Gerard wakes up gasping, with that weird falling sensation, like he’s crashing back into his body after being somewhere else.
“Hey,” someone says, and he jumps a little. Frank’s leaning in the doorway of his bedroom, bare to the waist and rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. There are tattoos on his chest and stomach and arms, making him look like some kind of bizarre human art exhibit as he stands there.
“Hey,” he says again. “Trouble sleeping?”
“Nightmare,” Gerard croaks out, his voice a bit thick. “Did I wake you up?” Mikey used to tell him he’d been screaming, sometimes, even when he hadn’t been screaming in the dreams.
“Nah.” Frank shakes his head, moving a little further into the room. “Woke up on my own and thought I’d check on you, a lot of people have bad dreams when they first get here. Ray’s got a theory.”
“Yeah?” Gerard sits up on the couch, pulling his legs up, and Frank takes that as an invitation, dropping down to sit facing him.
“Yeah, he thinks your…he calls it ‘consciousness’, I think ‘cause he can’t make up his mind whether he thinks it’s your mind or your soul or both, y’know? But anyway, he thinks it needs time to adjust to the whole…” Frank gestures vaguely, “thing
of being here. And when you’re awake you can just concentrate on functioning, but when you’re asleep your consciousness is just, y’know, idle, so that’s when it tries to work everything out.”
“…Toro says it better,” Frank concludes, letting his hands drop.
“No, I think I get it,” Gerard says. “Seems like a good theory. I mean, it’s not like I’m at all qualified to judge, but…it’s a big change to go through, it makes sense there’d be some sort of aftereffects.”
“Ray’s a smart guy,” Frank says, and smiles a little wryly. “You should talk to him about it, he’s better than me at having conversations with words like ‘consciousness’ and ‘aftereffects’ in ‘em. I just know it’s tough at first, but it usually gets better.”
“I hope so,” Gerard says. The fire dream wasn’t as bad as some of the ones he used to have, but he’s still not looking forward a repeat viewing.
Frank gives him a considering look. “Think you can get back to sleep?”
Gerard shrugs. “’M not sure.”
“If you think it might help—Ray and I bunked down together for a while when he was new, and it helped him out a little.” Frank glances at Gerard, as if trying to gauge his reaction. “So, I mean. If you wanted.”
Gerard glances at Frank, unsure what spirit the offer’s being made in. On the one hand, from the way Frank’s been so far, Gerard has the feeling he tends to be pretty direct about what he wants. On the other, he did
say he’d died in the 30s, when anyone who wasn’t completely heterosexual had to, like, talk about sex in code.
“Can’t hurt to try,” he says. “If you don’t mind…”
Frank shrugs, standing up. “Nah, man, bed’s big enough for two. C’mon.”
He says the last part over his shoulder, already heading back towards his room, and Gerard takes a moment to study the tattoos on his back—a grinning jack-o’-lantern, high up between his shoulder blades, and a pair of guns, heavy-looking revolvers, crossed over each other on his lower back. Gerard hesitates a little longer, and then gets up, trailing after Frank into the bedroom.
There’s low, flickering light coming from an old-fashioned oil lamp on the bedside table, and the bed is very obviously well-slept-in, the sheets rumpled. Gerard sits down on the edge of it, feeling awkward. Assuming he can take this offer at face value, it’ll be the first time in a long time that he’s gotten into bed with someone without
sex being involved. There were times when he ended up falling asleep in a friend’s bed without meaning to, and nothing (mostly, he’s pretty sure) happened, but usually when someone, like, invited him in, sleep wasn’t the primary objective.
Frank climbs into bed across from him, looking pretty unself-conscious about the whole situation, and, when he goes to pull the covers up and notices that Gerard’s still just sitting there, shoots him this little …well?
look with his eyebrows.
Gerard gives a little mental shrug and scoots back, swinging his legs up into the bed. Frank pulls the covers up, then reaches for the lamp. “Oh, hey—light on or off, you care either way?”
It’s a tiny, single flame, but the way the light flickers and dances over everything in the room is unsettling after the dream. “Um. Off?”
Frank turns the lamp down obligingly, and then rolls onto his side, facing away from Gerard. Gerard lies on his back with his eyes open, until they’ve adjusted to the darkness, until he can make out the curve of Frank’s shoulder in his peripheral vision and, if he turns his head and concentrates, almost make out the lines of his tattoos.
He’s almost a total stranger, but he’s warm and close and human, and it’s amazing how much that helps. Gerard closes his eyes, tries to clear his mind, and falls asleep to the sound of Frank’s breathing, deep and slow.
Gerard wakes up warm and really comfortable, even though one of his arms is asleep and that’s gonna be a bitch pretty soon. It takes him a minute or two to realize that the reason he’s so warm and comfortable is that he and Frank are basically spooning, and that realization wakes him up completely.
As far as Gerard can tell, he’s the instigator, having wrapped himself around Frank’s back at some point. But as he’s lying there, Frank stirs a little, grabbing Gerard’s hand, which is on his hip, and tugging it more firmly around his waist. He snuggles back into the curve of Gerard’s body at the same time, which calls Gerard’s attention to the fact that he’s totally and embarrassingly hard.
Gerard squirms away a little, but apparently he’s not subtle enough, because Frank stirs again, muttering something—and then tenses a little, dropping Gerard’s hand. Gerard pulls his arm back from Frank’s waist and shimmies a little further away just as Frank rolls over, blinking sleepily.
“You sleep okay?” he mutters, not looking or sounding like he’s about to accuse Gerard of feeling him up in his sleep or anything.
“Yeah,” Gerard says. “Great, actually. Thanks.”
“No problem,” Frank says, and stretches a little. “Slept pretty good, myself.”
They’re still lying pretty close together—close enough for Gerard to kiss Frank if he leaned in, which makes it a little awkward to look at his face. Looking down doesn’t help at that much, because he keeps getting struck with crazy urges to reach out and trace the lines of Frank’s tattoos.
“You’ve got a lot of tattoos,” Gerard says, for lack of anything better, and Frank grins.
“Guilty as charged.”
He stretches again, this time with an air of showing off, and Gerard’s gaze catches on something that’s not a tattoo. There are four circular marks scattered across Frank’s ribcage, and they look an awful lot like bullet wounds. Gerard raises a hand towards them, unthinking, and then freezes, blushing.
“It’s okay,” Frank says after a moment, and Gerard starts to say “I’m sorry—” and Frank says, “No, seriously, it’s okay,” and grabs Gerard’s hand, pressing it against the scars himself. His skin is warm under Gerard’s hand, and their eyes lock, Gerard’s wide and a bit startled, Frank’s steady and unblinking.
“If I were gonna be weird about people looking at ‘em I’d sleep with a shirt on,” Frank tells him, and then, “Uh. Unless I just made this weird for you, in which case…sorry?”
“No, it’s fine.” Gerard eases his hand away, looking down again. Lower down on Frank’s skin, below the scars, there are two birds tattooed just above the waistband of his shorts.
“These are neat,” Gerard says, pointing to one of them. “Any reason they’re an angel and a devil?”
“Not really.” Frank says, looking down at his own stomach. “Seemed like a good idea at the time. Which might’ve been while I was a little drunk.”
Gerard can’t help but laugh at that—somehow, getting a random tattoo never seemed like a good idea to him no matter how
drunk he was. Without meaning to, his hand brushes Frank’s skin again, lower and lighter than when Frank put Gerard’s hand on his scars, and Frank twitches—and then pushes forward a little.
Gerard looks up at that, to see Frank looking down, lower lip caught between his teeth. He looks uncertain, but he’s not pulling back or saying anything, and Gerard feels pretty sure that if Frank had objections, he’d be voicing them.
Gerard lowers his eyes and touches Frank again, deliberately, tracing the inked curve of a wing. Frank’s breath catches, but he holds still, and when Gerard moves his hand, sliding his fingers experimentally along the curve of Frank’s hipbone, Frank arches into the touch, unmistakably.
The silence is suddenly tense, electric, but Gerard finds himself reluctant to break it. He looks up to see Frank swallow and open his mouth, as if to speak—and that’s when the knock on the door comes, making them both jump.
“Hey, Frankie—Gerard skip out, or is he in there with you?” Ray calls through the door, and Frank sits up, easing away from Gerard a little before he answers.
“Yeah, he’s here.”
“Well, there’s coffee if either of you gets out here before I drink it all,” Ray says, and then Gerard can hear him moving away from the door.
Gerard looks back at Frank, who raises his eyebrows. “Bastard’s not kidding, he’ll do it.”
Gerard hesitates for a second, but…coffee
. He scoots to the end of the bed and sits up, stretching, and then says casually, “So, you got ink anywhere below the waist?”
Frank’s already out of bed, moving towards the door without bothering to put a shirt on, but he turns, giving Gerard a speculative look.
“Stick around and maybe you’ll find out,” he replies.
Breakfast is a highly informal affair. The apartment’s kitchen is tiny, and neat, but with the kind of old tile and linoleum that’s too cracked and dingy with age to ever really look clean, and the three of them crowd around a small, rickety table: Frank still shirtless and barefoot, Ray in ripped, faded jeans and a stained t-shirt, and Gerard in the same clothes he’s worn since he got here, seeing as they’re still the only ones he has.
There’s coffee, true to Ray’s word, along with cereal, but only evaporated milk. Gerard eyes it all speculatively.
“So, where’s the food here come from?” he asks.
“Warehouses in the city,” Ray says. “No one seems to know how it works, but no one’s ever gone looking for anything they need and not found it.”
“Only dried or canned stuff, though,” Frank adds. “Nothing grows in the city. We’ve got Pop-Tarts somewhere, if you want.”
Ray snorts, jerking a thumb in Frank’s direction. “He’s fucking crazy about Pop-Tarts, they didn’t have ‘em when he was alive. Anyway, I was thinking—if you want to see more of the city at any point, we can show you around, but if you’d rather just chill here for a while, that’s cool.”
“Um,” Gerard says. “I really don’t want to impose, but…I think taking it easy for a while would be a good idea.”
“Quit it with the imposing, would you?” Frank’s in the process of digging a crumpled packet out of his pocket. He pulls out a cigarette for himself, and then offers the pack to Gerard, raising his eyebrows in a silent invitation. “Trust me—you wear out your welcome, you’ll know it.”
Gerard smiles a little, reaching for a cigarette. “Thanks.”
You need time to adjust to being here, Frank had said. He’d also said that it was weirdest when you were asleep. But Gerard suspects that when Frank got here, he didn’t also have to deal with being consistently sober for the first time in years. Everything still seems just a little too bright, a little too sharp around the edges, and it makes Gerard’s eyes water and his head hurt.
Gerard spends a lot of that day alternately curled up on the couch or wandering aimlessly around the apartment, trying not to get in Ray or Frank’s way. They both seem to accept that he’s having a hard time adjusting without feeling the need to ask questions, and go about their business quietly.
There’s a bookshelf in the living room, and Gerard skims the titles—lots of book about music, some mystery novels, and the odd paperback that looks more like softcore porn than anything. Gerard eventually picks one of the mysteries, but can’t concentrate on it. There’s a pair of glass doors that lead onto a balcony against one wall, and he ends up mostly just staring out at what he can see of the skyline. It’s just as fantastic up close as it was from a distance, spires and towers that are damaged but still standing rising over the hulls of smaller or more thoroughly ruined buildings.
Frank wanders by at one point and finds Gerard sprawled on the couch, lying on his stomach with his head turned to the side. Without saying anything, Frank perches on the arm of the sofa, holds a mug of coffee in front of Gerard’s face, and, when Gerard reaches out to take it, lets his hand settle on Gerard’s head and pets his hair a little.
Eventually, Frank tugs gently at Gerard’s hair and says conversationally, “Now, this
isn’t a natural hair color for someone your age. And even if it were, I kinda doubt it’s the one you started out with.”
“Nope—I’m a brunette,” Gerard murmurs, sipping slowly from the mug to avoid spilling. “But I started dying it in high school. Black, mostly, but I switched to blonde a couple months ago.”
“How come?” Frank asks, running his fingernails over Gerard’s scalp now, almost like scratching a cat. Gerard closes his eyes and just basks in the feeling for a moment before answering.
“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Frank chuckles and tweaks Gerard’s ear playfully, then goes back to stroking his hair.
“Toro and I are gonna jam for a while,” Frank says after a few more moments. “We’ll be in his room if you need anything, okay?”
Gerard nods, and Frank smoothes a hand over his head one more time before getting up. A few minutes later, he hears the sound of two guitars filtering out from Ray’s bedroom.
Hearing the two of them play together with no other instruments, their sound strikes him immediately as a partnership, different styles woven together. Knowing when they both come from, he can hear the jazziness of Frank’s style, the sort of thing that conjures up mental images of honkey-tonks or speakeasies, and the rock-and-roll sound of Ray’s, just a little heavy and dark even while he’s playing acoustic.
Gerard lies where he is and listens, and looks at the city.
He’s still looking an hour later, when Ray and Frank emerge, only by then he’s sitting up, arms braced on his knees.
“Hey, man,” Ray says, walking toward the sofa. “You okay?”
Gerard looks up, a little startled at being spoken to. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I’m good—hey, Ray?”
“Do you—do you have anything I could draw with?” Gerard asks.
At the end, one of the worst things about being so out of it all the time had been that it got hard to draw. Not in the sense that he couldn’t
, but the end result never seemed to be what he wanted. In the last few month of his life, he’d mostly given it up.
So when Ray hands Gerard a notebook and a pencil, he’s mildly terrified.
“Out of practice?” Ray guesses, and Gerard nods. Ray’s response is to say for about the millionth time that if Gerard needs anything he should say so, and then leave Gerard to concentrate. Frank, on the other hand, leans over the back of the sofa about ten minutes later to see if Gerard’s drawn anything yet.
Gerard has, as it happens, just lowered pencil to paper; at Frank’s sudden appearance, he starts, and ends up just scratching a jagged line across the page.
“…Sorry,” Frank says, sheepish.
“It’s okay,” Gerard says. “But…this’ll probably be easier if I don’t have any distractions.”
“Yeah, sure,” Frank says easily. “I’ll leave you alone. But I, uh, meant to ask—”
Gerard cranes his neck to look at Frank. “…Yeah?”
“Think you might be looking to sleep in my room again tonight?” Frank asks, sounding far too nonchalant to actually be unconcerned about it. “Because I figure I should maybe put clean sheets on the bed, or something. If you are.”
Gerard ducks his head, hiding a tiny, nervous smile.
“I think so,” he says. “I slept pretty well last night, once I was there.”
“Cool,” Frank says. “I’ll…go make the bed, then.”
He disappears, and Gerard looks down at the notebook for a minute, feeling his smile grow, and then turns to a new page in the notebook.
A while after that, he hears Ray and Frank head toward the front door, and Frank calls out that they’ll be over at the House of Wolves for a couple of hours. Gerard nods distractedly and doesn’t move, and when they come back, he’s still perched in the same spot, pencil scratching lightly against the paper.
According to Gerard’s less-than-infallible internal clock, it’s still pretty early that night when Frank stretches and announces he’s turning in. It has all the subtlety of a cartoon anvil dropping on someone’s head, but Ray, who’s tuning his guitar on the other side of the living room from Gerard, doesn’t even look up, just lifts a hand briefly as Frank walks past.
Gerard hesitates, but stays where he is, cross-legged on the couch trying sketch the skyline. It’s been slow going, but what he has so far is easily one of the best things he’s drawn in at least a year.
After Frank’s announcement, though, he distracted, and not kidding himself about why. The shower’s running in the background, even though Frank took a quick shower before he and Ray went down to the House, and Gerard wonders if that’s a normal post-show ritual or if Frank’s, like, showering because of him
. Which makes Gerard wonder if maybe he
should shower, considering he hasn’t since he got here.
The shower stops, and Gerard hears Frank pad back across the apartment to his bedroom, without saying anything to either Gerard or Ray. A little while after that, Ray stops noodling around on his guitar and exchanges a quiet goodnight with Gerard before heading for his own room.
And a little while after that, Gerard tucks the notebook away and walks towards Frank’s room. The door’s already ajar, lamplight spilling out, and he nudges it open gently.
Frank’s sitting up in bed, sheets pulled up to his waist, a cigarette in one hand. He looks up when Gerard pushes the door open, and smiles a bit crookedly.
“Hey,” he says. “Wasn’t sure if you were gonna come in or not.”
Gerard smiles back, crossing the room to stand by the bed. “Well, after you made the bed and everything...”
Frank reaches over to where there’s an ashtray on the bedside table, crushing his cigarette out, and then holds his hand out to Gerard. “C’mere?”
Gerard takes his hand and settles on the bed facing Frank, tucking his legs up under himself. He feels awkward, like a teenager who’s snuck upstairs at a party and doesn’t know what to say or where to put his hands.
“Hey,” he says, for lack of anything better.
“Hey,” Frank replies. “So, uh. You done anything like this before?”
Gerard looks down at their joined hands. “By ‘like this’, I’m guessing you mean with a guy?” Frank nods. “Yeah, I have. You?”
Frank shakes his head. “I knew it happened. And since I’ve been here, a lot of people don’t seem to care…it’s not how it was when I came from, y’know?”
“But I never…I dunno, never really got why you’d want to, unless there were no girls around for a long time, like prison or the Navy. I mean, I like girls.” He looks at Gerard carefully for a moment, and adds, “But I like you, too. So.”
Gerard squeezes his hand. “You’re allowed to like girls and
guys, you know. People figured that out by the time I was around.”
“Yeah?” Frank smirks. “I could get behind that idea, I guess. So, anyway…I don’t really know what to…”
Gerard leans forward, and cuts him off with a kiss.
He catches Frank mid-sentence, open-mouthed and surprised, and brings his free hand up to Frank’s face, stroking the line of his jaw. Frank’s hair is still damp from the shower, and he smells clean and fresh, but his mouth tastes like cigarette smoke, thick and just a little bit dirty.
Gerard pulls back after a few seconds, smiling nervously. “Some things aren’t all that different.”
In reply, Frank lifts a hand to cup the back of Gerard’s neck, tugging him into another kiss. It’s a kiss with intent, no fooling around, like if Frank’s going to do this, he’s going to do
it. Gerard leans into it, tilting his head until they fit together just right, and when Frank slides his hands tentatively under the hem of Gerard’s shirt, Gerard lifts his arms to let Frank pull it up and off. Gerard has the idea things might go smoother if he lets Frank take the lead, and when Frank presses against his chest, Gerard lets himself be pushed down on the bed.
Frank kicks the covers away, impatient and clumsy, and then he’s braced above Gerard, wearing nothing but a pair of what looks like an early ancestor of boxers (Gerard thinks, vaguely, that they might be called jockey shorts). Frank gets a knee between Gerard’s legs and a hand on either side of his head and then pauses, hovering over him.
“So, uh,” he says, and Gerard grins and leans up to kiss him again, reaching between them.
“Here,” he mutters, and “Let me,” and slips a hand past the waistband of Frank’s shorts. Frank whines and thrusts into the touch instantly, and Gerard has time to wonder how long it’s been since Frank’s been with anyone before Frank tugs impatiently at the zipper of his jeans. Gerard’s actually not sure how long it’s been since he
was with anyone while sober, and the length of time between the moment Frank’s hand slides into his jeans and the moment Gerard gasps and comes all over his hand is embarrassingly short.
Frank’s still going, rocking into Gerard’s grip, until Gerard pulls his hand away, gasping “Wait, wait—”
Frank pushes forward into the touch that’s no longer there, overbalances, and collapses on top of Gerard.
“…What the hell
, man,” he mutters against Gerard’s shoulder.
“Hang on,” Gerard says, and pushes at Frank’s shoulder until he gets the idea and rolls over. “I want to blow you.”
“Huh?” Frank seems either not sure of the phrase or just too far gone to think clearly, but when Gerard pulls Frank’s shorts off and slides down between his legs, he gets the idea pretty fast. “—Oh
. Oh, fuck
It’s not the smoothest blowjob Gerard’s ever given. Frank’s hips twitch erratically, like he’s trying to keep from thrusting up into Gerard’s mouth, and when Gerard pulls back to tell him it’s okay, he pushes up too fast and then hisses “Fuck, fuck, sorry
,” when Gerard chokes.
Gerard eases back, bracing his hands on Frank’s hips and pressing a quick kiss to his stomach, just over one of the bird tattoos. “‘S okay. Just…with me, this time.”
He goes down again, tugging gently on Frank’s hips and steering them into a rhythm. Frank runs his fingers through Gerard’s hair for a few seconds, but it’s too short to grip, and his hands end up wandering further down; tracing Gerard’s jawline, cupping the back of his neck, flattening one palm between his shoulderblades. He’s talking, but not really saying anything, just gasping out a stream of words that’s half nonsense, half profanity. At the end, he pushes at Gerard’s shoulder in what’s probably meant to be a warning, but Gerard stays where he is, swallowing, which brings another string of incoherent obscenity from Frank.
When Gerard crawls back up the bed; Frank’s sprawled out and breathing heavily, eyes closed, but he rolls toward Gerard and slings an arm loosely around his waist.
,” Frank mutters. “That was…I’m keeping you, okay?”
Gerard laughs, and leans in to kiss him. “I’m good with that.”
Frank sleeps in the next morning, rolling over and burying his face in his pillow with a grumpy noise when Gerard declares his desire for coffee, so Gerard heads out to the kitchen alone. Ray’s already there, sitting at the small table with dark circles under his eyes, like he hasn’t slept too well. He nods amiably, but doesn’t speak until after Gerard sits down.
“So,” Ray says, eventually, his tone pleasantly neutral. “You and Frank?”
Gerard sips his coffee, and nods. “Looks like.”
“Huh,” Ray says. “Can’t say I saw that coming. You’re sticking around, then?”
“If you guys really don’t mind,” Gerard replies. “Seems better than being somewhere on my own. I have sort of been wondering, though…”
Ray raises his eyebrows encouragingly, waiting for Gerard to go on.
“Isn’t there anything else here? I mean, the city, the trenches, the fields outside—that’s not all there is to the afterlife, is it?”
Ray shrugs. “Question for the ages. I figure it can’t be, because there’s no fucking way everyone who’s ever died is in this one city, right? But if there’s anything else, no one here seems to know what or where it is.”
“No one’s ever gone looking?” Gerard asks.
“Plenty of people have,” Ray says. “Some don’t come back at all, and the ones that do all have the same story—they got a certain distance outside the city, and the wolves showed up and chased ‘em straight back in.”
Gerard’s brow furrows at that. “What, they, like, keep people here?”
“…Popular opinion is that it’s more like a safety in numbers thing,” Ray says. “That they go after people who stray from the pack. But…yeah, some people think they might be keeping us here.”
“Huh.” Gerard looks down, rubbing his thumb along the rim of his coffee mug. “So that’s why people stay here, even with the soldiers and the state the city’s in?”
“Pretty much,” Ray says. “It’s not perfect, but it’s what we’ve got, y’know? We make the best of it.”
Frank wanders into the kitchen with his hair sticking up while Ray’s talking, and steals Gerard’s coffee, but kisses the back of his neck in passing.
Gerard smiles faintly. “Yeah? I guess there are worse things you could do with your afterlife.”
Gerard spends most of the morning drawing, feeling better and better about it as he goes. He feels like what he’s coming up with is pretty good, but it’s been a while since he had that much confidence in his own abilities, so he figures an outside opinion or two won’t hurt.
Frank seems uncertain, when Gerard asks. “I don’t know anything about art—” he begins.
“That’s fine,” Gerard assures him. “I’m not looking for, like, an expert opinion, I just want to know how it looks to someone who’s not me.”
Frank and Ray both leaf through the pages Gerard’s filled so far in the notebook Ray gave him, side by side on the couch while Gerard sits across from them and fidgets.
“These…these are really good, man,” Ray says after a minute or two.
“You think so?” Gerard asks, pleased.
“Yeah,” Frank chimes in. “I mean, if you can do this just sketching in a notebook, I’d love to see what you could do with, like, paint and shit. If you’re the sort of artist who paints, I mean.”
Gerard nods, smiling. “I was. Art was…sort of what I did, before, but…I hadn’t been doing so well with it, for a while.”
“Well, it looks to me like you’ve got it back,” Ray says.
Gerard starts to reply, only to be cut off by a sudden noise. It seems to come from all around, rising in both volume and pitch, and Gerard’s never heard a sound quite like it anywhere outside of a movie, but there’s really only one thing a sound like that can be.
“Is that—” he begins, raising his voice to speak over the noise.
“Soldiers,” Frank says, already on his feet. “Come on.”
Gerard rises, then whirls around at the sound of gunfire, looking out the balcony doors to where the buildings surrounding the apartment complex open up into a sort of plaza. As he watches, a cluster of figures rushes across the open space, and then another, seemingly in pursuit, as more gunshots ring out.
“Shit, they’re close,” Frank says from behind Gerard, and grabs his arm. “Come on
They head down the rickety metal staircase, the siren echoing loudly around them, and into the building’s basement. There are other people down there already, huddled in groups and talking quietly amongst themselves, mostly, though some of them exchange nods with Ray and Frank.
“Now we just wait for the all-clear,” Ray explains to Gerard. “The soldiers don’t, like, intentionally
hurt civilians, but they’re careless—stray bullets, grenades going through someone’s window, shit like that.”
Gerard settles with his back to the wall and his knees drawn up, looking around nervously. “How often does this happen?”
“It’s pretty random,” Frank says. “Usually doesn’t last too long, though—once the siren’s going, it’s not too long before Mother War shows up and chases ‘em back to the trenches.”
Gerard blinks. “Mother War?”
“People say she’s the twins’ mother,” Frank explains. “Trust me, you’ll know her if you see her—she wears a hoop skirt and a gas mask, she kinda stands out.”
“The Mother,” Gerard mumbles to himself, remembering what Jeanne had said. “And, what, she controls the soldiers?”
“According to local legend,” Ray says.
“It’s not a legend,” someone says, and Gerard looks over to see a man and woman sitting close together, hands clasped.
“We were here when the soldiers were exiled,” the woman goes on. “It was close to a hundred years ago, after a great war in the land of the living.”
Gerard’s eyebrows go up. “A great war almost a hundred years ago, huh? If time moves the same way here—” he looks back toward Ray and Frank, “World War One?”
“Makes sense,” Ray agrees. “I’ve heard it had to do with how big the war was—that so many soldiers were showing up at once, the city couldn’t handle it.”
The man nods. “There have always been soldiers here, and the destruction has always grown worse as they brought the weapons of their time into the fight. But that war…” he shakes his head. “They came here in tens of millions, with their machine guns and bombs and poison gas, and almost destroyed the city.”
“What happened?” Gerard asks.
“We begged Mother War to intercede,” the woman says. “We begged Fear and Regret to convince her. She didn’t put a stop to their fighting—wouldn’t or couldn’t, no one knows for sure—but she made them leave the city, and whenever they cross the barricade, she drives them out again.”
As she speaks, the sirens fall silent, as abruptly as they started. Gerard looks around at the others again.
“Does…that mean they’re gone?”
“Yep.” Frank reaches out to clap him on the shoulder, grinning crookedly. “Congratulations, you made it through your first skirmish.”
A few days pass, and then a week, during which Gerard wanders around the apartment a lot, draws a lot, and has a lot of sex with Frank.
Ray and Frank renew their offer to show him more of the city, but Gerard finds himself reluctant to leave the apartment. It’s becoming familiar, and it feels safe, neither of which can be said for the rest of the city. He’s curious about what else there is to learn about this place, but for now, it’s enough to ask Frank and Ray any questions that come to mind. When he does venture out, it’s to go down to the House of Wolves and watch the band, maybe talk to Brian or camp out in a corner and try to sketch people, but spending time in a club is the sort of thing that’s mostly lost its appeal.
Drawing is still better and easier than it’s been for a long time. It’s funny, in a way that’s not really funny at all, that he used to feel like he had to get drunk or high for inspiration. Now, it’s like coming out of a fog that he was in so long he forgot how things look normally, and his hands itch to draw everything he sees. He’s been writing again, too, something he hasn’t done much of since college. Nothing very good yet, but maybe he just needs time to warm up.
He’s taking it easy and giving himself time to warm up with Frank, too. Neither of them feels the need to push things too far too fast, but there’s an easy affection between them that’s better than anything Gerard’s had in a long time.
Gerard has more nightmares, but he wakes up from every one of them with Frank wrapped around him and breathing against his ear if Gerard hasn’t woken him up, or Frank shaking Gerard and calling his name if he has.
Sometimes his dreams aren’t nightmares, just weirdly vivid, and usually from the point of view of someone who doesn’t feel like himself. There’s one where he’s running, running like the devil and laughing like a maniac even though he’ll be in trouble if whoever he’s running from catches up to him, and one where he’s lying in a hospital bed, listening to the beeps from the monitors that are measuring out his life.
Sometimes it’s restlessness instead, and Gerard lies in bed staring at the ceiling or watching Frank sleep. If it seems like sleep just isn’t going to happen, sometimes he’ll slip out of bed and go out to the living room to read or draw or just pace back and forth.
He goes out on the balcony one night—morning, actually, or close enough, the way the sky’s lightening—and leans against the railing, looking down at the empty streets below.
—Only no, he realizes, they’re not completely empty. There’s a woman—Gerard wouldn’t be able to tell for sure, because of the gas mask, but between that and the hoop skirt, he has a feeling he knows who she is.
He leans over the a little further, trying to get a better look at her. All she’s doing is walking slowly through the street, but there’s something about her that makes the back of his neck prickle.
He starts a little when he hears the door open, and takes a step back from the railing.
“Hey,” Frank says, coming up to stand behind him. “Didn’t mean to spook you.”
He slides an arm around Gerard’s waist, all warm skin and solid strength, and Gerard leans back into him. “Hey. That woman down there—is that her? Mother War?”
“Huh?” Frank stretches up to look over Gerard’s shoulder. “—Shit. Yeah, that’s her.”
“You said people say she’s the twins’ mother?” Gerard asks. “Doesn’t anyone know for sure?”
“There’s not a lot that anyone knows for sure about her,” Frank says. “She’s been here as long as anyone can remember, but as far as I know, no one’s ever heard her speak, and you can ask the twins about her, if you see ‘em, but good luck getting a straight answer.”
Below, the woman stops in the street, the huge, blank eyes of the gas mask turning in their direction. Gerard feels another prickle across the back of his neck, and shivers. Frank tightens his arm around Gerard’s waist, nuzzling at his shoulder.
“Come back to bed, baby,” he whispers, and Gerard lets himself be tugged away from the balcony, though he still feels oddly unsettled. You’ll meet her,
Jeanne had said. Everyone does
Gerard wonders if exchanging a look from a distance counts, or if he has something more than that to look forward to.III.