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Emperor of Eternity

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1961

The ragged brickwork surrounding the stairwell scraped beneath John’s antsy hands on his ascent, already rubbed raw and aching from hours on the guitar. The sensation left his fingertips buzzing with the same clumsy flutter of frantic bumblebees that normally settled in his chest, and had become familiar to these endless nights. It was the backbeat of music, booze, and whatever kept him on his feet long enough to make it to the cornflower glow of dawn. His soul keeping time with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. 

Scaling the steps two at a time, and grappling at the walls on either side, he had just enough sense behind his rattling skull to beg the powers that be for a handful of hours of sleep, restless at best, to his toppling armload of wasted time. At this point not falling onto a cushioned surface and closing his eyes meant going off the deep end, no matter how much his staccato pulse insisted the night was young. John had witnessed the rise and fall of two nights since the weekend began, and honestly, they never aged as well as the last.

The flimsy door to the dank flat fell sideways and banged against the adjacent wall in time for John to step through with in a slightly more collected manner, as if willing the jitters to kindly fuck off had ever worked before. Half-registering the commotion he’d made, and was continuing to make, he made some meager attempt to take inventory of his companions as he went. Stu was with Pete, draining the dregs of their drink downstairs. So the pitiful pile of limbs and a torso collapsed across the floor on a pilfered mattress was either George or Paul. John would not rightly know until the sun came up.

That moment’s focus he figured to be the eye of the hurricane, between his nerve-wracking high and exhausted, agonizing crash (if the crash was upon him at all, God willing). John had a few moments at best to reach a bunk and strip in time to kip off into unconsciousness, so he could wake somewhat pleasant, but mostly miserable, for breakfast at three in the afternoon.

He shifted toward the (excuse for a) bedroom - only for noise to drift out, and he paused briefly. Living, breathing, human noise, not quite calm enough to be indicative of sleep. Loud enough, in fact, that he should have heard it at the top of the stairs. Perhaps he was going deaf, or daft. More likely he’d been making too much racket.

It didn’t take a randy, seasoned teenager in the festering throes of the Reeperbahn to register the breathy cadences and flattering babble as precisely the sort of intimate situation you didn’t want to interrupt. That didn’t stop John from pushing the door open with his forefinger, though, just enough for the bottom bunk to come into view. His preferred bunk, (and everyone else’s, he wasn’t special), now thoroughly occupied and bound to smell slightly worse than usual.

Paul , his brain provided in a dripping tone, failing to process the implications of his apparent ability to recognize one friend’s undulating arse before another’s shadowed form. Perhaps it was because John’s body was wholly consumed once more by the sensation of his blood thrumming alive in his veins, spurred by the hidden-in-all-the-wrong-places image of a pale backside squeezed between long pythoning legs clad in black nylons, thrusting hard enough to jostle bed and bitch alike.

Paul was as talkative and complimentary as ever, and judging by the volume and pitch of the moaning voice ribboning out of an unseen throat, she must have been making her night’s wages. Leave it to that tosser to make some effort to convince a whore she was doing her job right.

And here he thought the comedown had been upon him. John’s pulse ran hotter than ever as he wrenched away from the door, making no valiant effort to keep his bitter litany of frustrated filth to a whisper. The tangled shape in the corner puffed in exhausted frustration. Meanwhile the display behind the bedroom door carried on long enough for John to stumble over something soft on the floor, lift his shoe to find some rumpled satiny thing rimmed in red and purple from the neon lights out the window, and determine he had not been enough of a nuisance to stop Paul halfway through a shag.

Not that he had ever been before, but tonight the planets had aligned in such a way (and the pills over the last few days) that John would rather murder than sleep on the floor or climb into a bed that might as well count as a front row seat to Paul’s fuck. A little peace and quiet in a ratty room over a nightclub in the raunchiest town in Europe, was that too much to ask?

John lifted the cheap dress with all the care he might exert on a used handkerchief. He could imagine the flimsy material hugging a fit form in such a way that Paul would notice her tits before her eyes or hair or anything the birds in Liverpool wanted you to say something kind about. John knew from experience, maybe better than anybody. Paul would have to spot her after their set, otherwise the moment would pass and he’d find some other big-breasted girl to go upstairs with when he had time to seek one out. Unless this was the other big-breasted girl. She wasn’t exactly a dazzling rarity in Hamburg.

When he couldn’t keep time with his own stammering heartbeat anymore, John dove toward the old wardrobe that housed most of their belongings when they decided not to make complete slobs of themselves. The pigsty on the other side of the rattling doors contained the kind of mess only teenage boys were truly capable of. It took a good deal of ransacking before his pawing, mindless grasp came in contact with slick steel that burned cool against his sweaty palm. 

John funnelled his fingers into the handle of an old pair of scissors and gave a few practice snips against dry air, fancying himself a hairdresser - or more appropriately a seamstress. He didn’t have enough patience or sanity to truly pantomime the metaphor, though, and hacked into the dress fisted in his hand like a fish in a sack. The blades bit through the bundled fabric several hasty times before a chunk of cheap satin fell to the floor, and John rasped out a short, giddy laugh. Maybe she would appreciate a more revealing cut, in her line of work and all!

Chortling through his teeth, John danced around the falling strips, snipping away noisily, noisily. The thought of stretching the fabric out to find a perfect row of paper people sent him cackling dizzily. More even, the image of some girl trying to wear it properly (was it a brassiere? A belt? A strip to hide her fanny like a proper Eve to Paul’s Adam?). Lightheaded, John bowed forward into the side of the wardrobe.

He didn’t realize just how much force he his own body was capable of until the rough wood fell out from under him, punctuated by a great exploding crash, a bleeding German blitz on his senses until the floor stopped shaking. The aftermath was dead quiet apart from the hum of John’s heart, harder to drown out without music or the savage snip of his scissors.

“What the hell have you done?” came George rasping tiredly from the corner, unfurling to stand now that John had made enough of a stink to warrant waking. A muffled shout drew his harried gaze to the bedroom - only to realize the wardrobe had slammed the door shut on its decent, effectively trapping Paul and his conquest behind the great hunk of wood, their bags and clothes cascading out like viscera.

John bleated shrilly at the stupidity of it all. “Catch!” In one fell swoop he dropped the scissors and lobbed the tattered remnants of the satin dress at George, diving away and out through the door he’d never really shut in the first place. John nearly killed himself clambering down the stairs, tingling with the ache of thousands of itty bitty ants right under his skin, marching a path to his breast where his heart pumped sporadically and all his reanimated energy bubbled up, up, up out of his mouth in a hyena laugh that left his throat sore. 

Pete and Stuart had not moved an inch from their rickety stools in the empty club, and rather than explain to them the escapades of just under two minutes that had brought him back downstairs, John busted out the side and into the alley the Top Ten shared with a sex shop, where the haze of the neon signs didn’t reach quite far enough to tint the air yellow. The combination of prellies and booze on John’s heaving body convinced him for a few dire seconds that he might have a heart attack and drop dead at the tender age of twenty. 

Where to expel this torturous high? Normally he might wander out onto the street and take the first girl he saw, but he’d barricaded his own bedroom and could only imagine the response he’d get racing up to some bird all sweaty and erratic, begging for a shag, prostitute or not. John might have restrained himself for the first time in his life when he set to pacing back and forth down the alley, boots stomping and scraping on the pavement. Dragging his fingers through his damp curling hair until his scalp ached. As if exertion ever helped to calm the savage, wired beast.

Suddenly the door ricocheted open at the other end of the alley. Paul found John before John found Paul, the target of a glare so hot it rivalled John’s boiling blood . Now, Paul was dressed, like he had never been banging that whore in the first place.

“Are you fucking mental?” he demanded while John failed to feel any self-preservation instincts like fear or concern (though he did wonder rather incredulously if Paul was truly asking what everyone already knew the answer to). Throwing his hands up, he stormed forward, looking nowhere near as sly and collected and proud of himself as usual. There was an odd satisfaction in that which John had no cause or desire to suppress. 

“I’m out me earnings for the night and a good shirt and trousers because you’ve gone psychotic!”

“Sweet Paul, lending the clothes off his back like a proper gentleman,” John taunted in a pinched wheeze as Paul came upon him. He let Paul fly forward and grab the edges of his leather jacket, watching more than experiencing, content to let the rage run its course until Paul tuckered himself out. He didn’t quite expect to be slammed up against the wall of the club, though, grinding into his spine and skull and nearly knocking the wind out of him. It was almost enough to drive some sense into John, but the chemical hex on his brain and blood came flooding back when Paul took longer than a few seconds to get going.

“I didn’t finish! ” Paul snarled, lip twisted hard enough to put Elvis to shame. “I never ever bother you when you inconvenience everyone with a girl so why do you have to make it hell for me!”

Paul got angry when he went without, John noted dutifully, while the wall ravaged his back and skull again under the force of Paul’s fists. With thin brows knit low over dark eyes catching the bright lights in stark shapes of red and yellow, nestled high above a set jaw and flaring nostrils on a dainty nose - why, you’d think John had taken the scissors to the strings on Paul’s guitar. As if that measured some stupid harlot’s uniform .

If he leaned forward enough, he could smash their foreheads together and free himself. John contemplated it while he gasped, playing up the shock on his breath. “Left without letting you finish all up inside o’her? Tsk tsk! Never known such a prudish whore. I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

“I’m not even in the mood to see your rotten face,” Paul spat, uncurling his fingers from around John’s jacket - but by then, John had grappled his way up Paul’s shirt, clinging like his life depended on it.

“You don’t have to, you can close your eyes,” John offered in a mawkish babble, managing to keep his grip even as Paul swatted at his shoulders. “S’all my fault, the least I can do is pick up where she left off. Bet I’d make a lovely bird with your eyes closed.”

“Sod off.”

John let his voice drift into a soprano. “‘Oh Paul, I’m so hot for you, I’m so wet for you, touch me there and there and there!’”

Paul’s hand collided with the sharp plane of John’s cheekbone, an awkward punch that Paul hadn’t assembled into a fist in time. It was enough to pry away anyhow, leaving John clutched around open air as pain bloomed under his eye. There was at least enough force and sharp edges in that throw to leave him sore.

“You’re unbearable,” Paul declared, squared and tense and utterly boyish. His zip, John noticed for the first time, hadn’t been done up, in his mad dash to get dressed and see his girl out. “You’re going to have to explain the splintered dresser to Eckhorn, and if he throws us out I’m going to-” 

John dove forward, fingers catching in Paul’s shirt just enough to drag him back and crush their mouths together. In retrospect, he might have been thinking of smashing foreheads, but tilting his chin into Paul’s was much easier and softer and didn’t hurt nearly as much. Besides, a promise was a promise.

His lips bruised under the force of his own fervor against Paul’s pretty mouth. John’s blood bubbled like Coke and fizzed all the way to his cranium where the pressure made him feel faint. When he opened his mouth to trade the carbonated frenzy for oxygen, tongue dipping out curiously, Paul shoved him away with a strangled grunt and put enough distance between them this time that he was out of arm’s reach.

John stumbled and crashed to his arse in the middle of the alley. His lips were alight with more pins and needles than the rest of his body. He laughed at the look on Paul’s face. Not sly and collected, or even blazing mad. Flushed red and trying his damnedest to look outraged as he wiped his mouth in harsh strokes.

“You’re disgusting, I can’t stand you when you’re like this!” Paul scuffed the ground with the heel of his shoe and swore in his retreat. The door clanged shut behind him, reverberating through John’s bones.

He laughed low in his chest until it seeped out in a tickling wheeze. The walls shifted and blurred around him, leaking into the bright colors just beyond the alley. John pressed himself into the ground, but the earth couldn’t take him back, with a slab of concrete and miles of pipes between him and the dirt. All he saw was the sky bracketed by the buildings stretching up around him. His skin felt feverish, his plague of insects forging tunnels and colonies. When he turned his cheek against the cool stone, pain pooled nice and easy.

Nights like these he wondered if he’d ever know what it felt like to sleep through the sunrise again.

 

1965

Great boulders like crooked teeth jutted from the frothy blue water, spearing toward the grassy bluff overhead where the sun reached and bathed the land in cold swaths of light. Falling down to the rocky shore from such a height would spell certain doom more likely than not, but for John’s purposes this little nook served as a happy hiding spot where no one could snap at him for being idle.

Idle he was, balanced neatly between a rock and a hard place in a self-induced stupor while the tide lapped just out of reach. If it were a couple months later he might have taken his shoes off and stretched to dangle his feet into the clear water and sodden sand, but in fact the weather looked much more temperate than it felt. The prospect of soaking his trousers and getting an earful from Brian, Dick, and the nice ladies in costuming (a holy trinity of earful-givers) was not very pleasant either.

Ringo, George, and Vic’s voices drifted down from the bluff on a sea breeze that tickled the gooseflesh from his arms and ankles. Every so often there came some proclamation from Dick or one of several crew members John hadn’t quite learned the names of yet. His transition from entitled rockstar to entitled film star had gone off without a hitch, especially considering he wasn’t anywhere of the countless places he was supposed to be. 

From the vignetted corner of his sight, John clocked movement in slow intervals, and placed his wrist against his side, like a child shielding a stolen biscuit from some nasty bitty of an aunt. Only it was Paul toeing carefully toward John’s hideyhole, arms spread in an awkward display that at least prevented him from falling flat on his arse or cracking his head open on the sharp rocks.

“I knew to look where no one would find you,” Paul said gladly, when he was close enough to crouch and sidle along until he could sit within arm’s reach of John, balanced in footholds that hiked his knees to the height of his chest. “The tide’ll trap you in if you’re not careful, you know.”

“Ah, but that was my plan all along, see,” John answered conspiratorially, looking on serenely despite peaks and dips in his voice. “Can’t boss around a Beatle who’s got nowhere to go.”

“Can’t boss him around when he gets dragged out to sea either.” Paul huffed through his nose, brows arched high over his dopey eyes. He held out his hand. “Give’ere.”

Uncharacteristically obedient, John flourished the hand at his side without ceremony, and offered his purloined biscuit - which happened to be a lovingly wrapped joint, poised between his thumb and forefinger. Paul took the smoldering stick with just as little pomp and smiled gratefully.

“S’all I’ve got, I’m afraid,” John said.

“It’ll do.”

They sat there passing the reefer back and forth for a bit, catching each other’s hands on the trade-off in a languid sort of way that thrived under the weight of every drag. The necessity of conversation had never made itself a nuisance when downtime simmered between the two of them, especially not taking turns letting evergreen smoke curl in their throats and seep into the crisp air.

“Cynthia asked me to remind you to ring her up,” Paul mentioned in that powdery polite way of his that usually just meant Have you done it yet?

“Just to hear me bang on about work and the weather,” John supplied, too stoned to sound very sour about being nagged. “She seems to have convinced herself I’m on some extravagant holiday.”

“I think she’d just like to know you’ve not gotten into any trouble,” Paul replied, punctuating the conversation with a long drag. He didn’t say anything more, just what he was told to say in as many words as John could bear. 

John knew the issue, to Paul, wasn’t whether or not he got himself into trouble on foreign waters, nor in his own home because he couldn’t be bothered to phone his wife. The issue was whether or not Cynthia knew her husband was safe and sound with his silly little band doing their silly little film. Peace of mind, and all that. Paul cared about those kinds of things, setting people at ease and whatnot, in with a diligence that was as much sincere as it could be a performance. 

A diligence John could not quite understand due in part to his own overwhelming ego. Easy to bruise when he put Paul on his wobbling pedestal, but John wasn’t in the state of mind to feel sorry for himself.

A bit too close for comfort, though. Paul returned the joint to him and John crossed his eyes to stare at it from beyond his beaky nose. To think this could turn into a blissless routine where he chased some long-abandoned but never forgotten high after smoking so much for so long. A Shakespearean tragedy to be sure.

He thought of wallowing at home, when he was at his most pathetic and unmotivated. Cyn coughing into her delicate hand on her first hit in spite of years of cigarettes, just so she had a vapid reason for John not to ask her to get stoned with him. Sometimes he wondered when she developed that prudish streak, and then Julian would yell from the other room and everything made stupid bloody sense.

The joint was shorter than his little finger now, which may have prompted Paul to ask, “Would you like to try something?”

John tipped his head over. When he set his sights on Paul, the edges of the seascape around them bled and wrinkled into a watercolor painting. Paul’s fringe battered and curled against is forehead. John imagined him seeing it in the mirror, maddened, raking it into place with a comb before dressing for dinner. He looked wind-ruffled and content in his pale summer clothes. Warm to the touch. John thought if he saw Paul set against the crystal clear sky in a film about the Bahamas he’d never dream of it being cold there.

“Try what?” John asked after a lazy beat, nearly forgetting the question.

Paul’s smile was downright Cheshire, splitting his face into full appled cheeks beneath his watery eyes. “It’s absurd,” he said, tittering out all his breath on a snicker high in his nose. “You’ll laugh.”

“I’ll not have anything to laugh at but yer sorry face if you don’t spit it out.”

“I was out on the town with Jane before we left; met these Americans,” Paul explained between short breaths in an effort to calm himself down from a fit of giggles spawned by absolutely nothing. “She had gone home so we started smoking, and they showed me a way to split a single hit between two people.”

“That sounds very economic of them,” John retorted in a haughty voice.

“Waste not want not, John,” Paul reported with amusement. Then, beckoning with his fingers, “May I?”

With nothing better to do and little desire to let his mind wander down dreadful paths, John nodded, and passed the joint. At this point Paul could have sawed the thing in half in order to split it and John couldn’t have rightly cared.

“Curl your hand like this.” Paul demonstrated, cinching his empty hand into a loose fist. “Tightly now, you mustn’t waste the smoke.”

John imitated the gesture. “Is this how our dear Jane does it?” he asked, jerking his hand as a smile quirked over his mouth.

Rather than pin him with a curt look, Paul snorted. “Wouldn’t you like to know!” He smacked John’s wrist with the back of his hand. John retreated in put-upon surrender, and decided for some reason that he ought to behave himself.

From there, Paul aligned their fists into a long, pinched tunnel. “Put your mouth on your end. Be ready to inhale, alright?”

John was too high to feel stupid about mouthing against his fist. He entertained himself by trumpeting into the curl of his hand as Paul took a drag, long fingers splayed around his face so the joint nestled between his knuckles. A second later his hand was gone, and he dipped to align his lips to his fist, parallel to John’s.

Prickly hot smoke reached the flesh of John’s palm and he breathed deeply, letting the fog collect in his lungs for a few heartbeats. He watched Paul’s lidded eyes across their hands, not so much concentrated on blowing as relaxing, letting it escape easily. A master at looking like he knew what he was doing.

John lifted away before Paul did, mouth rounded as he exhaled onto the salty breeze. The secondhand lungful danced away in a suspiciously shallow cloud.

“Took some yanks to figure that out? Must be proud o’themselves,” John commented. “I don’t think I got any.”

“Loose lips,” Paul tutted, flexing his fingers.

“Calling me a gossip, are ye?”

“Just a lousy follower of blatant directions. No surprise. Hang on now, I’ll try something else.” Paul turned away to take a long pull off the reefer, just like before.

“Quit pissing around, you just want to finish the damn thing.” John reached out, but Paul pushed his hand away, putting his sorry reflexes to shame. They were no better muddled by cannabis.

Instead of fisting his hand again, Paul’s palm landed on the embroidered collar of John’s jumper, fingers splayed close to his neck  pulling himself forward. There was no hope of John processing fast enough to recoil, though bewilderment flew through his mind like a lazy goose as the polite distance disappeared, and Paul leaned forward to purse his lips around a plume of smoke.

The heady, herbaceous tendrils whipped John across the face before he remembered to inhale. Smoke filtered through his teeth, trailing in a ghostly ribbon from Paul’s mouth. A few wisps escaped, and drifted up through Paul’s shuttered eyelashes.

As if Paul were sharing his life force and not a hit, a sated calm blanketed John as Paul’s smoke whorled in his chest. He forgot where he was. His nook might as well have been on a desert island at the edge of the world, where nobody existed but Paul and his unwavering ability to make John second-guess everything he’d ever known.

The plume puttered out, and John had breathed as much as his lungs could expand. Paul drew back enough to look at John expectantly. A bashful, apologetic smile twitched onto his mouth, but his dark eyes were steady and crisp. He knew precisely what he had done, throwing Lennon for a loop.

Suddenly intensely aware of the dragging weight of his own head, John blew out the smoke in a condensed, noisy stream. Paul flinched and sputtered sporadically.

“Come on, John!” he protested, batting the cloud away. Before it could dissipate into nothing, John tilted close enough that when Paul lifted to meet him, their lips collided on a wisp of grey gaze.

Paul’s fingers stuttered in the air but John craned forward, hand closing around an upturned wrist, not quite trapping Paul but making it damn hard to maneuver away. This, he thought, seemed like a far better vehicle for sharing a hit. But with nothing left but the ashy taste of a nearly spent joint clinging to his tongue, John used his grip for leverage and nudged forward.

Paul pressed back, mouth parting under John’s as his free hand drifted up into the hair clinging in damp locks to the back of John’s neck. Amidst all the clutching, he realized, the reefer had to have disappeared, with both Paul’s hands occupied. But as they said, out of sight, out of mind. 

The sudden urge to press Paul down could only be swayed by a vague awareness of sharp rocks surrounding them on all sides. Instead John pulled him close with the arm he had left, sliding over Paul’s waist and under his arm to sift into his linen shirt. They kissed slowly, thickly, like billowing steam. It suffused John with warmth in all the places that mattered.

On that desert island concocted by his thoroughly fucked out brain, John could have spent forever like that, letting every iota of the life he’d concocted for himself seep away until all that was left was Paul, Paul, Paul, engulfed in smoke and salt crystals. Paul felt like any other kiss since he’d been old enough to care about kissing, and as good as the best he could think of. Titillating as a secret. Don’t tell them we got high on the beach. Don’t tell them we held each other close. Don’t tell them we kissed.

The water slammed up against the closest rocks loud enough that John startled. Paul gasped into his mouth, and wrenched away. John’s grip tensed around open air, and he was too slow to ease back and prevent himself from looking like an idiot. Rodin’s sculpture, missing a key player.

“The tide’s coming in, I told you,” Paul griped, shaking out his leg, stained dark with water up to his calf. The waves rolled in sprawling ellipses as John’s mind finally supplied a realization for such an abrupt end. Paul had some sense splashed into him quite literally.

“Oh,” John answered numbly. “They’re going to shout at you.”

“No thanks to you.” Paul managed to squeeze some meager water droplets from his trousers. If the weather were actually cooperating, then the sun might bake the moisture out of the material, but that didn’t seem to be the case today. Paul cursed, and his irritated gaze drifted to John’s - only to falter.

Consequences to what had just happened built up within John’s thick skull, but never quite came to self-actualizing fruition. Paul stared at him for a long time, brows twitching, teeth digging into his lips like he might say something. Nothing good, John figured. 

Finally Paul sighed in lieu of speaking. Which was worse. John might have said something unhelpful if Paul hadn’t followed up with a laugh, scrubbing a hand through his tousled hair.

“It’s no use! I’ll have my tail between my legs.” Paul stood, wobbling dangerously. John had no chance of reacting in time if he fell.

“Come on, John love, it’s nearly lunchtime. I was sent to fetch you, if you can fucking believe it.”

He held out his hand, which John accepted, and lumbered to his feet. If he blinked hard enough, he could muster enough sense for a few seconds to look where he placed his footing, a case of nerves creeping into his system now that the rocks were slippery. But the stupor always came back, grabbing at him with persistent hands that he could only ever shake away for a moment. Like a throng of shrieking girls desperate to know what the fabric of his suit felt like. Could it be that letting them overwhelm him would leave him feeling as sated as he did now? 

Paul’s hand tightened enough to keep John from tripping sideways, and he knew the answer to be no.

He stared between his knees and spotted the last inch of his joint, damp and lifeless. A moment later the tide stole it away, and all John had to remember anything by was the cloud in his head and the pulse in his lips.

 

1967

“I told you not to,” George uttered in his world-weary way, chiming like a chorus of warbling altar boys. John slurped his tea loudly to drown out the prepubescent cantations, and Mimi barked from a corner of his mind normally kept under lock and key about manners and that ghastly noise .

“Quiet the lot of you,” he complained to George, Mimi, and the choir at large. He never did care for church music. 

As if to spite John, Paul, across the table, snorted out a little organ riff, his nostrils serving as pipes. John scowled at him. “Oh George, have you ever had any luck ordering our John to do anything?” The stained glass panes in his eyes glinted gleefully, in shards of red and green and orange that all shifted back to crystalline brown when John looked away.

George frowned. The hairs in his eyebrows ceased marching toward his ears and stood stock still. “Then enjoy being obtuse together. I’m going out.”

“Obtuse!” John exclaimed, admiring how the syllables rolled off his tongue and clattered onto his saucer, rattling the porcelain. “A big word for a big man.”

“They grow up so fast,” Paul answered with faux fondness that dripped sick and saccharine and made the steam coming off the tea smell sweeter. “Blink and you’ll miss it. Isn’t that right, Johnny?”

“Aye,” John said, and they clicked their cups to thunderous applause.

The next time John looked for George, he was nowhere to be found. All that was left of him was the print of his shoes in the carpet, which swiftly dissolved when the wind rippled through the fibers. Gone as fast as some scorned witch out of a children’s story, bearing a terrible omen and reaping discord in her wake, just because you didn’t invite her to some damn birthday party.

John wouldn’t realize until later how true it was, when Paul let his teacup slip from the crook of his finger. The gold rim shined in a stunning eclipse, which darted through the virilescent shards in Paul’s eyes before escaping out the window.

The snare drum succession of china on china drew John’s attention to the table again, where the cup rattled on and on until the air around it appeared to vibrate at the same frequency. Aromatic tea pooled in bulbous puddles around the saucer. John ran his finger through one; the tea rippled out in wobbling snakes, hissing like an angry kettle.

“How did you take yours, John?” Paul murmured, fingers still curled around open air. When John glanced to meet Paul’s gaze, he was ignored in favor of the tablecloth, with its sauntering, traipsing patterns.

“With milk and sugar,” John answered as he wiped his hands on a cloth napkin. Eventually the moisture evaporated from his skin as his fingers folded over fabric over and over again until he didn’t know where his sleeve ended and the napkin began.

“No, no not that.” Paul’s gaze drifted across the table, over the creamer and teapot, and finally the sugar bowl, filled with some choice sugar cubes that twinkled like wind chimes under the yellow lamp light. Like choosing a shell out of three hiding a pretty pebble, Paul pointed at the sugar, and locked eyes with John. 

A switch flipped. He heard Paul without ever speaking a word. After months of discordant melodies, they were finally tuned to the same note. There was a pebble to be found after all. John had placed an identical one under his tongue an hour ago. 

John and Paul matched. They ought to be made into earrings.

“Meant for George and me, y’see,” John offered in explanation, shrugging helplessly as Paul stared at him. He couldn’t find the energy required to feign a proper apology, though. After all he’d been begging Paul (and the universe at large) for another night like the one at Cavendish just months ago. He didn’t exactly expect a delightful accident to fall into his sorry lap. Oops , he thought happily, like a housewife on television who spilled wine on her clothes and had no choice but to change into a negligee for her absent husband.

John spent a long time staring at Paul staring. He wondered what was going on behind those percolating hazel eyes. Were they finally sharing one vision again? Crying shame it couldn’t come naturally, like it used to, but chemists were very generous with their remedies.

There was a joke hiding here somewhere. John hadn’t found it yet but he giggled all the same. He probably should have warned Paul about the sugar but anything and everything tangible got away from him when he was like this. John could only be bothered to focus on one plane of consciousness at a time. Besides:

“How soft do you hafta be to go ‘round drinking mysterious elixirs?” he said when Paul remained silent.

“It’s tea,” Paul countered. “It’s harmless every other damn day of the week.”

“Well that’ll show you. For next time.” John tilted his own cup to his lips, as if hiding his mouth away in a porcelain prison might make what he said even remotely applicable.

“If I wanted to trip tonight, I would have said so, or done it myself, or something .” Paul’s eyes darted around the room in metronome succession, until he finally sighed it all away. Elbows fell to the table at the same time his head fell into his hands, to block out the world, submit himself to the moire rippling behind his eyelids for as long as he could stand it. John couldn’t imagine for very long.

“I don’t have the energy for this. I’ll be dead by morning.”

Oh boy ,” John mused liltingly. “Oh come now, where’s that McCartney confidence? You’re supposed to sell them all on this wacked out album of ours, you know.” He went on to chide Paul for his sorry attitude, how it turned all the air around them a miserable shade of bile green. Or he would have, if Paul didn't let his hands fall away, revealing the great trembling orbs speckled across his eyelashes. Dew on blades of shadowed grass.

So much for absolving himself of blame, John realized. One single droplet dislodged itself and wriggled its way to the tip of Paul’s nose. Something acrid plopped into John’s stomach like alka-seltzer and fizzed into a feeling he could only name as guilt. 

It was all his fault. Of course Paul would never admit such a thing if faced with the allegation, but it was true. John was the one who ordered up the teapot with it’s pretty little matching china set of painted leaves and berries that shuddered and drifted away on an autumn breeze every time he stared at them for too long. He was the one who laced the sugar and fixed his own cup like he knew some form of restraint and didn’t have tabs pouring out of his drawers and pockets and sleeves and nostrils and off his tongue at any given moment. And look what he’d done in his altered state. He’d never touch the stuff again.

Well, that probably wasn’t true. And anyway, he made an arse of himself in every state of mind.

“M’sorry,” John murmured, astonished by how fast the word left his mouth. Normally it lodged itself behind his tonsils and turned to a great gluey mess.

“I’ll watch after you, alright?” he went on. “Like at your house, like you did for me. I’ll make sure nothing bad happens to you.” Paul had more or less collected himself but that didn’t stop John from reaching out, grasping the hands still poised over the table. He tried to think of comforting gestures and how to perform them like he knew a goddamned thing about being supportive.

“Oh, Christ.” Paul huffed, trying to look composed. The moisture had been wiped away, but never really disappeared. It lingered on in iridescent smears around his eyes that taunted John in all his stupidity.  “Look’it me making a fool of myself. I’ll be fine, I promise.”

“Maybe.” John wasn’t so sure, but he wasn’t keen on countering Paul when he didn’t know what magic combination of words would reap the right sort of comfort. And here he thought he was so much smarter when looking down on the world from this height.

He did know actions spoke louder than words, though. And that you were to show, and not tell. A lot of sayings went that way, John realized. Perhaps that prompted him to clutch Paul’s hands close across the table, close enough to run his lips across the thin white knuckles in a doting manner. Perhaps a cheek or forehead would have been better, but knocking cups and spoons everywhere would only make things worse. Paul’s butterfly powder skin was soft against John’s mouth, soothing him in a way as well.

“Oh John,” Paul uttered, in a soft voice that conveyed thousands of feelings John had no hope of ever deciphering.

Eventually they found themselves lying side-by-side on the floor of their suite, opting out of the wandering exploration that had consumed them that night at Paul’s. No Mal to steer them by, nor George in his infinite and expanding wisdom. With Paul one wavering trapeze away from despair, they ought to have, but John lacked the sense to ring someone up when he had gone There and Back Again more times than he could count. That made for a competent enough tour guide, didn’t it?

It was just John and Paul now. Like it used to be. John and Paul on the same wavelength like their lodgings were tiny and their instruments cheap and their names worth nothing. John wondered, if he admitted that he missed it out loud, if it would all go back to normal, as if it were all an illusion courtesy of some ghost trying to teach him a lesson about greed.

“Sometimes I miss the garden at Mendips,” he announced. But the walls did not fall away, and blossoms did not sprout. The ceiling stayed put, it’s mottled surface trembling overhead. He could almost see the electric current throbbing into the tit-shaped light fixture, with it’s smooth round dome and conic tip. 

At least Paul remained as well. “You can go anytime you like,” he mentioned, hands folded on top of his technicolor jumper.

“No, I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“There’s nothing there to visit.”

John didn’t have enough words to explain how he loathed to visit a garden where he was not eighteen and Paul was not sixteen and his aunt had a dozen or so more lines in her face. He thought it made perfect sense.

“I remember when the hyacinth would come in.” Paul took a deep breath. John watched his chest rise from his peripheral vision. “I can smell it.”

“I always hated the way it smelled.” When the wave of pungent flora reached John, he plugged his nose. “Too strong. I pulled it all up one summer. Mimi had my hide.”

“I hope they like the album.”

The question caught John off guard, and siphoned a bit of oxygen from the room, but his mouth supplied, “Starting to doubt your brainchild?”

“I keep comparing the songs to our others,” Paul went on. “Like, I have two records playing at the same time. This one’s not like that one and that one’s not like this one. And what will they think for it? It’s stupid, I know. Just me mind running in circles now, no thanks to you.”

“I think this they entity will like it so much you’ll forget you were even worried in the first place. Your head will grow three times its size. Might even explode.”

Paul snorted. “John-”

“And if they don’t, well, you’ll just have to take the fall, won’t you?” John let his gaze drift to the side proper, glad, at least, to watch Paul’s face wrinkle in profile, in short puffs of laughter. Disaster, while not entirely averted, had been repaired for the time being. 

Paul turned to John, his hair shifting in leaves of black against the pillow until his moonpale face took up most of John’s vision, ever so slightly out of focus, with his glasses left out of reach. Paul had shaved that pitiful moustache just recently, which retroactively made him look more youthful, as if he wasn’t just shy of twenty-five. John touched his own moustache absently, marvelling at how the hair buzzed like static under his fingertips.

John was still for as long as it took Paul’s mouth to creep into a smile. “Oh, these three moles line up perfectly.” He lifted his fingers toward the side of John’s face, which had slimmed considerably over the last year or so.

“The polite thing to say would be beauty mark ,” John said, though his eyes fluttered shut under the gossamer touch of Paul’s hand, tracing a pattern in exotic Japanese silk.

“One, two, three. Like Orion’s Belt.”

“Not sure an astronomer would be very impressed with me, Paul love.”

“Then I’m impressed enough with you for both of us.”

John cracked an eye open - which turned out to be a lost cause, when his vision darkened. Then there were Paul’s lips, like flower petals smothering his mouth. Fragrant, sweet. Tea with milk and sugar.

The hand on his cheek shifted, stroked, as if mapping a whole sky of stars and constellations. Paul’s amateur astronomy nudged their mouths closer. John kissed Paul back, tilting until his knee slid against the outside of Paul’s thigh. But he never closed his eyes. There was too much going on in the dark, pink place between their noses. Paul’s eyelids quivering under their own weight. His breath drifting up hot and damp when their lips parted. His fringe tumbling against his forehead in a cascade that fell and caught itself at the roots at the last minute.

It might have been a mistake. Looking at one of heaven’s angels. He’d vaporize if he didn’t look away soon.

“I thought about kissing you last time,” Paul mumbled, so the words smudged against John’s mouth, waxy and heavy like Cynthia’s lipstick.

“Last time?” John whispered, only for every occasion he had ever been with Paul to scatter through his mind hopelessly, Julian’s blocks tumbling in a terrible racket.

“When we dropped acid together, in March. Don’t you remember?” Paul drifted away, just enough that his features became clear, and not a blur of heat and flesh. A ruddy color bloomed through his face like an ever-changing Rorschach. His sanguine lips, heart-shaped. No, a fat, ripe rose. Valentinian imagery throbbed across John’s vision and he was all of a sudden certain he’d never been in love before. Not like this.

“I thought about kissing you, but time got away from me. Everything gets away from me when I’m like this. I don’t know how you do it all the time.”

“Me neither.” John wheezed out all the air in his lungs, lest he forget to breathe before something important happened.  

“I think you do.” Paul kissed him again, but came back up soon enough. John floundered in the meanwhile. “I miss when we had both feet on the ground. You’re up in the cosmos all the time these days. Is my only option anymore just to join you?”

“What are you talking about?” John blinked rapidly, as if that might will his eyes, which had never worked properly, into correction. He stared hard through wipers that couldn’t beat fast enough to sluice the driving rain. He managed to catch a glimpse of Paul’s knit brow through the torrent.  “Is this about - do you think I’m better than you?”

Paul sighed. There was a sad tone to it, like a lone clarinet. He couldn’t stop touching John, though, fingertips running across his thin lips. John wondered what it felt like from Paul’s end. From his, it was the gentlest of drum rolls. He knew the answer was no. Same note. Same wavelength.

“I think, I wish you’d let me drag you back down to earth sometimes,” Paul said. “And I’m afraid one of these days, you’ll just drift off into the ether without me.”

“You’re being awfully existential,” John murmured, mouthing at Paul’s fingers, only for them to slip away. He missed kissing Paul. Paul made him less desperate for an answer to the universe.

“I know.” Paul must have read John’s mind - they really were on the same page again - and dragged their mouths together soundly, sliding to grip John’s shirt. When he kissed, it was like a current rippling through a pond. Like sinking into a hot bath. Like sneaking home after dark.

“I just wanted to name the feeling while I knew how to put it into words.” 

 

1969

Paul’s voice swelled around them, clear as bird song, wedding bells, a crystal glass freshly polished and free of any imperfections. Which meant it was rubbish, naturally.

John watched Paul warble into his mic, and a muscle twitched between his nose and cheek. John wondered if it meant he was cross, maybe with how the session was turning out. There was a time when he might have known for sure, but not so much anymore. Paul happened to be cross a lot these days, though, so he figured it was an alright guess. 

When you told me,

“When you told me,” John agreed in-time.

“Could you stop that?” Paul demaded. 

The unenthusiastic backing music pittered out under the realization that Paul had stopped singing, leaving only John in his wake, a beat too late. His fingers stuttered over a clumsy chord before he had the sense to stop playing, and lifted his head enough to see past the limp curtain of his hair. Everyone was staring at Paul, and Paul was staring at him.

“Stop what?” John uttered too slow on the uptake to snap back indignantly.

“Sorry.” Paul composed himself in seconds flat, looking pleasant and amiable. But there was no need. Michael and his rose-colored cameras were nowhere to be found.

“I don’t think you need to repeat me,” he went on. “I’d like to try a take without it.”

“You want me to shut up,” John clarified. 

Paul smiled blandly. Pretending John was being witty so he could answer back wittily, like things were normal. “In so many words.”

A sick, icy ache slithered its way through John’s chest, not quite potent enough to envelope and drag him into the dark recesses of his mind, but enough to consume his thoughts while Paul blathered on about something else to George, and then Ringo. He definitely wasn’t high enough if Paul’s foppish requests were going to sting this bad.

“Why don’t we try once more, then break,”  Paul suggested when he’d gone around the room. Insufferable control freaks did better as conductors than band members, but a murmur of agreement rang out all the same.

Across the room, John found Yoko and her steely gaze. Hot and cold, a fresh-forged blade submerged in a bath of water. She knew him by the rhythm of his heartbeat. It was almost like she could feel it ticking away in his chest, as long as they had both their feet on the ground. 

John nodded, and watched Yoko stand with fluid grace and see herself out of the room. When they dispersed he would find her in the car, since the loo would be full of everyone who’d been waiting for the OK from Paul for the last few hours. They’d hunker down and get their fix, and it would be enough to endure the rest of the session. Comments John wound up taking much more personally than Yoko had time to wallow in. She was better than taking what George, Ringo, and Paul said to heart. Then they would arrive late because they couldn’t be bothered to be timely about it. Such was the precedent John set as a member of the greatest band on earth.

“John, we’re starting.” Paul pushed his shoulder, and only then did he realize he’d been staring after the door, the echo of Yoko’s boots only playing back in his mind, as opposed to actually occurring in that moment. John turned back to find Paul’s hand still pinched around his sleeve, and it was a whole second later that he replaced it on the neck of his bass.

“Right,” John stated, making a great show of situating himself. “The Dog and Paulie show, take four!”

Aggravation colored Paul’s voice for as long as it took to get through the first verse, and John smirked to himself. Maybe if he made enough snide comments, Paul could sing the whole song with that strained quality he was so vying for. 

If you leave me ,” Paul crooned, while John kept his mouth shut up tight. Don’t repeat him, don’t fill in the gaps. So what if the song dragged on and on forever? “ I’ll never make it alone.

Staring off into middle space, Ringo, George, and Billy ebbed at the corners of John’s vision. If he focused, there was Paul in the center of it all, face drawn in, anguished even, as he lifted his gaze to the ceiling. Like he had any idea what it felt like to be abandoned. Quite the storyteller, Paul was.

When you told me ,” Paul’s eyes drifted down to John. John started in his chair, but his fingers didn’t falter. As if he’d been caught doing something naughty, giving Paul some scrap of attention. “ You didn’t need me anymore ,”

If John knew better he would have ducked down to find something deeply interesting to devote himself to on the strings, but so rarely did he know better . You could write a song about it and still not learn anything. I should have known better with a cunt like you. 

But Paul hadn’t broken eye contact either. More than a handful of seconds and it was a game of chicken. And John loathed to lose to Paul.

(As if he hadn’t already.)

Well you know I nearly broke down and cried ,” Paul told him, shaking his head mournfully. Dramatic as ever, but there was a bite to the lyrics. John found himself leaning closer over his guitar.

When you told me you didn’t need me anymore ,” Paul accused, hurt as John had ever seen him behind a thicket of dark hair. 

John opened his mouth - what, to reply? When did I ever? Is that the way it is? - but Paul was gone in an instant, bent over the mic, eyes screwed shut to belt out the rest of the verse. Still not strained enough. He’d want to do it again tomorrow.

The studio manifested itself in John’s peripheral vision again. He remembered where he was. There was more to the world than a moment out of time with Paul McCartney. 

John managed to make it to the end of the song without screwing up royally. Keeping his mouth shut was easy when he had so much to think about. Lyrics he’d heard a dozen times made no sense. When did he say what? Of course they all made their empty threats to walk out on everything but how could Paul take him seriously as opposed to George or Rings or his own damn self? Perhaps he meant Yoko. But then what about Linda? Or Cynthia, or Jane, or anyone really (as if John didn’t know the answer). Why now was it his fault?

Oh, darling , Paul had said. When you told me you didn’t need me anymore! John should have been singing the stupid song.

“What do you think of people who bake all their lofty claims into their art,” John asked later, in the car. After the waspy feeling between his eyes subsided, and honey cogged up every gear and crevice within and without him, “and never say anything remotely significant on their own? Cowards, I suppose?”

Yoko made a noise of dissent. She was smart enough to know what (or who) John was talking about, but he liked to think he caught her at the right time that it would go over her head. “That’s how you get it out into the world. Offering it up to be mocked or praised and you don’t know what you’ll get. Not cowardly,” she murmured in her papery voice. 

“How profound.”

“You asked.”

At some point they had had enough of themselves, and lumbered out of the car and back into the studio, hand and hand like they still had a lifeline to earth. John couldn’t imagine the session going on much longer, with Ringo’s habits and George’s temper. Day in and day out, they all rendered themselves useless at some point.

Paul was smoking in the hall adjacent from the ladies room, and having been full ready to follow inside John stopped, snagging Yoko in her tracks. They made such bumbling idiots of themselves that they teetered around each other, but after a few halting steps she finally made it to the toilet, shutting the door soundly.

When John turned to find Paul, he wasn’t snickering, or smirking, or smug. That holier-than-thou expression saved solely for Yoko and made plain for John was nowhere to be found. Paul maintained eye contact, though, which was enough to beckon John down the hall.

It seemed ages before he shuffled to a stop, permeated by silence that didn’t break until he settled against the wall across from Paul. “I think that went alright,” Paul said. He had one leg kicked over the other, his arms bent across his chest, and his cig dangling between his fingers precariously. He thought he was something else.

Even in his state, John sniffed out the attempt at small talk from a mile away. Somehow, it made him feel more bitter than anything else had. “Did you really?” he asked point-blank, unable to perpetuate chit chat. Who were they anymore?

Paul hesitated at least. “Well I’ll try tomorrow, y’know?” 

John huffed through his nose, and thought about a time when he felt proud to predict Paul’s every move.

Paul took a pull off his cigarette. John imagined it being offered to him. All it would take was a nod, and for Paul to hold out his hand. But it never came to fruition. When it stuck in his mind too long, John lit his own in a silent daze.

“I’m sorry about snapping at ye,” Paul said all of a sudden, stalling John before he had a chance to get his mouth around the filter. Even his relaxed pose seemed tense, but there was an honesty in his face, set squarely on John. “I don’t mean to smack your wrist or anything, I’ve just got a way I’d like it to sound.”

“I know how you get, Paul,” John stated, sucking down his cigarette so he didn’t have to acknowledge the edge in his own voice.

Paul did, though. His mouth curved at the edges, tight, not quite reaching his eyes. He mirrored John, taking his good time inhaling and exhaling the smoke. Quite a way for the both of them to avoid speaking.

John missed when they could just come to blows with each other. Even if it wasn’t to settle some pointless disagreement, a good fight was simple, if not always clean. Not fraught and contrived like this awful mess. John wished for a moment that Paul would yell at him, reel back, knock him senseless. The silence was stifling.

“You’re disgusting!” Paul barked all of a sudden, spooking John enough to jostle his cig from his fingers. His hair was plastered to his forehead in inky curls of sweat and grease. His face was twisted in fury and he stank of sex. “I can’t stand you when you’re like this!”

John blinked hard. “Bloody hell, can’t you tell why I’m like this!”

“Like what?” Paul asked, staring back in dismay.

John froze. Thick hair, beard, cologne. Creases around his eyes because he aged and knew better than to throw people against walls. The dim lights overhead hugged Paul’s face and hooded his eyes and mouth in shadow. If green and purple streaks had ever hugged his cheek, they were long gone now. Miles away in another time, another place. Another fucking country.

The thick neglected cherry of John’s cigarette ashed off in hot chunks under the force of his trembling fingers. Sweat beaded at his hairline, chilling the back of his neck. Paul had an anxious look on his face. He must have known John was high but it didn’t very much matter with him going down like he’d been days without.

“When did I tell you I didn’t need you anymore?” John demanded, stepping across the hallway.

“I don’t-”

“You can talk to me. I know I haven’t set much of a precedent but not such a twat that you have to sing for me to even listen to you.” John dropped the cig and stamped it out with a simple tread forward. Paul’s body eased back with all the grace of someone facing down a feral animal.

“John, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said firmly, a note of caution in his voice.

“Spare me the performance.” Caging Paul made it too easy to slip a hand along his waist and kiss him. Align their lips and remind him of a time when they knew each other. Paul locked up and gasped but he hadn’t pushed away and that was enough. 

“We don’t have to do this anymore.” John lifted his other hand so that he cradled Paul’s face, wiry hair bristling against his palms, thumbs stroking smooth cheekbones. As if he hadn’t convinced himself long ago that this is the way the world ends. Crushing their mouths together once more, he said, “We could fuck off from all this, you and me like it used to be, please.”

“John, stop.” Even with the tension in his arms, keeping John just that much away, Paul’s mouth gave way helplessly to the next beleaguered kiss. 

“If I stop now I don’t think I can ever ask you again.”

“Then don’t!” 

Paul yanked John back by the front of his shirt. He was certainly strong enough to throw him against the opposite wall, and John almost revelled in the thought, but Paul only pushed him far enough that they could see each other. 

All his efforts to be collected, and now Paul just looked pained. It took more than a moment away from prying eyes to turn off his press-prepared charm. Tentative, John’s hands slid down to Paul’s shirt, warm from his skin. It was wholly unnecessary and yet he could remember the last time a touch of theirs lingered like this.

“Fuck, you can’t!” Paul huffed, shaking his head. They held each other. “You can’t, you shouldn’t. There’s a reason it’s all come to this. We made decisions, we’re not boys anymore. It hasn’t been fun and fame for a long time. It’s a business now.”

“I don’t see why that has to determine the rest of my life when I’m finally thinking straight,” John bit out.

Despite the sadness in his face, Paul set his jaw.  “No you’re not. I know you’re on it, John. And if that’s not the most insulting part of it then I don’t know what-”

There was little need to get the rest of his thought out, what with the sinking pit in John’s stomach. He’d made his point perfectly clear. The answer was no. 

Paul’s averted glance drew his gaze to the side, down the hall where Yoko appeared. Expressionless, watching her boyfriend clutch at his creative partner who he complained about incessantly.

As if he could play it off like they had come to blows after all, John shoved Paul back and released himself. He certainly had enough pent up anger for it, listening to Paul wax about what should and shouldn’t be and John’s very own god damned state of mind. 

Maybe it had all been in his head. Paul was just a songwriter who specialized in selling a fantasy, and John had fallen for it. No better than the girls with their pins and patches who wanted nothing more than for the moptops to come back.

“Oh my white knight, you’ve rescued me,” he proclaimed in an airy posh voice, knowing it looked like his usual antics and deciding he didn’t care as long as it got him into the arms of someone who cared about him. Yoko supplied him her skeptical stare all the way to her side, but took his hand all the same. She always did, God bless her. John never knew she was who he had been writing about so many years ago. He wasn’t sure how much longer the break would be, but he had probably made enough of a stink that Paul wouldn’t want them all together again until he had composed himself, which meant there was enough time for John to sneak off somewhere and reacquaint himself with why he had chosen Yoko. 

And if he didn’t, and he was late, he couldn’t imagine anyone giving enough of a shit to come looking.

 

1974

There were not enough pillows in the whole continental United States to fend off the cold white light lobotomizing John Lennon.

Oh what a beautiful mornin’, oh what a beautiful day! ” The curtains screeched along their metal rods, shucked away to unleash the unholy glare on the room. John growled low in his throat but couldn’t muster enough volume to combat the racket.

Afternoon , that is, but only just! Let’s not lose anymore daylight, now.” The covers began lifting away as if by alien abduction, and John scrambled to get them back, shifting legs and arms to trap the down comforter. That left his pillow barricade open to attack from all sides, though, and suddenly they were ripped away and the light of day was upon him. Blood throbbed in his skull and his stomach roiled in agony. 

John was rightly sure he couldn’t be blamed if he blacked out and flew into a frenzy, but by the time he untangled his limbs from the blankets, he’d registered Paul standing over him. It was only by the grace of confusion that he didn’t rip anyone’s head off, including his own.

Paul, grinning stupidly, looking like he might smother John down with the pillow in his hands. John felt foolish for being surprised. No one else he knew could shout out Rodgers and Hammerstein like nobody’s business.

“What on fucking earth are you still doing here?” he croaked in a thin voice, which fixed itself after a few choice coughs.

Paul flinched and wiped his cheek with the back of his hand. “You could cover your mouth, you know.” He tossed the pillow to the side, just missing the bed on the other side of the suite, and sat on the edge of the mattress like he knew anything about bedside manner. “I told you last night I’d be back early this morning because I wanted to see Julian, but I forgot to account for the fact that you were already pissed out of your mind.”

John groaned and threw himself back in anguish. The amorphous blobs in front of his eyes, likely meant to be objects, were going to make him ill sooner than later at this rate. He grappled blindly for his glasses, only to find them crushed, but mostly intact, under his arse.

“Anyroad,” Paul went on in a buttery pleasant voice that he was a hundred percent putting on for the fun of it, “May picked him up before I arrived, safe and sound, we had a lovely breakfast, wish you had been there. Sent them off to do some sight seeing and promised I’d have you up for lunch, and I’ll not have you make a liar out of me, John.”

“Wait, really?” John reached for the clock on the nightstand, which he knocked over twice before actually grabbing to see. Sure enough, it was just past noon. The sky outside refused to relinquish any indication of time or place, silvery and foggy like it might rain, but very keen to stab John in the temples.

“I really missed all that? I was meant to go pick him up as well.” John might have wondered gravely and incredulously where the man had gone who could drink all night, and then some, and perform with less than an hour of sleep and a crust of bread in his system, but he knew that version of himself had hightailed it around his thirtieth year.

“I told him you had a long night,” Paul answered, having the decency to appear sympathetic, even if his funny feathered haircut made him look too foolish to take seriously. 

John glowered, shielding a hand over his eyes. “He’s twelve, he’s not stupid.”

“I told him the truth, didn’t I?”

“I’m going back to bed, don’t ever wake me up.” Now that Paul had already beat John at the father game he wasn’t doing a very good job of playing in the first place (again), he didn’t see much point in revealing himself as a loser to son and lover alike. Even estranged, Paul did loads better than John could ever dream of. But the comforter was snatched away in an unguarded moment and John yelled bloody murder.

“I know you love to feel sorry for yourself but now's not the time. I have only so long to get you up and out the door.”

“Just bugger off, will ya! Go see the boy if yer so eager, God in heaven knows you’d rather not be playing nurse to me.” John curled on his side and crossed his arms petulantly, eyes screwed shut against the light coming through the window. He was too stubborn to turn and face the wall after he’d already made such a spectacle.

Above him, Paul huffed through his nose. Somehow a single breath sounded patient, now more than ever.

“John. If that were true, I’d be there, and not here, don’t you know that?”

A snarky remark danced on the tip of John’s tongue ( Like playing nurse, do you? ) and then one that would definitely get him clobbered and left for dead ( Get it from your dear mum? ). But he knew better. Than to say it, and that it wasn’t even what Paul meant. Clever, Lennon was, and always had been, even if he could be a ginormous idiot at times.

John cracked an eye open and stared at Paul, still seated on the bed. Paul stared back at him. The longer he went without speaking, the more Paul looked like he wished he hadn’t spoken in the first place. After all these years, John couldn’t really blame him - even with a pithy truce and blathery studio session to settle things, that could have gone much, much worse. He wondered how much silence it would take for Paul to start squirming.

John decided he didn’t care to find out. “You just like seeing me wretched and miserable,” he accused. “Makes ye feel better about yourself.”

“I think I’ve seen you torn up enough times not to bat an eye,” Paul laughed. Taking it as permission to stay (which is exactly how John meant it even if he couldn’t be bothered to say so), he stood and crossed into the sitting area of the sumptuous suite - not before drawing the curtains just so, now that John was awake and obliging, sitting up while he kneaded his forehead.

“Here,” Paul said upon his return, offering two aspirin nestled in the lines of his palms, and a glass of something nuclear yellow.

“What the hell are you feeding me?” John asked, scrabbling back on his hands into the headboard.

Paul scoffed. “You’re so immersed consumerist America these days I thought you’d know. It’s Gatorade, you’ll feel just a bit better than if you drank water. Can you keep it down?”

Now that the daylight had dulled, the hot coil in John’s gut subsided. But that didn’t matter. “I can’t keep down what was never meant to go down in the first place. What ever happened to hair of the dog?”

“Don’t be difficult, it’s just like lemonade.”

John felt like a sickly child at the receiving end of a big honking spoon full of cough syrup. These days he tended to favor a chemical cure no matter how it tasted, though this ailments weren’t usually so…palpable. Nevertheless, he took the pills and swallowed down what was definitely not lemonade.

“I can’t believe you’re going to poison me before you’ve even offered any weed,” he complained, smacking his lips gingerly as he set the glass down.

“There’s our Johnny.” Paul smirked, patting down his jacket as he straightened. Unfortunately, he patted a bit longer than necessary, until he was feeling over his trouser pockets and shuffling in a circle like he’d dropped something, his smile wavering. It took scratching his head thoughtfully for John to groan.

“Got my hopes up! You’re not right, McCartney.”

“Sorry, I must’ve left it behind,” Paul admitted, dropping his hands to his sides in surrender. “Next time, yeah?”

“If there’s even a next time.”

A moment passed, and John wasn’t sure if he meant it the way it sounded, or it sounded the way he meant it. A good way to tell would be to look at Paul’s face, but John decided he’d much rather stare at his own hands and pick at his nails. Nothing worse than losing your stash.

Paul’s solution to the tragic realization was to change the subject. “Well you should start getting ready if you can, I’m sure a hot shower will do you some good. And by the time you’re out the aspirin will have probably kicked in.”

“I’ll shower if I want to shower,” John replied obstinately, lifting his legs over the edge of the bed anyway. It just so happened that he did want to shower, Paul or not. He thought at this age the least he could count on was not being told when and where to bathe. 

John pushed to his feet, an independent man who made his own rules and could make it to lunch decent, if slightly hungover. He wasn’t standing ten seconds before vertigo smacked him upside the head like a stray ball in the park, pressure needling against his brain and something acidic stirring in his belly. Suddenly he had no shame about doubling over.

“Whoa! John?” Paul crowded up beside him, hands on his shoulders like their was nothing between them.

“Whoops,” John declared as he crumpled to his knees on the carpet, eyes closed for as long as it took his face to stop pulsing and the room to stop spinning. The nausea took a bit longer to subside, and when he opened his eyes again, Paul was across from him, kneeling in kind.

“Sunk to my level, have you?” John quipped, though his voice came out a bit dazed, like it was trailing across the room.

“Appears so,” Paul answered, smiling like he thought John was funny. Maybe he did.

After a beat: “You don’t have to,” John said awkwardly.

“No trouble. When you’re ready, we’ll do a Lennon-McCartney stand-up routine.” If Paul thought John was funny then he thought himself hilarious, giggling through his teeth in a startlingly innocent manner. When his face screwed up in delight, John saw him through a thousand different iterations.

Here Paul was clear as day, impacted by the shadow of the nook between the beds, eyes twinkling in tiny white oblongs from lamp and daylight. He was just as naturalistic in John’s mind’s eye, but the further back they went, the fuzzier Paul became. That wasn’t all though. Sometimes the filter changed. Paul, the air around him buzzing and crackling like electricity. Paul, vignetted in a halo of focus, while the rest of the world bled out around him. Paul making the walls bend and warp to his form because he was just that powerful. Paul tinted blue, far away, doubly exposed.

But he was always Paul. Paul, only painted by different artists during different movements. Impressionism, surrealism, nouveau. They changed more often than his haircut. Separate works of the same subject.

“I suppose half our career together was a stand-up routine,” Paul conceded, nodding to the side now that he’d ceased amusing himself. “The question is, which half?”

Just like that, an all-too familiar urge ebbed into John’s thoughts. He glanced at Paul’s mouth, still so girlish after all these years, if thinner. John tongued his bottom lip absently. Musing on it was the worst part, because it was the only thing he could muse about at times, and he knew he ought not to act on it. It was easier not to think about it at all, but it just so happened that was when he was more inclined to give in.

“John?” Shifting to sit cross-legged, Paul tilted his head. “You alright? Should I get you the bin?”

“Don’t ask me to repeat this,” John muttered, his voice deep in his throat, “but I’m glad you’re here, right now.” Even tinged by a migraine, there was something about this time, here on the hotel floor, that just didn’t compare to seeing Paul the handful of times he had in the last year. 

Paul blinked, and eventually, a smile spread onto his face again. They were coming so easy today. “So am I,” he said, sounding sure about it. “It’s easier not to miss that mug of yours when I haven’t seen ye in years.”

Hopeless , John realized with futile acceptance. There was just enough space between them that he could see Paul still with alarm before John closed his eyes and craned forward, touching Paul by the jaw to kiss him chastely. It appeared it didn’t matter anymore whether he had too many thoughts or none at all, the outcome was all the same. He lacked self-control.

Just when he was wondering how likely he could play it off like platonic affection between mates with too much history, Paul pulled back on a gasp. “Ugh, John,” he whispered, a curl of disgust in his voice that turned John’s blood to ice, “your breath.”

Just like that his veins thawed out, and heat flooded John’s face. If there was a kind bone in his body it turned into a nasty little bitch. “I woke up not ten minutes ago and you forced that piss and lemons concoction down my throat, what do you expect!” As if Paul was the one who had kissed him. Who else was he supposed to blame? Himself? Not a chance.

“I’m going back to bed,” John proclaimed for a second time, butting with his knees and elbows until Paul moved away enough that he could pull himself to stand. John took his good time, since he wasn’t in the mood for a dizzy spell and he wasn’t sure he could keep from vomiting this time.

“John.” Paul laughed incredulously, rising with him. “Don’t be so-”

“Get lost, I’m sick of you,” John went on, grabbing at the discarded blanket to wrap himself in while his ears burned. “I can get ready on my own. Stupid wa-!”

A thrust against his shoulder and John was tilting, tumbling, yelping, arms tangled in the comforter so he had no hope of breaking his fall before his back hit the mattress, sheets sliding beneath him. Through his skewed glasses he watched Paul come forward, cackling, hardly able to support the weight of his own stupid head full of hot air. He really did enjoy watching John suffer!

“Are you done?” Paul chuckled, wiping his palms against the corners of his eyes. Trapped in the covers and wriggling like a madman in a straight jacket, John was powerless to stop Paul from propping himself over him, framing John with his arms. Maybe now he really would suffocate him with a pillow. Maybe that had been Paul’s plan all along.

“I’m gonna be sick all over you,” John stated, though he wasn’t entirely sure he could follow through on the threat.

Paul just smiled and shook his head. “You’re unbearable, you know that?”

“You may have mentioned once before.”

Figuring that to be the end of the charade, so he could get up and bathe and forget the whole dumb thing ever happened, John lay there ruffled beyond reason. Instead, he witnessed Paul in all his easy tolerance, shake his head and close his eyes. It took five heartbeats for John to process as Paul dipped down, and he closed his own eyes and tipped his chin up to meet Paul’s mouth.

Of course it wouldn’t last forever. Every high brought you back down to earth. Every trip pittered out eventually. John didn’t think about that in the moment, though. He never did.