Title: “Things Seen in Shadows and Slivers of Light”
Author: bello_romantico, Kat, simply me. :)
Warnings: A spot of language here and there, sexual implications and death (with angst mingled all the way through).
Summary: Paul has always felt as if he is second on John’s list and Stuart is first.
Things Seen in Shadows and Slivers of Light
The basement of Stuart Sutcliffe’s house is muggy and poorly lit – with merely a bare light bulb flickering from time to time above their heads – and the boys are packing up after a band practice that started just after school. Moods are good since it was a productive few hours spent – old songs were perfected and new songs were added to the set list – and everyone is bustling around, either gathering sheet music or strapping guitars into cases with an easy happiness.
Paul chats with George about their classes that afternoon, laughing as his younger friend re-enacts his stuttering English professor that Paul had to suffer through the year previous, his lithe fingers stilling over the neck of his guitar while he listens and laughs. Both boys kneel on the carpeted floor, side by side, and once George has finished his anecdote, they both glance away, still smiling, and continue gathering their things – Paul polishes the body of his guitar one last time before shutting it into its case and George carelessly stuffs pages of lyrics and cords into his pockets.
Glancing up, Paul’s large eyes find John automatically and his grin still lingering from George’s antics widens. The older boy is across the room, leather jacket lazily draped across a bent arm and guitar slung across his back. He wore his glasses today much to Paul’s delight – he can’t explain why, but he likes John in those glasses – and the only light in the basement is hanging directly above him, casting shadows over his face, but highlighting lines here and lines there of his striking features in a orangey glow. In fact, due to the dim light above him, John looks something like a painting Paul remembers seeing in a book once at school – his angular face softened somehow by the light – and the younger boy feels a pleasant warmth in his blood at the sight. John is involved in a conversation with Stu who stands so very straight and tall, his pale face adorned with the barest hint of a smile. John is a stark contrast to Stuart’s serenity – his hands gesturing animatedly with the words he says and his expression crackling with energy.
Bringing his attention back to his guitar, Paul can’t chase the happy smile from his face and efficiently snaps his guitar case shut and stands, slipping arms into his wool coat with ease. Before he knows it, footsteps are bounding up the stairs leading to the Sutcliffe’s entryway and the remaining Beatles hear Pete hollering a rushed goodbye. They all shout a goodbye right back – their young voices rising in unison – and now that one of them has officially left, they all take that as a silent cue that it’s really the time to go.
Winding his scarf around his neck without much finesse, Paul picks up his guitar case and walks over to John and Stu, joining their conversation.
“Great practice, that was,” says Paul brightly as the other two boys quiet, turning to face the new participant in their discussion.
Stu nods gently, hands in his pockets. “Really was,” he agrees.
“Gettin’ better every day on that bass, Stuart my boy!” roars John, thumping his friend on the back with a wide smile. Stuart chuckles amusedly while Paul fakes a laugh as big as John’s – Stuart’s bass-playing was definitely not getting better, but Paul doesn’t feel like contradicting anything at the moment.
“So,” says Paul, quieting quickly after his forced laughter as he changes the subject, “you still comin’ over to my place, John?” Paul looks over expectantly at the bespectacled boy who knits his eyebrows momentarily. A light of realization dawns on John’s face and he’s about to respond when George decides to take his leave with quick goodbyes and a wave.
“See you tomorrow, Paul!” calls the youngest from the top of the stairs before the three in the basement hear the slam of the front door.
Once George is gone, it is only Stuart, Paul and John who remain and the trio all look blankly at one another for a few seconds before remembering where they’d left off. Paul’s gaze shifts to John again and he feels a bit embarrassed to ask again. “So, uh… my place… John?” says Paul, keeping a casual smile perched perfectly on his mouth, his guitar case a little heavier in his hands when he notices a crease has appeared between John’s eyebrows.
“Christ, Paul,” breathes John, running a hand through his hair and glancing guiltily in Stuart’s direction, “I completely forgot about that and I was just tellin’ Stu that I’d spend the night here.”
The air in Paul’s lungs leaves him like the air from a punctured balloon and his entire face crumbles for a moment. “Oh,” he manages and he catches Stuart looking compassionately on him with those dark, lovely eyes which makes Paul now want to bring up how mediocre his bass-playing really is.
“I don’t know where the fuck my mind is these days,” grumbles John with a roll of his eyes and a shake of his head – Paul’s ears pick up the faint rustling of John’s auburn locks. “I’m sorry, Paulie – I really am,” apologizes John sincerely, the light above their heads reflecting off his glasses.
Glancing between the two, Paul believes for a moment that John is going to continue and proceed to tell Stuart that he’d made plans with Paul before and therefore can’t spend the night here, but the room remains silent and, eventually, the younger boy realizes that he’s waiting for nothing.
Collecting the pieces of his smile, Paul recovers with a well-practiced grace. “Don’t worry about it, John,” he exclaims a tad breathlessly with a wave of his hand, backing away and fiddling with his scarf, “Maybe tomorrow?”
John grins in return – perhaps relieved that Paul isn’t pressing the subject – and his shoulders slacken as he replies, “Tomorrow, yeah – definitely.”
The three simply stand there for minutes that feel long – John and Stuart standing side by side while Paul stands before them – and, in those long minutes, under the weak, amber glow of the lone light bulb, Paul notices with a twist of his heart how flawless Stuart Sutcliffe’s face is (and wonders how imperfect his must look to John in comparison).
Swallowing a sudden lump in his throat, Paul musters up his smile again and backtracks all the way to stairs, spewing inanities about the date for their next practice and the weather tomorrow. When he puts his foot up on the first step and rests his hand on the beginning of the railing, Paul looks at John and Stuart and wishes them a ‘Good night’ that comes out sounding a bit ragged.
They must wish him a goodnight too as he climbs the creaking stairs, but Paul doesn’t hear anything except his own breathing, the stomping of his booted feet and the rushing in his ears.
Hazily, Paul wakes up to the beginnings of a Hamburg dawn dulled by the grime coated onto the single window of their room. The colors of the sky outside are muted pastels that look a bit bleak – as if darker, muddier shades have somehow bled into the sunrise – and Paul shifts a bit under the scratchy makeshift blanket he’s been sleeping with since they got here. He stays quite still – his muscles still weak and numb from sleep, his eyelids still heavy – and stares at a spot on the wall in front of him in that disoriented state of wondering whether or not he should go back to sleep.
As slowly as he can, Paul inches a foot behind him – just to feel the firm warmth of John’s body behind his – but his toes find nothing but a tangled sea of empty covers. His eyes wide open at this point, Paul readies his muscles to rise and find his friend when a squeak from the couch makes him freeze.
Drawing a breath, his entire body tensed, Paul waits with a frantically beating heart for another sound. A slide of fabric against fabric and soon skin against skin floats through the silence of the room and Paul hears the unmistakable sound of John’s low chuckle.
“John, shush,” murmurs the voice Paul recognizes with a piercing agony that rips through him as Stuart’s. “Can’t you be quiet?”
A few more hushed, breathy laughs drift through the lazy air of the morning and Paul hears the quiet, moist smacking of a stolen kiss. At the sound, a jolt of emotion tears through him and his entire face screws up in a contained sob – his fingers curl into fists and he takes a sharp, shallow breath through his nose as would someone who has just been punched. Paul’s hands gripping the covers shake imperceptibly and he labors to not give into the whine he can feel building in his throat. His eyebrows are low on his face, eyes shut tight and mouth a taut line – he should’ve known, he should’ve known…
A rustling of clothing or covers comes from the couch at the foot of the bed Paul and John were supposed to share that night and someone voices a hushed, contented hum. “You’ve got to get back to bed, John,” whispers Stuart and Paul can almost picture him with that serious, almost stern look on his face – the soft contours of his pale face perfect in the light of dawn now slipping through the window in timid rays.
“No,” mutters John and skin slides in a way that sounds like an embrace. “I want to stay.” Another gentle, soft puckering of lips whispers throughout the room, but it rings in Paul’s ears as would a scream.
There’s a negative murmur from Stuart and a soft thump of John’s body most likely being pushed away. “Go back,” he whispers and there’s another gentle whoosh of skin and cloth and two gentle smacks that must be John’s feet on the floor.
There is a sigh and finally, the padding of feet. Suddenly, the mattress under Paul sinks with a woeful moan from the springs and he feels the familiar warmth of John’s body slip under the covers, joining him again. “I love you, you know,” mutters John and Paul can hear the smile in his voice – picturing the sunlight on his skin in a rush, the lemony light dipping into his collarbones and melting into the strands his messy hair. His back still to John, Paul sniffles quietly, tears escaping the weak barrier of his eyelashes – creases in the corners of his closed eyes.
Stuart snorts – a real laugh rare from him – but the smile is evident in his voice when he speaks, “I do know. Me too.”
After that, they talk no more and John eventually settles down next to Paul, breathing onto the back of his friend’s neck – blissfully unaware that those little gusts of oxygen somehow intensify the hitches in Paul’s chest as he weeps silently into his pillow.
It is late and dark in the room as Paul finishes packing his few belongings into the dingy suitcase he’d brought with him – folding a shirt with a meticulous, detached care. He executes the neat creases at the arms of his shirt slowly, deliberately, with a grim expression on his face as he listens to Stuart and John’s raging argument in the hall outside their room. The trembling of his hands goes politely unnoticed by George and Pete, packing their own things in a serious silence of their own.
“Why the fuck aren’t you coming with us, Stu?” says John loudly, the barely contained rage in his voice evident in the raw catch of his words. “Our gig’s done – we’re going home.” It’s obvious when he spits out the word that he’d meant it to be meaningful – as if it would change things.
“I told you,” says Stuart with a level tone beginning to fray, “I’m staying with Astrid – I need more time with her.”
“You need more-?” The question goes unfinished – angered, incoherent spluttering the only finish to it. “When the fuck did you decide this, huh?” There’s the undeniable stagger of feet outside that must mean a taunting push delivered from John. “Were you just waiting ‘till the last possible moment to just… spring this on me, you cruel bastard? Huh? Were ya?”
“I just decided, John,” replies Stuart calmly, resisting the venom in his friend’s voice. “I can’t leave her. I have to stay.”
Wham! The crash of a fish rattles the door to their little room and a long, ragged scream of frustration follows soon after. An eerie silence settles in after the scream and everyone inside the room is motionless, avoiding the other’s gaze.
“I’m sorry,” whispers Stuart and the sympathy in his hushed apology makes Paul’s throat knot in revulsion, his face contorting briefly in a disgust that no-one else sees.
A sigh so loud it might the wind is heard from the hall and Paul recognizes that exhale of breath as John’s – he knows it’s his because he knows everything from the sound of his friend’s steps to the creak of his knees when he sits.
“Just go,” says John brokenly. A few tentative steps are taken, but they’re soon stopped by another blow delivered to the door and a savage cry from John.
“GO AWAY!” he shrieks with such might that it’s a wonder something that powerful has come from John’s slim frame. “Get the fuck out of here, you bastard! I never want to see you fucking face again! GO!”
The words tangled messily in heartbreak and fury linger in the air and soon, the metallic echo of steps going down the dingy staircase to the ground floor signals Stuart’s departure. Once they fade away, everything goes quiet in the hall – only John’s breathing can be heard.
Seconds tick by in silence and soon another fist hits the door – wham!
Then another – wham! – and another – wham! – and yet another – wham! – and before they know it, there is a storm of punches and kicks assailing the door, an infernal racket that makes the three boys collectively shudder.
Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham!
Looking up, Paul catches George’s terrified eyes and something breaks inside of him. Without thinking about it, Paul abandons his half-finished packing with a swift turn of his heel and sprints to the door. In a flash, he has it opened and is met with the sight of John who freezes with a fist poised in mid-air – a wild, fiery look in his eyes. They face each other – both breathing heavily – and Paul unthinkingly throws himself at his friend, crushing his body to John and holding him so tight that he can barely breathe.
The older boy responds immediately, winding his arms around Paul as he trembles in his best friend’s arms. The darker haired boy stuffs fistfuls of John’s shirt in his hands and breathes in the scent of his best friend’s unwashed hair – Paul clings to him as he imagines Stuart would and they stay like that for glorious minutes that feel too short until John whispers, “Let me go”.
And, somehow, Paul does.
Warily, Paul watches John hunched over a sink in the bathroom of the Hamburg airport, his expression one that the younger man can’t quite interpret.
They are alone and Paul has locked the door. The tiled floors make the cold room feel even cooler and the constant running of water – trickling in unseen pipes around them – eliminates the possibility of complete silence. The lights above the mirrors by the sinks whirr and give off an unflattering, harsh light that somehow still doesn’t make John look any less stunning to Paul. The older man is surprisingly still and quiet – a dark look in his eyes – while Paul stands a ways apart, observing and ready to go closer if he’s needed.
The words Astrid told them but moments ago bounce around in Paul’s head – Stu is dead – and he’s ashamed that he doesn’t know how to feel about this. Because of this uncertainty, Paul hates himself the most in this moment, but he can’t concentrate fully on that because he’s too busy worrying about the man ready to fall apart in front of him.
The muscles in John’s hands suddenly tense on the bowl of the sink and his head drops, a breath that breaks through the barrier of his closed lips cutting through the air. A faint plink sounds and Paul knows without seeing that a tear has dropped from John’s face and hit the porcelain of the sink. That single tear seems to be the final straw for, as predicted, John crumbles before Paul – shoulders convulsing, chest heaving and throat gasping in deep, gut-wrenching sobs that fill the bathroom. For a moment, it looks as if John’s knees are going to give out and, in a split second, Paul has crossed the room and is holding onto his friend with steadying hands.
Seeing John like this makes tears fill his vision and Paul stares at his best friend through glassy eyes, finding a bitter sweetness in the fact that he’s the only thing keeping John on his feet. His almost violent cries fill the bathroom – overpowering the trickling of water – and all Paul does is hold onto his friend, hold him up.
As John sobs brokenly, Paul catches a glimpse of their reflection in the spotted mirror directly in front of them. For a moment, he doesn’t recognize himself because his eyes are rimmed with red and look so hollow. The light above them that hadn’t affected John’s beauty seems to have affected Paul’s – a puffy-cheeked, sallow face with lips made even more pink than usual by his tears looks back at him and, in that moment of sickening defeat, Paul sees why John always chose Stu over him.
And this causes the tears in his eyes to overflow, coursing down his cheeks in shimmering ribbons.
“Shush,” whispers Paul, voice catching in his throat and not entirely sure who he’s comforting. “It’s-it’s going to be okay,” he mutters, still staring emptily at his and John’s reflection. When John doesn’t respond, Paul’s gaze falls away from the mirror and looks down to the hunched over man at his side, dark hair falling into his eyes. “It’s going to be okay,” says Paul again, sniffling and giving John’s shoulders a little squeeze. “Shush…”
Heaving a sob that bears a note of finality, John begins to quiet, drawing hiccupping breaths that make his back flutter in little spasms. Head still bowed, he collects himself as Paul keeps comforting hands on his friend’s arms, rubbing his thumbs in circles.
Finally, John turns a tear-stained face in Paul’s direction and fixes his friend with a look that makes the younger man love him even more than he already does. “Paul,” says John shakily, plunging his puffy-eyed gaze in his friend’s.
“Yes…?” asks Paul, ready to do anything for him.
And suddenly they’re kissing – John’s hot mouth crushed against Paul’s, cold hands tangled in hair and sniffling noses colliding. Lips salty with tears slant over one another greedily and both men’s eyes shut in halos of wet eyelashes. Movements are desperate and frantic as hands flit from cheeks, to shoulder, down chests, to grabbing at the fabric of the other’s coats – mouths crashing into one another in bruising, searing kisses that make a fresh wave of tears spill from Paul’s closed eyes.
Perhaps it could have blossomed into more – perhaps Paul would have been able to have John the way he knew Stuart had there and then – but it all stops because the younger man leans his forehead into John, breaking their lips apart as he sobs.
Burying his face into John’s chest, Paul cries and cries – emptying all the tears built up at his friend’s expense. The kiss was everything and too much at the same time and, sadly, not at the right time.
“I can’t do this,” mutters Paul against John’s wool coat, voice muffled, “I can’t do this, John…”
There’s a pause. “Why not?” feebly asks the voice Paul knows so well.
“I… can’t be your second choice…” sobs Paul, “I don’t want to be your second choice…” Clutching onto the lapels of the older man’s jacket, he shakes his head, tears slipping down the bridge of his nose. “I’m not a second choice,” gasps the younger man, weakly slamming a fist against John’s chest like a frustrated child. “I’m not…”
At these words, John steps back, leaving Paul standing in the middle of the room, feeling very alone and vulnerable now. He keeps his eyes on the floor, not bearing to look at his friend.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” asks John in a voice barely above a whisper.
Paul nearly laughs – he’s going to pretend like no-one knew? – but he doesn’t. “I’m just replacing Stu,” says Paul, savagely wiping at his eyes with the corner of his sleeve, “I know that I’ll always be his replacement… Compared to him, I’ll always be second.”
Silence in the bathroom – the rushing of water and the whirring of the light is all they hear.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” says John finally, no more tears in his voice. “You have… no fucking clue what you’re talking about,” he hisses bitterly.
This time, Paul does manage a gurgled laugh – a pitiful thing, really. “I do, though,” he says sadly, looking up to face John for this first time since the kiss, “I know exactly what I’m talking about.”
John’s face hardens and seals up in front of Paul – donning the mask he wore when Julia died. Seeing his best friend close up like that in front of him – and fearing that will be the only way John will look at him after this – Paul does as he always has with John and backs down, backs away (gives up).
“This was a mistake,” whispers Paul, feeling his heart writhe in agony at the words he doesn’t mean, “You made a mistake, John – you’re… upset and you made a mistake.”
If kissing John is a mistake, then it’s a mistake Paul would make again and again and again, but he can’t… He can’t be the second choice – not when John is his first.
“A mistake…” says John and the unconvinced tone in his voice sends little shivers of up hope scurrying up Paul’s flesh, a spark of curiosity flashing in his teary eyes.
“A mistake,” echoes Paul wonderingly and in the glaring, yellowing light of this bathroom, he and John share a look that that feels weighty, but significant.
Maybe for the first time – or maybe not the first time? – John is seeing Paul the way Paul has always seen him and the whirring of the lights, the trickling of water and even the sound of Astrid’s voice all fade away just for them.