Lucas knew three things as soon as he stepped into the little bakery that had opened up just down the street from his flat: the man behind the counter had seen combat, he was American, and he was sleep-deprived.
Lucas saw the way the man assessed him as he stepped into the bakery, paused just inside the door to stomp the snow off his boots on the snow mat. Lucas inclined his head politely, shuffled further into the bakery. He saw the folded flag in a wooden shadowbox on the wall behind the counter, at least three decades old. The shadows around the man’s eyes - those were just the ones Lucas saw on his own face in the mirror each morning.
“Good evening,” the man said, and he did indeed have an American accent. Evan, his nametag read. “How may I help you?”
“I noticed this place just opened and I came to have a look round, give it a try,” Lucas said, trying for friendly even though he’d spent the better part of the day pounding the pavement with Ros and trying to pretend he didn’t notice how everyone on The Grid looked at him askance, like he was a rabid dog who might bite at any moment.
“Well, thanks for giving us a try,” Evan said, even though he was the only one in the shop. It was half an hour before closing, and most everything was picked over. “What strikes your fancy?”
Lucas prowled toward the glass display case. “Battenburg cake,” he said. “I haven’t had it in -” eight years - “ages.”
“How many slices?” Evan asked, pulling on some plastic gloves. “Or would you like the whole thing? No one trusts a Yank with such a tried and true English recipe.”
The cake had been untouched all day.
Lucas said, “As a grown man, it is my prerogative to have cake for supper, isn’t it?”
Evan nodded, smiled. “Absolutely.” His smile was genuine but tired. His dimples made him look surprisingly boyish.
“Well, unlike the rest of my countrymen, I trust you. I’ll take the lot.” Lucas didn’t trust American intelligence officers as far as he could throw them (he’d regret that thought later), but he did enjoy cake, and anyone who could even pull off a Battenburg cake had to be an exceptional pastry chef.
“Coming right up, Mister…?”
“North.” The name rolled off his tongue automatically. “Lucas North.” Then he grimaced. “That was terribly cliche, I do apologize.”
“Cliche?” Evan echoed, scooping the cake off the tray. “For here or to go?”
There were a couple of small tables beside the window.
The street was empty.
“Here, if you don’t mind,” Lucas said.
“I don’t mind at all.” Evan’s smile was a little brighter. “You saved me a trip to the homeless shelter, so coffee’s on the house - unless you prefer tea? Only Lavender’s not here to help me with the tea. You really can’t trust an American with your tea.”
“Coffee’s fine, thank you,” Lucas said, because he was going to be up all night anyway.
Evan rang him up, and Lucas paid cash, carried the delicate porcelain plate over to the table to the right of the door. Evan had arranged the cake on a paper doily and everything. Evan poured him a mug of hot, fresh coffee - he had coffee cups to go as well - and stepped around the end of the counter, brought the mug to him.
“Why was the way you introduced yourself cliche?”
“Ah - it was rather unintentional. You know, Bond, James Bond.”
“Well,” Evan said, “it’s not like you were going to shoot me.”
For some reason Lucas was glad Evan hadn’t said, It’s not like you’re a spy. Lucas’s trade was lies, survival was lies, but the thought of lying to this perfect stranger - perfectly polite, kind stranger - made him ill at ease.
“No,” Lucas said, after his first bite of divine cake. “I’d never let any harm come to you. Not if it means never having this cake again.”
“So I didn’t tread all over fine English tradition with my ham-handed attempts at baking?” Evan asked.
“Not at all,” Lucas assured him. The coffee was warm, pleasant, and for some reason, sitting at that little table (the chairs were just a bit too short for Lucas’s long legs), he felt like he was...home. More at home than he’d felt when he’d first inhaled the scent of familiar London air, or stepped onto The Grid and seen familiar faces, or finally hung those Blake prints on the wall of his flat.
“I’ll take that as a compliment from a true British citizen,” Evan said.
“As you well should.” Lucas ate another bite of cake. “So, Evan, American, a baker. What brings you to London?”
“I just finished my twenty with the Air Force,” Evan said, “and I wanted to try something new. I’ve always enjoyed baking, and I had money saved, and I thought - why not England? Close enough to the Continent that I can see the rest of Europe, but within a few hours’ drive of some cousins so my mother doesn’t fret about me being lonely.”
Lucas hadn’t thought about either of his parents in a very long time. “Surely your mother fretted more while you were deployed overseas.”
“My mother had strong reservations about my previous career choice and didn’t really talk to me much when I was overseas,” Evan admitted. “So, Lucas North, connoisseur of cake, besides the famed Battenburg, what else tickles your fancy?”
“I have always been partial to carrot cake.”
“We do have that on the menu.”
“Also red velvet cake.”
Evan nodded. “With non-Dutched cocoa, vinegar, and roux icing, of course.”
“I am also quite fond of pistachio,” Lucas said.
Evan hummed thoughtfully. “Never had anyone ask for that before, but I’m sure I could make it happen. Might take some experimenting.” He refilled Lucas’s coffee.
“Don’t put yourself out on my account,” Lucas began, but Evan waved him off.
“I like trying new things. Thanks for the inspiration.”
They made small talk after that, Lucas asking Evan how he found the city, recommending some nearby pubs and restaurants. In traditional fashion, Evan lived in the flat above the bakery. After Lucas finished the cake - the entire cake, and he stayed long past closing, though Evan never glanced at his watch - he promised he’d be back again, though he wasn’t sure when, as he had a bit of an erratic work schedule, and he departed.
Of course work went to hell over the next week, because the world was always going to hell, and it was Lucas’s and his coworkers’ job to make sure the public never noticed, and when he finally did make it back to Evan’s bakery, he was sporting a stitched-up bullet wound and bruised ribs.
Evan was just bidding a young woman - all bundled up to face the cold - farewell when Lucas arrived.
“See you tomorrow, Lavender - oh, hello, Lucas!” Evan poured Lucas a mug of coffee, showed him to the same table he’d sat at last time.
Were Lucas not an intelligence officer who knew what it took to make a career in America’s Armed Forces, he might have believed Evan had thought of their first encounter often, he could remember the details so well. But Lucas knew better than to flatter himself, and knew Evan was more observant, intelligent, and dangerous than the amiable air he always had.
“What will it be tonight? There is some Battenburg left, but also some red velvet, carrot, and something new I thought I’d try - pistachio cardamom cake with rosewater frosting.” Evan set the coffee pot down and moved behind the counter, already pulling on gloves.
“That sounds fascinating.”
“One of Lavender’s friends, Parvati, suggested it,” Evan said.
“I’ll definitely have to give that one a try.” Lucas craned his neck to peer at the display case and saw that the green-and-pink confection had been mostly purchased, but there was a single sizeable slice left.
Evan sold most of his cakes by weight for individual slices or a set price for a whole cake. He brought Lucas the cake without weighing it. “Parvati calls it Goodnight Rose, but I’ve never been much for giving my cakes fancy names like that.”
Lucas picked up his fork, took the first bite, savored it slowly. “It does taste very Indian. I like it. I wasn’t sure I would, but -” He had another bite. “You can consider this one a success.”
“Thank you.” Evan ducked his head, blushing.
Lucas knew in the Armed Forces that praise was sparse, came wordlessly, usually with a promotion above the zone or a commendation, but that criticism was immediate and intense.
“I’m glad you made it back,” Evan said.
“Sometimes a man just needs cake,” Lucas said, and Evan nodded his agreement.
“By the way,” Evan added, “I tried that tapas bar you recommended. It was really good, so thank you for that.”
When Lucas had been married to Elizabeth, he’d relished asking her about her day, hearing how pleasant and normal it was, even with the frustrations and disappointments she faced, because it meant he was doing his job well, that she was safe.
Then he’d spent eight years worrying about her, and then the past two months exhausted and unable to hate her even though now she was his FSB handler.
So Lucas asked him about other things in London - did he try to spot any celebs on the red carpet at a Leicester Square film premiere? Had he done any of the touristy things, like Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London and Big Ben? The Millennium Eye?
Evan said he’d only managed the Eye so far - he’d served with a man who’d been very fond of Ferris Wheels, so why not the biggest Ferris Wheel ever? Also he wanted to see some good views of the city, and it had been a lovely experience.
Once Lucas was finished with his cake, he bade Evan farewell and good evening, and he went back to his small, lonely apartment, content with the knowledge that he was doing his job right and the world hadn’t actually gone to hell yet.
After that, it was easy to swing by the bakery on the regular, late at night when Evan was near closing, to try a tasty favorite or one of Evan’s newer and more daring experiments. Sometimes Evan even let him try something he hadn’t put out for sale yet, a recipe he was still perfecting. Lucas gave Evan honest but constructive criticism about his cakes, suggestions about more ways to get to know London, and Evan told Lucas about his continuing exploration of his new home, his new city.
Evan seemed to sense that Lucas didn’t want any questions about his own work, and Lucas didn’t ask about Evan’s military service. Both of them still had the same exhausted shadows around their eyes.
On a rainy night, when the street was practically abandoned, Lucas wasn’t surprised that Evan was the only person at the bakery, not even his assistant Lavender - who did make a very good cup of tea - was present.
Lucas was alarmed when he stepped into the bakery and saw that Evan was literally asleep on his feet.
Evan started awake violently, twitching the pen in his hand into a stabbing grip, eyes wide. Then he recognized Lucas and relaxed. “Oh, hey, sorry. I just - haven’t been sleeping well.” He smiled tiredly. “Today was a long day. I saved you a slice of Black Forest cake.” He started toward the case, stumbled.
Lucas caught him by the shoulders. “Evan, you’re exhausted. Sit.” He guided Evan around the counter and over to his usual table, pulled a chair out for him.
Evan sank into it. “I’m sorry, I’m not usually like this.”
“No need to apologize,” Lucas said. “You’re not required to be perfectly happy around me.”
He stepped behind the counter and filled two mugs with coffee, brought them back to the table and handed one to Evan.
“Thanks.” He sipped it gratefully.
“You haven’t been sleeping well for a long time,” Lucas said.
“Neither have you.” Evan cast him a pointed look. “You know I used to be a soldier.”
“You weren’t a soldier, but you - you’ve seen things.”
Lucas said, “I’m in Security Section.”
He watched realization cross Evan’s face. Evan laughed softly.
“I get it. North. Lucas North.”
Lucas smiled wryly. “James Bond was in MI-6. I work for MI-5.”
“So you’re like the FBI, and MI-6 is like the CIA.”
“It’s an apt comparison.” Lucas nodded. “So, you have trouble sleeping.”
Evan scrubbed a hand over his face. “I have - dreams. Memories. I’ve been out for almost a year now, but it still feels like - like I’m going to wake up to the sound of alarms, all hands on deck, death around the corner. My mother talks to me all the time now, like the last twenty years didn’t happen, and even if she did ask I couldn’t answer her questions, so...”
Lucas studied him. Then he said, very carefully, “I was undercover in Russia, and my cover was blown. They kept me for eight years. Finally traded me back. My coworkers act like everything’s fine, like they trust me, like it was perfectly normal for me to get straight back to work. But I also have - memories. Late at night.”
“We’re a pair, aren’t we?”
They sipped their coffee in silence.
Lucas said, “While I was gone, I worried about my wife. Turns out she was FSB.”
Evan winced. “I’m sorry.”
“Most officers marry to advance,” Lucas said carefully. “You’ve never mentioned Mrs. Lorne.”
Evan looked away for a moment. “There is none, never was, never would be. There was a scientist, with the project I was assigned to. Well, there were a lot of scientists, but the Chief Science Officer was - he was maddening. Frustrating. Brilliant. Beautiful.”
“Risky, in your Armed Forces.”
“We were so far away no one would have given a damn.” Evan shook his head.
“Now that you’re retired, you could - unless he chose to stay on with the project?”
“He did, but not like you think.” Evan sipped some more coffee. “There was this disease. Local. Unlike anything we’ve ever encountered before. It nearly killed him. Robbed him of his memory, his mind. They saved him. Restored his brilliance. But not all of his memory. When I retired, it didn’t even occur to him to come with me. We kept it so quiet, so secret, he must have pushed it so far down -”
Evan shrugged, looked away again.
“A year is a long time,” Lucas said.
“I was good at being an officer, and I’m a pretty good baker. Not sure I was ever any good at being a person.” Evan shook his head.
“In my line of work, I’m so many people that at the end of the day I’m no one at all,” Lucas said. He sucked in a breath.
“I’m so sorry,” Evan said. “You’re still out there fighting, and I’m - here.”
“It’d be that much harder for me out there,” Lucas said, “without being able to come back here.”
Evan shot to his feet. “Cake! Black Forest cake. That’s why you came in here.”
Lucas caught his wrist. “That’s not the only reason I came here.”
Evan looked down at him, eyes dark and solemn. “I don’t know if I’m ready to take a chance again.”
“I’ve been home all of two months,” Lucas said. “You deserve better than the wreck of this old soul. But when you’re ready -”
Evan nodded. “Until then, cake.”
Lucas released him.
Evan fetched him the slice of cake, already served up on a plate. He fetched some pistachio macarons for himself, sat opposite Lucas, sipped at his coffee. “Also, until then - the next time you’re free, you should come do something touristy with me. Buckingham Palace? If you let me know in advance, Lavender can mind the shop.”
“I’d like that.” Lucas smiled at him.
They finished their treats and coffee in companionable silence, and Lucas helped Evan carry the dishes into the back. Evan saw Lucas to the door.
“Thank you,” Lucas said.
Evan’s answer was a brief, soft kiss.
Lucas bade him goodnight.
As he walked back to his flat, he thought about his schedule and the next day he had free, and he realized he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the palace. He’d see it again with Evan, then, fresh and new.
A new start, a second chance - for everything.