Roger parked in a back alley. He had decided to drive an old car, poorly kept over the years. Something no one would look twice at. He walked swiftly to the back door, not bothering to get his keys. He doubted he would need them, anyways. The back door of this building had had the lock broken since the sixties, and no one had ever bothered to fix it. Roger highly doubted someone ever would.
He climbed up the familiar stairs, every step creaking loudly as usual. He could hear faint conversations behind the doors he crossed, and the strong smell of curry. He got to the right door. A very old door, but a brand new lock. Roger rolled his eyes. He had asked for a non-conspicuous lock, and they had installed this monstrosity. It was a wonder no one had broken in yet, thinking there could be something precious inside. In a way, there was. But not the kind of reward a thief was waiting for.
Roger opened the door, and something deep inside him must have remembered this place, because he automatically threw the keys to his right, where once there’d been a key bowl. The keys fell on the floor, of course, and it wasn’t only his knees what hurt when he bent down to pick them up.
He had bought this apartment almost thirty years ago. It had been a whim, and he had paid far more for it than what it was actually worth. Roger had tried to keep it a secret from the others, but they found out anyway. Brian had been mad. You can’t leave things alone, can you, Rog. John had been sad. There’s not going back, you know. It didn’t matter. This was his money, this was his life, and, most importantly, these were his memories. His and Freddie’s. All the days and nights shared here, at this flat with thin walls, creaking floors, and perpetually cold water.
He walked inside and looked around. Freddie’s piano, the one with the forever untuned lower octave. The old reproductions of the Mucha paintings. The mismatching set of chairs, the leather couch Brian would dread to sit at now, the mannequin they used at the stall, broken on the back but still able to stand. Pieces of their life together he had managed to get back. More than he had hoped for, entirely too little.
Roger put the kettle on, and tried to swallow around the lump in his throat. He didn’t think he would cry, but there was a heaviness set in his chest. The kind of exhaustion you felt after crying for too long. Yes, that was it. He felt like he had been crying for too long. In a way, he had.
He looked at the clock anxiously. He still got some time left, but couldn’t help wondering whether or not John would actually come. This was the first year Brian had decided not to come. It was also the first year John had more or less agreed on coming.
Roger had sent him an email as a reminder, just as he did every year. For the first time, John hadn’t answered a negative. It was their system now, wasn’t it? If he didn’t answer, it meant he agreed with whatever Brian and Roger were proposing. Still, the drummer bit his thumb nail as he waited for the water to boil.
He waited. Their appointed time came and went, and he waited. He made some more tea, waited a bit longer. Roger wasn’t sure if he’d be able to eat the cake by himself, but it was half past twelve already. He waited some more.
Just when he was getting up to open the pastry box and pour himself yet another cup of tea, he heard keys on the lock. Roger didn’t turn around, suddenly frozen in place. The door opened with a creak and then the unmistakable rattling of keys falling on the floor.
“Ah, bollocks,” Roger heard some grunting as the other man got down to pick up his keys. Apparently the drummer wasn’t the only one whose muscle memory was betraying him today.
Roger turned around, and there was John. They looked at each other for a long while. Roger’s chest tightened even further. He wanted to go to him and hug him, kiss his cheeks, hold his hands. He wanted to run away screaming and hide in one of his cars until Sarina came looking for him. John looked back at him, unreadable.
“Roger” he said.
“John” the drummer answered. Behind him, the kettle whistled. He turned around to make tea. John settled on the kitchen table, taking the chair across from the one Roger had been sitting on. They could probably sit on the couch, but there was something that prevented them from it. Too much had happened in the living room. Too much music, too many feelings, too many memories. The kitchen was safer.
“Where’s Brian?” John asked.
“He couldn’t come” Roger answered. He didn’t know you’d be here, I didn’t tell him you’d be here. I didn’t want to get his hopes up and then have to look at his wounded face when you didn’t show up. I didn’t think you’d come, honestly. Roger poured himself a cup, another one for John, and then sat down. The silence stretched on. The drummer sipped on his tea.
“It isn’t that hot, you know. If you wait any longer, it’ll be awful.” Roger said when he couldn’t stand the silence anymore.
“I know, it’s just that I don’t take milk and sugar anymore” John answered, and it hit Roger harder than he thought it would, for such a simple thing. But that was exactly it, wasn’t it? They would never again know these little things about each other, not as they once had.
“There’s the kettle, just serve yourself” Roger’s voice was dismissive. He tried not to slip, he couldn’t let John see. He tried to pretend everything was normal. He needed for John to believe he was strong, Roger wasn’t sure he could handle the humiliation if John realized his heart was throbbing with a wound that he’d never managed to heal. “How are your kids?”
“Alright” John sat back down and regarded him as he sipped his tea. Roger waited, but the bassist wasn’t going to give him anything else for an answer, apparently. “How are yours?”
“So big, they all have their own lives now,” Roger said, looking down. “Rufus is a drummer, too”
“Has the student become the master?” John said, and the drummer risked a quick look at him from under his lashes. There it was, the tiniest of smiles, in the wrinkles around his eyes. Roger felt his hear stutter.
“Not really, no” Roger offered his own lopsided smile. Rufus was good enough, but not that good. Roger would never admit to anyone that his ego was big enough to not want his own kid to be greater than himself. But John knew him better. Either way, it didn’t really matter, Roger had never say he was a fair man. “Rory’s a doctor now”
“Is she any good?” John asked, and it was a bit of an insulting question, but it was true Rory had always been more of a philosopher.
“I don’t know, I’ve never let her treat me” Roger answered truthfully.
“But she’s a doctor!”
“Yeah, well, I had enough with that time Crystal-” Roger trailed off, John snorted. They both remembered the fatidic episode Roger referred to. Roger toyed with his cup.
“How is he?” John interrupted his train of thought softly.
“Who, Crystal? I don’t know, we haven’t talked in years” Roger answered, momentarily confused by the frown on John’s face.
“I thought- well, he was your best friend” John’s voice lowered, but it was still charged with something Roger couldn’t quite identify. Anger? Sadness? Disappointment?
“So were you” Roger said. And look where we are now. John looked away, pursing his lips.
“How’s Brian doing?” John asked, hesitation on his voice.
“You know, the same” Roger answered. He’s still got depressive episodes, but nowhere near as bad as the ones we handled. He’s obsessed about the hedgehogs thing, he’s got his PhD. We don’t fight anymore, but I’m terrified to admit it’s because we hate each other now.
They remained silent. Roger’s eyes roamed over the kitchen once again. There it was, the wine stain they had never been able to remove from the wooden planks, the burnt marks from the time they had almost set the flat on fire but were saved by Mary.
“You brought cake” John said, and the drummer’s eyes snapped back to him.
“Well, it’s Freddie’s birthday” Roger offered. John made a non-committal sound.
“He’s not here to eat the cake” John said, frowning at the pastry box. I still eat cake for your birthday, Deaky. Brian makes cheese on toast those mornings, too.
“You know, I can’t-“ he trailed off.
“I’m mad at him.” Roger looked to the side, eyes roaming over the old kitchen, as if trying to find something that would never be there again. “I tell myself I shouldn’t, but I’m mad at Freddie”
“For dying?” John almost snorted, the drummer could tell.
“For going away from us and dying” Roger corrected him, and even he could hear the sullenness in his voice. He worked his jaw, it had been too long since he voiced this. He couldn’t anymore, not with Brian, and why talk about it with anyone else? “If he hadn’t gone away- Jim should have- he needed someone to control him, to make him stay-“
“Don’t be unfair, Roger. Jim gave Freddie what we wouldn’t.” there was anger in John’s voice. Roger couldn’t be sure if it was directed at him.
“Oh, please. Like what?” Roger said bitterly.
“A home.” John said, with the kind of finality Roger had always admired. Right now, it just annoyed him. It must have been obvious on his face, because John snorted. “Well, what are you saying, then? We all had our own families, children and wives to go back to. Didn’t he deserve that too?”
“We were his family!” Roger almost choked on a sob. I was his family. He wasn’t crying. He didn’t feel like crying. He felt like sobbing desperately and letting John whisper sweet nonsense in his ear. He wasn’t sure John would do it.
“Not in the way he needed, we weren’t” John said. “Jim was what he needed.”
“Jim couldn’t control him” Roger muttered again, knowing both he and the bassist were thinking about the illness.
“You don’t know if Freddie didn’t catch it before-“
“None of us have it, John! If he had caught it before Jim- shouldn’t we, too? Shouldn’t he had given it to us?” Roger bit off the words. John just breathed, and Roger could faintly pick out a wheeze. Are you okay? Are your lungs alright? Do you still smoke? Are you dying, too?
“There’s no point arguing about it now.” John said. “Fred’s dead, Jim’s dead”
They breathed in silence for a long moment, until John shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“Are we singing ‘Happy Birthday’?” John asked.
“Of course we are” Roger said, opening the pastry box and revealing a small baklava-inspired cake. He placed it on the plate he had brought specially for this occasion, the old china with flowered pattern. When he turned back to the table, John was offering him a tiny birthday candle and a ligther. “You brought a candle but you questioned me for bringing cake?”
“I like to be prepared” John answered simply.
They sang happy birthday in low voices, and Roger stoically pretended not to hear the break in John’s voice when they sang Freddie’s name. They blew the candle at the same time.
Roger made the first cut, and then passed the knife to John. As John finished cutting the cake, Roger took a small piece in his hand. He looked up questioningly at John, and saw his flushed cheeks and bright eyes. John nodded once.
The drummer still remembered the first time Freddie had shyly explained one of India’s birthday customs. The birthday person hand fed cake to their closest family, to their loved ones. Freddie had blushed, asking in an unusually small voice if this would be something Roger would be interested in.
After Freddie passed, Roger had been torn between keeping up his hand-feeding tradition or not. But he had never been able to stop celebrating Freddie’s birthday, and not respecting this custom felt off, somehow. So he had kept it on, even when Brian rolled his eyes, even when John stopped showing up.
With shaking hands, Roger lifted the piece of cake to John’s mouth. His fingers brushed John’s lips lightly. The bassist chewed and swallowed. Then, taking a small piece of cake, John brought it close to Roger’s lips. The drummer’s whole body shook as he took the offered bite. He remembered every single one of the times Freddie had fed him birthday cake.
When he swallowed, he opened his eyes, never noticing when he had closed them. John looked at him, tears finally having escaped the corners of his eyes.
Roger’s hand flew over the table, reaching out. It met in the middle with John’s. Their fingers intertwined messily, tightly grasping at the other, desperate, broken. Hearts raw, open, and bleeding.
I think about you every single day. I miss you more than you can ever imagine. I really haven’t moved on, and I don’t know how to keep it up. I’m sorry, Deaky. I should have done things differently. I’m sorry.
John cried, looking at him intensely, never breaking eye contact. Roger wished he could have cried too, but tears didn’t come to his eyes. His breathing ragged, and his body trembled, but he didn’t cry.
Roger swallowed and looked away from John’s eyes, he couldn’t take this. He wanted to bend down and kiss John’s hand. He wanted to pull his own hand away from John’s touch.
I still love you.
They broke apart eventually, and wrapped the remaining pieces of cake in napkins. John had been smart enough to remember the amount of apartments this building had per floor. As they climbed down the stairs, they left a piece of cake in front of each door, because another tradition Freddie had respected was sharing the food.
At the bottom of the stairs, they parted ways. Roger made his way to the back door, out in the open, to his car. Tears finally made an appearance, blurring his vision. They hadn’t really agreed on who was going to drive away first, keeping some distance between each other just in case there was some paparazzo lurking around. It didn’t really matter, though; it wasn’t as if Roger was driving anywhere soon.
He resolutely didn’t cry in his car for an hour.