There’s something strange, John decides, about a band rehearsing with no shows lined up. It’s been ages since their last gig, with no new ones yet on the horizon, but they meet every week without fail in the old practice room at Imperial College, as if they’re still just a student band and not nearly-signed to a label with an album already recorded.
Or maybe that’s the real oddity of their current situation. They finished recording their album months ago but it has yet to see the light of day. They’ve signed a preliminary deal with Trident but until they have a record company willing to release the album there’s little more that they can do except wait.
Queen is stagnating, though John knows better than to say as much aloud. They can’t do a proper tour without an album to promote, so they still work the same uni circuit with the same songs that they’ve performed countless times already. Brian and Roger have been playing Doing All Right for nearly five years now, and John wonders which will be retired first: the song or Queen herself.
The others have started writing new material and it all sounds good so far, but nothing can get recorded until their first album is released. And no one will release their album unless they have a sizeable following, but Queen can’t book larger venues without a record deal to prove their validity, and the whole damn process is so circular that John is beginning to see why so few bands actually seem to make it.
If the others are feeling as adrift in all this as John in, they don’t show it. Roger and Freddie are as dedicated as ever, scraping a living with their stall and saving money by sharing a flat, and Brian still has his thesis to occupy his spare time. The three of them are seemingly unchanged, unphased, unworried about anything, and John has to wonder how they do it when every day he finds himself more and more unsure about where this is all going.
A loud, discordant twang interrupts their playing - and John’s thoughts - and John doesn’t have to look over at Brian to know that he’s caught a string wrong on the edge of his sixpence and broken it.
“Shit. Sorry, sorry, just give me a moment…” Brian mutters, already unplugging his guitar and hurrying over to grab a new string.
Freddie waves off his apology, unbothered by the disruption. “No rush, darling, we’ll just take it from the top when you’re ready.”
“Actually, I have class soon. I’d better get going,” John says as he catches sight of the time. He’s been with Queen for two years and it still feels awkward having to duck out of practice like this, especially now that he’s the last one attending regular classes instead of whatever erratic schedule Brian has adopted with his thesis work.
“Perfect. I think if I had to play for one more minute my arms were going to fall off.” Roger grins at John as he stands from behind his kit, stretching out his arms and back with an exaggerated groan.
“John, do you have a second before you leave?” Freddie asks, ignoring Roger’s theatrics. “We need to discuss our schedules so we can start booking shows again.”
“Fucking finally!” Roger says loudly, his eyes shining bright with excitement of the prospect of performing live again. “Listen, I know a guy, he can get us something for next week-”
“Take it easy, Blondie,” Freddie says with a laugh. “Just because you have no prior obligations doesn’t mean our schedules are free.”
“Our schedules?” Roger echoes. “Don’t try to lump yourself with Brian and John, I know what your fucking calendar looks like, Fred!”
“I have exams starting in a few weeks,” John cuts in before Roger and Freddie can continue their friendly bickering. “If we can keep the shows local…”
“We don’t have to schedule anything at all until the semester is done.” Brian looks up from his guitar and asks, “You’re graduating soon, aren’t you?”
John nods, though his stomach rolls with anxiety at the reminder that the end of his university career is approaching at a frankly terrifying speed. “Yeah, in June.”
Out of the corner of his eye he sees Freddie scribble down a note on a scrap of paper. It’s the only chance the singer has of remembering anything, but John isn’t optimistic that he’ll manage to keep track of the paper at all.
“We’ll have to throw you a proper celebration next month then,” Freddie says, and John has no doubt that he fully intends to do just that. “What about after you graduate, though? Any plans for the rest of the summer?”
That’s the question that John has been trying to answer for most of the semester so far, but he’s still no closer to figuring out what his next steps should be. “Nothing yet, no,” John says as he busies himself with packing away his bass, rather than looking at the others.
“Perfect,” Freddie says. That is definitely not the adjective John would have used, but he doesn’t feel moved to offer any alternatives. “Brian? What about you, any plans?”
There’s a beat of silence in the practice room after that curt response, noticeable enough that John looks up and glances over at Brian. He’s still fiddling with his guitar, though the new string is already in place, and he radiates a discomfort that can almost be physically felt.
John’s curiosity is piqued and he’s apparently not alone, because Freddie keeps pressing the issue. “What about for your thesis? Don’t you have to go back to Tenerife or something?”
“No. I’m, ah-” Brian shifts and finally looks up, locking eyes with Freddie. John watches as some silent conversation takes place between them, something that he can’t quite figure out even after two years of knowing them.
Still, it must somehow reassure Brian because after several long moments he sighs and says, “My thesis advisor recommended that I stay in England this year. He thinks I have enough research already, and that I should take the summer to either make substantial progress on writing my thesis or… or figure out where my priorities actually lie.”
“What does that mean?” Freddie asks.
It’s Roger who answers the question first. “It means he’s thinking of giving up on his thesis.”
“Not giving up, just…” Brian huffs, looking for the right explanation. “I’m already focusing more on the band anyway, and when the album is released we’ll have to do a proper tour to promote it so I’ll have even less time for my studies. It may be better for me to get my research in order and, well, set it aside for now.”
That sounds like giving up to John, and it’s the last thing he ever expected to hear Brian say. He feels a little like his world has been turned upside and he realizes, with a slow, sinking feeling growing in the pit of his stomach, that this might make him the last member of Queen to have reservations about their future together as a band.
“I haven’t decided anything yet, obviously,” Brian continues, unaware that John feels suddenly lost in both this conversation and this group. “But it is something that I’m thinking about.”
“Well, I think taking the summer to consider your options sounds like a wonderful idea,” Freddie says, his voice both bright and firm enough to leave no room for one of Brian’s darker moods to creep in. “We’ll just schedule a few shows here and there to get back into the swing of things and give you time to think things over. Does that sound good to everyone?”
Brian just nods, and Roger says, “Yeah, that sounds fine. Doesn’t make much sense to do a larger tour while most people are off on summer holidays anyway, and with any luck the album will be out by the time the fall semester starts up.”
For a moment John can’t find his voice, struck senseless by the feeling of being an outsider in this band long after he managed to carve out a niche for himself. Only this time he doesn’t feel alone because he’s the newcomer, but because he’s seemingly the only one who can see how ridiculous it sounds to be discussing a possible tour for an album that’s been sitting untouched for over six months now and shows no signs of getting released any time soon.
“Fine by me,” John forces himself to say, because it’s the expected response and it’s easier than trying to break down his maelstrom of emotions into something the others would be able to understand. “But I’ve really got to run now, so…”
The others wave him off with a flurry of goodbyes, and John ducks quickly out of the building and into the bright afternoon light. He takes a deep breath and exhales shakily, and realizes almost as an afterthought that his whole body is trembling with the lingering anxiety from the conversation that just happened.
He fumbles for his pack of cigarettes and, after several failed attempts to get one lit, he ducks around the corner of the building to get out of the wind. The rush of nicotine eventually calms the tremors but it does nothing to quiet his thoughts, and he lights another cigarette after finishing his first even though he knows it won’t help like he needs it to.
The only thing that will help is to finally decide what to do about his future, but the choice isn’t as simple as choosing between Queen and starting a professional career. It’s choosing between his friends and his music, and something foreign and unknown. It’s choosing between an assurance of security and stability, and a band that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere at all.
He loves Queen with all his heart, but that doesn’t drown out the voice that tells him to be practical here. He wishes it could. He wishes that he could have the confidence in Queen that the others all seem to have, that Brian has somehow managed to finally find… but he doesn’t. And he thinks he hates himself a little bit for that.
“John?” It’s Roger, holding his own pack of cigarettes in his hand, and giving John a look of understandable confusion. “I thought you had class?”
“I do- I did.” John flicks away his cigarette butt and, after a split-second of consideration, lights a third one. “I think I might be skipping today.”
“Huh. That’s a bit unusual for you, isn’t it?” Roger lights his own cigarette and takes a long drag. “You’ve always been more like Brian, taking your classes seriously and all,” he adds.
“Yeah, well, Brian’s apparently not taking things too seriously anymore himself,” John mutters.
Roger gives him a sideways glance. “Is that what’s got you all out of sorts? That Brian’s thinking of quitting his thesis?”
“Who says I’m out of sorts?” John knows that the deflection won’t work with Roger, but he still has to try it anyway.
“You’re out here chain-smoking and dodging class,” Roger says. “If that doesn’t scream “out of sorts” for you then I don’t know what does.”
John shrugs, noncommittal, and ignores Roger’s huff when he realizes that he’ll have to wait for an explanation. It’s not that John doesn’t want to talk about this; truthfully, he thinks it’ll do him some good to finally get this off his chest. But he’s kept this to himself for so long now that finding the right words is unexpectedly difficult.
“Brian said he’ll have to quit his studies to tour when the album gets released. Not if it does, but when,” John says at last. He knows that there has to be a better way to start this conversation, but Brian’s words are still fresh in John’s mind and this is the only place he can think of to begin.
“So what? Is it a crime for him to finally have a bit of optimism?” Roger asks.
“No, of course not,” John says, rolling his eyes at Roger’s flair for the dramatic. “It’s just, I’m not sure that I feel the same.”
“Oh.” John knows that Roger has more to say on the matter than just that, and sure enough after a moment he launches into an impassioned - though rather predictable - speech. “I know it’s been slow going these last few months, but the album’s going to be picked up sooner or later! It’s good stuff, you know it is, it’s just a matter of finding the right record company to work with to get it released. You’ve just got to be patient-”
“I have been patient,” John interrupts. “I’ve been patient for the last six months, and it was fine while I was in uni and when I wasn’t the only one still studying. But now Brian’s thinking of quitting his thesis and I’m… I don’t know that I’m as committed as you lot are. All I know is that I’m graduating next month, and I can’t keep my life on hold forever while Queen still waits for her big break.”
Roger isn’t an idiot and he immediately reads between the lines of what John is saying, just like John knew he would. “You’re thinking of leaving the band.”
John finishes his cigarette, and wonders if it would be overkill to light a fourth. Probably, he decides, so he shoves his hands in his pockets instead and leans against the side of the building, near Roger but not quite looking at him as he says, “Thinking of it, yeah. But I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
“Don’t do it.”
John snorts. “That’s easy for you to say. If Queen fails, you’ll just form another group. Music’s in your blood, Rog. I’m not sure it’s in mine.”
“That’s bullshit,” Roger snaps, almost properly angry now. John had been wondering how long it would take for Roger’s temper to flare up, and the answer apparently was not very long at all. “You’re one of the best fucking bassists I’ve ever met.”
“You’re just saying that because you don’t want to hold auditions again.” And because I don’t get in the way of you three at all, he thinks, though he knows that’s unfair. Maybe at the beginning he was only valued for being quiet and easy-going but that’s not the case anymore.
Maybe if it was, it would be easier for John to walk away.
“No. Well- yes, I really don’t want to audition for a new bassist,” Roger says, and John finds himself smiling despite himself. “But… fuck, Deacy, you’re excellent. I’ve played with enough bassists over the years, heard even more of ‘em try to play, and you are miles above any of them. I don’t know what it is but you just get it. Whenever you decide to stop playing the world will be much worse off for it. So don’t stop now, when you still have so much you can do.”
The sincere compliment catches John off-guard. It’s not that he doesn’t know he’s talented - he’s self-aware enough to know that he’s good, and though Queen strives for perfection they’re all generous with their praise when things are going well. But this is different than a quiet, “Nicely done, John,” from Brian or an effusive, “Wonderful sound, Deacy, simply perfect!” from Freddie - and, truthfully, John doesn’t know how to respond to it.
So he doesn’t, choosing instead of focusing only on the last bit of what Roger said. “It’s not that simple, Rog. Most of the jobs for new graduates start over the summer, and I can’t very well take a full-time position and still play with Queen. I’d have to give the band up.”
Roger flicks away his cigarette butt and lights another. “So don’t take a full-time position then.”
“I have to earn a living somehow, and it’s not like we’re getting rich with Queen any time soon,” John points out. It’s blunt, and maybe a bit harsh, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
“You can come work at the stall with me and Freddie.”
That startles a laugh out of John, and his steadily growing frustration at Roger’s stubbornness almost immediately vanishes. “That place barely rakes in enough money to support you two! And besides, I’m not much of a salesman.”
“And you think Freddie is? He just pesters people until they agree to buy something just to shut him up.” Roger grins at him and John smiles back, though it takes more effort than it normally would. Roger has always been able to brighten John’s mood, no matter the circumstances, but it’s hard for John to muster up any sincere happiness when he finds himself wondering if this friendship could survive John leaving the band.
The conversation comes to a comfortable halt after that, and John is a little surprised to find that there’s no tension or awkwardness in the silence he shares with Roger. Most of John’s earlier anxiety is gone, vanished now that he’s shared his dilemma with someone else, and he finds that he’s content to lean against the building, watching the smoke from Roger’s cigarette trail off into the late afternoon sky, and wait for his friend to say something again.
After a few minutes Roger sighs and finally breaks the silence. “Listen, John, I’m gonna be honest with you here. This worrying about needing a “proper job”... I don’t get it. I don’t understand it with Brian and I don’t understand it with you, because you were right - music is all I want to do. The only thing I learned at uni was that I’m not built to be a scientist… but I guess you are. And if you want to take off and become an electrical engineer, well, I’d get it. Queen won’t be the same without you, but I suppose if you’re determined then we can’t exactly stop you.”
“Is this supposed to be convincing me to stay?” John asks, a bit quiet, because he thinks he needs that right now. He needs Roger to give him a reason to stay, something that he can’t refute with logic and reason, something he can cling to as he heads towards his graduation and that uncertain future beyond.
“I don’t know that I can convince you,” Roger says, and the honesty hurts a little to hear. “All I know is that Queen will succeed. I know we will, but I can’t explain how or why I know that. It’s just a gut feeling I have, and maybe I’m naive for clinging to that despite how rough the last few months have been... but it’s all I have. And it’s all I can offer you.”
He scuffs out his half-finished cigarette on the brick of the building and pockets it as he turns to face John properly. “You don’t have to leave, not yet anyway. Give us the summer, same as Brian is. Get a seasonal job to tide you over, and if September rolls around and you still want to stop… Well, I’m sure there’ll still be places hiring electrical engineers then.”
“And what do you think can happen in the next three months, that hasn’t happened in the last six?” John asks, still skeptical, still hesitant, still afraid of choosing the wrong path and having to live with that regret for the rest of his life.
But Roger just smiles at him, easy and bright, and says, “Anything can happen. That’s the whole point.”
He’s not begging. There’s no desperation in his voice, none of his earlier anger coming through, his flair for the dramatic set aside for the moment. Roger is just sincere - sincere in his wish for John to stay and his understanding if he chooses not to, and sincere in his belief that Queen will succeed. Despite the odds, despite the setbacks, despite the stagnation of the last few months, Roger sincerely believes that they can make this work.
John still doesn’t know if he’s capable of that same level of optimism, but he does know Roger and he knows that he’s not a stupid man. And if Roger thinks that Queen is worth risking everything for… maybe that can count for something.
“Just the summer, then?” John asks, after thinking it over for a few moments.
Roger’s smile widens a little. “Just the summer,” he confirms. “Besides, you’ve sunk two years into this band already. What’s the harm in a few more months at this point?”
John had more or less just told Roger what the harm could be, but now for the first time in what feels like weeks he pushes those thoughts aside. He doesn’t need to consider those possibilities right now. He doesn’t have to consider anything right now if he doesn’t want to, and the relief he feels is almost dizzying in its intensity.
“Yeah, okay. You’ve got me for the summer,” John says, but the second half of his response is lost as Roger lets out a loud whoop of excitement and throws his arms around John, nearly barreling him over with the force of the hug.
“Oh thank fuck, I did not want to tell Freddie and Brian that we lost the best bassist in England today!” Roger says. He plants a messy kiss on John’s cheek and adds, “You won’t regret this Deacs, I promise!”
“I think I already do,” John jokes as he pushes Roger away, but he’s laughing brightly and smiling so wide that his face almost aches with it.
Roger just laughs and throws one arm back around John’s shoulder in a much more casual embrace, and John lets him leave it there without complaint. “Nah, you love me, I know you do. And - hey, since you skipped class and all, wanna go out for drinks? I’m supposed to be meeting Brian and Freddie down at the pub, you should join us.”
John considers it, just briefly, before shrugging and agreeing, “Yeah, alright. Why not?”
It’s the middle of the week and John should be in class, but right now this feels more important. Maybe Queen won’t go anywhere, and at the end of the summer John will finally say goodbye - but they’re here now, and maybe for tonight John can let that be enough.
Eleven months later…
John keeps glancing out the window of the plane, though there’s little to see except the clouds around them, and the occasional glimpse of the ocean far below. This isn’t his first international flight, or even his first international flight with Queen, but he’s still filled with a wondrous sort of excitement because in just a few days they’re going to be playing in America.
John’s whole body is suddenly rocked as someone enthusiastically throws themselves into the too-small airplane seat next to him, and a moment later Roger is practically draped over John’s shoulder as he peers out the window as well. “Anything good out there?” he asks, his face so close to John’s that he can feel Roger’s breath hot against his cheek.
John pushes him away, and back into the other seat. “Brian won’t be pleased when he comes back from the toilet and has to fight you to get his seat back," he says instead of answering the question.
“Freddie’s already distracted Brian with some new song he’s working on and given my seat to him, so you’re stuck with me now,” Roger explains.
“Oh no, anything but that,” John says, dryly, just because he knows it’ll make Roger laugh.
It does, and Roger chuckles as he stretches out and settles down in his new seat. “You excited for the tour?”
“I am,” John says. “I’d ask if you were too, but I already know the answer." Roger hasn’t shut up about touring America ever since Mott the Hoople first extended the offer months ago.
“Can you blame me? It’s America! We’ve finally made it, John, this is it!”
“Yeah,” John says, quiet and thoughtful. “We have made it, haven’t we?”
Roger’s bright smile softens a bit and he rocks his shoulder gently into John’s. “Hey, I told you we would, didn’t I?”
“You did,” John agrees. “But still…”
Still, it hadn’t been easy. Despite initially promising Roger that he’d stick around for the summer John had still nearly walked away after his graduation in June - and then again in September, when they were still struggling to get any traction despite their first album finally getting released in July. He had taken a leap of faith and agreed to the UK tour and he’s glad he did because that’s when things started to pick up speed - slowly at first, and then so rapidly that it still makes John’s head spin to think about it.
They’ve toured the UK twice now. Performed in Australia. Recorded and released a second album. And now they’re going to America, with plans for a third album lined up for their return.
“I know,” Roger says, and he does because he was there. He was there for the shows that flopped, and the negative press reviews, and the long nights of driving with no sleep and little food, cramped quarters in an ancient van and motel rooms where they slept four to a bed because the couch was too small and they weren’t going to make anyone take the floor.
He was there, and so was Freddie, and so was Brian - somehow they’ve all come through the other side. Things aren’t perfect or even necessarily easy now, but John can finally look towards the future and see a bright light shining through.
“Thank you,” he says to Roger. “For not letting me walk away, I mean.” A year ago he couldn’t believe that his life would turn out like this and now he can’t even begin to imagine what his life would be like if he had left Queen. Maybe a bit more stable, with a bit more money, but certainly not richer. Not without the warmth of his friends and their music in his life.
But Roger just brushes aside his thanks as if it was nothing, when in John’s eyes it’s very nearly everything. “Like I said back then, I wouldn’t have blamed you if you did leave.” And he grins at John and adds, “But I’m glad you didn’t.”
“Yeah. So am I,” John says.
He glances out the window again, at the unchanging expanse of clouds and sky, and he’s so grateful to be here - in this band, on this plane, with Roger at his side and the whole world at their feet. He knows now that he belongs with Queen, and losing this, losing his friends, is an impossibility that he hopes he’ll never have to face again.