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when gerard inhales, frank hears it rattle in his chest like the last call of a dying bird. he ties off a tourniquet with fingers purple and bloated, the shaking barely noticeable in how fast he moves.

frank is emptying an iv, trying to manage a transfusion on a man so gone that he doesn't open his eyes whenever frank puts the needle in. the ends of his ears are black.

mikey is windswept in the coldest sense of the word when he returns. he pushes up his goggles and frank winces to see the real pink of his skin against the cracked white where his scarf doesn't reach. his eyelashes are brittle, frozen, his eyes bloodshot. ‘nothing.’ he says with a voice like barbed wire.

frank nods. mikey takes up a position beside him without a word.

he's wearing a mask under his scarf, and another mask under that- mikey doesn't trust the air, not out there.

-

gerard holds frank against his chest and neither of them speak. his heart is thumping a steady rhythm, alive alive alive and frank traces the hollow of his clavicle with fingers cracking and bloody. they hold each other's hands until they return to normal, both of them cramped and aching but warm , as warm as it gets.

‘do you think...’ gerard begins. he takes a raspy breath and frank feels his lungs expand beneath his palm. he starts again, his voice crackling in the back of his throat, but frank can feel it when he gives up; the porcelain feeling of his sternum sinks back down and the leaking-pipe sound of his voice goes silent.

-

there’s a pack of cigarettes left, and it’s supposed to last two weeks. today’s frank’s day, and he tries to savor it.

he can never decide what’s better- puffing the thing away in three minutes, greedily hoarding the itch in his lungs and the stop to the crawling of his skin; or dragging it out, a break that lasts almost a quarter of an hour, little tastes of menthol and heat that makes his frostbitten fingers ache when it burns down to the filter. it’s hellish, really.

he gets seven minutes in heaven. he kisses the faded orange with all he’s got. there’s a no smoking sign on the wall across from him. someone is screaming.

he gives the pack to mikey, because ray is gone when he comes back. (he thinks uncomfortably of the screaming.) mikey is amputating something when frank finds him. he hands over the cigarettes and tries not to look.

he turns a corner and lindsey calls, ‘hey! help me with him,’ and he moves on instinct, helping her to support the guy she’s walking with, half-conscious, and he’s thinking body all the way until they get it in a bed and he sees bert’s face. his hands are moving, hooking up an iv, and he looks to her, questioning- ‘he went on a supply run a couple days ago and never came back. jimmy found him outside with no mask.’

he looks thinner than he did the last time frank saw him; he was coming out of an operating theater, bloody and tired and snapping off a pair of gloves. he’d muttered, ‘hey frankie,’ as he passed, his lips cracked and red.

now, his hair is matted, and when lindsey touches it, she confirms frank’s fears. ‘frozen.’ the ends shatter in her fingers.

-

‘think he’s gonna make it?’

they can’t fit inside gerard’s bunk, not the three of them, so frank and lindsey sit outside while gerard cocoons himself inside with scraps of old coats and blankets. lindsey passes the whiskey to frank and says with a voice red and ragged, ‘dunno yet.’  there’s a fire burning low in the center of the room.

it’s not whiskey. it’s something that burns, though, and that’s all that matters. he passes it through the crack in the cabinet doors to gerard. lynz has some color in her face and it makes him breathe easier. liquor is all they have left that does that to you, liquor and sex if you can find it. cigarettes sometimes. hot food if someone can get it.

her lips are pink. gee’s eyes shine in the dim light, like a rodent by the side of the road. (frank can still remember things like that, like roadkill and trees and breathing air that tasted alive.) someone tosses and turns in a bunk across the room. the promise of a cough lingers on gerard’s breathing.

lindsey stretches her bad leg out and takes the bottle back from gerard. she passes it to frank without drinking. they don’t talk about the sores in gerard’s mouth, but frank watches him, sometimes, when he takes the inside of his cheek between his teeth and blood pours into his mouth, catches in the cracks of his tongue. frank’s felt the wounds with his tongue, tough scar tissue beneath tender flesh that tastes like blood, like licking the underside of a scalpel. he knows lindsey’s tasted them too. she wishes gerard would take after mikey and ruin his cuticles instead, dried blood making its home in the groove of his fingernails. (it makes frank sick to look at him work, the fingers of his gloves stained from the inside out. most things make him sick these days, though, so he hopes mikey doesn’t take it personal.)

‘don’t wanna lose him.’ gerard says in a scraped whisper. frank takes a swig from the bottle and the new warmth in his stomach makes it turn.

‘me neither.’ he never asked about bert and gerard. they knew each other before, but that’s all frank knows- he supposes it doesn’t matter.

lindsey’s canines are razor sharp and frank sighs into her mouth, the taste of liquor and raw flesh, skin ravaged by everything but each other. blood beads at frank’s lip and she sucks at it, soothing. gerard keens softly and frank can picture him, rocking up into his hand and whining and lindsey grabs at his hair and pulls him closer. they’re all so cold and rough and their hair smells like cigarettes and their clothes smell like sweat and the sickly sweet taste of whatever they’ve passed off as alcohol is laced into the shiver that rolls down frank’s spine and goes to his dick. nothing is gentle anymore but god, do they try, frank with one hand tightly interlocked with gerard’s and the other cupping lindsey's cheek, their foreheads pressed together and the twin clouds of their breath becoming one. ‘heretic,’ gerard calls him in place of dirty talk, ‘false prophet.’

‘antichrist.’ frank shoots back, breathless, and lindsey sinks onto his cock and calls him morningstar, dawn-bringer, leaves dark bruises overtop of his tattoos. they kiss so they don’t cry out and they hold each other’s faces and they press kisses to every bit of gerard’s skin they can reach and they have to crawl out of his bunk in the morning, all of them sore and cramped and swigging whiskey for breakfast.

-

someone’s made coffee, bitter and disgusting but warm, and frank’s had worse, so he bites the scab on his lip that lindsey left and doesn’t complain. bert pulls a flask from somewhere in his coat and pours it into his for a long few seconds.

bert can sit up now. they had to cut his hair, and his drip is all plasma and no morphine, but he’s holding up surprisingly well. frank’s hands shake faintly as he changes the dressings on bert’s fingers. they’re almost black, and cold to the bone, but bert insists he can still feel them and so they’ve been rationed a fire. gerard passes through later in the day with a blanket that bert refuses, charcoal-colored and rough but blessedly thick.

‘give it to someone who needs it,’ he says, voice rough. his throat is coated in ash; lindsey and frank had looked in with one of the hospital’s only flashlights while he was asleep, flickering, faint yellow revealing slate gray and snow white and the bloated, swollen shape of his lymph nodes. they had chopped at his hair with blunt scissors and sharp knives and burned it in one of the bonfires.

now, frank probes gently at the outside of his throat while he argues back to gerard, feeling the vibration of his voice, and he says, softly, ‘swelling’s down, bert. you’re gonna be alright.’

all three of them know that might not be true. that’s the problem with this. bert watched a girl die two weeks ago with sinuses crystal clear and throat perfectly healthy. they burned her at the end of the week and he had wrapped his fingers around gerard’s thin wrist.

‘i’m not nauseous.’ bert says aloud. ‘i was scared i’d get sick.’

frank knows the feeling. sometimes hunger will send him into a panic.

‘i think you’re through the worst of it,’ he says, honest. bert nods.

gerard turns his head, suddenly, like a dog, the sharp line of his nose thrown into relief by the fire.

‘saporta’s back.’ he says. dry thunder cracks outside.

-

they used to think the ash was snow, because of the cold. that was before they realized it didn’t melt in your fingers, no, it stuck- you breathed and it caught you in a chokehold, grabbed you by the shoulders and shook until you collapsed into the clouds, it rained down from the brown sky and it sunk its claws into you. (the sky isn’t brown anymore, frank’s heard. saporta tells him it’s gray now.)

‘found a supermarket.’ he says by way of explanation when he catches frank’s gaze on the way his canvas bag swells. something metal clinks inside and frank’s heart is in his throat, the dirty, traitorous feeling of hope crawling up his esophagus like a birth canal.

he could cry when saporta opens the bag and starts to take out cans, the labels faded and grayed but clear enough to read. it’s soup, and it’s lots of it. frank could kiss him. (mikey does.)

gerard drinks tomato from the can, cuts his lip on the jagged edge, laughs in relief and frank licks it off from where it trickles down his chin.

someone digs the busted-up guitar from one of the storage rooms and presses it into ray’s hands- he smiles and he laughs and he manages to play something, happy and with a melody that doesn’t wilt when his d-major is out of tune. frank can almost recognize the chords as he goes, a far-off memory. his soup has potatoes and shit in it, hot food that he can hold over the fire every now and then until it’s hot enough to burn, hot enough to provide some comfort. gerard finishes two cans on his own and it washes the blood from the corners of his mouth. frank and lindsey wrap their arms around him and hold hands under his shirt and he presses his neck up into frank’s mouth so he can taste his pulse point. they all stop shaking, for once.

they have to put the fire out, because there’s not enough filters left for everyone and no one wants to stop kissing and eating long enough to put on a mask. frank only wore filters in the beginning, sliding the thin sheets into place in his throat before he went out. mikey keeps a stash of them in his bunk.

frank kisses at gerard’s jugular for what feels like hours, feeling his cheek warm under his palm. gerard shakes with the effort of holding in a cough.

-

‘c’mon. more you eat, faster you get better. you know that better than anyone.’

bert’s hands are wrapped up tight and on strict orders not to be used, and frank’s trying to find a good way to help him eat his soup without spilling the shit on him. he doesn’t want him to lose his hands and he doesn’t want him to starve and bert is a stubborn piece of shit who wants frank to think he doesn’t care about either.

‘mikey hasn’t eaten all day.’

‘mikey’s not in a bed.’

bert opens his mouth to argue and frank cups the back of his head with one hand and tips the soup can against his mouth with the other. he’s relieved to see him swallow.

‘we’re gonna run out of that shit.’ bert says once he’s finished and frank is dabbing at his mouth with his sleeve. his voice has the same kind of rasp as when he’s taken a too-long drink of liquor.

‘we’ve run out of shit before. and jimmy’s out today, remember? gabe’s taking him to find that supermarket.’ it’s risky, having two of them out at once. more people to lose if shit goes south. more hands to carry food, though, and that’s what pushed both of them out.

frank walks, brisk, his strides short and measured against the dirty tiles. mikey’s doing surgery and so frank’s covering his patients, managing transfusions and changing filters and one woman cupped the side of his face with an icy hand while he redid the dressings on her leg and told him he was an angel. her iv is full of morphine, so she doesn’t feel it when he wraps the burns, but he winces all the same. these things happen more than anyone wants them to, the blackened flesh of the freezing, those who are so cold they welcome the licking of the bonfires. frank’s had to guide people away from them before, wrapped his arms around someone shaking so badly they can barely stand, and committed the cruelty of separating them from warmth.

mikey’s doing surgery and frank’s blood chills for a moment, watching through the window. gerard is with him, his hair tied back and- they look similar, far more similar than frank is used to. it’s eerie. both of them are bloody and exhausted and frank is staring, stealing the candid nature of it for himself.

lindsey’s chin rests on his shoulder, and he starts; she murmurs, ‘i’m worried about him,’ next to frank’s scorpion.

‘me too.’

they drink it in for a minute or two, the grotesque intimacy of the furrow in gerard’s brow while he makes an incision. (frank’s trying to figure out what they’re doing, watching their movements for some clue, and lindsey says quietly, ‘think it’s heart surgery.’)

a shout goes up somewhere down the hall and instantly they’re separated, at attention- frank catches a glimpse through the glass of the ways, and both of them have gone rigid, spines straight, but they keep their eyes on the patient. someone is yelling, and frank assumes the worst.

someone’s bolting the doors, and jimmy and saporta are holding bags on top of bags and lindsey asks the nearest person what’s going on.

‘they found a pharmacy.’ a kid frank vaguely recognizes says, his voice so thick with relief that it drips onto the floor like honey. lindsey sighs and her mouth rests hot on the back of frank’s neck. her arms wrap around his waist and the contact is a comfort.

frank could cry when they unzip the first bag and it’s brimming with painkillers- they’ve been out for weeks and as much as bert won’t admit it, he needs them if he’s ever going to be on his feet again. jimmy and gabe start handing out bandages, their hands shaking and red, rationing as best they can. frank ends up with some prescription shit in his kit, gauze and bandages and wrist braces and it’s like christmas morning. he gets gerard’s kit from his bunk and collects his share. the only things that don’t get handed out are the stronger opioids, shit like xanax that stay in the hands of the few people there who actually have medical degrees. frank was an english major, before.

lindsey fills bert’s kit despite the looks she gets. he takes it in his bandage-mittened hands and looks up at her with soft, dark eyes. ‘thank you.’

gerard and mikey blow through after an hour or two, from what frank can tell of the time. there’s a clock around, somewhere, but he hasn’t seen it recently. they strip out of their coats and hang them, gerard gratefully accepting a tin cup of coffee from someone. the walls start to shake faintly, a crack of thunder sounding somewhere in the distance. ‘static storm.’ comes the quiet, tired analysis of someone in a bed.

mikey tosses his gloves in the fire and reaches down his throat with a bare, spindly hand; he feels around, adam’s apple twitching, and then he pulls out his filter, gray-brown and thin between his two fingers. frank doesn’t like to think about how it got like that from inside the hospital.

gerard pulls him close with both hands in his hair and licks into his mouth, tasting like coffee and iron and sinking his fingers in and pulling. there’s urgency there, yearning, and when he pulls away frank holds his gaze, his pupils blown wide and all-consuming.

‘hey,’ mikey calls. ‘take it somewhere else.’

gerard collapses against him in the supply closet and for a half a second frank doesn’t notice the ragdoll-limpness of his body, the rasping wheeze of his breath, but when he does he lowers him to the floor with a frantic whisper of, ‘hey, hey, you’re- you’re okay,’ and he feels gerard’s pulse first, but it’s strong. too strong, when his touch lingers. gerard’s eyelids flutter, and they’re purple. frank stops himself from panicking as he touches gently at gerard’s lymph nodes, his forehead, searching for something to diagnose, and when gerard’s consciousness slips back he asks in a voice that’s searching for steadiness, ‘when’s the last time you drank water?’

‘ah,’ gerard says faintly, his mouth dropping open. ‘thought i was just pissing blood.’ he passes out.

they don’t have anything stronger than saline, but gerard drifts in and out long enough to drink some soup on his own. they put him in the bed next to bert’s and frank and lindsey curl up in his bunk. the thunder outside sounds like it’s crying.

-

bert and gerard are laughing, in the morning, and it has an effect on people; frank unfolds himself from the cabinet and it seems a little brighter. he makes the rounds with mikey and they don’t look at each other’s hands, the silent vow they’ve made. the woman with the burn on her leg ends up on a gurney, passes frank in the hall. in a few days they will burn her and frank will want to tell her he’s no angel. instead he’ll find a dark closet to blaspheme.

-

someone’s screaming by the front doors and frank doesn’t see anyone running yet so he takes the burden himself, nearly tripping over himself because he can hear the words now, and the one that makes him want to vomit the least is ‘medic’.

it’s jimmy, alone, one leg limp and bloody, his forehead damp and eyes wild and frank kneels beside him and pulls out his kit and takes over the yelling. ‘medic!’ he calls, and cuts through his pants with a switchblade, searching for the damage. ‘shit,’ he mutters.

‘is it- is it bad?’

‘i’ve seen worse. what’d you do out there?’ frank asks, trying to keep him talking because even the swollen skin is too cool to the touch and he’s not letting anyone die on the goddamn floor like this. he let a hypothermic fall asleep on him once, months ago.

‘got- ah, fuck, got stabbed.’ he winces when frank starts to disinfect it, but he holds still. ‘some fuckin’ guy was livin’ in a- a target, and he didn’t wanna see me. god, ow, fuck-’ he looks up at frank, and then seems to think better off it and lays his head down. frank ties a tourniquet and resolves to get a second set of eyes on the stab wound itself later.

‘think you can stand?’ he asks, and jimmy nods. he has to slouch to lean on frank properly, but it works. mikey comes around a corner, breathing labored.

‘heard you- heard yelling.’ he says and frank gives him a look; ‘right-’ he jogs over to take jimmy’s other side, and they move him into a bed in the nearest room. frank gives him a generous dose of aspirin with one of the last cans of soup.

he doesn’t speak again until mikey’s handling his leg- ‘shit,’ he whispers, and when frank looks up at him he says, ‘i dropped my bag.’

in the same moment mikey mutters, ‘frank, he got stabbed twice. i think adrenaline kicked in before he felt it, but it’s in his side.’

and so jimmy is bedridden and the supply run cycle grinds to a halt. ray stops by when he hears the news and the implications in his voice are clear- someone has to go out tonight. he’s gentle but insistent and frank and mikey exchange glances.

‘it’s gonna get dark soon.’ gerard says.

‘does it even still get dark?’ frank asks, and bert mutters, ‘unfortunately.’ he’s leaning on gerard’s bed and nursing a cup of coffee.

‘frank, you’re in the best shape,’ mikey muses, and he has a point- lindsey can’t run on her leg, bert’s still recovering, and frank vaguely remembers gerard saying mikey had bag lungs before.

but when frank gives mikey a side glance, he can see the gears turning, and he thinks worriedly of how he’s seen mikey push himself through days of no sleep- ‘i’ll go.’ he says before he can talk himself out of it.

-

when he comes back, he’s got a cough. he ignores it, because he has a fucking brain, and he isn’t ending up in a bed if he can help it. he doesn’t talk about it, when gerard and lindsey wrap their arms around him and kiss him softly, he doesn’t talk because he doesn’t have words for the cold, for the taste of the air, for the hole it carved in his chest. it’s a cough, he reminds himself when he makes his rounds. gerard’s got a cough, he tells himself as he pulls on a new set of gloves to be mikey’s surgery partner, and he’s okay. he makes an incision to start removing a piece of shrapnel or something resembling it from a 14 year old and reminds himself that he smokes. he smoked before and he smokes now and his lungs are shot to shit. he’s fine.

-

gerard is strong, this time, in the supply closet, and his breathing comes fast and heavy but clear as frank and lindsey take him apart, whispering things that could pass as sweet nothings if you didn’t listen to the syllables of them, dirty boy and angel and heathen, and gerard cums with ‘recreant,’ in his mouth, sweet eyes full of tears. he nuzzles into frank’s neck and kisses the bitemarks he left there.

-

a cigarette gets passed around and frank lets it skip him. he’s not afraid, yet, except that his stomach feels like it’s eating him alive and he hasn’t shit in a day or two and his mouth always tastes disgusting, even to him. gerard and lindsey don’t mention it, but he can see the look in their eyes when they pull apart. he sleeps in his own bunk. he lets lindsey and gerard share and he hears them whisper at night. it doesn’t bother him, not even when he hears the sharp k and the jersey drawl on the a and the fidgety sounds that cushion them.

‘you might have to lose the leg.’ he says, and jimmy nods with a very convincing imitation of someone who is ready and somewhat willing to lose a leg. (it’s an imitation that’s impossible to get right, because that person doesn’t exist.)

‘figured.’ jimmy says, and that might have some truth in it. he’s not stupid; he knows what it means when you get stabbed with a knife that has never been sanitized and walk miles in whatever’s out there. he’s seen what happens. they all have.

frank takes a breath, readying himself to change the dressings on the aforementioned leg, and a cough racks him- that’s not unusual, because he coughs now, but what takes him by surprise is the ferocity of it, the sharp pain that cuts through his chest, and panic starts to overtake him after a while, when he’s still doubled over and jimmy’s asking, ‘you alright?’ and he can’t draw breath anymore. his lips are coated in spit when he finally stops. it drips onto his shoes.

he inhales, shaky. ‘yeah. i’m alright.’

-

someone throws up in the hall. a kid, early 20s, dark hair- mikey hisses, ‘god, pete,’ when ray calls them out for backup.

‘someone help me carry him-’ ray says, voice tight and urgent, and frank hurries to grab the kid around the ankles. he tries to talk, slurred and feverish, and ray shushes him gently. ‘it’s gonna be alright,’ he says, even though frank knows the building and he knows where quarantine is and he knows ray couldn’t get lost if he tried. they drop him in a bed and frank pulls his mask up.

‘what now?’ he asks once there’s a door between them and pete.

‘we wait.’ ray says firmly. ‘no one in, no one out. he’s got morphine to keep the pain down, and if he throws up again, i’ll go in and give him an iv for dehydration.’

frank gnaws on his lip and ray says, ‘i’ve seen it spread, frank. it’s shitty, but we can’t risk him infecting anyone else.’

-

they end up burning pete, and something colds grips frank’s heart even as he looks into the fire.

gerard’s pinkie brushes his, and they link them together; it’s a small touch, but it’s something, in this room that smells of death. ray’s eyes are golden and shining- wet, frank realizes, whether it’s the smoke or something more- as he hefts pete’s body onto the bonfire. the sparks rise.

frank wouldn’t have known pete’s name if it wasn’t for mikey, and that gives him pause. they could’ve known each other before, or even after; it’s been a while. certainly long enough to get to know a person. frank would know.

he glances around, searching out mikey, and the first thing he notices is that he isn’t here- the second is slightly more alarming.

‘gee,’ he whispers. ‘that kid’s not a fucking medic, right?’

gerard looks over, and frank watches his eyebrows raise, minutely. ‘no.’

‘hey,’ he says, slightly louder, and the guy doesn’t react, standing too close to the fire and moving with a stiff gait, a kind of grim determination that takes frank back to the beginning, to the goddamn zombie panic that had taken what felt like the whole country at once; it flares up, now, and he reaches out and grabs the kid by the shoulder, jerks him around.

his face startles him. it’s young. too young.

they stare at each other for a minute, both of them caught off-guard.

‘the hell are you doing here?’ frank asks, and the kid snaps out of it. he can’t be more than 16.

‘i’m fuckin’-’ he pulls at frank’s grasp, but frank’s been moving bodies and eating pretty good for months, and he’s stronger. ‘i’m fuckin’ hungry, man,’

gerard makes a noise of disgust, almost scandalized, and it’s then that frank realizes they’ve attracted attention. it’s also then that his lungs decide they can’t take the smoke. his pinkie finger tightens around gerard’s and a cough seizes him- he lets go of the kid and buries his face in gerard’s shoulder, heaving. he can distantly hear ray stepping in, his voice low and the horror in it hidden well. gee reaches up and rests his hand between frank’s shoulder blades. his own blood pumping echoes in his ears for a long time.

later, when they pass each other in a hall, frank walking with lindsey, he’ll see a dark stain on gerard’s jacket and realize with a chill that it’s where his mouth had rested. he hadn’t noticed in the low light, and neither had gerard. (he’d felt something, in the back of his throat, and the new stain blends in uncomfortably well with the rest of the blood on gerard’s jacket.)

-

‘you know dysentery’s back?’ bert says, warming his hands over the fire.

gerard snickers.

‘’m serious. bumped into a guy on my last run who said there’s a whole group of people out west who brought back fucking dysentery.’

frank laughs. it feels nice, to laugh and smile and think about anything but the look in that kid’s eyes when frank turned him around- it’s getting to him, for some reason. ray said his name was brendon. ‘he smelled it,’ ray had said, apologetic, like it’s his fault he’s gotta say something like that. ‘he hadn’t eaten all day, and it- it smelt like meat, frank, god, we gotta- we gotta do something,’ and frank had opened his arms and let ray shut his eyes against the fucking reality they’re living in.

so dysentery’s funny. gerard reaches over and rubs his back. they’re all sitting in a campfire circle outside what used to be the emergency room, and the one clock frank knows they have says it’s 10:43. he wonders if it’s am or pm. he’d guess pm, if someone made him guess, because he’s tired. they have to rely on the supply runners to tell if it’s night or day; at the beginning, they were probably right about it on the inside, but it’s been so long since there was a sun that you could see. they’ve probably gotten switched around by now.

the thought makes frank kind of sick, and in his current situation, that makes him want to scream a little bit, so he leans on gerard’s shoulder and lets the conversation go on around him.

-

he wakes up coughing. he wakes up seizing, in the dark, tears rolling down his face, and he’s grateful for once that he’s never had a problem fitting in the cabinets, and then the doors open and he’s looking up through blurry eyes at gerard and lindsey. twin concern that would normally make him feel guilty except that he can’t feel anything but the knife in his chest, the raw feeling of his throat, and he slaps his hand over his mouth just in case.

frank doesn’t really hear the words when they pull him out, but he knows the sound of worry well enough, and he’s grateful for the arms that support him because god knows he wouldn’t be able to do it on his own. he swallows the rest of the cough, eyes watering anew, and wipes his hand on his pants- when he looks up, lindsey’s dark gaze is holding his. gerard’s still doting, rubbing his back and feeling his temperature, but lindsey is watching him. her expression is grave, and frank can respect her bedside manner when she takes a breath to collect herself and then gets him a bottle of water.

they’re working, side by side, when she mentions it. frank’s gloves are slick as he reaches down an unconscious man’s throat to change his filter; lindsey’s are occupied with finding a vein on the girl who sleeps beside him.

‘how long have you been sick?’

‘i’m not sick.’ he says. he pulls out the filter, graying and flimsy, and discards it. ‘not yet.’ he slides a new one into place, bright white. ‘i’ve been coughing for a couple weeks. since i took over jimmy’s supply run.’

the needle sinks in. he can hear it, and once upon a time the sound would’ve made his skin crawl. ‘how long has it been...’ he can hear her fiddling with the blood bag and he doesn’t know if she’s trying to steel herself or not. ‘bloody.’ she finishes. ‘it looked pretty bad this morning.’

‘few days.’

-

‘do you think this will ever end?’ gerard asks, his voice a raspy whisper. frank can feel his heartbeat.

‘dunno,’ frank mutters. he’s dead. he knows that. but he’s greedy and selfish and he hoards this time with gerard, the close contact that means they’re sharing breath.

‘i hope it does. maybe we can- maybe we can get married. the three of us. or get a house, at least, with a big bedroom, and a bed that fits all of us. god, frank, do you miss beds? i almost didn’t want to get better, when i was dehydrated.’ he takes a shaky breath in. frank can feel his lungs expand.

‘i miss the sun.’ he says. ‘i miss knowing what day it is,’ and they’re not supposed to talk about this stuff, because everyone silently agreed it would make things worse, and the ache in frank’s chest that feels entirely separate from his cough seems like evidence of that. even so, he finds himself eager to join in.

‘bet it’s thursday.’ he says, and gerard makes an amused sound, a little huff of breath that he can feel on the top of his head.

‘why d’you think so?

‘feels like a thursday.’

gerard hums, mulling it over. ‘yeah. guess it does.’

they lay there in silence for a little while, just feeling the shape of each other.

‘wonder if the animals survived.’

frank doubts it, and it makes him sad. the first of the static storms killed anyone caught in them, and frank thinks of the stray dog that used to visit his porch every now and again.

‘i hope so.’ there’s another pause, and then- ‘would you want to get married? if the world ever goes back.’

‘what, to you?’ frank jokes, and gerard jabs him in the side. ‘yeah,’ he says, serious. ‘i think so. i’ve never been married.’

‘were you single? before?’

‘yeah. i broke it off with my girlfriend a couple months before. i hope- i hope she’s okay. it was a mutual thing, y’know. we still liked each other in the end.’ he shifts a little closer to gerard, burrows a little deeper into him, trying to get the thought of jamia out of his head before he starts to worry about her. he’s worried about people before; his parents, his friends, and it never ends well. he used to drive himself crazy with it. there’s just no way to know, not for sure, when you leave everyone behind, and so there’s nothing to settle the worry either way- gerard presses a kiss to the top of his head. his hand comes up under frank’s shirt to rub his thumb over his spine.

eventually, frank sleeps, and for the first time in a while, he dreams.

they aren’t nightmares, though. not the terrors that came in the beginning. the dreams all flow together, fuzzy at the edges, but the constant through them all is the warmth. he’s always warm, the sun on his back, his face, his arms; and in all of them, gerard and lindsey are smiling, laughing, kissing. the sky is blue again. frank walks down the stairs of his childhood home and he’s wearing a wedding ring, something wrought and ornate and more gerard’s taste than his own. he’s swimming at his old town pool except he never has to hold his breath and the sun is always shining.

-

gerard finds lube somewhere, the horny bastard he is, and they have a field day with it, frank’s mouth on the nape of his neck and their bodies flush; frank stifling a sob as he cums around gerard’s cock, feeling full and hot and loved; lindsey crooking her fingers with a grin and gerard whining, reaching out for a hand to hold as he babbles something that might be poetry. ‘i love you,’ they tell each other, ‘i love you.’

-

frank wakes one morning with the worst stomach ache he’s ever had.

he has to force himself to breathe, so he doesn’t cry, so he doesn’t go out there broadcasting that he is so far from what passes for healthy. he feels around for his kit in the dark and shakes out four painkillers, the rattle of the bottle made worse by the shaking of his hands. he lays there for a long time, listening to his own shallow breathing. he waits for the pain to dull and eventually it becomes bearable. i’m dead, he thinks to himself, even as he opens the doors. he’s going to die if this keeps up.

gerard kisses him, and pulls away- frank thinks it’s the rotten taste of his mouth, but gerard’s brow furrows and he says, ‘you feel hot.’

‘yeah, i’m sure you think so,’ he cracks, and it earns him an amused smile, but once it slips away that serious expression comes back. ‘i’m fine.’ he says, reassuring. ‘probably just have too many blankets in there.’ gerard seems sated by this, returning to the task at hand (kissing frank until they both forget the world), but it doesn’t quell frank’s own quiet terror.

he manages to work through it. he gets through the day, he gets through working and kissing and talking and all the things that are expected of him and he’d started wearing a filter a week ago and stopped when he coughed the whole damn thing up, bright red and dripping. he’d burned it.

lindsey kisses him like you kiss the dying. sweet and aching and tender and he wants to cry. he wants to scream. he changes filters. he draws blood. he amputates.

he gets through the day, and then he gets through another, and another, and the pain is a companion, the painkillers are a routine, and he doesn't realize how all-consuming it is until the bile is finally rising up in his throat- he presses his hand over his mouth, no no no no and he vomits, heaving with his whole body, his throat rubbed raw and stinging.

‘oh, fuck-’ he's panting, and his hand is dripping with it, and then he seizes again and tears prick at his eyes. mikey turns away, pulling a mask up over his nose, but gerard is frozen, staring at the scarlet mess on the ground between them. frank’s mouth tastes like copper and puke and he gasps out, ‘i-i'm sorry, that's fucking,’ a cough grabs him by the throat and he shakes with it, staining his sleeve red. ‘that's fucking gross.’

he's sick. the horror on gerard's face is evident, sunken dark eyes wide with something like sorrow. frank's shaking. his head is spinning. ray's hand finds his lower back, wide enough to span the space between his hips. colder than a hand should be. frank is sick. he doesn't need to hear ray say it.

-

gerard visits him, in quarantine. only his eyes are visible, but it's enough. they're wet, and frank winces to see it because he knows how it must sting. gerard blinks, and the wetness recedes. his eyes are red and frank tries to sit up, to move at all, and the pain that racks through him makes his stomach turn violently.

‘you didn’t tell me.’ gerard says, his voice raw and broken. ‘you’ve been sick, since- for months, frankie.’

frank doesn’t know what to say.

‘lindsey told me,’ gerard goes on, and he manages, ‘i didn’t tell her either,’ in a voice dry and croaking.

‘yeah. asshole.’ his eyes are wet again, but they’re smiling. ‘i brought you some water.’

he helps frank drink, and when he’s done he asks, ‘how’d you even get let in? ray’s pretty serious about quarantine.’

‘told him i’d kill him if he didn’t let me in.’ frank laughs and immediately regrets it; all of him protests, and it takes concentration to keep from vomiting on his bedsheets.

‘what about lynz?’ he asks.

‘she’s worried sick, but ray would only let one of us.’ he’s adjusting frank’s drip and he tries to crane his neck to see why- but a second later he feels it in his bloodstream. more morphine.

painless death, frank muses as he feels himself slipping. merciful. not the worst way to go. he tries to say ‘i love you,’ with his clumsy mouth, but he has a feeling gerard knows.

-

he doesn’t dream. he lingers in a gray-black limbo, a state that keeps him from feeling truly asleep.

-

he thinks, sometimes, that he can hear crying. that doesn’t seem like heaven or hell, really- maybe hell. he supposes he deserves hell, for fucking away the end of all days. seems like the life-saving should earn him a ticket upstairs, but who’s frank to tell god how to do his job. he wishes he could help whoever’s crying, though. it hurts.

-

when he comes to, he realizes his morphine was replaced with something else, and it pisses him off. his stomach feels like it’s been cut open.

when he comes to, he sees the shape of a someone in the chair beside his bed, slumped over and sleeping, and it occurs to him that gerard must’ve been the one crying. he looks kind of peaceful, now. he’s soft when he’s sleeping, his eyelashes and the gentle lines of his lips, and frank doesn't want to wake him.

he raises his right arm, the one without an iv, and presses a hand to his forehead- damp, and warm, but not hot. not burning. he feels again with the inside of his wrist and the relief that seizes him is almost as good as the morphine was. he still aches, but he’s alive, and that’s what he's choosing to focus on.

he sinks back down into his pillows and watches the rise and fall of gerard’s chest, and imagines him doing the same, sunken into the bedside chair and tracing the planes of frank’s face.

when he dozes off again, it’s soothed, comfortable, with the knowledge of his broken fever and the thought that gerard will be there when he wakes.

-

he’s almost too late.

frank’s hurtled back into consciousness in motion- slow, even, movement. a gurney, his brain supplies, to go to the fire. you’re dead. except he’s very much not dead, and he blinks until his vision clears and he stares up at the underneath of gerard’s chin, dotted with hints of stubble. a drop of water falls on his face, and he makes a disgruntled sound; gerard looks down, eyes wide, and his mind catches up to everything enough to say, ‘hey.’ he clears his throat. ‘not dead.’ and then he’s crying, too, and he sits up enough to capture gerard’s mouth with his own.

‘frankie,’  he whispers, like he’s in awe. ‘i missed you.’

lindsey steps out of a door down the hall, face blotchy and red, and gerard doesn’t so much as call to her as much as he shrieks something joyful and she understands in a moment, and her kisses land everywhere that gerard’s don’t.

-

there’s a hint of sun, one day in what frank thinks is june.

he’s out with bert, in a filter and a mask and another mask, because gerard and lynz are worriers, and they’re leaving a supermarket when bert says, quietly, ‘you see that?’

frank looks up through the cloudy plastic of his goggles, and yeah, yeah he does, the break in the gray where it looks almost white, and through there- yellow. not too bright to look at, like the sun of his youth, but it’s unmistakable.

they gather their bags and start to walk back, and later, frank will whisper this into the darkness as he melts into lindsey and gerard, and they’ll cry with him, all of them cracked and crumbling and hopeful. tonight, frank will fall asleep and he will breath deep and clear and hold onto the people he loves; now, he looks up at the hole in these clouds that span miles, and he thinks that maybe things will be alright.