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Kings Among Runaways

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Summer, 2003

 

Frank is twenty-one, almost twenty-two, and he’s on tour in his favorite band, opening for all his heroes, making a living. They’ve got a record they’re proud of and a live set that they’re still willing to give their all, even with new songs bubbling under the surface. He’s getting to give some real input into the songs for the next record. He and Ray finally know how to play together and make it work.

This is the best summer of Frank’s life so far.

Better than all that is James, who’s taken to Frank in a way that makes him just a little starstruck. Even now that they’ve spent weeks together, when James pulls him close in the shadows outside their bus and offers him a flask and a conspiratorial wink, Frank’s heart stutters a little in his chest. James’s hand on his wrist is searingly warm; he wants to lean into it like a hot shower, face first.

It’s pretty obvious that James is drunk already, and Frank takes a long swallow of what tastes like undiluted rum to catch up. He waves at Otter, who’s on the way back to the bus and, presumably, to bed. How anybody can be thinking of sleep when there’s so much electric summer night spread out in front of them is beyond Frank.

He follows James to a Mobil where they both buy cigarettes and then, on the walk back, it’s like they’re alone for the first time. Frank’s a little blurry but he knows that can’t be true, knows they have to have been alone together before, but everything about how the streetlights catch and sparkle on James’s earing and the way James keeps his hand on Frank’s arm, just above the elbow, feels awfully new.

They sit down on a bench on the side of the road and Frank watches James light a cigarette. It’s one of those summer nights where it never seems to be really and truly dark, between the stars dimpling the violet sky above them and the streetlamps and the reflections of every light on the gasoline rainbow ribbon of the street out in front of them. It rained earlier, one of those summer downpours that seems to happen all at once before shutting off, like a faucet. A few feet in front of them there’s a big puddle up to the curb, choked with litter.

“Aren’t you out with the Get Ups again like… Right after tour ends?” Frank asks. His brain-to-mouth filter isn’t great at the best of times.

James looks at him, bleary and handsome in his walleyed, unlikely way. “Only way to do it,” he says, and puts his arm around Frank’s shoulders. “Gotta keep busy. You’ll get there - you’re like me, more than a little.”

That assessment - or maybe it’s just the effects of the rum - makes Frank blush. James is so talented and charismatic, and even when he’s a mess he’s still invaluable. An incredible player, the funniest dude, the guy everybody wants to be around. People are saying New Found Glory wants him to join up if he’s got the time, for their next record. Frank takes out a cigarette and lights it off the end of James’s, the two of them huddling close until the flame catches.

“Don’t you get homesick?” he asks.

James laughs a little, gruff with smoke. “You ever been to Kansas, Frankie?”

Frank shakes his head.

“Not much there to miss.” James exhales a cloud of smoke, and with his head tipped back like this and the air around them opaque with smoke he could be a painting. Every plane of his face seems blocked in with a broad brush. Frank drags on his cigarette.

“What about your girl?”

James gives him a calculating look. Frank is suddenly and specifically aware that underneath the goofy idiot persona James is famous for wearing, he’s very, very smart.

“To tell you the truth,” he says, and drops the butt of his cigarette to the ground to grind it under the toe of his sneaker. “I think she likes missing me better than she likes having me around.”

“Oh.”

It’s very warm, and very still, and the swish and roll of cars on the highway filters through to them a few streets over. Frank feels a little differently about the way James said he was like him.

And then they’re up and wandering back to the lot where their buses are parked. They’ve killed the flask somewhere between the time they left and now, and their walk back is pockmarked with lost time, awareness hitting Frank in strange, isolated bursts. Taking James’s hand. Singing along with him, hopelessly out of tune, to an old Duran Duran song to which they can barely remember the words. Stopping in front of an enormous puddle in front of the curb and looking down at their two drowned reflections, backlit by the halo of a streetlamp.

Frank, leaning up and kissing James on the mouth.

He tastes like cigarettes and rum, he actually kind of tastes like Frank, and it’s almost terrible until James puts his hand on the side of Frank’s neck and kisses him back and then it’s… Well, it’s complicated, but Frank’s drunk and he’s given himself over to a crush and it’s wonderful.

They stop when Frank stumbles, trying to press himself further into James’s arms, and ends up on his ass in the puddle on the street. He yelps and crawls out and James is laughing, his head thrown back to face the vault of stars above them. He’s still laughing when he helps Frank to his feet, and in retaliation Frank clambers up onto his back, so they’re both damp with groundwater and tipping perilously towards going straight back into the puddle. James hefts him up with his hands under Frank’s thighs and marches them back towards the venue parking lot.

James sees him safely back to his bus and Frank stands on the bottom step and leans out, his hand on the doorjamb, to kiss him again. What if he never gets another chance?

It’s very late. James pulls back and smiles at him, and when he turns to leave something overtakes Frank, and he can’t not speak.

“Having you around is better,” he says, stupidly. James turns to look at him over his shoulder. “Better than missing you, I mean.”

James winks at him, a big smile splitting his face, and Frank stays in the rectangle of the open door until he can’t see him anymore.

 

Winter, 2005

 

James is twenty-nine, almost thirty, and he didn’t know it was possible to be so sure of himself and so lost at the same time. He’s dodging calls from Matt Pryor but he’s checking the voicemails - stuff about the dissolution of the band, about the tidy closing of their label imprint, about the album Matt’s been writing about their last tour and that he doesn’t want James to play on it but he does want him to hear it. There are some things Matt just says in italics. James is working on the new Reggie album and it’s different, it’s cathartic. He’s sober on tour for maybe the first time ever, which is… Well, the novelty wore off pretty early but Gerard’s around to play Magic with and he lets James borrow his red deck, so it could be worse.

It’s nice to know he didn’t burn all his bridges when he was strung out.

It’s freezing everywhere in Canada. It seems like every time they’ve stopped and James has stepped off the bus, he’s greeted with the same spectacle: Frank, looking blue-lipped and pale wrapped up in a matryoshka doll of cardigans and coats, furiously smoking. When they pull in at the venue in Montreal it seems like Frank must be waiting for him, though, because he’s right outside the bus doors.

His eyelids are a sleepy, bruised purple and he has a scarf looped around his neck and up over his mouth, so that his nose just barely peeks out from over the top. When he speaks it sounds muffled through the wool. “I’m out of cigarettes.”

James shakes two out of his pack and puts both between his lips to light them before passing one to Frank. There is something defiant about the way Frank smokes, the way his cheeks hollow out around the cigarette, how hard and sharp it makes him look even when the rest of him is blunted and rounded out by layers. James slings an arm around his waist to keep him warm.

It’s probably safe to say My Chem grew up a little too fast. It’s definitely a fair assessment that Frank, for all his four-to-the-floor punk experience, is showing it the most these days. This summer, when they were both riding that perpetual buzz of Warped Tour afterparties and beers with breakfast, it’d been easy for them, in some sloppy, occasionally dangerous way, to take care of each other. With his newly minted thirty day chip weighing heavy and every sharp way he has to look at himself now, James isn’t quite sure how to do that anymore.

Those are concerns for future James, though. There’s a soundcheck to be attended to, and James is working especially hard on this new professional attitude he’s wearing, so he leaves Frank to seek warmer pastures alone and goes through the motions of set-up. All the bands he’s done, the nothing clubs, the amphitheaters and festival grounds, he’s got his set-up routine down to an exact science. He can do it in fifteen minutes, if that.

When he looks up from double-checking the settings on his MicroKorg he’s momentarily bewildered, then very pleased, to see Frank sitting on the concrete floor where, in a few hours time, all the kids will be crowded in to see them play. He’s cross-legged, still bundled up, but under that scarf James can tell he’s grinning. He’s always had this strange, aggressive admiration for James’s stupid songs.

James steps down from the stage and navigates around the half-assembled barricade to sit with him. He leans over to put his head on Frank’s shoulder, wherever it is underneath all his layers.

“You need something?” he asks.

Frank shakes his head, then tips it over so his cheek is pushed against the top of James’s head, so they’re propped together in a little lean-to of hoodie sleeves and cigarette stink.

“You wanna come on an adventure with me?” Frank asks.

A lot has changed between them, James realizes in that moment. Frank’s older. He doesn’t look at James with quite the same dazed incredulity as he used to, and that’s mostly a good thing. They can play music together, now, without Frank tripping over his own fingers and apologizing every sixteen bars. There’s a part of James that is still stubbornly refusing to let go of Matt’s band, and he keeps telling himself it’s over, that it’s not the worst thing in the world, that he has time for his own projects now, but he can’t really believe it except… Frank makes him believe it.

Frank’s sad about the Get Ups splitting the same way James is, only he’s excited, too, about what’s gonna happen after. He’s easy to talk to. He’s sure of himself. He’s all the things he says he admired first, about James, back when they first met.

He curls his fingers around James’s wrist and they both haul themselves up off the floor and down through the maze of hallways out to the venue’s back exit, where there’s a cab waiting.

And then they just… Get inked together. All things considered they’re pretty lame tattoos but that’s par for the course for both of them, and it doesn’t really matter what it says so much as the fact that they did it together. In the back of the cab on the way back, Frank presses his cold nose against James’s neck and they interlace the fingers of their opposite hands, so that their two taped-down squares of gauze mirror each other.

The touring grind has always felt more like home to James than the alternative and it’s no different now, even though he’s remembering more of it these days. He plays his set and then stands in the wings to watch My Chem, to think about that little group of rowdy goths he’d taken out on his first major tour and how much they’ve grown. Ray had played him some of the demos he’d put together with Gerard that summer over Warped and they were good, they actually felt important, which isn’t something James is used to going for with his music. He’s so proud of those kids.

When their encore is done Frank practically falls into James’s arms, all wrung out from the strange alchemy he does onstage, his sweaty hair slicked to his face in whorls. James scoops him up but he’s all limbs, and he’s a squirrely little fucker so between the stage and the exit James nearly faceplants them both into the concrete three separate times.

“Okay, buddy,” he says, depositing Frank in front of the row of parked buses.

Frank frowns. “Wait,” he says.

“What?” James is genuinely confused and pretty sleepy, and Frank has his mouth all twisted to the side in that way he does when he’s trying to find the right words.

“I mean…” Frank says. “You should come stay with me.”

It wouldn’t be the first time, not by a long shot, but… It occurs to him all at once that he’s never even kissed Frank sober.

Frank looks as nervous, as unsure, as James feels. He touches the uncovered spot on his wrist that’s shiny with Aquaphor, the spot that means they matter to each other.

“Yeah?”

Because what James has always been most afraid of, all through rehab and meetings and trying to put his life back together, is that nobody would like him or even recognize him if he wasn’t a mess.

Instead of answering, Frank takes his hand and leads him up the steps into the bus, where there’s crew still settling in and Ray and Gerard visible in the back lounge both poking at demos on a laptop. There’s no way for them to have any kind of privacy, not of the sort James was imagining, anyway, but Frank doesn’t seem to mind. He pulls James down into his mostly-tidy bunk and it’s almost claustrophobic except the way that Frank scoots back to make room for him but keeps holding his hand.

It’s hard to admit, James supposes, how much he needs Frank around.

Even with the curtain drawn they’re hardly alone - James can hear Cortez joking with Bob over the low murmur of the TV. And here in this glorified sock drawer he’s laying nose-to-nose with Frank, and through the gloom Frank is staring at him, all big-eyed and hesitant.

“I don’t know how to, like, do this now,” Frank says slowly.

“Do what?” James asks. As if he doesn’t know.

“I mean, I just… I’d really like to kiss you right now, I guess, is what I’m trying to say.”

Neither of them moves, and underneath them the bus rumbles to life, so there’s really no escape.

“Hey, I mean, I may not be drunk but I’m also not married anymore, so…” James tries for a smile and he can feel its awkward shape fitting over his teeth.

“James…” Frank says. He reaches up and touches the corner of James’s mouth with his fingertips.

When they kiss, Frank tastes like cigarettes and chapstick, and he presses in as close as he can, maybe because he wants to be held, maybe because he’s always cold, no matter the circumstance. James loops his arm around Frank’s waist and holds him, and they’re not kissing anymore so much as they’re just being together.

“I didn’t know if you -” Frank starts, his mouth muffled by the side of James’s face. “I mean. You just matter a lot… To me.”

The last month has sapped James of any desire to have a deep conversation about addiction, even though Gerard keeps offering. He gathers Frank up and holds him instead, and all around them the bus is hurtling forward, miles and miles to go. They’ll have the time for anything they want. James’s wrist is tender where it’s pressed against Frank’s shoulder blade. They aren’t going to be out of each other’s lives any time soon.

“You too, Frankie,” he says into Frank’s hair. He’s still working on being honest. “I mean it.”

fin.