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It had been an open-casket funeral.

He had picked out her outfit. A dress – yellow with a white lace collar. She hadn’t had much occasion to dress nice, what with her being a full-time nurse, but she did have a few nice ones. “Just in case,” she said.

That was her motto. Always prepared, his mum was. “A control freak,” his dad had once joked, but an accurate description nonetheless.

Mary McCartney craved control. She craved it the same way her eldest craved music. After all, she knew what it meant to live in poverty. She knew what it felt like to be mercilessly teased for having raggedy clothing and a matching working-class accent.

She knew it so well that she refused to allow her children to know it, too.

So she fought for control in ways only a woman who really knew its worth did. It was a small house, but the rent was reduced on account of her seniority. Her husband made less than her, so she worked longer hours. They had no money for a car, so she cycled to work.

And then the night before she died, she had set out their outfits for school. Just-washed, freshly ironed.

“Just in case.”

He remembered their last conversation, a few days before the surgery. Her dark-brown, almost black hair was spread over the pillow beneath her. She had on a tatty, floral print night-gown, stained with sweat and familiar in its homey scent. She had cupped his face with her hands, frail in her grip but firm with motherly intent. She called him her “beautiful boy,” and apologised.

“For what?” He had asked her, his eyes red-rimmed with tears threatening to spill-over, though they never did.

“For leaving you.”

“You’ll only be gone for a day or two, Mum. We’ve gotten by for longer before.”

It had been a week since the funeral.

He still hadn’t cried. Didn’t have the time, really, between making arrangements, making sure his brother and father were fed, and making sure the house was tidy. He had hardly had the time to think, let alone cry. Deep down, though, it bothered him. It ate at him. He even tried forcing himself once, after he found his brother sobbing in his room, but he couldn’t do it. He felt nothing.

And so it was with nothing in his chest that he diligently went through his dead mother’s closet and found the yellow dress she kept specifically for special occasions. Yellow was the sun in his face when she had woken him up for the last time. Yellow were the two perfectly rounded egg yolks staring up at him the morning she cycled to work and fell half-way through her route due to sharp pains.

Yellow was the colour of the dress his mother was buried in.

- - -

“Paul! Paul!”

Paul’s ears twitched at the sudden sound but gave no sign at having heard.

Paul, I’ve been callin’ you for ten minutes yet.” Paul looked up at that, meeting the furious gaze of his younger brother.

“Sorry, Mike. Bit distracted.” Paul scratched at his nose as he looked back down at the guitar on his lap, shifting slightly as he reverently set it against the garden gate.

Mike watched Paul through slightly squinted eyes, ready to launch into a tirade about ‘laziness’ and ‘a lack of listening skills,’ but sighed instead when he realized Paul wouldn’t look back up unless prompted. “Da’ wants you for somethin’. Says it’s important.” Mike paused to look back at the house before bringing his attention back to Paul. “Think it’s got somethin’ to do with money.”

Paul looked back up again, this time his gaze sharper and more alert.

“What?”

Mike shifted uncomfortably on his feet. He looked at the dark circles under Paul’s eyes and felt somewhat guilty for not having noticed them before. How long had they been there? “He’s sittin’ in the kitchen with an envelope,” Mike widened his eyes for dramatic effect as he continued, “lookin’ all serious-like and muttering somethin’ about responsibility.”

He beamed at Paul’s answering chuckle. He didn’t speak to Paul much, especially not recently, but he hated seeing him so quiet. He hardly ever saw Paul happy anymore. His eyebrows were constantly threaded with anxiety and when he wasn’t in his room, you could bet he’d be sat somewhere in their backyard, guitar in his lap and his eyes permanently downcast.

“All right, I’ll be in in a mo’.”

Mike nodded and chewed on his lip, nervous. He had half a mind to share his anxiety with Paul but thought better of it. Paul was probably anxious himself, and Mike didn’t want this on his shoulders, too. So he nodded again, muttering, “Right,” before abruptly heading back into the house.

Paul watched Mike close the door behind himself, bemused at the sudden change in tone. Watching Mike’s head disappear back up the stairs through the window, Paul looked back at the guitar leaning against the gate. He had only managed fifteen minutes this time, hardly any time at all. He shook his head as he lifted himself off the ground, grabbing the neck of his acoustic before heading back towards the house.

- - -

Jim McCartney wasn’t an unkind man. He was firm, a hard-worker, strict – but he wasn’t unkind.

That was the mantra he kept repeating to himself as he waited for his eldest son to join him at the kitchen table, nervously tapping against the beige envelope held tightly in his grip. It was for his own good, Jim reminded himself. “Ye’ve got options, son. You won’t like either of ‘em, but you have a responsibility to choose.” That was what Jim had planned and that was what he would say. He picked at the corner of the envelope and nodded. Yes, firm and direct. It’s what Mary would have wanted.

Jim thought back to his wife’s hazel eyes, the soft heart-shaped frame of her face. He felt his heart stutter at the memory and remembered her protests when he had tried pushing Paul into getting a job a few months back. “He just wants to play, just wants to be a musician like his dad. Why don’t we let him? We’re getting by all right for now, aren’t we?” She had smiled at him then, purposefully using her ‘we’re-in-public’ posh accent to give her words more credence as she rubbed his fingers between her own. “The lad’s only just graduated. Surely we can give him some time to himself, at least for a bit.”

He didn’t agree with her then, and he didn’t agree with her now. He gave in, of course, helpless as he was in the face of Mary’s intense mothering, but he knew what Paul needed. Discipline, Jim thought, and a healthy work ethic. Sod the music.

Jim considered that thought for a second. Shook his head. No, don’t sod the music. Jim loved music, always had done. Where’d he think the boy got it from? His heart warmed at the thought of his son taking after him at least in some respect. An aspect of his personality that Paul didn’t resent. Did Paul hate him? He couldn’t bear the thought of his son having to go through the same hurt as he did. Didn’t want him turning soft and being made fun of. No, this was right. This is what had to be done.

“Ye’ve got options, son. You won’t like either of ‘em, but you have a responsibility to choose.”

Paul stared blankly at him from across the table, his fingers tapping out a beat against the dingy wooden table. He said nothing.

“Paul? Did ye hear me?” Jim leaned forward in his seat. His patience was already wearing thin, always did with Paul. He had a penchant for talking back with just his facial expressions, Paul did. Never outwardly challenged Jim, no he was much too polite for that, but he made sure you knew he wasn’t happy. Went against everything Jim thought and said, probably out of spite. Jim observed him from his side of the table – soft, heart-shaped face. Hazel eyes. It made him angry.

“Yes, I heard you.” The tapping had stopped, but Paul still had his face hidden underneath a curtain of dark hair.

“What’ll it be, then, eh?” Jim cringed inwardly at the impatience colouring his tone but pressed onwards. “I need to know now befo –,” Jim cut himself off as Paul abruptly stood up.

“Why are you doin’ this?” Paul flexed his hand against his trouser leg. Hurt was evident in his eyes and his palms were clammy, wet to the touch. A wave of nausea passed through him, but he pushed himself to continue. “It’s been, what, a month? Why are you doin’ this to me?”

Jim stared, the shock of Paul’s outburst evident on his hardened face. It was always Paul, too, who made every sense of self-control Jim thought he possessed evaporate within the span of seconds. Doing this to you? The nerve, Jim had done nothing wrong. He felt anger bubbling in his chest at the unvoiced accusation in Paul’s voice. The polite fury, the calm and even tone he used when he stated something venomous as fact. Yes, that was Mary’s boy all right.

“Son, you’d best sit down before I make a decision for you.” The coldness with which Jim stared Paul back down into his seat made clear that there would be no argument this time, no room for Paul to lash out. He tried doing it Mary’s way, but the boy obviously didn’t appreciate the effort. Jim wondered not for the first time if either one of them would ever forgive Mary’s having left them.

Paul dug his nails into his palms and watched the resulting half-moon indentations change from white to red. He counted to ten in his head and willed himself to calm down.

Jim watched the obvious turmoil flashing in his son’s eyes and felt himself soften. He sighed exasperatedly, clearing his throat to get Paul’s attention. “Paul, I need ye to make a decision, now. I know you don’t want to work in a factory, I know you just want to play your guitar, but I’m lookin’ out for your future. If you don’t work, ye’ve got no future. It’s either you get a degree and get a job later or you get a job now, but either way, ye need to make that decision. For yourself and for your family.”

Paul bit down on his bottom lip and winced at the copper flavour against his tongue. He didn’t want a degree, he didn’t want to work, he didn’t want to speak, he didn’t want to think. He wanted the safety of the backyard and he wanted his guitar. Above all else, he wanted to be left alone and in control of his own life and decisions.

“English,” Paul said, the intensity and abruptness of his voice surprising both himself and his father.

Jim blinked. “Ye what?”

Paul felt the resolution solidify in his chest now that he’d said it. He could move out. He’d finally be left alone, in quiet. A voice in his head said he didn’t want to be left alone, not really, could use some company actually, but he knew he couldn’t continue living in the way he was. He needed to be in control.

“An English degree,” Paul clarified. It was his best subject, and his second passion next to music. Mary had instilled it into him, made sure he knew his classics so that no one would question his upbringing. An insecurity of hers, but which quickly turned into one of Paul’s greater joys. “I’ll study English and become a teacher.”

Jim hadn’t expected that. He’d been gearing up for more of a fight, some bargaining even. A decision? A responsible decision? Teaching didn’t pay all that much, but it was a job, and it had benefits. Good ones, too. Jim nodded. All right.

“Ok, Paul.” Jim’s gaze fell back onto the envelope still clutched in his hands. He looked back up and found Paul’s curious gaze staring back at him. He smiled sadly as he gave into the silent questioning and leaned across the table to push the envelope into Paul’s hands. “This is yours, then.”

Paul stared down at the looped cursive of his mother’s handwriting. “For Paul.” He felt the beginnings of a knot grow in his lower stomach.

“She’d been saving up for quite some time,” Jim noted as he watched Paul tentatively lift the corners of the envelope. “She said ye wouldn’t have wanted to do any grunt work, that you’d want to do something more specialised-like. Guess she was right, ye never did work well without someone praising ye for being one-of-a-kind.”

Paul ignored the bitter edge to Jim’s words, knew it took a lot out of him to express himself. He gave a small, humouring smile and finally looked inside the envelope.

It was cash, just as Mike had hinted at, and quite a sizeable amount, too. It must have taken his mum ages, before he was born even, and though he wouldn’t admit it, he’s sure that Jim played a role in it, too. Paul shook his head. “Da’, students get maintenance grants. I don’t need all this.”

Jim smiled at his son’s protests. Mary knew he’d be reluctant to accept the money, but she had made her thoughts firm on the matter. The money would be Paul’s for him to use on whatever he wanted. Jim didn’t agree, thought it would be best saved or invested, but he knew better than to argue with Mary, even in death.

“It’s yers, Paul, do what ye like with it. It would have been yours regardless, but yer mam was insistent that ye got it once you’d made your decision.”

Paul blinked again at the notes spread in front of him. £200. Paul wasn’t sure he’d ever seen that much money before, let alone held it in his hands. It seemed impossible. “I don’t know what to say,” He muttered lamely. It felt as if everything had changed much too fast. The prospect of independence roared in his head and he felt his head spin with the effort of keeping calm.

“Just say thank ye and get started on that application. I want ye out of here by September.” Paul glanced up at his dad, seeing the twinkle in his eye even as he kept his lips tight. Paul suddenly felt like crying.

“Thank you,” He managed and felt his throat tighten. He made sure to keep his eyes locked with his dad’s and jutted his chin out in a show of confidence he didn’t have, knew he’d be chastised otherwise for being overly emotional.

Jim’s lips finally turned upwards into a small smile. He stood up from the kitchen table and stretched, signifying that the conversation was now over. As he made his way out of the kitchen, he turned back and arched a thin, dark eyebrow. He cleared his throat again and made sure Paul was looking at him when he repeated himself. “September, son. Ye better get started.”

Paul nodded fervently, though he felt ill and on the verge of a breakdown. “September, yeah. All right.”

- - -

Damp. Desperately cold and damp. Cold, damp, and fucking freezing.

Paul’s nose was tinged a bright red colour, a fact which made him furious considering he was wearing his thickest, most ugly jumper. Obnoxious, this cold. Obnoxious and fucking awful.

“New student? Got yer keys yet, love?”

Paul looked up from where he was forming a protective cloud of heat between his hands and shook his head. “Not yet, just arrived.”

The stout woman at the counter clucked her tongue at him, muttering, “Now that won’t do.” Paul watched as she used a key to unlock a small safety deposit box before reaching inside.

“Which flat number are ya in, then?” She waited patiently as Paul quickly shrugged the bags off his shoulders and reached into his front jacket pocket. A front jacket pocket that was empty.

“Oh, err, uh,” Paul muttered nonsensically, feeling a sense of panic erupting in his chest as he came up empty in the other pocket, too. Christ, how was this happening already. He gave her a pained smile as he desperately rifled through his back pockets, knowing as he reached inside that the search would be fruitless.

The woman raised one eyebrow in amusement as she watched, her hand hovering over the safety deposit box. After about a minute or so of watching Paul’s frantic movements, however, the woman finally took pity on him and suggested, “Why don’t ye step aside and look in those bags of yers, love? Looks like you’ve packed yer entire family in there with ya.” Though her words suggested otherwise, her smile was kind and teasing.

Paul nodded frantically in thanks as he shoved his bags over to the side, desperately unzipping his carry-on to find the paper he needed. He knew he should have memorised it, knew he’d cock it up if he didn’t. He felt ridiculous, on his knees in the middle of a lobby with three bags surrounding him. He must look daft.

Having no luck with the first bag, Paul made to swing the carry-on back over his shoulder, barely registering the sound of new footsteps entering the room. Deaf and blind to the world as he was, Paul only noticed too late when his bag suddenly made contact with the side of someone else’s face.

“Oh!” Paul exclaimed as he heard the sound of glasses clattering to the floor. “Oh, god, I’m so sorry,” Paul bent down to quickly grab at them but someone else had beaten him to it, snatching them before his very nose.

“Ta very much. Won’t be needin’ any more of yer help tonight.” The tone was angry and sarcastic, and Paul felt himself turn red with embarrassment.

“It was an accident,” Paul explained, though it came out biting and overly defensive.

“Oh, yeah?  Mr. Three Suitcases had a little accident?” The boy swivelled around to face Paul, his eyes thinned with rage. “Surprising, that.”

Before Paul had the time to respond, the stout lady from behind the counter came ambling out and pressed a plump hand to each of their chests. “Now, lads, if ye don’t calm down I’m going to have t’ call down for assistance, and I don’t think any of us want to be doin’ that, now do we?”

Paul stepped back from the touch impatiently, glowering at the boy stood next to him. He looked at him intently, noticing for the first time the large, rectangular shaped bag he had draped over one shoulder, his posture suffering for it. A glance to the side also revealed a guitar case, the strap frayed from obvious use. Having forgotten himself for a moment, Paul felt a small smile form on his lips. “Hey, ‘s that a –.”

“Flat 24E, Maynard House.” The boy had already turned away, the aura surrounding him dangerous and brooding. Paul felt the tops of his ears burn with unresolved anger and kneeled back down to continue rifling through his luggage, not trusting himself enough to withhold making another biting remark.

Behind him, Paul heard the sounds of jangling keys and a small muttered, “Ta,” as the boy briskly made his exit and stomped up the stairs. Letting go of a breath he didn’t know he was holding, Paul finally found the small folded-up piece of paper in the inner pockets of his third and largest bag.

Pushing himself off the ground, Paul turned back to face the woman at the counter. He rested his elbow on the desk in front of her, flashing her his brightest and most charming smile. “Here it is, sorry about the delay.”

The woman’s frown from the earlier altercation quickly melted into a soft smile, obviously taken in by the fluttering eyelashes and polite tone. She shook her head and gently placed her hand over his, still smiling as she said, “Thas’ all right, love. It’s the first day, after all. Happens to everyone.”

Paul smiled gratefully as she squeezed his hand, though he cringed at being treated so delicately. He knew how to make his looks work for him and though he resented it at times, he was also calculating enough to realise he was better off for them.

As she let go of his hand, Paul made to flatten the piece of paper in his hand so he could read out the flat number. Looking up to make sure the woman was listening (hanging onto his every word, she was), Paul smiled as he enunciated the address clearly, “Flat 24D, Maynard House.”

The woman’s eyes suddenly became sympathetic as she reached into the deposit box, tutting to herself all the while. Pulling the keys out, she gave Paul another wavering smile as she placed them into his outstretched hand. “Don’t worry, love. Nerves are always high on moving in day. I reckon you’ll be just fine.”

Paul raised his eyebrow questioningly, not understanding the sudden shift in tone, but nodded all the same. “Ta, I should hope so.” He shoved the keys into his front jacket pocket, gave the counter lady another nod of thanks, and wrestled his luggage back onto his shoulders. Pressing his own guitar case tightly against his hip, he made his way up the stairs.

Chapter Text

The walls were white and completely bare. There were safety locks adhered to his window – a singular, tiny window! – and his heater was broken. The chattering of his teeth sounded impossibly loud in what felt like a vacuum of silence.

Paul turned onto his side, rubbing at his eyes as he reached out to grab the clock stood on his bedside table.

01:16.

He turned his gaze up towards the ceiling. Dread, hot and relentless, crept up his throat like a weed. He wished he could pull it out, but its roots were firmly planted in his oesophagus. Terminal, probably. Pity.

What was Mike doing now, he wondered. Was he eating enough? Was he eating at all? He worried about how his dad was faring on his own. Nothing he did with purpose would ever come close to what their mother did simply by virtue of existing.

Guilt had now taken up residence alongside dread in Paul’s gut, and he felt them colluding with each other, wrapping themselves together into a tight coil until they were indistinguishable. They reminded him of his selfishness, his callousness.

No. No, no, no. He had to keep those thoughts at bay, had to keep his head above water.

But it was there, that constant sense of hopelessness. Never abating, no matter how far he ran. The loneliness manifested in physical aches all over his body and he felt winded by its weight. His legs felt as if they had been pinned down with rocks and panic overwhelmed him as he tried to speak but couldn’t. He couldn’t pierce through the cloud of nothingness hovering over his head. He felt invisible. The weed was sprouting through his nostrils now and he couldn’t breathe. He was suffocating. It wasn’t his fault. Was it his fault?

Suddenly, a thump rang out in the corridor.

Paul’s head whipped around, thoughts of self-loathing quickly dissipating. It was pitch black in his room, save for the streetlights glowing softly outside of his window (his singular, safety-locked window). He strained his ears for more sounds but heard nothing. He quickly spared a glance out of the window, though he knew the sound was too close for it to have come from the street.

He waited for what seemed like an eternity and then, just as he was about to get back to bed, he heard it again.

Thump.

Right, Paul thought. This called for an investigation. He swung his legs off the bed and quickly pulled on the t-shirt draped over his desk-chair. Rubbing his eyes of the last vestiges of sleep, Paul slowly opened the door.

He’d never forget the sight that greeted him.

It was the boy from before but, this time, he was sat on the floor with his head thrown back against the wall. He had his long legs pressed tightly against his chest, and his arms were circled around them protectively. His eyes were closed, glasses noticeably missing from his face, and it was obvious from his irregular breathing that he was awake. Awake and upset.

Paul slowly inched closer, trying his best not to startle him. It was dark in the corridor, too, and he knew that he hadn’t been noticed. He knelt down quietly and gently grasped the boy’s shoulder, giving him a light shake.

The boy’s eyes fluttered open and his arms flung outwards in panic. Paul barely had time to think when one of the arms hit him square in the nose.

Gasping at the shock of pain, Paul stumbled backwards and fell back against the wall, sliding down onto the floor whilst clutching at his nose. He turned his face away and muttered a string of curse words under his breath as he felt the first tell-tale drops of blood drip against his hand.

“Where the fuck did you come from?” He heard the voice ring out behind him. Though the words were obviously angry, they sounded far more worried than they were menacing. Paul shook his head and stayed quiet, applying pressure to the area just beneath the bridge of his nose. He leaned his head forwards, willing the blood to clot before it dripped onto his clothes.

“Lean yer head back, ye daft bugger. The blood’ll get all over you.” The boy spoke with an authority that demanded attention, but his tone suggested something a bit gentler. He moved closer, his eyes squinting at Paul as he tried to make sense of the damage he had caused. He reached out his hand in what Paul assumed was an attempt to help, but Paul quickly motioned for him to stop. The boy startled at that, and his eyes quickly fixed into a glare.

“Just tryin’ to help, mate. No need to get fussy.”

Paul shook his head again, this time turning to face him head-on. “You’re meant to lean forwards, not back.”

The boy blinked at him, confusion evident on his face. “What?”

Paul sighed, taking care not to drip onto the floor or himself before repeating, “You’re meant to lean forwards, not back. If you lean back, the blood drips down your throat, which could lead to suffocation.”

The boy continued to stare at him in silence and Paul felt the sudden urge to laugh at the absolute ludicrousness of the situation. The blood had finally stopped, but Paul kept his fingers tight against his nose, hoping to avoid further conflict for as long as possible.

In the meantime, the boy had moved closer again, this time pitching his voice lower as he spoke, “I’ve had bloody noses before, son. Probably more than you’ve had in yer entire life.”

Paul did laugh at that, the melodrama tinging the boy’s voice far too much for Paul to take. It was obviously the wrong thing to do, however, as there were now two eyes squinting fiercely at his own. A hand had also made its way up the front of his chest, fisting in the collar of his t-shirt.

“Ye think I’m joking?” The boy’s eyes were practically lit up with fury and the somewhat calm atmosphere from before had once again been replaced with the threatening aura of their first encounter. Paul suddenly felt his laughter die out as the boy tightened his grip, pushing more of his weight onto Paul's throat. When he felt the added weight of the boy’s knuckles pressing against his chest, Paul decided that he had had enough.

Shifting slightly, Paul gripped the boy’s fist and wrenched it away, relishing the resulting shocked expression. He then turned to the side and calmly used the sleeve of his t-shirt to rub the last remnants of blood from his nose, making a mental note to put it in the wash later.

He got up wordlessly and stared down at the figure still leaning against the wall. The boy stared back, though he was still squinting and obviously poised for a fight. Paul simply raised an eyebrow at him, his dark eyes silently challenging him to make good on his threat.

After a few minutes of tense silence, the boy spoke out again. “Are ye going to hit me?” His eyes squinted harder in the darkness, but he still couldn’t make anything out. “I’d make the judgement for meself only I’m a bit blind, ye see. Some over-eager cunt broke me specs earlier, so I can see fuck-all, and that includes whatever expression is currently on yer face.”

The corners of Paul's lips twitched upwards at the candid tone, but he held back his smile. The boy's mood swings had given Paul considerable whiplash and he didn't want to humour him just yet, lest it all turn out to be a ploy to catch him unawares. “I’m not going to hit you, no.”

“Well, what’s the expression on yer face?”

Paul thought for a moment before responding, “Patient and accommodating. Disappointed yet not surprised.”

“Ah,” the boy nodded sagely, “ye take after my auntie.”

Paul let out a short giggle and leaned back against the wall, deciding that – for now – any immediate danger had been averted.

“It’s John, by the way.” Paul smiled down at the now familiar nasal tone. He had gotten used to the abruptness of everything the boy – John – had to say and noted his apparent aversion to silence. Would rather start a fight, apparently, than linger in silence for too long.

“John,” Paul repeated it to himself and nodded. “John?”

“Yes, kind stranger?”

Paul rolled his eyes and crossed his arms in front of his chest as he continued. “Was that you making all that noise earlier?”

John widened his eyes comically at that, and shifted slightly. “Depends on what ye heard.”

“It was a series of loud thumps, actually. Woke me up.”

John shifted again, this time a bit more guiltily, and flashed Paul his best grin. “Aye, might’ve been me. I was just down in the kitchens and the young ‘uns were engaging in some, ah, delinquency, and, y’ know, me bein’ the only representative of the elderly community here, I thought I’d talk some sense into ‘em.”

Noticing Paul’s blank stare, John rolled his eyes and lowered his voice conspiratorially before continuing, “They were drinking Rosé, mate. Someone had to stop ‘em.”

Paul smiled again, finding it more and more difficult not to, and said, “And I reckon you showed them how to properly dispose of it, did you?”

John nodded fervently, “Of course I did. What else was I meant to do?”

“You joined them, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did. What else was I meant to do?”

They both giggled at that and the relief, for Paul at least, was palpable. He hated having unresolved tension with anyone; would much rather be liked or passively tolerated than hated. And besides, he quite liked having this daft mess of a boy staring myopically up at him.

“Not much to do, really. You did everything you could.”

John nodded solemnly, “Everything. An’ then, once I had established dominance with the kiddies, I made my way back here. Only, as I mentioned before, I’m a bit blind, so,” John rubbed at his neck with some embarrassment before adding on, “here I am.”

“Here ye are. On the floor. Beating all who walk past.”

John coloured and said nothing, wondering how he had lost the upper-hand so quickly.

“Or is it just the over-eager cunts whose noses ye bloody?”

John’s gaze quickly shifted up to settle intensely on Paul’s own, his bushy brows knitting together in confusion. “What?”

Paul sighed exasperatedly and crossed his arms over his chest again. “It was me, John. I was the one who broke yer glasses.”

With recognition suddenly clouding his vision (or what was left of it), John stood up with some difficulty before steadying himself against the wall. When he felt sufficiently stable, John turned to squint at Paul once more, this time his gaze searching and serious. “I see.”

There was a beat of silence as the tension settled once more. Just as John was about to continue, Paul snorted into his loudest laugh yet, and suddenly found himself doubled-over at the inadvertent pun. Paul clutched at his stomach and couldn’t bring himself to calm down, laughing harder when he heard John nervously join in.

“Christ, ye are daft, aren’t ye,” John laughed in bewilderment, but the smile on his face was a genuine one.

Before Paul could respond, however, another door was suddenly flung open, revealing a force of pure fury.

“Oi, you pricks, some of us are trying to sleep!” The voice was deep and rough with sleep. The boy it belonged to, however, looked nothing like the voice suggested. He was painfully young, looking disgruntled and sleepy in his slouching pajama bottoms, and his upper-half was completely bare. The bones of his ribs jutted out against his pale skin, ridding him of the little intimidation the voice afforded him.

John turned on him, staring him down menacingly as he bit back, “Aye, ye might want to get that seen to. ‘ave you tried counting sheep? Might do the trick.”

The boy visibly prickled at that but wisely decided that the fight wasn’t worth it. He turned back into his room after a few seconds, muttering, “fucking arseholes,” under his breath as he shut the door behind himself.

John, satisfied with his tactics, turned back to face Paul. “These kids think they’re so tough.”

Paul raised his eyebrows as he smirked, “Aye, and you’re not a kid yerself?”

John pressed his hands against his chest in a mocking gesture, mimicking the voice of an elderly woman as he cried, “Who, me? Oh, what a compliment! For such a handsome, strapping young lad to approach me in such a way…”

Paul laughed, “C’mon, you'll wake the others up. How old are ye, anyroad?”

John continued to make “oh!” sounds as he circled Paul, fanning himself with his hand as he attempted to “cool down,” before finally relenting and leaning back against the wall.

“Turning 21 next month,” He answered bitterly, before giving Paul a weak smile. “Started a bit late ‘an all. Wasn’t going to start at all, actually, but me auntie wouldn’t hear it.”

Paul hummed in acknowledgement. He wondered why John’s auntie hadn’t made him apply immediately after graduation but felt like it wasn’t his place to ask. He filed the thought away for later.

“How old are you?” John countered, nervous and desperately trying to swing the spotlight away from what he evidently thought was shameful.

“Two years younger than you – 19. Just turned in June.”

“Ah, another late bloomer like meself.”

“Well, not really. 'm only a year late.”

John glared at him in mock anger and made a short “tsk” sound as he shook his head at him, fake disappointment down-turning his lips. “And ‘ere I thought I’d finally found a companion.”

Paul smiled, his teeth glinting in the dark. He said nothing, content to let John put on a performance for him. John, however, had other plans in mind as his frown quickly morphed into a grin.

“So, m – oi, what’s your name?”

“Oh, er, it’s Paul.”

John nodded his thanks and continued, “So, Paul.”

“Yes, John?”

The grin grew wider.

“How’re you planning on paying me back for those glasses, then?”

Chapter Text

No one, as it turned out, would be paying for a new pair of glasses.

After having successfully herded John into his room, Paul was sternly commanded to stay still whilst John tried to find whatever it was that he was currently rifling through his luggage for. Not quite knowing what to do with himself, Paul simply watched the carnage unfolding in front of him, frowning at the mess quickly accumulating around John’s crouched form.

“Looking for someth--” Paul startled as he was abruptly cut off by John’s shout of victory.

“Me auntie,” John explained breathlessly as he stood up to show Paul the circular, golden-framed glasses clutched in his hands. “My ones were better. They looked a bit like Bu--”

“Buddy Holly, right?” Paul couldn’t resist interrupting or masking the excitement in his own voice, “The dark framed ones?”

John’s eyes lit up as he nodded fervently. “Y’know Buddy Holly?”

“‘Course I do,” Paul laughed, “I’ve got all his records back home.”

John beamed at him, straight teeth peeking out from between thin lips. Paul automatically found himself returning the smile, the full force of John’s enthusiasm proving to be infectious. They sat there grinning at each other for what felt like hours until John, suddenly remembering himself, quickly took the new pair off his nose and shoved them into his back pocket.

At Paul’s questioning look, John sighed. “No rock stars with specs like these, Paul,” John explained, before adding, “not anyone worth listenin’ to, anyroad.”

Paul opened his mouth to argue, but John’s drink-addled brain was already switching frequencies and Paul wasn’t sure he could keep up. Choosing to focus instead on drowning out John’s babbling, Paul took the chance to finally look around the room he was so unceremoniously shoved into.

Though only just moved in, John had already put up several posters, and had even filled out his book shelf with some of his favourites. Paul could tell they were well-loved as each one looked slightly battered, the spines worn with obvious use.

Looking back at John, Paul began to take note of certain things. John was big and sturdy, his Liverpudlian candidness made all the more intimidating by his persistent squint and hawkish-like beak. There was an anger to him; an obvious burn in the way he puffed out his chest as if he were constantly expecting a slap, or worse, a fist. His mouth was cast downwards into a petulant frown, except when it was stretched into a mischievous thin-lipped grin. He had warm, almond shaped eyes, matched with messy tufts of auburn hair. His sense of humour was biting, but clever and witty, and he spoke with a quiet thoughtfulness which suggested a much gentler personality beneath the acerbic tone. And then, of course, was the aspect that perhaps appealed to Paul the most - John liked music.

It was confusing. Paul could just as easily imagine John brawling in a pub as he could curled up in bed reading a book.

“...an’, y’know, ye don’t have his quiff but I think yer a dead ringer for ‘im, mate, honest.”

Paul looked up, knocked from his daze, realising too late that John had been waiting for a response. “Sorry, was miles away. What was that?”

John stared back at him in that menacing squinty-eyed way he had, his bushy eyebrows furrowed and his lips set into a tight line. The sudden change in demeanour was nerve-wracking, and Paul found himself fidgeting under John’s full attention. John’s eyes bored into his own, and just as he was beginning to think that he should apologise, John swayed forward and giggled drunkenly, “I’ve no fucking clue.”

Paul made a noise that was a mixture between genuine laughter and pent up nervous energy, the sound trailing off into something resembling a deflating balloon. Maybe he should leave? John was still giggling to himself, soft and child-like, but Paul noticed the way his eyelids were now fluttering closed every few seconds. Not only that, but John’s whole body was now swaying in a way that suggested a loss of balance was imminent. Yes, he thought - it was time to go.

 

Paul raised himself up from the bed and stretched, revealing a sliver of belly. “‘m gonna head back to mine, then. Think it’s about time we turned in, eh?” Stretching languorously, Paul gave a small nod in John’s general direction before slipping on the shoes he left by the door - just the way his mum taught him - and making his way out.

Oblivious and humming mildly to himself, by the time the first unmistakable sound of sobbing reached his ears, Paul was halfway out the door and into the hallway. Panic bubbled in his chest as he turned back to see John’s face wet and ruddy with tears, his lips trembling as he struggled to keep the tears at bay.

“John?” Paul quickly stepped back inside the room, his arms outstretched in front of him in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. “John, what’s happened? Are you all right? Does something hurt?”

John snorted at the question as a particularly painful sob clawed its way out of his chest, and Paul felt his own chest tighten in sympathy. Choosing to ignore the mocking expression on the boy’s face, Paul carefully placed his hand on John’s shoulder and, when he wasn’t pushed away, grasped both of John’s shoulders more firmly, and pulled the body into his embrace.

Paul would have laughed if John hadn’t looked so broken. “How much have you had to drink, there, eh?” Paul soothed, rubbing John’s back in circling motions. “I know we get on quite well, but I only live next door. No need to cry.” John’s breath hitched as he let out a small laugh at Paul’s weak attempts at humour, and Paul reflexively clutched him tighter.

“You’re having quite the first day, hmm?” Paul continued to speak in a quiet and even tone, remembering the way his brother would immediately calm whenever Paul would use it on him. Sighing with quiet relief as he felt the body against his own slowly relax, Paul continued, “First some stupid berk breaks your glasses, then he follows you into yer room - uninvited, too, the cheek - and then --”

“‘an then you remember that yer dad hates you and so does yer auntie and yer mum is fucking dead.”

Paul’s body stiffened at the words muttered wetly against his shoulder and felt his heart begin to race. Did John know about him? Had he said something before and just forgotten? Paul felt his defenses rising and slowly pulled away, staring at the face inches away from his own. “Why’re you saying that?” Paul demanded, willing the beating in his chest to stop, lest John hear and call him out for being pathetic.

John stared back at him, his eyes red-rimmed and wet. For the first time since Paul had quite literally run into him, John looked every bit the young and vulnerable lad he tried so desperately to hide. Noticing the change in Paul’s body language, however, John quickly raised himself up and puffed out his chest. Rubbing the tears from his eyes like a tired child, John spat out angrily, “Because it’s true! First dad left, then uncle George, then my mum got ‘erself run over by a car, and then Mimi couldn’t be fucking bothered with me anymore either so she sent me here. Everybody leaves, Paul.”

Before Paul could reply, John shoved him towards the door, interpreting his shocked silence as judgement. “Anyway, it’s about time you fucked off as well, isn’t it? Sorry fer waking you up, Paulie, I’ll try to be on my very best behaviour from now on, like a good boy. Wouldn’t want you missing out on yer beauty sleep.”

With a final and sarcastic “Ta, mate!” John slammed the door in his face.

* * *

“Cuppa?”

Paul blinked up at the voice. Bleary-eyed and tired, Paul couldn’t make sense of the blur in front of him. Perhaps there wasn’t any voice at all? He had been lost in his thoughts after having stumbled into the kitchen just a few minutes ago, exhaustion still clinging to every muscle in his body. He hadn’t gotten much sleep after his abrupt ejection from John’s room last night, and had instead spent the night mulling over putting in a request for a different flat. Or maybe a different uni. He was undecided.

Looking more closely and realising that the voice was not, in fact, coming from inside his head, Paul quickly smiled at the boy standing over him and replied, “Thanks, mate, could really use one.”

The figure winked, his blue eyes warm and sympathetic as he teased, “Aye, looks like it.”

As the boy walked over to the kitchen counter to grab another cup, Paul found himself nodding off again. Even as he slipped in and out of consciousness, feelings of guilt weighed heavily on his chest. He regretted the way he had pushed John off him. He wasn’t sure why the idea of someone knowing about his mum ruffled him so badly, but it did. He supposed he didn’t like people looking at him and knowing. Making judgments about him, pitying him, and - god forbid - giving him special attention. It made him feel nauseous and, more than that, it made him angry. He felt anger towards the kind people making sure he was okay, anger at his inability to express himself, anger at his mum for dying, anger at his dad for pretending everything was fine, and anger at John for making him remember his anger in the first place.

“There you go,” Paul heard as a hot cup of tea was placed before him. “Didn’t know whether you’d unpacked yet or not, so I’ve given you one of my own. Hope that’s all right.”

Paul nodded in thanks as he took a sip, his eyes shutting rapturously at the warmth quickly spreading throughout his body.

The kind boy’s lips quirked upwards. “Freshers night,” he grinned knowingly, “You’re not the first I’ve seen this morning with that look on your face.”

Paul smiled weakly as he warmed his hands on the teacup. “Oh, no, this isn’t that. I just --,” Paul sighed as memories of the last night flooded back into his head, “just couldn’t sleep very well, is all. My, er, neighbour seemed to have other plans in mind.”

The boy laughed, again nodding with understanding. “That tends to happen, too.” He lifted his head and quickly looked around the room before whispering, “Mine threw a right tiff last night. Said I was too loud and doing ‘is head in.” He smiled apologetically before adding, “I’m a drummer, so I’ve got my set in with me. I offered him a few biscuits this morning as a peace offering, and he perked right up.” The boy reached over to pat Paul’s shoulder. “Might help yours too. Reckon most people are just a bit stressed from the move.”

Paul couldn’t help but snort at the thought of offering someone like John biscuits. “Might do.” he agreed anyway, and reached his hand out across the table. “I’m Paul, by the way.”

“Hiya Paul, I’m Ritchie.”

“Hiya, Ritchie. Strong cup of tea, that. Might need you on standby.”

Ritchie laughed as he stood up to put the now empty cups in the sink. “Aye, so long as you chip in for the teabags once in a while.”

* * *

Paul was quiet as he took a drag from his cigarette, watching the smoke curl upwards. It was dark out, and he had the door of the phone booth left slightly ajar to allow for the smoke to escape. It wasn’t too far from campus, but it was far enough to ensure that he’d have his privacy, a luxury hard to come by in a shared flat.

“Well…” The voice in his ear trailed off, and Paul found himself grinning in response.

“Well, well.”

“Paul.”

Paul laughed, his voice melodic and rough with smoke. “Yes, love?”

“When can I see you? You told me I could see you once you’d settled in.”

Paul sighed. “Dot, it’s only been two days. I miss you too, honest, but I don’t even know my schedule yet. I don’t want ye coming up until everything’s been sorted, all right?”

Though he couldn’t see it, Paul was almost certain Dot was pouting. He could imagine her lovely lips all plump and pink, and her eyes lit up with anger whenever he’d cross her. He felt the familiar glow of lust warming in his belly, and he could hardly get the next words out without growling. “Now, tell me, how much do you miss me?”

He heard the sharp intake of breath on the other line, and pressed further. “Don’t be shy, love. You know I’ve missed you too.”

“Paul, you’re in public. Are you sure, I mean --”

“It’s late, sweetheart, no one can hear. I promise.”

Paul knew Dot wasn’t used to this sort of thing, knew he was her first, but god he needed it. She was a good girl, and she doted on him. Though he wasn’t necessarily planning on marrying her, she was nice to have around. Nice, but not much else. She was also soft, and the remembered sensation of her hips moving in tandem with his own made him feel somewhat crazed.

“I have missed you,” her soft voice finally spoke out, and Paul groaned.

“Tell me.”

Dot giggled at his desperation and pressed the receiver closer to her lips. “I could barely go to sleep last night, you know. I kept thinking of you...and your voice...and your hands…”

Paul’s hand slowly inched downwards into his trousers, making deft work of the button and fly. Grabbing hold of himself, Paul breathed down the phone, “And what were my hands doing?”

“Touching me...you were telling me how good I was for you, and you were kissing me…”

“You are good for me,” Paul spoke lowly, knowing Dot loved it when he did. “Such a good girl for me...and if you were here, I’d be kissing you all over...” Paul gave a sharp twist, moaning quietly as he listened to Dot’s little sighs. “And then I’d -- are you alone?”

“I - what? Of course I’m alone, Paul, why --”

Paul pushed the receiver away from his ear, his eyes sharp as he scoped out his surroundings. His mind was still hazy with arousal, but he was positive he had heard something. He tried to calm his heartbeat and quickly maneuvered his jacket to cover his lap, though what he was doing would be blatantly obvious to anyone who walked past.

Doing his best to angle his hips away from the door, Paul squinted into the dark. Save for some rustling in the trees, he saw nothing. After a minute or so, Paul reluctantly brought the phone back to his ear. “Must’ve been me imagination.”

They continued, though Dot took a bit more coaxing after the interruption. Nevertheless, he had gotten her panting and moaning his name in minutes. Egging her on with a few choice phrases (Dot was always a right little goer once he got her relaxed enough), Paul’s eyes shuttered as he heard Dot give a final whimper, and bit down on his hand as he came into his fist.

It was then that he heard it again.

Laughter, loud and mocking, from somewhere in the distance.

“I’ll give you a ring later, Dot.”

“What, Pau --” Click. He’d be paying for that one later.

Tucking himself back inside his trousers, Paul stood up, trying to retain the small bits of dignity he had left. Walking in the approximate direction of the sound, Paul called out, “All right, show’s over mate, come on out.”

Silence.

Paul walked further into the tall trees and shrubs across from the phone booth, and struggled to make sense of the shapes before him. Coarse bark pressed against his shoulder and something wet seeped into his shoes. Feeling himself grow impatient, Paul yelled out once more, “I’m not leavin’ until you show yerself so you might as well come out now. I’ve no issue with staying here all night, mind.”

“Ooh, he does sound serious, Stu. Maybe we should turn ourselves in.”

“Sod off, ‘m relaxin’.”

Paul followed the voices back towards the trees he’d just passed and then, from the corner of his eye, he finally spotted them. Lazily passing a spliff back and forth, the two boys showed no sign of recognition as Paul approached. The pale of the bigger boy’s face was lit up from the glow of the lighter held between his fingers. This close and this bright, there was no mistaking him.
Before he could bring himself to address him, Paul was interrupted by the nasally drawl he had come to loathe.

“Oi, Stu,” John nudged at his friend’s ribs, his dark eyes boring into Paul’s own, “I believe we’re about to be treated to an encore.”