Frank drives onto the lot on his first day back at school feeling woefully underprepared. Between staying up late finishing his neglected paperwork, and tossing and turning for hours in his too-quiet bedroom, he didn't get a lot of sleep. It's his own fault for pushing back his flight so late, not leaving himself enough time to properly adjust back to a normal schedule like he'd originally planned. Still, he can't bring himself to regret it.
He winds down more as the day goes on. Winging his way through lessons he was worried about being underprepared for but suffering no real problems helps him to regain some confidence. He puts his phone into his desk drawer during classes to make sure it won't distract him. He still checks it between each class for texts or missed calls, but none are from Mikey.
It's cool, he's not worried. It's only been a day. Mikey's probably not even awake yet, he reasons. He doesn't let himself dwell on it and keeps his concentration on his kids. They're demanding today, all distracted and antsy after being on vacation. Frank draws them in with interesting stories about what they're learning and lays out the assignment work to make sure they're paying attention.
By lunchtime the lack of sleep is wearing on him, and he's glad for a break. He chills out in the teacher's lounge with a strong cup of coffee, trying to bring himself back to life before he has to face a period of lunch monitoring.
The chatter in the cafeteria seems to be tuned to the exact frequency to give Frank a headache. He better get over this jetlag - or tourlag, or whatever it is - soon, or the kids will eat him alive.
Then, within minutes of taking up his preferred vantage point, he gets cornered by Dylan and two friends Frank vaguely recognises.
"Sir?" Dylan's tone is careful, but he's brandishing a Sidekick, the screen showing a paused frame of familiar footage. "This is you, isn't it?" Dylan hands him the phone. The image is of course Frank, mid head-bang, holding Mikey's sparkly guitar aloft as he plays.
Frank had checked YouTube last night, finding a handful of shaky phone camera videos of The Used's performances of Pretty Handsome Awkward in Milwaukee and Cleveland. Of course Dylan would be the one to find it.
There's no point denying it, so he nods.
Dylan's face breaks into a huge grin and he immediately elbows the friend to his left, a shorter kid with a shock of ginger hair and freckles. "I told you, man. It's totally him. He went on tour with them and everything." He grabs the phone back, hitting play on the video, making music and crowd noise spill out of the tinny speakers.
"Just as a friend," Frank clarifies, an alarm going off in his head. "It was a one off thing, Mikey was doing me a favour."
"But you did it in Milwaukee too."
"Well it happened twice, but that was all," Frank explains dumbly.
Both of Dylan's friends crane their heads to see the screen, blocking it mostly from Frank's view, but he can tell by the sound that the song's finishing up, can hear the crowd noise picking up and he knows what they're seeing, between waving arms and camera blur. This is the part where Mikey comes back into frame, wrapping Frank in a hug. Even with the shitty mostly-out-of-focus footage, Frank's ridiculous expression of glee is all too obvious.
"You guys are pretty close, huh?" Dylan asks, something like awe in the way he's looking at Frank. It makes Frank feel a little uncomfortable, knowing what happened moments after he and Mikey go off screen, but he fights it down, not letting it show. It's an honest question, so Frank just nods.
"He's my best friend." It's no less true than it was ten years ago, and something in Frank's chest shifts as he says it. He excuses himself from the group to do a round of the cafeteria, before they can start asking more questions. He's only a few steps away when Dylan says, "Hey, Mr. Iero?"
Frank turns, steeling himself for an awkward inquisition, but Dylan just says, "You can shred, man."
"Thanks." Frank turns back and keeps walking before they can get an eyeful of his stupid grin.
Frank's still flying a little high on his pseudo-celebrity status when the bell rings, signalling the end of lunch. It's his planning period, and he's behind, but he wanders around outside instead of doing work, thinking. When he stuffs his hands in his pockets against the chill wind and his fingers brush his phone he pulls it out. He doesn't bother checking it for messages this time, just spools through his contacts to put Mikey's number on the screen.
He's being an idiot about this. Mikey is his friend, has been for more than half his life, all this pussying around over calling him is just plain stupid. No matter how the (incredible, mind-blowing) sex factors into things, he doesn't want to lose that - to lose them. Mikey's probably as nervous as he is, and this stupid staring contest needs to end. He might as well be the one to end it.
He presses send, his heart pounding too hard for what he tells himself is a casual call. He switches hands as it rings, turning so the cool wind is hitting his face, keeping him alert.
It rings a few times before the telltale click of voicemail. Frank's heart sinks, but he doesn't hang up. Mikey might be at sound check, or doing an interview, anything really. He listens to the short, clipped message, ignoring the ache in his chest at hearing Mikey's voice - even in a shitty recording - and waits out the beep.
"Hey Mikey, it's Frank. Um, hi? Give me a call when you can. Okay, bye." It's a physical effort not to say more, but he already feels like the needy girlfriend just leaving a message. He hangs up and switches his phone back to silent.
It's weird, he's barely gone twenty-four hours without seeing Mikey and he already misses him. It shouldn't be so surprising; they've been living in each others' pockets for over a week. It's just withdrawal. He'll get past it. Mikey will call him back when he can and Frank will finally be able to put this weird unsettled feeling aside.
He puts his phone back in his pocket and heads back inside to tackle his next class.
Mikey doesn't call. He doesn't text. He doesn't email. Days pass in a blur of classes, staff meetings, one pot meals, and bad TV. Frank tells himself it doesn't mean anything, that he's not going to turn this into something it isn't, but the longer it goes on the harder it is to believe that.
The day after he left the voicemail message, he sends Mikey a text. The day after that he sends Mikey an email. All of them are short, casual, not much more than a hello - I'm here. All go unanswered.
By the end of the week Frank's not sure if he's pissed off or worried. He checks the internet for news of Mikey, half expecting to find out he's been injured or mysteriously vanished, but there's fresh video from last night's show online already. Mikey's fine, rocking out as hard as ever, looking beautiful and completely inaccessible. Frank gets stuck in a YouTube vortex, seeing the familiar lines of Mikey's face through waving hands and blurred lights. He watches clip after clip, each time waiting for the camera to turn toward Mikey. He's wearing the same shirt he had on the Cleveland show, and he looks fine - great even.
Frank's pauses the footage and looks away, feeling like a creep, like one more overinvested fan who thinks they know more than they really do about Mikey Way.
He clicks the browser window closed in disgust.
Exactly a week has passed since Frank got back from tour. The Used have played five shows, and had two days off. Frank hates that he knows this, but it's all there on the tour dates page of their website for him to see. Today is one of their days off, a travel day, so they shouldn't be doing anything.
He swallows down the sinking feeling he gets when he scrolls through his phone to Mikey's number. He'll call, Mikey will answer, they'll talk, and Frank can stop acting like a freak with a crush. Mikey will have a reason for not calling and Frank will get his friend back.
"And go," he whispers to himself, hitting send on the keypad, taking a breath to calm himself. He's cool. They're just going to talk, Frank's not going to be weird or pissy. It'll be fine.
His phone takes forever to connect before chirping in his ear, "We're sorry; you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please check the number and try your call again."
It repeats before giving Frank the busy signal.
He throws his phone across the room, swearing.
Frank doesn't want to go to a rehearsal for Ray's new band. He wants to stay home and sulk and watch shitty TV. Sadly, this isn't an option, because Ray is a tenacious fucker and he texted Frank that morning to remind him that rehearsal is at 3pm sharp, so Frank can't even plead forgetfulness.
He shows up at the practise space ten minutes early, because he's a fucking professional like that. Of course, Ray's beaten him there because no matter how conscientious Frank is, Ray is a goddamn Boy Scout. Ray helps him lug his gear inside. The practise space isn't far from Ray's music store, just a little further out of town, in a more industrial area.
"Glad you could make it, Frankie." Ray pulls him into a hug and it takes Frank a moment to realise this might just be the first real physical contact he's had in over a week. He wraps his arms around Ray's waist and leans into it for a moment before pulling back.
"Just one rehearsal, that's what I said," Frank repeats. Ray nods, looking serious, but Frank can see the smile that keeps tugging at his mouth.
They enter their designated practise room. Spencer's already there, adjusting a cymbal on his kit. When he sees Frank he smiles, leaning over his bass drum to shake Frank's hand and give him a one armed hug. "Glad to see Ray finally talked some sense into you," he says with a grin that wrinkles his nose.
"One rehearsal," Frank says. "No strings."
Spencer laughs, sudden and musical, and the way it opens up his face is a little like looking into the sun. Frank can see why Ray fell for him. "I wanna hear you say that again in about three hours."
"Oh, I will," Frank asserts, and goes to set up his amp and his gear.
He's tuning his guitar, focused on the notes over the background sounds of Spencer checking his kit and Ray running cables, when the inevitable question finally gets asked. Spencer actually gets in with it before Ray. "So how's Mikey?"
Frank's grip on his guitar falters a little, but he keeps strumming until he gets a clean E. "Don't know."
The room goes silent except for Frank's E, which he moves to an F. Silence in a soundproofed room is extra-silent, and Frank can feel two sets of eyes heavy on him, can hear the questions hovering. Luckily, it's right on 3pm and James Dewees is a professional, too.
"Yeah, I haven't heard from him," Frank says, in a light tone that is completely fake, as he puts his guitar down on the stand and crosses the room to meet James at the door. "Dewees, you fucker," he says, his smile mostly put-on but the emotion is genuine when he catches James in a tight hug. Frank met James through Ray years ago, and they've been on and off drinking, jamming and gigging buddies ever since.
James envelops Frank in a bear hug and lifts him off the ground, spinning him around before dropping him back to the floor unceremoniously. Frank lets a slightly hysterical laugh spill from his chest and James gives him a friendly shove. "You're such an asshole, making us wait for you like some kind of virgin in a chastity belt."
"I don't know what Ray's promised you, man, but I said one rehearsal. Enjoy today, dude, I'm not staying longer."
James doesn't argue with him like Ray and Spencer. He just nods and says, "Sure, Frankie, whatever you say," and ducks back into the hallway to fetch his gear. The moment he's out the door Ray grabs Frank's arm, whispering. "He didn't call? Did you call him?"
"Of course I did." Frank goes back to his amp, needing to do something with his hands. "Called, texted, emailed." He plugs in his pedal and adjusts its inputs on the amp with sharp motions. "I'm sure he's real busy being a rockstar. It's fine." His voice is surprisingly level given the hot throb in his head, the burn under his skin, the choking thickness of his throat. He moves the pedal, placing it carefully in front of his amp, taking a breath to push the heat down into his stomach.
"Frank," Ray starts.
"Don't." Frank cuts him off. He can hear voices in the hallway, Ray's bassist, Matt Cortez, talking to James as they're nearing the door. Frank glances up at Ray, knowing there's a plea in his eyes, a please, not now; Ray nods incrementally, turning to greet Matt and ask James something. He keeps them talking long enough for Frank to swallow down whatever's in his throat before he joins them with a pasted on grin, shaking Matt's hand warmly.
Ray cuts the small talk off pretty fast, and not just for Frank's sake, either. Frank knows him well enough to be aware of his workaholic tendencies. The first song Ray proposes is one from the demo, so Frank's already pretty familiar with it. Ray walks him through some chord progressions while Matt and James get set up, and Frank's glad to have something to concentrate on that's nothing to do with his phone or romantic life. By the time everyone's set, Frank's focus is all in his fingers and hands. Spencer taps them in with his sticks and they burst into a rally of sound.
They're a little loose and Frank's fucks up his fingering a few times just by being unfamiliar with playing the song, but it still sounds pretty good. Ray gets them to run it again and it goes off the second time around, tighter and stronger - nearly as good as it sounds on the CD in Frank's car. Frank still has to think too hard about where he's putting his fingers to really just let go and give himself up to it, but it commands all his attention just the same, forcing any other thoughts right out of his brain.
He gets lost in the music for the next three hours. Between songs he proposes changes to some of the rhythm lines, and he and Ray try them out. Some of the changes are going to stick, he can tell on first listen.
By the end of rehearsal he's sweated through his t-shirt and his fingers are screaming at him, reminding him he hasn't played this long and hard in a while. Ray calls time and when Frank looks up from his guitar, Ray's beaming at him - that blinding smile that's all teeth and glee, his hair a halo of damp ringlets and his shirt dark with sweat. Ray doesn't say anything straight away. He waits until everyone's bumping out, coiling cables and packing their gear, before sidling up to Frank where's he's bent over his amp.
"So, same time next week?"
It's not that the whole room goes silent, but Frank knows they're listening. He rubs his thumb over the tips of his numb fingers, thinking how painful it will be to grade papers with new calluses blooming. He considers the proposed mid-week rehearsals and the toll they'll take on his sleep patterns during busy midterms and finals. He thinks about trying to squeeze playing shows in around his already busy life, and losing most of his down time and vacations to practise and shows.
Then he thinks of the new rhythm lines he's played today, that he already feels territorial about, and the ones that are already bubbling in his head for the loose jams that they can't even call songs yet.
He looks up at Toro's fucking knowing smile and admits his own defeat.
"Sure, Ray, next week."
Frank is laying his guitar and amp across the back seat of his car when Ray strolls around behind him.
"Want to get a beer?" he asks, and Frank already knows what this is about, because Ray can be so fucking transparent, standing there with his hopeful, earnest face.
"Not if do you want to get a beer is really code for making me talk about Mikey." Frank throws his armload of cables into the trunk beside his amp, slamming the door shut with a too-hard motion before turning to face Ray. "Besides, you've got all your gear and stuff."
"I'll send it home with Spencer," Ray offers, and Frank snorts. Spencer won't be happy about that. Ray lays a gentle hand on Frank's shoulder. "Come on, it's been ages since we just hung out."
Ugh. Saying no to Ray when he's like this is like kicking a puppy. "Fine," Frank says, "But we're going to Dino's."
"Cool." Ray doesn't argue. He jogs a few yards to his SUV and tucks the keys into Spencer's pocket as he walks towards it with a drum under each arm. Spencer doesn't say anything, though he flashes his best bitchface, but it fades when Ray gestures at Frank, no doubt giving Spencer the Earnest Face Of Doom.
Frank gets in his car and switches out the CD for something loud and angry. He guns the engine and turns the dial up loud, not turning it down when Ray gets in the passenger seat.
Dino's is pretty quiet for a Saturday, but it's still fairly early in the night, Frank supposes. They give the bartender a wave and slide into one of their usual booths toward the back.
It's not until there's a tall glass of beer in front of Frank that Ray drops the pleasantries and says, "So what happened?"
Frank fidgets with his beer, turning the glass and swiping a finger through the condensation on the side. "You know as much as I do, man."
"Which is?" Ray asks, arching an eyebrow.
"I tagged along on the tour for a week, the last night I was there we boned, and now he wants nothing to do with me."
Ray's brow furrows. He leans over the table, toward Frank. "Did he say that?"
Frank flicks a few droplets of water off his glass. "He doesn't have to say it. He's made it pretty clear."
"So you haven't heard from him at all? That's so weird."
"It's not weird, Ray. This isn't the first time he's done it, okay? And he promised - fucking swore to me - that he wouldn't just fall off the radar like this again." Frank takes a swig of his beer, barely tasting it. "And you know what? He has. So fuck him."
"You don't mean that."
"I really do."
"Have you tried calling Gerard, he'd know-"
"No." Frank cuts him off. "I'm not going running to Gee just because Mikey's ignoring me. If Mikey wants to talk to me, he knows how to reach me. I'm not running after him anymore." Frank's got some pride left, god damn it.
Ray goes quiet, taking a sip of his beer and Frank follows suit. It turns into a deep swallow and he can feel it hitting him a little when he puts the half-empty glass down. He hasn't eaten much today; that's probably why he's all melancholy and shit. "I just thought it would be different this time," he says, and god, he's such a fucking girl. "I should've seen it coming."
"He's been your best friend since you guys were kids."
"Yeah, and now I don't even get to have that anymore." Frank slumps down in the chair. Not that he's really had Mikey as a friend, not for those years when Frank stop chasing him down and they lost touch. It's just so fucking hard to go back to nothing after being so intensely close again. It's downright cruel. "It would've been easier if he'd just stayed away."
"Don't say that." Ray leans forward, concerned. "I'm sure there's a reason."
"Oh, I know there's a reason," Frank says decisively, because there is.
It's just not a good one.
There's something weirdly cathartic about talking to Ray about Mikey. Now that Frank's actually said the words out loud to someone, he knows it's really over. He doesn't really know why, just that it is, and that anything he might have hoped for that last night with Mikey, anything he felt he'd been promised that last morning on the bus, when he told Mikey not to forget - that none of it meant anything. Now that he knows that, he can put it behind him. Right?
To all outward appearances, he does. He goes to work each day and teaches his classes with gusto. He goes to band rehearsals with rocks out, helping the guys build a catalogue of songs. He spends his time at home divided between grading, guitar practise, and sketching out songs and melodies. He's busy. He's social. To any outsider, he's fine, and most of the time he feels fine, too.
He still does the odd internet search on Mikey, most of the time just finding an interview with the band where he barely contributes, or a shaky video from a recent concert. Frank doesn't clear his browser history afterwards but he sort of feels like he should, like he's doing something wrong, or unhealthy. He's supposed to be moving on.
He's just pulling up outside the practise space when his phone rings. The line at the gas station was huge and he hit a bunch of traffic because a pile-up near the turnpike, so he's running late for practice. He scrambles for his phone as he hops out of his car, making his way to the trunk to fetch his guitar. He hits 'send' blind, because Ray's a fucking slavedriver and no doubt it's him calling to check.
"I've just pulled up, dude. I'll be like five minutes," Frank says in a rush, already popping the trunk. He grabs for his guitar and nearly drops it when he hears the voice on the other end of the line. It's not Ray.
"Frank, hey. It's Mikey."
All the breath rushes out of Frank's lungs and he takes a step back, leaning against the car. His first instinct is to hang up, but he stops himself a moment before his finger hits the button.
"Hi." His voice comes out flat. He puts his guitar back down, gently.
"Hi." Mikey says, and then nothing else comes down the line. Frank starts to wonder if Mikey's still there at all. If he's hung up.
He knows he hasn't though. He's just waiting for Frank to talk first, like he usually does. Frank knows it, and he stays silent on purpose, forcing Mikey to speak first.
"Frank." His voice sounds strained. "I'm really, really sorry."
For the last three weeks, that's all Frank's wanted to hear. Mikey's voice, apologising. Except now that he's hearing it, it's not enough. He stands in the parking lot, turning his body to face the sun, closing his eyes at the glare.
"Is that all?" Frank asks, keeping his voice level - no inflection at all.
"Frank, please. I don't. I mean. I didn't-" Mikey's voice drops away, but Frank can hear him breathing down the phone, rough breaths that push static down the line. "I freaked out. I'm sorry."
"Yeah, I figured as much," Frank says, his voice cold even to his own ears - hollow. "Is that all? Because I need to get inside. Ray's waiting."
"Frank, wait-" Mikey says, the words a rush, but all that comes after them is more silence.
Frank opens his eyes again, squinting against the sun, feeling like he's outside his own body. Numb.
"I miss you," Mikey says finally, and something inside Frank's chest clenches painfully, but it's like pressing a bruise, an old wound, a pain he's grown used to. He lets his eyes slide closed again, seeing red as the sun hits the blood in his eyelids.
"I can't do this again, Mikey," he says. "I'm sorry. I have to go."
He hangs up, fetches his gear from the trunk and goes inside to practise.
Frank saves the number that Mikey called from into his phone as "Don't Answer."
"Don't Answer" calls once a day for the next week. Frank nearly answers twice, but manages to stop himself, letting it go to voicemail. The first two times Mikey doesn't leave a message. The third time he does.
A notification trills, and he slumps down onto the floor, staring at his phone.
Frank shouldn't listen to the message. It's just going to make things complicated. He dials his voicemail with every intention of deleting without listening, but he just can't do it. He leans back, the hard base of his bed digging into his back as the message plays back.
"Hey Frank. I guess I know why you're not answering." Mikey sounds tired. Frank can hear a low hum in the background, like he's calling from the bus while it's in motion. "Look, it was a shitty, shitty fucking thing for me to do, or like, not do, I guess. I know you think I'm crap at this, at keeping in touch, but I don't have to be, you know?" Mikey sighs, and his breath hits the microphone, making it crackle. "I know I fucked up. I just. I guess I want one more chance. I know I probably don't deserve it." There's long pause, and Frank doesn't realise he's holding his breath until Mikey speaks again and it rushes out. "I just miss you. I miss us."
Frank hears a few more stuttering, static-laden breaths in the earpiece, then Mikey hangs up.
The automated voice recites the time and date of the call back at Frank, listing through his options, to call back, save or delete. Breathing is a physical effort for a few long moments, as he stares at the phone, the distant tinny voice of the automaton repeating his options back to him, press three to call back, press four to save the message, press five to delete the message..
Frank presses five, and hangs up. Then he flips off the light, crawls into bed and pulls the covers over his head, willing himself to unconsciousness.
Frank deletes more voicemails over the next week, but "Don't Answer" doesn't call Frank on the tenth day. Frank nearly doesn't notice - it's a Monday, busy and rushed, and he has two classes prepping for tests the next day. By the time he gets home he's exhausted, debating frozen meal versus takeout, because the thought of cooking actual food is too much effort to even consider.
He's staring at his pile of menus for local eateries when his doorbell rings. He's not expecting anyone, but it's not out of the ordinary for Ray or any of his friends to drop by unannounced, so he goes to answer it.
He is not, however, expecting the person on his doorstep to be Gerard. But it is. Gerard's wearing his usual outdoor uniform of a long coat, two scarves and a ridiculous fur-lined hat, though it's almost May. He's also holding a phone to his ear.
"Hi Frankie," he says, with a huge smile that wrinkles his nose. He waves with the hand that's not holding the phone.
"Gerard- um, hey. What-?"
Gerard doesn't wait to be invited in, he just steps inside. He takes Frank's hand and puts his phone in it, fitting Frank's fingers around it and pushing it up to Frank's ear. Frank just stares at him, totally confused.
"Just talk to him. Please," Gerard pleads, and it's not like it's news to Frank that the puppy dog eyes of doom run in the Way family, but it's been a long time since Gerard's used his on Frank. He keeps his hold on Frank's hand, pressing until the phone is touching Frank's ear, warm like the call has been connected for some time.
"Frank, please don't hang up." It's Mikey, of course it's Mikey. Mikey's using Gerard as his agent now and it's totally not fair.
"Mikey," Frank says, inflecting it like a greeting, keeping his voice neutral. "What do you want?"
Gerard stays a moment longer, probably just to make sure Frank doesn't hang up. Then he nods earnestly at Frank, squeezing his fingers - before he ducks into the living room and gives Frank some semblance of privacy.
"I don't know," Mikey says, and it's a little bit of a comedown after all the drama of him sending Gerard to Frank's house. "I just. I don't want you to hate me."
Frank sighs, the air taking the energy out of his body as it leaves his lips. He kicks the door gently shut and leans back on it. "I can't hate you, Mikes." He palms his eyes. So tired. "I know, I've tried."
He had plenty of time to try, the first time Mikey went to radio silence. It wasn't as sudden that time as it was this time. Then, the phone calls and messages grew more and more rare over a long period of time, until he didn't have anything left of Mikey but old photos and stories and an infinite number of mutual friends.
It was almost easier this time, like going cold turkey.
Mikey laughs, but there's no joy in it. It just sounds dry, empty. Frank hears him take a breath before he gets the next words out. "How can I fix this?"
"I don't think you can," Frank says, the words sound hollow to his own ears. "Even if I get over this, I don't know that I won't always be expecting it to happen again. Even if we can make... something out of this, I just." Frank sighs again, leaning his head back until his head hits the door. "I don't think it can work."
There's so much stacked against them - time, distance, Frank's job, Frank's own stupid head. "I'm sorry, Mikey."
The line is silent for a long time. "Other people do it," Mikey points out, weakly.
"We're not other people, Mikes. Look, I should go, your poor brother is trapped here until I give him back his phone." Frank pushes up off the door, ready to walk back into the living room to Gerard.
"Wait," Mikey says, sounding panicked. "Frank, wait. Just-"
Frank pauses. "What?"
"Do you remember the time we went to see the Souls at the Loop, the night you had sneak out and I was supposed to meet you with the car around the corner of Willow and Birch, but I ended up on Birch and Tenth and you couldn't find me?"
Of course Frank remembers; he'd circled four blocks in his too-thin jacket trying to figure out if Mikey was late or lost. "Yeah, so?"
"I mean, you found me, right? In the end? We missed the opener but we made it for the Souls and that was the night we stayed after and ended up meeting the band."
"So, what, Mikey? Of course I remember that." Frank's voice comes out prickly, but he doesn't get why Mikey's bringing this up. This is ancient history.
"I got mixed up, and ended up in the wrong place, but you found me, you kept looking until you found me."
"Mikey, you're not making any sense." It must be a Way thing.
"I just want another chance," Mikey says. Frank has to lean his hand against the wall to prop himself up, breathe deep and try to remember why he has to say no to this. He's having trouble remembering.
"Mikey-" Frank loses the rest.
"Frank, just. Please."
Frank closes his eyes, feeling the roughness of the paint under his fingers, breathing through his indecision. He could try this, right? He could give it another chance. Would it be any different to where they are now, except he'd be talking to Mikey on his phone instead of Gerard's? Mikey would still be a world away, in orbit, circling an entirely different planet, always out of reach, always able to switch off and move on, to leave Frank behind. Shit, Frank doesn't even know what city he's in right now.
He opens his eyes, blinking in the too-bright light of his hallway fluorescents. "I have to go," is all he manages to say, and goes back into the living room to return Gerard's phone.
Gerard looks up when Frank enters the room. His face is hopeful at first, but once he sees Frank's demeanour his expression slips to sadness and confusion. He gets up off the couch, putting the Sandman trade he was leafing through down on his coffee table. Frank gives him back his phone.
"You want a coffee, or something?" he offers, unable to turn off his ingrained politeness, even in the face of his startlingly depressing personal life.
Gerard opens his mouth, then obviously pauses and rethinks.
"I should go," he finally says. "You know, deadlines and shit." He pockets his phone and follows Frank to the door.
"Bye Frankie," Gerard says sadly as he steps outside, winding his scarves around his neck. Frank starts to close the door, but Gerard stops it with the flat of his hand, looking at Frank all earnest. "He really regrets not calling, you know. Like, he's really, really fucking sorry."
Frank can see so much of Mikey in Gerard's expression at that moment that it's more than a little painful. "Yeah," he says, "So am I."
He closes the door.
Mikey doesn't call again after that. Frank thinks that might finally be the end of it, but instead of relief he feels unsettled and itchy. He shakes it off. It was the right decision. The grown up decision. He should be making more of those.
He lets himself get sucked into work - it's the end of the semester, so finals and exams and projects command all his attention, and the little free time he has left goes to Ray and the band. Frank's up to speed with all their established tracks now and some of the loose jams they played that first time he rehearsed with them are becoming real songs. Ray and James are starting to talk about actual gigs. Sure, just small club gigs, but real gigs, at real venues that are more than just a practise space or someone's living room.
It's good, it gives Frank room to breathe, plenty to hold on to. He goes nearly a week without checking the internet for news of Mikey. When he does, he doesn't expect anything other than the usual, the odd few sentences from Mikey in an interview, more shaky concert footage where Mikey will occasionally be in frame. It's a surprise when most of the buzz seems to centre on some kind of mysterious number-code that has something to do with Mikey. There's a flurry of conjecture from fans and journalists about what it means.
Frank's brow furrows, but he's intrigued, so he clicks through a bunch of links until he finds some fan-made posts with pictures.
The pictures cover the last week of shows Mikey's done, with a few screen caps from interviews on websites and music channels. In each picture, there's a number written somewhere in plain view on Mikey's skin or clothes. A string of numbers down his arm in sharpie at the San Antonio show, a different set of numbers written across the chest of an inside-out t-shirt he wears in Austin, one scrawled across the back of his jacket at a show in El Paso, and another date in sharpie written on his neck during an interview on Steven's Untitled Rock Show.
Frank clicks the link to the SURS interview, and finds the very first question Steven asks Mikey is what it all means.
Mikey smiles secretly, eyes sliding down and to the side the way they doing when he's trying not to give too much away. "You know how when you were a kid, you used to have a secret code with your best friend, so that you could send like, messages to each other and stuff without other people knowing? It's kind of like that."
Somewhere on the edge of frame, Bert looks like he's laughing. Steve presses Mikey more. "That's all you're going to give me? Come on Mikey, the world wants to know."
Mikey just shrugs, "It's not about the rest of the world."
The interview cuts to a bumper, and when it cuts back they're talking about something else. Frank clicks the window closed, but he can't stop thinking about it. After getting nothing done for the next half an hour, he goes back in his internet history to find the page with all the pictures of Mikey with the numbers written on him. Calling himself seven shades of idiot, he studies the pictures, writing each number down. The way they're written, they've got to be dates. There are four of them, spanning from 1996 to 2003.
Frank writes them down in chronological order, trying to remember if any of them are significant. The only one he recognises off the top of his head is 10-31-99. His eighteenth birthday, and the day he got his first tattoo - the smiling jack-o-lantern on his back. Mikey had come with him to the tattoo parlour, calling him names whenever he showed weakness and generally distracting him until the piece was finished. They'd gone back to the Ways afterwards and made Gerard look at it, Frank describing the needles until Gerard looked green and told him if he didn't stop talking about it he'd puke all over him.
They'd gotten drunk on Southern Comfort that night, and smoked up out in the Way's backyard until they were giggling messes on the grass, Frank so gone he didn't even feel the ache in his fresh tattoo anymore.
Frank finds himself staring at the number written on the notepad in front of him, a smile pulling at his lip at the memories. He shakes it off, and goes back to preparing the exam. Stupid nostalgic bullshit.
He doesn't think anymore of it, until the mail comes in the next day and hidden among his bills and the newest copy of NME is a postcard, one of those hokey ones with a picture of The Alamo on it, postmarked San Antonio.
Frank flips the card over to find it has 10-31-99 scrawled across the top of the clean section in Mikey's rounded handwriting. Underneath it just says "the day you got your first tattoo."
Frank stares at the postcard for a long moment, his brain struggling to put the pieces together. So, okay, he got that one. Gold star for him. He slaps the postcard against his hand, his brain already whirling around the other three dates, but he can't quite remember what they were. He wanders back inside, still clutching the mail, and as he walks past the kitchen table where his grading is scattered, he reaches for the notepad with the dates on it.
He knows what Mikey is doing. He wants him to think about these dates, about him and Mikey, to get all nostalgic and sappy and let him off the hook. Frank's lip curls. Mikey is such a fucking asshole, but he's playing him like the first level of Super Mario on easy. He knows Frank's not going to be able to stop thinking about this now, not until he figures it out.
Frank huffs, "you fucker," somewhere between annoyance and endearment. He pockets the postcard and goes into his bedroom, pulling out an old shoebox full of random crap he's never thrown away because he's a hoarder. He digs through the ticket stubs, old letters, and flyers until he finds a few from 1996.
He doesn't even need to check the date to know he's got it when he finds himself holding the ticket stub for the Pumpkins at Madison Square Garden. He digs some more until he finds a few things dated 1998, but none of them match up with the date Mikey wrote across his back in El Paso and if he doesn't get in the shower right now he's going to be late for band practise.
He shoves the contents of the shoebox back inside and pushes the box back under the bed. His mind ticks over the dates the whole time he's in the shower and on the journey to the practise space He obsesses over it for the rest of the night, so much that Ray calls him out for being distracted, and the whole following day at school it's on him mind.
When he gets home from school there's another postcard nestled among a gas bill and a catalogue for the local hardware store. This postcard features a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughn with a bunch of birds flying overhead. The back is covered in Mikey's scrawl again, this time with 09-17-96 written across it, the note underneath reading "The Pumpkins at The Garden. We waited for 12 hours. Best show."
Frank's mouth pulls into a smile, and he's not sure if it's nostalgia or just the satisfaction that he got it right. Either way, he's playing right into Mikey's hands, and he's not sure he can bring himself to be annoyed about that.
No postcards arrive the next day. When Frank checks his box in the afternoon, there's the usual junk mail, but no postcard. If Mikey is sending the postcards from the road as they stop through different cities, there's every chance the time will vary as they find their way to Frank's house. There's even a good chance of them getting lost in the mail. USPS isn't infallible, certainly not in some of the small towns and rural counties The Used's tour bus would be weaving its way through.
A voice in Frank's head slyly whispers that maybe Mikey just didn't send any more. Maybe he got bored, or maybe he's being stubborn and he's not going to send any more until he hears from Frank. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
The thing is, it just doesn't feel like either of those options is right. Frank knows Mikey, and his instincts tell him the other postcards are already sent - that Mikey would have made sure to send them from the towns they were in when he wore the dates on his body. It's just the kind of thing that Mikey would follow through on. It's just the way he is.
Frank goes inside and digs around in his shoebox again. He still can't find any memorabilia for 05-05-03 but he does have a breakthrough with 10-02-01 - a ragged flyer that sports his own face and three others', dates listed down the centre. He photocopied all these himself, and he and Mikey went around to all the local music shops and restaurants, sticking them up and leaving them in stacks anywhere the owners would let them. The first date on the flyer matches up with the date Mikey wore on his neck for the SURS interview.
It's the date of Frank's first show with Pencey Prep.
Mikey was there, of course. He was down the front, shouting and hollering between songs, surrounded by everyone whose arm he'd twisted to come along. He was with Frank before the show too, holding his beer while Frank tuned his guitar, listening to Frank moan and complain about how nervous he was, how he was so sure he was going to puke any second. The show wasn't actually anything special. The crowd was small, and mostly only their friends and family, but that at least meant they were well received. Frank can remember standing up there at the end, , grinning at the scattering of faces and saying goodnight, thinking this was it. This was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
He'd jumped down off the stage, because there was no side stage, and was instantly dragged into a bony hug from Mikey, which had turned into a group hug when Mikey had dragged Gerard and Ray into it too. Again, Frank finds himself smiling down at the postcard. Fuck, Mikey's got him. He really does.
He still can't figure out that fourth date and it's bugging him like crazy. He empties his shoebox of memories and doesn't find anything. He finally resorts to digging through his email, checking his sent mail to try and figure out what was happening around that time. When he finds a clue he slaps a palm to his face and calls himself an idiot out loud. Because of fucking course - he should have guessed - it's the date of Mikey's audition for The Used, the day he found out they wanted him to play rhythm for him on the tour. The day he fucking made it.
Frank drove Mikey home after the audition that day and hung out at his place for the two twitchy hours Mikey spent waiting for a phone call that could change his life. Frank still remembers the expression on Mikey's face as he took the call, how he grabbed Frank's arm tight enough to hurt when he got the answer. The breath-stealing hug after he hung up when Mikey told Frank yes, they wanted him and Frank holding onto Mikey so tight.
Yeah, Frank remembers that day.
Frank closes down the email window and goes to bed feeling way too satisfied with himself.
The next day, two postcards arrive, postmarked as being sent a day apart. Frank was right, it was the mail that failed, not Mikey. He's like a fucking kid at Christmas, looking at the tacky cards from El Paso and Tuscon, and he has to force himself to go inside before he reads the backs because he doesn't want his neighbours to catch him hovering by the mailbox reading them.
He's right on both counts. One postcard of the The Grand Canyon with Mikey's scrawl on the back saying "Your first show with Pencey," and another random "Wish You Were Here" postcard that reads, "The day I started playing rhythm for TU."
Frank doesn't really know what to do with this information. His first thought is to call Mikey, tell him he got it, get some sense of satisfaction over winning this cryptic quiz about their shared past. He nearly pulls out his phone, but stops before he gets his hand into his pocket, heart sinking as he remembers the last conversation they had. He's not sure what to do, and he doesn't really have time to think about it, because he's got a stack of grading to finish before the morning.
It's still playing on his mind during his third period English class the next day, which is a written test so he doesn't really have to do anything but supervise for the bulk of the class. He ends up flipping through his notepad to the page where he originally wrote down the dates and doodling around them for half the period. It's not until the bell is sounding that he realises that he never checked to see if there were any more dates - there might be another postcard in the mail. He springs to his feet and dismisses the class, fingers twitching to get at his computer.
He barely manages to wait for the classroom to empty out before he turns for his desk. Dylan is standing beside it, looking at Frank's notebook. "You know what it means, don't you?" he says. Of course he knows about it.
Frank shrugs, trying not to give anything away. "Maybe."
Dylan steps away from the desk. "Can you tell me?"
Frank hesitates and then finally says, "I could, but honestly? You wouldn't get it. It wouldn't make sense to most people."
That's kind of the point.
There are more dates. In fact, Mikey hasn't been photographed without a date somewhere on his person since this whole thing started. Frank backtracks and discovers the first day he was photographed with a date on his arm was the day Gerard came over and put his phone in Frank's hand.
So this is Mikey proving a point. He's using the media power he has, gained by the very thing that was getting in the way of them being together, to win Frank back.
It's working, is the thing. Frank's too proud to let it lie. He can't stand the idea of not figuring out what a date means before he's told via Mikey's scrawl on the back of a postcard, so he digs through memorabilia and emails. He even calls Ray and his mother for clues when he's having trouble fitting the pieces together. They aren't terribly helpful, unfortunately. Mikey has picked some pretty specific dates, and sometimes it's events that only the two of them would know about.
Frank's stack of postcards from Mikey is seven deep when he finally hits a date he can't figure out. The closest he can get to it is Mikey's first show with The Used, but that was three days after the date Mikey's got scrawled on his upper arm in Reno. Maybe Mikey got a date wrong? But everything else has been spot-on.
Frank gets so frustrated trying to figure it out that he nearly calls Mikey. When the postcard comes the next day - featuring a glowing neon sign proclaiming Reno to be "the world's biggest little city" - he doesn't even manage to wait until he's inside to flip it over and solve the mystery.
When he does read the card, he nearly drops it. Fuck, how could he forget this one? He should have seen it coming, should have guessed.
The card is like all the others, the date across the top in Mikey's chicken scratch. Underneath it he's written simply, "the first time I kissed you."
They'd never talked about it afterward - not with each other and certainly not with anyone else. This is something that only he and Mikey know about. Knowing that makes something melt inside Frank's chest.
He clutches the card to his chest and goes back inside, heart pounding. He's already reaching for his phone, but he doesn't have time to call, doesn't know what he wants to say. He's not sure of anything right now except that he needs to tell Mikey that he's got the message.
He opens a new text message and types out some numbers - a date only a few months ago, one that's burned into his memory. The day he faced the crowd at Cleveland. The day Mikey sat on his amp and watched Frank rock out with his band. The last day Frank was on tour with The Used. They day he got locked out. A lot of shit went down that day, but his text is short.
03-17-07 - the first time I kissed you
It's pretty much an admission of defeat, and Frank's never been happier to lose.
Dino's is packed. Ray had argued that it was a stupid idea for them to play their first gig there, but Frank was convinced it would only be a small show and the nostalgia factor would be worth it. As it is, they can barely move in the small storage room backstage that's acting as a dressing room. Frank's crammed into a corner, checking the tuning on his guitar. He's done it twice already, but Frank needs to do something with his hands.
Ray walks over and elbows him. "It didn't detune itself in the last five minutes, dude." He grabs Frank's guitar strap and lifts it over his head, taking the guitar off him and putting it back in the stand. "Go get a beer or something, you're all wound up."
"I'm not wound up," Frank lies. "I've played way bigger crowds than this. It's not a big deal."
"Yeah sure. It's not a big deal that everyone you love is out there waiting to hear us. It's not like they're an important audience or anything," Ray says, and Frank pulls a face at Ray's stupid grin.
"Not everyone I love," he points out. Mikey's tour break starts tonight, but it's not physically possible for him to get back to Jersey in time for the show. He was pretty bummed to miss it, but as Frank assured him on one of their regular phone calls, there will be more shows. Definitely.
Of course, Frank has to pull out his phone then; it's compulsive now every time he thinks of Mikey. He can't help a little flutter in his chest when he finds a new text from Mikey wishing him a good show. Frank texts back, thanks. hope the morning flight doesn't suck too hard.
It's been a hard slog the last month or so, since this thing they have has become a real thing, as much as it can with phone calls and texts. Frank's looked at flight schedules dozens of times, trying to figure out if he could get away for a weekend, but it's just not physically possible. By the time he'd get to Mikey he'd just have to turn around and fly back to Jersey. Besides, it's not like Mikey will be on tour forever.
That first text message that Frank had sent Mikey - the one that broke the radio silence - had led to more text messages and eventually phone calls. Mikey had stopped writing dates on himself after that, trading the cryptic messages for real communication. The postcards are still sitting in a pile on Frank's bedside table; eventually they'll find their way into the shoebox of memories under his bed, sharing space with the flyers and ticket stubs that carry the same dates.
"From Mikey?" Ray asks, peering over Frank's shoulder.
"Yeah," Frank says, feeling his face pull into a telling soft smile. He holds the text up so Ray can read it. (After he carefully checks that there's nothing explicit in the earlier texts that are showing on the screen, of course. Ray would never let him live that shit down.)
"Pity he can't be here," Ray says, and Frank nods.
"The timing is so shit man, I can't believe there aren't any flights out of Las Vegas after midnight. It's such crap."
"So he gets in tomorrow morning?" Ray asks, reaching over Frank's amp to pick up his abandoned beer.
"Yeah, I'll be dragging my ass out of bed at the fucking crack of dawn for that asshole," Frank groans, stealing Ray's beer and taking a gulp. He hands it back before Ray can grouse at him too much.
Spencer joins them then, locking an arm around Ray's waist and leaning on his shoulder. "So, are you going to come around our place for breakfast then? Ray can cook pancakes."
"Not a chance. We're going to be - otherwise occupied," Frank says confidently. He and Mikey have a got a lot of lost time to make up for, and he doesn't plan on wasting a moment of it.
"No details, please." Ray says, looking traumatised. Spencer just laughs.
The stage at Dino's is pretty small, more of a barely-raised platform than a stage per se. It's a pretty major downgrade from the venues Frank played on his two brief cameos with The Used, but he doesn't care, even though he had to load in and set up his own gear. It was good, getting a feel for the room and checking out the view from there. The bar is packed and the vibe Frank's getting from them is amazing.
It feels different, though, when he steps back out on stage with his band. There's enough light spilling from the stage that he can make out most of the faces in the crowd, and more than half of them are familiar. Dylan is down in front, Frank's dad and uncle are up the back by the bar, Gerard and his parents are somewhere around the middle. It's a full house.
James takes the mic while Ray, Frank and Cortez get their guitars on, greeting the crowd and giving a shout out to the venue guys for having them. He keeps it quick and then nods his head to Spencer, who taps them in, then they're busting into the first track on the setlist - a song that's hard and fast and has James growling his way through the lyrics. Frank falls into the music, his fingers moving over the frets automatically, not even feeling it. He spins and headbangs his way through the song, feeling the energy of the crowd bounce back up at him, pulling him along.
They're three songs into the setlist when James takes the mic again, pausing to banter with the audience.
"Hey, so we know some of you have come a long way to be here tonight, and we really appreciate that," he says, and he must be talking about someone Frank doesn't know, because as far as he's aware no one in the audience had to come further than NYC. Frank glances up from his guitar to scan the crowd, looking to see if James is singling someone out, but James isn't looking into the crowd. He's looking side stage.
Frank follows his gaze to see Mikey standing there with a bag on his shoulder, his hair a wreck and still wearing one of his stage outfits. Frank doesn't even think, he just tears offstage, to grab Mikey by the shirt and pull him down, needing to get his mouth on him. Mikey goes easily, his fingers curling into Frank's shoulders as he kisses back, all tongue and teeth as the guitar bangs between their bodies.
It's too much and nowhere near enough. The roar of adrenaline in Frank's body teams with the hot press of Mikey's lips over his and drives him crazy. When Frank breaks the kiss, blood roaring in his ears, Mikey's laughing at him.
"I can't believe you made it," Frank says, his brain still not able to catch up. It's still out there on stage, still trapped in the music, while he rushes to put together this new information, Mikey actually being here, now.
"It was touch and go," Mikey admits. "I had to skip the encore and I think Worm broke a land speed record getting me to the airport, but I got lucky."
Frank grins wide, then leans up on tiptoe to kiss Mikey again, messy and dangerous, their teeth crashing together because he can't stop smiling. Mikey breaks it this time, pushing Frank back. "Hey, hey, you gotta get back out there champ."
When Frank can concentrate enough to pay attention to what's happening onstage, he can hear James saying something about their missing guitarist, could one Frank Iero please report back to the stage. Which is all of three feet away.
"Later," Frank promises, his eyes lingering on Mikey's lips, still wet from their kisses.
"Later," Mikey echoes, and the way he says it is a promise.
Frank goes back on stage and plays his fucking heart out.
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