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Weaker with the Lights On

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Frank's been back in Jersey for a week already and he’s barely had a moment to himself. It’s mainly phone calls - old friends and distant cousins who saw the news and had to check in to soothe their own consciences or curiosities, who wouldn’t leave him alone if he didn’t pick up the phone.

Well, no. That’s being ungenerous, and Frank is trying - sort of - not to do that.

But it’s exhausting. On top of all that he’s got the tour to cancel, which is something he’s pretty sure the record label is supposed to take care of except that he’s supposed to make statements and apologies and play nice with promoters who shelled out on PR for him. It’s giving him enough trouble that Jamia takes pity on him and packs the kids into the back of her car and takes them to visit her parents, because if Frank’s going to get back to the normal parts of family life he’s got to take care of a whole heap of paperwork.

It’s late that afternoon when somebody knocks on his front door, a brisk shave-and-a-haircut rhythm. Frank burrows deeper into the blankets on the couch and pulls his laptop up onto his stomach. He has emails to send. He doesn’t want to stand up. Anybody he actually wants to see would’ve called first. A thousand justifications not to answer, each one lamer than the last. The knock comes again, staccato in the stillness. It makes Frank regret moving to such a residential neighborhood; there’s no traffic sounds outside to muffle the noise.

For a minute he thinks he’s in the clear, and then there’s the terror-inducing sound of the handle being turned, the scrape of a key in the lock, and Frank has the half-second panicked thought of, Christ, I’m gonna die and I’m not even wearing pants, before the door swings inward and he sees James on the other side of it.

Frank lets out a breath. “Fucker,” he says. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”

James smiles and kicks the door shut behind him. “I could say the same to you,” he says. He’s got a brown paper bag of groceries under one arm and he deposits it on the hall table, toeing off his shoes in the same motion. “Not that I haven’t wanted to hit you with a bus myself from time to time, but who’d you piss off in Australia?”

“Shut up,” Frank laughs. It’s a relief, actually, to just joke about it. Everybody’s been so doom and gloom, and it’s bad, yeah, but they’re all alive, a little worse for wear but not permanently damaged. James always knows how to make a disaster into a good time.

He’s looking some kind of sentimental, though, looming over where Frank’s sprawled out on the couch. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he says, and puts his hand lazily on the side of Frank’s head.

Frank rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, secretly, quietly pleased. “What are you doing here?”

James looks guilty, then, and he says, “Don’t be mad,” which makes Frank’s stomach lurch with anxiety. “Jamia texted me.”

Oh. “Oh. Why?”

“She told me she was getting the kids out of your hair and that you were doing work and that you were -“ He pulls out his phone and scrolls through his texts. “- probably sulking and might need a buddy.” He looks up at Frank. “I’m a buddy. I brought no-bakes.”

Frank makes a half-formed grabby gesture, and he’s not sure if it’s for James or for treats, but James ruffles his hair and gives him that look again, all unguarded and sweet.

“Quit looking at me like that, I’m not dead,” he grouses. “And since you’re up and I’m all, y’know, injured… Will you throw me a pair of pants?”

James wanders off and a minute later Frank gets nailed squarely in the face by a balled-up pair of pajama pants. He can hear James in the kitchen, puttering around, whistling to himself. He checks his phone and there’s a text from Jamia from hours ago that he missed somehow: sending james to make you dinner - play nice! As if Frank and James ever do anything besides play nice with each other. But they all know how much Frank hates being fussed over.

Determined to prove them wrong, Frank struggles into the pajama pants and gets to his feet with the idea that he should at least be keeping James company.

It’s not that Frank can’t walk - he wasn’t even hurt, really, but he’s sore all over and every doctor from here to Australia has recommended “keeping off that knee until it’s feeling better” so he hobbles his way around the house, hanging onto any available surface, wincing when he puts too much weight on his left leg. When he lurches into James’s sightline James makes a wounded face and abandons the whatever-it-is he’s cooking to help Frank into a chair.

“You should’ve asked me to help you,” James chides.

Frank takes a moment to reflect on how odd it is to see James in caretaker-mode given the percentage of the time he’s spent with James while they’re both off-their-asses drunk or fucking around with electronics or both. He’s wearing his hair long, still, tucked back behind his ears. His tour with the Get Ups only just ended but he looks well-rested anyway. That’s James for you.

“I can walk by myself,” Frank says. He’s petulant, mainly because he knows James is right. There’s no reason to make things harder for himself than they already are, Frank thinks, except for that thing about old habits. He takes a breath. “Thanks.”

James smiles at him and goes back to his cooking, stirring something in a mixing bowl with a long-handled spoon.

“So I have to ask,” James says after a moment. “Are you doing okay?”

Frank watches him tip the mixing bowl up over a baking pan, spooning out heaps of marinated vegetables studded with sprigs of rosemary and thyme. His heavy brow is furrowed, the laugh lines that bracket his nose deepened like he’s focusing.

“Dude, my hospital chart is like, available in the press release. I’m fine.” He pauses. “It’s a lot of worry for nothing.”

“Well, not nothing -“ James starts.

“No, you’re right, but like. I’m fine. Nobody needs to be worked up about that, you least of all.”

James puts the pan of vegetables into the oven and sets a timer before turning to Frank, wiping his hands on his jeans. “I know you’re not, like, injured. But I also know you, dude. No offense but you’re the last person on earth I’d expect to handle cancelling a tour well.”

James has always been able to read Frank like a Highlights magazine.

“Well. Y’know.” Frank shifts uncomfortably. Stripped of the attitude he wears for the kids, there’s nothing between his nerves and James’s words, and when James comes over and puts a hand on his shoulder he smells herbaceous and homey. Frank leans to the side just enough to rest his forehead on the curve of James’s stomach and he sighs. “It just sucks.”

“I know.” The hand on Frank’s shoulder slides up to the side of his neck and hangs onto him for a minute. James’s palm is warm and familiar and he’s soft everywhere Frank is touching him, and he puts his arms around James’s waist to draw him closer and just hug him.

James helps him back to the couch and hooks his chin over Frank’s shoulder and watches him send emails. He cracks jokes about promoters they both know and clubs they’ve played together and the smell of roasting autumn vegetables permeates the house.

When the timer goes off James offers to carry Frank back to the kitchen table. Frank may be small but he’s dense, and James has been a pack-a-day smoker since he was fifteen, so they walk through the house together instead with James’s arm around Frank’s waist, letting him lean on him. They drink lukewarm Dos Equis and eat dinner and James makes Frank laugh so hard he inhales a piece of half-chewed potato and has to hack it back up like a cat, eyes watering.

“The kids are gonna be alright, you know,” James says offhandedly. He’s elbow deep in soapy water taking care of the dinner dishes. A honeycombed spiral of bubbles obscures the head of his sandworm tattoo. Frank fixates on it until he realizes James is waiting for an answer.

“I guess so,” he says. It’s what he really doesn’t like about cancelling dates, and they both know it: as much as it can wear on Frank, the way his fans can put him on such an unreachable pedestal, he still feels responsible for them. Their youth, their naiveté, their frustration and grief and the way they’ll support him in anything because MCR was bigger and more important than anything any of them could’ve achieved on their own - Frank needs that, too, sometimes.

James pulls his hands up out of the soapy water and shakes them indelicately. He crosses the kitchen and puts both his wet palms on the sides of Frank’s head, soothing him, the odd friction of damp skin on dry hair and the way James’s kind, dark eyes meet his.

They’re kissing before Frank knows quite how it happened, except that this is the way it always happens. James knowing him so well, the easy comfort they take in one another, some shimmering moment that leaves them open to the possibility. James cups both sides of Frank’s jaw in his hands and kisses him sweetly, tightlipped, pressing his mouth to the corner of Frank’s blushed lips and then his cheek and then the arch of his eyebrow before pulling back.

“James,” Frank says. He gets both his arms around James’s neck and pulls him close, and James moves both of his big hands down to Frank’s waist and holds him. There are things that bear saying and things that don’t, and they’ve never needed to talk about this, not really. Frank presses a sloppy kiss onto the side of James’s neck.

It takes longer, probably, than it would if they’d just walked, but James carries Frank to bed. He pours Frank down on top of the duvet and sprawls out beside him, warm and heavy, and Frank curls up against him without hesitating. This, they’ve always been good at.

James nudges Frank over onto his side and spoons up behind him, one arm around Frank’s chest like a seatbelt. The pressure soothes him, makes him feel safe. He has half a mind to turn around in James’s arms and really kiss him, get them both so amped up they can’t help but fall to pieces together. That’s familiar territory, where Frank knows himself, knows how to be in control and how to give that control away. Maybe that’s why Jamia texted James in the first place. The thought makes Frank shiver.

And he does want to, sort of. To let James get him on his back and hold him down, to feel something good and uncomplicated and let it subsume him. Yet he can’t quite make himself break the comforting hold James has on him, the way James’s knees are nested behind Frank’s, the intermittent heat of James’s breath on his neck. It’s probably good, he thinks, that he lets himself be taken care of. It doesn’t seem so overbearing, so grating and needless, when it’s James doing it.

Frank draws one of his arms in close to himself and lays it over James’s, and gently laces their fingers together so that their joined hands rest over the place where his heart is beating its slow, heavy thump.

It’s not so late in the day yet, but Frank doesn’t think he’ll want to move again for a long while. He’s comfortable. Beside him, James is quiet the way he gets sometimes. Frank’s never known anyone to get “lost in thought” quite as literally as James does. He twists to look back over his shoulder and catches James’s eye.

“Thanks for coming over,” he says. He squeezes James’s hand in his.

James holds Frank a little tighter. He kisses the part of Frank’s neck that’s easily reachable. “Love you, Frankie.”

Frank lets go of James’s hand reluctantly, but he wants to move, to turn all the way around. He presses against James and kisses him with everything he’s got, and James gives back in equal measure, pulling Frank up to take his weight off his bad knee. He does it so thoughtlessly, so instinctually, that Frank could cry.

The sex they end up having is intense, with Frank kneeling carefully up over James, clinging to him. James’s hands on Frank’s hips push him back and forth, rock them against one another more than anything. James’s mouth is wet and hot on the side of Frank’s face. It makes Frank feel so helpless.

When it’s over Frank feels entirely wrung out of himself. He lets James clean him up without complaint and they cuddle back together, under the covers this time. James smoothes Frank’s hair away from his forehead. There’s a surreality to this moment, because he can be so unlucky, can bring hell down on his family and friends and fans, everyone he’s been trying to please with this tour. And somehow he’s allowed to have this, to be blessed with so much. James holds him closer.

“Stop thinking so much,” he says into Frank’s ear.

James’s advice is always sound, even if it’s not usually possible. Frank could argue, but he’s trying not to do that for no reason anymore. Instead he says, “I love you, too, James.” He can’t see it but he knows James’s smug smile, he can feel it.

There are reparations to be made and emails to send and tickets to be refunded. There are boxes of merchandise to be stored or discarded. There are a dozen things Frank can think of off the top of his head that would require him to untangle himself from the tangle of James’s limbs, to get dressed, to be a person.

They’ll all keep for tomorrow.

He settles back against James’s chest and makes an effort to quiet his mind. It’s hard at first but it doesn’t take long, and when he wakes up the next morning James isn’t beside him, but he can hear him whistling in the kitchen along with the sound of the coffee grinder, and there’s a glass of orange juice waiting for him on the bedside table. He drinks most of it and pulls on his pajama pants from yesterday.

“James!” he calls, and he hears James’s heavy tread coming down the hallway.

James’s head appears around the doorframe. “You okay?” he asks.

“Will you help me walk to the kitchen?”

James grins at him and gets an arm around his waist, helping him to his feet. It’s not so bad, letting someone take care of him for once. Not bad at all.