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He falls asleep on Frank’s shoulder in the back of a bouncing truck. Nevermind that the combination of the heat, the rocky road, and the noise should keep even a narcoleptic awake, Billy is effectively dead to the world for longer than he can place. Exhaustion sneaks up like that, takes him over, and leaves him slumped onto Frank’s broad shoulder.

 

When his eyes open, he doesn’t jolt upright. Staying still, he pieces together exactly where he is -- and notes just how still Frank has made himself to accommodate him. Hands in his lap, loosely circled around one another, Frank stays as steady as a rock.

 

Making a show of grunting in exertion, Billy straightens himself up, stretching as much as the cramped vehicle will allow. “Oh? Morning, sunshine,” Frank says dryly, grinning in one corner of his mouth.

 

“Shit -- how long was I out?” Billy asks, rubbing at the corner of his eyes, and Frank shrugs.

 

“Not long,” he replies vaguely, and Billy knows that’s bullshit. It’s an unstated favour: not to guilt Billy about sleeping like a baby beside his buddy. Grinning at him, Frank continues. “Figured you’d want your beauty sleep.”

 

Laughing, Billy straightens up where he sits. “Yeah? You wanna switch out?” he asks, and he reaches over, shoving at Frank’s stubbled cheek. His skin is rough under his palm; his jawline hard. “Your big mug needs it more than mine.”

 

“Yeah, fuck you,” Frank counters casually, utterly lacking any spite, and Billy chuckles more.

 

“C’mon, Frankie,” he coaxes sweetly, “put your head on my shoulder; I’ll read you a bedtime story.”

 

Frank laughs, shoves him back, and Billy’s smile actually reaches his eyes.

 

--

 

“Hey.”

 

This is the part where they get in different vehicles and go different ways: not just him and Frank specifically, but with anyone who serves. You’re brothers for months and months, joined at the hip, but once you’re home the last thing you wanna see is any of those ugly bastards. Or, so Billy assumed was the general consensus. But, here Frank is, hovering.

 

Frank looks him up and down, seeming uncharacteristically uncertain of himself. One hand is fisted tightly around the strap of his pack, twisting it and shuffling it higher on his shoulder. His jaw works restlessly before he finally gets words out.

 

“Come for Christmas?” he says.

 

Billy blinks at him, and then he winces, laughing as if Frank is joking -- while he damn well knows he isn’t. “C’mon, Frank,” he sighs, his head tilting back, but Frank won’t let it be.

 

“I’m not coming on,” Frank insists.

 

Billy huffs, dragging his hand back through his hair. “Well, I’m flattered--” he starts, but Frank doesn’t let him finish.

 

“Then come.”

 

Billy doesn’t budge, and Frank’s posture gets restless. He shuffles, his head tossing slightly. “C’mon. I know you don’t have anywhere else to go.”

 

Once he says it, Billy can see the regret cross over Frank’s face. The annoyance bleeds into something soft and angry -- angry at himself for his own fumble. “Bill,” he says, more gently, and Billy isn’t sure if he dislikes that more than the taunting. Billy says nothing, nor does he balk when Frank steps closer.

 

“You, me, Maria and the kids -- and Maria’s mother who’s straight from Sicily and wants everyone to gain twenty pounds over two weeks,” Frank offers, his tone deliberately careful now. “She’ll also probably spend the whole time telling you how handsome you are, trying to set you up with all her nieces.”

 

Scoffing, Billy grins. “You do know how I like that,” Billy drawls slyly, and the smirk returns to Frank’s face. “If they’re as pretty as your wife, I’d hate to pass up the opportunity.”

 

“Who let you look at my wife?” Frank retorts, venomless as he pats his arm. “Okay. I’ll see you?”

 

“Yeah, brother,” Billy consents quietly. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

 

--

 

One night, he finds Frank outside of camp, laying on his back beneath a stretch of dark night sky. Scuffing his boots with deliberate effort, Billy makes sure Frank hears him coming.

 

“People were wondering where you went,” he says in lieu of a greeting, “I told ‘em it’s not rocket science; you probably wanted some time alone. Figured I was right?”

 

In the dark, it’s hard to see Frank’s face, but Billy can imagine the look he’s giving him. “You thought that, and you came after me anyway?” Frank asks dully.

 

“Damn right,” he replies. “I’m smart; doesn’t mean I’m not annoying.”

 

Heaving a sigh, Billy settles himself on the ground next to Frank. He sits cross-legged, casually close enough to Frank. “You stargazing?” he surmises. “Seems oddly philosophical for a guy like you, Frankie.”

 

He expects Frank to scoff, but he doesn’t. Instead, the response is a thoughtful hum, and Frank takes his time, thinking through his words before he speaks.

 

“My baby girl,” he starts, and Billy always notes that: Lisa is always his baby girl. Not just his daughter or his girl -- she’s not even really his baby, Frank Jr. is the youngest, but she gets the title all the same. “She’s a smart kid, y’know? She likes learning all sorts of shit -- she’s gonna know more than me real soon.”

 

“Won’t take long,” Billy jibes, which makes Frank smirk faintly, but he still seems too subdued for Billy’s liking. Sighing, he takes the cue, settling down so he’s prone on his back next to Frank instead.

 

“She’s got this big book of constellations, right?” he continues, “but you know New York. Smog and shit -- can’t see a goddamn thing. That’s what she asked in her letter. She wants to know if I can see any stars.”

 

His voice has a waver that Billy can’t identify outright. It’s too easy to label it simply on emotion, or loneliness, or missing his oldest child. Something is trembling deep in the core of him, and Billy can’t puzzle it out.

 

Opening letters from his family always leaves Frank a little different every time. Billy has nothing of his own to open, so his time is spent watching the reactions that cross Frank’s face in the aftermath. He’s seen it all: his joy and his sadness and his frustration -- but this is something different. Something hollow.

 

Billy can’t empathize. He has no pretty little packages to open, no letters in childish script or love letters revealing longing, no baskets of missing goods and no tokens of affection. Nothing at all. Maybe it’s a strength; given how Frank looks tonight, he might have been far better off without it.

 

“What are you gonna tell her?” Billy asks, tilting his head to look at Frank -- who keeps his gaze stubbornly skyward.

 

“Nothing,” Frank counters, his voice abruptly harsh. “I’m telling her nothing. Both of them. The kids. Their mother. I don’t want them to know -- anything about any of this. This place. The people. The things we do -- the things their daddy does.”

 

For a moment, Billy stays exactly where he is. When Frank keeps silence, making no noise save for shortened, deliberate breaths, Billy shuffles down on his elbows, shifting so his head rests on Frank’s broad chest. He can feel those tight, forced breaths, lifting him up and down, moving with the subtle pounding of his heart.

 

“I don’t know shit about stars,” Billy tells him, deceptively casual, and that’s all Frank needs.

 

It isn’t immediate. He takes a minute, his breaths slowing under Billy’s ear, and then he speaks again. Frank’s got a nice voice: deep in his chest, low and steady, and Billy finds himself fixed on every word. One arm lifts, and Frank starts to point out constellations. His finger moves, drawing out the shapes and patterns in the sky, and his lips name the old myths that they belong to.

 

Very suddenly, abrupt and hot in the pit of his gut, Billy wants to kiss him.

 

--

 

“Hello, beautiful,” Billy greets as he steps into Maria’s kitchen -- and it’s every inch her kitchen. Maria looks like she might have outdone herself with this year’s spread, and barely even looks frazzled as she leans in for Billy to kiss on both cheeks.

 

“Hey, enough of that!” Frank calls, jokingly offended, from the doorway as he passes from one hallway to the stairs. He’s busy wrangling up his son, who is stubbornly still wearing his pajamas, and apparently needs coercing to wear his Thanksgiving best.

 

Maria rolls her eyes, and grins as Billy straightens up in front of her. “This is for you,” he explains, passing over a neat little box of pumpkin pie. “What can I help you with?”

 

“Oh, Billy, you don’t need to help me,” Maria replies, waving her hand as she tries to find a place for the pie on the counters which honestly overflow with food. “Frank will be done with Junior soon. Grab a beer and sit with him.”

 

“No, I insist,” Billy says firmly, unbuttoning the cuffs of his dress shirt and rolling them up. “Let me help. Frankie, for all his good heart and soul -- I love him to death -- but you’ve got your hands full and he’s still a man’s man; the only piece of Thanksgiving dinner that he knows how to touch is the turkey.”

 

Billy doesn’t actively realize it, but once he starts talking, it’s hard to stop. “I never got that luxury, you know? Nobody was making me homecooked meals, or showing me how to do it -- I had to teach myself. Like with everything; like I always do. After a while, you know what the only thing you can count on in this world is, you know? It’s yourself. That’s always what it comes down to. I had to learn to feed myself with my own two hands or starve. So, yeah -- I know my way around a kitchen.”

 

Abruptly, he’s become too somber and he realizes it. Maria watches him for a moment, sizing up his tone, before she jokes: trying to scatter his unease with levity. “But you still brought me a store bought pie,” she teases lightly.

 

Flashing his teeth with a smile, Billy hangs his head. “Well, we can’t be perfect.”

 

--

 

Nobody talks about how boring war is. Everyone wants to talk about the heavy stuff, and rightfully for, but really, what really gets in Billy’s head, is the boredom. It’s a killer: a heavy digging into his shoulders, and there’s no way to even enjoy the reprise. Sure, it’s been weeks since he needed to pick up his gun -- but is he gonna take the risk to relax? Is he gonna accept the responsibility that when hell breaks loose again, he was too soft and cozy to act on it? The hair trigger in the back of his mind never relaxes, never ceases: so he’s simultaneously bored out of his mind and absurdly on edge.

 

It gives them endless time to bond. Tacky as it sounds. Frank makes it bearable for Billy, to an extent. They grill each other, but they get along, and they can play about fifty hands of cards without wanting to go at each other’s throats, which speaks for something.

 

“Hey.” Billy starts abruptly, eyes narrow and scanning him up and down. Restlessly, he drags his nail along the edge of his stack of cards, listening to them flick back in place. “Why do you let people give you so much shit?”

 

“You’re gonna have to be more specific,” Frank replies, squinting at his cards as he rearranges them in his hand.

 

“Everyone gives you shit about not being too bright -- myself included,” continues Billy. “It’s out of love, believe me, but you really don’t seem keen on correcting anybody.” Shrugging, Billy grins. “Not that I think you’re a secret genius or nothing, but you have beaten me the last ten times we played cards.”

 

“Maybe you’re just shit at cards,” Frank counters coolly, and Billy scoffs.

 

“No, I’m serious,” he says, and his tone softens to emphasize it: “doesn’t it bother you?”

 

“Shit, Billy,” Frank curses, smiling a little as he shrugs. “It’s just the same bullshit everyone tells everyone. You can’t take that crap to heart.” Reaching across their makeshift table, Frank gives him a nudge. “If you weren’t so damn pretty, we’d be calling you a dumbass same as everyone else.”

 

Feigning shock, Billy laughs a little. “Well, that’s just my cross to bear, then,” he concludes smoothly.

 

Frank chuckles, focusing back on his cards, and the smile thins from Billy’s face. It doesn’t bother Frank, clearly, but Billy is immediately aware of how much it bothers him . Billy isn’t certain he’s ever felt that strange, odd defensiveness over another person before -- he’s been far too busy protecting himself to lose any peace of mind over someone else.

 

Frank lays his cards down on the table, revealing another winning hand, and Billy huffs a disbelieving exhale.

 

“Yeah, you’re not an idiot -- but you sure are an asshole,” he tells him, taking a surprising amount of pride in Frank’s resulting laughter. Tossing his cards down defeatedly, Billy clicks his tongue. “Raven... Raven’s right.”

 

“Yeah? How’s that?” Frank asks, sweeping up the cards into his hands to shuffle. He’s got an odd dexterity about it -- the sort that catches Billy’s eye.

 

“Raven’s are smart as shit, Frankie,” Billy tells him flatly, grinning as he winks at him. “They also collect pretty things. Like you hangin’ out with me.”

 

“Fuck off,” Frank laughs, dealing out another hand between them. “What’s a blackbird good for then? Lots of smart talking?”

 

Billy pauses, pulling a face, and he shrugs. “Yeah, matter of fact,” he says. “Sing real nice, but they’re common as all hell. Nobody really cares much.”

 

Shaking his head, Frank makes an exaggerated frown. “Nah, that’s not you,” Frank drawls, smirking at him. “Beauty like you? One in a million, right?”

 

A memory creeps up on him: fingers digging into his cheeks with an accusation about his worth. Who does he think he is? One of countless little streets rats. Interchangeable and utterly forgettable. Dead tomorrow with no one to even lose sleep.

 

Then there’s Frank, sitting across from him, dealing him cards, and calling him irreplaceable.

 

--

 

“Hi, Uncle Billy,” Lisa greets as Billy steps inside. She’s hanging back around the entrance to the living room, peeking almost meekly around the doorway.

 

“Hey -- hello gorgeous,” Billy replies sweetly, and her cheeks colour before she rushes out of sight. Maria’s response is a sigh, shaking her head side to side.

 

“She’s getting old enough to think boys are cute,” Maria explains with a tiredness that implies her every waking second is devoted to this very subject. “I think she might have a serious fantasy about marrying you.”

 

“Hell, don’t tell your husband that,” Billy replies, “I’d be dead within a year.” On that note, Billy peers down the hall. “Where is the old man?”

 

“He’s uh… he’s not here,” Maria answers cautiously, as if she’s been caught in a lie -- which, technically, she has. More like one of omission. The invitation for Billy to come over didn’t explicitly state that Frank would be here or not. She coaxes him into the living room, and joins him on the couch once he takes a seat.

 

“I’m sorry -- I don’t know why I didn’t just tell you,” Maria sighs, dragging her hand back through her hair. “I just wanted your opinion and I was… scared, that maybe you’d think you need to protect him? I don’t know.”

 

Narrowing his eyes, Billy looks her up and down and he waits. Taking a deep breath, she collects herself beside him. “I feel like I’m losing him, Bill,” she confesses quietly.

 

Her hands wring together, her fingers spinning her wedding band; toying with the diamond of her engagement ring. Her voice chokes on a barely swallowed sob, that she can’t keep down now that she’s started speaking. “Every time I see him, there’s less of him,” she explains, her voice weak but not breaking; determined. “I look at him, sometimes, and he’s just gone. I don’t know where he goes -- or maybe I do, and I just don’t want to admit it.

 

“And I don’t mean to push this on you,” she continues, earnest and sincere and hopelessly desperate. “You’re his friend. I just -- you’ve been in this together, and you’re not like that, Billy. I don’t see that when I look at you. So what does that mean about him? What’s happened to him?”

 

Billy says nothing, his breaths steady and deliberate as Maria tries to calm herself beside him. Reaching over, he puts his arm around her shoulders, and lets her lean against his chest.

 

Billy can’t explain it to her -- if only he could. She has it all backwards. She thinks Billy is fine because he’s a well-adjusted little individual, and Frank is breaking down because he’s got some monster in him -- but it’s just the opposite.

 

Billy doesn’t blink twice at any of it because he’s already hollowed out inside; he’s got absolutely nothing left to lose.

 

Frank, on the other hand -- Frank has everything to lose, and it’s all slipping right out between his fingers.

 

--

 

More than boredom, going hand-in-hand, is the loneliness. Nobody ever wants to call it that; too afraid of seeming weak or clingy. Not enough of a man. But the truth of it is in there. Of all the things, Billy always found himself very capable of coping with that. He’s always been alone; this is nothing new. If anything, he has more company than usual.

 

But now there’s Frank. Frank who settles into the pit of his stomach with a new sort of ache.

 

It’d be so easy to touch him. Billy thinks about it -- has thought about it -- and it feels like a matter of time before he takes a gamble. It creeps up on him, and he gets hung up on little things: big hands, a deep voice, and how often his tongue slips up to wet his upper lip.

 

There’s a defiant response to the reaction. A crude, invasive feeling originating from an older man too generous with his compliments shadows over him. It taints the perspective, and on some stubborn, defiant impulse, he wants to smother anything that even remotely associates Billy with what that man wanted from him. Telling himself he wants it, even from an entirely different person, in an entirely different circumstance, feels like justifying what was almost forced onto him.

 

Billy knows better. He made his statement then, and he stands by it now. Comparing the two is a joke. What Billy wants, here and now… he wants Frank, with his big hands shuffling cards, his deep voice naming stars, his heavy body keeping Billy upright.

 

It would be so easy. That thought persists like a mantra. They’re lonely here; they’re all lonely. His bed is right next to his own. The distance could be crossed in two short steps, and he could fit right up against him. Billy could convince him too; that much he’s darkly confident about. Frank is already hiding the rest of this place from his family, why not hide this?

 

Maria wants to know why Billy isn’t as shellshocked as her dear husband. It’s because he’s the kind of man who could guiltlessly decide it’s perfectly in line for him to touch a woman’s husband, make him say his name, then still show up for Christmas dinner with a smile and bottle of booze.

 

He doesn’t, though; he stays put, and he tightens his jaw.

 

“Hey, Bill?”

 

While he’s not a superstition sort of person, it almost sounds like a omen. Frank calls out to him in the dark, and Billy answers back. “I’m up, Frankie.”

 

There’s a long drag of silence, tight and uneasy, before Frank continues, “I dreamt you were dead.”

 

His tone is hollow, disbelieving in a way -- as if he thinks the Billy speaking to him now is the real apparition, and the corpse in his nightmare is true reality. Billy sits up in his bed, squinting in the dark. “Nah -- alive and kicking,” he assures him.

 

Frank doesn’t answer. There’s an eerie edge around him, and Billy lets the quiet linger just a moment longer before he moves. These bunks really aren’t made to accommodate two bodies, but Billy worms himself in next to Frank, where he lays stiff on his back. “Move your ass,” Billy jokes, but Frank says stubbornly still. One hand raises, and Billy goes very still as Frank lays one big hand over his chest -- as if testing whether or not he can feel his beating heart.

 

“Don’t believe me?” Billy scoffs -- or tries too. Frank is too sobering, uncomfortably stony, and a part of him is lost somewhere. Billy offers a laugh, searching Frank’s face for some clue -- and he moves before Billy can speak, his hand so loosely, almost gently, curling around his throat.

 

“I did it myself,” Frank confesses quietly. “I don’t know why I did it. I don’t even know -- but I couldn’t stop.”

 

All at once, Billy tenses. Frank keeps his hand where it is, and Billy doesn’t know if moving him will do something to set off… whatever power the dream still has hanging over him. Slowly, Billy touches Frank’s hand with his own, easing it carefully off his neck.

 

“Okay,” starts Billy patiently. “Okay…” Cautiously, he shuffles down, squirming down next to Frank. Gripping his arm, Billy pulls Frank onto his side, rolling with him so they lay back to chest, spooned together in what little space the bunk provides. He lets Frank have his heartline: holding his arm around him so his palm stays right on his chest.

 

“See? I’m alive,” Billy tells him. “We’re both alive.” Then, testing his boldness, he guides Frank’s hand up, laying it trustingly against his throat. “You’re not gonna hurt me, Frankie.”

 

He doesn’t; he’s impossibly gentle instead. Slowly, Frank wraps himself around Billy -- it’s easy to do, with such little space to share between them. Big arms bracing around him, he’s swallowed up against hard muscle, and Frank’s warm face presses into the back of his neck, breathing low and unsteady against bare skin.

 

This is a memory that sticks, pressing down with haunting clarity, and at more than one point Billy conjures it up, using it for fodder when some forgettable person he’s taken to his bed turns out insufficient.

 

--

 

Frank proves himself to always be a surprisingly warm drunk. He never gets wasted; it’s too smart for that, but he lets Billy keep buying him beers to the point where he reaches that pleasant, happy buzz where everything is fond and soft for him. He gestures often with big hands, laughs sincerely, and is generous with his praises.

 

Billy soaks it up, these little things. Frank looks different in a button-up, like he’s playing dress-up rather than belonging. He never seems to want to wear it right: insisting on popped buttons and rolled up sleeves -- but it works for him. Billy has to say that.

 

“So I’m just tryin’ to get in and out of his goddamn store, right?” Billy says, anecdotes falling off his lips too easily. “I’m paying cash, so I can be quick. Easy stuff. I got places to go. But they still ask you all this shit at the registers, right? They don’t even tell you that they’re putting you in a system. They just start typing you up. You had that shit happen?”

 

“Uh-huh,” Frank intones around his beer. His thumb teases along the neck of the bottle, up and down, and Billy wets his lips.

 

“The chick wants my zip code.” Billy lifts a finger up. “Email.” Another finger. “Phone number.” A third. “And I said -- excuse me, miss, but usually I take a girl to dinner before I tell her all this stuff.”

 

“You tacky piece of shit,” Frank scoffs, shaking his head in disbelief. “Cheapest line I ever heard -- but it worked, didn’t it?”

 

Billy doesn’t immediately reply. After a moment, he gives a telling smile, and Frank laughs. “Son of a bitch,” he says, his hand shoving at Billy’s knee. “If you weren’t half as handsome you know that wouldn’t have worked, right? You know that? My ugly mug pulls out that line and she’d call security.”

 

Billy laughs with him, but it’s only half there; his focus is too intent on how Frank’s hand stays where it is a beat too long, gripping Billy’s knee. It’s probably nothing more than intoxicated lethargy to blame, but Billy can too distinctly feel the outline of his fingers, thick and strong and ringed.

 

That’s a detail he needs to reorient himself with: Frank never wears his wedding band in a warzone.

 

Frank squeezes his knee one last time before he pulls back, letting Billy refocus. “I’m gonna get the tab, all right?” Billy offers. Frank starts to argue, but Billy points a finger firmly at him. “Hey. Shut your mouth.”

 

Frank raises his hands disarmingly, quieting his protests and letting Billy leave the table. There’s a short distance from here to the bar, and he leans his elbows on it. “Hey, sweetness,” he greets to get the bartender’s attention. “Can we get the bill?”

 

She disappears to do just that, and Billy takes stock of himself in the mirror behind the counter. Idly, he drags his fingers back through his hair, and receives a chuckle from down the bar in response.

 

There’s a pair of men not far from where Billy’s leaning, and they’ve clearly had too many drinks to keep their common sense in line. “Hey, pretty boy,” calls one of them. “Shouldn’t your sugar daddy be the one paying for you?”

 

It’s the funniest thing his friend has heard in weeks, given how he cracks up, but Billy’s face remains impassive. He sighs, very deliberately, and he gives it time. He waits for the guffaws to end, patient as can be,  then calls over his shoulder. “Hey. Lieutenant?”

 

“Yes, sir, Lieutenant,” Frank calls back, without missing a beat.

 

“Seems you’re looking old,” Billy tells him, though his stare doesn’t leave the two men are the bar, who are growing paler by the second. “These two fine gentlemen think you’re my daddy.”

 

“Hey,” says one of them quickly and entreatingly, trying to cover his tracks and failing. “We didn’t mean…”

 

“Nah, I know what you meant,” Billy assures him lowly. He moves closer, shoulders shifting as he leans his weight on the bar. Billy knows the type: macho guys. One step up from trailer trash. Love the fucking flag but wouldn’t lift a finger to serve it. Maybe they’re shit for brains, but the realization that they’ve insulted their beloved military is probably equally as terrifying as realizing they’ve mocked two very deadly men. “But I just wanna make sure: is there anything else you wanna say to me?”

 

Give him any excuse. He’d love to break some teeth tonight -- any night. Frank doesn’t seem in the mood, but Billy could convince him if enough of a brawl broke out. Billy doubts he’ll get one, though, given how shellshocked these goons look. They’re too dumbfounded to even work up an apology. What comes instead almost is almost worse than the assertion that Frank’s paying for Billy’s time.

 

“Thank you -- for your service,” one sputters out, and Billy’s response is an exhausted groan.

 

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” he sighs, eyes rolling, and then he’s had enough of that. Luckily, the bartender returns with the tab; impeccable timing. He pulls his wallet from his pocket, making an effort to drop extra cash on the bar. “For our local patriots, huh?” he instructs the bartender, and he collects Frank on his way out.

 

--

 

The last thing Billy remembers is a warning yell before the bomb goes off. He’s too far for the explosion itself to give him any damage, but the walls that come down around him do more than enough on their own. Billy’s ears ring, deafening him for a time he can’t measure -- and the first real sound he can make out through the din is Frank yelling his name.

 

There’s something about that voice of his. At a moment’s notice, Frank can move between so softly spoken it seems uncharacteristically gentle for such a big man, to being guttural, raw, and snarling in a way Billy never thought a human being could be. The latter is what greets him now, and he doesn’t envy whoever Frank had to cut through to make it to his side.

 

Is he dying? Billy doubts it. He’s rattled and trapped under debris, but nowhere near dead. From Frank’s perspective, that may be hard to believe: for all he knows, Billy is crushed in half under all this shit.

 

Hell, for all Billy knows, he is too, and he’s just comfortably numb to it.

 

“Hey, Bill, hey,” Frank says to him, his voice stuck somewhere in between gentle and monstrous. He’s trying to be soothing, but that roughness is hanging on his edges: the threat and the rage at the idea of what might happen to him. “Hey, we’re gonna get you out, okay?”

 

He’s conscious enough, but winded, and some smart joke dies on his lips before he can make it. He doesn’t have enough air to take in, and he wheezes, tasting blood. “Hey, you’re okay,” Frank continues, and his hands move to hold his head steady. When Billy meets his gaze, Frank offers a shaky grin -- relieved that Billy isn’t too far gone to look him in the eye. “Yeah, there you go. Hey, beauty. You gotta stay awake, okay? Until I get Curt to look at you, you gotta stay awake.”

 

For a moment, Billy is convinced that if he had breath, he’d use it to tell Frank that he’s being an idiot -- but then they’re lifting the debris off of him, and something sharp and painful comes over him in a wave. Billy lurches, lacking air to shout, and Frank’s hands grip down tight on either side of his head to keep him steady.

 

They’re arguing between each other. Dazed as he is, it’s hard to distinguish noises, but Frank’s outrage cuts clear as a bell. Some jumpy idiot is panicking, talking about how they won’t be able to get Billy out, how another bomb could be waiting and they’re wasting time -- and Billy’s heartbeat thuds.

 

You assholes , he thinks viciously, his pulse racing in his ears. You cowardly, pissing assholes. Do not leave me here. You can’t leave me here.

 

But he can’t say that. The most he can do is choke, and try to survey the damage for himself-- but all he gets is pain again, and Frank hushing him, simultaneously harsh and kind.

 

“Hey, don’t look at that,” Frank tells him sternly, that sharp edge entering his voice again. “Look at me. You’re okay; just a little banged up. We’re gonna fix you right up. Hey?” Frank sweeps his hand over Billy’s cheek. “Hey. C’mon, beautiful--”

 

It snaps something in him, hearing Frank talk like that. Billy isn’t sure if he’s relieved or not that he can’t speak in return, that he can’t ask Frank to stay, to not leave him here, please--

 

Everyone always leaves him.

 

“Shut the hell up, Marine,” Frank booms, with terrifying finality, “and move your ass.”

 

They heave the mess up and off of him ,and Billy’s reaction is a harsh, coughing exhale. Frank laughs, on sheer delirious delight, and his lips come to press one hard kiss on Billy’s brow. “There you go,” he says, his voice a terrible mixture of triumph and terrible, exhausted relief. “We got you; I got you…”

 

--

 

“There’s nothing I hate more than fuckin’ -- thank you for your service,” Billy sneers on their way out of the bar. “Pisses me right off -- doesn’t that piss you off?”

 

“Can’t say I give it much mind,” Frank admits, hands tucked into his jacket pockets. “Why? What’s your piece, huh?”

 

Billy scoffs, shaking his head. “Because it’s the bare fucking minimum and everyone acts like it makes them a goddamn saint, right? Pats themselves right on the back for five little words,” Billy continues, aware that he’s approaching a rant that’s eased out of his lips by alcohol and built up aggression. “You know why I enlisted? Not because some man outside a high school parking lot made a compelling argument; I signed up because I finally got too old to bounce around foster homes -- and I had shit all else to do. So I joined. Between a gutter and a gun, I picked a gun -- no fucking question. Got a place to sleep and three square meals and some brotherhood. Oh, and death. A whole damn world of death. But that’s okay, because I come back from overseas and sometimes civilians feel the need to grace me with thank you for your fucking service .”

 

Frank’s eyes are softer than usual, maybe booze has something to do with that, but his voice is quiet -- uncertain of his own argument even as he makes it. “People don’t know what else to say,” Frank reasons.

 

“People don’t know shit -- period,” Billy corrects, his tone cutting. “Nobody else gets it. But you and me? We understand each other.”

 

“Sure do,” Frank hums and puts his arm around him, leaning his weight into Billy’s side. While there’s the easy excuse of intoxication, he clearly doesn’t really need Billy to keep him upright. It’s cold enough outside that their breath shows, but Frank’s body is warm beside him on the empty street.

 

“Part of why I always miss this, y’know?” he says, his hand squeezing down on Billy’s upper arm. “It’s always good to see you.”

 

“Yeah,” Billy starts, and he pauses for a moment, considering, before he continues: “because Maria doesn’t understand, does she?”

 

The pace of Frank’s steps slows, and he’s suddenly much more sober than he seemed just a minute ago. His eyes stay focused on the street, but his gaze seems miles away. “She talked to me,” Billy explains, shrugging as much as he can with Frank holding onto him. “I had to say something.”

 

“It isn’t like that, Bill,” Frank says, too quiet, and his head bows.

 

Billy cocks his head, trying to get a look at Frank’s face. “What’s it like, then?” he asks, keeping his voice soft. “Frankie. You can talk to me.”

 

“They don’t know,” Frank says stiffly. His jaw works, like the words are banging around in his mouth, scraping against his tongue. “They can’t know. I can’t put that on them. I can’t let them see me like that -- and she doesn’t get that.”

 

“I do,” Billy counters, a bit too quickly to be trusted. “I know. I was right there with you.” Frank hums, just a little, and Billy halts their pace entirely. “And I’m here with you now.”

 

Big as he is, Frank still seems to deflate against Billy. His entire posture slumps, and his forehead bends to press gently to Billy’s. He sighs, and his body sinks like he’s breathing out tension, and Billy holds him closer.

 

“Yeah,” Billy coaxes softly, his hand coming to the back of Frank’s neck. “Hey, Frankie.”

 

It’s easy. He can feel Frank’s breath on his lips, heavy and warm, and his weight leans into him like an unasked question. Billy tips his head, and he’s there: his lips pressing into Frank’s open mouth, tasting booze and cheap bar food, but mostly Frank -- just Frank, who balks when Billy tries to open him up with his tongue.

 

“Jesus,” Frank curses, and he’s gone wide-eyed, disbelieving. “Billy, what--”

 

Frank takes half a step back, and Billy pursues. Both hands cup the back of Frank’s head, trying to keep him near. “No, hey, I got you--” Billy insists, offering a smile that’s too winning and doesn’t reach his eyes. “Hey. I’m sorry. Don’t think too hard about it. I’m -- I’m just wasted, you know?”

 

It’s a lie, one he tries to sell with a self-deprecating laugh, but Frank doesn’t look convinced. His eyes are too weak, too searching, like he can see right through to him. Weight crashes down on Billy’s neck. That same sick, consuming fire licks at his belly, with the reality of what he knows comes next.

 

“I got my kids, Bill,” he tells him, his hands gently circling Billy’s wrists. “My wife.”

 

“I know that -- you think I don’t know that?” Billy forces a laugh. “Jesus. Look. Forget it happened. You know me: such a player I’ll hit anything once I’m drunk enough. Don’t worry about it. Okay?”

 

“Okay,” Frank parrots softly, but his hands linger on Billy. Carefully, he stays close with him, his arm coming back around him. “I do love you.”

 

Billy’s smile almost cracks.

 

What a fucking joke.

 

“Yeah, I know, brother,” Billy says, and that’s a lie too.

 

He knows what it means; what it always means -- what it always comes down to: he’s alone.