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The prison was never either boiling or freezing, but in the summer it was always just a little too hot to really be comfortable, and in the winter just a little too cold. Frank suspected this to be the result of a combination of architecture on a building that, by definition, was poorly ventilated, and a lack of interest in spending people's tax dollars to heat or air condition criminals. Fall came early the year that Gerard was released. Frank had gotten used to it coming late and the change was an unpleasant shock. Being cold without Mikey sucked ten times more than being cold with Mikey. It was counterintuitive, because Mikey was pretty much always cold himself, mostly skin and bones and nothing at all to hold the heat in with, but it was what it was.

His mom said, "You look a little cold."

He said, "Tommy needs another blanket."

"Frank."

He dragged up a smile for her. "Just that time of the year. You got the lemons, right?"

She said, "Yeah. Real lemons, just like you said."

"Don't show him how to make them. Even if he asks, okay? I just--"

"I don't think he will. But if he does, I'll tell him to wait. He's a patient boy, Frank."

Frank nodded. "I know."

She frowned. He said, "Just tell him--" But there was nothing left to say, not that could be said. "Tell him happy birthday."

*


Frank,

I got you something. I know it's my birthday, but it seems kind of stupid that if what I want for my birthday is (to do something for) you, that I shouldn't be allowed. Besides, it's not a big thing. It's kind of stupid, a little bit, but I like it.

See, the girls at the center, the ones who are thirteen and fourteen, they make those friendship bracelets, the ones from string. Girls used to make them back when I was in high school, too, I bet they also did at yours. They've been teaching Gerard. He's actually super good, he makes these insanely complicated ones and gives them to Ryan, because Ryan is...well, Ryan. Gerard sent you a picture, so you know.

Gerard made a matching one for Spencer and Spencer totally put it on his keychain and didn't even act like it was stupid, because it's really hard to laugh at Ryan when he's being genuine. He always seems so serious and sharp but then you realize that he's really not and even so you feel like you should encourage him in being anything else. I don't know. Ryan's hard to explain.

Anyway, the point is, I like the bracelets. Gee made matching ones for me and him, too. Ours are black and blue with a diamond pattern. And if I was going to have a matching bracelet I needed two, right, I mean, I
needed that, but it had to be something a little less obvious, so Gerard and I came up with this. You'll see when you open the box. You don't have to wear it, probably shouldn't, but it won't be a big thing if other people find it, I don't think. It's not pretty in the "bad" way.

Happy birthday to me, Mikeyway


Frank opened the small box that had come with the letter and inside found a bracelet with a simple three-strand braid make from soft brown leather. Frank ran his fingers over the surface three or four times before rolling it up carefully again, shutting it away in the box. He would have to find somewhere safe for it.

*


On September tenth, Frank started a letter to Mikey seven times before simply driving the head of the pen far enough into his palm that he bled blood run black with ink.

*


Frank didn't start the fight. He didn't, not really. He made a promise to Mikey to be good, and he was keeping that promise. But one of the Homeboys decided to cop a feel right up Tommy's skirt and Frank really couldn't stand for that, he just couldn't. And okay, there might have been better ways of interfering, but he was tired of people fucking with Tommy and in the mood, very much in the mood, for something that hurt enough to distract himself from all the shit he couldn't stop thinking about. He gave verbal warning. He said, "Mine, get your hands off."

The Homeboy squeezed hard enough that Tommy doubled over and vomited. Some of Homeboy's friends laughed and Frank went in with his fists right over where Tommy was still bent over. It took a second for the Homeboy to free both his hands, and by that time, Frank was already fighting fast and loose and really, really dirty amongst the guys who had been spectating.

Some of the Bikers stumbled on them a few minutes later and they helped Frank finish to tie things up nice and neat, although not quick enough to avoid the attention of the hacks. Frank ended up in the hole, naked and bruised and bleeding and really, really fucking cold. It was distracting, which he appreciated, but he couldn't feel particularly proud of himself. He said, "Sorry, fuck, sorry," and was uncertain whether he was apologizing to Mikey, Tommy, or both.

*


The problem with the hole wasn't that it was fucking frigid--at least in the cold months--or even that it was dark and kind of rank and impossible, impossible to sleep comfortably in. No, all of those were minor inconveniences. The real problem was that there was nothing in the hole to distract Frank from his thoughts, and he really, really didn't want to think right then. He was doing just fine, or, well, at least okay until he had to think, and then it just all went to shit.

Time was unmarkable in the hole, for all intents and purposes, so he wasn't really certain how long he was able to keep himself distracted by thinking about the calc test he had coming up and going through what he could remember in his head, or by thinking about what to get his mom for Christmas--it was best to plan in advance--or wondering what happened in the rest of "East of Eden".

It was inevitable, though, that they would leave him in long enough for his mind to get around to worrying whether Bob was covering for him with Tommy. Seeing as how the hacks were pissed that nobody would cough up how the fight started, he was pretty sure it was inevitable that they were going to leave as many people in the hole for as long as they possibly could without getting called on it. Seeing as how that was a considerable amount of time, Frank was aware that he was pretty much fucked, that sooner or later his mind would turn away from the way his shoulder hurt where one of the Homeboys had wrenched it back, his palm still ached from the pen, and start wondering how Mikey's birthday had gone. If Matt or Brian or any of the other guys that Mikey was always around had taken the chance to wish him a happy birthday. If Mikey had maybe wanted more and been too damn sweet to act on it.

Frank tried to keep his muscles loose, make sure he moved around as much as he could, but it really was cold, which made it hard not to tense up, not to curl up in a ball. Frank paced a lot, not frantically but quickly, trying to keep his body heat up. He almost appreciated the cold, the way it kept him from wondering too hard if maybe he should tell Mikey, tell him it was okay, tell him four years was a long time to wait, and Mikey'd already had enough time taken from him.

Frank tried to sleep, because at least the nightmares weren't real, or, well, weren't real like the cement of the hole and the fact that Mikey wouldn't be there when he got out, but even that was a challenge, his bruises not really being keen on him curling up on the hard floor. When the exhaustion finally hit so hard that he was shaking more from it than the cold, Frank pressed his palms to the wall and went back to thinking about how to estimate a slope.

*


They let him out on the fifth day, which was really just pissiness on their part, since the fourth day had been Sunday. Frank was going to have to call his mom and apologize. They never told her when he couldn't come, so she would have come all the way out just to find out there was no son to visit. And he hadn't even finished his letter for Mikey.

The hacks took him to the infirmary, where a doctor cleaned up the worst of the abrasions, and gave him some Tylenol for the bruising, which was mostly yellowed and finishing up. Still, it was nice to see the doctor glaring surreptitiously at the hacks on his behalf. He gave Frank Gatorade and some stuff for the sniffles he'd picked up and said, "I'm pulling you off work duty for a day, get some sleep."

Frank wouldn't have argued even if he'd had the energy.

*


When he woke up, Tommy was in the cell. Frank asked, "What time is it?"

"Almost lights out."

"Oh."

"Hope you're still tired."

Going back to sleep really wasn't going to be an issue. "You okay? How're--" Frank gestured to Tommy's crotch.

Tommy laughed shortly. It wasn't amusement, exactly, but it wasn't despair or hatred or any of the things that had been growing in him for a while. "I'm fine. I wasn't in the hole for five days."

Frank thought about making a joke about needing the time off, but his body chose that moment to sneeze four times in a row. Tommy grabbed the roll of toilet paper and handed it to him. Frank blew his nose and said, "Thanks," somewhat miserably.

Tommy said, "Frank, I-- Look, you really, saved me back there. I mean, not that you hadn't before, but he, uh, you kinda missed the part where he told me all the shit he and his buddies were gonna do." Tommy bit at his lower lip. "I've been-- I-- Fuck. Look, Bob gave me the letter, the one you get every week from Gerard's brother and I know I shouldn't have but I, I looked, because I wanted to understand. I told Bob afterward, because I thought maybe he'd, you know, kill me, and I kinda deserved that, but instead he just sort of told me. Well, he's Bob, so it was a little two words here, one word there, but he basically explained to me that I've been an idiot and an asshole and I'm really, really sorry, I shouldn't have read the letter, I know."

Frank made a mental note to get the other half of that story from Bob later. Bob, he had found, could talk just fine when the situation called for it. He said, softly, "Can I please have my letter?"

Tommy looked at the floor. "I put it in your safe place. With the rest of them."

"Fine," Frank said, and turned over to signify that he was done talking.

*


Frank,

Real lemons! Your mom's are pretty good, okay, really good, but she wasn't working with a prison kitchen, so I still say yours are better. I needed them more, anyway. It wasn't the same without you to clean me up and I'm not sure I want lemon bars anymore without you. I think maybe I'll wait. But it was a good birthday gift.

Gerard got me practice time, for bass, you know. Um, I told you I played, but, well, we could never actually afford a bass, not until we started dealing--I think that may have been what got Gerard started. It was definitely the first thing he bought for me. As a kid, though, I would take lessons from teachers through after school programs, other discounted places like that, where they would provide the bass. Anyway, there's a high school around here that raises money by allowing people practice time on the school-owned instruments, and Gerard got me a month's worth of being able to go three times a week. I'm pretty fucking excited, even if it's been forever since I last touched a bass and I'll probably suck again, but I just don't really care, you know?

Oh, and Brian saw how excited I was and he asked about music and I rambled at him a sort of really long time and he said that I should think about music therapy, since I like the work I do at the center and that's an up and coming field and now I really think I'm going to try school, now that something sounds like it might make sense for me. We'll see. It's something to think about, at least. Before there was mostly just the money and not wanting to disappoint you and your mom, you know?

Got you Lemonheads this week. I know they're not a candy
bar but I wanted us to have the same taste in our mouths.

Birthday Boy

P.S. Spencer says Brian has some, and I quote, "fucktarded policy about not molesting his employees. Because he's a corporate asshole like that." This is going to take some work.


*


In the morning, Frank trapped Tommy between the bed and the wall. After a long moment of Frank glaring at him, Tommy said, "When you said-- When you were talking about, um, lo--"

Frank clamped a hand tight over Tommy's mouth and nodded fiercely. When he let go, Tommy said, "Yeah. Okay, then."

*


Mikeyway,

Three years is a long time to wait for your favorite treat. If you wanted something else, to tide you over, or, maybe your tastes changed, that would be understandable.

I'm sorry there wasn't a letter last week. My mom probably told you whatever they told her, and you're probably mad, because I promised, but I didn't mean to break my promise. They were hurting Tommy. It was like that time with Gee, I couldn't even think first, not really. I wasn't choosing him, I wasn't, I wouldn't. Apple tarts have been my favorite since I tried them. I think I was four. The way the crust is sort of crumbly, but with a bit of chew and you have to work just a little to get to the inside, the sweetest part.

I don't know what music therapy is, but you're good at helping people, and you love music, so it sounds like Brian's on to something. I'd like to hear you play. Maybe when I get out we can get you more of that school time and I can go with you. Even if, I mean, it doesn't have to be a date, or anything. I just want to hear you play, is all.

Stay warm this year. Warm and healthy and safe. Frank


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile