyone knows for sure about her,” Frank says. “She’s been here as long as anyone can remember, but as far as I know, no one’s ever heard her speak, and you can ask the twins about her, if you see ‘em, but good luck getting a straight answer.”
Below, the woman stops in the street, the huge, blank eyes of the gas mask turning in their direction. Gerard feels another prickle across the back of his neck, and shivers. Frank tightens his arm around Gerard’s waist, nuzzling at his shoulder.
“Come back to bed, baby,” he whispers, and Gerard lets himself be tugged away from the balcony, though he still feels oddly unsettled.
You’ll meet her, Jeanne had said. Everyone does.
Gerard wonders if exchanging a look from a distance counts, or if he has something more than that to look forward to.
Frank was eleven years old when he figured out what his family did for a living, but by that time, he’d been earning pocket money as an errand boy for over a year already. When he’d started, all he’d known was that it was the family business, and that had been all he’d needed to know.
His mother had wanted to keep him out of that business, and that might have been a possibility. He was an only son, but his father was a youngest son, and from childhood Frank could list the uncles and cousins ahead of him in line to take charge when his grandfather died. If he’d wanted out, they might have let him go. But they were his family, and there was a reason one of the words he’d chosen to inscribe into his skin was “loyalty”.
He killed for the first time when he was seventeen—in self-defense, which made it a little easier. After that, his mother stopped talking about him getting out, and Frank couldn’t help but feel like he’d failed her. It was hard, sometimes, having to choose between loyalty to her or to his father.
But if he couldn’t get out, then he was in, and as last in line, he had nothing to lose.
By the time he was twenty-one, the year he got the guns tattooed on his back, Frankie Iero (the youngest one) was known and feared among the people his family did business with. He was the guy you called when you needed something crazy done, something that should have been a suicide mission. He was the guy who got the job done when no one else would, the guy whose enemies knew it was useless to try to intimidate or threaten him and, most of all, useless to try and bribe him to betray the family.
His cousins used to joke about him having a death wish, but if he’d ever seriously wanted to die, he probably would’ve just used his own gun and spared himself the suspense. He might’ve suspected he probably would die young, but at twenty-five, when the time came, it wasn’t like he just sat back and let it happen—he went down fighting.
But in the end, tenacity only counts for so much when you’re simply outgunned.
Frank’s never seen any of his family in the city. He doesn’t know what that means, if he went somewhere different than them or what.
On the one hand, it’s changed him—he’d like to think for the better. He’s been in the city for longer than he was alive, and he has his share of secrets, but few enemies and no cause to kill anyone, even if he could. There hasn’t been a gun in his hands in almost seventy years, something he would’ve had a hard time imagining once.
On the other hand, every time he did hold a gun, everything he ever did in life, he did for his family, and in exchange for it all, he had them—his own blood, surrounding and supporting him at all times, no matter what. Here, he’d been alone—at least, until he found the House of Wolves.
He’d loved the club from the start. Not liked it—there was nothing exactly likable about a run-down dive in the afterlife where people went to drink away their sorrows or their boredom or both—but Frank had loved it, from the first time he’d heard Brian explain with a wry grin that the name was “kind of a fuck-you to the wolves outside the city, y’know?”. When Brian figured out Frank could play guitar and offered him a job, it started out as a way to keep occupied, and ended up being how he met one of his best friends in the city.
When Toro showed up, he wasn’t the first newcomer Frank offered crash space to, but he was the first to stick around longer than a week or so. Frank never thought much about why that was—Ray’s a good guy, and they do okay living together, and it wasn’t like Frank had been using that second bedroom for anything.
And then Gerard shows up.
Frank doesn’t even know what it is about him. Gerard drinks all the fucking coffee and steals the covers and seems to be allergic to showering and his face is kind of weird, when you think about it, with his pointy nose and permanently crooked mouth. But it’s a weird that doesn’t stop him from being kind of amazing to look at sometimes, just like the coffee-stealing and the shower allergy doesn’t stop Frank from wanting to put his hands all over Gerard, or talk to him for hours, or just sit and watch the way his face scrunches up when he’s concentrating on a drawing.
As families go, two guys, one of whom he’s sleeping with and both of whom he would once have considered outsiders, wouldn’t have been what Frank ever expected to end up with. But he’s been on his own, and he’ll take this over that any day of the week.
Frank always thought Ray was a pretty low-maintenance housemate, but Gerard gives new meaning to the term. Three weeks in, he has yet to accumulate any possessions beside the bare essentials Frank picks up for him on a shopping trip, like a toothbrush and underwear. Frank figures Gerard will go looking for more clothes when he feels like it, but Gerard goes on cheerfully wearing the same clothes every day until Frank steals them for the laundry, at which point he starts wearing some of Frank’s—they’re close enough to the same build to share shirts, and if Frank’s pants are a little tight on Gerard, neither of them minds that too much.
All the same, this isn’t going to work for very long if Gerard’s sticking around. Frank makes up his mind about this, and finds Gerard sprawled in bed, smoking and reading, which is a better time to interrupt him than when he’s drawing or writing.
“You need clothes,” Frank announces, draping himself against Gerard’s back. “And you still haven’t been out of here except to go to the House, and you really should, at some point.”
“And?” Gerard says, not an I dismiss your concerns as trivial ‘and’, but an I can tell you’re going somewhere, so I’m just going to let you get there on your own ‘and’.
“So we should go out,” Frank says determinedly, and, when Gerard makes a reluctant face, “I bet we could find you a real sketchbook somewhere. And colored pencils or paints or something. You should really come, though, because I don’t know anything about art supplies, so I’d probably bring back the wrong kind of stuff.”
Gerard laughs, and turns his head to kiss Frank, catching the corner of his mouth. “Okay, okay, you got me. Put a shirt on and we’ll go.”
It’s been weeks since Gerard did anything but cross the few feet from the apartment building to the House, and he still looks anxious as the three of them step out. The flash and echo from the trenches can’t be helping—the fucking soldiers are really going at it today, though at least there hasn’t been another skirmish in the city since the one three weeks ago.
Ray puts a reassuring hand on Gerard’s shoulder for a moment, and Frank slips his hand into Gerard’s without really thinking about it. Gerard looks from one of them to the other and gives a tiny smile, and then three of them set out.
“This part of the city’s mostly residential,” Frank explains as they walk. He figures talking might help Gerard be a little more at ease, and it’s easy enough to do. “A lot of people end up at the House first thing when they get here, and their first stop from there is finding a place to stay. Lots of buildings like ours, but there’re some houses a couple blocks down. And where we’re headed is pretty much the merchant district.”
“I thought people just got stuff out of warehouses?” Gerard asks. “Where do merchants come in?”
“Mostly? People want something to do.” Ray takes the explanation baton and runs with it. “You can get the raw materials for anything you need in the warehouses, and people take what they want and work as cooks or tailors or whatever. There’s a loose barter system, but it’s pretty arbitrary, and you can get things even if you’ve got nothing concrete to trade. We get stuff from people who come to hear us play, for example.”
“Sounds like an okay system,” Gerard says, then adds, slightly hesitant, “Maybe I could, like, draw stuff for people. Take commissions.”
“That could work,” Frank says. “Like I said, I don’t know shit about art, but I’d pay for what I’ve seen you do so far.”
“Anything else I should know about the city?” Gerard asks. Aside from when he asked for their opinions, he still doesn’t talk too much about his art, but fuck knows there are things Frank and Ray don’t talk about, so whatever.
Besides, there are other things he should know about. “Crime’s pretty low, with people able to just get what they want so easily, but it does happen,” Frank tells him. “We’ve got sort of a homegrown police force—nothing official, ‘cause there’s no government to officiate anything. But the people who started it have been at it a long time and never fouled up once, and they personally screen anyone who wants to join up, so it’s pretty solid. I wouldn’t walk the streets alone at night or anything, but it’s not too bad.”
Gerard nods. “So…I’m kind of picking up on the fact that there’s not much evidence of any kind of higher power here? Just…people like us?”
“Well,” Toro begins with a thoughtful face. “That’s a subject of debate. You’ve met the twins, you know about Mother War—some people think they’re a higher power. But some people think they started out human, and have just been here so long that they’ve gone native, so to speak.”
“What do you think?” Gerard asks, and Ray hesitates a moment.
“I don’t think they were ever human,” he finally says. “Hell if I know what they are, but they’re no more human than the wolves.”
Gerard’s expression darkens at the mention of the wolves, and Frank senses it’s time for a subject change (he’s getting pretty good at the care and feeding of Gerards, if he does say so himself) and tugs on his hand. “C’mon, we’re almost there.”
The merchant district isn’t as busy as it sometimes gets, which Frank figures is good. Gerard looks mildly and briefly panicked at being in the middle of a crowd that’s bigger than a busy night at the club, but when no one accosts him or anything, he starts to loosen up a little.
They get what they need for the apartment, and Gerard indifferently picks out some clothes—mostly black, denim, or black denim. The one thing he seems excited to get is a worn leather jacket that fits like it was made for him; he’s a little worried about having nothing to trade, but the shopkeeper makes him spread out his arms and turn around, then shrugs and declares that it looks so good, he doesn’t have the heart to make Gerard take it off.
Once everything practical is taken care of, they ask around and end up at a small shop full of writing and drawing things, pencils and pens and bottles of colored ink and books full of blank paper with bindings that look handmade. Gerard’s eyes light up the moment they step inside, and he talks with the shopkeeper for a while, explaining his idea of doing commissions. The shopkeeper seems reluctant to give him very much with nothing in return up front, but she also recognizes Gerard’s true artistic spirit or something, and they walk out with a big sketchpad as well as a smaller, leather-bound book, a set of ink pens, and some charcoal, all of which Gerard practically clutches to his chest on the walk back through the city.
Having obtained his new supplies, Gerard seems reluctant to actually use them. Frank gets back from the club to find him sitting in bed with the smaller book on his lap, running a hand distractedly over the cover.
“You gonna draw in that thing or just fondle it?” Frank asks, and Gerard gives a faint smile.
“It’s a little intimidating,” he says quietly. “It’s like…all these blank pages, waiting to be filled. What if I fill them with the wrong stuff?”
Frank’s not sure if this is one of the things where Gerard doesn’t actually expect an answer or not, but he settles on the bed next to him, resting his chin on Gerard’s shoulder and his hand on Gerard’s knee.
“Well…you’re the artist, so wouldn’t whatever you decide to put in it be right?”
Gerard’s brow furrows. “I guess. But…I don’t know.”
Frank glances at him sidelong. “You don’t know don’t know, or you’re doing that thing where you have a problem with words don’t know?”
It takes a while for Gerard to answer.
“I think there’s something I’m supposed to do. Regret said something to me when I got here…but I don’t know what. Or how. Or why.”
Frank frowns as well, thinking about that for a second. “If she wants you to do something, but didn’t tell you anything about what, then it kinda seems like it’s on her if you don’t do it.”
Gerard leans against him. “What if I’m supposed to figure it out on my own?”
Frank shrugs. “Then…I don’t know from ‘supposed to’, Gee, but just because you haven’t yet doesn’t mean you won’t, I guess.”
Gerard tips his head back, lips brushing Frank’s jaw. “Sorry. I know I’m hard to put up with sometimes—”
“I like putting up with you,” Frank reminds him. “And if you put that sketchbook away, I’ll do more than that, unless you’re planning to sleep with the thing.”
“You’ll do more than put up with me? Is that supposed to sound sexy?” Gerard makes a face, but gets up and tucks the book away with the rest of his new stuff.
Frank waits until he comes back towards the bed, then grabs his arm and tugs, sending Gerard tumbling into his lap. Gerard squawks and flails a little, which shouldn’t be adorable, and then squirms around to get comfortable. It’s all awkward limbs for a moment, and then Gerard is straddling Frank, and completely without any premeditation on Frank’s part, his cock is sliding against the curve of Gerard’s ass. Gerard goes still, hands digging into Frank’s shoulders, and then leans into it, eyes wide, cheeks a little flushed.
It’s one of those things that was a complete mystery to Frank before Gerard, and even for a while after—seriously, why would you want anything stuck up your ass, let alone someone’s dick?—but Gerard fingered him during a blowjob once and okay, Frank can see the appeal. He pushes up a little, and Gerard moans, dropping his forehead against Frank’s shoulder.
“It’s okay,” Frank whispers, running a hand up and down the length of Gerard’s spine. “I mean, you’ll have to talk me through it a little, but I’m game if you are.”
It’s a little awkward getting started; Gerard says he can do it with just spit, but Frank’s worried about messing up, so he undertakes a stealth mission to the bathroom for soap (Toro’s in his own room, thank god), and when he gets back, he has no clue what do about, like, positioning, but Gerard’s a little more sure of himself by then.
“Here—” He lies on his back and spreads his legs, tilting his hips up. “I want to see you,” he explains, in this throaty whisper that goes straight to the base of Frank’s spine.
“You’ve done this before, right?” Frank asks, slicking up his fingers, and Gerard nods.
“Yeah. Not very recently, but.”
Gerard whimpers a little when Frank pushes in with his fingers, but shakes his head and gasps “Don’t stop,” when Frank hesitates. Frank takes his time, until Gerard tugs at his hips, sounding almost desperate as he insists that he’s ready. Frank bites his lip, then braces his hands on Gerard’s thighs and pushes forward.
It’s not all that different from a girl, in some ways—tight heat that feels so good it seems like it shouldn’t be allowed. At the same time, it’s completely different. It’s Gerard, arching his back and wrapping his legs around Frank’s waist and making noises that are downright obscene, and Frank lowers his head and closes his eyes and just moves, because looking at Gerard is giving him a funny feeling in his chest that feels like it doesn’t actually have much to do with sex.
Frank comes pretty quick, but has the presence of mind to get a hand around Gerard’s cock, jerking him off roughly. Gerard shudders all over and goes limp, and they lie there, Gerard wrapped around Frank, Frank still inside Gerard and not sure he could move if he wanted to.
Frank peels himself away eventually and gets them both cleaned up, and when he settles back in bed, Gerard has his thoughtful face on again.
“What?” Frank prompts patiently, letting one hand rest on Gerard’s hip.
Gerard lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “Just…thinking. About us. Like, of all the people who’ve ever died, what’re the odds of you and I ending up together?”
Frank shrugs as well. “Dunno. I’m just glad we did.”
One corner of Gerard’s mouth quirks up in a smile. “Yeah.” He slips an arm around Frank’s middle, snuggling close. “Don’t mind me, I’m just…”
“You’re just being you,” Frank says, pulling the blankets up. “But cut it out for now and go to sleep, ‘kay?”
A few days after that, Frank wakes up alone and finds Gerard in the kitchen, chain-smoking with his hair sticking out at odd angles. He’s got the leather-bound book and one of his new pens, but he’s writing, not drawing, covering the page in a fast, messy scrawl that leaves ink smudges on both the paper and his hands.
“I had an idea,” he says without looking up, and Frank’s not sure if Gerard’s talking to him or to himself. “Still don’t know if it’s what I’m supposed to do, but it’s something. Ever get that feeling, when an idea hits you and you feel like you need to get it down on paper as fast as you can, before it gets away?”
“No,” Frank says honestly. “But then, I’m not a crazy genius.” He ruffles Gerard’s hair as he walks past on his way to the pantry. “Coffee?”
Gerard stays where he is for a few more hours, Frank and Ray moving around him the way they always do when he gets like this, and then crashes in spite of the three or four cups of coffee he drank, barely making it to the couch before he’s out like a light. Frank takes the book from where Gerard left it on the table and stows it back in the bedroom, not looking inside—he’s curious, sure, but it’s for Gerard to show Frank what he’s working on or not. Besides, from the glimpse he got earlier, he’s not sure he could read any of what Gerard wrote today anyhow.
Around mid-afternoon, Gerard starts out of his sleep, looking the way he usually does after a nightmare. Frank’s in an armchair across from him, feet propped up on the couch’s armrest. He’s been tuning his guitar, but he sets it aside, ready to stand and move across to the couch.
“Hey. You all right?”
Gerard blinks a few times, then relaxes and nods. “Yeah. I mean, bad dreams, but nothing I haven’t had before.” He rubs his eyes with the back of one hand, looking a little bleary and a lot less manic. “Uh. Was I being weird earlier?”
“Kinda,” Frank informs him placidly. “You get anything good down?”
“Maybe,” Gerard says. “It can be hard to tell until I, like, go back and look over it with a clearer head.”
He gets up and heads to the bathroom, where Frank hears him piss for a really damn long time, and then to the kitchen, coming back with another cup of coffee even though what was left in the pot is stone cold by now.
“Where’s Ray?” Gerard asks; Toro’s bedroom door is open, and the room’s empty.
“Went over to the House,” Frank tells him. “Had something he wanted to talk to Schechter about, I think.”
Ray comes back about half an hour later, and it takes exactly one look at him before Frank knows something’s up.
“Hey, man,” Frank says, laying his guitar aside. “What’s the word?”
“Hey.” Ray looks kind of pale and really serious, and he casts a look around the living room before answering. “Is Gerard up?”
Frank jerks a thumb towards the bathroom. “Taking his weekly shower,” he says dryly. “Why?”
The door opens while he’s still speaking, and Gerard leans out, dressed again (in the same clothes as before he showered, because if he didn’t still smell a little it would apparently break some inherent law of Gerardness) and toweling off his hair.
“What’s going on?” he asks, his own expression turning serious the moment he sees Ray.
“There’s, uh—there’s something I thought you should maybe know,” Ray begins awkwardly. Gerard moves out into the living room, towel draped around his neck.
“What is it?”
Ray swallows hard. “There’s a newcomer down in the House. Really new, it seems like.” He hesitates, then goes on. “He…he says his name is Mikey Way.”
Gerard is sort of pale to begin with. Frank still sees all the color drain from his face.
“What?” he asks, but it’s really just his lips shaping the word, no sound.
“That’s what he told Brian, anyway,” Ray goes on, and shrugs helplessly. “And the whole time I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve met many people with that last name, besides you.” He looks at Gerard, cautious and concerned. “I figured…if you and he…it might be best if the first time you saw him wasn’t a surprise.”
Gerard hasn’t lost that look of blank shock, hasn’t moved. Then, like a switch being thrown, he’s in motion, dropping his towel and shoving past Ray on his way out the door.
“Fuck,” Ray hisses. “I shouldn’t have—”
Frank shakes his head, already on his feet. “What else were you gonna do? Except try and keep ‘em from seeing each other, and the city’s not that big.” Ray doesn’t look completely convinced, and Frank claps him on the shoulder as he heads for the door. “Look, let’s just get down there, okay?”
Frank doesn’t know what he’s hoping to accomplish by being down there, except to be on hand for Gerard. When he gets into the club, he actually runs smack into him—he’s standing frozen about ten feet from the door. The collision doesn’t seem to register at all; Frank braces himself against Gerard’s back, and leans around him to look.
The House is usually pretty dead this early, but even if it weren’t, it’d be easy to pick out the reason Gerard’s frozen. It’s the skinny, dark-haired guy standing at the bar, equally still with his eyes locked on Gerard.
Frank looks him over. If he wasn’t tipped off by the last name and Gerard’s reaction, he might not catch it—the new guy’s angular where Gerard is round, hair jet-black to Gerard’s white-blonde and eyes brown to Gerard’s green. But if you know to look past that, the new guy’s bone structure could be a longer, pointier version of Gerard’s, and their mouths are kind of the same but Gerard’s is thinner, which is kind of funny because everything else is the other way around.
New Guy—Mikey, Ray said—is the first to break the staring contest Frank’s walked in on, taking a single step forward and opening his mouth.
“Gee—” he starts, and holds out a hand.
Gerard flinches with his whole body, it feels like, and it only takes Frank a second to spot why.
The scar on Mikey’s forearm is a lurid, dark red in the club’s flickering light, starting at his wrist and running down in a thin vertical line.
“Gee,” he says again, sounding lost and a little scared, like he’s asking for help.
Gerard turns and runs, his shoulder slamming into Frank’s hard enough to bruise. Frank starts to turn after him, then looks back at Mikey.
“Hi,” he says. “Uh. Stay here? I’m gonna go…see if I can…”
He doesn’t know what he’s going to see if he can, so he just goes. He passes Toro on the way out and doesn’t respond to his “What the fuck, Frankie?”, and he hopes Mikey doesn’t take it the wrong way, having two people run out on him, but apparently Gerard’s having some sort of crisis and if Gerard’s having a crisis, Frank knows where he needs to be.
Frank finds Gerard in the lobby of their building, huddled at the base of the spiral stairs with his knees up and his head down.
“Gerard?” Frank drops into a crouch next to him. “Baby, who is he?”
Gerard’s shoulders heave like he’s either crying silently or struggling for breath, and then he looks up at Frank, eyes wide and pale.
“He’s my brother,” he whispers.
“Your—oh shit, man,” Frank says, and reaches for him. Gerard doesn’t move for a few seconds, then goes limp against Frank like a puppet with its strings cut, and Frank gets both arms around him and strokes his hair with one hand.
Eventually, a shadow falls across them, and Frank looks up as Ray clears his throat.
“He’s outside,” Ray says gently. “If you can’t handle seeing him, I’ll find somewhere else to take him, but I didn’t want to just leave him in there. He…seems a little messed up, Gee.”
Gerard draws in a slow, shaky breath, and then looks up. “Bring him in.”
Ray steers Mikey into the lobby with both hands on his shoulders, and Mikey lets himself be steered, that lost look still on his face. His expression doesn’t change until Gerard—who looks fucking terrified, by the way—stretches up a hand from where he’s sitting.
“Hey, Mikey,” he says in a hoarse whisper, and that does it. Mikey’s face crumbles and he just sort of falls forward, Gerard catching him the way Frank caught Gerard just a minute ago. Whatever made him unable to be in the same room with Mikey not that long ago, it’s gone now; Gerard hauls the kid into his lap and buries his face in Mikey’s hair, rocking back and forth a little as Mikey’s shoulders start to shake. Frank swallows hard and looks away, feeling like he’s already seen things he shouldn’t have.
Frank gets to his feet and stands awkwardly next to Toro for a few moments, not sure if he should leave, or usher the two brothers into someplace more private and then leave, or stay where he is and glare threateningly at any curious passersby. Eventually he asks Ray about it with his eyebrows—he’s still really proud that they’ve successfully worked out an eyebrow language, although Ray always points out that as long as they’ve been around each other, it’d be more worth commenting on if they hadn’t—and Ray’s eyebrows agree that yeah, the lobby is probably not the ideal place for this. Ray bends down and says as much to Gerard, and Gerard doesn’t look up or verbally acknowledge, but he struggles to his feet, pulling Mikey with him.
It’s a miracle that they make it up the stairs with no broken necks; Gerard looks down at his feet and steps carefully, but Mikey keeps his face buried in Gerard’s shoulder and trips more than once. With Frank navigating from in front and Ray steering from behind, they make it to the apartment and Frank and Gerard’s room, ending up with Gerard and Mikey in a heap on the bed. Frank sits down on the edge of the mattress, resting a hand on Gerard’s back.
“Hey,” he says quietly. “I’m guessing you two could use some alone time, so…”
Gerard looks up, eyes red-rimmed, face still ashy. “Are you guys going back to the House later?”
Frank shrugs. “Unless you want us to stick around, which we could do. Schechter’ll bitch, but the other guys could do without us for a night.”
Gerard shakes his head. “No. I mean, we’ll be okay. I think.”
“Your call,” Frank says, and then bends down and plants a kiss on the top of Gerard’s head. He feels a little stupid and sappy, but there you have it. “You know where we’ll be.”
Mikey falls asleep pretty soon after they lie down, and Gerard lets him stay that way, even after his arm falls asleep where Mikey’s lying on it. He knows at some point, they’re going to need to exchange more than two or three words, but he’s not exactly in a hurry to get to that part. He leans his cheek against Mikey’s hair and closes his own eyes, because his eyes keep wandering back to the scars on Mikey’s wrists if he keeps them open.
(There’s a small, treacherous part of him that’s glad to have Mikey with him again, no matter what the cost is. Gerard does his best to ignore that feeling, which of course only makes it harder to ignore.)
Mikey stirs eventually, and then sits up suddenly. “Gee—”
Gerard reaches for his hand. “Right here.”
Mikey blinks, then scrubs at his eyes with the heel of one hand. “Thought I might have been dreaming.”
“No such luck,” Gerard says darkly. There’s anger coiled in the pit of his stomach, and he tries to keep it locked down, because god knows that won’t help anything. “What are you doing here, Mikey?”
“I was looking for you,” Mikey says in his usual quiet tone. “I met the twins outside the city and asked them, and they said they’d sent you here—”
Gerard shakes his head. “That’s not what I mean—if you’re gonna be here at all, I want you with me.” He tugs on their joined hands, turning Mikey’s forearm up to expose the scar. “What the fuck is this?”
Mikey swallows hard, but meets his eyes unflinchingly.
“I was looking for you,” he repeats.
Gerard stares at him, speechless.
“No,” he finally says. “You—you’re not that fucking stupid.”
Mikey’s jaw tightens. “Wanting to see my brother again makes me stupid? Thanks a lot, Gee.”
“Killing yourself to do it does!” Gerard shouts. So much for keeping his anger locked down.
Mikey tugs his hand free and stands, angry himself now. “Like you’ve got any room to fucking talk! If what I did was stupid, what was that shit you pulled?”
Gerard closes his eyes, pressing the heels of both hands against them. “What I did was an accident. If I’d been thinking about it…I never would’ve done that to you.”
“But you weren’t thinking about it, were you?” Mikey presses, and the bitterness in his tone is clear. “So what’s worse—me knowing what I was doing, or you killing yourself on accident?”
Gerard looks down, drawing in a deep breath. He doesn’t have any answer for that—he can hardly ask Mikey to excuse what he did when he hasn’t found a way to excuse himself for it, yet.
“I’m sorry,” he says eventually. “I know it doesn’t count for much, saying that now, but…God, Mikey, I’m so sorry.”
“You left,” Mikey says, and all the anger’s dropped out of his voice. “You left, Gee. I couldn’t not try to find you.”
“I’m sorry,” Gerard repeats, holding out his hands. After a moment, Mikey comes back to sit on the edge of the bed, lets Gerard hug him, even though his own hands stay limp at his sides.
“Can I stay here?” Mikey asks after few seconds.
Of course, Gerard wants to say, but makes himself hold off. “I should talk to Frank and Ray. It’s their place, they took me in when I got here. But they’re cool.”
If they’re not okay with Mikey staying…Gerard’s not sure. He and Mikey could look for an apartment of their own, he supposes, but he’s gotten used to sharing a bed with Frank, and all other considerations aside, he’s not sure how well he’s sleep without him. But the most important thing now is what’s best for Mikey—all the more so because he’s let himself forget that in the past.
“Of course we’re okay with it,” Ray says.
“Not like you’re using the couch anymore,” Frank puts in. Gerard coughs and doesn’t look at his brother, who raises an eyebrow but doesn’t comment.
Mikey seems a little weird, frankly. Which is not something Frank has any grounds to hold against him, because hi, Gerard’s one of the weirdest motherfuckers Frank knows. But after only a month, Gerard is familiar, known in some fundamental way even though there’s still a lot Frank doesn’t know about him. Mikey’s—what Mikey is, actually, is one of the things about Gerard that Frank hasn’t known about, suddenly brought from the background to the foreground. It throws Frank off.
But he’s Gerard’s brother, and if there’s one thing Frank knows, it’s the importance of family.
Mikey says he’ll be okay on the couch, but Gerard’s a little reluctant to leave him alone. Frank weighs ‘chance of getting laid’ against ‘anxious Gerard’ (which, really, lowers his chances of getting laid anyway), and they leave the bedroom door open.
In bed, Gerard curls up on his side facing away from Frank, which is a bad sign. Frank presses himself against Gerard’s back, kissing the space behind his ear.
“You wanna tell me what’s goin’ on in there?” he whispers.
Gerard silent for long enough that Frank figures he’s not going to answer. When he does, Frank can barely hear him.
“I used to have nightmares about him dying. Sometimes it was just like watching a movie or something, and sometimes I’d be there, but I could never stop it. I…I had one of those dreams today, and figured it was just the same shit my subconscious always gets up to. I’m not so sure now.”
Frank’s brow furrows as he listens. “What, you think you, like, dreamed what was actually happening to him?”
“I don’t know,” Gerard whispers. “He—he did slit his wrists, in the dream, but…I don’t know.” He falls silent for a long moment, then says, “But it’s my fault he’s here.”
Frank sits up, looking down at him. Gerard’s face is pressed into the pillow, and in the dark, Frank can’t see much but the curve of his brow and cheek.
“Don’t do that,” he says, keeping his voice low.
“Frank,” Gerard says, and Frank can tell he’s struggling with it. “I died of a drug overdose. Not on purpose, but if I hadn’t been such a fucked-up idiot, it wouldn’t have happened, and Mikey wouldn’t have—”
“Stop it,” Frank tells him, with as much force as he can manage without raising his voice. “I don’t care how many reasons you’ve got for thinking it, I’ve been here longer than you, and I’ve seen what happens when people go down that road. Look—”
He gropes for Gerard’s hand in the darkness, brings it back to press against the scars on his ribs. Gerard’s run his hands over those scars night after night and never asked about them, but one confession deserves another.
“I could say these are here because of my family and what they did, and it wouldn’t be a lie. But it would also be a fucking cop-out, because I was an adult and I made my own fucking choices. Okay?” Gerard makes a noncommittal noise, and Frank strokes the back of his hand with a thumb. “I get that you feel responsible for your brother, Gee, but don’t drive yourself crazy over it.”
Gerard doesn’t say anything, but he turns around, pressing his face into the curve of Frank’s neck. Frank pulls him close, and when Gerard’s breath hitches and his shoulders start to shake, Frank pets his hair and holds him tighter.
Ray had been a teenager the first time he’d had a bout of really bad insomnia. Since then, it had happened on and off, usually lasting a few days to a week each time. He’d never been able to pinpoint what brought it on—it was just a thing that happened. Sometimes he could sleep, sometimes he couldn’t. Over time, he’d gotten used to dealing with it.
As a kid, he’d spent a lot of time watching TV when the insomnia hit, late-night movies and sitcom reruns and infomercials running together into a blur of sound and color that didn’t mean anything. Once he was living on his own, he’d mostly passed the time with his guitar. If there was one thing Ray didn’t mind saying he did well, it was play guitar. If there was another, it was dedicate himself single-mindedly to whatever held his attention. The insomnia gave him the time he needed to get pretty damn good, he’d say that much for it.
He was never sure where to put the blame for the fact that “pretty damn good” was never good enough: on himself, on the bands he’d played with, never sticking with any of them very long, or on a world where the fact of the matter was that having talent was rarely a guarantee of making it. He’d had a lot of time to mull that over on sleepless nights, could-haves, should-haves, and would-haves turning themselves over and over in his mind, but he’d never found an answer.
It didn’t really matter, in the end—whatever the reason was, the result was the same. And one night, at the end of a short life full of mundane disappointments, broken guitar strings and part time jobs and watching the sun come up with bleary, aching eyes, all he could think about, all he’d wanted to do, was sleep.
That problem, he had been able to find an answer to.
Since Ray’s been in the city, the insomnia still comes back sometimes—which is almost funny, considering how he got here. It was worst in his first week, during which Frank made a valiant effort to stay up and keep him company and usually ended up drooling on Ray’s shoulder when he crashed.
They don’t have a TV, so sometimes Ray reads when he can’t sleep—he didn’t used to be much of a reader, but he’s had enough time on his hands to look for new ways to fill it. A lot of the time, though, he just writes music in his head, scribbling down stuff to try playing sometime when there aren’t people who are successfully sleeping around.
Tonight, he checks on Mikey every once in a while. The first two times, Mikey’s sleeping pretty peacefully, knees tucked up, head pillowed on his arm, but the next time Ray wanders into the living room, he’s lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling. He hears Ray coming, and turns his head to look over at him.
“Hey,” he says, quietly. “Ray, right?”
“Yeah,” Ray says, coming further into the living room. “How’s it going?”
Mikey shrugs. He doesn’t seem like he’s in a hurry to give any answer besides that, and Ray’s about to head back into his own room when Mikey speaks again.
“Um. Can I ask you something?”
“Sure.” Ray walks over to the couch, perching on the arm as Mikey pushes himself into a sitting position. “Shoot.”
“Is Gerard—” Mikey begins hesitantly. “Has he been drinking or anything, since he’s been here?”
Ray presses his lips together for a moment, then answers carefully. “If you mean what I think you do by drinking…I haven’t seen him with anything but water or coffee. Even in the House.”
Mikey looks down quickly, swallowing hard. “I thought so,” he says after a moment. “He seemed—I haven’t seen him like that in a while.”
Ray eases himself from the arm to the seat of the couch. “He doesn’t really talk about it, and I don’t ask, but I kind of figured…I’ve known some former addicts before.”
“‘Former’,” Mikey echoes, like he can’t quite believe it yet. An edge of bitterness creeps into his voice as he adds, “Too bad it took him dying to make it happen.”
“Yeah, that kind of sucks,” Ray agrees.
They both fall silent for a few moments. Ray looks across at Mikey, but the younger Way’s expression isn’t giving much away. The impassive, composed look he has now is better than he looked earlier, but Ray’s not at all sure that it’s not just surface composure.
“Just so you know,” Ray tells him gently, “If there’s anything you want to talk about—”
Mikey doesn’t wait for him to finish. “What if I don’t?” He gives Ray an appraising look. “No offense, you seem like you do the sympathetic ear thing pretty well, but.”
Ray shrugs. “Then that’s cool, too. The offer’s open, is all. No skin off my nose if you don’t want to take it.”
Mikey holds his gaze a moment longer, then drops his eyes, looking down at his own upturned wrists.
“I just—” he begins.
Ray waits a moment, and then prompts, “Yeah?”
“What I did,” Mikey continues haltingly. “It made so much sense at the time, and now…”
“Now you’re not so sure?” Ray finishes, and Mikey nods.
“And it’s like…that ship has fucking sailed, and second thoughts aren’t gonna get me anywhere now, but—”
“But you’ve still got ‘em.” Ray shrugs again. “I know the feeling.”
Mikey’s head jerks up. “You—I didn’t—”
Ray smiles wryly. “That’s the thing about sleeping pills. They don’t leave scars.”
“Oh.” Mikey looks down again. “Um. Is it okay…can I ask why?”
“It was kind of stupid,” Ray tells him. “I mean, it’s not like I’m an expert on what is or isn’t a good reason for that, but—basically, my life wasn’t turning out the way I wanted it to. It wasn’t that bad, really, I just…I wanted to be a rock star, and it wasn’t happening. And I’d been having trouble sleeping for a long time, and I was so tired I could barely think. So…I did what I had to to go to sleep, and that was it.”
Mikey glances up at him. “So…if you could go back and do it differently, would you?”
“…Well,” Ray says. “Sometimes I think I would. But—okay, my life wasn’t so bad? But being here hasn’t been that bad either. And if I’d done differently, I’d never have met Frank or or anyone else I’ve known here.”
Mikey quirks an eyebrow at him. “So, what, I should just enjoy myself and make new friends in the afterlife?”
“Do whatever you want, Mikey Way,” Ray replies. “I’ve found that the afterlife is mostly what you make of it.”
What Mikey makes of his afterlife is, seemingly, not much. For weeks after his arrival, he mostly skulks around the apartment, or skulks around the House, or skulks through the streets on trips to the merchant district. If Ray or Frank or Gerard suggests they go anywhere, Mikey shrugs and goes along without either enthusiasm or unwillingness; when left to his own devices, he mostly hangs around working his way through the bookshelf. When another skirmish happens, about a week after Mikey shows up, his expression barely changes as Gerard herds him down to the basement.
Things between Mikey and Gerard seem…strained. Ray doesn’t know what they’ve talked about, when they’ve talked alone, but he knows that simply having Mikey here, let alone knowing how he got here, is hard for Gee to deal with. Mikey, in turn, seems to resent the fact that Gerard doesn’t want him here. He’s made mention of finding somewhere else to live, but Gerard won’t hear of that—if Mikey’s going to be in the city, he’s going to be where Gerard can keep an eye on him. The result is that they’re setting each other off as only close relatives with built-up bad feeling can, and conversations about everyday things leave Gerard storming off to brood in his and Frank’s room and Mikey huddled on the couch with a sullen, guarded look.
Frank and Mikey, meanwhile, seem to abiding by some unspoken truce by which they don’t get in each other’s way. Ray has an idea that it might just be weird for Mikey to see Gerard so close to someone he doesn’t know, but whatever the reason, Frank’s normally instant charm seems lost on him. Of course, Frank’s whole game seems a little thrown where Mikey’s concerned.
“I never had this problem with a girl, so I don’t know, but I still can’t look at him and not think ‘hi, I’m screwing your brother, how are you today?’” Frank confides to Ray. “And maybe I’m just being paranoid, but he always looks like he’s judging me. Like I’m not good enough for Gee or something.”
“No offense, man, but I think you might be projecting the fact that your family’d be judging you if they knew you were screwing a guy,” Ray tells him. “And…Mikey just sort of looks that way, I think. Don’t take it personally.”
With relations between Mikey and the other two less than ideal, Ray does his best to pick up the slack, draw Mikey out as much as he’s willing to be drawn. Mikey doesn’t seem to be resenting or judging him for any reason, so they get along okay, although after that first night they don’t often move beyond safe, neutral topics.
Two weeks in, Ray looks up from his guitar to find Mikey watching him play, an interested look on his face. Before now, Mikey hasn’t seemed interested in a lot.
“You play?” Ray asks, and Mikey shakes his head.
“Not really. I took some lessons a few years ago, but I didn’t stick with it.”
Ray considers, then wraps a hand around the neck of his guitar, holding it up. “Well, if you want to pick it up again, just let me know.”
Mikey’s eyebrows go up. “Seriously?”
“Sure. I used to give lessons, and it’s not like we haven’t got the free time.”
Ray’s pretty sure that’s the first time he’s ever seen Mikey Way smile. No, he’s definitely sure—he wouldn’t have forgotten seeing a smile like that.
“C’mere,” he says standing up, and when Mikey lets himself be coaxed into the chair Ray just vacated, Ray leans over him and sets his guitar in Mikey’s hands carefully. “Now, how about you show me what you remember?”
As time passes, Mikey starts seeming both a little more at ease and a little more animated. He doesn’t really go anywhere except the House of Wolves, but he starts going there more often, and of his own volition. The rest of the city seems to hold little interest for him, but a few times Ray finds him just hanging around outside, leaning against their building and looking out at the horizon, seeming to barely register the flashes of light and noise from the trenches.
He seems to share Gerard’s curiosity about what might be out there, besides the city. Most people Ray’s known ask the same sort of questions when they first get here, but once the situation with the wolves gets explained, they seem content enough to settle into the city and never look beyond its borders. The ones who don’t are usually the ones who try to leave.
Ray would rather not see that happen to either of the Way brothers, but so far, Gerard seems pretty comfortably ensconced where he is, and Mikey still shows no inclination to do anything but wander from the apartment to the club and back.
That changes one night when Gerard slips into the club shortly after the band finishes up, coming up to Frank and Ray while they’re packing up their guitars.
“Hey,” he says, and Ray can hear the tension in his voice right away. “Do you guys know where Mikey is?”
Ray pauses in the middle of settling his guitar in its case. “—Uh. He was in here earlier, and then he said he was gonna go back to the apartment.”
Gerard swallows hard. “He hasn’t. Been back, I mean.”
“…Shit,” Frank says.
The streets of the city are dark at night. There are streetlamps, but they’re widely spaced out, and more than a few are flickering or entirely unlit.
Gerard, Ray and Frank are trying to be systematic about their search, splitting up to cover as many streets as they can and meeting back up at intersections, but there’s no sign of Mikey anywhere, and Gerard is rapidly losing his battle against the urge to freak out.
It’s Frank who spots the twins, standing together under a streetlight up ahead. He doesn’t hesitate or question their showing up, just shouts to the others and tears down the street. When Ray and Gerard reach the little pool of light, Frank’s describing Mikey to the two girls—Ray can tell from his hand gestures even before he gets in earshot.
Regret looks as though she’s actually listening to Frank, but Fear looks straight past him and at Gerard, a tiny smirk quirking up one corner of her mouth.
“Hello again,” she says. “Lost something?”
“Have you seen him?” Gerard asks instantly, sounding as though he’s in no mood to play games. Fear only smiles wider.
“Of course I’ve seen him. Have I seen him tonight, is the question.”
“You’re being horrid again,” Regret informs her sister, and then turns her solemn eyes on Gerard. “You want him back?”
Gerard’s brow furrows. “Of course I do.”
“Truly?” she presses. “I know his presence here is a source of pain for you.”
That is, apparently, as much as Gerard can take. “I don’t fucking care about that, I want my brother back!”
Regret surveys him calmly for a moment, then nods. “He’s left the city. If you hurry, you can catch up to him.”
Fear giggles. It’s been a while since Ray heard that sound, but it still digs into him like an ice pick. “You truly ought to hurry, though,” she adds. “He’s gone to the true house of wolves, and you’ll want to get there before he gets inside.”
“The—oh, holy fuck. The mansion?” Gerard goes even paler than he already is, and looks from one twin to the other for confirmation. “The mansion on the hill?”
Ray freezes at those words, feeling like someone’s just punched him in the stomach, but Frank’s already running again, barely pausing to yell “Come the fuck on, motherfuckers!”, and a second later, Gerard and Ray are hurrying after him.
Outside the city proper, there’s no light but what comes in erratic bursts from the trenches. Combined with the noise of the fighting and the fact that they’re stumbling through the wreckage on the outskirts of the city, Ray feels like he’s heading into battle himself. Everything’s surreal and hectic at the same time, like a bad dream, or when he’s had insomnia for a week straight.
They clear the rubble and break into a run again. Gerard’s trailing behind a little and starting to pant, but still pushing forward on pure adrenaline, probably. Somewhere along the way, Frank’s picked up a metal bar, like if they run into the wolves he’s gonna try and start something, the crazy bastard.
There’s a smaller rise before the big hill, the one the mansion’s on. Frank crests it first, and he’s silhouetted in a burst of light as he shouts something that’s drowned out by the accompanying explosion before throwing himself down the slope. Ray hurries up the rise a moment later, and the next flash of light shows him the scene below like a diorama: a thin, gangly figure that Ray already thinks he’d recognize anywhere, frozen in place, Frank’s smaller shape hurrying toward Mikey, and six or seven wolves, ranged on the big hill’s slope in a semicircle and coming closer.
Ray turns and sees Gerard struggling up the rise after him, and reaches down; Gerard latches onto his wrist and Ray hauls him up the rest of the way. He doesn’t wait for Gerard to see what he’s seen, just shouts in his ear.
“Mikey’s down there and there’re wolves heading for him. Further away than us, but they’re moving fast.”
“I can’t—” Gerard’s completely out of breath now, one hand pressed to his side. “I won’t make it in time. Can you get him out of there?”
“I can try,” Ray says, and runs. Everything’s happening in stop-motion, it seems like. Mikey’s a little bit closer every time there’s light to see him by, and so is one wolf that’s outpacing the others, barreling towards him.
Ray sees the wolf spring, sees the dark shape that crosses his line of sight at the same moment, and hears Gerard scream, but he doesn’t realize what’s happening until the next burst of light reveals Frank on the ground, one arm clamped between the wolf’s jaws as he struggles with it bare-handed, the metal bar knocked out of his reach.
Ray freezes in panic for a moment, but Mikey’s right in front of him, stock-still. A single step forward and Ray’s able to grab him around the middle, hauling him backwards. He means to shove Mikey back in the direction they came and then try to help Frank, but in the time it takes him to get hold of Mikey, Gerard is there, throwing himself at the wolf with no more hesitation than Frank showed.
Gerard’s still screaming, but it’s not Frank’s name anymore. Ray’s pretty sure it’s something like “Get the fuck away from him,” which is an understandable but not very practical thing to scream at a wolf who’s chewing on your boyfriend.
Only here’s the thing: the next thing Ray can see is the wolf springing away before Gerard gets close enough touch it.
Gerard drops to one knee, bending over Frank, and then looks around, shouting, “Mikey? Ray?”
“Here,” Ray calls back, keeping one arm tight around Mikey, who offers no resistance.
“Get over here,” Gerard calls, and there’s an authority in his voice that Ray has never heard before. “Stay close to me.”
And what the hell, Ray goes, tugging Mikey with him. Gerard’s checking Frank over when they get there; Ray can’t tell how bad Frank’s hurt, but he’s sitting up, and Gerard is shouting at him. “Don’t you ever do anything that fucking stupid again, do you hear me?”
“Loud and clear, babe,” Frank replies, sounding dazed. “Uh, Gee? You want to tell us how long you’ve been able to boss the fucking wolves around?”
Ray looks around. The rest of the wolves have reached them by now, and they’re circling—but they’re also keeping their distance. Ray thinks he can spot the one who attacked: It’s bigger than the rest, and while it paces, its glowing eyes stay locked on Gerard.
Gerard stands up, helping Frank to his feet and supporting him with an arm around his waist. He looks out at the wolves, and says, calmly, “You didn’t touch me before. You couldn’t, could you? And you still can’t.”
The largest wolf stops moving right in front of Gerard, facing him unblinkingly as the others continue circling. Gerard goes on.
“I’m not for you. That’s what Regret said. And that’s what it means.”
The wolf doesn’t move, doesn’t open its mouth like a talking wolf in a cartoon would. Ray still has absolutely no doubt where the voice he just heard came from, the same way he doesn’t doubt that they all heard it.
“Then these three aren’t for you, either,” Gerard says.
The wolf does move then, cocking its head to one side as if curious. Oh? And how is it you’re so certain of that?
“Because they’re mine,” Gerard replies steadily. “And because you’ll have to go through me to get to any one of them.”
The wolf snarls, and in the next flash of light it’s closer, barely a foot away. Ray tenses, tightening his grip on Mikey, but it stops there.
You’re very confident, boy. But I wonder if you have any idea what you’re involved in.
“What do you mean?” Gerard asks, voice tense but controlled.
If you’re not for us, then who are you for? The wolf’s tone is coldly mocking, and its yellow eyes seem almost amused. Think about that, Gerard Way. And if you would protect these three, then keep them close, and keep them out of our territory.
With that, the wolf turns, tail flicking around its haunches, the others falling into formation behind it. Ray, Gerard, Mikey, and Frank wait in tense silence as the wolves run back up the hill, heading for the big house.
Gerard is the first to speak. “Frank? How are you?”
“Surprisingly intact,” Frank replies. “Don’t think I’m bleeding anywhere but the arm.” He’s already trying to tug his shirt off with his good arm; Gerard helps him, and then wraps the shirt around the wound as best he can.
Ray looks at Mikey, who’s standing kind of limply in the circle of Ray’s arm, sagging against him a little.
“Are you okay?” Ray asks.
“Yeah,” Mikey says, and his tone is as flat and emotionless as it’s ever been. “I—I’m sorry, you guys, I didn’t mean for Frank to get hurt.”
“You didn’t—” Gerard begins, incredulous. “Mikey, what the fuck—”
“Later, please?” Ray interjects. “Let’s just get out of here.”
They don’t talk on the way back, concentrating on just getting there. Frank’s a little banged-up and shaky even if he’s not seriously hurt anywhere but his arm, and he and Gerard walk close together, arms around each other. Mikey seems to have snapped out of…whatever was going on with him, and doesn’t need to be herded, but Ray finds himself reluctant to let go entirely, and takes hold of his hand. Mikey doesn’t object, and when they get back to the wreckage, he seems glad enough of Ray’s help climbing over it.
Brian keeps a first-aid kit behind the bar in the House, so they stop off to borrow it (Frank also begging a half-empty bottle of whiskey off him “for the pain, man, and tomorrow I’m gonna have a story to tell that’ll make it completely worth your while”).
Gerard hasn’t said a word to Mikey the whole way back, and also hasn’t stopped glowering. When they get up to the apartment, Ray looks between the two brothers, and reluctantly lets go of Mikey’s hand.
“I’ll get Frankie cleaned up,” he says, and herds Frank into the bathroom, first aid kit, whiskey, and all.
“Man, what,” Frank protests weakly as Ray guides him to sit on the toilet lid and hold his arm out over the sink. “You don’t wanna know what the fuck Mikey was doing out there?”
“Sure I do,” Ray says, rifling through the kit for disinfectant and bandages. “Do I wanna be in the mix if those two start fighting? Not so much.”
Frank hefts the whiskey with his good arm, pulling the cork out with his teeth and drinking straight from the bottle. “You’re no fun,” he mutters, and then winces as Ray pours disinfectant over the bite on his arm. “Motherfucker. You don’t think my arm’s gonna be, like, fucked up, do you?”
“Should’ve thought of that before you fucking shoved it in a wolf’s mouth, huh?” Ray replies absently, concentrating on his work.
“Whatever, Toro. Long as I can still play, I don’t mind.” Frank takes a long drink, then adds, “I wrestled a giant wolf, I’ve got bragging rights until the end of fucking time.”
“You almost got eaten by a giant wolf,” Ray corrects. “If anyone here gets bragging rights, I’m pretty sure it’s Gerard.”
Gerard waits for Ray and Frank to go into the bathroom, waits for the door to close—and then steps toward Mikey, pulling him into a tight hug.
Mikey seems surprised, but hugs back after a moment. “You’re not mad at me?” he mumbles into Gerard’s shoulder.
“I’m fucking furious,” Gerard tells him calmly. “I’m so mad I can barely see straight. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I just—” Mikey pulls back, rubbing one hand over his face tiredly. “I didn’t mean to end up there, I just…felt like I had to get out of the city for a while. I wasn’t even paying attention to where I was going until I saw the wolves coming down the hill.”
“Why’d you leave without telling anyone?” Gerard asks.
Mikey shrugs. “I didn’t think it would matter that much.”
Gerard stares at him. “How could you think—”
Mikey folds his arms, his posture defensive. “I didn’t think you’d mind if I was gone, okay? Hell, I figured you might even be relieved.”
Gerard opens his mouth to object to that—and then stops, thinking about Regret asking him if he really wanted Mikey back.
“Mikey.” Gerard steps forward again, taking hold of Mikey’s shoulders. “The only way I’d want you gone would be if I could undo what both of us did. I won’t apologize for wishing you hadn’t died. But if that can’t be undone, I guess I could be dealing better with you being here. Give me another chance, and I’ll try.” He pulls Mikey into his arms again, pressing a kiss to his temple. “I’m sorry.”
Mikey leans against him, falling quiet for a few moments. Eventually, he asks, “Gee? What the hell was that, back there with the wolves?”
Gerard shakes his head. “I don’t know. Yet.”
He says the same to Ray and Frank, when they emerge from the bathroom, the four of them sitting around the living room.
“Like the wolf said, I’m involved in something. I don’t know what or why, yet, but it’s time I start trying to figure it out.” Gerard looks around at the three of them. Back there among the wolves, he hadn’t felt any hesitation in laying claim to them, but now he’s left to wonder just what that means. “But if it means getting mixed up in dangerous stuff, I’ll do my best to keep it from affecting the rest of you, if I can.”
“Fuck that,” Frank replies instantly. “If you’re getting into something that might be dangerous, there’s no way I’m letting you do it alone.”
“What he said,” Ray says, and Mikey just nods.
Gerard ducks his head with a faint smile, touched by their support even if he still has misgivings. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll let you guys know if I figure any of it out.”
After that, things get a little better between Gerard and Mikey, if not completely without problems. They both avoid each other less and fight less, having more actual civil conversations instead. Unfortunately, a lot of those conversations seem to be the two of them trying to work through their issues, which results in brooding fits for both of them and headaches for Ray and Frank.
Case in point being the afternoon when Ray cuts a grocery run short due to a sudden rainstorm—it’s never seemed really fair to him that they get rain in the city even though nothing grows there—and rushes home to find Frank herding a soaking wet Gerard in from the balcony.
“So, hey,” Frank says by way of greeting, “Apparently these two literally don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain sometimes. Mikey’s still out there, I was gonna go back for him in a second…”
“I’ll get him,” Ray offers. He glances at Gerard, who’s looking down, eyes shadowed, expression definitely gloomy but not really angry. “You take care of that one.”
The rain’s tapering off a little already, but Mikey is well and truly soaked as he stands out there, hunched over with his arms wrapped around himself. Ray wants to just walk forward, take off his jacket, and drape it over Mikey’s shoulders—or just skip that and put his arms around him. Instead, he hangs back and, when a few moments pass in silence, says, “Hey.”
Mikey’s gaze flicks up, briefly, but he doesn’t reply, and Ray folds his own arms.
“Look, do me a favor and do this inside, at least? We don’t need you having a brooding fit and a cold.”
“Just leave me alone, Ray,” Mikey replies tonelessly.
“Inside,” Ray repeats, sternly. “I’ll leave you alone all you want once you’re out of the rain.”
“Why do you even care?” Mikey’s voice rises a little in volume, at least, though it stays pretty flat in tone. “Why can’t you just—”
“What?” Ray walks toward him, arms still folded. “Get off your back? Maybe if you didn’t pull stunts like this, I wouldn’t feel like I need to be on it.”
Mikey looks up again, hair dripping in his eyes, jaw clenched in a stubborn line. The expression brings out his resemblance to Gerard, oddly enough.
“I’ve got a big brother already, Toro,” he says. “I don’t need another one.”
Ray winces internally. This isn’t the first time Mikey’s said something to that effect, and every time, Ray wonders if Mikey actually thinks of Ray like a brother—or thinks Ray feels that way about him.
“I’ve never thought you did,” he says, and almost laughs, shoving a hand through his damp hair. “Trust me, Mikey Way, I don’t think of you like I would a brother.” And that just kind of slips out, because any time he’s thought about possibly declaring his feelings, he definitely hasn’t planned on doing it like this.
Mikey blinks at that, his sullen look replaced with mild surprise. “…You don’t?”
Ray bites his lip. This wasn’t how he planned it, but Mikey’s looking at him, all big eyes and parted lips, and he’s shivering a little, and Ray’s caught completely off-guard by how badly he wants to hold him right now.
“No,” Ray says. “I don’t.”
“But you’re all—no one but Gee’s ever looked after me like you do,” Mikey says uncertainly. “And if it’s not—Ray, why—”
Ray takes two steps forward and lifts his hands, cupping Mikey’s jaw in one, sliding the other around to the back of his head, and kisses him.
Mikey’s completely still, frozen in Ray’s hands, and Ray’s about to pull back when he finally moves. Just a little, tilting his head so that their noses fit better and opening his mouth. Ray takes that as permission, moving in closer, tracing Mikey’s bottom lip with his tongue. Mikey makes a noise at that, just a soft hum in the back of his throat, and Ray wants nothing more than to get him to make that noise again, only maybe a bit louder.
Mikey pulls back, and Ray lets him, but keeps a hand on the back of his neck.
“Oh,” Mikey says, low and a bit breathless. “You—”
“Yeah.” Ray moves in again—not for another kiss, not yet, but he tilts his head down until their foreheads touch. “Yeah, I.”
Mikey looks a little shell-shocked, but—Ray hopes, at least—in a good way. “How long?”
“Since I met you, pretty much,” Ray informs him.
Mikey says “Oh,” again, sounding kind of overwhelmed, and then he takes a step forward, putting his hands on Ray’s shoulders, and tips his head up in a clear invitation.
Ray kisses him again, deep and slow and open-mouthed, and lets the hand on Mikey’s neck slide up into his hair, his other moving around to the small of Mikey’s back, pressing him closer. Mikey closes his eyes and shivers a little, and Ray would like to think it’s his doing and not from the cold, but it still reminds him that they’re still standing out in the fucking rain.
He bends down and gets an arm under Mikey’s knees, swinging him up. It doesn’t come off as smoothly as it could, because Mikey looks like a sack of bones but is still kind of heavy, and Ray staggers a bit but then steadies himself, finding a hold that’s manageable.
Mikey grabs him around the neck in surprise when Ray lifts him, then breaks the kiss to mutter “Did you really just—”
“Yes, I did,” Ray says firmly, carrying Mikey towards the door, which isn’t shut, thankfully. “We’ve got the rain and the declarations and the kissing, okay, I figured I might as well go for broke.”
Mikey lets out a startled burst of laughter at that, ducking his head. “You haven’t technically declared anything yet,” he points out.
“Fine,” Ray replies as he gets them inside. He kicks the door shut, and then raises his voice. “Frank?”
Frank and Gerard’s door is shut; it cracks open after a brief pause, and Frank leans out. He is, predictably enough, shirtless already, bare except for the bandage that’s still on his left forearm. Sometimes Ray wonders why he bothers wearing shirts in the apartment at all.
“Yeah?” Frank asks, brow furrowing in faint concern when he sees Mikey being carried.
“Mikey’s inside, I’m taking him to my room to have my way with him, if Gerard wants to talk to him later about something that will not make either one of them go stand in the rain again, fine, but he might want to give us a while. And knock.” Ray keeps moving as he talks, because this is going to get a lot less romance novel and a lot more comedy of errors if he drops Mikey on the living room floor. He glances down at Mikey, and adds, “Declarative enough for you?”
Frank stares for a few seconds, and then cackles. Ray can hear a faint, confused “…what?” from Gerard through the door.
“Smooth, Toro,” Frank says, letting go of the doorjamb to flash Ray a thumbs up.
Ray’s first impulse when he gets Mikey into his room is to just turn around and shove him up against the door, but with an armful of Mikey like this, Ray can feel just how cold and soaked he is.
So the first thing Ray does is set Mikey on his feet and start pulling both their wet clothes off, and when Mikey tilts his head up, angling for another kiss, the second thing Ray does is break away towards the closet and come back with towels.
He gets one towel wrapped around Mikey’s waist and a second around his shoulders, and then does what he wanted to do out on the balcony, pulling Mikey in close and wrapping both arms around him. Mikey shivers again and burrows into the space between Ray’s neck and shoulder with his nose, and they stand like that for a minute, Ray rubbing Mikey’s back with one hand and dropping a kiss on his wet hair.
“I hope this wasn’t everything you meant by ‘have your way with me’,” Mikey says eventually, and Ray feels every word against the skin of his neck and grins at that as much as the words themselves.
“Not everything, no,” he says back, and tips Mikey’s chin up to kiss him.
It starts off slow and a little careful, and Ray might be content to keep it that way, because he’s kissing Mikey, and if he doesn’t take it slow, he’s not sure he won’t, like, explode. Mikey doesn’t seem so content, opening his mouth wider, pressing against Ray insistently and then grabbing both of his hands to tug him towards the bed, and Ray lets himself be led.
Mikey backs up until his legs hit the bed, then lets go of Ray’s hands, shoves the towels down and away, and scoots backwards, lowering himself onto his elbows. His knees are sprawled apart in a way that Ray’s seen a million times when Mikey was just sitting around the apartment, and usually it just looks gangly and awkward, like Mikey has more leg than he knows what to do with, but right now it looks like a totally intentional invitation.
“What?” Mikey says, a little self-consciously, when a second passes and Ray just stands at the foot of the bed. “This is where you were going, right?”
“Yeah.” Ray moves then, kneeling on the bed between Mikey’s knees and reaching for him, sliding his hands up Mikey’s arms to his shoulders. “Yeah, just…enjoying the view.”
Mikey blushes a little at that, which means Ray kind of has to kiss him, and when Mikey’s hands settle on his hips and tug insistently, Ray moves against him, bracing himself above Mikey as he rocks forward. Mikey pushes up to meet every thrust, and it barely feels like a minute before he comes, crying out into Ray’s mouth and still shaking when Ray follows a few seconds later.
Ray retrieves one of the damp towels from the floor to clean them up afterwards, and then pushes Mikey over on his side. Loose-limbed and sleepy, Mikey just lets himself be manhandled as Ray fits himself against Mikey’s back, wrapping his arms around Mikey’s waist. Mikey slips one hand over Ray’s, curling their fingers together, and Ray presses his lips against the back of Mikey’s neck and mutters, “Go to sleep.”
The simple truth of the matter was that Mikey hadn’t had the first idea how to live in a world without his older brother, and hadn’t wanted to learn.
There had never been a time in Mikey’s life when Gerard wasn’t there—except, perhaps, during the worst of his benders, when he’d been there in a physical sense but pretty much checked out otherwise. He wasn’t just a sibling, he was a fact of life: the sky was blue, gravity pulled things toward the center of the earth, Gerard was Mikey’s big brother and best friend.
So when things started going downhill for Gerard, it was pretty unavoidable that they’d go downhill for Mikey, too. He’d done his share of drinking and pill-popping, and the need to take care of Gerard (as well as he could, as well as Gee would let him) was about the only thing that kept him from doing more.
There was a part of him that always whispered, bitterly, that this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be—that Gerard was the big brother, and he was supposed to be taking care of Mikey, not the other way around. Mikey always did his best to push thoughts like that to the back of his mind, because the way things were supposed to be didn’t change the way they were, and he had to just deal with that.
When Gerard died, it wasn’t the first time Mikey thought about killing himself. It was just the first time he hadn’t had a strong enough reason not to.
Mikey wakes up with Ray’s arms around him, Ray’s hair tickling his neck and Ray’s heart beating slow and steady where his chest is pressed against Mikey’s back. He stays where he is for a while, and then slips out of bed and dresses quietly, leaving Ray still fast asleep.
Gerard’s sitting in a folding chair out on the balcony, sketchbook open on his lap, mug and cigarette both in the hand he’s not drawing with. Mikey heads into the kitchen first and fills a mug of his own from the half-full pot on the burner, then walks over and taps on the glass of the balcony doors.
Gerard looks up, faintly startled, and then offers a smile that’s just a little bit uncertain, gesturing for Mikey to come out.
“Hey,” Gerard says when Mikey steps out. “It stopped raining.”
Mikey smiles a little. “I noticed.” Gerard might be perfectly content to stand in the rain, but he’d never bring his sketchbook out in it.
“Ray still asleep?” Gerard asks after a moment.
Mikey nods. “I didn’t want to wake him up, he has—”
“—Trouble sleeping sometimes,” Gerard finishes with him, and both of them grin at the unplanned unison.
Gerard flips his sketchbook closed and sets it and his pencil on the ground, then switches his coffee to his other hand to take a drag on his cigarette.
“Toro’s a good guy,” he says after a brief silence. “I mean, it’s not like you need my approval or my blessing or whatever, but—”
“No, I’m glad,” Mikey tells him, because disapproval from Gerard wouldn’t be enough to stop him, but that doesn’t mean his approval isn’t good to have. He hesitates, looking down into his coffee, then adds, “Frank’s a good guy, too.”
“I tend to think so,” Gerard replies, carefully neutral.
Mikey shrugs. “Look, it’s not like—I got used to worrying about you when it comes to sex, okay?”
Gerard ducks his head. “Fair enough. Not like I didn’t give you reason for it.”
“And I know I don’t have to worry so much now, and it’s not like you need my approval either, but—old habits, y’know? And I didn’t know him. I still don’t know him all that well, but I guess that’s partly my fault.” Mikey shrugs again. “Anyway. The guy put himself between me and a wolf, okay, that gets him points.”
Gerard grins crookedly. “I’m glad.”
They drink their coffee in companionable silence for a little while, Mikey leaning back against the balcony railing. Eventually, Mikey gestures with his mug towards the sketchbook.
“How’s it going?” he asks. All of them know that Gerard’s been working hard on something he thinks might be important, but that’s all they know at this point—he’s been playing things close, and seems almost afraid to discuss it in too much detail.
Gerard sighs. “Kinda slow. And frustrating. I’m not sure I can figure this out on my own, and so far, the list of people I could talk to about it includes a giant fucking telepathic wolf I’m in no hurry to talk to about anything, and two anthropomorphic personifications of negative emotions who I haven’t been able to find anywhere in the city for almost a week.”
“Sucks,” Mikey says succinctly, and Gerard laughs in spite of himself. “Gee, seriously, if there’s any chance the rest of us can help you figure it out…”
Gerard bites his lip. “Maybe. I don’t want to shut you guys out, I just…whenever I think about how I’d lay out what I have so far for another person, it just sounds weird and crazy.”
Mikey looks down his nose at his brother, which is an old habit from when he still had glasses, but still serves its purpose in staredowns. “Weird and crazy like personifications of emotions and telepathic wolves who can’t touch you for some reason?”
“…Okay, point.” Gerard drains the rest of his coffee and stands, tucking his sketchbook under one arm. “I will think about it, Mikey. Promise.”
“‘Kay,” Mikey says, and finishes off his own coffee. “I’m gonna go wake Ray up. Or go back to bed. Or maybe both.”
Gerard waves a hand at him, sending tendrils of cigarette smoke through the air. “That is officially as much as I want to know.”
Mikey doesn’t, like, make a concentrated effort to be friendlier to Frank, or apologize for his previous lack of friendliness; he just acts naturally around him, without any of the wariness that he now knows is unnecessary, and trusts Frank to get it. Frank seems to, and drops his own standoffishness in return. Between that, the fact that Mikey and Gerard have patched things up a little, and the fact that Ray’s been steadily getting along with everyone already and just waiting for the other three to catch up, the apartment sees a pretty welcome drop in tense silences and people trying to avoid each other without really having enough space to do it in.
Mikey keeps up with his guitar lessons. He’d probably do so even if he didn’t enjoy relearning the instrument—Ray takes a pretty hands-on approach to teaching, and more than once, Mikey’s let himself accidentally-on-purpose get distracted by Ray’s arms curving around him and Ray’s hands guiding his into place—but he also thinks there’s something pretty awesome about hearing sounds that are starting to actually sound like music and knowing that they’re coming from his hands and brain and heart.
“To bad we don’t have a bass for you to practice on,” Ray comments one time, the words warm puffs of air against Mikey’s ear. It’s not even a lesson anymore, just Mikey still holding the guitar on his lap and refusing to move from Ray’s, and Ray playing around him. “We could make Gerard learn drums and start our own band.”
Mikey smirks. “Gee can’t play anything. Believe me, I’ve heard him try. He sings okay, but he’s weird about it. Besides, you’ve got a band.”
Ray shrugs. “I’ve got a bunch of people whose afterlife occupation of choice happens to be the same as mine, and who get along well enough to play together but haven’t really been friends for at least a decade. They’re all good guys, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the same thing as having a band with your friends, and I kind of miss that.”
“We could be a guitar trio and make Gerard sing,” Mikey offers, then asks, “If I got a bass, could you teach me to play it?”
“Probably,” Ray says. “You want to?”
Mikey rubs at the calluses that are starting to form on his fingertips, looking down thoughtfully. “I’ve never been in a band before.”
The thing about Ray is he’s too nice. Not really pushover nice, he has his limits, but he cuts people slack and tries to think the best of them, and it takes a fair amount to make him angry.
Frank’s nice, too, but he’s got a temper. And a short man complex. And a fairly low tolerance level for anything he considers bullshit.
Mikey knows from talking to Ray that the House band’s had some internal problems, but he doesn’t get a detailed account until he hears Frank talk about it.
“So, basically, Otter and Hambone can’t see eye-to-eye on anything anymore, let alone on things like tempo and starting times. And it’s not the first time we’ve ever had friction—two-thirds of our horn section aren’t even speaking to each other, they have to pass everything back and forth through the third guy—but this is our drummer and our bassist, right? And a rhythm section divided against itself cannot stand.”
“…And a horn section divided against itself can?” Gerard asks, but Frank waves that off.
“Horns are extra,” Frank says. “The whole fucking band doesn’t take its cues from the horn section. Anyway, I feel like it’s only a matter of time before one or the other of them splits, and right now we don’t have anyone to replace either of them, so it kind of—what’s the phrase?—sucks.”
Ray pauses as they get to the House, one hand wrapped around the door handle. “Yeah, but until we do have potential replacements, you want to stop talking about both of them before we go in?”
It’s still a while before the band’s set to start for the evening, but this is one of the first times both Way brothers have come down at the same time, and Frank’s insisting on referring to it as a double date. The four of them head towards the bar, but Frank stops short about halfway there, causing a brief pileup.
There’s a stocky blonde guy Mikey hasn’t seen before standing by the bar, and Frank stares in his direction for a moment before launching himself at the guy and shouting “Bryar!”
The guy staggers a little, but seems remarkably untroubled by suddenly having Frank hanging off his back. “Iero,” he replies in a calm rumble.
“Bob, hey,” Ray says, approaching more slowly and with less jumping. “How’s it going?”
“Pretty good, except I think I might have a growth on my back,” the blonde guy says. “Hey, Toro.”
“Ha, ha,” Frank says, and lets go of Bob’s neck, only to grab his arm and tug him around to face the others. “Ways, Bob Bryar, who’s a great guy when he’s not being a fucking hermit and never coming around to see his friends. Bob, Gerard and Mikey Way, they followed us home and we kept them. Where’s Schechter? This meeting calls for drinks.”
“So what’ve you been up to, man?” Ray asks, as Frank moves down the bar to harass Brian.
Bob shrugs. “Not much. Helping load and unload stuff in the warehouse district, mostly. Pretty much been keeping to myself aside from work, you know how it is sometimes.”
Ray nods. “Yeah, I know.”
Bob looks over at Gerard and Mikey, surveying them calmly. “You two are…”
“Brothers,” Gerard finishes, his expression just a bit guarded. Ray and Frank are good about respecting boundaries and not asking awkward questions, but not everyone they’ve met has been.
“Huh,” Bob says, and then, “Well, any friend of Ray and Frank’s is a friend of mine.”
Gerard gives a faint smile. “Likewise.”
Aside from that, Bob doesn’t talk much, even though he sits with Gerard and Mikey to watch the band. One of the only times he does say anything is during a song he apparently knows, where he starts tapping the beat out on the bar and then frowns.
“The drums are a half-step faster than the bass,” Bob points out, sounding disapproving. “It’s messing things up a little.”
“They’ve been having—” Mikey starts, and then pauses, because it’s not really his place to repeat what Frank told him, is it? “Creative differences,” he settles for.
Gerard looks from one of them to the other, then shrugs. “I thought they sounded like that on purpose.”
Operation: Get Mikey On Bass begins shortly after that. It’s not a very complicated operation; Phase One is walking to the merchant district to acquire the instrument, and Phase Two is Ray teaching him to use it. Phase Three, get Mikey in the band when (not if) the drummer-bassist situation becomes untenable, may be a bit more tricky.
But for now, Ray and Mikey are putting Phase One into action, with Gerard tagging along because he has some artwork to trade and Frank tagging along because he’s Frank.
Gerard’s been doing a pretty good business lately, using the same woman he gets his art supplies from as a go-between for taking commissions and making sure the finished products get to his patrons. He ends up being the one to secure a bass for Mikey, promising the instrument supplier a painting in return.
“I figure I’m going to need more studio space eventually,” Gerard says while they’re walking back, waving his hands around, already excited at the prospect. “Maybe find an empty apartment in our building—”
He stops, falling silent and looking straight ahead, and when Mikey goes “What?” and turns away from Gerard to look, it’s easy to tell what’s caught Gerard’s attention. They’re on a street that’s little more than an alley, so narrow that Ray and Frank are walking behind the two brothers, and the woman standing about twenty feet away takes up most of the street.
Mikey’s seen her before, but only ever from pretty far away. This close, weirdness of the crazy hair/tattered dress/gas mask combo is even weirder and, with her looming ahead of them like that, a little creepy. Mikey darts a quick glance over his shoulder; Ray and Frank have gone still as well, quiet and watchful. Mikey stays where he is, but reaches one hand back, and Ray takes it.
After a moment, Gerard speaks. “Um. Hello?”
The woman—Mother War, they said she was called—doesn’t respond, doesn’t move.
“I’ve been told you don’t speak,” Gerard continues uncertainly. “But if there’s something you want, or something I can do for you…any way that you could let me know—”
“We speak for her, when it’s needed.”
Mikey hasn’t seen the twins since his arrival, but he recognizes Regret’s voice even before he turns around.
“Is it needed now?” Gerard asks calmly.
“Only if you want any of your questions answered,” Fear replies.
Gerard’s turned to the side now, seeming unsure whether to look at the twins or Mother War. “Any of my questions?”
“Any three,” Regret says. “Three of us, three questions. No promise that you’ll like the answers, but we won’t lie to you.”
Gerard considers, and nods slowly. “Is it all right if I take a few moments to think, then?”
“It is,” Regret tells him, and when Gerard looks around at Frank and Ray and Mikey, raising his eyebrows a little, they gather around him.
“Any suggestions?” he asks.
“I wouldn’t mind having some light shed on what the wolf was talking about, that night,” Ray says.
“Me neither,” Frank adds. “But let’s face it, baby—if you’re driving without a map, we’re sitting in the back seat. Your call what to ask.”
Gerard shrugs. “Knowing what I want to ask isn’t a problem. Narrowing it down to three things…”
Mikey looks at his brother, and shrugs as well. “You did okay going on instinct with the wolves.”
Gerard looks down for a moment, then nods and squares his shoulders.
“All right,” he says, and the others step back to give him room to speak, staying close behind him.
“I remember what Regret said when I first came here, about there being something for me to do,” Gerard says. “Is that why the wolves haven’t been able to touch me?”
He looks over at Mother War first, and she inclines her head slowly.
“You’re one of ours,” Regret says. “Your brother and friends as well, to a degree, but you most of all.”
Gerard’s brow furrows. “Why—” he begins, and then stops himself from using another question so hastily, but Mikey can imagine what he was about to ask.
Why him? And why us?
Gerard forgoes that question, however, for the one that’s been plaguing him. “What is it that I’m supposed to be doing?”
Fear answers this time. “You already know that. You only think you don’t. Trust your intuition, and let the others help you.”
Gerard doesn’t seem terribly satisfied by that answer, either, but he nods. “All right.” He thinks for a long time before asking his last question. “If I have more questions and can’t find any of you, or if you can’t or won’t tell me everything at once…is there anyone else I can talk to about all of this?”
“There’s always the wolves,” Fear points out, sweetly menacing. “Though you may find them even more unhelpful than us.”
“There’s the maiden,” Regret says, ignoring her sister. “You may want to talk to her whether you have questions or not, in fact. She knows what it means to be one of our Mother’s chosen.”
“The maiden?” Gerard asks unthinkingly. “Who—”
“That’s more than three questions,” Fear interrupts in a teasing sing-song. She takes her sister’s hand, tugging her down the narrow street towards Mother War. “See what you can make of what we’ve given you, before you go asking for more.”
As the twins approach, Gerard and the others crowd back against one wall to let them pass. Regret pauses as she and her sister pass, turning to look at Gerard.
“Good luck,” she says, though she sounds as gloomy as ever. “We’ll be watching.”
Up ahead, Mother War tilts her head as if to look at them, then turns. The twins fall into step behind her, and the three of them walk away slowly, not turning, not looking back.
No one speaks until the three women are a fair distance away. Ray is the first to break the silence.
“Well, that was…creepy?”
“Definitely creepy,” Mikey agrees, then glances at Gerard. “Did any of what they told you actually help?”
“I think so,” Gerard says. “I have to think for a while. And I wish I’d known who they were talking about, with that thing about the maiden.”
Frank shrugs. “Not sure, but if I had to guess? I’d say Joan of Arc.”
Gerard looks at him, startled. “What?”
“Well, she mostly calls herself just Jeanne, these days,” Frank continues.
“…What?” Gerard repeats, still staring at him. “I mean, I know Jeanne, but—”
Frank spreads his hands. “She doesn’t like to talk about it. But she’s totally Joan of Arc, man, everyone knows that.”
“I didn’t,” Mikey interjects.
“I didn’t either,” Gerard says thoughtfully. “Shit, maybe I should go talk to her.”
“Tomorrow?” Ray suggests. “It’s gonna be dark soon.”
Gerard doesn’t know where to look for her, but he heads for the outskirts of the city, hoping he’ll get lucky—or maybe banking a little on the fact that everything he’s done in this place seems to have been guided by something stronger than luck or coincidence.
Whatever it is, it steers him right again. He gets to the point where the wreckage has to be climbed over, rather than walked through, and when he scales a hill of rubble, she’s there, sitting on the ground. Her horse stands next to her, head lowered for her to stroke its mane, and neither of them is wearing armor—she’s in a simple white shirt and dark trousers, the material plain and rough.
“Jeanne,” Gerard calls, still perched on top of the rubble, and she looks up, meeting his eyes.
“Gerard,” she replies calmly.
“Jeanne d’Arc,” he says, and then regrets it instantly—she flinches at the name, as if he’d struck her.
“Jeanne d’Arc died long ago,” she says, eyes downcast. “I’m only Jeanne now.”
“I’m sorry,” Gerard says. “I didn’t—”
“You didn’t know, and could not have meant any offense,” she finishes gently. “I don’t tell people. If they realize it on their own, that can’t be helped.”
Gerard starts climbing down, trying to be careful, and lasts about ten seconds before he loses his footing, then loses his grip, and then slides down the rest of the way to land in a heap.
“Gerard!” When the dust from his fall clears, Jeanne’s kneeling over him with a look of concern. “Are you all right?”
“…Ow,” he says, and then, “Yeah, I think.”
He’s probably bruised and scraped in a few places, but nothing feels sprained or broken. Jeanne helps him up, with that surprising strength he remembers from when they first met, and they sit facing each other.
“So,” she says. “You know.”
“Yes,” Gerard says, awkward now. “Um. It’s really, really okay if you don’t want to talk about it, but—”
“Why don’t I tell people?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I mean, I wouldn’t expect you to go around carrying a banner with your name on it, or anything, but…why don’t you use your surname anymore?”
Jeanne looks down again. The curve of her neck and the line of her jaw strike Gerard as beautiful, unexpectedly and completely, and he wishes he’d brought his sketchbook.
After a few moments’ silence, she begins. “You know my story? What I did, and why I did it?”
“Yes,” Gerard says. What he does not say is I was a little obsessed with you for a while, and by the way, you’re more beautiful than any actress who ever played you in a movie. Even though she is—some of those actresses might have been prettier than she is, but that’s not the same thing.
“I thought it was God,” Jeanne goes on, so quietly that he can barely hear her. “I thought it was His saints who spoke to me, and His will that I did. I fought for that belief. I burned for it. And as the flames rose around me, I prayed that Christ would take my soul to Paradise.” She looks up at him, gray eyes wide and solemn and old in her young face. “And when I opened my eyes, I was here. And there was no one but the twins and their Mother.”
Gerard reaches out without thinking, and she takes his hand. “I’m sorry,” he whispers.
“I’ve had centuries to come to terms with it,” Jeanne says. “But sometimes I still wonder—was I wrong to believe what I did? Was I never in God’s grace, or did I fall from it? Or is this some further test of my faith—is it His will that I have been here so long, waiting for some sign that that faith was not in vain?”
Gerard bites his lower lip, looking down at their clasped hands. “…I hope those are all rhetorical questions, because I’m a pretty confirmed agnostic.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t know if my questions will ever be answered. But can you see why I no longer care to be recognized as the Maid of Orleans?”
“Yeah, definitely,” Gerard agrees. Hesitantly, he goes on, “Um. I saw the twins and Mother War yesterday, actually, and Regret said you might be able to help me with something? She, uh, called you one of Mother War’s chosen ones.”
Jeanne meets his eyes steadily. “So they have told me, as well.”
“I’m one, too, apparently,” Gerard says, and her eyes widen a bit. “I’m supposed to do—something she wants, I guess, but they haven’t really told me why I need to do it.”
“But…you’re not a soldier,” Jeanne says. “Or you haven’t struck me as one, at least, and I’ve known many soldiers.”
“You’re right, I’m not,” Gerard tells her, and then shrugs helplessly. “So what does she want with me?”
Jeanne shakes her head. “I cannot imagine—though I suppose fighting needn’t take place on the battlefield.”
“I guess not,” Gerard agrees, thinking of the book he has back at home, gradually filling up with words as well as drawings. “I wish they’d just tell me what they want.”
“I wish I could,” Jeanne says, and looks at him, her expression solemn. “There is something I can tell you, though.”
“Anything you think might help,” Gerard says earnestly.
“There are many things I haven’t been sure of, since I died. But I’ve given much thought to it, and I still believe that what I did in life was right—whether it was God who guided me in it, or not, it was right for my country and my people.” She’s holding her head up proudly now, jaw set in a firm line. “So I believe that war can be right. But I don’t believe that it is ever kind.”
Gerard nods. “Not like I have any personal experience, but I’d say you’re right.”
“And I think the Mother is the same way,” Jeanne continues. “Whatever she wants of you, it’s likely to be a just cause. But I doubt she cares greatly about whatever casualties there may be in the name of that cause. Even if those casualties are suffered by you or those you love.”
Gerard looks down at that, brow furrowed. “I have a brother here, now. And—friends.” He’s not sure what to call Frank—or at least, not sure what Frank would care to be called. “They’re involved in this, and I don’t want them hurt.”
“All I can say is that you should be cautious, and careful of those you hold dear,” Jeanne tells him. “The Mother’s favor is both a powerful and a dangerous thing to have. Remember that, Gerard.”
He nods. “I will. Thank you, Jeanne.”
She smiles at him. “It was good to speak with you again.”
“You too, definitely.” Gerard returns the smile, feeling maybe a little bit like a kid with a stupid crush. On Joan of Arc, which is kind of weird, but weird seems to be the norm for him these days. “Maybe we’ll talk again, sometime?”
“I would like that,” she replies. “As rarely as I enter the city, I do tend to stay close to it. I’m not very hard to find.”
“Then I’ll come and see you again,” Gerard promises as he gets to his feet.
Gerard returns from the outskirts of the city solemn and quiet, but he tells Ray and Frank and Mikey about his conversation with Jeanne, the four of them crowded around the kitchen table as Gerard smokes two cigarettes and drinks three cups of coffee.
“What I said before still stands,” he says, when he gets to the end, “if any of you don’t want to be involved in this, you don’t have to be.”
Mikey leans forward a little, looking at Gerard across the table. “Gee. If you’re involved in this, do you seriously think I could not be?”
Gerard meets his eyes. “Mikey…I don’t want any of you to get hurt.”
It’s a little late for that, Mikey thinks, but saying that would just upset Gerard.
It’s Ray who replies, instead. “I think the twins made it pretty clear that we’re all involved,” he points out. “As clear as they made anything, anyway.”
I guess so,” Gerard agrees reluctantly. Rising from the table, he adds, “Speaking of which…I guess it’s about time I let you guys know what I have figured out so far.”
He heads for his and Frank’s room, coming back a few seconds later with his journal. Sitting down again, he opens it, holding it so that only he can see the pages as he flips through them.
“You guys all know I’ve been writing a lot, lately,” Gerard begins. “I wasn’t sure, at first, if it had anything to do with this, but…for one thing, a lot of it’s song lyrics, which I’ve never written before. And after running into Mother War and the twins, yesterday, I was looking at one thing I wrote, in particular, and, well…”
He lays the journal flat on and turns it around, pushing it to the middle of the table. The other three lean forward to read the words scrawled across the page, and Mikey feels the back of his neck prickle from the first line.
Mama, we all go to hell.
“I think it’s for her,” Gerard says after a moment. “Whatever she wants, I think this is at least a part of it.”
Frank glances up from the page, eyebrows raised. “You think she wants you to write songs?”
Gerard spreads his hands. “They said to trust my intuition. And this is what I keep coming back to. And they said to let you guys help me, and if this is what I’m supposed to be doing…”
“You think there’s a way we can help with this?” Ray asks.
“I think that since I wouldn’t have the first clue about writing music, it’s a pretty lucky break that I live with two guitarists,” Gerard finishes.
Ray looks at him for a moment. “Gee, if you’re sure about this, I’m on board. Are you sure about it?”
Gerard shoves a hand through his hair, looking down. “Not a hundred percent,” he says, eventually. “But I think the only way I’m going to ever be sure is to go forward with this and see what happens. Like an experiment, kind of.”
Frank reaches for Gerard’s hand, exchanging a glance with Ray as he speaks. “Let’s see what we can do with it, then.”
Turning Gerard’s words into an actual song is a team effort, with Gerard describing whatever ideas he has for how it should sound, and Ray and Frank working together to turn that into melodies and harmonies. Mikey can’t help much with writing the music, but he can give an outside perspective on how it sounds, and he gets used to hearing “hey, Mikey, come listen to this” at all hours.
He’s also working on learning bass. Ray’s covered the basics and laid out a course of songs for Mikey to learn, easy to hard, and he’s making quick progress with it. Ray says he’s a natural; all Mikey knows is that if Ray and Frank get to a point where can play Gerard’s songs, there’s no way he’s not going to be a part of it.
Sometimes, though, he does find himself wanting to not be part of the process of getting there. Mikey doesn’t know whether to be surprised or not surprised at all that the other three are actually getting into fights over things like chord progressions and how well the chorus and verse fit together, but there’s a point at which the only thing for Mikey to do is sneak down to the House on his own for a while, and it’s the point where Ray’s standing in the living room, waving his hands around and talking about Russian polkas while Frank and Gerard eye him skeptically from the couch.
Mikey’s not really looking where he’s going—all he has to do is cross the street, after all—which is how he ends up walking straight into Bob Bryar’s back.
“Careful,” Bob rumbles at him automatically, and then turns. “Hey. Mikey Way, right?”
“Yeah,” Mikey replies, checking to make sure he hasn’t knocked anything off the hand truck Bob’s wheeling in front of him, which is stacked with what looks like cases of beer. “Sorry, Bob.”
“No harm done,” Bob says. The top case is jostled to the side a little, but he pushes it back into place before gripping the cart’s handles again. “If you want to make it up to me, though, you could get the door.”
“Sure,” Mikey says, darting in front of him.
Inside, Mikey waves to Brian and heads behind the bar, holding the door to the back room open as well and helping Bob deposit the beer in the cooler. When they’re done, Bob snags one that’s already cold, muttering “Payment. You want one?” and grabbing another when Mikey nods.
They sit down at one end of the relatively empty bar, drinking in companionable silence for a few seconds.
“So how’s it going?” Bob asks eventually.
Mikey considers for a moment before answering simply, “Weird.”
“Yeah?” Bob looks at him, eyebrows raised slightly. “How weird?”
Mikey doesn’t exactly mean to unload everything on Bob. It’s just that once he starts, it feels surprisingly good to talk about it to someone who isn’t Gerard or Ray or Frank. And Bob turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a fantastic listener, making encouraging or sympathetic noises here and there but never interrupting.
“So…what do you think?” Mikey asks eventually.
Bob takes a slow sip of his beer before answering. “I think you were right about it being weird.”
Mikey laughs in spite of himself. “Yeah, no shit.”
“And I think it sounds like Gerard already knows this, but you guys should be careful,” Bob goes on. “Mother War…she fucks people up. I don’t think she even means to, but…it’s what she is, y’know?”
Mikey glances at him. “You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”
Bob shrugs. “I was a soldier, once. World War II. Not like those poor bastards in the trenches, though, I got out before I died.”
“Oh,” Mikey says quietly.
Things get quiet for a few seconds. Then, Bob gives Mikey a considering look. “You think you guys are gonna need a drummer for this?”
Mikey blinks. “I guess. Um…are you offering?”
Bob shrugs again. “I’d kind of been thinking about seeing if Ray and Frank were gonna need someone new. I’m a little rusty, but I know my way around a kit.”
Mikey looks at him for a moment, biting his lower lip. “I should talk to the other guys. But thanks for the offer, dude, seriously.”
When Mikey brings the idea to the others, Gerard seems…uncertain. Not set against it, but uncertain, which could still be a deal-breaker.
“I’m just not sure about bringing someone else into this,” he says. “Especially—and this is nothing against Bob—someone I don’t know all that well.”
“We do need a drummer, though,” Ray points out. “I’d like to think we could count on Matt, but…I’m really not sure about him, anymore, he’s kind of been acting like he wants to take off.”
“And Bob’s solid, I can vouch for him,” Frank puts in eagerly. “Kind of a loner, but he doesn’t flake out when there’s a job to do.”
Gerard hesitates, looking between the two of them. “You guys’ve been working on a drum part for the song?”
“Working on it? Yes,” Frank says. “Finishing, not so much.”
Gerard thinks about it for another moment, then spreads his hands. “Show Bob what you’ve got so far. See what he makes of it.”
Little by little, the song takes shape, separate elements that they’ll hopefully be able to piece together into a whole. Mikey starts learning the baseline as soon as Ray finishes it, and catches Gerard singing a few times, though he usually clams up fast if anyone other than Mikey comes within earshot.
“You know you’re gonna have to get over that eventually, right?” Mikey asks after the fourth time, sitting down next to him. “Assuming you’re actually planning on singing this.”
“I know,” Gerard says, ducking his head. “And…I don’t know, I’m nervous about it? But at the same time, I can’t imagine letting anyone else sing it.”
Mikey reaches out, squeezing the back of Gerard’s neck with one hand. “You’ll do fine, Gee.”
Gerard slumps to the side a little, leaning against Mikey. “You really think so?”
“‘Course,” Mikey says firmly. In the back of his mind, he’s not as sure as he’d like to be. He doesn’t tell Gerard that. “We’re both gonna do fine.”
Bob’s always been something of a loner.
Growing up, he’d learned pretty fast to depend on himself—moving from one group home to another, unable to remember his parents or a time when he’d actually had a home. By his teens, he’d been a bad candidate for adoption but a good candidate for cheap labor, a quiet, solid boy who was good at learning on the job and good at making do with little.
The closest he’d ever had to a home was Chicago, and the girl he’d met there. Bob had arrived in the city with a job on the railroad, stayed there as a steelworker by day and a drummer in a jazz club by night, and fallen hard for a waitress with dark hair and a warm smile. When the war broke out and Bob left, they’d written letters back and forth for a year before hers stopped coming. He wasn’t sure what to think, but between her finding someone else or something having happened to her, he would’ve taken the former in a heartbeat.
The letter from the girl’s mother hadn’t reached him until almost six months later, brief and tear-stained, with a newspaper clipping attached to it. Someone had tried to hold up the club, the clipping said.
After that, it was back to being a loner, back to depending on himself. He’d made it back to Chicago, but hadn’t stayed there long. Too many memories. Two years later, it was another city, another short-term, dead-end job—and another son of a bitch with a gun, looking for a quick fix for his problems with someone else’s money.
Bob could’ve kept his head down and looked after himself, and he might have walked away. It wasn’t as if he had any reason to try and be a hero. Except that if someone had been a hero two years ago in Chicago, his girl might have walked away then.
Besides, it wasn’t as if he’d had anything much to lose.
Bob’s left the city twice, since he got here. Both times he ran into the wolves, and fuck it, he doesn’t want to leave that badly. It still feels like an itch he can’t scratch, not being able to just take off when the urge strikes him. He compensates by moving around within the city, switching jobs fairly often.
There aren’t many people he knows that he’d really call friends, but Frank and Ray are two of them—particularly Frank, who was here when Bob arrived. If Bob hadn’t preferred to get by on his own, even when he was new in the city, he might be a part of Frank’s little collection of strays.
Bob’s probably crazy to want to get involved with anyone who’s having dealings with Mother War and the twins, he knows. But these are some of the best friends he has in the city, and, once again, it’s not like he has all that much to lose.
Besides, a few days after he talks to Mikey, Frank and Ray play him what they have so far of Gerard’s song. And once Bob hears it, even as a rough guitar tune, he knows he wants in on this.
Bob doesn’t have a drum kit of his own, so the day after he first talks to Frank and Ray about it, he meets up with them at the House of Wolves, during the day when the bar is pretty empty and the kit set up there is unoccupied.
Toro lays out what he has in mind for the drum line so far; this isn’t the first time he’s written music, and he’s made it his business to know at least the basics of instruments he doesn’t play. But at the end of the day, he’s a guitarist, which is why he finishes up with “But seriously, man, anywhere you get your own ideas or think there’s room for improvement, feel free.”
They run through the song a couple of times, during which the Way brothers drift in. Mikey brings his bass and sets up between Ray and Frank, and that makes what they’ve been playing sound better, more complete, but it’s still missing something. A voice, maybe—Gerard stays sidestage, watching them with a solemn expression and his hands clasped behind his back.
They break when the other members of the House band show up, Frank and Ray shrugging off questions about their ‘side project’. Bob and Mikey head over to join Gerard, who’s already made a beeline to the bar for coffee.
“Hey,” Gerard says as they get there, teeth clamped around the cigarette he’s lighting. “Hey, Bob, you sounded really good up there. I mean, really.”
“Thanks,” Bob says, with feeling. No one’s said as much explicitly, but from the way Frank, Ray, and Mikey all defer to Gerard, Bob knows that whether or not he actually gets to do this is going to depend on Gerard’s say-so.
It’s early evening now, around the time that the House starts filling up and the noise level raises accordingly. Over by the stage, Bob can hear Frank’s voice raised above the general din, which isn’t unusual. He’s swearing a lot, which isn’t unusual either.
A few minutes later, Frank stalks over to where Bob and the Ways are sitting, glowering. On his heels, Ray also looks kind of frustrated, and he’s got a longer fuse than Frankie does.
“So, we’ve got a problem,” Ray announces.
Mikey raises an eyebrow. “What kind of problem?”
“The kind of problem where our drummer doesn’t think he really wants to do this anymore, and also doesn’t feel the need to inform us about this in advance, because it’s not like he’s a professional, or anything,” Frank grumbles.
“Shit,” Bob says, and then, “Look, if you guys want, I know at least some of the stuff you usually play—”
“Wait,” Gerard interrupts, and leans forward. “Ray. Do you think the song is ready?”
Ray blinks at him. “…What, you mean ready for tonight?”
“Yeah,” Gerard says. “I mean, I figure it’s not ideal, but if it had to be?”
Ray stares at him for another moment, then rakes a hand through his hair. “Uh. Maybe? The guitar parts definitely are. I think we could’ve used a little more time to work on the drums, but that’s really Bob’s call, and there’s the part where we’ve never done a complete run-through with vocals, but…”
Without waiting for Ray to finish, Gerard turns to Bob, raising his eyebrows questioningly. He’s got a wide-eyed, slightly manic look that’s a little unsettling. Bob raises his hands, palm-up.
“If I had to play it tonight, I think I could, yeah. It’d probably sound better with more work, but—”
“Gee,” Mikey begins, looking at his brother, “What’s going on?”
Gerard draws in a deep breath, looking around at the four of them. “It…I don’t know, it feels like it’s supposed to be now. Even the fact that it’s not, like, polished yet—it feels like maybe we’re supposed to just…jump in like this.”
“You think you’re ready to sing it?” Frank asks him.
Gerard swallows hard, but nods. “Yeah. Yeah, I—I’m pretty sure I can, anyway.” He punctuates the statement with a long drag on his cigarette, looking anything but sure.
“Okay, then,” Ray says. “I’ll go see if the other guys feel like taking a night off.”
He heads back to where the rest of the band are still standing, and Gerard watches them for a moment before turning back to the bar.
“Oh, god,” he mutters. “Frank, come outside with me for a second?”
Frank downs the rest of Mikey’s drink (without asking, but Mikey doesn’t protest) and stands. “Sure, why—?”
“I haven’t wanted a drink this bad since I got here,” Gerard replies urgently, and Frank takes him by the elbow and steers him towards the door without another word.
Bob looks over at Mikey, who’s pale and quiet. Neither of which is really unusual for Mikey, from what Bob’s seen, but Bob still leans over and asks quietly, “You okay?”
“…Not really,” Mikey replies. “But. I think I’m more okay than Gee is, right now.”
Bob glances over his shoulder towards the door. “He’s really, really nervous about this, huh?”
“Last time he sang in front of people was high school,” Mikey says. “It’s not so much worrying about his voice—he knows he can sing fine—but he’s not crazy about being up in front of crowds.”
Bob grunts. “Know something? Neither am I.”
Mikey quirks an eyebrow at him, and Bob grins sheepishly. “Hey, it’s easier to deal with when you get to just sit behind a drum kit. I’d hate to be the poor bastard out in front.”
The crowd at the House is used to having music by this point in the evening, and some of them are making their displeasure known by the time the five men take the stage. Bob ignores the heckling as he slips behind the drum kit, looking around at the others.
They’ve grouped themselves in kind of a diamond formation; Ray and Frank on either side, Gerard out in front, and Mikey towards the back, right in front of Bob. Both guitarists look okay, steady and calm as they don their instruments and make last-minute tuning adjustments. Mikey’s expression has gone blank and smooth, not giving anything away, but he’s gripping the neck of his bass a little too tightly.
Gerard’s face is ashy, and he stands facing the crowd for approximately two seconds before he turns around, breathing heavily.
Frank walks over and says something to him, and then, apparently not caring who sees, presses a brief kiss to Gerard’s temple. Mikey catches his brother’s eye and something passes between them that Bob can’t catch, but it makes Gerard square his shoulders and lift his chin a little. He lifts his eyes to glance at Bob briefly, and Bob gives what he hopes is an encouraging nod. And when Ray leans over, saying something in Gerard’s ear, Gerard nods as he replies.
Ray moves back to his side of the stage, looks around at the rest of them once, and then strums the opening chords, sharp and clear over the noise of the crowd. Gerard counts out the beats with brief nods of his head, gives Ray a few measures—and sings. His voice is good, but a little bit scratchy and a little bit weak, and he’s still turned around to face Mikey and Bob.
Bob takes a very brief moment to be worried, and then starts in on the drums, backing Ray up. His eyes are still locked on Gerard, and that’s how he catches the change that takes place when Mikey and Frank come in as well, filling out the sound. It’s hard to describe, because Gerard doesn’t really look any different than he did a second ago, but there’s something new in his bearing and something stronger in his tone, and as they charge into the chorus Gerard spins around and strides to the very edge of the stage, one arm flung out to the crowd.
They respond to it, some raising their own arms in return, some applauding or giving yells of approval or pushing closer to the stage. The music’s reaching them—Bob can see heads nodding to the beat, people tapping their feet or clapping along, but it’s not until Gerard engages them that they really start getting drawn in. And Bob can see Gerard feeding off of that, drawing confidence and courage from both the crowd’s reaction and the wall of music at his back, and then Bob has to put his head down for a second and concentrate, because they’re about to hit one of the parts he’d thought could use more work. There’s this crazy breakdown after the second chorus, with Ray playing his guitar the same way you’d punch someone in the face, if that makes any kind of sense, and Gerard pretty much just screaming into his microphone, and Bob improvises his way through at least half of it. He thinks it comes off okay, and if not, who gives a fuck, the crowd’s attention seems pretty much riveted to Gerard at this point.
Right after that, the music drops away into just a guitar melody again, and the vocal suddenly sounds more like a ballad or a lullaby. In the sudden quiet, Bob hears Gerard falter, his voice wavering suddenly on if you would call me your sweetheart, I’d maybe then sing you a song, and hesitate just a moment too long after it.
Which is when Frank rushes across the stage, presses himself against Gerard’s back, and sings the next line with him. Frank’s voice is loud and glaringly off-key, but he strikes every chord on his guitar like a bullet hitting home, and Bob sees Gerard tip his head back and grin as he slings an arm around Frank’s neck and keeps singing, strong and self-assured once more.
Ray joins in as well, on the last verse, and the three of them suddenly sound like the guys in Bob’s unit used to, singing in camp or in the trenches themselves to keep their spirits up. They finish the song that way, and Bob throws in a little more improvisation in the form of a few tight, heavy drumrolls as the guitars bring the song crashing to a close.
The crowd is roaring by now, more than half of the people in the room on their feet and pressing close to the stage. Gerard looks around at them, seeming dazed. Frank bounds across the stage to say something to Ray, and then throws himself back at Gerard, nearly knocking him over.
“They want us to keep playing,” Ray shouts eventually over the din, and Gerard looks over at him with a startled, almost panicked expression.
“I don’t have anything else to—” he begins, and Ray gives a brief laugh.
“Yeah, you might want to work on that. You go on, I’ll find some stuff we can play.”
Gerard nods, disentangling himself from Frank. He reaches out to grip Ray’s shoulder briefly, then turns to pull Mikey into a quick, tight hug, looking up to exchange another nod with Bob before he staggers offstage. The crowd voices its displeasure at that, but Ray ignores them, thinking for a few moments and then glancing over his shoulder to call out the name of an old jazz song, one Bob could play in his sleep.
There’s something they had when Gerard was out there singing, beyond the simple fact that they had vocals then and don’t now—some kind of spark, the feeling that the five of them were combining into something with the potential to be great. That’s gone now—but from where Bob’s sitting, the four of them on their own don’t sound too shabby, either.
Gerard stops just long enough to grab a bottle of water from the bar (“Where the fuck have you been hiding those pipes, man?” Brian asks as he hands it over), and then makes his way outside. He skirts the crowd as much as he can, and manages to make it out without too many people trying to talk to him.
Outside, he leans against the wall of the House and tilts his head back. His legs feel like jelly and his head is pounding from the music, and as he stands there, an enormous grin spreads across his face.
The voice startles him a bit, but when he tilts his head down and opens his eyes, he’s not terribly surprised to see the twins there. Fear’s grin is as wide and sharp as ever, and Regret looks as pleased as Gerard has ever seen her.
“Was it?” he asks, his own voice sounding quiet and small in his ears after earlier. “Am I on the right track with this?”
“We told you to trust your instincts,” Fear says. “You won’t find a better guide than them, not even if we told you everything.”
Gerard gives a wry smile. “Maybe so, but I gotta say, you could tell me a little more and I wouldn’t complain.”
Regret looks sympathetic, but only says, “You know what to do, now. Finish the other songs.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know why,” Gerard protests. “And no offense to you or your mother, but I’m not wild about committing myself to something when I don’t know the reason behind it.”
“You would be a disappointment if you didn’t ask questions,” Fear tells him, her tone approving. “But there are rules to this game, and we didn’t set them.” Looking across at her sister, she adds, “We can reward you for a job well done, though, I suppose.”
Regret nods, and looks at Gerard. “Your task is to prepare the way for what’s to come.”
Gerard looks between the two of them, eyebrows raised. “…Do I get to know what that is?”
“You will,” Fear says. “I can promise that. Follow the path you have started down, and you’ll know.”
Gerard sighs. “You know, I’m starting to almost feel fond of the cryptic non-answers.”
Regret smiles her sad smile at him, nodding towards the door of the House. “Go back to your friends, Gerard. Stay close to them. They’ll help you find your answers.”
Bob sees Gerard slip back in, but he seems content to hover at the back of the room, watching the four of them onstage. They play until the list of songs all of them know has been exhausted, then cede the stage to the piano player for the usual band, a guy named James who’s able to put on a pretty good solo act.
Gerard grins when they head to the back to meet him, and hugs Mikey again.
“You sounded awesome,” he says, and Mikey grins as wide as Bob’s ever seen him.
“You were fucking amazing,” Mikey replies. “Did you know you could do that, this whole time?”
“I had no fucking clue,” Gerard says, and then looks around at the rest of them. “We should talk. Not here.”
“Lead the way,” Frank says, and attempts to leap on Bob’s back, to which Bob responds “Uh, no,” and stands unmoving until Frank gives up and slides back down to his feet.
They head up to the apartment, talking about the performance and still buzzing with adrenaline. Gerard waits for them all to run down their energy a little before he turns serious, telling them about his encounter with the twins.
“‘Prepare the way for what’s to come’?” Frank echoes, and makes a face. “Well that’s nice and ominous.”
“And you don’t have any idea what she meant by that?” Ray asks, and Gerard shakes his head.
“Not yet. For now I’m going to concentrate on the songs—I have a couple that I think are close to being done, lyrically, if you guys want to start working on some music for them.” He looks around at them all, and adds, “Assuming you all want to stick with this.”
“Are you fucking kidding?” Ray says. “You’re definitely not getting rid of us, after tonight.”
Gerard smiles faintly, and then looks over at Bob. “What about you?”
Bob glances around uncertainly. He’s painfully aware of the fact that he was a last-minute addition, that he hasn’t been involved as much or as long as the others, that he still doesn’t know Gerard all that well, and Gerard doesn’t know him.
“I’m in if you want me,” he says eventually.
Gerard looks at him for a moment, expression solemn. “I’m starting to accept the fact that a lot of what’s been happening hasn’t been an accident. So…I think if you’re in on it, it’s because you’re supposed to be.” He smiles then, holding out a hand, and adds, “But I think I’d want you in, anyway.”
Bob’s a little surprised at how relieved he feels at those words—at how much of a stake he has in this, how much he cares already. He steps forward and reaches out, expecting a handshake, and gets a hug, which he returns a bit awkwardly.
After a moment, Frank says “Okay, okay, enough of this touchy-feely crap,” (like he hadn’t been sitting with his hand on Gerard’s knee just a minute ago), and when Bob sits back down Ray asks him something about tempo, and they’re back to discussing the song, all of them calmed down enough to be analytical now, talking about what was good, what could be better, how to fine-tune it.
It feels good, Bob thinks to himself, sitting in the midst of the others, joining in with the conversation when he has something to say and just watching the back-and-forth between the rest of them when he doesn’t. It feels like he belongs.
Frank’s yawning almost wide enough to dislocate his jaw by the time the conversation breaks up, and Mikey’s half-asleep, leaning against Ray’s shoulder. Bob starts to get up, only to have Frank wave him back towards the couch, declaring it “too fuckin’ late to walk all the way back to the warehouse district, Bryar, come on”.
Which is how Bob ends up falling asleep on the couch, wondering before he does if he’s just taken a longer time to end up as part of Frank’s collection of strays, after all.
Bob wakes up early the next morning to find Gerard standing by the balcony doors, one hand pressed against the glass while he looks out at the skyline.
“I had a dream that we were leaving the city,” is the first thing he says, and Bob’s not sure if Gerard’s talking to him or not, so he sits up attentively, but doesn’t say anything.
“It wasn’t just the five of us,” Gerard goes on. “There were a lot of people—not everyone in the city, I don’t think, but a lot. It was like…a procession, or a parade, or something. We were all singing.”
Bob does speak up, then. “Were the wolves there?”
Gerard nods slowly. “Yes, but…there were soldiers with us, not fighting each other anymore, keeping the wolves back instead. And there was someone out in front, leading us—I’d never seen him before, but I think he was like me, and the wolves couldn’t touch him.”
He stands there another moment, then turns around, glancing over at Bob. “I think it has something to do with…all of this. It kind of—it didn’t feel like just a dream, y’know?”
“…I don’t know, really,” Bob says wryly. “I’ve never had a dream I thought wasn’t a normal dream before. But after everything else you guys have told me about, would prophetic dreams be much of a stretch?”
Gerard looks down at that, brow furrowing. “I guess not. I…shit, I hadn’t really thought about it that way.”
Bob blinks. “What way?”
“As prophecy,” Gerard says. “I’ve had other dreams that felt the same way this one did, and…I suppose you could say it fits, objectively. I just…never would have thought to describe them that way.”
He falls silent after that, and Bob gives a sympathetic shrug but doesn’t know what to say, so doesn’t say anything.
After a moment, Gerard shakes his head and walks toward the kitchen. “Fuck, I don’t have enough caffeine in my system yet to deal with this. You want coffee?”
Bob leaves while the others are still stumbling out of bed, heading for the warehouse where he’s been working. He has a feeling he won’t be sticking with that job too much longer, but he doesn’t want to just cut out without any explanation.
Walking through streets of the city, he thinks about what Gerard said, the dream he described. The idea of leaving the city is exciting and more than a little daunting at the same time. Bob’s always felt hemmed-in, eager to see what else might be out there. On the other hand, this isn’t like setting out for a new town when he was alive—what if there’s nothing out there, or something worse than the city? After last night, Bob trusts Gerard’s intuition as far as writing and performing songs goes, but he’s not sure yet how far that trust extends.
He’s almost at the warehouse when the siren starts, and he ends up ducking into the nearest shelter he can find, surrounded mostly by strangers. The skirmish passes close by as he listens; running, booted feet, shouts and gunfire, and the wailing siren above it all. Sounds that seem made to inspire fear and panic in people who get stuck sitting and listening to them, but in the faces around him Bob doesn’t see fear so much as resignation.
Bob’s heard a lot of people say, over the years, that whatever can be said about life in the city, you have to admit that things could be worse. And, well, he supposes that’s true.
But maybe they’ve all contented themselves too easily with could be worse, and not thought enough about could be better.
He heads back to the apartment across the street from the House that afternoon, after explaining to the other guys at the warehouse that he might not be back.
Frank’s sitting out on the spiral staircase when Bob gets there, a cigarette in one hand and a stormy expression on his face.
“Hey,” he says when Bob comes up the stairs. “Just so you know, things are kind of weird right now.”
“And that’s new and different how, exactly?” Bob asks, sitting down next to him and taking a cigarette when Frank offers his pack.
Frank makes a face. “Apparently, Gerard’s been writing songs about us without realizing it. About how we all died.”
“Uh.” Bob pauses, cigarette halfway through his mouth. “What?”
Frank shrugs. “It’s all stuff he’s been dreaming about. He didn’t even realize any of it was about us until he showed us the songs—well, not me and Toro, anyway, he knew what was up with the ones about him and Mikey.”
“Fuck,” Bob says. “…Is there one about me?”
Frank shrugs. “Gerard thinks there probably is? He’s a little freaked out about the whole thing.”
Bob glances at him. He knows freaked-out Frank, and he knows angry Frank, and this seems more like the latter. “What about you?”
Frank shrugs again. “I’m kind of pissed off? Not at Gerard, ‘cause it’s not like he asked to have the dreams. But it’s…okay, it’s not like I don’t want him knowing anything about me, there are some things I’ve told him about. Hell, I’ve told him stuff more personal than anything in the song. But that was me choosing to tell him, and I’m not crazy about having that choice taken away.”
Bob nods; he knows just enough about what Frankie did when he was alive to know why he’d want control over who knows what about him.
“So,” Frank finishes, flicking the ash off his cigarette. “Things are weird right now.”
Bob sits outside with him for another minute or two, then heads inside, leaving Frank still out on the stairs, and finds Gerard and Ray sitting at the kitchen table, both looking equally broody.
“Hey,” he says. “I talked to Frankie outside.”
Gerard’s journal is lying on the table in front of him; he opens it, flipping through the pages for a moment, and then holds it out to Bob.
“I think that one might be yours,” he says, voice a little shaky. “I wasn’t sure—the dreams are always from the point of view of the person they’re about, and a lot of things aren’t always clear.”
Bob takes the book a bit warily, eyes scanning the page Gerard opened it to.
He wasn’t sure what to expect after his conversation with Frank, but if this is a song about him, it’s vague, nothing specific about how he died or what brought him to that point. Then his eyes land on the words there’s things that I have done you never should ever know, and his hands tighten on the edge and spine of the book—he remembers writing something a lot like that, in one of the last letters he’d ever written home from the war.
“I’m sorry,” Gerard says, seeing his reaction.
Bob glances over the words one more time—without you is how I disappear, he can’t say that doesn’t fit—and then closes the journal, placing it back on the table, and swallows hard before answering. “Like Frank said, you didn’t ask for this.”
Ray speaks up. “We figured we should talk about it, once we’d all seen our songs. See if we can figure out what to do with this.”
Bob nods. “Want me to see if I can get Frank back inside?”
Gerard shakes his head. “Give him a little longer. He’ll come in when he’s ready”
Frank stalks back in a little while after that, hands in his pockets and a fresh cigarette clamped between his teeth, and finds the rest of them (including Mikey, who’d done his own brooding out on the balcony) gathered in the living room. Gerard looks up at him, at first uncertain, then visibly relieved when Frank takes the empty spot next to him on the couch.
“So what are we doing?” Frank asks.
“That depends on you guys,” Gerard says. “Right now, each of you is the only one who’s seen your song, aside from me. If you want it to stay that way, it will, and if the twins or their mother don’t like it, I don’t give a fuck, they can find someone else to do this job.”
Mikey raises an eyebrow. “You think you’d be able to get away with that?”
“I’d try, at least,” Gerard replies. “If any of you are okay with your songs being set to music and performed, no one but the five of us ever has to know where they came from.”
He falls silent, looking around at the rest of them. Ray is the first to speak.
“Why do you think this is happening?” he asks. “I mean, why these songs?”
“Not sure,” Gerard says. “But I think—I feel like the stuff I’ve written about is stuff that they want us to face up to. Things we need to confront and deal with before we can do what we’re supposed to do.” Looking down, he adds, “I know that’s what mine is, anyway.”
Ray thinks about that for a moment. “Well. For my part…I’m okay with it. I mean, having read those lyrics, I wouldn’t want just anyone knowing how they relate to me. But the four of you?” He shrugs, and repeats, “I’m okay with it.”
Mikey gives a short, bitter laugh, and holds up one arm. He’s wearing a t-shirt, but there’s a black armband covering his wrist, just like there has been every time Bob’s ever seen him in short sleeves. “What the hell, all of you already know how I got here except Bob, and for all I know, he’s guessed by now.”
Bob has an idea, but he doesn’t say anything.
Frank slouches in his seat, a stubborn look on his face. “I don’t know. I just…I need a little more time to think about it.”
“Me too,” Bob chimes in. “No offense to any of you guys, but…I’ve spent so long not talking to anyone about the stuff those lyrics deal with…”
Gerard nods, before Bob can finish.
“Of course,” he says. “We can work on Ray’s and Mikey’s and mine, for now, and just…let me know when you decide, both of you.”
So that’s what they do. Ray takes first crack at the songs, working on the main guitar parts as well as the baseline. Gerard keeps working on some other lyrics that he says aren’t quite finished yet, and don’t deal specifically with any of them.
They spend a few more evenings playing (trading off with the other members of the former House band, who all seem glad enough to pursue their own new projects), but Gerard has yet to sing again, waiting for some of the other songs to be finished before he gets up in front of the crowd a second time.
In the meantime, there are some practical matters to consider, like rehearsal space. Gerard’s been using the empty apartment next door as a studio, and there’s enough space for them to work on the songs without his art supplies getting in the way. Bob’s also going to need a drum kit besides the one in the House of Wolves, so he makes some inquiries, arranges for help getting one brought over. One room for music and one room for art still leaves the second bedroom over there, and Bob’s got his eye on it; he’s still been hanging on to his place in the warehouse district and walking back and forth to the apartment every day, and Frank’s been bugging him to just move in with them already, but he likes having his own space a little too much to move in to the living room of an apartment that already has four people in it, even the four people who are probably his best friends in the city.
He’s heading over to check out the spare room, see if it needs cleaning out or anything, the day he finds the instruments in the second apartment’s living room.
“Guys?” Bob calls, sticking his head back through the doorway to the others’ apartment. “When did the kit get here?”
Ray, bent over his guitar in the living room, looks up with a bemused expression. “Huh?”
“The drum kit next door,” Bob says, as Gerard looks up from his journal and Frank and Mikey emerge from the kitchen. “I was gonna help whoever brought it over, but they didn’t let me know they were bringing it today.”
Frank blinks at him. “No one’s been by next door all day—we would’ve heard them on the stairs.”
Bob frowns. “Well, uh—there’s a kit over there. Guitars, too, I figured you guys had gone in for some new gear.”
“…Okay, that’s weird.” Ray sets his guitar aside and stands, heading towards the door. All five of them end up trooping across the hall, filing into the other apartment to look.
The kit dominates the group of instruments, set up in the center of the room, the drums gleaming white and bound with silver. The guitars and bass are set up around it on stands, in the same positions Ray, Frank and Mikey have taken every time they’ve played together in the House. The guitar in Ray’s position is an inky black; in stark contrast, the one in Frank’s place is bone-white, and the bass between them is a deep, blood red.
Frank’s the first to move forward, picking up the white guitar and running his hands over it carefully.
“She’s gorgeous,” he says almost reverently, and Bob quirks an eyebrow at him.
“I know a classy lady when I see one, Bryar,” Frank says, waggling his own eyebrows.
“It’s, uh, nice that you’ve made a new friend, Frankie,” Ray says, “But…how did ‘she’ get here?”
“Don’t care,” Frank declares, looping the strap around his neck and strumming an experimental chord. “I’m keeping her. Go try yours on for size and see if you don’t feel the same way, Toro.”
Gerard opens his mouth as if to say something, only to be interrupted by Mikey, who’s walked over to look through the door of the room Gerard uses as a studio.
“Guys, there’s more stuff in here. Uniforms, it looks like.”
“Uni—” Gerard hurries in that direction, shoving past his brother and into the room, the others following.
They’re uniforms, all right—five of them. Five jackets set up on dress forms, with five pairs of folded pants and five pairs of boots beside them on the ground. They’re black with white accents and silver buttons, they all look like they go with either a marching band or an old-school military unit, and no one of them is exactly alike.
Bob looks at them for a moment, then over at Gerard, who’s got that wide-eyed, ashy-faced look again, standing frozen as he looks at the uniforms.
“Gee?” Bob asks, gently. “You okay?”
In answer, Gerard strides across the room to a canvas set up by the opposite wall, covered by a sheet. He lifts one corner of the drape, looking under it.
“I finished this painting two days ago,” he says, his voice low and tightly controlled. “I haven’t shown it to anyone. Anyone.”
He pulls the sheet off, carefully, and then steps back to let the others see it.
Bob’s almost not surprised by what he sees: the five of them grouped in a loose line—Gerard’s style is a little cartoony, not portrait-like levels of realism, but they’re all recognizable as themselves—each wearing one of the uniforms.
“…How come Mikey gets a medal?” Frank says after a moment, when no one else speaks up.
“Because I’m awesome,” Mikey returns, completely deadpan. “Gee, what’s that say, down at the bottom?”
There are a few words written in careful brush strokes in the bottom right corner of the picture, where a signature might go. Gerard runs one finger over the letters before reading it aloud.
“‘The Black Parade’,” he says.
After everything else, Gerard reflects, it shouldn’t be that surprising.
It still is, seeing things he’s painted but not shown to anyone given form, each one exactly the way he would have made them if he’d had the technical skills to do it. He has no doubt that if he and the others tried the uniforms on, they would fit perfectly, tailored exactly to each of their measurements. Like the way Frank’s hands curved around the white guitar, like he knew it, like it was made for him.
It’s a little disturbing, the same way the realization of what the songs are about was. The thought that someone or something knows them all that well without their permission makes Gerard’s skin crawl.
They leave the uniforms and the instruments where they are, for now—though Frank seems a little reluctant to put his new guitar back—and head back to the other apartment.
“So,” Ray says, once they’re gathered in the living room. “The Black Parade?”
Gerard shrugs. “It just came to me, while I was working on the painting, but…I think maybe it’s what we’re supposed to do. What we’re supposed to be. I told you all about my dream—”
“Leaving the city,” Ray says, nodding. “Like a procession. Or a parade.”
Gerard nods as well, looking down at his clasped hands. “There’s something else. The dreams I had about all of you, without realizing that’s what they were? I’ve been having them about someone else. A man in a hospital room. He—I think he’s dying.”
Mikey’s brow furrows. “Do you think he might be—”
“—The man leading us in the dream?” Gerard finishes. “I’ve never seen his face, in any of the dreams, but I think so. And if that’s the case, I think when he gets here is when we leave. That’s what we’re preparing for.”
“I used to think this was Hell,” Frank says, apropos of nothing.
Gerard looks up, blinking. “What?”
Frank leans against the wall near the door of their room, folding his arms. “I mean, I always figured that’s where I was headed, if there was any afterlife. And then when I got here…there were no lakes of fire, or anything, but I was stuck on my own in a place where nothing grows or changes, so I figured, okay, Hell’s just a little different than I always thought it would be.”
He moves forward, sitting at the edge of the bed and not looking at Gerard. “But then, after a while…it wasn’t so bad. I found a place where I could kind of belong, and I met Toro and Brian and Bob and Mikey…and you.” He looks up and over at Gerard, then, giving a faint, crooked smile. “And I figure…if I was in Hell, falling in love shouldn’t really be in the cards, should it?”
“Frankie—” Gerard says, and reaches for him. Frank leans closer and kisses him, but pulls back, going on.
“So after that, I started thinking—okay, maybe this place isn’t anything I ever heard about in school or church. But then again, maybe it is. Maybe this is Purgatory. And I always had the idea that Purgatory was kind of like prison, y’know, you gotta serve your sentence and the only thing that’s gonna get you out quicker is good behavior or having friends in high places. But maybe—maybe you don’t have to just sit around waiting for someone to tell you your sentence is up. Maybe Purgatory ends when you get yourself out of it.”
“Maybe,” Gerard agrees. “I never really went in for the whole Heaven-Hell-Purgatory view of things, but maybe that’s what we’re doing.”
Frank reaches into a pocket, pulling out a folded square of paper. “Here.”
Gerard takes the paper and unfolds it. It’s covered in scribbles and notations in Frank’s handwriting, and Gerard doesn’t know what they mean, but he’s spent enough time around people writing songs lately to know what they are.
“Frank,” he says. “Is this—”
Frank nods. “My song. Part of it, anyway—the riff just came to me, and I’ve been working on it a little.”
He takes the paper back to fold it again, then puts it in Gerard’s hand and closes his fingers around it. Close enough for another kiss, he meets Gerard’s eyes. “My grandmother told me once that if you went to Hell, you had to relive what you did to get there every day for the rest of eternity. But if you went to Purgatory, you didn’t have to—you could ignore your sins, pretend they never happened. Unless you wanted to get out, and then you had to face up to them. Maybe she was right.”
“Thank you,” Gerard says, and raises a hand to cup his jaw. “Frankie…I don’t know if I could do this without you completely on board.”
“There’s no one but you and Toro I’d trust with it,” Frank tells him. “But you’ll do it right. I know that.”
Gerard kisses him, and it’s a promise, one he repeats over and over again with his mouth and hands and body.
Bob lets them know a few days later, less dramatically. The others are helping him move into the empty bedroom—he doesn’t have that much stuff, really, though Frank suspects that the box he’s carrying is completely full of socks—and he waits until they’re all in the room before clearing his throat and saying, “So, hey—I’m in.”
Gerard looks over at him, eyebrows raised. “You’re sure?”
“Wouldn’t have said that if I wasn’t,” Bob grunts, and goes back to moving clothes from his boxes to the dresser. “Iero, you got my socks?”
Frank deposits the box in front of him, his expression solemn. “Bob, man, don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you have a problem.“
“Your face has a problem,” Bob responds, dragging the sock box a little closer and opening it.
Frank flips him off cheerfully. “Whatever you say, sock junkie.”
Mikey puts down the box of books he’s carrying and turns, craning his neck to look. “…That is a lot of socks, dude.”
“I am obviously the only one in this room who’s ever been in the Army,” Bob says. “And therefore the only one who properly appreciates the importance of having enough pairs of clean socks.”
Gerard leans back against the wall and watches them banter, smiling a little.
With all of them on board and the second apartment to rehearse in, the songs start taking shape quickly. The new instruments play a part, too—Ray’s never had a guitar that kept in tune so well, but beyond that, it feels weirdly responsive, like it can sense and react to what he wants from it. It’s more a little weird, honestly, but it also feels right in a way he can’t argue with.
They’ve used the lyrics that aren’t about any of them to kind of explore and get more comfortable with the process of writing songs together. Gerard produces two songs that are just sort of generally about death (“It’s been on my mind a lot, go figure,”) with a healthy dose of black humor, and suggests they might work as companion pieces, one leading into the other. In spite of how serious this whole thing’s been so far, Ray and Frank find themselves undeniably having fun, mixing different styles and sounds and really just playing around with it, taking creative input from the others wherever anyone wants to offer it.
There are songs for the twins, too. Regret’s is a pretty straightforward ode to love lost, and Ray can sense right away that it wants to be a ballad, so he embraces that, but also gives what he hopes is just enough of a edge to the guitar riffs. Fear’s is trickier: a sharp, sarcastic treatise on misunderstood youth that throws both guitarists for a loop until they just kind of shrug at each other and go along with the playful irreverence of the lyrics.
Not all of the songwriting is that fun, or that easy. They’re all resolved to have their songs in there, to have those words laid out among the five of them and deal with what that means, with the stories they tell. It’s still hard to deal with, at times.
Ray’s pretty sure that the only way they’re going to be able to pull this off is by being able to rely on each other, trust each other, help each other through the rough patches. They’re already all friends first and a band second, but he’s not sure that’s going to be enough.
There’s one more song they’re working on that’s still in the early stages, which is fine, because it seems like they won’t have to perform that one for a while. Gerard says it’s a song for the parade, for when they leave the city, and Ray knows without Gerard having to say that it’s important that they be careful with this one, take their time and get it right. And the harmonies and tempos and chord progressions they’ve tried for it so far haven’t sounded bad, not technically, but there’s a sense shared by all five men that they aren’t right yet either, that there’s something still missing, and the parade song won’t be ready until they find it.
As their five songs get close to being finished, they start gearing up for a performance at the House. It’ll be Gerard’s first time singing since they performed the first song, the one they’ve dubbed “Mama”.
“What d’you think about the uniforms?” Ray asks Gerard one night while they’re discussing the upcoming performance. “Should we start wearing them now, or are we supposed to, like, keep them in reserve for later?”
“I think we can,” Gerard replies, then smiles wryly. “I feel like wearing mine’ll help me out, actually.”
Ray nods, remembering how nervous Gerard was the first time, until he got warmed up. If he thinks the uniform will help give him confidence, Ray’s not gonna argue.
Before he gets up in front of the crowd at the House again, Gerard goes back to the outskirts of the city. He has a promise to keep, after all.
Jeanne listens quietly as he outlines everything that’s happened since they last spoke, the two of them sitting side-by-side on a broad steel beam stretched out in the wreckage. Her eyes widen a bit when he talks about his dream of leaving the city and Frank’s Purgatory theory, but she doesn’t interrupt, remaining silent until Gerard asks “So…what do you think?”
Jeanne turns her head, looking over the hills and plains that stretch out around the city, to the hazy, flat horizon that gives no indication that there might be anything else out there.
“I’ve never seen anything beyond this,” she says, gesturing around them. “The wolves have always left me alone so long as I’ve kept away from their territory, so I’ve been able to live out here, in peace, and I’ve ridden far out from the city, but never seen anything. If there is something out there, you would have to travel far and long to find it.”
Looking back at Gerard, she goes on, “But that does not mean it is not there. I think your friend’s theory is as good an explanation as any I’ve ever considered for this place, and if the truth of the situation is anything close to that, then helping lead people to something else—something better, hopefully—is a noble purpose.”
“Yeah, but—how do I know that we’d be heading for something better?” Gerard asks. “How do I know there’s anything out there at all?”
“Perhaps it’s a question of faith,” Jeanne suggests, her voice low. “No visible proof that what you’re doing is right, just…”
“Just my dreams, like you had your visions,” Gerard finishes, and sighs. “If it were just me, or even just me and my friends, that’d be one thing. But if we’re supposed to evacuate the whole city—or however many we can, at least—that means trusting everyone’s safety to my leap of faith. I never asked for that kind of responsibility.”
Jeanne reaches out, putting a hand over his. “I think only tyrants and fools ever ask for it. Maybe the man in your dreams, the sick one, will be able to help you overcome your uncertainty, when he comes.”
“Maybe,” Gerard says, looking down. “I feel kinda bad about that, though, that I’m, like, waiting for this guy to die.”
Jeanne shrugs. “If it’s a sickness taking him, and nothing unnatural…I would have called that God’s will, once. I don’t know about God now, but still, I don’t think you need to feel guilty for it.”
“I guess not,” he agrees, and then squints up at the sky, where the light is starting to fade. “I should get back.”
“You’re singing, tonight?” Jeanne asks, and he nods.
“Yeah. Um. I know being in the city isn’t really your thing, and I don’t know how likely it is that our music would appeal to you, like, at all, but if you wanted to come check it out or anything…”
She smiles at him. “Perhaps. I think I would like to hear you sing, regardless of the rest.”
It’s been a long time since Bob wore any kind of uniform.
This one is a lot fancier than anything he ever wore in the Army, even though it’s the plainest of the five Black Parade uniforms. It’s also better-fitting and a lot more comfortable than his Army uniform, which was secondhand—the boots need to be broken in before they’ll really feel right on his feet, but that’s the only thing he can say against this one.
The uniforms make it feel like each of them is playing a role, being someone just a little different from their usual self. That might be kind of the point, Bob reflects. It’s done something good for Gerard, at least—from the moment he steps out of his and Frank’s room with the buttons of his jacket done up and the little extra touch of black gloves on his hands, he seems to have reclaimed the presence and attitude he found onstage last time.
And he’s probably going to need it, Bob thinks, because by Gerard’s own decision, they’re starting with Gerard’s song tonight.
Gerard hasn’t said as much out loud, but Bob has the idea that he wants to prove he won’t ask anything of them that he hasn’t also asked of himself. He certainly hasn’t pulled any punches with it—the whole song is sharp and biting, and Gerard practically spits out the words as he struts across the House’s small stage.
It’s become pretty common for Frank and Gerard to sort of play off each other during practice, and Frank steps the game up a little tonight, maybe feeling that Gerard can use the extra boost. On you’re in time for the show he sidles up and presses against Gerard’s side for a moment, only to whirl away when Gerard tries to grab him, and on Juliet loves the beat and the lust it commands, Frank darts up again and actually licks the side of Gerard’s face, catching him off guard. Gerard’s ready when Frank moves back toward him, though, catching him with one arm and singing the last chorus with Frank’s back pressed against his chest and Frank’s head tipped against his shoulder.
They do the do the two companion songs next, and Gerard puts just as much energy into the performance, though in a considerably more light-hearted way. He even does a chorus-line kick at one point where it fits in with the beat, which makes Ray crack up and Frank wolf-whistle at him. Bob grins, and even Mikey’s smiling, all of them loosening up a little, letting themselves have fun with it the way they have during rehearsals.
Toro was the second one to volunteer his song for performance, so his follows. It’s a little subtler, lyrically—you can’t help but know that Gerard’s has to do with addiction and self-destruction, but a chorus like shut your eyes, kiss me goodbye, and sleep is more ambiguous, unless you know how Ray died. Bob glances at him, trying to gauge how he’s handling playing it, but Ray’s got his head down and his hair in his face, concentrating on the music. If Gerard threw himself completely into his song, Ray’s done no less on this one; the riff is intense, the kind Ray calls a face-melter, and he plays it like he means it.
They bring things down a little with Regret’s ballad (though Gerard’s singing stays every bit as passionate), only to rev it back up with “Mama”, which the crowd greets with enthusiasm. They could do more, but they’d agreed on a short set, Gerard saying that they should leave the audience hungry, not show their whole hand yet.
As “Mama” draws to a close, the crowd is on its feet, alive with energy. Gerard takes his microphone and walks to the very edge of the stage, grinning.
“You guys want some more?” he asks casually, and gets a roar of assent, waiting for it to die down before he goes on. “Well, stick around. We are The Black Parade, and we’ll see you again soon.”
The smell of the hospital has always been what’s bothered him the most. Too sanitized, too unnaturally clean, and yet never clean enough to cover the lingering scents of sickness, of bedpans that need to be cleaned, of human bodies dying by inches, a little closer to being corpses with every passing second.
He doesn’t want to die here. He wants to die at home, in his own bed, and if that means losing the machines that are keeping him alive, well, this is hardly living, anyway: it’s a sham, a mockery, and god damn it, he doesn’t want to die in a cold white room.
But his family is still clinging to hope, still waiting for an eleventh-hour miracle, and he doesn’t have it in him to take that hope away from them.
So here he is, surrounded by cold white walls and the smell of death, listening to the beats that remind him that his own heart hasn’t had the sense to give up yet, either.
Gerard opens his eyes half-expecting to see a hospital room, half-waiting to hear the beat of the monitors continue. He’s greeted by a darkened bedroom and Frank’s breathing instead, and he rolls to the side, pressing himself into the curve of Frank’s body just because he can, just because Frank is there.
Frank stirs, draping an arm around him and mumbling “Gee? Y’okay?”
“Yeah,” Gerard whispers, and then, “Cancer.”
Frank makes a vaguely questioning noise.
“He’s dying of cancer,” Gerard says. “The Patient, I mean. And he’s close. Weeks, maybe days.”
“Y’think it’ll be tonight?” Frank mutters.
Gerard thinks for a moment, then shakes his head. “No.”
Frank hugs him closer, leaning his forehead against Gerard’s shoulder. “Then go back t’sleep.”
There’s a song for the Patient too, now.
(Gerard apparently started thinking of him that way at some point, and the rest of them just sort of picked it up, because hey, it’s easier than “that guy in Gerard’s dreams” or “the man with cancer”.)
It’s simple and heartfelt, and while Frank wouldn’t have said that any of the lyrics Gerard’s written were lacking in truth, he thinks this one may be the most unguardedly honest thing they’ve seen so far.
Gerard’s been dreaming about the Patient nearly every night now, dreaming of hospital rooms and doctors and feeling sick and weak from some kind of treatment they didn’t have in Frank’s time, something called chemotherapy. It leaves him solemn and quiet, but it’s better than the nightmares—at least he doesn’t wake up screaming from his dreams about the Patient.
It turns out that Gerard’s not the only one having weird dreams, either.
A few nights after their debut as The Black Parade, Mikey calls everyone together in the living room.
“I’ve had this dream six or seven times, now,” he begins. “The exact same dream every time, so I kinda feel like there might be something up with it.”
All of them automatically glance over at Gerard, who gives a wry smile and nods. “All the dreams that’ve ended up as songs were like that, yeah. What’s yours about, Mikey?”
“Um,” Mikey says, and folds his arms, almost hugging himself. “It’s the big house outside the city, where the wolves are. I keep dreaming I’m going there.”
Ray shifts a little closer to him automatically, brow furrowing. “Like you did before…?”
“No.” Mikey shakes his head. “I didn’t realize where I was going, then. In the dream, I know exactly where I’m going, and I don’t want to go back there…but I can’t stop myself. I just…do it.”
Everyone’s silent for a moment, following that. Then, Gerard gets to his feet, crossing the living room to stand in front of his brother.
“It’s not gonna happen, Mikey,” he says, in a tone of calm authority.
Mikey looks up at him, less than certain. “I don’t think you can guarantee that, Gee.”
“Yes, I can.” Gerard drops to one knee and reaches out, taking Mikey’s hands in his own. “We can. Because this is what we’re gonna do: you’re going to stick close to the rest of us, and we’re going to watch out for you. All of us. If you try to go to the house, we’ll stop you, and…and if we can’t stop you, if you do end up there somehow, we’ll come after you. We’ll come and get you back no matter what it takes.” He looks around at the others. “Right?”
Ray, Frank, and Bob all nod, and Mikey looks around at them. “You think that’ll work?”
“We’ll make it work,” Gerard says. “Hey,” he touches Mikey’s chin with one hand, bringing Mikey’s eyes back to him. “I’m not going to leave you again, Mikey. I promise. Don’t you leave me, either, okay?”
Mikey looks at him for a long moment, and then nods. “Okay,” he replies softly.
Mikey knows the others already thought he needed watching out for, even before this. He’s Gerard’s little brother, first and foremost, and he’s also the one who wandered off and ended up in the wolves’ territory before.
He doesn’t have any problem with being cared about. Being cared for—looked after, patronized, pitied—he’s not so wild about.
He’s sitting on the bed that night when Ray comes into their room after his shower, hair still damp, falling heavily around his face when he bends over, sliding his arms around Mikey’s shoulders from behind.
“Hey,” Ray says quietly. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” Mikey replies, and it comes out more defensive than he means it to. He sighs and closes his eyes, then scoots forward to let Ray climb onto the bed behind him and leans back once Ray’s settled. “Ray…I promise I’ll let you know if I think I need help with anything, okay? You don’t have to…check up on me all the time.”
Ray’s silent for a moment, sliding his arms around Mikey’s waist and resting his chin on Mikey’s shoulder. “Okay,” he says eventually.
“I just,” Mikey goes on, not wanting to leave it there for some reason. “I know you’ve got the best intentions, but…I don’t want to be the one who has to be looked after.”
“Okay,” Ray says again. “I get that. But—” He rears back a little, turning his head so he can see Mikey’s face. “I don’t just do it because I think you need looking after. I do it because you’re one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, and I worry that something’s gonna happen to mess that up.”
Mikey tilts his own head at that, craning his neck to look at Ray. He looks vaguely surprised. “Really?”
Ray kisses him. “Yes, really. It’s not—I mean, it is about you, but I’d probably do it no matter what. When it comes to important stuff, I’m a worrier.”
“You are,” Mikey informs him. He turns around and climbs into Ray’s lap, almost kneeing him in the stomach, but Ray just waits for Mikey to rearrange himself and then puts his arms around him again, lacing his fingers together at the small of Mikey’s back. “It’s kind of cute.”
A few nights after that, they play the House again.
They debut Frank’s song, which ended up fast and heavy with just the right amount of swing to the beat, and this time it’s Gerard winding Frank up on purpose, drawing him out of himself. Frank starts off standing on his side of the stage and looking out at the crowd with a kind of sullen defiance, as if daring them to figure it out, to connect the words to him. He ends up leaning back against Gerard with Gerard’s arm around him again (and, Ray notices, Gerard’s fingers creeping under the hem of Frank’s uniform jacket), then spinning away to drop to his knees in front of Gerard when they get to ashes to ashes, we all fall down, Gerard impulsively reaching out to grab a fistful of Frank’s hair on we got innocence for days.
The other songs they bring out for the first time that night are Bob’s—Ray glances back at him a few times, and he seems to be dealing okay with it, focusing on the drums—and Mikey’s. There’s a slow, gentle guitar intro to that one, and while he plays it, Ray sees Gerard look back at Mikey for a long moment, but once the vocals kick in, Gerard doesn’t look back again. Can’t, maybe, if he wants to keep it steady and finish the song.
So Ray watches Mikey instead, the way he’s got his head down, concentrating on playing steadily, and the way he mostly manages to keep his face impassive, but Ray sees the line of his jaw tighten when Gerard sings I hate the ending myself, but it started with an all right scene. Ray moves over a little, staying close to Mikey, bumping shoulders with him now and then, and Mikey gets it, raises his head and gives Ray a tiny smile, and leans against him as much as he can without messing up Ray’s playing on the second verse.
It’s during Regret’s song, with things as toned down as they are for that one, that Ray notices Gerard noticing Jeanne. She’s at the very back of the House, looking out of place and a little uncomfortable, but her eyes are fixed on Gerard, and she applauds as hard as anyone in the audience when they finish the set.
Gerard talks to the audience some more afterwards, reeling them in a little before bringing out the big stuff.
“So, okay, I gotta be honest with you guys,” he says, lowering himself to sit on the edge of the stage and letting his legs dangle off it like a kid’s. “The truth is, we didn’t just come here to play songs for you guys. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we love playing for you, but that’s not all of what The Black Parade’s about.”
He looks out at the crowd, waiting until he has as much of their attention as he’s likely to get.
“How many of you have ever tried to leave the city, or just thought about it? How many of you think there might be something else out there, and want to see it if there is?”
Some people raise their hands instantly. Others join in after more hesitation. Gerard waits, and eventually, Ray would estimate that more than half the people in the House have their hands up. Gerard grins, and asks the real question.
“So, if we said we had a plan for leaving that we thought might work, how many of you would be up for coming with us?”
That gets an instant uproar, people talking, shouting.
“There’s nothing out there,” one woman shouts. “If there were, someone who left would have found it and come back to tell us by now!”
“Unless they were eaten by the wolves before they could find it, or before they could get back—” a man who couldn’t have been out of his teens when he died points out, and someone else cuts him off before he can finish.
“Exactly, and the same thing will happen to us if we try! It’s insane!”
Gerard gestures for quiet eventually, the whole thing feeling more like a town hall meeting than a concert, now.
“I won’t tell you it won’t be risky, or that I’ve got a foolproof plan or anything like that, because I don’t. But I believe there’s something out there that’s worth the risk to look for, and I believe there’s someone coming who can lead us there. When he arrives, The Black Parade is leaving the city, and everyone is welcome to be a part of it, if they choose.”
There’s another uproar at that, and Gerard eventually has to shout for quiet over it, after which he concludes, “If any of you don’t think it’s worth the risk and want to stay, that’s fine. The choice is yours. All we’ll ask is that you not stand in the way of those who want to leave.”
“Hell, I’m in,” someone shouts, and Ray grins as he recognizes Schechters’s voice. Brian’s leaning against the bar, smiling crookedly as he looks over at the stage. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve been standing behind this bar every day for about eighty years, I’m ready for a goddamn change of scenery.”
“Count me in,” someone else shouts, and another voice chimes in with “Me too!”, and Ray can still hear the other voices, the dissenting, naysaying ones—but as far as he can tell, he doesn’t think they’re the majority.
“All right,” Gerard says eventually, smiling as he looks out at the crowd. “All right. Anyone who’s on board with this, what I’d like you to do is spread the word. Tell the people who weren’t here tonight, and tell them to tell other people. Tell them we’ll be playing here again soon, if they’d like to come and hear us, or talk to us. And when the time to leave comes, we’ll let you know.”
In the days following that, they start to gain a certain amount of notoriety in the city. They were already well-known among the usual patrons of the House of Wolves—just about anyone who’s a regular there knows Ray and Frank, and when they started playing as The Black Parade, they picked up a musical following pretty quickly. But now people who aren’t regulars at the House are showing up there, on nights when The Black Parade plays and nights when it doesn’t, asking after the band in general and Gerard in particular, wanting to know if he’s the one who talks about leaving the city.
It’s a little overwhelming, at times—Gerard figured he was letting himself in for this when he announced their plans, but he didn’t really know how the idea would be received, and he’s a little surprised at how much it’s spread and caught on, at how many people have come to talk to him. Sometimes it’s more than he feels able to handle, and he asks Ray or Frank to talk to anyone who shows up (he doesn’t think it’s the best idea to put the duty of answering questions from strangers on either Bob or Mikey’s shoulders) while he hides out in their apartment, but whenever he feels able to, he goes down to the House and sits at a table there, making himself available.
At least one of the others usually keeps him company on those nights. When it’s Frank, he tends to hover protectively at Gerard’s shoulders, nursing a drink and glaring at the inevitable handful of people who show up to tell Gerard that he’s wrong, that he’s crazy, that all he’s going to lead people to is the equivalent of a death trap, only it’s even worse because when the wolves find them, they’ll suffer and not even be able to die.
Gerard responds to all of them the same way: he keeps his voice as calm and steady as he can, acknowledges their concerns, repeats what he said before—you’re free to stay, but let us go—and, if Frank’s the one with him, keeps him from getting into any fights.
The two of them are down there one night when Frank starts humming under his breath, scribbling something down on a scrap of paper. Gerard listens idly, half-hearing Frank in the background, for about five minutes before he blinks and straightens up, turning to look at Frank.
“What is that?” he asks, and Frank shrugs.
“Nothing, yet. Thought I might work on it a little more, then maybe try it on for size with the parade song.”
“I think you should,” Gerard says instantly, and Frank looks up at him, eyebrows raised.
Gerard looks back at him for a moment, then smiles a little, nodding. “Yeah.”
What happens is this: one night, Mikey steps outside the House of Wolves for some fresh air.
He’s been good about staying close to the others, and they’ve been good about watching him. But Ray and Bob are talking to Brian, and from the way Frank and Gerard looked when they finished playing, both of them riled up and still full of energy, Mikey sort of suspects they’re making out in the bathroom. And he’s just stepping right outside the door—if anything happens, it’ll only take him a second to get back in or call out.
So he steps outside.
It’s only when he turns and comes face-to-face with Fear that he realizes it might have been smarter to err on the side of caution.
“Hello, Mikey Way,” she says sweetly.
Mikey takes a step back, partly in surprise, partly because of the way she makes him nervous just by existing.
“Hi,” he says, and glances around. There’s no sign of Regret anywhere. “Where’s your sister?”
“Where’s your brother?” she replies. “I’m surprised he let you out of his sight, he’s been so careful of you lately.”
“He’s right inside,” Mikey tells her, and takes another step back, towards the door of the House.
Fear shakes her head. “Not good enough. You and I have an errand.”
Mikey steps back again—or means to, anyway. Tries to. His feet don’t move.
“No,” he says, mouth suddenly dry, heartbeat pounding in his ears.
“I’m afraid it’s not up to either of us,” Fear tells him, and holds out a hand.
Mikey still can’t move his feet, but he puts his hands behind his back, clasping them together tightly. “I don’t want to,” he says, and his own voice sounds small and weak in his ears, like a child’s. “I want to stay with them.”
“I know,” Fear says, unwavering, hand still outstretched. “I can feel how afraid you are, and you wouldn’t be so fearful if you didn’t want to stay. But I can promise this: I won’t take you anywhere that they can’t follow, if they choose to.”
Mikey knows that’s not an if. They came after him before, and they promised they’d do it again. Gerard will, Ray will, and Frank and Bob would come with them even if they wouldn’t come for Mikey himself.
He knows that. He’s still afraid.
But when Fear says “Come along,” a hint of impatience in her voice, Mikey watches himself reach out and place his hand in hers.
The first few minutes after they discover Mikey’s disappearance are the worst. The way all the color drains from Gerard’s face in a heartbeat when Bob says “Hey, where’s Mikey?”, the look on Frank’s face when he returns from running up to the apartment, all the confirmation they need that he didn’t find Mikey there, the sickening, yawning sensation in the pit of Ray’s stomach and the unrelenting mental chorus of we didn’t watch him carefully enough, we failed him, I failed him, Mikey, Mikey, oh god.
They don’t have to wonder where he’s gone, this time, but that’s a small comfort, considering where it is. It’s not fully dark yet, but they still take the two flashlights kept behind the bar by Brian.
“You guys be fucking careful out there,” Brian says grimly, as he hands them over. “But you find him, and you bring him home.”
“That’s the plan,” Bob replies, equally grim. He hands one flashlight to Gerard and keeps the other, and they’re about to head for the door when Brian speaks again.
“Hang on.” He ducks down behind the bar for a moment, and comes back up with a well-polished revolver. “I don’t know what the fuck good this’ll be against as many wolves as I know are out there, but—”
“Better than nothing,” Frank replies. He takes the gun when Brian offers it and flips it open in a quick, practiced motion. “Bullets?”
“Only the six in there,” Brian says. “I’ve never had enough trouble in here to have to use it, so I mostly keep it for sentimental value.”
Frank nods, snapping the cylinder closed again. “I’ll try and bring it back, then.”
Getting through the wreckage without anyone breaking any limbs is a challenge; it’s hard not to be careless and clumsy, give in to panic completely. Bob stays the calmest—there’s no shortage of fear and concern in his eyes, but he stays steady, making the path a little clearer for the others when he can and catching Gerard more than once when he slips.
When they get out to where they faced the wolves before, there’s no one in sight. No wolves, and no Mikey. Just the mansion, looming ahead on its hill.
“We’re going in?” Ray asks, already feeling pretty sure of the answer.
Gerard nods, tense and silent, and starts up the hill, the others following.
The walls of the mansion are pale stone, but the wide front door is heavy wood, black in the darkness. It’s standing ajar, and Gerard moves forward, only to have Frank stop him with one hand and move in front. He’s holding Brian’s gun in a guard position, tilted upwards and resting against the hollow of his shoulder, and his expression is grim, utterly removed from his usual easy smile.
“All of you give me a clear path to fire if I need it,” Frank says. “I shout for you to move or get down, you do it, I ask for light in a certain direction, you give it to me. But I’m only gonna fire if I think I absolutely need to.”
Gerard nods, impatient. “Frank, let’s go—”
“Hey.” Frank locks eyes with him, deadly serious. “I know. But the more important the goal is, the more important it is that no one fucks up. Got it?”
He looks at each of them in turn, gets three nods, and turns around, squaring his shoulders. “Okay. Here we go.”
They step inside into pitch-blackness, no light but the two beams from their flashlights. From what Ray can tell, they’re in a wide, open room that seems devoid of any furniture. Bob sweeps his flashlight in a methodical circle, checking out the walls.
“Two doors on the right, two on the left, and one straight ahead,” he says. “Any idea where we go?”
Gerard swallows hard, and the house is so still that Ray can hear it. “I have no idea if this is going to work, but…everyone think of Mikey. Focus on Mikey.”
Ray closes his eyes, even though he doesn’t really need to in the dark, and thinks of brown eyes and sleep-warm skin and bony elbows, long fingers wrapped around the neck of a bass and smiles that are all the more wonderful because they’re rare and the little hitch in Mikey’s breath when he’s about to come.
Mikey, he thinks. Mikey, where are you?
“This way,” Gerard says, and moves straight ahead.
The door they go through opens onto a narrow hallway, flashlight beams revealing a T-junction up ahead.
“Left,” Gerard says after a moment’s deliberation.
Frank rounds the corner first, Gerard just behind him with one of the flashlights. Ray’s about to follow when the boards beneath their feet move, turning into a steep slope.
Ray hears Frank shout, sees the beam from Gerard’s light go wild, and then he’s teetering on the edge of where floor turns into an almost sheer drop, groping for walls that should be there and finding nothing, about to fall when Bob grabs him from behind and hauls him backwards.
“What the fuck,” Ray says, and Bob says “Hang on,” and shines his light around—revealing what’s now a solid wall to the left, where Frank and Gerard disappeared, and hallways stretching on ahead and to the right.
“—Okay, we’ve already failed Rule One, which is ‘don’t split up’,” Ray says, and Bob gives a huff of what might be laughter.
“I think Rule One would have been ‘don’t go in the creepy fucking mansion in the first place’. So: go back or go on?”
“Go on,” Ray says after only a moment’s hesitation. “There’s three people we need to find, now. Which way?”
Both of them take a moment to think, and then say “Right,” at the same time, so right it is.
Gerard has about a second to think clearly when the floor drops away, and he uses it to grab Frank’s free hand and tighten his grip on the flashlight.
Then they’re falling, tumbling down the slope for he has no idea how long until they land in a heap.
“Motherfuck,” Frank says, muffled, and then “Gee?”
“I’m okay,” Gerard replies. “Well. I’m conscious.”
Frank lets go of Gerard’s hand to probe him gently all over, and there’s no sudden shooting pain anywhere, so Gerard sits up cautiously. “You?”
“Nothing broken or bleeding and I’ve still got the gun,” Frank replies.
Gerard shines his flashlight on Frank for a moment, just to see him, and then around.
“…Uh,” he says after a moment. “We, um, seem to be in a really big room with no walls or doors that I can find, anywhere.”
“Is it just me, or is this place getting to be not fucking funny real fast?” Frank stands, reaching a hand down to help Gerard up and not letting go. “So what now?”
Gerard shrugs. “Walk in the direction that feels like Mikey, hope something turns up, and keep hold of each other no matter what? Fuck, I wish we hadn’t gotten separated from Bob and Toro.”
“Yeah,” Frank agrees quietly. Then, with a kind of manic cheer, “Just you and me now, sugar. Let’s take a stroll.”
He doesn’t know how long he’s been here, and he can’t really remember anything between standing outside the house, hand-in-hand with Fear, and being here, in the dark. All he knows is that it’s dark and silent, and he’s cold.
The others are going to come for him. He has to remember that. All he has to do is sit with his legs drawn up and his arms around his knees, and wait for them.
They promised; they’ll come.
Bob tries to keep track of time, at first, counting out seconds and minutes in his head. He gets to twenty-seven minutes before he fucks up the count, and a while after that, he’s lost track completely—they could have been in here an hour, two hours, five.
He and Ray work their way through a labyrinth of hallways, sometimes starting into a turn only to realize the junction they were about to turn into is gone, sometimes going through doors that disappear behind them, but the floor stays put, and Bob counts that as a victory.
At least, until they walk into one wall, turn and walk into another, and realize that they’re standing in a space about the size of a closet, with solid walls on all sides.
“—Oh, this is bullshit,” Ray snarls, and punches the nearest wall.
“I’m not sure that’s gonna help, Toro,” Bob tells him.
“You got any other ideas?” Ray demands, punctuating the question with a solid kick. The wall doesn’t budge, and stays equally immobile when Ray throws his shoulder against it with a dull thump. “I am not—” Thump. “Spending the rest of my afterlife—” Thump. “In a three-square-foot room with you, Bryar.” Thump. “No offense.”
“None taken,” Bob says, just before the floor under their feet vanishes.
They run into a wall, eventually, and make their way along it. Between the gun, the flashlight, and their death-grip on each other, neither on them has a free hand, but Frank sticks an elbow out to brush the wall now and then, making sure it’s still there. Gerard sweeps the flashlight from side-to-side periodically, but mostly he keeps the beam out in front of them—which is good, because it keeps them from going head over heels down the staircase.
It goes straight down as far as the light reaches, and it’s narrow enough for walking side-by-side to be risky, with no railings on either side.
“Okay,” Frank says, “I go first, and you shine the light over my shoulder.”
Gerard makes a quiet noise of assent, and when Frank moves down onto the first step, Gerard rests a hand on his shoulder and Frank reaches back to tuck his fingers into Gerard’s belt loops.
Frank swallows hard as they start down, his chest a bit tight. “Would, uh—would now be a good time to point out that I get kind of claustrophobic sometimes, and that while we’re in a nice big space, we’re also under a hill with no visible way out?”
“Sucks to be you,” Gerard replies, with a comforting squeeze. He goes on, voice hushed. “I wonder how far down this goes, though. How far down we are already, after that fall—”
“Baby?” Frank interrupts. “Not helpful.”
Maybe he falls asleep for a while. He doesn’t know. If he does, he doesn’t dream, so there’s no big difference between sleeping and waking, here in the silent dark.
No one’s coming.
He starts to tell himself that because it seems better—if he tells himself they’re not coming and they do, it’s better than if he tells himself they are and they don’t. That’s how it started. Only now, he can’t remember what it felt like to believe they were coming, to have that hope.
He doesn’t really notice the cold anymore—in fact, he’s almost comfortable. Comfortably numb, he thinks, and laughs.
It’s so faint he doesn’t hear it at first, and when he does, he thinks it’s an echo of his own laugh. Then it comes again, louder.
He looks up, raising his head from his folded arms. Not hoping—he doesn’t remember how to hope—just mildly curious at the appearance of something new.
There’s a tiny pinpoint of light in the distance, coming closer.
“Mikey? Mikey, is that you?”
It’s a flashlight beam, and a voice he recognizes.
“Ray.” It comes out quiet at first, barely a whisper, and then he draws in a deep breath and shouts it. “Ray!”
Footsteps break into a run, and the light comes closer, dancing around wildly. Mikey tries to stand up and almost falls over—his legs are asleep—and then Ray catches him, holding him up.
Mikey just kind of hangs there for a second, sagging against Ray, looking over his shoulder to where Bob stands holding the flashlight. Then his hands fist in the cloth of Ray’s jacket and he tilts his head down, burying his face in the crook of Ray’s neck.
“You came after me,” he murmurs.
“Of fucking course we did,” Ray answers, holding Mikey so tight it’s going to be painful in a second. “We got separated from Gerard and Frank, they’re still somewhere in the house—”
“Actually—” Bob begins, and then Frank’s voice cuts across his, farther away but coming closer.
“Hey! You guys having some kinda party without inviting us?”
That’s all the warning Mikey gets before Gerard crashes into his back. He lets go of Ray and whirls around, and then he and Gerard are clinging to each other and Gerard kind of mashes his face against Mikey’s hair, alternately kissing him and whispering “Mikey, Mikey, Mikey.” Ray rests a hand between Mikey’s shoulder blades, staying close, and Frank and Bob press in from either side, and two minutes ago, part of Mikey was absolutely sure he’d never be this warm again.
“Fear brought me here,” he says into Gerard’s shoulder. “I didn’t want to—”
“It’s okay,” Gerard says, cupping the back of Mikey’s head in one hand. “It’s okay, let’s just get out of here.”
“Any ideas on how we do that?” Bob asks, casting around with his flashlight.
“If the stairway Gee and I came down is still there, that’ll get us part of the way,” Frank suggests.
They find the stairway and start up in a row: Frank first, Gerard and Ray with Mikey in between them, Bob bringing up the rear. The stairs stretch on and on until Mikey has no idea how long they’ve been climbing, but after losing track of time sitting alone in the dark, losing track of time while he’s with the others seems pretty bearable.
Eventually, Frank glances over his shoulder. “Hey, Gee—is it just me, or is it taking a lot longer to go up than it did to come down?”
“Not just you,” Gerard answers, panting a little. “Don’t complain, though, I’m hoping it’ll take us all the way back up.”
A while after that, they can see a dull orange glow up ahead, the first light that hasn’t come from their own flashlights. Frank makes them slow down and keep as quiet as they can, pointing out that “If there’s anything up there, we’ll be able to see it, but it’ll be able to see us”. As they get closer, the blur of light resolves itself into a wide circular hole with the source of light somewhere beyond it.
As they near the lip of the hole, Frank crouches on the stairs, creeping up and craning his neck to look out, then ducks back down, grinning.
“I don’t fucking believe—it’s the front room.”
“How can you tell?” Gerard asks, brow furrowed.
“The fucking front door is open, I can see outside,” Frank replies. “I say we go for it as fast as we can, before this place can spring any more surprises on us.”
Gerard nods. “Let’s go.”
The room that was totally dark when they entered is now lit by a lot of candles, Gerard notes as they emerge into it. Some of them are set up in tall, three-armed candelabras around the room, but most of them are set farther back, and all he can see are their flames, bright yellow and surprisingly steady, not flickering at all…
“Back,” he hisses as it hits him. “Get back, go back down—”
“No!” Bob interjects, low but urgent. “The stairs are gone, there’s nothing but a sheer drop.”
“Gee, what—” Ray begins, and Gerard doesn’t wait for him to finish.
“Those aren’t candles back there. They’re eyes.”
Before he can say any more, the wolves emerge from the shadows.
There are more of them than Gerard has ever seen, even on the night he died, crowding around on three sides. Ahead, settled on their haunches in front of the door, there are only two—both the size of the one that attacked Frank last time, and identical as far as Gerard can tell.
Gerard doesn’t have to look back to know that the others have formed themselves into a tight unit, Frank and Mikey flanking him, Ray and Bob shoulder-to-shoulder in the rear. He pockets his flashlight, not needed now, and reaches for Mikey and Frank’s hands. With his other hand, Frank’s still holding Brian’s gun at the ready, even though six bullets wouldn’t put a dent in the number of wolves surrounding them.
Well done, boy.
Gerard’s pretty sure it’s one of the two bigger wolves—alphas, he guesses, although he’s not sure that’s really correct if there are two of them—speaking, but he can’t tell which.
We must admit, we didn’t expect you to find him, or for the five of you to make it back out here. We thought the house would deal with you…but we are more than willing to finish the job.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Gerard says. “But we’re on our way out.”
One of the pair throws its head back as if to howl, but the sound it makes is a harsh, barking laugh. You may be. Your friends? I wouldn’t be so certain.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Gerard demands.
The second alpha bares its teeth at him. We told you to keep them out of our territory, if you wished to protect them. Whoever enters here is ours, by law. You are exempt. They are not.
Gerard’s eyes narrow. “I don’t give a fuck about your law. I’m leaving and I’m taking them with me. All of them.”
Brave words, boy. The alphas rise to their feet, moving in different directions to circle around the five men—the opening behind them is gone, Gerard notes with a glance over his shoulder. But it will take more than your words to make that happen.
“You try to touch any one of them—” Gerard begins, doing his best to keep his voice steady.
You’ll stop us, if you can, one of the wolves replies, sounding unimpressed. But can you protect all of them, from all of us? Perhaps one, or two—and how will you choose which to save? Your brother? Your lover? What if you were forced to choose between the two of them?
Gerard tightens his grip on both Frank and Mikey, and tightens his jaw. “You try to make me play that game, you’re just going to be wasting your time as well as ours.”
One of them snarls as it paces past him.This is no game, boy. You’ve meddled with forces older and stronger than you can hope to understand, and there is a price to be paid.
So which do we take? The other wolf goes on circling calmly, and then pauses in front of Ray. You? You could sleep forever in the darkness here. Never again have to worry about failing, about whether or not you’re good enough.
Or you? Its twin goes on, sniffing at Bob. So afraid that you don’t truly belong with the others, that one day you’ll be alone again…you could belong with us forever.
With the alphas’ attention shifted off of him, Gerard tries to think clearly, to come up with some kind of a plan. He glances around at the rest of the pack; they’ve all stayed where they are, awaiting their apparent leaders’ command. And with the alphas pacing in circles, the front door is clear, and still open—if they can just get that far…
Perhaps we should take the killer. One of them stops in front of Frank, cocking its head thoughtfully. After all, this is what he’s always believed he deserves—maybe it’s what he wants, deep-down. Maybe we should give it to him.
Or you. The other one looks at Mikey, coming too close for Gerard’s comfort. Your brother’s love has been both a blessing and a curse, hasn’t it? Always feeling that you had to follow him, that you couldn’t exist without him? Not even death was enough to stop that, but we could. We could set you free.
“Get. Away. From my brother,” Gerard growls.
Is he your choice, then? One of the wolves asks, sounding almost teasing. Will you save him, at the risk of losing the others?
Instead of answering, Gerard half-turns, looking at the others. “Do you all trust me?” he says quietly. “Enough to do what I say, when I say, without hesitating?”
He gets four nods in return, and then leans in towards Frank, whispering right against the shell of his ear.
“You and I need to be at the outside, try to shield the others. It’s a bigger risk for you.”
Frank nods, and tilts his own head to reply in kind.
“I’ve done some of my best work with the odds against me. Say the word.”
“I love you,” Gerard says out loud.
One of the alphas growls, bringing his attention back to it. We won’t wait all night, boy. If you’re going to choose, choose now.
“There’s no choice to make,” Gerard says, and steps to the side, putting Mikey between himself and Frank. He reaches his other arm back, bracing it across Ray’s chest, and looks at the two wolves.
“These are all my brothers,” he says, calmly and clearly. “And you and your laws can get fucked. Run!”
Gerard doesn’t hesitate, praying that none of the others do either. He runs full-tilt towards the door, holding on to Ray and Mikey, and when one of the alpha wolves lunges for Ray, Gerard throws himself in that direction and sees it veer off. On his other side, he hears Frank fire once, twice, three times.
A few wolves crowd around the door, only to scatter as Gerard runs toward them. He’s mentally bracing himself for the door to swing closed before they can go through it, something like that, some last trick to keep them here—but he makes it out, and pauses just long enough to look back and make sure the others have, as well.
“All of you in front of me,” he shouts. “Go, go!”
They obey, but they’re spread out now, and Gerard can’t guard all of them. He grabs Mikey, covering him as well as he can without tripping both of them, and sees Frank take down two wolves when they spring for him and Bob, his aim sure and deadly.
Maybe, Gerard allows himself to think as they barrel down the hillside. Maybe we’re gonna make it out of this.
Ahead of them, a wall of flame rises from the ground, springing up as quick and sudden as an image in a child’s pop-up book.
—And maybe I should’ve known better than to think something like that.
He skids to a halt in front of the fire, close enough to feel the heat of it on his face, and turns to see the wolves coming down after them. Seeing their prey trapped, the pack slows to a teasing, leisurely pace. Gerard hears Frank shout and looks to see where he points—among the approaching pack are the two big twin wolves, the alphas.
“I got both of ‘em in the heart back there, I’m sure of it,” Frank calls, anger laid over fear in his voice. “Waste of two perfectly good bullets, fuck.”
“Any bright ideas?” Ray shouts at Gerard.
Mikey looks over in his direction, incredulous. “Did you seriously just say that? Who fucking says that?”
“Uh,” Bob interjects. “Imminent doom? Little bit more pressing than word choice?”
“All of you shut up!” Gerard shouts. “Do you hear something behind us?”
“You mean besides the wall of fucking fire?” Frank yells back.
“No, there’s something else,” Gerard replies. “It sounds like—”
Hoofbeats, he’s about to say, but then, from behind, Jeanne shouts for him to get down and he does, pulling Mikey with him as horse and rider leap straight over their heads, landing with surprising grace in front of them.
The nearest wolf springs at the newcomers, and Jeanne’s horse neighs and rears, striking the wolf down with its hooves. Perched on its back in full armor, Jeanne pulls her sword from its sheath with a sharp metallic rasp, and she looks back over her shoulder for a moment, pointing.
“That way, quickly! Go!”
None of the five stop to question her sudden appearance or her advice. They run in the direction she indicated and find an outcropping of rock on the hillside, one that just might let them get high enough to leap over the wall of flame.
Frank scrambles up and takes the jump without hesitation, clearing it easily and turning to urge the rest of them on.
“Mikey, you next,” Gerard says, and when Mikey just hangs on to him, showing no signs of getting ready to jump, Gerard shakes him. “Go on, or I’ll get Bob to throw you.”
Mikey finally draws himself up, eyes the distance carefully for a moment, and then throws himself forward, flailing a little awkwardly and knocking Frank over when Frank tries to catch him, but successfully avoiding the fire. Gerard urges Ray up next, and Toro crouches at the outcropping’s edge like a sprinter, pushing off with his feet to gain the momentum he needs.
“Go on,” Gerard tells Bob. He wants all the others clear before he makes the jump himself.
Bob pushes off the same way Ray did—or at least, he tries to. The rock at the edge of the outcropping is just a little bit loose, enough for Ray to have shifted it with his jump—and enough for it to slip just a little under Bob’s feet. Panicked, he flings himself forward, but doesn’t have the momentum he needs.
He almost clears the fire.
Gerard surges forward, shouting, but Ray and Frank are already grabbing Bob by both arms and hauling him forward, and Mikey struggles out of his jacket as fast as the belt will allow, flinging it over Bob’s leg to smother the flames.
Gerard closes his eyes for a moment, shaken, and then opens them, gathering himself to make the jump. He’s half-expecting to fall short and land in the fire himself, but he makes it, just barely, and lurches to his feet, stumbling over to where the others are huddled around Bob.
“Is he okay?” Gerard demands, and Ray looks up, his face white.
“I’m not an expert, but I’d say second-degree burns. Maybe third.”
Bob groans and tries to roll over; Gerard catches sight of the wound—the leg of Bob’s pants in charred tatters around red, blistering skin—and swallows hard, feeling sick.
“I’ll be fine, I just need a minute,” Bob tries to protest, to which Frank replies “You caught on fucking fire, Bryar, take it easy or I’ll brain you.”
“We should be clearing out of here,” Bob protests. “What’s gonna stop the wolves from coming right over after us, huh?”
They all look up at the voice and the sound of hoofbeats to see Jeanne riding up on their side of the fire, having apparently jumped back over farther down. Her horse’s flanks are scratched and bitten, but it’s walking steadily, head high, Jeanne herself looks untouched, and the blood from her horse’s wounds is nothing to the amount of blood that drips from the blade of her sword, so dark it’s almost black.
“We aren’t clear of their territory yet,” she says, and dismounts to wipe her blade on the ground and sheath it, nodding towards Bob as she does so. “Come. I will carry him.”
Once Bob is settled in front of her, Jeanne spurs her horse into a fast walk, the others keeping pace as well as they can. Gerard jogs a little faster, drawing even with her.
“How did you know to come out here?” he asks. “If you hadn’t shown up when you did…”
Jeanne looks down, and in the dark (they’ve pulled the flashlights out again, but right now the most illumination comes from the fire behind them), it takes a moment for Gerard to realize she’s smiling faintly.
“I had a vision,” she says.
“A—” Gerard’s eyes widen. “Like—”
“Like the ones I had in life, yes.” She looks over at him, gray eyes wide and clear. “I don’t know where it came from—if it was God, or the Mother, or something else entirely. And I don’t care. If it led me to save you, it was blessed, whatever its source.”
Gerard smiles and opens his mouth to reply—only to be cut off by a chorus of eerie howls. He whirls around, already tensed to run again if he has to.
The wolves are ranged along the hillside, none of them moving.
“What are they doing?” Mikey asks, tense.
“I don’t know,” Jeanne replies.
One of the wolves—it’s hard to tell this far off, but intuition tells Gerard it’s one of the alphas—throws its head back and howls again, and the others join in.
And the wall of fire leaps twice as high as it was a moment ago, and spreads, racing across the ground.
“…Oh, fuck,” Gerard says calmly, just before Jeanne shouts to run and they obey.
They struggle up the small rise that leads back to the level ground surrounding the city, and out of the corner of his eye, Gerard can see the flames sweeping past—not overtaking them directly, but curving in a wide arc. It’s going to surround them before they can get back to the city limits, and it’s moving too fast for them to do anything about it.
And then they reach the top of the rise, and look down the shallow slope and see what’s waiting for them.
It’s a couple of deflated clocks away from being something out of a fucking surrealist painting, Gerard thinks to himself.
Their instruments are down there, looking just as they would set up on the stage at the House (and it occurs to Gerard that it’s going to be difficult to think or say the club’s name, now that he’s been inside the true house of wolves, as Fear called it), Bob’s drums at the back, a lone microphone stand out front, Ray’s guitar to the left and Frank’s to right, and Mikey’s bass tucked securely in the middle.
“What the fuck?” Ray asks, coming up beside Gerard.
“We need to play,” Gerard says. It comes out of nowhere, and it’s insane—and yet, why else would the instruments be here?
“…What?” Ray says again.
“That’s how we can push it back,” Gerard tells them all, the words coming out in a rush. “The fire, it’s…it’s destruction, and the songs are creation, even when they’re about death. And that’s why—God, I could kick myself—that’s why Mother War chose us for this. Because we’re not soldiers, or were, but left it behind.”
Mikey speaks up, behind him. “Gee, do you really think—”
Gerard turns, looking around at them all. “Still trust me, all of you?”
They all nod, but then Frank asks “What about Bob?”
“I can do it,” Bob says from where he’s slumped against the horse’s neck. “I mean, okay, trying to run would’ve been a bad plan, but I’ll…I’ll try to avoid putting weight on that leg and I’ll be fine.”
It’s the kind of risk Gerard wouldn’t be in a rush to take if they had a choice, but…it doesn’t really seem like they do.
So he nods. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
Jeanne walks her horse straight up to the drum kit to deposit Bob there, and then retreats to watch at a short distance. At least, that’s what she plans on doing, before fire suddenly arcs away from the main curve and cuts her off from them.
“Gerard!” she calls out, reining in her horse as it dances nervously, wanting to be away from the fire. “Gerard, I cannot—”
There’s fear in her voice, Gerard notes, and it’s the first time he’s ever heard it there. And then realizes that oh, of course there is. Fire.
“It’s okay!” he calls back. “I think we can take it from here, you get away if you can. And thank you!”
Jeanne nods and turns her horse, looking back over her shoulder to raise one hand. “Good luck, all of you. Take care of each other!”
And with that, she’s gone, leaving only the five of them and the fire.
There’s no hesitation in the song they choose, even though it’s one that’s not quite finished yet. If push comes to shove, Gerard has no doubt they’ll be able to fill in what’s missing as they go, the way they did with Mother War’s song. He thinks that might actually make it a better choice, to have spontaneity and actual creation involved in this.
And to drive the fire back, they’re going to need something powerful, something intense. They need to reaffirm the bonds they’ve forged to get this far, and tell the fire and the wolves and the darkness all at once that they will not be defeated, that they haven’t come this far to be taken down now.
(It’s all very clear to Gerard, suddenly, that they’re all different faces of the same thing, the wolves are the house is the dark is the fire and all of it is destruction, is hopelessness, is what The Black Parade must defeat to leave the city and what will consume them if they fail.)
So they play. They play as if it were their last song, all of them bringing forth everything they have to offer and keyed into one another as they never have been before. Gerard turns on a whim and finds himself back to back with Mikey, the two of them leaning against one another for a few moments; looks around for Ray and Frank and finds them whirling in and out of each other’s space as if fighting or dancing or both; drops to his knees and sees Frank do the same at the exact same moment, unplanned. When Gerard turns enough to catch sight of Bob, he’s grimacing in pain but playing all the harder for it, hardly ever missing a beat.
The fire rages around them, close enough that a few times Gerard’s half-certain he’ll explode simply from being that close to that much heat. But the flames never touch them, any of them, and when Gerard moves closer still, as if daring them to, he’s almost certain they retreat a bit.
He drops to his knees again and starts into the bridge that way, everything but a single guitar melody dropping away and then coming back slowly. Gerard looks back at each of them—Ray, Bob, his eyes lingering on Frank and then finally coming to rest on Mikey as he sings. Awake and unafraid, building in volume and intensity until they explode back into the chorus, giving it all they’ve got, passionate and desperate and triumphant.
And around them, the flames start to die down.
As the last notes of the song fade away, Gerard strides forward, watching the fire shrink even more as he approaches.
“We’re going home, now,” he says, loud and clear into the surrounding darkness. “Unless you have any other tricks to try and stop us with.”
No reply comes, from any direction, and after a moment he turns and walks back to the others.
“Bob, man, mind leaving your kit out here? We should get you back as soon as we can…”
Bob nods, wincing a little as he rises from his stool. “Hell, for all we know it’ll be back in the practice room tomorrow morning.”
Gerard smiles crookedly. “Good point.”
Frank and Ray end up supporting Bob on either side, so Gerard and Mikey walk close together, arms around each other’s shoulders. They’re all a mess, dusty and sweaty and exhausted, and right now Gerard isn’t thinking about anything much beyond getting all of them home in one piece.
They only slow down a little when they see the twins waiting for them on the outskirts of the city.
Regret is the first to speak, when they get close enough.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “Truly sorry for what you’ve all had to face tonight, and for its necessity. But you’ve faced it and defeated it, and that is incredible.”
Gerard looks between the two of them, anger flaring inside him as quick and bright as the fire had.
“…Was that all some sort of fucking test?” he demands. “Did you put Mikey—did you put all of us through that just to see if we could make it?”
Fear shrugs nonchalantly. “Well, I suppose we could have just taken it on faith that you would not only walk into Hell for each other, but be strong enough and smart enough and united enough to walk back out…but if you were in our position, would you?”
“Fuck you,” Gerard says coldly. “All of you. You and your mother as well as the wolves. We’re not a bunch of fucking toys you can just play games with.”
“Temper, temper,” Fear says, seeming unbothered. “And what exactly is it you think you are, then? You’ve been willing enough to play our games when you’ve seen some benefit to it.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I’m reconsidering that,” Gerard snaps. “Assuming that whether I’m willing or not even matters.”
“It matters,” Regret says. “So do other things. Including, as my sister says, how far the five of you are willing to go for each other. We couldn’t let that go untested.”
“Gee.” Mikey jumps in before Gerard can say anything else, squeezing his shoulder. “Let’s just go home, okay? You can be pissed off at them some more tomorrow.”
Gerard looks down, drawing in a deep breath, and then glances over his shoulder at the others, Bob still between Ray and Frank, face pale and drawn with pain.
“Okay,” he agrees, and looks back at the twins. “Don’t think I won’t be.”
“We’ll speak again soon,” Fear says, and it has the tone of a promise, even as she smirks a bit. “You can be as angry as you like.”
The twins stand aside to let the five men pass without another word said, but two pairs of sharp black eyes follow them until they’re out of sight.
The next morning finds the five of them gathered in the living room, Bob’s leg bandaged and propped up on a pillow. Everyone’s quiet, and Gerard is suddenly reminded of the morning after a really intense party, the kind where even if your hangover’s not all that bad, you really don’t feel like doing much but sitting still for a change.
Burned out, he thinks, and has to swallow an urge to laugh.
He looks around at the others: Mikey and Ray are squeezed into the same armchair, obviously not willing to be too far from each other. Gerard gets that—there’s a reason he’s sitting on the end of the couch nearest to Mikey and Ray’s chair. Bob’s at the other end, his leg propped up on the coffee table, and Frank’s between them, perched on the back of the couch with his feet on the cushion.
“So,” Gerard begins eventually. “I’ve…been thinking about what happened last night. Shut up,” he says to Frank, when it looks like Frank’s about to laugh. “I mean…I’ve been thinking about the whole thing, obviously, but some parts more than others. Like what the wolves said to all of you.”
He pauses, looking around at each of them again. “I’m not going to try to make anyone talk about it if they don’t want to. But if anyone wants to say anything, I think it should be now.”
No one says anything for a minute.
Frank rubs the back of his neck with one hand. “What Fear said last night about us walking into Hell…you think she really meant that as, y’know, Hell, not just a figure of speech?”
Gerard nods slowly. “I think she might’ve. Like I’ve said before, I was never sure if I believed in Hell or not, but…well, it feels like it fits.”
Frank shrugs. “You and I talked about it already, then. I used to think…but I know where I belong now, and that’s not it.”
Gerard reaches over, squeezing his hand wordlessly.
Ray speaks up next. “I’m worried about fucking up. And when I’m worried about fucking up something that’s important…I sometimes think about bailing, ‘cause if I don’t do it at all, I can’t do it wrong, y’know?” He winds himself a little more tightly around Mikey, and finishes, “Doesn’t mean I’m going to.”
“It’s the same for me, kind of,” Bob says. “It’s like…for a long time, I figured that if I stayed on my own and wasn’t part of anything, I couldn’t let anyone down, and no one could let me down.” He looks at his own leg, and smiles crookedly. “But shit, I got set on fire for you fuckers, you’re stuck with me now.”
“Damn right,” Frank says, leaning over to give him a one-armed hug.
Gerard smiles, and then looks over at Mikey.
Mikey looks back at him for a long moment, then says, “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Gerard says.
“…And sometimes I wonder how things would’ve been if you weren’t my older brother,” Mikey finishes, then adds, quickly, “But, Gee, that doesn’t mean—”
“I know,” Gerard says, looking at him steadily. “I’ve…I’ve put you through a lot, Mikey, I know that. I’m sorry.”
Mikey shrugs. “It doesn’t matter what you put me through. Maybe that makes me messed up for not being more independent or having more of a backbone or whatever, but I don’t care. You’re my brother, and I wouldn’t change that if I could.”
Gerard’s eyes are stinging. He looks down and blinks a couple of times, taking a deep breath.
“I think this is where you two hug,” Frank says eventually, and gives Gerard a helpful little shove.
Gerard stands up and walks over, and Mikey untangles himself from Ray and reaches up, and they hug for a long moment, Gerard bending down and kissing the top of Mikey’s head before he steps back.
“What happens now?” Ray asks.
Gerard looks around at them. “What do all of you think?”
Again, Frank’s the first to speak up. “If what happened last night was a test, then believe me, I’m as pissed off at the twins as you are, and I’m not in a hurry to do them any fucking favors. But the whole Black Parade thing…we’re not doing it just for them. Are we?”
“Frank’s right,” Mikey says. “They might have helped us figure out what to do, but—bottom line, we’re in this for us. Ourselves, and everyone who believes in us.”
Ray and Bob both nod their agreement.
“I think you guys have it right,” Gerard says. “If we were just in this for the twins and Mother War’s sake, I’d be willing to take my chances with refusing them—I might not be able to, but I’d try.” He turns towards the window, looking out over the city with his hands clasped behind his back. “Jeanne told me once that war—and by extension Mother War—could be right, but wasn’t ever kind. That the things she does or wants other people to do can be just causes, but she doesn’t care what casualties get inflicted along the way. If I needed any confirmation of that idea, last night was it.”
Gerard turns back around to face the others again, jaw set in a firm line. “But what we’re doing is still right, and it’s still what needs to be done. Not for Mother War, not for Fear and Regret, but for ourselves and everyone who’s with us.”
Bob leans forward, careful of his wounded leg. “So what do we do now?” he asks.
“We have until the Patient gets here to finish putting the parade together,” Gerard says. “And he’s still alive, but he’s getting closer. We’ve got some work to do.”
Gerard goes down to the House of Wolves that afternoon, and spends several minutes just standing outside the club, looking up at the sign out in front, at the jaunty cartoon wolf and the flickering letters. It’s a grim joke, he thinks to himself, but then grim jokes seem to be exactly The Black Parade’s style.
Inside the club, Brian waves Gerard over before anyone can approach him.
“The, ah—the twins are here to see you,” he says. “They said they promised you’d talk again soon.”
Gerard’s eyebrows go up. “They did, but I sort of figured I’d have to wait longer than this for them to grace me with their presence again.”
Brian shrugs. “What can I say? Those are two mysterious ladies, my man. They’re in the back.”
The back of the club, behind the bar, is home to both the storeroom and the office Brian uses to keep as much track as he bothers to of peoples’ tabs. There’s round table with a couple of chairs in the office, and Gerard finds Fear and Regret standing in front of it, hand in hand.
“Sit down, if you’d like,” Regret says, gesturing to one of the chairs. “We have much to talk about.”
Gerard can’t hold back a dry huff of laughter as he pulls out a chair. “You two have never seemed to have that much to say to me.”
“We needed you curious,” Fear says, as the two of them sit as well, moving with a coordination that’s downright eerie. “We needed you thinking and wondering and trying to figure things out. We couldn’t simply tell you everything you wanted to know.”
Gerard looks back and forth between the two of them. “And I have figured it out now, is that it? Or figured out enough, anyway.”
“That’s what we’re here to talk over,” Regret says. “Give us your understanding of things, and then let us see if you still have unanswered questions.”
“All right.” Gerard looks down at his hands, clasped together in front of him on the table. “As far as the big question of what we’re doing and why goes…I figure Frank was right about this being Purgatory, or something like it. And everything we faced last night—the fire, the wolves, all of it—is Hell or its equivalent. And if we’ve got Hell and Purgatory accounted for, I suppose we’re setting out in search of Heaven, but I guess I shouldn’t expect you to tell me if we’re going to find it or not—I have to just trust my instincts, right?”
Fear nods. “That’s right. As your friend Jeanne says, it’s a question of faith. Not faith in us, but in yourself and your dreams.”
“Great,” Gerard mutters, and then goes on. “Speaking of Jeanne: I know that she and I are both, for whatever reason, people who can’t be touched by the wolves, and I’m pretty sure the Patient is as well. But I’m still not sure about why—if it were just because I’ve been chosen for this by your mother, then shouldn’t my friends be untouchable as well?”
“It’s a question of degree,” Regret tells him. “Certain people have…potential for greatness, and some have it to a greater degree than others.”
“Some—like the former Maid of Orleans—were able to fulfill their potential in life,” Fear goes on. “Some are only able to do so in death. The man who’s coming, your Patient, is one of those. Your greatest potential is as a prophet, a forerunner, someone who gathers followers to a cause. His is to lead those followers—but only here.”
“…What about me?” Gerard asks. “Could I have done something like this when I was alive?”
Regret studies him calmly. “You could have, yes. If—”
“If I’d been stronger,” Gerard finishes for her. “If I hadn’t fucked it all up for myself.”
“I’m sorry,” she says, and he shrugs.
“I’ve come to terms with it. What about Mikey and Frank and Ray and Bob?”
“They have potential, too, in their way, but not the same kind,” Fear explains. “Theirs can only be brought out when lead or inspired by that of a greater potential. None of them could have dreamed your dreams, but they had what you needed to make those dreams take shape. And none of them could have defied the wolves or the fire on their own, but together, the five of you found a way.”
“What if we hadn’t all been here?” Gerard asks. “What if any one of us hadn’t died when we did, or hadn’t come here, or if the Patient wasn’t dying? Or—or was that all controlled by fate, or something?”
Regret looks at him with her calm, sad eyes for a moment before answering. “Yes and no. Your potential, the way all of you were drawn to one another—those things were fated. When and how you came here was not. If you had not died young, then we would have simply had to wait longer, until you did.”
Fear leans back in her seat, smirking at him. “As for the fact that all of you came here upon your deaths…that, my friend, you can chalk up to human nature. Which we have a hand in, being what we are, but not us alone.”
Gerard nods, with a faint, wry smile of his own. “I think I understand. As much as I understand any of this.”
“You’re human,” Regret say, simply. “There is only so far you can understand anything.”
The only song still unfinished now is the parade song, so they’ve been working hard on that one. They’ve been trying things out only to scrap them and start over so many times that it’s like a Frankenstein’s monster of at least three or four different songs by now, Gerard helping identify the bits and pieces that seem to fit best—the melody Frank came up with, a guitar solo from Ray, a tight snare drum roll from Bob—and then trusting the others to stitch that into a coherent whole.
They’re working on it when Gerard comes back from talking to Fear and Regret and gathers them together.
“There’s some stuff I need to tell you guys,” he says, and fills them in on his conversation with the twins, finishing, “The last thing I asked them about was the parade. There’s something I’ve been wondering about, from the lyrics of the song…”
Mikey leans forward, elbows on his knees. “It’s his memory, isn’t it? It’s—we’re how death comes for him.”
Gerard nods. “Yeah. Yeah, we are.”
For a long moment, no one says anything. The moment of death, the way it comes in the form of a memory, is something intensely personal, something they’ve barely talked about even at their most intimate and open with each other.
“We have to do this right,” Gerard says eventually. “It’s—I mean, the whole thing is important, of course, but even without the rest, how we handled this part would be important. We’ve been trusted with what makes the Patient who he is, and we’ve only got one chance to get it right.”
Ray nods, and stands up. “Let’s get back to work, then.”
They build the float themselves, Gerard’s design given form this time by the five of them and a sizable army of volunteers (some of whom have actual knowledge of carpentry and how to construct a float, which helps). Ray and Frank, in particular, help decorate it, and the large skull at front and center is the result of each of them drawing on childhood memories; Day of the Dead celebrations for Ray, Halloween birthday parties for Frank. The red flowers all around the edge are false, of course, made from scraps of silk and tulle, but their color is no less bright for it. Once the float is completed, the others—the procession, the congregation, all those wiling to chance leaving the city—seize on the black-white-red color scheme, making costumes and masks for themselves, becoming part of The Black Parade.
So there’s a float, and a procession to walk behind it. There’s the song they wrote for this, finally brought to completion, rehearsed meticulously but not a note of it revealed outside their practice space yet.
And then, one morning, Gerard finds himself lying in bed next to Frank, half there and half caught in a waking dream, listening to the beat of a phantom heart monitor in the back of his mind.
When that beat starts to slow, he knows what it means.
He tells the other four, and they tell others, and the message starts to spread through the city like ripples in a pond: it’s time, The Black Parade marches today, and anyone who would be a part of it knows where to go. The five of them gather what belongings they want to take with them—not much, the only things any of them truly need are their instruments and each other—and then suit up, collect their equipment, and head to where the float waits, close to the edge of the city.
Fear, Regret, and Mother War are waiting for them, and Gerard slows as he approaches the trio. His anger at them has died down, but he doubts he’ll ever feel completely at ease around the twins or their mother, and thinks perhaps it’s not possible to, given what they are.
“You’ve done well,” Regret tells them. “And for all the right reasons—we would not have had you simply obey us, without feeling on your own that what you did was right.”
Gerard looks from one twin to the other, and then at Mother War, looming silently between them. “It was right,” he says eventually. “I’m certain of that. And no matter what I’ve had to go through to get to this point, I’m aware of what I’ve gained in all of this, and grateful for it.”
Mother War studies him for a long moment through the fathomless dark eyes of her mask, and then holds out a hand. Resting in her palm is what looks like a medal or an amulet, dark metal hung on a black satin ribbon.
And as Gerard reaches out his own hand and takes it, he hears the monitor in his head go from slow beats to a single note, stretching out, unrelenting as it fills his mind.
“It’s time,” he says to the others, barely able to hear his own voice over the sound of the flatline. “Let’s go.”
He expects Fear, Regret, and Mother War to go first, but they take up places just behind the float, the gathered congregation falling in behind them. Among those gathered, Gerard can pick out the faces he’s come to know better than others—Brian, James and some of the other musicians who used to play the House, the woman who traded him both art supplies and the journal he wrote every one of The Black Parade’s songs in, people who’ve been staying in the same building as him and the others. And as he watches, Jeanne joins them, armor gleaming and head raised proudly as she steers her horse to a spot near the front of the crowd. Gerard smiles, then looks back at the four men around him, taking up their places on the float.
“I love you all,” he says, quietly, and they say it back, one by one. He stays in their midst for another few moments, nodding to Bob, squeezing Ray’s hands, leaning into Frank for a quick kiss and pulling Mikey into a tight hug before he moves up to his place at the front.
He closes his eyes for a moment, waiting as the congregation at his back settles into silence, and then he sings.
“When I was a young boy,
My father took me into the city
To see a marching band…”
It’s The Patient’s memory, his story, but as Gerard sings it, he realizes that it’s his own story, as well. The story of the band at his back, each of them weaving their way into the song one by one, the music building and swelling as each separate part blends together, and the story of the procession behind them, everyone who’s been willing to hear their message and follow them. The song of anyone who has ever needed to be saved, or become a savior, or achieve their own salvation by helping others find theirs. The song of those who are the broken, are the damned, but are nonetheless resolved to be defiant, to sing and march and carry on.
The float rolls forward and the parade moves, its journey through the wreckage slow but inexorable. Out of the corner of his eye, Gerard sees the soldiers who join them, perhaps responding to some silent beckoning from Mother War, or, perhaps, drawn in by the song. Not all, not enough that there won’t still be unending senseless war in the trenches when they’ve gone, but enough to form an honor guard, marching in steady ranks on either side of the procession. On the float behind Gerard, Frank and Ray and Bob and even Mikey are a flurry of movement, playing with a passion and strength they’ve only achieved once before, every inch of their bodies and hearts and minds pouring into the song while Gerard stands out in front, singing as loud and clear and strong as he can.
When they come upon the man in the hospital gown, he’s a small, dark figure huddled among the debris, and he doesn’t look like anything special. Gerard’s certain that none of them did, either, when they first arrived.
The Patient stares at them as they approach, looking overwhelmed and amazed as the song builds to a soaring crescendo and then crashes triumphantly into its final section. When Fear and Regret move forward, taking his hands and drawing him to stand in front of the float as it rolls to a halt, the Patient lets himself be led, drifting forward as if in a dream.
No one’s told Gerard or the others what to do at this point. No one has to: with the last notes of the guitars still echoing and the drums falling away to a simple marching beat again, Gerard reaches into his pocket, and as he steps forward, the others leave their places wordlessly to fall in around him, Mikey and Frank to his left and right, Ray and Bob closing ranks behind them. Gerard bends to place Mother War’s medal around the Patient’s neck, watching as the twins kiss him, one on either cheek, and then fall back to where their mother stands nearby.
The Patient looks down at the medal for a moment, turning it over in his fingers and then letting it fall back on his chest as he glances around, still seeming dazed. When he turns to look at the five men standing above him on the float, Gerard smiles.
“Hello,” he says. “You’re going to need to talk to the twins, in a moment, but I wanted to welcome you, first.”
“What—” the Patient begins haltingly, looking around at the masked and costumed procession, the soldiers flanking them, the destruction surrounding them and the city looming behind them all, and then back at Gerard. “Who are you?”
“We’re The Black Parade,” Gerard tells him, still smiling gently. “And we’ve been waiting for you.”