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“Who was the great love of [Mick's] life? Was it Chrissie or Bianca or Jerry or me? Actually, I think it was Keith."

- Marianne Faithfull


It had to be a train, of course. They’re always talked about in all those records, a quintessential part of the blues, of jazz. The midnight train from Chicago steaming of the station, belching smoke, heading for anywhere. It’s a distant, far-off place, like something out of a dream, like something untouchable, only briefly accessible in the sound of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry and the other artists like them—except a part of that glittering, faraway world has landed here, in the grey and the provincial of the Dartford railway station.

Keith has never seen another living soul, outside of the record stores (if even then), with albums like that tucked under his arm. He was beginning to think that in his own particular corner of the world, he was the only person to know of them.

Mick Jagger proves that this is not so. And of course it would be Mick, his old friend from primary school, of course they’d meet each other again like this. It is a blustery October day, but as they board the train into London, the only thing Keith is feeling is a bright, brilliant warmth, like someone throwing a light on in a dusty room somewhere.

Naturally, he looks different from the boy Keith remembers, but so much is still the same—the wavy, dark, almost auburn hair, clear blue eyes that take him in without any reservation. A full mouth that curls up in an easy smile. It’s unnerving when your childhood mate grows up to be somewhat beautiful, but…

He had those mail-order records under his arm. In a crowded railway station, that alone meant that he was the only person Keith was actually seeing. Still is, as they settle down in seats next to each other on the train, chattering away about the albums, the music. They barely stop to draw breath for minutes on end.

“I can’t believe it’s you,” Keith finally blurts out, as the landscape flies past them. “So the one other bloke in this town who listens to Chuck Berry is someone I already knew? That figures, don’t it.”

“It’s been years,” Mick reminds him. “I guess, though…you’re right. Some coincidence.”

Coincidence, or maybe something higher than that. Two streams diverged that wind up spilling into the same ocean. Mick’s family moved away, but they both know the other reason why they drifted apart in their younger years, and it’s hurtling them towards their respective destinations right now: Keith is off to classes at the Sidcup Art College, while Mick is heading even further into the city for LSE. Sounds less a bit less intimidating than the London School of Economics, all prestigious and business-like.

“LSE? Really?” Keith must be pulling some kind of face, because Mick arches his eyebrows.

“Yeah, seriously. But that’s not all I’m doing. I’m—well, sort of—playing in this band. Singing for them. All of this.”

He gives the albums sitting in his lap a pat, and something in Keith’s heart flips.

“Well, I…I’ve been learning guitar, sort of teaching myself, y’know. If you needed…or wanted, I dunno—”

He’s botching this already—but Mick doesn’t seem to think so, as his face lights up in a smile once again. “Of course! Yeah, I’ll go ahead and tell Dick…he’s not like to say no, if he knows you and all. Are you any good?”

A fair enough question, as Keith tries to think of how to answer it honestly. “I’m not bad. Getting better.”

Part of that smile remains, a corner of Mick’s mouth lifted up. “All right. I’ll let Dick know. And here, wait a moment, let me give you the address—”

He produces a piece of paper and a pen from his bag, and scribbles down an address in Wilmington. Keith finds his fingers tracing over it when he takes the paper from him, as if his skin could somehow memorize it for him, absorb what remains. The train is crawling to another stop, and this one is Keith’s for the art college—if they hadn’t paused now for even this brief stop, had he and Mick still been talking, he might have completely missed the station altogether.

“Give a ring, or…drop by whenever, all right? We’re playing again this Friday.”

He is trying to sound nonchalant about it, but Keith can hear the undercurrent of hope in his voice—and it’s difficult not to beam some of that right back. “Yeah, I…I will. Cheers, then.”

Casual enough—it wasn’t like lightning struck him down today. Just a happy coincidence, something worth being glad about as Keith collects his own bag and finally exits the train in the rest of the rush. He sneaks one quick glance back at Mick in his seat, who lifts his hand in a friendly parting gesture.

Just two old friends meeting again, that’s all it was. But Keith goes through his day in more of a daze than usual, not just guitar chords running through his mind, but something else too.

Perhaps it won’t even come to much, just a couple jam sessions over at Mick’s house. But Keith thinks he would be all right with even that.

***

What happens instead is the so-called “Elmo Lewis.” Real name: Brian Jones. Golden hair and golden fingers. Fingers that do things to a guitar that make Keith stare in notable envy, something like awe. He’s slightly older than him and Mick too, classically handsome, and already a musician of note—there is nothing Keith has to compete with him. Does he even want to?

“You’re in,” He tells Mick, not at all to Keith’s surprise—he could have good as guaranteed that the moment Mick decided to answer that advert in the paper, he was going to get what he wanted. Mick transforms on stage, has the kind of unique voice and presence that can be sold, but not replicated. Some people would kill for that. Trying to play as solidly away on his guitar as he possibly can, Keith still often finds his eyes drawn over to their singer instead, mesmerized for a few moments in time.

The smoky atmosphere of the Ealing Jazz Club is so different from just sitting around and playing in a dance hall somewhere, let alone in your own backyard. People mill around drinking and chatting, the curls of cigarette smoke lingering in the air along with the slow, syrupy music of Blues Incorporated and other R&B or jazz acts. It’s almost like something out of a dream.

The first time they came here together, Mick was all but swaying on the spot like a bud drawn to the sun, and Keith had watched in wide-eyed fascination for a while. This is what it’s all about, and there is one act they’re keen to join and take their own places in in such a spell-binding crush of dreams and reality.

“D’you need another guitarist?” Mick blurts out now, almost straightaway, and Brian peers at Keith.

“Him?”

Keith nods once, jerkily. He’s not up to scratch with Brian, or some of the other blokes in Alexis Korner’s lot, but his fingers have permanent callouses on them from how he’s played, how much he’s learned. He’s willing to do more, get better.

Brian gives something of a crooked grin. “Sure. Keep coming along to rehearsal, we’ll see what’s what. Expect to see you there this Saturday, then.”

They leave the club in high spirits, Mick all but dancing on the spot. “We’re in!”

“You’re in,” Keith points out quietly, one foot kicking at the ground as they walk along the street to the train station. “I dunno if he was exactly trying to snap me up, was he? If you hadn’t said anything…”

“Oh, stop that,” Mick scolds him lightly. “He didn’t say no, did he? We’ll start playing together, see what happens.”

It’s different for Mick, Keith realizes, after months of playing with him and in Korner’s group. Singing is just something he does for fun, something to shake up his respectable middle-class parents a bit now and again—he loves the music, but he doesn’t live it. He doesn’t view it the same way Keith does, where such chances to play could mean a big break, could mean the difference between a day just going through the motions or a day actually living. Mick doesn’t understand that.

But he follows after him anyway now, catching up to him until they’re step for step. Wherever they’re going from here, he’s still silently glad that he’s going with him.

***

Edith Grove is cramped, dirty and dank. Almost like something out of Dickens—the proverbial heroes living in squalor. And yet to Keith, the filthy little flat feels a bit like freedom too. Finally away from home, committed to little else but the music still running, running through his head.

“Seventeen pounds a month,” Mick clucks. “We’ll have to make do.”

It’s mostly him paying it off—he hasn’t left classes at LSE yet, and it’s his student stipend that sees them through. Keith doesn’t turn up his nose at the sensibility in that (without it, he’d have to find honest work himself), but a part of him wonders if there’s more to it than just that. This way, Mick still has one foot out the door. This way, there’s a chance Keith might wake up some day and find his bags packed, ready to return to the comfortable life that could await him.

But he doesn’t. He doesn’t, but with Brian here as well, it does mean they need to take stock of their current available space.

 “Aw, it’s no trouble,” Keith insists. “We’ve got two beds, don’t we?”

In a manner of speaking—they’ve got a few glorified cots, but it’s something. He and Mick elect to share a room, their clothes strewn about the floor and spilling from the battered wardrobe, to the point where things get mixed up…and they’re close enough in size that they often accidently pick up the other’s pair of trousers or the like and walk out like that, completely none the wiser.

“Oi…isn’t that my shirt?”

Keith looks up from the guitar chords he’s picking away at, over to where Mick is watching him intently from his perch on his bed, papers for tomorrow’s lecture spread out on the sheets. A bit of an amused smirk is dancing at the corners of his lips, and Keith looks down at the checked shirt he has on. Come to think of it…

“Well. I s’pose that it is.”

Mick just shrugs at that. “You can have it.”

He turns back to his assignment, back to poring over his papers, but Keith doesn’t return to his guitar right away—his eyes stay lingering on him, something unaccountable blossoming just a little in his chest.

And yeah, maybe he makes a point to wear that shirt a little more often then. Somehow, it never finds its way back into Mick’s possession.

The most important thing is, as always, the music. When Keith finally leaves school for good, Brian gives an approving nod. “That’s great. It’ll give us more time to work—god knows you could use the practice.”

It’s not just Mick there, but a steady stream of guests, including bandmates Dick and Ian Stewart, who always seem to be cycling through the flat all the time. Friends of friends dropping by, further contributing to the mess. But none of that seems to matter when he and Brian are sitting by their record player on the floor, album after album strewn out in front of them, playing their guitars until they can match the music note for note.

“You’re the one who gets it, Keith,” Brian tells him one time, the two of them stopped in their work for a smoke break—even the music isn’t playing, leaving the otherwise empty flat oddly quiet. “To Mick, Stu, all the others…this is just a lark. A fucking hobby. But you know it’s more than that, don’t you?”

“’Course it is,” Keith responds, the finger of his free hand idly tracing a scratch on the wood floor. His eyes flick up to meet Brian’s gaze, and the intensity there almost sends a shiver down his spine.

“D’you really? Because I mean it.”

“Yeah, I mean it,” Keith assures him hastily. “Christ, I left school, didn’t I? It’s only ever been about the music. I don’t want to be doing anything else.”

Brian surveys him for a moment longer, as if doubting his commitment, but finally looks away as he stubs his cigarette out and turns back to the record player. “Right, then. Let’s run that Howlin’ Wolf number again. You’re not quite where you should be yet.”

When Mick returns to the flat in the evenings, he frequently finds Keith and Brian huddled around the record player, instruments out, poring over another song—and he’ll make a joke about it or ask how they’re getting on, but his eyes remain on Keith a fair bit more.

“You and Brian always seem to be up to something,” Mick tells Keith lightly enough, one time when they’re making tea in the kitchen late at night. “I always feel like I’m…barging in.”

“You’re not,” Keith tells him quickly. “It’s just…different, y’know? We’re going over guitar parts all day, you’re just…not a part of that. That’s all.”

The response doesn’t seem to please Mick much. “No, I s’pose not. Brian’s been teaching me more of the harp, though. He’s quite good at it.”

“He’s good at a lot of it,” Keith admits. “You know we both love it, but for Brian…shit, it seems more like a religion or something.”

“And of course, it’s not bad for getting girls,” Mick points out with something of a shifty grin. “I thought that was why he did it all at first.”

Keith laughs a little at that. “I don’t think he needs the music to help with that, d’you? Hell, he’s got kids somewhere already. And the girls still throw themselves at him with one look.”

Mick scoffs. He would—he’s always flirting with Brian’s girls, trying to one-up him even just a little. “What’s that? He’s not that good-looking.”

“Y’know…the look.” Keith tries to imitate it now, shooting Mick his best attempt at a snide, cool, “let’s slink off to bed together” sort of glance—not that he can do it right. Brian is bold, Mick slightly less so, but Keith has always been on the shyer side. Talking to a truly pretty girl still gets his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth sometimes, and he probably looks more like a lunatic than anything else.

Sure enough, Mick gives a small snort. “Oh, very nice. You look as if you can’t see properly and you’re trying to squint and read something.”

“Fuck off, Mick.” But it’s likely true—then again, Keith never makes the first move anyway.

Mick’s better at the expression, with those blue eyes and the lip curled up, features soft but still surprisingly intriguing. He peers at Keith over the lip of the tea cup, and his stomach seems to give a little flip—if he were a girl, well, that would be doing something. At least a little.

“You look like a tosser,” Keith informs him instead, and Mick laughs, chucks an old hand rag at him instead.

But Keith thinks about that later, lost somewhere just in between wakefulness and falling asleep. That seems to happen a lot these days.

 ***

Even the trio of Keith, Mick and Brian can’t afford the rent alone on the shithole, which is how they find James Phelge, a bloke about as foul as his name sounds. He tolerates the music Keith and Brian are always playing, even makes remarks on it of his own, but it comes with a price—none of them can ever remember meeting someone as downright disgusting. Favorite hobbies include shooting wads of phlegm at the ceiling, wearing his underpants on his head, or pissing down the stairs at whoever first walks into the landing. Fantastic flatmate he is not, but they need the extra money. And he’s not a bad sort, Phelge.

What they need even more is a little fucking heat. Winter is ushered into the flat, bringing with it frigid temperatures that none of them can withstand for long. They huddle around the kerosene burner when it’s too bloody awful, otherwise, they make do with stuffing the old newspapers they nick out of bins into their clothes for a crinkly lining. It works better than nothing.

But the nights under their thin blankets are so very cold. For a short while, they shiver alone in misery, until one evening Mick throws his covers aside briskly, like he’s made up his mind about something. “Right, then. This is ridiculous. I think we ought to share.”

Keith is cocooned in his blankets, wrapped up as tight as can be, and not quite asleep yet. “Share…what?” He manages to mumble, shutting his eyes again, and Mick sighs.

“The bed, of course. Unless you want to keep freezing your arse off. Budge along, there.”

Keith lifts his head up just a little, barely able to make out Mick’s silhouette illuminated by the street light outside. At the silence, suddenly, he seems to hesitate.

“Well, I mean…it was only just an idea—”

“No, no…that’s all right. It’s too damn cold.”

Mick brings his own sheets over for the extra layer before he climbs in, the two of them pressed together on the tiny bed like kids at a sleepaway camp. Except, well…children at a camp generally don’t hold their breath a little the way Keith is now, trying to move and make as much room as possible, while something in him still seems to squirm a little.

Perhaps it’s more akin to sardines packed in a tin, the two of them wedged in together, but the weight pressed next to Keith isn’t unwelcome at all—he can blame the chill for the goosebumps that have erupted throughout him. Like him, Mick is almost painfully skinny, but still solid next to him, and he does provide a welcome warmth.

“…’s not so bad,” He finally manages to say, voice hoarser than he’d like it to be, and Mick agrees.

“’Least you’re warmer than over there. ‘Night.”

“’Night.”

But suddenly Keith can hardly fall asleep here, until the steady breathing next to him assures him Mick is down for the count. He lies there for a long while more in the dark, keenly aware of who’s next to him but unsure of what the skittering feeling in his stomach has to do with it. He finally shuts his own eyes, drifts off to an uneasy sleep—and wakes up hard. That’s what sleeping next to an actual person instead of the wooden body of a guitar will do to a poor bastard.

It continues on for some time like that. They don’t even have to ask before too long, just climb into bed together at night, sometimes waking up curled around each come morning. If it’s after a show they’ve played, they’ll often stay up late and jabber away long into the early hours of morning, discussing every golden (or not so much) moment. Dick Taylor has left them, the dynamics of the band are changing.

In Dick’s absence, they find Bill Perks (stage name Bill Wyman) instead, several years older than them and married already with a small son, face doleful. He’s quieter too, doesn’t say much compared to the constant talk of the rest of them. But he can play bass just fine, has a set of good amps too, and is willing to spare a bit of money from his full-time job so the others can eat that week. So for all of that, he’s in.

Keith’s nineteenth birthday is steadily approaching, a fact that he only has a remote interest in. With it so close to Christmas, it’s often eclipsed by the winter holidays, but he’s too old to care about that now. Mick is away from school for a short while, which means he divides his time between Edith Grove and his parents’ place—Keith visits often, comes round for supper. Eva and Joe are polite enough to him, their home warm and welcoming and respectably middle-class, so different from his own upbringing…a part of him resents Mick for that. A part of him understands why he might have trouble letting that go.

They all go separate ways for a bit over Christmas, but the New Year sees them together again once more. They’ve scraped up enough money to buy a few drinks to toast 1963 in, and when the announcement over the radio comes in that it’s officially midnight, wild, slightly drunken cheers rise to the ceilings of the tiny flat. For a few shining moments, the squalor they’re in seems to fall by the wayside, everyone chattering away and clapping each other on the shoulder. It’s a new year, full of new possibilities.

Maybe it’s that concept, that whole glittering idea, maybe it’s how much they’ve had to drink that leads to it—Mick doesn’t drink much, but he’ll make an exception for New Year’s. When they stumble back to their room and almost literally tumble back into bed, their clothes still on, Keith and Mick are silent for a few long moments, the latter’s leg slung over the former’s. Mick is so close, Keith can smell the booze on him before he feels the slight hand on his chest.

His breath hitches a little, caught in his throat, as Mick’s play-lamenting sigh comes from next to him. “Isn’t it good luck to get kissed on New Year’s?”

“I…dunno. Maybe. Yeah.” Keith’s heart is racing, he can’t explain why, but having Mick pressed up next to him in a time where they can’t blame it on huddling close for warmth to sleep is causing his blood to pound, far more erratic than any rhythm in a back beat somewhere.

Mick’s voice is softer then. “You want to, don’t you? Only I’ve felt like…”

He trails off for a moment then, this would be the perfect time to insist that no, nothing’s going on, roll over and insist he wants to go sleep—but Keith can hardly stop it now, not when he’s so close. He shifts his leg a little, letting his thigh press against Mick’s, and comes up with the best answer that he can.

“I think…we’re both gonna need all the luck we can get.”

Mick smiles, he beams, and that kiss is soft at first, almost hesitant, exploring—but Keith twines a hand in his hair then, and that’s all the further encouragement they seem to need. Christ, Keith has hardly ever been to bed with a girl before, let alone another bloke, but that doesn’t seem to matter as eager hands go slipping underneath clothes, fumbling with buttons, brushing skin. Mick touches him and Keith hisses through his teeth, he swears he’ll only last about a minute like this…and this is something he doesn’t want to stop, not now, not ever.

They huddle together afterwards, breathing hard, and Keith almost absentmindedly trails a hand up Mick’s back where he can just feel it rising and falling under his hand. It’s only one night, and he’s got to hold onto this.

He wakes up with Mick’s head on his chest and maybe, just maybe, they won’t write it off as a one night sort of thing. “What the hell happened last night?” Mick manages to mutter, and Keith just shrugs, longing for a cigarette but unwilling to move right now. For a short while, Mick doesn’t either, and that’s his answer there. This—whatever this is—isn’t something Mick has any interest in seeing end either.

And Brian knows. Of course he knows. The walls of the flat are thin, he’s sleeping only just in the other room, he must know. Those crafty eyes under a blond fringe don’t seem to miss a trick anywhere else, he can hardly be oblivious to what’s happening right under his nose. Any time Keith so much as has to brush past Mick in their cramped quarters of the kitchen or anywhere else Brian is around the pair of them, he holds his breath as if praying it isn’t obvious.

But it becomes that way when later that year, he and Mick decide to move out, find a bit of a nicer flat in Chelsea. Brian isn’t extended an invitation to come along. With the addition of Charlie Watts now, that perpetually cool-looking drummer who played with Blues Incorporated, their lives have been taking off, going faster and faster, and it’s time to pick and choose who stays behind and who goes on ahead. They lose Stu (in a sense, though he stays on as a roadie), they gain clever, cunning, Andrew Oldham as a manager—but through all the changes, every recording session or TV performance, more and more money slowly coming in, one thing remains constant.

***

“So, what d’you think we ought to do about this?” Mick asks him, when they’re locked in the kitchen under Andrew’s orders. He’s gone out, by the time he comes back, he says, he wants them to have written a song together. A proper one. Lennon and McCartney are doing it, which means it must be in style.

“Dunno,” Keith says unhelpfully, from his spot on the floor where he leans against the cupboard. Mick is sitting directly opposite him, an ash tray perched next to stacks of paper and a pencil, as if the words to a hit song will magically fall into his head. Almost like the schoolboys they were once, his foot reaches out and prods Keith’s.

“Andrew won’t let us sleep if we don’t come up with something.”

Maybe it’s that and the little smile that dances across his face, but something in Keith seems to give way a bit. His thoughts turn somewhere else for a moment, back to the bloke who penned them up in here in the first place, and everything he’s quietly noticed about him since he discovered them.

It’ll take him some time to work up the nerve to ask it, long after they’ve written “As Tears Go By” and Andrew has pawned it off to someone else. He knows how Mick behaves when he’s teasing someone (of course he would), knows that coquettish expression, and he finally has to hear the answer from him.

“Songs aren’t the only thing Andrew wants from you, are they?”

Mick doesn’t say anything in response, but he doesn’t have to. Somehow, this isn’t quite like managing Chrissie in the picture, like even him having Linda now.

It’s perhaps the first time he ever truly has to consider that unless it suits him at the moment, Mick is never going to want only him completely or want him first anymore. If he ever did.

***

He knows what (or who) Mick is after now. Ever since meeting her at a party, Mick has been practically besotted over a lovely blonde with a voice as pretty as her face—which they know because she sings their song. And Andrew (who claims he discovered her) or no Andrew, Mick is left salivating just as much, never mind poor Chrissie. But that’s just like him too, he discards people as easily and carelessly as he discards clothes on a bedroom floor, ready to start with something fresh in the morning.

“I can’t figure it out,” Mick pouts to him one night in ‘66, some time when they’re getting ready for a gig as the others clatter around nearby, the usual sounds of backstage mayhem going on around them. “It’s like Marianne doesn’t even know I exist.”

Keith gives a snort at that, looking up from his guitar. “You’ve only rang her fifty times or so now, yeah? She knows. Probably wishes she didn’t.”

Mick gives him a sour look at that. “Very funny, that. Guess we’re stuck in the same boat, then, as it happens.”

Well, he’s got him here—Anita isn’t here tonight, and so much the better for that. Keith hasn’t been so tongue-tied in someone else’s presence before, not until Anita with her flashing eyes and devilish smile. She reminds him a little bit of someone else in that way.

But the identical cropped blonde hair and interchangeable wardrobe proves Anita’s aligned herself with a different member of their band. So do the bruises that sometimes appear on her face or arms.

No one says anything to Brian about it, of course. Keith has seen the disquieted, almost disgusted look on Charlie’s face sometimes when they overhear the two of them going at it, but often, Brian returns with battle wounds of his own. Keith has never talked about it with Anita either, he wouldn’t dare, but even talking to her at all is something of…an experience.

And Brian preens like a fucking bird, the cock of the walk (double entendre intended), at having landed someone so beautiful, so striking, who speaks about four different languages and seems to know everyone in the world of art and society. It makes Keith’s chest hurt a little, to see them together, but sometimes Anita will turn that glittering smile onto him instead—and that’s enough to keep him going a bit more.

That, and the range of whatever the hell they’re experimenting with now. It’s Brian, mostly, who comes sporting a new variety of drugs to dabble in, not just the pot that’s become standard by now, but other things. Acid, for one. Anita is incredibly well-versed in it, which means Brian has to become that way too. Keith likes it well enough, it’s mostly Mick who turns up his nose at the idea of it.

“Why would I want any of that shit?”

“Everyone else is doing it,” Brian reminds him in a drawl, but lets the subject drop—in any case, Mick hardly seems impressed with the argument beyond trying things just to get people to shut up.

It’s one of those drug highs at a more private, intimate gathering that leads to his one night with Marianne…against all his better judgement, perhaps, he never would have dreamed she’d be interested in him, but there she is sidling up to him with her soft, svelte body, eyes dreamy and unfocused, but small hands decidedly determined as she tugs at his clothes. The whole night is a bit of a blur to him, but not exactly an unpleasant one.

Still, upon waking, it’s hard to fight a surge of something like guilt as he staggers about to get dressed. Marianne remains curled up in bed, watching him with an almost amused expression on her face, and finally manages to trill, “That was wonderful, last night.”

If truth be told, Keith’s thoughts are already drifting away, skittering about to who he wishes he had gone to bed with—Anita burns there in his mind, of course, but she might have company. And it’s how he finds himself pulling on a boot and twisting back around to face the beaming Marianne.

“You know who you ought to give a ring? Mick’s absolutely crazy about you.”

“Mick?”

“And he’s not so bad, once you get to know him.”

She stares at him for a moment, mouth gaping like a fish, before a silvery wind chime laugh leaves her, shaking her head in amazement.

“A time like this, and you’re thinking about Mick?”

He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t need to. And Marianne finally gives Mick a ring back, so he supposes he ought to thank him for that.

Not that he ever will. And being with Marianne keeps Mick happy for a while, as Keith continues to moon over Anita and spend time at her and Brian’s flat. Too troubled, even, to notice the “come on” looks Mick still shoots him up on stage, the brushing of a hand or the bump of a hip against him.

If the sudden gloom settling around Keith and the lack of responsiveness that go with it really bother Mick, he doesn’t let on so much. He’s got who he wanted so badly now, anyway.

Yet on one occasion spending the night over at Mick and Marianne’s instead, Keith is unfortunate enough to overhear them going at it right in the next room, separated only by a thin wall. The squeaking of the mattress, thumping of the headboard, all the mingled moaning going on—god, but he doesn’t need it. It’s nothing new for any of them, but tonight, he just can't handle it.

He rolls over, wraps the pillow better around his head, until he just catches it—or thinks he does. The quite, quite distinct sound of his own name, as pushed out of Mick’s mouth in the tangle of ecstasy. He would know it, he’s heard it before, his name panted in his ear or muffled into his shoulder from their hideaway within a broom cupboard or the like. He knows the sound.

Alone in the dark, his face must be on fire—and god, who knows what Marianne is thinking right now? They quiet down, but they go on murmuring to each other for a bit longer, low enough now he can’t tell what they’re saying…and maybe that’s for the best. It doesn’t do much to quell the indescribable sense of yearning and of loneliness that’s opened like a pit within him. 

***

The cigarette in Mick’s hand is trembling slightly as he sheds the last bit of his composure—here, behind closed doors with Keith, he doesn’t have to pretend anymore as he does out in public. As they’ve both been doing for the past couple months. It’s a bit ironic, to be back here in the place where it all exploded in their faces, but Keith has no intention of leaving his home territory either. Redlands is where it happened, it’s where he can stay too.

“We get the charges tomorrow,” Mick says flatly. “Jesus Christ, they’ve got enough to string us up by the balls, don’t they?” His blue eyes are glassy, almost faraway, staring out a window in the gathering dusk.

“They don’t have enough,” Keith says dismissively, puffing on the end of his own ciggie. “You can’t worry about it. If you trust the lawyers—”

“Do you?”

Again, it’s that loaded question followed by a billowing silence that says enough—they’ve always been better at communicating nonverbally, after all. Keith says nothing, just exhales, and Mick drags a hand down his face.

“Shit, Keith. I can’t go to prison, we can’t go to prison!”

“Nobody’s going to fucking prison. We’ll get off with a slap to the wrist.” But he doesn’t sound convinced, even to his own ears, and saying goodbye to Anita back on her movie set truly did feel like something more…final. Absolute. A shift in the wind.

Here, the night before their formal charges before the court, there is no glimmer at all of the elusive, “devil-may-care”, almost larger than life figure that is Mick fucking Jagger to the rest of the world. Here, looking at his face, it is easier for Keith to see just Michael, just the son of a physical education teacher who wants to make people happy and proud and live a comfortable life. He sees that little boy, almost.

Keith could tolerate a stint in prison himself, he thinks. He’s never done well with institutions, but what’s one more? But not Mick, never Mick, and he stubs the cigarette out in the ash tray before he leans forward, letting his fingers curl around his wrist. So delicate.

“Look at me.”

Mick finally does, and Keith gets up from where he’s sitting down on the sofa. He uses the grip on him to pull him slightly closer, and lifts his free hand up to cup his face, to force him to hold his gaze there. The desperate look he sees staring back at him isn’t like Mick at all, and whatever it takes now, Keith is sure he has to erase it from there. Fix it, somehow.

“We’re gonna live through this. Understand? We are.”

And maybe he isn’t quite sure if he believes that, but maybe he has to for both of them, and maybe even a part of Mick can believe him then. He looks at him, eyes frantically searching his face like he wants to put faith in that, and they both feel it then—that sense of a current, like sticking your hand on a live wire might feel. About as risky.

Perhaps, but when the wolves have finally come knocking at the door to shut down the party, there is no room for acting like you can’t take what’s offered.

So when Mick puts his cigarette out and then reaches forward, pulling Keith up to him and crushing his lips to his, any part of him that has reservations about it is swiftly quashed, lost in the dizzying tide of fuck-knows-what, never mind that they haven’t been together like this since before Keith got Anita, since before that fateful night here. Mick bites Keith’s lip so hard he nearly tastes blood, but for once he doesn’t swear at him about it—and he’ll give as good as he gets, that much is always true.

They’re on the floor in the next moment, a tangle of limbs hitting the carpet, and it’s a whirl of hands pulling at clothes, unbuttoning trousers, searching for any part of each other that they can. Mick sits up above Keith, straddling him, auburn waves falling into his face as he breathes heavily, peels his shirt off and throws it aside.

It’s this madness, burning madness as his hips grind down onto his, as Keith makes a ragged sound and lets his fingernails drag down Mick’s chest, but only for a moment before his partner, his friend, whatever he is, sinks down to run his tongue over his collarbone and then work his way down the rest of him.

Maybe that’s enough for now, Keith thinks as he fists his fingers in that hair, an anchorage point in all the storm. Another habit he can’t quit, something just as addictive, and something that will ultimately ruin him.

When they fall apart, shatter, come back to earth, it’s hard to hear anything else past their heavy breathing, Mick’s furious-sounding heartbeat pounding up against Keith, and he finally registers how tightly Mick is still holding onto him, how his nails are still digging in long after they’ve both made it over the same edge. Like he cannot bear to let go now.

But they go to court the next day. The sentences are passed down. Over a month later, they are both found guilty and sentenced to prison—and Keith doesn’t think he’s ever seen Mick cry before. A white-faced Marianne will later tell him how shaken up he was when she came to see him in his holding cell.

“It was awful, Keith. Perhaps I ought to have been a little softer with him.”

Maybe so. If there is anything soft left in Mick after all this, it will be a miracle.

Press coverage of them thus far has been mostly good, mostly normal, asking the usual questions and providing coverage of their new albums. They’ve had their fair share of scandalous columns, to be sure, horrified do-gooders of society complaining about their awful music and appearance, tearing apart that image that Andrew so masterfully wove together. But here it is, a final nail in that coffin—the Stones are crime-ridden junkies too, no decent members of an upstanding society. Not just menaces, but dangerous.

Their sentences are overturned or squashed (though there was no saving poor Bob, their old friend who got caught up in all the mess with them), and after paying their fines, they are essentially turned loose to get back to business, to go on with their lives—but already, a creeping, nagging suspicion is over Keith that things will never quite be the same.

***

“What the hell’s all this, then?”

Going over to the flat Mick’s currently camping out in is always a bit of an adventure, especially with Marianne around too. Similar to Anita, she loves to shop and she loves to decorate, and so one never quite knows what they’re going to find. Some new jeweled light shade, a multi-colored tapestry, spooky ritual masks from somewhere out of Africa. And above all these days, what he’s finding a lot of is books.

Mick has stacks of them piled around the room, tucked away on shelves or teetering precariously in columns on dressers and tables. Perched on one of the chairs now like indeed, the king of the castle, he watches in wry amusement as Keith plucks up one of the tomes and gives a scoff.

“Yeats? You’re reading poetry now?”

“Marianne’s got me reading it,” Mick admits, getting to his feet. The silk robe he’s wearing nearly trails to the floor as he comes up behind Keith. “D’you know how many bookshops there are in London? A bloody lot.”

There’s all sorts of titles in here, philosophy, more poetry, books on religion. Keith can’t help but give Mick a baffled look. “Somethin’ you’re trying to prove here?”

“I just find it interesting, is all. You might learn something from them.”

“I’ll leave that to you.”

They smoke a little bit, talk a little bit, hashing out some work for the new album. After the less-than-fantastic psychedelic show that was Their Satanic Majesties, which Brian had had some objection to all along, it was mutually determined that their next body of work return to what they truly know, what they’ve always lived and breathed.

And maybe Keith is thinking of some of that now when he pauses to look outside the window of the flat, at the city landscape just beyond, and think of where they are now—out of Dartford, out of Edith Grove, away from those tiny jazz clubs where they first got started and playing to crowds of thousands now. They’re here now, and he looks over at Mick who’s diligently scribbling something down on a loose leaf piece of paper, and suddenly blurts out, “D’you ever miss it?”

Mick shoots him a curious glance. “Miss what?”

“…before. Y’know, just before. Before all the shit happened, when things were…different.”

He doesn’t have to expand on it any further, they’ve always been good at understanding each other like that. Mick is twirling the pencil between his fingers—that pause, even that much hesitation, speaks more volumes than he could know. Keith has his answer, but he isn’t surprised by what he’s actually told.

“Naw, not really. It’s what’s here that matters, isn’t it?”

That’s what he would think.

He wakes up one day at Redlands with Mick curled around him like a still dew-damp flower in the early morning’s sun, a hand unfurled across his chest. The window was left open last night to entice a cool breeze, and just outside of it now, there comes a distinct sound of movement, tromping boots making enough noise to rattle even Keith from a deep sleep.

And he isn’t the only one—Mick stirs, makes a small noise, then lifts his head up. His words are slurred after just waking up, for a moment, he sounds almost more like Keith himself. “Was’ that out there?” Blue eyes are screwed up, not quite alert yet, and Keith idly brushes a strand of hair from his face.

“That’s just Jack Dyer, the gardener. ‘Bout when he usually turns up.”

“He makes an awful racket,” Mick complains, turning his head to squint disdainfully out the window, where Jack trooping around to trim the shrubbery can still be heard loud and clear.

“Oh, that’s him. That’s just Jumpin’ Jack.”

At that, Mick turns back around, a slow, lazy smile unfurling across his face as illuminating as any sunrise could be. “Yeah, Jumpin’ Jack? Of course.” He lays his head back down, letting it nestle into the crook of Keith’s body where his neck meets his shoulder, giving one more yawn.

“I like that.”

And god…what a fucking song that is.

***

But that’s really the last time Keith can remember so intimate a moment. It’s recording and cutting the new album that keeps them busy, to be sure, it’s constantly picking up the slack where Brian is falling down on the job—if he turns up to sessions at all, he’s red-eyed, distinctly unkempt, about coming apart at the seams.

“You’ve got to fucking get it together,” Charlie tells him, but Brian seems in another world by now—and sometimes, Keith thinks he’s following right after him.

It’s the environment like that, it’s the scene, and Mick wants very little to do with it. He’ll go out and schmooze with art dealers and record dealers and who knows what else out at parties, with or without Marianne…and one doesn’t have to be a complete insider to their circle to realize how frayed that relationship is becoming.

Maybe it all is, Keith thinks one night in the midst of a high, Anita curled up next to him and zoned-out guests all around. Maybe it’s all breaking down, and Mick is somehow trying to ensure he survives the wreckage. Their court trial last year taught him something, that’s for sure.

He meets Gram Parsons, beautiful, almost feminine-looking Gram, touring with his own group out of America and with a talent for the real southern country blues that hooks Keith immediately. The kid (if that’s what he is, he’s only a couple years younger than Keith), seems practically in awe to be around such a star, to have such intimate conversations about life and music alike.

It only takes one jam session and two guitars to prove they’re onto something here, and Gram’s wide beam in that open, honest face says it all.

Anita’s welcoming to him, when he starts spending more time at Redlands, but after the first couple of polite enough meetings, Mick’s own manner becomes more than a little frosty.

“What’s he doing here?” Mick hisses to Keith in a low voice when they all show up at the studio for the final leg of Beggars Banquet, and Keith rolls his eyes.

“What’s it to you? He wanted to come, is all.”

The look Mick gives him is rather chilly. “Is that all he wants?”

There’s an echo from the past somewhere in that statement, though this question comes delivered from a darker place. A more possessive place. His eyes stay trained on Keith a fair bit more after that, or else swivel over to Gram.

Keith hardly cares. Playing with him, learning from him, is something he hasn’t experienced since the early 60s, at least. Not that long ago, truly, but it already feels like a different age. Here it is again, just the love of the music. No bullshit, no fancy tricks or promotions, no lead singer breathing down your neck. Just the sound of a guitar.

And Gram’s curious in more ways than one. He’s no stranger when it comes to drugs, but Keith can offer him something on another level. And whatever comes after that, during one high or another, well…they can forget about it later. Can pretend like it never happened, if they need to, but Gram’s face and slow smiles don’t hide much. Mick, who has schooled himself to betray nothing he doesn’t want to, catches on all too quickly.

And so it happens then.

“It’s only a movie, Keith,” Anita assures him, more than one time, but the roiling feeling in Keith’s gut says otherwise. It’s not some squeaky-clean motion picture either, but set against a backdrop of crime and rock music and sex—just another day at the races, only directed by that fucker Donald Cammell and starring none other than Keith’s girlfriend and his friend.

Mick is, by and large, rather quiet about the details of what goes on at the movie set, their scenes filmed in a flat downtown. He’s fairly excited about it, they all can tell that, as one might expect from a film debut—but he can’t seem to meet Keith’s eyes about any of it.

Yes, it’s just a movie, it happens all the time in movies, it’s only acting…but Keith isn’t quite sure about how two of the most sexual people he knows are supposed to carry on such scenes without something happening. Without something going on, and the thought of the two of them together in bed is enough to make his stomach churn. Not Mick and Anita, for god’s sake, anyone but the two of them.

For a while, all he can do is sit in the car just outside where the movie’s filmed, feeling stupid and paranoid, but unable to shake it. Maybe some of it’s owing to the drugs, that creeping, restless, feeling, but he doesn’t quite think so. He just can’t.

Mick is even cagier about it than Anita. Keith isn’t completely oblivious, he knows she’s hardly remained exclusive to only him because that’s just how she is, but this feels like something completely different. Something completely wrong.

And as so often before, it’s what Mick doesn’t say rather than what he does that confirms things for him.

“Quit the bullshit, Mick, for fuck’s sake. All I want to do is know. Did you sleep together or not?”

It’s one of those rare moments now where he has him alone, the two of them left together in Robert Fraser’s flat while he’s out for the night. Mick pushes his hair out of his face—for his role in the movie, it’s been dyed jet-black and straightened to long, smooth lengths, almost more like Keith’s himself. It makes him look different, sometimes even jarringly so, but that expression on his face is perfectly familiar.

“Keith, does it even really matter?”

“Does it—of course it bloody matters! Yeah, it does! You don’t even really have to say it, though, all of this is saying plenty.”

Mick gives a little scoff at that. “C’mon, it was only a time or two, it didn’t mean anything—”

Keith could haul off and punch him across the face right now, he could, but something about the rage and the acute sense of despair and wrongness causes him to freeze in place instead, one balled hand clenched in a fist shaking with suppressed rage. Unable to help it, he spits out the first words that come to mind, however juvenile they are.

Oh, only 'just' that? Fuck you.”

A flash across Mick’s face, if only at the unbridled venom in his tone, but he recovers swiftly enough. “I think,” He says, half-coy, half-acidic, “You already have.”

And isn’t that all that needs to be said. Keith collapses onto a nearby settee, burying his face in his hands for one long moment to keep him from doing something drastic. After one long, ragged inhale, he finally manages to say, “Christ, if it was Anita you wanted this whole time—”

“Anita?”

There is something curiously strange in Mick’s voice, something not quite right, and Keith finds he has to look back up at him despite himself. His expression is odd too, almost anguished as he stares back over at Keith.

“You think it was Anita I wanted all along?”

The words get stuck in Keith's throat. What he wouldn't give to be able to lie, suddenly, to be able to feign ignorance, but of course, he's damn well known all along. "...no," He finally says quietly. "No, I don't."

Another beat. "You know...you know I can't..."

"I know." Mick cuts him off, and for once, Keith doesn't care. "Don't tell me you think I don't know."

What more is there to add onto that?

***

“Wild Horses,” they call it. To date, one of their most aching, heartbreaking songs, if not the number one. Gram taught him the style, that stripped-down acoustic feeling is all his, but Keith is the one left bleeding all over the music. And maybe Mick is too, he who has to channel the words into actual song.

There is much within it. Much contained within the scope of a year. What happened to Brian, oh god, Brian, but Keith is already sure he’ll haunt them forever. Maybe they deserve it, all of them.

Poor Marianne nearly checks out herself. Later, they will claim it was she who inspired the title of the song, but Keith never hears it confirmed from either her or Mick. Perhaps that’s one last thing left between them, one last hurrah before it all crumbles. It was a long time coming.

And then there is Marlon, tiny, perfect little Marlon, who Keith is nearly afraid to touch, like he will poison him somehow. He has a son now, a son, something so fragile and precious and new. There will never be another feeling quite like it in the world. He is closing out the decade with so much lost and so much gained.

They’re gathered in the studio, listening to the track of the completed song, like so many times before. Another towhead is present, the baby-faced Mick Taylor in contrast to Brian—but the kid can sure play. That guitar rings through, pure and sweet, and Keith has to close his eyes and let his head lean back, to let that feeling carry him away for a bit more.

It always has.

And when the track ends, that familiar sound of Mick’s voice that Keith knows as well as his own, finally faded away, there’s a moment of shimmering, golden silence where they all sit in quiet contemplation of what’s just happened, of what they’ve just done—it’s only Mick who breaks it finally, of course, with an appreciative clap of his hands and a wide grin.

Just for a moment, he glances back over at Keith, as he has done so many times before—in the studio, up on stage in front of fifty people or thousands of them, or in private when they used to be alone together—that one knowing look that he seems to only use on him, that flicker of a smile.

They worked on the song together. There’s probably no one better in the world than Keith who can even come close to figuring out what Mick is really thinking.

Maybe, if nothing else, this’ll be what they still have, what brought them together again in the first place. If time eats away at the rest of all they share, their music will still be there to stand in for them.

You know I can’t let you slide through my hands.

Yeah. He gets it.