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Bob leaves the Paramour. It wasn't haunted, not really, not before, but with Mikey gone there are phantom footfalls everywhere, the echoes of breaths that haven't been drawn. Bob will watch horror movies for Frank, for Gerard, for Mikey, but they've never been his preferred genre and he sure as fuck doesn't want to live one, not if he doesn't have to.

That Patrick is trying to find an apartment at the same time is pure coincidence, but makes it easier. Patrick will work out the details, sign the lease, show Bob where to put his name, tell him the date of the move. Bob just has to fork over the cash, and cash hasn't been a problem for Bob, not for a long time now. Patrick also comes with the extra selling points of being native to Chicago and not in Bob's band. The latter wouldn't normally be such a selling point except for the part where Bob's band is maybe going to fall apart before he ever records an album with them, and the thought has Bob staring up at the ceiling straight through the nights, never wanting to do anything other than sleep straight through the days. Patrick also has a sixth sense for finding the pizza places that stay open twenty-four hours, the ice cream places that will deliver, and the grocery stores with the best price on decent coffee.

The apartment is quiet and Bob isn't a huge fan of quiet, much prefers the low beats that emanate from Ray's headphones and the murmur of Frank's not-so-inner dialogue and the scratch of Gerard's pencil. It beats the disturbed quiet of the band's house, though, and Bob can settle. Bob is actually quite excellent at settling.

At night, when Bob's not in the studio, not listening to Gerard tear at Ray because he's done all the cutting at himself he can manage without bleeding to death, at night Bob will try and work with the drumlines, try and restructure them, let Patrick look over what he has. Patrick will say, "Pizza?" even though he knows Bob won't eat, doesn't feel like it, and Bob will say, "Yes," because it's better than, "Throw it all out, yeah?" There is something wrong with Bob's count, and he doesn't know how to fix it, doesn't even know where it deviates.

Gerard sometimes calls at two, three, three fifteen in the morning and says, "I'm waking you, I shouldn't--"

But Bob will say, "I'm awake," and Gerard will say, "Oh you're there, okay, I just needed to um, know that. That you were there."

"Go to sleep, Gerard." But Bob will negate the frustration in his words by staying on the phone with Gerard, staying with Gerard, letting Gerard know that, yes, he's there. It's possible he shouldn't have left the house, but every time he thinks about going back he loses feeling in his legs. Bob can listen to his body, even if it's as silent as everything else right now.

Frank takes a different approach, attaching himself to Bob at the end of studio time, even if he and Bob have been fighting the whole time. He'll just climb right on. It often takes all three of them to peel Frank off. They don't want to hurt him.

It is Ray, though, Ray who comes over and eats all the leftover pizza that has built up in the fridge due to Bob's reticence on the count of eating. It is Ray who says, "Stop fucking trying, man," and it is Ray to whom Bob actually listens. Mostly, Bob thinks, because Ray doesn't say it like he's making a suggestion. He says it like Bob is being a fucking moron, and if he has any sense at all, he'll listen to Ray. It sort of reminds Bob of his mom without, you know, the mom part.

Eventually, when it's clear that Bob is listening, actually listening, Ray says, "Come on," and Bob asks, "Where?" and Ray says, "Don't worry, not to the house or the studio," and Bob follows him out the door.

*


It's approaching two in the morning on a weeknight, so once they're free of the city, it's mostly just them and the road. There are the ubiquitous truckers, and people bent on interstate travel, but for Southern California it's quiet and a little dark and--Ray's right--better than being in the apartment. They don't go anywhere. Sure, there's the truck stop where they get coffee from a machine and the one where Ray buys four bags of peanut M&Ms for them to split, but they don't go anywhere, and by the time Ray drops Bob off at the apartment at nearly six in the morning, they've just been driving for four hours.

Ray calls Gerard and says, "Gee--" and then there's murmuring on the other end of the line and Ray says, "Yeah, okay. We'll see you in the afternoon."

Ray asks, "Your bed big enough for both of us?"

Bob says, "I've seen you sleep on floors. Lack of space is suddenly an issue?"

"The plan was to get you to sleep, Bryar. This isn't about me."

"So, Gerard sent you?"

Ray looks unimpressed. "I'm not Gerard's messenger boy."

"No, but he's usually the plan guy."

"Maybe the rest of us just don't talk about our plans as loudly."

Yeah, okay, Bob has plans too, sometimes. He can see where that could be true of Ray, probably is true. It's not that Bob doesn't know Ray, doesn't pay attention, it's just that Ray has his own space and Bob knows that Ray likes when it's respected. Bob is a respectful guy. "Okay. I'm gonna go take a shower."

"I swear to fuck, Bryar, if you wake yourself up again after I've spent--"

"I've just sort of forgotten to, for a while." He sometimes can when Frank isn't around to pester him, or when other things get in the way of thinking about that sort of thing. His skin feels wrong, and for the first time in days, Bob realizes that might not have anything to do with the fact that Mikey's missing, so much as the fact that he needs a bar of soap.

"Oh. Mind if I go after you?"

"Be my guest," Bob says, and is even nice enough to get a towel out for Ray. His shower is all of five minutes, maybe, and he crawls in bed naked. Ray's seen it before. If he has a problem, he can sleep on the couch. Bob doesn't find out, because the even, if imperfect, rhythm of the water running is a little too much for his sleep deprived brain to resist, and he lets himself fall really, truly asleep for the first time in weeks.

*


It's dark out when he wakes up. Dark and quiet, but he can feel the heat coming off of Ray, next to him. He looks at the clock, which says 3:23. Bob doesn't have blackout curtain--curtains at all, really--so he's going to assume it's not afternoon. He says, "Fuck," and gets up to get himself something to eat. There's a doggie bag in the refrigerator with the note, "Bob, fried chicken leftovers, heat in oven."

Bob preheats the oven to 300 degrees, even though it's coming on four in the morning, which is probably not the best time for fried poultry eating. He's hungry. He gets himself some of the apple-cranberry-whatever-the-fuck juice that Patrick keeps around because it's good for his throat, or something. Bob hasn't inquired too deeply. Ray's left the music for the song they're working on spread over half the table. Working on is something of an optimistic description suggesting that progress is being made. It isn't. Matt's Matt--and that's pretty much the highest praise Bob can summon for the guy, who's solid and then some--but Mikey's Mikey, and Matt is, by definition, not Mikey.

Gerard has scribbled in the margins, "give me a shot?" and a little further down, "take all the pain away." Bob focuses on Ray's markings, the places where he has neatly changed counts, sections of notes. He wonders what was said, if this was another fight. Gerard can't seem to find the write words for this one, and Ray won't let the music rest until it all comes together. Bob's pretty sure Frank is in there somewhere, too, just not in writing. When Frank writes it is frantic, last minute, desperate. He has been staying carefully away from that, keeping his ideas in himself, when he's not yelling them at one of the others.

Bob lets the chicken reheat until the skin is once again crunchy crisp and takes slow pleasure in eating it, tearing it down to nothing but bone. Ray stumbles in around five-thirty, looks at the carcass with an unreadable expression, then takes the plate, disposing of the bones, and sticking the plate in the dishwasher. Bob says, "You didn't wake me."

"Not like we were gonna play. You needed the sleep more than you needed to hear the latest round. You can jump back in, I'll catch you up."

Bob doesn't really want to hear, but he knows he'll listen. "Bad?"

"Not so bad. Gerard was pretty glad I'd gotten you to sleep, went a long way toward calming him down. And he thought up this rhyme with 'empire' and 'vampires' that was a big hit with Frank. Just a little skirmish over the first and second measures."

"You still holding out for your changes?"

"Holding until I get them."

"Way to compromise, Toro."

"Yeah, well, when I'm right, I'm right."

The thing is, Bob would roll his eyes at anyone else making that statement, but Ray isn't the kind to dig his heels in needlessly. When he chooses to do so, he has reason, and when he has reason, it overwhelmingly is because he's right. Bob does ask, "What makes you right?"

"It's a song about peeling back layers. So let's fucking unpeel, okay? I know Gerard likes everything raw, everything out there for people to consume, but sometimes there has to be some surface. There has to be some...distance." Ray sounds frustrated, and Bob knows they aren't talking about the song anymore. These songs are their lives, and there are still times when they're nothing but metaphors, nothing but marks on a page.

"Okay," Bob says.

"Okay?"

Bob shrugs. "It's a good argument."

Ray laughs, rubs his hand over his face. "Gerard seems to disagree."

"He just likes making you work for it." It's more than that, Bob knows, it's that Gerard needs to see Ray's insides before he can give over, and with the exception of when he's playing, Ray isn't like Frank, isn't like Mikey or Gerard. He keeps that stuff to himself.

"Fucker," Ray says, with the kind of fondness a person can only have for family. Then, "Come on, you actually have to work today."

*


Frank looks at Bob for a while before declaring him, "Better," and half-heartedly throwing himself at Bob. Bob rewards this attempt at normalcy by swinging Frank around a little, and setting him down carefully. Frank goes straight to the ground anyway, but that's okay, Frank's safest when on the floor--for himself and everyone around him. Frank stays where he falls. Gerard comes and sits down next to him, like maybe they're just pulling up their patch of linoleum. He says, "Okay, we're gonna try it Ray's way."

Ray pauses in tuning his guitar. "We are?"

"I've gone away and come to the conclusion that it's possible I've been more of a stubborn asshole than usual of late."

Ray shrugs, clearly unconcerned. Gerard continues, "I just-- It's hard, thinking that he'll get back and not understand what we've done."

None of them points out the theoretical aspect of that statement, the assumption that Mikey will come back. Bob says, "I missed all of yesterday, and Ray here caught me right up."

It takes a second, but Gerard laughs, a short, harsh bark of surprise and maybe, possibly, a little amusement. "Yeah, okay."

Into the silence that follows this pronouncement, Ray says, "Okay," and plucks out a couple of notes, enticing them to actually start, actually play, even if the sound will only be four fifths of right.

*


Ray follows Bob home. They stop for dinner, and Bob picks up food for Patrick because he's been remarkably patient with Bob's less-than-cheery disposition. Patrick rolls his eyes at the ostensible peace offering, but eats all the same. Ray pops in the first episode of the second season of "24" and the two of them sit on the couch, silent and less engaged in the cycle of hours than Bob would prefer to be. He has his arm over the back of the couch and Ray drapes his over as well, his thumb ghosting over Bob's wrist. It's odd, because of all of them Ray is the least likely to just touch--except with Mikey and Gerard, but they're all like that with Mikey and Gerard. Mikey and Gerard are The Ways. Bob senses that shouldn't be as logical a thought as it feels like it is.

Bob doesn't mind though, kind of likes the touch. It feels like a while since he's had any touch that wasn't the contact sport that is Frank Iero. It's not true: Gerard hugged him no less than four days ago, but Mikey was always certain to get in a bit of draping, or, at the very least, a hand to the neck, once a day. Bob has clearly been trained. Ray asks, "How're your wrists?"

Bob shrugs. Carpal tunnel is, so far as he is concerned, part of his job description. Ray, though, Ray takes Bob's wrist now fully in his hands and starts to devote some attention to the issue. Ray has good hands, steady and capable, and Bob is more tempted to move in to the touch than he really wants to admit. Instead he leans back, lets his head rest on the sofa. He's got his eyes closed, focusing on Ray's touch, on staying still in response to it. A lot of it hurts, which helps. Ray digs into muscle, works at the worst of the tension, before releasing. There will be bruises, but it will also feel better, Bob knows. His focus is interrupting by the feel of Ray's teeth at his throat. Bob says, "Um, Ray?"

Ray says, "Sorry, you were offering."

Not intentionally, but Bob can take Ray's point, and while he generally really wouldn't give a fuck about the answer to this question at this point in the proceedings, he has to look at Ray in the morning and--if everything works out for him--play drums alongside him over the next however many years. So he asks, "What're you thinking, here?"

Ray pulls back. "Convoluted answer, or simple?"

"Whichever's easiest."

Slowly, Ray says, "That lyric, the one Gerard can't quite settle on."

"The skin one?" Bob asks. Ray nods. Bob says, "He's talking about himself. And Mikey, maybe, a little."

"I know, but, I don't know, that's sort of-- I mean, what is it for you, being behind those drums? Is it just the drums, the feel of the stick hitting the head, the tangible experience?"

"You know it's not." If it was, there would be no point to doing this, no reason to spend nine out of twelve months on a bus, in a plane, whatever.

"He's talking about himself all the time in his lyrics, it doesn't mean thousands of people aren't listening and self-identifying. The rules aren't different for us."

They are, a little, Bob thinks, but no, not so different as all that. Bob rubs a hand over his face. "And that makes you want to fuck? The lyric?"

"Yeah, this is a sudden thing, Bryar, definitely."

Bob's eyes fly to Ray's face. Ray's looking straight at him, all but rolling his eyes. Ray says, "I just meant that I fucking watch you on your drums. You know exactly what it is to want to escape, want to-- You know exactly what Gerard's talking about. I just..." Ray shrugs. "Want to try that out, see how you feel, underneath."

Bob tenses slightly. "And once you've found out?"

Ray looks away at that. "One step at a time, Bryar."

It's the worst advice anyone has ever given Bob. He knows he's going to take it.

*


Sex with guys has always been that thing that Bob has done when nothing better is on offer. A touring pastime, at best. But he's in LA and a part of My Chem, and Bob knows that a decent heterosexual fuck is just a club visit away. For the first time ever, he's not interested. What he wants is right here, regardless of the wisdom of that desire. Ray tugs Bob over, on top of him, slides his hands inside Bob's shirt, up his back. Ray's hands are warm, like he readied them, but Bob knows Ray's just naturally hot-blooded. In the winter, Mikey is forever winding himself around Ray, stealing all his heat. Ray just gives over.

Ray is kissing him, strong, clean swipes of tongue against Bob's, nothing complicated or fancy. It's somehow familiar and comfortable for all that they haven't done this before, for all that Bob hasn't really thought about it. Ray says, "Should we, uh-- Is Patrick gonna--?"

"Yeah, yeah," Bob says, and pushes himself up. "Come on."

Ray closes Bob's door behind them and then his hands are back, his mouth is back. Bob says, "Okay, yeah," because really, truly, yeah. Ray strips Bob's shirt over his head, swipes his fingers over Bob's nipples, strong and firm. Bob works his hands under Ray's shirt, over the span of his shoulder blades. Ray says, "Drummer," and bends a little to lick right over Bob's nipple. Bob makes a sound in his throat. Ray laughs, "Yeah."

Ray works his way down, Bob pulling at his shirt, throwing it aside, letting his hands settle at Ray's shoulders. Ray says, "I don't really do this all that often, so, uh--"

"Whatever," Bob says, because seriously, seriously, whatever. Ray sucks at the head of Bob's cock, slides over the length of it slowly. Bob buries his hands in Ray's hair, holds tight but doesn't try to control him, doesn't want to, just wants Ray to do what he's doing. Ray wraps his hands over Bob's balls, rolls them a bit. Bob forgets how to swallow for a moment. Ray works to take more of him in, and Bob tries to tell him it's not necessary, but it's hard to focus, hard to form full words. Ray hits about the halfway point, sucks hard and Bob, who has been too distracted, too dispirited to want to touch himself, can't hold out. It's a little embarrassing, really, but Ray doesn't act like it's a big deal.

Bob leans onto Ray; Ray's hands have come to his hips, are keeping him on his feet. When he can, Bob pushes back at him a little, back toward the bed. Ray sits down and Bob folds to the floor, he licks all the way along the underside of Ray's cock. Ray says, "Fuck," and falls backward onto the bed. Bob laughs, and rises up to finish what he has started. Ray bucks into Bob's mouth, and Bob takes it, but then presses slightly at Ray's hips, holding him into the bed. Ray laughs some more, and then stops when he hasn't the breath, when Bob has taken even that.

When he has regained use of his arms, Ray pulls Bob up onto the bed. Bob says, "Think we should aim for the pillows?"

Ray says, "Fuck that noise." Yeah, Bob pretty much agrees.

*


Bob wakes up hungry and cold. Next to him, Ray is sleeping steadily, and Bob's not enough of an asshole to wake him up just to have someone with which to brave the quiet of the apartment. He takes a shower, mostly because he's sticky and kind of crusty, and dirty he can handle, but sticky and crusty are just uncomfortable. He stays under the water longer than he normally would because it's hot, and some part of him just refuses to warm up. He makes himself get out after a bit and pulls himself into his oldest, rattiest, warmest sweats.

There are three messages on his phone, two from Gerard, one from Frank. Frank's is, "Hey, you have Ray?" Gerard's are, "Um, you know where Ray is?" and, "Seriously, this MIA shit is unamusing," respectively. Bob looks; predictably, Ray has three texts from Frank, and another four messages from Gerard to match. It's nearly four in the morning and while Bob kind of doubts that Gerard is sleeping--he doesn't, really, at the moment--he texts, "Safe, sound asleep," instead of calling. If Gerard is sleeping he'll wake up to reassurance, if he's not, then there will be immediate reassurance. Bob wishes Gerard weren't so damned worried about accidentally losing one of them, but Bob gets it. Somewhere Mikey took a wrong turn, and none of them noticed, not enough, not really, until he was in a different state.

Bob wants breakfast. He roots around to see if they still have the box of Bisquick he bought when they moved in. Bob's cooking expertise begins and ends with boxes and cans, but he can whip up pancakes from a mix with the best of'em. He's had the directions on the back of the box memorized since he was seven. It was their Saturday morning thing, his mom's and his, pancakes and cartoons. Saturday morning was one of the few times she didn't have a shift, and Bob literally can't even smell pancakes without feeling some sense of calm. He mixes in the milk, eggs, a few drops of vanilla, and pours the batter onto a skillet in appropriate amounts. He's just about done with the first batch when Ray asks from the doorway, "Do I smell pancakes?"

"Butter's in the fridge, syrup in the cabinet next to the glasses. I wake you?"

"Nah, I was cold."

"We should maybe try the covers, next time."

Ray says, "Or when we crawl back in after our morning snack."

"Or then," Bob agrees. Ray grabs them plates and forks and the necessary dressings, and Bob shovels the first load onto one plate. "You can start in."

Ray nudges Bob aside. "I know how to do this. Go, eat."

Bob gets to the table to find that Ray has poured him a glass of milk to go with his pancakes. He says, "Thanks."

Ray nods, his back to Bob. Bob says, "They were looking for you."

"Yeah, I shoulda said something. Gerard's--"

"Yeah, I texted them."

"Good," Ray says, flipping the pancakes. "What woke you? Was it just the cold?"

"I was hungry," Bob says.

"But--"

Bob considers the unasked question. Softly he says, "My skin settled in the right places." He can feel it now that he thinks about it, feel the way not everything is just a little bit looser, the way things stretch as they should when he tries to breathe. "You?"

Ray brings his own plate of pancakes to the table and drowns the stack in syrup. After a bit he says, "Still waiting for you to put it back on."

Oh. Bob fiddles with his fork for a moment. He makes a precise cut down what is left of the three pancakes in front of him. "Think I'll hold onto it for a bit."

Ray takes a bite. "Hoped you'd feel that way."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile