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Rae didn't meet Mikey in the scene, and if anyone had thought to ask later on, they would have said that was one of the most important things about the beginning.

She couldn't actually imagine herself in the scene – not the one Mikey always talked about, with guys humping guys and music that was all whining vocals, and not the one her brother talked about either, old-school "Welcome to the Jungle" type stuff. She jammed with bands a few times, auditioned a lot more than a few, and mostly kept to herself, listening to Metallica and memorizing chords.

But somehow she got to know Mikey Way. It was more a friend-of-a-friend thing than anything else; Mikey was known for being a good time and Rae was invisible, but somehow they clicked anyway.

The first time they went over to Mikey's house, Mikey tossed her a beer and said, "My brother might come up. Maybe not, though. He gets weird in the middle of projects." She found out what he meant halfway through Dawn of the Dead, when a bundle of black fabric barreled from the basement door to the refrigerator and back down to the basement without saying a word to either of them.

"...Your brother?" she said.

Mikey bobbed his head. "He's Gerard," he said, like that explained everything. It probably did to Mikey – who, Rae was already learning, lived in a pretty weird headspace most of the time.

"Oh," she said. "Cool." When she moved on the couch, her boobs bounced; Mikey didn't glance down. That answered that question, she thought. Before the movie even ended, they made plans to watch the rest of Romero's stuff. Rae had never been good at social stuff, but she figured she'd more or less made a friend.

College happened, though, and Mikey and Rae turned into the kind of friends no one under the age of sixty really had the right to be, all Christmas cards and polite phone calls. Oh well, Rae thought, and as time passed she learned that life was a little easier behind a drum kit, even if she did suck enough to reinforce every single vagina-related stereotype anyone could think of, and then some.

She saw Mikey around: drunk at a party, hanging to the side of the stage a few times. She figured that sooner or later they'd run into each other and didn't really think beyond that.

So of course the person who finally called her wasn't Mikey at all.

||

"Anyway, it's like, there's this kid who eats a shitload of Lucky Charms and rides a goldfish. Conceptual, you know? I asked Mikey to help me out, but he's like, dude, I don't compose. He told me you did, though."

"He said what?" She frowned. "Wait, who is this?"

"Oh! Sorry, it's Gerard. Way, that is, Mikey's brother? Um. He gave me your phone number, I didn't stalk you or anything."

Rae blinked. She vaguely remembered telling Mikey about writing music; how that translated into his brother remembering it, she didn't know, but Gerard sounded nice. Crazy, but then, Mikey was the same kind of airhead and she liked him just fine. "Oh, okay," she said. "A goldfish?"

"Yeah!" The sound of frantically shuffling papers, and then: "I've got words but I need help writing the music. I want it to really convey the feeling, you know? Like, he's totally tripping, but he's got this awesome fish, and the Breakfast Monkey's singing about nutrition, but in a cool way, not a lame Sesame Street way."

"Hey, don't knock Sesame Street," Rae said.

It would take her awhile to realize it, but at that second, she was pretty much committed.

||

September 11th happened and all Rae could think was that it was fucking stupid to get drunk that night no matter what the kids next door thought. She played with her guitar strings, half-melodies that didn't have enough ideas behind them to ever be songs, and thought about getting a better job.

Gerard called a week later. She'd almost gotten used to her brain sidestepping the tragedy, even though she knew kids whose aunts or cousins or even fathers had died; then Gerard said, "So I'm thinking about starting a band," and Rae found herself agreeing to meeting up and jamming.

It wasn't until she got in the room and pulled her guitar out, reading the scrawled words Gerard handed her, that she realized she hadn't sidestepped grief at all; she'd just ignored it.

A lot of people cried about it. Rae did, too; hell, Gerard did in front of her. But the first thing she did was agree to try to save the world.

And just like that, she joined her band.

||

Well, okay. Not just like that, good though it sounded in the interviews. The truth was that Gerard spent a lot of time drunk and Rae got distracted for a solid two weeks by a kickass hardcore band that played on as many college campuses as possible until the professors kicked them out. It wasn't until Mikey walked in on her and Gerard fucking around in the basement that she remembered the whole original band plan.

"Um," he said. His eyes were a little wide. "Hi?"

And forget him, Rae thought defensively, because she had weird hair and ugly jeans and knew it, but he looked like a fucking bird had been nesting in his hair, so he had no room to -

"We're starting a band," Gerard said. "Be in it."

"I can play bass. Sort of."

- oh.

"I could teach you, if you wanted," she said.

Mikey bobbed his head. "What are we going to play?"

"Danzig eating Morrissey's brain."

"And having sex with Ozzy," Rae added.

"Hunh." Mikey chewed his lip. "Cool."

They got sidetracked talking about Batman, but made plans to practice the next day. Rae actually had work, but she called out – which, in hindsight, was what made her realize it was the beginning of the band, and not just the kind of stupid side project you mention to your kids a few times, twenty years and a mortgage after the fact.

Mikey was poking at his bass when Rae came in, ten minutes early and carrying her guitar and two notebooks instead of the usual six-pack. "I haven't played in awhile," he said, frowning up at her. "I'm kind of shitty. I had a tape but I lost it."

Rae had picked bass up half by accident; awhile back, a band she'd been with had replaced her on guitar with the lead singer's brother, and she had stuck around by learning their (shitty, she thought vehemently, shitty and simplistic) bass parts. "Okay," she said. "Show me?"

Mikey poked the bass again.

"...Okay," Rae said again. "Play me the bass line to something."

She didn't recognize what he was playing, but it didn't really matter. "Your fingering's all wrong," she said unthinkingly, "and you're holding it – not wrong, exactly, but not how I'd hold it if I were you. And your technique is sloppy."

It wasn't until Mikey blinked at her that she realized what she'd been saying. "Not that you're not good! Because you are, and you could get better, and I'm sorry. I can be quiet."

"But I'm not good," Mikey said. "That's why I asked for help."

She stared. He was Gerard Way's brother, a fact that was usually easy to forget; right now, though, it was as obvious as the sky being blue. "It would be easiest if I could just show you," she said finally.

Mikey didn't move.

She reached out and positioned his hands. It was a weird angle, but reaching around him would have been weirder. "And it depends on the song, but seriously, you have to be able to keep a steady beat. Do you have a metronome?"

Mikey flexed his fingers a little when she pulled her hand away, looking up at her. "A what?"

"Never mind, I'll get you one. Do you like writing music?"

His eyes widened almost imperceptibly. "Um."

She laughed. "Okay, me and Gerard have that covered. You can tell people about our band. See if you can get us a gig."

"How soon?"

Rae bit her lip, thinking. "Two weeks," she said.

Mikey nodded. "You're gonna practice today, right?"

"Sure." She raised her voice a little. "Whenever Gerard's done."

"Fuck off, it's a creative fucking process," Gerard said from his desk.

Mikey rolled his eyes. "Whatever. You're wasting our time."

"I'm almost done, Mikey, shut the fuck up."

Ten minutes passed before Gerard finally stood up. "Here," he said, tossing the sheet of paper at Mikey's head. Rae didn't laugh when it floated limply in the air and bumped into Gerard's stomach as it fell to the ground, but it was a near thing.

Gerard just picked it up and walked over to them, flopping down on the couch and handing the sheet to Rae.

The figures in it weren't instantly recognizable. "What is it?"

"It's our band, genius."

Rae looked at the paper again. A chubby guy, okay. A skinny kid on bass, a lumpy dude behind the kit.

And a tall figure holding a guitar, the barest wrinkle in its shirt.

"Thanks?" she said, not sure what to make of it.

"Oh," Gerard said. "Yeah, I was gonna draw your tits, but I wasn't sure if you'd get pissed."

"But you're positive she's okay with you calling them tits?" Mikey said.

"That's what they are," Gerard said.

"And you're allowed to draw them," Rae said, handing the drawing to Mikey.

She was used to the sudden reminder that yeah, right, she was a girl, especially with the weight of a guitar in her lap; she wasn't used to it getting dismissed as quickly as Mikey lazily kicking Gerard's shin. "You're such a moron," Mikey said, and took his bass over to the opposite side of the basement, bobbing his head a little.

"Sorry," Gerard said, taking another drink of beer. "I didn't mean to be a dick. Just, you know...it's not about your tits, right? That's what girls say. And Virginia Woolf."

Rae blinked. "Kind of? I mean, they exist. But I'm just here to play."

"And save the world, yeah." Gerard finished off the beer and set the bottle on the table. "So let's do this."

Two hours later they didn't have much, just drunken ramblings and half-connected chords and Mikey's assertion that he'd have to make sure the audience was really drunk before they went on. "Thanks for the confidence," Rae said, throwing a balled-up sheet of not-lyrics at his head.

"Anytime," Mikey said. "Where's Matt, anyway?"

"He had work. He should be here tomorrow." Gerard had given up on staying upright hours ago and was lying curled on the couch, knees against the back cushions. "You should go home, Rae, I'm gonna puke soon."

Mikey didn't even blink, so Rae just put her guitar in its case and stood up. "See you, then," she said, and started to climb the stairs.

"Another practice tomorrow?" she heard Mikey ask, but she was up and waving goodbye to Mrs. Way before Gerard answered.

It was fast, she knew. Maybe too fast – she'd have to leave work early tomorrow. If this thing fell through any time soon, she was going to be pissed.

But she thought of Gerard's face, nose wrinkling when he'd slur, "Have a little fucking faith." She thought of Mikey watching her, letting her help him.

Yeah, she thought. Okay.

When she got back home, she set her alarm an hour early and put a stack of applications on her desk. She wasn't ready to have enough faith that she gave up other options.

||

Matt was irritating.

Rae felt a little bad for thinking it, but he was. Mikey at least tossed out suggestions every now and then. They weren't always good, but they usually gelled with part of what Gerard was thinking. Matt, on the other hand, just sat there and drank beer.

He did take care of Gerard, though. She wasn't sure he'd be allowed in Mikey's space if he didn't. He and Gerard had the kind of easy friendship Rae figured came from knowing each other a hell of a lot longer than Rae herself had known either Way; she couldn't get too pissed when Matt was the one who kept Gerard from lighting himself on fire with cigarettes and vodka or helped Mikey get him to bed when he passed out four hours into practice.

That was something that gave Rae pause: four hours. Four hours of, yeah, talking about D&D and the odds of dying in a zombie plague, but mostly four hours of actual writing and practice and band shit. That was more than some of the bands she'd messed around with did in a month. Even Mikey, who had such a big reputation for being a flake that even Rae had heard it more than once, was practicing like they were playing Times Square in a week. She just hoped they could keep it up – herself included.

||

There was a party that night. Rae had no idea whose house it was, but she was pretty sure it didn't matter; there would be property damage, booze, and maybe cops, and Mikey insisted they all go.

She didn't laugh when she saw what the Ways wore for going out, but it was a pretty close thing. "Shut up," Mikey said, mouth just quirked enough so that she knew he was smiling. "Like you're much better."

"I'm not trying to look...what exactly are you going for, anyway?"

"Fuck off, we look okay," Mikey said, and tugged the hem of her t-shirt playfully. She made a face and followed them out.

The party was like every other kegger Rae had ever been to. People were drunk, hanging all over each other, and – thankfully – ignoring her.

"I'll see you later, okay?" Mikey said, and disappeared into the crowd.

Gerard was even more of a wallflower than she was, shrinking into a corner and glaring at everyone suspiciously. They hadn't even been in the house for two minutes before he grabbed a Dixie cup from someone and downed the contents, shaking his head as it went down. "He always fucking leaves me at these things," he yelled over the music. "It's not like I have to go, or whatever, but he's my baby brother. Fuck him."

Rae didn't laugh, but only just. Mikey was grinding against some guy and looked completely comfortable. "I don't think he really needs a babysitter."

Gerard just shrugged. "He's always gonna need me to watch him," Gerard said. "Even if he doesn't know it."

Rae had brothers, but they weren't the scary-close type. She settled for patting Gerard's arm awkwardly.

Mikey walked over awhile later, half-towed by a chubby guy with dreads. "This is Frank," Mikey said, taking another drink. "He turned me down for his band one time. Frank, this is Rae and Gerard."

"I've heard about you," Gerard said. He sounded like a psycho killer on a shitty 2 AM made-for-TV movie. "Dick."

"It was ages ago, Gee. Get over it. I have, and I'm the one who was rejected."

Frank nodded. "And anyway, he's yours now," he said. "With the band and shit. You're Rae, right? Who're you dating?"

Rae just blinked at him. "No one," she said.

"She's our fucking guitarist, moron," Mikey said. He didn't really sound pissed, but he ground his foot into the arch of Frank's, hard.

"Ow! Shit! Sorry," Frank said, and half-tumbled closer. He smelled like weed. "I just figured, yeah, I don't know. I'm a dick."

"She can fucking shred," Gerard said, still psycho-killer-ing it up. "And you're a fucking member of the patriarchy."

"Your brother does have a dick, right?" Frank grinned when Mikey nodded. "So are you, motherfucker!" he said, sitting himself down in Gerard's lap. They went tumbling.

Mikey stole Gerard's seat in the scuffle. "Sorry."

Rae shrugged. "He's nice. And I would be dating someone, you know, nine times out of ten. If I wasn't me." She shut her mouth hard, because Christ, way to sound like every dumb little girl with a guitar and the delusion that having tits made her special.

"No, yeah, I get it." Mikey leaned back and sighed. "Standing up again's gonna suck."

"I'll help you," Rae said. Mikey smiled and slumped onto her.

When Gerard finally got tired of beating on Frank, he stood up and rolled his eyes at Mikey. "We gotta get him home, or Ma'll throw a fit," he said, taking one of Mikey's hands and tugging. Rae nodded and slung his arm over her shoulder, only a little wobbly when she stood.

"I'm not sleeping," Mikey said, and righted himself. "Who the fuck can't even walk after tequila, Gee, me'r'you?"

"Hey, wait, when do you guys practice? I want to see," Frank said, poking Mikey's side.

It was 2 AM already. Rae sighed. "Probably tomorrow," she said.

"Seriously?" Frank sounded delighted. "Awesome. See you then."

Mikey got handsy when he was drunk, though surprisingly not in Rae's direction. Gerard rolled his eyes and fended off Mikey's grabs with the ease of long practice. "Just because I can't make an incest baby with you doesn't mean I want to fuck you, freak," he said.

"You're just as drunk! Shit," Mikey said, falling over into Rae.

"You're letting me sleep over," Rae said. If they ever actually got back to the house, there was no way she'd be awake enough to drive home.

"Fine, whatever, sure. Ooh, steps." Mikey tripped into his front lawn.

Rae laughed. "Come on," she said, pulling Mikey upright and helping him down the steps.

When they were both in their rooms – Gerard muttering into his pillow about Transformers, epitomizing the reasons why he was possibly the weirdest drunk Rae had ever met – she lay down on the couch and pulled an old knit blanket over her head, falling asleep almost immediately.

||

It took them two weeks to get enough material together for a demo. Frank called, but he never actually came over; Mikey sulked a little, but Rae was relieved. Frank was an important part of the scene Rae had never had the balls - hah, she thought, strumming the chord too hard - to learn. And yeah, he seemed nice, but Mikey was sucking up a little too hard for her to completely believe it.

Then the demo broke. Or, well, not really; Mikey handed it to Frank and said "Yeah, you should check it out," and went to have his dick sucked while Rae watched Gerard and sometimes Matt get drunk (and had a few herself; she was slowly getting used to this, and it was nice, easier to lie back and let Gerard use her as a pillow). But Frank had apparently passed it around, because suddenly they had people talking to them – her – like they mattered. "Fuck," Gerard said loudly the day Frank offered Pencey's practice space.

Rae thought that about summed it up.

Still, a place to practice was a place to practice. "Steady beat, Mikey," she got used to saying, and they'd take it from the top again.

Later she'd realize how ridiculous it was to be surprised when Frank said, "So hey. If you want it, you guys have a gig Friday."

"...Holy shit," Gerard said, downing the remainder of his beer.

||

"You can do it. No, shut the fuck up, you can."

"I don't think they're listening," Rae said. She was halfway through her fourth beer – more than a little tipsy, but Frank was trashed and working on getting Gerard and Mikey there with him, and it didn't matter anyway because Matt (where was Matt? Fuck) was right, they sucked. And even if they didn't suck it still wouldn't matter, because fucking no one was going to listen to them.

Shit.

"Not you, too." Frank kicked her in the shins. Hard. "You're not allowed to do this too, Toro, damn it!"

"Screw you, yes I am," she said, leaning against the wall of the van.

"I'm gonna suck," Mikey said morosely. "Like." He shook his head, the light glinting off his glasses. Rae watched, only half-noticing when Frank swapped out her Bud for a Coke. "Like, my pants are gonna fall down."

"Half the fucking scene's seen your motherfucking cock anyway," Gerard said. He rolled half out of the van, legs dangling. "Hey Rae, think you could go topless? They'd like us then."

"Be a dick," she said, taking a drink and blinking. Right, sugar. Okay. "Be a dick, Gee, and you'll go onstage and I'll leave you there, and then everybody will laugh."

"You're all pathetic," Frank said. "They'll laugh anyway."

"They'll laugh more." Rae nodded. "Anyway, I can't go topless, that's illegal."

"No one wants to see Rae's tits. Gerard's right, though. They've seen my dick."

"I will kill all three of you," Frank said sincerely, and the entire van shook.

"Shit!" Gerard yelled, hauling himself to his feet. "What the fuck!"

"We're on," Matt said, and slapped the side of the van again.

They were on, right. Okay. Rae grabbed her guitar and hoped her fingers would know where to go.

||

They killed, of course.

It was rough going at first. The name was killer in theory, but in practice it sounded clumsy in Gerard's mouth, and Rae felt ridiculous in front of so many people. Mikey had shrunk to the back, which was bullshit since he was the one half the kids in the room knew, and Matt was just...Matt.

But they launched into a song, and suddenly, it worked. It fucking worked, and yeah Gerard was drunk off his ass, yeah guys yelled shit at Rae, but it didn't matter, because they were playing and kids were shoving and Frank was at the back, standing on a fucking chair and yelling at the top of his lungs. It was amazing. Rae spread her legs and banged her head and played for all she was worth.

Of course, then the lights came back on and the crowd fucked off. They were smellier and sweatier than they'd been half an hour ago, and Gerard was careening around looking for the nearest corner to puke in. "Jesus," Rae said, leaning against the wall.

Frank had jumped on Mikey and was saying something involving a lot of enthusiastic arm-waving and possibly a handjob; Rae's vision was more full of sweat than reality. But Mikey was smiling a little, which was nice.

"Help me out here," Matt said. For a second Rae thought he meant Gerard, who was leaning with his forehead against the wall, groaning, but Matt was pointing at his kit.

"Um, I think I'm gonna – over here," she said, and grabbed her guitar.

"Yeah, whatever," Matt said.

She shook her head and tapped Gerard's shoulder. "Hey, you okay?"

"Gnrugh," Gerard said.

"Right, then," she said. "Come on."

It wasn't really easy to steer him back to the car, especially not with Mikey following and giving her directions, like having Frank hanging off his arm disqualified him from helping out, or something. "He's your stupid brother," she said, but she buckled Gerard up and waited for Mikey and Frank to tumble into the car before pulling out.

Her plan to get Gerard in his bed was derailed when he crashed on the couch, burying his face in the blankets. He was snoring before Rae could grab him again, much less get Mikey and Frank to help her.

She was sober enough to realize she'd been lucky to get away with just driving them back here; there was no way she was going to try to get back to her house. Gerard's bed was smelly but more inviting than the floor, so she pulled the covers over her head and closed her eyes, falling asleep almost immediately.

||

It wasn't light when she woke up.

"Gee?" someone whispered.

"No," she said – or tried to say. It came out more as a half-hearted moan.

"Frank's a fuckin' octopus," Mikey said, and suddenly he was climbing in next to Rae. "And he dro – oh."

"Not Gerard," she said hoarsely. Fuck, her head hurt already.

"Sorry," he said, no longer whispering. She felt the covers tug like he was rolling away. "Can I stay here? Frank's the worst person in the world to share with, I swear."

"Yeah, sure. It's your house." She closed her eyes again, hoping to get at least a few more hours before the hangover kicked in.

Mikey was warm and his legs wound up tangled with hers. It might have been weird, except Frank's first move was to walk out in the living room naked and sit on Gerard, and the yelling was distracting enough that neither of them had a chance to be weird about it.

Good, she thought, brushing her teeth. If they started touring – fucking touring - they'd wind up a lot closer than that.

||

They played their second show, then their third and their fourth. Rae got used to Mikey and Gerard's systematic drinking, got used to Frank hanging all over them like they were the second coming. She even got used to drinking less earlier on and helping them home.

She didn't get used to Mikey parking his sceney ass in the middle of her room, though, because it had never happened before now. "Yeah?"

Mikey looked around. "Nice place."

"It's my room. It used to be pink." Rae raised her eyebrows. "Nice shirt."

"Work uniform. At least it's a bookstore, right?" Mikey sat in her desk chair. "Anyway. There's a party tonight."

"Let me guess, you wrangled an invitation?"

Mikey shook his head. "Someone invited us, told Matt."

"Us, or you?"

"Us, dude. The band."

Rae thought about Mikey and Pencey and Frank following them around. "...Oh."

"Yeah, oh. We're not gonna play, but I think we're supposed to show up as, you know. My Chem."

"Do they know Gerard babbles about Lord of the Rings when he gets nervous?"

"You seriously think they care?"

"Point," Rae said. "When is it?"

"Now, pretty much."

Rae rolled off her bed and put her shoes on, checking to make sure she was wearing the Metallica shirt without the ketchup stains. "Let's go."

Mikey stared. "Um. You're sure?"

"Why wouldn't I be?"

He kept staring. "No reason."

She wasn't in the mood to demand answers. "Okay, then. We can pick up Gerard on our way there."

Mikey let it go.

||

It was 2 AM and she'd just come off a twelve-hour shift and fallen into completely fantastic sleep when her phone rang.

"I lost Mikey's number," Frank said when she mumbled a greeting. "Can you give it to me?"

"How'd you lose it?"

"My phone fucked up. I have your number in my address book."

Rae had jokingly filled out the Lisa Frank address book Frank's cousin gave him for Christmas, but she hadn't expected it to ever be useful. "Urgh," she said. "Hang on."

He hung up as soon as she gave it to him. She was tired enough to not even care, asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow again. The next morning, though, she woke up to both Ways sitting creepily at the foot of her bed.

"I hate it when you do that," she said.

Mikey bit his lip. He was frowning, Rae realized, and sat up. "What?"

"We're actually here to take you to practice," Gerard said. "Ma gave me the keys."

"No, I mean." She pointed at Mikey. "What."

"Frank broke his phone."

"Right after Pencey broke up," Gerard added, glancing at Mikey.

The minutes she'd spent awake jolted into her mind again. "Oh," she said. "I didn't realize."

Mikey shrugged. "Dunno if we'll still be able to use their practice space. We might have to jam in the basement for awhile."

"Okay," Rae said. Pencey had been bigger than them, with CDs and merch. She swallowed hard. "I, um, I should get dressed."

Everyone was quiet on the ride over. They hauled their shit into the room before any of them noticed Frank sitting against the wall inside.

"Oh, hey, Iero," Matt finally said.

Frank nodded. Mikey kicked the sole of his shoe with his own foot, raising an eyebrow.

"I've got other projects," Frank said.

Rae nodded and started playing.

They sucked. Frank didn't say a word.

||

"Fuck no."

"Fuck yeah." Frank bounced back on the balls of his feet, head whipping from side to side, like he thought he could glare the four of them into submission. "Look, I went through fucking hell sucking up to everyone in sight, okay? You made a demo tape in two weeks, you can do this shit."

"It was more than two weeks, technically."

"Fuck. No," Matt said again.

"Thanks," Mikey said quietly.

Frank shrugged. "You guys are going places, even if you're stupid."

Rae flipped through the sheet music. She had more lines than three of her could play, and if they were going to be recording, she'd have to trim them down, streamline and...

She looked at Frank, watched as he kicked Gerard in the shins and tugged his own hair. Maybe.

"Maybe," she said out loud. "It's a good opportunity, at least."

"And we should make a CD. That's what this was about." Gerard poked Frank in the stomach. "Doing something big."

"A CD's not big, asshole," Frank said, but he was smiling. "Seriously, your asses are getting in the studio. I'll blackmail you if I have to. Tell your moms, or some shit."

"Studios are for pussies," Matt said. "They fuck with your sound."

"That doesn't even make any sense," Rae said.

"Sure it does. Producers are fucking bullies, and studios are for candy-assed wannabes."

"Are you saying Geoff is going to bully us?" Gerard shook his head. "Man, sorry. You've been overruled."

Matt glared, but Frank clapped her on the back and called Geoff right there.

||

"It's missing something," Rae said, crumbling up the line of music and tossing the paper at the trashcan. "Hell if I know what, though."

"You could add another guitar part."

"And grow two more hands?"

"You don't think -" Gerard stopped, frowning. "Nah, he probably wouldn't."

She reached out with a food, poking his thigh. "Who wouldn't what?"

"Frank," Gerard said. "I mean, if we're talking about adding another person..."

She'd thought about it plenty of times since the first time it had occurred to her, but the only conclusion she'd been able to arrive at was 'maybe'. "We'll see," she said finally.

It might have stayed a "we'll see" for a lot longer than two days if Geoff hadn't come to see them practice. He was a friend, of course – or rather, he was Mikey's friend, and pretty decent to the rest of them. He was also the guy who'd be producing them, though, and that fact alone was enough to make Rae pay attention.

Halfway through practice, she decided. "Call Frank," she told Mikey afterwards. "Ask him."

"Ask him what?" Geoff said, slouching against the wall.

"We're thinking about adding another guitarist," Mikey said.

"Wait. What?" Matt said.

Geoff laughed until even Mikey got tired of it and punched his arm.

||

"Motherfucker," Frank said, and tackled Rae, burying his face in her midriff.

"Um," she said, patting his head.

"What did you want me to play?" He stared at her, bouncing and – fuck, she thought, he was nervous. That barely even made sense. "Specific parts? Because I had a few ideas, but I don't know if - "

"Go for it," Rae said. "I had some ideas, but it's your show."

"Our show," he said. "Awesome."

She didn't see him again until they picked him up on the way to Geoff's. "I had a few ideas," he said, talking rapidly and chewing on a pencil. "Just, yeah, most of the songs...fuck, we can fit in later, but one or two, I've got some ideas for one or two."

She nodded. "Go for it, man."

He was still sitting in the back when they went in to record. "I'm going to yank my fucking tooth out," Gerard said as Otter knocked.

She patted his arm as comfortingly as she knew how, and they went in.

||

Geoff wasn't as hands-off as Rae, had she thought about it, would have expected. Then again, she'd never been in a band that was successful enough to think about making a record, let alone going to the studio and having an actual producer.

They recorded a lot by the seat of their pants, putting what felt to Rae like half-songs to the test in the studio. Frank mostly kept his head down, playing his parts note-perfect and always deferring to Rae.

But then Monroeville happened. "I've got a line I could do for this," Frank said. "It needs lightening up."

"Lightening up? It's a song about vampires and dying and shit."

"And it needs lightening up. Just trust me, okay?"

She shook her head. "It's too late to make changes."

Experience told her he'd back down, but instead he shook his head, looking stubborn. "This is one that needs to be made."

Even when she'd admitted the need, she hadn't been sure of him. Now – now he was telling her he knew better than she did, and she didn't know what to think. She knew damn good and well she wasn't right all the time, but she'd almost gotten used to getting her way anyway with Frank.

It was that semi-shameful fact that finally made her give in. "Fine. Write it and we'll see."

"Done and done," he said, handing her a sheet of paper.

It was good. Fuck, of course it was good. "You'll have to slow it down here," she said, pointing to the first verse. "You can't cram all that in right away."

"But I can play it."

The tension was ridiculous. She sighed. "If you slow it down."

Frank nodded. "You know you're the only person who could say that like that?"

She blinked. "What?"

"Just, you know." He waved a hand. "Look at the sheet and say, oh, this is wrong."

"I didn't say it was wrong."

"Not the point." He crossed his arms. "Come on, seriously. You know what I mean."

She shook her head.

"Just – making suggestions. Knowing shit about the music just by looking."

It was a pretty straightforward compliment, really. She smiled. "Thanks."

"Yeah, well. I want to be in a good band, not one where the lead guitarist doesn't even know her strengths."

Mikey knocked on the door of the van. "Hey, Geoff says get in here or he'll kill you. Um, with your guitar strings. It sounded painful."

"We're coming, we're coming." Frank glanced at Rae before pulling her into the building.

The song worked, of course. After recording, Rae let out a breath and tried to relax, watching the others pack their equipment away.

"Okay?" Geoff said quietly.

"It's a little weird. We're learning a lot, and believe me, I'm glad you agreed to help us, it's just..."

"Feeling each other out? It gets easier."

"Frank and I don't always see eye to eye."

"Well, you are a giant. Kidding," he said quickly. "It'll work out."

"Yeah." She stood. "Tomorrow?"

"Bright and early. See you."

Frank claimed the spot next to her in the van. He was like that a lot, cocky and demonstrative to keep the peace between all five of them. It'll work, she thought again, and joined in on trying to convince Gerard to see a decent dentist.

||

She didn't really remember when she'd taken up smoking, except it had been sometime between the end of college and the beginning of this band. It was a definite habit now, though; she couldn't even count the number of times she'd gone up to smoke on Geoff's mom's front porch.

"We're all a bunch of fucking failures," Gerard said, crinkling the sheet she'd handed him into a ball and throwing it on the ground.

"Don't litter," she said. "We're not."

"Frank's not. Mikey had a chance not to be. So did you, really."

"And you?" She poked him hard. "You were going to be a cartoonist. But you didn't want to be, so failing would've been sticking with that, not doing what we're doing."

"My tooth really fucking hurts," Gerard said piteously.

She couldn't think of anything to say, so she hugged him instead.

||

The day they finished recording, Mikey invited Rae out to get falling-down drunk. "It's not tradition," he said. "Obviously. But we could start one."

She didn't want to be a girl any more than she already was and admit how much finishing it was affecting her, so instead she just shook her head. "I'm really tired, I need to crash."

"Crash at our place?"

"Jesus, Mikey, stop trying to kidnap her." Frank grinned at Rae. "He's a creep, isn't he?"

Rae's attention was on Mikey, though. He looked shifty – beyond that, he looked embarrassed. "It's cool," she said. "It's a long drive back to my place anyway."

"Feels weird, doesn't it?" Mikey said quietly after Gerard had gone to bed. They were on the couch, Rae stretched out and Mikey half-hugging her ankles. "We're done."

The thought made her feel half sick. "We're not done," she said firmly. "We're just...it's a beginning. We're beginning."

The basement smelled like mold and socks. The thought of having a CD, their CD, was only marginally less strange than the thought of leaving the basement in favor of rockstardom.

"That works," Mikey said. It was a little bizarre, how much he sounded like he believed her.

||

Geoff called them a week later. "So do you want to see it or what?"

They almost broke each other piling into the van and driving over. Frank was the first out and thus the first to tackle Geoff, yell, "Thanks!" and run to the nearest boom box, CD in hand.

They listened to it twice, taking turns falling over each other saying thank you. Even Matt got a little lovey-dovey.

The celebration didn't stop once they got back to the Ways'. Frank waved the CD excitedly. "Our fucking album," he said for what felt like the hundredth time, "our album we're going to tour with."

"Our fucking album you're gonna whack my nose with," Mikey said, and hit Frank's arm – but since Mikey was the laziest hitter in the world, it didn't even slow Frank down.

"I think you can hear my pain in all the vocals," Gerard said. He chomped on the wad of cotton in his mouth meditatively. "Don't you think you can hear my pain in all the vocals?"

"Totally," Rae said.

He brightened. "And touring and shit, 'cause we have a CD now, so...yeah. Mission accomplished."

"Man, touring's going to rock. Doritos and beer and sex." Frank pumped his fist.

"And playing," Mikey said.

Frank waved a hand dismissively. "Uh-huh."

"Touring," Gerard said again. "Because...we have a CD. Touring. Right."

Rae narrowed her eyes. Gerard looked twitchy like a weasel. "Hey, Gee, I need to talk to you," she said.

Gerard looked at her like she was crazy. So did the rest of the band, actually. "About what?"

"Girl stuff," Rae said.

"But I'm not a - "

Rae grabbed his arm and hauled him into Geoff's Mom's pantry.

"- girl," Gerard said. "Are you on your period? Do you need tampons? I have money, you can buy some if you need them."

Rae forced herself to talk through the blush. "I have tampons at my house. What exactly did you mean, mission accomplished?"

"Um." Gerard chewed his lip. "Well, we made an album, right? That's what we wanted."

"Right, you can totally save the world with one crappy album and a brand new band."

Gerard wrinkled his nose, shoulders drooping and head falling. For a second Rae stopped seeing their singer and flashed back to the creepy art student, Mikey's weird big brother. The social reject who couldn't even meet someone's eyes, much less front a band. "Don't even think about it," she said.

"Think about what?" Gerard peeked at her through his hair. "I wasn't expecting to even make an album, you know."

Right, of course, she didn't say. The rest of us dropped everything for a band you didn't expect to even make a shitty first album. Thanks for all the faith.

"Well, we did," she said finally. "That's what happens when you put out a demo, you know, people listen and get psyched."

"Psyched. Yeah, I know."

Rae raised her eyebrows. "And you can't quit yet. Mikey's in the band too, remember? You're making his dream come true, practically."

"That's playing dirty," Gerard said, looking torn. "Seriously dirty."

Rae didn't move. "We believe in you. Come on, Gerard."

"Fine," he said finally. "Fuck." He pulled – Xanax? Wellbutrin? She'd only glanced at the labels and the bottles all looked the same – from his pocket and swallowed two dry. "Right. Gerard Way's going to save the world."

It wouldn't occur to her until much later to consider that a warning sign.

||

"Are you sure," Mikey said flatly.

Frank grinned and nodded. "It's perfect."

"But you're sure."

"Hell yeah I'm sure."

Rae shrugged when Mikey looked at her. "I think it's kind of dumb."

"That's the point," Frank said. "I – I fucking love this band, you know? But more than that, I'm tired of messing around. This is it. I'm not going to let us slack off on this for some shitty-ass desk job."

"So it's this or Burger King?" Mikey said.

Frank just nodded.

Rae was the first to hand over the money. "Not that I don't think it's stupid," she said, dumping the quarter on top of the twenty into Frank's hand before giving him the bill itself, "but it's the right kind of stupid, I guess."

Frank hugged her tight before turning around, sticking his hand in the other's faces. "Gimme."

She wasn't really surprised when they all coughed up all the wrinkled, damp, and stained bills they could find.

The tattoo was raw-looking when he came back, almost shiny enough to be fake. Gerard was too drunk to stare, but he laughed, spilling beer all down Frank's front. "Your fucking parents are going to fucking kill you," he said, poking Frank's jaw.

"Fuck off." Frank ducked to the side, scorpion inches from Rae's nose.

"You're so screwed," she said finally. She'd caught his arm automatically, and she used it now to pull him into a hug.

He wiggled. "Jesus. This is a band full of saps."

"You knew that when you agreed to join," Mikey said. "And Matt's a total badass."

"Matt's a total asshole," Frank said.

It was a mark of how much he already thought he belonged that he said it so easily. "We try not to point it out too much," Rae said.

"Yeah." He touched the tattoo and winced. "So anyway, my parents are going to kill me. I'm thinking knuckle tats next."

She shook her head. "What are you going to do when the band falls through?"

The punch was hard and unexpected. He shoved her down afterwards. "It's not going to."

He didn't look angry, exactly. She'd have been able to fight him if he was angry. "Okay," she said. It was surprisingly easy. "Okay. You're right, it won't."

"Goddamn right I'm right. Oh, and I got us a gig."

"A gig?"

"Shut the fuck up." He grinned at her. "It's just a little thing, I talked to Jamia and she knows a lot of people, so..."

"We've got a long way to go." She bumped shoulders with him. "I just keep forgetting you're going to help us get there, you know?"

"You don't have a choice now. I won't get hired for shit with this on my neck."

He sounded half-giddy, half-terrified; she heard what felt like dozens of her own self-doubting and somehow still endlessly hopeful nights in his voice. She leaned back against the van and patted the space next to her. "We're playing tonight, too. Save your energy."

Frank snickered, but sat next to her.

||

"So, hey," the short guy said.

Rae blinked down at him. "Hi?"

"I'm not hitting on you," the guy said. "Well, I mean. You're cute and all, but not really my type."

"Okay," Rae said slowly.

"What's going on?" Frank jumped on Rae's back. "Oh. Hi, Brian."

"You know him?"

"Yeah, totally. What's up, man?"

"He's not hitting on me. Ow, fuckhead," she said, grabbing Frank's leg to keep him from kneeing her in the kidneys again.

"I hope not." Frank's hands appeared in her line of vision, waving crazily. "State your purpose!"

"I was just going to a show for fun." Brian raised his eyebrows. "But I'd like to manage your band, actually."

"Manage our – what?"

"Your band," Brian said patiently.

"My – oh. Gerard's."

"It's your band, too," Frank said.

"It's all our band, but he started it. He's the one you need to talk to." Rae pointed to Gerard, slumped drunkenly over the bar.

"Really." He sounded flat-out skeptical.

She'd given up on trying to look or sound intimidating, or even really convincing. "If you believe in the band, you should at least talk to him."

"Okay, okay." He held up his hands. "I'm going."

"He's going to turn Brian down, you know," Frank said as soon as Brian had left. "He's just adjusting to the idea of playing shows and having an album out, there's no way he's going to go for the touring, manager-having, serious stuff."

She patted his side awkwardly. "You wanna have a manager who gives up first thing?"

"I never said Brian wouldn't win him over." He grinned. "I gotta piss. Carry me."

It was lucky she wasn't the person Brian had to win over, really, since she was so easily persuadable.

||

Brian was a good guy, which was important, and good at Gerard-sitting, which Rae privately thought was slightly more important. Matt liked him, but Matt liked most people who gave him beer; Mikey, though, was a coup.

It helped that he came to all the shows. That kind of loyalty would win anyone over, and Mikey, no matter how hard he was to crack, was still human.

Mikey admitting him in was somehow both subtle and simultaneously glaringly obvious. They'd been living like monks for a few weeks in preparation for this show; it was one of the biggest they'd played so far, and afterwards they pooled their money and went to Denny's.

They were about to leave when Mikey looked over Rae's shoulder and said, "Hey, are you coming?"

Brian didn't say no, of course.

It turned out he knew pretty much everyone in the local scene, a bunch of people in the region, and a few people nationally. It boggled Rae's mind a little that some short, over-earnest guy who was spending way too much time courting a band that was still mostly promise had already made that many connections, but then, it was Brian.

"And you're one to talk," Brian said when she told him.

She didn't have to ask what he meant. "That's a little different, don't you think?"

"No," Brian said plainly.

She couldn't really argue that, so she switched tacts. "What do you have lined up for us, then? Spot on TRL? Interview with Letterman?"

"Touring in filthy cars with no guarantee of food or a place to sleep," Brian said, grinning.

"Good enough for me."

||

Two not-really-tours later, Rae and Mikey were sitting on a bench outside the McDonald's the others were still eating in, practicing for their next show.

"It's been months. Think Gerard will ever decide we're enough of a band to hire him for real?" Rae moved Mikey's fingers down the bass's fret a bit and went back to her guitar.

Mikey shrugged, fingers slipping back to their old position. "I think Brian's still more convinced than Gerard, at this point."

"But?" She reached out and held his hand still, demonstrating how he was supposed to play.

Mikey didn't look away from her, but she felt his fingers stiffen a little, holding them the way she'd put them. "He likes Gerard and Gerard likes him. That's kind of a huge point in his favor, since most of Gee's favorite people are animated."

Rae raised her eyebrows. "That explains you being nice to me, I guess."

"Whatever." Mikey rolled his eyes at her. "I think I've got it."

"Oh! Right." She pulled back, gritting her teeth and trying not to blush. There wasn't really a reason, but she blushed about almost everything, and...yep, definitely blushing. "Okay, from the top."

Three days later, Gerard called a band meeting to discuss hiring Brian. Four days after that, Brian started making calls to venues, setting up a tour. Rae thought of playing in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, all of New England and then – fuck, the South, the Midwest, all the way across the country.

"If you're good enough," Brian said. "We have to start small."

The shows after that were tense for all of them, apprehension and excitement mixing together. Even Mikey took a few steps forward sometimes, smiled a little at Gerard or Frank. Rae didn't know if he even looked at her; she watched the floor of the stage or the wall behind the crowd, trying not to make eye contact. It was fun and good, and she headbanged and generally rocked out without worrying about the catcalls or the insanity in the pit.

"I had news," Gerard slurred after an hour of playing and three hours of drinking. "Shit, fuck. News. Tell you in the morning."

Brian had chewed them out for not always having a designated, so they made doubly sure now. Tonight, Frank was it. "Get in the car, asshole," he said, clapping a hand on Gerard's back.

"News? Shoulda told us." Rae was drunk, but not trashed. A guy had hit on her earlier, maybe, but she was pretty sure she'd turned him down. If he'd been hitting on her to begin with. Sometimes you just wanted coffee in your apartment, and that could have been one of those times. But if he did want to fuck her...huh. "I totally could've done him."

"He had a naked girl tattoo." Mikey's head lolled onto Gerard's shoulder. "You can't do a guy with a naked girl tattoo."

"Can so." Rae met Frank's eyes in the rearview mirror. "Stop wishing you were drunk too and drive, Peewee."

"I will make you walk the fuck home, Toro," Frank said, but started the car.

She'd gotten used to crashing on the basement couch. Gerard had even doodled on a pillowcase for her, so she could go to sleep with zombie-fighting ghosts wrinkled against her cheek. Frank crashed on the other end, shoving his feet up against her ass. "Don't smush me," he mumbled, already half asleep.

She wrinkled her nose. "You smell," she said, but it was nothing she wasn't used to, and not nearly as rank as Gerard or Mikey.

The next time she opened her eyes, it was morning and Gerard was staring at her. "Creepster," she said, sitting up.

"We've got a van," Gerard said.

She sat up. "Seriously? Like, an actual van we can tour in?"

"Elena's giving it to us." Gerard wrinkled his nose. "I don't want to know what she did in it."

"We're paying her back, right?" Rae stretched, cracking her back. "I mean..."

"No, yeah, we'll totally pay her back." Gerard had the look on his face that only dudes who lived with their moms and didn't pay rent could get. "When we get famous."

She rolled her eyes, because yeah, totally. "Okay. So...a van means long-term, right? When do we start?"

Gerard chewed his lip. "Um. Two days?"

The story she'd never tell to reporters because it made her sound completely crazy was that, when she called work to tell them she needed two weeks off starting the day after tomorrow and got fired for it, she knew exactly what she was doing.

||

The first time the van broke down, they blamed it on bad luck. The second time the van broke down, they blamed it on bad weather. The third time the van broke down, they blamed it on -

"Fucking broken glass right in the middle of the fucking road!" Brian yelled. "What kind of fucking idiot does that shit? Jesus fucking Christ, someone get the spare tire."

They all five, even Matt, scrambled to obey.

"You know what I don't understand," Mikey said slowly, "is why it's called a jack. Like. It doesn't look like jerking off."

"Maybe some guy named Jack invented it." Frank scratched his balls. "Or like. Your dick rises, right? And that's jacking off."

"Or maybe one of you assholes should get down here and help me out," Matt said.

Rae looked at the others. They all raised their eyebrows and shrugged. "Sorry," she said. "We'll buy you a drink afterwards."

Matt flipped them off and kept working.

"You could, though." Mikey leaned against the van next to where Rae was standing and touched her arm. "I mean, seriously, you probably could. Right?"

Rae shrugged. "I know how to in theory."

"I might drop it on my toes." Mikey blinked at her through his glasses. "So it's good that you know."

"Mikey! Get the fuck off the van, are you fucking stupid?" Matt kicked Mikey in the shin, and Mikey leaped sideways, away from both Rae and the van.

"I'm gonna go get something to drink," he said before Rae could answer him. "Want anything?"

Rae shook her head, watching Mikey climb over the ditch and towards the BP.

"Fucking sunlight," Gerard muttered, hunching in the tiny bit of shade the van offered. Frank laughed and sat on his head.

"I'm calling my mother. No, fuck that, I'm calling your mothers," Matt said, standing and wiping his hands off. "Assholes."

When Mikey got back, he handed Rae a Gatorade. "They were on sale," he said.

Frank laughed harder. Rae shrugged and took it, smiling a thank-you.

||

Underoath were fantastic, both as people and as a band. Rae wasn't a fan, exactly, and completely agreed with Frank the night they started playing Jimmy Buffet at volumes that made sleeping impossible and Frank muttered, "Swear to god I'm going to kill them slowly." Still, they became her friends as much as they were everyone else's, and she liked watching them perform.

Touring was proving to be fucking hard in ways she didn't think any of them had really expected. The lack of bathing, the smelliness, the weird gas station food, that shit she'd known about. But it didn't occur to her until the first time she broke a string on her guitar and reached into her case for her other D string that she'd have to save change for weeks to afford to buy a replacement. She hadn't thought about playing venues far enough from home that Frank forced them all into the buddy system. And somehow, despite seeing them, she hadn't given tour hookups more thought than the time it took to acknowledge their existence.

"I scored a merch girl." Frank leaped onto Rae's back. "And by scored, I mean - "

"We all know what you mean, Frank," Mikey said, sounding bored. "Now shut the fuck up about it. Jamia's tour clause didn't include anything about gloating."

"You could be getting laid too." Frank's foot dug into Rae's lower back as he craned to look at Mikey; she winced. "Aren't you?"

Mikey pursed his lips. "Maybe."

She knew that he was, now and pretty much always, because it was Mikey. She slapped Frank's leg anyway. "Down, boy."

Frank slid off her and went to bug Matt. It would end in a lot more blood than if he decided to mess with anyone else on tour, but Rae suspected that was the point. Frank and Matt liked being assholes to each other – and if it was for reasons less than benign on Frank's end, she did her damnedest to ignore it.

"Hey, Rae."

She turned to see Underoath's bassist Grant with a very, very drunk Gerard clinging to his waist.

"You're uncomfortable," Gerard said, too-loud. "Fuck you, man, you're uncomfortable as fuck."

Fishing various band drunks out of unlikely places was another thing Rae hadn't expected so much of on tour, but Gerard definitely wasn't unique in that sense. "Way to be a dick, Gee," she said, grabbing him away from Grant with an apologetic eyeroll.

"Rae," Gerard slurred, burying his face in her chest. "You're comfortable, Rae, I fucking love you. Did you know that? You're the fucking bomb, or...something." He – laughed wasn't even the word, he was fucking tittering.

"You guys have water, right?" Grant looked ready to laugh; it was better than pissed, at least.

Their tastes tended towards beer, soda, beer, and sometimes vodka. Rae frowned. "Maybe?"

He tossed her a bottle, one of the big gas station brand ones. She caught it clumsily. "Hey," Gerard said, with the wounded voice that only the truly drunk could manage, "that hit my head." He squinted at the bottle, then at Grant. "Oh. Hey."

She didn't know what it was supposed to mean or why Grant suddenly looked embarrassed. "Thanks," she said. "See you around?"

He nodded and left. Gerard giggled stupidly all the way back to the van.

||

She wasn't too surprised to find, when she walked off the bus the next morning, that Gerard had already been sick all over the place.

"Shut the fuck up and give me a fucking aspirin," Gerard said when she made an impressed noise.

Rae looked at the puke dripping down the tire. "We don't have any," she said.

"Shut the fuck up and buy me a fucking aspirin."

"We don't have any money, either." She patted his back.

Gerard whimpered pathetically. He kept whimpering pathetically through two states and three of them driving, until finally they got to the parking lot they'd be hanging out in 'till the venue let them in to set up.

"Bleurgh," Gerard said, and stumbled out into the sun.

Rae patted his back. "Any better?"

"A little." Gerard looked over her shoulder. "Hunh."

She turned to see Grant smiling at them. "I didn't know you were a fan," he said, nodding at Rae's shirt.

"I'm not, she said, tugging at the merch shirt, "but my last shirt kind of disintegrated – ow!"

Gerard pinched her again. Grant laughed, and she looked down.

Of course it was an Underoath shirt. Of course. "...I like your band?" she said.

"Sometimes I think we suck too," he said. The wink he followed it up with made it obvious he was joking, but Rae wanted to hide under the van anyway.

"Hey!" Gerard said. "Hey, can I borrow a few bucks for aspirin? I can pick up my check in the next town, so it'll just be a few days and I can pay you back."

Rae blinked, because if she'd known it was that bad, she probably would have gone begging for cash herself. "Gerard - "

"I'll do you one better. Make Aaron give you some of his, he's got a stash like it's weed or something."

"You're god," Gerard said fervently, and half-ran, half-staggered for their van.

"Does he do this often?"

"He's usually not such a wuss about it." Rae picked at the bottom of her shirt. "Thanks."

"You're a new band. It's like our duty." Grant moved to stand next to her, still grinning weirdly. "Also, we're going to suck up to you guys when you're famous."

Famous was a word tossed around on tour all the time. It was kind of an unspoken rule not to comment on the irony, knowing they all wanted it as much as they laughed at it. "Sure you will," she said, punching his arm.

"I'm not totally joking. You guys have potential. And Schechter."

"That's what Frank said – the potential part, I mean, before he joined the band. Brian's nice."

"That's one word for it." Grant glanced at his watch. "I'm going to get yelled at if I don't help unload."

She nodded. "Thanks again for helping with Gerard. He's..."

"That guy. I get it." He brushed a hand over her shoulder. "Anytime, seriously. Stop by later on and we'll share the wealth, okay?"

Even Rae could pick up on a hint that huge. She was never going to hear the end of it, but she nodded and waved anyway.

||

They never fucked, technically, even though she was pretty sure they'd all be in a nursing home someday and Mikey still wouldn't believe her. Grant was cute and liked gaming and was a dude in a band with members that didn't look at her funny when she showed up and started salivating over their gear; if the tour had gone differently, she probably would have slept with him.

As it was, they got drunk together and wound up leaning against the trailer, Grant kissing her and pushing up her shirt. "This is okay, right?" he whispered, and she nodded and wiggled against him.

He pushed her shirt up and moved down to kiss her collarbone, skimming his lips down and working a hand into her pants. It was an awkward angle and the back of the trailer was cold as fuck, but Rae reached for him anyway, tugging at his fly as he brushed a finger over her clit.

"Hang on, you can do me in a minute." He moved her until she had to grab at his shoulders to stay up, muffling moans in his neck when he rubbed her harder.

She came against him, shaking, opening her eyes sluggishly when she was done and staring blankly at Mikey over Grant's shoulder as she tugged his pants down.

Wait. Mikey?

She blinked and made eye contact. Mikey's expression didn't change as he backed off silently, disappearing behind another van. She wanted to yell after him, figure out what the fuck was going on, but Grant was whispering endearments in her ear and thrusting into her hand, and she wasn't about to leave. "Come on," she said, jerking him off hard until he came all over her hand.

"Jesus," he said, gasping and slumping against her. She held him up automatically, mind moving between watching his face as he tried to get his breath back and wanting to go find Mikey and demand to know his opinion.

He finally stepped back, kissing her lightly. "That was fun."

She nodded. "I have to go, but...yeah. Thanks."

"To you, too." He tugged her hair playfully and waved her off.

Mikey was a skilled enough avoider that Gerard had threatened to put a GPS collar on him a few times. It was completely bizarre, then, to see him sitting on a lawn chair next to their van, clearly waiting.

"Hi," she said, blushing so hard she could feel the heat all over her face.

"Hey," he said. She couldn't even tell if the casual tone was faked; and what the fuck, because she could always tell. "Sorry about that."

Rae forced herself to shrug. "We were in public," she said. Semi-public, really, since it was dark and most people were already in drunken stupors, but she wasn't going to split hairs when Mikey was acting weird and there wasn't even enough light to see his face right.

"I still walked in on you." Mikey paused and Rae fidgeted, completely blanking on anything to say to fill the silence. "He's a good guy," Mikey said quietly.

"But prone to one-night stands? I know." She scratched the back of her neck. "It's kind of...it was fun. And he really is nice."

"I'm not pissed," Mikey said.

"I know." She did, because this wasn't pissed at all. She just had no fucking clue what it might be. "Are we okay?"

"A hundred percent." His teeth glinted in the shitty parking lot light. "Now go to bed. You can't play lazy like bassists do when we're tired."

She rolled her eyes and smacked his head lightly, crawling into the van and poking Frank until he yielded floor space.

||

The tour finished, so they went on another one, ignoring both logic and the big-time record executives constantly coming out of the woodwork to offer them a deal. "Fucking fake assholes," Frank would say, kicking the nearest inanimate object, "wanting to sign us just 'cause we're from fucking Jersey."

Rae just hoped Gerard would listen to Brian when he told them to say yes. He'd been writing and drawing more lately, both drunken ramblings that reminded her of jotting the last bits of a song on the way to Geoff's and better shit that made her double take when she read it, think of how she could shape a song around it. She didn't know which part of him would win; she could only give him pep talks when he was willing to listen. He'd gotten into the habit of slumping over her when he was lucid enough to feel really fucking depressed, burying his face in her boobs or thighs. By this point, even techs didn't look twice.

Then Brian called them and said, "There's a band I want to put you on tour with," and everything changed.

||

"Hi," Rae said, holding out her hand.

"Hi!" The lead singer reached up and shook her hand. He was shorter than she'd expected, and – she sniffed – high on something that definitely didn't smell like weed. "I'm Bert. You're a girl."

"She's a girl named Rae," Mikey said from over her shoulder.

Rae leaned back hard on his toes. "It's nice to meet you," she said.

"Motherfucker!" Frank yelled, and tackled the dude with the most tattoos.

"Hey," Gerard slurred from behind her, "can I bum a cigarette?"

Rae turned her head to see him staring at Bert.

"Sure, man." Bert was leering when he handed it to Gerard.

A big blond guy yelled at Frank and Tattooed to separate. Rae stepped back, looking over Mikey's shoulder at his Sidekick screen. "Adam?"

Mikey sent the text and nodded. "I think he's kind of trashed."

The room suddenly felt too small. She'd shared vodka with Adam just a few days ago, gotten so drunk she fell asleep with her face in Gerard's armpit, but everything felt stupidly close all the same. "Tell him I said hi."

Mikey smiled a little. "Duh," he said.

Tattooed's name was actually Jepha, and by the time Brian ordered them to get the hell out of his house, he and Frank were friends. They all hit it off, actually; even Bert endeared himself to Rae through the simple act of making Gerard smile like an idiot. "This tour's gonna fucking rock," Frank said, kicking Matt in the shins gleefully.

"Just keep playing," Brian said. He rolled his eyes at Rae.

She couldn't quite make herself roll her eyes back, but she did smile and pinch Gerard's arm. "Like hell could we stop."

||

Hell summed it up well, she thought two days later.

Gerard flopped down on top of her, eyes huge in her face. "What's wrong?" he slurred, hand scrabbling at the grass.

"It's hot, sticky, dirty, our van is seconds away from breaking down again, and I'm pretty sure my hair's going to get a life of its own if I don't wash it soon." Rae glared. "That enough for you?"

Gerard nodded, but he was already distracted, picking at the edge of her shirt. "Bert likes me."

He sounded small when he said it, like he thought it was still high school, like he didn't realize most of the people he met liked him just by virtue of him being completely endearingly weird. "You like him?"

"He's nice." Gerard giggled. "Gets me high."

"If I'd known that was the way to your heart I wouldn't have bothered writing music with you. That was a joke," she added when Gerard shrank against her.

"I like writing music with you." Gerard patted her hair. "We need to do it again. Since you didn't let me quit."

"Yeah, sure." She glanced at her watch. An hour and a half to the show, which meant she could drink a bit and be just tipsy enough to play. She was starting to trust this crew more; it helped that Frank kind of followed her around when they were both trashed. "We should get shitfaced tonight, though."

"Waaay ahead of you. Way." Gerard rolled off her, laughing. She flipped him off and went to find the nearest cooler.

||

She was the designated the night they stopped in Salt Lake City. She hadn't seen or heard from Gerard for hours, but whatever else could be said about Bert, he kept Gerard alive and relatively safe.

Frank was tearing up the bar in the way only Frank could; she sat back and watched him almost get thrown out half a dozen times, nursing a beer and half-thinking about a chord progression she'd started writing earlier.

"Jeez, Toro, party a little harder."

She patted Matt on the arm. "Not all of us are booze hounds tonight."

"You'd be drunk as fuck if you weren't driving." He burped and surveyed the crowd. "Think being a dude in a band's enough to get me laid?"

Not liking Matt was almost a hobby at this point, something she paid as much attention to as the duct-taped holes in her shoes or the assholes yelling at her to show her tits. "As long as you don't do it in the van, I don't give a fuck," she said.

"You should try it sometime," Matt said. He wavered when he stood. "Unknot your panties long enough to see the fucking obvious, or whatever."

She didn't have time to demand to know what he was talking about before he fell back into the crowd.

They crashed at the friend of a relative of Frank's that night. She wound up next to Frank, his face smushed against her shoulder.

"Craig called again," he said quietly, a few seconds after Rae heard the first few breathy snores that meant Mikey was asleep. "He's hounding us across the fucking country."

"There are a lot of Jersey bands." She curled up closer, ignoring the smell of alcohol in favor of the full-body hug Frank was offering. "What did you tell him?"

"I asked him to wait. Figured we'd talk to Brian."

"You think we should consider it?"

She felt him nod against her shoulder. "Gerard's got pages and pages of new shit," he said. "We can't stay on Eyeball forever."

"If the label fucks us over, though..."

"Then we'll be back in Jersey." Frank laughed a little. "Christ, Rae, it's get big or get fucked at this point."

"We'll talk about it in the morning, then," Rae said. "Us, I mean. The band."

Frank yawned. "You're a good guy," he said, patting her shoulder. "Or – you know. Whatever."

She snorted and closed her eyes. Falling asleep was easy.

||

"I have stuff," Gerard said. "Lyrics. A little."

Mikey stared at his knees.

"Craig's a fucking geek, though." Matt tapped his drumsticks on his knees. "Do we want some fancy fucking label telling us what to do?"

"Not really," Frank said. "But there's the money to consider, security..."

"Marketing." Gerard looked up, eyes flicking from Frank to Ray. "I want it to be fucking huge. If we're gonna do this, we have to do it."

Mikey was still staring at his knees. "What about you?" Rae asked, looking at him.

He looked surprised when he finally raised his head. "It's a good idea. Um. I don't know, we'll still be a band."

What he wasn't saying that Rae figured everyone knew was that Mikey would follow Gerard no matter how bad an idea he thought it was. "I guess Gerard can call Brian, then."

They all nodded in tandem.

He didn't do it in private, of course; the only things they bothered doing alone anymore were fucking and shitting, and sometimes not even then. "Please," Brian said, voice crackling on the shitty speakerphone, "don't tell me you wrecked the van."

"We want to say yes to Craig," Gerard said.

"How do you make that sound dirty?"

"It's not a bad idea." That was Mikey, elbowing Gerard in the ribs and leaning forward. "Right?"

"No, it's a good idea. A really good one, if you guys think you can handle the pressure."

"We can." Rae pressed into Mikey's side, making sure Brian heard her. "It'll be a lot of work, we know that, but we're ready."

She didn't have to see him to know Brian was nodding. "I'll call him, then. See you in a few days."

When Brian hung up, Rae didn't think twice about slumping back into Mikey. It was reflexive at this point, touching the nearest band member, getting as much comfort as possible from them. "Jesus fucking Christ," she said.

Mikey hugged her. "More or less."

||

Sleepless nights and shitty shows collided with semi-nervous breakdowns and band group hugs until they finally signed the deal. "Signing our souls away," Mikey muttered. Rae pointedly ignored him and didn't think about how many manifestos about the evils of major labels Mikey had probably seen or heard.

Five days after they signed it, back in the Ways' basement, Gerard wrote a song around Rae's music.

They usually wrote together, but Rae had been aimlessly working on a song for awhile now, following notes instead of Gerard's words like she normally did.

"You didn't tell me about this," Gerard said, flipping through the notebook that it was generally understood he had full access to.

Rae shrugged. "It wasn't finished. And anyway, you don't usually - "

"I know, but." Gerard tapped the paper. "I could fit something to this, I think."

He shrank into himself after that. It was weirdly lonely, watching him match words to the tune, and eventually Rae wandered up to the kitchen.

Mikey offered her coffee. "Thanks," she said, taking it.

"Is Gee..." Mikey picked at the flaking veneer on the cabinet. "Is he, you know. Okay?"

"As much as he ever is. He's writing," Rae said. "It's...weird."

"I can't believe we're signed. We're corporate now. Geoff's going to kick our asses so much."

"It feels like we're out of chances." Rae sat down at the table, leaning her head in a hand. "We could have broken up and played with other bands, but now? This is it. A deal like that only comes around once."

"So we can't fuck it up," Mikey said.

Rae nodded.

They sat silently for as long as it took for Mikey to finish his coffee. When his mug was empty, he stood. "I'm not sure I could, you know?" he said abruptly. He shoved his glasses up, blinking at Rae. "Play in another band. I'm just...I'm not sure."

"I think I could. Maybe." She glanced at the basement door. "Without Gerard, though...maybe not."

Mikey laughed harshly. She looked over at him, surprised. "Nothing," he said in response to the look. "I couldn't either."

She didn't see him again that day, even when she took a walk before dinner.

||

They had a recording date and a producer and all their metaphorical ducks in a row.

Then Elena died, and suddenly Rae didn't know which way was up.

Gerard crashed so thoroughly that no one could reach him. Rae wanted to leave the task to Mikey, thought he was doing okay, until the day Frank called her up and said "Get your ass over here, Toro, I can only handle one of them at a time."

Gerard's door was closed and Mikey was lying on the couch. "Fuck," Rae said, because she'd never seen him like this, completely broken up inside.

"Gerard threw stuff at me," Mikey said. "I kind of deserved it, I guess."

Rae sat down next to him carefully. "No, you didn't. He's upset, he - "

"I should have expected it." Mikey's voice was too loud, too raw. His hands were shaking. "She was old, I should have – we could've –"

It wasn't at all surprising to see him break down, face crumbling, hands scratching at the couch, tugging the fabric uselessly. "Mikey," Rae said, hugging him; he fought her, but she knew better than to let go, and he was twiggy enough that he couldn't even begin to break her hold. "Jesus, Mikey, it's okay." She hadn't cried since getting the news and she couldn't let herself now, but she wanted to, feeling him shaking and sobbing. "It's going to be. It's - "

"Shut up," Mikey somehow forced out, pinching her hard. "Just...shut up."

He cried until a fist-sized spot on her shirt was wet, snuffling and smearing tears and snot like he didn't care – and he probably didn't, she thought, because she knew the Ways well enough to know they anchored their justification for living in people around them, and they'd loved Elena more than anyone. She usually hated Mikey's calculated expressionlessness, but right now she would have given anything to see it again, to get the grief as far away from him as she could.

But she couldn't. She couldn't even talk. All she could do was hold on to him, tightening her grip when he yawned and tried to wiggle away, leaning back against the arm of the couch and making herself as comfortable as she could. It paid off when Mikey finally slept, fingers digging into her like he'd forgotten his escape attempt.

When she was sure he was asleep, she let herself whisper everything she'd been biting her lip to keep in: "It'll be okay, I love you, we'll get through this, it's okay, you've got the band, it's okay."

The upside of him being asleep was that he didn't ask her who she was trying to convince.

||

"They've got until after the funeral, then they need to man the fuck up and deal."

Frank snarled and leaped for Matt. Rae reached out to grab him, but Bob was already there, holding him back with a carefully bored expression on his face.

"Motherfucker, how about I break your fucking head open and then we'll see whose job it is to suck it up and deal," Frank yelled.

"Calm down, Frank," Rae said, looking at Matt. "We both know he's a dick."

"Bitch," Matt said.

It was a word she was starting to suspect she heard more often than "and" or "the"; she was inured enough to it to simply shrug.

"They have as much time as they need, asshole," Frank said.

"If only that were true," Brian said. "But the label has you guys on a schedule. They can't stay holed up forever."

Rae hadn't asked Frank what Gerard had said the night he found out about Elena. She wasn't sure she wanted to know. They'd swapped brothers for a reason; she was too close to Gerard to deal, and he was too close to Mikey. "I could talk to him," she said finally.

"You should." Mikey stared fixedly at some point near Brian's shoulder. "Give him something to do with what he's been writing."

"I thought you hadn't talked to him," Brian said.

Mikey looked up at Rae. "I haven't."

Rae had never been good at breaking awkward silences, and now was no different. She sat on the edge of her chair, fighting nauseating nervousness, until Bob said gruffly, "Damn it, Iero, stop pinching me."

Mikey's giggle sounded sick. "Lay off, Frank, he's the only guy who'll tech for us for so cheap."

"For so free," Bob said, but it didn't sound pissed. If anything, it was comforting.

"So," Rae said, "I'm going to talk to him. And then we'll record the album."

Brian raised his eyebrows. "You're sure? You've never done a major studio recording before. It can be...stressful."

Less stressful than waiting around for Gerard or Mikey to take the self-harm plunge, she thought. "I'm sure."

She looked at the others, but Matt just shrugged and Frank nodded; musically, she knew he'd follow her longer than even she thought he should. "Okay, then," she said. "I'll call you in a few, Brian."

Knocking on Gerard's door didn't yield a response, so she cracked it open slowly, bracing herself. Gerard wasn't a throwing heavy objects type, but she wouldn't put it past him to booby trap the door.

What she'd forgotten, of course, was that when Gerard was down, he was too far down to even bother with self-defense. "Jesus, Gee," she said, sitting down next to the lump of blankets on the bed.

The lump didn't stir. She swallowed hard. "We missed you."

"I miss her," Gerard said, soft but completely understandable. "I'll always miss her. More than any of you -"

"Don't say that about Mikey," Rae cut in, feeling herself flush. Don't say that about the band, she wanted to add, but she knew what the response to that would be.

"I'm done, though. Will he miss me even though I'm done?"

Don't ask, she told herself, don't ask don't - "Done with what?"

The answer was both completely predictable and completely horrible. "The band."

"Mikey will miss you no matter what. He'll follow you no matter what. But the band...why?"

The bit of movement might have been a shrug. "You told me not to quit, but what the hell am I supposed to say, Rae? I can't...she was...I have to be done now. I can't not."

She wasn't Gerard's brother and she didn't have Mikey's known-him-for-forever instincts, but she also wasn't stupid. "Are you trying to tell me we couldn't make what you wrote into a song?"

He was still for a long time, the kind of not-breathing still that made her hold her own breath and hope it had worked. Finally, she watched the lump move as he rolled. A few seconds later, he tugged the blankets down.

"Oh god, Gerard," she couldn't stop herself from saying. His face was wrecked, pale and red, chapped where he'd rubbed tears off on the sheets.

Gerard smiled wanly. It wasn't the worst thing she'd ever seen, but it was close. "Still think we can?"

She forced herself to nod. "Always."

He sat up, staring at the bed. "Okay," he said finally. His voice was tiny; he didn't look at her when he nudged the notebook with his foot.

||

Five hours later, Rae came out with lyrics, a rough melody, and a tired but showered Gerard.

The band was waiting on the couch. "Gerard," Mikey said, standing.

They hugged until even Rae had to fidget. When they finally broke apart, Matt said loudly, "I'm going to get trashed. Anyone with me?"

Frank rolled his eyes. "We've got shit to do tomorrow, Pelissier, don't you think you should -"

"I'm in," Gerard said.

Frank gaped.

Gerard shrugged. "I'll be here tomorrow," he said. "But hey, why not take the edge off?"

Frank clenched his jaw. It was obvious, in that second, that he'd heard the reasoning before; Rae flashed back to Pencey and the infighting Frank had barely talked about and swallowed hard.

But Frank backed down. "Just be here tomorrow," he said, sitting down close to Mikey.

"We will," Gerard said.

Rae left before Gerard and Matt even had a chance to, barricading herself in her room and working on the song until she fell asleep at her desk.

Frank woke her up too early the next morning, yanking the blinds up. "Wake up, Rae."

She squinted in the sudden light. "What?"

"Why the hell did you leave Mikey yesterday?"

Rae blinked. "Why'd I – what?"

"Mikey. You knew, you fucking knew, you were the only person who'd talked to him so far. You were the only person who knew what was going on in his head and you left."

"But he had you." She stared; she'd never seen Frank like this, pissed for reasons she knew he wasn't completely saying. "I didn't even think, there was the song and Gerard was going out. He had you."

Frank shook his head. "Fine," he said. "We need to get a fucking move on as soon as Gerard wakes up."

"We'll be okay." It felt stupid to say, but everything felt stupid to say; she wasn't at all good at dealing with this kind of fragile. "Even if it's not for awhile, we will be."

He still looked pissed, and when he opened his mouth she half expecting him to rip her a new one for being Pollyanna, but instead he just sighed. "We just need to get in the studio," he said. "It'll be better then."

She nodded. "We'll make a good record, and...it'll be better."

||

Of course, the ways it got better didn't have much to do with being in the studio.

Brian pressed more now, stayed closer. When Howard Benson showed up, Brian was the reason he remembered everyone's names for two consecutive days. But Rae knew better than to argue with the important producer, and every time Gerard opened his mouth to say something stupid, Mikey would touch his arm. Don't fuck this up, they muttered to each other. Even Matt toed the line.

She didn't think the way Howard treated her could really be called sexist. He wasn't polite, of course, but he was a big-time producer: he didn't have to be. And she didn't think the reason he steamrolled over a lot of her suggestions had much to do with her gender, since he did the same thing with the others.

"You need a chorus," he said calmly.

"Fuck that, we need another verse. Gerard!" Frank threw a pencil at him. "Write something."

"Only if what he's writing is the chorus."

"We're not trying to sound like a pop act," Mikey said, sounding mildly injured.

Rae shook her head. "I don't think that's what he means, though."

Howard looked approving now, which was good except that she wasn't really on his side. "I know we need more structure," she told him, "but you're streamlining us too much. We should compromise."

"Compromise?"

She knew what they looked like to him. Hell, they looked a little like that to her – another band a big label had signed that would put out a few CDs and then fade away to obscurity. But even if they were that band right now, they'd all done too much for this to stay that kind of band.

"We learn the art of the chorus, you leave our love for horror movie subject material alone."

It was maybe too strongly worded; she was surprised when he nodded.

"You're sure you shouldn't be the ambassador to, like. Belgium?" Mikey said.

"Waffles." Gerard flopped over onto Mikey's lap. "We can't stop now, come on."

So they didn't.

||

In the end, it still wasn't what Rae really wanted. Of course, she didn't think any of them were capable of what she or Gerard or anyone really wanted; that was the point of putting out more than one CD, she figured. Either way, the record was solid and the label thought it would sell okay, and right now those were the most important things.

Then, suddenly, they turned into a hit in the making.

"Over eleven thousand in the first week," Gerard said. His shoulders were hunched and he looked tired – they were all exhausted, really – but the shock coursed through her all the same. Eleven thousand.

"Holy shit," Mikey said. It wasn't a group hug, exactly, more just individual bumps and hugs along with shared disbelief; Frank was all but vibrating, awe written all over his face.

"We fucking...we..." Rae shook her head.

Mikey touched her arm. "Eleven thousand," he said.

Matt and Gerard were toasting each other with beers, and Frank had graduated to jumping on the couch. Jesus. "It's happening," she said.

Success wasn't something they'd ever really talked about, because it wouldn't – couldn't – happen. Except...week one.

Eleven thousand.

Mikey nodded. "It is," he said, and moved a little closer, leaning into her side. She let herself lean back.

||

They weren't exactly famous. The band was, with some people, but they themselves weren't. They were still filthy and generally underfed, they still got on each other's nerves a lot, Gerard was still drunk a bunch and Rae still spent too much time avoiding other people.

It was something she thought about a little too much. It wasn't like the band needed her to be spokesperson, or something; that was the point of having a frontman. But reading the blurbs and articles and getting actual fan mail telling her how great it was that she, a girl, was doing this, made her think more about the hours she spent living in the back of the bus than she really wanted to.

Eventually, though, their quasi-fame got to the point where even she wasn't surprised when the requests for interviews started coming in almost unmanageable numbers. They were the cool new Thing now – their song was a hit and people wanted to get a bit of however much success they'd end up having.

The interviews before that had mostly been handled by Gerard and Frank, who was surprisingly good at babbling at interviewers until they had enough for a soundbyte or magazine quote. They'd done a few photoshoots, too, but nothing major.

"So how does it feel to be the only girl in a band best known for its participation in a female-hostile scene?" the interviewer asked, smiling.

It was the second time in a week she'd been asked. She tugged the bottom of her shirt a little. "Kind of like being a guy, I guess," she said. "It's not...I mean, I can't pee when I stand up. But that's about it."

"You never feel pressure from the outside?" The interviewer leaned forward. "What about playing shows? The one I attended had a pretty high proportion of catcalls and lewd slurs, does that ever make you nervous?"

"I don't notice them much anymore," Rae said. It was true; 'Show us your tits!' had been worn out by the second show, and she stuck close enough to the guys post-show that harassment had never been an issue.

"But -"

"Frank likes to put her bras on his head and pretend he's a superhero," Mikey said. "You know Gerard did our album art, right?"

It was the clumsiest, most obvious subject change Rae had ever seen, but somehow it worked. Mikey sat back, looking satisfied.

"You're going to have to teach me how to do that," Rae said after the interviewer had left.

Mikey pulled his headphones down. "Do what?"

"The deflection thing." Rae rubbed her shoulder, feeling almost as off-kilter as she had at the interview. "I hate that question. It's so stupid, out of all the things they could ask..."

"Well, it is kind of obvious, you know?" Mikey pushed his glasses up. "Not like that's an excuse, but..."

"It's not obvious." Rae gestured at herself. "Look at me, seriously, the only person less feminine is Matt."

"You have boobs, though."

"Not obvious ones." She never wore v-necks or even close-fitting regular t-shirts.

But the look Mikey gave her suggested she was missing something. "No, they're kind of obvious. They're boobs."

"They should be smaller, then, if it's my tits that's making people ask such stupid questions." Rae picked at a stray thread on her jeans. "It's just going to get worse, isn't it? They'll try to make me into some kind of poster girl."

"Probably," Mikey said in that funny not-cheerful Mikey voice of his.

Rae put her head in her hands.

||

Weirdly, it wasn't that bad. The question got easier and easier to deal with over time; the rest of the band also got used to telling when it was coming and avoiding it.

When it got bad enough, she just shrugged and got drunk with the guys. No harm, no foul, she told herself. Rock stars by definition couldn't be sensitive enough to let every catcall get on their nerves.

Maybe it was the selective ignorance that helped it happen; but then, maybe not. No matter how fast-paced everything had suddenly become, she should have noticed things were getting worse. Gerard fell asleep slumped on top of her more, he downed three beers before even a small interview, he stumbled and fell and sang about Elena with his head on the mic stand. But she didn't notice, didn't see, until Warped.

Warped was rough, because Frank and Jepha were friends and Gerard and Bert were...whatever their weird flirtation could be called. Everyone was drunk, because it was Warped, but there was too much tension now.

"I'm so fuckin' stoned," Gerard slurred, staring at the bus (bus, they had a bus, it still hadn't gotten less bizarre) ceiling. "So – hey, Rae, you ever think about what'll happen when the first one of us dies?"

She ignored his giggle. "Sure. Who doesn't?"

Tinny music made her turn her head. Mikey stopped cranking up the volume on his headphones and turned away from them.

"I think it'll be in the paper. Hey, Bryar."

Bob froze. Since the start of the tour, he'd been more and more careful around them. Rae was trying not to think about what it might mean. "Yeah?"

"Tell Bert I loved him." Gerard took another gulp of beer and fell off the couch laughing.

"Fucking moron," Frank said, but he sounded more tired than anything else.

When someone yelled bullshit at her that day, she kicked a crumpled can off the stage in their direction. It wasn't much, but it had Frank running over to her, playing furiously and yelling, "You okay?"

Gerard screamed off-key and fell over. He was more drunk than stoned today. "Fucking fine," Rae said, and tore into her solo.

||

There had to be a breaking point. Rae kept telling herself that, because either Gerard would break or the rest of them would, and at this point the end of the band was an idea haunting all of them.

They got into a screaming fight with Brian right before Japan. Or rather, Brian screamed and Gerard squirted him with his own bottle of Febreeze, grabbing his crotch and laughing like it was the funniest thing ever.

"Put it away, Gerard," Frank said. He threw a magazine at Gerard, not even a little gently.

"Any regrets, Schechter?" Gerard grinned, patting Brian's head. "Santa doesn't exist."

"You're being a dick," Matt said suddenly.

"You are a dick." Gerard's voice was too loud. "Man, fuck this, fuck this. You're all fucking – what the fuck is this, fucking Japan, fucking shitty-ass band." He stumbled out the door, slamming it behind him.

"He's probably puking." Frank stood up. "Jesus, Brian, he - "

"Just go get him. I know, Frank, okay? I know." Brian sat down, swallowing hard.

Mikey was blaring his music again. Rae went over to him without thinking.

"Hey," she said. It was too quiet for him to hear, so she touched his shoulder.

His face when he looked up almost killed her. She'd never seen his eyes that sunken, or his expression that completely empty. "Why are we doing this?"

Rae didn't have a good answer. "It'll get better," she said. The words felt old, overused. "Just wait. It will, it has to."

She sat with him until he got up and went back to his bunk. She let herself go outside then, leaning against the bus next to Matt.

"Look at him," Matt said. Gerard was lying belly-down on the cement, with Frank kneeling over him. "He's a fucking mess."

It sounded more cruel coming from him than it should have. "He's always had problems. He's going through a rough spot."

Matt snorted. "He's a fucking pussy, is what he is. I don't care who sucks his dick, but when he starts acting like a fucking girl about everything -"

"Hey," Rae said. She could feel herself blushing; she wished to God she could do comebacks like Mikey or even Frank could.

"Fuck off, you know what I meant," Matt said. "You're pretty good and all, but still, acting like a girl is acting like a girl."

"Says the guy who can't keep time live."

It was a mistake, a sore spot, and she knew it. "Fuck off," Matt said again, but this time he was all but snarling. "What the fuck do you fucking know about drumming, Rae?"

Enough to know you're shit, she thought, but she held up her hands. "Nothing," she said. "Nothing, Jesus. I'm sorry."

They flew out the next day. None of them talked, and the second they got off the plane, Frank started texting frantically. She didn't even have to see the screen to know he was talking to Jamia.

"Let's do this," he said grimly.

"It'll get better," she said automatically.

"You said that before." Frank shrugged. "And sure it will. It just has to happen soon, or..."

It felt like swallowing an entire bag of ice cubes. "Or?"

"I'm getting tired, Rae." Frank turned away. "Come on, let's find the fucking hotel."

||

The hotel wasn't better, and neither were the shows. Gerard was a complete mess. Rae could feel herself pulling away; she barely remembered the shows themselves, much less what happened before and after.

She'd beat herself up later for not realizing, not knowing, until the third night when Jerry helped him into his bunk.

"What the fuck?" Frank said. "It's too fucking early."

"Let him sleep."

"Jerry?"

Rae pulled her curtain aside in time to see Frank hop down. "What –"

"Seriously." Jerry crossed his arms. "Brian knows. Let him sleep."

It felt almost redundant to watch Gerard curl up under his covers. She wanted to do anything but leave him alone, but Jerry had the look on his face that meant he'd happily take all four of them on.

The call from Brian came on Rae's cell halfway to the airport. "He's going to get better now," Brian said without preamble. "I'm looking for a program he can do."

She took a careful breath. "He's said he'll quit before."

"He means it this time." She heard Brian breathing shakily, wondered just how much Gerard had told him.

"There's another problem. Matt."

"Still not cooperating?"

"He's being a dick," she said. "I mean, really, who's surprised? But he's hurting Gerard, and he fucks up as often as not, now. More often."

"We'll talk about it when you guys get back. Just keep him alive for the plane ride, okay?"

Fuck. She clenched a hand in a fist, realizing for the first time exactly how close they'd come. "Okay."

"Bullshit," Mikey muttered from his seat.

She shut the phone. "No," she said.

Mikey shook his head and slumped down further.

They didn't talk to each other on the plane. Rae was next to Gerard, who half-slept, half-cried for almost the entire trip. He was shivering as he did, too quietly to make a scene but noticeably enough for Mikey to throw his blanket over Gerard's.

Mikey's blanket was the one Gerard chose to bury his face in. Rae waited until he was sleeping fitfully to tuck the covers around him, moving the pillow a little so it supported his neck better.

She looked up and saw Mikey staring at her. It was ridiculous to feel caught, since she knew she hadn't been doing anything wrong. She snatched her hands away regardless, grabbing the in-flight shopping magazine and holding it in front of her face.

Gerard slept a little better after that, and when the plane touched down, he woke up without crying out. Small victories, she told herself, taking his hand and pulling him up gently.

"Fucking walk, Way," Matt said. He shoved Mikey into the seats, not at all lightly.

Frank stopped dead. "Get away from us," he said coldly. "Right fucking now."

It was a stupid, stupid line in the sand to draw, but at least Rae knew what she was going to tell Brian. "Come on, you guys, just walk." She dropped her shoulder a little, letting Gerard lean more.

They got off the plane without killing each other, and Matt left without even bothering to look for Brian. "Good fucking riddance," Frank said.

"Yeah, we're going to have to talk about that."

They turned like it was a movie. Brian looked as tired as Rae had ever seen him, pale and weirdly small for a guy she knew could kick all their asses.

"Brian."

She hadn't realized Gerard was lucid enough to talk, much less launch himself at Brian so hard Brian stumbled backwards. "Jesus," Mikey said quietly, jealousy all over his face. Frank bumped into him a little, holding onto his elbow with a hand. Rae dug her hands into her pockets, watching Gerard cling.

Gerard didn't let go until getting into the taxi necessitated it. He stayed pressed against the window, even when Brian twisted around in the passenger's seat to look at them.

"You have to keep going," Brian said. "I called the label, so you've got a few days, but that's it."

"What are we supposed to do?" Frank was still hugging Mikey, expression fixed in a glare. "What the hell is going on, Brian?"

Brian winced and opened his mouth.

"I'm an addict," Gerard said.

She'd known, expected it, but hearing it still floored her. "Gerard?"

"I'm a fucking alcoholic and just...Jesus. I'm a fucking addict." Gerard's head hit the window with a dull clunk. "And it's going to stop."

Frank indiscreetly clapped a hand over Mikey's mouth. Gerard winced. "It's okay."

"No one's going to say anything stupid," Frank said flatly. "We're fucking staying together and I'll kick Matt out myself if I have to."

Gerard twitched. "Matt?"

"Doesn't fit," Rae said. She felt like the worst kind of bitch, but he didn't and he hadn't for a long time. The way Gerard nodded a little, like he'd been expecting it, confirmed that.

"That can be dealt with tomorrow," Brian said. "I'd say I can tell him, but one of you should be there."

"Me," Rae said immediately.

"It doesn't have to be," Mikey said. "We could...all of us, maybe."

"I was the one bitching at him. No, seriously." She glared at Frank until he shut his mouth. "I'll go."

"You sure?" Brian was doing that thing with his face, the expression that made him look like a parent. But coupled with the bags under his eyes, it didn't wash even a little.

"I'm positive."

She sat back, sandwiched between Frank and Gerard, and waited for the ride to be over.

||

"No."

Rae fought the urge to fist her hands. She didn't think Matt would go crazy and kick their asses, but it would probably pay not to be too aggressive, anyway. "It's a difficult time for the band," she said, "and you're just not..."

"Not what, Rae Not fucking good enough? I'm sorry all of us can't be fucking obsessed, some of us prefer getting laid to fucking around with our fucking instruments, you prissy fucking -"

"That's enough," Brian said.

Matt rounded on him. "You've got your head so far up your ass you can't see sunlight, Schechter. Do you seriously think that fucking band's going to make it without a drummer? If you'd stop licking Gerard's dick long enough to think you'd know the answer."

"We'll make it just fine." Rae was bad at any kind of fighting, but the look on Brian's face was more than enough to make her confrontational. "With a drummer who isn't you. A good drummer."

Matt recoiled. "Fuck you."

She shook her head. "It's done, Matt. You're out."

It felt better than it should have to leave him gaping, walking out of the house with Brian right behind her.

||

They'd mentioned it a few times after hearing yet another story about how amazing Bob was on the drums. He'd been with them long enough that him smacking one of them for being an idiot was as integral a part of their lives as Brian calling to yell at them or Adam telling insane rumors about them. The few times Rae had asked him about drumming, though, he'd just shrugged and said "Yeah, I like it."

"Bob?" Gerard was clutching a bottle of water, wrapped in three blankets and as much of Mikey's limbs as would fit around him.

She nodded. "Everyone says he can play."

"We've never heard him," Frank said.

"We film in a few days. It doesn't matter, we need someone." Her lip curled. "He'll be better than Matt."

"I like Bob," Mikey offered. He was smiling a little.

She wasn't sure why that was the deciding factor for her."We'll ask him, then."

||

"This isn't actually a question." Bob looked at each of them, voice higher than usual, hands twitching. "You're not seriously asking."

"We kind of are, actually. You can say no. We won't kick your ass." Frank tilted his head. "We won't kick your ass much."

"I can't say no." Bob shook his head hard. "You're...you want me to...seriously? I'm not getting punked or whatever?"

"It's a trial. A lot of things are right now. But yeah, we voted, and if you wanna be in such a sorry fucking band, then sign the dotted line."

It was the most Rae had heard out of Gerard's mouth in awhile. He was looking at Bob with that weird intent look on his face, the same he'd had right before barreling out on the stage to sing Skylines the first night – except clearer, she realized. Lucid, yeah, but also just more focused.

She wasn't at all surprised when Bob nodded; the difference would be obvious to him, too. "Yeah, okay. Duh."

Frank tackled him down, arms around his neck. It was one of Frank's quieter tackles, but what he lacked in noise he made up for in sheer force.

"Don't break him yet," she said when Frank kept holding on.

Frank shook his head; Bob patted his back. "You're weird, Iero."

"We're all weird." Gerard took a drink of water. "So, want to shoot a video with us tomorrow?"

"In front of the camera?"

"Yeah. You'll, um. You'll be there a lot," Mikey said. He sounded so hopeful Rae almost winced.

Bob shrugged. "Sure."

Gerard leaned back, breathing carefully. Frank started babbling at Bob – like he hadn't been with them on half their tours, Rae thought – but she and Mikey both watched Gerard.

One day at a time, Brian had told them over and over. At this point it was a not-quite-meaningless mantra: one more day, one more day.

||

"Fuck off," she said. "Seriously."

Mikey's face looked close to splitting, he was grinning so wide. "I can't believe they talked you into that."

"I have to sit on a porch and lick a crayon." She tugged the bottom of the skirt. "And they didn't have any pants that fit me right, so really, Mikey, fuck off."

"Hey." Mikey thumped his croquet mallet. "You don't look bad, you know."

Rae rolled her eyes. "Yeah, of course not. Is today over yet?"

"Gee looks bad." Mikey had the same look on his face he'd gotten the night they had to tell Gerard he was a bad Dungeon Master. "He's like, chalky. And he shakes all the time. You don't look bad."

"I'm not a recovering addict, either." It felt good to say, recovering. "I know I'm not the Loch Ness Monster, okay? It's just weird."

Mikey nodded. "I get it. They should have just tailored you some pants or something."

"No kidding." She sighed when she heard Marc yelling. "Come on."

Mikey followed her closely. She didn't think anything of it until he kept following her, leaving only when someone yelled at him specifically. By the second day, it had crossed the line from weird into creepy.

"Seriously," she said as they were walking back to the bus, "Are you..."

"Huh?" Mikey blinked at her. He had bags under his eyes that she was pretty sure rivaled her own.

"You're. Fuck, I can't think. You're being weird."

Mikey stared at the pavement. "I'm not."

"You are." She tripped going up the stairs, grabbing the handrail just in time. "Whatever. We all need sleep."

She didn't get nearly enough; none of them did. It was probably for the best that she forgot about it until halfway through the next day, since by that time she couldn't think of anything to say anyway.

||

The video got big; at that point, none of them were surprised, though Rae was more than a little embarrassed that it was that song in particular that turned into a hit. It didn't stop being incredible, though, even all the interviews where people asked her what it was like to be a girl in the spotlight. "I'm not in the spotlight," she got used to saying. "I just play."

It was true. The crowds were getting bigger – and younger – and Gerard had gotten even more flamboyant since getting sober, but Rae just planted her legs and played, more or less the same as she'd mimed when she was five and watching all her brother's bootlegged concert videos.

They'd been expecting 'Helena' to be upsetting for long enough that the filming itself felt a little anticlimactic. Bob followed Gerard around, which made sense because Bob acted like they all emitted distress beacons whenever anything was wrong, and Gerard was definitely the most upset. Mikey was a close second, though, and Frank stuck just as close to him as Bob did to Gerard. Rae tried to divide her time between them, though somehow, she ended up dogging Mikey's steps almost as much as he had dogged hers during 'I'm Not Okay'.

Through it all, of course, they smiled for the cameras (there were a lot of them, strangely many; Rae wasn't used to the idea that there were people more interested in them than they were) and said as many meaningful things as they could come up with. It wasn't the easiest thing to do, but they got through the filming.

Gerard left Bob's side to put an arm around Rae's waist, leaning on her. "I'm proud of you," he said. His voice was rough, both from exhaustion and crying. "You know?"

She blinked. "Um. Thanks? I'm proud of you, too?"

"No, I mean." Gerard stopped them. "Like. I drew you without boobs, you know? I drew you like a fucking dude. But you're not, you're a girl and you're rocking out like it doesn't even matter. You're a role model. It's awesome."

She blinked at him. He yawned. "Come on, I'm wiped."

"...Thanks," she said again, and followed him onto the bus.

They had a routine, now; it was as close to tucking Gerard in as Rae thought Gerard's dignity would allow. At least one of them always followed him back and went to bed at the same time he did.

Tonight, it was Frank. Bob followed, and Rae got busy with the PS2. She was about to ask Mikey to join in when he stood and left the bus.

Playing alone was never as much fun, but she didn't feel like sleeping yet. Of course, it turned out that she was more tired than she realized; one second she was facing off against a Boss, and the next she was waking up and her watch said four AM.

"Awesome," she muttered to herself, stumbling back to the bunks.

Mikey's curtain was still pulled back. She groaned and pivoted, stopping to splash some water on her face before going outside.

Mikey was sitting against a bus tire. He jumped when she closed the door. "Oh. I haven't been out here all night."

She sighed and sat next to him. He leaned his head against her shoulder immediately. "What's got you?"

He shrugged. "The usual. What about you? You're usually the stable one. Like, you sleep."

"I slept for awhile. Gerard's..."

"Gerard."

"He thinks I'm some kind of big deal. Feminist icon or something, you know? He called me a role model."

Mikey pulled back to blink at her, his glasses almost sliding off the bridge of his nose. "You kind of are," he said. "I mean, you're not the first chick, but still. You act like it's not a big deal that you're up there, like you're the next Slash or whatever even if you have ti – um. Boobs."

"But it's not a big deal." She waved a hand uselessly, trying to think of a way to explain. "It's...I'm just doing what I know how to. It's not like I could be a guy if I wanted to."

"That's probably the point." He put his head back on her shoulder. "But Gerard's the guy with the gender theory books on his library record and stuff."

"He's pretty into it. I feel bad. I mostly want to play."

"Yeah."

They sat quietly almost long enough to make Rae suggest going back inside, but then Mikey touched her knee, drumming his fingers lightly. "Gerard's a good guy."

"He is," she said carefully.

"If you wanted..." Mikey cleared his throat. "If you...I mean. If he...it'd be okay, you know? If you and he were together. You're good for him."

It felt a little like being hit on the head with a board. "What?"

"You know what." She'd never heard him sound this defensive. "Dating Gerard. It would be good for him, and you're -"

She pulled away. "I'm what, Mikey?"

"Into him." He kept staring at her knees. "Aren't you?"

"No. Jesus, no, I'd expect this kind of thing from a stupid website, not you." She could feel how hard she was blushing, how high her voice was getting, but – Gerard? Of all people, Mikey should know exactly how platonic they were always going to be. "Mikey, seriously, what the hell."

"Nothing. But you know you're totally his type, right? You two would be -"

"I swear to God I'll get Bob to punch your head," she said. "Or do it myself, Mikey. Stop. It's flattering and all, but stop, please."

He didn't look even remotely convinced. "Okay."

She rolled her eyes. "I promise, I don't want to date your brother. Or do anything with him except be his friend."

"I get it, Rae." He was bobbing his head in what Rae thought was supposed to be a nod. "You should go to bed."

"So should you."

"I will soon." He widened his eyes. "Seriously, go."

She wanted to, if only because he was being more Mikey-weird than she knew how to handle. Of course, that was the exact reason she knew she had to stay. "I'm good," she said.

Stubbornly keeping quiet was Mikey all the way, and something Gerard never could have managed. But he still had more in common with Gerard than he realized, because just as dawn started, he fell asleep with his face half on her boobs. The concrete digging into her ass was less than fun, but she held still anyway, until a drunken whoop from another bus woke him up.

"Um."

"Your glasses are digging into my boobs," she said, because she couldn't think of a single non-stupid thing.

Mikey bolted upright. "Sorry. You shouldn't have stayed out here."

She watched him fix his glasses, his hair. He wouldn't be showering today. "Yes, I should have."

Weirdly enough, he left it at that.

||

Taste of Chaos was...interesting.

Bert and Gerard were still friends, as much as a drunk and a sober alcoholic could be, but Gerard came back to the bus every night with tension written all over him. It felt dirtier than the last tour, grimier in ways that had less to do with the actual dirt and more to do with the bands and the tour's reputation. After the first night of getting groped and leered at and generally treated like a groupie someone would drop off at the next town, Rae spent more time in the back of the bus than anywhere else, playing with chords and ignoring the strangely appropriate nightly chaos.

Frank was the first person to call her on it – or maybe the only person dumb enough to. "What the fuck, Toro," he said one night. He was leaning against the door, beer dangling from his fingers.

She pulled the headphones off. "Something wrong?"

"You." He stabbed a finger at her. "You're being a total fucking hermit."

Outside, someone yelled and what sounded like at least five beer bottles shattered. Rae raised her eyebrows. "I always am."

Frank moved closer. He was a little tipsy, she thought, watching him. "Not like this, though," he said. "Seriously, you always come out sometimes. What gives?"

She'd thought over it enough times in the past few days to all but lecture him on what was wrong, but she wasn't Gerard, and even halfway to drunk Frank was smarter than that. "The guys are being weird, you know? It might get better later on."

"You mean the roadies?" Frank narrowed his eyes. "Tell me who it is, then, I'll -"

"No one in particular." She was holding the guitar too tightly, she knew; it was a conscious effort to relax her grip. "Every crowd's different. You know that."

"This isn't the stage."

Back down, she told herself, back down, but Frank was one of her best friends. "It is for me."

Frank blinked. "What?"

"You, Mikey, you grab a beer and go. I can't do that, Frank." She gestured at her chest. "I just can't."

His eyes widened comically. "Oh. Oh, right. That sucks, man."

Her dad was a mailman. At least twice a year, he wound up delivering mail in weather no sane person would go out in. It was a completely different set of problems now, but she shrugged and quoted him anyway. "I can't change it, so I work with it."

"Right. Um." Frank swallowed hard. "I'm gonna go back out."

"Have fun," she said. "I'm good back here, seriously."

He saluted her with his bottle. "See you, Torosaurus."

Rae laughed and flipped him off. As soon as he left, though, she put her guitar down and went to lie down on the couch, her back to the rest of the room.

Gerard came in awhile later. "Gee, let it rest," she said without moving.

But Gerard, who usually didn't know subtlety if it kicked him in the balls, just sat down at the end of the couch and let her plop her legs on him. "I'm kind of a faggot sometimes," he said. "The technical term is 'bisexual', but generally, faggot covers it."

"Bert?"

"Called me a faggot. It's funny, the shit people say to you when they're drunk."

"Or hurt," she said, because pointing out Gerard's problems were a hell of a lot easier than managing her own.

"I'm going to hide with you for awhile. Okay?"

She turned and sat up, pulling him close enough to snuggle. "You know the answer to that one."

Gerard went back out and eventually so did she. Frank had talked – of course Frank had talked – and for the rest of the tour the band ushered her outside occasionally, stuck by her and kept her in a group of friends. She knew what they were doing, but she didn't mind enough to tell them to stop.

||

If she'd been asked to place a bet, she would have said Frank would lose his temper and Gerard would be the one to handle the news relatively sanely.

She was dead wrong.

"Gerard, I need to talk to you," Frank said.

He was pale and his voice was shaking weirdly. She sat up immediately. "Uh-uh, no. What's going on?"

"You won't like it."

"Neither will Gerard, or you wouldn't look like that." She frowned, thinking of Bert and Gerard. They'd been dancing around each other for awhile now. "Bert?"

"It's not him." Frank made a face, then sighed. "Fucking local band. They've got a video camera, they're having girls flash them for backstage passes."

Rae blinked, then blinked again. "That's..."

"What," Gerard said flatly.

"That's really shitty," Rae said slowly. "Why the hell would you do something like that?"

"Because the video's going to be seen by My Chem, of course," Frank said.

It made a twisted kind of sense, actually. Rae wasn't naïve enough to not know shit like that went on, but having their band brought into it was a new low. "Did you tell them to knock it off?"

"I broke the fucking camera," Frank said.

"I can't believe they'd do that." Gerard shook his head. "Seriously, what is this, a Guns 'n' Roses tour? This is bullshit."

"It happens, though," Rae said. "It's dumb. Especially now that you can just look at tits on the internet if you want to."

"That's not the point." Gerard shook his head. "Why aren't you more pissed about this? It's wrong, it's so fucking wrong."

She bit her lip, thinking. She was pissed, in a low-level, non-dramatic kind of way; no one should be pulling that kind of shit, especially not on a tour like this one. But then, mad though she was, she wasn't anywhere close to as surprised as Gerard was. "Guys yell at me to show my tits all the time," she said finally. "It's just kind of what happens, you know?"

"It's wrong," Gerard said again. The look on his face told her all she needed to know.

"Don't do anything stupid."

"Almost nothing he could do right now would be stupid," Frank said.

She sighed. "You know what I mean."

Gerard nodded. "I won't. Don't worry about it, okay? I can keep my cool."

Except when it came to stuff like this, he really couldn't, and they both knew it. "I – okay. Of course you can."

He mentioned it to Brian, of course, but other than that he didn't do anything. Rae was half expecting him to say something about it onstage, but...

"I want you to spit right in their fucking faces and yell fuck you!"

Not this.

She couldn't explain why she kept her face blank through the screams. It didn't even feel wrong as much as it just felt weird, both the response and Gerard's speech. She'd never been more glad to be able to stop thinking and start playing.

"You lost your shit," Bob said afterwards.

"Yeah, I know." Gerard shook his head, spraying the rest of them with sweat.

Frank gagged theatrically. "Disgusting, dude, disgusting."

"I said something important, though, so I'll take the fall," Gerard said, ignoring Frank.

Frank kicked his shin. "Seriously, if that's something there's a fall to take for saying, then you should've said it twice.

"Ow, fucker. Maybe." Gerard glanced at Rae.

She put on the most innocent face she could. "What?"

"You have way more of a right than any of us to say it. So what did you think?"

She'd never talked to anyone but Mikey about Gerard's particular variety of activism, and no matter how chicken it might make her, she didn't want to start now. "It was good."

"I don't want to be an asshole," Gerard said. "If you'd rather be the one saying it -"

She forced herself to roll her eyes. "Come on, you know me. I'm not the speech-giving type."

"Okay," Gerard said, but he still sounded doubtful. He definitely wasn't the only one, she thought grimly.

||

When she got up halfway through the night and went out to the lounge, she wasn't surprised to find him already there.

"Isn't Diet Coke unproductive?"

He picked up the plastic cup, taking a sip like it was something way more expensive than soda. "I wasn't going to sleep anyway."

She sat down next to him. "I really don't mind, you know."

It wasn't even a question anymore if she'd accurately guessed what he was thinking about. "I know you don't. That's part of the problem, really, because I feel like maybe you should mind, and then I feel guilty for doing anything I have to think that about."

"I was never in the scene," she said slowly, because she didn't want to fuck this up and somehow be the cause of Gerard abandoning the earnest lectures they were all proud of him for. "I don't know how weird it would be for those girls because I was never like that, you know? You're not taking anything from me by saying that. You're really not."

"But you –"

"I know. But I also know that I'm not a talker. Or, like I said, a speech-giver. You're frontman for a reason."

That hit home, apparently, because Gerard nodded. "I get that. Okay."

She was an old hand at reading between the lines with him, though. "And I like that you say that kind of thing. It's good."

"You're babying me now," Gerard said, but he shifted until he could lean against her and went back to drawing what looked like a disco in a cartoon hell.

||

They'd known Brian had news for awhile, less because he told them and more because they'd all lived in each other's pockets enough to be able to tell just from his tone and the airline he picked to fly out to them.

"That's a little creepy," Brian said, flopping down on the bus couch. "This thing smells like ass."

"Everything smells like ass." Frank sat down on his lap. "Spill."

"Calm down, it's nothing that major." Brian shrugged, the epitome of casual. "You've got a few weeks of vacation, and then Green Day wants you guys to tour with them."

They didn't break any bones tackling him, but it was a close thing.

||

It was Frank's fault, really, except for how it wasn't. Gerard blamed the patriarchy; Mikey just shrugged and said, "People are fucking idiots."

The interview was the last one they did before the Green Day tour. "So," the interviewer said with a huge, fake smile on his face, "are you planning on apologizing to our friends in Green Day for the sudden spike in screaming teenagers?"

"It's Rae's fault." Frank grinned. "She's their idol, you know? We blame her for a lot of stuff."

It was like flipping a switch. "Really," he said, scribbling on his notepad.

They exchanged collective oh shit looks, but they all knew it was too late. Interviews could suck like that. "Teenagers are all right," Gerard said. Rae swallowed, trying to ignore the rushing in her ears.

"Moving on," the interviewer said. Just the look on his face told them they were screwed.

The article ran the next day. "Yeah, Frank totally blames you for the band's inner turmoil," Mikey said. "Whatever, it's so dumb. We're touring with Green Day. Who cares what they think?"

"It wouldn't have happened if you were a dude." Gerard flicked his ash on the floor; Frank winced. "Seriously. Fucking weak."

"I'm more worried about meeting Green Day all 'Hi, I'm the girl in the band." Rae sank back into the couch, clutching a pillow. "I feel like Gwen Stefani."

"You're hotter," Frank said. Mikey grunted. "What? She doesn't look like a robot, at least."

"...I'm telling Jamia," Gerard said finally.

"Whatever, like Jamia wouldn't –"

"Frank!" Rae pulled the pillow up to her face. "Shut the fuck up!"

Frank's giggle was obnoxiously loud, almost nervous. When she finally took the pillow away from her face, Mikey was Mikey-glaring at him. It mostly involved his eyebrows.

"It's okay," she said. "We have to be able to joke about it. And it's kind of funny."

"No, it's not," Bob said.

"It will be, then." Rae paused. "When I have grandkids."

Mikey rolled his eyes, but even he was smiling.

||

Meeting Green Day was the best kind of insane.

She'd half expected to be treated weirdly, but she wasn't; they were completely awesome, and so were most of the crowds. They hardly had an off night the whole tour, and their record was still selling well. They were successful and stable for once, enough that Rae definitely wasn't expecting Warped to be a pivotal moment.

So it was, of course, as much as any specific tour or event could be.

Warped was a pain in the ass; sometimes Rae thought all the bands made friends out of sheer necessity, because it was have people to fuck around with or slowly go insane. It was good to see Fall Out Boy again, though, to be kicked in the ankles by Pete and to jam with Joe.

And it wasn't that Pete and Mikey never occurred to her, because Pete was Mikey's type, thin and almost too pretty and as loud as Rae thought Mikey was in his head.

It was still weird to watch Pete's face light up the second he laid eyes on Mikey. "Mikey Way," he said, grabbing Mikey's hand in front of half the touring bands.

Mikey just laughed, that dorky open not-quite-giggle Rae and the others were forever failing to produce consistently.

She knew right then, that she wasn't the only person who would get jealous. It was comforting, or as comforting as anything like that could be.

Less comforting was the fact that suddenly, within the space of a day, Mikey and Pete were everywhere and always together. "It's not like I think he shouldn't be dating Wentz," Bob said one day, frowning at his shoes.

"I don't think they're dating." Rae frowned. "Probably."

"Whatever they're doing." Bob held up his hands. "Seriously, I don't want to know."

"I think they giggle a lot." Rae held her soda can against her face; it was fucking hot out. "And probably kiss. But there's the girl, too, the one Pete's always around."

"His tech? Yeah. Jesus, I feel like a gossipy old lady."

"My grandma gossips less than you." Rae gave up and leaned back, closing her eyes. "Why'd I say I wanted summer?"

"Because you enjoy the misery of others."

"That's you." She pulled her shirt up a little, making a face. "I should just give in and show everyone what kind of bras I buy."

"Plenty of girls are doing the bikini top thing." Bob shrugged. "You could if you wanted."

"You think I'm whining."

Bob smiled. "Only a little. Mostly I think you won't do it anyway."

She sighed, turning her face against the sluggish wind. "You're right. What time is it?"

"We've got hours."

She opened her eyes to see Mikey and the tech staring at each other. Pete was nearby, waving a squirt gun. Her stomach felt pinched, less hot day nausea and more period cramps and not enough food, even though it was the wrong time of month and she'd eaten an hour ago.

"I'm going to go lie down," she said.

Bob didn't even look up. "Soundcheck at four."

The bus wasn't on, but it hadn't been long since they'd stopped; it was still a hell of a lot cooler than outside. She went back to the bunks and lay down in hers, pulling her shirt off and closing her eyes.

She meant to close the curtains, but she was as comfortable as she'd ever been, and somehow she closed her eyes before pulling them shut.

When she woke up, it was to the sound of muffled giggles. She shook her head, disoriented. "Who's there?"

She sat up just as Pete Wentz tugged a curtain open enough to illuminate both her in her bed and Mikey wrapped around Pete's waist, shirtless, pants at his knees.

The blood rushed to her face before she even had time to be embarrassed; two seconds later, she was babbling and completely humiliated. "Shit, shit, sorry, I should have closed the curtain," she said, and yanked it shut belatedly. "Sorry."

"We can go someplace else," Pete said, and fuck him for sounding completely undisturbed.

"No, it's fine." She yanked her shirt on and pulled the curtain back open, standing up. "I meant to be awake by now, anyway."

"Do you feel okay?" Mikey said. He was bright red.

"Fine, fine," She shoved past them.

"You're sure? We could -"

"I'm fine, Mikey. Just be on time for soundcheck, okay?"

She didn't wait for him to answer. It was easier to slam the door of the bus and set off across the lot, in search of anything or anyone to distract her.

How Mikey knew she'd be at soundcheck early was a mystery to her, but he was hanging around the stage when she arrived. "It wasn't that bad," he said in greeting.

"I was in my bra and you were halfway to hooking up. It was pretty bad."

He toed the dirt. "Well. Yeah, but you could've been naked or something. Girls wear bikini tops all the time. And I've seen you in a bra before."

"Pete's hand was in your pants." She crossed her arms. "It was bad." And different now, though she didn't know how to say it; Mikey'd seen her having sex before, but right now even underwear felt like too much.

"I guess." Mikey scrunched up his face. "You know Alicia, his tech?"

"Not personally."

"He's kind of dating her, too." Mikey shoved his hands in his pockets. "It's just a summer fling, you know? Even if we go back to being friends...it's not like he's part of the band. It's not as important as -"

Rae watched him, sighing when he didn't look up. "As?"

"The band."

"What about the band?" Frank leaped on Rae's back. "Is Mikey deserting us for Fall Out Boy? They could use a decent bassist."

"You're hilarious, Frank," Gerard said mildly.

"No. We're more important than Pete Wentz's dick, though," Rae said.

"And other parts!" Mikey said.

"I'd hope so." Bob crossed his arms. "Do you like him?"

She'd never seen Mikey's face that shade of red. "Oh my god, Bryar. Let's just do soundcheck, okay?"

Rae didn't miss the way Pete hid backstage, watching them – or watching Mikey, really. She walked in the opposite direction once the show was over, sitting down in the first bit of shade she found.

"They're gross, aren't they?"

Rae blinked. "You're the tech, right? Alicia?"

The girl nodded and sat down. "Pete and I had a thing for two seconds."

"Oh." She turned red, trying to keep herself from asking.

Alicia laughed. "And now we're not involved, and you'll get your bassist back when the summer ends."

"I wasn't worried."

"Sure you weren't." Alicia leaned back in the grass, looking as unselfconscious as Rae might have in a house with every single blind down. "Pete makes him happy, but it won't last. He self-destructs too much."

She had no idea what to say to that. "Will he be okay?"

"Pete? Yeah." Alicia glanced at her and rolled her eyes. "I like your playing, by the way. It's kickass."

It was the most obvious pity anyone had ever extended to her, but she grabbed it anyway. "Really? Thanks. It's so weird, because the crowds..."

"Headlining." Alicia nodded. "Pete throws up sometimes."

Rae hesitated before shaking her head. "It's not that."

"Yeah? Spill, Toro."

"The crowds are bigger." And the blush was back, because while it wasn't a secret – she'd tell any of the guys who asked – it was the kind of thing they'd never think of. "There's less bullshit, you know? More kids, not as many catcalls or people who want to grab at me after the show."

Alicia was quiet just long enough for Rae to start feeling really fucking guilty. "Yeah," she said finally. "I get that."

"It's not that I didn't like playing with them."

"I said I get it." Alicia nudged Rae with an elbow. "I don't buy into the mythical sisterhood bullshit, but I'm pretty sure anyone with tits who's ever been to a concert that wasn't fucking Backstreet Boys would understand."

Which, okay. That made sense. Rae waited for her blush to die down before saying, "So. Slipknot, are you serious?"

"Fuck off, Metallica was overrated."

"What? How were they – oh, that wasn't funny."

Alicia laughed. "It was. You looked like Sarah when I told her I dropped her camera in the tub."

"Sarah?"

"My best friend." Alicia made a face. "Well, kind of my best friend."

Rae nodded. "Cool."

They talked for a while longer before Alicia stood up, brushing grass off herself. "A bunch of us are going down to the cheapest bar we can find. Come with?"

She pretty much never went bar-crawling without one of the guys, but she didn't think Alicia was the type to get trashed with people she didn't trust; and she was nice and didn't act like Rae belonged in X-Men for being a girl in a band. "Sure."

"Awesome." Alicia grinned and started walking; Rae hurried to catch up.

She wasn't dressed for a bar, had a day and a half of tour grime all over her, but it was a small town and the one they found was enough of a dive that Rae felt comparatively well-dressed.

"Hey, check it out," one of the techs said. "It's Simmons' castle."

Alicia punched the guy in the arm. "Careful. It's the only kind of place people who'd fuck you go to."

Rae laughed with the others, bought a beer and joked around. It was always a little weird to remember she knew how to be normal. When she semi-drunkenly told Alicia exactly that, she rolled her eyes. "You're practically a hermit," she said, poking Rae's arm hard. "Mikey told me – oh, hey. Mikey! Over here!"

Mikey came over and Rae's stomach sank. He was dressed like he was going clubbing in New York City, and Pete was right next to him, looking just as put together and holding Mikey's hand.

"Oh, hi, Alicia." Pete grinned. "On a date?"

"In your twisted lesbian fantasies, Wentz. The techs just got here before you lovebirds did."

"Rae's not a tech." Mikey was almost impossible to hear over the music; Rae was tempted to tell him to just give up and take his jacket off, because he was bright red.

"Yeah, well, you're not a girl and you've got more eyeliner on than Pete." Alicia slid off the bench easily. "Hey, Pete, come here for a second."

Pete, much to Rae's disbelief, went willingly.

"Alicia has moves. Even I couldn't do that," Mikey said, taking Alicia's spot.

"But I thought they weren't?"

Mikey shrugged. It was fake casualness, and Rae didn't get why he even thought it would work with her.

"I know about you two, you know. You and Pete."

"I know you do. You saw us.." Mikey raised his eyebrows. "Why?"

"But if you knew, why...never mind." Rae scratched the back of her neck. Her hair was getting long again, floppy and annoying. "I feel so stupid."

"I feel out of place." Mikey tugged at the hem of his too-tight shirt. "Like a guy in plaid's gonna beat me up. You look good, though."

And what the hell, it felt like middle school. "I don't, but I know it. It's cool."

"But -"

"Okay, you can have him back!" Alicia pushed Mikey off the stool.

Mikey blinked at Rae. "Um."

"Don't worry about it." She made herself smile, because it was Mikey, and he was so obviously here to have fun with Pete. "See you later."

"So I've got a bet going with Tom," Alicia said as soon as Mikey left, nodding to the tech walking up to them. "You're not a lightweight, right?"

||

Rae wasn't a lightweight. She also wasn't a loud drunk, fortunately; Alicia helped her up the steps and she fell asleep curled up on the couch, the five bucks she got for drinking six beers and saying the alphabet backwards tucked in her back pocket.

She woke up to Frank sitting on her stomach. "Oh, man," he said gleefully, looking down at her. "Mikey's going to be pissed."

"What'd I do?" She sat up, pushing Frank on the ground. "Jesus, my head hurts."

He peered at her from between his legs. "Did you hook up?"

"Oh my god," she said, standing. Apparently it was too loud, because Bob grunted from his bunk in the threatening way Rae knew meant they'd be getting yelled at either. She grabbed a soda and sat back down. "No, I didn't hook up. Why's Mikey going to be mad? He was out fucking around with Pete."

Frank patted her knee. "You need a seeing eye dog."

Rae made a mental note to call Jamia and get her to fly out. Too much time without getting laid apparently made Frank completely crazy. "Do we know when we get Brian back?"

"Grnalgh," Gerard said, lurching past and fumbling with the coffee machine.

"Hey, Mikey!" Frank yelled. "Gerard's gonna drink all the – wait a second. Hey, motherfucker!"

Rae watched them tussle, content to drink her soda and wait for her head to stop feeling like a construction site.

"Morning," Mikey said quietly, sitting next to her. "Any Red Bull left?"

"You know I don't drink that shit."

Mikey widened his eyes at her. "Frank and Gerard are loud, and I got drunker than you did."

"How do you know how drunk I – okay, okay, Jesus."

Mikey stopped pouting the second she handed the drink to him. "You're the best."

She settled back into the pillows, side pressing against him comfortably. "I wasn't expecting to see you here, actually."

"Sleeping with Pete is one thing. Sleeping with him's another."

"I wouldn't sleep with Pete," Frank said from his position on Gerard's head. "He looks like the kicking type – ow, motherfucker!"

The last was yelled. Mikey grinned and ducked his head when Bob thumped out of bed and stomped out to Frank and Gerard.

"We're not buying two coffee machines," he said, "and I'm not giving up sleep because you idiots love caffeine like Cortez loves anal."

"With girls, to be fair," Gerard said, voice muffled by Frank's ass.

"You know what the solution to this is?" Frank leaped up.

Bob actually took a step back. "No."

"Hey, Bryar, you started it."

"No, Frank."

"Starbucks!" Frank yelled, and took a flying leap, tackling Bob down.

"He's going to have bruises," Mikey said.

"Gerard will have more." Rae nodded to Gerard guzzling the coffee. "But hey, his funeral."

Mikey moved a little closer, resting his head on her shoulder. "Even if Pete wasn't annoying to sleep with, I'd probably stick around here," he said. "You know?"

And yeah, okay. She wasn't Mikey, but she wasn't a nun, either. "Yeah. It's nice."

Frank bit Bob's shoulder; Bob yelled so loud she knew they'd be catching shit for it later in the day. "Nice might not be the word."

"Well, it's a word," Mikey said. "Maybe not the, but – oh. Hey."

He pulled out his Sidekick, leaning away to flip the screen up and read the text. Assuming it was Pete wasn't even really a guess, and it was confirmed when he grinned sheepishly and wandered off the bus, the kind of fake-casual that meant everyone stopped to watch him go.

She could admit to herself that she'd been feeling something close to jealous for most of the summer, but it was easier today than it had been in a long time, even – maybe especially – when Frank jumped on the couch and hid his face in her lower back, begging her to protect him from the wrath of Bryar.

She held him still while Bob gave him a noogie, of course.

||

Brian flew out two days later. It was an unspoken rule that they all stay in the night he arrived; they caught shit from everyone, but they were a family.

"Seriously, you're all a bunch of lameass geeks," Brian said, settling down between Gerard and Mikey.

"We're okay with it." Rae paused Yoshi in mid-air. "So? You've got news."

"You always have news," Frank said before Brian could ask how they knew.

"And you usually wear those sneakers when you tell it." Bob leaned forward. "So?"

Brian shook his head. "The label's plans went through. This fall, you're headlining."

Rae froze, hand still raised to play with her bra strap. "Jesus."

"Don't look so shocked," Brian said. His smile was as smug as Rae had ever seen it. "I told you it'd happen."

"That's fucking soon, though." Gerard glanced at Mikey. "We could -"

"It's good," Mikey said quickly. "It's really good."

"Damn right it is." Brian nodded. "It's settled, then."

"Adam's going to flip." Gerard's grin looked close to splitting his face. "Mikey, gimme your phone."

"In a second." Mikey's fingers were moving freakishly quickly over the keys. "Okay, there."

Rae managed to convince Gerard to put them on speakerphone. They spent a solid hour fucking around with Adam before Gerard took them off again, going off on a tangent as soon as he held the phone up to his ear.

She got up and went outside, sitting down on the step below the one Brian was occupying. "Things are going to change, you know," Brian said. "Fucking everything. It's not just record sales, you're a big deal."

"I know." She leaned back, forcing herself to let go of the slouch she tended to hold her shoulders in. "We should be okay, though."

Brian snorted. "You're just saying that because Bob's as anal about performances as you are."

Which, okay. Point. "You knew it when you suggested him."

"The thing none of you are egotistical enough to realize is that I don't actually chase most bands around, begging them to let me sign them." Brian tugged her hair gently. "None of you cornered the market on investment in yourselves."

"That barely makes sense," she said, but she half-hugged his ankle anyway, because she knew exactly what he meant.

"So don't fuck up, Toro. Not now, not ever."

"Screw you, Schechter."

They'd reached a mutual understanding. When Brian pulled out a cigarette, Rae bummed one and thought about their names plastered all over a tour.

||

Mikey moped, of course. Sometimes he had company; Patrick and Bob had bonded over musical talent and willingness to punch heads, and Bob mentioned how distracted Patrick was. Apparently Wentzian inner turmoil was just as bad as a Way on a bender. Rae shrugged and took care of Mikey along with the other four.

Alicia still called her, and still told her when she called Mikey, too; Rae didn't ask for details. But slowly, the Pete Thing became more of a memory than a constant frown-punctuated Mikey issue, and when the tour started, Rae let herself hang out near the bus and fiddle with chords instead of checking on Mikey obsessively.

"Go up a step. Or maybe a half step, if you don't mind fiddling with sharps."

"Gerard's best key is D minor." She tilted her head and changed the notes; James nodded.

"That's good," he said. "Christ, you guys've come a long way."

They'd been touring for long enough that she should have been able to stop herself from blushing so easily, but of course she couldn't. "Sobriety works wonders."

"I didn't just mean Gerard." James grinned. "Though you're right. I wouldn't try to stick him in a bear suit anymore."

She set her guitar aside, motioning for him to sit down. "It'd get reported somewhere. It's so fucking weird."

"You mean awesome?"

"You're opening for us."

He shrugged. "It happens to some people, it doesn't happen to others. I'm not going to obsess over it, if that's what you think."

"You should be the famous one. Fucking Zen master."

"Nah." He looked directly at her, expression serious enough to give her pause. "You guys deserve it. And there are people who'd say you're better than me, making it in a shitty scene for girls."

She thought about not saying anything, but of all their casual friends, James was one who'd get it. "I didn't make it in the scene, I just came along for the ride. The last band I was in had me behind a kit even though I was so shitty it would give Bob rage spasms and writing their guitar parts anyway, is how not making it I was."

"And yet you still helped the band get to the top and ignored people catcalling and being shitty. Seriously, would you sit there and tell Gerard he didn't make it, just because he got suicidal before he asked for help?"

She frowned. "That's different."

"Because it's Gerard?"

"Because – yes."

He didn't bat an eye. "You know how stupid that sounds."

She looked at her hands. After a few minutes James let it drop, grabbing the guitar. "Check out what I've been working on."

They swapped song ideas until Mikey texted Rae. flirtings awesome bt dont forget soundcheck

She frowned and called him, rolling her eyes when she heard his ringtone making its way out the bus windows.

"See you later?" James said.

"Definitely." She waved goodbye and ducked into the bus.

"I wasn't flirting," she said to Mikey's bunk curtain.

She heard him move. "I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it."

"It's James. That's just weird."

"Don't tell me it's just that he's in a band. You and whatshisname -"

Mikey didn't sound pissed, which was the only thing keeping her from getting irrational. "His name was Grant, and you and Pete, asshole, don't start."

"I'm being one. An asshole, I mean. Ignore me."

He sounded sulky more than anything else, which in the end was what made her pull back the curtain.

"It really would be weird with him," she said, sitting at the foot of the bed.

Mikey kept tapping at his Sidekick. "He's smart, though. Good at music. You guys could be hermits together."

"That's unfair," she said. Mikey knew as well as anyone else how glad she was to be able to love being holed up like that.

"Probably." He turned to look at her. His eyes were bloodshot, the bags under them looking like bruises.

"What the hell," she said, and leaned down, hugging him. "And I'm the one who's been hiding?"

"It's no big deal. You know I have problems."

"I've known you too long to think they're not a big deal." She poked his glasses, pushing them up on his nose.

He frowned at her and leaned his head down, resting against her neck. "Maybe I liked Pete because he left me alone."

"Pete's not your band. He's not me."

"The band baby brother, I know."

And there it was again, the subtle little note in his voice she knew he'd deny if she asked him about it. "My friend," she said, hugging him closer.

She wasn't even a little surprised when he wrapped his arms around her, pressing close. "It's okay," she said, drawing on years of being the same kind of comfort to Gerard. "We love you."

He shuddered, letting out tiny, miserable sounding half-laughs against her neck. "Most days kind of suck now."

"Because of Pete?"

Mikey shook his head. "We text. Things are just...are they getting worse?"

She couldn't help but stare. "Not that I know of."

His glasses frames dug into her shoulder when he moved again. "It feels like they might be."

They'd had this talk a million times in a million different ways, but one thing that stayed constant was how completely incapable she was of helping him. "You know I'm here."

He sighed. "Sure."

They stayed like that until Frank came onto the bus, yelling, "Hey, soundcheck got moved up, we have to – oh."

"Fuck off, Iero, like you don't use her for a pillow too." Mikey wiggled over her and rolled out of his bunk.

Frank's eyebrows were competing with his hairline. "Mikey..."

"Hey, we're in a rush, right?" Mikey's voice was too high, and he almost tripped over a stray shoe on his way out.

"Go," Rae said immediately. Frank left without a backwards glance.

She waited a few minutes before following, hoping Frank hadn't decided to have a heart-to-heart she'd be interrupting. When she got to the venue and still hadn't seen them she figured she was in the clear, until she went into the girl's bathroom and saw them standing against the farthest wall.

"Fuck if I know," Mikey was saying. "You know how it is with her."

She couldn't move. Frank pulled Mikey into a hug and she still couldn't move, right up until Frank looked to Mikey's side and saw her.

It was pretty easy to back out of the bathroom without making any noise. She went through the motions that night telling herself not to think about it, because what was the point? Whoever, whatever, Mikey had been talking about, it wasn't something he wanted to tell her. They'd stayed together as a band for this long as much by knowing when to fuck off and leave each other alone as when to sit down and refuse to go away.

"Jesus, Toro, what's going on?"

She looked up, startled. The band was moving into their huddle, and Bob was waiting for her with eyebrows raised.

"Sorry," she said, moving in next to Frank. He poked her side and smiled at her, the corners of his mouth twitching. It was obvious he was trying to tell her something, but she'd never been as well-versed in Frank-ese as the others. She shrugged and moved a little closer into the band huddle.

Soundcheck went by pretty quickly. Frank ran off right away, probably to bum a cigarette before the show; Rae knew she shouldn't mess around this close to playing onstage, but she did anyway, starting off slow but speeding up almost embarrassingly quickly. She felt close to something, fingers moving furiously, head banging almost automatically.

The bass line started quiet, not quite where it should be; she slowed down a little, trying to get him to find the rhythm. He did, matching her again, and she let herself speed up, the music twisting in her head, pushing them both.

Mikey's fingers slipped and the spell broke. "Shit," he said loudly. She stopped playing.

"You were doing well," she said. "Like...seriously. A few years ago you couldn't play at all."

She couldn't have read the expression on his face if both their lives depended on it. "Not good enough, though."

"Is this your way of asking for a vacation? We need our bassist, Mikey."

He blinked at her, shoving his glasses up on his nose. "It's true, dude."

Now she felt just as unsettled as he looked. "Well. It's not something we're going to put in an album, anyway."

"Sure." He put his bass down too hard and walked away. Rae winced and set her guitar down next to it, resolutely keeping her mind on the set list, the crowd, their job and pretty much the only thing she ever wanted to do.

||

"We are fucking off tonight," Gerard told the crowd. He turned back to look at Rae. "Don't we feel fucking off? We are really, pathetically, FUCKING OFF."

She wanted to throttle him, not because of the way the crowd was laughing and screaming, but because for once, it was completely true.

Frank ran up to Gerard and elbowed his side; Gerard choked and spluttered theatrically, spat out some shit about Pegasus, and they launched into "I'm Not Okay".

It was easy for her to play, easy for Gerard to sing; a crowd-pleaser they'd been half-bullied into putting onto the CD more than anything else. She bobbed her head and tore through her solo, adding a few frills but mostly just concentrating on listening for the others.

The crowd got louder when Frank kissed Gerard, of course, rubbing up against him and generally acting like an idiot. It was loud enough that Rae finally looked up, shaking her head at them – and then glancing to the side, watching Mikey inch his way across the stage.

No one was paying attention when he stood to face her, playing the bass line as steadily as he ever had. He wasn't wavering a bit – he was drunk, she knew, because he was always drunk onstage, but it was a little better today. His mouth was set and his fingers were steady, if not flying.

"Thumbs up, Mikeyway," she yelled when the song ended.

He half-smiled, bobbing his head, and made his way back across the stage.

||

That night Gerard was jittery and unsettled, moving from his sketchbook to the coffee machine and right back to his sketchbook. He insisted on following Mikey back to his bunk; "Tucking him in," Frank said, rolling his eyes and throwing his pants in a corner.

"Keep it in your bunk, Iero," Bob said without looking up.

Gerard came back out frowning, hands twitching. Mikey'd had a few since getting off the stage. Rae paused her DS and waited, but he just sat down, sketching frantically enough that she knew it would be mostly meaningless scribbling.

She forced herself to stay awake, finally giving up and getting a mug of coffee. Bob raised his eyebrows but dragged Frank back before she'd even half finished it.

"I'm that obvious, huh?"

"It was harder to tell when you were drunk and mumbling," she admitted. "Mikey?"

"Partly." Gerard tapped his pencil on the table. They'd long since given up on trying to wean him off the habit. "I've got too many ideas lately."

"Another album?"

"It's around that time, isn't it?"

Given a choice, she'd do nothing but alternate between writing and performing. She shrugged. "The label will like it. Are you going to tell the others?"

He shook his head. "I figured I'd tie them up and leave them in the studio till they got it."

Sarcasm didn't work on him any more than it did on her. "Funny."

"I thought so."

But he moved to sit with her when he extended her arm. "We'll make it better this time."

"I know. But sober -"

"You're better sober," she said firmly.

"You don't know that. Not with writing."

She was too aware of how long Gerard had been sober, how fucking careful he always was now, to lie to him. "Then show me."

He handed her his sketchbook, angling his head so his eyes were pressed into her arm. She flipped through it till she came to words scrawled around one of the sparsely drawn cartoon vampires.

"We could hire one of those guys," Gerard mumbled. "From fucking Sweden or something. Like Britney Spears did."

She recognized the meandering and imagery, but the words were different – more coherent. Better, though she knew everyone would take turns poking at them, fixing what she didn't see. "No matter how much you like singing 'Hit Me Baby' in the shower, I'm not playing that stuff onstage," she said. "Gerard, it's good."

He opened an eye to look at her, almost comic. "Yeah?"

She nodded. "Definitely."

"Because it feels weird, I'm just making shit up instead of thinking it's true when I write it, and -"

"And it's good," she said firmly. "It's better. Don't think for a second it's not."

"Okay," Gerard said, as obviously doubtful as she'd ever heard him.

He'd been passed out half on her lap for an hour when Mikey crept out to the lounge. "Fuck," he said. "You two are fucking – what, exactly?"

She held up a finger. He shut up while she extricated herself from Gerard, propping his head up with a pillow and dragging Mikey to the farthest end of the bus.

"We're not fucking anything except friends."

Mikey crossed his arms. "Why?"

"Why do you think we are? Why can't we be?" She shook her head, biting back everything she wanted to say. "You're hung over."

"Gerard not drinking doesn't mean I have to, too. I'm his little brother, not his replicate."

She forced herself to whisper. "And me being a girl doesn't mean I have to want to fuck him, okay? I'm not that person."

"You're not."

It didn't take a genius to be able to tell he was being irrational, didn't take a psychologist to know he was lashing out. It hurt anyway. "No, I'm not. And you know it."

"Maybe. You'd still be good for him."

"I can't deal with this. You're wrong."

Mikey looked unimpressed. Rae couldn't keep herself from getting angry, no matter how much she reminded herself of Mikey's issues, of how very much Gerard's little brother he really was. "Just – God, Mikey, what the hell is wrong?"

"With me? Nothing."

Stop pushing, she told herself, stop pushing, stop - "That's a lie."

She didn't know if Mikey was as pissed as she was; in the end, it didn't really matter. He shrugged and went back to her bunk, and after a second of feeling like a complete failure, she went back to the couch to prop Gerard's head up.

Dozing off was a foregone conclusion. Frank waking her up by tugging at her wrist wasn't. "Outside," he said when she grunted at him.

She followed him out, scowling at the sun, even though she knew it was plenty less disruptive than an ignored Frank would have been.

"You upset Mikey," Frank said, crossing his arms.

She blinked. "Is that a joke?"

"You did. So I want to know why."

"He told me I should be sleeping with Gerard." It was even harder to gesture at her jeans, her loose shirt, than it had been to spit the words out. "Because I'm so clearly the type."

Frank laughed; she sighed and waited.

"Wait. You're serious?"

She nodded.

"We can get a stand-in bassist if I kill him, right? Awesome," Frank said, not bothering to wait for an answer. "Jesus, if it's not one of them it's the other."

"Hopefully it won't get as bad as it did with Gerard."

It was always disconcerting to watch Frank get serious; it was a more visible change than she'd ever seen on anyone else. "It's not going to," he said. "That was too fucking bad. It can't happen again."

What he didn't say, but she heard all the same, was that they wouldn't make it through another Japan. "Gerard's going to want your opinion on some writing he's been doing," she said instead.

He unfisted his hand from his hair. "Yeah?"

She nodded. "Studio time soon."

"This band's insane."

"You love it."

Frank didn't meet her eyes. "Sometimes."

"It might help him."

"Mikey? Hopefully."

Frank's phone went off before she could answer. He waggled his fingers and went back on the bus, already texting.

Looking back, there were a hundred different things that should have told them it was a bad idea to book the Paramour, starting with that day and stretching into the end of the tour. But Gerard had grandiose plans and Rae had pages of maybe-songs and they were all excited about recording with a new drummer – and a new singer, for that matter.

"Also," Mikey said, squinting up at the house, "ghosts aren't real. Probably."

"That too. Get off my foot," Bob said, and poked Frank.

Rae picked up her bags and pushed open the door. It was nice, of course; this was the big time, where everything that might get photographed was as shiny as possible. But it felt weird, too closed-in. When she got to her room she cracked a window and pulled out her guitar almost right away, playing old songs until she felt less nervous.

It worked. She took a deep breath and set her guitar aside, going down to join the others.

They'd be okay.

||

She was right, at least at first. They spent the first few days dicking around, less because they didn't want to write and more because they already had enough material to spend a few days just hanging. They went swimming, slept, just vegged, until the afternoon of the third day when Gerard walked into the living room, face pale.

"So," he said. "The door to the studio, the one with the lock? It's wide open."

"Huh," Bob said. "You'd think they'd be more careful, considering how much the label's paying for this place."

They dropped it, but after even Mikey caved and grabbed something to eat, they wandered into the studio together, Gerard just barely leading.

"Okay, so let's -" Frank cut himself off, shivering. "Jesus, this is a shitty mansion. No wonder actual people don't live here."

"Right, because we're all mannequins." Gerard hummed under his breath. "Actually -"

"Not right now," Bob said firmly. "No more new ideas yet."

"Hey," Mikey said mildly. "If he wants to, he can."

"We did come in here for a reason." She met Mikey's eyes calmly; this was the studio. She knew this, even if they were in a new place. "We need to stick to it for tonight."

Mikey blinked. "But."

"Bob's right."

She didn't miss the way Frank's eyes moved between them. He'd been like this before, too, watching each and every inter-band connection even as they deteriorated.

Mikey, luckily, backed down. "We'll talk about it later," he told Gerard, pulling out his bass.

The night went smoothly after that. Mikey inconspicuously followed Gerard up to his room, but he didn't glare at Bob and Bob seemed to have forgotten the whole thing, so Rae let herself relax.

"I always forget how tense it is," she said.

"Writing? Yeah." Frank leaned back, closing his eyes. "This fucking house, too."

"It's probably mostly in our heads."

"Maybe. Maybe not. Either way – Mikey and Bob? Talk about least likely to get into a bitchfight."

Mikey had been making use of the minibar, too. Rae took a deep breath. "It's probably mostly in our heads," she said again.

"That's supposed to be comforting?" Frank half-smiled, shaking his head and standing up. "I'm going to go crash with the ghosts. See you tomorrow."

Rae made herself be responsible and sleep in her room; it felt too empty and too cold for her to sleep well, though. She stumbled down just before seven to make coffee, drinking a cup and taking another with her to the studio.

Bob was already there. "What the hell?" she said, and flipped on the lights.

"Couldn't sleep." He tapped the practice pad. "This house is fucking creepy."

"That's what we were going for?"

"I know. I've seen The Shining too." He made a note on the pad of paper beside him. "And I get the aesthetic. It's just, I keep turning corners and expecting to get possessed by a fucking demon or something."

She sat down on the stool opposite him. "That might be the point, at least a little."

"Yeah?"

"Gerard's never written sober. Better haunted by demons than free and clear with blank sheets of paper."

It wasn't an angle she'd told anyone she even considered, but Bob nodded slowly. "Think it'll rip the band apart the way the addictions did?"

She didn't know if it was a tech thing or a Bob thing, that ability to cut straight to the core of what she didn't want to discuss. "I hope it doesn't. I don't really want to think about it."

"Then it won't. Hopefully."

Bob had seen more bands break up than Rae had seen, period. The thought weighed heavily on her bind. "It won't," she said firmly, taking a sip of coffee.

They were alone until noon, which Rae wouldn't have minded in the slightest, except they didn't get anywhere with writing. Objectively, nothing was wrong with the riffs or the beat, but Rae hated everything they tried.

She gave up when Frank knocked on the door and said, "Hey, Mikey and Gerard are throwing spaghetti on the ceiling, so I made sandwiches. Want anything?"

Gerard was unusually quiet, and Mikey was – well. He wasn't acting off, Rae thought, but he was definitely more Mikey than usual, prone to sudden silence and creepy staring.

Rae was halfway through her sandwich when Gerard threw away his overcooked spaghetti and drew an X on his sketchpad. "I'm going exploring," he announced. "What's more inspiring than a giant fucking haunted house, right?"

"I'll go with you," Frank said immediately, hopping up.

"I'm good, thanks."

"It wasn't optional." Frank batted his eyelashes. "Ah want to be alone with you, Mr. Way."

It was completely ridiculous and, luckily, made Gerard laugh. "Christ, okay, come on. We'll ghost-hunt together."

The second they were gone, Mikey shook his head. "Not for a million dollars."

Bob rolled his eyes. "You don't really believe that shit, right?"

"I do, sometimes. What?"

"It's shit," Bob said again.

Rae wiped her hands clean and grabbed the abandoned sketchbook, flipping through it. "Maybe," she said. "Hey, Mikey, did you -"

"No."

She'd given him the basic exercises before they even flew out to LA, and he'd promised to look over them. She sighed. "Mikey."

"I've been busy. So have you," Mikey said defensively. "And it's not like I could play a complicated bass line even if I did do them, so why bother?"

It was an old argument in the same way the morning's failure was a normal irritation, but somehow the two combined was too much. "How the hell do you even know?"

For her, it was flying off the handle; Bob raised his eyebrows. "Rae?"

"Answer the question, Mikey," she said, stubbornly ignoring both Bob and the blush creeping over her own face.

But Mikey just stared at the table sullenly. "Because they're my fingers."

"That doesn't even make sense," Rae said. She was pretty much failing at not being angry.

"It does to me," Mikey said.

A thump came from upstairs. She glanced up before remembering Frank and Gerard. "You know practice helps," she said.

Mikey reached into his pocket and took out his Sidekick. "I don't get service."

"That's the point," Bob said quietly, before Rae could chastise him for straying from the subject again.

"Yeah," Mikey said. "Well. That's the point."

He set his phone on the counter and left the room, shoulders hunched.

"I'm an asshole," Rae said after a second of too-full silence.

"Not much of one." Bob shrugged. "Seriously, you don't rent out a haunted fucking studio without expecting this kind of thing to go on, do you?"

"You just said it was shit. The haunting stuff, I mean."

Watching Bob right then was like watching him before any of them had learned Bob-ese, the quirks and tiny movements that meant Bob was who he was. Or, more accurately, it was like watching a wax Bob figurine: he was impossible to read. "It doesn't really matter. If we believe it – and even I do, a little, it's human fucking nature – it'll fuck with us."

"Mentioning something Mikey promised he'd do isn't fucking with him," Rae said immediately.

"Isn't it?" Bob shrugged. "Hey, fuck if I know. You're just not usually the type to push."

"Maybe I should," Rae said unthinkingly. "Maybe that's what they need."

"Maybe," Bob said. "Or maybe you'll be the catalyst that tears the band apart."

It felt like a physical blow. "You should stop talking."

Bob looked surprised – at himself or Rae, she didn't know. "Fucking house," he said finally.

She just nodded in agreement.

||

"Maybe it's because we forgot to knock on wood."

Mikey blinked at Frank. "Huh?"

Frank twisted his hand around his fret hard enough to make Rae wince. "We were all talking about how this was going to work out. Maybe it's not because we forgot to knock on wood."

"We've only been here a week," Bob said. "And it's supposed to be haunted with ghosts, not luck demons or what the fuck ever."

"What if knocking on wood keeps ghosts from doing shitty things?" Gerard tapped his pencil. "It's not impossible."

"It is seriously unlikely, though," Rae said.

Mikey yawned, foot twitching. He'd sat down two hours ago and rested his head on Frank's shoulder, and he'd barely moved since then. "Are we done?"

"We haven't done anything." Rae played a few chords, then shook her head. "There's something there, I can feel it. We just have to keep going."

"I'm pretty tired," Gerard said.

"We just - what?"

He shrugged. "The storm last night kept me up."

Frank turned to look at the sunny skies outside, then turned back to look at Gerard, then looked outside again. "It didn't storm, man."

"Yeah, it did. There was crashing and shit. I could hear stuff hitting the windows." Gerard looked around at them. "Didn't it?"

Rae had slept soundly. "If it was, I missed it."

"I was awake all night." Mikey's voice was quiet enough that they had to lean in to hear it. "It didn't storm, Gee."

Gerard put his notebook down and stood up. He looked pale, disturbed: as close to gone as Rae had seen in a long time. "I'm going to go outside," he said.

She exchanged glances with the others, and each of them made an aborted move to stand, too. In the end, no one followed him.

"It could've been a dream," Frank said abruptly. He hopped off the couch, ignoring the way Mikey slumped down horizontally. "I mean, it was a dream. It had to be, right? We would've heard a storm."

"Mikey would've," Bob said. "I sleep like a rock."

"I do normally, but my bed's pretty shitty." Frank made a face. "Seriously, this is the worst mansion in LA."

They lapsed back into silence, until finally Rae stood up. "I'm going to go get Gerard. We should eat together."

"Why?" Mikey said.

"Because ghosts aren't real, but we're freaking out anyway."

He wavered a little when he stood up. "I'll come with you."

Gerard was sitting with his toes just barely touching the pool water. Rae stayed back; the odds of her actually drowning in the pool were pretty low, but it was the last thing she wanted to risk in a not-haunted house.

"I heard you last night," he said, looking directly at Mikey.

Mikey turned red. "I just couldn't sleep."

Rae took a step back, as quietly as she could.

"You were fucking – Jesus, Mikey. If you need your phone -"

"No." Mikey's voice was too high and his hands were clenched into fists, but he sounded certain. "That was the deal, remember? No cell phones."

Gerard held out a hand. Mikey went to sit with him, but not close enough to touch. "Tell me what's going on in there, Mikes."

Mikey shook his head. "Nothing. I'm just having trouble sleeping, I. That's all. That's it."

Nothing had a hold on her but Rae felt pulled anyway, taking another step back and then another, and another, until she was inside the house again.

She flicked on the lights and watched dust motes float down from one of the over-elaborate chandeliers. Wires snaked around the baseboards, the equipment looking bizarre against the old-fashioned furniture. "I don't think we know what we're doing," she told one of the paintings, but she sat down in an overstuffed chair anyway, watching Mikey and Gerard out the window.

Frank poked his head in a few minutes after Gerard and Mikey left the side of the pool. "I'm going to look for secret passageways and shit people left behind. Want to come?"

Rae raised her eyebrows, standing up. "You're that scared to explore alone?"

He flipped her off. "Fuck off, I could get eaten by a wall or something."

"Terrifying danger." She waved a hand. "Lead the way."

Frank's idea of exploring mostly consisted of sticking his head into rooms and then wandering on. The mansion was simply laid out but somehow exhausting to walk through. They kept taking hallways that ended in empty rooms, or opening doors and finding cluttered closets.

"It's a – what's it called?" Frank made faces at one of the too-numerous portraits. "Not a crypt. The other one."

"Mausoleum?"

He snapped his fingers. "That's the one. Oh, hey."

The new door opened to a narrow staircase. "Sweet," Frank said, and started running up it.

Rae rolled her eyes and followed. The stairs were wood; with their luck, she thought, they'd turn out to be rotten and collapse and they'd die in a viper pit or something.

But in the end she stopped two stairs below Frank, staring at the wall the stairs led straight into.

"Fucking remodeling," Frank said, but his voice was shaky.

The lights flickered; the stairwell was cold. It was the norm for the house, but Rae found herself turning around anyway. "Come on," she said.

Frank grabbed her hand and tumbled after her. They didn't quite run, but they came close.

||

"Mikey's having problems," Gerard said quietly. He glanced uneasily at the others, not quite out of earshot, then lowered his voice further. "He keeps talking about his room. It's..."

"Creepy?"

"Everything is. But no, he." Gerard stopped, biting his lip.

She leaned against the refrigerator, deliberately blocking his view of the rest of the band. "Gerard."

"He says there's a blue light in his room," Gerard said, almost too quickly for Rae to make it out.

She blinked. "Um. A light where there shouldn't be, I'm guessing?"

"I told you. Problems."

The house wasn't haunted. She knew it wasn't. She was creeped out all the same. "What're we going to do?"

"There's nothing we can do, is there? I guess he'll sleep on the couch."

Rae nodded. "So. Composing."

"Composing," Gerard said, nodding hard.

It was two weeks and a day in, and they still hadn't come up with anything of substance. "Hopefully we'll be luckier today."

They were, in a way. They hadn't had a day where anything flowed right since stepping foot in the mansion, and it was making them snappish, the normal band comfort replaced by insane levels of friction. Today, though, they thought of things in fits and starts, twenty minutes of flawless work followed by two hours of nothing.

"This one's useless, though," she said, poking 'Shut Up And Play'. "Best case scenario is we get people asking us about the Dixie Chicks."

"We could rename it," Mikey said casually.

Bob shook his head before Ray could even answer. "It's too...something. Doesn't fit the album."

"What we want the album to be." Frank looked over at Mikey apologetically. "He's right, though. Sorry."

She'd only seen Mikey this obviously frustrated a few times. "Keep it for awhile," he said. "It's a good song. We'll find a place for it."

Rae opened her mouth to argue, but Gerard cut her off. "For now," he told Mikey.

"We've already played it live." Mikey's face was flushed, his voice too loud. "It'll be on the CD."

"Okay." Frank's voice was calm, but Mikey shook the hand on his arm off anyway.

"It'll be on the CD."

"We don't need to argue about this now," Rae said firmly. "Let's just fix the chorus, okay?"

They made almost no progress. Rae wanted nothing more than to go to bed, but instead she picked up a book and read it aimlessly, barely comprehending half the words. There was nothing wrong with her room, really, especially not if what Mikey and Gerard were saying was true; still, she didn't want to be the first to give up and leave.

At two AM, Bob finally stood up. "I'm not making breakfast again, assholes," he said, and left.

She put her book down and flinched: Mikey was staring at her, creepily still.

"Goodnight," she said, and left for her room.

She hadn't had a dream she remembered since they came to the mansion, so she didn't know why she woke up with the half-finished chorus running through her head. She'd have to talk to Gerard, then, even if the thought of bringing up that song again made her cringe.

By the time she managed to make it down the stairs for coffee, the rainy gray drizzle she'd woken up to was a slightly brighter rainy gray drizzle. Gerard was the only one up, sitting on the couch with two blankets on top of him and a notebook on his knees.

She drank the first cup as quickly as she could, wincing when it burned her tongue. "You're naked under there, aren't you."

Gerard looked shifty. "Maybe."

She rolled her eyes and shook her head, getting another cup. "Is this working, do you think?"

"My sleep's for shit." Gerard shrugged. "I have bad dreams. I've drawn more monsters in the past two weeks than in two months touring."

"So. Yes, basically."

Gerard nodded. "On my end, anyway."

She sat down next to him, poking her feet under the blankets. "Mikey's..."

"Important," he said defensively. "He never fucking gets it while we're writing, but he is."

She picked at the blanket, not looking up at Gerard. "You think I don't know that? But he's messed up right now."

"He's fine," Gerard snapped. "Jesus, you don't have to babysit us."

That was enough to jolt her. "I didn't think I was."

"If you keep worrying, everything's gonna fall apart. He'll be fine. He has insomnia, that's all. He'll be fucking fine."

Her stomach unknotted, because she understood this, could deal with it. "Gerard," she said. When he shook his head, she grabbed his notebook.

The tiny, sad figures sitting at the end of shadowy hallways and at the bottom of too-deep pits didn't look much like Mikey, but something about the angles of his limbs and the way his face was downturned left Rae with no doubt that every single one was him. "Jesus," she said.

"This fucking house," Gerard said.

"It's not just the house," Bob said quietly from the doorway.

"Well, no. Ghosts don't exist."

"Not what I meant. Jesus, Way, put some clothes on." He sat down in the chair opposite them. "We're all off. Just, completely. We're gonna write outside today."

"I thought you said it wasn't the house," Gerard said.

"It's not." Bob shrugged. "It's how we're thinking about it."

Rae couldn't explain why she didn't like the idea. "There's no studio outside."

"When'd you turn into such a fucking princess, Toro?"

It was a worryingly good question. She shut her mouth.

Just when they were about to go as a group up to Frank and Mikey's rooms, Frank came into the room, tugging Mikey along after him.

"We're going outside," Frank announced.

Gerard laughed. It was tense, almost hysterical; when Frank raised his eyebrows questioningly, he just shook his head. "Let's go."

Something about the way Mikey attached himself to Gerard's side made Rae hang back. Frank waited until they'd gone out before pressing his face into Bob's shoulder.

"He fucking slept on Gerard's floor last night," he said. "He came in to tell me."

"His room's not haunted," Rae said. "It's just...it can't be. It's not. Right?"

"He thinks it is." Frank glanced around the room. "And honestly, I don't know."

"This is ridiculous."

"Damn right it is." Bob pulled away from Frank. "Just...fuck, come on. Even if the house is haunted, the lawn can't be."

She wasn't completely convinced, but she followed them out anyway.

After three hours of sitting in the grass, Rae carried back an almost-completed song and a sheet of paper with "the five of us are dying" written in Gerard's shitty handwriting over and over again. The song wasn't cheerful and it needed a lot of work, but it was better than nothing.

She went to sleep that night and tried not to think about the way Mikey's shoulders had slumped the second he stepped back inside the house.

||

It wasn't a dream, because dreams weren't this sharp or this indefinite; she never dreamed in whispered words.

Just a sad song with nothing to say

Rae woke with a start. Three weeks in, the fourth time with that not-dream, and instead of seeing an empty room, she was looking Mikey in the eye.

She didn't scream, but it was a near thing. "What. The fuck," she whispered, hands clenched in the sheets.

"You listened," Mikey said. He didn't sound pissed, just...empty. Almost desperate. "Listen again, Rae, just listen."

"It's three AM! We already decided!"

His eyes narrowed. "It's important. You have to."

"I don't have to." She could smell him, she realized. She hadn't showered in days, but for him it would've been weeks. He was gaunt where he'd been too thin, and the words – he was still fucking mouthing them. "Mikey, just stop. What are you doing?"

"It said -" He shook his head. "Nothing. Just, nothing. You have to. This house, Rae, it's fucking with everything. The song, me. We have to."

She scrambled mentally for something, anything, to say to him that would make him the Mikey she knew again. "When was the last time you slept?"

That got her a shoulder twitch. "It doesn't matter. I'm okay."

"Mikey."

"It doesn't fucking matter, Rae!" She recoiled as his eyes bugged out, his voice moving from whispering to yelling. "You're not fucking listening! None of you are!"

She could take him. Hell, she could break him in half if it came to that, but she desperately didn't want it to. "Listen to yourself, Mikey. You're not okay."

"Not okay, not okay." He fisted a hand in his hair. "That song was fucking bullshit, that whole fucking record was fucking bullshit, we're in this house going crazy and you can't even listen to me when I say the song's important. What the fuck? I should just leave."

"Mikey -"

"I should just leave," he said again, and ran out of the room.

Every nerve in her body was screaming at her to follow him. She couldn't make herself move.

||

"Where's Mikey?" Frank said the next day.

"Sleeping, I hope." Rae bit her lip. "Hey, have you been having any weird dreams lately?"

Frank nodded. "I've had that song of his on my mind. The one he wants us to keep."

She felt like ice was settling in the pit of her stomach. "Oh."

Frank scratched the not-quite-beard forming on his chin. "He's not in his room."

"Mikey?"

Frank nodded. "Gerard, on the other hand, won't leave his."

"Where's Bob?"

"Studio. He was there all night."

They were falling apart. She didn't need to say it for both of them to know it. "How much longer can we keep this up, do you think?"

Frank took a gulp of coffee. "...I thought about quitting for six months before Japan. So awhile, probably."

That was as comforting as knowing the specter screaming at her last night hadn't been a ghost, but her bassist. "Right."

||

They didn't see Gerard the entire day and half of the next. She and Bob were playing the quietest, most subdued version of 'Helena' imaginable when a scream ripped through the house.

It was too loud to be real, but before they even had a chance to say anything, Frank was barreling into the room. "Did you hear that? You heard that."

"Gerard," Bob said, standing up.

They'd left him alone – which was stupid, Rae realized, mentally slapping herself and throwing the door open.

Mikey was curled up against the farthest wall, arms around his knees. "He won't stop," he said, nodding to Gerard.

Gerard's eyes were closed but he was screaming loudly enough to make Rae's ears ring, voice cracking and coming back raw. His back was arched, and his neck...

He was clawing at his neck, face getting redder and redder.

"Fuck," Rae said, racing over to the bed. Bob beat her to it, slamming his hands down on Gerard's shoulders and shaking him hard.

"Gerard, snap out of it," she said loudly, holding onto his legs.

He abruptly went limp, eyes rolling back in his head. "Stop," he whispered, voice hoarse.

"What happened?" Frank said. When Gerard didn't answer, he turned to Mikey's corner. "Mikey, can –"

But Mikey had already left.

"Shit," Frank said. He made an abortive attempt to move, then stopped. "Rae, can you get him?"

It wasn't a choice she'd known she would make until he told her to. "I don't want to leave."

Frank closed his eyes and kept them closed almost long enough for Rae to worry. "He's not going to talk to me," he said finally, looking at her. "We've got Gerard."

She'd run out of things to say; Frank knew Mikey better than she did and her conscience was already nagging at her. "Fine," she said. "Tell me where to look, at least?"

He didn't even stop to think. "The studio."

The studio, where her notes for the new song that she definitely hadn't discussed with Mikey were. Right.

She broke into a run. In the end it was anticlimactic, though, because Mikey was sitting in an armchair and calmly rifling through some papers.

"Hi," he said, not looking up.

She sighed in relief. "Mikey."

"This is interesting."

And just like that, she was back to nerve-wracking fear. "What is?"

"This is a bass line." Mikey tapped the paper. "But, you know. I'm not good enough to play it."

The song was about cancer. Rae hadn't been able to get the bass part out of her head. "It's not a question of skill, it's written like a guitar part."

"Stop playing dumb. It's a fucking bass line I can't play, Rae." His tone was as harsh as his words, but he looked ready to cry. "Why the fuck did you write it like that?"

"I had to," she said. "That was just...it was what we came up with, Mikey. It doesn't mean anything."

"It means there's an important song I'm not going to be able to play."

"We can teach you."

Mikey rolled his eyes. "Yeah, sure. I got fucking great last time."

"You did." She couldn't stop herself from sounding desperate, unable to stop focusing on the way Mikey's hands shook, crinkling the paper. "You learned, you can learn more. Or I can play it, if I need to."

"And I'll what? Just – Jesus. You could've told me if I wasn't good enough."

"You are. Just because you don't know it doesn't mean you're not."

"No." He threw the papers down, shoulders braced as he stood. "No. Just shut the fuck up, Rae. I get that I'm not good enough. Shut the fuck up."

"You're not listening," she said frantically. "Mikey, God, you know what this band means to me. Just stop and listen to yourself."

It wasn't Mikey who turned to look at her – not the Mikey she knew, anyway. He looked vicious, completely out of it. "Everyone was right." He laughed. "Do us both a favor and get out, Rae."

The studio – any studio – had always been hers, both to her and to the band. Right now, though, she felt completely unwelcome.

Mikey was carefully tearing up her notes when she backed out of the room.

||

The days blurred together after that.

Gerard wouldn't leave his room except at night when he thought the rest of them were sleeping; Mikey alternated between sleeping on Gerard's floor and going insane in his own space. Frank had gone back to the quiet, tense mood he'd held for months when Gerard was at his worst. And Bob...

"It's not haunted," Bob said, even when doors slammed on their own and Gerard woke up from night terrors night after night. "It's fucking not."

Rae just tried and failed to write, spending her days and nights playing wrong notes and writing bad riffs.

"We're gonna stick this out," Gerard said. He had bags under his eyes and his hands were covered in bruises; it had been a bad few nights. "This fucking house isn't gonna beat us."

"Mikey?"

"Mikey, too."

"I haven't seen him," she said. She tried the chords again, shaking her head and biting her lip hard when it didn't work. "Gerard, we can't do this."

"We can. You'll get it, Rae, just give it time."

She shook her head. "We're breaking apart. You know we are. How're we going to be a band if we don't have a bassist?"

"Don't fucking say that," Gerard said fiercely. "Don't. Don't."

Gerard was scared too, then. She closed her mouth and went back to fighting to make the music work.

She took her guitar up to her room that night. She tried to keep music out of any place the others weren't; they'd been in the house long enough that paranoia was cropping up around them, filling them with sets of superstitions and nervous tics that Rae knew were ridiculous even as she adhered to them. But something about today was making her feel even more on the edge than usual; something, she knew, had to give. Tonight, it would be her.

Trying at her own music would have been beyond useless. She played Metallica instead, quiet and subdued enough that, comforting though it was, she knew it sounded terrible.

She hadn't expected just-a-girl to ever stop dogging her steps. Tits and everything that came with them were what she was – except with this band. The secret she'd never stop keeping was that My Chem ending would break her heart, both because they were her best friends and because she knew she wouldn't find another band that would act like that, be what they were to and for her.

It was tempting to blame failing now on being a girl. Plenty of people would. But it wasn't, Rae thought, playing a little more quickly; it was just something wrong with her, her brain and her fingers. She'd lost the music. If the band ended and she went back to being just-a-girl on the edges of the scene, if they broke apart in this house, she'd have only herself to blame.

That thought stayed with her, keeping her awake through the night.

||

It wasn't the house, except maybe it was, because that morning Rae was nursing coffee and thinking desperately about sleep, and Mikey came down and said quietly, "I need to use the phone."

The four of them froze. "What?" Frank said finally, barely over a whisper.

"I can't," Mikey said. "Staying, it's not -" He bent his head, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. "I can't stay."

Gerard's mouth was working uselessly and Rae should say something, she knew she should, but she couldn't make a sound.

It was Bob who said, quietly and somehow more frantic than Rae had thought he'd ever be, "Mikey, wait. Think about this. Don't."

"I'm not leaving the band. That's why I have to go. I can't stay here." He looked up at them and Rae gripped her spoon tightly enough to hurt, because he looked as strung out as she'd ever seen. "It might not be haunted, but I can't be here either way. It's driving me insane."

"Okay," Frank said. He took a deep breath. "Okay, Mikey. You want us there when you call?"

Mikey shook his head. "I'm going to see if Brian will help me out. I can find another place to crash, it'll be okay."

Gerard took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I want a drink," he said.

"Don't joke."

He met Mikey's eyes. "I'm not."

Bob put a hand on Gerard's lower back. It probably wasn't holding him up, Rae thought, but she could tell that Gerard was leaning into it, harder when Mikey stood.

"I'll be back in a minute."

They didn't move or talk until Mikey came back. "Brian can't help," he said. "I'm going to stay with Stacey."

"You're sure?" Frank said.

He nodded. "They're gonna have someone come for my stuff. She told me to sit outside."

Frank stood and went over to Mikey, hugging him. "Okay."

"I just need some time." He looked at Rae. "Please. Just some time, that's all."

And just like that, she broke. "Time? Fucking time – we came here for a reason, Mikey." She knew she was being irrational, knew it was wrong, but she still couldn't stop herself from standing, yelling. "Do you even fucking care? Are you so stupid and self-centered that you're just going to walk away? Fuck you too, then. Fuck you."

"That's enough," Bob said, pushing her down. Gerard and Frank were both staring at her; Mikey'd taken enough steps back to be almost against the wall, eyes wide.

"I'm gonna go," Mikey said, and left. The others moved away from her, huddled together.

She wanted to move. She couldn't.

||

The rest of the day was a blur. She hadn't expected to fail like this, hadn't realized they'd fall apart this way. She couldn't stop thinking about Mikey and the music and everything, and no matter how many times she told herself it wasn't the end, she was sure it was anyway.

She didn't watch Mikey leave.

Going up to her room that night didn't even occur to her. She paced in the studio and then set off down the hallway, grabbing her guitar on the way.

Mikey, Mikey, MikeyMikeyMikey. She'd failed him and the band, and everything from her footsteps to the sound the light made when she turned it on reminded her.

She sat in a random empty room and played uselessly until she got too tired to hold her guitar up. A few hours after dozing off she woke up to the sun shining in her eyes, completely wrong against the background of the twisted, fucked up fucking house.

Two weeks passed and Mikey only called once. They didn't discuss him coming back, didn't talk about him at all; Rae left her guitar in the practice room more and more, playing her DS and sleeping and trying not to think about the album she was sure would never be finished. Gerard – Gerard was stronger than the rest of them, in some ways. He was as lost as they were, walking out to the pool and talking about drowning, wandering the basement and whispering to ghosts, but he never lost himself.

Frank did. "I should leave the band," he said quietly. Rae didn't turn around to look at him. "Is there a band to leave? I thought about it so much before, I should've just..."

She walked away.

||

She kept walking until her feet carried her to the practice room. There was the thinnest film of dust on her guitar, and she winced when she picked it up.

D minor was the key Gerard was best in and the key she had the most trouble playing in; it was fitting for tonight. She played aimlessly, letting her fingers and mind wander, feeling for something – anything – to make her stop thinking about Mikey and all the failure filling the place he'd left.

"Hey," Gerard said quietly.

She jumped. "Jesus. Don't."

He moved to sit down across from her. "It's not really haunted."

"Maybe." She kept her gaze down, so the papers pushed into her line of sight surprised her. "What's this?"

"Not a song. Not yet."

She skimmed it. "I...okay. Hang on."

Gerard moved away while she looked over it, her mind tentatively working along the old path, noting where the chorus would need tweaking, filling in the lyrical blanks as best as she could. "This is interesting," she said.

"It's the only thing I have anymore." Gerard strummed a chord, a little clumsy. "Feels like we're never gonna get out of here."

"Mikey wants us to stay together."

"You think we can? This worthless fucking band..."

She wanted to protest, but his fingers slipped and the chord that came out was – "Wait."

Gerard froze.

"You..." She played it on her own guitar. "I'm sorry." She played a second chord, humming. "I was wrong."

"Mikey'll come back. He has to." Gerard grabbed the paper. "Rae – if we..." he trailed a finger along it, humming. "Do you think -"

"Maybe." It was working. "Go down to F?"

"A chorus, yeah."

It was working.

||

Gerard fell asleep on the couch after a few hours, but Rae was nowhere near ready to be done. She took her guitar outside and sat by the pool, playing nonsense interspersed with the song they'd just been working on. It was already amazingly far along, and she couldn't stop herself from tweaking it, making it even better.

It was addictive. She'd been blocked for so long that playing her guitar, though she'd held it every day for God only knew how long, felt like finally coming home.

After awhile, she turned back to look up at the house. She'd been afraid of it for what felt like forever; even now, it gave her the creeps. But it wasn't the kind of thing she had to hide from or ignore. Not now.

She'd never tell anyone about it, because it both felt and sounded stupid, playing to a house. She doubted the house, whether or not it was actually haunted, cared about any of the defiant chords she came up with. This was about her, about playing again and feeling like she was actually saying something when she did.

When she finally got tired enough that she had to sit down in the grass, leaning against an old lawn chair, she didn't take her guitar out of her lap.

||

"That's an interesting look for you," Bob said the next morning. "Very poetic."

She cracked an eye open. "Huh?"

He nodded to the guitar. "The hell were you getting up to, Toro?"

"Oh, shit." She wiped it off, wincing at small collection of dew from where she'd slumped and let part of it touch the grass. "Just playing."

"Outside? In the middle of the night?"

"Yeah, it was stupid. Well, awesome." She strummed a bit, grinning at the look on Bob's face. "You know how it is."

"Not so much, lately. Gerard?"

"We jammed a bit last night." She yawned; her eyes didn't want to stay open right now. "Successfully. It was something else."

"Share with the class?" Bob asked.

She nodded. "Let's go inside. Frank'll want to see, too."

Frank bounded down to the practice room just as Gerard was starting to twitch on the couch and mutter threats at them. "What's going on?"

"We've got something, maybe," Rae said, handing their notes over.

"But – oh shit." Frank's eyes widened. Bob looked over his shoulder, making impressed noises. "You sure?"

Gerard grunted and nodded.

"And Mikey?" Bob said quietly.

Rae stared at her feet for a second before the memory of playing to the house came back. She looked up instead, meeting Bob's eyes. "Can play that bass part."

No one really initiated the hug; the four of them just moved closer until they were pressed together. "It's okay," Frank said, his nose poking Rae's boobs. "It's okay."

||

Mikey showed up on the doorstep of the house three days later. Rae hung back, still not looking at him, but she heard the grimace in his voice when he said, "This house."

"Not the greatest idea we ever had," Gerard said dryly. "Hey, Mikes."

She didn't realize he was hugging everyone until he touched her arm. "Rae?"

"I'm sorry," she said. "It was – I'm sorry."

He touched her chin, and she looked up at him. His eyes looked better, brighter.

"I'm seeing a shrink now," he said, half-smiling. "They're gonna put me on meds."

"That's good. That's really good."

"Yeah." He dropped his arms, tilting his head.

She gave up and moved in, hugging him tight. "We wrote a few things. A song, finished the others. The cancer one, it's good. But we're not sure."

"It can stay. Like me, hopefully."

She sighed, nodded. "Can't have a band without you. Without any of us."

"Right." Mikey stepped back. "So. The practice room?"

"The practice room," Gerard said.

||

Mikey left after an informal dinner. Rae removed herself to one of the less-used rooms, settling down in a chair to play Donkey Kong.

"Hey," Bob said, sitting down next to her.

She'd wanted to be alone, but there was no way she was going to say it right now. "Hey."

"You okay?"

"Mikey is. That's what's important."

Bob nodded. "It got bad for a while. I don't know what we're going to tell people."

"We could always just go on and on about how haunted it was. It would fit our theme."

That got a snort out of him. "You're sure we wouldn't be telling the truth?"

She looked up, surprised. He held her gaze calmly.

"You didn't seem too haunted," she said finally.

"It's different for me." Bob cleared his throat, looking down. "I'm not sure if I've got more or less to lose."

They'd had variants on this conversation a few times before. "The same amount. You're part of us."

"Not from the beginning, though. It's not like I want it to, but I know it matters."

"You were with us almost as long as Frank," Rae said. "You just didn't play drums."

It was obvious he didn't believe her, but he smiled a bit anyway. "The point is, I was fucking close to falling apart along with the rest of you."

She hunched her shoulders, an echo of the old overwhelming fear coming back. It was no wonder they'd almost broken, feeling that tense. "We're still a band, though. We did it."

"Not just yet."

But the house had been quieter, Gerard's dreams easier. They had a song Rae knew they all hummed bits of when closing their eyes and walking down too-long hallways. "Yeah. We did."

"You're an idealist," Bob said, but he sat with her anyway.

||

It was probably a good thing that they didn't find out about Brian going to rehab until leaving the house. Of course, Rae knew damn good and well that was why he hadn't told them. "You should punch him," she told Frank.

"Oh, right." Mikey pushed the glasses he'd told them he'd be ditching up on his nose. "He said no beating up. Group hugs are okay, though."

"Punching someone isn't beating them up, technically," Gerard said.

"Fucking Schechter." Bob shook his head. "We're flying him out, right?"

"Already bought a ticket," Mikey said. He touched his glasses again. "I'm going to miss these."

"They fit you," Rae said absently, distracted by the total absence of her phone in all her bags.

He blinked at her, lips curving up in a smile. "Thanks."

"Uh-huh. Found it!" She dialed Brian's number, matching Mikey's smile.

And really, every member of the band was a complete sap, so she didn't know why Frank was rolling his eyes.

"Don't start," Brian said in greeting. They piled on him instead, each of them jostling to hug him as tight as possible.

"I got you a producer," Brian mumbled at them. "And a studio date. While detoxing. Thank me."

"You're amazing," Mikey said, sounding what was still surprisingly happy.

"Good. You won't complain when I tell you it's tomorrow, then."

They all groaned in tandem, but Rae didn't doubt for a second that they were just as excited as she was.

||

"Rae Toro," Rae said, holding out her hand.

"Rob Cavallo." He looked her up and down. "You're the lead guitarist?"

Howard had done almost the same thing, but Rae had been younger then, less sure of herself – not just her position in the band, but her position as a person who'd helped make the band big. "Lead guitarist and primary composer."

He raised his eyebrows. She know that look of surprise, had seen it dozens of times over the past few years. Sometimes it was followed by mocking. Luckily, this time he settled easily, nodding at her. "Let's make a record."

||

It was easier than she'd thought it would be. She spent a little too much time worrying people would say they were trying to be Queen, but it was a solid record, and she was proud.

Gerard led them straight into the theatric lunacy. Dyed hair, uniforms – "Ugly uniforms," Frank muttered, but Rae thought they were okay – the whole nine yards.

The tangled mess that was the Paramour had almost made her forget how much she loved playing, both for the crowd and with her band. The new songs gave her a little more wiggle room, and she used it, tearing up the solos while Frank thrashed and Gerard pranced. They were making something big here, and it felt amazing.

Having Gerard chase after her with a makeup pad, however, felt less awesome. "Seriously, Gee, I'm not wearing your crazy face paint."

"We're going to be skulls! It's thematic!"

"It's crazy and will probably give me zits."

"It'll definitely give me zits," Mikey said mournfully.

"But it looks good on you. It's going to look shitty on me."

"Come on, Rae. Don't be a spoilsport."

She wasn't planning on giving in, but Gerard was actually pouting at her, and Mikey looked morose under the five tons of greasepaint. "Fine," she said grudgingly.

It made her look completely ridiculous, but Gerard was even more hilariously flamboyant than usual and the crowd loved it, so Rae just kept her head down and played as best as she could. She saw Mikey looking over at her a few times, face paint making his expression unreadable.

The show wound up being more than okay. Gerard helped her get the paint off afterwards, grinning giddily. "Not that I want to do it every night, but that was fun."

"At least you didn't stick me in a skirt or anything," Rae said without thinking.

Gerard went still. "I didn't – shit. But I made everyone dress weird. Tell me it wasn't like that. Was it?"

She shook her head. "If it was, you wouldn't be asking right now."

He hugged her briefly before going to attack everyone else with cold crème.

"There you are," Mikey said, not even a minute later.

She blinked up at him. "Um. Yes?"

He touched her nose. "I meant, you now. Hi to your skin."

Restraining her laughter was a near-heroic effort. "Hi to yours."

"Yours is nicer," Mikey said, but there was none of the old self-deprecation in his tone. Neither the pills nor the Lasik had completely fixed him, but they'd gone a long way towards turning him into the Mikey Rae suspected he didn't know his band had seen all along anyway.

"Thanks, Rico Suave." She rolled her eyes playfully. "Hey, have you heard from Alicia lately?"

"She's touring with Avenged Sevenfold."

"It's really too bad her taste in music sucks so hard. I would've let her court you, otherwise."

The blush was pure Old Mikey. "Yeah, well. Apparently she's having fun being a label hellion. She's got more status now."

"Tell her to come back on tour and bully us. Or actually, I will, I've got her number."

"She told me to bug you about it. You're bad at phones."

"She should know by now. I'm estranged from half of Jersey."

"That's Jersey's fault, not yours," Mikey said, bumping his shoulder into hers. "But you'll keep in touch with me, right?"

"If we ever get off time."

Mikey looked down. "Um. Right, yeah. That."

Except not, clearly. "Mikey? What aren't you telling me?"

"I just figured Gerard would've said." He lifted his head, but focused more on her shoulder than her face. "I'm thinking about taking a break."

No. "No."

"Not permanently. Not even semi. Just a few months." He finally looked up; this wasn't new or old Mikey, but just Mikey, the one who remembered the Paramour and was trying by his own admission to fix himself. "Cortez said he'd sub. I just need a little time."

He looked too nervous, like he thought she'd really say no if he needed something. "You'd better call."

The corner of his mouth quirked. "You, too."

||

They went out the next night. Nothing major, just dinner at a local place that didn't mind a band cramming into one of their booths and ordering the huge sampler platters. It was one of the luxuries they'd dreamed about back in the van days, and Rae never really got tired of it.

She was squashed next to Mikey this time, with Frank half on her lap. Frank was over-enthusiastically telling a story about Jamia and a roadside carnival while Mikey made long-suffering faces.

"And then we rode the Ferris wheel and I groped her! It was awesome. Oh god."

"Oh yum," Rae corrected, picking up her burger.

Frank scrambled against the wall. "Your life decisions are invalid," he said, pushing hard.

She always forgot what a strong little asshole he was. He slid down, Mikey slid up, and suddenly Rae was trying to eat with a Way straddling her thigh.

"You're going to get beat up some day, Frank," Mikey said, and stole the pickles off Rae's plate.

And it wasn't anything, really. It never was. Rae had gone from being the ugly kid in high school to the slightly less ugly (if too muscled to be pretty) guitarist, and she was attracted to people all the time, she just didn't think about it much.

Just, Mikey was on her thigh and he was sucking pickle juice off a finger, and Rae stared and her thoughts slipped, and suddenly she couldn't stop blushing.

"What?" Mikey said. He was almost as red as she was. "I like pickles."

"You also like dead animals," Frank said, face still pressed against the wall. "Heathen."

"Hey, pass the salt."

Rae looked up, startled. Gerard and Bob were on the other side; Bob was doing the weird thing where he hunched over his plate like he thought one of them would Bogart his fries, but Gerard was looking straight at her. She knew he'd seen.

She handed the salt over wordlessly, bracing herself for the lecture she knew would come later that night.

||

"Rae motherfucking Toro, you're hiding from me."

"If I was hiding, I'd do it someplace less obvious," she said, leaning back against a bus wheel. "The bus is just smellier than usual."

"Uh-huh." He moved to stand next to her. "You know, it'd almost be easier to say this onstage."

"Please don't."

"My brother's a hotass," Gerard said easily. "It's better if it's you than someone who's not you."

She hadn't realized till right then how much she didn't want to have this conversation. "Right, well. You've seen who he goes for."

Gerard frowned. "It's you."

"And it's Mikey. Gerard, come on, it's not going to happen. Just stop, okay?"

She forgot sometimes how stubbornly Gerard clung to the idea that things had to be good for his friends – not even good, really, but how they wanted it to be. "But –"

"Gerard."

His shoulders slumped. "You'd be good for him."

Yeah, probably. She winced. "Look, not that I don't love you guys, but taking care of someone isn't really my ideal romantic relationship, you know? And breaking up would suck."

"He'd be good for you, too."

She couldn't argue that, both because she knew it was true and because the knowledge ate at her. "Knowing you this well can get annoying, you know."

He didn't answer, just moved closer and leaned his head on her shoulder. If he had answered, he'd have called her a liar, and they both knew it.

||

She'd always thought about getting a tattoo, in the quiet maybe-someday kind of way she figured a lot of people did. Realistically, though, she was the very opposite of people like Frank: she always thought about it, but never took any steps towards actually getting one.

The impetus both was and wasn't Mikey going away. Frank had taken breaks before when he got sick, but none of them had ever actually taken a hiatus before, and scared though part of her was that Mikey's hiatus would somehow turn permanent, she was mostly just proud that they'd gotten to the point where they were smart enough and enough of a band to take breaks instead of just falling apart.

"But needles," Gerard said when she told them.

She rolled her eyes. "Not all of us have your terror, Gerard. And it'll be an experience."

"I know a guy, I think," Frank said. He frowned. "What state are we in?"

"We're in Denver, dumbass," Bob said.

Frank snapped his fingers. "Fuck you, Bryar, because I really do know a guy. Or girl, actually. I can't remember."

"Do I want to know?"

"His name's Leslie. Her name? I wasn't drunk, though, he doesn't do drunk people. He's quality."

"It's not going to be big enough to really matter," Rae said.

"You say that now. Ten bucks says you wind up with a sleeve someday."

"Freak," Gerard said, rubbing an unmarked arm and shuddering.

"Highly unlikely," Rae told Frank.

Mikey's tendency to lurk was something they were all used to, so no one was startled when he said, "We're coming with you, right?"

She'd be lying if she said she hadn't thought about it. "Obviously. If I cry you don't get to make fun of me, though."

"If you cry I'll lose all respect for you as a person." Frank tugged her hair. "What are you getting?"

She shrugged to give herself time to come up with something that wasn't an outright lie; she didn't want to tell them yet. "I'm not completely sure. Something that means something."

"I'll call Leslie," Frank said, and did.

A few hours later the group had dwindled down to Rae and Mikey. "Where's it going to be?" Mikey said.

She'd thought about that almost more than what the tattoo itself would be. "My arm."

"That makes sense." He leaned against her. "Not really a girly place, but you have nice arms."

"What is a girly place, your shoulder? That's stupid." Mikey wasn't like Gerard, he'd never put his head on her boobs when he was awake and sober, but she shifted so they were both a little more comfortable anyway. "And I have muscular arms, they're only nice to some people."

"They're nice to me." Mikey pinched her. "So there."

She wasn't the asshole who fished for compliments by pretending low self esteem, so she let it drop.

||

"Are you sure a guy who tattoos band people at midnight is really respectable?" Rae said as Frank led them down the street.

He gave her a blank look. "You can sanitize tools at midnight."

"It's useless trying to argue," Bob said. "He's completely delusional about tattooing."

"My tattoos are fucking gorgeous and meaningful, and I'll fuck you up, Bryar."

"Just remember, if she gets an infection Brian will shoot you," Gerard said cheerfully.

"Brian doesn't have a gun," Rae said, and they all ducked into the shop.

Leslie was a guy, it turned out, but between the name and the jarringly feminine face, Rae couldn't really blame Frank for not remembering. "What do you want?"

"I want it to say 'SL'," she said, pointing to her arm. She was facing away from the rest of the band, so she couldn't see their reactions; Leslie, though, rolled his eyes and looked over her shoulder. "I thought you said she wasn't that kind of dumbass."

"She's not," Frank said.

"Stage left," she said quickly, before any of the others tried to explain it for her. "It's where I stand onstage."

Leslie raised his eyebrows. "Huh. Okay." He reached back, grabbing a stapled-together pack of papers. "There's some fonts in there."

She turned back to the band and started looking over the front page. She hadn't even flipped the page over before Mikey said, "Um. That's a big deal."

Turning red was almost a reflex, at this point. "It is."

"Why?"

"Mikes," Gerard said quietly.

But Rae looked up, meeting Mikey's eyes. "This band," she said as honestly as she could. "It's important, and where we are now...it just feels like time."

Mikey's lips quirked and he bobbed his head. Gerard leaned forward to hug her.

"Okay, fonts," she said, hunching her shoulders a little and going back to them.

There were a lot of pretty ones, all thin lines and curlicues; she'd known walking in that she wouldn't want anything like that, so she flipped straight through them. The blockier fonts were harder, because they all looked just different enough for her to get hung up on, frowning and flicking her eyes from one to the other.

Leslie seemed surprised by the font she finally chose. "Pretty plain," he said. "You sure?"

She nodded. "Shaded in would be too much, but I want it big enough to read."

"Arm out, then," he said.

It hurt, but not enough for her to even think about crying. When it was done, she couldn't help but stare, because there it was, with no double meaning and no elaboration. SL. Her place.

"It's nice," Frank said. His voice was suspiciously tight, and after she'd paid, gotten instructions, and led them all out, he set his face on collision course with her chest.

"Fucking band," he muttered, hugging her almost comically tightly.

She didn't have to ask the others to know they more or less shared the sentiment.

||

Two weeks before Mikey's hiatus, Rae did an interview. It wasn't too unusual; sometimes guitar magazines want to do blurbs on her, and sometimes it was just her turn to put up with the same boring questions. She liked them better than group interviews, if only because when the "who in the band would you date" question came up she could just brush it off and not have to placate the other four in the process.

This was one of the bad interviews, though. "It was never that hard for me," she said. "I mean, I just wasn't in that many bands. And they're good guys."

"But what about changing?" The guy grinned. "It must've been rough, right? How many of the guys have spied on you getting naked?"

"Um." She blinked, trying to think of something to say that wouldn't infuriate the label. "No. They've seen boobs before, generally."

"But not yours, right? I've heard you've got a reputation for being a prude."

She frowned. "I just wear normal clothes. How is that prudish?"

"Hey, now, I'm asking the questions." His laugh was as fake as his smile. She moved back a little. "And you can't pretend you haven't heard what people say about your...lack of fun, wardrobe-wise."

It wasn't the first, second, or even the third time an interviewer had said this kind of thing to her, but normally she'd had at least one of the guys to help her out. "I don't..."

"You just don't dress much like a girl in a band, if you know what I mean." He winked.

Her face was bright red and she knew exactly what she'd say and how she'd say it if she was anywhere but in front of a camera. "Um," she said, and looked away from him.

The Black Parade album cover was hanging behind him. He'd introduced her by talking about what a big deal My Chem was. They'd sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

They were a big fucking deal, she realized. It was like being kicked in the ass by Gerard, or being headbutted by Frank. "I wear normal clothes," she said coldly. "I don't front the band, and even if I did, I'd still wear normal clothes. I'm up there to play guitar, not be jerk off material for guys who don't know how to find internet porn."

He actually recoiled. Her face burned, because shit shit shit, Craig was going to be pissed. He hated when they steamrolled over what might have been good PR, and she was just confirming all the stereotypes about girls being too sensitive and no fun and –

"People have talked a lot about the record moving from a more punk, almost pop-ish feel into clear classic rock influences. Could you tell us how that change came about?"

She stared at him; he looked back.

This was her job, so she nodded, cleared her throat, and started talking about Pink Floyd.

||

She didn't tell the guys about it and none of them bothered to watch the interview, so it was only when Craig brought it up over a conference call that they realized something had happened.

"Girl power sells," he said cheerfully, "but beyond that, you should never feel cornered in an interview. You've got the label behind you guys right now, remember. You're hot stuff. Abuse your power a little."

"Wait, what?" Bob said.

"Oh. So hey, I'll call you guys back."

Craig hung up, and the others turned to look at Rae. She stared at her feet. "It was no big deal."

"He thinks it was, and he doesn't notice half the shit we do," Frank said. "What happened?"

"You guys didn't see?" Matt had opted out of the conference call, claiming rights as a substitute bassist to skip the boring parts of being in a major band, but he was hanging on the couch a few feet away. "She owned the idiot Kerrang sent to talk to her."

"I didn't own anything, I just said some words that we're lucky Craig isn't mad at me for."

"Okay," Bob said, but his laptop was loading the YouTube video. Rae went to stick her face in a couch pillow.

Unfortunately, she didn't think to cover her ears, and once she heard the interviewer's voice she couldn't make herself block it out. She didn't remember sounding that nervous – or, wow, that pissed.

Frank whistled when the interviewer backed down. "Nice."

"See why we're lucky?" Rae said.

"That interviewer was fucking out of line, though." Bob was doing his best impression of the Hulk when Rae looked up, all hunched shoulders and will-fuck-you-up frown. "If Craig had been pissed about that, I'd be voting for us doing our next album in Geoff's basement again."

"Exactly." Gerard shook his head. "You did a good job. That's so fucking stupid, I don't get called a fag when I do interviews."

"Well, to be fair, you don't actually make out with dudes." Frank paused. "Much."

"Does Mikey know?" Gerard said.

She knew that look. "It can wait till he calls," she said firmly.

"All he's doing is sitting on his ass playing sex chicken with all his weird friends. Give me your phone," Frank said, sitting on her ass and sticking his hands in her pockets.

"Get off of me, you freak."

"Or at least hold still," Gerard said. Rae looked up, and sure enough, he had his phone out.

She groaned. "Fuckers."

"Hey, Mikes. Yeah, Frank made me yesterday. What the fuck? I'm not telling you that. Yeah, no, that's actually what I was calling about. Did you – you did? Why didn't...oh. Jesus, that's – okay, okay. Calm down. Okay. Get some sleep, man. Love you too."

Gerard hung up. "He saw it and thinks you're awesome, but can't talk, because he burned his mouth on coffee he somehow got to boil."

It was a completely believable story, even if Gerard wasn't quite looking at any of them. "Oh," Rae said. "Well. Okay, then."

||

She called Mikey once every three days, like clockwork. They talked more than they ever had when he was actually touring, but she still felt his absence every time they performed; everyone did. He needed the break, but they needed their bassist.

Not that Matt wasn't awesome, because he was, even if he was also fond of showing Rae his gross-out porn. He just wasn't Mikey, and it hadn't really hit home until now just how essential all five of them together were.

"We miss you," she said quietly one night, curled up in her bunk with the phone to her ear.

"I'll come back. You guys can do your macho-punk tour without me, though."

"Linkin Park is totally badass," she said. "Frank and Gerard are already making plans."

"People are going to be calling me about how gay my brother is, aren't they?" Mikey mock-sighed.

She laughed. "Just tell them you already know how gay he is. It'll be fine."

"Take care of yourself, okay?"

Mikey wasn't completely ignorant of what that kind of crowd would mean for her. She nodded, then rolled her eyes at herself and said, "Yeah, of course. Worm's already lectured me."

"Good." Mikey yawned into the phone. "'night, Rae."

"Goodnight," she said, but she waited for him to hang up.

||

Worm had lectured her, not that it was really needed. The atmosphere was a lot more like their smaller tours, and she acted accordingly, careful to stay with groups and keeping to herself at night. It wasn't a huge enough difference from how she normally spent her time to really be noticeable, until Gerard stormed onto the bus one day, face white.

She took her headphones off right away. "What's going on?"

"Motherfucking – fucking assholes." He made quote marks with his fingers. "'Motherfucking bus full of fags and pussies'. Fuck them." He dropped down on the couch. "Let's play D&D or something, Jesus."

"What the fuck?" Frank said. "Get off my foot."

"I heard people talking, is all." He shook his head. "This is the best fucking bus on tour. Okay?"

Rae put her iPod down, wrapping her headphones up and holding out an arm. "We know."

He leaned against her right away. "It doesn't even make sense to call you a pussy, because you have one, but you're awesome."

"They were probably talking about Frank. Everyone knows he's afraid of his own shadow."

"I will fuck you up, Toro."

She flipped him off. "Fess up, though. You heard some no-name techs talking."

"They had names," Gerard mumbled. "I just didn't ask."

It was the kind of Gerard Mikey would have been way better at dealing with. "It doesn't matter what they say."

"Yeah, it does." He sighed. "I'll think of something. I don't know."

It was impossible to stop herself from feeling apprehensive. She played half of the next show with her stomach in her throat, but Gerard was behaving as much as he ever did onstage, and as the set wore on, she let herself relax a bit.

Then Gerard had the guys in the audience take their shirts off and kissed Frank full on the mouth. Of course.

"You didn't really have to do that," she said afterwards. "Mikey's going to yell."

"He always yells when we do stupid shit," Frank said, and waggled his tongue at Gerard.

Gerard rolled his eyes. "Like you didn't know something was going to happen," he said.

"Just don't get beat up," Rae said.

"To be fair, you're more likely to get trouble for existing," Bob said.

"I'm used to it, though."

"So am I," Gerard said, gesturing to himself. "I get my ass kicked like a faggot no matter who I'm dating."

"But constantly?" She shook her head. "You should stay with Bob for awhile. The rest of the tour, if you keep doing that stuff."

It was relatively rare for her to put her foot down like that. Gerard blinked at her. "You're sure?"

"I have to be careful all the time. Which is okay, I'm used to it, but you..."

"I know." He hugged her, ignoring the way she wrinkled his nose at the waves of stink coming off him. "And Bob doesn't have to, I can get Worm to do it."

"You're such a rock star," she said, squeezing his shoulders. "Security and everything."

"Nah, you." He hugged her waist. "We get Mikey back soon."

She didn't miss the implication. "The band'll have our bassist, yeah."

"Rae."

It was never easy to pull away from Gerard when he was like this, but right now she wanted Way matchmaking about as much as a hole in the head. She took a step back. "You should make out with Frank while you have the chance."

Gerard dropped his arm. "He's been watching YouTube clips. I'm doomed either way."

"You definitely need Worm to protect you, then," she said, grinning.

They didn't tone it down after that; if anything, they got worse. "It's a little weird to be on this end of the revolution," Rae told Mikey one night.

"At least you get to see a bunch of dudes with their shirts off?"

She laughed. "Yeah, because that's so out of the ordinary for me."

"Yeah, well." She could almost feel Mikey frowning. "Eye candy. Awesome."

"Don't worry, it's pure objectification. Mostly. Cortez got shirtless the other day, it was nice. He's got these abs."

"I will hang up."

He sounded just annoyed enough for Rae to stop. "Three days."

"I miss you guys." He yawned, the crackling noises letting her know he was once again mashing the phone against his mouth. "I learned 'Cancer', by the way. You can still play it, I just...I don't know. I learned it."

It hadn't even occurred to her that he'd try. "That's awesome," she said. "Crash now, and when we hit Jersey I'll make you play it for me."

"'kay."

He was making tiny, sleepy snuffling noises before she even hung up.

||

"Mikey Way!" Frank yelled, and tackled him.

"You're getting too much sex," Mikey complained from his spot on the ground.

"Quasi-sex." Frank licked Mikey's neck. "Gerard still won't suck my dick."

"Suck his dick, Gerard. Maybe that'll calm him down."

"You do it, if you're so invested." Gerard helped him up, then hugged him hard. "Hey."

The others hung back a little, watching Gerard and Mikey cling together and sniff more than Rae thought any of the rest of them could have managed without gagging. When Gerard finally let Mikey go, both their faces were bright red.

"Saps," Bob said in the tone Rae knew meant he wanted to hug all of them.

Mikey was apparently thinking the same thing, because he went over and hugged Bob. "Hey, Bryar."

She didn't mean to wind up standing on the edges, but by the time Bob pulled away, she was hanging off to one side. Mikey walked up to her and stopped about a foot away, staring at her shoulder. "Hi."

And really, this was so completely ridiculous Rae was a little amazed everyone else wasn't laughing at them. "Hi, Mikey," she said, and hugged him tight.

He looked and felt better than he had before he'd left – healthier, even more sure of himself. She let him go and immediately failed at not looking him up and down appraisingly.

Sometimes being honest with herself sucked. Now was one of those times; he looked hot, she admitted privately. He'd changed enough that it was like being back in his mom's basement, ignoring the rumors she'd heard about him in favor of shoving him into the just-friends box in her head.

"So where's Schechter got us staying?" he said finally, shifting nervously from foot to foot.

Bob snorted. "On the bus, for tonight."

Mikey's face fell. "But it's Jersey."

"And Schechter," Frank said helpfully.

Gerard laughed. "Welcome back, Mikey Way."

||

The show that night was completely insane.

She'd forgotten how much Gerard depended on Mikey. It was the one thing she didn't think Mikey'd ever completely understand; when he wasn't onstage, something was missing from Gerard.

"Back to back, Mikey Way!" he yelled joyously, and Rae couldn't stop smiling in response.

All five of them, she thought. It was what had to be.

She watched Mikey carefully during 'Cancer'. He was standing just backstage, watching Gerard, expression completely unreadable.

It took longer than usual to wind down after the show; Frank kept jumping on everyone, and Bob told Mikey it was good he was back no less than five times. Even James and Matt had caught it, grinning like idiots as they all huddled together.

After an hour of hanging in and around the buses, Mikey said, "Hey, can I play it for you now?"

He sounded as excited as he ever did. "Sure," she said. "Dewees!"

James's ability to appear when someone yelled for him was a little surreal, all things considered. "No threesomes or costumes."

Mikey rolled his eyes. "We just need a keyboardist for a minute."

He cocked an eyebrow. "Yeah?"

"Cancer," Rae said. "Please?"

They all crowded into the bus studio together. "Ready? Alright," he said when Mikey nodded, and started playing.

Rae hummed – off-key, she always told Gerard, not that he listened – as Mikey went into his part.

She forgot to make any noise for a while after that.

It wasn't amazing playing. It was just Mikey going through a part he'd learned, and logically, she knew that. She also knew that he'd learned it as much for himself as for her or anyone else in the band. But it still felt a little like being punched in the stomach, watching him play so confidently, half his mouth curled up in a smug little smile.

"I...wow," she said finally. "That's, um. Yeah. You practiced."

Mikey put his bass aside, full-out grinning. "And practiced, and practiced. Like I said, you can still play it, I just wanted to know it. You know?"

She nodded so hard it felt like her head might fall off. "Awesome, Mikey. Seriously."

Everything about the way he moved was distracting enough that she almost didn't notice James moving to the doorway and clearing his throat. "Hey, Rae, I just thought of something. Can I talk to you for a second?"

She half wanted to hug Mikey, but settled for squeezing his wrist. "Yeah, sure."

James didn't say anything until they were off the bus and the door was closed. He stood for a second with his back to her before saying, "So who knows?"

She blinked. "What?"

"Gerard wants it, that's kind of obvious, but he thinks it's just him being a romantic. Does anyone actually know?"

It wasn't the first time she felt like she'd abruptly stepped into a soap opera, but she'd never expected to have that kind of surreal conversation with Dewees. "Know what?"

He finally turned to look at her. "Oh. You don't know."

"Yeah, that's kind of the point."

He shook his head. "Mikey."

She took a deep breath. She'd been in a band with Gerard for five years; nonsensical conversations were nothing new. "Mikey what?"

"You and Mikey – you're kind of, you know."

Jumping to conclusions was wrong. She frowned anyway. "No, I don't. Explain, please."

James crossed his arms and raised his eyebrows and generally looked as solid serious-dude as anyone with My Chem connections possibly could. "There was an awful lot of longing glances and uncomfortable tension back there."

She could handle this. She could. "Being in a band with a bunch of guys doesn't mean I have to have a crush on one of them. And I don't."

He sounded almost too gentle when he said, "It wasn't just coming from you, Rae."

"It wasn't coming from me at all! Wait." She blinked. "What?"

"This isn't an intervention." He held up his hand. "I'm not saying you guys should hop a plane to Vegas and get married. But I know it's easy to get so familiar with someone you don't even notice that kind of thing. So...heads up, okay?"

"Heads up." She nodded hard, trying to force her mind to stop spinning and cooperate. "Right. Thanks."

He cocked his hand in a half-wave and left.

Mikey was sitting on the lounge's couch like a kid waiting to be sent into the principal's office. "Well?"

She shrugged. "Gerard's been stealing his underwear."

"That's the kind of lie Frank would come up with." Mikey blinked up at her. "You're lying."

"Yes," she admitted, sitting next to him.

He moved immediately, resting his head on her shoulder. "You don't have to tell me."

"There's not a whole lot to tell." She put an arm around him loosely. "You were really good, though."

"Not as good as you."

"You're important," she said. "You might not be as good on guitar, but Jesus, Mikey. You saw how Gerard was."

"Yeah." There was definite pride there, and once again she was hit with exactly how much he'd changed after Paramour. "We're all really good together."

Her stomach twisted; she closed her eyes. Hitting people wasn't her thing at all, but if James had been anywhere nearby right then, she might have tried to punch him. Friends, she thought. Friends. She'd seen the type of girl he went for, and it wasn't anyone who looked like her.

Friends.

||

She stepped back onto the bus to see Mikey lying on the couch, looking like he'd never left. "We head out tomorrow," she said. "Are you spending the night here?"

"Yeah, but – hang on." He grabbed his Sidekick the second it buzzed, flipping it open and rolling his eyes as his fingers moved over the keypad.

"Adam?" she said.

He nodded. "Wants to come hang, with Geoff and the others. Kick it old school, or whatever."

"Tell them we're too much of a big deal to do that kind of thing," she said airily.

"Too late." He closed his phone. "We're swinging by there tonight. They're gonna do a house party thing."

"You're sure you want to go?" she said, but she was already texting Gerard.

"I'm sure," Mikey said firmly.

||

It was like being catapulted backwards, both literally and metaphorically.

Everyone was there. They treated each other differently; of course; staying in touch with people was different from all of them being thrown together again. Rae was a Someone she'd never been back then, and Bob knew an unexpected number of people.

Neither Mikey nor Gerard got drunk, which was really the biggest difference, and the one that had her feeling stupidly incongruous.

"Am I turning into an old man, or is this not as much fun as it used to be?"

Jamia poked Frank in the side. "You're turning into an old man."

He stuck his tongue out. "I wasn't asking you."

"Gerard's not a wallflower, at least," Rae said. He also mostly wasn't even in the house, but hey, quibbling.

"Who does he keep calling?"

"Lyn-z," Frank said before Rae could answer. "She's his love story or something."

"Jealous, baby?" Jamia said, and stomped Frank's foot.

He howled. Rae laughed and looked away, just in time to catch Mikey ducking down the hallway.

"I'll be right back," she said absently, and followed him.

She half expected Mikey to meet up with someone, but instead he went into the bathroom, leaning against the counter. He didn't close the door, but she knocked on the doorframe anyway.

His head jerked up. "Oh. Hi."

"Mind if I come in?"

He shook his head. She moved in and shut the door; it made the already distant music legitimately quiet. "Something wrong?"

"Not really." But he was standing stiffly, not looking at her. "I don't know. I guess I used to think this was fun."

There was nothing tactful to say to that. "To be fair, you were kind of...um. Usually you used to..."

"Be drunk off my ass and fucking someone? Yeah."

"You could still do half of that."

She felt bad as soon as he looked at her. "I know."

"Not that I think you should," she said quickly. "Just that you could."

He hunched his shoulders, staring at the bathroom floor. It was the clearest indicator in the world that she'd fucked up, so she moved over to him, putting an arm around his shoulders. "You're happier now, though, right?"

He nodded against her. "Obviously. But it's not...I don't want to. I don't think I told you. I just really fucking don't want to."

"Okay," she said slowly. It was obvious he was leading up to something, but she couldn't have said what for all the money in the world.

He shook his head a little and moved away. "And Gerard's all lovey-dovey over long distance, and Frank and Jamia are...well, you know them. Even Bob's got someone."

"I don't," she said, feeling more or less like the lamest person ever.

Mikey stared at her for a second before laughing. It was an old-Mikey laugh, abrupt and strained. "You could."

She didn't know whether he was trying to mock her or not. "Yeah, so?"

"You know you could," he pressed. "And I know sometimes you want to. Why don't you?"

Touring had a way of sticking a person in every single ridiculous social situation imaginable, and then some. She still had no idea what to say. "I don't know," she said. "I'm...I'm picky, I guess."

"Picky, right." He moved until his hip was cocked, looking at her. For the first time, she missed his glasses – missed every part of old-Mikey, who never would have made such a tense conversation even worse. "You should hook up with someone. I'm totally stupid about it, but you could find someone. And I know you want to."

"Mikey." She gave in to temptation and buried her face in her hands, sighing. "You don't get it."

"What don't I get?" His voice was loud enough to echo in the bathroom, loud enough to drown out the drunken yells of guys stumbling past the door. "Just explain!"

She could feel herself burning up, the blush bad enough to spread down her neck. "I don't have to," she said. "You've seen me. I'm not ugly, but come on, do I look like the girl you pick up at a party to – to whatever with? I'm the girlfriend type who never has a boyfriend. You know it."

He was quiet for long enough that even her patience ran out. She took her hands down and looked up, stomach turning.

He was staring at her. "What?"

"You seriously think." He sighed and took a step forward. "You could be. Is the thing."

She half wished she could blame losing track of the conversation on being drunk. "What?"

He took hold of her wrists and moved them, looking at her. "There's nothing wrong with you."

"I look like a bodybuilder," she said.

"Yeah, with tits." He shook his head. "Seriously. If you dressed differently, you'd be a hit."

"If I straightened my hair, wore makeup?" It was unfair to be sarcastic and she knew it. She just couldn't stop, was all. "I don't."

He kept moving closer. "Yeah, no. But you could."

Staring at his hands on her was getting old, so she looked up.

It was a mistake; he was too, too close. "You keep saying that."

"It's true."

"It doesn't matter," she said. "It just doesn't. Thanks for the comfort, really, because it's nice sometimes, but -"

It wasn't very dramatic because they were already in each other's personal spaces, but it still felt like Rae's stomach was bottoming out when Mikey ducked his head down and brushed his lips against hers.

"Oh," Rae said when Mikey jerked backwards.

He was bright red. "I didn't mean to," he blurted. "It was – I didn't. Um. It was stupid. Sorry."

She cleared her throat. "You don't have to be sorry," she said. "Really, really don't."

"I should, though. You hate getting hassled at parties."

She hated being brave even more, but... "You kissing me like a third grader isn't hassling."

He was blushing, and it was adorable, and she was stupid. "What is it?"

"Kind of ridiculous." She hated this, absolutely completely hated it, but she took a deep breath and forced herself to keep going anyway. "Want to try again?"

"I thought you weren't –"

"I just said I was picky."

She'd never seen Mikey act this awkward before, fumbling and blushing. "Okay."

It would have been almost laughably easy to make a list of reasons why this was a bad idea. Tables, picture graphs, essays, even. But none of that was more important than the way Mikey's hands felt when she took them, clammy and kind of amazing, or the way he swallowed and looked down at her.

"So I don't need to dress differently?" she said quietly.

His eyes flew up to her face. "Never. I didn't mean – I meant for other people. Who are stupid. Not me."

That made her laugh a little as she leaned forward, kissing him lightly. "I know. It's you."

She moved up until she was sitting on the counter. She had to tilt Mikey's head back, which was a little weird but completely worth it; Mikey made a quiet little noise in the back of his throat and kissed back, hands splaying on her thighs.

"Okay," Mikey said after a few minutes. He took a deep, shaky breath. "Okay."

"It is," she said firmly.

He swallowed hard. "I'm just not. Are we. Are we?"

And – right. This was the reason why not. "Whatever you want." She held up a hand to keep him from replying. "Not in a bad way. Just, I'll take anything, you know?"

His eyes were so wide they looked almost ready to pop out of his head. "Oh."

She nodded and kissed his jaw, moving back to his lips and staying there until someone started pounding on the bathroom door.

||

They didn't talk about it, which was weird, because they talked about everything. But Mikey wasn't quite ready to come back, so they said their goodbyes without mentioning the making out to each other or the rest of the band.

Mikey called that night and they talked about Gerard's girlfriend, Rae's solos, Mikey's toaster. She didn't want to bring it up, and apparently Mikey didn't either. And if she hung up and got herself off as quietly as she could, well, it wasn't the first time.

They'd stopped for lunch halfway to Colorado the second-to-last day of the tour when Gerard approached her. It was just a few days after Jersey; she'd had plenty of time to think about kissing Mikey, but not nearly enough time so that nervousness didn't attack when her best friend, who happened to also be Mikey's brother, approached.

He handed her a soda, looking as serious as she'd ever seen him. "So. You know I've been kind of, um."

"Um?"

She wasn't expecting him to duck his head, smiling almost shyly. "You know, in a relationship."

"Getting laid, you mean? In the best of ways," she said quickly. "And yeah, I do."

He nodded. "We've decided something."

He was obviously building up to something. She tilted her head and waited.

When he finally said it, it came out in a rush. "I know you're not a dude, and really, they should come up with a less gendered name for the position, but you're kind of my best friend and I know it's fast but we both really want to before the end of the tour, and we found someone to do it but it'll have to wait 'till tomorrow which is pretty dramatic, Jimmy's already making fun of Lyn for it, but we're kind of in love and it's going to be awesome anyway." He took a deep breath. "Please?"

"Gerard, you didn't tell me what you want," she said slowly.

"Oh!" His smile was ridiculously huge. "I'm marrying Lyn. Will you be my best man? Woman?"

She hugged him until he was gasping for air.

||

"Married," she said that night. "Seriously. Just – you're getting married."

He hugged her middle even harder. "I'm going to leave in a few minutes to have sex, you know."

She nodded. "That's cool. Married."

He laughed. It wasn't quite self-conscious, but he pressed his face into her neck all the same. "Fucking insanity."

"The best kind."

"You two are disgusting," Frank informed them in passing, and crammed another Twinkie into his mouth.

Gerard flipped him off, then looked at Rae. "You're okay, right?"

"Of course," she said immediately. "Why wouldn't I be?"

He made a face. "I just meant...I'm getting fucking married. So where's your guy?"

She almost choked on her own spit. "Um. I don't have one."

"That's what I mean." He sighed. "I just want you to have it too, you know? You fucking deserve it."

It was probably the first time he was distracted enough not to notice she was lying through her teeth, and she was damn glad. "I know. I'll find someone someday, okay? Right now I'm just happy for you."

"Okay." He lay with her until Lyn knocked on their bus door, signaling Gerard to hop off Rae's lap and leave to have sex in places Rae wasn't really sure she wanted to know about.

||

The smile was still stretching her face when Mikey called that night.

"Did he totally dance around the subject like he was scared to say it with you, too?"

She laughed. "Pretty much. Jesus, I can't believe he actually did it."

"You know Gee. He's all huge plans and grand gestures." He paused. "But he'll be happy, I hope."

"Yeah. He was lecturing me about how I needed to settle down. Well, not lecturing. Just being Gerard, pretty much."

"Yeah," Mikey said quietly.

She remembered too late. "Oh."

"Yeah." He cleared his throat. "So. I told Brian I'd be ready to do Europe. I'll be back for Mexico."

It was hard to remember not to be stupid, not to let her stomach clench. "Awesome. Just a month, then."

She was almost positive the quiet rustling noises were Mikey nodding against the phone. "I. Um. I want to see you. You know?"

It was the closest they'd come to talking about it. For a second she almost changed the subject, but she'd spent years doing that, both literally and metaphorically. However much it extended, however long-lasting or short-lived this turned out to be, she wanted it. "I think I'd miss touching you even if we hadn't, you know."

Mikey sighed into the phone. "Made out like teenagers?" he said, sounding almost laughably dreamy.

"Yeah, that." She curled up further. "God, this is weird."

"At least we brought it up, finally."

"We're so brave. Champions."

"Frank's probably going to yell at you tomorrow, by the way."

This time, the nervousness was very real. "You didn't."

"He knew something was up," Mikey said. "Gerard probably would too, if he wasn't busy being married and stuff."

"Oh god," Rae said. "He's going to threaten me and talk about your honor."

Mikey's laugh bordered on hysterical. "You should get some sleep, then. So you can defend me bravely tomorrow."

She groaned. "Please, no."

"You know it'll happen." Mikey hummed a little, then said quietly, "I'll see you soon."

It wasn't a new tone, but the meaning behind it – she knew, now. "Yeah. You too."

"Goodnight."

"Goodnight," she said.

Mikey waited for her to hang up. She didn't really have it in her to tell him not to.

||

"I will fuck you up, Toro."

"I thought I was supposed to be the delicate one," she said without turning around.

"You're taller than he is."

"And he's taller than you."

She wasn't really surprised when Frank moved into her line of sight. "Rae."

"I don't know what to tell you." She spread her hands. "Do I look like the kind of person who'd fuck with him for laughs? The fact that he's looked twice at me makes me lucky."

"He's looked a lot more than that. He thinks you're hot and amazing, and that you'll realize he's not actually worth you and let him go."

Frank didn't looked pissed, or even upset. It would have been easier, she thought, if he did. "Oh. But we haven't -"

"He's Mikey." Rae knew it would be useless to try to remember the look on Frank's face right now, all fondness and best-friend-for-life devotion. Mikey wouldn't believe her even if she wouldn't feel like an idiot trying to tell him. "He thought of all that before you guys even made out."

It was going to be public knowledge – or at the very least, band knowledge. Running away, she told herself, would be overreacting to the point of insanity. "Well, you should tell him he's wrong."

"I do. It's your job to show him."

"You know I'm not a bastion of stability, right? I'm just – I'm not. I'm lucky to have this band, same as the rest of us."

Frank rolled his eyes. "Yeah, it's not like you've been fucking awesome and a role model and shit. Mikey can tell you all that. The point is, if you hurt him, I'll kill you."

It sounded like a well-worn phrase. Rae shook her head and laughed. "Okay."

"Awesome." He pushed her around and hopped on her back. "We're going to get ice cream. Giddyup."

||

"It wasn't that bad, actually." Rae yawned, pulling the hotel covers over her waist. "As far as one of your best friends threatening you over one of your other best friends goes."

"Does Gerard even know yet?"

She wiggled a little. Clean sheets were kind of amazing after so long on the road. "I think so. Maybe? Anyway, we wrote a bit today. Nothing major, just built on some chords Frank gave us."

"It's never nothing major," Mikey said affectionately. "Not after, like, a day into it."

"Mmm." Her shorts were itchy and Bob had decided to stay the night with the techs; she wiggled out of her shorts, stretching her legs. "Maybe not."

"What are you doing?"

She stopped moving. "What?"

"You keep making noises. Like – seriously, this isn't phone sex and I didn't realize it, right?"

Keeping her laugh in was so impossible that she didn't even bother trying. "Definitely not. It's a hotel night."

"Oh! Sheets."

"Exactly." She rolled to the side. "We could try phone sex, though. Sometime."

"Real sex first."

Real sex. "Do you think we'll get that far?"

Mikey paused for so long Rae was half worried she'd managed to put her foot in her mouth before he answered. "I kind of...I mean, obviously we might break up."

"Might, yeah."

"But I just." He sighed, a soft crackle in her ear. "I just don't see it happening. And I'd like to try stuff. Seriously, anything you'll let me do, I've thought of and want. Insanely."

Rae couldn't answer, because she had her face in a pillow.

"Rae?" Mikey's worry made her lift her head, put the phone back against her ear. "What did I say?"

"Nothing, nothing. That's just – I didn't think. I don't know."

"I'm pretty good at it. Sex, I mean. If that helps you decide."

"What? No, no." She clutched her hair, trying to make sense of the conversation. "We're definitely having sex, are you nuts? Just, premeditation. I don't know why I didn't think about it."

"I thought about it." Mikey's tone was the same one he used to tell jokes with, the lame ones everyone inexplicably laughed at. "With my dick."

"Oh God, I'm hanging up," she said over Mikey's laughter. "Actually, I really am. It's late."

She did soon enough, though she didn't want to. The closer they got to Mexico City, the less Rae really wanted to quit talking to Mikey.

"You smile so much lately," Gerard said, a week to the day before Mikey was due to be back. "It's because of Mikey, right?"

She avoided dropping her guitar, more from practice than any actual control over her fingers. "Uh."

"They call each other and act like idiots," Bob said helpfully, wrapping his wrist up.

Rae slapped a hand over her face. "Unfair."

"Wait, Frank wasn't faking me out?" Gerard pulled his idiotically huge sunglasses down his nose. He looked more like a matronly schoolteacher than a badass rock star, but Rae didn't really have the heart to tell him. "You and my brother finally got it?"

"Got what? Never mind," she said. "Yeah, we kissed. Okay? I promise not to be Yoko Version Two."

"Yoko wasn't in the band." Gerard pushed the glasses back up and smiled. "It's awesome, seriously."

"You say that now. Just think of the articles."

"On how cute a couple you are? Yeah, those will suck."

"No, I mean the ones about -"

Frank wrapped his arms around Gerard's waist. "How much you rock? Sounds awful."

"You're not going to get them to see this as anything but good," Bob said helpfully.

"I know it's good, it's just not perfect." Rae shook her head. "So there's no objections that'll wind up being fights that break the band apart?"

Gerard stared at her; Rae looked to the side, then back at him. He was still staring. "What?"

He burst out laughing.

And yeah, okay. It was pretty ridiculous. She shook her head, leaning back against Bob and laughing helplessly.

||

She could feel the beginning tugs of exhaustion as they waited for Mikey at the airport. Not temporary, crash-for-a-few-days exhaustion, but the kind that would end in holing up for a month and showering infrequently and eating half her refrigerator. Gerard had been talking about a break, which sounded more or less perfect – almost a guilty pleasure, since she was thinking about sharing at least some of it with Mikey.

"We're idiots," Frank said, pulling his hoodie tighter around him. "Jamia tells me all the time, but it just kind of occurs to me sometimes, how dumb we are."

"It's this band."

"Weirdest on the E.C. Shut up," he said when she snickered. "It's a legitimate term."

"For kids on the O.C., maybe."

"What about the O.C.?" Mikey said from behind them.

They all whirled around. Mikey hefted his duffel and blinked at them. "That's the wrong gate, you guys."

Their greeting was less exuberant this time, but Rae didn't miss the way the others hung back after hugging Mikey.

"Hey," she said, twitching her hand, not quite reaching out to him.

He was the one who took a step forward, smiling and kissing her cheek. "Hi."

"They're worse than I am," Gerard whispered too loudly. "Aren't they? I think they are."

"You were, like, damaging with Lyn," Mikey said.

"At least I kissed her!"

"He's got a point," Bob said.

Mikey frowned. "We're not on display."

"There are probably people with cameras," Rae added.

The other three just crossed their arms.

Rae sighed and tugged Mikey's hand, stepping closer. "We did say."

Mikey glanced over at them and rolled his eyes. "Fucking band," he muttered, before leaning in.

He was tense – Rae was too, actually, though Mikey being this wound up tended to make her relax just to make up for it – but it was still more or less the best hello she'd ever gotten. "Okay," she said quietly, and kissed him again.

When they moved apart, she put an arm around Mikey's waist and turned to Frank. "How many?"

Frank looked up at Bob, who held up three fingers. "Two cell phones, one digital."

"Could be worse, I guess," Mikey said.

"It's still bizarre being someone people take pictures of." Rae shook her head. "You'd get way more press if you dated Frank."

"Shut up," Mikey said, and pressed closer.

She'd never actually dated a guy who liked being shorter, but Mikey didn't seem to mind. He snuggled in the cab until Gerard started talking about how much he wanted Lyn back so she could sit in his lap, and even then Mikey kept a hold on Rae's hand until they got to the hotel.

They didn't fuck. Rae would've if Mikey had asked, and she was pretty sure Mikey was thinking the same thing, but neither of them said anything, so they wound up sleeping side-by-side and watching each other.

Playing the show was mind-blowing. She wasn't naive enough to think they were done with any and all trouble, but Mikey was back and smiling, Gerard was every inch the promise Frank had said he'd seen way back when, and Rae – well.

It wasn't Mikey. People would say it was, she knew, but it really wasn't. Mikey was happy and that mattered; Bob, Frank, and Gerard were happy too, and that mattered almost as much. And with her band and her guitar and her life, Rae was as happy as she'd ever been.

So she fucking shredded.

||

None of them had the energy to be anything but generally clingy when they finally got back to the buses. Gerard had more or less attached himself to Mikey's side, and Rae and Bob were taking turns fielding a simultaneously overtired and hyper-excited Frank.

But when Rae got up in the morning, Mikey rolled out of his bunk and followed her out to the lounge. "Sleeping on a bus apparently isn't like riding a bike," he said.

"At least it's not a van." She hesitated before putting an arm around his waist, opening the blinds. "Gerard'll kill us if we start talking without the coffee maker running."

"Also I'll fall asleep on you." Mikey leaned into her. "For the record, I thought about bunkjumping."

"You smell," she said playfully. "Thanks, but no thanks."

"I'll shower, then. Coffee?"

Rae shook her head, going over to the coffee maker and grabbing a filter. "What are you going to do when you live alone, take out a loan for an endless supply of Red Bull?"

Mikey's voice was everything that wasn't casual when he said, "It hadn't really occurred to me."

There were plenty of ways to take that. Rae chose the one that made her smile.

"Gerard's got half an album of workable lyrics already," she said, sitting down on the couch next to him.

Mikey tiled his head. "So two songs, maybe?"

She laughed. "If we're lucky. We'll get there sooner or later, though."

"Yeah, I know." Mikey's sigh was barely audible. "I'm such a little brother."

"Hmm?"

"Following him. It'll be my first album not, you know. Fucked up and lonely."

She knew she wasn't the only person who thought "fucked up and lonely" was just Mikey being Mikey, but it still stung. "I'm sorry."

Mikey blinked at her. "Why?"

"I never noticed. I thought it was just you."

"It was, I think." Mikey picked at a spare thread on the couch. "I never thought about it, but it's part of the problem, you know? I was always like that."

"But now you're not." She couldn't stop herself from grabbing his hand, squeezing it hard. "You're really not."

Mikey flattened his hand, pressing their palms together. "You've got big hands."

As far as non sequiturs went, it wasn't Rae's favorite. "Sorry?"

"It's good." He brushed his fingers over the top of her hand, and she fought not to squirm. "I like them."

"You're allowed to not like parts of me, you know."

"You're allowed to not like parts of me, too."

She frowned. "I like all your parts."

Mikey's smile was more implied than actually there. "Yeah, well, you too."

She knew he wouldn't let her argue, knew it was ridiculous, so instead she just leaned down and pulled him close.

The rest of the band wandered out eventually; no one said anything. She'd have gotten off his lap right away if anyone had even suggested they didn't like it, but Frank yawned until his jaw cracked and said "Fuckers, refill if you drink that much coffee," and Bob handed Rae a sheet of paper with song intro ideas.

Gerard just pushed Mikey into Rae's lap and snuggled into Rae's side, which meant she was both warm and surrounded by stink. "Didn't you shower before you came back?" she asked Mikey.

He looked away. "Um. A few days ago?"

"I showered yesterday!"

"Because I made you," Frank said, flicking Gerard's temple.

"Still," Gerard said.

"Still nothing. You smell, too."

"It's a good smell," he told Rae earnestly. "Concert smell."

"Uh-huh." She patted his head. "Just shower before your interview."

Gerard made a face, but leaned back down. Mikey shifted enough to let her read what Bob had written.

They all five stayed close until soundcheck. It worked more or less like it always had.

||

Nothing changed for a little while. They played two shows in Mexico and then went back to the US, awkwardly sticking together despite not actually living in the same place.

Mikey and Rae didn't dance around fucking, they just...didn't, for long enough that it seemed almost second nature, right up to the point where Rae walked in on Mikey jerking off on her couch.

He didn't stop, just looked her up and down and moaned, hand moving more quickly. She'd been expecting – well, not this, but something like it.

"Do you want some help?" she said, sitting across from him, staring.

He shook his head. "Don't think I could."

She didn't have time to ask what he meant before he was coming all over his hand.

"Oh," she said, pressing her legs together. "Well. Okay, then."

He slumped back against the couch, lazily opening an eye and peering at her. "Hey," he said. "You're -"

"I couldn't not be. Seriously, Mikey."

"Yeah, okay." He held up a hand, crooking a finger. "C'mere."

She wasn't very surprised when he tugged her pants down and directed her to straddle his lap. It made the shock almost worse when he said, "You know, I've wanted to fuck you for so long that at this point putting it off is practically habit."

"Thanks? I think?" She tugged the bottom of her shirt. "I didn't let myself think about it."

He didn't look sad, exactly, just a strange kind of surprised. "Why not?"

She shrugged. "It's you."

His fingers skating down her shirt alone were enough to make her shiver. When he moved them down to her cunt, touching so lightly she could barely feel him, it was all she could do not to start begging. "It's you."

"We keep doing that." She leaned forward, pressing herself against his hand. "I want you. That's the important part."

"Yeah." He moved his free hand up to her hair, pulling her close as he brushed his fingers over her clit. It felt different – not careful, but not rough, either. He was exploring as much as anything else, learning. The implications made her shiver.

"I want so much from you," he said, rubbing a single finger over her, slipping it in slowly. "You'll bruise me, right? Fuck me behind a venue?"

"At the same time?" She gasped, gulping for air. "I didn't think it'd be like that."

"What? You're taller than I am."

And she knew, she knew he wanted her, but the blush still took over her face. "Bruises?"

Mikey nodded, moving a second finger in to fuck her shallowly, keeping his thumb against her clit. "You can picture it, can't you? Using my cock, pushing me down and just...keeping me."

Even she couldn't miss that kind of cue. "Keeping you? Like this?" She spread her legs and sank down on his fingers, keeping her eyes on his face. "You want to know just how much I'm never planning on letting you go?"

"Yes." He crooked his fingers. "Please."

For a second she wished she already had the familiarity a few months would bring. She moved her hands down to his arms, curling her fingers around his biceps and squeezing. "Like this?"

He nodded too quickly. "Just keep holding."

It felt brave to tighten her fingers still more. "Keep touching me."

He tilted his head and they met halfway, lips bumping together clumsily. Rae could barely think; he was moving his fingers slowly but in enough of the right places that she was already getting closer to the point where they'd both need her clinging to him. "Good," she whispered. "So good."

"Can I fuck you?" He pressed his forehead against hers. It hurt, and she held on tighter, ground down on his fingers. "I'm clean and everything, and I have condoms."

"You of all people should know I'm on the pill," she said. "Put your thumb – wait."

Even the hand playing with her cunt stilled. "What?"

"Right now?" She rocked her hips, feeling him slowly getting harder.

He was as red as she'd ever seen him. "It's not, um. I don't usually. And it'll take me awhile. But...yes."

She stared at him for a second before peeling her shirt off and unhooking her bra. She didn't try to make it a show, but he watched anyway, and it felt fucking good, even knowing that what he was seeing was familiar. "I have to get off," she said, frowning when he started laughing. "Not like that. You need to be naked too."

"The other thing would be good too, though," he said, and curled his fingers.

"Oh God. Wait, no, stop." She moved off him, tugging at his shirt. "Like this."

He lifted his arms obediently. She probably shouldn't have thought it was cute, but she did anyway, doubly so when he held out his legs so she could pull his pants all the way off.

"Better," she said, and impulsively dropped to her knees.

Mikey's eyes widened almost comically. "Rae?"

"Hang on," she said, and pushed his thighs apart. Bruises, she thought, and ran her fingers over the sticky mess he'd made, pressing two down hard.

"Oh," he said breathily, and his cock jerked. "Oh. Okay."

"I don't know what I'm doing," she said matter-of-factly, brushing her fingers over his cock and using her other hand to dig into his thigh. "It's not very sexy. Objectively."

"Good thing the blinds aren't open, then. I'm the only person who can see you, and I'm sure as fuck not objective." Mikey was clenching his thighs, pressing against her. "God. I don't even know how, you just...ride me. Please."

"Hang on," she said. She moved her hand, jerking him off almost casually; her attention was focused on the way her fingerprints looked, red and already bruising. She kissed them, brushing her tongue over them impulsively.

"Holy shit," Mikey said. His hips bucked hard.

She could hold him down, she realized. She only had an inch on him, but he wouldn't even be fighting it. "Calm down," she said, and pressed a hand down on his stomach.

He was shaking under her, but he moved back down against the bed. "Keep going. Please?"

She shook her head. "Not like this. I want to try something." She moved up, spreading her legs and hovering above him. It took almost more courage than she thought she had to say, "You've heard me get off."

He stared up at her, eyes wide. "I. Yeah."

"Did you watch?"

"Thought about it." Mikey moved just a little; she pulled herself up. "But I never did."

"Good," she said, and slid a hand down her stomach, rubbing her clit.

She couldn't keep it up for long; it was an awkward angle and she was fighting with her self-control for every second. When he broke, gasping and whispering "Please, please, please," she finally let herself move down on him, holding onto his wrists as tightly as she could.

The slow burn of before was gone; she could barely think with him in her, mind moving between how he felt and how he sounded. She barely noticed when he moved their hands up to her breasts, moaning when he played with her nipples, fucking herself on him as hard as she could manage.

It was easier than she'd thought to give up and come around him, slumping down even as he kissed her and held her still, coming when she moved her fingers back to the already-forming bruises on his arms.

"You know," he said finally, "we only have a month till buses again."

"Shush," she said lazily. He laughed, the funny little bubbly noise she already knew she'd never get tired of.

||

Gerard was the one she talked to for concept, but Bob was better with technical details, which was how the first day back on tour, she managed to wind up holed up in the travel studio with him.

"So you and Mikey are, what?"

She shrugged. "I think I'm his girlfriend. Pass me the mic?"

Bob did, even being nice enough to ignore her when she muttered girlfriend again, unable to keep from smiling.

||

The funniest part was that for all the grief almost every event in the band gave them, this was really kind of easy. She and Mikey held hands and pecked each other on the lips, and she taped a picture of them snuggling up in her possessions box. Mikey had one up in his bunk; no one even bothered with teasing.

Mikey had complacency down to an art, and for awhile she thought the way he approached their relationship was with that; she probably should have known better, in retrospect. He was comfortable.

She voiced the thought to him one night, sitting on the back steps of that show's venue.

He scrunched up his nose. "I don't think I could get used to it," he said.

"Explain?"

"It's just...I don't know. It's you, you know? I love you, you love me. That's a lot of things, but nothing I'm ever not going to appreciate."

It still felt weird, knowing that neither of them really thought this would end anytime soon. "Yeah. Me too."

He kissed her quickly. "This isn't exactly a shot in the dark, you know?"

She nodded. "We should go to bed."

"Fucking bunks."

"Fucking in the bunks." She touched the bruise she'd gotten on her temple just yesterday and winced. They were definitely not trying bunk oral again. "But no, sleeping. We need it."

They'd all been a little off lately; they weren't suffering from ennui, exactly, just still more changes. Mikey nodded. "Sleep."

It was gratifyingly easy to do.

||

They were slowing down, and everyone could feel it. The shows were still just as important, but they weren't quite as excited for them, weren't nearly as tense from day to day.

"I think," Frank said one morning, burping and scratching his ass, "I think we've had so many problems for so long that now it's over and we don't know what to do."

"You should shave," Gerard said from his spot on the couch. "And shower. You're gross."

"Your wife is gross," Frank shot back. "She really is."

"Yours would have to be awesome to put up with you."

"She likes my beard."

"Maybe she's just blind."

"Your mom."

"No, yours."

"I could create a problem," Bob said from the bunks, "by killing both of you. Would that work?"

They shut up.

||

Being a working band, a long-term success, was kind of bizarre. They still had interviews, magazine features, and of course shows, but she could feel them winding down. They spent more time together and less time out with other bands, picking reading over partying. It wasn't time to go back in the studio, not yet – she wasn't even sure they'd be able to come up with anything if they did. They were feeling their way around as much as they had been in the beginning.

"I don't really want to think this is the end," Mikey said when she brought it up. "Bamboozle and then what?"

"And then another record," she said firmly. "Maybe the last, sure, but we're not ready yet."

"We're old guys. Boring."

Frank had streaked on a dare yesterday, but a day before that they'd all been engrossed in Wal-Mart's selection of heating pads and muscle relaxants. She looked down, fiddling with her pick.

"We're new," she said finally. "Not old, exactly, just...changing. New."

She didn't think Mikey agreed, really, but he nodded and kissed her cheek.

||

"You're doing Bamboozle," Brian told them.

Gerard made a face. "That's a lot of time, though. We could fit a few shows in."

Rae nodded. "Maybe play clubs and stuff? Smaller places."

Brian looked on the verge of laughing, but it wasn't unusual enough when he dealt with them for any of them to comment. "A few clubs?"

"It's better than sitting around," Frank said.

Even if they hadn't been sleeping together for the better part of six months, Rae would've been able to read Mikey's expression easily. "It's a good idea," she said firmly. "Especially if we're taking time off."

"I have an idea," Mikey said, but he sat back and started texting instead of talking. Gerard raised his eyebrows, but let it drop.

Bob flexed his wrist. "I think this is what my doctor meant when she said we work too hard."

"You're already thinking of venues we could play at, aren't you?" Frank said.

Bob flipped him off, but he was nodding.

"I'll call Craig," Brian said.

||

"Mikey fucking Way."

He held up his hands. "I just called a few people, and they called Brian, is all."

"Mikey fucking Way," Gerard said again. He sounded ready to cry, which...okay, yeah. Rae was too.

"They think we might sell it out." Mikey's lips were upturned at the corners. "The label thinks I'm smart."

"Because you are, asshole." Gerard tackled him, wrapping all four limbs around him. "My brilliant fucking brother."

"Madison Square," Bob mouthed.

Frank fistpumped so hard he fell over.

||

A few weeks later, Rae almost irrecoverably wrinkled a picture lying in her bunk. It was the first and only time Gerard gave her a drawing without actually personally giving it to her.

He'd drawn the band in a comic book-y style, all exaggerated poses and weird jawlines. But instead of being in one of the many Gerard-centric poses they were used to for photoshoots, Rae was in the middle.

She was holding a guitar and Mikey was looking directly at her, and she looked very obviously female.

Being in a band with Gerard for so many years definitely hadn't left her with no impressions or idea of what it might mean. She got some tape from the lounge and put it on her wall, careful not to wrinkle it. When she was done, she texted him. i like it, you know.

He called back. "I wasn't sure."

"It makes sense. I'm not even sure what to say, you know?"

"It's been awhile. I just wanted you to know things had changed."

That made her laugh. "Yeah, I'd gotten the hint. But thanks."

Gerard hanging up on her didn't make much sense until he walked onto the bus.

He wasn't the same as he'd always been, of course; he looked a little shy, but definitely older and more aware. Mostly, though, he looked like her friend, as new and here and now as she herself was.

"It's awesome," she said, shrugging. "You know? It just is."

"So are you," he said, and started babbling about a Star Wars marathon before she had a chance to call him a sap.

||

With the end (of this leg, at any rate; Rae refused to think of it as the end, period, and refused to let anyone else call it that) approaching, she finally had to try to figure out a place to live that wasn't her parents'. Mikey had been talking about maybe getting an apartment together, but she wasn't completely sure about it yet; he was more stable, in a way better place, but she wanted to try living on her own. It was both the hardest and the easiest decision she ever had to make.

"Yeah, sure," Adam said over the phone. "I get it. I wouldn't want to live with him either, not right away. And it's a tiny place, kind of thing you could rent out in the blink of an eye."

"When did you turn into a realtor, anyway?"

"When you said you needed a house." She could hear the grin in his voice; Adam was the kind of guy who was kind of a shitty friend until you needed something, and then suddenly he wasn't. "It's nothing major, you know, I just called a dude who knew a lady."

"Sure." She turned the pick Frank had left out over in her fingers. "Thanks, then. I'll give them a call."

"Happy living." Adam hung up.

"Have you told him yet?"

Her head snapped up. Frank was standing with his hands dug in his pockets, watching her. He looked protective enough to remind her, sharply, just how close he was to Mikey. "I – no."

"Stop looking so nervous. I get why you're doing it." He sat next to her. "Just make sure he does, too."

"Will he understand?"

"A year ago I'd hit you for even asking. Or – okay, yeah, I wouldn't. But I'd want to." Frank shrugged. "It's different now. He should."

"Everything's different now." She pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead. Frank's new tattoo caught her eye. "For all of us."

Frank's hand covered hers, taking the pick from her. "I used to believe this, you know," he said, tilting the side of the pick that said "FTW" towards her. "Not literally, but...yeah, I don't know. Punk aesthetic."

"And now you're all married and grown up."

"Married, at any rate." He tossed the pick on the bus floor and crawled over to her, situating himself in her lap. "I had a point, but fuck if I know what it was."

"I'm not allowed to explain wanting to live alone badly for fear of you gutting me to save Mikey's honor?"

"Something like that." Frank sneezed on her. "You should buy a beanbag chair for when I stay over."

"Oh, I should, should I?"

"Fuck yeah, you should. And a trampoline."

"It's an apartment, genius." She sat back, pulling him with her. "Get your own."

"Maybe," Frank said. "Hey, can I borrow your DS?"

He passed out on her not long after that. She took the video game over and texted Brian to pick up some DayQuil.

Frank had been bundled off to his bunk for almost an hour when Mikey made it back to the bus. "That CD store had, like, an entire tape collection. I was worried it was 1980 again."

"Definitely not," she said, waving him over.

He stuck his feet in her lap. "This is what the whole hiatus is going to be like," he said. "Off days. It's weird."

"Maybe." She massaged the bottoms of his feet half-heartedly. "Frank's sick again."

"Shocker. That's what you've been doing?"

"Frank? No." She clenched her teeth, forcing herself not to dance around the topic. "I was looking for apartments. Um, for one person."

Mikey blinked. "One person?"

She nodded. "I want to live with you, someday. It's not that I don't."

"No, yeah. I get it." He leaned back. Her stomach felt like it was in knots – but he didn't move away, really, and that was something. "Wait. I get it."

"You do?"

"I do." He looked completely bemused. "Living apart so we can figure each other out. And...huh. I wasn't expecting to really understand."

They were on the same wavelength; it was ridiculous and a bit perfect. She smiled. "Okay, then."

||

Their not-tour started and flew past. It hadn't hit Rae before how well she knew most of the venues, how many times the band had played in them; even Austin with its gravel pit, or St. Louis with its ridiculously muggy air, had memory after memory folding themselves through her head. "It's bizarre," she said one day, sitting with Bob. "How quick it's going."

He raised an eyebrow at her. They all had bags under their eyes, and had talked (quietly, out of earshot of even the techs) more than once about how nice a break would be. "Really."

"Well, okay, not so much. But – this is the last time, you know? For a while, at least. It's weird."

"Weird is one word for it." Bob shook his head. "Fucked if I know how you guys managed. You did this longer than I did."

She thought of the numbers of times he'd teched for them, helped them out when they were all, even Frank, completely new to the game they were trying to win. "Yeah, no."

"Rae, we've talked about this before."

"You were there almost from the beginning, in some way. Seriously, we're a family, it's not like you earn points for years touring or anything. Even if the band ends, we'll still be family, and you're part of that, and – what?"

Bob shook his head, smiling. "Nothing. Gerard didn't really rub off on any of you, did he?"

She knew what he was trying to say, and yeah, okay. It wasn't all Gerard – never had been, really. "Like you're any better," she said after a few seconds' thought.

"Shut the fuck up."

"Doing gigs for free, going to Europe." She grinned when he blushed bright red.

"Maybe all of you rubbed off on me."

"Or maybe you were that way to start with, just like the rest of us."

Bob rolled his eyes, but she was okay with it; she already had her answer. "You're going to hang with the rest of us, right? After the tour?"

"It hadn't occurred to me to do anything else."

"Good," she said, satisfied.

||

All the venues were awesome and Rae had a good time playing them again, but Madison Square Garden was fucking Madison Square Garden.

"You're making me feel underdressed," she said when she saw Brian's tie.

"They'd flip out if you went up there in a skirt," Brian said reasonably.

"Or they'd just be terrified." She leaned against the wall, watching Gerard and Mikey gibber at each other. "I can't believe..."

"You guys sold it out." He was actually bouncing on his heels, eyes darting from one member to another. "Fucking sold it out, Rae."

"I know, I know." Backstage wasn't actually that impressive, but she could hear the crowd yelling as Adam bullshitted at them, and she...fuck, she couldn't deal.

Madison fucking Square Garden. "I sound like Gerard in my head," she said nonsensically.

Brian laughed. "We all do sometimes."

Mikey wandered over; Gerard had planted his face in Bob's chest, alongside Frank. "Madison Square," he said with a goofy grin.

She pulled him into a hug, ignoring Cortez's joking whistle. "We did it," she said.

"Sort of," he said. "It's a beginning, remember?"

She didn't ask what could possibly come next, if this was the beginning. They both, they all, knew that wasn't the point. "Yeah."

"At some point you guys have to go onstage," Matt said.

Mikey flipped him off and kept clinging to her. They parted when Brian pushed them gently, ran onstage.

The crowd screaming almost floored her.

It was both easy and not to launch into the set – last, last, last, maybe not the last time playing but the last time playing like this, in their sixth year and still fucking amazing.

She glimpsed Brian a few times, beaming at them from backstage, but she couldn't remove her attention from the crowd for long. Gerard was hamming it up as much as she'd ever seen, and every time she glanced back at Bob he was beaming. Frank was being Frank as hard as she thought was humanly possible, and Mikey...

Mikey, Jesus. Mikey was five times the potential she thought any of them, even Gerard with his booze and pills and obsession with death and his brother, had seen in the beginning.

"If we never play another show," Gerard said, "keep yourselves alive."

The crowd's screams had as much meaning behind them as Rae had ever heard.

||

They all five clung together after the show standing in a small, smelly, sweaty knot. Rae pressed her side against Mikey's and said quietly, "We're fucking amazing. I told you we would be."

"Liar. That was my line," Frank said. They all smiled and pressed closer.

The five of them stayed in a huddle until the techs all but dragged them away.

||

It felt good in weird ways to walk away from the bus, box and duffel in hand and backpack full to bursting. She'd miss the guys, but she knew as well as anyone else that this break was needed, and in some ways it felt like the other half of what she'd started by getting up onstage in the first place.

Mikey called almost as soon as she got to her apartment. "Is this what being grown up feels like?"

"Grown up and on vacation, maybe," she said. "I have an electric bill. Crazy."

"I'll probably forget about mine."

"I miss you," she said. Her refrigerator was empty; after a moments' thought, she put the pudding that had been living in her backpack in it. She should probably buy some kind of soda, too. "Come over soon, okay?"

"I don't know, I might be too busy buying blinds. Or like, vacuuming." Mikey laughed into the phone. "Seriously, you couldn't actually keep me away."

"I know." She wandered into the bedroom, kicking the mattress she'd had delivered. "I'm going to go to bed. Talk to you tomorrow?"

"Love you," Mikey said.

"You too," she said, and hung up.

She'd slept on plenty of beds in the past six years, but not like this. She was half tempted to just crash with no blankets, pajamas, or anything, but that would be cheating – she'd be more comfortable in this place if she was as uncomfortable sleeping as she'd ever been. Instead, she put sheets on the mattress, changed, brushed her teeth, and turned the lights off.

It was equal parts weird and nice; the only thing that let her fall asleep as quickly as she did was sheer exhaustion.

||

Mikey stayed over at her apartment more days than he didn't. As weird as having her own place was, having it not be Mikey's place too was weirder; after two months of calling it her apartment, she gave up and called him.

"It's pretty big," she said. "And half your stuff's here anyway, so..."

They did not, contrary to Frank's accusations, spend the next week doing nothing but having sex. They just happened to be doing exactly that both times he barged in on them.

"I'm going to get you a cowbell," Mikey said from his spot on Rae's lap.

"You're disgusting," Frank said. "I wrote a guitar line. It's kickass."

"But not Leathermouth kickass?" Rae said. She and Mikey had both already mocked Frank for being completely incapable of not touring.

"Different kind of kickass." He balled it up and threw it at her head. "We've got a few more months before studio time, but if all of us don't have shit by then, I'll fuck a goat."

"Oh, and I'm disgusting?" Mikey said.

"I'm just hardcore." Frank struck a pose that was more or less completely ruined by his happy smile. "Whatever. I'll see you guys later, okay?"

They waved him out, then locked the door, sharing shamefaced grins.

||

"Give me a beat," she said.

Mikey just raised his eyebrows. She sighed. "Okay, give me a theme?"

"Gazelles," Mikey said.

She rolled her eyes – and went back to the music she'd been fiddling with and frustrated because of for almost a week.

He knew better than to try to stop her. "This is good," he said after awhile.

"No, it's not," she said, "it sounds all wrong, I'm going in completely the wrong direction. It sucks."

"You'll realize it's good when you decide you're done," Mikey said. "It, um."

"What?"

He bit his lip. "It doesn't sound like one of our songs."

The thought had crossed her mind more than once. "Yeah, it'll probably be nothing."

"I didn't say that."

That thought had crossed her mind, too. "It's too early to be thinking about anything else."

"I'm just saying." He grinned at her. "You could totally start your own side project. It would be kickass."

And she'd have the reputation to be able to pull it off. "Are you trying to tell me I should call Frank for advice?"

"Not yet," he said. "But maybe someday. It'd be fun, I could be a groupie again."

"Nah," she said, moving her stool closer so she could rest her feet on his while she played.

It was comfortable, and when two hours later she doubled the tempo and came up with something that actually worked, it was successful too.

||

In the end, it took them almost two years to get back in the studio. They all came back with different experiences: marriage, Frank's bands, Gerard's comic books. Rae knew she'd be bringing ideas and more technical knowledge to the table, but she didn't realize how much until Bob said, "Christ, Toro, you should leave us for a better band."

She took the compliment with a smile instead of any kind of denial.

The album wound up being about a lot of things, but through it all, Mikey wrote in their album release bulletin, it was about bravery. Bravery with other people, bravery with yourself.

"Be fucking brave," Gerard told the audience. "None of us settled, and you shouldn't have to, either."

Ray felt a hand on her arm. She turned and grinned at Mikey, raising her head and playing a riff for a crowd. It was as good – or better, even – than ever.

In the end, the album sold enough to go platinum. It felt amazing, knowing they'd had that kind of impact, knowing they were back and ready to stay for a long damn time.

They were happy. Their band, their message that lived stronger than ever every time they got onstage – those were the things that mattered, and Rae didn't think they'd ever really be gone, even if their next break was forever.

||

Interviews were the only thing more common than shows; she'd dragged herself to dozens, and they'd been boring and pivotal and everything in between.

This particular interview was a step towards Rae feeling less weird about being a visible, talkative part of the band as much as it was about any of the questions the woman asked. Still, she was glad to have Mikey along.

"So how do you answer when people ask you what you do? Do you mention your success in what's typically a very competitive, unrealistic career choice? You certainly have bragging rights, name recognition, all that."

Mikey shrugged. "I just say I'm a guy in a band," he said.

The interviewer turned to Rae. "It must be strange, being a girl in that kind of environment. What do you tell people?"

She was tempted to copy Mikey, but instead she leaned forward, meeting the interviewer's eyes. "I just say I'm a girl in a band."

It was a featured quote.