Cesare's Cabinet


Almost Never Disclaimers & Chapter Index

This story takes place during series two of Queer as Folk and contains spoilers for all of the episodes, including the ending.

Escape Velocity.

They'd been driving for hours, and now the slanting sun was angling right into Stuart's eyes. Somehow it managed to get around the visor no matter where he positioned it. And he'd packed his sunglasses away.

Traffic was thick, stop and go. Cars clotted up the road to London, people driving in from the outskirts for the nightlife. When he'd made his plans, he'd expected to get to the city before the late afternoon rush. But he'd wound up waiting an extra hour and more as the day ticked by and Vince hadn't shown up.

He'd packed slowly, combed the flat to make sure he had everything, stocked the Jeep at a snail's pace. He'd even popped the hood and checked the oil and water to kill more time, though he'd had no idea what he was doing, and had only succeeded in ascertaining that there was plenty of windshield wiper fluid.

"You know how to check the oil and water in this thing, right?" Stuart asked aloud.

Vince glanced at him curiously. "Sure, of course," he said.

"Good."

"Why? Is the light coming on?"

"Light?"

"The oil light, you know, the..." Vince made some sort of vague dashboard-implicating gesture.

"No, no lights."

"There's an exit two miles up if we need to pull off--"

"No, it's fine, I was just wondering," Stuart enunciated, annoyed.

"Wanted to make sure I could pull my own weight?" Vince joked.

"And mine," Stuart answered with a faint grin. "So what're you brooding about over there? You've practically got a little cartoon cloud looming over your head."

"Nothing," Vince said quickly.

Stuart lowered at him. "No passengers, Vince. This isn't gonna work if you keep lying to me."

He had the good grace to look abashed. "Yeah, all right," he sighed. "I was thinking about, you know, practical stuff. What I'm gonna do for money. Where we're going next."

"Money, we don't have to worry about for a while," Stuart said. "You remember how I said one time, I was trying to save up 'fuck you money'?"

Vince laughed. "Yeah...?"

"Well, I have it now," Stuart said. "Sort of. I own some rental property around the Village. It's not for nothing I was always walking round like I owned the place," he grinned. "So, I've got a decent income from that. And once my old flat gets sold, I'll have another 250,000 or so to play around with. And I've got about that much again in investments."

He was aware that Vince was goggling at him in amazement. Stuart continued, "Now, it's not all for us, I mean, there's child support for Alfred coming out of that, and some of it goes into his trust fund every month, and I should probably set up something for Marie in case she needs a hand. But when you get a pile of money together like that, it tends to sort of perpetuate itself. I figure we've got a good five or ten years before we have to start thinking about jobs and stuff again."

Vince shook his head, gobsmacked. "Stuart, that's unbelievable. Here I was thinking I was doing all right just cos I was staying out of the red."

"Don't act so impressed. You know where the money came from. It's nothing special."

"It is. D'you know what I can contribute to this road trip? A grand total of 4,000."

"I don't want to get into the money thing," Stuart said, drumming his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. "When we go to the bank for traveller's checks and all, we'll set up a joint account."

"That hardly seems fair."

"Fuck that," Stuart said. "Life isn't fair. Your job was to make sure everything ran smoothly at the grocery so that people could have food. My job was to siphon cash from rich fat companies and bullshit people into buying shite they didn't need. Is it fair I got paid more than you for that?"

Vince blinked at him. "I thought you liked your job."

"I did. I was good at it. Best around. That doesn't make it fair that I got paid such a stupid amount of money for it," Stuart said. "Mind you, I wasn't about to say a word. Look, you know what you could do. Take that 4,000, wire it to Hazel for the mortgage."

"She'd hate that," Vince said, though the idea perked him up considerably.

"That would be fair. We owe her," Stuart said.

"You have no idea."

Stuart shot him an inquiring glance.

"She came and got me at the shop this morning," said Vince. "Booted me a good one. Drove me over to yours. Right through a parade."

"Oh, now, that is perfect," Stuart said admiringly. "I suppose that's why you were on the run from the police?"

"Yes, well. That-- and. She sort of... they pulled us over, and she punched the police officer. Decked him and told me to run for it."

Stuart giggled uncontrollably. "I can just see that! Hazel! Beautiful!"

"Huge bloke, too," Vince warmed to the story. "Six and a half foot tall, must've been. Big beard. A shambling Tyrannosaurus." He sobered. "They had her up against the car when I left. God, I hope she's all right."

"She can take care of herself," Stuart assured him. "She was raising hell and belting coppers long before you came along."

"I doubt that. She was fifteen when I came along."

"A fifteen-year-old cycle-riding pig-smacking hellion."

Vince laughed; not the polite acknowledging chuckle that Stuart had often resented in some unexamined way, but deep honest laughter.

"She did approach it with a certain familiarity," he said. "A sort of steady, practiced hand."

"Send her the money," Stuart said.

"I doubt she'll take it," said Vince, "but I'll try."

Stuart changed lanes, did some passing to try to get ahead of the gommed-up traffic, but there were too many cars; after a few minutes he gave up.

"She came and got you at the shop?" he asked.

"Mm-hm," Vince said, "right in the middle of that meeting, too. So much for my presentation. Scattered the flock. I ended up having some words with that Graham-- told him to fuck off and everything. You should have seen the furore."

"I'm insulted," Stuart said lightly. "I thought you'd at least take the day off. You know. Wear black. Mope around. Come to your senses and race over by midmorning."

Vince didn't say anything. Stuart flicked his eyes over, saw his slightly sheepish expression, and looked back to the road in disbelief.

"I can't believe it. You were actually gonna let me drive off on my own forever, you twat," Stuart accused.

"You sprung it on me just last night! I was in shock!" Vince defended. "There wasn't time--"

"How long does it take to say 'I don't want you to go'?" Stuart asked. "I mean, what sort of goodbye was that meant to be? 'We've had a laugh'? 'See you'? See you! You cunt."

"Oh, but you were so bloody eloquent," Vince snapped back. "'Not if I see you first'? That's one for the ages, that is. Sure to wind up in Bartlett's Quotations. You were the one babbling about how you didn't need me."

"Wishful thinking," Stuart muttered darkly.

"Well, we're stuck with each other now," Vince declared with clear satisfaction.

Stuart glared malevolently at the tightly packed lanes ahead of them. "I'll be sure to send thanks to Hazel for that."

Vince looked over at him; Stuart felt it, a long uncertain gaze.

"I couldn't just pick up and leave," he said. "Especially-- I mean, who knows what's going to happen, with Alexander and all. But Mum, she sort of... I don't know. She sort of gave me permission, I guess. She wouldn't let me use her as an excuse." Vince did chuckle then in that slightly nervous false way that Stuart didn't like. "I didn't want to leave her in a bind, and look how it came out cos of that."

He didn't reply.

"You must've felt the same way at least a little," Vince said. "What about Alfred?"

Stuart clenched his hands on the steering wheel, made a face and forced himself to loosen his grip. "He was only ever supposed to be Romey and Lisa's," he said. "It was just, when we found out he was going to be a boy, I thought... I dunno. Felt like I ought to take a hand in it. Those lesbians, they're killer at blackmail. When Romey was all big with him, and I could feel him kicking-- that's when they ask me whether I'm gonna play daddy. How'm I gonna say no then?" He shook his head. "But let's face it, Lisa makes a better father than I do."

"I thought you did rather well, considering," said Vince.

"Eh," Stuart dismissed. "He's my son, yeah, but right now he's just a sort of a dough lump. I dunno what I'm supposed to do with him. I just keep thinking how when he's older, he's gonna be dead embarrassed having to hear about how Uncle Stuart used to spoon-feed him and change his nappies."

"You never."

"I did. Disgusting." He wrinkled his nose at the memory. "And you know they're going to have him calling me uncle. I'm too young to be someone's uncle. Let alone someone's dad."

"Stuart, if we do this, you're going to miss out on a lot," said Vince quietly. "First tooth, first word, first step."

"What d'you mean if?" Stuart demanded. "It's decided. We're going. I'm not bothered about Alfred. Let Lisa and Romey raise him, like they wanted to begin with. I see him three or four times a month. That's nothing. I see the postman more than that."

"You're going to miss him."

Stuart chewed on his bottom lip. "Yeah," he said finally. "But that wasn't stopping me when I was just going to London. It's not stopping me now. I'm all right with it."

Vince studied him for a long time, quietly, just looking.

"What about you?" Stuart asked. "Are you all right with it? Really?"

"Yeah," Vince said.

Stuart waited. There had to be more.

"I am. That's the stupid thing, I am all right with it. I mean, the responsible, mature thing would be to stay. Have my own life. That's what I should have done," Vince told him. "I'm thirty years old, for god's sake, and I binned my job just to come tag along with you. That's mad. The sane, grown-up thing would be to let you go."

Vince's posture began to slowly unknot, his tone growing more sure. "But I did what I wanted to do. Not the smart, adult thing, not the right thing. I just did what I wanted. Yeah, I needed a bit of a push. But the important thing is, I'm here."

Stuart's mouth began to tug up in a smile despite himself. "Yeah," he said.

"Good enough?" Vince asked.

"Good enough," he affirmed, smile broadening.

"All right then," said Vince, settling back comfortably in the bucket seat.

They were quiet for a while; Stuart guided the Jeep through the clogged traffic. He thought about putting on the radio, but it seemed like it would trivialize the moment. So he left it.

"I just want to say," Stuart began, and then stopped, trying to think how he wanted to put it. He'd surprised himself by opening his mouth in the first place; he hadn't planned to.

Vince glanced at him, smiled faintly, and rolled down the window of the Jeep.

"I just want to say I don't regret anything," Stuart said finally. "Not one shit night, not one crazy shag. Getting drunk, having you drive me home. Getting high and counting on you to keep me out of trouble. None of it. I'm not sorry for the times I had a go at you, or the times you got left behind. If you got hurt, if it wasn't the way you wanted-- that was your lookout."

Vince looked right at him, smile brightening, shining like the pure, blinding sunlight streaming through the windshield. "Un-apology accepted," he said.

"I didn't do anything the rest of you wouldn't gladly have done if you thought you could get away with it," Stuart continued. "And you could have, you know. There was nothing stopping you."

"You did it for all of us," Vince told him, his voice rich with affection. He rested his arm in the window of the Jeep, eyes still fixed on Stuart, drinking him in. "I love you."

It shouldn't have taken him so completely by surprise, but it did; Stuart startled, stepped on the gas instead of the brake, and nearly drove the Jeep into the trunk of the Mondeo ahead of them. He slammed his foot down, properly this time, and they screeched nearly to a halt, both thrown forward into the safety belts.

"That's just lovely, Vince," he growled, "but as always, your timing is rotten."

Well, that was brilliant.

He snuck a look at Vince, who didn't seem bothered; he was watching the scenery go by as they rolled slowly forward now. Still smiling. At ease. Content, even. It was nice to see.

No harm going on, then. "All these years you don't say it. You couldn't wait another hour til we made it to the city?"

"Nope," Vince answered. They were beginning to actually move at a decent clip, finally; he put his hand out the window to cup the breeze in his palm.

"I suppose you think that puts you in charge," Stuart said.

Vince just glanced at him, relaxed, happy. "You're the one driving."

Stuart acknowledged that with a smile, chafing his fingers over the steering wheel, and nudged over into the faster lane. "All right, as long as we're flinging around confessions willy-nilly, there's something you should know," he said. He paused dramatically, then revealed, "I snogged your mum."

"You what?"

"The night of Judith's wedding. I snogged Hazel."

Vince shook his head like he'd been cuffed. "Why were you kissing my mum?"

"Wasn't just a kiss," Stuart said with relish. "I really laid one on her."

"Oh my god." Vince stared.

Stuart giggled.

"Don't you dare laugh. Oh my god. Stuart, my mother."

"I haven't even told you the best part. I gave her a good one, then she turned right round and snogged the living daylights out of me."

Vince made an outraged noise deep in his throat that hit the air as an indignant squeak.

"She's quite a kisser, your mum," Stuart carried on. "I have to say, she got me up a bit. I mean, it didn't hurt that she gave me a good grope at the same time, but still, who'd've thought? I mean, a woman! Grant you, Hazel's not just any woman..."

"I think I'm gonna be sick," Vince groaned. He did look awfully pale, at that. "Stuart, you have to promise me you will never, never mention that to me again, not ever."

"Whatever you say," Stuart agreed, grinning with delight.

He thought about what he'd said to Hazel that night. How loving someone was different from fancying him. He'd tried to dress it up a bit, make it sound like something a little more complex than sixteen years' worth of performance anxiety. He doubted he'd fooled Hazel for a second. Nothing got by that woman, nothing. If he tried he could still taste that smoky kiss. Her mouth packed quite a wallop. He had to wonder if it ran in the family.

His mind was already racing ahead to London, to the hotel room he'd share with Vince tonight.

He wanted to think it would be champagne and fireworks, the best shag either of them had ever had. But really, how likely was that? Stuart had partaken of more mind-bogglingly great sex than any ten normal people. He could sort of understand why Vince was so bloody intimidated.

Stuart had tried to bulldoze him into threesomes; he'd reckoned another person in bed with them would take some of the pressure off, keep things physical, keep it safe. But Vince just dug in his heels and backed off, mouthing obvious lies. Stuart wanted to say It's just sex, don't worry so much, but Christ, what a stupid thing to say. If it was just sex, why was he bothering? Even when he was copping off with some stranger, sex was never just sex.

There was no telling how it would go tonight. Vince would probably be scared witless, and all the aggro lately had demonstrated that Stuart's fathomless powers of seduction failed him somewhat when it came to making a play for his best friend.

But if they could just get past that first time, it'd be all right, Stuart felt sure. They'd have plenty of chances to try again, plenty of practice-- that in itself would be something new for him. Best not to get too wrapped up in expectations. Start slow. Think of it as a cool drink of water on a warm day. Nothing scary or difficult about it. Just something simple, something they needed. They could get to champagne and fireworks eventually.

One last thing he ought to say first, though. Something he'd only figured out for himself during the past few weeks, something he suspected Vince needed to hear.

"You know... ordinary people, boring people, they pick one person they want to have around," Stuart said. "And they promise never to shag anyone else. But you know me. It shouldn't surprise you that I did it the other way around."

He couldn't resist looking to see how that went over. Vince's eyes were closed, like he was savoring it, and the smile on his face was so deep it looked permanent, so deep it seemed it might split his head right in two.

Stuart felt a similar smile take over his own face, and returned his attention to the road, squinting into the light. He was, essentially, relieved. So that was explained, out of the way and put behind them, like Manchester, lost in the rearview mirror miles and miles back: goodbye.

When Vince asked, "So, where are we going, then?" Stuart had to keep himself from saying they were going to bed together, finally, and who cared what would happen after that?

But he did have a good answer for that, so he gave it. "Just like Doctor Who," he said. "Step out onto a new planet-- where everything looks sort of shoddy and low-budget, and all the aliens conveniently speak English."

"Ah." Vince was laughing. "America."

Stuart smirked. "Where else?"

***

Next Story: Hotel Rooms.

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