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For the Love of Peach Pie

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Chapter 1 - April 30, 1953

James Bond slammed his hands down on the steering wheel of his 1939 Ford DeLuxe as it sputtered and died. Damn carburetor again, he knew. Shoulda cleaned it before he split, but he hadn’t wanted to hang around longer than necessary.

After the War, he’d landed in Washington DC - taking up Felix’s offer of a position as a liaison with the Navy.  He’d tried going home first, of course, but there’d been precious little left for him there, and nothing worth fighting for.

Washington had been a welcome change. He was free to reinvent himself as he pleased, and he pleased to play the rake, the cad, the scoundrel.

All that changed when that damn McCarthy started spewing his vitriol all over the headlines. Nobody took it seriously at first - not til the first purges went through. James had stayed as long as he dared, but eventually he’d been tipped off that his name had come up on a list, and rather than be shipped off back to Britain, he’d resigned his position.

That was three days ago.

James had left home with nothing but his tool box and a shopping bag full of clothes and started driving. He’d had Chicago in mind, far away from the drama of Washington and the travesty of McCarthy but still big enough to get lost in if he needed to. And he’d heard good things about Old Town. Now he was fifty miles away from his goal and stranded in the middle of a cornfield. Wonderful.

He shoved open the door and climbed out. Under the hood, the engine mocked him, gleaming dully in the afternoon sun. James wiped a hand down his face as he stared accusingly at the air cleaner. He really ought to replace the damn thing, carburetor and all, but that cost money, something he didn’t have much of at the moment. He should have had a stash ready to go. He’d seen the writing on the wall, but had elected to ignore it, and now he was paying the price.

Wasn’t much to do now but find a garage and hope they’d let him camp in his backseat in their parking lot until he could get her fixed up. James stuck out his thumb and started walking backwards along the road and it wasn’t too long before a blue Freightliner rumbled to a stop beside him. He pulled open the door and a red-faced man in overalls and a plaid shirt rolled to the elbows grinned at him.

“Where ya headed?” His voice was as robust as his complexion, his expression open and friendly. Despite himself, James found he liked the man.

“Not far. Car broke down a few miles back, wondered if you could recommend a good shop, and a tow?”

The driver gave him a scrutinizing look, then nodded. “Best shop ’round here is M’s. They’ll get you fixed up. Hop in.”

“Thanks,” James said, and smiled. He settled into the passenger seat and leaned his elbow out the window, watching as more corn, a few trees and houses, and the occasional gas station rolled by.

“Where you from?” the driver asked, and James rolled his eyes. It was the first question he always got. The downside of ‘having an accent.’

“Born in Wales, raised in London, most recently a resident of the nation’s capital.”

“Most recently?”

“Haven’t found anywhere to settle just yet.” It was a half-truth. He’d have stayed in Washington if he could have, but obviously that wasn’t meant to be.

“Ah.” A small conspiratorial smile crept onto the driver’s face. “Don’t you worry. You will. Little sweetheart’ll trap you in her eyes, and you’ll never roam again.”

James snorted. If only it was that easy. He’d had a sweetheart, once. Long dark hair and piercing, intelligent eyes who matched him jibe for jibe when he’d tried to pull her at a dance. She’d been adamant that she’d never dance with a boy like him - sixteen and still coming into his voice - but she’d relented at last and they’d promised to marry when he came home after the war.

Six years in the Royal Navy changes a lot - and it changed her even more. She hadn’t waited, and when he arrived on the platform, duffel still slung over his shoulder and a ring in his pocket, it was to her and her freshly-minted husband Joseph Lynd.

He’d got back on the train, and never looked back. Booked passage to America to put as much distance between them as possible. Looked up Felix when he landed, and then got a job and a green card. It had been good. Until it wasn’t.

He supposed he should feel lucky he hadn’t been handed over to the police. He supposed he should be relieved that he hadn’t been beaten. He supposed he should be grateful that he wasn’t dead.

At the moment, though, he didn’t much feel like being any of those things.

“Don’t dismiss it,” the driver continued. “You never know when she’ll fall right into your lap, and you’ll be helpless to her charms.”

“If you say so,” James conceded. “Right now I’m just looking to get my car off the side of the road.”

“Oh, ’course. M’s is just up the road here.”

Not far in the distance, James could see a giant green-and-white billboard painted with the words ‘M’s International Drive and Dine Cafe and Garage on Highway 6 - 2 Miles Ahead, Then Left.’

“Couldn’t hardly miss that, could you?” James said drily.

It was the driver’s turn to snort, but his was of amusement instead of derision. “Not even if you were blind.”

Five minutes passed, and the driver made the left, turning at the junction of 6 and 20, and on the left a mile farther, gleaming like an Airstream, was a diner with a green-and-white awning over the door with ‘M’s International Cafe’ in foot-high neon script across the front of the building. Two cars were parked in front of the diner, which boded well for four o’clock on a Thursday. To the left, a concrete block three-stall garage sat behind a set of six Sinclair gas pumps. As the truck rumbled to a stop, a kid with short brown hair dressed in a Sinclair green shirt and brown trousers sprinted out of the garage office up to the driver’s door. James guessed his age to be maybe fourteen, and he had the rangy, awkward gait of a boy who hadn’t quite gotten used to the length of his limbs.

“Hiya, Pete! What can we do you for?” he chirped up through the open window.

“Just dropping off a passenger, Jack,” the driver replied kindly. “Found him up the road a pace, says his car broke down.”

“Oh, tough luck.” The kid pulled himself onto the side of the truck and stuck his head through the driver’s window and grinned broadly at James. “Hiya!”

James couldn’t help but return the smile. “Hello.”

“Well, this is your stop, sonny, so hop on out. I’ve gotta finish my run to Gary and make it back to Liza for supper, and it’ll be a near thing.” He turned to Jack. “See you next week!” James smirked at the driver’s calling him ‘sonny’ - he hadn’t looked young in nearly a decade - but bit back the ‘thanks, gramps’ that threatened to pass his lips. He’d been in the States long enough to realize that friendly ribbing didn’t always translate well.

“Lucky you ran into Pete,” Jack said conversationally as James walked with him across the gravel lot.

“Why’s that?”

“‘Cause M’s is the best garage in town!” Jack said a bit too brightly. “Everybody says so. Well, everybody that matters, anyway.”

“Oh,” James said. What else could he say?

“I’ll take you to Q. He’s the real mechanic around here, I just pump the gas, really. And wash the windshields. But he’s teaching me. I’d like to have my own shop someday.”

“I hope you can.” James envied the boy his enthusiasm.

Gravel crunched behind them, and James turned to see a Studebaker Commander pull in at a pump. Jack gave him an apologetic smile.

“Q’ll be in bay three, working on the Chevy. I’ve gotta take care of the customer!” He dashed off towards the car, and James was left to find Q - whatever kind of name that was -  himself.

James kept the relief from his face as best he could. Jack was fine, but James was hardly in the mood for idle conversation. Come to think of it, he was rarely in the mood for idle conversation, and there was something about Jack that made him even less inclined. It probably had something to do with his mile-a-minute delivery and bright-eyed naivete. Oh well.

James poked his head into the third overhead door from the office and there was a cherry red Chevy Bel Air up on the lift, but no sign of any human.

“Hello?” James called tentatively.

A head poked out from behind a 1932 Ford three-window that had been very obviously customized. The sun glinted off the sea-blue paint, and the man that emerged from behind her ran a cloth over her hood as he passed, then tucked it into his pocket.

He was thin and pale, but not scrawny, with heavy-framed spectacles, and dark hair that looked like he’d stuck it into a vat of grease - which he somehow pulled off to excellent effect. He also looked to be eighteen at the absolute oldest, but there was something in the slope of his shoulders, they way his arms and chest filled the white t-shirt he wore, and the angle of his jaw that belied his apparent youth. He wore faded Levis, and had a pack of cigarettes folded into his sleeve. He pulled the pack out as he walked up, deftly pulling a single cigarette from the pack with his lips then folding it back into his sleeve in a ritual that took less than three steps to complete. It was impressive, and the corner of James’ mouth quirked up slightly.

“Can I help you?” the man said in a voice matched to his frame - musical in a way James rarely heard in the States. He wondered if it was from some kind of vocal lessons or if he’d just naturally been born with it.

“I’m looking for Q,” James said. He looked a bit longingly at the cigarette between the man’s full lips, but wasn’t rude enough to ask for a smoke.

“I’m Q.”

“You must be joking.”

“Why, because I’m not wearing coveralls?” The challenge was clear in his well-modulated tenor.

“No, because you’re still in nappies,” James said instinctively and winced.

But instead of getting bent out of shape, Q simply smirked.

“Should I go and fetch your rocking chair? Gonna chase me off the lawn?” Q’s eyes sparked with mischief.

“Youth is overrated,” James said, deadpan.

“Only because you’ve lost it,” Q returned.

“Not lost. Traded. So you can be allowed to be a jumped-up little shit.”

There was a subtle shift in Q’s expression. He never quite lost the attitude, but his posture straightened and his eyes grew serious.

“I’ll have you know that not only am I ten years older than Jack out there,” he pointed to the gas pumps, “I’m also the best mechanic in the county, possibly in the whole Region.”

James lifted an eyebrow, impressed with his confidence.

“Bond,” he said, “James Bond.” He stuck out his hand. Q grasped it in his, and James  noticed the blunt fingertips edged in black grease.

“All right, James Bond.” Q rolled his eyes. “Now that we have that out of the way, what can I help you with?”

“Car broke down up on 20. Was hoping I could have it towed here so I could fix her up.”

“You?”

“Yeah, me.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it.”

James huffed a laugh, but really, he looked less like a mechanic than Q. His close-cropped military-style haircut under a gray fedora and his gray flannel suit didn’t exactly scream ‘grease monkey’ to anyone. But he could, hopefully, prove it.

He meandered over to the Bel Air and peered up into the chassis. It took a bit of looking, but he finally figured out what was wrong, and then turned to Q, hands shoved casually into his pockets.

“Radiator support is going bad. You can either replace it or reinforce it, but make sure your weld is quality, otherwise they’ll be back here in three months with the same problem.”

Q gave him a considering look, then must have decided something, because he nodded and smiled.

“Go on over to the Cafe. Tell M I’ve gone to pick up your car. Have a cuppa coffee,” James never could be grateful enough for Americans’ love of coffee over tea, “and I’ll be back in a jiffy. Whaddya drive?”

“A ’39 Ford, cherry red. You can’t miss it.”

Q whistled. “Neither can the cops, I bet.”

James let the smirk slide all the way into his lips. “I’ve been known to talk my way out of a ticket or two.”

Q chuckled. “Bet you could talk your way out of a lot of things.”

James felt a little trickle of something like recognition slide down his spine. Q’s eyes locked to his, hazel green behind the lenses. It lasted half a beat too long, and then James tore his eyes away and shoved the moment out of his mind.

He cleared his throat and dipped his head.

“Well, thanks for the tow.” He touched the brim of his hat and beat a hasty retreat. It wasn’t until he was halfway across the parking lot that he realized Q had never asked where he was from. It was the standard question he received from everyone he met, but Q hadn’t asked. He mulled it over, turning the peculiarity around and around in his head til he felt dizzy with it, and decided that perhaps Q was trying to be a different kind of polite.

James pulled open the door to the cafe and the smell of cooking food and hot coffee enveloped him. He pulled off his hat and hung it on a hook. An older woman with graying hair pulled up in a bun and wearing a smart green uniform dress poured coffee for a couple of men at the counter. A family was gathered around a table to his right, each with a plate in front of them, and James’ stomach growled when he saw the shepherd’s pie half-finished in front of the father. To his left, a set of four teens, probably close to Jack’s age, all sipping from one soda glass in the corner booth. James walked to the counter and slipped onto a stool, playing idly with the mug set on a napkin in front of him.

“Order up!” came a tenor cry from the kitchen.

The woman turned and pulled a plate down from the service window behind her, and slid it into place in front of one of the other men at the counter. The plate was overflowing with spaghetti and meatballs and James’ stomach growled again. When he caught a whiff of the sauce, his mouth began to water.

“Thanks, M.” Ah, so this was the famous M of “M’s International Cafe.”

“Hmm.” Her tone of disapproval and the firm line of her mouth told James instantly that he should probably not deal with her lightly.

“Aw, don’t be that way. I said I’d have it for ya Tuesday!”

“Oh yes, Wimpy, I’ve heard that one before.”

“Ain’t I always paid you back, though?”

“Tuesday,” she said, and a shiver ran down James’ back. There was steel in her voice, and a strength that came from the very pit of her soul. This was not a woman to be trifled with, but she was also fair, accommodating even. Rare indeed, these days.

“Cross my heart,” Wimpy said, and the sincerity in his voice couldn’t be feigned.

She nodded, refilled his coffee, and then set her eyes on James.

James considered himself a pretty shrewd customer and a good judge of people. He’d had to be, it was part of the job - aside from the wining and dining, he had to assess ‘moral character.’ But there was something in M’s eyes that he’d rarely seen before: cold but not cruel, iron hard but also strangely inviting. Like she could easily draw your darkest secrets from you, but also be able to keep them.

Secrets, no matter what flavor, were a dangerous commodity, a lesson burned into him ceaselessly by the headlines in the papers, the urgent broadcasts on the radio, the Sunday morning television news. His own secrets churned suddenly in his stomach: stolen moments in men’s rooms, desperate to slake a desire he hadn’t known existed until he’d been stationed in the Andaman Sea. Well, he could pretend to blame Ronson for a lot of things, but that probably wasn’t one of them. He’d quite frankly thought it was just a stand-in. No girls, little shore leave, plenty of down time. He’d lived in Washington for only a few months when he’d been approached, in exactly the same way Ronson had done, and he’d realized it wasn’t just a lack of girls that caused his heart to race at the thought of another man.

“What’ll it be?”

James was snapped back to his stool by M’s voice. He blinked stupidly at her for a moment until her words sank in, and then nodded. “Just a cup of coffee, please.”

“Well, flip your mug, then,” she demanded, and the corner of James’ mouth quirked upwards in spite of himself.

“Yes, ma’am.” The response was automatic, slipping out without James’ conscious thought. She commandeered that kind of respect innately, and James was happy to give it to her. Her eyes softened infinitesimally.

He flipped the mug, and M poured the coffee. “You’re the guy that got off Pete’s truck, then.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes.”

“Got a name?”

“Bond.”

She merely nodded, amusement dancing in her eyes, and he felt a bit of understanding pass between them. Not so much that he was going to spill his life story, but the kind of understanding that comes with knowing about people, about how people are and how they could be if given half a chance.

They knew each other in this small moment, and James was only mildly surprised when she asked, “Are you sticking around for a bit?”

“I ought to move on,” James admitted. “But I’ll have to fix my car first. Shouldn’t take more than a day.”

“You? You’re not going to have Q do it?” She seemed genuinely surprised, and James sighed. He’d have to explain again about his rash decision to drive halfway across the country with ten dollars to his name.

“No, ma’am. Not that I think he couldn’t, but—” He looked down at the counter and ran a finger around the edge of his mug. “I can’t pay for the work,” he finally admitted.

“Then you’ll work for the work.”

James’ head shot up at that.

“I can’t have every Tom, Dick and Harry just waltzing in here using Q’s workshop as their own. Wouldn’t do. But you work here at the cafe while he’s fixing your car, we’ll call it square.”

No questions about his past, or why he was out of money, or where he’d come from, or why he was travelling. No questions at all, in fact. Just an offer of assistance.

“Absolutely, ma’am,” James said, standing.

M nodded, all brusque efficiency. “Good. You’ll start by sweeping the floors.” She waved a hand at him, motioning him to sit. “Finish your coffee. I’ll find you after. And here,” she held out a pack of cigarettes. “You could probably use one after the day you’ve had. This one’s on the house, but don’t expect that kind of generosity to continue.”

“No, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.” James sat back down.

“And stop this ma’am business. I’m M - just M - and that’s all I’ll answer to.”

“I understand,” James replied, and meant it. M nodded and whisked herself away, back into the kitchen.

An M and a Q - what was next, a W working the grill? An F bussing tables? It was a bit bizarre, but he found he rather enjoyed the small mystery of it. He smiled to himself as he lifted his mug and took a sip of his coffee - it was excellent, brewed strong and fresh - then opened the pack of cigarettes and pulled one out. He fished in his breast pocket for his lighter, and took a long, satisfying drag, the flavor of tobacco and coffee mingling in the back of his throat familiar and relaxing.

Well, the whole lot of them could call themselves what they liked. James had been given a fair deal, and that was all he cared.

Chapter Text

James emptied the last dustpan into the garbage and returned the broom to its home beside the coat hooks by the back door. The cafe was closed for the night, and James looked out through the door across the fields. Tiny spears of corn were just beginning to poke their heads up from the rich soil, and the night had lost its winter chill. There was something about the open space, the trees on the far horizon, the two-storey white farmhouse glowing in the distance, that soothed James in a very strange way.

He’d always considered himself a city sort of person, surrounded by buildings and people and swept along by the bustle around him. But standing there at the back door of a small-town cafe surrounded by nothing more than corn and a couple of trees, he felt something between his shoulderblades unwind in a way he hadn’t been expecting.

He shook his head. Two days, maybe three, to get the car driveable. Then he was out of here. He pulled his hat and jacket off the hook, and slowly made his way back into the dining room, where M and Bill Tanner were both clutching mugs of coffee, sitting at the counter, staring off into the middle distance. It was a companionable silence, broken only by low mutterings about stocking the kitchen and breakfast the next morning. James checked the clock; it was just after nine in the evening.

“What time tomorrow?” he asked, and Bill jumped at his voice.

“You’re still here?”

The disbelief in Bill’s voice amused James. “Obviously.” He was not one to shirk a task, particularly when it had been offered so generously, nor to skip out on finishing a job - no matter how menial.

“Doors open at five,” M said. “But you won’t be needed until after the breakfast rush - say nine?”

“Phew, that’s early enough!”

“Your office open at ten, did it?” Bill was smirking into his coffee.

“Something like that,” James said, helping himself to a cup of coffee. Late nights turned early mornings had been his previous shift, for the most part. Soirees rarely happened before nine in the evening.

He wrapped his hands around his mug and perched at the counter next to Bill. Bill seemed a good, solid sort, down to earth and pragmatic. He was in charge of the kitchen. He didn't rule with the iron fist of a dictator, but rather with the leniency allowed when one knows everyone else in the room is competent and able to look after themselves. James had never seen such a relaxed atmosphere in his life. Jokes and friendly jibes flew across the room - mostly from Deetz, the resident comedian.

Bill had introduced himself with a handshake. “I run the kitchens,” he’d said, and Deetz had countered with “No, you don’t ‘run’ the kitchen, you ‘run screaming from’ the kitchen.” At which point George chimed in with, “Only when you almost catch it on fire, Deetz.” The conversation devolved from there, and James found himself the subject of several terrible one-liners, which he countered in kind.

He didn’t want to admit it, but the kitchen felt a lot more like his ship than anywhere else he’d ever been, and he had fallen into place easily alongside George at the prep counter during the dinner rush, toasting garlic bread and throwing lettuce into bowls for side salads.

He took a sip of coffee and made a face. This cup was not fresh-brewed. Well, it stood to reason. Why make a fresh pot now? James stretched lazily and sighed. He’d swept floors, chopped vegetables, scrubbed the griddle, and hauled fifty pounds of potatoes up from the cellar for the next day’s french fries. His shoulders and arms were comfortably sore, and he felt tired in a way he hadn’t for a very long time - since the War, if he were honest with himself. It was nice. A different kind of ache than the calisthenics he practiced.

“So, where are you from?” Bill ventured, and James laughed.

“I wondered when that was coming.”

“Well, you can hardly blame a guy for asking.”

“No blame. I get it often enough. Born in Wales.”

“That’s like England, right?”

James had got that response so often it barely even hurt anymore.  “Something like that.” He smirked.

“Q wants to see you in the garage,” M said, interrupting Bill before he could voice what was doubtless another rather awkward question. James couldn’t tell by her tone what he should be expecting when he went. He raised an eyebrow but said nothing, simply nodded and took his mug out across the darkened lot toward the garage, which was still glowing brightly despite the ‘CLOSED’ sign hung prominently in the office door.

The door to bay three was still up, and James sauntered in, knocking on the jamb to announce his presence.

“Sorry, closed!” Q’s voice echoed through the space. There was no way to know where it had come from.

“It’s James,” he said, voice raised a fraction.

“Oh!” Q appeared from behind a metal cabinet in the back of the shop, lugging a toolbox that was nearly as big as himself. James set his mug on a workbench and hastened over, taking the thing from Q.

“Here.” He pulled it toward himself, and Q released it with another small ‘oh’ and a nearly inaudible ‘thanks.’ The damn box was heavy. Far heavier than his own toolbox in the trunk of his car. “What do you keep in this thing?”

“Hm? Oh, that’s my box for metric wrenches. Leonard’s got a Renault and I had to get a whole separate set of wrenches just to change the oil on it. Came in this afternoon for his tune-up, and I figured I’d get started on it tonight.”

“You wanted to talk to me?” James said, because he had no experience whatsoever with Renault cars - or the metric system in general, come to that.

“Your car. Yeah. Got a good look at her after I towed her in. It’s more than just the carburetor.”

James set the toolbox down next to a cream-colored Renault 4CV in bay 2 and turned to face Q. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Q fiddled with the trunk of the Renault, “there’s a couple of leaking gaskets. And I really don’t like the look of the oil pump drive gear. Looks worn. Should be replaced. You’re lucky you made it this far. It’s gonna take awhile to get it fixed.”

James chafed. He’d been expecting one, maybe two days tops to get the carburetor cleaned out and get out of here. This sounded like a lot longer.

“How long are you thinking?”

“With everything else, routine maintenance and oil changes I’ve already got on the calendar, even if I work after hours on it - two weeks?”

“Two weeks!” James was floored. There was no way he could survive in this little bump in the road for two weeks. What would he do ?

“Well, I suppose, if you took care of the oil changes that would shave a couple days off...” Q muttered, half to himself. He crouched and opened the toolbox by his feet and rummaged for a socket wrench.

“Instead of sweeping, you mean?”

“Hm?” Q looked up at James, his hair fallen slightly out of its pompadour, bangs dusting his forehead.

James cleared his throat and peered into the windows of the Renault without really seeing what was inside.

“Sweeping? Oh! Right. M said something about that. Well, if you’re dead-set on doing that—”

James wasn’t certain what he wanted, if he were honest. On the one hand, Q seemed like an interesting guy, well-spoken and intelligent. But there was also something else, something about Q that piqued his interest beyond basic attractiveness. And James was drawn to that mystery just as surely as a moth to a flame—but he didn’t need that. Not now. And not here.

“Let me think about it,” James finally said.

“Well, all right. I’m not too sure about it myself, seeing as how you let your engine get to that state to begin with.”

“It was on my ‘to-do’ list for the summer.”

“Well, now it’s landed on my ‘to-do’ list,” Q griped as he finally came up with the right size wrench for whatever he was adjusting at the back of the Renault.

“Well, it doesn’t have to be. I have my own tools, just need the cleaner for the carburetor. I’ll make it driveable, then I’m gone.  You won’t even know I’ve been here.”

“How could I forget?” Q murmured under his breath, and James almost missed the words.

“Forget what?” James asked.

Q’s ears went a bit pink at the edges, but he didn’t look up. “Nothing,” he said, a bit too quickly. “Nevermind. If you’re going to just stand around like some Greek statue, could you do it somewhere else? I’ve got work to do.”

James frowned, irritated by Q’s irritation and not quite sure why he was upset. With a shrug and a quick glance over his shoulder, he strode out of the garage and back to the cafe.

 

***

 

Q deflated as James walked away. His arms dropped to his sides, and he let out a long, warbling sigh as he pinched the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. Stupid. God, he was so stupid. He didn’t need that exasperating lout lounging around the place, and what was that about offering James a job working in the garage? Was he going crazy? But something about James had caught Q’s attention when he’d arrived earlier that afternoon, and he couldn’t just let it go. It was a small something, a crazy, harebrained half-thought in the far reaches of his mind that had grown over the course of the afternoon into something he couldn’t ignore: that James maybe, possibly, on the far reaches of plausibility, might be something like him.

And that idea had plagued him for hours. On the one hand, he thrilled at it, the possibility, the idea that he might not be alone. But on the other? On the other, it was so, so dangerous.

He’s not married , his traitorous brain supplied. No ring.

“Oh, yes. Thank you for that,” he muttered to himself angrily as he began cleaning the spark plug connections.

Next morning, earlier than was perhaps advisable, Q pulled up to his customary spot behind the garage. He cut the ignition, and climbed out, still whistling the last song that had been on the radio. His taste was somewhat eclectic, ranging from Hank Williams to Muddy Waters (he had thanked Eve profusely for introducing him to blues) but what he liked had more personality than the vanilla crooners M had on in the cafe.

He unlocked the office door, flipped the sign, then went out back to check on James’ car. He might be able to get the thing apart this morning before he had to start on his scheduled projects if he put his mind to it.

The car was, truly, a thing of beauty. Cherry red, with nary a spot of wear on the body. It was a shame James had let the engine deteriorate. Or maybe, like he said, he was saving the maintenance til summer, and the long-distance drive was what finally killed it.

Q went to open the driver’s door so he could push the car into Bay 1 when he noticed someone inside the car.

James lay curled on the front seat, head cradled on one arm, knees bent to fit himself on the seat. His face was soft and slack with sleep, his mouth open, eyelashes half-moons against his cheeks as he breathed slowly. Q watched the rise and fall of his chest for a few moments, before wrenching open the door.

James sat up like a shot and sputtered.

“Who—whaaa—”

“Wakey wakey eggs and bakey,” Q chanted. “Morning, sleeping beauty.”

“What?” James squinted at him. He was rumpled from sleep, his hair flat on one side, which made all the hair around it stick up at odd angles. He wiped a hand down his face, and Q felt a smile tug at his lips. He quickly bit down on it.

“Obviously not a morning person,” Q observed drily. “I didn’t realize you were going to sleep in your car. You could have said something.”

“Not something I wanted to admit to,” James said, finally coming to himself.

“Well, I guess you don’t have to now.”

James’ mouth turned down in irritation and he sniffed. “What time is it?” he asked, before lifting his own wrist to check his watch.

“Time to get up, obviously,” Q replied.

“Christ, it’s not even seven yet.”

“And M’s has been open since five.”

“You people are mad,” James said, not unkindly, and shuffled across the seat, unfolding himself onto the asphalt. He stretched as he stood so that his undershirt rose above the waistband of his trousers and Q had a terrible time keeping his eyes on the car. The undershirt did little to hide the man’s physique: powerful arms, defined chest. Not the look of a man who sat behind a desk all day.

Q swallowed as James groaned with the stretch.“Probably,” he said, if only to make James cease that noise, “but not for opening the Cafe at five. Shift change, you know. Steel mills over in Gary change shift at seven. Makes sense to be open at five, if you want to catch any of the morning rush.”

“Of course,” James said. “Then open til eight at night to catch the last of the diners before the next shift comes through, otherwise you’d have to be open all night.”

“She’s considered doing a twenty-four hour diner,” Q conceded. “But the numbers don’t work.”

“Out here, I can see that. There was a little greasy spoon not far away from where I used to live. Perfect for breakfast after a long night.”

Q chuckled. “Had a lot of those, did you?”

James nodded, explaining as best he could what his former career had entailed.

“Sounds pretty cushy.”

“It had its perks.”

“But you left.”

“Yes.” James turned away, rummaging in his pocket for the keys so he could pop the trunk. “Is there a shower around here?”

Q frowned at the abrupt change of subject, but didn’t press. Whatever it was wasn’t his business, really, but the evasion felt personal anyway.

“Yeah. But it’s the emergency shower. Only runs cold.”

“Just how I like it,” James answered, grinning.

Q did not watch him saunter off toward the shop office. He didn’t wonder if the comment about a cold shower meant more than just a personal preference. And he didn’t repeat the scene of James’ shirt lifting above his waistband like some dirty movie all morning as he disassembled the oil pump on James’ car.

 

***

James had had an incredibly productive morning. Potatoes peeled and julienned, floor not only swept but mopped between breakfast and lunch rush, and as the afternoon ebbed towards single customers for cups of coffee and slices of pie, James fixed himself half a sandwich on day-old bread with leftover sausage from breakfast, a slice of cheese he was sure nobody would miss, and the dregs of the coffee pot. He scoured the back of the diner for a place to eat, and discovered a door marked ‘office.’ Thinking he could either ask whoever was inside where he should eat, or help himself to the desk and chair inside, he opened the door.

Seated at the desk was a black woman with her hair shaped into an intricate style on top of her head bending over a ledger and marking it with a pencil as she finished scanning the columns of numbers. Or, at least it looked as though she were just scanning. She was moving so fast, it couldn’t hardly be anything else.

“Are you supposed to be doing that?” he asked, drawing himself up to his full height and lifting his chin. He injected his voice with all the authority he knew he lacked.

She looked up and fixed him with a solid glare.

“No,” she said, and her tone was a mixture of boredom and severe restraint. “I’m ‘supposed’ to be washing dishes. If you’ve got a problem you can take it up with M. What are you ‘supposed’ to be doing?”

Clearly, James had misjudged this situation, but one could hardly blame him. It wasn’t every day he found a woman like that scanning leger books behind a desk.

“I was looking for a place to eat,” he said.

“Why don’t you try the dining room?” she offered, eyebrow raised. “That’s where one usually does that kind of thing.”

“Well, I have to say, this is a very odd place to wash dishes,” James said, gesturing to the obvious lack of a sink in the room.  “So I’m not sure you have a lot of room for deciding what’s usual.”

They blinked at each other for several beats, and then the woman chuckled.

“I’m Eve,” she said. “And you must be James.”

“How did you know?”

“Word gets around fast in a town like this. By Friday there won’t be a soul within twenty miles that won’t know you’re here.”

“I’m not sure whether to be impressed or terrified.”

“There’s good and bad,” Eve nodded, then glanced at the wall above James’ head. “It can’t be two-forty-five!”

James craned his neck around, and lo and behold there was a clock hanging on the wall above the door.

“Why?”

“Stupid man wouldn’t eat if he were dying as long as something else was more interesting,” she muttered as she closed the ledger book and stood, smoothing her green cafe uniform.

“Who?”

“Q!” Eve said, exasperated, and strode out of the office toward the kitchen.

James stared after her, utterly transfixed. Well, whatever else the cafe was, it was certainly not as boring as he’d feared.

 

***

 

Eve poked her head into the garage. She was carrying a tray that someone (likely Bill) had loaded with two sandwiches, a side of fries, a slice of M’s cherry pie, and a bottle of Green River, Q’s preferred work-appropriate beverage. Bill said it tasted like drinking lime Jell-O, but Q loved it.

“All right, you, time for a break,” she called as she set the tray down on the empty desk in the office.

“Since when do you bring me food?” Q asked, pocketing his oil rag and wiping a sleeve across his brow.

“Since it’s going on three in the afternoon and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of you all day.”

“It’s three? When did it get to be three?”

“Well, it’s technically not three quite yet, so you’ve got about seven minutes to adjust to the idea.” Eve leaned against the edge of the desk, ankles crossed primly, her uniform immaculate as always.

“Haven’t hardly had time to turn around, today. James’ car threw a wrench in my schedule.” Q winced.

Eve laughed. “Don’t let him throw a wrench in anything else. He caught me balancing the books today. I don’t know what he thought, but he didn’t try to throw me out of the office, which made a nice change.”

Q choked on his french fry.  “Well, I guess that means I don’t have to fire him.”

“Ugh,” Eve said, and shuddered. “Did you have to remind me?”

“Sorry. Haven’t heard how his shop’s doing, have you?”

“Grapevine says he’s got a specific kind of customer, if you know what I mean.”

Q nodded. They might be rural, but East Gary wasn’t that far away from Chicago - the Outfit ran through town regularly, usually on their way to the summer houses along the lakeshore in Michigan. It was easy to see how Raoul had fallen in with that crowd. “Well, that’ll be good for business. Right up til it’s not.”

Eve laughed and shook her head. “Eat your lunch, I’ll see if I can wrangle some help for you.”

Q took a bite of his BLT and a bit of tomato juice dribbled down his chin. “Thank you,” he said through the mouthful.

 

***

 

He should have known who Eve would send. He should have seen it coming a mile off, but of course he was completely unprepared for James waltzing into the shop with a sardonic smile plastered on his face, hands shoved into his pockets as he meandered across the shop floor to stand in front of him.

“What’s first?” James said, rocking back on his heels.

“Let me see how you run an oil change,” Q said. “The Buick.” He pointed to a yellow Roadmaster.

“Yes, sir,” James said, all cheeky grin and quirked eyebrow. The nerve of the man.

To Q’s utter horror, James actually was a competent mechanic. His comment about the radiator support wasn't a fluke. He had the oil out and drained in record time, and had it cleaned, filters replaced, and ready to drive in thirty minutes.

He rolled out from under the car, a smudge of grease across his cheek, and sat up on the creeper, elbows resting on knees, a rag in one hand and a wrench in the other.

“Ready for inspection, sir,” he said, that same cheeky grin dancing across his face.

“What’s with the ‘sir?’” Q asked as he waved James away from the creeper and rolled under himself to look.

“Worked Mechanical on the Queen Elizabeth ,” James said. “I suppose it’s habit.”

“It’s weird. Even Jack calls me Mr. Q.”

“Alright, then, Mr. Q,” James retorted, and Q could hear the grin in his voice.

He rolled out from under the car to see James standing above him, peering down, with that detestable smirk plastered all over his ridiculous face.

“Please don’t,” he said, and rolled back under the car.

“Just plain old Q, then, eh?”

“Are you always this obnoxious, or am I just special?” Q said from under the car as he checked the oil pan. It was perfect. Of course.

“Yes?” James said. “In my defense, you do make it rather easy.”

“That’s not a defense, it’s an excuse.” Q rolled back out from under the car. “But I can’t find a fault with your work, so I suppose you’ll do.”

“Excellent. What’s next?”

Chapter Text

James was pulled from sleep by a sharp rap on the window of his car. He blinked blearily and frowned as M’s face came swimming into focus. He frowned. Her lips were too red against her skin. He realized she was actually wearing makeup.

“Get up,” she said, arms crossed, staring down at him through the window.

“But it’s Sunday? You said the cafe doesn’t open til eleven on Sunday?”

“Church.”

“I don’t really—” James started, but his explanation died in his throat at the glare M leveled at him.

“Me neither, but that doesn’t stop me from going.”

“What sense does that make?” James asked as he crawled out of his car.

“Good business sense.”

“Sorry, I don’t follow.”

“You meet people, you talk to people. You make friends. Those friends come to eat at your restaurant. Business. You think I can survive on waifs and strays like you?”

“And here I thought politics was only practiced in government.”

“I don’t believe that for a moment,” M said. “Now scoot, or we’ll be late.”

 

M drove. James had offered, but M drove. Well, ‘drove’ might be kind. She tore down the road like the devil was licking at her heels and even James was on edge when she took a corner at speed. But she pulled into the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church just as the bell began to ring, and they slid into a pew in the back as the minister stepped to the pulpit.

James knew his way around a church service. He’d dutifully gone every Sunday with his parents. But he’d seen enough of the world to realize that whatever God existed didn’t give a damn about what went on down here.

He took in the sanctuary as he sat through the announcements: tall narrow stained glass windows on either side, a formal altar, a raised pulpit, choir loft. The walls were white, the carpet down the aisles red, and the obligatory religious artwork hung in the apse. Or whatever it was called here—the terms he’d learned as a child didn’t seem to quite apply to this building.  The minister congratulated the new Women’s Committee president, Mrs. Howard Young, who stood in her floral-print cotton dress and white lace gloves and half-hat, ducking her head and giggling while her husband clapped indulgently beside her, and then the service began.

It was a weird mixture of nostalgia and discomfort, listening to the minister praise a deity he didn’t believe in—nostalgia for the innocence of his youth, the remembered ritual of standing, sitting, repeating the words painstakingly typed and mimeographed into the bulletin handed to him as he entered. Discomfort knowing that he’d left all of that behind him by choice and circumstance, and there was no way to get it back.

Of course, that was both the blessing and the curse of growing up.

Things got a bit interesting when the minister asked the congregation to share the peace. He suddenly found himself surrounded by strangers, pumping his hand and murmuring ‘Peace be with you,’ over and over again as though it were a precursor to instant friendship. M was smiling - which looked out of place on her face to begin with - and asking after someone’s children. The whole scene was a bit surreal, all underscored with an almost rhythmic chant of ‘peace be with you,’ and a handshake.

Before the minister took up his position again, a man, nearly the same age as James, stopped beside him and offered his hand.

“Peace be with you,” James said, automatically.

“And with you. Haven’t seen you around. Just move to town?”

“In a manner of speaking.” The man’s eyes were so dark they looked black, and his tongue darted nervously over his lower lip as he spoke, giving him a nervous, flighty air. His handshake was limp, his hand clammy. All in all a very dissatisfying experience.

“Max Denbigh,” the man continued, even as James turned away to shake another offered hand. Well, what was he to do but offer his name in return?

“Good to meet you, Mr. Bond.  I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of each other.”

James smiled, in familiar territory with a man he did not want to know, but who seemed to want to know him. “I’m sure we will.”

Max licked his lips again, smiled, and disappeared as a middle-aged, balding man took up James’ hand for the last round of handshakes.

James was hoping to slip out quickly after the service, but M had other ideas. When she went to play politics, she played it to win, and was playing her part to a tee. James was impressed. He was good at working a room; M was a master.

Smiles at all the right moments, offering hands. She stuck to the wives, James noticed, gossiping among them, laughing, sharing tidbits she’d overheard at the cafe. And, inevitably, the conversation would come around to him—the handsome gentleman who’d brought her. He lost count of the number of times he lifted a demure, gloved hand, offered a dashing smile, chuckled warmly, and attempted to catch M’s eye and convey his need to get the hell out of there right now.

Forty-five minutes after the service, he was finally at the door, shaking hands with the minister, Reverend White. He looked like old leather with short-cropped brown hair and watery grey eyes. His wife and daughter stood beside him, the very picture of refined femininity. Both blonde, both red-lipped, and the only tell that they were mother and daughter instead of sisters was the wedding band, just barely visible beneath the older woman’s lace gloves.

M was polite but cool as she greeted them.

“Mrs. Mansfield, what a pleasure.” Rev. White smiled beatifically, and the women followed suit. The smile on Mrs. White’s face could have frozen water in August. The pleasure was apparently all her husband’s. “And you’ve brought another to our flock,” he continued, scanning James with a scrutinizing eye.

“This is Bond. He’s working at the cafe for a while and was in need of a congregation. I thought yours might suit.”

“Does it?”

The words came from the daughter. She took a half-step forward, appraising him, and obviously finding him lacking on all conceivable levels.

“It seems to. So far,” James said. He didn’t know the players here, didn’t have an objective view of the playing field. Positive neutral was always best before getting the lay of the land.

“Well, we certainly hope to see you next Sunday!” Reverend White’s enthusiasm seemed plastered over something else, but again, James had no idea what.

“Unless I’m invited elsewhere, Reverend, I think that’s a fine idea.”

“Splendid, splendid,” he nodded, then asked the inevitable question of origin, which James answered as succinctly as possible.

“Royal Navy!” Rev. White exclaimed. “I wish I could have joined the service, done my part, but I missed both the wars - too young for the first, and too old for the second!” He shook his head. “Well, some time you’ll have to tell me all about it!” He smiled, but something in it was reptilian and cold, calculating instead of welcoming.

James nodded anyway, fixing his professional smile into place and shaking his hand again.

“Of course.”

And then they were out the door, striding across the parking lot, M’s mouth set in the familiar firm line, her shoulders set again.

“What’s with Reverend White? No love lost between you, that’s obvious.”

M put the car in gear, and sedately pulled out of the parking lot.

“I was on the Women’s Committee when he was appointed our new minister after Reverend Slater passed. Slater was a good man, and I was hoping for a similarly good man to replace him. Well, you can see what we got. This was during the War, you understand. Precious few men to go around, and being a small church, others felt lucky to be assigned a new minister at all. I’m of the mind that we’d be better off led by a woman than that man.”

“He seems a bit...smarmy,” James said, though he wasn’t at all certain of M’s assertion that a church could be led by a woman. She’d want to have children, eventually, and then what—have the rugrats playing at the altar during sermon? James shook his head, banishing the thought. “What happened?”

“Geoff passed in ‘47,” M said perfunctorily, and James could only assume Geoff was her husband. “And Reverend White made a hash of the funeral. Not to put too fine a point on it, but even after Pearl Harbor he preached isolationism. Geoff was a veteran of the Great War, you understand. World War One, I suppose it’s called, now. Anyway, the sermon for Geoff’s funeral was turned into a treatise on the foolish loss of American lives in conflict. To hear him talk, we’d be better off in a world run by Hitler, though he won’t say it outright.”

“Not a sympathizer?” James asked. It beggared belief.

“Not in as many words,” M said. “‘Communist’ has supplanted ‘Jew’ in modern parlance. But the hatred is the same.”

“But you can hardly falsely accuse someone of being a Jew,” James pointed out.

“No, but you can falsely accuse Jews of being Communists,” M replied.

“Be careful where you say that.”

M glanced over at him as she pulled into the parking lot of the cafe. “I can’t help but notice you’re not disagreeing.”

James shrugged. He had his doubts about the Rosenbergs, certainly, but he’d never had his niggling suspicions spelled out quite so blatantly.

“Well, lunch isn’t going to make itself,” M announced. “You’ll be on fryer today, I think.”

James smirked and climbed out of the car. ‘Sunday is a half-day’ his arse.

 

***

Six days of waking up in his front seat was beginning to take its toll. It hadn’t been so bad when he was just driving, but after two full days of work and the ‘half day’ he’d worked Sunday, the hard springs in his seat just weren’t cutting it.

He woke with a cramp in his neck and a charley horse in his left calf. Granted, he was beginning to find a decent sleep schedule—one where he woke with the sun instead of slipping off to sleep as it rose—and the work of the cafe and garage was rewarding in a way his other life hadn’t been. Not that he didn’t miss the haute cuisine and endless champagne—he craved some caviar—but there was something satisfying about being able to look back and see the results of his work. However, he really needed to figure out where to find a bed if Q insisted on taking all two weeks to fix his car.

James sat up and stretched, trying to loosen the muscle in his calf, wincing as he massaged it. He’d finally beat Q awake for once, and the garage was dark in the pre-dawn light. He’d have to wait for Q to get there to shower. Definitely enough time to snag a slice of last night’s pie for breakfast.

M’s pies were divine. James stood in the kitchen, plate in hand, making obscene noises over the leftover slice of cherry pie on his plate. His favorite, so far, had been apple, although Bill had confided that her fresh peach pies, when the peaches were in full season, trumped everything else.

“When is peach season?” James asked casually, savoring his last bite before washing it down with a swig of reheated coffee.

“Oh, not til July,” Bill said. “She’s tried with the early peaches, but it’s not quite so rich.”

“That’s a shame.” James wondered if he could come back for a slice when the season hit. It’d be worth the trip, he knew. It was only for a piece of pie, but it wouldn’t even take a whole day, and if her peach pie was even better than the apple, well. How was a man to resist?

By the time he’d ceremoniously plopped his plate and fork into George’s dishwater, George grumbling at him half-heartedly, the lights were on in the garage and James went to shower.

“You look like hell,” Q said nonchalantly as James closed the office door behind him. Q was uncharacteristically sat behind the office desk, shuffling papers with no discernable pattern.

“Been working on this look all week,” James replied, sarcasm in full force.

“It shows.” Q was distracted, frowning at all the papers scattered everywhere.

“Thanks, I think. What’s all this?” James waved a hand at the stacks of paper on the desk.

“Invoices. Inventory. I think Jack’s last timesheet is in here somewhere, but I can’t find it, and I need to pay him Friday.” Q’s voice was frazzled, and he moved more papers around uselessly.

“Isn’t that… Doesn’t Eve do that?” James asked tentatively.

“For M. Separate businesses. She and Boothroyd bought the property together eons ago. Her money, his name. When he died six years ago, she inherited the land and the diner, but I got the shop. I like the work, hate the papers, but I’ve done alright. Only missed a delivery of oil once and had to close for a week til it came, but that was five years ago and—” Q stopped suddenly and frowned. “Sorry. I tend to ramble when I’m thinking.”

James couldn’t say why, but seeing Q out of his element was charming, to say the least. In the garage, he was always so calm, almost cold, and the confidence oozed off him in waves. He was magnetic, and James caught himself watching as Q moved confidently through the shop. But this—the end-of-his-rope scatter-brained Q—warmed something in him that he’d thought nearly dead.

“It’s fine. Can I help?”

Q looked up, with an even mix of terror and relief written across his face. “You have to go to the diner in the mornings, don’t you?”

“Not for…” James checked his watch, “another two and a half hours. I’m sure we’ll get it sorted by then.”

An hour later, everything was organized, Jack’s timesheet had been found, and James had made a list of all the outstanding invoices that Q should probably take care of by the end of the week.

James leaned back in the chair, lacing his fingers behind his head and grinning as Q tucked the last of the receipt copies into the filing cabinet.

“Is there anything you’re not good at?” Q teased as he turned, hands on hips, to appraise the desk that was clear for the first time in months.

“Not that I’ll admit to,” James said, grin widening.

“Jackass.”

“That’s no way to talk to someone who just spent an hour of their very valuable leisure time trying to organize your entire office,” James said. His tone was light, teasing, the grin refusing to fade from his lips.

Q’s ears turned a fetching shade of pink. “Get yourself and your perfectly formed ass to work, you fuckin’ actor,” he said with an over-emphasized eye-roll.

“Eat your heart out, kid.” James winked, a wicked smirk on his face, then pushed himself up from his chair, turned on his heel, and sauntered back to the shower, leaving Q sputtering behind him.

James spent as long as he could stand under the cold spray, frowning, wondering if he’d gone too far. He rinsed off, dried himself on the cadet blue terrycloth towel that had mysteriously appeared the second morning, and pulled on his clothes: jeans today, which wasn’t particularly decent work attire, but he was down to his last clean set of clothes and he’d need laundry done—James realized that he’d have to wire his bank for cash. Two weeks was too long to limp along on three-cent day-old pie and burnt coffee. He’d have to ask M for the morning off to find a Western Union. He hoped a down payment of $1.78 would get him what he needed.

 

***

 

“Where’s your pickup?” Q asked Bill as he sat at the counter for lunch. That was his usual routine, but, like many things, it had all gone ass over elbows since James had shown up. It didn’t help that he’d volunteered to help Q in the garage. Q’s off-the-cuff offer had turned into hours of barely being able to concentrate as James moved around the cars, changing oil, flushing radiators, buffing out paint scuffs and the myriad routine things Q felt comfortable letting him handle.

“James took it,” Bill said.

“Of course he did. Why?”

“Something about Western Union,” George supplied. “He was talking to M about it.”

“Oh.” Q stared at his lunch, wondering what James was up to.

It didn’t stay a mystery for long.

Right as he took the last swallow out of his Green River, James walked into the cafe with a self-satisfied smirk plastered on his ridiculous face and a swagger in his step that Q hadn’t seen before. It looked like James owned the place: his confidence oozed from every pore, filled the whole dining room until everyone except M had stopped and was staring at him.

Q had to admit he cut a remarkable figure in faded jeans and an elderly flannel shirt left half-unbuttoned because of the warm day over a white cotton undershirt. He’d rolled the sleeves to his elbows, and Q had a devil of a time tearing his eyes away from James’ forearms. He finally succeeded, and stared down at his empty plate instead.

“What’s got you waltzing in here like Big Daddy all of a sudden?” Eve asked from the kitchen door.

“This,” James said, but Q didn’t look up. He kept his eyes studiously on his plate until the entire diner erupted into laughter. Q looked up just in time to see M pulling a fiver out of the front of her dress and scowling fondly at James. The man had a stack of cash in his hand, waving it around like it was nothing.

“And a round of Cokes for the house!” he announced, peeling off a single and handing it to M this time, wedged between his first and second fingers.

“Where’d you get it all?” Deetz asked, amazed and slightly jealous.

“Western Union. Just handed it over when I asked. Like magic.” He made it sound as though he’d robbed the place, but he didn’t look dumb enough to try. Maybe he’d sent for it from a friend, or his family, or something. James had divulged precious little about his life prior to driving halfway across the country. Not that Q blamed him. He knew all about keeping the past close to his chest. But it ate at him anyway, the wondering, the conjecture. He’d come from Washington, D.C., that much he’d been happy to say, and he couldn’t hide his accent, but the reasons he gave when pressed - ‘wanted adventure’ and ‘needed a change of scenery’ - smacked of something else, something he was loath to divulge even as the two of them had struck up a friendly camaraderie of sorts as they worked together.

James was showing off, now, fanning Eve with a spread of small bills, laughing with Deetz as he not-so-jokingly accused him of having connections in Chicago, and for reasons Q didn’t really want to think about, it made his skin itch between his shoulder blades.

“Does this mean you’ll quit?” Bill asked suddenly. “Gonna become a man of leisure, now?” The room fell quiet, and Q realized that that was what had bothered him—not what he was doing, but what it meant.

“What, and let you actually burn the place down?” James replied, laughing.

“Not before you cut your fingers off trying to julienne potatoes by hand, ya dipstick.”

“’Cause nobody told me there was a specific slicer for that,” James said, and Q risked a glance up. He happened to catch James as he swept his eyes over the small gathering and settled on Q.

He seemed about to say something, but a customer walked in, and the impromptu break ended abruptly as M leveled her patented ‘get to work’ glare, and everyone, including James, scuttled back to their stations. Q’s lunch break was over, too, and he trudged back to the shop, his mind reeling.

On the one hand, he was relieved James would continue to help out at the cafe and the garage. James was a competent, if not particularly gifted, mechanic, and he had actually been helpful when Eve had sent him over that first day. And every day since, from after lunch until the shop closed.

Q paused as he pulled down the air hose to re-inflate a patched tire. Thinking about James brought him back to that bizarre exchange they’d had earlier that morning. James must know Q watched him. He’d tried to be subtle about it, but Q had to admit, the man was easy to look at. And there was that time he’d caught James staring back—but even now he was questioning if that’s really what he’d seen or if it was just wishful thinking.

He was half-angry at himself for letting the man affect him at all. What kind of ridiculous game did he think he was playing, spooling out fantasies in the dark loneliness of his bedroom before falling asleep, indulging himself in something like that. James would be gone—as soon as Q finished his car—and good riddance.

If only he could convince himself.

 

***

James woke with a start. His motel room was dark, no light seeping in under the curtains. The remnants of the dream (he couldn’t quite bring himself to refer to them as nightmares—those were for children) faded as he sat in bed, reminding himself he was safe. There were no bombs, no buzzing aircraft engines, no call to stations, no screams. He’d thought the dreams might be behind him—he hadn’t had one in months—but he should have known better. Six years and they were still as vivid as they were when he’d first been discharged. It wasn’t shell shock, he didn’t jump at loud noises or lose control of himself, but he couldn’t seem to shake the nightmares. Or his habit of keeping a gun.

For a long while, he’d slept with his Bull Dog revolver within reach. But he’d gradually moved it further away after finding himself clutching it as he woke, shaking and covered in sweat, once too often. It currently resided in the bottom of his toolbox. Close enough should the worst happen, but far enough away that he couldn’t reach it while asleep. He peered at the clock on the nightstand, but couldn’t make out the hands in the dark. He sighed and flipped on the lamp.

His room was cheerful enough - a bright spread on the bed, an oriental carpet between the bed and the door to the bathroom, pine paneling, and a Zenith television. His toolbox sat under the desk beside the window, his meagre selection of clothes hung in the open closet beside the door. All this for just $8 a night, including breakfast served from six to ten in the morning.

He checked the clock, now that his eyes had adjusted to the light. It was twenty after four. Nothing for it, then. He threw the blankets off and shuffled off to the shower to start the day.

It was a twenty-minute walk down Six from the motel to M’s, but James didn’t mind. Not really. It was a good way to clear his head, prepare himself. It was also a good way to get creamed by a semi truck, because there was absolutely no shoulder on the road and a ditch alongside that dropped off about two feet from the edge of the pavement. The draft from the passing trucks ruffled his shirt and made the hair on his arms stand on end. Something about the perpetual close calls made him feel alive, though, and by the time he got to the parking lot of the cafe, he’d all but forgot why he was there before dawn.

The lights were already blazing in the garage - Q hard at work before the day began in earnest. Not for the first time, James wondered when the man slept. If he slept. Where he slept. Which devolved into actually thinking about what Q would look like asleep. Which led to several other thoughts about Q in a bed.

He’d been toying with the idea, off and on, of testing the waters, seeing if Q was amenable. Just to take the edge off, he told himself. Of course, if he did and was rebuffed, he’d never be able to come back for the peach pie—and it was this, more than anything, that kept him from being more obvious. Q was a decent chap, he enjoyed his company, and there was no reason to spoil it now.

If the peach pie didn’t live up to expectations, perhaps. He could wait that long. Besides, he’d be in Chicago in a few days—plenty of fish to choose from there. Oddly, the thought didn’t sound so enticing anymore.

James poked his head into the garage to see Q’s feet stuck out from under the front fender of an aging Lincoln Continental. Without thinking too much about it, possibly because the scene reminded him so much of Ronson when he’d been assigned to Mechanical, James snuck over and tugged on Q’s pant cuff, dragging him out from under the car.

Q made an undignified squeak, scrambling to his feet as soon as his head cleared the car, standing in front of James, his socket wrench lifted like a club, murder in his eyes, his chest heaving.

“Morning,” James said casually, shoving his hands into his pockets and rocking back on his heels.

“What,” Q snarled, “the fuck,” he lowered his wrench, “was that?”

“A bit of fun?” James said, smirking.

“You scared the shit out of me!” Q said, but it was obvious he was fighting a smile himself.

“You look like you could have handled it,” James replied, motioning to the wrench still in a death grip in Q’s hand.

“Yes, and have you bleeding all over my shop floor. Excellent for business.” Q let out a breath. “What are you doing here so early, anyway? I thought you had a nice warm bed to sleep in, now.”

Not as warm as I’d like, James thought, but said, “I could ask you the same thing.”

“Don’t sleep much,” Q said. “Never have. Usually my mornings are spent at home with Betsey,” he nodded towards his Deuce, “but since my schedule’s been hijacked by a Ford with leaky gaskets,” he continued, meaningfully, “I figured my time was better spent here. And since you’re here, too, you could at least make yourself useful and get that Studie cleaned up and ready to roll.”

James chuckled and dutifully went over to check on the Studebaker sitting in Bay One. He popped the hood and immediately realized the poor thing needed a fan belt replaced, among other things.

“What are we doing for this old girl?” James called.

“Clean her up and replace the fan belt,” Q replied, rolling back under the Lincoln. James grinned, and got to work.

 

***

 

“Well, that’s Liz all fixed up for you!” Q patted the roof of James’ car and smiled. James found it hard to believe that he’d actually been here for ten days. When he’d started out, it had seemed like an eternity, but the time had slipped past, filled with good people, better food, and an unlikely friendship with Q. It had been too long since he’d had a proper friend - someone who was just genuinely pleasant, and whom James found supremely interesting.

“I suppose…” Q continued, “I suppose this means you’ll be moving on, then. Ten days is long enough for a cosmopolitan man like yourself to be stuck in a backwards little town like this.” He smiled, but it didn’t match his eyes. “I’m sure you have better things to do.”

“I don’t, actually, no. And...” James paused. He always found it difficult to express certain things, and he never quite understood why. But he felt that this needed to be said. “I’ve grown rather fond of this particular bump in the road.”

“I think that’s M’s pie talking.” Q turned away and fussed with several objects on an overflowing workbench.

“Well, Bill has been talking up the peach,” James conceded. “But she won’t start those til July. Thought I might stick around for a taste, see if it lives up to his enthusiasm.”

Q didn’t look up, but James caught the crease in the corner of his cheek that meant he was smiling. To James’ surprise, so was he. The expression had crept up on him, crawling over his face until he was grinning ear-to-ear without even thinking about it. He was light, somehow, and carefree in a way he couldn’t remember feeling before. Perhaps, he thought, this is what peace felt like.

“You’ll get bored,” Q said to the workbench. “There’s not much to do. Not like the big cities you’re used to. No champagne toasts and caviar canapes here. Bill’s orange chicken is considered pretty high-brow for this crowd.”

“But not for you?”

“I didn’t—”

“It was implied,” James said easily, and pulled out the tube patches Q had been fruitlessly searching for. “And maybe I’d like a little more simplicity in my life. Maybe that’s what I’ve been missing.”

Q took the tube patches from James and turned to study his face. There was something unreadable behind his eyes, something he was guarding, carefully, just beyond what James could see.

“Well, I’ll certainly be glad of the help. My schedule’s a wreck thanks to you.”

“So you keep saying. You need another mechanic?”

“I think a spot just opened up,” Q said, another grin fighting to break across his face. “Pleasure to welcome you on, James.”

“Pleasure’s all mine, I assure you.”

Chapter Text

It took two weeks, but finally Q’s backlog of appointments had been cleared out, James had managed to talk Marge and Jim at the motel into giving him a discounted weekly rate, and everyone had settled into a routine at the cafe. The nights were still cool, but the days were warm, sunny, and made for sitting on the bench outside the shop office with a cigarette and a Coke.

Which is what James and Q were doing when Jack rolled up on his bike and came dashing towards them.

“Drive-In opens this weekend!” he shouted, nearly dancing with excitement. “They just announced it on the radio—I heard it over at the Harvey Mart. C’mon, Mr. Q, please?”

Q took a long, contemplative drag on his cigarette.

“The question this year,” he began, drawing out his words and obviously driving Jack up the wall, “is this: Which car will you ride in, mine or Mr. James’?”

James pressed his lips together, trying not to laugh, as Jack’s eyes grew big as saucers and he looked between the two of them, amazed.

“Really, Mr. James? You don’t mind?”

James couldn’t hold the chuckle in anymore.

“Q told me about the tradition yesterday, and I’d be happy to take you—and that girlfriend of yours—to the cinema.”

“Mr. Q, you’re coming too, right? It’s a double feature— House of Wax and It Came from Outer Space !”

Q shot James an unreadable expression, and he lifted his eyebrows in a way that he hoped was inviting.

“Um.”

“I don’t mind,” James said. “Unless you’re going with somebody else.” In the nearly four weeks they’d known one another, James had never heard Q speak of anyone...important in his life, but the two of them had found plenty else to talk about over carburetors and oil pans.

“No,” Q said quickly. “No, I’m not… that is, I don’t have plans. Sounds good. I’ve wanted to see House of Wax . Heard it’s terrifying.”

“I hope so,” Jack said, and the faraway look in his eye spoke volumes about what he hoped would happen during the particularly scary bits. James smirked, recalling some of his own misspent youth with girls at the cinema. And realizing that he’d just effectively made plans to misspend some time in the dark with Q.

Well, if he could watch Q bend over bumpers and scrabble under chassis all day without outright attacking the man, he could definitely sit next to him in the dark with two kids in the back seat. It’d be fine. Two pals going to the show. Nothing more. Nothing more. He didn’t need any more, didn’t want any more.

If only he could convince himself.

 

***

 

Friday came faster than Q could have anticipated. The whole town was going to turn out, he knew. Opening weekend at the Mel-O-Dee Drive-In was nearly a municipal holiday. He shrugged on his leather jacket, even though it was almost too warm to warrant it, ran a comb through his hair one last time, stuck it in his back pocket, stared hard at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, then made a face.

Gerdy and Mat came wandering in from doing cat things and wound around Q’s legs. He bent to scratch them between the ears. Q had always had an affinity for cats—he admired their independence and personalities—and Gertrude and Mathilda were quite the characters. Gerdy was the inquisitive one, constantly poking her nose into things and getting into trouble for it. Mat was much more cautious, spending most of her time perched on top of the bookshelf in the living room, surveying her demesne. They were both good company for different reasons, and he appreciated their ability to amuse themselves when he worked late at the shop.

He forced himself to eat something as he waited for the sound of James’ tires in his driveway. They should have driven separately. That could have solved a myriad of problems, but Jack, bless his innocent little heart, had objected on the basis of parking spaces. The boy had a point, and James had magnanimously offered to pick everyone up, but it left him restless, his hands buzzing, as he waited.

Was this how girls felt when they were waiting on their dates?

Q groaned aloud at his traitorous brain. He and James were friends—work friends—and that was all.

But he couldn’t quite forget the fond smile that came to James’ lips when they were trading quips and insults back and forth in the shop—the smile that seemed warmer than any friend’s had a right to. The way James’ eyes stuck to his when they’d meet and it was only when Q looked away that sound and motion seemed to crash back into reality.

He had to stop this. It was getting out of hand.

Mat’s ears perked up as the sound of an engine approached down his street. Q knew the timbre already—had memorized it when he’d first started her up. Liz practically purred, now, and Q would know the sound anywhere.

He fought the urge to peer through the living room windows to watch as James pulled into the driveway, but lost.

Liz slid up to the house and James and cut the engine. Q could just see in the deepening twilight as James climbed out of the car, turned for a moment and ducked back inside, then strode up the walk to the front door. He had on a novelty print shirt, but Q couldn’t quite see what the pattern was in the gloom.

Q jerked back from the window as James knocked. He wiped his palms on his thighs, shook his hands out, and opened the door.

 

***

 

James had literal children in his back seat. Children not old enough to drive, sitting with about six inches between them on the seat, glancing at each other, then away, then back again until one or the other of them laughed self-consciously. James could have written the steps of this dance out blindfolded. Jack sat straight-backed, hands in his lap, and Theresa did the same, her fingers smoothing out non-existent wrinkles in her skirt. The steps of this dance rarely changed, and those two would likely be choosing china patterns in a few years, Jack perhaps realizing his dream of owning his own garage, or going to work at the steel mills in Gary. James felt a prick of envy at the simplicity of their imagined lives—the ideal pedaled to the masses on television.

James wouldn’t lie to himself—he wanted it too. It seemed idyllic, a personal utopia of inexplicable joy. Smiling children, smiling wife, a dog maybe. That perfect piece of paradise could be yours, too, the advertisements said, for a price. It was a heady feeling, thinking you could have it all. But the glossy photos hid the rotting supports underneath—implied was ‘don’t be different, different is bad, different is dangerous.’

It was easy to believe. It’s what made McCarthy so magnetic. He served fear, and people lapped it up because it was comfortable. Everyone had spent years unanimously hating the Germans and Japanese, and the Soviets had stepped in to fill the void once the war was over.

Not that James had sympathy for Stalin and his ilk. They were just as bad as the Nazis, if not worse, and somewhere along the line ‘Communist’ and ‘Fascist’ had become synonymous because of it.

For the two kids in his back seat, though, this was all a distant star, visible but not tangible, a looming sort of dread, perhaps, if they even thought about it, but not something that was going to change their lives. Not the way it had changed his, although perhaps he should be writing thank-you notes for that. If it hadn’t been for his name on that list, he never would have ended up here, and he never would have met Q, or M, or Bill, or any of them. And there were precious few things he would give that up for.

“This is Mr. Q’s street,” Jack said as James almost drove right past it, lost as he was in his own head.

“Right,” James said. “Just testing you. When do you get your license?”

“Fourteen months,” Jack said. James caught the grin in the rearview mirror.

“Been practicing?”

“When I can. Dad lets me drive the truck when he has to get to the back of the field.”

“Good lad. What about you, Theresa?” The mousy girl had barely said a word since she’d climbed in the car.

“Oh,” she said, startled, “I’m not sure Father would let me. He’s very protective of the car.”

James could understand that. Girls out driving by themselves could get into worlds of trouble. “Very sensible.”

He pulled into Q’s drive a moment later, climbed out of the car, and then ducked back inside to remind Jack to be a gentleman, which made him turn a bit crimson around the gills. James chuckled and strode up the walk to Q’s front door.

The house was small, with blue siding and a limestone foundation, white shutters at the windows and a white aluminum awning over the front door held up by decorative wrought iron posts. It looked to be fairly new construction, definitely built after the war, with two good-size maples in the yard and a couple of yew bushes under the plate glass window of the living room. James pretended he didn’t notice Q peeking out between the curtains as he approached.

He knocked on the door and waited, hands shoved casually in his pockets. He glanced around a bit, taking in the neighborhood (modest) and the neighbor’s yard (perfectly groomed with flowers lining their front walk) and decided that Q lived in a pretty decent spot, all things considered.

Q opened the door, and it was all James could do to keep his jaw from dropping to his chest. The man wore a scuffed leather jacket over his ubiquitous white undershirt, new jeans, and thick-soled boots that looked like they’d just been polished. His hair was combed up into a pompadour that defied gravity.

James would be tested tonight like he’d never been tested in the shop.

Q smiled, his too-pink lips quirking at the corners in the most beguiling way.

“Hello,” Q said.

“Hello,” James croaked eloquently, then cleared his throat. He fought with himself to swallow the compliment brimming at the back of his throat. Q not only looked good, he looked dangerous , and that sparked something in James that drew him like a moth to a flame.

“We should probably get going,” Q said, taking a small step forward. James immediately realized that he’d been standing there for a full fifteen seconds just staring and he quickly backed up a step to let Q pass.

“After you.” The minute it left his mouth, he wanted to swallow it again. He didn’t treat his friends like dates, even if he did think about bedding them. It just wasn’t done. But Q didn’t seem to have noticed, because he nodded and pulled the door shut.

The trip to the Mel-O-Dee Drive-In Theater was a mix of Jack exuberantly telling Q and James everything he knew about the films, which was basically a regurgitation in enthusiastic slang of the ads in the newspapers, and Q philosophizing about the plotlines, which James found fascinating.

“And aliens!” Jack finished, grinning.

“It sounds terrifying,” Theresa murmured.

“Don’t worry, doll, it’s just a movie. And if you get scared, you can hold my hand.”

James had to bite his cheeks to keep from laughing. Textbook. Well done, Jack. Theresa went a bit pink, but smiled.

“You know,” Q said, addressing his remarks to his window, “If every star is a sun, and every one of those suns has planets, and if one planet in each of those solar systems has any kind of life, at least one of them out there can fly through space. It’s probability.”

“Oh, don’t say things like that,” Theresa said. “Can you imagine? Ugh! Aliens coming here and who knows what kinds of evil they’d do, they’ll probably want to eat us up!”

“I don’t know,” Jack said. “I think it’d be kind of exciting. If they came all the way here in a spaceship, maybe they could teach me how to build one. Then I’d be the only spaceship mechanic in the whole world. I’d be famous!”

 

***

 

The usherettes in their spunky uniforms and white gloves waved James into his parking spot as the announcement was made over the speaker posts that the show would start in fifteen minutes.

“Just enough time for popcorn,” James said, and grinned. “Jack, would you do the honors?” He handed back a fiver. “And take Theresa. She can pick out some candy.”

“Oh, I don’t—” she began, but James interrupted her.

“Theresa, have a little box of candy, alright?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And don’t make it sound like a chore!”

James let Jack and Theresa out to wander to the concession stand, and he stood outside the car for a moment, leaning against the door frame and rummaging in his pocket for his pack of cigarettes.

“Oh, it’s fish!” Q said, picking up a conversation James didn’t recall having.

“What’s fish?” James asked, and ducked down into the car to frown at Q.

“Your shirt. It’s fish. I couldn’t tell until we got under the lights.”

James smiled a bit self-consciously. So that was why Q had been staring. He couldn’t figure out the pattern on his damn shirt. Well, alright, then.

James tried not to let the disappointment show on his face. What was there to be disappointed in, anyway? It was all suspicion, conjecture, wild theories. But perhaps he’d been hoping—

“Bond!” The voice was familiar and sent waves of dread crashing over him.

“Denbigh,” he replied, turning to face the man. He wore dark khaki trousers and a blue western-style shirt with pointed pocket flaps. Max stuck out his hand, and James had little choice but to take it. It was still clammy.

“Glad to see you partaking in community traditions,” he said, his eyes darting, never resting in any one place for long.

“Well, I could hardly miss it, seeing as how the whole town turns up for the event.”

Q climbed out of the passenger seat just then, and leaned his chest against the edge of the open door, arms crossed on the roof, cigarette hanging from his lower lip. He was not smiling.

“Oh, yes. It’s a regular party around here. Probably pales in comparison to what you see in Chicago, though. But I wouldn’t know about that,” Q said. It sounded suspiciously like an accusation, but of what James couldn’t decide.

Max bristled, and James glanced between them, the scowl on Q’s face, the posturing Max was preparing for. If push came to shove, he’d fall in beside Q in a heartbeat. He balled his hands into fists, preparing for whatever happened next.

“Mr. James!” Jack called, wandering up arm-in-arm with Theresa. He carried a giant tub of popcorn in one arm, she a smaller bag of popcorn and a box of Whoppers. “I’ve got your change,” he said, handing over the popcorn and digging in his pocket.

“Good evening, Theresa,” Max said, and James could see the grateful smile slide into place.

“Good evening, Mr. Denbigh,” Theresa said. “It’s nice to see you again.” She shrank away from him, sliding inconspicuously behind Jack.

“Oh, you’re already acquainted, then,” James said, stepping closer to Theresa.

“Her father and I are old school friends,” Max explained. “And this charming young man must be Jack.”

“Jack Roper.” Jack stuck out his hand, and Max took it. The handshake was short.

“Very good to meet you, Jack.”

Just then the lights flicked off, then on again.

“Five minutes to showtime,” Jack said, and turned to Theresa. “You ready?”

Theresa nodded and smiled, and moved to climb back into James’ car.

“Well, I ought to get back to my own seat,” Max said. “Good to see you again, Bond. Q.”

“Likewise,” James said icily.

All four of them climbed back into the car. James set the popcorn bucket on the front seat, between himself and Q.

“What was that about with Denbigh?” James murmured as the newsreel started up. It was a conglomeration of stories—one of which announced the upcoming coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. James wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that, but that had more to do with his waffling patriotism than any objection to Elizabeth herself.

“He, er, sells insurance.”

The expression on Q’s face told James that ‘selling insurance’ was more than likely a euphemism for something else entirely, but what that was wasn’t clear.

“What kind of insurance?” James asked.

“Mostly home and car, I think. Hasn’t branched out into life insurance yet, but I wouldn’t put it past him.” Q grabbed a handful of popcorn and began plucking kernels into his mouth with his tongue.

“He gives me the creeps,” James confessed.

Q laughed. “He gives everyone the creeps, James. And he’s a notorious busybody. Gossips worse than a woman. Don’t tell him anything, ever, or it’ll be all over town in two days.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” James said, and meant it.

Then the Warner shield came up on the screen, and the text ‘Please Put On Your Glasses.’ James slipped the special viewing glasses into place.

“Oh drat,” Q mumbled as he fought to fit the frames over his own glasses.

“Here,” James said, holding out his hand. Q passed him both sets of frames, and he fit the two together then slid them over Q’s ears.

“Thanks.”

“Anytime.” He tried to forget how his fingertips had accidentally brushed through Q’s perfectly coiffed hair and mussed the comb-marks, and he definitely didn’t keep trying to steal glances at said mussed comb-marks as the credits began.

 

***

 

As soon as the last notes of music faded and the lights came up, Jack started talking again.

“Oh man, Mr. Q, oh man, that was… oh man! That was intense !”

The popcorn bucket between him and James was more than half-empty and Q desperately needed to use the bathroom.

“I’ll get more popcorn,” he offered, and shook the bucket. “Anybody else need anything?”

“Get us some drinks, I think,” James said. “You need help?”

“Oh, no,” Q said quickly. Not only did he need to use the bathroom, but he needed to escape the oppressive air of James’ presence. They’d managed to brush hands reaching for popcorn four separate times during the film, and Q’s skin still hummed from the contact. He’d never been so on edge, and it had nothing to do with the movie’s plot. “I can manage.”

James shrugged. “Alright.”

Q fled, popcorn bucket under his arm, with Jack’s enthusiastic recounting of the plot receding behind him.

After his perfunctory trip to the men’s, he got in line for concessions, cigarette dangling from his lips as he glanced around the crowd. Shelly Davis - no, it wasn’t Davis anymore, what was her married name? Schubert? - and her two not-so-young sons were walking towards him. Had they really graduated High School the same year? It seemed impossible, but he supposed it had to be - that was eight years ago, and her oldest looked it. She smiled at him as she got in line, too.

“Hello, Quimby,” she said, and he winced.

“I’ve always hated that name.”

“I know. But I always thought it suited you. Say hello, boys.”

“Hey, Mr. Q,” the older boy said, echoed half a second later by the younger. Q greeted them politely, asked how school had been that year, which was ‘terrible’ and ‘recess is fun!’ respectively.

“How’s that Chevy truck of yours holding up?” Q asked. It was an ancient thing, rusted and rattled, but it still ran, by God, and Q meant to keep it that way as long as he could. She deserved that much.

“Oh, fine. That new alternator was just the ticket. Can’t thank you enough for giving us a break on it.” Shelly and her husband tried to make ends meet as best they could, but he had trouble holding onto a job, and with the kids, all she could do to help was take in washing and mending. He wondered how long she’d had to save pennies for tonight.

“No break,” Q said, waving it away. “Honestly. Got it from Dimmett’s junkyard, just polished it up a little.”

“Well, thank you anyway.” She smiled, and the line moved up, and the conversation was brought to a halt before it had even really begun.

Shelly had been one of Q’s close friends in High School, after he’d moved here at fifteen. She’d been the first one to be friendly with him - the new kid, the orphan, working evenings and weekends at the garage and still going to school. She’d been expecting him to marry her, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to do it. He cared about her too much to bind her to a lie, even if it would have made his own life that much easier. Their relationship had cooled by necessity afterwards, and she’d found Richard Schubert, and even though their life was difficult, she seemed happy enough.

“What can I getcha?” the girl at the counter asked, breaking Q’s reverie.

“Popcorn refill, please, and four Cokes.”

“You got it.”

Q paid, and carried the lot back to James’ car—James, who was leaning against the door of his car, cigarette between his lips, watching him walk up the gravel path, smirk tugging at his lips. James, who had become a friend, not just an employee, not just a co-worker. James, who had rolled in here a month ago with a broken-down car and no reason to stay, but who’d chosen to stick around. And now Q didn’t know if he wanted the man to stay, or if he wanted him to move on, because this was a terrible line to toe.

He’d thought that maybe he’d...outgrown it or conquered it somehow. But each day when his heart leapt after he made James laugh, or when his eyes stuck to James’ back as he lifted a down a tire… It was one thing for his dreams to get the better of him, quite another to allow it to impact his waking hours. But there was no use denying the fact that he found James attractive-- irresistibly so-- and that such an attraction could turn out to be his undoing.

 

***

 

The second movie that night was so pointedly political it bordered on outrageous, but the story was engaging and James had found himself genuinely curious as to how it would all turn out. The ending was satisfying enough for him, but it had truly captured Jack’s imagination. He couldn’t shut up about it, about aliens, and about their spaceships. He talked all the way to Theresa’s house, then all the way to his own, and when it was finally just James and Q on their way to Q’s house, the silence felt like relief. The pair sat in comfortable quiet, James watching the road, Q staring out the window at the passing trees.

“A fox!” Q said and pointed out the window as they drove through a small woods. “I swear that was a fox beside the road. Did you see?”

“No.”

“Too bad. First one I’ve seen in a long time.”

The car lapsed into silence again, this one slightly less comfortable. James glanced towards Q, only to catch him looking back, and he snapped his eyes back to the road. Q shifted his weight in his seat and the leather creaked. It was a relief when James finally pulled into Q’s driveway.

“G’night,” Q said as he got out.

“‘Night,” James replied.

He watched Q disappear into his house. The light in the living room flicked on for a moment, then extinguished, and James pictured Q shuffling down a hallway towards his bedroom, covering a giant yawn.

He tried to stop himself picturing the way Q would shrug out of his jacket, the way he would pull his t-shirt off over his head, but it was a losing battle—one he’d been losing for nearly a month, honestly.

He sighed as he backed out of the driveway. It seemed an unsolvable dichotomy: either keep Q as a friend, or take him as a lover. He was all too aware of the consequences of the latter: it would end, it always ended—sooner or later, a week, a month, maybe two if he were lucky. But eventually it would sour, eventually the chrome would wear away and the pitted nickel underneath would begin to show through. It would become ugly and rough.

Friendship was stainless steel—an alloy where the finish never wore off because it was solid through and through. It was bright forever—easily polished up to high gloss again if it got scuffed, and all but impossible to dent. James would take that over chrome plating any day. He’d just have to get over it, he’d have to keep his hands to himself. Find someone else to fill his baser needs. But even as the thought entered his head, for the first time since he’d crossed the Atlantic he didn’t relish the notion.

He stopped by Miller’s Party Package on his way back to the motel. As he paid for the fifth of vodka, it occurred to him that he hadn’t even thought about drinking since he’d arrived here. But right now he needed the familiar burn of it in his throat to quiet the buzzing in his fingertips, the itch under his skin. Of all the places he could have landed, he had to choose the one small town with the handsome mechanic. It seemed fate was laughing at him again—showing him something he could have had, if only for a night, but dangling it out of his reach because he’d been obliged to stay for more than a day and had inexplicably become attached to not only the mechanic, but the motley crew at the diner, as well.

It was M’s offer, he was sure of it. He didn’t know why, but that small act of kindness had cracked him open just enough to let the rest of them in.

He yanked open the vodka and took a swig as he paused for a stop sign on the way back to his room. The familiar heat of it in his throat soothed something in him, and he took another swig. By the time he’d reached the motel parking lot, the bottle was a third gone, and his brain was pleasantly fuzzy.

His parking job left a bit to be desired, but it he hadn’t hit anything so who cared. The key had trouble fitting into the lock on his door, but once he was in his room, everything became easy. He fiddled with the radio until something that wasn’t static drifted out of the speaker. It was a music program, of course, it would be this time of night - James squinted at the clock - well, morning technically. It wasn’t any music he was familiar with, but the harmonica was interesting, and the way the singer bit out the lyrics fit his mood. He stripped down to his underwear and lay down on the bed, pulling the ashtray over and settling it within easy reach, along with a new pack of Lucky Strikes and his bottle.

He was an idiot for staying. He could see it, now, in the cruel focus of an uninhibited mind. What had he been thinking of, agreeing to work beside that utterly distracting man? That he’d desensitize himself to Q’s charms? That he’d somehow just wake up one morning magically able to overlook how his sleeves fit against his arms, the curve of his spine as he bent into a car?

And tonight had taken the bloody fucking cake. Every time his hand brushed Q’s as they reached for the popcorn had felt like a burn, and he swore he could feel the warmth of him as they sat beside each other, nevermind that an entire popcorn bucket was sat between them.

What the hell did he think he was playing at, setting himself up to be tortured—and for what, a slice of peach pie? Was that the flimsy excuse he’d given, the one he’d allowed himself to believe?

The radio cut to a commercial for Pepsodent, and James lit another cigarette. The bottle was half-gone, now, enough for the room to start blurring at the edges as he glanced around, and he sighed. He alternated deep drags on his cigarette with pulls from the bottle, staring at the dark television screen, his collection of clothes hanging in the closet, the toolbox.

Thank God he had tomorrow off, he thought distantly. The radio host announced another song, with the same driving beat and harmonica riffs, and James slowly nodded along, his head loose, wobbling, but it felt good, relaxed, like himself.

“I don’t want you to wash my clothes/ I don’t want you to keep my home/ I don’t want your money too/ I just want to make love to you”  The song dug into his brain.

No, it was impossible. This was a backwater little town—there was no way Q even knew such a thing existed, let alone wanted anything to do with it.

But the glances—

But the smiles—

None of it mattered anyway. If he wanted to stay, he had to keep his bloody hands to his bloody self—and the rest of this place had brought him at least a measure of peace.

Right.

Stainless steel, not chrome. Stainless steel, not chrome.

But as he crushed out the butt end of his fourteenth cigarette and took the last swallow from the bottle, all he could think about was how Q’s hair had felt under his fingers for that split second in the car.

***

 

James walked into the shop Monday morning and it looked like three entire cabinets had vomited their contents onto the floor. There were buckets and wires and containers of chemicals strewn about Bay One. Bay Two had a Model T half taken apart, and Q was at the polisher, a headlight housing in his hands.

“What are you doing?”

“Re-chroming. The metal pitted.”

“You can… do that?”

“Of course. Takes a bit of work, and a lot of time, but it’s absolutely possible.”

“Can you show me?”

“Sure. Right now I’m just buffing this out so it’s smooth, but go grab the other headlight, I’ll show you.”

James spent the rest of the day sanding, buffing, and copper-plating the headlight. Q was right, it was a time-consuming, arduous process. But at the end of it, when he rinsed off the final chromium bath, it looked good as new.

He grinned, pleased with himself, and even Q looked impressed.

“Brad’ll be really pleased with this,” Q said, taking the headlight from James and re-attaching it to the front of the car. “He collects ‘em, you know. Keeps ‘em in a giant barn out behind his house. No idea why, but he buffs them all up so they look like they’ve just come off the assembly line. Does everything else himself, but doesn’t have the patience to re-chrome, so he sends those to me. It’s always so satisfying when you’re done.”

James didn’t say anything, but he looked thoughtfully at the headlight as things began to slide into place.

Chapter Text

The last week of June saw a heat wave scorch the county, the air shimmering over the blacktop in silver waves as the sun beat down full force. Wednesday the high topped one hundred degrees and working in the shop bordered on torture, even now after sunset. Q had opened all three bay doors and had the fans on full force, but he still couldn’t keep his shirt from sticking to his back as he leaned in to the engine compartment of Hubert VanVactor’s ancient Model T. He kneeled on the fender to get a better angle on the spark plugs, and wiped a moist forearm over an equally damp brow.

Mr. VanVactor had said sixteen times (Q had begun counting after four) that he’d do it himself, but the spark plugs were just too tight, he couldn’t get them undone. Q wasn’t surprised, the man was eighty if he was a day and could barely pull the hood open.  Of course this was fifteen minutes before the shop closed, and Q’s patience was thin, but after assuring the man that the problem would be fixed by eight o’clock the next morning, James had offered to drive Mr. VanVactor back home and arrange a time to pick him up again.

Mr. VanVactor had been overjoyed to ride in James’ ‘luxury car,’ and the pair of them had shared a smirk as Hubert toddled toward the passenger door with a gleam in his eye.

Q had been arguing with the spark plugs ever since. Much to Q’s chagrin, Mr. VanVactor hadn’t been exaggerating, the damn things were on there tighter than a hair in a biscuit.

“Having a spot of trouble there?”

James’ voice echoed a bit in the empty garage, and Q growled, struggling with the nut as it slid inside the wrench again. Not only were they tight, they were worn, making them all but impossible to grip.

“Oh, no, not at all,” Q said between clenched teeth. “Easy as pie.”

“Well, I’ll leave you to it, then, since it’s so fun. Hey, what happened to that Muntz? I thought the transmission was bad.”

“Finished that this morning before you came in,” Q said as he tried the next plug. “Todd’s already come to pick it up.”

“You need to get more sleep.” The statement was a mix of teasing and sincere concern.

Q stood, pulling an arm across his forehead. James leaned against the door frame of Bay 2, arms crossed over his chest and legs crossed at the ankles. He’d let his hair grow out a bit and the heat of the sunny June afternoon had left him with just a hint of pink in his chiseled cheeks. He’d peeled out of his button-up hours ago, so he lounged there in his work pants and t-shirt, his belt cinched at the waist in a way Q had a very difficult time ignoring.

“I’ll get right on that.” He turned his back on James, hoping he hadn’t been staring. Again. “Hubert get home alright?”

“That man should not be driving.”

“That’s rich, coming from you.”

“At least I can see the road. He had me stopping at every damn tree, thought they were deer.”

“Well, to be fair, he’s only used to driving about twenty.” Q squinted at the engine. “Probably less, but I’d have to take the pistons apart to know for sure.”

“He’s gonna cause a wreck one of these days, going that slow.” James shifted, and Q listened to the soft tap of his shoes as he came up behind him. He resisted the urge to freeze, instead peeling away to rummage on one of his workbenches for the can of Kano Kroil to see if that would get the damn plugs to loosen.

“I make you nervous.” It wasn’t a question.

“What makes you say that?” Oh, yes, defensive. Q winced. That was the perfect way to keep James from prodding.

“You’re always watching me. But from a distance, like you’re waiting for me to bite you.”

Q heard his footsteps coming closer again. He stopped right beside him, close enough that if Q leaned over half an inch they’d be touching. Q was suddenly acutely aware of every single inadvertent brush of hands in the past two months. That’s all it was - accidental contact when handing over a tool or reaching for the same oil can. No friendly pats on the back, no elbow to the ribs after a terrible joke.

He pushed aside a couple spray bottles and a two-quart container of degreaser and was painfully aware of every single breath he took. James leaned in, reaching over him, and suddenly their flanks were barely pressed together. Q stopped breathing altogether.

“This what you were looking for?” James said, plucking the very obvious quart of Kano from its place.

“Yes. Thank you.” Q remembered to breathe, finally, and took the can from James’ hand. There was a moment of something that Q couldn’t quite name, and James’ eyebrows rose a fraction. His fingers brushed Q’s hand, and when Q met his gaze properly, their eyes locked. A question swam in the bottomless blue of his eyes, one that Q had been trying desperately not to answer.

It was Q who turned away first, wary and skittish. He’d spent too much time convincing himself that he’d never let his guard down again, and here James was crashing through the walls like they weren’t even there.

He took the oil over to the Model T and started applying it liberally to the plugs. The garage was silent, but Q swore he could hear James breathing behind him. Why was he still here? His shift had ended hours ago, but he’d stayed, making himself moderately useful by sweeping the floor, organizing Q’s socket wrenches into the actual case (he hadn’t put them away properly for months), and generally tidying the place up.

Q frowned at the final spark plug as he applied the oil, then plucked his wrench from the toolbox at his feet and fitted it around the first plug and pushed. He wasn’t really thinking about the nut, his eyes only saw James: broad shoulders, soft eyes, and a sharp jaw. His angle was bad, the wrench slipped, and Q’s knuckles bashed into the water hose.

“Shit!” He pulled his hand back and shook it to ease the sting. It wasn’t the first time he’d hurt himself trying to fix an engine, but it was quite possibly the stupidest. He held up his hand to look at the damage and his middle and ring fingers were oozing blood. He swore again and lifted his hand toward his mouth.

Calloused fingers reached for his, pulling his hand away, dabbing at the blood with a frayed handkerchief. Q froze, lifted his eyes, met dazzling blue.

“Don’t,” Q said, but didn’t pull his hand away.

“Don’t what?”

“You know what.”

James frowned, finished patting his hand clean, but didn’t let go.

“Please,” Q said, his chest tight. “It’s not funny.”  

James’ hands were warm and gentle, not holding him in place, but not releasing him either.  

“I’m...not trying for funny.”

They were too close. Q could smell James’ aftershave still lingering along his jaw, a heady mix of spice and musk that set Q’s heart racing. They stood there, Q’s battered hand in James’, and slowly, so slowly he barely noticed the motion, James brought the bloody knuckles to his lips and kissed them tenderly, his eyes never leaving Q’s.

Two months of dancing around him, maintaining a carefully orchestrated distance, and Q could feel it all crumbling around him.

James leaned infinitesimally closer, bridging half the remaining distance between them. His face was full of tenuous hope, as though something inside him were beginning to split open and had just begun to fray at the edges. Q had so many reservations, but he bolstered his last stanchion of nerve and leaned in and kissed James. It was a soft, chaste thing, barely even a brush of his lips, but it burned as he pulled away. He blinked at James, fear and hope and something altogether more fierce burning in his belly.

Something broke open behind James’ eyes, a snapping of a tension that had been building inside both of them. Suddenly, he was wrapped in James’ arms, held so tightly he could barely breathe, but James’ mouth was covering his in a much more thorough kiss so it didn’t much matter.

His lips were firm, but not demanding, slotting into place against Q’s mouth as though they were made to be there. His evening stubble rubbed against Q’s cheek, setting his skin tingling deliciously, and Q’s hands rested at the back of James’ neck, fingers dancing over the short bristly hair on the back of his head.

There was something surreal about it, about having James in his arms, James’ lips pressed to his. It was like a dream, but tilted at a fifteen degree angle and set on fire. He couldn’t get close enough, couldn’t taste enough, but it was all too much to bear, and when James’ tongue licked at his bottom lip, Q was certain his heart would stop entirely.

He sighed into James’ mouth, opening his own to let James explore, tentatively stroking James’ tongue with his, the slide delicious. Years. It had been years since he’d been kissed, and never this thoroughly. He was lost in a tangle of warm wet pleasure, drinking in the heat of the man pressed against him.

James shifted, canting his hips, and Q gasped as the firm line of James’ cock pressed into the crease of his thigh.

“Can I…” James breathed against Q’s neck as his hands fumbled for Q’s belt.

And suddenly, as though a door had been slammed shut, Q pushed himself away. It was wrong. He shouldn’t want this, shouldn’t melt in those arms, shouldn’t dream of those eyes. His breath came in heaves and gasps as he sprinted out the back door of the shop and across the tow lot, out into the cornfield behind, stalks up to his thighs whipping at his legs as he ran.

“Q!” James’ voice echoed across the field, and still he ran through the dark, as though the wind would strip him of his weakness.

Lightning bugs danced over the tops of the corn, flashing yellow in a haphazard dance. It was warm, the air was close, and Q remembered.

He’d been armed with a quart jar, the lid of which had been punctured six or eight times with a nail. The lightning bugs had been an excuse, really. He was fifteen, and far too old for going out and hunting down insects, but it was a useful cover, and Charlie had a younger brother, after all.

Best friends. He and Charlie had been best friends since age seven.

There was nothing but a cornfield (sometimes soybeans, but it had been corn that summer, that’s what made it safe) between their back doors, and Q could have made it across that field blindfolded, same as Charlie. But this night—this was the night Q’s life changed forever.

He couldn’t actually remember their first kiss, they’d been friends so long and the kissing just seemed to be a natural extension of the friendship, but he remembered knowing it was a terrible secret between them, one that made everything both gut-wrenchingly terrifying and exciting all at once. It was like discovering a beautiful pond, with good fishing and a willow tree for shade, perfect for swimming on hot summer afternoons. But if you told anyone else about its existence, it would be filled in and plowed under and paved. Torn to shreds before being carefully expunged from ever having existed in the first place. He adored Charlie and this special something they shared between them, cherished it. It glowed within him, bright and warm. He wished sometimes that he could take it out, hold it in his hands so its glow illuminated his face, so he could feel the warmth against his skin.

But he hadn’t been as careful that night, or perhaps he’d been careless all along and that night had just been the culmination of his poor decisions, but whatever the case, Uncle Caleb had followed him out into the field and found Q and Charlie kissing between the rows.

The following weeks had been a blur, partly from the concussion he’d got from Uncle Caleb’s punishment, partly because he’d spent a great deal of that time sat in doctor’s offices and judge’s chambers. He was terrified and confused, listening over and over to how his deviance could be cured. He wondered why they couldn’t see that bright-warm glow in his chest, wondered why they wanted to extinguish it, wondered why something that made him feel so alive could possibly be bad. He wasn’t a deviant, was he? He wasn’t evil. Was he?

But as doctors continued to speak to Uncle Caleb and Aunt Delilah as though he weren’t in the room, he realized that his happiness, the thing that had given his days a radiance that had nothing to do with sunlight, was something to be ashamed of, something to overcome. And the light went out.

Charlie was sent to the asylum. Q was thrown out of his house. At the time, he’d considered Charlie the lucky one. At least he had a place to sleep.

That was twelve years ago.

He’d promised he’d never put himself in that position again, but something about James had made him reckless.

He tripped on a clod of dirt and went sprawling down the row, landing hard with a grunt, his glasses flying off his face and landing two feet away. He pushed himself up to his hands and knees, snatched his glasses out of the dirt, and was about to take off again when he heard movement.

“Q!” James’ voice was closer than it should be, closer than Q wanted it, and he froze for an instant, then rolled silently over to sit between the rows of corn until James had wandered past.

James appeared several feet away down the very row Q had been fleeing, and looked down at him, frowning, head to one side. He took several more steps, then stopped and lowered himself to sit in the dirt, knees drawn up to his chest, arms clasped around them. He sat there for several long moments, simply existing in the same space before he spoke.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

Q huffed bitterly. “I don’t have any broken bones, if that’s what you mean.”

James sighed. “At least you’re not telling me to burn in hell.”

“What?” Q frowned, then realized what his bolting out of the garage had likely looked like. “Oh. Then why come after me?”

“I thought…” James stopped, adjusted his grip on his arms, but didn’t resume speaking.

“That I was confused? That you were going to wade out into the cornfield and explain a few facts of life?” Q let out a dark chuckle. “City slicker like you takes up residence in a small town like this, and corrupts the local mechanic—is that the story you had in your head?”

“More or less,” James said, and had the decency to sound a bit sheepish.

“Arrogant bastard,” Q said. “I’m not completely ignorant.”

“Then why’d you run?”

“I—” Q found that the words he needed stuck in the back of his throat. They were tied up in guilt, in blame, in shame, in sorrow. In the words Uncle Caleb had used that cut like dull knives across his heart, in the grief and terror on Aunt Delilah’s face as he screamed at Q to get out of his house, that this was all his mother’s fault, that he ‘didn’t raise a goddamn fag.’

Q hung his head, shoulders slumping in defeat. He shivered, despite the humid night air, and drew his legs in close, making himself small. He was not going to cry, he was not going to cry, he was not going to cry—not now.

He sniffed and dug the heels of his hands into his eyes.

“Shit,” James murmured. He shifted closer and reached out, tentatively resting his hand on Q’s bicep. Q turned his head and stared at the blunt fingers, the too-short nails and the callouses, the ever-so-slight bend in the pinky. There, in the moonlight, surrounded by lightning bugs and the smell of warm earth and growing things, with no one around to see, he lifted the hand from his arm and laced his own fingers into James’.

The sensation of holding James’ hand shouldn’t be that satisfying. He willed himself to feel odd, or nauseous, or disgusted but all he did was smile very softly to himself as he stared at their intertwined fingers.

Q lifted his eyes. He studied James, washed in silver-white moonglow highlighting the peaks and valleys of his face. He allowed himself to indulge, look his fill, and James obligingly let him. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for, a hint of disgust, a tiny fraction of hesitancy perhaps. But all that he could see was concern, perhaps a bit of hope, perhaps a bit of self-consciousness, but nothing that suggested he was anything other than genuine. Q lifted their interwoven hands up between them.

“Yeah?”

The smile that broke across James’ face was a thing of beauty indeed, and Q felt the responding smile creep across his face too.

“Yeah.”

And in the very pit of his heart, in the very lowest reaches, a tiny something began to glow.

Chapter Text

There were a few more kisses in the cornfield that night; tentative at first, skeptical, but melting into heated explorations. James didn’t press for more. He let Q be his guide, and he found a certain amount of freedom in relinquishing his expectations, in simply allowing the moment to unfold.

He was mostly relieved he hadn’t bollocksed the whole thing beyond saving. When Q had bolted out of the shop, James’ stomach had gone cold. Had he misread every sign? But no, he hadn’t imagined the way Q had melted into him, hadn’t invented Q’s mouth opening against his in that second, more passionate kiss. So he reasoned it must be confusion, which was completely understandable.

Obviously it wasn’t that, either. It was something colder. But with his arms full of Q, he didn’t really have the desire to pursue the story further. If Q wanted to tell it, he would. And James would listen.

The roar of an engine down the country road that split the cornfield half a mile away jolted them out of their small paradise. Q scuffled away, but left their hands loosely intertwined. He ducked his head and chuckled.

“Guess I’m a little jumpy.”

“It’s alright,” James said. He ran his thumb over Q’s knuckles, only for Q to hiss and draw his hand away.

“That hurts.” Q lifted his hand up to his mouth to blow on the scrape.

“Sorry.”

Q shrugged. “I’ll need a band aid for this,” he said.

“Probably. I don’t think I could actually kiss it better.”

Q chuckled. “No, but I wouldn’t mind if you tried.”

James met Q’s eyes; a mischievous smile played over well-kissed lips, and they both laughed.

James got to his feet. “Come on, doll, can’t spend the whole night in a field.” He pulled Q up by the hand.

“Doll?” Q asked.

“Picked it up from Jack. Not good?”

“Not sure,” Q said, turning toward the distant lights of the shop. They walked together, James behind Q, their fingers tangled together between them. Q was silent as they walked, and James was content to let the night sounds be their conversation: the rustle of a breeze through the corn, the distant hoot of an owl in the woods a mile away, the sky above them soaked in stars, full moon finally rising above the horizon. Bats flitted through the air, chasing invisible insects over the tops of the corn.

James closed the distance between them and wrapped an arm around Q’s waist. He pressed his chest against Q’s back, held him still for a moment and relished the way they fit together. Better than any of his fantasies.

He didn’t miss the slight catch of Q’s breath as he pulled him close, but Q didn’t freeze, didn’t go rigid like a clockwork toy in his arms, and that was something. James rested his chin on Q’s shoulder, mostly because he could. They were in the middle of a cornfield. Who would be looking?

“It’s, um, been. Awhile. You know, since…” Q said into the dark.

“I’m not in a hurry.” And he was surprised to find that he meant it.

“Oh. Um. It’s just…”

James chuckled. “The best things in life are worth waiting for.”

Q nodded, his hair smearing against James’ ear. “Thank you.”

There was something small and fragile in the words that spoke of hurt, and the protective beast inside James lifted its head curiously, wondering if it would be needed. But no, Q turned in his arms and smiled, pressed a cool kiss against his cheek, so the beast snuffled a bit and slept on.

“We’d better get back before someone drives past and thinks we’ve been kidnapped,” Q said.

James laughed.

“You laugh, but it’s true. It’s part of that ‘small town camaraderie’ you hear so much about.”

“I’ll be sure to turn out the lights before we go running through cornfields next time.”

Q snorted. “This cornfield is the last place we should...” his voice trailed off.

“Oh, and where should we, your sofa?”

“I—I suppose?”

“Mm. Or your bed,” James murmured into Q’s ear.

“Let’s just… get back to the shop,” Q said in a strangled sort of voice, and James grinned.

 

***

It was a small change, but noticeable for both of them: light touches where there used to be distance, knowing smiles, and an ease with each other that Q had never expected. Stolen kisses in the mornings before the shop opened, shared lunches at the office desk (which stayed miraculously clear of paperwork now that James was around full-time), and long, lingering conversations at the end of the day that left Q aching in the most delicious way as he drove home.

The first of July came, and with it the banners fluttering all down Main Street and around the courthouse square. Sousa marches were de rigueur on the radio, interspersed every third song or so with “America the Beautiful” in various arrangements.

It was time for the Fourth of July parade. Deetz and Bill were driving the tow trucks this year, having drawn the short straws. Q usually volunteered, but he’d decided against it for once. He didn’t say, but in the back of his mind, he was looking forward to sharing the afternoon with James—away from work.

“Parade?” James asked as he and Q worked side-by-side that afternoon.

“Oh yeah. Tri Kappa does a float, and the Lions. Kiwanis does one too. Then there are the family floats: VanVactors always put one up, and the Hochstetlers. Then the businesses; the cafe, which is really just the tow trucks with some crepe paper stuck on, and Woolworth’s and Lauer’s and Earl that runs the Harvey Mart. The high school band, of course, and the VFW—say, I wonder if you’d qualify…”

Royal Navy, remember?”

“Oh. Right. Nevermind then,” Q chuckled. “You don’t talk much about it,” he said, looking at James curiously. It wasn’t something the man brought up of his own volition, and Q wasn’t sure how to ask. It all seemed so terribly exotic compared to his small life in small towns in the middle of America.

“Not much to talk about,” James said. He wiped his hands on an oil rag and bent to pick up his tools scattered around the Ford pickup they were working on, pointedly not meeting Q’s eyes. “Assigned to the Shropshire for the first three years, then out to the Pacific on the Queen Elizabeth . Saw a bit of action, I suppose. Mostly though I was in Mechanical, since I have a knack for that kind of thing.” At that he grinned and glanced at Q. “And then the war was over.”

“Did you kill any Nazis?” The question was out before he could swallow it, and it hung in the air for a moment before James answered.

“Not personally, no,” he said, and turned away.

“Sink any ships?”

“You’re starting to sound like Jack with all these questions all of a sudden.”

“I was just making conversation,” Q said. “There’s got to be more to you than just a handsome face.”

James turned back, then, hands in his pockets, and smirked, but his eyes were distant, cold. “There’s no mystery to me, Q. I’m exactly what it says on the label.”

Q didn’t believe that for a second.

 

***

 

The parade was exactly what James expected: homemade floats, off-key music, lots of flag-waving and political glad-handing by state representatives due to run for re-election. Afterward, as they were wandering down the sidewalk, debating which float was the most ridiculous (it was a tie between the Hochstetler family ‘dragon’ made with papier mache and shooting red white and blue stars and the Harvey Mart float pulled by the 1929 John Deere that featured vaguely animal-shaped blobs that were possibly meant to be cows but a convincing argument had been made for them being horses) when they almost literally bumped into George and his wife Deborah.

“Can’t get away from each other, can we?” George said good-naturedly. “Quite the show this year. Parade committee’s pick for ‘best in theme’ was spot on; of course, the Lions always put their best foot forward.” James grinned as he noticed George’s pin on his shirt pocket: a gold shield with a blue background and a white L.

“I think you might be biased, George,” he said, poking at the pin.

“I’m allowed. I made the arbor over the Garden of Freedom at the back.”

“And he’ll never let you forget it, either,” Deborah said, and James couldn’t quite tell if she meant it fondly or not. “You boys going to the fireworks tonight?”

“Absolutely,” Q replied immediately. “Wouldn’t miss them this year. I guess Mayor Buczek brought in a special team for the show.”

“Oh really?” George smiled conspiratorially. “And what did the fire marshall have to say about that?”

Q and George descended into a lively discussion of the possible political implications of the mayor’s decision, and James nodded along, listening. After about ten minutes, in which James learned that the mayor and the fire marshall had been nursing a grudge for twenty years, he saw a woman walking toward them down the sidewalk, with two boys in tow behind her. She was certainly easy on the eye, and James found his gaze following her as she approached, and paused to say hello. To Q.

“I wondered what had happened to you. You weren’t driving the truck this year, and Billy was so disappointed the other drivers didn’t honk for him.”

“That’s a shame. I’ll be sure to have a talk with them,” Q said seriously to the younger of the two boys.

“Do you think you can give us a ride again?” Billy asked, and the woman flushed.

“I’m sorry, Quimby. I know it’s a lot to ask, this being a holiday, but my truck—”

James felt a couple gears strip in his head as the name fell out of her mouth. Quimby? It hadn’t even occurred to him that the ‘Q’ had actually come from a name, the letter just seemed to fit him so comfortably. James studied the man in light of this new information and decided he’d tuck it away for later.

“I’ll give you and the boys a ride home, Shelly,” George offered. “And Q’ll tow the truck into the shop first thing tomorrow.”

“Oh, I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

“You didn’t ask. I offered. Sit tight, Debbie, I’ll be back before you know it.”

George took Shelly by the elbow and escorted her towards his car, parked just down the block.

“Typical,” Deborah sighed. “Running off with the pretty young thing and leaving me to fend for myself among animals.” She laughed, and James realized with relief that she was truly fond of George. All her little barbs were fond prodding. She turned to Q. “I don’t know why you didn’t just marry that girl.”

James shot Q a look of surprise, and it was Q’s turn to blush, color high in his cheeks.

“Because Richard loved her,” Q mumbled, clearly uncomfortable. “It would have just been awkward.”

“I don’t know,” James said, watching as George pulled away from the curb, the two boys looking out the back window and waving. “I think I would have put up a fight for that one.”

Q’s cheeks flushed brighter.

“Well, she’s married to that lout Richard now,” Deborah said. “Lazy good-for-nothing can’t even hold down a job sweeping floors for more than a week.”

“Richard’s not that bad,” Q said. “Just… has a few problems, that’s all.”

“Problems,” Deborah said scornfully. “Problems named Jack Daniels and Captain Morgan.”

Q bristled at that, but didn’t contradict her. The three of them stood awkwardly in front of Lauer’s Five and Dime in silence until George returned ten minutes later. He hopped out of the car and strolled over, whistling, but the jaunty tune died on his lips as he came near.

“Geez, it’s like a funeral over here.”

“Just a lull in the conversation,” James supplied, plastering on his ingratiating smile. “It was nice talking to you, Deborah. Hope to see you again. George, I suppose I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Not if I see you first!”

George had a chuckle at his own joke, and James smiled politely, then George and Deborah were gone, leaving Q and James alone on the sidewalk together in the thinning parade crowd.

“What did you mean?” Q said when George and Deborah had driven off.

“About what?”

“About Shelly. You said you would have fought for her.”

James frowned. “She’s pretty enough. You could have given Richard a run for his money, sounds like, and come out on top.”

“You think I should have.”

“I never said that.” He wasn’t passing judgement on Q’s decisions. God knew he’d made enough of his own mistakes. But Q seemed to take his comments as condemnation.

“You’re right.” Q took a couple of steps down the sidewalk, and James followed, perplexed. “I should have. Married her, I mean. She’d have been comfortable.”

“Then why didn’t you?”

Q kept walking, James by his side; they crossed Main Street against the light and turned the corner onto Q’s street. Once they’d left everyone else behind, Q slowed.

The tall elm trees lining the road dappled the street below in green-gold light as the rows of manicured lawns and scrubbed front walks stretched out before them. Q’s house was fairly easy to pick out, and not because it was on a corner lot. His was the only one lacking a blooming flower border along his sidewalk.

“Q?”

“Why are you still following me?”

“We were having a conversation, and I wanted to finish it.”

They stopped on the sidewalk in front of Q’s house and Q heaved a sigh. “Come in, then, I guess,” he said, and held out an arm waiting for James to walk up to the front door.

James tried not to smirk. The invitation wasn’t exactly laden with promise. But all the same, Q had invited him into his house. There was always a bit of intimacy in being invited into someone’s home, regardless of the circumstance. It was like James was being allowed a tiny part of Q’s privacy to hold in his hand, pulling back the curtain, just a little bit, on who Q truly was. James had to admit he was curious, had been since he’d come to pick Q up for the movies. What was behind the off-white curtains in the front window? What lay beyond the small rectangle of floor and wall he’d glimpsed when Q had answered the door?

Q pushed the front door open, and James stepped inside. The sitting room was white, with taupe molded carpeting, a small loveseat in light blue upholstery, a bookshelf crammed full of what looked to be repair manuals as well as two shelves stuffed with novels and a pair of green goose-neck rocking chairs that shared an ottoman, on top of which lay a large tabby cat.

“That’s Mat,” Q said by way of introduction when he noticed James staring at the animal. “The other one’s Gerdy, but she’s probably hiding in the closet. She doesn’t like strangers much.”

“Cats,” James said. Not that he had anything against cats, per se. He quite liked the lions at the National Zoo. But he had always considered cats utilitarian animals, kept for their skill rather than their companionship.

“Don’t sound so enthusiastic.” Q walked over to scratch between Mat’s ears. “This one, when she’s not being a lazy Lizzie, will play fetch just like a dog. Gerdy would rather sit on top of the bookshelf. The farmer down the road from the shop was going to drown them in the river when they were kittens - he’s already got plenty for his barn - and I asked if I could keep two. Probably thinks I’m crazy, keeping barn cats in the house, but they’re good company.”

James smirked. Q was babbling, like he always did when he was unsure, and James found it unaccountably delightful. He stepped up behind Q and wrapped an arm around his waist, his chin rested on Q’s shoulder. He ran his nose over the shell of Q’s ear, and Q shivered, then pulled away.

“You said you wanted to finish our conversation,” he said, and there was a chill to his voice that made goosebumps rise on James’ arms, despite the July heat. “So finish it.”

“I can’t kiss you first?” James asked, stepping forward again.

“What are you playing at, James?” Q asked, turning to face him and raising his hands, halting James as he tried to close the distance between them again.

“Playing?”

“I thought— I don’t know what I thought, but you’re not really like me, are you?” There was an accusation in Q’s voice as he spoke, condemnation and relief in a strange amalgamation behind his eyes.

“What does that mean, Q, that I’m not like you?” James had an idea, he could guess what it was Q meant, but it could be a thousand things and he knew the kind of trouble he could court if he guessed wrong.

“You’re not a faggot,” Q spit. “Not really. It’s just a game to you, or something. I don’t know. I can’t figure it out.”

“Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m not. I know a pretty girl when I see one. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to kiss you. I like what I like, and what I like happens to be you.”

“But you could have your pick of girls.”

James frowned.

“Yes, but a distinct lack of desire to actually kiss any of them. Q, I’m...not exactly the marrying kind.”

“Not yet.”

“Why, is it suddenly mandatory?”

Q shrugged, still not looking at James. “It’s what you really want, isn’t it?”

“No,” James said simply. Maybe once upon a time, a long time ago, he’d thought he did. But the longer he looked back, the more he realized that Vesper had done him a favor, in a way, backhanded as it was.

Q turned to him then, confusion written across his face. “It’s what you should want,” Q bit out.

“Who says?”

“Who doesn’t? You can’t want me instead. It’s… it’s unnatural .” He gestured vaguely at the window. “You’re bound to want one of them.”

James’ arms dropped to his sides and he stared at Q for a beat.

“Do you really believe that?” he asked quietly.

Q shrugged. “What does it matter what I believe? It’s what’s true.”

“Q,” James said. “Q, look at me.”

Q lifted his his eyes, full of the same cold hurt James had seen in the cornfield, and James’ heart ached. It angered James when he was labelled ‘deviant,’ but he’d never actually believed it. And here was Q, burying a part of himself that was as innate as breathing, because he truly thought himself contemptible enough to justify the abuse.  

“What do you mean, true?” James asked.

“Why would you want this?” Q gestured to himself. “Why would you ever choose this over a wife, children, family—the American Dream you see on television every damn day.”

“Because you’re who I want!” James bit back on the shout, but barely. “I don’t want a Shelly or a Deborah or any of it. Q. I don’t want ‘a little wife.’ I want you .”

“But it’s wrong,” Q whispered.

James took a step forward, lifting Q’s chin and kissing him soundly. “Does it feel wrong?” he said against his lips.

“I shouldn’t—” Q started.

“It’s not about ‘should.’ Does this,” James kissed him again, with an arm wrapped around his waist, “feel wrong .”

“No,” Q admitted, a bit breathlessly. “No, it doesn’t.”

“Then why does it matter? As long as we’re happy, what’s it to do with other people?”

“You know what it has to do with other people, James.” Q sighed, but didn’t extract himself from the embrace. “You know exactly what it has to do with other people.”

“Mm.” James couldn’t deny it. “You’re right, in a way. ‘Other people’ are the reason I ended up here in the first place.”

“Then why not choose the easier path?”

“Why didn’t you marry Shelly?” James countered.

“Because I couldn’t lie to her for the rest of my life. I couldn’t pretend. It didn’t seem fair.”

“Exactly. It isn’t even a choice, in the end.”

Q was quiet for a long time, but he didn’t pull away, his forehead pressed against James’ shoulder, his hands clasped behind James’ back, his breath shallow but even. James simply held him, waiting for whatever would come next.

And what came next shocked him more than anything else Q could have possibly done: Q kissed him, long, and deep, and needy, hands coming up to hold him in place. It was artless and a bit sloppy and absolutely, toe-curlingly incandescent. And as soon as that one was over, Q kissed him again, and James’ hands came up to clutch at Q’s shoulders, pulling him tight against his chest, Q’s growing erection slotting against his making them both groan into the other’s mouth.

They broke apart long enough for Q to pull James down onto the loveseat. Q’s head was spinning, desperately trying to scream at him, halt whatever this was going to be in its tracks before he took a single step down the ladder of no return, but as he sank down into the cushions, James beside him, around him, fingers fumbling questioningly at the hem of his shirt, Q decisively ignored every last part of him that whispered ‘no.’

Because the entire rest of him had expanded outside his skin in a bone-deep exhale of ‘finally.’

He allowed his hands to wander over the arms and chest and back that he’d been itching to touch. The demons were not cowed, not completely, and somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he knew they probably never would be, but James’ fingers on his skin drowned them in fire, his lips brushing along his neck buried them in embers, and they were quieted enough.

His glasses slid down to the end of his nose, but before he could shove them back into place, James eased them off, setting them on the end table behind Q. The edges of the room were fuzzy, now, bringing James - and their proximity - into sharper focus. He gasped as James’ newly-calloused fingers grazed his nipples as he eased his shirt over his head. A shiver rippled through him as James’ lips claimed collarbone and Adam’s apple. Q was certain he was supposed to be doing something other than simply sitting there, but he couldn’t think of what that would be until James leaned away and Q came with, his hands fisted in James’ shirt so tightly that his knuckles were white, and suddenly the very fabric of that shirt - ridiculous fish print and all - was too much distance between them and he began fumbling at the buttons.

His fingers wouldn’t work, they were numb and trembling as he undid the buttons, but James allowed him the time, breath loud in his ear as he grazed the lobe with lips hot as branding irons. He tried not to think of the handful of times he and Charlie had jerked off together, hands studiously on their own cocks as they watched with earnest fascination as the other came, and the one time Q’d worked up the courage to reach across the scant inches and take Charlie’s cock in his own hand, Charlie’s face a mix of terror and lust as he came almost immediately.

Part of him knew that with James the awkwardness would be nonexistent, the man clearly had experience beyond timid juvenile fumbling, but Q had little else as a frame of reference.

James’ shirt fell away and suddenly Q was faced with too many choices - where to touch, to kiss, to explore as he drank his fill of the man beside him. James’ eyes were dark, pupils huge and black with tiny rings of brightest blue surrounding them, looking at Q with an expression of unbridled lust that shot lightning through Q’s gut and straight into his cock, which twitched painfully against his zip.

Q leaned in for a kiss, the angle awkward now, as they sat on the sofa. But, as Q knew he would, James understood how to make it work.

“Here,” James murmured, and nudged Q’s hip with his hand. “Sit on my lap. Like this.” And he swung Q around by the hips until Q’s legs rested astride James’ and they sat chest-to-chest, groin-to-groin, and James rolled his hips up, his cock a hard line in his trousers against Q’s.

Q gasped, instinct taking over as he rolled back, rutting against James, eliciting a low rumbly growl from James’ throat. Which Q suddenly had the irrational desire to taste - and delightedly discovered that James made the same noise again when he did.

And then James was fumbling at his belt, his zip, pushing his jeans down around his hips, and it seemed like several hours and a single blink of an eye as James reached in and cupped Q’s balls in his hand, then ran his palm over Q’s straining erection through his underwear.

A moan rang in the air, and it was half a beat before Q realized it was his own voice. He was drowning, but willingly, allowing the water to close over his head as he sank into the moment; the only things that existed were James and himself, suspended in an infinite bubble.

James lifted Q’s right hand by the wrist and kissed his palm, then placed it on his chest, and Q bit his lip and smirked as he let his fingers trail down, down, past navel and waistband, until Q held James’ cock in his hand. Through his trousers, yes, but Q swore he could feel the heat of James’ erection even through the fabric. James rolled his hips.

Q’s body responded to James, rutting against James’ hand as he tried to clear his head long enough to unbutton James’ trousers. He didn’t think about the fact that this was the first time he’d undressed someone else. He let his reticent instincts guide him, what little he possessed, pulling him to see, to touch.

James lifted his hips and helped Q slide the rest of his clothing onto the floor, and Q stared at James beneath him, naked, sparse hair dusting his chest, with a line of darker curls leading south from his navel to his cock. James’ cock was shorter than Q’s, but thicker, and there was a definite curve so that it lay atop the dark nest of hair at James’ groin.

Before Q could think too much, James pulled him in by his shoulders for a bruising kiss, hands sliding from shoulder to waist, under waistband and underwear, slipping his trousers down to puddle on the floor with James’.  

It was the strangest sensation, to be pressed bodily up against James, strange but wonderful, and they both began to move against the other, cocks sliding together, trapped between their bellies.

“Touch me?” James asked in a slurred murmur, and Q could barely parse the words. James’ hands had settled on his ass, squeezing at his cheeks, kneading, pulling up, apart, down, together, in rhythm with their hips, and Q knew it wouldn’t take much more.

Tentatively, he snaked a hand between their bellies and wrapped his fingers around James’ cock, the weight of it in his hand at once familiar and not.

James sighed into Q’s neck and thrust into the circle of his hand as Q continued to rut against James’ belly.

And then, before Q had a chance to prepare, James’ hand was wrapped around his own cock and Q’s eyes went wide with the sensation. It was a wholly different - but also naggingly familiar - experience when it was not his own hand squeezing, sliding over his cock. Q groaned, long and low, chasing James’ lips with his own, kissing him hard.

And then James interlaced his hand with Q’s, so their cocks were pressed together in the circle of their combined hands, and Q swallowed something that bordered on a scream.

It was all so much - the feel of James beneath him, the knowledge that he was as caught up in the moment as Q himself, the feel of his breath hot and quick against his lips, his cheek, his ear as they moved, each in his own rhythm, the drag and slide of skin on skin more intoxicating than anything else Q could name.

He was close. His balls tightened in preparation, the cusp of release.

“I’m…” Q said, but before he could find the word in his lust-addled brain, it was over; he spilled out onto James’ stomach, their hands, in a blinding rush of pleasure. James didn’t stop—if anything his pace increased. He didn’t let go of Q’s hand and Q was sure he’d never be able to breathe again if James didn’t stop, but he wasn’t stopping, he squeezed harder, pulling their cocks together more firmly, and Q shuddered, bucking as the sensations overwhelmed him, and then James arched his back and stilled as he found his own release.

Q wanted to see, wanted to watch as James finished, but his eyes wouldn’t open and instead he buried his face in James’ neck as James bucked once, twice, then went slack, sinking back into the loveseat cushions with a satisfied groan that resolved into a sigh.

Q couldn’t move, could barely form a coherent thought. The tight-as-a-bowstring tension that had lived between his shoulderblades for as long as he could remember leached out as James ran a tender hand over his back and sought his lips again in a long, delicate kiss.

They didn’t speak for a long time, simply breathed together, James rubbing circles into Q’s back, Q desperately trying not to fall asleep against the warm body beneath him. Eventually, though, their skin cooled and rationality returned, and Q realized with a start that their hands were still clasped between them and covered in congealing jizm. He used what little strength remained to sit up, pulling away, looking for something to wipe up the mess.

James grinned lazily up at him, eyes half-closed, cheeks still flushed as he unlaced their fingers - Q hadn’t thought to let go - and wiped his hand across his belly.

“Better?” he asked, hands resting on Q’s thighs, in no hurry to move. James had been surprised at this sudden turn. He’d been expecting Q to push him out, quite frankly, but this was so much better. He let his fingers tease at the downy hair on Q’s thighs and the shiver that ran through Q’s body as he did was delicious. He felt lazy, content to lounge there for as long as Q would let him, indulging in the last lingering sparks of his fading erection.

“Oh,” Q said, which was not a response to James’ question.

“What?”

“It’s just…” Q stared intently at James’ cock, as though it had just performed a rather amusing trick. Which he supposed it rather had, but not one that was unexpected. Q reached for James again curiously and pulled back his foreskin, as if testing the length of it. “Oh,” he said again, and James laughed. Q’s cheeks flushed. “I can’t be interested?” he asked defiantly.

“I’m not laughing at you,” James soothed. “The look on your face was so serious, like you were embarking on this great scientific discovery. It just tickled me.”

“Yes, well. Forgive me for being such a backwards country bumpkin.”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“Oh, and what did you mean?” Q asked, crossing his arms over his chest in a parody of irritation which just made James laugh all the more.

“I meant,” James said, sitting up and clasping his hands behind Q’s back, “that I find you unaccountably attractive when you’re thinking.”

“Only when I’m thinking?”

“Bloody tart, fishing for compliments!” But James was grinning, thoroughly enjoying this side of Q, the side that was relaxed and teasing.

“Well, I would tell you that you’re the most handsome man I’ve ever seen, but I think your ego might not be able to fit through the front door,” Q said.

“Is that including or excluding Cary Grant?”

“Oh, you have to exclude him. I mean, that wouldn’t be fair, would it?” James could see Q biting his cheek to keep from laughing.

“Absolutely incorrigible,” James muttered, then kissed him soundly.

Q laughed into the kiss, his arms circling James’ shoulders. He was giddy - it was the only way he could think to describe this lightness, this newfound freedom inside his skin. He felt the little tendrils of loathing trying to creep back in, but something about the way James’ hands smoothed over his skin, the way his lips pressed to his temple, his mouth, his neck, kept them at bay, at least for now. For now, he could laugh, and tease, and smile. The world was locked away outside the door, and needn’t be bothered with.



***

 

James had attended the national fireworks display, of course, but only once. He’d been unsettled by how eerily similar the display had sounded to mortar fire, and had decided that he would rather admire them from a distance. He’d actually begun a small tradition called the Diplomat’s Ball - foreign dignitaries, who had no stake in celebrating the holiday, would gather at a ballroom just outside the city. He’d been quite proud of it, and wondered idly if anyone had arranged for the event this year.

He realized with a start that it was the first thing he’d actually been concerned about regarding his former life. He’d barely even stopped to think about what he’d left behind, friends and acquaintances and a well-appointed apartment in DuPont Circle. He wondered, suddenly, if Camille and Severine were still working as typists for the Belgian embassy or if they, too, had been caught up in the purges. He thought about Felix, slaving away behind a desk at the CIA, hoping for a shot at promotion.

He thought about writing to them, then wondered if he was being paranoid wondering if getting a letter from him would flag them as ‘undesirable.’  Besides, it wasn’t like he could put ‘Room 8, Paradise Motel’ as a sufficient return address. They’d think he’d lost his mind.

He glanced at Q, leaning back on his elbows on the blanket they’d brought to sit on, cigarette glowing between his lips, long legs crossed at the ankle. Maybe he actually had.  Here he was, content to spend his days slaving over engine blocks and oil pans, the highlights of his social calendar included baked goods, and he had willingly driven out to the middle of nowhere to sit in the dirt (well, on a blanket, but the point remained) to watch things explode over his head.

The one bright spot in all this sat beside him, explaining how it was virtually impossible to get the color blue quite right in fireworks, something to do with copper. They were sitting too close together, maybe, but it was dark and the blanket was small enough to warrant it. Q’s hand rested against James’ shoe, loath to break contact completely.

James was all too aware of Q’s hand; even though he couldn’t actually feel that it was there the spot still burned, almost seemed to glow. James thought, irrationally, that they could bring an even smaller blanket next time so they had no choice but to sit shoulder-to-shoulder.

That, however, warranted a ‘next time’ and James had a severe allergy to making plans. He’d done that once. Hadn’t turned out well. Each day as it came, and when it was time to go, he’d know.

At full dark, when the sky was pocked with stars, the first rocket went up with a thmp and a whoosh and a bang. James took a deep breath. He could do this. He was prepared for each explosion, he knew what to expect. It had been six years. He would be fine.

There was scattered applause, and the crowd settled around them.

Five minutes later, another rocket shot up, arcing over the crowd to explode in a brilliant rain of red and white sparks. His heart jumped into his throat, and he swallowed it down again. He could do this. Q had been so enthusiastic about the show.

He dug the heels of his hands into his calves.

He tried to focus on the color, the light, the crowd ooh-ing and aah-ing at each new display, but as the frequency of detonations increased, so did his heart rate.

“I wonder how they make that one do a waterfall,” he said, trying to keep his mind off the sound. Maybe talking would ease the hammering in his chest.

“Oh, that one?” Q said, perking up. “It’s called a horsetail. It uses a weak burst and poor confinement - that’s how the sparks all go in one direction. The stars - that’s the little glowing bits - are long-tailed streamers. It’s an impressive effect.”

James was thoroughly impressed with Q’s encyclopedic knowledge of fireworks, but really what had he expected? Based on his bookshelf, the man read voraciously, a trait James appreciated immensely.

“What about that one?” James pointed.

“It’s called a chrysanthemum. Long-tailed streamers, again, you’ll notice--”

The scent of gunpowder became thick in his nostrils, wafting from the launch area. The grass beneath him was swelling like the sea, undulating, the cry of gulls as clear as the explosions that continued to pepper the sky. He wanted to run, why weren’t people running? Didn’t they realize there was danger here?

“Ronson.” James shook his arm violently. “Ronson, we have to get out of here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We have to go. Now. They’ll only get closer.”

“Who? James, what’s going on?”

“Come on .” James stood and hauled him up by the arm, tugging him along as he picked his way through the crowd still entranced by the bombs exploding above them. Children in the crowd danced and waved tiny flags in their fat fingers - why were they not fleeing? It didn’t matter. He had to get to safety, had to get Ronson away.

Once they broke through the crowd and were all but running down the road toward the parking area, he shook free.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Getting you to safety. Come on, we haven’t much time.”

“James, I’m not in danger.”

“But the Japs…” and as the words left his lips, his mind cleared enough to let him see what had happened.

There was no beach. No gulls, no bombs. They had been running down the gravel drive that fronted the white aluminum pole barns Q had told him housed the animal exhibits for the county fair. His eyes widened in horror and embarrassment.

“Oh, God.”

Q took a small step forward, his glasses reflecting the security light hung above the sliding track doors of the closest barn.

“Are you...alright?”

There was no way out of this one. No easy explanation he could brush off, no way to turn this into something to laugh about. He’d literally drug Q out of the crowd by his arm because he’d been terrified of fireworks . No denying it, not this time. He’d seen it in other sailors, the ones who woke screaming in their bunks when the ship would creak in the night, the ones who had to be sent home because they flat out refused to fight anymore. Shell shock.

He was disgusted with himself for being that weak.

“I’m fine,” he snapped, turning away and walking further down the gravel drive.

“Who’s Ronson?”

James stopped dead.

“Where did you hear that name?”

“It’s what you called me before you dragged me out here. Who is it?”

James deflated. His instinct was to shout at Q, tell him it didn’t matter, that it was none of his business, but James couldn’t bring himself to do it. There was a fragility in the question, a hope that maybe since Q had torn down his own armor, James might return the favor.

Q deserved at least that much, he at least deserved the truth.

“You wanted to know why I never talk about the War. That’s why. He’s why. Matthew Ronson.” James’ voice cracked over the name. He’d not said it aloud in nearly ten years. “He died. It was supposed to be an easy day, it’s why they let us out, ‘show us some action,’ the captain had said. The beach was unopposed. So the crew from Mechanical set out in one of the landing craft. Ronson and I were in the front. We weren’t particularly eager, but it was an order, so we dutifully suited up and headed over to secure the beach for the 4th Infantry, due to land the following day. Our landing craft hit a mine, exploded into shrapnel. Still have scars on my back from where the metal bit. But Ronson… He got hit in the face. Went right through his eye. No coming back from that. At least he didn’t suffer, not like some of the other guys. And it was terrible because he was the only loss. Nobody else died. So it was considered a success, you know? Something to celebrate. But Ronson was my mate. Hard to stomach a celebration when your best friend dies.” James wiped a hand down his face, and it came away wet. Goddammit, how many more indignities?

He heard the crunch of gravel behind him, and then Q’s hand on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry. It must have been terrible.”

James simply nodded. How could he explain that he’d been wondering how on earth he was going to get out of his engagement to Vesper, realizing that what he shared with Ronson was more satisfying than any marriage.

His grasping onto that very relationship when Ronson died.

And coming back to realize that she’d understood what had happened - had made the best decision she could for herself, and for James in the long run. But he’d hated her for it for a long, long time. So long that it was a bad habit instead of genuine feeling.

“Go back to the show.” James shrugged Q’s hand off.

“No.”

James turned at that, to stare at the man standing with him in the puddle of light.

“What?”

“No, I’m not going back.”

“I thought you’d been looking forward to this for months,” James said and frowned.

Q took a half-step forward. “I have.”

“Then go.”

“You really think I’d just leave you here? Alone?”

“Not alone,” James said and smirked. “I’m never alone in a crowd.”

Q sighed, and shook his head. “That’s not what I mean.”

“No. What you mean is I’m not strong enough to deal with this myself.”

“Not that you can’t, James. That you don’t have to.”

It seemed like a dodge, a rearrangement of words saying the same thing but with more grace. He’d done the same countless times, letting a double-entendre or vague non-opinion speak for him, be whatever the listener wanted it to be. But he got the feeling that Q wasn’t trying to be coy.

“You’ve been surviving this long,” Q continued, standing too close, staring down at his hands. James’ left knee bent, as though to step back, but he stopped himself before his foot lifted off the ground. Q had let him speak earlier that afternoon. The least he could do was hear Q out now. “You can obviously ‘deal with it’ yourself. It’s just…  I thought you might… not want to. And that I do. Want to. With you. If… if that’s alright.”

Q lifted his face, his eyes wide and questioning - hopeful. It was such a tentative hope, as though he expected at any moment for James to shove him away. And it was that hope - that blind hope in the face of all Q had been through - that finally pushed James over into confession.

He started talking, low, barely loud enough for Q to hear over the pops and bangs of fireworks and appreciative oohs of the crowd still watching the show. He told Q everything - not only the story of Ronson, but also of the skirmishes and battles, the terror of mortar fire, the way the ship creaked when a depth charge would explode just out of range to do damage, how it felt to try and weld a safety valve while covered in seawater. And the good things, too - the friendly card games in the bunks, meeting some Americans and striking up a friendship with a sailor named Felix while on shore leave in 1944.

“We had the same taste in brothels,” James said, and laughed at the scandalized look on Q’s face. “No, in that we didn’t go. Danced as much as the next bloke in the halls and pubs. Felix had got married in ‘42, I think, and, well, Ronson and I had paired off too. Not that I couldn’t have found an establishment to my liking, but it hardly seemed worth the trouble what with Ronson right there.”

It had been so much more than that, though. James didn’t know how to say that he’d found a willing rentboy and gone through with it once, only to emerge the other side of a hasty back-alley blowjob feeling more out-of-sorts than sated. Not that it hadn’t been a perfectly good blowjob. But it hadn’t been Ronson, and that’s when he’d started to realize that perhaps he was a bit fucked. He’d never asked if Ronson felt the same; he hadn’t really wanted to know.

“Of course,” Q said.

James had started walking towards the car as he talked, Q beside him, another cigarette in his lips, simply listening.

“And, well, you know what happened to Ronson.”

They stopped at James’ car and Q stood in front of the passenger door for a moment.

“I don’t know if it means much,” Q said seriously. “But I’m sorry for your loss.”

The way he phrased it, as though James had lost so much more than just a mate - which he had, he realized with a jolt - made his eyes burn, and he blinked furiously, trying to keep the impending tears from falling. He’d cried enough already, enough for a lifetime. He didn’t need any more tears. They weren’t for Ronson, anyway.

James cleared his throat.

“Thank you. It means… a lot.”

Q smiled, small and sad and understanding.

They drove away from the fairgrounds, both of them quiet and contemplating, Q’s hand resting gently on James’ knee in silent reassurance. That small gesture finished cracking James’ considerable armor. He’d promised himself that he wouldn’t fall again - it only led to heartbreak. But this man, this unassuming mechanic with a pompadour and coke-bottle glasses, had stripped every last remaining layer from him without even trying. The realization was at once terrifying and exhilarating, in just the same way as his walks along the highway all those months ago.

This is dangerous , he thought, and smiled.

Chapter Text

The second week of July brought a produce delivery that included several pecks of peaches. Deetz whistled as he carried the crates into the refrigeration room, George had a half-smile on his face no matter how many dishes piled up behind him during the rush, and Bill worked on a new signature special—fennel pork chops.

“It’ll go great with the pie,” he promised, but James was a bit skeptical.

M was in the kitchen for days preparing the fruit: making sauces and compotes, slicing fresh peaches and covering them in sugar syrup, then sliding barrels of them into the deep freeze.

After the cafe closed the following Saturday, everyone - George, Deetz, Jack, Bill, Eve, Q, and James—all sat around the big table in the corner of the dining room and waited for the first peach pie of the season.

M brought it out of the kitchen on a tray, still steaming gently, with a container of vanilla ice cream. George, Deetz, and Jack pounded on the table, chanting ‘pie, pie’ until M smothered an amused grin with a ferocious glare and set the tray in the middle of the table.

“This’ll be the only piece you get all year,” Bill murmured to James across the table. “It sells so quick, there’s never leftover. One pie for us, the rest for customers. Unfortunately.”

“You know the rules,” M announced as she cut into the beautifully browned crust.

“Actually…” James said, half-raising his hand.

Deetz glared. “One slice, no grabbing, ice cream optional,” he rattled off. “Now let her serve it. I’ve waited a whole year for this.”

James’ eyebrows shot up. This pie was serious business.

M went clockwise around the table starting with George, so James was the last to get a slice. As soon as Q’s plate appeared in front of him, he pushed his fork through the gooey filling, added a bit of ice cream, and popped the bite into his mouth. Q’s eyes slid shut, his head tilted back, and a tiny ‘mmm’ escaped as he chewed.

“Ice cream, Bond?” M asked, interrupting James’ decidedly inappropriate train of thought.

“Please.”

James’ slice slid into place. The smell alone was enough to make his mouth water, not the cloying sweetness of the peach pies he was used to, but almost tart. He could tell the peaches were fresh - they had pale flesh instead of bright yellow, and the red insides where the pit had been. Compote oozed onto his plate and joined up with the already-melting ice cream.

He took a bite.

It was everything Bill had promised and more—hands down the best peach pie he’d ever tasted—sweet and tart without losing the integrity of the fruit, and M had done something different with her pie crust too. Added a bit of sugar, maybe, because it complemented the filling perfectly.

“Holy Mary, mother of God,” James swore.

“Told you.” Bill grinned.

“And we only get this one?”

“Only this one,” Jack confirmed and licked his fork.

“Well, that’s hardly fair.”

“I’d have to make six dozen more pies if I let you pigs have more than one slice each. Don’t think I don’t see how you sneak the apple, Bond,” M said and Deetz laughed. “You’re no better,” M continued, pointing at Deetz. “This is the reason there’s a lock on the refrigerator for the next two weeks.”

“And M and I are the only ones with keys,” Eve said, grinning.

“We’ll unveil them tomorrow for the Church crowd,” M said. “You all know your jobs tomorrow morning?”

Everyone echoed with a resounding ‘yes.’

The plan was this: everyone was to attend their respective churches in the morning and casually (or not-so-casually) bring up in conversation that peach pie was on the menu again at the cafe.

“It’s not as easy as putting it on the radio,” M had said as she explained the plan, “but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper.”

James had been obliged to listen to twelve sermons by Reverend White so far. The man had proven himself to be everything M had claimed he was. It was all he could do to go, week after week, but not going would be worse: everyone knew that the first slide down into Communism was embracing atheism; it was a defining tenet of the structure of the Soviet Union. The quickest way to get yourself noticed by the wrong sort of people was to stop attending church. That had been true in Washington as well. And so he suffered through the rhetoric, through the ponderings on death by a man who’d never seen it, never held a man in his arms while he took his last breaths. He sat through a treatise on the rightness of segregation, ‘each to their own kind’ and ‘a lion and a lamb may lay peacefully, but are still not of a kind.’ Another on shunning non-believers, also known as Communists, also known as secret enemies of ‘our glorious way of life.’  It made his skin crawl, even moreso to see entire swaths of the congregation nodding along. Needless to say, he was not looking forward to sermon thirteen.

Q pressed his knee against James’ under the table, pulling James from his thoughts.

“You’re very serious about your pie.”

“The pie is worth being serious over,” James said, which was true, but not why he was frowning at it.

“Mm,” Q said, but didn’t look like he believed it.

Q’s knee didn’t move, and James pressed back, eliciting a tiny grin from Q, who responded in kind. It was ridiculous and childish, but James found a great deal of satisfaction in the clandestine game, watching Q trying his best not to topple over into Eve as he pressed harder and harder against James’ leg. After nearly thirty seconds, James suddenly stopped pressing, and Q fell against him.

“You alright there, Q?” George asked, chuckling. Q leveled a glare at George, righted himself, and gave James’ knee a sharp whack with his. James merely lifted another fork-full of pie into his mouth and smiled.  

 

***

 

The shop seemed painfully quiet when James wasn’t in it. When had that started to bother him? Of course, it wasn’t actually quiet at all. Jack was in and out with customers from the pumps, the phone rang with more customers wanting to schedule maintenance, and Bill poked his head in to ask if he’d like his usual for lunch. But it felt quiet without James’ presence filling up all the empty spaces in the corners of the room, and Q realized that he missed him. He also realized that this was the first time James had had two days off in a row since the beginning of July and here it was the fifth of August.

“Usually your daydreams involve work.”

Q spun away from the workbench he’d been leaning against and there was Eve, her uniform immaculate as usual, grinning at him from the office door.

Q deflated, shaking his head. “Just wondering what I’m going to do about that Citroen. All the parts I need are two weeks out and Leonard’s counting on them for the fair.” It wasn’t that at all, but he could hardly tell Eve the truth.

“The fair isn’t til the end of the month. You’ve got time.”

“Mm. If James takes all the routine jobs.”

“Sounds like he’s become indispensable around here,” Eve said. She took a few steps into the garage proper. “You two have become pretty good friends.”

“Hmm.” Q fought the flush in his cheeks and the rising panic in his chest with all he had. Had they been careful enough? Had they been too obvious? Had their routine been clocked and James’ late nights at Q’s house counted and found excessive? Twice a week wasn’t excessive, was it? Two buddies hanging out, having a beer and watching TV. Everyone did that. He’d created a narrative for each and every evening they’d spent together since July - just in case. For this very moment. Stupid, it was so stupid to even bring his name up in conversation. “What did you need?”

The question came out sharper than he had intended, and Eve’s eyebrows rose.

“Well, I was going to tell you that Bill set aside a pork chop for you and it’s getting cold. But now I’m not so sure I ought.”

Q sighed. “Sorry, I’m just not feeling like myself today.”

“Well, something’s going on in that big ol’ brain of yours, that’s for certain, and I really don’t think it has much to do with Leonard’s car.”

Q braced himself. This was it. She was going to tell him how disgusting he was, how she knew all about what he and James were up to and that she was giving him fair warning that he should get out of town because one good turn deserved another, but this was the last time she’d be kind.

“It’s hard to see Shelly struggle,” Eve said, and a few of the gears stripped in Q’s head. What did Shelly have to do with anything? Her name hadn’t even been obliquely referenced.

“Did something happen?” Last he’d heard, Richard had found a job hauling trash at Linda’s Salon and things had been looking up.

“You haven’t heard?”

“Heard what, Eve?”

“Richard’s in the hospital. Wrecked the truck - creamed it - on his way home from work.”

“Oh my God.”

Q stared at Eve for a beat, trying to come to grips with what he’d just been told. What would Shelly and the boys do? Medical bills on top of everything else would ruin them - and now she had no transportation.

“Their church is taking up a collection, I think. But you know Richard and his misplaced pride. I don’t know if he’ll accept the money.”

“They need to. If they don’t…” Q rubbed at his temples. “Maybe I can do something. Help...I don’t know.”

“It’s not your responsibility,” Eve said. “She made her choice.”

Q couldn’t disagree with her more. If he’d just had the balls to cement the lie he let everyone believe - if he’d been able to put himself aside for one fucking minute - this never would have happened. Shelly didn’t choose Richard, even though that’s what everyone thought. Richard had plucked her up when she’d been devastated by Q’s rejection.

No, he thought somberly, Shelly’s plight was all his fault.

 

***

James pulled into Q’s driveway just after dusk that night. He had six bottles of Old Style - cold from Miller’s - on his front seat, a spring in his step, and a smile on his lips. He’d purposely stayed away from the cafe and all their haunts to make tonight all the sweeter - the old adage of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and all that. Or the lips more eager, at any rate.

He grabbed the beer and sauntered up to Q’s front door and rang the bell, whistling under his breath.

The smile faded from his lips as soon as Q answered the door. Q’s eyes were cold, and his mouth was pursed.

“Sorry you wasted the trip,” Q said unceremoniously, and moved to close the door.

James stopped him with his free hand.

“I haven’t seen you in two days, and this is the greeting I get?” James tried to keep it light, but the bitterness sinking into his gut cut his words and Q’s expression hardened further.

“Not really in the mood for company.”

“Good, ‘cause I’m not in the mood to talk. We can just sit and stare at the wall and drink our beer.”

Q’s mouth softened a bit, and he narrowly avoided rolling his eyes. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Well, I’m ridiculous. And I… I missed you.” As absurd as it sounded - they’d only been apart for 48 hours - the statement was still true.

Q sighed, resigned, and stepped away from the door.

James lifted the bottles as he crossed the threshold and shut the door behind him. He watched Q, the line of his shoulders more tense than he’d seen it for a while, his movements measured and deliberate as he scratched Mat between the ears. Gerdy still hadn’t warmed up to James, and insisted on vanishing whenever he came over.

“I’ll grab the opener?” James said.

“Sure.”

James left a wooden Q in the living room and made his way into the kitchen. He knew his way around well enough that it was only a matter of moments until he discovered Q’s bottle opener and popped the lids off two beers. He came back to the sitting room to find Q curled in on himself in one of the goose-neck rockers, Mat purring on his lap. James stuck one of the beers in front of his nose, and Q took it automatically and drank deeply. It didn’t seem to lighten his mood.

They sat in silence through the first beer, Q staring intently at the carpet, absently petting Mat, James watching Q’s face relax a fraction at a time. No words were exchanged as Q pulled another beer from the box and popped it open, James following two swigs behind him.

“How do you like the Cubs’ chances?” James asked. He didn’t mind sitting there, contemplating the texture of the plaster, but Q didn’t seem to be pulling out of his slump, despite the beer, and maybe changing the subject - or having a subject at all - would help. He didn’t follow the game very closely - he couldn’t quite understand the point -  but Q did.

Q shrugged. “If they can get their pitchers in line, maybe. Their batting isn’t terrible, but the pitching .”

“What’s so bad about the pitching?”

“Rush was pretty good last season, actually, but he’s completely fallen apart. Same with Hacker. They’re letting too many runs through.”

“How’d you figure?”

Thus began a long and winding tale involving many, many numbers that James didn’t quite understand the significance of but which Q was adamant showed how poorly the Cubs were actually playing, along with enough acronyms to put the Navy to shame. It was all very technical, James thought, and rather took the joy of the contest out of the sport. But Q faithfully kept track of every single statistic, and James had seen him, poring over his cards, checking the play-by-plays in the newspaper if he absolutely had to miss a game.

He’d told James at the beginning of the season that his goal was to predict who would play for the National League Pennant by the end of June. He had DODGERS written down in capital letters in marking pen followed by Giants, Reds, Phillies and finally Braves. The Dodgers, he’d said, were a shoo-in. The rest of the list had slowly been crossed off until only ‘Braves’ was left.

“I still don’t know why they had to move the team to Milwaukee, of all places. We’ve already got two clubs right there in Chicago, but I suppose Pennsylvania has three, so who am I to argue... ”

James listened, nodding along and making empathetic noises when necessary, letting Q vent whatever his frustrations were through the guise of complaining about his team, his sport, and the unfathomable decisions made behind closed doors in rooms full of cigar smoke and stacks of cash.

“And I can’t believe they traded for Howie Pollet. Why? He hasn’t done anything worthwhile since ’46!” Q finished. Mat had long since vacated his lap as he became more and more animated and was now perched on the ottoman between them, curled around the paperboard carton containing the remainder of the beer.

Q fell back in the chair, which squeaked a bit as it rocked back. His eyes were bright again, lit by his passion for everything baseball. Someday, James promised himself, he’d have Q sit down and teach him what all of this actually meant.

“You let me holler at you about baseball for an hour,” Q said, not quite believing it.

“Well, I did ask a few questions in there, so it wasn’t all ‘hollering’ as you so quaintly put it.”

Q shot him a look that said ‘Gee, thanks so much for finding me amusing,’ which James counted as a win. He popped open another bottle and offered it to Q, who took it with a nod. The six-pack was empty, now, and James could feel the first stirrings of a pleasant buzz in his fingertips.

Q lapsed into a contemplative silence once more, then after a few sips said, “I went to see Shelly today.”

“Oh?”

“Richard fucked up. Landed himself in the hospital. I wanted to see if I could help.”

“Mm.” Wherever this was going, it was clearly what had been eating at Q when he’d arrived.

“It...didn’t go well.”

“I could tell.”

“She...I…” Q pulled a hand through his hair as he tried to find words.

“You were sweethearts, or everyone thought you were. Does she know?”

Q sighed and stared at the carpet. “She does now.”

“Oh.”

Well, Q was still alive, and not arrested, so that was a point in Shelly’s favor, but Bond couldn’t help the creeping sense of unease.

“She’s a good girl. I don’t think it’ll go any farther.” He thinks? Bond tried not to scoff.  “But she doesn’t understand.”

“Well, no. Of course not. Did you expect her to?”

“I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I got.” Q took the last two long swallows of his beer and slid the bottle back into the box. “And it… it dredged up a lot of memories.”

“The kind that make you ponder all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘might have beens.’”

“Yeah.”

James thought about telling him to just forget about it, that the past was past and there was nothing he could do - but it seemed almost cruel.

“If you had to go back, live it all again, what would you change?”

Q thought about that a long, long time. So long that James was convinced he’d never answer.

“If I’d have changed anything, it wouldn’t lead me to you,” he said finally and James’ heart squeezed in a not-altogether-unpleasant kind of way. “But maybe I’m just trying to justify my mistakes.” The not-unpleasant squeeze turned to an ache.

“So...I’m a mistake?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“No. But you didn’t have to.”

“I don’t know right now.” Q stood and stalked to the bookshelf, his back to James now. “I don’t know, because you’re good company. I… we’re good together - at work, or shooting pool at the Rusty Nail, and even like this. I just—”

James stood, too, but didn’t approach Q, didn’t move to hold him. This was Q’s move to make. James had made his position clear.

“I can’t get it out of my head that being with you, like that, is wrong. And I know you said to trust my gut. But what if my instinct told me to steal something? Or murder someone? What’s the difference?”

“The difference is that I’m here of my own free will. You’re not hurting me.”

“Aren’t I?” Q turned, his eyes red-rimmed and moist.

James had never felt the urge to wrap someone up in his arms as strongly as he did in that moment. But he hesitated - not knowing if such comfort would be welcomed or simply drive the wedge deeper. He’d thought Q was fine, they’d shared laughs and intimacy so easily - he never would have guessed Q walked the knife’s edge of self-loathing so precariously.

Or perhaps he had been placed there by imagined obligations and a pressure to conform that James had never succumbed to. Perhaps this was the dark underbelly of small-town life that he’d managed to side-step in the months since he’d arrived.

“No.” James’ response was emphatic. “Q, I…” He took a deep breath. “I know what it’s like to get hurt. And this?” He gestured to the empty space between them. “It doesn’t hurt. What hurts is watching you getting crushed under the weight of expectations.” He took a step back, turned. “I don’t want you to beat yourself up like that. Not for me. Not for anyone.”

“James?” Q’s voice was near its breaking point, and James screwed his eyes shut and took another slow step towards the front door.

“Make your own choices, doll. Don’t let anyone decide for you. And when you know what you want, what you’ll fight for, tell me.”

And without another word, James walked out of the house, got into his car, and drove hell-for-leather back to Miller’s for a bottle of vodka.

He’d fucked it up. He’d known he would, eventually. He’d got too close, sent the one person he’d really connected with into some kind of personal crisis because he couldn’t keep it in his goddamn pants, and now here he was, searching for solace in the bottom of a bottle.

It wasn’t there, but by God getting drunk took the edge off.

 

***

 

The door shut behind James, and Q listened as he peeled out of the driveway at speed and roared off down the street. Once the sound of the engine died away completely, Q crumpled. Everything was a mess, and it was all his fault.

He’d tried to help Shelly and been turned away - brutally. He had no illusions that she’d be darkening the shop door any time soon. How could he have been so stupid as to think she would understand? And the only one who did understand had just walked out his door, possibly out of his life.

He was alone again, and this time it was worse than before because it was all his own fault - he’d caused this mess. He didn’t belong in James’ world of big cities and bright lights - he’d never wanted that. But he began to wonder, as he sat on his living room floor with Gerdy and Mat twining around him, if he really belonged here, either, or if it had just been comfortable to stay. M and Boothroyd had been more than kind to him. But where else could he have gone? He wasn’t about to push away the first kindness he’d encountered after… after.

Had he really just grown content with his life? Had he really simply told himself it was all he could ask for? How long had he convinced himself he was lucky to have what he did and that he shouldn’t tempt fate by asking for more?

Could he have more?

He had his life, he had his liberty - two of the three founding elements of this country, he thought wryly. Why should he be denied the pursuit of happiness?

Because what makes you happiest is disgusting and immoral, a little voice in the back of his mind piped up.

“Says who?” Q said aloud into the room. James certainly didn’t seem to think so. And as he thought back, he’d had to be told himself.

Sitting alone in his own house, he could let himself believe he was strong enough to face the consequences.

But history told him that he would crumble. He couldn’t live a lie, but he couldn’t live the truth, either.

And if that was the case, what was the point of it?

He sat for a long time wondering about everything - Shelly and James and M and Boothroyd - and the sun peeked through his curtains before he realized he’d been up all night on the floor, and he had a shop to run.

His muscles protested the movement as he rose, and his mind was foggy as he fed the cats, scooped their box in the breezeway, and shuffled off to shower.

Maybe… maybe there was more to life than what he’d been led to believe. And if James—

But he’d burned that bridge, hadn’t he?

Thinking about it now, Q wasn’t so certain. After all, James had wanted to be told Q’s decision - he hadn’t simply stormed out. So maybe he hadn’t lost everything. Misplaced, perhaps, but not lost.

He composed speech after speech in his head as he got ready for work - he apologized, explained, tried to get his thoughts in order so he didn’t completely ruin his last chance.

He pulled into the lot right on time to open.

James’ car wasn’t there.

Q wanted to be surprised, but he really wasn’t. ‘When you know what you’ll fight for, tell me,’ he’d said - and Q knew where to find him: either at the motel or the Rusty Nail.

“Where’s Mr. James?” Jack asked as soon as he arrived.

“I gave him a couple extra days,” Q said. “You’ve been begging to learn fuel filter changes, anyway. Good a time as any.”

And just like that, life slid back into place and the urge to scream at the world subsided, replaced by mundane problems and the routine motion of living.

Except for the empty feeling in the garage. And the ache in Q’s chest.

Would he grow used to that too?

 

 

***

 

Eve sat at the desk in the back room, humming ‘Hound Dog’ for the hundredth time while she ran through the numbers again for next month’s orders. Big Mama Thornton had a voice like thunder and Eve wished she could have that kind of power in her own singing. Maybe if she could actually squeeze out time to practice between working here and cleaning at the church, she could make something of herself. Church choir was all well and good, but she needed to be at the clubs in Chicago if she was ever going to make it out of this town. And she would make it out of this town. Of that she had no doubt. She already had more than fifty dollars squirreled away in a mason jar on the top shelf of her closet for the day she said goodbye. It would be tearful, of course. M and the boys were kind. But they were the exception rather than the rule around here. Even her Daddy, God rest his soul, had been able to see that. The one man she’d known to see kindness before cruelty had taught her well the ways to tell the difference.

The office door clicked open, but she didn’t respond, focused as she was on the column of numbers in front of her.

“Eve?”

She looked up. M’s hair was falling out of its bun and her face was more harried than usual.

“Yes?”

“We’ve got a crowd. Full up and no end in sight. I need your help.”

Eve drew in a breath. “Dishes?”

“Serving. Deetz had a tangle with the wrong end of a batch of chocolate pudding and isn’t presentable.”

“And nobody else in the kitchen can serve, I know.” She didn’t mind being called out of the office for dishes, but serving?

Most of the customers were fine, if not chatty, but the cold glares and snide remarks - even outright calling M over to complain - got to her. She was grateful to M for this job.  It was a better place than just about any other she could name. If only she didn’t have to serve. It was enough to deal with the stares and remarks when she went into the grocery.

But she dutifully tied on the white serving apron, grabbed an order pad and pen, and stepped out onto the floor. Maybe, just maybe, she’d make a few tips.

Gerald VanVactor was seated at the big corner booth with his entire side of the clan - wife, daughter, and three sons - two of which had brought their wives. They’d had to cram an extra table against the curve of the booth to fit them all.

“Who let the nigger out of her cage?” he asked his wife as Eve stepped through the door from the back, then guffawed. She took a deep breath. M would know to take his table, it wasn’t the first time this had happened. She turned her back on him and went to table four - an older couple who looked distinctly uncomfortable but didn’t outright pretend to not hear her when she offered to take their order.

Gerald kept up his barrage of tasteless comments every time Eve came within earshot, each followed by his too-loud laughter. At least the daughter had the decency to look a bit embarrassed at her father’s behavior.

She was just pulling table four’s food from the window when she heard a familiar voice cut through the hubbub of the crowd.

“Somebody ought to wash your mouth with soap.”

She turned, and there was Q, his face full of cold disdain. What was he up to?

A sort of hush came over the dining room, but that might have just been Eve, because suddenly all her focus was concentrated on the two men squaring off in the corner.

“I can say what I like. It’s a free country.”

“With great freedom comes great responsibility.” Q lowered his chin so he was looking at Gerald over the top of his glasses, and he dropped his voice. “And poor choices come with consequences.”

“What the hell are you talkin’ about, four-eyes?” Gerald slid out of the booth and stood, making his 250-pound frame look even bigger.

Q sighed through his nose, looked at the floor for a split second, and his face contorted in fury. The last time Eve had seen him so angry was just before he fired Raoul. His arm moved, lightning fast, bringing his fist arcing toward Gerald’s jaw.

The punch connected. Gerald’s head spun and he crumpled immediately. Bill and M emerged from the kitchen just in time to see the aftermath.

“Get this scumbag out of here,” Q growled at the sons, then stalked through the door to the back office.

The dining room was silent. Gerald lay on the floor, his lip bleeding where Q had hit him, his face like thunder as he touched where it had split. Nobody moved to help him for several seconds.

Bill looked at M, and it was then that sound and movement rushed back in. M nodded, face cool and impassive as always, and Bill disappeared back into the kitchen. Two of Gerald’s sons pulled Gerald up between them and walked with him out of the restaurant.

What on Earth had possessed Q to pick that fight? The VanVactor clan ran half the town. They wouldn’t take lightly to someone knocking out one of the patriarchs. Eve shook her head, dismissing the questions so she could get back to work. Whatever was going on in that greased-up head of his couldn’t be her problem right now.

Miraculously, she hadn’t dropped her plates, so she bustled over to table four while Gerald was still in transit.

“Sorry about the interruption,” Eve said as she set the plates down. The couple glared at her, but said nothing. They left no tip.

Three hours later, when the rush had ended and the restaurant was quiet again, Eve returned to the office to retrieve her purse. She opened the door and nearly screamed. Q sat behind the desk in the dark, staring straight ahead.

“What kind of fool thing was that to do, picking a fight with Gerald VanVactor?” Eve asked, her voice pointed with the dregs of her surprise. The act itself had been vicariously satisfying in the moment, but the fallout could be devastating - not only to Q but to Eve herself. She’d been defended, publicly, by a well-known and well-liked white man. Either she would be untouchable or an object of scorn - and she wasn’t looking forward to her next trip to the grocery.

“He’s a scumbag, Eve, it was about time someone told him.” Q’s tone was matter-of-fact, emotionless to the point that it was obvious something deeper was brewing under the surface.

“You just lost a good chunk of your business,” Eve pointed out.

Q shrugged.

“You know who they’re going to go to now, right?”

“Raoul is a two-bit hack that can’t tell a carburetor from a crank shaft and everybody knows it.”

“Not everybody.”

“Well, the Outfit’s obligated. Denbigh and all his friends fancy themselves members so they go too.”

“What about M? And me?”

“M could sell ice to an eskimo,” Q said. “And maybe now you can go to Chicago like you’ve been talking about.”

“I’m…” Eve stopped, thought carefully. She’d have to sell the house, of course, and find work in the city, but it wasn’t that far-fetched. Her cash would be tight, but workable if she were careful. She smirked, then, and shook her head. “Running me out of town on a rail, huh?”

Q’s face finally softened.

“Not sending you anywhere you don’t want to go.”

Eve chuckled. “If it’s bad, I’ll go. But let’s play it by ear, okay? I’d hate to leave M to fend off the wolves by herself.”

“She’d have me.” Q’s eyes glittered in the fluorescent light.

“A formidable defense,” Eve said, and nodded sagely.

They were quiet for a long moment, then Eve said simply, “Thank you.” It was more than that, of course, it was ‘I appreciate you’ and ‘You didn’t need to do that’ and ‘I’m glad I can count you as a friend.’

“You’re welcome.”

Q stood from the chair and passed Eve as he walked out of the office and put a hand on her shoulder. His face was a strange mixture of resignation and resolve, as though he were Jacob wrestling with the angel, surprised he’d prevailed but determined to capitalize on his success.

He moved away, and she watched him walk down the hall, through the dining room, and out into the deepening evening, and wondered where he was going.

 

***

 

The Rusty Nail was dim and smoky, and the dark panelling and tables made it feel like midnight even at four o’clock in the afternoon. It hadn’t been four o’clock in the afternoon for hours, now. Lewis, the bartender, had turned on the neon a while ago, so James figured it might be ten. He pointedly refused to look at his watch. He’d always found it best to pickle himself without a timeline.

“Heya, James, you at it alone tonight?” The question came from the one person he did not want to see tonight (or ever) - Max Denbigh.

“Yep.” James stared down at his beer, running his finger over the rim of the bottle.

Denbigh, who either couldn’t take a hint or refused to, slid onto the stool next to him. He leaned close, far closer than was necessary. James could smell the fresh coat of aftershave mixed with cigarette smoke. What was he playing at?

“What’re you drinking this evening?” Denbigh smiled, bright white and oil-slick, his eyes just as dead as a fish.

“Cold piss.” The venom in James’ voice dripped from the words. If he’d wanted a drinking buddy he would have called Bill to come by after the diner closed.

“Sounds delightful. Lewis?”

For the love of Pete, could this guy not take a hint?

Denbigh ordered his bottle of Old Style and took a long drink. There were two dozen other people in this bar and several empty tables - there was no reason for Denbigh to slide up beside him other than to be nosy.

“Q not up for a couple rounds of pool?”

“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t talked to him for a couple days. I took some vacation time.”

“Oh, that’s interesting. See, Dick Williams swears he saw you peeling out of his driveway last night.”

James mentally flipped through the TV lineup for the previous evening, and came up with nothing - no way to explain away his presence. Before he could voice a plausible reason to be at Q’s house after dark, Denbigh spoke again.

“Of course, Dick tells me you’re there after-hours quite a bit. And then the two of you play pool with Gary and Matt here a couple nights a week…”

James shifted on his stool, but didn’t look at Denbigh. “So?”

“I just find it very interesting that a man of your...caliber… would fall in with that crowd. There are so many other, more advantageous associations.”

James relaxed. This wasn’t a probe into his private life, this was a recruitment for the ‘highbrow’ crowd in town. He nearly laughed. “Oh? And what associations are those - yours?”

Denbigh nodded. “I have some rather influential friends. But none with connections in Washington. That’s quite the feather in your cap, James.”

“Not as many as I used to. And I don’t know how useful a couple of typists and a file clerk are going to be.” Nevermind that the file clerk worked in the bowels of the CIA or that the typists were in the Belgian embassy.

“The largest oak begins as the smallest acorn,” Denbigh said, as though it explained everything. James knew what he meant, of course, that even the smallest connection could grow into a large influence, but he didn’t like feeling like the squirrel. His coming here had planted a seed he hadn’t known he’d been carrying, and this oil slick dressed in a cheap suit was going to try and make the most of it.

“I’m going to save you some time,” James said, finally turning to look at Denbigh, who had the decency to at least look surprised. “My name isn’t going to open any doors for you. I don’t have any connections beyond what I’ve already told you. I can’t call up your representative because quite frankly I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I went to galas for a living, Denbigh. I wasn’t some...muckity-muck that had any influence.”

What he didn’t say, of course, was that he was supposed to report to his handler if he ever met anyone at these galas who could be involved in ‘unAmerican activities’ - which ranged from actual espionage to littering and everything in between. What he also didn’t say was that failing to turn in specific individuals is likely what led to his name being added to the list of undesirables. He didn’t feel that turning in his partners was a particularly sporting thing to do.

“I think you’d be surprised what kind of doors you could open, if you tried,” Denbigh said. “Unless, of course, you were run out of town?”

The look in Denbigh’s eye told James everything he needed to know. Denbigh was fishing, with good bait - effective bait - but fishing nonetheless. It was that spark that said ‘I want you to think I know something you don’t want me to know’ and James knew that look very well indeed. He’d used it himself to wheedle information out of insufferable windbags.

“I resigned my position.” James’ words were clipped.

“Just like that?” Denbigh’s eyebrows rose.

“Just like that. Wanted to see something else of your country, and I couldn’t very well do that from an airplane.”

“No.” Denbigh looked thoughtful. “Well, that’s a pity. Looks like neither one of us has any use for the other. And here I was hoping to be good friends.” He slid off his barstool and left a dollar under his bottle. “I’ll see you around town, I’m sure. James.”

“I’m sure you will.”

And with that, he vanished out the door.

James sat for a long while more, sipping his beers. Gary and Matt came by and he shot a round of pool, netting him five dollars. He was about ready to call it a night - right around midnight he guessed, but he still hadn’t looked at his watch - when Q found him at the bar.

James’ heart skipped, and he licked his lips as Q walked over and sat down next to him. It was apprehension and relief all bound up together and it was all he could do to keep his expression schooled into one of polite acknowledgement.

“I cracked Gerald VanVactor in the jaw,” Q said without preamble or explanation.

That was not the conversation opener Bond had thought he was going to hear, but it certainly sounded like a good story. “He probably had it coming to him,” James said, deadpan. He desperately wanted to ask why, wanted the whole story, but now was neither the time nor the place for that conversation.

“It’s not as hard as I thought it would be.”

“It generally isn’t.”

Q turned to him, and James watched him out of the corner of his eye.

“I’ve never fought for anything before,” he said quietly, almost too quietly for James to hear. “Never felt that my thoughts were worth defending.”

“Q?”

“I’m still afraid,” Q said, his voice still low. “And I think I always will be. But… but I can face the consequences if I’m not alone.”

James turned, staring into Q’s eyes. Let them chalk it up to drunkenness or exhaustion or whatever excuse Lewis and every other patron in the bar wanted to tell themselves. James gazed his fill at Q. He grinned, wide and welcoming, and he hoped that in it was an apology loud enough for Q to hear. He hadn’t meant to put the man in such a precarious position, but he certainly was glad he’d fallen on his side of it.

Q smiled back.

“I warmed up with Gary earlier. Think you can beat me cold?” James pointed to the pool table.

“I can knock the socks off of you,” Q insisted. “I haven’t been pickling myself all afternoon.”

“I’m not drunk,” James insisted, and Q rolled his eyes.

And just like that, as quick as anything, it was all behind them. Later, when they were alone, James would ask about the fight. Later, he would ask forgiveness. But for now, for this moment, he was content to simply spend time with Q again - easy time, simple time.

And, like he’d promised, Q knocked his socks off. In every iteration of the phrase.

Chapter Text

Q leaned against the counter in the kitchen, watching George and Bill dance around each other as they prepared meals for the handful of customers in the dining room. He’d come to talk to Bill about his free lunches, about stopping them, actually. He’d already caused enough strife around here.

Bill, for his part, waved Q’s objections away. “I only use the stuff that’s about to go bad, anyway. And you pay for your pop, so it’s not really that big a deal.”

Q lifted an eyebrow. “Thank you. I think.”

“What the hell’d you go and punch him for, though?” George asked, annoyed.

“Maybe it’s time somebody did,” Q replied, shrugging. Looking back, it was an incredibly stupid thing to do, and probably caused more harm than good in the long run. The diner was half-empty, even on Friday night, and Q’s business had slowed to almost nothing. He was answering more calls for cancelled appointments than he was for new ones.

“Yeah, maybe, but not in the middle of dinner rush!” George grunted, exasperated, as he turned to start a basket of fries. “Look, I know you and Eve are… close,” he continued, and Q didn’t miss the insinuation that they were too close for comfort, “but sometimes you just gotta let the dogs bark, you know?”

“And if the bark turns to a bite?”

George shook his head. “All I’m saying is, maybe don’t go around slugging the guys who run the town, alright?”

“And Eve should just put up with it, is that what you mean?”

“It’s not like he was beating her.” George shrugged.

“Sticks and stones,” Q muttered, brows furrowed. If words had the power to inspire, to call to action, then words also had the power to hurt, but it wasn’t a visible kind of injury. It was easy to dismiss, easy to blame the target for being a sissy or, god forbid, ‘sensitive.’

“Exactly! Can you hand me the lettuce bin?”

Q turned and pulled the lettuce bin out of the refrigerator behind him and handed it over.

“It’ll work itself out,” Bill said. “We’ve weathered worse slumps than this. You remember when Agnes McCollough swore she saw a mouse run out of the kitchen? The only people that would step foot in here were the regulars, and this isn’t nearly as empty as that. We’ll be alright.”

“If you say so,” Q conceded.

“Q?” M’s voice rang through the kitchen. Q’s eyes found M’s unreadable gray ones as she jerked her head in the direction of the office and all Q could think was ‘oh shit.’

He shuffled back towards the office with his hands in his pockets, chewing on his lower lip. She had the power to revoke his lease - all he owned was the business, not the property. She would, for all he knew. If things didn’t turn around… He shook his head. He still had a few customers - and Jack’s father hadn’t made him quit. Yet. That was something. But the worry sat in the pit of his stomach that everything would implode, that his comfortable life was slipping out of his tenuous grip.

And it all started when James Bond had sauntered into his shop four months ago with a bad carburetor, an oil pump that had seen better days, and three gaskets that he’d been lucky hadn’t completely blown. Q could almost resent the man, but he couldn’t quite hide the half-smile that came to his lips whenever he thought about him.

The expression died on his face when M’s stern gaze met his in the hall.

“I fail to see anything to smile about,” she said, and stepped into her office ahead of Q.

“It’s nothing,” Q said. “Just a joke Bill told me.”

“Then please spare us,” M replied. “I’m not sure I could survive another one of Bill’s jokes.”

Q bit down on a grin. If M was making jokes, then her sternness wasn’t directed at him.

“But have you heard the one about the two nuns and the blind man?” Q began and M visibly shuddered. Apparently she had. “What did you need?”

“That was a damn fool thing you did last night.”

Oh. Q shrank a bit. Apparently she really was angry with him.

“You could have gotten yourself seriously hurt - still could, as far as that goes. Gerald isn’t one to let go of a slight as big as that one.”

“I understand,” Q said, wondering what the hell he was going to do now. His brain started wondering if he could even sell his house at this point.

“I’m not sure you do.” M fixed him with a hard eye. “It was a damn fool thing, but it took a lot of guts.”

Q hadn’t been expecting that, and a gear stripped somewhere behind his left ear. Was she complimenting him?

“Um. Thank you?”

“You’re banned from the restaurant for two months.” M sat down behind her desk and started shuffling papers, completely unconcerned about Q’s silent gaping mouth.

What?” he finally managed. M glanced up at him as though he were a particularly stubborn stain.

“Can’t have the customers thinking they’re going to be assaulted by my tenant when they come to eat. Two months. Bill’s aware, you can send Jack or James over to get food for the lot of you.”

Q groaned. It was reasonable, and less severe than what he’d feared would happen. But he was annoyed. Of course Bill knew. He hadn’t said anything because it was so much more fun to give him that insufferably smug look as he walked back out through the kitchen.

“You’re lucky I don’t punch you,” Q told Bill. “You could have at least warned me.”

“No way. She’d have known if I did that. Then I’d be the one getting the lecture.” Bill turned back to the griddle. Three hamburgers were sizzling away, and the fryer was down. Family order, perhaps? Either way, Q was glad for it. They could limp along for a little while yet.

*****

At five o’clock on Monday afternoon, it showed up. A well-maintained, sleek and bright (despite its age) 1939 Ford, if the shape of the grille was anything to go by. She ran smooth as butter and pulled up to one of the gas pumps.

Jack was champing at the bit. He hadn’t had a lot to do that day besides sweep the floor, and sweeping was probably the least interesting thing he’d ever done. He dashed out to the truck and grinned into the window.

A man with skin black as midnight peered back at him, and Jack’s grin faltered. The man rolled down his window, and Jack tried his best to be polite. Mr. Q had told him to be polite to every customer, no matter what. Besides, Eve was colored too, and she was alright.

“What can I do for you?”

The man held up his wallet.“I’d like ten gallons, please.” He pulled out a five-dollar bill. “And if you tell me where I can find a Mr. Q, you can keep the change.”

Jack’s eyes went wide. That was two whole dollars. But what did a man like that want with Mr. Q? He hesitated for a moment, but decided that Mr. James was in the garage, too, and if worse came to worse, Mr. James could probably get Mr. Q out of any trouble. Jack nodded and pulled the nozzle down and set it for a medium flow, then picked up his rag and squeegee and dutifully cleaned the man’s windshield. He had it timed nearly to the second, so that he was finished with the glass at the same time the pump had neared its target.

Ten gallons, on the nose, and Jack flipped the nozzle shut and hung it back on the pump.

“Who should I tell Mr. Q is here?” Jack asked.

“My name is William DeLance. But I don’t expect that will make an impression,” the man said.

Jack nodded and trotted up toward the office, wondering if he was sending his boss into trouble.

***

Q stood at his workbench, painstakingly organizing his allen wrenches. James was on the opposite end of the garage, swearing at a floor buffer that was spread out into its component parts in a semi-circle around him.

“If I shout at it long enough, do you think it’ll put itself back together?” James asked as he raked a hand through his not-quite-military-short hair.

“It’s an interesting theory,” Q returned mildly. “But one you need to test when I’m not in the room.”

“Oh, yes, your poor virgin ears,” James teased.

“Just because I don’t swear like a sailor—”

“I represent that remark!” James interjected, mock-offense chasing glee across his features.

“For the love of Pete!” Q rolled his eyes. If allen wrenches were any bigger, he would have lobbed one in James’ direction for that sentence. As it was, he was half-afraid he’d lose the wrench. He held up two wrenches that he was certain had to be the same diameter, but neither fit into the tray space he had left and he was at a loss. Maybe he could...

“Who the hell is Pete?”

“I’ll be sure to introduce you some time.” Q prepared to launch another offensive, but was interrupted.

“Mr. Q?”

Q turned to see Jack’s head poked around the door from the office.

“There’s a...man here. Asked to talk to you. He’s out by the pumps. Mr. DeLance.”

Q frowned and wondered what he was about to walk into. He shared a glance with James, who looked equally prickly about Jack’s news.

But he couldn't very well ignore a customer.

James nodded, and Q walked out to meet this Mr. DeLance, whoever he was.

He was more curious than anything when he saw Mr. DeLance. He was definitely not the garage’s typical customer. He stood beside his truck - and what a truck. Gorgeous lines, and a hunter green paint job that had been lovingly cared for since the day it had driven off the assembly line.

“She’s a beauty,” Q said, nodding to the truck. “I’m Q; you must be Mr. DeLance. Heard you wanted to talk to me?”

“Thanks. Yeah. Word is you run a tight outfit here, did I hear that right?”

“Depends on who you ask,” Q said, and shrugged.

“Well, I’m asking you.”

It wasn’t in him to be modest, but it wasn’t like his calendar was overflowing with appointments. And this Mr. DeLance obviously knew what he was doing when it came to cars.

“Why don’t you come see for yourself?” Q held out his arm toward the garage.

He couldn’t quite say why, but he had a good feeling about Mr. DeLance. Maybe it was that instant rapport over a well-maintained vehicle, or he was just pleased that someone had given him a compliment after having had so many insults flung at him over the past five days, or maybe it was something else entirely. Regardless, he led the man into the garage and introduced him to Jack and James properly.

Mr. DeLance surveyed the space, nodding, chuckling at the floor buffer still in eight thousand pieces in Bay Three.“You’ve got a good little shop here, Q. A really good little shop. Can I get a seat at the counter across the way?” He jerked his head in the direction of the cafe.

“Without a doubt,” James said, and grinned.

Mr. DeLance grinned back, shook hands with all three of them, and moved his car from the gas pumps to the cafe parking lot, which was conspicuously empty.

“He’s a scout,” James murmured once Jack had gone back to sweeping the office.

“What?”

“Somebody told somebody who told somebody else that your station was a good stop for his folk, and my guess would be Mr. DeLance there is double-checking his grapevine.”

“How do you know?” Q asked, frowning at James in disbelief.

“I know I’ve told you about Felix.”

“Sure. Your buddy from the War.” James had mentioned him several times - their ships had had similar ports or something. Q didn’t quite understand, but they’d run into each other while ashore several times, is what it boiled down to, and had struck up something of a friendship.

James nodded and continued.

“I picked some things up when we’d go for drives, and one of those things - that you and I never have to think about - is which filling stations would let him buy gas, or use the restroom. Most of the time we’d switch drivers before pulling in - but the looks we got…” James shook his head. “Just his being in the car was enough for some of them to say no. Your Mr. DeLance, there, was checking to make sure his information was good.”

Q stared through the office window long after Mr. DeLance had disappeared into the cafe, thinking about what he’d been told, and what that might mean. Not only for him, but also for the cafe. He broke into a wry grin. He never thought his salvation would wear such a dark face, but now it felt inevitable.