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Despite any inkling to believe in God wiped off by the past of his country that still haunts its citizens today, despite the rational side of his brain echoing the reassurance he received prior to the surgery, the first thought flashing through Stuart's mind when his slumber gets interrupted is the one of death. 

He doesn't jolt, doesn't twitch. His senses sharpen with calmness his teachers praise without knowing it originates from too many years spent in the household led by a hysterical mother. 

Finally, the awful stage of being half alert and half-dead to the outer world subsidies and Stu's ears strain to catch some dialogue that would indicate what's going on. A memory of a book describing demons getting bored when waiting for sinners to jolt awake after their arrival to hell resurfaces. Where else he belongs as a frequent customer of clubs that reeked of debauchery and frightening freedom. 

Not satisfied with the lack of audio evidence, one eye dares to crack open followed by the other because he doesn't expect the figure of Paul McCartney towering at the legs of his bed.

The same McCartney who swung at him after spitting a handful of slurs aimed at Astrid and whose eyes gleamed with poorly hidden anger directed at Stuart whenever John stuck to his side for a change.

They haven't seen each other in ages, god forbid, with their paths drifting apart -- one back to Liverpool and music, the other leading to the artistic scene of Hamburg.

Stuart must admit he hasn't quite forgotten the now-official bass guitarist, because he keeps in touch with John and those two are inseparable -- if you want to understand one, you need to regard the other otherwise you observe just one-dimensional characters.

McCartney hasn't registered him yet which allows Stu to observe and prepare himself for a possible conflict. He finally identifies the agonising sound that yanked him back to the conscious state -- slender fingers tapping against the metal frame -- pat pat pat -- disturbing the stagnant air so typical for hospitals. At least he's alone in the room which means no shouting old witch is complaining about the others ruining her prescripted rest on purpose while she loudly marches around the room at 1 am like it's her runway.

The downfall consists of the crushing intimacy created against their will -- Paul, Stuart, the awful tappity tap and nothing else.

"That a new tune?" he speaks up, opening his eyes to witness the starlet gasp and jolt.

"Fucking hell," he receives in return, the younger man's hands disappearing into his coat pockets. "You scared me!"

"That's what you get for creeping on a sleeping patient after a complicated surgery," Stu shoots back as he sits up and fluffs his pillow. Blood runs to Paul's face, sharply contrasting with his pale interior and black garments. A wool coat replaced the usual layers of leather, probably the result of their new manager's cleaning agenda, how John put it in one of his letters. 

"Something's the matter?" 

"Pardon?"

Stuart signs, he almost forgot about the mind games they indulged back in England, don't say this, don't whisper that...if copying a 19th-century ghost tickles Paul's fancy, so be it, but he won't force Stu to play along. 

"I asked what has happened for you to come to visit me on your own. If anything, I expected John to barge in."

"Ah, yeah," McCartney scratches his neck, looking everywhere but not at the bed. "John's gotten a bit...mental, so Astrid and George are trying to calm him down, y'know, probably got reminded of his mum."

"Isn't your mother dead either?" flashes inside Stu's head, but he swallows it, aware of how deeply even a mention of a living parent can cut. Instead, he gestures to the empty chair and the jug of water accompanied by two glasses.

"So," Paul interrupts the silence after their throats no longer itch. "They say you almost died?"

A hand covers his mouth just as the last syllable escapes it, and the flush is back there, Stuart takes it in with amusement, reminded of the slippery confidence Paul manages to sell to whoever doesn't give a damn about what's bubbling underneath.

"Almost," Stu snickers. "At times it certainly seemed more appealing than the headaches."

Silence. It stretches on and on, nourished by the blank look on the sitting boy's face that signals he is pondering matters not related to the real world around them. The concept of time loses its power in hospitals belittling the effort of the clock on the wall. Stuart has never considered conversation an indicator of quality time and is quite content just to observe the subtle cracks on the ceiling. If he knows Paul as he thinks he does, the mystery will be revealed soon.

"Do you reckon it will influence your painting" 

"You mean death and the likes?"

Paul nods. 

"I can't say it didn't occur to me," he explains, perplexed by the direction of their conversation. "I could show you what I've done so far? If you undress that coat of yours, this isn't a sauna."

Technically, he wasn't allowed to do anything brain straining including drawing, but that was like advising Astrid to let the camera at home. Pointless. Stuart's sketchbook hides where the bed meets the wall in the space not even the tidiest nurse wish to stick her hand. 

It's his turn to blush, though, he doubts Paul would notice as he hasn't lifted his gaze from his hands flipping through the pages of drawings. It doesn't evoke insecurity, Stu's confident and secure in his technique, but it brings a thrill of the unknown -- they have never examined his art together as they didn't dive into a discussion about music. He's reminded of John, how differently he approaches the sacred pages of an artist, and wonders whether Paul would compare his reaction if he showed him a new song. 

His art, familiar from the first dot to the final line, speaks to him from a different angle, the transition between healthy and 4 feet underneath the ground even more apparent. As the pain got worse, the colours overlapped messily, because he couldn't keep his eyes open or even focus on mastering the outlines. It improves slightly over the following pages, and the last ones finally feature clean edges and precise composition. 

"'S good," Paul utters the verdict, fingers lingering on the corner of one page capturing a cut through a casket turned into a residential building for worms -- a fruit of the early morning and many painkillers. "Very good."

Stuart nods, taking the object and shoving it back. 

"If I wrote John a letter, would you deliver it?"

~~~

It becomes their new routine, doctors are reluctant to discharge Stuart, and John's jittery nerves prevent him from paying his friend a visit. Paul accepts the role of a messenger, popping in almost daily to deliver a piece of paper, waiting for Stuart to scribble an answer. 

He can leave early but rarely does, occupying the familiar chair with more self-assurance than on the first day. The nurses turn to the other side so Paul can smuggle in sweets and fruit. Even the most strict of the staff falling for his charm, a wink here, a bar of chocolate there, and soon Stuart's free to doodle as he pleases, some nurses asking him to draw a portrait or landscape just for them. 

Their mouths remain shut most of the time, but thousands of words are exchanged, nevertheless. When they finally talk, the speech lacks any arch or wave, shooting straight to the point. 

Stuart asks about Paul's mother one day only to learn that her death's been reduced to the memory of blood-covered sheets the other. He wants to suggest that someone else, perhaps George, can help, but a dismissive shrug and scowl signal otherwise.

He wonders whether it's just John who needs to be looked after.

Paul doesn't linger around with the others, be it Klaus or George, and if it happens, he hastily excuses himself after 15 obligatory minutes. 

"I'm going home tomorrow," he confides one evening, 30 minutes after the end of the visits because Miriam, the nurse in charge, needs help with her English homework. "George or Klaus will come, or at least they promised."

It shatters their little bubble despite its short-term existence. The clock is ticking away as always, only this time proving its point -- time does exist after all.

"Something's wrong?"

"Well," Paul puffs out the air dramatically, "Mike had a tumble down the stairs when drunk and broke his leg and ribs, idiot. Da needs help to fight off our aunties, y'know. Love 'em to bits, but it's like living in a beeve. How's your head?"

It's better. "Quite a miracle, mein Junge, quite a miracle," to repeat the words of the only English-speaking doctor. 

"Going home soon, probably the next week," Stuart smiles, unwrapping a box of chocolate and offering one to Paul. "Life outside hospital seems unreal."

Eventually, the moment of understanding vanishes, accelerated by Miriam's knock, and Paul hastily dresses up, ready to leave before he halts and skips back like the door handle burnt his hand.

"Do you think-- y'know, we could keep this, I mean talking, up? I thought about letters, John writes to you all the time."

Sure enough, Paul places an impeccably folded square of paper on the nightstand next to the sketchbook. 

"My address, feel free to throw it away. It's just...I don't think I'd ever write to you first."

As before, a silent dialogue flows between the two of them. Paul gives a curt nod after the note disappears between the pages, Stu's fingers tapping the cover twice to say "sure, I'll write to you". 

Before their last greetings turn into a memory, the leaving man turns one more time.

"Could it stay--"

"Course." 

Course it stays just between us.

~~~

The first letter plays hard to get, and it takes weeks for Stuart to master the line between sharing too much and too little.

It's a pitiful excuse compared to the one he sends to John, but if he has learnt anything is not to compare those two. 

He acknowledges the possibility of no letter landing inside his mail, Hamburg Paul doesn't reflect his Liverpool twin, Stuart's positive that one wouldn't even consider joining a party if he caught a whiff of Sutcliffe, let alone visit him in hospital.

Getting used to life without constant medical supervision consumes most of his free time, leaving not much space for doubts and speculation. Life doesn't seem normal, not yet, with regular examinations, sudden tiredness and a growing pile of school materials to catch on. But he falls asleep next to Astrid, can saunter down the unusually wide streets of Hamburg and participates in a conversation without a hammering headache. 

He's not dead, and that's certainly a reason to celebrate.

And when he comes back from a walk one day, a letter familiar in its strangeness rests on the table. 

The letters slant with more grace than one would bestow to Paul's looks, yet the delivery doesn't leave much space for uncertainty -- straightforward yet cautious, notes of emotions seeping through from the most unexpected paragraphs. 

From now on, their personal game of written ping-pong starts, each envelope containing a more elaborate message than the previous.

Stuart complains about strict professors who think he'd been on a vacation, describes how spring looks in Germany and adds a few random works to demonstrate what he's been working on. A detailed report comes from England, about how they no longer sleep in a freezing van but are getting solid gigs including the accommodation and their own LP is discussed. 

A foolish idea rolls around in Stuart's head when he can't sleep, tempting him to compare the letters he receives from John and Paul, and he obliges to feed the curiosity.

It doesn't shine like the neon signs of strip clubs, but anyone capable of reading between the lines would decipher it -- each mentions the other more than themselves and if they talk about something not related to music, it'll always come full circle back to Lennon or McCartney. 

He doesn't share his observations, but wonders whether at least one of them knows.

~~~

The steps sound different on the mellow soil of Spain, but Stuart recognises the determined click of the heel. A body slides onto the chair next to him, and he doesn't halt the movement of the brush.

"I'm feeling like a bloody pig getting grilled."

"Now you're just jealous because it's the first proper summer weather you've experienced."

"And with the way John's getting burnt, I'm quite happy to glorify the grey clouds of our fatherland, thank you."

Sturt snorts, finally looking up from his painting of the sea. Who would have assumed months of intensive correspondence didn't ease the uneasiness of a face-to-face conversation. Paul looks more mature and less like a stinky rat, possibly a result of launching into the big world of rockstars.

"Birds are singing, you're about to make it big. Or at least one peacock called Lennon."

"I hope so," Paul grins, "not as big as to move to Paris yet, monsieur future Dali, but we're getting there."

They don't say anything for a while. It's the first time they've snatched a moment just for themself, something impossible with too many people around and the contrast of their personalities.

"Y'know, John's invited me there. To Paris."

"You coming?" Stuart knows that. John's picked up a new hobby of bringing up a thousand reasons why his offer could get declined on a daily basis. There's no way he would keep this cheerful persona if it didn't go according to his plan.

"Course." 

Stuart hums, stretches and picks up a new blank list to cover in colour, then throws one in Paul's lap. 

 

"I've never thanked you for those words about love you sent me. I think you saved us from destroying everything," Paul says as they walk back to the house for dinner, the laughter of their friends resonating from the garden. 

"My pleasure," Stu bows, earning himself an elbow between ribs.

"I mean it!"

They're greeted by beaming John whose victory in Monopoly softened the blow of the thick layer of sun cream on his face. At least till George brings up how he could pass for Mimi. 

~~~

"Und in mir lebt nur noch der Tod!" 

Stuart shakes his head in surprise at how easily his brain comes with a morbid German quote despite him stuttering while ordering bread. 

He doesn't usually muse about what could have happened, yet certain moments trigger mysterious distress forcing him to try to forget the memories he acquired during the times after his successful surgery. 

"I'd like to think you get someone's new into your life...to fill the hole. A compensation of sorts," Paul confides when he bumps into him late at night and recognises the emotion. "I got John and you--"

"I got you," Stu finishes. 

Another square of paper is passed, from the artist to the musician. The latter slips it into a pocket without hesitation.

"Maybe you could write to me first this time?"