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Good Times (Better Times)

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- - -

Sheltered inside the public telephone call box from the freezing wind carrying drizzling rain, Freddie pressed the cold plastic receiver closer to his ear, chewing on his thumb nail as he waited for his mother or Kash to pick up.

But it was his father who did.

Of course it was.

"Bulsara?"

Suppressing a sigh, Freddie rolled his eyes as he dropped his hand to the telephone cord, twisting his fingers around as he spoke.

"Papa. It's me."

"Who is it?" he could hear his mother call in the background, over the muffled sounds of the television set.

"Farrokh." his father replied. Freddie gave a quiet huff, but wasn't going to waste his spare change on an argument.

"I'm just calling to-"

"Where are you?" His father spoke over him, a clear note of suspicion mingled with disapproval in his voice. "You're missing dinner."

"I won't be home for dinner," said Freddie, and followed it up with a quiet: "Tell mum I'm sorry."

"Are you going out again?" Disapproval had taken over, the suspicion confirmed.

"I'm meeting some friends," Freddie raked his teeth over his bottom lip, gazing at the spray of rain covering the glass panels of the telephone box. "At the pub."

There was a long pause. Freddie drummed his fingers on top of the telephone, shifting restlessly. "Alright, so-"

"And those friends," And there it was. "are they graduating in a few months as well?"

"Papa..."

"Do they have dissertations to write? You know, when I was your age..."

Gazing back out at the dark, rainy street, Freddie tried to make out the small group of Ealing students huddling under the railroad bridge, smoking and making conversation. Was that Tim, next to Maude? He hadn't left already, had he?

"...worried about you, Freddie."

At the sound of his name, Freddie's attention snapped back to his father's voice. He sounded kinder now, concerned, and yet Freddie couldn't help but think that his name - the one he had chosen, not the one he had been given - never rolled smoothly over his father's lips. A hint of unwillingness always remained, as though saying it left an unpleasant aftertaste in his father's mouth.
Still, the ever present sense of guilt rose to the fore, stealing away some of the spark of determination Freddie had felt only a moment ago and dragging his spirits down with it.

"I know," he sighed, the students under the railroad bridge still just in his line of sight, "Please don't worry. I won't be home late, you can tell mum to leave dinner out for me. But I really have to go now."

"Freddie."

"Yes?"

"Kadwo limbdo ane kadwa ena beej, beej wavta meetha na thaye."
(As you sow so shall you reap.)

"Yes," Freddie glanced at his friends momentarily. It looked as though a couple of people were heading off. "I know. Goodbye, papa."

He went to hang up the receiver as soon as he had spoken the words, his father's 'goodbye' a tinny echo before the call cut off. Freddie quickly pressed the 'B' button, fished out his change and pushed the door of the telephone box open, squinting against the fine spray of rain as he stepped outside.

Only Tim, Chris and Paul and his girlfriend were left when he returned to the small group, taking the last few steps at a run to shelter from the rain.

"Oh," Chris turned to him, raising his eyebrows, "Where did you spring from, Fred? Thought you'd gone."

"I was just... making a phone call," Freddie nodded in the direction of the telephone box and ran a hand through his hair, trying to smooth over the frizzy, damp strands. "Did the others head home?"

"They did, they did. Just now." Paul nodded, exchanging a look with his new bird while he took a last drag from his cigarette. "We're gonna head off, too, actually."

"Yeah, me too." sighed Chris.

"Oh..." There was a cold gust of wind and Freddie pulled his jacket tighter around himself. "I thought we were going for a drink."

"We were," said Chris, "but Mel and the rest have their group project to finish, don't they, and Tim's meeting his band mates, so..."

"Right."

Freddie tried not to look as disappointed as he felt that an evening which he had very much been looking forward to, of talking about college, life and music, was suddenly falling through.
However, then something else Chris had said gave him pause and his eyes wandered to Tim.

Bandmates?

It was with a vested interest, and not a small amount of envy, that Freddie had been following Tim's musical ambitions. For the last week, they had been hearing all about his band's recent gig at the Royal Albert Hall, which was in actual fact quite an impressive venue to play for a student band. Apparently their performance had even been recorded on camera.

"Are you rehearsing tonight?" Freddie asked, pursing his lips over his teeth. "With your band?"

"Er, no, actually," replied Tim, "I'm just meeting them for a drink in Kensington. Why?"

"Well, I haven't heard you play yet." Freddie gave a little nonchalant shrug, wondering what the chances were that he might be able to invite himself along somehow. Tim was a friend, but he wasn't a close friend. He was, however, the only person with connections to the music industry Freddie knew, and maybe, if Tim liked him well enough...

"You can always come to our next gig." Tim offered, which wasn't quite the response Freddie had hoped for, he realised with a small pang of disappointment. In all honesty, he wasn't sure what he was hoping for, but he knew he was keen to meet the other members of Tim's band. Who knew what sort of connections they might have?

"I most definitely will, dear," he told him, eyeing Tim with interest, "it looks like you're going places."

"He says, completely devoid of jealousy." Chris, who was watching him, teased with a grin.

Everyone laughed. Freddie raised an eyebrow, a tight-lipped smile on his face, and covered the jab he felt at being called out with exuberant, feigned confidence.

"Oh, I'm not jealous at all, Christopher." Lifting his chin up a little, he propped one hand up on his waist, wrapping his fingers around the shoulder strap of his satchel. "I'll be a pop star before you know it, just you watch, darling."

More chuckles followed and Chris patted him on the shoulder. "Can't wait, Fred! Can't wait. But I really gotta go now."

"Yeah, us too..."

As Paul and Chris said their goodbyes, Freddie was hesitant to do the same.

"Bye, Fred, see you soon! On Top of the Pops, eh?" laughed Paul, waving as he walked off hand in hand with his girlfriend.

"Yeah!" Walking just behind them, Chris also turned back, throwing them a peace sign. "See you on the telly, Freddie baby!"

"I'll blow you a kiss!" Freddie called after him and gave him a little wave. It was always better to laugh at yourself when others laughed at you, he had learned that lesson a long time ago. It robbed people of their ammunition. Most of the time.

His college friends' laughter faded as they walked away.

"Alright, well..." Tim shuffled, glancing towards the tube station. "You off home as well then?"

"I suppose." Freddie sighed, but made no attempt to leave. "Shame, really..." he added, cautiously holding Tim's gaze. "I was quite looking forward to a drink."

Come on. Come on...

"Well, I mean..." said Tim, raising his eyebrows, and Freddie had to bite back a triumphant smile that immediately tried to fight its way onto his face. Yes! "Do you fancy coming with? To Kensington?"

Freddie allowed himself to smile then as he secretly congratulated himself on his subtle tactics of persuasion.
Just like that, his night had gone from disappointing to potentially more interesting than he had originally anticipated.

"Sounds good to me," he said.

Despite the weather, Kensington High Street was as crowded as always, a sea of black umbrellas and people hurrying down the street. Freddie absolutely adored this part of town, even in the rain. It had so much flair. Not only did it have the most fashionable boutiques in all of London but it was also home to Kensington Market, an indoor market which made him feel vaguely nostalgic for the bustling markets he had often visited back in Bombay, growing up. And at the same time, it really wasn't like that at all. Because it didn't have chickens on the loose, it lacked the scent of spice and kettle and there were no vendors loudly shouting about their wares to attract customers.

It was better than that.

Wandering between the little shops and stalls was like a treasure hunt. Art, antiques and the latest fashion were all par for the course. It was a colourful, creative melting pot of classic gems and new trends. Even the people who shopped there were a sight to behold. Young, hip students and artists, dressed boldly and outrageously. Freddie would have given everything to be one of them. To draw looks of awe and admiration from passerbys, to stand out in the crowd because he had that je ne sais quoi no one else possessed.

Unfortunately, he had neither the looks nor the finances for it, and he didn't even want to begin to imagine what his parents might say if he left the house dressed the way he sometimes envisioned himself when he was leafing through magazines.
First things first, he really had to move back out of his parents' house. And he knew exactly where he would be moving to this time, Freddie thought, smiling to himself as he followed Tim into a smaller road off of the high street.

"Here we are," announced Tim, pointing to a pub on the corner. It was painted light blue and the golden lettering on a dark wooden sign above the door read: The Kensington.

They stepped inside, greeted by pleasant warmth after the icy winds which had chilled their hands and faces outside, the smell of pub dinner hanging in the air and the faint sound of rock n' roll music drifting over the chatter of the crowd. Cream's White Room was playing, Freddie realised after a moment.

"I've never been here before." He looked around, taking it all in. It wasn't one of those old-fashioned pubs, all ugly carpet flooring and dark, grimy wood. The walls and decorations were colourful and modern, and the crowd gathered here wasn't middle aged on average.

"I like it."

"Yeah," Tim was taking off his scarf and shook out his hair. "Good, isn't it? We discovered it a while back and it's sort of our regular hangout now. Oh, there they are. Hey!"

Freddie turned back to Tim and followed his gaze to a table occupied by two blokes who were waving back at him and smiling. As Freddie followed Tim over, he tried to recall everything he had been told, which wasn't much. One of them, Tim had mentioned, was studying Astrophysics at Imperial College and was an old friend. Brian was his name and apparently he loved Hendrix, which Freddie had made a note of immediately as a good topic of conversation, seeing as he adored Jimi Hendrix, too. Brian and Tim had been in a different band together before Smile, while the drummer was a new addition they had only met in autumn last year. Tim hadn't really said much about him.

"Hey!" One of the blokes got to his feet and leaned in to give Tim a half hug, patting him on the back. He was tall and very skinny, his hair a mess of dark curls, framing his angular face. "Oh gosh, is it still raining out there?"

"Oh yes, dreadful weather," Tim said curtly and gestured to Freddie, "This is Freddie, a friend from college."

"Nice to meet you." The tall bloke greeted him with a friendly smile, holding out his hand. "I'm Brian."

"Nice to meet you." Freddie shook his hand and glanced over at the other young man, still sitting at the table, smoking a cigarette.

"How d'you do," he said, breaking into a slightly lop-sided smile as he tucked the cigarette between his lips and lifted himself up a bit, stretching his arm across the table to also shake hands with Freddie. "Roger."

"Nice to meet you. Freddie."

This was their drummer then, Freddie thought, running his fingers through his hair to untangle it a little, his eyes still lingering on Roger. He had quite an extraordinary look about him, Freddie found himself thinking. It wasn't so much that he looked really quite young, although he did, perhaps even more so due to his large, bright blue eyes. But he was just genuinely very striking. His dark blond hair hung down to his jaw, his features symmetrical and quite delicate, almost effeminate. Yet, at the same time, the energy he exuded was anything but.

"Freddie?"

"Huh?" Freddie quickly turned back to Tim, who had laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'll get the first round, what do you want?"

"I'll... have a lager and lime, thank you, dear." In truth, Freddie didn't much care for beer but he had spotted the pints on the table and didn't want to seem like the odd one out immediately upon arrival.

"Bri? Rog?"

"I'm alright, thanks."

"Yeah, don't worry, still good." Roger raised his glass demonstratively and took a large swig, the cigarette held between two fingers of the same hand. Freddie wondered how old he was.

"So, Freddie. You're studying art as well then?" asked Brian.

"I... yes, that's... I do. I am." Eyes returning to the curly-haired man as he took off his coat and hung it on the only remaining unclaimed chair, Freddie sat down beside Roger and pulled his lips over his teeth. He wanted to mention that he was also very interested in music, however. Making music, more specifically. That he played the piano. That he'd written songs and that the one thing he really, truly wanted to do was sing them. But as always, left alone with strangers, Freddie found himself tongue-tied, the words refusing to form in his mouth, as his mind was far too preoccupied with wondering what they made of him. Whether they had noticed his teeth - of course they had, how could they not have - if they were wondering where he was really from, if they wished Tim hadn't brought him along at all. Freddie lowered his eyes and scratched the tip of his nose, wishing that he had gone to get the drinks instead.

"What kind of art?" Roger asked, exhaling a plume of smoke while he stubbed the cigarette out in the ash tray.

"Hm?" Looking up, Freddie met his eyes briefly and looked away again, licking his lips which were cracked from the cold. "Oh, art and... graphic design."

"Cool."

"I'll be done soon," Freddie told the coaster on the table in front of him, running his fingers along its edges before he picked it up, turning it over a few times in his hand. "It's my last year."

"Oh really," Matching his appearance, Roger had a very pleasant voice, Freddie noted. Melodious, a little high in pitch and slightly breathy at the same time. "What's next for you then? Any exciting plans?"

'Yes. Sing. Form my own band. Make a living selling my artwork at the market until we become famous. Because we will. Because I'm going to be famous, one day.'

Freddie glanced up. Roger was waiting for his reply, eyebrows raised.

"A few," he murmured, and was infinitely relieved when Tim returned to the table with two pints in hand half a minute later.

- - -

Life was brilliant, and it was getting better all the time. Roger felt like he had been on a perpetual, natural high for the entire week since the Royal Albert Hall. Joining another band hadn't really been the plan when he'd moved to London, at first.

Studying dentistry had been the plan. A proper job, as his father always said. Dentistry. Good money in that. Not as much work as medical school either, Roger figured. Much as he knew that his mother would've just loved having a doctor in the family. 'Dentists are doctors too, mum!' He'd argued. But as he was increasingly coming to realise, his interest in actually becoming one was fading with every passing day at college and every boring lecture he had to sit through, doodling stylised versions of his name and unflattering cartoons of the lecturers instead of taking notes.

While the social aspect of it was fun and all, college itself was a real drag. Roger really wasn't sure how he was going to make it to the end of term, and loved the idea of going through even more years of this about as much as he loved the thought of a root canal without anesthesia. But right now, he wasn't spending a lot of time thinking about that because life outside of college was too exciting.

The whole not joining a band thing hadn't lasted very long. Of course it hadn't. How could it, when it felt like music was the driving force of his life? He'd lived and breathed rock n' roll music since he'd run down to the shop aged eleven, finally having scraped together enough of his pocket money to buy his first rock n' roll 45.

And of course, he'd managed to find the best lads ever to form a band with. That was just an objective truth now, given how quickly and obviously they were headed for success.

Well, Brian was definitely the best. Bloody brilliant on the guitar, he was. And in general, really, even though he was a bit of a boffin. But he wasn't a square and although he could be a right pain in the arse sometimes, always over-thinking and over-analysing things, when it came to music, he and Roger had clicked from the word go. Tim was also a great bloke. Of course, Brian and Tim had been good friends and had played in a band together for a long time before Roger had come along, so it was hard not to feel a bit side-lined sometimes. Especially since he was younger than both of them and occasionally, to Roger's annoyance, they treated him that way, too. But on the whole, Roger couldn't have been happier to be part of Smile, because they were going places. And so he spent his days at college fantasising about the heights of success they could reach and his evenings making music or going round Kensington or Soho with friends. Having a laugh and chatting up girls, especially now that he was officially unattached. Again.

Tonight was a quiet one, though. Just drinks with his bandmates at their favourite pub. Tim, however, had brought a friend along. It wasn't that Roger minded, he loved meeting new people. But Christ, this bloke was such a typical art student. Not that Roger really knew a whole lot of art students, apart from Tim, but he imagined this was probably what they were like.

The young man sitting beside him was the very definition of dark and mysterious, in looks as well as demeanor. Leaning back in his chair and observing everyone as if he was sitting behind a smoke screen. Sipping his pint slowly, all vague one-word answers, if he indeed deigned to speak, lips pursed in a perpetual sort of pout. To be fair, though, he was actually wearing a white shirt and a colourful silk handkerchief tied around his neck while Roger was the one in a black turtleneck.
Still, whether this chap was actually a bit of a pretentious wanker or just the quiet sort, Roger wasn't sure, but as he drank and chatted with his bandmates he managed to all but forget about Tim's friend for some time.
Until someone, for some reason, decided to start telling jokes.

"Wait, I've got a good one!" Roger exclaimed, leaning forward onto the table and pointing the two fingers in which he held his cigarette at Tim. "Right, so, three women who live in a block of flats are walking home, and they find a man passed out drunk in the stairwell. Oh! And the light's not working, it's dark, alright? That's important."

"Great start," snickered Tim.

"Shut up," Roger grinned and stuck his tongue out between his teeth, before taking a drag from his cigarette, "Anyway, so the first woman sticks her hand down this bloke's trousers and says, 'Well, that's not my husband'."

Brian snorted into his pint quietly.

"And so, the second one sticks her hand down his trousers and says: 'You're right, luv, that's really not your husband.'"

"Hah!"

"Heh."

"Then the last one also sticks her hand down his trousers and says," Roger paused, for effect, looking back and forth between his bandmates. "'My goodness, he doesn't even live in this building!'"

There was a moment of silence, and then Brian groaned and snickered, shaking his head.

"Wow."

"Oh, come on, that was funny!"

Beside Roger, Tim's mate Freddie was also snickering behind his hand.

"Wait, what?" Tim blinked, eyebrows raised, and looked between his friends. "I didn't get- ohh..." Then his eyes went wide, and he guffawed loudly.

And it was that comical reaction, more than the joke, which had everyone in stitches, including Freddie, who slapped Tim's arm and broke into uproarious laughter, throwing his head back.

"Dearie me!" he all but wheezed, trying and failing to reign himself in, a hand flying up to cover what was really quite a large set of teeth, Roger noticed. But Freddie's amusement was so genuine and endearing that it was infectious and it took them all a little while to stop giggling.

"I have one." Freddie cleared his throat and pulled his top lip over his teeth, hiding a smirk as he glanced up into the round.

"Let's hear it," said Roger encouragingly.

"If a woman has a glass of red wine, it increases the chance of a stroke." Freddie crossed one leg over the other, arching an eyebrow as he continued with a little twirl of his wrist, his tone suggestive. "However, if she has the whole bottle, she might even give it a little suck."

Everyone burst out laughing again, while Freddie hid his grin behind his pint.

By the third round of drinks, Freddie was no longer quiet. It was quite a surprising transformation to behold, as a matter of fact. Suddenly he was all wide eyes and dramatic gestures, passionately chiming in with his opinions, especially when the conversation turned to music again. Before long, Freddie and Brian were having it out with Tim about who the greater genius was, Hendrix or Lennon, and Roger declared himself Switzerland and went off to the men's room, chuckling to himself. When he returned, plopping back down onto his chair, Brian and Tim had moved on to the history of electric guitars and Freddie turned to him, his chin in his hand as he reached out and ran his fingers over the dark brown mink fur coat hanging over the back of Roger's chair.

"This is nice," He pulled his hand away and picked his glass back up, leaning back in his chair. "Where did you get it?"

"Thanks. Kensington Market," Roger told him, turning a little in his chair to face him better. "I'm in love with that place, I have to say."

"Goodness, me too!" Freddie agreed excitedly. "Isn't it the best? I can't honestly afford anything at the moment, but I still like to walk around and just take it all in..."

"Yeah, yeah," Roger nodded. "Same, really. This was an absolute steal, by the way, I got really lucky. 'Cause, I tell you, I could easily spend a ton of money there," he rolled his eyes at himself with a smile.

"Oh, don't I know it!"

It was then, as Freddie returned the smile, that Roger noticed how hard he was trying to keep from showing his teeth. So that was what the pouty lip thing was all about. Poor man, he was fighting a losing battle there, wasn't he, thought Roger. Although they really weren't that bad, those teeth. They sort of gave him character and fit well with his sharp, exotic features. 'Relax', Roger wanted to say, 'I've seen much worse in my textbooks, you know.'

Freddie took a sip from his glass and licked his lips, and Roger quickly turned away when he realised he'd been staring at his mouth, probably making him even more self-conscious without meaning to. Brian and Tim had moved on to classical instruments, somehow, and now seemed to be talking about violins.

"So what do you study?" asked Freddie.

"Dentistry," sighed Roger, reaching for his pack of cigarettes on the table.

"Oh really?"

"Does that surprise you?"

Freddie thought about it for a moment.

"...Yes," he then said, slowly, and broke into another smile, fingers fanning out in front of his lips. "I'm afraid I can't quite picture you as a dentist."

Roger snorted, and lit his cigarette. "That makes two of us."

"Well, excuse the impertinent question, dear, but why are you studying it then?"

"I don't know." Roger shrugged, glancing back over at Freddie. "Seemed like a good idea. For a proper job, you know."

"I do know." Freddie gave a slow nod and looked thoughtful for a moment, chewing his bottom lip. Then his expression turned conspiratorial. "Mind you, just between you and me... I think proper jobs are overrated."

"Yeah." Taking another drag from his cigarette, Roger lifted his glass off the table. "You know what, that's exactly the conclusion I'm slowly coming to. Cheers."

"Cheers."

They clinked glasses.

"What are we celebrating?" Tim wanted to know, turning to look at them.

Roger and Freddie laughed and exchanged a look.

"Freedom," said Freddie.

"Of choice," said Roger.

"Of expression," added Freddie.

"Of thought," Roger concluded sagely.

"Ooh," Freddie clinked their glasses together again and they both snickered, much to the bemusement of their friends.

It wasn't until the bell rang last orders that Roger realised how quickly time had passed, and that he had spent the last hour and a bit chatting almost exclusively to Freddie. What about, he wasn't even quite sure anymore. The conversation flowed so easily, both of them growing more excitable as they sparked each other's interests and ideas, until they were making wildly fantastical plans to open a shop together at the market where they would serve drinks and sell everything from works of art, to clothes to records, because no one was doing that and wouldn't it be a gas?

"Dearie me," Freddie gasped when the bell rang, eyes wide as he looked around the pub. "Is it so late already?"

"Why?" Laughed Roger. "Do you have a curfew?"

"Oh, it's just... it's a long way home," Freddie sighed, casting him an apologetic look. "I really should go."

"Gosh, you're going all the way to Feltham, aren't you," Tim grimaced and checked his watch.

"Where's that?" asked Roger.

"I grew up in Feltham!" Brian chimed in. "My parents still live there."

"Oh yeah, of course!" said Tim, pointing back and forth between them.

"Oh really?" asked Freddie.

And so another twenty minutes passed before they finally all decided to head off together and stepped out of the comfortable warmth of the pub and into the freezing night air. Roger shivered in his coat, warm as it was.

"At least the rain's stopped," he noted. "Right, I'm gonna catch the bus. Are we still on for practice on Monday night?"

"Yeah," confirmed Brian, who was in charge of sorting out rehearsal spaces for them at Imperial.

"Oh..." Freddie cast a look at Brian and Tim, who were ready to head off to the tube station, and turned to Roger.

"Nice to meet you, Freddie," Roger offered.

"Yes," Freddie smiled, a little hesitantly, and looked as though he wanted to add something else, but then simple nodded his head. "Likewise."

With a wave and a smile, Roger said his goodbyes and headed for the bus stop, feeling a little light-headed from the drinks and as happy with his life as could be. It wasn't until he reached the bus stop that he vaguely regretted not getting Freddie's number, or something. Not that he actually expected anything to come of their ridiculous plans to take over Kensington Market with their hip art and fashion emporium.

It was alright though. Tim was friends with Freddie, after all, so he'd probably see him again.

- - -

The commute back to Feltham was as long as it ever was, including a ride on the tube, on the train and eventually, the bus. But Freddie didn't mind. He was in a fantastic mood and periodically caught himself smiling while gazing into the middle distance, remembering the evening.

It wasn't until he was walking down the quiet streets of Feltham, footsteps echoing in the silence of the night, that he remembered telling his father that he wouldn't be home late. A glance at his watch told him that it was now almost one in the morning and Freddie sighed, already bracing himself for the next day. For reproachful looks and stern words.

But even that couldn't dampen his mood as he quietly unlocked the door and snuck into the dark living room, taking off his shoes and padding through to the kitchen to put the food away which his mother had left out for him.

When he finally climbed into bed that night - exhausted and yet, for some time, wide awake - he was not truly there, in thought. Not in his bedroom, in Feltham, listening to the ticking of the clock on his bedside table and the odd howl of a neighbour's dog. In his mind, he was still in his favourite London neighbourhood, sitting in a pub where he could have happily spent all night talking and laughing. With Tim, and Brian and Roger.

Roger, with his bright eyes and infectious smile, who was both very funny and very witty. Who seemed to take the words right out of his mouth. Whose nose wiggled, just a little, when he talked. Now where had that thought sprung from?
Freddie snorted quietly and closed his eyes, pulling the blanket up over his ear as he turned onto his side. Perhaps he'd had a little bit too much to drink, he thought, and wondered what the chances were that he might convince Tim to let him sit in on Smile's rehearsals.

He'd been curious before. But now he just had to hear them play.

- - -