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The Start of Nothing

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I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me
The start of nothing, I had no chance to prepare
I couldn't see you coming

DECEMBER 2015

"Going down?"

"Yep."

They met right before the winter holidays, at Jamie’s first practice with the band. The previous drummer had quit weeks earlier and, though Frank had barely got to play with him, he still resented the change. Not because he’d valued his skills so much, but because he doubted anyone else’s. It was relatively easy to find good drummers, but good wasn’t the same as good. It wasn’t long before he and his bandmates realised Jamie was the latter. During these sessions, they would sometimes look up from their instruments and to each other, discreetly seeking confirmation of the talent they were witnessing. They’d nod and raise their brows when Jamie picked up a beat just a second after he’d been taught it, when he let it run to unpredictable paths, when he distractedly tapped a rhythm with his drumsticks on the side drum.

Jamie became his talent, in a way that it was easy to neglect him as a potential friend. It didn’t help the fact that he was serious, quiet, and shy, that he never talked about himself and barely ever laughed at their jokes. They sensed, more than noticed, there was some distance between him and them, and, instead of trying to bridge it, respected it for fear of scaring him off: Never asking him where he was going, where he’d come from, if he’d grab a pint with them? Nothing was done consciously, though, nothing except that first Going down? from Frank, three weeks after their first band practice together.

Jamie said Yep, as Frank had guessed he would. Unlike Crawford and Will, who had just recently moved to a flat in the Northern Quarter, Frank had to take the bus all the way to Didsbury after practice. He’d figured that Jamie, being a Uni student, would at least go as far as Victoria, and he’d been right.

After that Yep, Frank suggested taking the bus, and Jamie replied that he’d walk. Not that he would prefer it if they walked, but that he would walk, regardless. So, Frank agreed, even if it was raining and it was already as dark as it would get.

It became a habit. After band practice, they would wait up for each other, walk for almost an hour in silence and say their goodbyes in front of Jamie’s halls. There, Frank would take the bus home—he’d rather spend the half pound than to walk by himself for another hour.

 

Four months later
MARCH 2016

Frank had never seen Jamie outside of the context of the band: outside of the studio they rehearsed in, outside of their weekly hour-long walk. So it was not because he didn’t recognise him—the long face, the tall forehead, the broad shoulders, and the dark skin, all of it was unmistakable—but because he was not prepared to see him in a pub, or to see him, period, on a day that wasn’t Wednesday, that he took so long to acknowledge his presence. To take him in, to approach him, to say, Jamie, mate, to basically his back.

The rest of the band, and even some of Frank’s friends, assumed that because they came and went together, him and Jamie, that because one offered excuses for the other when he was late or couldn’t come, that they were friends outside of the band. Possibly not like Crawford and Will, but friends enough to, at least, walk in conversation. The truth was, it was still silence that governed their relationship, even of a different kind than it had been at the beginning. Jamie had started talking more at practice, mostly about music, but also about his courses at Uni, his little brothers. So, if they ever gave the thought a second, it was to presume that he was even more open to Frank. This was not necessarily true, though not exactly false either.

Something was going on between them: they’d started to understand each other with a nod, a tilt of the head, with a cough or a clearing of the throat. Frank stared, sometimes for too long, at Jamie’s tense arms, at the curve of Jamie’s lips. He’d never bothered to analyse why he did that—no, he’d done more than not bothered: he’d actively shut off any foray of his brain into anything that had to do with Jamie. If he didn’t let it become a thought, then it couldn’t become. That was the logic.

Frank had been attracted to a guy before, just the one. He was a first year and the guy had been a bit older, and objectively fit. He hadn’t ever thought that snogging him made him gay—it hadn’t gone much further than that, to be honest, and only for a couple of times. He hadn’t questioned his tendencies since, secretly reassured every time he enjoyed getting off with a girl. The experience had been forgotten, locked out of his memory, and negated completely when accidentally brought back by a Proustian memory: he hadn’t enjoyed it; the guy had been very effeminate and so it didn’t count; he’d been too young; it was all a dream, it hadn’t happened. The fact that Jamie provoked in him a bodily reaction—of awe, of horniness—was disruptive to the whole story he had created about his persona: Jamie was just a very masculine, very cis guy.

The problem was, of course, that to explore a thought or sensation, even if only to negate it, would’ve helped him cope with it—repressing it tightly only meant that it transpired into other behaviours, other hardly explainable emotions.

And so that last Wednesday at band practice, when Frank and Crawford had had a heated discussion on the chord progression of the song they were working on and Jamie had not weighted in, he’d been illogically furious at him. Did he not care what his band played? Could he not tell the difference? The anger—in itself a translation of his let’s-call-it-feelings—had translated into long stares at Jamie’s face, at him licking his lips when Jamie bit his, which he did sometimes. Frank’s self-narrative had been so well rendered and presented that no one considered what was really happening a possibility, which, in turn, meant that he could continue to stare at Jamie with impunity.

And so he said, Jamie, mate, and Jamie turned around to look at him. Jamie, who was wearing blue jeans instead of the usual joggers, who was talking to a guy Frank didn’t know, who was drinking a pint, was quick to erase the surprise from his face and say, tonelessly:

“Churchill.”

Frank realised then that this had been the first time Jamie had said his name, and then it had been his last name, really. Something inside him twisted a bit, and to hide it, he patted Jamie’s shoulder.

“Alright, mate?”

Jamie only nodded, but Frank wasn’t done. His anger was layered: he told himself Jamie’s lack of opinion was what bothered him, suspecting it came from a place of jealousy at his raw talent, sensing it irrationally came from being attracted to him. Without removing the hand from his shoulder, he leaned forward to shake the hand of Jamie’s friend.

“Frank,” and see if Jamie called him that next time, “one of his bandmates.”

The guy, spectacled and long-haired, with a kind face, smiled widely.

“Fuck off, you’re in a band?” Jamie shrugged. Why hadn’t he told? Did he honestly not care?

“Fucking yeah he’s in a band,” Frank answered for him tensely, finally removing the hand but not before a final patting. “A fucking genius too, he is.”

It was hard to tell if he was doing this to make Jamie feel awkward, or because he couldn’t help himself. As if saying it with a tone of contempt and detachment could help him mask the truth: the result was he wasn’t lying, and he still was being a dick.

The friend, still smiling, still addressing Jamie, asked:

“What do you play?”

Frank was about to answer when Jamie cut him, in a voice that was clear and categorical—something unusual in him:

“The drums. I play the drums.”

For a second, there was silence. Frank hadn’t seen Jamie’s face when he’d said he was a genius—no one had seen Jamie’s face, in fact, his shift in expression had been completely unwitnessed—but now, he was looking at him almost defiantly. After the initial surprise, Frank smiled and, for a fraction of a second, Jamie smiled too. Then, Frank said:

“The best, as I said.” Only after saying it did he felt a blush creeping up his neck and towards his face. He drank from his pint to hide the fact and to cool himself off, looking away at the distance.

“Thanks.”

That silence was there again, until the friend, thank god, intervened:

“So, when are you next playing?”

“Nothing’s planned yet,” Jamie answered as if words had started to come more easily to him. His voice was not exactly deep but low and, at the same time clear, assured. Frank moved back and said, looking at the friend but speaking to both:

“Well you, have a good one.”

He didn’t dare look back at them until he was quite far. A fair amount of people between them, his face felt cold again. He finished his beer.

 

Three weeks later
APRIL 2016

After that less-than-a-quarter-smile at the pub Jamie had given him, after his reclaiming the conversation with his clear low voice, Frank had started noticing Jamie wasn’t in fact as passive as he’d previously assumed. He nodded sometimes imperceptibly when he agreed with something someone said, and he clenched his jaw when he didn’t. Instead of juggling with the drumsticks or hitting the cymbals and drums between songs, like Frank had seen other drummers do, Jamie rubbed his drumsticks pensively with his thumb, completely unaware that he was doing it. Frank couldn’t stare at it for too long.

The first practice after the pub had been particularly tense, despite all the effort Frank had put into acting as if nothing had happened. He’d waited for Jamie to put away his things and to pack his backpack, so that they could leave the studio together as always. Also as always, they had walked in silence to Jamie’s halls, and then, near the end of their walk, Frank had heard himself say: Fancy a pint? and Jamie’d shrugged and they’d gone to a pub. For the next three weeks, they had gone to the pub after every practice, their conversation growing in intensity with each new visit.

The pub had also disclosed they had something other than music in common: they were both quite good at holding a stare.

Which was exactly what they were doing now at the pub, Frank taking too long to reply, and Jamie looking at him with his brows up, not pressing him for an answer but clearly awaiting one. The thought he’d been trying to put into words had got lost on its way to his lips, and now Frank just stared at Jamie with a too intense look in his eyes. All his concentration was put into not looking at Jamie’s lips, but still the thought eventually manifested, and he remembered what they had been talking about (autotune).

“It is cheating though.”

“How you figure?” It took Jamie a few seconds to gather his thoughts, too.

“Well, it’s not real.”

“It’s sound,” Jamie was almost smiling, which could be told not so much from the shape of his lips, but of his eyes, slightly crinkled at the sides, “if you hear it, it’s real, mate.”

Frank had to laugh there, a short, sonorous laugh.

“No, but really, is the sound of an acoustic bass more real than of an electric bass, then?”

“Oh, piss off. It’s not the same: you still play the notes,” Jamie just raised his eyebrows now, openly questioning him. Frank leaned towards him, gesturing with his empty hand, some of his smallest tattoos visible: a spade, the triangle that signified a Play button, the word ‘on’—with the rest of the sentence it belonged to hidden under his shirt. “I sort of get it when it’s used for effect, as a sort of embellishment. Though it’s not my thing.” He leaned back again.

“But as a pitch corrector? That’s—that’s—”

Jamie nodded, drinking his beer, and waiting to see with which word he’d come up.

“Hasn’t got any integrity,” concluded Frank.

“You’re not into immoral music, then?” that was the closest Jamie had ever been to teasing him, and, noticing it himself, he looked down at his feet.

“Aye, take the piss, that’s alright, mate.”

“I mean, I get you, but it’s an instrument,” Frank winced, and he corrected, “or a tool, alright. It’s sort of pretentious to be against its use in general.”

“Well, aren’t you?”

“Are you kidding?” Despite how much more openly Jamie looked at him right now compared to a few weeks ago, his posture was still a bit defensive. He talked and smiled as if they were friends but, unlike Frank, he never leaned forward or in his direction, never moved his hands or knees anywhere near him. He looked stiff, or he would’ve if Frank hadn’t grown used to see him like that. “I wouldn’t want to live in a world without Unfinished Sympathy, what, without Risingson and the entirety of Blue Lines?”

Frank was so taken aback, he just stared at Jamie in silence for a full second. For an incomprehensible reason, he felt suddenly hot, so he gulped down half of his beer.

“So, Massive Attack?”

“Best band there is,” Jamie shrugged, maybe too late aware of what he’d disclosed, but certain there was no backing down now, “in my opinion.”

As musicians, to reveal one’s favourite band wasn’t a small thing. Frank had mentioned many but had never stated his—which changed—and in fact, when he’d asked Jamie quite at the start of their walks together, Jamie’d answered: I like many bands. The knobhead. Now it turned out he did have a favourite band, and it was not what Frank had expected: both because it was too different from his favourite bands, and because he would’ve never guessed it from what he thought he knew about him (nothing, turned out). Of course, Frank considered his own taste, which only contemplated dirty hardcore guitar rock and post-punk, to be universal and objective.

“Wouldn’t have guessed it,” Frank admitted, “but I get it.”

“Another great band: Imagine Dragons,” Jamie wasn’t a kidder, so his cue for blushing would’ve been about now. What he instead did was look down at his lager to hide his grin.

“You wanker!” Frank said after a few seconds of stunned disbelief, and then roared with laughter. He pushed Jamie to one side, maybe leaving his hand on his arm for a bit longer than necessary, maybe clasping his bicep too deliberately. “You’re a fucking genius, you are, but I would’ve kicked you off the band mate, no question, just out.”

Now Jamie laughed openly, trying not to fall of his stool, in a way Frank had never seen. Although, yes—he had seen him laugh before, just maybe not at something he had said, at a joke only they had shared. Jamie half-covered his mouth with a hand for a second, but Frank was too agitated in general to react, despite how cute it was.

“I thought my heart was gonna stop.”

“You’re a right git.”

“You cannot joke about this,” Frank was smiling now, though, and had moved his hand back on the bar top. “Alright, then: Massive Attack. What else?”

After that night, the post-band practice pint became a habit, only postponed when Uni work intervened, and once that Frank had been down with a fever. He didn’t trust himself around Jamie with a temperature.

 

Two months later
JUNE 2016

Jamie hated how his brain had erased the details of the first time he’d met Frank. He'd forgotten the exact moment he'd crossed the door, that their eyes had first met. He could remember the first time he’d set eyes on Will, and maybe even Crawford. They'd been there for his first try outs with the band, and he remembered they’d seemed anxious, anxious to find a good drummer, to be done with the search already, and he had barely cared. That is, he had talked himself out of it so much—he didn’t have the time, he had already one job apart from Uni, he didn’t need more distractions—that the excitement over which he’d contacted Crawford on Facebook had mostly dissipated by then. And then he’d seen them, Crawford, who you could tell knew what he talked about, and Will, who gave him both hope at not being the only black guy and despair at having to concentrate around someone so despairingly handsome. Ultimately and unexpectedly, he got in: They shook his hand and told him to come back next Wednesday.

And that was when he’d met Frank. He must have been sitting by his drums already when Frank had arrived, he couldn’t tell. But wasn’t that what they did? Frank was always late, and Jamie was always sitting behind the drums. No, he did not remember the first time he’d laid eyes on him however much he tried—had he found him handsome? he wasn’t in any way remarkable: average height, on the scrawny side of thin, pale and tattooed—nor what exactly did he wear—though Frank always looked nice, like he always looked ready to go for a run—nor what he’d said—not even what he’d thought when he’d first heard his very Scottish accent. He did remember, though, how very intently Frank had been looking at him, distrust barely hidden in his eyes, and how much he’d wanted to prove himself because of it.

At today’s session, Crawford and Frank had been discussing on whether it was better to keep the song as it was, ending it after repeating the chorus two times (Crawford’s version) or to build it up again with their pre-chorus and then leave it there, hanging (Frank’s). They’d had many arguments of the sort in the past weeks, and Jamie mostly sided with Crawford, which was the reason he never voiced his opinion. This time, though, he’d thought Frank’s idea had some interest and, from behind the drums, he’d said:

“I think we could give it a go, after ‘door’ you go,” he did the chords on his drum, and then pointed at Will, “and he starts directly at ‘as high as—’” He stopped himself then, both because he couldn’t continue with Frank looking at him like that, and because Crawford had shrugged and already got on it.

After a few weeks, Frank’s look of wariness, of measured distrust, had been shifting towards something else. Jamie had noticed it and hadn’t minded, he had, in fact, given him some looks of his own when he believed himself unobserved. What had these looks shifted towards, though? It took him long enough to realise Frank was looking at him with interest: Interest in him musically, but also—well, one hoped.

And at one point, one knew.

Now they played it as Jamie had suggested, each focused on his instrument, and when he looked up it was to find Frank staring at him. He'd noticed sometimes his gaze dragging around his face, he’d noticed before how it lingered around his lips, and even lower, at his arms, and even lower. And this look was that now, but more intensely, or simply longer, or less contained. Frank was licking his lower lip, both hands on the bass, and was staring at Jamie as if he were something he really wanted. Jamie had the urge to look behind him, but no, Frank's dilated pupils were directed solely at him, whether he knew it or not. And he must have, mustn’t he? He must have known he was dying to shag Jamie, if not him, who else? Jamie resisted too the urge to look down at the drums, he felt a wave of courage invade him and, holding his vaguely-absent stare, smiled directly at him. He hadn't planned it, but the smile was a smirk. It didn't show his teeth, it went higher on one side than the other, and jumped to his eyes, which were shining. It was a knowing smirk. If Frank had been unaware of his own look, now he could no longer be. Jamie saw him realise what he was doing, the look that crossed his face and, then, how he looked away, as flushed as he'd ever seen him. Good.

 

One week later
JUNE 2016

Jamie remembered their first nights at the pub together with fondness for the person he had been then: still afraid to voice his opinion, that no-one would care, that he would mess it up and the fantasy would shatter; afraid that the only thing they liked about him were his skills at the drums. After that first night in March, they’d gone together to the pub after band practice, which normally meant every Wednesday, but sometimes meant two, three times a week, and sometimes meant not once for half a month. Those first nights had nothing to do with the present, with the past couple weeks, with the time they spent together now, both the four as a group and only the two of them as friends. To anyone, the change would’ve seemed gradual, and he was sure Frank would have hardly attributed the change to himself, or been able to pinpoint what had produced it, but Jamie could explain it in a simple, perfect, magic moment. They had been at the pub, the two of them, talking about some story Frank’d heard from a classmate regarding a somewhat mad teacher (by that point they knew everything about each other’s lives and friends, about their families, about their hopes for the band and their favourite songs—they talked about everything to each other except sex and romance) when a friend of Frank had approached them and Frank had introduced Jamie as his mate. The same thrill Jamie’d felt all these weeks ago when he’d introduced himself as “his bandmate” ran through his body, realising only at that moment that the same label now would’ve hurt him. His mate, then, his mate. Jamie had classmates here in Manchester, he had flatmates, had workmates and bandmates—but Frank was his mate.

And despite the Old Trafford-sized crush he had on Frank, being mates didn’t feel like settling. He was quite aware he liked Frank as more than a friend but had made peace with it, rather certain nothing would come of it. He didn’t dwell on his feelings much, just enough to be aware of them: both the attraction that was physical—Dear lord his deep-set green eyes and long bony tattooed hands, the bags under his eyes, Dear fucking lord his hard jaw-line and shaved head; Jamie dreamt about biting his earring and ear too—and the connection he felt to him—he enjoyed his prickly personality and harsh sense of humour; he saw his flaws and accepted them as if he were a kid or an old man, not as if they had to be corrected but as if they were his and unnegotiable.

He’d told himself Frank’s stares meant nothing, as Frank kept pretending that they didn’t happen and they continued to be friends. But then last week had happened, that blush, that long horny stare. Whatever that had been, Frank had felt the need to leave practice in a hurry “to meet some friends” instead of walking with him. And today was their last session before the holidays, before Jamie went home to London and they didn’t see each other for almost three months. The significance of this weighted heavily on Jamie’s shoulders, could be noticed in his walk, the way he played the drums that night.

Because, from the drums, Jamie had looked at Frank the whole time. Frank hadn’t looked back, not as if he had better things to do, but as if he were trying very hard not to, and so Jamie knew. That it wasn’t in his head, that he was not as crazy as to nurture a one-sided crush for so long for no reason, that something in him had known all along. He was still scared Frank would never admit it, to him or even to himself, but that was an altogether different kind of fear: The fear of something so long in his head becoming real. He’d played distractedly, messed up a few times, and, despite how concentrated Frank had looked, he had too. Crawford had talked, and Frank hadn’t even had the energy to contradict him, too focused on not looking at Jamie. Jamie had talked, wishing to get his attention, but Frank had only gazed at his direction, never quite meeting his eyes. Jamie had wanted him to look: to reassure himself this was real, and to reassure Frank that it was alright.

Now Crawford declared practice concluded and the lot of them useless, so they said their goodbyes and left gradually, Jamie the last one. When he got outside, Frank was waiting for him at the door, head just shaven that morning, his shirt rolled-up to the elbows (his ‘Pavlovian rude’ tattoo in sight, as well as some drawings of music notes, a dog, and a dead tree). He looked at him and Jamie looked back, neither daring to smile. The walk down, in silence, was reminiscent of the ones they’d shared half a year ago. As they approached the pub they normally went to, Frank asked, Fancy a pint? And Jamie said, Yes, although he didn’t. His stomach was shut, despite the dry throat, and Jamie played at wetting his lips and pretending to drink without finishing his pint. Frank was on his third, words barely had been uttered, and Jamie still couldn’t drink. He knew what this meant, he knew what was happening: Frank was building up his courage. The idea was both surreal and largely obvious. What else was there to do?

They left the pub after Frank’s fourth pint, still not drunk, though, and walked to Jamie’s halls like always. The moment was so charged the silence was unnoticeable, thick as words. It was dark, it was past ten at night, there was no-one in sight. Frank stared at Jamie in silence, unmoving, where they usually said goodbye. After what could’ve been some minutes, Frank started off with a: Well, see you next—and Jamie couldn’t handle it. Maybe it was Frank’s glowing eyes, maybe that he’d noticed how he had been looking at his lips, maybe that he felt protected by the night, by the drinks, maybe simply that he wanted it so much. Jamie moved toward Frank—who didn’t look away for even a second—and kissed him lightly on the lips. Unassumingly but certain, it didn’t pretend to be anything else than a kiss on the lips.

Frank didn’t move, he just stared. Jamie pulled away his hand, which had been hovering around Frank’s shoulders, and looked him in the eyes. Frank was too stunned to look away, so Jamie turned his back on him, neither apologising nor acknowledging the kiss.

He said: “Well, bye,” and left.

The day after that, it was Frank’s birthday.

 

Five weeks later
JULY 2016

Frank’s head had needed almost a month to wrap up around the idea that Jamie had kissed him—and that that meant that he liked him, that Jamie liked him, romantically, or sexually, or whatever. It took him a few more days to realise that, maybe, it would be alright to try and figure out what he’d felt about it. The first clue to that was in the way his body had reacted: by becoming petrified. He’d felt heavier than ever, no other way to put it, his whole body had felt immense, and heavy, but also detached from him. Afterwards, he’d wanted to puke, and yet, at one point he would have to admit, he’d been hard. And now, when he though about it, the feeling was not exactly pleasurable, but also not the opposite. It rose up on his body, but he shut it before it got to anything classifiable, identifiable. Why? He couldn’t help it.

After more than a week, each day letting the feeling become more and more material, he felt it creeping up, that sensation, that feeling, and instead of shutting it, he let it grow: from his stomach, to the tip of his fingers, his arm hair; he let it rise to his face, blushing it, and to his chest, accelerating his heart rate.

Well, fuck.