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“Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.” --Charles Dickens

Mikey supposedly worked twelve hour shifts four times a week. Supposedly.

All the clinic workers put in extra time, but Mikey was there six or seven days a week more often than not.

Then again, Gerard pretty much lived at the clinic.

Mikey showed up at his normal five-thirty for his normal six o'clock shift. He waved at the night nurse and walked back to Gerard's office. He opened the door softly. The lights were still on, but Gerard was sleeping on the couch.

Papers were all over the floor. Mikey knew they had fallen when Gerard had finally given into sleep. He set the coffee he'd brought on the desk, gathered up the papers and set them beside the coffee.

He hunkered down beside the couch. "Gee. Hey, Gee, c'mon."

Gerard's eyes fluttered open slowly. "Hey, Mikey."

"What time'd you fall asleep?"

"Um." Gerard frowned.

Mikey sighed. That was what he'd thought. "I brought you coffee, Gee. Go home and shower, okay? Put on some fresh clothes. Remember what today is?"

"Tuesday?"

"Thursday."

"Thursday," Gerard repeated, like it meant something. Mikey knew from the slight lines at the corners of his eyes that it didn't.

"Interview day?" Mikey tried.

"Oh. Shit."

"That's the spirit."

"You know what would have been easier for all involved?" Gerard asked.

"If Stephen and James hadn't had to get married and join Doctors Without Borders together?" Mikey guessed.

"I like the way you think, Mikey Way."

Mikey laughed. "Well, tragically, the world does not revolve around either your or the clinic's needs. So drink up, wash up and get back here for case worker interviews."

"You know the last kid who came in here wanted ninety a year?"

Mikey knew. Gerard had tried to find it. They were desperate for a good HIV case manager. They had two, but those two were drowning under the load that Stephen--who would work sixty hours in any given week--had left.

Luckily Gerard's old time friend had graduated medical school about four months before James, one of the clinic's doctors, had gone off. Bob put in more hours than any mere human ought as well, which was the one saving grace of the situation.

"Today's the day," Mikey said. "But not if you look like you slept by the fireside, Cinderfella. Seriously, Gee. We need to at least look as though we know what we're doing."

"We do know what we're doing."

Some days. Mikey didn't repeat the thought aloud. There were plenty of things Gerard did know, and his life blood ran through this clinic. It was just that sometimes more was needed than passion, vision and a level of intelligence that often caused Gerard to forget simple things such as the fact that it was a good idea to tie his shoes before leaving the house. "See if you can get the interviewees to recognize that, yeah?"

Gerard sighed. Mikey laughed. "Cheer up, emo boy," he said, and handed Gerard the coffee.

Gerard perked up. "Oh, Christmas Blend!"

"Merry winter," Mikey told him, and sent him out into a somewhat muggy sixty-seven degree morning.

*


The first two interviews were a complete loss. The nine o'clock scared Gerard--and whatever else Gerard was, easy to scare he was not--and the eleven o'clock had such a heavy accent that despite really, really trying, Gerard couldn't understand most of what the interviewee said. If the guy's first language had been Spanish or even Chinese or Korean Gerard would have hired him in a flash, since the clinic saw huge numbers of patients whose first language fell under one of those choices. It was Yugoslavian, though, and Gerard just didn't have much call for that.

The two o'clock showed on time. He said, "Hi, I'm Frank," and shook Gerard's hand with just the right amount of pressure.

He smiled and it caught his eyes, and Gerard thought, Mikey will kill you if you hire him because he's the most gorgeous person on the face of this planet. "Hi. Uh, Gerard."

"Nice to meet you," Frank said, sounding like he meant it.

He was respectably dressed in a white oxford and jeans, not too formal, not enough to make Gerard think he wouldn't have any idea how to handle the cases that came in the door, but just enough so that Gerard felt he actually cared how the interview went.

Gerard sucked at the interviewing process, and he knew it. He asked, "You mind if we get to the important parts first?"

Frank's smile didn't diminish at all, which was unfortunate, because it was really distracting. "I'd kinda prefer it."

"You're graduating at the end of this month?"

"Yeah," and the smile dimmed a little bit, "that's sort of what everyone notices."

"Let's assume that, since I gave you the interview despite the job description calling for at least three years' experience, I wanna hear why you bothered applying."

"You've looked at my resume, so let's also assume that you know I've been helping out with the school's clinic for the year and a half that I've been pursuing my degree. You also know I did observation and shadowing work in undergrad. I'm not unfamiliar with the territory, despite never having actually been paid to do the work. And this is what I went to school to do. I'm good at it. I like people, they like me, I'm good at listening and at getting people to do what they need to do. I also beg, borrow and steal well, which I find useful at times."

"What sort of beginning salary were you hoping for?"

"Fifty to fifty-five."

Gerard bit back a sigh. It wasn't that he didn't want to pay people for the work they put in. If Gerard had his way everyone at the clinic would be making at least a hundred thousand a year. But he held the place together on federal subsidies and a flurry of grants for which he was forever applying and the occasional fundraiser.

Frank said, "But I'm negotiable."

"Forty-five worth of negotiable?" Gerard asked, because Frank was looking at him with the most hopeful set of gold-brown-green eyes he'd ever seen, like nothing, nothing else he'd encountered.

Frank grinned so hard Gerard thought his face would split right from his lips. "Wait. You're serious?"

"You know it can be sixty hours a week?"

"I told you, I've done this. I love this. It's-- I love this. Do I get benefits with that?"

"Health and dental, eight holidays a year, two weeks vacation, one week sick days."

Frank looked away for a second and Gerard thought he was reconsidering but when he looked back all he asked was, "The health. Um. How is it about pre-existing conditions?"

"Expensive but workable. I'm HIV positive. We needed something that was going to take me on."

Frank blinked. "That was honest."

Gerard smiled tightly. He had found out the hard way that it was best for his employees to know ahead of time.

"In the interest of full-disclosure, and because one good turn deserves another, you should know that that's my pre-existing condition. HIV."

"You graduate in two weeks?"

"Yeah, but I'm done with course work, that's just the official date."

"So, technically, you could start Monday?"

"Technically, I could start today." Frank was grinning again.

Gerard laughed. "I think we'll survive without you till Monday. Take a few days. They're the last you'll see for a while."

*


"You promised him what?"

The worst part, Gerard thought, was that despite his tone, Mikey didn't really seem surprised. "Okay, I realize that we had agreed on forty-three as an absolute cap, but I'm telling you, Mikey, he's the guy."

"Gerard, we didn't agree on anything. Forty-three was what we had the money for. Where's the other two gonna come from, huh? You gonna take another pay cut? Or maybe I can. Or we can stop stocking the basic painkillers and give up the contract we have for computer maintenance."

Gerard couldn't take another pay cut. Not if he wanted to afford housing, food, utilities and his meds. The meds were the absolute killer, but they kept him alive and decently healthy. And he wasn't going to ask Mikey to, not when he'd already taken one so that they could bring in Bob. Mikey'd had a crap enough year as it was. Gerard said, "It's almost Christmas time. For this year, we can probably fundraise the extra two. Next year... I'll figure something out, okay?"

Mikey tilted his head. "You wanted him that bad?"

"He was the right guy." Gerard neglected to mention his blinding hotness. For one thing, Mikey would be unamused just now, even if later he might be able to laugh about it. For another, Mikey had sworn off men after James had left him clearly in the pursuit of Stephen. That had been the latest--and, if Mikey had anything to say about it--last in a string of deeply ill-fated romances on Mikey's part. Gerard was leaving him to mend himself for a bit.

Mikey argued with Gerard about a lot of things, but his instincts weren't on that list. Mikey trusted those. "I guess. I guess we at least have ourselves a case worker."

Gerard smiled. "Back at full capacity. How's Bob doing on the floor?"

Since Bob was the new guy he was on nights for the moment, would be for probably another year or so, depending. Mikey didn't work with him much, but he would gossip with the others nurses, would know if there were problems.

Mikey said, "Other than the fact that Nitsa has a fruitless crush on him? He's been a life-saver. Literally and otherwise."

Nitsa was the night nurse, a thirty-two year old divorcee with two jobs to support her and her child. She was pretty enough in a rough way, but Bob was as gay as--if not gayer than--both Gerard and Mikey, so yeah, fruitless was the word for it.

"She letting it get in the way of the job?" Gerard frowned. Nitsa was nothing if not the consummate professional.

"No," Mikey shook his head. "I just--"

"Pay attention," Gerard said.

Mikey shrugged. Mikey's attention to people and what they wanted or needed was part of what made him such a damn good nurse. Gerard pushed down at the twinge of guilt he always felt at the fact that Mikey stayed at the clinic, even more underpaid than he would have been at any of the hospitals that would have snapped him up in a second. Gerard tried to make up for it in appreciation, but he was aware that he didn't always manage.

"You're gonna like him," Gerard told Mikey.

"The new case worker? I like most people."

"Yeah, but you're really gonna like him." Gerard couldn't have said why it was so important. Sure, Frank was the hottest thing ever to have been assembled and brought into existence, but Gerard had a rule about dating. Largely that he didn't. His HIV status made it complicated, even with other infected persons, and he was always, always at the clinic anyway, which guys only understood up to a point. He had no intention of letting his dick lead him to places he didn't want to go. All the same, it seemed important that Mikey see what he had seen, maybe since Mikey was his voice of reason a lot of the times, the way Gerard could tell when he was being completely spastic as opposed to just visionary.

"I believe you," Mikey said.

"Forty-five thousand dollars worth of like."

Mikey shook his head, but he was smiling.

*


The problem with Gerard, Mikey would have told someone--had he had anyone to tell--was that he was wrong so fucking often, but when it was important, he was always right.

It was an annoying trait for a brother to have.

He was right about Frank. Frank showed up early on his first day, his shirt actually ironed like they might give marks for presentation, his hair parted and combed to the sides and a smile that had Mikey smiling back before he could even really think about it. He said, "Hi, I'm Frank," and when he shook Mikey's hand, he brought his other hand around, over the back of Mikey's. Mikey thought, Yeah, okay, forty-five, easy.

He'd have to see if some of his old nursing school buddies over at Red Cross could get them on the list of charities for the season. He made a mental note to call around on his lunch hour.

Mikey said, "Mikey. Wanna tour?"

"That would be great. Also," Frank grabbed a brown bag from the counter, "if there's a fridge?"

"As long as we have electricity," Mikey said. That bill had come earlier in the week.

Frank said, "I hear that."

"So you did your degree out of SF State?"

"Undergrad and grad."

"I was UCSF under and USF for nursing school, but a lot of the women who did nursing with me came out of SF State. I heard some stories."

Frank laughed. "I bet. I was kinda busy being on a ginormous amount of work study funding."

"Mm, I worked food halls for my first three years. It made me really good at having food thrown at me."

"Which naturally lead you to nursing."

It was Mikey's turn to laugh. "Patients get feisty."

He showed Frank the break room and the patient rooms and introduced him to Esperanza, the day-time doctor; Louise and Martin, the other case managers; and Sidney, the receptionist. The final stop was his office. Frank said, "Do I seriously have a window?" and spent some time looking out of it, onto the street. It was not a great view unless one was thoroughly enraptured by twenty-four hour shops and a hodge podge of ethnic restaurant fronts. Mikey could feel the excitement coming off of Frank.

Mikey said, "Well, we try our best for our employees."

"We?" Frank asked.

"Oh. Gerard's my older brother. I help out with the administrative stuff."

"You guys don't look very alike."

"I hear it's in our smile."

"I guess I'll have to pay attention."

"Speaking of admin stuff, wanna fill out your I9 and W4 and all that? Get you set?"

"'Want' might be a strong term."

"Fair enough. Get yourself situated, I'll be right back." Mikey left, but not without noticing that Frank took a second more to look out the window.

*


Friday night Gerard pulled Mikey from the store room where he was doing inventory and said, "C'mon, dinner."

Mikey looked at what was left to do. "I dunno, Gee."

Gerard smiled at him, the smile Mikey was never able to resist. "We're taking Frank out. A way-to-go on surviving his first week. Bob's even gonna meet up with us, and Ray and Jane." Jane was their pharmaceutical supplier, Ray their off-site lab-tech--and Bob's roommate.

"It was quite a first week," Mikey said softly, still looking at the boxes of painkillers, sedatives, anti-virals.

Frank had been attacked by one of his clients--a meth-head--on Tuesday. Gerard had thought he was a goner for sure, but he'd just sat still as Mikey cleaned him up and, looking at a few of the scratches said, "Well, at least we were both positive ahead of time."

Then he'd taken his next appointment.

Gerard had looked at Mikey who'd held his hands up in a clear gesture for "you were right."

"Hey, it's not a party without you," Gerard told him. "Don't make me sad."

"Fine. But if we run out of meds unexpectedly next week, I'm making you deal with Jane."

"I'll have you back by seven, I promise." Gerard had to be back anyway. He was working on a grant that was due the next week. He'd planned to have it done ahead of time, but in the grand tradition of Gerard's plans, one of their water pipes had broken late in the week and he'd been derailed trying to get that fixed up stat.

Mikey gave. "I am kinda hungry."

Gerard grabbed his hand and tugged him to his feet, showering him with a full-blown grin.

The others were already at the restaurant when Gerard and Mikey arrived. Gerard pointed at Mikey, "Blame him."

Ray pulled at the chair next to him, "Why don't you sit here, Mikey Way, so that I can do that properly?"

Mikey sat. Gerard gave Ray a considering look, but Ray was busy seeing if Mikey wanted anything to drink, so he let it go. Besides, Bob had saved him a chair next to Frank. Bob was an awesome, if cruel and enabling, friend.

It helped that Frank was his employee. Gerard really, really didn't date his employees. That was just bad form.

"Regretting your decision yet?" Gerard asked.

"Regretting yours?" Frank threw back.

Gerard smiled. "You bully your cases a lot, don't you?"

"That's confidential, you should know better."

Jane laughed. "I like this one, Gerard."

Frank peered obviously at her left hand. "Too bad you appear to be taken."

"Mm, and her wife'd kick your ass," Gerard told him.

"Too true," Jane said with a proud smile.

Frank said, "Tragic. I suppose I shall have to set my sights on the male offerings of the clinic, as Esperanza's boyfriend scares the crap out of me as well."

"Gerard's available," Bob told him. Gerard took back every nice thing he had ever thought about Bob. Every single last one.

"I don't date employees," Gerard said with as much dignity as humanly possible, given that he couldn't chance looking at Frank or he might fall prey to the hotness. He'd worn a t-shirt this evening, a black, cotton thing, on its last threads. Gerard had considered tearing it off of him.

Frank sipped at his soda. "Too bad," he said. "I have a thing for older men with wide smiles."

There were times when Gerard really wished he'd never given up smack.

*


Saturday and Sunday mornings were generally the busiest times at the clinic. Joshua, their weekend nurse who came in to provide Mikey with back-up was genuinely one of Mikey's favorite people in the entire world, though, so that made it all right.

Joshua tended to bring donut holes, which he liked because they were easy to stuff in one's mouth between taking patients.

Mikey liked them because Mikey liked just about anything fried and sugary.

Frank discovered the donut hole tradition on his second Saturday with the clinic, when he came in to meet with clients who couldn't come in on the weekdays and to catch up on paperwork. He said, "Okay, seriously, where the hell is there a Krispy Kreme?"

"I commute in from Daly City."

"Joshua is a kept man," Mikey said.

Joshua grinned. "I earn my keep."

"And your long-time and forever-always lets the clinic keep its earnings," Gerard said, coming in to horn in on the donuts as he was forever doing, despite the fact that he didn't have to deal with people at all on the weekends if he didn't want to.

Mikey took one of the two he'd sneaked right from his hand.

Frank said, "Sorry?"

"My partner, Lance. He's a corporate lawyer who makes himself feel better about making the world a worse place by donating time to organizations that need legal representation but can't really afford it."

"Namely," Gerard said, "us."

"He's been our rep pretty much since we opened our doors," Mikey told Frank. "He's seen us through over twelve malpractice suits. Mostly OD'ers whose families didn't even know where they were until the state contacted them about the death and they smelled money." Mikey had lost fourteen pounds during the prep for the first case. They'd gotten easier to handle after that, as he'd learned to trust Lance, but as much as Gerard and Mikey kept the clinic running, Mikey didn't kid himself that the clinic didn't keep the two of them running every bit as much.

Mikey had nightmares about what would happen to Gerard if they had to close.

Gerard handed Frank a donut hole. "What are you doing here on this not entirely fine December morning?"

"I have a window," Frank told him.

Gerard said, "Yeah, we had that put in special for you."

Frank ignored him admirably, "Also, clients."

Kendra, the weekend receptionist said, "I'm gonna need in on those, and also, Mikey, Joshua, we're filling up pretty fast."

Mikey popped two more donuts and went to go save his corner of the world.

*


The lab results generally came by courier, but occasionally, if there was a batch that finished up right as Ray was leaving or while he was running errands on a lunch break, he would bring them by himself. Ray had been their lab tech since about six months into the venture--the first time he'd dropped the results off and Mikey'd said, "Wow, um, I've never had a tech do that before."

Ray had shrugged. "There are actually people in those results."

That was all it had taken for Mikey to start writing, "If possible, please have Ray run the labs" at the top of every sample envelope or vial. By the third week, Ray had told him, "People have pretty much figured out that the clinic is my territory, unless I'm overrun or out."

Mikey had asked, "Was that kind of an asshole-ish thing to do?"

Ray had smiled. "It was good for my ego, but I think you've made yourself some lifelong enemies among the other techs."

"Really?"

"No."

"Oh, good." Mikey hated making enemies, particularly ones he hadn't even intended to make.

Ray had dropped them off twice this week, which was kind of a high percentage. And one of the drop offs had been made at nearly seven, which was almost a good two hours after Ray should have been heading home. Mikey said, "I don't mean to pry, but are you and Bob having issues?"

"What?" Ray asked, seeming genuinely perplexed, which was reassuring.

"Just, you usually go home earlier than this. I thought you might be avoiding the apartment."

"Oh." Ray shook his head. "No, Bob and I are fine. The lab was just busy today."

"Not that I don't appreciate the TLC, but you know the couriers will actually bring these, day or night, right?"

"But then I wouldn't get to talk to the world's best nurse."

"Joshua's only around on weekends, but Nitsa's here, if you wanna chat."

Ray cuffed Mikey lightly around the ear. "I said best."

Mikey looked away. He could feel himself blushing which was stupid because this was Ray, and besides, Mikey was done with that noise. He should have been done after Matt, after Gerard had actually had to fucking break up with Matt for him, but no, he'd tried again with James and well, Mikey could be a fool when it came to his emotions, but he wasn't a complete mental case. Enough was enough. When he'd regained some composure--and normal skin tone--he turned his face back to Ray. He held up the envelope. "Thanks for these."

"Sure. Listen, you sometimes get Wednesday nights off, right?"

"Depends on the week. Generally somewhere in there. Tuesdays and Thursdays are a probable bet, too. Why?"

"I'm starting up a DJing gig at a local club. One Wednesday a month. Maybe you'll come out one of those times? You could bring friends. It would be excellent if you brought friends."

"Worried nobody's gonna show?"

"Mildly petrified," Ray admitted with a goofy smile.

"People will show," Mikey said. "It's a club, in San Francisco. The odds are good. What kinda music?"

"Some punk, a little bit of hardcore. If you were to make a request, I imagine I could fulfill that."

"So maybe The Smiths?"

"Very definitely The Smiths."

"How much is admission?"

"I'm pretty sure I can get you in for free."

"Doesn't that affect how much you get paid?"

"Nah, it's an hourly contract. And I'd be willing to take the hit, in any case."

Mikey considered telling Ray that sweetness turned him off. He kept his mouth shut. Ray looked happy, and Mikey had never been much good at killing people's buzzes. There wasn't quite enough joy in the world for Mikey to be quashing it at will. "Get me a flier, okay?"

"If I get you a few, will you hang them here? You get a fair amount of scene kids around this place."

"No problem," Mikey said.

"Totally the best," Ray reiterated, and headed out.

When he was out of earshot Mikey said, "Done done done," aloud, just to remind himself. That was all.

*


Mikey ended up taking Frank and Bob to the club, because Gerard was sleeping off the period of four days straight he'd spent prepping for their largest blood drive of the year. As a newer, and largely independently-run clinic, they couldn't often get the supplies they needed from Red Cross or the hospitals, and had to do it on their own for the most part. The blood drive had been Gerard's idea, as most of the bigger, more exciting parts of the clinic tended to be. Everybody always came for the cookies. Gerard had somehow gotten Tom's Cookies to donate the cookies years back, and they had supported the event with cookies every year since. The event was a to do, but it always left Gerard wrung out.

Mikey had gotten just enough sleep over the planning period to be wired on his lack of it, ready to go out, have some fun.

Frank, Frank was an excellent good time. Bob mostly wanted to sit and enjoy the music, but Frank was willing to get out on the floor, sidle up into Mikey, keep him grounded while letting him float. About an hour in Frank leaned into Mikey's ear to say, "I have to take my meds."

Mikey nodded and followed him off the floor. Frank got himself a glass of water at the bar. Mikey chatted with Bob while Frank downed his Combivir/Sustiva/Agenerase cocktail and finished up the water. Bob asked, "Want some more?"

Frank shook his head, "I'm good. Gonna go dance some more with the hottest boy in here."

"Hottest, huh?" Bob asked.

"You lose points for sitting still," Mikey told him with a smile, and followed Frank back out to the floor. They were close again, close enough that Mikey could say, "Good thing my brother's not here, huh, or I'd totally be knocked off my mantle."

"I wouldn't feel too threatened," Frank said. "The hotness factor is neutralized by his complete lack of interest."

Mikey lost the beat. He took a moment to find it. "We're both talking about Gerard, right?"

"You have other brothers I've been ogling? Way to hold out, Mikey Way."

"No, I just lost you at the 'lack of interest' part."

"He doesn't date his employees, or haven't you heard? And I like him and all, but I love my job."

"Jesus, Frank, you're a case manager, you of all people should be able to know bullshit when you hear it."

"He does date employees?"

"Well, he hasn't, ever, but Gerard hasn't dated since the tests came back positive almost four years ago."

"He get it from an ex who lied?"

Mikey had a flash of the way the clinic had started--as a place to get clean needles. Mikey was as comfortable with needles as a person could get, but when he worked that part of the clinic something in him was always chilled. "No. He just doesn't want to risk infecting a partner."

Frank nodded. "You ever get tired of him being so damn noble?"

Constantly. It worried Mikey. Made him fear the infection would get Gerard before Gerard was ever allowed a few moments of contentedness. "You love it."

"I'm pretty done in by it," Frank said with an honesty that would have made Mikey flinch, if he were easy to get a reaction from.

"You have to learn not to listen to him," Mikey said. "I mean, listen, when he's telling you about the world and his ideas and all of those things? Listen. But when he's talking about himself? You have to just shut it out. Trust your own instincts."

"I take it I have your approval to seduce him mercilessly in that case?"

"Would it matter?"

"Yes," Frank said, his eyes settling squarely on Mikey.

Mikey said, "My permission, then, certainly. I'll withhold judgment on approval until more of the facts have presented themselves."

Frank said, "I can appreciate caution in a man."

*


"This is kind of deeply awesome," Frank commented, handing Gerard a peanut butter chocolate chip cookie.

Gerard looked at the cookie.

Frank said, "You eat them, they're good."

Gerard snatched it from him, rolling his eyes. "Next year I'm making you run this."

"Mm, no thanks, but I get the feeling you wouldn't mind giving over the clean needle education program."

Gerard chewed slowly. "You been talking to Mikey?"

"You had your sleeves rolled up the other night when I came by your office to talk about my caseload."

Gerard looked away.

"Don't," Frank said. "We all have our shit. And you got yourself clean. You did this," Frank spread his hands to indicate the number of people in lines to donate blood to a clinic that serviced largely prostitutes, drug addicts and other populations that were often considered undeserving of the aid.

Gerard took another bite of the cookie and changed the subject. "Mikey tell you peanut butter is my favorite?"

"No, that was a calculated risk on my part. You seemed like a peanut butter kind of guy."

Gerard smiled. "What exactly gives me away?"

"Lickable fingers."

Gerard said, "Sorry, what?"

Frank said, "Enjoy the cookie, I think I'm on my shift for registration."

Gerard watched him go. He shook his head slowly. If he just got through the holidays--which were always a train wreck at the clinic--he could take a couple of days and just sleep. Then he would be able to remember why it was important that he not get involved with people who were on his staff and valued employees and probably as susceptible to his strain of HIV as he was to theirs, which would only make things worse.

Until then he was going to find Mikey, who was busy drawing people's blood and say--in between victims--"You can't be telling Frank I like peanut butter."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Mikey asked.

"This," Gerard said, brandishing what was left of the cookie. "My personal tastes are not yours to spread about to anyone whom you so like."

"Gerard, I haven't said a word about your preferences to Frank. I haven't told him you like peanut butter nor that you have a full-blown silk sheets fetish, which, by the way, is information I could have died happily without knowing."

"If you didn't tell him, who did?"

"I dunno, why don't you ask him?"

"I did."

"And he said?"

"That my lickable fingers gave me away."

Mikey spit laughter.

"Oh, blow me," Gerard said.

"If I weren't your brother and Frank weren't so clearly standing first in line."

"You could be a little supportive, you know, of my totally reasonable intention not to date one of my case managers."

"Gee, let me ask you something: has there ever been a time when you've had a good idea that I haven't backed you up?"

Gerard thought. And thought.

Mikey said, "I'm just gonna go get us some blood. You keep thinking."

Gerard would, thank you very much.

*


Frank said, "I know I'm not on your list of people for whom it is okay to consume food items with, but I'm betting it's about time for you to take your meds, and that shit goes down hard without sustenance, so if I ordered out, would you be willing to sit and digest concurrently with me?"

Gerard looked up from the governmental aid form that was doing its best to give him the migraine of his life. "How long were you working on that little speech?"

"Pretty long, I'd appreciate it if you rewarded my efforts."

"Where are you ordering from?"

Frank walked over and slid the yellow pages he was carrying onto Gerard's desk. "You tell me."

Gerard flipped to his favorite Pakistani restaurant.

"How spicy is this gonna be?" Frank asked.

"I can't do spicy. The meds--"

"Burn a hole in your stomach? Yeah, me too."

"The restaurant is northern Pakistani. They're not as intense with the spice. And this place makes a really good Kashmiri chai."

"You do realize it doesn't get cold here, right?"

"What are you, from the Great White North?"

"Something like that," Frank said. "Far enough north to know this isn't winter."

"I went to school in Vermont," Gerard said. "I've known winter, once or twice." He keyed up the site for the Pakistani restaurant on his computer and let Frank peruse.

Frank asked, "Vermont?"

"Bennington. It's where Bob and I met."

"But here was home, right? Or did you just come out here after Mikey?"

"No, here was home. Mikey never had any desire to roam."

"And you had a desire for Vermont?"

"It was across the country."

"Angry youth?" Frank asked with a smile.

"I prefer the term 'misunderstood'," Gerard told him with a matching smile.

"When did you get yourself understood?"

"Not sure. I went to New York after school thinking that would do it, that somewhere in Modern Bohemia there had to be another person as misunderstood as I was, but the funny thing about misunderstood twenty-one year-olds is that they're pretty invested in their isolationist tendencies."

Frank pointed to the item he wanted on the menu. Gerard picked up the phone and ordered.

When he hung up he asked, "What about you? Were you misunderstood?"

"No," Frank said, "no, I was sweet."

Gerard laughed a little. "I'll just bet."

"You ended up back here, though."

"There was always one person who understood me," Gerard said. He didn't think about the way Mikey had looked at him when he'd returned, strung out and needing his next hit, didn't think about the way Mikey had waited, waited until Gerard was lying at his very own rock bottom, able to go no further before pulling him back. Because if he hadn't, it would never had worked. He didn't think about how Mikey had trusted him without Gerard even having had to apologize. He had apologized. Mikey had just smiled and said, "I missed you." He hadn't meant the intervening years of college and failed professionalism.

"I always wanted a brother," Frank said.

"Only child?"

Frank nodded.

"Yeah," Gerard said. "That would've sucked."

*


"You doing anything for Christmas?" Gerard asked.

Frank looked up from the case he'd been buried in. "In school I used to pretend I was Jewish and crash their Chinese dinners, but I haven't seen any roving gangs of the Chosen People wandering around this neighborhood, so no, not so much."

Gerard laughed. "Mikey and I are always here on Christmas Day, since the traffic from domestic disputes tends to be...we'll say impressive, and the end of the year is when a lot of my government stuff has to reach its intended targets, but we try to get away for the Eve. Even if it's just to hang out with the Jews in Chinatown. You wanna come?"

"I thought you guys had family here?"

"No, my dad's company transferred him to Texas Mikey's senior year of high school. Mikey stayed here with some friends. We try and get out to Texas once a year or so, and they come back here at least as often, but Christmas was never--" Gerard shrugged. "My mom wasn't much of a cook and my parents are both lackadaisic spiritualists who are vaguely disgusted by the commercialism of Christmas, so it wasn't our big thing."

"You sure you don't mind me tagging along?"

Gerard frowned. "Where did that come from?"

"It just doesn't seem like you and Mikey get a hell of a lot of time to be brothers, you know? Instead of coworkers. And you said you guys try to take Christmas Eve. Sounded like it might be a little bit of a tradition."

Until this moment, Gerard hadn't thought about it that way. Mikey had looked at him a little bit funny when Gerard had said, "I don't think Frank has anywhere to go for the holiday."

But Mikey wasn't the type to leave someone on his own if he could help it. He'd recovered pretty quickly, said, "Yeah, you should see if he wants to join us."

Gerard sometimes missed patterns. He said, truthfully, if somewhat misleadingly, "I talked to Mikey. He doesn't think we should leave you to wander around in search of your lost tribe."

"Mikey's maternal like that."

Gerard laughed. Mikey was maternal. He was also self-aware. "What d'you say?"

Frank smiled. "I think my plans for that night were to be here, catching up. So as long as you don't mind me slacking, I say that sounds great."

"I will expect to see you in here bright and early the next morning, slacker."

"I could have sworn you said something about eight holidays per calendar year in my interview."

"That's the Combivir. It'll do wacky things to your mind."

Frank huffed knowingly. "Along with just about every other part of you."

The cocktail was an every-day sort of absolute miracle, but it was a pain in the ass to keep up and had a fair number of what Gerard forced himself to think of as "quirks"--otherwise known as side-effects. "You hear about the new all-in-one they've almost approved?"

"Gonna cost an arm and a leg."

Gerard nodded. "Yeah." The two-pill that he was on came with a hefty price tag as it was. He knew Frank was still taking them in threes. Still, Gerard was always happy with any progress on the treatment front, even if he couldn't really benefit from it.

Into the silence at that statement, Frank said, "Thanks, you know. For inviting me. That was-- You didn't have to."

Gerard warned, "Just so you know, Mikey likes Christmas carols. He'll totally lie and say it's me--"

"I like Christmas carols," Frank said. "Who doesn't like Christmas carols?"

Gerard grinned and admitted, "I don't know."

*


The three of them ended up eating Japanese, since J-town was slightly less overrun on Christmas Eve than Chinatown. Plus, sushi was one of Mikey's absolute favorite things in this world and Gerard wouldn't often go to a sushi bar with him since he didn't eat it. Eating sushi seemed like asking to contract an infection, as far Gerard was concerned. But they chose a place where Gerard could get himself a huge bowl of Udon and everybody could be happy. Especially Mikey.

Frank--who clearly lived dangerously--ordered sushi right alongside Mikey. The two of them traded pieces of their respective rolls, chopsticks held neatly in between their fingers.

Gerard didn't watch Frank eat. He didn't.

Afterward they went back to Mikey's place. Mikey lived in a shoebox, but it was a shoebox that was consistently neat, which was more than Gerard could say for his own shoebox.

Mikey said, "I got us something."

Gerard grinned. Mikey always got the best "somethings".

Mikey disappeared into the kitchen and came back with his surprise. Gerard said, "I might love you a little bit right now, Mikey Way."

Frank asked, "It was the ribbon cookies that tipped the scales?"

Mikey offered him a cookie before Gerard, which was just cruel. Gerard took one and Mikey told him, "If you can wait long enough, I've got hot chocolate, too."

"You couldn't have held off on showing me the cookies?" Gerard asked.

"Where would the fun have been in that?"

"Swiss Miss?" Gerard was aware that he was perking up like damn dog. There was nothing to be done for it.

"Ghirardelli, plebe. It's Christmas," Mikey said, like maybe he was a little hurt by the question. Mikey had always been more into the holiday season than the rest of them, bringing home wreaths to hang on the door, draping his door with lights, believing in reindeer that came in the night despite the fact that their presents were always just laid out on the fireplace.

Gerard put his cookie back in the tin and swept by Mikey, kissing his forehead briefly. "I'll go make the hot chocolate. Sit."

Mikey called after him, "Read the instructions."

Gerard flipped him off before disappearing into the two inches of space that demarcated Mikey's kitchen. The tin of mix was sitting on the counter. Gerard grabbed the milk from the sink and a pot from the dish drainer and went to work combining the necessary amounts of powder with the correct amounts of liquid. When the drinks heated to their proper temperature, Gerard poured even amounts into three separate glasses. He managed to carry all three of them into where Mikey and Frank were both sitting on the couch. Frank reached up and took his from Gerard. Gerard handed a second one to Mikey and went to go sit on the floor.

Mikey took Gerard's hot chocolate from him, set them both on the couch's arm and pulled Gerard down to sit in between him and Frank. It wasn't a large couch, so the fit was tight, but they could all sit in comfort.

Gerard reached over Mikey and took his hot chocolate back. "Cookie," he demanded loftily.

Frank handed one to him. Gerard dipped it a little in his hot chocolate and then let it crumble into his mouth. "Mm, Merry Christmas," he said, to nobody in particular.

Mikey bit into his own cookie with a smile. Frank stopped blowing over the surface of his hot chocolate to smile that deep, wide-set, pleased-down-to-the-tips-of-his-very-toes smile. "And a happy new year."

It sounded sort of prophetic when he said it.

*


Mikey had just helped stitch a hand wound garnered during a drunken fight between husband and wife when Ray came in on New Year's Eve. He arrived bearing sparkling cider and chocolate-covered cherries from Harry & David's. Mikey'd been on shift for over thirteen hours at that point--holiday scheduling always ended up being a little less idea even than usual--and he was running on Gerard's coffee deliveries and Bob's sense of humor.

He said, "Okay, I happen to know for sure that the lab has been very closed for several hours now."

Ray said, "Happy New Year's."

"Is it after midnight?" Mikey would readily admit he'd lost track somewhere around nine.

"Nope, not quite yet. Gerard and Bob still here?"

"We're a party of three."

"Convenient that I brought enough glasses," Ray said and set four plastic champagne glasses out on the reception desk.

Bob appeared, looking at the reception area frightfully. There were two patients waiting in the exam rooms, one who seemed to have sprained her ankle while walking home from work, the other having been mugged, but Mikey didn't think he was concussed, just severely inconvenienced. They could both be left on their own for a few minutes. The waiting area was empty, the calm of nearly midnight on New Year's suspending everything for just a bit. Mikey was amazed at the way it happened every year, despite the rest of the night being a general train wreck.

Bob said, "Hey, home too quiet for you?"

"Saying Happy New Year's to yourself just isn't quite the same, you know?" Ray poured the cider.

"Gee!" Mikey called.

Gerard poked his head out of his office. "Something-- Oh. Hi, Ray."

"Come toast," Ray said. "I got a Gerard-appropriate beverage."

"It say that on the label?" Gerard asked, but he was coming.

"Right there." Ray pointed to the spot that said, "safe for children." Mikey snickered. Gerard made a face at him.

"What are we drinking to?" Gerard asked.

"To Mikey getting laid by a quality gentleman," Bob said while looking at Ray.

Mikey said, "Don't involve me in any of your sick Household of Gay Gayness games," and ignored the way Ray looked at Bob somewhat sternly. "Besides, I think if anyone needs to get themselves laid by quality gentlemen, it's Bob and Ray. Gay Gayness just isn't as much fun without sex."

"Or we could just drink to our health," Ray said.

Mikey slid his free arm around Gerard's shoulders and squeezed. "I like that idea."

Gerard tilted his head, resting it on Mikey's shoulder. Mikey made sure he was at just the right height for Gerard to rest there comfortably.

Bob asked, "How much longer? Because I probably should--"

Ray cut him off with a, "Five."

Mikey and Gerard went along with him for the, "Four, three, two, one."

Bob said, "Happy New Year."

The plastic didn't really clink when it came into contact, but Mikey felt the impact nonetheless.

*


Gerard should have known better than to start feeling safe, because that was always, always when the worst of the danger appeared. It was just that Frank had been behaving himself throughout all of January.

Granted, after the first week, wherein Gerard tried to work normal, eight hour days--it was normally more like ten, but that was better than his usual twelve or more--January was a hellish month, full of figuring out the annual budget and where more money was going to need to be found and how exactly to find that money. This year was more extensive with the needle program expanding further into the city, and Frank's extra two grand, and Gerard's desire to start providing flu shots at a minimum cost.

The beginning of February was never fun, since despite San Francisco not having a winter, that was generally when the worst of the respiratory infections, colds, and sinus problems flooded their doors. Inventory had to be done and supplies ordered and Gerard was lucky that Mikey had a good system for making sure everything got accomplished, because Gerard was fantastic at the big stuff, but sometimes the little things necessary to get there weren't precisely his forte.

So it was that when Frank said, "Hey, you wanna catch lunch with me some time next week?" Gerard didn't think to look at his calendar before asking, "Sure, what'd you have in mind?"

"Thursday?" Frank asked.

"Yeah, should be fine. I'm actually supposed to be off, but--"

Frank smiled. "I know the drill. I just want somebody to try this new Greek place I found with."

"Mm, Greek."

Frank said, "Great," and Gerard didn't think anymore about it until he mentioned to Mikey that he might join and Mikey said, "Uh, I don't think so."

Gerard said, "What, why not?"

"Because, dickface, Thursday is February 14th."

"I know that date," Gerard said, his stomach fighting to either rise up in his throat with very, very unauthorized elation or sink down to his toes with completely reasonable trepidation. "Um. Oops?"

"Frank is like a true evil genius." Mikey was looking at Gerard with an expression of suppressed amusement. "You seriously didn’t know?"

"If I'd known I would have asked if it could wait until Friday. Obviously." Gerard pitched around for a solution. "You think it's too late to cancel? Maybe you could have an emergency on Thursday. Help a guy out."

"I'm not helping you to break Frank's heart. You're gonna have to do that all on your own."

"He's not in love, Mikey, he has a puppy crush--"

"Shut up, Gerard."

Gerard blinked at Mikey.

"You always think you know about other people and sometimes you're good at it, really good, but most of the time you're complete crap. I don't know much about Frank--he doesn't like to talk about himself and I'm sure he's got his reasons--but I know that whatever he's doing, it's got shit to do with puppies."

"Mikey--"

"I know, I know, you like to save the world and you think you're poison, you think the virus makes you untouchable, but you would never look at him and tell him he couldn't pursue something with someone else, even though he has the same fucking disease. And he's an adult, sometimes I think he's more of an adult than anyone in this clinic, definitely mentally mature enough to make the decision to try and date you, no matter how insane that attempt might currently seem to me or any other objective observer."

Gerard looked down at his desk. There were papers in front of him, papers he'd been working with minutes before. The words swam before him, indistinguishable and undecodable.

Mikey sighed. "Gee." He rubbed his hands over his face. "Oh Gee. Just-- He wants to go to lunch with you. And you like him. You haven't looked at someone else in so long, you haven't seemed like you could be happy since--"

Gerard knew. Since before the drugs, since college, probably. And Mikey hadn't gotten to see that. Quietly, he said, "Sometimes I think you could have been in some nice forty hour a week job, you know? You could have a life, is what I'm saying. Instead you watch over me and this clinic. I don't want that for the people I love, or even could love. I don't want to be the thing that keeps them back."

Mikey said, "It's not that I don't love you and that I probably wouldn't be here if not for you, but this clinic serves hundreds of people of all ages who otherwise couldn't afford healthcare. I don't exactly feel like I'm wasting my nursing degree or my life. And Frank found his way here on his own."

Gerard chewed the inside of his cheek. "It is just lunch."

Mikey leaned over the desk to kiss the top of Gerard's head. "I'm gonna have to tell you this again before this is over, but you deserve it. Just lunch, and everything else."

Mikey left the office and Gerard put his head down on the desk to wait for literacy to return.

*


Frank brought a sugar cookie with the words "Be My Valentine" iced in white on top to lunch. Gerard didn't like colored icing, the chemicals tasted weird to him. He wondered how Frank knew that for a moment before he remembered that he'd mentioned something at Bob's birthday party.

Frank said, "I, um. I was sort of hoping you'd realize what today was before today so that you wouldn't do something like walk out, because that would be sort of disheartening."

"Mikey said something. After I, uh, invited him."

Frank laughed, but he looked away, too.

Gerard said, "Hey. Hey, let's order, okay?"

"The thing is," Frank said, "I didn't really-- Until I met you there hadn't been anybody worth bothering for. So I'm sort of new at this. And you probably weren’t the easiest person to start with, but that would have been uncharacteristic of me, if you had been, so I can't be surprised, not totally, but--"

"You're doing all right," Gerard said softly. The problem with trying to do the right thing all the time was that sometimes he was well into being a complete ass before he realized it. Mikey could usually help with that, but sometimes Gerard had to stand on his own two feet, which sort of sucked.

"I could sign waivers. For sexual harassment. If you wanted."

Gerard looked at him. "That was never--"

"I know, but it was easier to tell myself."

Gerard looked at Frank who was facing him again, his gaze square on, eyes shifting just a bit more toward brown than they usually did. He thought, be a man, and then, more accurately, be brave. Gerard didn't really like being brave, but he could do it when called upon, he could. Frank seemed worth the effort. "It's just fucking scary. Trying something that could matter."

Frank nodded. "Terrifying. But I don't want this to be life. I mean, not that I don't love my job and Mikey and Louise and Martin and everybody, but I'm fairly certain there's something more, even if I haven't a fucking clue where I came by that idea."

"What if I disappoint you?"

"I'm kinda hard to disappoint."

"So is Mikey. And I've managed."

"Everybody's allowed a couple of huge, bridge-burning mistakes in their life. I hope, anyway. And what's to say I won't disappoint you?"

"You haven't yet."

"We haven't known each other very long."

"Gut feeling."

"Yeah, well, me too. And I have highly developed instincts. Case manager skill, you know."

"If you decide to leave me, do you promise to find another job?"

"Scout's honor."

"I don't trust the Boy Scouts."

"But I never was one, so the sentiment is worthy."

Gerard tried to figure out that logic. He couldn't, but Frank was smiling tentatively, so he let it go. "After lunch, you wanna share that cookie? It's kinda big."

Frank's smile transformed itself into a full-blown grin.

*


Ray brought the lab results on Valentine's Day, which wasn't such a big deal--it was a Thursday after all. Mikey was covering for Corey, the other day nurse, who normally would have been on shift. Corey was married and had an actual use for the day, so it seemed only fair.

Ray handed over the papers and smiled. "I was hoping you'd be here."

"Hey, I don't wish pain and misery on you," Mikey said, absently, flipping through the sheets in his customary check to make sure everything was there.

Ray laughed. "Stay here."

"Always," Mikey said, not thinking about it much.

Not thinking, that was, until Ray came back with a sizeable hanging plant.

Mikey touched one of the leaves. It was pliant and green and smelled like the outdoors. "Wow, um--"

"Bob said all the little potted things around here are yours."

"Esperanza helps with that," Mikey said.

Ray laughed. "Would you know how to take credit for something if I gave you written instructions?"

Mikey flinched. He tried not to, he did. Ray wasn't calling him stupid, Mikey knew. Matt had left him with some pretty instinctive reactions.

Ray stopped laughing mid-chuckle. "Hey."

Mikey waved his hand. "So you just. . .brought us a plant?"

"I brought you a plant, Mikey Way. To put wherever you want. To take care of. You like taking care of things."

"I'm good at it," and Jesus, Mikey didn't mean to sound like some kind of defensive mental-defective. This wasn't Matt. Gerard had told Matt if he ever came within a mile of Mikey he'd take him up the ass, latex-free. It was the first and last time Mikey had ever seen Gerard threaten someone with his condition.

Mikey hadn't been able to come up with a good enough threat on his own. Not by that point. He couldn't have said it even if he had.

Mikey shook his head slightly, annoyed. Matt was long gone, so was James--who had sort of been everything Mikey had ever wanted; everything, that was, but in love with Mikey--and Mikey was doing just fine on his own. Better than fine.

"You are," Ray agreed. "Best nurse in the world."

"Have a lot of comparison material?"

"Our lab does contract out for three of the major hospitals in the area, you realize? You're not the only nurse I know."

Mikey wasn't sure what to say to that.

"You are the only nurse I bring hanging plants to on Valentine's Day."

Mikey looked at the plant. It was utterly lush. It had probably cost way more than he could ever justify spending on a plant. The lab was for-profit. Despite their discounted work for the clinic, most of their customers paid. Ray probably earned more in a year than Mikey and Gerard put together--living with Bob, his living expenses weren't particularly steep. It wasn't a major expenditure for him, Mikey knew. Except that it was more than say, flowers. Mikey hated flowers. Oh, he enjoyed them in the ground, when they came out and died of their own accord, but cutting them? Putting them into a strange environment where they stood no chance of surviving?

Mikey shuddered.

Ray said, "I'll kill it, Mikey. Even if-- I mean, I get that I'm not really the kinda guy someone like you would--"

"What?" Mikey interrupted.

"I met James. I know what he looked like. I see you at least twice a week. I'm not exactly--"

"That's not it," Mikey said, and it wasn't. If he let himself think about it he would have found Ray cute. He had lips that were unbearably kissable and thighs that made Mikey wonder if he could attempt certain positions of which Mikey had only ever vaguely dreamed. He looked like a guy who could hold Mikey tight without hurting him. Mikey didn’t let himself think about it. "I decided after James. I decided no more."

"No more?"

"I'm a committed bachelor."

Ray nodded slowly. "Are you happy?"

Mikey was happier than he had been with Matt, happier than he had been after James had left him, found Stephen. "Yes."

Ray smiled tightly. "All right. Okay. Okay, well, that's--" He nodded. "Keep the plant? It will die at the lab or at our place and it's too damn pretty to let that happen."

Mikey kissed Ray's cheek. "If I was going to have myself a Valentine, it would definitely be you."

He took the plant and went to go find a place where it would cheer both him and the patients.

*


"I eavesdropped," Frank said, popping his head into Gerard's office.

"So you now know that we're running low on our saline supply?" Gerard asked.

"Um, no, not on you."

"Should I be feeling jealous?"

Frank rolled his eyes and walked in the office, closing the door behind him. "James was the doctor Esperanza took the day shift for, right?"

"Yeah, why?"

"What'd he do to Mikey?"

Gerard tensed. "What, exactly, were you eavesdropping on?"

"Ray and Mikey."

"Ray and Mikey, what?"

"Ray brought Mikey a plant for Valentine's Day."

"That was. . .surprisingly forward."

"And Mikey said that he decided after James not to date anymore. And the thing is, I can get it with you, I can understand that it's just fucking terrifying to have a partner with this shit inside of you, but Mikey's carrying around a full set of t-cells in a pretty attractive case, so I just--"

"James was just-- James wasn't so awful, at least, I mean, not when he and Mikey were together. Only Mikey fell in love and James didn't and then Stephen--"

"The guy I replaced?"

"Yeah. Stephen showed up and James did fall in love. Stephen returned the sentiment and, well. It wasn't even sordid. James broke up with Mikey when he realized what was happening, took a while before jumping in with Stephen, but James had been Mikey's first try after Matt, and Matt--" Gerard stopped and made himself take a breath.

"Gee?"

"I should have--" Gerard could hardly speak for the tightness of his jaw. "I should have caught on quicker, but that was still in the early days of the clinic and things were just so fucking crazy, and I didn't, I didn't realize at all until Mikey stopped talking, until he just shut the hell down."

"He. . .beat him?" Frank asked softly.

Gerard shook his head. "No, never laid a finger on him. I think if he had, I think I would have noticed, but he just stripped all his confidence inch by fucking inch. Made Mikey think he was ugly and stupid and unneeded and just--" Gerard fisted his hands so tightly the nails dug into his palms. The pain helped a little, not nearly enough.

"Hey," Frank said.

Gerard shook his head. He didn't want to be reassured. "Anyway." He took another breath, waited for it to settle all the way down to his stomach. "Matt was after Caleb, who straight up cheated on Mikey and well, Mikey's just sort of," Gerard waved his hand in the air without much of a pattern, "bruised."

"Bruises heal," Frank said.

"I know, but for a while I've, y'know, sworn off as well, so I couldn't say anything."

"I just, yeah, okay, but Ray? He seems like he really likes Mikey. I mean, maybe Mikey doesn't return the sentiment, and that's why he's standing by his decision, but if he has enough interest to even try under normal circumstances, well, Ray's a pretty good guy, you've gotta admit."

"Bob seems to think so," Gerard said. Bob had good taste, he always had.

"I shouldn't have listened, I know that. But Mikey sounded kinda sad. I have this problem where I really hate hearing him sad. It's compulsive."

Gerard nodded. "I know that problem."

"I thought I might have an ally in you."

Gerard asked, "Have an idea of where to start?"

Frank's smile spread slow and clean across his face. "As a matter of fact, I do."

*


Frank brushed his fingers over Gerard's wrist. "Stop fidgeting."

Frank's touch was calming, but it also made Gerard want to pin him to the nearest wall, drag his tongue right over those ridiculous lips. The latter didn't really help with the fidgeting problem. Gerard took a deep breath. "Remind me, in ten words or less, why I let you talk me into this."

"Mikey," Frank said.

"You're not usually so terse."

"Things aren't usually so easy." Frank knocked on the door, which occasioned barking and a shout of, "I know, Lizzy, I heard it, too."

"Ray has a dog?" Frank asked.

"Bob. There's a place on the way to the clinic that rescues dogs from puppy mills and he was walking by one day and Bob is even more of a softie than Mikey. It's nearly debilitating."

Ray opened the door holding to Lizzy's collar. "Oh, hey, you guys. Come on in before The First Lady of the Apartment gets free."

Frank and Gerard slipped in and Ray asked, "Either of you afraid of dogs?"

They both shook their heads and Ray let Lizzy free to sniff all over them. Gerard noticed the way Frank let her get good and used to his scent before ruffling the fur on her head. Frank was careful with things, people, like that. Even with Gerard, he was careful like that. Then again, with Frank, Gerard returned the caution.

He also noticed the way Lizzy stilled under touch until sure it wasn't going to be harsh.

Ray smiled. "She's getting better. At first she wouldn't let anyone but Bob touch her. Wouldn't even bite, would just hide behind the couch if anyone tried."

"New people can be scary," Frank said.

"Yeah. Listen, uh, Bob's at the clinic, you realize?"

"That's why we chose now to come by," Gerard told him.

"Okay." Ray drew the "o" sound out.

"I saw you give Mikey the plant," Frank admitted, right out.

Ray looked at Gerard, "I'm not harassing your brother, all right? He said no, I'm laying off."

Gerard nodded. "That's totally workplace appropriate of you. However, as I have chosen to sexually harass my own employees, I feel that to persecute you for doing so would be somewhat hypocritical of me. I try to avoid hypocrisy."

"That's, um, big of you, but he still said no, Gerard."

"Yeah, about that." Gerard tilted his head. "Frank and I agree that his commitment to loneliness is unhealthy. And Frank has a social worker degree. He knows these things."

Frank nodded solemnly.

"Wait." Ray narrowed his eyes. "You're telling me Mikey actually did swear off dating?"

Gerard nodded. "Frank said he told you."

"Well, yeah, but guys say that sort of thing to me all the time. I only tried for Mikey now because I figured it was my short window of opportunity. I'm not exactly-- I'm a lab tech, and I look like someone you'd stick in a lab. Don't get me wrong, I think I'm charming and a good time and I'd treat Mikey like a fucking gem, but that doesn't usually get me the guy, you know? I just figured that was his I-don't-wanna-hurt-you excuse."

"I'd do you," Frank threw out.

Gerard scowled.

"Well, not now," Frank amended. "As a hypothetical. Besides, I decided to go off guys who were thinking of other guys when they were sleeping with me."

Ray laughed. "So you guys are here to. . ."

"Form a club," Gerard said.

"A club?"

"More of a planning committee," Frank said.

"Still not with you."

"To help you get the guy," Gerard explained patiently. Mikey had told him that sometimes he got ahead of people. Not Frank. Frank was always right there beside him, if not ahead of him, waiting for him to catch up. It was nice.

"Gerard, the thing is, regardless of reason, Mikey did tell me no. I'm not hugely keen on denying him the right to that as a way to start our relationship."

"But he's sad," Frank said softly.

"And I think you could change that," Gerard said, his voice even, plain, a declaration of fact.

"Not that I don't appreciate the confidence, but--"

"Treat him like a fucking gem," Gerard said. "That was what you said. Treat him like a fucking gem. Nobody does that for Mikey, not even me, not really, not to the extent I should. Just once I want to see him have that. Even if it doesn't work out. And you-- You said you tried because this was your brief window of opportunity. You were willing to try even knowing you might get hurt. How does this make that any different? You're just fighting a different enemy than you presumed yourself to be."

Ray looked down at the ground for a bit. He brought his head up and glanced between Frank and Gerard. "The two of you aren't going to leave me alone until I agree to try, are you?"

They shared a look. Frank shook his head apologetically. "Probably not, no."

Ray said, "Good thing I have a gift for giving in gracefully."

*


Mikey stuck his head in Gerard's office. "C'mon, time to go."

"I still--"

"Oh, wait, you thought that was my negotiable tone? Sorry, I didn't mean to mislead you."

Gerard made a face at Mikey. Mikey was unmoved. "You haven't left here in over forty-eight hours. It's midnight snack and bed time."

"What kind of midnight snack?"

"What kind would make it easiest for me to drag your ass out of here?"

"Sopapillas," Gerard said without hesitation.

"Hungry?" Mikey asked.

"Starving."

"There's a phone right next to your hand. If you use it nice people will come and bring you flavorful and nutritional items."

"But then there would be no midnight sopapillas with you."

Mikey just looked at him.

"Fine, I maybe didn't realize until you said something."

"Have you at least taken your meds?"

"Yes, mom."

Mikey ignored the sarcasm. "You can't have just sopapillas."

"Wanna share tamales?"

Mikey never turned down tamales. "Up. Up."

Mikey drove them to their all-night spot for Mexican and the two of them dug into the tamale platter. Mikey was well on his way to blissed out on chile-infused pork and masa when Gerard came in with his sneak attack.

"I've decided to blackmail you."

Mikey choked slightly, then sipped at his watermelon Jarritos to recover. "Um. Care to further explain yourself?"

"You have to give Ray a try."

"Oh fuck. Who was playing 007?"

"Unimportant--"

"Beg to differ.

"--what's important is that you have to give him a try, or I'll stop with Frank right this instant."

Mikey looked at Gerard. "You have, I mean, some idea of exactly how cruel that would be, right?"

"You seem to have an adequate idea, so I leave Frank at your mercy."

"Gerard, you can't--"

"I shouldn't maybe, but these are desperate times, Mikey. You haven't dated in over a year, despite having definite options. I know you bury yourself in that place every bit as much as I do, more, sometimes, but there have still been chances, and you've deliberately ignored them and I've let you because I felt guilty that I let things get to where they got, but I'm done letting you hurt yourself more because I have inherited a societal sense of Puritanical responsibility and the claiming thereof."

Mikey gave himself a moment to work through all that. "So, to alleviate your ongoing suffering over things that are really mostly mine, you're forcing me into something I'm not ready for?"

"It sounds like a really fucked up idea when you say it that way, but the thing is, you are ready. You just haven't noticed. The way you knew that I was supposed to stop being pigheaded about Frank. Sometimes we need an outside party to recognize these sorts of things."

"What if I don't like him?"

"Then you'll know after a couple of dates and you can tell him it's not working and he'll be an adult about it, you know he will. So long as you're not lying to get out of having to try. Because that would be low, hurting Ray and lying to me. That would be unworthy of you."

Mikey sighed. It really would. "What if he realizes he doesn't like me? That I'm the guy you have for a good time but not--"

"Don't finish that sentence."

Mikey shrugged. It was self-evident. If it hadn't been, Caleb and Matt and James would have made it clear to him.

"If he does that, he'd best find some really good way to make you feel all right about it. Because if not, I will hire someone to kill him slowly while I watch."

There was a voice Gerard had that Mikey knew to believe. He was using it. "I'll still be hurt."

"And I'm completely without risk, over here, doing my thing with Frank?"

Mikey cut another chunk off the tamale and chewed thoughtfully. "Two dates."

"Five," Gerard said.

"Three."

Gerard tilted his head, "Three and one double date."

They shook on it.

*


Mikey went to the lab, because he needed to not have the conversation he was about to have at the clinic where a) he would remember it every time he walked past the spot where it had occurred, and b) the walls clearly had ears. He had only had to run out to the lab on one or two occasions, when something had gone incredibly wrong with the transfer of results and it was the quickest and most logical way to get what he needed. He'd never been further than the lobby. He didn't plan on being so now.

He had Ray paged and when Ray came he frowned. "Hey, Mikey. Something wrong with the results?"

"No, everything's good. Can we go outside for a couple of minutes? Do you have the time?"

"I left someone in charge of my tests, I'm pretty sure the lab won't explode. How's the smog today?"

"Breathable."

"Then let us go breathe."

Mikey wished he could. It made no sense to be nervous when he didn't even want to date Ray, was being coerced into trying, didn't make sense to care whether Ray said, "Nope, sorry, you missed your chance," even to not hope for that, but Mikey didn't hope for that and he did care. Rejection, he supposed, was rejection. When they were outside, Ray asked carefully, "You okay?"

Fine, Mikey was fine. Fine. "You know how last Thursday you brought me a really nice gift and I was sort of a douche?"

"I thought you seemed appreciative and polite."

That stopped Mikey. "You have an interesting way of reading people."

"It gets me by."

Mikey nodded slowly. "Right. Well, I-- If I were to ask, nicely, would the offer you were kind of making with the plant, would that still be on the table? Because I'd totally get if--"

"Thursday's generally one of your days off, right? When you take it."

"Yeah."

"You like West African cuisine?"

"I've only had it once."

"Willing to try it again?"

"Depends, will this place listen to me about the spice level?"

"I don't know about you, but I'm a regular, they'll give me just about anything I ask for. Why, you a wuss when it comes to that stuff?"

"I don't like it when my lips burn."

"Wuss," Ray said dramatically.

Mikey laughed, half amusement, half the release of tension held too long. "So, uh, I didn't fuck up too badly?"

"You took a week to think about it. How is that fucking up, Mikey Way?"

"I told you--"

"Yeah, I'll let you in on a secret: I change my mind sometimes, too."

Ray made it sound so utterly reasonable. Mikey said, "So, um. I could meet you at your place. At six. Or seven."

"Let's make it seven. Sometimes it takes me a while to get out of here."

"I know that feeling."

"If your lips get burnt, I'll just have to take you over to my favorite place for ice cream afterward."

It was stupid, Mikey knew, utterly moronic, to kind of hope that they got his order just a touch too spicy.

*


If one more thing caused him and Frank to have to cancel a date, Gerard was closing the clinic. Because if Gerard was going to decide to have a relationship with a man who was, quite possibly, the hottest male living on the planet--and evidently, he was--he would like to, you know, have a relationship with him.

So far they had planned four dates, and had to cancel every one of them.

Gerard thoroughly intended to kiss Frank on their first date, but any earlier seemed ungentlemanly, and seeing as how Frank hadn't initiated one either, he had the feeling Frank thought so as well. Or maybe they were both just scared out of their fucking minds.

Either way, a first date was clearly required for the kissing of his boyfriend, who had unfairly tempting lips and Gerard was getting very, very tired of being patient.

So on their fifth try, when they were heading out the door and one of Frank's clients showed up in the parking lot, Gerard asked, "Are you dying?"

Frank started, "Gee--"

"Nope," Gerard said, "No, no, no. If it's something you can give over to Martin, fine, but we, we are going to dinner."

Frank asked, "Evan, can this wait an hour?"

"I just needed somewhere to go," Evan said, and Gerard looked at him for the first time, really looked. He was all of eighteen, if that.

"Fuck," Gerard murmured. "Come on."

They took Evan back inside and got him some juice and crackers, since he was shaking, whether from fear or cold or low blood sugar or withdrawal, it was unclear. Gerard left Frank with him and went to go find Mikey, to beg, "Please, could you please watch after the kid, just for a little bit?"

"Do we know what's wrong?" Mikey asked.

"Frank's trying to assess."

"Suicidal?"

"If he is, none of the signs are forthcoming. Frank doesn't think so. He thinks he just got himself scared by something or another, knew this was a safe place. I trust you to keep him safe for an hour."

"Big of you," Mikey said.

"Mikey, plea--"

Mikey laughed. "Go, I've got it. You really thought I was going to keep you from going on your date? Jesus. Go. And for fuck's sake, take your time."

Gerard grabbed Frank's hand and did not look back until they were three blocks away.

Frank said, "I think we're home free."

"Don’t jinx it," Gerard warned.

"No, right."

The restaurant was no more than ten minutes away and they were both good at deciding and ordering within five, which left them a goodly amount of time to talk, but the non-stop pace of the past few weeks was catching up to them and they found themselves staring at each other tiredly.

Frank laughed. "We're kinda losers."

Gerard joined him in the laughter. "At the very least, workaholics."

"We're gonna have to get better about that."

"We really are."

"So, uh. Anything new?"

Gerard said, "Not since we talked this afternoon."

"I sort of love working at your clinic, but it makes this a little hard, I have to tell you."

"I told you to date someone you didn’t work with."

"I know, nobody but myself to blame, right?"

Gerard said, "I think you can go a little easy on yourself."

"If you say so. You're the employer in this relationship."

"Way to make me feel dirty."

"Oh, I can do better than that, trust me." Frank smiled, his eyes full of intended mischief.

Gerard did, which was surprising. He hadn't really trusted someone he'd known for less than ten or so years in a long while. "Maybe when there's not a table between us."

"That sounds easier," Frank agreed.

Gerard reminded himself that he really should eat. It was good for him. Really.

*


They ended up making out in the back of Gerard's car.

It wasn't supposed to happen that way, as that was neither gentlemanly nor very mature, but it was that or public making out, because going back to the clinic would distract them both and they would try, Gerard knew they would, but it just wouldn't happen. He wasn't locking them in a bathroom stall together. Not their first time, at least.

It was only a step up to take Mikey at his word about taking their time and drive Frank about twenty minutes out to a spot off the 101, climb into the backseat and haul Frank back there with him. Frank tried to help, which only made things messier, but soon enough Gerard had himself an armful of Frank and the access to slant his lips against Frank's, press and test and tease, only with every intention of giving Frank more.

Frank said, "Gerard," and there was such surprise in the tone, such unexpected happiness, that Gerard had to pull back a few seconds to look at Frank's grin.

Then he took the grin into his mouth. It tasted even better than it looked.

Gerard pulled Frank further onto him--Frank was tiny, Gerard needed as much of him as he could get. He slipped a couple of fingers under the hem of Frank's sweater--light cotton, just warm enough for the fog-drenched week they'd been having, and soft against Gerard's knuckles--to caress at the skin just above the waist of Frank's jeans. His fingers brushed at the vertebrae in Frank's lower back, just a little bit more pronounced than maybe they should have been. Frank didn't always have an appetite, the cocktail saw to that. Gerard knew Mikey pushed him to eat anyway.

Gerard spread his fingers out over Frank's lower back, and Frank squirmed a little but didn't try to free himself, just deepened the kiss.

Frank knew how to kiss. He knew how to kiss in ways Gerard hadn't suspected there were things to be known. Frank knew all the moments when sighing would get Gerard to open wider, when nibbling would get him to relax a bit, when licking would coax a moan from him. Frank seemed to catch on to all the secrets of Gerard's mouth, Gerard's pleasure centers, within minutes, and after that Gerard was absolutely lost, able to do nothing more than keep his hand where it was and let Frank do as he would.

Luckily, Frank was responsible with his gifts.

At some point Frank widened the space between his legs slightly so that he was fully straddling Gerard, so that their cocks were directly up against each other, if one ignored the layers of clothing in the way.

Gerard couldn't, but he was also frightfully glad for their presence--particularly when Frank rolled his hips without so much as a break in the cadence of his kiss-assault.

Gerard's fingers tightened against Frank's back. He had just enough awareness to keep the pressure at a level where it wouldn't bruise.

Frank kept the pace a little too easy, a little too slow and Gerard was tempted, oh so very tempted, to hold his hips, to finish things off for both of them directly.

He let Frank have his way.

He didn't really want this to be over.

Frank was making sounds into Gerard's mouth now, sounds that might have been a name, might have been his name. Or they might simply have been sounds.

Gerard swallowed them right down. Frank pressed a little more insistently and Gerard arched a little to meet him. He couldn't help the, "Fuck, so hot," that he muttered against Frank's lips.

Frank's laughter was unexpected, a little disbelieving.

"So," Gerard reiterated as his climax came on, gripping him in the stomach, the lungs, pulling him through a pleasure keyhole so fine he couldn't see the other end from where he was sitting before.

Frank was waiting for him on that end, his forehead pressed to Gerard's cheek, his breathing gentle even in exertion.

Gerard said, "I didn't mean for our first time to be in a car."

"You're sweet like that," Frank said.

"I thought you were the sweet one," Gerard said.

"Different kind of sweet."

Gerard licked his lips. Yeah.

*


In comparison, Mikey actually getting to go on a first date went off with relative ease. He did end up having to work that Thursday, since inventory needed to be taken and drug reps needed calling, but that was mostly stuff that had to be finished by the end of the work day anyway. In some cases, it needed to be finished by five Eastern Standard.

Gerard came by the stocking room at one point and told him, "That's because only one of you works here. Lucky bastard."

Mikey pretended amusement and tried not to worry about whether the jeans he'd brought along to slip into made him look too skinny. At some point during the day he
escaped into the bathroom simply to press cold water to his eyes and think, "Just a date. And you only promised three. And a double. But doubles are easy. Frank and Gerard can save you if need be. So three. Right. Three. Easy."

Luckily, Mikey's concentration only became more sharp when he didn't want to think about things that weren't patients and charts and medications, otherwise the clinic would have been a complete mess come the next week.

He changed before leaving--he wore his scrubs in the clinic even when he wasn't on duty because that wasn't any sort of guarantee that he wouldn't end up on duty.

Frank made him turn around two times before giving an official seal of approval. Bob pinched his ass and said, "If he gets fresh with you, just tell me."

"If he does?"

Bob grinned.

Gerard smiled the way he always smiled when he was trying not to look unduly worried. Mikey said, "I'll call you when I get home, all right?"

"Have a good time," Gerard said, just a tad too fervently.

Mikey left. He showed up at Ray's precisely on time. Ray didn't make him wait at the door, which was unusual in Mikey's experience and kind of flattering.

Ray asked, "You mind if I drive? I can get myself anywhere I need to go, but I blow with gale force winds at navigation."

Mikey spread his hands. "Be my guest."

The restaurant was about as big as Mikey's apartment, but for all that, it smelled sinful. Ray was super careful to make sure they didn't make Mikey's food too spicy, just savory, and Mikey said, "Oh, wow. This is really good."

Ray grinned. "One of my not-guilty pleasures."

"You get guilty about much?"

"My love of car racing."

Mikey blinked. "Like, Nascar?"

"Exactly like that."

"Um. The cars go in a circle."

"Yes, but they go very quickly in that circle and have you ever taken apart one of those engines? There is literally nothing more beautiful in the world of machinery. I mean, I work with the human body in some sense almost every day, and those are some hard mechanics to rival, but the construction of those things, it makes you pause. Also, very quickly. Very, very quickly."

Mikey laughed, mostly because Ray drove a second hand Volvo sedan, which was sort of the antithesis of speed, so far as Mikey could tell. "You take engines apart?"

"I'm a lab tech. I like knowing what makes things work."

"Fair," Mikey admitted.

"What are your guilty pleasures?"

"You only gave me one."

"That was what I had. I'm somewhat shameless."

Mikey wasn't, but he was willing to trade one for one. "Fantasy art."

"Fairies?" Ray asked, not a hint of censure to the question.

"Unicorns," Mikey said.

"Also fast," Ray said.

Mikey laughed. "I'm not sure that's a documented fact."

"Well, horses are fast, and unicorns are horses but better, so clearly, they must be fast."

"You must have been amazing at proofs."

"You have no idea."

Mikey finished off the last of his dinner and was considering lying about the perfectly body-temperature state of his lips when Ray asked, "You still up for ice cream?" looking like he sort of expected Mikey to come up with an excuse.

"This place of yours have black cherry?"

"And blue raspberry."

Mikey said, "I saved room."

*


When he brought Mikey back to his apartment, Ray walked Mikey to his car and kissed him on the lips but without tongue and said, "Drive safely."

Mikey got in the car and pulled out to the street and made himself not look back. Ray's lips were an insane amount of nice.

He called Gerard on the way home and asked, "You still at the clinic?"

"Almost out, I swear."

"Just tell me you ate dinner at some point."

"Bob ordered, you can ask him for confirmation."

Mikey rolled his eyes.

"You sound not unhappy," Gerard said, his tone the equivalent of a sighted person feeling around in the pitch dark.

"It's Ray, he's a good guy." Mikey ignored the tingle in his throat that made him aware he was lying, or, at the very least, downplaying quite a bit of his own reactions to the evening.

Kindly, Gerard didn't point out that James was a pretty good guy, too.

"Three dates, Gerard, and a sort of fourth. I can't get my heart broken that quickly." Mikey had made sure of that.

"Not if you don't give him a chance to be someone who could break it, no."

"Okay, you've been with Frank for all of a month, in which you've managed a whole one actual date, and previous to that the last person you slept with was nearly four years ago and a meth addict who was actually more fucked up than you, so could you spare me the righteousness?" Mikey wasn't mad, just tired and scared and Gerard didn't have the right, not at all. Mikey had tried and tried while Gerard hid for years. Just because a guy that Mikey suspected was completely meant for Gerard had come through the front doors didn't mean he had the right to lecture. Crazy things like that were always happening to Gerard. Mikey often wondered if he had some sort of bizarre karmic balance that caused his luck to fluctuate wildly between absolutely craptastic and utterly amazing.

"Maybe the righteousness, but that doesn't mean I'm going to let you talk yourself out of this without a fight because you will, I know you, and then you'll never know if maybe all those other things just weren't real, that if they had been, Ray would never have been waiting."

"It was one date."

"How'd he treat you?"

"What?"

"You know, I mean, was he polite?"

"Jesus, Gee, you know the guy."

"I know, which is why I'm asking."

Gerard pointing it out made Mikey stop and think, because yeah, Ray was polite and kind to everyone, but with most people he had slightly sharper edges, a barrier of defense that Mikey had no doubt dated back to his high school days. "He treated me...like I was special."

"You are," Gerard said, his tone strident and bordering on fierce.

Mikey didn't want to think about being treated special. Thinking about it would only make him want to think about Ray's lips some more and if he thought about Ray's lips more, the next two and a half dates were going to be very problematic. "I'm going to concentrate on driving now."

"Have your seatbelt on?"

Mikey hung up on him.

*


Half the time, Gerard's and Frank's "dates" consisted of them ordering take out at the clinic and eating in one of their offices. If they were getting really fancy, they might take work to one of their apartments--generally Gerard's, it was bigger by a nominal, but nonetheless noticeable amount--and Frank might cook, if he were feeling really ambitious. He was good at just about any kind of comfort food a guy could want. At some point Gerard asked, "Your mom teach you this stuff?"

Frank shook his head. "College roomie."

Gerard said, carefully, "You don't talk about your parents a lot."

"They consider me dead, so I'm pretty sure they return the favor."

Gerard nodded, and left off. Frank's voice wasn't angry, but it was closed off in a way it wasn't usually, and Gerard knew how to read Frank, even if he could be somewhat clueless with other people.

It was maybe the third or fourth time that they'd had one of these "home dates" that Gerard said, "You could stay, you know?"

It wasn't an offer of sex. They hadn't really done all that much, particularly not much that involved the removal of clothing. Gerard wanted to, but it was also faintly terrifying, both for all the normal reasons--Frank would, by definition, have to see him naked--and the less mundane ones. Gerard hadn't so much as blown someone else since his diagnosis.

Frank smiled. "Maybe another time."

Gerard said, "Just to sleep, I mean. We're both tired. There's no point in you driving all the way home. It's further from work, too."

"I don't have any clothes or stuff here."

"Toiletries you can borrow, stick your clothes in with the laundry and I'll get it in the dryer before we go to sleep."

Frank was shifting from one foot to the next, nervously.

Gerard said, "Nevermind, stupid idea."

"No!" Frank nearly shouted. "I mean, no," he calmed down. "No, not a stupid idea."

Gerard frowned. "See, I would think you were trying to give me the brush off--"

Frank tumbled his way over to Gerard and pressed his lips against Gerard's, clung as hard as he could.

When Gerard broke free he finished, "--but none of the usual signs, as I remember them, are forthcoming. And not that you're not unique, but--"

"I can't sleep in the dark."

"What?"

"The dark. I can't sleep in it. I'm-- I'm afraid of it." Frank rushed the words but he kept his gaze on Gerard.

Whatever fears he had, Frank was not a coward. Gerard said, "We're all afraid of something."

"What are you afraid of?"

"Needles."

"That's problematic."

"So, evidently, is your dark thing."

"Most people prefer it for sleeping. I don't want to keep you up."

"Does it need to be bright, or would the light from the bathroom and maybe a night lite work?"

"You have a night lite?"

"No, but there's a twenty-four hour CVS three blocks over."

"You don't have to--"

"Would it be enough?"

Slowly, Frank nodded. Gerard got up to find his shoes.

*


On the second date, Ray took Mikey the Noise Pop Fest. Mikey was supposed to be working, but Gerard--who was a complete bastard, if anyone cared to know--had colluded to make sure Mikey's shift was covered. Evidently, Joshua was now in on things as well, which was bad news. Joshua was a terminal romantic.

Ray shared a funnel cake with him during Scissors for Lefty and made out with him during Josh Ritter. Mikey probably should have put a halt to the latter, but Ray slid one hand over the back of his neck and it was warm and solid, but it didn't hold him there--not at all, Mikey could have gone anywhere he wanted--and that, more than anything, kept him where he was.

Ray kissed like a lawyer who knew he had to make his full case in his opening statements. As seduction techniques went, it was pretty fucking hot.

Mikey would probably have slept with him if he'd asked.

Ray didn't. Either he didn't recognize his own powers or he was every bit the gentleman he seemed.

Mikey chose to believe the former. It was easier.

They had dinner outside, at a kebab stand, and Ray drove Mikey home.

Mikey asked, "You wanna come up for a coffee? I mean, just coffee." He had his feet back underneath him.

"Just coffee sounds awfully tasty."

Mikey kept good coffee in his fridge for the times when Gerard came over. He brewed up enough for the two of them. "Cream or sugar?"

"Cream, no sugar."

Mikey fixed Ray's coffee and poured himself some, along with a teaspoon of sugar. Ray took a sip. "That's some seriously good coffee."

"They feed you Folgers at the lab, don't they?"

"I'm pretty sure Folgers is a step up from what they feed us there."

Mikey made a face. "That's pretty deeply disgusting."

"I should take up Coke, something that can't be faked."

"Dark chocolate," Mikey said. "Caffeine heavy, anti-oxidant rich. Just don't overdo it."

"Yeah, well, it's chocolate, so that might be the challenge, huh?"

"You seem like the kinda guy who enjoys one."

Ray snorted. "Speaking of. I basically have one more engagement through which to win your heart. Any suggestions? Suggestions of people who might have suggestions?"

"I'm pretty sure you know all my friends."

"Let's pretend I wanna hear what you're thinking."

"Ray--"

"Gimme a clue here, Mikey. Anything."

Mikey didn't exactly want to sabotage Ray's chances, but the whole reason he had one more was because Mikey was so, so certain this was a bad idea. And Ray had already taken him out for exciting food and let him roam outside and listen to music. There wasn't a hell of a lot else for him to do. If Mikey was honest, though, there was one thing. And Mikey was pretty honest. "The Exploratorium."

Ray's eyes lit up. "Are you kidding me? You are. Bob told you how much I love that place and you're jerking my chain."

"You love the Exploratorium?"

"You're serious? Because it's probably--"

"Your favorite museum in the history of museums?"

"And all matter of other things."

"Gerard goes with me sometimes, and he likes playing there, but he doesn't really get it."

"Not really science-y, Gerard."

"I can't believe you like that place." Mikey really couldn't help his grin.

"Love," Ray corrected. "Love that place."

"You have yourself a third date," Mikey said. He didn't admit that it was possible Ray had just bought himself a few more.

*


"You can't be convincing my boyfriend to take me on day trips to Carmel on my birthday. He can't afford the gas and neither of us can afford to eat out there and it's just irresponsible of you." Gerard glared at Mikey. Mikey was normally the one who told him these things. The universe was on its side and Gerard was more than ready for it to get itself righted.

"I booked you a room at a bed & breakfast as my gift, so that's one meal taken care of. And I think Frank is allowed to splurge every once in a while, if he so chooses. Evidently the choice to spoil you is another thing we have in common."

"Wait, go back to that first part. You what?"

"Happy birthday."

"Mikey."

"Shut up and accept it gracefully or I won't help you balance the books at the end of the month."

"You're such a liar." Gerard and Mikey both knew Mikey worried too much about the place falling down around them to leave things like that wholly in Gerard's hands.

Mikey shrugged. "I'm sure I'd find some adequate way to seek revenge."

That was true enough. "Will you at least tell me why? We usually do small stuff. I know how much you make."

Mikey sat on the edge of Gerard's desk facing away from him. "You're turning thirty. That's...kind of a miracle, don't you think?"

He had a point.

"And you have Frank now, when you thought you'd never-- I hoped but, well." Mikey rocked a little. "You've always liked the beach. It's pretty this time of year. And Frank said he hasn't been much, just never had the time, and I thought, y'know."

"I got you a hoodie for your birthday." Gerard never felt like the world's greatest older brother, but it was only on special occasions that he felt this lame.

"I love that hoodie. Also, I was turning twenty-six, and my mortality has never been quite so imperiled as yours almost constantly is."

"But, I mean, you had to have talked to Louise and Martin, and probably Nitsa and maybe even Joshua just to get things--"

"The clinic will be here when you get back."

That was exactly what Gerard had been talking about, the amount of time Mikey must have put into this and then, "Why'd you let Frank tell me?"

"He's cute when he's excited."

"He's cute all the time, but you could have told me together."

"He's your boyfriend, it's more exciting than your brother."

"Is it?"

"I don't have a boyfriend."

"Argument for another time, but you have had boyfriends. So is it?"

Mikey kept his face turned away from Gerard. Gerard sighed, watched Mikey's back tighten in response. "Did you at least act happy for him? Act like you liked the idea?"

"I do like the idea. I love the idea. It's the best-- How are you ever going to top yourself?"

"Oh, I didn't mention? This is the last birthday present you're ever getting from me."

Gerard stood up and nudged Mikey with his hip so that he could sit next to him. "That's fair."

Mikey said, "I just-- Happy birthday, Gee."

"When I come back, we'll do cake?"

"Ray says he can make one."

"Can he really?"

"I guess we'll see. Can that count as my double date?"

"No."

"I hate you."

Gerard patted his knee. "I know."

*


Gerard rolled down the window on the way out to Carmel so that he could taste the salt and said, "I should have known Vermont wasn't going to work out for me."

"New York has a coast, though."

"Ever been to it?"

"No."

"Not quite the same."

The B&B was on the beach. Gerard really hoped Mikey hadn't taken out a loan for this. Frank came up behind him as he was staring out the window. "Wanna walk on it?"

"Barefoot," Gerard said, and shucked off his shoes. He toed the socks down and walked to the door. Frank followed. Frank had surprisingly hot feet. Frank had surprisingly hot everything.

Gerard lead them down to where the water was coming in at low tide, and cold sting of it causing them both to laugh, breathless and free of layers. Gerard dove in to kiss the laughter right from Frank's lips. Frank gave it to him.

When the sun had fully set, they went back to the room. Gerard got in the shower to rinse off, a plan he abandoned fairly shortly thereafter, when Frank stepped in the shower next to him. Frank asked, "Can I share?" and kissed Gerard.

Gerard wrapped around him, pulled him in for more, but not so tight that when Frank went to his knees holding to Gerard's hips for support, he couldn't slip straight from the grasp. Gerard said, "Frank--" just as Frank took him into his mouth and there had been important ends to that sentence, warnings about caution and other things Mikey would want him to say.

One press of Frank's tongue and Gerard couldn't remember English words, let alone whole strings of them with punctuation and other niceties.

Frank drew him all the way in before swallowing, squeezing the head of Gerard's cock tightly in the grip of his throat. Gerard whimpered.

Frank was so ridiculously good at this, so good, and it had been a long time, a veritable forever since anyone had put their mouth to Gerard's cock and it just didn't take long for him to be saying, "Frank, Frank," to be pulling back. Frank let him pull but didn't move away, didn't stop looking at him once while Gerard was coming, unable to wait a second more, his come falling out onto Frank's face, his hair. Gerard said, "Sorry, sorry," feeling like the world's worst boyfriend, but Frank just grinned, ran his head under the water and said, "Shampoo me?"

Gerard took his time doing so, loving the soft feel of Frank's hair between his fingers.

Frank asked, "Too dirty for you?" and it took Gerard a second to realize he wasn't talking about his hair.

Gerard saw dirty in the faces of the boys and girls who walked into the clinic every morning, bruised and worn and too damn old for their bodies. At first he'd tried to save all of them, but most didn't want to be saved and those who did more often ended up dead from outsiders' attempts to help than anything. So instead he went on ordering antibiotics and painkillers and anything else to help provide the best care those kids couldn't afford and hope that it was enough, that the hour or so of kindness and care went with them when they tripped back onto the streets. "That wasn't dirty."

To prove his point he rinsed Frank's hair and turned off the water--it was rapidly cooling--and dried the two of them off. He hung the towel over Frank's shoulders and said, "Give me a moment here."

His descent to his knees was nowhere near as smooth as Frank's and he knew his technique wasn't as good, but from Frank's noises--the soft mewls of pleasure and appreciation that tumbled and twirled all the way through Gerard--there was no way to tell. He pulled back, letting Frank come on his chest and even as it cooled, Gerard thought, not even close to dirty.

*


Gerard had discovered pretty quickly that Frank was a cuddler. He liked it best when Gerard lay on his back and he could drape over him, curl tight to Gerard's chest, but he didn't mind plastering himself to Gerard's back or fitting himself inside the circle of Gerard's arms, his face in the crook of Gerard's neck. He wasn't a huge fan of Gerard spooning up behind him, however. It was unfortunate, because Gerard sort of loved that position, the protection inherent in it, but he had woken up enough times to find Frank still not sleeping--to hear him spew something about stress or whatever--to keep trying.

Frank offered him the position when they stumbled into bed after dinner. Frank was too smart for his own good sometimes, with the way he noticed things, particularly things about Gerard. Even if Gerard could have kept his mouth shut around Frank, he was pretty sure Frank would have known all his secrets one way or another.

"No," Gerard said, and sprawled out on his back, taking up too much space, pulling Frank atop him.

Frank let a single breath out onto Gerard's chest and fell asleep. Gerard followed right on his tail.

Gerard awoke to the spark of his prostate igniting. He let the flare fade from behind his eyes and looked down to see Frank grinning up at him in self satisfaction. Then he twisted his finger just right and Gerard went blind again.

"Happy birthday," Frank said, and got down to the business of siphoning Gerard's brain off through his dick.

He pulled off right at the last moment--maybe a little too late for the absolute sake of safety.

When he had some ability to speak in entire syllables--if not much else--Gerard said, "'mere."

Frank got the message, redraping himself over Gerard despite the potential for sticking together. Gerard let his hands slip down to Frank's ass, played his fingers over the hole. He shifted a bit so that Frank's cock pressed hot and hard against Gerard's thigh. "This good?" Gerard asked. "Or would more be better?"

Frank clung and asked, "Can I move?"

"You can do whatever you want."

Frank rubbed himself against Gerard, deeper drives against Gerard's leg alternated by shorter ones. Gerard was glad to have his pleasure out of the way, to be able to watch Frank and think in full sentences, be able to say things like, "How did you come to me?" like, "You're so utterly, unrealistically beautiful."

He didn't know if Frank heard or if he was lost in the rush of skin and blood and the white heat of orgasm. It didn't matter. Gerard had said the words, and that was... Mikey would be proud. Not that Mikey wasn't always proud, always willing to let Gerard know he was proud. Mikey was brave like that, even if sometimes he forgot how to be brave in other situations. But there were times when Gerard though maybe he deserved Mikey's pride, and this was one of them.

Frank dug in, held on so tight as he came that Gerard knew he'd be seeing black and blue marks, be looking in his mirror and thinking, "Frank," in a day.

He relaxed entirely at being done, boneless, sans even cartilage. If Gerard had poked him, he would have jiggled, Gerard was sure.

"Why don't B&Bs bring you breakfast in bed?" Frank asked, a distinctly philosophical tone to the question.

"Because they're run by people who probably work more hours than we do and can't be bothered to cater to the lazy?" Gerard was just guessing.

"I'm famished," Frank declared, putting emphasis on it by propping his chin on Gerard's chest and pouting.

Gerard ran a thumb over Frank's lower lip. "Shower first. Then breakfast."

"You don't think they'll serve us, smelling like spunk?" Frank smirked.

Gerard smacked him lightly on the side of the head. "I'm sure they will. But you're hot enough without spreading pheremones all over the populace at large. I have to be careful if I want to keep you all to myself." Or to myself at all.

Frank laid his cheek back down on Gerard's chest. "You really don't."

*


Mikey watched as Ray made the cake even though he'd told himself he wouldn't go over early and set up. It was a good three hours before the party was set to begin, and it wasn't like Mikey didn't have stuff to do when he managed to get a full day off, the way he had this week. But here he was, perched on Ray and Bob's kitchen counter, watching Ray crack eggs and measure vanilla and talk about the new intern who could never show up on time.

Mikey made sympathetic noises because although the clinic had a decent lack of turnover for somewhere that couldn't pay its employees very well, every time they had to hire someone new it was always a question of whether that person knew how to read a clock or not.

"Anyway," Ray said, clicking the settings on his mixer to stop and removing the batter bowl from beneath the machine, "I'm gonna stop now, because we're trying to get a party ready here, and I think I'm killing the mood."

He wasn't, not really. Ray was good-tempered enough that the few times when he was validly feeling annoyed or down didn't seem to matter much. Also, Mikey kind of wanted to lick his fingers, even knowing more than any person could want to know about salmonella.

"Do you know what Bob got Gee?" Ray asked.

"Uh uh. He wouldn't say."

"I think it's cause you're his brother."

"Um."

Ray smiled as he poured the batter into a bundt pan. "Sex toys. Beads, a vibrator, some other stuff. Good Vibrations."

Bizarrely, Mikey's first thought was, "Bob's a really good doctor."

Ray laughed. It took Mikey a second but he laughed, too. "No, I just--"

"Yeah, the less they risk sharing the better, I get it. I just had a disturbing mental image of my doctor, who is both female and roughly one hundred and thirty, giving me sex toys."

"If you didn't tell me where they came from, I'm pretty sure we could have fun all the same."

Ray stilled for just a second as he was transferring the cake into the oven. Mikey closed his eyes. Shit.

Ray let him off, though. "Maybe you could, but there's seriously no way I would ever be able to help you out."

Mikey changed the subject. "You get him anything?"

"Newest Taking Back Sunday. He doesn't have it, does he?"

"There's a new one? At some point, I need to buy a magazine and actually read it. I swear."

"You could borrow my Blenders. Or have them, for that matter. I'm done with them."

"Really?" That was the sort of expense Mikey really preferred to avoid if he could.

"Yeah, remind me to get them for you, before you leave."

Mikey sneaked up behind Ray, who was cleaning, methodical and economic in his movements. Mikey slid his hands over Ray's hips and said, "Thanks," softly. "For the magazines. And agreeing to have the party here. And making a cake which actually smells like it might be a cake when it bakes. And getting him a CD he'll listen to a million times and smile at every single play-through."

"Mikey--" Ray panted.

"It's okay," Mikey said, because Ray deserved to kiss him, he really did, and if Mikey got his heart broken later for letting him, he would at least know that he had played fair.

Ray turned off the water, twisted around in Mikey's arms, and took Mikey's gratitude until the timer on the oven told him he absolutely had to stop.

*


When they got out of the Exploratorium, Ray said, "I know, I know that was my last date, but extend it a little and have dinner with me. Please?"

Ray had just finished not only allowing Mikey to be utterly, indecently fascinated by the mouse stem cells on display but telling him facts that were too advanced for the museum to put out on little placards. Mikey said, "Yeah, I have some time."

"Chinese okay?"

"You gonna let me order Peking Duck?"

"Only if you let me order lots of egg rolls while we're waiting."

"You know the system."

"I do," Ray affirmed.

Ray could maneuver his chopsticks well enough to actually eat the duck in the pancakes with them and that was pretty damn impressive. Mikey said, "How'd you--"

"I hosted a Chinese exchange student my junior year of high school. I promised to teach him all sort of dirty words if he could make me fluent in chopstickese."

Mikey laughed. "Why?"

"I thought that was the kinda thing girls went for?"

"Girls?"

Ray shrugged. "I was sixteen, and from blue-collar New Jersey. Boys liked girls."

"When'd you--"

"Went to Sarah Lawrence on scholarship. Didn't take me all that long to figure it out."

Mikey snorts. "Sarah Lawrence, huh?"

"Better than Fire Island." Ray grinned.

"And to think, I had to settle for UCSF."

"Tragic."

Mikey nodded. "So. Chinese-boy. He teach you any dirty words?"

"His name was Xionan. Is, actually. We still email. And I mostly needed help with my actual Chinese homework so that took up most of our time. But I can always email him and ask for just about anything I want to know. If I asked in Chinese, do you think you would sleep with me?"

Probably. "Nice try."

Ray said, "Can't blame a boy."

"Why Chinese?"

"Because nobody else seemed to be taking it. I felt kinda bad for the teacher. It was a pilot program. I was at a charter school and they were trying to give us skills that could get us out of the inner-city. I'm pretty sure having it on my transcript helped with the scholarship in the end, the combination of that and my home address, so not the worst decision I've ever made."

But Mikey was stuck on, "You felt bad for the teacher?"

"Well, she was this young Chinese woman, pretty new to the States and she seemed sad that so few people were taking her class. I didn't really like German all that much, despite having a goodly chunk of it in my blood, so I just transferred over. She smiled at me a lot. I thought I had a crush but looking back I think I just enjoyed making somebody feel good."

"You're kinda--"

"A geek?" Ray cut him off.

"That too, but I was going to say sweet. You're kinda sweet."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

"Not bad." Dangerous, but not bad.

"Just not the kinda thing that makes you wanna sleep with a guy," Ray said with a slanted smile.

Normally, no. "Ask me in Chinese."

Ray said, "Ask-- I thought you said--"

"Just figure out how to ask."

"This is our last date."

"Know how to ask for another one of those in Chinese?"

"Um. I know how to ask for a business meeting."

Mikey wasn't picky. "That'll do."

*


They walked down the Wharf on their double date, because Gerard liked to people watch and Frank liked being outside and Mikey liked crab due to its finger-food like qualities and there were plenty of crab shacks along the way to stop in to for dinner. Ray said, in response to Mikey's professed love of things that did not involve forks, "I like it when my fingers touch yours."

Which made things pretty much unanimous.

Gerard conjured up outrageous stories about the girl with the lip piercing and her clearly Stanford-prep boyfriend, and the fisherman with pink fisherman's pants. Frank laughed so hard he had to wrap his hands around his ribs and whimper for a bit.

Gerard opened his mouth to make him start again, but Mikey put his hand over it and said, "Hey, be nice."

Gerard smiled apologetically when Mikey took the hand away. "His laugh is addictive."

And if anyone had an addictive personality, it was Gerard. Still, in this case, Mikey couldn't exactly blame him.

Frank patted Gerard's shoulder reassuringly. "I'll tell you when you can start again."

He actually did, too. Mikey whispered to Ray, "He's sort of like that thing you never expect to see happen."

Ray whispered back, "Maybe you just have a number of lowered expectations."

Mikey knew they weren't talking about Frank anymore. "You got yourself another date, what more could you want?"

"Xioanan taught me how to say 'lifetime guarantee' in Chinese," Ray said hopefully.

Mikey snorted. "Clever."

"But unconvincing?"

"Perhaps 30-day warrantee would have been a better move on your part."

Ray asked, "Why would I want to return you?"

"Yeah, they all seem confused about that at first."

Ray slid his arm around Mikey's shoulders and squeezed, just letting it rest there as they walked. Mikey had always liked little gestures like that, little motions of comfort. He leaned his head against Ray's shoulder for a bit, until the position threw him off balance.

Ray said, "I knew I wanted to be a lab tech from the time I was twelve. When all the other guys were dreaming of playing sports, or at least reporting on them, of flying jets, whatever, I was thinking about blood cells and the way they hide until you magnify them hundreds upon hundreds of times, of the way that was sort of like my mystery books, and you had to look closer to see what was actually going on. I always liked biology, chemistry, and people were a little tough for me, but their parts? Those I could understand. So I just knew. And I never changed my mind."

Mikey said, "I'm not a page-turner."

"You keep me up at nights."

Mikey turned his head a little to look at Ray.

Ray kept his gaze ahead.

Softly, Mikey asked, "Did Xioanan give you the words?"

Ray nodded.

"Ask."

*


"Take Frank home," Mikey said, handing Gerard his car keys over the desk.

"Something happen?" Gerard asked, accepting the keys.

"This morning, one of his minors puked on him." Minors were kids who'd contracted HIV from an infected mother and who were still, as the nickname suggested, not of age. "He took it in stride, washed off in the bathroom, borrowed some of Nitsa's scrubs--your boyfriend is seriously bite-size--but just now he had another client yell obscenities at him loud enough for me to hear in the reception area and I really think enough is enough for one day."

"I can buy that."

"He won't listen to me when I tell him to go. You're his boss."

"We're gonna try the boyfriend approach first."

"Whatever, just get him out of here."

Frank looked up when Gerard appeared in his doorway and asked, "What's the likelihood Mikey's gonna lay off if I tell you I'm fine?"

"You're pretty much screwed, my man. Also, it's six o'clock. It's not some big crime for you to get the hell out of here. Besides, I'll stop by a Del Taco on the way there."

Frank had a weakness for Del Taco's strawberry milkshakes.

"You're an evil tempting tempter," Frank told him. "And you're gonna regret it when I get in your car smelling like thirteen year-old vomit."

"I'll just make you help me clean it next week. I was looking for an excuse anyway."

"You suck," Frank said with feeling.

"Not as well as you."

That cheered Frank up a little. The milkshake and the shower Frank took when he got back to his apartment managed the rest of the work and by the time he emerged from the bathroom he had a patented Iero smile going. "You have to get right back?"

"What do you think the likelihood is Mikey wasn't trying to get rid of me, too?"

"Pretty small. You shouldn't fuck that up."

"Got an idea of how to pass the time?"

"Maybe," Frank said and kissed Gerard. He tasted like chemically brewed mint and baking soda. Gerard didn't care.

Frank broke off long enough to say, "Don't think about this too much, okay?" and then put his mouth back where it was and got to making it hard for Gerard to think about anything, let alone think too much.

Frank combed his fingers into Gerard's hair, grabbed on, clung to Gerard. Gerard folded his hands over Frank's hips, small and yet squared, always certain in their position relative to the earth. Frank moved them a little bit, and Gerard followed.

Followed and followed. Frank hit his shoulder on the door going into his bedroom and moaned into the kiss. Gerard brought up a hand to rub at the spot, turning them slightly so that it was Gerard who fell onto the bed, Frank landing atop him. Gerard grabbed at Frank's shirt, pulled it up so that he could kiss directly at where the bruise would form later. Frank toed Gerard's sneakers off of him and went straight for Gerard's pants.

He lowered his mouth onto Gerard's cock, pushing ineffectually at the hem of Gerard's shirt. Gerard took care of things for him, throwing the shirt aside. "Your pants are in my way," he told Frank, since they were obstructing what promised to be a nice view.

Frank obliged, shucking them off without pulling from Gerard.

Gerard looked down, busy appreciating when Frank sat back on his heels.

Gerard whined, "Frank--"

"Don't think about this too much," Frank said again, and ripped open the condom package Gerard hadn't even seen him take from his jeans. He rolled it down Gerard's cock, pushing Gerard wholly onto his back. Frank straddled him then, dipping two fingers deep inside the mouth Gerard had opened with the intent of repeating, "Frank."

The fingers stopped him.

Gerard didn't suck, not at first.

Frank was looming over him, looking scared and hopeful and beautiful and Gerard heard Mikey's awe at him reaching his thirtieth birthday, thought, I'm alive and he's alive and what does that mean if we don't? What can it possibly mean?

He closed his mouth over the fingers.

Frank took them back when he was ready, took them back and rose over Gerard, preparing himself with the fingers, his mouth parted slightly, hair still damp and falling over his face.

He drew the fingers out and placed himself over Gerard's cock and said, "Touch me, all right?"

Gerard had no need to be asked twice. He soothed his palms up Frank's stomach, over his chest even as Frank sank onto him, making small, breathy noises.

"Frank," Gerard said.

"Mm," Frank hummed, but it wasn't a response.

"Frank," Gerard repeated and knew it was nothing more than a prayer of thanks.

Frank leaned forward, pressed himself all along Gerard, sucked at Gerard's throat. Gerard made strangled noises, but it didn't matter if he couldn't breathe, didn't matter if this was a bad idea for any number of reasons, just didn't matter.

Frank moved, just a tiny shift, just a little something for both of them.

Gerard said, "Yes, yes," and let him go where he would.

Frank said, "Hold on," and took him the only place he wanted to go.

*


Ray asked on a Tuesday evening when he was helping Mikey clean his apartment. Mikey hadn't asked, Ray had just shown up at his door and asked, "You doing anything?" and Mikey said, "Trying to keep this place from being taken over by the roach kingdom," and Ray had said, "Oh, hey, I'm really good with Soft Scrub. It has all kinds of interesting things about its chemical makeup that can speed up the cleaning process."

Embarrassingly, Mikey might have already been turned on by the time Ray stepped over the threshold.

When he asked--Mikey didn't understand the words, they sounded sharp and funny in Ray's mouth, but he knew, he knew the only thing Ray would ask him in Chinese--Mikey knew he should say no, should go back on his hints--they hadn't been promises, not really, not exactly--but his entire house smelled vaguely like citrus and alcohol for the first time in months and Ray didn't seem at all put off by the fact that he'd been put to work before even closing the door. Mikey kissed him and said, "Dinner first, I'm starved."

Ray said, "Please don't change your mind," but let Mikey call out for sake and sushi.

Ray poured the drinks into shot glasses. "I didn't realize you drank."

"Not around Gerard."

"Which you are, a lot."

Mikey said, "And not much."

Ray clinked his shot glass against Mikey's. "To clean houses."

Mikey drank to that. They plowed straight through the Maguro and Unagi, the Hirame and Hamachi and even the rainbow rolls. Mikey slumped in his chair afterward. "I don't think I've eaten that much in one sitting since college."

Ray pressed his knee slightly into Mikey's. "You're going to need the energy."

They cleaned up first, though, since Mikey wanted his clean kitchen to stay that way. Then Ray drew him onto the bed, kissed him and Mikey thought, "Well, at least this was completely inevitable."

It was, too, because Ray knew exactly how to use his mouth, how to climb with soft, luscious touches of his lips long Mikey's jaw, over his ear.

Mikey let Ray undress him, let Ray look his fill, let Ray say, "Mikey Way," with a soft awe that was overwhelming, that Mikey couldn't quite process.

He said, "Hey, no fair," and Ray didn't make him wait, stripped off his own clothes and lay before Mikey, under Mikey, said, "Not quite what you're used to, I'm sure."

Ray sounded as if he thought Mikey might change his mind, so Mikey pushed himself down Ray and licked from his right knee to hipbone, along the length of Ray's thigh. "Better," Mikey said.

Ray laughed. "Oh, I'm sure." He dragged Mikey up so that Mikey was stretched over him, Mikey's cock nestled against Ray's.

Mikey moaned. Ray laughed a little, traced his fingers over the small of Mikey's back. "Such a responsive little thing."

"Always been easy," Mikey panted.

"Not the same thing," Ray said, and kissed him again. When Mikey couldn't think for the heat at his lips, at his groin, every spot of skin that Ray let his fingers come in contact with, Ray asked, "Wanna fuck me?"

Mikey nearly came at the word "fuck." He clutched at his willpower. He worked to find words. He needed words. "Prefer...um--"

"Want me to fuck you?"

"Yes," Mikey agreed. He really, really wanted that.

Ray said, "All right, we'll get to that."

Get to that? Mikey was pretty ready to be at that part. He was about to complain when Ray rolled him onto his stomach, licked straight down his spine, all the way down, to his ass and proceeded getting Mikey ready with his tongue and those lips, those fucking lips. Mikey made a noise he didn't remember being able to make. Mikey wriggled, unused to all the attention, all the concentrated pleasure. It wasn't that he hadn't had good sex before. He'd had plenty of good sex. It was just that he was usually the one doing most of the work to make the sex good.

Mikey was brilliant at pleasing people.

It was possible Ray was better.

Mikey's thoughts, even the really insistent one that was all about how he wanted to suck Ray's cock--it was a nice cock, almost as nice as the thighs, better, possibly, than the lips--fluttered completely away when Ray drove into him, hard and insistent and so very knowing of exactly what would make Mikey mewl.

Mikey forgot how to breathe, how to do anything other than writhe under Ray, give himself over the absolute purity of the pleasure.

Ray said, "So fucking beautiful, so fucking-- Mikey, Mikey Way, so, so."

Mikey couldn't wholly make sense of the words, but he could hear Ray's tone, the way Ray wanted him and that was new and maybe a bit wondrous and Mikey drove himself further into the bed and came with Ray's hands running up and down his arms.

Ray said one last, "Mikey," and curled even tighter around him, tensed his thighs against, around Mikey's, and came.

When he could, he rolled them over, pulled Mikey with him, spooned them up together, both of them loose and languid.

Ray said, "So, do I have to keep impressing you with my Chinese, or can I have another try on merit alone?"

Mikey said, "You're pretty fucking meritorious," brought Ray's palm to his mouth, kissed it, and fell asleep.

*


Gerard woke up Saturday with a headache intense enough to make movement something of a problem. This happened sometimes. It was either a side effect of the drugs or of stress or something that couldn't really be avoided. He fumbled for his phone and hit memory one and tried not to cry at the sound of ringing in his ear.

Mikey picked up with, "I'm on my way. Jesus, I'm not even late."

Gerard had no idea what time it was. "Mikey."

There was a pause. Mikey softened his voice. "You at home or the clinic?"

"Home."

"Frank there?"

"No."

"Lemme see if Nitsa can pick up another hour and then I'll be there, okay? Just stay where you are."

Gerard couldn't have gone anywhere if he'd wanted to. This headache was worse than usual. It seemed to cover most of his body in a blanket of ache and his lungs felt heavy, oppositional.

He knew it was probably only about half an hour, but it felt like it took Mikey forever to get to him. Mikey's hands were blessedly cool at the back of his neck, his, "Hey, Gee," soft and reassuring. He made Gerard move, which wasn't fun at all, but then he also helped him to drink, and that helped a little bit, at least with the feeling that he was going to set his bed afire purely by laying atop it.

Mikey put the glass on the nightstand and said, "Relax."

Gerard let his eyes slip closed while Mikey rustled about. Mikey came back and said, "Open your mouth," slipping the thermometer under Gerard's tongue.

Gerard breathed as evenly as he could with his mouth in use, waiting for Mikey to take the instrument back. When he did he said, "Okay, Bob's just coming off his shift, I'm gonna go ahead and give him a call."

"How bad?" Gerard asked.

"Bad enough," Mikey said. Mikey sounded calm, utterly, completely calm, which was how he always sounded when he was scared out of his mind.

Gerard said, "I think it's a flu."

"Achy?"

"And headache and chest hurts and hot."

"That does sound pretty flu-ish," Mikey agreed. It wasn't the season, but HIV didn't really respect arbitrary markers like that. Mikey padded off and came back with a couple of lukewarm towels. He laid Gerard back down and draped one over his forehead, one over his stomach. With a quick ruffling of Gerard's hair he told him, "Okay, just try and relax, I'm gonna get Bob."

Gerard closed his eyes and tried to slip back into sleep. He must have, because the next thing he knew Bob was leaning over him. Bob said, "Hey."

He looked wiped.

"Sorry," Gerard said.

"You should be. What'd I tell you about getting sick?"

"Not to do it?"

"That's right."

"Fix me anyway?"

Bob slipped his fingers into Gerard's hand. "Gonna do my best, buddy. We might have to turn you over to the hospital and the real doctors, okay?"

Gerard hated the hospital, but he hated even more the way Mikey moved too evenly, too carefully when he was scared of what the next step would bring. "You're a real doctor."

"That's just what I told you to get the job."

Gerard tried to work his lips into a smile. He was pretty sure he succeeded. He let Bob sit him up and feel his glands, press the stethoscope to his chest and back, do other doctor-ly things. Bob was careful with him the way Gerard had witnessed him being careful with some of the kids at the clinic. It was a nice feeling, even through the misery.

"'Kay, Gee," Bob said, massaging a little bit at the back of his neck before laying him down again. "I'm gonna prescribe you some stuff to lower the discomfort and hopefully combat the virus. Mikey's gonna go get the stuff for you and I need you to start taking it immediately. You need to stay on your other meds, too. You're gonna know pretty quickly if there's a problem with mixing the two and you're gonna need to call me about that. Or if you don't see any improvement within seventy-two hours. I'll tell Mikey all this, too."

Mikey would know. Mikey knew everything important about taking care of Gerard. Gerard nodded. "Medicine. Call. Seventy-two. Mikey."

Bob caressed his thumb over Gerard's cheekbone. "Good enough. You go back to sleep. Doctor's orders."

Gerard was more than happy to comply.

*


The antivirals made it impossible for Gerard to keep anything--even water--down. Mikey called Joshua about picking up a few extra shifts after the third time he had to run out of the clinic to get to Gerard.

Frank said, "Is there anything I can do?"

Mikey said, "Please, please don't have gotten this from him," and went to go clean Gerard up, call Bob--who was pretty awesome at waking up immediately--and tell him the problem.

Bob called in a second set of meds to the pharmacy but warned Mikey, "If these cause problems, you're gonna have to take him in."

"Yeah." Mikey knew that part. He ran to the pharmacy and picked up some Gatorade and Velveeta macaroni-and-cheese while he was getting the meds. The latter was for him. Gerard had made it for the two of them all the time when they were kids and it was the only thing that kept Mikey from crying when things like this happened.

Mikey stayed up straight through the night to make sure the new drugs weren't going to cause some other sort of problem.

By morning Gerard could keep down Gatorade and toast and even a soft-boiled egg, but his breathing sounded worse and he looked more worn than he had the day before. Bob came over on the way home from his shift--or rather, after his shift, since Gerard's apartment was distinctly out of his way. Mikey stood in the doorway while Bob joked quietly with Gerard, did everything he could to get him to relax so that he could determine what was going on.

He told Gerard things softly, things Gerard said, "Mikey," to before passing out again.

Bob came out into the kitchen and living area. "How're you?"

Mikey shrugged. "Eating too much sodium."

"Drinking enough water?"

"Bob."

"It doesn't do him any good to have you run down."

"I know, but right now I really need you to tell me what's going on with him, because this is just stressing me out."

"Okay, okay. It's hard to know, Mikey. These antivirals aren't causing as much trauma to his system, but I'm not entirely certain they're working, either. And that's something I won't know until probably late tomorrow. I know this is the last thing you want to hear, but there's nothing to be done for him at this moment other than the usual. Lots of liquids, lots of rest, and if something arises that you can't handle, call me or Esperanza. And don't be a hero about it. I know you're the best nurse west of the Ohio, and the best brother anywhere, but even nurses and brothers need help sometimes."

Mikey nodded. He knew. He would never, ever try to take care of something like this all on his own. He just didn't have the training. And he wasn't going to kill Gerard over ego.

Bob grabbed Mikey and pulled him into a hug. Mikey melted into his grip, bit at his lower lip so as not to start crying.

Bob said, "His T-cell count is good, he has people who love him taking care of him, it's going to be all right."

"I know," Mikey said, in reference to the first two statements. He wasn't thinking about the third.

"You need to sleep a little, too, okay?"

"I've been trying to catch naps."

"A little more than that."

"I'll do my best." Mikey let Bob out and went to go lay down next to Gerard, where Mikey would be the first to know if anything was trying to hurt Gerard. Even when he couldn't keep it from happening, he always felt the need to know.

*


At the seventy-five hour mark, Mikey took Gerard to the hospital. He got him checked in and talked with the nurse and then tucked himself into a chair and watched the saline drip slowly into Gerard's arm until a doctor was able to come. The doctor asked a bunch of questions about the length of this latest illness and what other treatments had been tried and then he delved into the actual examination.

Mikey watched closely as he pressed the stethoscope to Gerard's lungs, his heart.

Finally the doctor said, "All right. I'm gonna do some labs and get a chest x-ray on him, but right now it's looking like his flu has developed into a fairly sturdy case of pneumonia."

"PCP?"

"No, it's a regular viral strain. Couldn't tell you which just yet."

That really didn't make the news any better, but Mikey liked details, they made him feel as though he understood things, and understanding things made him feel as if he could possibly have some say in the way they would go. It was a false belief and Mikey knew that, when he really thought about it, but at times like this, false belief was better than no belief. "Okay. After the labs?"

"Or the x-ray, possibly."

"How long is it going to take to get him scheduled for that?"

"I'm gonna call in and push for him to be taken within the hour. This isn't the sort of thing you wait on."

It really wasn't, but Mikey was used to having to be aggressive with hospitals. He smiled at the doctor who was sort of gruff and awkward in his body language and whom Mikey had really expected to have to go head to head with a couple of times. "Thanks."

The doctor asked, "You his brother?"

Mikey nodded.

"We're gonna do our best."

So was Mikey.

He stayed with Gerard until they wheeled him down for the x-ray. Then he went outside and turned on his phone and called the clinic. He had Sidney connect him to Frank who picked up sounding pretty stripped down himself. "This is Frank."

"Hey."

"You guys at the hospital? Bob was still here when I got in this morning, he said he was pretty sure--"

"Yeah, we're at UCSF."

"What are they saying?"

"Probably pneumonia, regular viral, not PCP."

"Can they--"

"They're gonna do their best. UCSF has some of the best pulmonary people in the country."

"But do they work with HIV patients?"

Mikey didn't understand the question. "We're in San Francisco."

"Right. Right. Just...keep calling me, okay? Maybe I could come--"

"Don't you so much as fucking think about it. It was a bad enough idea when it was just him, but walking into a hospital? Are you out of your fucking mind?"

Frank was silent, if breathing pretty loudly. Mikey rubbed a face over his hand. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have-- I know you just want to see him."

"It was stupid."

It wasn't, was the worst part. If Mikey had been in Frank's shoes, he probably would have asked the exact same thing. "I'll-- I'll call back later today when we know more, all right?"

"At least give him a hug for me, yeah?"

"That'll cheer him up."

Frank snorted wetly.

"It will, Frank."

"Then give him two."

Mikey would.

*


As soon as there was a definite diagnosis, they put Gerard on heavy meds, stuff that kept him under most of the time and made him disoriented when he wasn't. Mikey stayed awake for twenty hour periods at a time trying to make sure he would be awake when Gerard was, trying to make sure he could smile at him and tell him Frank was gonna be a total mess if he didn't get better and also, the clinic needed them, so he had to work at this.

Once Gerard nodded and said, "Working," solemnly. These two efforts took an enormous amount of energy and he was back asleep almost before he had pronounced the "g".

Frank sent cards because flowers were likely to add to Gerard's breathing problems and he couldn't eat much of anything that the hospital didn't feed him--when he could eat that--so cards were what was left. Cards and the stuffed teddy bear that Mikey named Antonia after Frank's middle name when Gerard stared balefully at him upon Mikey asking what he was going to name it.

Regardless, Gerard slept with Antonia tucked tightly in his arms or against his side every single moment.

Mikey spent a lot of time on the phone with his parents, who kept asking if they should come. Mikey didn't know what to say. To say yes was to allow for things he wasn't ready to allow. To say no was to possibly keep his parents from their son at a time when such an action couldn't be taken back or even forgiven.

So far, he'd said, "Not yet, okay? Just. Not yet."

They were trusting him. The confidence twisted sharp and hot where his pulse beat, but he put up with it, because the thought of what them coming meant hurt far, far worse.

On Gerard's fourth day in the hospital, Ray showed up with homemade chicken and dumplings soup and sat next to Mikey while he ate it. Mikey said, "Um. Did I tell you where I was?"

"I asked Bob."

Mikey nodded. "Sorry."

"I think I can comprehend why I wasn't at the top of your list of priorities."

"Still," Mikey said. He was usually good at this sort of thing. He wasn't the guy who disappeared.

"Hey," Ray said, and rubbed at his shoulders lightly, "give yourself a little bit of slack, okay?"

"Nobody just wakes up with full blown flu one day. Nobody. Not even HIV positive people. And I knew, I knew he was working too much, but the only other alternative was to get him an assistant and there's just not the money, not without Gerard finding it, which he could, but that would only add to his load in the meantime and so I pretended like it was okay, I pretended like he was fine and it's only luck that Frank's not one room over. I'm a fucking nurse, Ray. And I'm his brother. And I purposely stopped paying attention."

"Yeah, Mikey, you're a nurse and you're his brother, but Gerard's thirty years old, okay? So let's for a moment imagine that he knows how to take care of himself, too. Let's also pretend that the world isn't always fair and sometimes awful things sneak up on us and--"

Ray cut off and for a second Mikey couldn't understand why until he felt the drip of tears fall onto his thumb. He swiped at them violently, but even as he got rid of one, two, three, another would appear, angry at being so long denied. Ray hauled him out of the chair and into his arms and said, "I know, I know."

He didn't, not inimically, not empathetically, but Mikey also knew he didn't mean it that way, he meant that this was acceptable, this complete, utter weakness was something he was prepared to forgive. Mikey needed someone to, since he wasn't going to be that person.

Mikey clung to Ray and sobbed into his shirt where he could muffle the short, broken gasps of the action, where if Gerard woke Mikey's streaked face wouldn't have to be the very first thing he saw. Ray held on, large hands moving gently over Mikey's back, chest solid against his forehead. When Mikey was finally cried out, sick to his stomach and throat-sore and no better for the deluge except for the numbness it allowed him, Ray sat him back down and went and brought him some water and crackers.

Mikey ate and drank obediently. Ray said, "I'll be back tomorrow. You need to eat."

Mikey said, "You don't have--"

"You don't have to stay here, either, you know? There are professionals looking out for him."

Mikey took his point. It was a false dichotomy--Gerard was Mikey's brother--but he was too tired to argue the issue. He said, "Thanks. I mean. Really, thanks."

Ray kissed his forehead. "Please don't mention it. Please."

*


There was a point when Gerard woke up and he could breathe. He couldn't breathe well, nor easily, but he could breathe, and that was familiar but pretty new and he wasn't upset to have regained the ability. He spluttered a little but said, "Morning," to Mikey.

Mikey looked more dead than Gerard probably did. He didn't have a mirror to compare, but Gerard wasn't sure a person could look any more dead and still be upright. Mikey was in a chair, and so not prone.

Mikey rubbed at his face, laughed and said, "Morning, uh, sorta."

"Time?"

"Nine o' clock or so. At night. But we'll take it."

"Feel better."

"Yeah, they said your lungs were showing improvement but you weren't for a while there and-- Yeah. Okay." Mikey was grinning so hard Gerard could practically see his molars.

Gerard smiled back. "Gonna pass out again."

Mikey nodded.

"Go back to work."

"Gee--"

"Frank. Clinic." Gerard had this whole thought about he really didn't trust anyone other than Mikey to take care of those things, but it didn't want to form into verbal syntax so he just said, "Go back."

It must have worked because the next time he awoke there was nobody in his room but a note from Mikey that said, "I'll be back around eight or so, Bob's gonna stop by before and after his shift, Frank says he misses you. A lot."

Gerard ate some red Jell-o and went back to sleep.

Nitsa was there when he woke up. She soothed the hair off his face and asked how the nurses were treating him and introduced him to her son, who looked pretty terrified by the hospital atmosphere. Gerard didn't blame him. Nitsa tucked Gerard in as she left, told him to get some more sleep. She was a good nurse. Not as good as Mikey, but then, Gerard was pretty certain they had shattered the mold with that one.

The next time he woke up Mikey was back, Ray sitting next to him, one hand making lazy circles over Mikey's knee.

Gerard asked Mikey, "Sleep?"

"In a bit," Mikey told him. "Ray smuggled you in homemade soup. The good kind."

"Potato?"

"And no other."

Gerard wondered when Mikey had been talking about him long enough to mention his affinity for potato soup. Or if Ray had asked. And if the latter, why Ray had asked. "Yum."

Mikey grinned and sat Gerard up. He let him feed himself until he was too worn to go on and then helped with the last of the cup. Mikey scraped the spoon over the empty interior of the cup. "That's what we like to see."

Gerard rolled his eyes at Mikey, but in truth, he understood. Appetite loss was one of the more serious problems he dealt with after unrelated illnesses and it was a good sign--a great sign--that he wanted to eat at all.

The soup was really good. Gerard eyed Ray with a new appreciation, but Ray was very busy looking at Mikey. As well he should have been.

"Frank says to tell you that he's saving for a TiVo so that if you disappear like a complete asshole again he can keep all the Thursday night comedies on hold for you."

"Angling for raise," Gerard said, which was three words in a row and a total coup at the moment.

Mikey laughed. "I think he's pretty aware that's not gonna happen. He misses you awfully bad."

Gerard closed his eyes, and purposely put aside the emotional quandary that was Frank Iero. He could think about it again when he wasn't two seconds off from unconsciousness.

*


Gerard got Mikey to move him home as soon as it was at all feasible, and wouldn't cause Mikey to go insane. Gerard was pretty sure Mikey was living off two to three hour shots of sleep at a time, and had been for the almost three weeks now that he'd been incapacitated. Despite that, the hospital bills were already going to be fairly ferocious, enough to make Gerard's stomach twist at the thought. He was already up to his ears in debt over the clinic, and although he always made the payments on time--thanks, in large part, to Mikey's reminders--he didn't think the bank would let him take out more to pay his medical bills.

After about a week, when he could actually make it the length to and from the bathroom by himself, Mikey said, "I think it would be all right for Frank to come see you."

"No."

"Gerard--"

"No." Gerard knew it was irrational, knew that if Mikey was suggesting it that there was no way he could hurt Frank. Also, he had been here before. The bugs that had caused this were gone, and this was simply the destruction, the need for rebuilding, left in their wake. "No."

"Okay," Mikey backed off, but Gerard knew that he hadn't heard the last of the argument.

Sure enough, the respite only lasted two days before Mikey said, "He doesn't stop asking when he can see you. He's miserable, Gee. C'mon."

Gerard closed his eyes and turned his back to Mikey, but Mikey just walked around the bed and shook him. "Are you seriously ignoring me?"

"I already told you my answer."

"Gerard, you don't have the virus anymore. I swear to you on my medical authority as a nurse and Bob's as a doctor, it's gone. And Ray and I fucking scoured this place with cleaning products you won't even find in high tech bio-warfare labs. Like, I think he might have created some of them."

"Not yet, Mikey."

"Is it because you look like you almost died? Because I gotta tell you, Gerard, I really don't think he's gonna notice--"

"It's because it was too fucking close to begin with, Mikey."

Mikey stopped. "What?"

"So he didn't get sick. Lucky. Lucky lucky lucky. What about next time, huh?"

"No, Gerard, no, you can't--"

"Oh blow me, Mikey. You and your fear of dating guys who might leave you because you cling to shit long after you should but you wanna tell me that I shouldn't worry about fucking killing him?"

Mikey's eyes darkened behind the bruises that flowered around them, evidence of everything he'd put aside to make sure Gerard was all right, make sure Gerard got better. When he spoke his voice was quiet, toneless. "You still have to see him."

"Not until I go back, I don't."

"You gonna tell him then? You gonna act like he was never anything more than a case worker to you? Because I'm not telling him. You can go fuck yourself if you think I'm telling him that. You can put your cowardice out there yourself."

"Fine," Gerard hissed. "Tell him he can come. Tell him he can come whenever he damn well wants."

Gerard wasn't surprised when, in the morning, it was Bob who came to check on him, came to make sure everything was going all right.

Just fucking dandy.

*


Frank looked like somebody had stolen his lunch money for a month straight. It almost derailed Gerard's determination, but he looked better than he would dead, and that, to Gerard, was the significant issue.

He was glad he'd stuffed Antonia in a drawer. He couldn't have done this with her staring at him.

Frank showed up with the biggest smile Gerard had ever seen on his face, bigger even than when he'd gotten the job. Gerard said, "Oh, hi."

Frank moved to hug him, exuberant and yet still careful. Gerard pulled away.

Frank asked, "You still feeling sick? Can I get you some water? Something? Hey, you should sit down, we should sit down together."

He was still smiling. Gerard was going to puke. Fortunately, he was pretty sure that had nothing to do with the state of his immune system and therefore was unlikely to affect Frank. "No, I don't think we should sit down together."

Frank's smile dimmed a little. "Look, I know I didn't come around, but Mikey said--"

"You think I wanted you around?"

Frank's smile disappeared completely. "What?"

"You think I wanted you around? I haven't gotten sick like that in a long time, years even, and I can't imagine why I would have except maybe my virus is mutating, maybe I'm getting sicker. Have any idea how that would have happened?"

"We weren't-- We didn't--"

"It was pretty lucky that you didn't get sick, huh? You think I'll be that lucky when you pick something up?"

"I wouldn't--"

"Wouldn't what? Wouldn't kiss me with an infected mouth? Wouldn't hug me? Wouldn't share a glass with me? Wouldn't what, Frank?"

"Please, Gerard, I know, I know you were sick and scared, I was so-- I couldn't-- Mikey had to tell me everything and I wanted to come but it was a hospital and he said--"

"I didn't need you. I had him."

Frank blinked furiously. "Maybe, maybe when you're feeling better, when you come back, maybe we can talk about this again. It's not unusual in the aftermath--"

"Don't you fucking dare use your pseudo-psychoanalytic case manager bullshit on me."

"It's not--"

"You guys are like the Diet Coke of the psychiatry profession."

"We're not meant to be--"

"I don't care, Frank." If he didn't leave, Gerard was going to cry in front of him, going to lose the ability to breath, going to break, going to sacrifice Frank to his own selfishness, his own need for Frank to love him, love him always, love him in ways he didn't possibly deserve, not if he could do this.

"Please," Frank said softly. "Please just agree to talk about this with me later."

"No," Gerard said.

"Gerard--"

"Get out, Frank."

"I--"

"Get out."

It took Frank several seconds to figure out how to work the doorknob. When he had closed the door behind him, Gerard sank to the safety of the floor and stayed there until Bob found him like that.

*


Mikey started having to bring Frank food and stay with him if he wanted to make sure it was eaten. He checked to make sure that Frank was taking his meds and made him go home at night. He didn't think Frank was actually sleeping, but there was only so much Mikey could do.

He and Gerard were both slinking into the clinic early and holing themselves up in their respective offices until they left, trying desperately not to have to see each other. Frank asked, "Should I try and find another job?"

Mikey asked, "Would it-- Do you want another job?"

Frank sat still for a long moment. Then he shook his head. "I love my clients."

"We need you," Mikey said, and he meant it. They all needed Frank. Especially Gerard, who was a complete asshole, and Mikey deserved what he got for loving him.

The thought of having to replace a case manager on top of everything else gave Mikey a headache, sharp and utterly breathtaking in its attack.

Frank smiled weakly. "I won't abandon you, then."

Mikey sat next to him and put an arm around his shoulder which Frank immediately collapsed into. Mikey dropped the arm lower so that he could rub Frank's back. He could feel the vertebrae. "You've gotta take care of yourself, sweetie."

"I know," Frank said. He didn't sound convinced.

"Hey." Mikey twisted Frank a little so that they were facing. "I realize my brother is a total-- I know he shouldn't have done that. I know. But he's not worth this. You're such-- Fuck, I'm bad at this part, Frank, but you're so beautiful, and you care about everything and he's never had something that good, ever, and he's going to regret fucking it up for the rest of his life. Just. Just find someone else who will know what he has, okay?"

"Mikey--"

"I know." Mikey did. He knew how very much that wasn't a "just." He knew that it didn't matter how badly Gerard had screwed up, that Gerard was Gerard and there was no way to move past that, there just wasn't.

"I know he's scared, Mikey. But sometimes--" Frank clenched his jaw, shook his head. "Your brother is a coward."

"It runs in the family," Mikey told him apologetically.

"I wish he'd never-- I didn't know before, not really. I'd never-- I didn't know."

Mikey pulled Frank ever so lightly toward him and Frank toppled to his side. Mikey stayed where he was until Frank fell asleep, then carefully slipped out from underneath his head. Mikey closed the door behind him.

When he came out to talk to Nitsa about what she could possibly expect, Ray was in the waiting room. Mikey asked, "How long have you been here?"

Ray shrugged. "A while. I hadn't read a single one of those People issues, though."

Mikey asked, "Did you come over after work?"

If so he'd probably been there at least two hours.

"Want me to drive you home? You look like maybe behind the wheel of a car isn't the best place for you to be."

"I can't leave yet. I have to make sure Gerard--"

"I'll do the Mikey stuff tonight," Bob said, coming up from behind Mikey.

"Frank's sleeping in his office."

"Okay. I'm on top of it. Let Ray take you home."

Mikey did, and when he got there he let Ray come in, because Ray really had been showing the patience of a saint these past few weeks. He pulled Ray to him and kissed him, but Ray pulled off and asked, "Did you eat tonight?"

"Um." Mikey thought. "Maybe not?"

"Okay, first thing's first." Ray went to the kitchen and made up some spaghetti, which was about the only thing in the cabinets. He asked, "Want me to run and get some ice cream or anything?"

Mikey really wasn't going to be able to stay awake for sex if they didn't get to it soon. Ray was pretty hot, but biologically, there was only so much Mikey's body could do. "No, I'm full."

"Okay, if you're sure." Ray rinsed the dishes and stuck them in the drainer. Then he came over to Mikey, got down on the floor and untied Mikey's sneaker laces, pulling the shoes from his feet.

Mikey murmured, "Kinky."

Ray snorted, stood and pulled Mikey to his feet. "You wanna get in pajamas?"

"Isn't that gonna be counterproductive?"

"To you sleeping? Probably not, but if you think so, then you don't have to change."

"Sleeping?"

"You know, where you close your eyes and sometimes there are dreams and it's very, very healthy for you."

"Ray--"

Ray kissed him. "I was gonna stay the night, if that's okay? Take you back in the morning?"

"Don't you want--"

"I want you to sleep."

"That's not very fun for you."

"I think I'm gonna like sleeping to you very much, actually."

Mikey stared at him for a long moment. "Then you should stay."

Ray kissed him again and pushed him gently into the bedroom.

*


The worst thing about being Gerard's brother--and Mikey had quite a few things on his list that sucked right now--was that staying mad or not talking to him was impossible, because roughly a day into the experience, Mikey started to be terrified that something would happen to Gerard and the last memory he would have would be of his anger. He had tried to let it go on anyway one time and had a panic attack in the bathroom of the clinic.

Gerard had found him and rubbed his back, held him until it was over.

By the second week after Gerard broke up with Frank Mikey was exhausted by the latent anger he couldn't do anything with, both on Frank's behalf and his own. He sat down in Gerard's office and said, in a voice that was more drained than enraged, "The thing is, I might be a coward, but at least I don't go around purposely hurting other people with my cowardice. Particularly not the people who matter to me. That's just fucking special, Gee."

"Which you've always told me I am."

Mikey glared, but Gerard was using his work to ignore Mikey. Softly, Mikey said, "If I had known this was what I was saving? If I had known this was who you would become? I would have let the drugs take you. At least then I could have remembered who you really were."

He stood up then and walked out and got in his car--he'd had the sense to confront Gerard after his shift and after he'd gone to check up on Frank. He sat behind the wheel but his vision was blurred and his breaths were short. He didn't turn on the ignition. He looked at his phone, thought about calling Ray, but Ray had done nothing but listen, nothing but sit back and make sure Mikey didn't fall lately, and if he was owed nothing else, it was probably Mikey not calling him to breathe erratically and not say much.

Mikey heard the latch on the passenger's side click, but the first thing Mikey always did when he got in the car was to lock the doors. He looked out and saw Gerard standing there.

Mikey didn't touch the locks.

Gerard walked around, bent to where his face was on level with Mikey and mouthed, "Please."

Mikey reached over and pulled the tab up.

Gerard sat down and closed the door. "He's younger even than you are. And he's relatively healthy. You're saying you don't think I should protect that?"

Mikey pressed his palm against the steering wheel so hard it hurt. "Of course you should protect that. The two of you together should be very careful of each other, very watchful for each other. But what's the fucking point of even taking the cocktail, of fighting past a pneumonia that wanted to kill you if all you do with that victory is hide?"

"There's the clinic."

"Yeah," Mikey said. "The clinic where we do our absolute best to make people's lives better so that they can live better lives. I mean, there's not practicing what you preach and then there's REALLY not practicing what you preach."

Gerard tucked his knees up to his chest. It was an odd motion in a thirty year-old man, but it made Mikey feel better, like he knew the person sitting next to him more. "I don't want to kill him. I don't want to wake up one day and have to call you to get him to the hospital where I won't be able to go see him even though I might never see him again and have to know that maybe if I hadn't let him suck my cock, hadn't fucked him, hadn't forgotten to wash my hands before caressing his cheek, kissing him hello, maybe he would be just fine."

"Maybe," Mikey said. "I mean, that's the thing. Maybe if you hadn't been with him you never would have wound up in the hospital, but you don't blame him for it, do you?"

"No," Gerard snapped, clearly disgusted at the thought. "But my T-cells are lower than his, I'm older--"

"Things happen," Mikey finished.

Gerard shifted slightly. "Yes."

Mikey sighed. "You're killing him anyway. He's-- I don't know what it is with him, but you gave him something he didn't even know he could have and then you took it away and I think, for him, it might have been more important than oxygen."

Gerard propped his chin on his knees. "I said-- Fuck, I said--"

But Mikey knew all about the things Gerard could say when he was desperate. "Yeah. You're gonna have to do some serious apologizing."

"I'm not sure--"

"I plan on forgiving you what you said to me."

"You're Mikey."

"He's Frank."

Gerard made a face of possible agreement. "I don't think you're stupid for being scared. I would be scared, too, if I were you."

"I don't think you're stupid for being scared. That's actually pretty smart, all things being equal. I think you're stupid for letting it run your life."

"What if he doesn't forgive me?"

"Then I guess I'll have to lock him in my car and threaten him with daily beatings."

"There were daily beatings threatened?"

"We're getting there."

"Well, then, don't give away the surprise ending."

Mikey laughed. It was the first time he could remember doing so in over a month, since Gerard had called him sounding scared and half-way to dead. Gerard laughed a little, too. Mikey said, "He's going to forgive you. You're you."

Gerard unfurled a little bit in order to kiss Mikey's cheek.

*


Gerard would get up every morning with the resolve to talk to Frank. The first three mornings he even went and got Frank fresh-squeezed orange juice from the Mexican cafe he liked.

Then, confronted with Frank's closed door, he gave Mikey the orange juice, accompanied by an apologetic look. On the third morning Mikey handed it back and said, "At least get some vitamin c."

Gerard drank it like a good boy.

On the fourth day the universe evidently decided Gerard deserved a break. Either that, or the fates realized Gerard was never going to gird his loins quite enough to just knock on the damn door and decided Frank needed some help.

Gerard didn't really care which one it was.

He was heading out for the night when divine intervention--or whatever--struck. It was only about ten, but Gerard had been trying really hard to get at least seven hours of sleep a night. The last thing he needed was to get sick again. The last thing Mikey needed was for Gerard to get sick again.

He was moving past Frank's office, slowing like he always did in the vague hopes that maybe Frank would have to go to the bathroom just then, or need something from the break room. Anything, really, to get him to open that door.

He didn't know if he would have heard the swearing had he not been so intent on what was behind said door, hadn't been wanting to have any sort of connection with Frank. But he did hear it. It wasn't all that loud, but loud enough and without even really thinking Gerard knocked on the door.

"Please open it, please, please."

Gerard had it open before the end of the first, "Please." Frank sounded shaken.

When he had swung the door open, the only thing he noticed was that, outside of the dim light from the street lamps, the room was pitch dark. "Fuck," Gerard said, and flipped the switch.

Frank didn't even squint, just sighed in relief. He looked away and said, "Uh. Thanks."

"What--"

"I think I fell asleep while it was still light out."

"Oh."

"I'll get myself one of those automatic plug-in lights. Won't happen again."

Frank was hiding his hands between his legs, underneath his desk, but Gerard could see from the way he had his jaw clenched, his shoulders notched, that he was shaking.

Gerard said, "This isn't-- I mean, I know you probably don't want--" but he was across the room by then, pulling Frank up, into his arms and Frank was all fine tremors underneath skin that felt thinner than the last time Gerard had touched it.

Frank pushed him off. "No. No. You-- I can't--"

Gerard said, "I lied. Every word I said was a lie and I thought I was being-- I thought that you were better without me, better with your higher T-cell count and maybe with someone who isn't as likely to get sick, to infect you with whatever he has, I just didn't want to have to do what you'd had to do, to wait for Mikey to tell me things, I didn't want you to have to do that again, ever, so I lied and said horrible things and violated every bit of trust you'd granted me and I know, I know you can't forgive that, but I can't move on either, so we have to figure out something, we have to compromise, because I can't even sleep without clutching Antonia tight and she's not you, not even close, but I will take anything, you see? Anything."

Frank panted as though he had been the one to say all that. In the end, all he said was, "I thought I was safe. With you. I thought, for all the danger, that I was safe."

"I know it means nothing for me to say that I'll never make you feel unsafe again, but you can ask Mikey, I'm mostly the best at keeping my promises, ever since I got myself clean, I'm really, really good at promises, and I mean this one more than I've ever meant any other. I've been trying so hard to tell you what I did, I've been trying and I couldn't even get myself to knock because if you said no--if you say no, I won't be able to stop. I won't, Frank. Not with you here, with your raw courage and your smile that means something even when I think there's nothing to smile about and your eyes that aren't like anyone else in the world's. I-- You'll have to leave, and that will be even worse, even worse than seeing you every single day and knowing I can't have you, knowing that I could have but I messed up."

"The thing is," Frank said slowly, "I don't believe in not giving people second chances."

And that made Gerard no different that any of Frank's clients, any of the people who had harmed and damaged Frank in the past, but that was enough, it was enough that Gerard would be able to prove himself and that was all he needed. When things were important, Gerard made them happen. That was his gift. "Second chance," Gerard said.

"I might change my mind if you don't start holding me again pretty soon."

Gerard wasn't going to let that come to pass.

*


Frank pulled Mikey into his office around when Mikey should have been getting off his shift a couple of nights later. There were still emails from drug reps to be answered, and he and Gerard really needed to talk about putting together clinic-sponsored teams for the AIDS walk, and also schedule a staff meeting--which was always utter hell trying to do--but he was at least off the floor. Frank said, "I got us fried chicken."

"From Hard Knox?"

"Don't say I don't treat you right, Mikey Way."

"Would I lie like that?" Mikey gave Frank his best wounded look.

"With a face like that? How would I be able to tell?"

Mikey grinned. He didn't ask if Frank had gotten some for Gerard. That was Frank's business. Frank's and Gerard's business, and as long as Mikey could use that "and" that was enough reassurance for him. Frank handed over a biscuit. "Butter?"

"Please. Is there honey?"

Frank dug up the requested item. "What'd you tell your brother?"

Tons of things Mikey was never, ever going to repeat to anyone else. "That he was being mean."

Frank smiled. "Mean?"

"My phrasing might have varied slightly."

"Uh huh."

"And that you needed him." Mikey looked up at Frank as he said it, well aware it might have been a boundary he was not supposed to have crossed.

"He found me in the dark and he turned the light on."

Mikey said, "I don't--"

"I'm afraid of the dark. He knows it. I don't really tell most people, but he's Gerard and you're Mikey and--" Frank shrugged. "I fell asleep in here before the sun went down, just on my desk, sometimes I do, I don't mean to because I always have to wash ink off my face and it's not the most comfortable thing ever but sometimes paperwork does that to me, so I did, fall asleep, and when I woke up it was dark and I was a little bit freaked out and he just knocked on the door and came in and brought light with him."

Sadly, Mikey knew exactly what Frank was saying to him.

"I keep telling myself that. I keep seeing that first burst of florescent, you know, when I couldn't even really see for the change. But it doesn't stop the things I hear."

"Gerard's actions have always been his purest truths," Mikey said. Gerard's body was a thing of intense honesty. His mouth could be an instrument of utter terror. "He was sleeping with Antonia."

"He still does. Even with me there. He puts her on the other side."

"He hears things, too. He hears how the doctors sounded when they prescribed him the first dose of meds, the way the nurses' shoes sounded on the linoleum at night. But mostly I think he hears the promises he made to you."

Frank looked at Mikey.

"He said he wanted a witness, someone to hold him to his word."

"It's that important." It was a question, Frank just didn't phrase it that way.

"You're that important," Mikey answered him.

Frank looked down at Mikey's plate. Finally he asked, "You gonna eat that?"

Mikey blinked at the denuded carcass of chicken currently in front of him. "Uh. All yours."

He watched in amazement as Frank actually found bites to finish.

*


Gerard decided from the first that nothing less than a full-blown campaign to win Frank's trust back was going to do. Frank would have accepted less, he was pretty sure, but Frank letting him off too easy was sort of the problem in the first place. No, this was a time for grand gestures if ever there had been one.

The first thing Gerard did was to email everybody who had known him for any significant length of time and say, "You know all those embarrassing stories about me that I would totally kill you for if you told them at a party? Could you please send them to me in text form?"

It turned out to be a popular request, particularly when Mikey forwarded it on to some of his friends.

Gerard printed them all out at a local Kinko's, three-hole pressed them and put them in a notebook labeled, "Everything You Deserve to Know About Your Asshat Boyfriend, aka, The Book of Blackmail Material".

Frank spent a lot of time laughing at him--which was expected--and kissing him--which was unexpected, and a definite plus. Gerard took this as a sign that his campaign was off to a good start.

The second step was to learn to make snickerdoodle cookies, which Gerard had learned were Frank's favorite way back during the blood drive. This was more complicated. It involved Ray being patient with him--which, it seemed, was a given--and Gerard not getting distracted by his own head and letting the cookies burn. It took him four tries in two weeks, but when he finally presented Frank with a Tupperware full of them, they were soft and gooey and too rich, exactly the way they should have been.

Frank took a bite of the first one and said, "Mm, you should taste these," and proceeded to share the flavor with his tongue.

It was better than straight from the oven.

The third step was buying night lites for every single last room in the clinic, the main areas in Mikey's apartment and all the rooms in Gerard's. This maybe should have been the first step, but despite being a really solid planner, Gerard wasn't going to claim he didn't skip ahead to the fun stuff sometimes.

Frank didn't notice that step for a while, which is why it was a surprise one day when he slipped into Gerard's office and under his desk and blew him without either permission or warning.

When Gerard had regained primary brain functions that were necessary for things like speech and mobility, he pulled Frank into his lap and said, "Was that just meant to make me feel special?"

"When I came in this morning, it was still dark. Except not, because everywhere I went there were lights in the walls. Have any idea who might have done something like that?'

Gerard had a few. He brought Frank off slow and sweet without ever once touching skin. Then he went to the bathroom and got paper towels to clean Frank off, face to groin. Frank reached out for the towels but Gerard just batted his hand away and went to work. Then he put Frank back on his lap and returned to work. Frank said, "I have things to get done."

Gerard said, "Shoulda thought of that before you let me get my hands on you."

In the end he let Frank go when Frank pointed out, "I help people with pretty big problems, you realize?" but only if Frank promised to bring his work back. He did and stretched out on his stomach on Gerard's carpet, kicking off his shoes and twirling his bare feet in the air.

Mikey was going to have to proof everything Gerard had tried to do this afternoon. It was just a good thing he didn't have to make phone calls.

At some point he gave up and sat on the floor, working his hands into the soles of Frank's feet, near to getting off simply on the noises of pleasure and gratitude that Frank was breathing out onto him.

He thought about the plan as he worked, the way it was difficult sometimes, knowing as little as he did about Frank, knowing that, until the plan succeeded, he hadn't the right to ask that Frank invest that sort of trust in him. But Frank liked the outdoors, that was for certain. "Wanna drive down 101 with our windows down on Sunday morning?"

"Don't you have to be here?"

"I think Mikey'll help me to get away with one Sunday, don't you?"

"Probably. Mikey likes me." Frank sounded proud.

"Mikey's always had good taste in friends."

"Brothers was another issue."

"Altogether."

"Can we stop and buy grapes at the stands? Grapes and almonds."

"We can stop at every stand until you find the exact bunch of grapes and almonds that you want." Gerard filed this new information about Frank away.

"I like the ones with seeds. Messier, but bigger and sweeter."

"We shall find you some."

Frank smiled, like maybe he knew that Gerard actually would.

*


Gerard brought Mikey back corn on the cob, because it was one of his favorite things in the universe and Mikey hadn't even blinked when Gerard had said, "Do you think you could cover for me if anything happens Sunday morning?"

Mikey grinned and said, "Hey this is a lot. I bet I could get Ray to grill on Tuesday and we could have dinner together."

"I knew there was a reason I forced you to date him."

"I thought that was because you thought he'd make a good boyfriend."

"That was just what I told you to get you to go along with it."

"You're the best older brother ever."

"Don't you forget it."

"Hey, while I'm thinking of it, Ray's gonna walk with us. In July."

"Yeah?"

"He said he walks every year anyway, and that he likes walking next to me." Mikey rolled his eyes, but Gerard wasn't fooled. Mikey had a very distinct tone of voice for when he was happy and scared to death that the emotion would be taken from him. Gerard let it go.

"Sounds good to me." Gerard rubbed at the back of Mikey's neck briefly. "I gave Frank a key. To my place."

Mikey looked at him with slightly widened eyes. "Um. Yeah?"

"Sometimes he goes home before I do and then I have to give him my key, because I don't want him not going to my place just because I'm not there, but then if he falls asleep I have to wake him up and that sucks. He comes to the door holding Antonia because he forgets to put her back and he holds her when I'm not there, like I used to do. He's all sleepy and I feel bad for waking him and so I thought, key. Do you think I should get him another stuffed animal? I mean, it's not that I mind him using Antonia, at all, I sort of like it, because then I can smell him on her and it's like having him on both sides of me, but I just wonder if maybe he wants one of his own, you know? He doesn't seem to have much that's his. His apartment's kinda sparse."

Mikey said, "Mind if we take this one at a time?"

Gerard shook his head. Mikey was pretty good at following his trains of thought but even Gerard could realize when he was being absolutely obtuse.

"How'd he take the key thing?"

"Like I'd given him the fucking keys to the city."

"And how'd you react to that?"

"Somewhere between feeling like town mayor and remembering how much I don't deserve him."

Mikey said, "You deserve him."

"I--"

"You deserve him. If we didn't deserve things because we fucked up once or twice nobody would deserve anything. You make him smile a different smile than all his other ones. What else is deserving, Gee?"

Gerard knew the exact smile Mikey was talking about. He knew all of Frank's smiles, even the ones that were rare and elusive.

Mikey put a finger under Gerard's chin, rested his forehead against Gerard's. "Don't get him another stuffed animal."

"No?"

"Remember when I used to try and sleep in your bed every night?"

"I hated that."

"I know. But. Sometimes sharing something is better than having your own, okay?"

Gerard, who had loved sleeping alone as a child and hated it as an adult understood perfectly. "Yeah."

Mikey kissed the bridge of his nose. "Tuesday night."

Gerard nodded.

*


They had Tuesday night at Ray's place, because Ray offered and it was an actual apartment with rooms that held more than two people at a time. Frank ate with the awe-inspiring and reassuring gusto he'd recovered since he and Gerard had gotten back together. Mikey watched with a sort of detached admiration.

When Gerard and Frank left to actually go home and possible even sleep--although Mikey found other activities to be more likely--and Bob left for his shift, Mikey stayed to help clean up. He stole another one of the butterscotch cupcakes with buttercream icing Ray had made from scratch and ate it slowly, offering Ray bites. Ray took the first one but then decided he preferred the aftertaste of them on Mikey and switched to stealing kisses in between bites.

Mikey didn't dissuade him.

When he was finished with the cupcake, he didn't make any fuss about the way Ray continued to kiss him, pressed him into the wall, ran fingers over his midriff where his shirt had rucked up at some point. When Ray started to push the shirt up, Mikey just brought his arms up, just opened up access to himself.

Ray asked, "What do you want, Mikey Way?" his lips dragging soft and warm over the lobe of Mikey's ear.

"You," Mikey said, because that was always the right answer and also because Ray was pressed up against him large and solid and the living embodiment of everything he'd been the last two months and Mikey would take anything, anything so long as Ray didn't get tired of having to always be there, always hold Mikey up.

Ray laughed. "Good. Anything else?"

Mikey asked, "What's on offer?"

"I'd sort of like to keep you pressed to this wall, to get on my knees in front of you and let my mouth tell you how absolutely gorgeous your cock is, and then, when you're so ready you think you can't wait anymore, I'd like to stand up and trap you between me and the wall, wrap those impossibly long legs around my waist and hold you up while I fuck you. Sound all right?"

Mikey made a noise.

"Was that a yes?"

"Please."

Ray had himself on his knees and Mikey's pants off before the sibilant end of the word died away. Mikey tried to grip at the smooth planes of the wall, but there was nothing that allowed him purchase, no stability other than Ray's hands at his hips, gentle and still.

Mikey thought, always holding me up and it was laced with a fear rich as triple chocolate cake, but mixed in was a dangerous layer of hope that Ray was strong enough not to tire, that he might see what Gerard saw, might see something worth keeping, even for all the trouble.

Ray swallowed him down and caressed at his cock with throat muscles that were as developed as every other part of his body and Mikey said, "Ray, Ray--"

Ray pulled off just in time. He said, "Shh," and petted at Mikey's thigh a bit. Mikey got himself slightly under control. He pulled Ray to his feet, helped him undress. He wanted to watch, but not enough that he could wait for Ray to do it by himself, no, no, Mikey needed this now. From the second Ray had the condom on, put his hands to Mikey, Mikey was helping him, leaning into the wall, bringing his legs up. Ray lifted him like he was a doll, a piece of particularly important lab equipment--light but precious. He brought Mikey down on his cock with a pretty determined pull into himself, toward him and Mikey went without any worry about leaving the safety of the wall. Ray would make sure it was at his back, make sure he couldn't be hurt.

Ray moved in closer and Mikey was nearly crushed, but it was good, perfect, real, and Mikey clung to Ray even tighter, flexed his legs, held on.

Ray said, "So beautiful, so, just, Mikey, Mikey."

When Ray called Mikey beautiful, he never sounded like he was talking about bone structure.

Mikey bit his cheek and thought, love you, love you, can't help it, sorry and when Ray brought his palm to Mikey's cock, he came before Ray could even close his fingers.

*


Despite his deep geek roots, Ray made friends widely and easily. Mikey found this out in two ways. The first was that within a week of informing Mikey he was going to walk with him and signing up, Ray had raised nearly three grand in pledges. The second was that Ray started introducing Mikey to all of them. It was weird, the way Ray's friends all smiled in that way that told Mikey they'd heard a lot about him, had been waiting to meet him. Mikey tried not to read too much into it. Ray was a generous guy. It wasn't unlikely that he was as willing to share his friends as he was most of the things he valued.

He met the two guys and a girl that Ray hung out with as a result of getting into DJing, and he met all of Ray's coworkers, and a couple of Ray's friends from college who had ended up Frisco-side, and the woman Ray played chess with both online and off and the kids whom Ray had tutored back when he had been using most of his spare time to volunteer with Big Brothers and Sisters.

Ray's friends tended to be funny and smart and when Mikey was out with Ray and them, Mikey never felt like some kid who had joined the basketball game late, after all the best plays had already been made.

It was comfortable in the way that a favorite armchair was, particularly when a guy didn't have time to fall asleep.

Mikey spent a lot of time pinching himself awake. Which was probably why when Gerard said, "I've been thinking maybe we should get mom and dad to come out for the walk weekend. That's always a fun time and maybe they could stay for the week after and they could meet Frank and Ray and you know, feed us a little bit. It's been a while since they've been out here," Mikey's response was, "It's been a while since we've gone and visited them, too. Maybe we could go down there for a few days, instead, get out of town."

"It's possible you missed the part where this is a really important part of my plant to have Frank fully realize I'm not a complete douche."

Mikey hadn't, not exactly. Which made it hard to veto the plan, because in that sense, it was a really good idea. "I'm just not sure I'm really ready for Ray to meet mom and dad, you know? I mean, Frank's pretty hung on you, which, despite having a pretty fucktarded run of moments there, I get. And Ray obviously is enjoying being my boyfriend for the moment, but that's sort of a thing and I'm trying to not scare him off--"

"Mikey."

"No, I'm serious. It's kind of a miracle that he didn't leave while you were in the hospital and I think maybe if I'm just careful--"

"Mikey, Jesus, stop and actually think about this. Stop and actually listen to yourself."

"I'm saying that if I don't rush things or seem like--"

Gerard ran his hands over his face. "Mikey! He brought you dinners at the hospital. He helped you clean your apartment. He gave you rides home from the clinic because you needed them and he didn't want to risk you driving."

"I know, this is what I'm saying, because if something seems too good--"

"No, you've just had shit taste in men until now and the only reason that's even changed is because Ray had enough balls to try with you and Frank and I were smart enough to make you agree to try back. Ray's everything a boyfriend's supposed to be and you just don't know it because all your boyfriends haven't quite cut it."

Mikey ground the toe of his shoe into the floor. "The thing is, I've had a fair number of boyfriends and they've all ended up to be sort of...less than desirable and some of them not even in big ways, just in ways that hurt, you know? And I don't believe that it's that they were all the fucked up ones. I mean, I'm the common denominator there, so."

"So nothing. The common denominator is your shit taste, as previously mentioned. Luckily, you didn't pick Ray, so we're spared."

"The problem being," Mikey persisted, because this was sort of really important and he let Gerard steamroll him a fair amount, but this was central, core, even, "if I introduce him to mom and dad and he gets all, 'whoa, hey, you're really hot in bed, but I'm young and carefree' or whatever, if he does that I think I'm going to do something horribly humiliating, like sit in his parking lot at all hours of the night just to watch him walk in his apartment. Because I'm pretty fucking gone, and okay, that was stupid, but totally your fault, because you know how easy I am when it comes to romance and you just shoved me right into that. So I think caution is warranted, is all I'm saying."

"And I'm saying you're going to be so cautious he's never going to realize that he has you, you're going to make him believe he has to keep trying until he doesn't know how to try anymore and then you really will have nobody but yourself to blame for him walking out."

Mikey recoiled. He thought about saying something about people walking out and blame, but that was low, and even with the wound still open from Gerard's rant, Mikey could see that.

Gerard sighed. "I didn't mean it that way. I just meant-- You're so afraid of committing because nobody ever commits back. But he has committed, and he's waiting for you to commit and there are times when you're not looking that he watches over you so hard it's like watching someone pray, too fucking intimate by half. He doesn't have any idea he can stop praying, Mikey. And that's gotta be a little awful."

Mikey asked, "He really watches me like that?" because that was sort of intense, but it made sense, because Ray looked at him all the time like he was maybe a gift Ray hadn't expected. Mikey had written it off as Ray's peculiar type of charm until now.

Gerard nodded. "He does."

"Maybe...maybe I can give him the option of meeting mom and dad. See what his reaction is."

"He's gonna ask dad for your hand."

"Oh, fuck off."

"I would totally ask Frank's dad. If I thought he wouldn't kill me with a shotgun."

"Um."

"They disowned him for the gay."

"Ah. He doesn't talk much."

"No."

"And you would only do that because you're a big dork."

"Also, in love."

"That, too." Mikey grinned. Gerard matched him, tooth for tooth.

*


Ray got a raise and celebrated by taking Mikey to Chez Panisse. Mikey said, "Do they plate the food in gold?"

Ray grinned and said, "At least two courses, you. And be grateful I couldn't get reservations at La Papillon or French Laundry."

Meekly, Mikey ordered an entree. He wanted dessert. Ray completely undercut him by sharing his appetizer.

As such, it was over rabbit and green bean salad that Mikey made himself say, "Gerard decided Frank should meet my parents."

Ray tilted his head. "That was bold."

"Gerard is. Sometimes he just hides it well." Or, really, people didn't notice since he had stopped putting it into things like drawing and started putting it into things like saving people's lives. It was counterintuitive, but Mikey didn't care. He sort of liked that he saw Gerard in ways few others did. He felt it was his right.

"Yeah, no, I know, but not always with Frank."

Oh, right. Ray was observant. "Love is a fucking scary bitch," Mikey muttered.

"Hear, hear," Ray said slowly.

It sort of gave Mikey hope. "Anyway, I tried to convince him to take Frank down there, but he's right, two plane tickets is sort of extravagant, and my parents haven't been out in a while, because I told them-- The point is, we sort of invited them out for the weekend and the week following the walk. Now, before you freak out--"

"I'm not freaking out."

"Oh. Because I was going to say--"

"That I didn't have to meet them?"

"You don't usually cut me off this much."

"You're not usually this nervous and prone to possible idiocy."

"Generally prone," Mikey disagreed.

"No," Ray said and left it at that. "I'd love to meet your parents."

"You would."

Ray looked away, out onto the floor of the restaurant, at the other patrons. They were mostly couples, a mix of same-sex and otherwise, a few families with older children, some double dates, a few business-type looking meetings. He took a breath and clearly forced his gaze back onto Mikey. "You're a pretty smart guy, Mikey, so I'm not entirely sure how it was that you missed the part where I was in love with you before any of this started, when you were just that nurse who was always putting ten percent more than he had out for his patients--most of whom didn't have anyone giving a bare one percent of what they did have--and another twenty out for his brother and who found ways to smile at most of the people who came in the door anyway, even the lab tech with crazy hair and odd social skills.

"I just had to hope when you took me up on the offer that when it all fell to pieces I could still settle, afterward, because it had been you for so damn long. And then you gave me more than three dates and so far you haven't left, but you also seem to persist in the belief that I could somehow not be in love with you, and okay, I haven't said it--it seemed like that might cut off my date privileges, like you might decide things had gone too far--but still. How could you not know?"

Braised lamb and northern halibut were placed in front of them with consummate grace and ease and Ray was the one who had to say, "Thank you," with a charming smile, because Mikey was too busy gaping. Ray said, "Eat before it gets cold," which was evidently the last barrier to Mikey breaking down and saying, "You've loved me for almost a year?"

"Maybe longer. And you only get to know that information because you're not the type to take advantage."

"And it's not-- Tiring?"

Ray flaked his halibut into pieces. "Tiring?"

"The maintenance. Cooking for me and helping me clean and making sure I meet all your friends and driving me home and--"

"Those are sort of the best parts, Mikey." Ray looked sad, like he hoped Mikey would have figured this out on his own.

"It's just, I'm usually the one who takes care--"

"I know. But everyone gets tired, Mikey. And you've gone further than most without doing so. I'm not a bad resting place."

And Mikey, who had long learned how to listen to underage hookers who were afraid of being turned in, men being abused by their partners who were too ashamed to say anything, illegal immigrants scared mindless of being sent back to Cambodia or Chile or Uganda, but had evidently been shutting off that skill every single time Ray opened his mouth, heard what was being said. "I'm not resting. I'm not--"

"Mikey."

"No, my turn. I'm not resting. I'm in love with you. I'm in love with you so bad that sometimes I think it's not love because it doesn't feel like any of the other times, any of the before times, but then I just realize that those were stupid, they were little compared to this."

Ray nodded slowly. Under the table, Mikey rested the toes of his shoes atop Ray's feet.

Ray said, "Eat up, or no dessert."

Mikey didn't believe the threat, but he ate anyway. Dinner smelled too good to do anything else.

*


"What we need," Mikey said thoughtfully, "is one of those leashes, you know the kind that you can attach to a kid's wrist and then to yours and it has some give but then retracts if he goes too far."

Gerard watched as Frank made a circuit around the baggage claim for the third time since they'd gotten to the airport no more than ten minutes earlier. "He's nervous."

When Frank passed by them on his route, evidently intent on getting another lap in, Gerard reached out and caught him by his shoulders, pulling him into Gerard's arms. "Okay, we're gonna stay here for a little bit."

"Maybe we should have cleaned a little more," Frank said. "I mean, I don't think I cleaned the oven. Mikey's always cleaning his oven, we don't want them thinking--"

"Our parents know Gerard's living habits," Mikey said.

"Right, but what if they think I'm making him worse, that I am aiding his descent into slovenliness--"

"Hey," Gerard scowled. He wasn't slovenly. He just wasn't an anal-retentive clean freak like some people in his family.

Next to him, Mikey snickered.

Frank brought his arms up over his chest, rubbed hard at them. Gerard held him tighter. "Cold?"

"I should have worn long sleeves. They're gonna see the tattoos, they're gonna think you're dating some kind of punk--"

Gerard turned Frank so that they were facing each other. "Frank."

"Did I mention the part where I'm going to suck at this?"

"You're not," Gerard said.

Mikey chimed in with, "They already love you. There was the-- When Gerard was sick and I didn't have anything good to say I told them about you and even if Gerard hadn't talked to them about you since then, which I know he has, they would still be in your corner. This is going to be easy. They're probably more nervous than you are."

That seemed unlikely to Gerard, given the fact that Frank was all but giving off noise with the frequency of vibration he had going. Gerard rubbed at the pulse points on Frank's wrists.

Frank looked down at the spot where Gerard's hands were holding on. He twisted his hands to clamp around Gerard's wrists. Gerard let him squeeze as tightly as he wanted, past the point where it started to hurt. He said, softly, "Hey, punk."

Frank's smile was pretty wobbly. "Jesus, don't kid. I'm gonna throw up on your shoes."

"Please don't, I don't have another pair of tennis shoes and the walk tomorrow's pretty extensive."

Frank laughed, a little.

Over Frank's shoulder, Gerard could see his parents walking down the hallway. Mikey ran off to greet them, literally jogging a bit, letting himself be wrapped right up in their father's arms. Gerard could see Mikey whispering something to them, tucking his face into their mother's shoulder. Her hand came up to Mikey's back and she murmured in response and Mikey stayed still, so still.

Gerard had wondered why his parents had never come when he was in the hospital. Now he knew, knew how long Mikey had held out hope for, despite having no reason other than driving love.

"They're behind me, aren't they?" Frank asked.

Gerard turned Frank slowly and wrapped his arm tight around Frank's shoulders. They made their way to where his parents were still forgiving Mikey things that needn't be forgiven.

Gerard nudged Mikey's hip. Mikey had tears in his eyes. Gerard smiled at him. "Gonna let me do the important stuff here?"

Mikey rolled his eyes. "Your stuff is always more important, isn't it?"

"When it involves Frank?"

"Fine."

"Mom, Dad, this is--"

"Frank," his mother finished for him, moving over to envelope both of them in a hug at once. This was facilitated by Gerard still having his arm around Frank. Frank folded into the introductory touch, whispered, "Hello, ma'am. It's nice to meet you."

She gave them up after a bit, and Gerard's father came forward to touch his forehead to Gerard's, ruffle Gerard's hair. He looked over at Frank and said, "Mikey tells us you're pretty much the best thing that's ever happened to our son."

"Mikey kinda likes me, sir," Frank said.

Gerard's dad laughed. "Dad will do, I think, if it's not too much to ask."

Frank said, "Dad," like he was trying the word out for the first time ever.

Gerard's dad nodded and stole Frank right from Gerard's arms to give him a hug. "Better."

Gerard watched as his dad held on until the shaking tapered off, until Frank figured out that he was supposed to squeeze back.

*


Gerard's parents took him and Mikey, Frank and Ray out to dinner after the walk. They went to Capannina's, because Ray told Mikey, "You need some carbs before you blow away and I have to wander the earth looking for you."

Gerard's mom clearly approved of the fact that Ray would look, as well as the fact that he took preventative measures against having to do so. In fact, Ray had pretty much won their mother over from the moment he had shown up with a bouquet full of Gerber daisies and babies breath and agreed to call her Donna.

Frank was still struggling on that, but Gerard's parents had clearly adopted Frank regardless, so Gerard wasn't going to worry too much about it.

They were halfway through the appetizers when his mom said, "Gee, honey, have you given any thought to the house idea?"

"The house idea," was his mother's insistence that he get out of the rental market and build a little equity. She pressed Mikey on the situation as well, but Mikey had the advantage of not being thirty, the little fucker. "Mom, can we maybe not do this in front of everyone else?"

"Because I was just thinking, now that you're with someone--"

"Evidently not," Gerard said.

"What's the house idea?" Frank asked. He looked at Gerard, not Gerard's parents.

"They want me to get a house," Gerard said.

"A real house?" Frank looked startled at the idea, as though Gerard had suggested he wanted to buy a troupe of show horses or something equally preposterous and magical.

Gerard took a minute to consider Frank's reaction. "Maybe I could start looking."

Gerard's father said, "We thought maybe we could help you out. And before you start in about how you can do things on your own, we know you can. If you couldn't we would have moved up here long ago. But sometimes it wouldn't hurt to let us be your parents."

On his other side, Gerard could feel Mikey hunching down. He glanced over to see Ray put his hand at the small of Mikey's back. Mikey moved into the touch.

"I suppose we could look for something," Gerard said, rubbing a bit at Frank's knee.

"We?" Frank shook his head. "Your house."

"I wouldn't want it if I didn't have you," Gerard said simply and busied himself pouring more olive oil onto the bread plate and cracking pepper into it.

Frank handed him a piece of bread.

"Thanks."

Donna's face had softened. Gerard told her, "You can help me out with the down payment. After that, it's my responsibility. I'm not buying anything that I can't afford to make a basic loan on."

She put her hands in the air. "Sounds fair to me."

He looked at Mikey. "You should look with me. There's plenty of two and three bedroom houses around. We could--"

Behind Mikey, Ray was looking in the other direction.

Without turning his head, Mikey said, "I think I'll wait."

Gerard smiled. "Fine. Leave me to my own devices."

"Had to happen sooner or later."

"Traitor."

Mikey nodded happily. "Just make sure it has lots of windows."

That had pretty much been on Gerard's list of necessities from the moment Frank had used the word "real" in connection with "house."

Frank said, "Your house," softly.

"You not gonna help me with the loan?" Gerard asked.

Frank said, "Not nearly as much as you're going to be."

"That's because I pay you starvation wages."

"No." Frank's tone was firm enough that Gerard left off.

Instead he said, "Ours."

Frank sighed. "I like windows."

Gerard grinned.

*


They found their house on Mikey's birthday. That was an accident.

Mikey's birthday dinner was supposed to be at seven. Gerard had made him take the day off, but Ray was at work, so Mikey spent the day mostly sleeping, reading, taking a walk around his neighborhood and otherwise being lazy. He thought about grocery shopping or cleaning, but it seemed like a betrayal of what Gerard was trying to do for him. Privately, Mikey could admit that it was sort of nice to have a day where Gerard probably would actually cry if he saw Mikey come in the clinic doors.

At six, Ray came over and gave Mikey some birthday head before they went to pick Bob, Gerard and Frank up from the clinic.

They were driving to the restaurant when Frank said, "Hey, when did that place go on the market?"

There was a sign for an open house on Sanchez, near Duboce Park. Mikey asked, "Wanna stop and look?"

Gerard said, "Mikey, no. Birthday, remember?"

"The open house is over at seven, it's a quarter till. We'll be a little bit late for dinner. C'mon, this is an awesome location, and maybe possibly in your price range."

Gerard and Frank looked at each other. Ray pulled the car over. The five of them tumbled out, up the front lawn and into the house. It was Victorian, the way so many in the neighborhood were, but not the fancy, ornate versions found in the Upper Haight. It was a simple white with blue borders, the architecture circular and old and gentile. They walked in to find a very tired-looking, very young real estate woman who blinked at them as though they might be apparitions. Mikey said, "Hi."

She said, "Um. Hello. Were you here to look at the house?"

"I am," Gerard said, stepping forward, pulling Frank with him, "we are. We know it's late, but--"

"No," her smile, when it came, was huge. "No, don't worry about that."

The house was a two-story three bedroom two and half bath. It had hardwood floors throughout, varnished to a deep shine. The kitchen was large and airy and there were windows in every room--multiple windows.

Mikey watched as Frank fell in love from the moment they walked in the parlor/living room and found the stained glass window that had been embedded by one of the previous owners. Gerard was lost to the giant claw foot tub in the master bath. Mikey asked, "How much are they asking?"

Gerard scowled at him. Mikey smiled unapologetically. Real-estate lady--whose name was Bonnie--took a breath and told them. Frank wilted immediately. Gerard looked out one of the numerous windows and gave her a counter offer. Her mouth dropped open for a second. So did Frank's. She said, "I'll take it to them. If you don't mind filling out some papers..."

Gerard looked over at Mikey, who just ushered him to follow Bonnie. Frank hissed, "Gee. We don't--"

"It's three bedrooms," Gerard said. "We only need one, right?"

Frank tilted his head. Slowly, he smiled. "Rent the others, make up the rest of the loan payments?"

Gerard stole a kiss. "Go look out your window."

Frank bounded off. The rest of them followed Gerard into the kitchen, where Bonnie had the papers waiting. Gerard put the amount he had offered into the blanks, filled in his contact information, signed his name a few times and after about half an hour, they were free to go. She said, "I'll call you as soon as I hear something."

Gerard slung his arm over Mikey's shoulder and started walking for the door. He said, "Come on, let's go actually pay some birthday attention to you."

Mikey said, "I found you a house. That's a pretty good birthday accomplishment."

"Oh, you found me a house?" Gerard laughed.

"Obviously." Mikey nodded, sneaking his own arm around Gerard's waist.

They collected Bob and Frank from the front room, Ray from the porch. Ray took Mikey's other side on their way down the lawn. "Think they'll let us keep our reservations?"

Mikey didn't care. There were some things worth skipping a birthday dinner for. As they drove off, Frank never once stopped looking at the house until they had long turned the corner and were too far for him to even imagine he could see it. Gerard's hand stayed on his knee until they had to get out of the car.

*


They ended up signing at a slightly higher price than Gerard had drawn as his utmost cutoff, but his parents agreed to help him out with the extra, and the house was in excellent condition, which meant not having to put a lot of money into it off the top.

He would have agreed to more to see the look on Frank's face, the utter, unbounded glee in his eyes, the way he nearly skipped around the clinic for a full week after the agreement was reached, the papers drawn up.

Ray and Mikey helped them move in mid-October, just in time for them to get their furniture in and have the place looking a little like a home before Frank's birthday.

Gerard and Mikey planned a tiny costume soiree with mostly the people from the clinic and some friends of Frank's from school that Gerard had managed to find through a bit of well-executed sleuthing. All right, through using Frank's work computer while he was out one day.

Frank dressed as a pumpkin, complete with orange face paint and a puffy body-suit and Gerard still wanted to have him on every available surface in their house--their house--which was just the latest sign that he was probably never ever going to get over Frank, and really just needed to deal with that. Given the fact that the thought didn't freak him out--or at least, not unduly--Gerard thought he might have already dealt with it and just missed that part.

Mikey came as a punk star, which was the same thing Mikey had been for every Halloween since they were kids, but it made Mikey happy and it was easy on the budget, so there wasn't much to complain about. Also, Ray clearly found it hot. Ray came as an amoeba. Gerard found this oddly predictable and bizarrely brilliant all at once.

Bob came as a doctor. Frank frowned at him but he said, "Unlike you assholes, I actually have to work in about an hour."

He brought Tom's snickerdoodle cookies, though, so Frank was forced to forgive him.

Gerard dressed as Harry Potter, because Frank liked those books, liked anything to do with magic, and Gerard's hair could do messy.

Frank's friends were all courteous and actually came in costume and said nice things about the house. Gerard asked Frank, "Was there a reason you never introduced me?"

Frank shrugged. "They were just people I studied with."

"Except that you still email them."

"I'm sort of tired of leaving things behind."

There was an entire chunk of Frank's life that didn't seem to exist for him anymore, so Gerard nodded and just made sure to try and make plans with as many of the new-to-him people as he could manage.

The party went well, so far as Gerard could tell. People bought Frank a lot of housewarming type gifts, like a space rug for the bedroom and a really gorgeous print of Cassatt's "Maternity", which Frank babbled over for a good five minutes. Gerard said, "You never mentioned liking Cassatt."

Frank said, "Not artists, always paintings. I don't know enough about art to like artists."

Mikey had gotten Frank a shower caddy that could probably raise their children for them should the need ever arise. In the meanwhile it had dispensers for just about every shower liquid available, and spots to hold the things that didn't come in liquid form. Frank liked showers.

Bob got him a rice cooker, because rice was a staple with all of them, and Frank and Gerard were forever over or under cooking it when faced with having to make it in a pot.

Ray had a swing put in on the front porch, explaining, "Even better than a window."

When all the guests had gone, Frank tugged Gerard out of the house and curled up with him on the swing and Gerard rocked him until he fell asleep.

He woke up screaming.

Gerard said, "Frank, Frank, please, Frankie."

The porch lights were all on, there was nothing to do except keep talking to him.

Gerard couldn't tell if he actually shocked himself into wakefulness with his own screaming, or if somehow, Gerard's mantra registered, but he stopped abruptly. He looked at Gerard for several minutes on end and said, "Oh fuck. Oh fuck, oh fuck--"

"Frank, let's go inside, okay?"

Frank shook his head then nodded. "Inside, right. Did I wake the neighbors? Oh shit, I woke the neighbors, didn't I?"

"No, nobody called, nothing. It's fine, let's just go inside."

Something had told Gerard not to touch Frank while he was in the throes of terror, but now that he seemed to at least know where he was, Gerard put his arm around Frank's shoulder. Frank crumbled into the touch. Gerard locked the door behind him, but left the porch light on. Frank said, "No, turn the light out."

"Frank--"

"Turn it out."

Gerard did as told. Between the two of them, they went through the house, turning off all the downstairs lights, left on from the party. When they got upstairs, Gerard undressed Frank and nudged him into the shower. Frank watched the water run orange, swirl into the drain.

Gerard dried Frank thoroughly, unsure if the shaking was still aftershock or the chills. He dressed Frank in his warmest pajamas and crawled under the covers with him.

"You have to turn out the lights, Gerard."

"I-- I did."

"No, Gee. No. All of them."

The only ones burning were the night lites. One in the bedroom and one in the bathroom. "Frank--"

"Please, Gee. I need you to."

Gerard did and then went back to Frank, held him as tightly as he could. Frank whispered, "There's something you have to know. Something I'm not supposed to tell you, and if I tell you, you can never tell anyone, not even Mikey, no matter how mad you get at me, because it could get me killed, okay? And you're not-- I mean, even if you were really mad, I don't think you'd want me dead. But if you-- If after this you can't be with me, can't touch me, can't love me, you have to let me quit, at the clinic. Because I can't do what we did before again, not after I tell you this part. I can't, okay?"

There were a million things to say to that, things like, "You're never, ever quitting," or, "There's nothing you could tell me that would make you less to me." Gerard said, "Okay."

It was evidently the right answer, because Frank took an actual breath, the first one Gerard could remember him inhaling since he'd woken up in terror.

He kept his voice very low. "I'm not from North Dakota, and NJ wasn't my first boyfriend and everything I've ever told you about me was a lie."

Gerard's mind stopped for a second.

"I'm not Frank Anthony Iero, or at least, that's not the name I was given at birth. My mom named me Terence for her favorite member of Black Sabbath. My last name was Russo. It was her last name. I assume, biologically, that I had a father, but I never met him and she never mentioned him, so she might not have known who he was. She was a crackhead, and I know she sometimes slept with the dealers for a hit, so that could have been what happened. She got clean when she was having me. My mom... She was foolish and young and a lot of things, but she really loved me and I sort of forgave her every time she ended up back on the shit because she was always trying not to. And she loved me, which I already said, but that's important. To me. Really important."

"Of course she loved you." Gerard wasn't sure how anyone, least of all his mother, couldn't have loved Frank.

Frank pressed a kiss to Gerard's shoulder. "She ODed when I was nine, and I ended up in the system for about two years. My first family was in the process of adopting another foster and I was just sort of a holdover from when they were taking on more than one. My second family thought I was mouthy and the father showed me what he thought of mouthy kids with his fists, so I called social services and they came and got me. My third family--"

Gerard waited through the silence, because there was nothing to ask, no way to even start.

"My third family," Frank said slowly, "was mob connected, or owned by the mob, I'm not sure. The mob in my area was running a child-laundering scheme, where they would pay families to contract out to social services for older kids, the kinds nobody really wanted, then they would buy them off the families for dirt cheap. In general, the families would then just tell soc that we had run away. Kids in the system run away all the time, and the pattern was diffuse enough that it was entirely plausible."

Gerard didn't want to know, he didn't. "Why were they buying the kids?"

"There were these warehouses, just big empty buildings that had been sectioned off into cubicles with one lightbulb, 25 watt, and a twin bed, sort of, not the kind with a real mattress, just one of those pads, you know? There was a communal bathroom on each level of the warehouse, sinks and toilets and a spout that was sort of like a shower, only not a shower, not a real one. Just enough to keep us clean, lice-free if need be.

"They rented us out by the service. I don't know how much people paid. We didn't see the money, just the clients, and then only if they wanted us to see them. But they could buy anything, you know? I mean, evidently kids in the system were going cheap and so whatever the clients wanted, if they just paid enough-- I tried, at first making friends with some of the other kids, because it was dark a lot of the time and I was eleven and I still missed my mom and the things they did, they usually hurt pretty bad, or sometimes just a little, but they hurt, and I just wanted someone to talk to, but every time I could finally get someone to talk to me something would happen, a beating that went too far or a cutting that went too deep or whatever, but mostly we just died left and right and I finally couldn't-- I wanted to be brave, to keep trying, but it was just one more thing, you know? Always one more thing to lose and I was so tired of losing."

Gerard wasn't sure how he managed it, but he wrapped Frank even more tightly inside his arms. "You were brave, Frank. Don't you ever act like you weren't."

Frank snuffled at Gerard's chest for a few minutes before continuing. "The Feds found my warehouse when I was fifteen. Four years after I'd been sold into it. I was one of the oldest kids alive. I was the only one who would testify. They kept me in a safehouse for two years. The agent who was assigned to look after me, he became kind of like an older brother. He took me to get the first couple of tattoos. The NJ one, because it would have made my mom happy, and the ghost one, because, well. Because."

Gerard found the tattoo in question and squeezed.

"The rest of them were just pure defiance, after I found out I had HIV. Just me trying to, I dunno, test the limits of my seeming immortality, trying to die, trying to do something that was for me, a million things. They were stupid, and I shouldn't have, but I did and I survived it, so."

Gerard felt Frank shrug even within his death grip.

"Will--that was the Fed--he pushed for me to have in-house tutors so I could get my GED and he helped me to work a deal with the Bureau that when they put me in the WPP they would also pay for my secondary education. They put me out here because it was the farthest they could get me from there and because it was a city where I could disappear pretty easily and gave me my history and shoved me into school and the rest wasn't a lie, I try not to, as much as I can, and I hated every second of it with you and I should have just kept it up, but I couldn't, not after you gave me a home, a real home and you shared your parents and you loved me and maybe I really should have said before, if I was going to say and I'm sorry--"

"Frank. Terence. Frank."

"Frank. I made myself Frank. Frank never let anyone hurt him like Terence did."

"Terence didn't let anyone do that either. Is that what you think of the kids who come off the street? Kids who at least get to fucking go outside? Could run if they chose to, even knowing the consequences?"

"I'd be a shit case manager if I did."

"And you're the best one we've ever had. So you know better. Terence didn't let anyone do anything to him. But you're right, you've made yourself Frank. And Frank was never a lie. Never."

"Gerard--"

"You're still the person I threw a birthday party for earlier this evening. I just understand the pieces more now, that's all."

"Thousands of men--"

"Sh."

"No, Gerard, this is--"

"It's not important, Frank. What's important is that you lived through it, that you did and you chose me and you waited for me even though I maybe did worse things than all those men put together because I earned your trust first, I gave you something that was safe and then I took it away without thought or consideration."

"There was thought."

"Not in any of the ways that mattered."

"You wanted to keep me safe."

"I betrayed you."

"And I was lying to you."

Gerard sighed. "I suppose we will both have to accept that we see things from a different perspective."

Frank's breathing was slow and warm at the center of Gerard's chest. Finally he asked, "You really still love me?"

"If it were legally feasible, I'd be getting us married."

"Frank Way," Frank said. "I'd have a real part to my name."

"We can get it changed, if you want."

"Someday. When I'm not afraid to walk into a court with my papers saying Frank Iero. Then. I can be brave, I promise."

Gerard said, "You are brave."

Frank said, "With you. A little."

"A lot. And Frank?"

"Gee?"

"Is Halloween really your birthday?"

Frank was silent.

"Happy birthday."

*


Esperanza tendered her resignation in the first week of November. She looked like she was going to cry when she said, "Our Lady of Mercy offered me a position, and just--"

Mikey grinned at her and said, "Hey, hey. That's great news."

And it was. Lady was a Catholic clinic that didn't have a lot of the strictures that most Church-based clinics did and would pay Esperanza twice what she was making with them due to Church funding. Also, it was a lot closer to where she lived.

She said, "I'm really gonna miss you guys."

Mikey hugged her and said, "You're only gonna be across town. I, for one, will be pissed if we don't see you after your move on up."

Gerard said, "I'll put out warrants for your arrest."

"For what?" Esperanza asked.

Gerard shrugged. "I'd come up with something."

"Yeah, probably," Esperanza said.

Mikey made Gerard sit down the next day and talk to him about hiring options. Mikey said, "You know first thing we're gonna do is move Bob to days, right?"

"I actually talked with him about it last night. He said he would kiss me, except he was afraid of Frank's flying ninja powers."

The line came off oddly, not even like a quote, but Mikey knew Gerard was tired, so he laughed a little and said, "All right, problem one covered. Now for problem two."

"Problem two?"

"Okay, yeah. That's actually problem three. You've been kind of super-Gerard like lately."

"Super-Gerard like?"

"Out of it as hell."

Gerard looked blankly at Mikey. Mikey said, "Is there something going on?"

Gerard shook his head. "No, nothing."

"You're literally the worst liar I have ever met." And Caleb had been pretty fucking bad.

"Only with you, really."

Mikey could see where that might be true. It made him smile. It shouldn't have, not really, but it did. "Just tell me. It'll be easier, I promise."

Gerard leaned a hip against his desk and looked at the floor. "Mikey, if I said this was something I really couldn't tell you, that it was fine, and I was safe, and everyone was okay, but it was something that I really, really couldn't tell you, would you leave it?"

Mikey watched the way Gerard rocked against the desk, his body language desperate. If he pushed, pushed just a little, Gerard would tell him. And Mikey was a curious guy. "Yeah, I would."

"I can't. If I could, if there was even any way, but I can't."

"But you're okay?"

"I'm okay. I'm better, I'm good. I've just been doing some thinking."

"Dangerous."

"Yeah, I'm almost done."

Mikey laughed. "That I doubt."

"Mikey?"

"Yeah, Gee?"

"You know how much I love you, right?"

For a second, fear stole through Mikey so hard his vision went black, "Gee--"

"No, Mikey, no. Just Frank doesn't have any family, not really, you know? They turned him out. And he didn't have any siblings and I just-- I mean, I know, that we just do things to show each other and all, but I hadn't mentioned it in a while and I just thought, I just. I just can't imagine living life without you. That's all."

Mikey, who had hung onto Gerard with his metaphysical fingernails more times than he wanted to count, nodded. "Yeah, Gee. Yeah."

Gerard lunged forward a little, drawing Mikey into his arms and Mikey went without hesitation or even thought. He wrapped his arms tight around Gerard and neither of them let go until Frank found them there and said, "Oh, oops, I didn't mean--" and they both flung out an arm and waited for him to join in.

He jumped to.

*


There really wasn't any question of where Thanksgiving would be held that year. Gerard and Frank had a house, a real honest-to-goodness home, with a kitchen that allowed for more than one person to be in it at a time and a dining area that could hold at least the four of them, and even Bob, if he didn't end up going home to his mom in Chicago for the holiday.

Mikey, who hated working with temps, particularly temp doctors who were generally on loan from the hospital and complete jerks, said, "You could bring a date, if you stayed in town."

"Um," Bob said.

"We could find you a date," Mikey said. There were options. Ray had lots of friends. Frank had a surprising number.

"That's okay. I'm waiting for my Prince Charming. And I have a vague suspicion he doesn't do blind dates."

Mikey sighed. Bob laughed, ruffled Mikey's hair and said, "Relax, I don't think I can really swing the plane ticket anyway."

Which sort of made Mikey feel like crap. He asked Gerard, "Any way we could give Bob a raise?"

"We just gave him the day shift."

"It's almost Christmas. And his birthday. And he has school loans." Mikey had accidentally caught a glance of one of Bob's medical school loan bills one time when Bob was having an argument with his loan company and the amount had made his stomach twist the way it normally only did when one of the clinic's grants expired.

Gerard looked down at the desk. "Maybe after the first of the year, Mikey."

Which was fair. This was a bad time to be asking, and Mikey knew it. Bob had just had such a falsely light tone to his voice.

As it turned out, Ray kidnapped Mikey for the whole day of Thanksgiving, so he wouldn't have had to work with a temp in any case. Luckily, Joshua was willing to pick up the daytime hours, since Lance had to work that day and they didn't have plans until evening. Mikey helped Ray roll the dough for pie crust and stuff the turkey and boil the cranberries and all sorts of things that on his own would have ended in fire and woe.

When Mikey admitted to worrying about Bob, Ray rubbed at his shoulders and said, "Don't. Me and a college friend of his who works up in Sausalito are sending him home for Christmas, he just doesn't know it yet."

Mikey turned to Ray and looked at him, pressed flour-caked hands to his cheeks, his lips. "You're a good friend, Ray Toro."

Ray kissed Mikey lightly. Mikey leaned forward to deepen it but Ray backed off. "No tempting me into burning dinner and making Frank Iero cry, you complete wanton."

"Later?" Mikey asked.

"Pull my arm," Ray said, and grinned.

There was to be no crying from Frank Iero. In fact, there was to be nothing more than a flying ball of energy and noise that asked, "Do I smell sweet potatoes? And other stuff? Other stuff!! I don't even know what I'm smelling! Pie, maybe? Is there pie? Is there pie, Ray Toro, because if there is I might have to kill off the Way brothers and abduct you."

Mikey motioned frantically to Ray for him to deny any knowledge of pie.

Instead Ray said, "If you kill my boyfriend I'll never make you pie again, but if you're good, there could be a plethora of pies come Christmas time."

Frank promised, quite fervently, to be good.

Gerard said, "Okay, that's it, you're teaching me to bake pies."

Ray looked like it was possible Gerard had unintentionally found the limits of even Ray's great and fearsome powers.

Bob showed up late and smelling of urine and Mikey didn't even ask, just had Frank show him to the shower and found some of Gerard's oversized pajama-type clothes for him. By the time he was clean Gerard and Frank had set the glasses on the table--Mikey and Ray had set it earlier in the day, but the glasses had needed washing--and everything was pretty much ready to go.

Ray said to Gerard, "It's your place, you wanna cut the turkey?"

Gerard looked from the knife to the bird with a fair amount of trepidation. "No, I prefer to lounge in indolence."

Ray snorted and made fast work of slicing his masterpiece into edible portions.

Frank took the biggest helping of cranberry sauce Mikey had ever seen anyone even try to consume and polished it off without difficulty, alongside a goodly dose of turkey, sweet potato souffle with candied walnuts, and green bean casserole.

"There's pie," Mikey reminded him.

"I know!" Frank said, and went back for a second helping of turkey.

Gerard watched him with a look on his face that Mikey couldn't exactly parse, but a good three-fourths of it was pure, unadulterated love.

Bob and Mikey helped take some of the dishes into the kitchen and Bob made coffee while Ray cut the pies, and whipped cream to put atop them. Gerard poked his head in. "Need any help?"

"There's ice cream in the freezer," Ray said, "If you wanna grab that and some bowls."

Mikey swiped up the whipped cream, while Bob found them something to serve the pie with and Ray followed them both back with the pies in question.

Frank was still eating. He said, "Almost done, promise."

Gerard poured them all coffee and by the time everyone had taken a sip, Frank said, "Okay, ready."

Ray laughed and gave the first piece to Mikey, covered so wholly in whipped cream it was hard to see the pie underneath.

Mikey took a bite.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile