Old friends are found again.
Frank fixed his glasses and gestured to one of his daughters (he really couldn't be bothered to look up and see which one it was) that he'd be there in a moment. He continued putting away the order of books that had just come in.
Lily clicked her tongue, annoyed.
"No. Dad. Seriously. It's important."
Iero looked up and squinted through lenses that seemed to only grow thicker as the years went by. Lily smiled and ran a hand through her hair: pixie cut, the one and only thing that managed to save Frank whenever he couldn't tell the twins apart. Lily had short hair, Cherry had long hair.
"Right. Lily. Short hair."
The girl giggled. He smiled at her.
"There's someone who needs to see you."
"Books can wait, Dad. It's--"
"It's important, it's important, I gotcha."
Frank climbed down the latter, sighing. His back cracked, and his ribs moaned. They'd started to hurt again now that he was older, poignant reminder that his days were, somehow, dwindling inexorably towards the end. Poignant reminder of what he'd been.
"If it isn't as important as the goddamn building being on fire, I'm not gonna--"
He wiped his glasses, looked up, and froze.
"--be happy." Frank finished, nearly whispering as he stared at the man standing in front of him.
"Hey there, Frank."
"Hi." Iero said, still shocked, and blinked a few times.
Frank's mind seemed to be trapped in some sort of haze: the person in front of him had moved to France a lifetime before. The person in front of him owned a cat and a small cottage in Provence.
The person standing in front of him was missing an arm.
Frank swallowed, and then he laughed.
Frank smiled even wider at Ray and lighted another cigarette. The day was warm, pleasant, cool, the type of day you'd love to spend outside, tasting winter as it delves into spring.
"So, Ray, we haven't seen each other in over twenty years."
Time had stretched and bended around them, and as Frank spoke those words he realized how much had happened and how little he'd changed. His scars seemed to lightly throb.
Ray took another sip from his coffee. He hadn't changed one bit, minus the gray in his eyes and hair, the gray in his voice. They were sitting in a booth at Rosie's. The old woman was too old to still work there, but her sons had made sure to keep the business going.
Time takes, and very rarely gives back.
After Gerard had left, Frank had surprised himself thinking unchastely about the youngest of the two brothers. But only a couple of times, and they'd never done anything.
Frank couldn't stomach the idea of going with someone who wasn't Gerard. Not yet, at least.
"Life's--life's okay. Y'know, France and all. Chris is a teacher. I can't really work, because of the arm and stuff. Same old. Provence is pretty. Real, real pretty. You should come sometime."
"Maybe I will. I've been needing a break for the last thirty years of my life."
They both laughed.
"And how are you, Frank?"
"Bookstore's going well, my kids are beautiful and my wife's still the smartest woman I've ever known. I make music, I smoke, I go down to New York."
They both realized quickly it was hard to talk to each other. They'd spent so many years apart small talk was something difficult, awkward and painful. So much had changed in them since they'd last talked. So much had changed in their lives.
Frank smirked and leaned forward, eyes lost into space. He nibbled on his lower lip and scratched his cheek: he'd lost the habit of shaving regularly, but, honestly, he liked the way he looked. Thick glasses, unkempt salt and pepper beard, ever-present cigarette, half of the time he could be found either reading or playing his oldest guitar.
He liked to think all of this made him look somehow bohemian, liked to picture himself spending his days in Paris, during the Twenties, preferably, laughing with Zelda and Scott and maybe even Ernest.
Obviously, Gerard was ever present. They'd share deep, luscious kisses, and everything would be the way it should've.
"So, I guess life's pretty good." Iero lied.
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. Ray was staring at him. He stared back, still unused - but happy - to seeing him in the flesh.
He didn't mention the letter he'd found six months earlier sitting in his mailbox, a few quick sardonic lines written by an all-grown up Bandit. He didn't mention how Gerard had been found lying face down in his own vomit, cause of death unknown even though everything screamed suicide.
He didn't mention standing in the pouring rain clutching a letter that was slowly melting into pulp, he didn't mention the emptiness, the notion that Gerard was never coming back to him, ever, the feeling of losing his mind.
He didn't mention it, didn't think it was important, didn't think it was necessary.
His pain was his and his alone.
"How did Gerard take Lindsay dying?"
Toro's question nearly made Frank explode in hysterical, loud laughter because his friend didn't know half of what Gerard had gone through and how he'd destroyed himself, how Frank had relentlessly tried to save him, how they'd tried to kindle their love again in hope of finding a shrivel of what they'd been. How everything had fallen apart even though they'd insisted in not believing everything was over until the very end, until Frank had curled up on the floor of Gerard's now empty house and cried and screamed.
"Bad. We all took it pretty bad."
Neither of them mentioned the fact that neither Ray nor Christa had been at the funeral. Another thing Frank realized he'd added to the long list of "reasons to hate Toro" he'd nearly subconsciously started to keep.
A stupid, dumb little list his mind had cooked up and, quite frankly, Iero was growing tired of.
After all, Ray was the only true friend he had left, even though they'd both made mistakes (big, horrible mistakes) when it came to their friendship.
But twenty years are enough to keep a grudge, to secretly hate, to feel guilty. Twenty years, and a little more.
Frank ordered another coffee.
"Gerard moved to New York, right?"
"Can I ask you a question, Frank?"
"Be my guest."
"After, after the war...did you and Gerard, y'know--"
"Keep your voice down."
Frank wiped his hands, deciding wether to lie or not.
He wasn't quite ready to let Ray in all the way. It would've taken some time to do so, he knew that.
"No. No, we didn't."
He nodded and smiled, took a sip of his coffee and knew that Ray knew he'd just lied.
They were quiet for a while.
"I heard you have a kid, Ray."
They knew so little about each other it was getting scarier and scarier.
But Frank had just decided to start this friendship again, for the sake of his sanity. With Gerard gone, he needed somebody who'd gone through what he'd gone through. Who'd been forced to put little girls tortured to the brink of death out of their misery. Who'd seen his best friend die. Who'd been through war.
Who'd come out relatively sane. Or so they both hoped.
Toro smiled thinking about his son.
"You should have him stay over with us sometimes. Lily and Cherry have moved out, even though they still visit, and me and Jamia feel lonely."
Frank offered Ray a cigarette, slightly embarrassed that he hadn't earlier. The other man refused.
"I'll talk about it to him."
"Why did you come here, Ray? To Belleville." Frank finally asked, something he'd wanted to say since Ray had popped up in his bookstore that morning.
Toro seemed to think about his answer for a moment.
"You're the only friend I got left. The only one, except for Gerard and--and Mikey I ever really cared for. And twenty years is enough time to feel sorry for myself."
He ran a hand through his hair.
"I missed you, Iero. I thought it was time to get things back together."
Frank smiled and nodded.
"I missed you too, Ray."
They cheered to themselves quietly, and knocked their mugs together.
Frank didn't really know how to feel.
All he knew was that something had just happened, something that was bound to happen, something that maybe, just maybe, would've made his world spin in the right direction again.
And he thought of his life, and he thought of his choices, those he'd loved and those he'd hated.
And, even though there'd been ups and lows, moments of desperation and times when he'd felt on top of the world, even though there were plenty of missed chances and wrong decisions, there were still kisses shared under the moonlight, and listening to the man he loved's breathing as they'd make love.
Things that were bittersweet, things he'd never have again.
Things that were his, and his forever.
"What's your son's name, Ray?"