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Richard wakes with a jolt and a thrum of panic in his chest. He fights to breathe for a moment, throwing off his bed covers and rubbing his eyes until he can remember where he is. He looks at the curtains, blowing lightly into the room through a window he must have left open, the silver gray light of an overcast morning glowing through the fabric. His bed is comfortable, his sheets soft and clean. He touches them, as a reminder, feels the fine weave of the fabric.

This doesn’t happen as often anymore. He pulls his knees up to his chest and waits. Counts his inhales and exhales, extending the count each time like he’s learned in yoga, though his eyes still skitter from side to side, alert for unseen dangers. 

You’re in your flat in Clerkenwell he reminds himself as his vision comes into focus and his muscles start to uncoil. While his breathing settles, he concentrates on letting his shoulders relax down his back, digs his thumbs into the muscles of his neck to make them release, working out the tension there until he can roll his head gently, can unclench his jaw. You’re in your flat in Clerkenwell and you’re as safe as you can be. He repeats it many more times as he gets up and gets ready for his day.

*

“Nice yoga mat, Madden,” one of the other sergeants sneers over his coffee cup on his way to his desk as Richard arrives back at work. Kim pokes her head from around another officer’s cubicle at the sound of his name. “Skipper, finally back? Ah shut it Walsh, least he takes care of himself. Most of this lot’s gonna die of cardiac or drink.” She glares at him until he’s well out of sight, Walsh grumbling something uncharitable into his coffee.

“Missed ye, Kim,” Richard smiles, rolls his eyes behind him at the other sergeant. 

“No, you didn’t. How was Minorca?” She draws out the rolling rrr sound pretentiously, mocking him just a bit he thinks, sips her coffee. 

“Fine. Good. Feels like a long time ago already,” he shrugs, picks up the briefings in his box and is just barely getting settled when his CO charges by in a brisk morning rush. 

“Madden, still hearing comments every day about your work during the summit last month. Top marks, across the board. Hope you enjoyed some time off?” 

“Thank you ma’am, and yes ma’am. Quite ready to be back at work, ma’am.”

“Very good. Getting right to it, shall we? Personal protection, a beat I know you’re familiar with,” the Inspector says, handing him a thin file folder. “Chief thinks you’ll be a good fit with this principal.” Richard flips through the file as she rattles off the figures. “Well-known and highly recognizable actor, 30, resides North London near Alexandra Park. Specific and detailed threats to his person received at his agency, he reports being followed when leaving the production studio on two separate occasions, and there was a device found during a sweep at a red carpet event he attended Friday last. The Duke and Duchess were meant to attend and had to be diverted. They’re apparently fond, so here we are,” she finishes all in one breath and turns to her phone to check her messages. 

“Jesus. What kind of device?” Richard looks through the photos in the folder, both of the young man who is the principal, and the device and comparable schematics.

“A badly fashioned attempt at a box bomb, kind of thing you can download plans from the web. Luckily, didn’t work for shite, and all handled without raising an alarm,” she says with a wry smile. 

“And what has he done to merit this sort of attention?” Richard asks, paging through the dossier. He vaguely recognizes the actor in the photos from an action film a few years back.

“Unclear as of yet. Patrol officers have spoken with his agents and taken statements from him. Seems a good fellow, he hasn’t a clue. You should get over there and meet him. Take Constable Knowles with you if you like, she’s done this type before.”

Kim looks up with interest, takes the file from Richard to peruse. “Sure, Skipper. I’ll walk you through it. Usually a stalker situation or extortion with these. Hope for the latter.”

*

“Why d’ye think they picked me for this? It’s not usually what Ah work, actors, and such,” Richard asks Kim in the car.

“Dunno. Chief seemed to think from his profile that you two’d get on? You’re close in age, maybe you have other things in common?” Kim says somewhat enigmatically, looking straight ahead. “These principals can be difficult. A bit spoiled, stubborn sometimes. Maybe he’ll respond to you, see you as a mate.” Richard frowns at that suggestion and focuses on the road. 

They meet him at his agents’ offices, shiny warm industrial lighting and sleek silver trim along the glass walls. His agent walks him in when he arrives - on time, Richard notes. 

“This is Sergeant Madden, Constable Knowles. This is Taron.”

He looks different than in the glossy photos Richard was provided, younger, less worldly. He doesn’t look like a tailored film star or an entitled celebrity with the kind of power that would make someone want to hurt him. He looks like any bloke in a t-shirt and cap you’d see at the pub or the gym. 

“Sir,” Richard says, plainly and dutifully. Kim gives a curt nod. Taron shakes both their hands, politely enough, but clearly put out. 

“This is all a lot of paranoia and overreacting, I’m sorry to trouble you, officers.” He glares at his agent like he blames her for the inconvenience. 

Richard puts up a hand to cut him off, politely. “Sir, hopefully you’re absolutely correct. But in these situations, we want to be safe rather than sorry. Let us do our investigation, we’ll make an assessment of yer personal safety protocols, and let you know of any changes we recommend, alright?” 

Taron looks dubiously at the pair of them. “I like...I like my privacy. And I already don't get very much of it. It just sounds like a lot, having full time guards. What, you’re going to stay at my flat then? No offense, Sergeant.” 

“None taken, sir.” Richard narrows his eyes and smiles blandly. Kim cuts in to talk him through the initial plan and Richard watches him carefully. 

He can tell from Taron’s face and his jittery hand gestures that he hasn’t been sleeping, has been drinking too much, and is hiding a great deal of fear behind this bristly, annoyed facade. Taron’s scared, more scared than he wants to admit to anyone in this room. He feels trapped and exposed, and something else Richard will need to figure out if he’s going to handle him correctly, and safely. 

“We’ll work on a weekly schedule with your agency, all of your appearances and commitments. You’ve got a new film up shortly, is that right sir?” Kim asks, looking more animated than Richard usually sees her, almost smiling. She’s trying to appeal to his ego a bit. Richard wonders if he’ll bite. 

“Premiere’s in six weeks, yeah,” Taron answers, eyes darting over at Richard nervously. He’s wound up like a crank just below the surface, Richard can see it now. 

“We want to help you do your job, and feel relaxed at it. Tha’s all. We’re here to keep ye safe, sir, not infringe on your privacy. If you’re concerned about bringing...people home, dates, tha’ sort of thing? We’ll develop a protocol that you’re comfortable with, sir,” Richard offers, trying a different angle. 

Taron huffs out a scoff of a laugh and looks at Richard grimly. 

“Hasn’t been much of an issue lately, Sergeant.” 

Richard feels his cheeks flush, an unfortunate physiological response he’s cursed with, embarrassing in his line of work when he is required to look stoic and implacable. He smiles weakly, feels his jaw tighten and then release, and turns back to Kim. 

“Constable Knowles will begin going over your transportation and travel procedures with your agents. I’ll be taking the night shift with ye, sir. Is it alright if I come by early evening, to familiarize myself with your residence?”

Taron shrugs, holds out his hand for Richard to shake. “Doesn’t sound like I have much of a choice, does it?”

Richard takes a chance on a real smile, a charming one that he knows usually works, kind of laughs out of one corner of his mouth as he shakes Taron’s hand. “Not really, sir. But I promise I’m not that bad to have around.”

Taron’s eyes crinkle at the corners faintly as he blinks at Richard, finally nods his assent. “Guess we’ll have to muddle through, Sergeant.”

*

Richard pulls his car up Taron’s street, checking all the sightlines, crossroads and exits. He’s studied the whole grid on a map but making the actual turns is good mental practice, he’s found. He circles the block twice more, familiarizing himself with the other cars in the neighborhood, the slopes of the driveways, the hedges, the blind spots. 

When he’s satisfied, he parks below the gate and paces out the perimeter of Taron’s property from gate to street, from corner to corner, and notes the gaps. Finally, he walks up the hill to the backside and checks the sightlines from there, the distances to the closest cross streets and intersections. 

Then he walks back down, and buzzes the gate. 

“Sergeant Madden,” he says and displays his badge by his face in view of the gate cam. Taron’s voice finally sighs from the little transmitter. “It’s 696969,” Taron gruffs at him, the slightest hint of tipsiness in his voice. Richard rolls his eyes. 

“It had bett’r not be and we’re changin’ it right now anyway, sir,” he says firmly as the electric gate starts to open for him. 

He crunches up the gravel driveway, taking note of the distinct sound of his footfalls, the metallic rasp of the gate as it closes behind him. He turns slowly in place and checks all the sightlines again, clocks the access points, the weaknesses. He’ll put them in his report later. 

Taron waits at the front door with a sullen, grim look on his face and a small glass of whisky in his hand. 

“Come on in then, I guess,” he says as if he’s irritated but Richard hears something else under the timbre of his voice. 

“Sorry to be in your way, sir. I’ll try to be as unobtrusive as possible.”

“Please, we can drop the ‘sir.’ And the suits, thank you for that.” Richard had changed into casual but tailored pants and a neat polo shirt for the evening shift.

“Suits for daytime and tux for formal events, sir. I cannae change everything Ah’m afraid.”

“You look...fine, as you are,” Taron says, swallowing a gulp of whisky and quirking his lips at one corner. 

Richard cocks his head graciously, hoping his cheeks don’t betray his blush. “Sir.”

“Drink?” Taron asks suddenly, raising his own glass and heading for his living room bar. 

“No’ on duty, sir.” Richard 

“Well. Maybe when you’re not on duty, then,” Taron says and then shakes his head at himself, busies himself with the contents of his bottle and his glass. 

Richard definitely blushes. 

“Ah would like a tour of the residence though, sir,” Richard says, carefully professional and deferential. 

Taron nods agreeably, tips the bottle in his hand once, then twice, and emerges from behind the bar with a wave toward the long hallway. “You walk, I’ll talk. And drink,” Taron says, follows Richard from room to room, answering questions.

*

“You married, Sergeant Madden?” Taron asks, fidgeting on his sofa after Richard has mapped the house and is making careful notes in his pad, and after trying three more times to offer him a drink. Taron’s on at least his fourth. Richard is counting. 

“Nae.” Richard doesn't mind answering that one. In his experience, the assets he protects feel a little better about their situation if they're not risking making a widow out of someone just by going about their day. 

Taron looks up at him. “Girlfriend?” 

Richard shakes his head, the movement barely perceptible, otherwise looks straight down at his notes. 

Taron waits, stares at Richard and taps his foot, blows out a slow puff of air. 

“Got a boyfriend then?”

Richard’s jaw clicks with tension. He rolls his head on his neck, squares his gaze on Taron. 

“Nae.”

Taron’s eyes narrow and his mouth quirks with a small sense of triumph, a slow grin revealing a few of his teeth. “You do fancy blokes though. You’ve got a tell, mate, I don’t care what kind of super spy training you’ve had,” Taron wags his finger excitedly in Richard’s direction. 

Richard pauses his writing but remains expressionless, looks just past Taron’s shoulder. “I’m no’ a spy, I’ve no such training. We shouldn’t talk about personal matters, sir. It’s a distraction.”

“Oh, so you find me distracting.” Taron pokes his tongue in his cheek. 

“My personal life is not relevant. The slightly drunken chatter is what’s distracting. Sir.”

Taron pouts at the scold. “I’m not drunk. I’m just...a little freaked out by all this.”

Richard softens, puts down his notes for a moment and looks at Taron more kindly. “Understandable, sir. Sorry if Ah was short.”

Taron lets his gaze drop from Richard to his now empty glass. He sighs and sets it down on the table, rubs his hand over his hair. “So we’re just supposed to spend hours and hours together and not have a chat? Get to know each other? What are we to do, just sit and stare?”

“Whatever you would normally do at this time is fine, sir. I’m working on my recommendations. Ye don’t need to make small talk with me.”

“Right. Because I’m so distracting,” Taron muses, taps his fingers together. 

“Sir, an attempt was made on yer life. If ye can’t take it seriously tha’s fine, I can work with that. Just let me do my job and I’ll take it seriously for both of us.”

Taron glowers. Sits back in his seat and jiggles his foot. “Right. What I’d normally do.” He gets up and stalks off upstairs to his bedroom, slams the door melodramatically. 

Richard sighs, puts his notepad away for now, and starts a methodical patrol of the property, checking the doors and windows, the porch and grounds. 

When he completes his circuit he ends with the upstairs rooms. He pauses outside Taron’s closed door, listening carefully just long enough to identify the muffled sound of over exaggerated, gasping moans coming through speakers, and the unmistakable slick of a hand on another body part. 

Richard rubs his hand over the growing tension in his forehead as he hears Taron start to vocalize his pleasure - loudly. He tamps down his annoyance at the slight flush in his cheeks, and walks off down the hall.

*

Richard doesn’t sleep deeply enough to dream. 

When he’s on overnights he tries to rest his body, and do a kind of waking meditation, sometimes zoning out a few hours here and there, but it’s not really sleep, so no nightmares, no confusion when he rises shortly after the sun. He does a walk through, steps outside to stretch and scan the property, and radios the morning patrol just coming on shift. 

Taron’s house is extraordinarily quiet. 

He listens attentively to the silence for a few minutes, then goes inside to see what Taron’s coffee situation is. It’s good - a barely used high-end Italian espresso machine or a sleek French press pot. He opts for the French press and puts on the kettle. 

He drinks Taron’s good coffee and fresh almond milk he assumes some sort of nutritionist makes for him, and reads on his phone until Taron grumbles into the kitchen. 

He takes one look at him and knows Taron is regretting at least the fourth and fifth whisky of the evening. 

“Morning sir,” he says quietly, trying not to be too obnoxious or obviously amused at his misery. “I took the liberty of making coffee, I hope tha’s alright.”

Taron squints at the too-bright light in his kitchen. “S’fine. I just want water.” 

Richard nods and goes back to his phone while Taron pulls out a glass and refills it three times.

“Do you have a cook that comes ‘round, or how does that work?” Richard asks, just trying to figure out the flow of a typical hangover day-off at Taron’s home.

Taron shakes his head, rummages in a cabinet near the sink until he comes up with multivitamins, some kind of capsules with Chinese lettering on the bottle, and paracetamol. “Just the meal service. Lunch and dinner. They drop off. Are you, like, here all day or what?” Taron squints at him through puffy eyes, starts popping the tops off the various bottles he’s pulled down.

Richard gives him a wry grimace. “Constable Knowles will be here in a few hours to relieve me sir. Though perhaps it’s you that’s to be the most relieved.”

Taron rolls his eyes and swallows a few pills. “Whatever. I’ll just be trying to sleep, regardless. Is she...nice?”

Richard twitches his eyebrows together and stifles a grin at Taron’s expense, trains his attention back on his eBook. “Not remotely, sir. I’m the ‘fun’ one.”

“Jesus,” Taron says, swallows the rest of his water and stares out the window. “That’s bloody bleak.”

Richard smiles. “Indeed, sir.” He drinks his last sip of coffee and gets up to set the cup in the sink. “I do yoga in the mornings, if you’d like to join me sir.” He rolls his shoulders and scans the property from behind Taron.

Taron side eyes him, hard, like he can’t tell if he’s taking the piss. Richard just waits calmly for an answer. 

“Oh you’re serious,” Taron says, holding his hand over his gut warily. “Not today, mate. Sounds really ‘fun’ though.” 

*

There’s a reception and an autograph signing later in the week, for a making-of type book Taron helped write with his most recent big film’s director. Richard calls on the bookstore in advance to map it out and prepare a plan. It’s small and well appointed, and very accustomed to high profile appearances, having hosted members of Parliament, royals, and celebrities with books to promote plenty of times. Limited access points, restricted loading dock, alert experienced staff and shop security up and down the street. It’s easy enough. 

Taron when he’s on is...really something. Richard watches him, how he signs each book so thoughtfully, how he makes eye contact and gives his full attention to each person for that brief span of time, how each one walks away looking touched and emotional, like they’ve had a true connection with him. 

It looks exhausting to Richard. He thinks about the psychological toll it must take to forge that brief sense of intimacy over and over, but Taron is on and he never seems to falter. 

Then Richard sees it when he finally does.

He can’t hear what was said or see whatever Taron saw but Richard can feel the wave of panic that washes over Taron’s face in his own spine, the blankness that overcomes his sweetly animated expressions moving Richard instantaneously forward. He is at Taron’s arm in the space of a breath, a hand on his elbow to gently move him from his seat as Richard scans, looking for what Taron might’ve seen.

“Excuse me sir, so sorry, you’re supposed to take that break now. Store policy.”

Two store employees move efficiently into their place, smoothly, coordinated, and make themselves very busy replenishing the stacks of Taron’s books and chatting with the fans.

Richard has Taron safely in the storeroom in moments, keeping an arm protectively around him and hoping to ward off a full-blown panic attack, if that’s what this is.

“What was it, sir.”

Taron sits on a wooden stool and exhales a shaky, shuddery laugh, trying to make light of himself, Richard can tell. “Ahh, you’re good, Sergeant.”

Richard tilts his head and looks down at his charge, trying to ascertain how bad this is for him and how bad it might get. “Sir, if you don’t mind me saying, you’re rather easy to read. When you’re on you’re...quite illuminated. There was no in between.” 

His arm is still around Taron’s shoulders and Taron makes no effort to move away from it, actually leans in against Richard’s hip. Richard doesn’t think about it, just softly strokes his shoulder where his hand lies and methodically scans the rows and rows of books around them. “Just take slow breaths. I can count them with ye if ye like. You did great, sir.”

Taron nods, his head brushing against Richard’s arm. 

“Thank you, Sergeant,” he says. 

The event manager and a shop security guard come to check on him and Richard moves his arm, smoothly steps back to let Taron take over and see how he feels about going forward. Taron takes a deep breath, stands and smooths his shirt. “Right. If my copper could have a look for me, please. I think I’m fine to come finish. Sorry to be a fuss.”

The manager gushes over him that he’s no fuss at all and of course they’ll make whatever accommodation they possibly can for him. She stands with him and chit chats while Richard and the other guard go back out. 

The store security guard looks at hands, arms, and the things people carry. 

Richard looks at faces. He’ll know. 

Neither of them see anything or anyone that gives them pause, and Richard feels alright letting Taron come back. He finishes his signing, all smiles. 

They get back in the car after Taron takes photos with the staff and shakes every last person’s hand that wants to meet him. He looks drained by the entire experience, and Richard can feel it too. 

Taron begs to stop for a curry takeaway and Richard can’t help but oblige, radios ahead to advise Kim of their changed itinerary. “Thunder outbound. Thunder fancies a curry,” Richard adds with a conspiratorial glance at Taron in the rear view. 

Thunder,” Taron mouths dramatically, scrunching up his nose and shaking his head incredulously at Richard. 

“You’ve no transpo plan on file for curry, seven seven nine,” Kim responds dryly and Taron laughs in the mirror, his eyes wide. 

“God she is really not fun,” he says and Richard looks away so Taron won’t see him laugh too.

The curry shop is busy and Richard spots a uniformed beat cop he can flash his badge at and have him lend his eyes for a bit.

Taron gets his takeaway chicken tikka masala and looks happy to go home, Richard dropping him off inside his gate, Kim and Taron’s regular patrol already on the property.

“Thank you, again,” Taron starts kind of awkwardly as he steps out of the car with his bags. “I can’t quite explain it. Somethin’ just felt wrong, y’know?”

Richard nods calmly, smiles at Taron. “Aye, Ah do know, sir. You never need to explain to me. You did great. I’m back in the morning, sir.”

“Hmmm, yeah,” Taron hums thoughtfully, glancing over his shoulder. “She’s not fun, but she’s good at her job. You both are. Top marks. G’night, Sergeant,” Taron says with a grin.

“Goodnight, sir,” Richard says, watches until Taron’s door closes, and takes himself home to sleep.

When he arrives back at ten in the morning, Taron is awake, and sober, sitting on a hot pink yoga mat he’s unrolled in his backyard.

*

Taron has a long and tedious afternoon of meetings with his lawyer the following week, and contract negotiations for his next project. He’s hungry and cranky by the time they’re finished, and Richard is ending his shift soon, trading a night with Kim. Taron suggests a chip shop in a quiet row Richard knows pretty well. He’s comfortable with the street views and access points, so he agrees. 

“Ye know I still have to clear it first,” Richard cautions, knowing how Taron has chafed a bit at the social awkwardness of having his copper come into a place ahead of him and peek around.

“Yeah, yeah Sergeant, I get it, can’t have me knocked off by a piece of fried cod can we.” 

Taron groans with annoyance as Richard circles the block twice before parking the car, and again when Richard surveys the layout of the shop and tells Taron exactly where he wants him to sit. 

“You’re off soon, you’re getting a beer,” Taron insists, looking over the menu.

Richard rolls his eyes and looks at his watch. “Sir, two hours still on my shift.”

“Cod and chips please, and he’ll have a beer, he doesn’t care what kind, and I’ll have a black and tan,” Taron says to the barkeep with a hint of irritation but also an edge of humour in his voice. He smirks at Richard challengingly. “Even if you don’t drink it just have it sat in front of you, it makes me feel better,” Taron orders him, amiably.

Richard puts his hands up, giving in. “Very good, sir.”

“And you can’t call me ‘sir’ when we’re having a beer, so. Prepare yourself in whatever way necessary,” Taron says and he’s definitely looser with Richard now, warming up a bit to him and Richard is glad. 

“Ah feel like you’ve tricked me here. Taron,” Richard says his name emphatically as their beers are set down. He licks his lips and picks up the pint glass to tap it against Taron’s.

“Yep and you walked right into it. Some spy. Cheers, mate,” Taron says and takes a large drink. 

“No’ a spy,” Richard repeats with a soft laugh, raises his glass and sips his beer, watches Taron sort of relax and feel him out.

“So I’m gonna go with...Rich, is it?” Taron asks when he’s downed about a quarter of his glass.

 Richard smiles, takes another small sip of beer. “Ah, I see. Sure, Rich’ll be fine.”

“Do some do Richie, or Dick?” Taron asks, seemingly very amused by something and Richard prickles a little, curious as to his tone.

“Yea, a few people might do. My mum calls me Dick. No one’s done Richie though. Don’t think I like that one so much,” Richard says, sitting back in his seat and doing an automatic scan as a server puts down their huge baskets of fish and chips. 

He’s hungrier than he realized, and he and Taron go right to it. They both finish off half their food and Taron drains the rest of his beer, gets the barkeep’s attention to ask for another. 

“Been drinkin’ much more lately?” Richard asks as casually as possible, looking down at his chips like he doesn’t care about the answer, just making conversation.

Taron swallows the beer in his mouth, looks at Richard incredulously. “I’m Welsh and English, mate.”

“An Ah’m Scottish, what’s yer point?” Richard challenges, eats another chip.

“I’d say I have a fairly sizeable capacity for ale, if that’s what you mean.”

“Was just a question. Yer under a lot of stress. Just wonderin’ how you cope with it.”

“I did yoga that day,” Taron points out with a chip in hand, tallying a notch for himself.

Richard laughs through his nose at that. “Aye ye did yoga that day and only tha’ day. How do you fair the other days?”

“Ehhhh, not well, I suppose. Eat fish and chips. Work out ‘til I can’t move. Drink ‘til I can sleep. Repeat.”

Richard nods, picks up his glass and raises an eyebrow at Taron. “Aye. Ah know the cycle well.”

“Anyway,” Taron shrugs, reaches for his second beer where it’s just been put in front of him. “I’m fine. Fine enough. Got any other burning questions for me?”

Richard bites his lip. “What’d ye mean before, that first day. When ye said something about a tell. How do you know about that kinda thing?”

Taron’s face goes through a bewildering series of reactions as he looks up, carefully sets down his pint glass and folds his hands, waits expectantly. “So I was right?” he whispers.

Richard shakes his head and laughs, lightly. “Not what I said. Answer the question.”

“We learned all this stuff in theatre school. You learn how to portray like, really subtle things, right, with just a very small facial movement. Micro-expressions. Adds realism, makes your character more like, deep, and believable. And when you’ve learnt ‘em...you can spot ‘em, too.”

Richard nods slowly, thinking about that and watching Taron carefully. He takes a longer sip of his beer, tries to will himself to relax a bit. “Yer a good actor,” he finally says. He looks down into his beer, quiet after the uncomfortable admission, and then takes another sip, already regretting saying it. 

“So you’ve watched my films then?” Taron perks up, takes another piece of fish, dousing it with malt vinegar. “Which ones?”

Richard shrugs. “I just caught a couple on telly. The spy thing - ”

“That one’s not on regular telly,” Taron cuts him off. Richard gives him an exasperated look, rolls his eyes. 

“The Robin of Loxley one,” he finishes, sheepishly, because Taron’s irritatingly quick to catch on and he definitely paid full price for that one online.  

“It is actually ok to admit you know what they’re called, mate.”

Richard blushes, hates it. “Ok, Ah watched several of them. You really are good. Happy now?”

“Almost, mate. Was I right then?”

“Ah’m no gonna answer that, Taron! Next question.”

“What did you do before you were a cop?”

“Ah don’t want tae talk about that either.”

“Ok even before that,” Taron pushes him, smiling again and...god help him, flirting. Richard knows better than to indulge this but for some reason he ignores the bristle of anxiety on the back of his neck, the fluttering in his sternum. 

“Ye promise to leave me alone if Ah tell ye.”

Taron pushes his chips basket away and leans forward on the table, getting in close. “No way mate, can’t promise that. This sounds good.”

“Was an actor,” Richard says, almost somberly. Taron’s jaw drops. 

“Shut it. You’re taking the piss.”

Richard shakes his head. “Nae. Got into drama school, in Scotland. It was all lined up for me, nice and neat.”

“Bet you played a lot of Romeos, mate.” Taron says, leaning back and grinning at Richard, almost giddy with this new insight. Richard’s cheeks continue to flush. 

“Three of ‘em. Only one Mercutio.”

Taron beams at this, all his teeth on display. “Good school, that one. You must be quite talented, then. But you didn’t go.”

Richard shakes his head. “Ah was young. Daft. Got ticked off at my parents and wanted to do the opposite o’what they wanted.”

“You rebelled?”

“Kinda. They’re like old hippies, artist types. You get annoyed with it at a certain age. Was hard to find a way to buck against ‘em, ye know?”

“Military, police and killing people ought to have done the trick.”

Richard feels a chill course through him, completely frosting over the warm glow he’d just started feeling from the beer and the company. 

He’s forgotten himself here. They both have. 

“Don’ ever joke about that, sir.” He schools his face back to unreadable, pushes his beer away. He looks down at his hands. 

“Fuck. My fault mate.” Taron rubs at his chin, scratches his fingers through his few days of stubble. Richard watches out of the corner of his eye, focuses on counting his breaths, in and out. “Can I fix it Rich?” Taron asks, his eyelashes down and his voice small.

Richard bats his eyes nervously and says, just as small, feeling a little sick, “Ah didn’t want tae talk about...things. Personal things.”

Taron is quiet, runs his finger along the edge of his beer glass. “This is gonna sound, like really sad and bleak. But I don’t have a lot of people to talk to about personal things.”

Richard looks down at his hands, sadly, tries to stave off the wave of nausea roiling through him. “I need to keep my objectivity, Taron. My job is to protect you. Not to be your mate,” Richard says, bordering on cold and cruel and he knows it. He gets up from the table and lays down twenty quid. 

“Ah think we’re done here. Let’s get ye home, sir.”

Taron doesn’t speak the whole ride, just nods at Kim as they enter his house, brushes past her to go straight to his room. He never looks back. 

“What’s with that one, Skipper?”

Richard shrugs. “Got pushy and I pushed back. I’ll fix it tomorrow,” he says with fake confidence. 

Kim looks dubious, but lets him off the hook. “Get some sleep tonight. We’ve a conference in the morning don’t forget. I’ll have him there at 8.”

“Aye,” Richard says, sad that he broke things with Taron but not entirely sure he should fix them. 

*

Taron and his agents are already huddled around a small table, a teapot steeping and an assortment of papers and briefs scattered here and there when Richard arrives. 

“Am I late?” He asks, cocking his head with concern as he closes the conference room door. Taron fidgets his hands in his lap, doesn’t look at him. 

“Not at all. Constable Knowles brought Taron in early. We’ve had another note,” Taron’s agent says, shaking her head sadly. She pushes the envelope and small scrap of paper Richard’s way and then busies herself with the teacups. 

Richard looks over the typed and printed half-sheet, the same font and style of writing as the others. “It’s quite specific,” Richard says, frowning. It mentions details of a place and event, a West End opening they’ve already begun to plan his security strategy for. 

Richard passes it back and looks plaintively at Taron but Taron doesn’t look up. Richard doesn’t know if he’s still mad, or scared, or both. 

“Yer not gonna like this, sir. I don’t think you should go to that event.”

Taron finally glares at Richard, his eyes daggers. Richard prepares for the onslaught but Taron simply turns away from him. “Tell them to figure it out. I’m going,” he says, speaking only to his agent and fully turning away in his chair. 

Richard knows he’s fucked up. 

“Sir, ye remember what we talked about? Ah know that theater well. It’s old and full o’gaps, hidden entries and passageways. Blind spots...it’s impossible to secure.”

“I have to go to this event,” Taron raises his voice, swivels back and finally faces Richard, starts to put up a real fight, and Richard hates how relieved he is for Taron to speak to him again, even if it’s to yell at him. “I’ve got colleagues...producers, directors, people I’m beholden to who expect to see me there. You’re the hotshot protection officer, you figure it out.” 

Richard exchanges a look with Kim, and she shrugs uncomfortably. “We can call in more officers, I suppose,” she suggests, looks at Richard for confirmation. 

He has no idea how they will get the resources to do this safely. He shakes his head just thinking about it, but she goes on. “We do need a few days to look at the layout. Can you get us a call sheet and a run of show?” 

The agents look at each other for confirmation and nod, looking nervous. “Good. We’ll let you know by Wednesday?”

Taron turns to Kim, and Kim only. “Thank you,” he snaps, gets up to pace outside the conference room and wait to be taken home. It’s Richard’s shift now. He carefully trains his face to neutral, and stands, shakes the agents’ hands. 

“I’m so sorry...he’s not usually so. Well. It must be the stress getting to him. Thank you so much for your help, officers,” one of them says, falsely chipper. 

“It is indeed the stress, ma’am. Very common, not a problem. S’part of our job. Ma’am.” Richard nods a curt goodbye and picks up his briefings, goes to collect Taron and get him out to the car. 

Taron’s leaning against the elevator banks when Richard emerges, Kim heading down the stairs. Taron finally looks up at him and his eyes are blank, alert but showing nothing. 

Richard tries. “We’re gonna do what we can, sir. Ah’m sorry yer upset.”

Taron wrinkles his nose and the corners of his eyes, ever, ever so subtly. “I don’t really want to talk about my personal feelings,” he says out of the side of his mouth as the elevator opens and he steps in. 

*

“Can we go somewhere else?” Taron asks, suddenly, from the back seat. 

Richard rolls his head on his neck, feels a few vertebrae crackle into place. “Sir, the last time we went off schedule...didn’t go so well.”

Taron huffs and runs his hands through his hair in the back. “No, I meant me. Can I go somewhere and you wait for me? Like it’s your job?”

Richard feels the corners of his mouth draw down and drag his whole mental state with it. Anxiety tingles in every extremity. 

“If it’s a new location, sir, I’ll have to clear it first.”

“Yeah, fine. Just swing down the A10 please.” Richard fixes his eyes firmly on the road and takes Taron to the South London address he’s requested. They pull up to a row of neat, mid-range flats and cottages, sidewalks and rows of hedges weaving amongst them. 

Taron opens his own door and steps out ahead of Richard, sunglasses and a low-brimmed cap mostly obscuring his face, as well as his mood. Richard doesn’t try to read him further, just follows him up a path he obviously knows well, to a second story flat where Taron rings the bell. 

A young woman with long dark hair opens it after a moment, and looks surprised to see him. “Hi,” all she says, an upward lilting note of question on the syllable. She notices Richard behind him, looks back at Taron with confusion. 

“Hey Em,” Taron says, and Richard notices he chews on his lip a bit nervously. “He’s eh, my copper. It’s...can I. Can he come in, I mean. Sorry.”

Richard smiles at her, turns on his best charming in a non-threatening manner police demeanor. “Hello Miss. If you don’t mind...just a brief check and then you can visit with him.”

“Ohhhh kay,” she says, looking very confused and a little alarmed. “T, what’s going on?” He shakes his head, reaches out tentatively for her but when she sees him bite his lip as the tears come spilling out, she opens her arms and pulls him into a hug. “T...my god what’s happened?” She looks over his shoulder at Richard as if for answers, and he tries hard to remain detached. 

“Miss, if it’s alright. Let’s go inside and I’ll have a look, and ye can talk.” He gestures through the open door behind her and she turns, pulls away from Taron. 

“Yes of course. Come in, sorry.” They move inside and she keeps a tight hand on Taron, Richard notices. “It’s only this room and two others. Bedrooms are that way, the loo, and there’s a balcony off the kitchen.”

“Thank you miss. I won’t be long.” His face is fixed and he wills himself to tamp down whatever stirring of anxiety and empathy and confusion he feels in his lower ribs, his stomach queasy from it. He counts his inhales and exhales slowly as he looks around the apartment room to room. It’s all clear but she mentioned a balcony and that sounds like a good vantage point, so he passes through the living room again to check the door locks and then lets himself out the French doors, where he can close himself off from their conversation and just listen to the sounds of his surroundings. 

Traffic, street work, dog bark, water sprinkler. He listens and lists them in his head, plays them back through until they assemble into a repetitive pattern. White noise, diffuse, deep breaths. He scans the hedges, street, and tree lines. He waits. Like it’s his job. 

*

When Taron is ready he taps on the glass. Richard slides the door open and gives a brisk “thank you, miss,” and polite nod to the girl on the couch, who looks shaken but is not crying, he notes. Taron clearly never stopped. Richard ushers Taron safely back to the car and closes him in, takes maybe too long a look in the rear view until Taron notices, grits his teeth. 

“Let it go. We can leave now.”

“Sir. We had a list of your friends and close associates but weren’t aware of a girlfriend.”

“Ex.” Taron says, bitterly, looking exhausted in the mirror, his eyes rimmed red. 

“Ex, yes sir.”

“Ok knock off the sir shit again, would you? She’s my ex-girlfriend. She comes with me to events sometimes when it...would look better if I had a date. She was supposed to come with me to this thing, and I had to tell her I can’t bring her. Then I realized I had to tell her why. And I freaked her the fuck out. You’re all caught up.”

Richard holds his eye in the reflection, their tired faces watching each other sadly. Richard starts the car. 

“Thank you, sir.”

“Stop.”

Taron. We’ll be back at the house shortly.”

Richard watches until Taron slips his sunglasses back on and looks away, out the window. He puts the car in gear and heads home. 

*

They come to agreements and draw up a plan after extensive consultations with the theatre management team. Taron will walk the red carpet, but arrive early before it’s too crowded, take photos and then go with Richard to a secure dressing room in the theatre to wait. When the house is loaded and the exits and sidewalks are all cleared, Richard will take Taron to his seat, right by an exit, for the show. Richard and Kim will monitor the audience, additional security staff at each access point and balcony, and patrols keeping Taron’s exit routes secure. 

They go over the plans together, the paths and hallways he’s to use, how to signal he wants to leave immediately, no questions asked. 

Taron stays close, and serious, focuses on what Richard says intently. Richard is glad to have his trust back. It makes his job much easier.

*

Taron is going to wear a tux, which requires a visit to meet his stylist at a tailor shop. Richard checks and clears the space, gives the ok and waits by the door, watches him try on a few different choices and turn for Gareth while he checks the fits. 

Richard finds himself quirking his head a bit when he particularly likes the cut of one of them. His work suits are alright, the best he can afford, and he has them tailored, as they have to accommodate his vests and holster. But he appreciates the fine fabrics and craftsmanship of the ones Taron gets to model. 

They’re stuck in traffic on the bridge for a while heading home and Richard chances catching Taron’s eye. Taron smirks awkwardly and one eyebrow goes up. “What?”

“Nothing, sir,” Richard says, darts his eyes back on the road. “I liked the dark blue one.” 

He gets just a hint of Taron’s grin in the mirror before he turns out of view. 

*

Richard hires the car first - a good old reliable Jaguar XJ with ballistic glass and reinforced side panels. 

Then he calls Mack.

He has a few burner phones in a gym bag in the boot of his car. He picks one and punches in Mack’s signal number from memory, then sends a single emoji - today it’s the elephant. Then he does some crunches and planks until Mack calls him back.

“I was just thinking about you,” Mack says when Richard clicks talk on the burner.

“Oh yea? I doubt it was very good but it’s nice to be thought of Ah suppose.”

“I try to only remember the good. How are you, Dickie?” Mack’s familiar voice curls around his brain, calms him like a heavy blanket. They should talk more, but he knows they have good reasons for not.

“Ah’m well,” Richard says first, a little too chipper and sounding false even to his own ear. He frowns. “Well...Ah’m alright,” Richard amends. He doesn’t have to be anything but plain and honest with Mack. He never has.

“Hmmm,” Mack hums, a rich, deep sound that Richard used to hear in a very different context, when he was lucky. “Alright is better than bad, and alive is better than dead,” Mack says in his very Mack way.

“M’alive. Very much so. Ah’ve got a new post since we talked. New flat, too.”

“Mmm hmm anyone else new?”

Richard grins, turns to pace his floor, holds the phone cradled to his face. “Just a job, Mack.”

“Alright, who’s the new job then?”

“Ah need a driver.”

“Ok? You’ve got lots of drivers. Hell, you’re a driver. What d’ye need me for?”

“It’s high profile. Complicated.” Richard doesn’t want to say much, and Mack doesn’t need to know the details just now. He’s either going to come or he’s not.

“They all are. When?”

“Saturday,” Richard says, biting his lip and looking up at the ceiling. He doesn’t want anyone else. He knows he’s pushing his luck with the short notice but also knows it’s pointless to try to pin Mack down more than a few days in advance. He could be anywhere in a few days.

Mack hums, makes some kind of rustling noise on the other end. 

“I was just thinking about you because another pretty white boy was being a pain in my arse,” Mack says, and Richard can hear the scratch of a pencil on paper under his weary, but still fond sigh. Richard smiles.

“Well, you do have a type,” he says, tongue in his cheek.

“Shut it. I need a Jag,” Mack says, all business and Richard knows he’s got him.

“Already booked it. You know the spot and you know the guy.”

Mack mumbles something under his breath. “Yea, I know the guy. And your new flat?”

“Clerkenwell.”

“I’ll see you Saturday.”

“My address?”

Mack laughs, muffled, like he’s got his hand over the phone. 

“Oh, Dickie. I found you in that godforsaken place, I can sure as hell find you in fucking Clerkenwell.”

*

When Richard gets out of his yoga class at 8:30 Saturday morning there is an absolutely anachronistic Renault Alpine parked across the street that he knows doesn’t belong in his neighborhood. There’s no driver in the seat and before he can even turn his head to look the other way Mack is behind him, wrapping a long arm around his neck and pulling him into an off-balance, almost claustrophobic hug. 

“You’ve gotten lazy, hipster cop. You know how long it took me to clock you in this little hamlet? Were ye going for a green juice next?”

Richard gasps for air and blinks back the confusion of panic and other complicated emotions brought up by Mack’s huge arms, suffocating him. “Fuck, Mack. Sodder. You do remember that I’ve got PTSD, aye? Ah coulda fuckin shot ye, mate.”

Mack hugs him closer and roars with laughter at that. “Oh Dickie, darling. Sure you could have. Come on love, let’s go get your green juice. I’m sure you’re parched after your sixty minutes of Hatha Flow.”

Mack isn’t going to sit in some trendy diner with Richard while he eats avocado toast with pea tendrils, so they get juice and coffee and take them back to Richard’s flat. Richard makes an enormous omelette, six eggs, with spinach and goat cheese and cuts it in two, roughly two-thirds for Mack and a third for him, puts them on plates while Mack vaguely tells him what he’s been up to, mainly in France, without really telling him anything at all. 

“Brekkie always was a strong suit of yours. Cheers, love.” Mack winks at him and Richard blushes horribly. Mack grinds way too much pepper on his omelette and digs in. “Alright so. What’m I doin’ ‘ere tonight, Dickie?”

*

Richard chooses a dark suit and his favorite tie, the one he’s sure Mack spent way too much on at Christmas, years back. He takes a few extra minutes on his hair, puts on his light kevlar body armour, his shirt, in-ear radio and leather holster. He checks himself in the mirror a few more times than necessary, and he and Mack go to pick up his principal. 

There’s a PPO Richard met while working on the summit, and a patrol officer at the house to let him in, since he and Kim have to be at the theatre. Richard chats with them for a few minutes while he waits.

Taron comes downstairs a few minutes later, wearing the dark blue suit. 

“What, no flowers, Sergeant?” Taron quips, teasing and in very good humour, as he adds a very expensive looking pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses to complete his outfit. 

Richard huffs a little laugh through his nose and smiles at Taron. He wants to keep the mood light, but formal. 

“You do look very nice, sir.” He tips a nod and opens the front door for him, stops him with his arm as Taron starts to walk out ahead of him. “Sir, the protocols are important today,” he reminds gently, then checks sightlines and makes a visual with Mack. 

Taron gives him a sad half smile. “Right. Sorry.”

“S’alright sir. Let’s get ye to your event.” 

Richard opens his door and Taron unbuttons his jacket, settles into the car. Taron stops him, just before he closes him in. “You look...nice tie, Sergeant.” Richard looks at Mack instinctively, can’t help it. Mack is glancing back at Taron and then looks sidelong at Richard, and Richard knows it takes him about two seconds to size up this situation. 

“Oh. I see,” Mack says, grinning in Richard’s direction, far too pleased with himself. “Hello sir, welcome. And Sergeant that is a nice tie.” Mack faces forward, drums on the steering wheel and waits. 

Richard rolls his eyes and shuts Taron’s door with a proper “Sir,” still trying for formality. 

He gets in the front, ignoring Mack’s raised eyebrows and smug, knowing face for the moment, and opens a channel to Kim and the team. 

“Thunder, outbound.”

*

Taron’s shaken hands with everyone in his row and finally sat in his seat when the first frisson that something is wrong fizzes up Richard’s spine. He touches his earpiece and looks up the length of the theatre aisle to the lobby doors, already closed save one, where Kim is half in and half out of the theatre, speaking to a uniformed constable outside. “Nine three seven, come in. What’s it.”

“Hang on Skipper. Going to check it out,” Kim answers, then disappears out the door.

Richard clenches his jaw and waits, eyes casting back and forth from Taron’s location to the planned emergency door, stage left. “Control, seven seven nine. Is the rear alley clear?”

The young officer on the other end crackles in his ear. “Copy seven seven nine you are still clear. Driver in pla- ”

And that’s when Richard hears the explosion. 

The shimmering sonic wave of the blast comes from outside through his radio, not through the front of house, which possibly doesn’t hear it right away, masked by the overture of the orchestra. 

His feet are moving before he knows it and Taron must see or sense something too because he’s already out of his seat when Richard reaches him, puts his arms and body around Taron and whisks him to the rear door as planned, just as Taron’s seatmates begin to murmur with the realization that something’s amiss. 

The door opens to a backstage pathway that’s not in use anymore, secured already by two patrols. Richard hurries Taron along until they’re at the back of house door they chose from schematics. 

Taron reaches for the handle without thinking and Richard automatically grabs him back, presses him with his full body up against the wall and holds. He narrows his eyes as they make contact with Taron’s, shakes his head. Taron’s breathing is labored and he’s breaking out in a sweat. He licks his lips and nods, panicked. “Yeah, yeah sorry.”

Richard presses his finger to his lips. “Shhh. S’gonna be alright.” He touches his earpiece. “Twenty-two are we still clear,” he says under his breath. 

No response. He furrows his brow at Taron, realizes he’s still holding him with his entire weight up against the wall, his fingers curled around one of Taron’s arms so tight he can feel his pulse. He relaxes his grip ever so slightly, but Taron doesn’t move. 

“Twenty-two are we still clear, Thunder, outbound.”

Kim finally crackles in his ear. “Control, nine three seven, all units are responding to the blast. Just across the street.”

Richard presses his forehead against the wall beside Taron, swears under his breath. “Fuck.”

“We’ve got a literal dumpster fire, ARVs and Expo arriving now.”

“We jus’ need cover to the vehicle. Ah’ve gotta get him out of here.”

“I’m managing out here, can try to send a patrol around but - ”

“We cannae wait. Goin’ to the door to get a visual. Keep audio open.”

“Copy, Skip, er seven seven nine,” Kim rushes off the words and then goes back to overseeing, the bustle of officers running about creating a buzz of noise on the open channel. Richard pauses, counts to five and takes a few steadying breaths, opens his eyes and sees Taron breathing with him. 

“Taron. Listen to me. They plant a small explosion to distract everyone and make a big scene, then try to grab you in the chaos. They’ll be evacuating the theatre and we can’t bring you out in a crowd. We’ve got tae go now. Do ye trust me, sir?”

Taron’s eyes flash nervously all over Richard’s face, unsure where to look. His hands are shaking and even as Richard starts to let go of his body to move closer to the door Taron clings to him.

“It’s alright. Taron, do ye trust me?” Taron finally nods, slowly relaxes some of the muscles that have wrapped him up with Richard’s body, reluctant to uncoil. Richard understands the response but he has to move. He presses one hand to Taron’s chest, flicks the safety off his gun with the other. 

“Ah’m goin to open the door and yer gonna stay behind me until I say move. Then yer gonna get in front of me, close, we’re gonna move together. Mack and I have done this before, he’s got us alright?”

Taron looks like he’s processing for a moment but then hesitantly nods. He smacks his lips again, his mouth no doubt dry from adrenaline. “Who’s...Mack?” is all he says, his voice thin. 

“Our driver.”

“You know him, then?” Taron asks, sounding marginally more confident in the plan, knowing this. 

Richard nods, spares one last look into Taron’s eyes, then turns his full focus on the door. “Like Ah know the back of my hand.” 

He keeps Taron at arm’s length and presses his ear to the door again, then pushes it open, fifteen degrees at a time, clearing each angle until he can get a visual on Mack. The car is parked strategically, faces out at an angle askew of the buildings, just the other side of the security stanchions. Mack is out of the driver's seat, gun drawn and eyes on the rooftop, obscured by an awning, and the opposite rear door is open. 

Everything else is a crapshoot. Richard signals him and Mack points one finger up, gets ready. 

“Ok, Taron. Get in front of me. I’m gonna be very close so just focus on yer feet. It’s only ten paces to the car and you get behind that open door as quick as ye can. Don’t worry Ah’m right behind you.”

Taron looks shocky again, pale, breaths coming shallow and fast like he might hyperventilate, and Richard needs him in the car before that happens. 

“Taron. Move when I move. Trust me.”

Taron finally nods, peels himself away from the wall and crouches into position in front of Richard. Richard knows they can do this. Taron is strong and fit. Mack has their cover. Richard kicks the door open wider, draws his weapon, and they move. 

*

Richard knows they’re under fire the second they're out in the open. He forces his vision to tunnel in, only seeing Taron and the steps between them and the open door of the car. He ignores one bullet that sounds like it meets wood somewhere over his head, and another that hits the front end of the car and ricochets into the street. He hears the much closer, heavier reverb of Mack’s weapon returning fire, a completely different sound. His torso covers Taron’s back and he matches his feet to Taron’s, left, right, don’t stop, three more steps and he knows with absolute certainty where the gunman is, can feel him over his shoulder and has his weapon drawn but Mack has them covered and he can’t focus on anything but Taron. Two steps and he hears one more shot nearby but the sound is muffled by his own heartbeat in his ears. He focuses on his arm around Taron’s waist, on protecting his ribs and lungs, on his neck. Mack fires another round, over their heads. One more step and Taron’s knee falters. They stumble but they’re close enough. Richard shoves him inside the back seat and falls in over his body, turns to fire one shot off, the familiar kick tingling in his wrist and arm like an old broken bone. He closes the heavy, reinforced door as Mack slides in. “Go.” 

Mack punches the accelerator and Richard squeezes his eyes shut, dizzy with adrenaline and the sudden momentum of moving. “Stay down, just stay down we’re alright,” he murmurs to Taron over and over as Mack speeds them out of the theatre district. 

Richard radios that they’re moving and two squad cars pull out around them in formation when they reach the open streets, a perfect fall and follow. Mack stays with them until he has a clear intersection and turns west.

“Jesus christ, Dickie, what did the kid do?” Mack says over his shoulder.

Richard shifts himself over Taron, gets their limbs sorted out and keeps a hand on Taron’s chest, Taron gripping the sides of Richard’s jacket and holding onto him as shudders and gasps threaten to take over his breath. Richard stays close, pats Taron over his clothes, keeps eye contact. 

“Shhhhh, you’re alright. You’re doin’ great, sir.  There ye go, just breathe for me. Good, Taron. Mack, what did ye see?” Richard finally asks as Mack makes a few methodical, strategic turns. 

Richard keeps one hand on Taron but leans up just slightly, enough to locate Mack’s eyes in the rear view mirror. 

He’s scanning but not actively evading, Richard notices right away. That’s good. Taron grips his hand and Richard squeezes back, lets him twist their fingers together and holds them tight.

“You got one guy, some shitty rifle, not auto...regular ammo, didn’t touch this glass, no special equipment. Lousy shot, but we didn’t hit ‘im either, so. No tails that I see. Some kinda creep but definitely not professional, so tha’s good?” Mack finds Richard in the mirror, narrows his eyes at him dubiously, and makes another quick turn. “Who’d ya piss off, kid?”

Richard looks back down at Taron, still shaky, tremorous, but he’s breathing more evenly now. Taron just shakes his head. 

Richard clasps their hands together between their chests, holds on. “We don’ know.”

*

They switch vehicles at a police car park northwest of the city, put Taron into the back of a dark SUV and take him home. An extra patrol car is already up the street, and Richard has Mack circle the block once just to check it out.

“Tha’ wasn’t a cop back there, Dickie,” Mack says, shaking his head but making the slow turns up Taron’s quiet streets just the same. “I’ll humour ye though.”

“Just looking, Mack. I dunno every cop in the city do I?”

“You ok, mate?” Mack asks, glancing meaningfully from Richard to the rear view and settling his eyes on Taron, in the far back with no windows, shakily texting his family and checking in with people he had seen at the theatre. Richard frowns. He has to talk to him about his texting.

Richard squints at Mack, shakes his head ever so slightly. “I’m fine. Working a complicated job is all. And he’s…”

“Yea, Dickie. I see,” Mack says, nods toward Taron, sympathetically.

“He’s good. Tha’s all I meant to say,” Richard says, swallowing hard and scanning the street automatically as they come back down the approach to Taron’s driveway.

“You’re good too, Dickie. Always wished you could see that,” Mack says. Richard looks at him, fondly, a little wistful as he unbuckles his seatbelt. “Don’t give me that face, Dickie. Nostalgia is bullshit. You’ve got a job to focus on, right now.”

Richard looks back at Taron, nods at Mack. He knows he’s right.

“I was supposed to be in Paris this week,” Mack says. “I’m gonna stick around here instead. Just in case.”

Richard feels his mouth twist into a dry, sad smile. “Thank you, mate. I’ll be in touch.” He lets Mack slap him on the back affectionately as he climbs down from the car, leaves Taron safe with Mack while he checks in with the patrol. He asks for an additional one to come round and an hourly perimeter check, and radios that he’s inbound, with Thunder.

A second officer stays with Taron while Richard sweeps the house. Taron’s eyes dart about anxiously as Richard separates from him at the door, has to leave him there with someone he doesn’t know. He straightens his spine and looks the other young cop over coldly, pulling a bit of rank and making sure he recognizes that Richard is the CO here. Then he reluctantly squeezes Taron’s hand and lets go. “S’alright, sir. Try to relax. I’ll be right back.”

He does his sweep and comes back, the other officer never making eye contact but gesturing that Taron went toward the living room. Richard nods and dismisses him back to his patrol.

He finds Taron behind his bar, hands shaking as he fiddles with the cork on an unopened bottle of whisky. Richard isn’t sure how to handle him just yet, gives him a minute, and a bit of space, until Taron goes for a glass and it slips out of his hand, shatters on the floor beside him. 

Taron looks at him in a near panic and Richard has to move, goes to his side and puts one arm securely around him, his other hand crossing his body to take the bottle from Taron’s grasp and carefully set it back down on the bar. 

Taron sways on his feet and curls his hands into fists with frustration, maybe still shock, turns into Richard’s body and slides his balled up hands under Richard’s jacket.

Richard freezes, moves in mere millimetres to dissuade Taron’s arms from settling around him, steps gingerly away while still holding his gaze, steady. Taron looks exhausted and confused and still so scared, and Richard moves purposefully so as not to startle him, keeps one hand on his chest and slowly reaches to remove his gun from under his arm. He sets it on the bar, then carefully, incrementally, allows his arms to fall back at Taron’s sides, lets Taron collapse against him.

Taron’s trembling hands find his waist, then his back, then the leather of his holster, and Richard can feel every breath between both of them, feels Taron’s cheek as it brushes almost imperceptibly against his neck, feels his eyes fall closed to block out everything else, every thought and every twitch of his nervous system absolutely still for one silent slip of time as Taron turns, presses his mouth to his lower lip. 

Neither of them move, for a long, long while. 

Richard can’t move, finds even his fingertips frozen exactly as they landed, lightly clutching at Taron’s beautiful blue tuxedo jacket where it falls at his hips. 

Then Taron finally moves, turns his head just so and changes the angle of his mouth where it meets Richard’s, still not even a kiss but a touch of his lips, his hesitance to do more, palpable, though when Richard focuses he can feel the vibration, the thrumming of need just under Taron’s skin. 

He finally wills himself to respond, just his bottom lip at first, softly dragging it down to kiss under Taron’s mouth and then gently touching his lip and Taron’s with the tip of his tongue. Taron turns his head again and opens his mouth for more, hooks his thumbs and fingers into Richard’s holster and pulls, wants him up against him, wants to be held against the wall like earlier, Richard realizes. 

He indulges this, carefully stepping them both away from the broken glass before he moves his arms, takes Taron’s face in his hands and presses, Taron grunting as if winded when his back and head hit the wall and Richard is up against him, leans his forehead against Taron’s and just breathes, swears at himself both for waiting so long and for doing this at all, and finally, finally covers Taron’s mouth properly with his. 

Taron opens for him, uncurls his fingers from the leather straps, wraps his hands behind Richard’s back and smooths them up over his shirt, onto his neck, digs his fingers into the back of his skull and deepens the kiss, gives Richard his tongue and keeps pulling him closer, closer. 

Richard feels his arousal and Taron’s as their hips come together, Taron spreading his feet a little and making room, both of them still in dress pants and rubbing gracelessly against each other. Richard can’t focus on getting him properly undressed when Taron is biting at his lips and sliding his tongue into his mouth. 

Richard eventually gets Taron out of his jacket, then his tie, lays them on the bar thoughtfully while Taron tries to pop the buttons of Richard’s shirt open without equal concern. He pulls off Richard’s tie, tosses it on top of his own, and gets enough buttons open to get his hands inside, to kiss and touch Richard’s neck, his chest through his ballistic vest, his ribs just under the edges of it, anything he can reach and feel and get his mouth on. Richard shivers, kisses him again and gets to work on the fastenings of Taron’s belt and pants. 

The initial hesitancy is gone and they both rush to get their hands around each other, stroking and sliding together in the friction they create, Richard lifting one knee to pin Taron properly against the wall, get the leverage and the angle just right, holding him tight with his hips and his mouth as Taron groans with each thrust, finally cries into Richard’s mouth as he spills over both their hands, Richard following just a moment later when he feels Taron shuddering in his arms.

Taron doesn’t let go, so Richard keeps him right where he is, leans his full weight against Taron to hold them both up, still dragging his mouth along Taron’s chin, his jaw. 

Taron finally makes a sound, a soft, pleased hum that almost sounds like a laugh. 

Richard is relieved to hear it, whatever it is. 

He turns enough to see Taron’s face, kisses him next to his ear. “Wha’ is it?”

Taron smiles, lifts one hand to tuck again into the leather straps that wrap around Richard’s shoulders.

“Guess I was right after all.”

*

Richard takes his clothes off properly in the guest room that has sort of become his quarters, while Taron takes a shower upstairs. He looks in the bathroom mirror and sees a mark, spidery capillaries bursting with blood, spreading at the top of his clavicle just above where his body armor stops. He stares at it as the water runs hot, thinks about what a terrible fucking idea this is. Turns slightly in the mirror and looks at the mottled web of scar tissue that runs across one shoulder and into the middle of his back, where he loses sight of it in the mirror. It’s less red and less painful now, but still there, a hideous reminder of all he’s capable of surviving, of all he went through so he could live to make stupid, stupid decisions like this.

He looks away, cleans himself up, and joins Taron back downstairs to eat broiled chicken and herbed sweet potatoes dropped off by his chef service. Richard radios the other officers and gets the all clear from outside. 

Then Taron takes Richard upstairs to his bed. 

He gets supplies, and he gets Richard where he wants him, lays him out comfortably and twists his own fingers carefully inside himself, Richard swallowing hard as he watches, feels his own response quicken. 

“Taron, I don’t...I don’t want us to get confused about what I’m doing here,” Richard says, reaching for Taron’s other hand, his eyes heavy and his blood coursing as Taron strokes a sure hand over him, gets him ready. He kisses Taron’s fingertips, his wrist, shakes his head against the uncertainty gnawing at him even though he wants Taron, so, so badly.

“I’m not confused,” Taron says, biting his lip. He leans down and kisses him, thick and heavy, his strong thighs settling on either side of Richard’s hips. 

Richard sits up, pressing himself up on his arms, his mouth at Taron’s neck. “Ah want you. I really do. But I need to be able to do my job,” Richard murmurs as Taron holds onto his neck and kisses him. 

Taron nods against his lips as if in agreement, so Richard gets his hands under Taron’s hips to lift him onto his lap, get him close enough to slip inside, enveloping Richard in tight, hot pleasure. Taron sinks down over Richard with a long, steady moan, and takes what he needs.

*

Richard wakes with a jolt. He’s naked and his breath hitches out of him raggedly. He throws the covers off, waiting for his eyes to focus in the dim blue moonlight pouring in through a window that a voice in his head distantly tells him shouldn’t be open. 

He’s not alone in the bed. 

He touches the sheets, feels the fine weave of the fabric, slowly fetches memories, images that help locate him in time and space. 

The bomb, the drive, the broken glass. Taron. Fuck. Taron.

A fresh wave of panic washes over him for a completely different reason. 

He looks down at him, sleeping soundly, trusting of the people and processes in place around him to keep him safe in his own bed, safe enough to fall asleep with Richard beside him.

He gets out of Taron’s bed, covers him gently with his sheets and duvet, gathers his own clothes, and goes to the sofa downstairs. He rests his body, but doesn’t fall asleep again.

*

“I don’t sleep when Ah’m here on duty, not really,” Richard tries to explain, gently as he can when Taron wakes and comes downstairs, disoriented, maybe disappointed. “I laid with you, for a long time. I’ll sleep tonight, when I’m off...when I go home.” He very deliberately reminds himself not to call him sir.

Taron still isn’t fully awake yet, and doesn’t understand this boundary. “What if I wanted you to stay.”

“Stay tonight too?” Richard asks, confused.

“Stay. Just stay. If you stay for, like, days you’ll have to sleep,” Taron says, his eyes bleary and his lips dry from sleep, and kissing.

Richard can’t make sense of this logic because there isn’t any. He should go home, and hold plank to failure, take a long shower and sleep for twelve hours, then figure out how to get them both out of this and preserve both of their dignity, and his job.

Richard doesn’t do any of that.

Richard stays.

He calls Kim and tells her Taron feels best with him there right now, and she buys it. 

He stays and they go to bed when they feel like, eat when they feel like, and then go back to bed. 

They sleep, spent and covered in each other. 

Richard wakes up, either alone and momentarily confused, or with an arm clutched around Taron’s middle, tethered and quickly reminded, where and who he is.

Taron touches his scars, hesitant and apologetic at first, then more curiously, lightly traces his fingerpads over the raised, pink flesh. His breath hitches sharply like he wants to ask a question. 

He doesn’t ask.

Richard might tell him if he asked. But he doesn’t ask.

Richard sleeps sometimes even when Taron is awake. Taron always lets him sleep, watches telly quietly in the other room, or lifts weights until Richard wakes up and comes to find him on his own. 

Richard finally asks him why. 

Taron hesitates, like he’s thinking of a good lie. Richard catches it in his eye easily and grins at him, a new, soft smile he doesn’t recognize when he looks at himself in the bathroom mirror.

He traces a finger along the delicate inside of Taron’s wrist, the tiny bones, the pulse that lulls him to such deep, dreamless sleep. “We both know we know our tells. Wha’ is it?”

Taron swallows, still hedging a bit, and Richard cocks his head, waits curiously.

“Mack told me two things in the car that day. One was never to startle you when you’re sleeping.” Richard’s eyelashes flutter shut, and something unfamiliar, warm and bright, clenches in his chest.

“Alright. And the other?”

Taron shakes his head softly. “Can’t tell the other.” His mouth flattens in a perfectly straight line across his face, and Richard can see he is immovable. 

“Ok. Good. Very good.” Richard says, taking Taron’s face in his hands and kissing him, laying him back on the bed and touching all the places he hasn’t touched today, then taking Taron in his mouth until he comes on Richard’s tongue.

He swallows, lays his head on Taron’s hipbone, drifts there for a while.

He doesn’t know what the fuck they’re doing.

Richard stays.

He stays until they call him from Taron’s agency, and ask him to come in alone.

*

“It came with the morning post. It’s...of a sensitive nature,” Taron’s agent explains of the new letter, blushing uncomfortably as she slides the thin folder over to Richard. He flips it open and frowns as he reads, one word jumping off the page so violently, he barely needs the rest of them. 

Richard rolls his head on his neck, cracks a few vertebrae and closes the file. 

“Has there ever been...a mention like this? Is this new?”

“It’s new for us. We haven’t seen anything like this...it’s not something we ever deal with with Taron. He’s had a girlfriend nearly as long as he’s been in the public eye. Until last year, anyway. It’s never been a problem before.“

“It’s not a problem now ma’am. It’s a question we have to consider, tha’s all.” Richard says, evenly as he can but the hairs on the back of his neck are tingling. 

“I don’t understand it at all, Sergeant. He’s straight. He’s well-liked. This is all new, it's just...it's wrong. He's such a good person,” she says, looking at her hands, fidgeting with her wedding rings and shaking her head sadly. Richard’s jaw clicks with tension. 

“Alright. Thank you for that information. I will debrief and consult with our team. Ma’am,” Richard says and leaves a bit brusquely, reaches for his phone to call Kim at the house while he’s still en route to his car. 

“It’s time. Help him pack a bag.”

“Heard, Skipper. I’ll have him ready.”

Richard pulls his car into traffic and his hands shake on the steering wheel. He grips his fingers to try to stop the tremor and feels his chin trembling, his eyes filling with tears. He blinks them away, clearing his vision as the light changes, and speeds through it. 

Richard circles Taron’s block three times, checking every driveway and window and angle before he finally steels himself to pull into the drive. He keys in the gate code and parks under the thick arbor of twisted, old-vine roses that crosses the walkway leading to Taron’s front door. He closes his car door and leans against it for a moment, just listening. 

He cranes his head and scans the trees, the roofs of the next closest houses, the property lines down to the street below. His mouth turns down at the corners and he heads up to the house. 

Kim meets him at the door and lets him in, Taron pacing in the foyer behind her and yelling into his cell phone. 

“He’s pissed,” Kim says, gesturing over her shoulder. Richard’s lip tics with anxiety. 

“Drunk pissed or pissed pissed?”

“Just...pissed,” Kim stresses as Richard comes in, folds his arms and waits it out. 

Then Taron’s yelling takes a turn, a different pitch, a helpless whine, and it becomes apparent to Richard that he’s speaking to his mum. 

Richard bites his teeth into his lip and squeezes his eyes shut as the realization washes over him - they’re going to have to move his parents too. 

“Hey, Taron.” Richard begins, edging toward Taron and holding out his hands, palms upturned to show he’s trying to help. “Hang up please.”

“I’m talking to my mam. Is that not allowed now either?” Taron lashes at him, his eyes red and it’s clearer now that Richard’s close that he’s been crying. 

“I need to talk to ye. Can you tell yer mum you’ll call her later? Please, Taron.”

Taron’s face softens and crumples. He turns away with his phone cradled close. “Mam, I’ve to go. I’ll ring back. Yeah he’s here now. Dwi'n caru ti.”

Taron ends the call and looks to Richard, his arms hanging limply at his sides. Richard can see, despite whatever else he says, that’s he’s given up. “I don’t want to leave my house, Rich. Please don’t make me.”

Richard touches his chin, rubs his hands over his face up to his temples, trying to figure out how to handle this. Taron finally meets his gaze and Richard looks at him heavily, seriously. “Constable Knowles. Can ye do a perimeter check,” he asks, never looking away from Taron. 

“Aye Skip, straight away,” she heads to the front door, and Richard notices she adjusts her in-ear radio on her way, giving them privacy. He appreciates it, even though it’s a lapse in communication they absolutely shouldn’t tolerate right now. 

He takes a breath and cautiously, tentatively wraps his hands around Taron’s wrists and steps closer to him. “Ah don’t know how, but someone’s seen us together. And tha’ means someone’s been here. And tha’ means ye cannot stay, Taron. It’s not safe, and we’ve got to move you. I’m sorry.”

Taron’s face changes in a blink from the sort of pitiful dejection he was mired in when Richard got back, to sheer, shocking horror as he tries to process. He furrows his brow and wrinkles his nose distastefully. 

“What do you mean, someone’s seen us? Someone was in my house? How? We don’t...we were alone. We were completely alone. How could you...what do you mean, someone’s seen?”

“They got another note. Today at your agency. It was...different, in a specific way. It feels different, Taron, and Ah think it means yer not safe here. And this was my fault for lettin’ this happen. What we did…” Richard looks away from Taron’s intense gaze, shaking his head at himself. “I let myself get distracted and I swore I’d never do tha. You’re too important.”

“Different. How?” Taron grits out through tight teeth, a vein throbbing angry in his forehead. 

Richard bats his eyes closed, looks down at their feet, at the clear foot of space carefully held between their tense bodies. 

He thinks of them in Taron’s room, all those days lost, all that space gone, absorbed, subsumed by the heat that flared between them, Taron’s mouth on him, Taron crying out as he chased his pleasure atop him, Richard holding onto him as they found their release and collapsed, sweaty, tangled. Holding Taron while he slept. Waking up and feeling...something, something hopeful, something almost intimate. Noticing the open window, that first night.

Richard tamps that all down now, tries to bury it where it won’t disturb or distract him again, juts out his chin to give Taron an answer. 

“It implied you...it called ye a word fer gay. A gay slur.”

Taron rears his head back like he’s been stung and Richard wonders for a brief second if they might be about to fight. He would never hurt Taron, but he’ll do what’s necessary to protect them both. 

He braces himself. “Please, Taron,” but Taron’s shoulders drop and he just turns away. 

“Jesus christ...not the first time I’ve been called a fag, Rich, or lots of other words I can think of. Doesn’t mean someone saw us.” Taron walks around his house, shuffling his feet in the hallway and lingering outside his bedroom door. He stares mournfully into the room and then looks back at Richard. 

“I don’t regret it. Not one second. Just so you know. You were...you were there for me. It’s what I wanted so I got it. Don’t blame yourself.”

“Ye were there for me too, don’t get anything about tha’ twisted,” Richard says, feeling tender and oddly protective of what they have, no matter how fucked up. “Sir,” comes out unbidden.

“Don’t do that, Rich.” Taron shakes his head. Richard watches him think. He digs his tongue into the side of his mouth and takes a shuddering breath, eyes glistening at Richard. “If it’s your recommendation. To leave. I’ll go where you tell me. I’ll do whatever is required.”

Richard grimaces and looks away again, rubs his eyes and brow to dispel some of the tension creeping across his head. “Taron. I think we ought tae move your folks, too. They’re easy to find. I’m sorry, Taron. About all of this.”

Taron crumples, hangs his head to his chest. He covers his face in his hands and Richard almost, almost goes to him. When Taron looks up at Richard again tears are streaming freely down his face. 

“They’ve got a little cottage. It’s in an old, old family name, in a little seaside town. No one knows of it. Not listed in any kind of directory, nowhere. Will that...is that good?” His voice quakes and he wipes the tears on the back of his hand, not even trying to hide from Richard.

Richard meets Taron’s gaze, gives him a soft nod and a shrug. “Aye, it sounds good, Taron. I’ll assign a detective to check it out first.”

Taron sniffles, nervously fiddles for his phone in his pocket. “I’ll send you the location.”

“No no,” Richard says quickly, reaches for Taron’s wrist and winds up catching his fingers between his. Taron lowers his phone, tangles their fingers together and pulls Richard in closer, leaning into his space and letting Richard into his. 

“No more texting, T. No locations. No destinations, plans, nothin’ like tha. Okay?” Richard is close enough to Taron to feel his breath on his cheek. 

“I’m sorry if I’m making your job more complicated,” Taron whispers, brushes his lips against Richard’s jaw.

Richard can feel the scrape of his stubble, the quiver in his voice, a light buzzing on his skin. He closes his eyes, lets Taron’s mouth mold to him, to the shape of his face, his bones. 

“You don’t complicate my job, Taron. You are my job.” Richard lets go of Taron’s hand and wraps his arm around his waist, tilts his chin and takes Taron’s mouth in his, soft and cautious but opening for more when Taron initiates it. 

Taron’s hands come up to grip at his hips and pull Richard close, encouraging the press of his body, Richard cornering him up against the wall behind them. Richard shakes his head softly against an impulse that says stop, that tells him to back away when his body wants to push forward, to hold him and keep him and fuck him until they both feel safe again. He fights his better judgment and slides his tongue against Taron’s, his jaw flexing and releasing with conflict as his body tries to find the correct response. 

That’s when the gunshot rings out. 

*

Before Richard knows what’s happened he’s flat on top of Taron’s body, pinning him to the floor. He stays low, and close, pulling at Taron’s clothes and extremities, checking everywhere he can see for blood. Taron is motionless, his utter silence and Richard’s own hammering pulse drowning out any other sounds but whiteness, until the second shot careens through the quiet. 

Taron curls against Richard, his teeth sunk into Richards shoulder like he’s trying not to scream but no sound comes anyway. Richard holds him tight and still as he can, stretches his leg to tip over the nearby chair holding his jacket with his foot, bringing his radio and his gun spilling to the floor within arm’s reach. 

He fiddles with the volume and clicks for a channel twice before he remembers - Kim turning her earpiece down before she walked outside. 

“Fuck. Taron. I’m gonna have to leave ye. Just for a minute.”

“No, no no no no,” Taron whines, high and breathy, more shapeless sounds than fully formed words, clinging to Richard’s body. Richard presses his palm flat against his chest. 

“Ah need ye to move. You’re goin’ to stay low and crawl right into the coat closet, just like we talked about. It’s the safest spot in the house. Yeh’ve got tae do it now, Taron, when I move you move with me. Do ye got it? Come on,” Richard urges him along the floorboards of the house and Taron, somehow, gets himself to move. “Stay low. We’re behind solid brick and we’re safe away from the windows. Ok. Closet, love. Stay down. I’ll be right back,” Richard shoves the door shut with his shoulder and leans against it, gathering strength and breath while he checks his gun clip. He has to move, find Kim, secure the property, get Taron out. He runs through it all in his head and makes his way to the back of the house. 

“Kim. Fuck. Kim turn up your fuckin radio,” he swears under his breath, crouching down along the outside retaining wall. “Kim.” He growls again, louder in the direction of the yard. The radio in his ear finally crackles to life. 

“North on Rosebery. I saw him. I think I got a shot off. I’m hit in the leg, you’ve got to run, Skip.”

“Aye, copy.” Richard springs down to the yard and climbs over the hedge, weapon drawn. “Can you get back to the house? I’ve got your position covered from here.” 

“I’m fine, you pursue,” she insists, pain and shock edging into her normally even voice. 

“Copy. Control, seven seven nine are ye copying? Officer down, requesting backup at base Thunder, please confirm. Seven seven nine, on foot.”

Richard reaches the street level and feels his feet hit the asphalt, square and solid. He stays along the tree line, scans the street north to south. He sees nothing. He jogs north, out of his cover and into the street, scanning the pavement until he spots them: gleaming dribbles of bright, fresh arterial blood. He radios again, orders detectives dispatched to the nearest emergency wards, and follows the trail of blood to the street corner where it ends. 

*

Richard drops down beside Kim on the porch where she’s taken cover and starts to assess her injury, a hopefully superficial but messy single shot to the lower leg. She’s not losing a dangerous amount of blood so he just stays with her to keep her calm, checks her pulse and fidgets with tying up her pants leg until they hear the ambulances. 

“Yer alright now. I’ve got to go in and get him. He’s goin’ to be terrified.”

“Go, go I’m fine Skip. Get the kid out of here.” 

Richard scowls, grits his teeth. “I’ll ring ye later at the hospital, mate. You’ll be fine.” Richard holsters his gun and turns toward the house as two ambulances and a patrol car roll up. He takes several deep breaths, trying to calm his nervous system before he gets to Taron, steps gingerly down the hallway. 

“Taron. Taron, it’s only me. I’m in the house and Ah’m alone. Am coming down the hall now, alright? I’m outside the door. Are ye alright? Can Ah open it?” Richard waits, his hand on the doorknob but afraid to unnerve Taron further by yanking it open. He slides down the wall to the floor, leans against the door where he knows he’s level with Taron’s face, terrified on the other side. “Taron. Ah’m right here. When yer ready,” he whispers by the doorframe. 

“Is your partner ok?” His tiny voice asks from behind the wood, and Richard lays his chin in his arms, closes his eyes for a moment against a wash of too many emotions. 

“Yea, love. She’s alright. She...she got a shot, a hit. It gives us a lead, at least. And she might have got a visual too. Tha’s good news. But we have to go now, alright? Ah’m goin tae get ye somewhere safe, I swear it, Taron.”

Taron sighs heavily from behind the closet door. Richard feels the soft thunk of the wood as Taron leans his head against it, just the other side of his own, and Richard can feel his anxious breathing. 

“I’m not safe though, Rich. I’m not safe in my own house and my family aren’t safe. What the fuck did I do? All I do is make movies...I’m not a politician, I’m not hurting anyone or sending anyone to war. What the fuck, Rich?” Taron cries. 

Richard cocks his head, rolling something about that around in his mind, decides to think about it later once he’s got Taron out of here and into a vehicle, on their way to whatever safety he can find. 

*

They use a couple of patrol cars and one decoy sedan, just in case, to get the hell out of London. Richard follows the directions that only live in his head, muscle memory taking them a few turns to criss-cross and parallel the main highways, finally heading north. 

They’re quiet for a long time, Richard feeling for the anxiety to lift and the mood to shift, the further they get from London.

Finally, it feels like enough. “Ye can put on your music, if ye like, T.”

Taron looks up from whatever reverie he was lost in, leans forward to poke at the audio controls on the car. “Why’d you call me that?”

Richard furrows his brow, thinking of what Taron means. “Wha’ did Ah...oh I called ye T, din’t I.”

“You heard Em call me that.” Taron looks at him curiously for a long moment, then turns to stare out the window. “And ‘love’? Back at the house? Dunno where you got that from so I have to assume...that’s just you.”

Richard keeps his eyes on the road, playing back through the incident earlier at Taron’s house, trying to remember how and why that would have slipped out. 

“Ah’m sorry if it made ye uncomfortable. Must’ve got into my head somehow. We‘ve spent a lot o’ time together, but tha’s very unprofessional. Sorry, Taron.”

Taron exhales, a soft laugh through his nose. “Unprofessional. Rich, we’re sleeping together. A lot. I don’t think a little pet name is somehow crossing the line.” 

Richard feels the unfortunate flush spread over his cheeks and neck, all the way to his ears. He clears his throat and focuses on the road. “Ye turned off your data right?”

Taron nods, rubs a hand over his eyes. “Yeah, I’ve done. So where are you takin’ me?”

Richard takes his eyes off the road for the briefest of moments, lets them drift over to look at Taron in profile. “Scotland.”

Taron nods knowingly in the corner of Richard’s vision, eyes firmly back on the road. “I figured Scotland. Your accent’s gettin’ stronger every kilometre.” Taron lets a quiet laugh escape and it makes something clench again in Richard’s chest. 

“Ah’ve got a place. A very good place. You’ll be safe there until we solve this,” Richard says, trying to sound confident but not sure he believes it himself. 

“Are we talking a castle or just a regular ancestral manse on the moor? Is this like a Skyfall kind of situation?” Taron jokes, obviously still trying to cover for his fear but it’s still nice to hear his lilting humour come through the nerves. 

“You’ve seen too many movies. An’ Ah’m still no’ a spy,” Richard reminds him, gently, trying his hardest to relax so maybe Taron can.

“Can’t hide me out in Scotland forever. I’ve got a film opening soon, I’ve got a promotional tour. You’ve got to figure this out, Rich.”

“I’m tryin’ Taron. We’re all tryin’ round the clock. Right now I have to protect you, so the police can do their work. An’ Ah can do that best in Scotland.”

“And maybe have a shag in a castle,” Taron chirps, stares at Richard like he’s waiting for a reaction. Richard’s jaw tenses and he tries to relax it. 

“Taron, Ah don’ think - ” Richard begins carefully, but Taron laughs again and cuts him off. 

“I’m taking the piss. God, Dickie, we just spent like four days fucking. Calm down or we’re gonna kill each other before this nutter even gets to me.”

Richard is quiet for almost a kilometre. “Ok but can we nah do ‘Dickie’? Rich was fine.” 

Taron full body howls with laughter for the first time Richard can remember since he took this post. It’s a good sound, and Richard resolves to himself to get that laugh out of Taron again if he can. “Mate, I didn’t mind either one of ‘em, for what it’s worth. But you’re definitely Dickie now.”

Richard rolls his eyes and squirms in the driver's seat. He knows when he’s beaten. “Fine. Will ye please put some music on?”

Taron is still beaming with laughter as he hooks his phone into Richard’s car stereo that still has an aux cord, and he’s surprised Taron isn’t making fun of that, too. 

A slow stutter edit kind of beat finally starts, weaves over a moody synth layer, an ethereal vocal. Taron sings along, belting and hitting the syncopated rhythm of the chorus with his body.

I’m headed straight for the castle

They wanna make me their queen

He looks alive and full of music and mischief, and it’s a side of him Richard hasn’t gotten to see, at least not without a tv screen between him and the experience. Something clenches again, warm and bright in his chest, and Taron keeps singing.

“Tis not a castle,” Richard finally says, loudly over the music, eyes still on the road.

“I know,” Taron answers on a pause between lines.

Richard listens to him sing and vocalize the sounds for another kilometre or so.

“We’re in so much trouble here, Taron,” Richard says, almost a whisper, not even sure if Taron can hear him.

Taron nods along, picks up his phone to find the next song, still moving to the beat. “I know.” 

*

They stick to winding secondary roads and see a lot of nature. “Britain has a lot of fucking trees, wow,” Taron says more than once. There are signs for a waterfall in some park and Richard lets them stop to look at it and use the lavs. Taron points out a sign for the town he says he was born in. 

Somewhere north of Liverpool they stop again and find a roadside. There are bored looking kids circling their bikes in the gravel and Richard gives a couple of them twenty-five quid and some change to go in and get them burgers and fries, tells them they can get ice cream or keep what’s left. 

“That’s a trick from your ‘I assure you I’m not a spy spy training’ I suppose?” Taron asks him smartly as they spread out their feast on the car by the edge of some nearby woods. 

Richard punches him lightly in the thigh and tsks. 

“Ah saw it in a movie. Actually,” Richard pauses, laughing at himself as it dawns on him. “Tha’s no’ true. I saw Mack do it.”

Taron swallows a huge mouthful of his milkshake and nods. “Now that makes sense, that bloke is a proper spy.”

Richard startles at Taron’s quick, casual calculation, squeezes a french fry in his hand a bit too aggressively. “He’s not a spy.” He rubs mealy bits of fried potato and salt between his fingers.

Taron snorts and looks at Richard over the top of his sunglasses. “Please, mate. Know I’m just an actor an’ all but I’m not that daft. That’s proper black James Bond right there. How do you even know a guy like that? No offense.”

Richard frowns and puts down his fries. “Taron, I - ”

“Oh come on, mate. I trust you with my life every day. I trust you fucking me. For god’s sake man, you can give me a little here.” 

Richard tries to train his face into something flat, emotionless, but he finds he’s losing that will around Taron. That itself makes him nervous, more so. He feels compromised, intellectually, but desperate to talk to Taron and answer his questions, and that’s coming from somewhere else entirely. 

His face fails him, and he finally looks up from the ground where he’s dragging his toe in the gravel, the patchy grass, looks Taron in the eye, wide open. 

He tries.

“My unit...ah, fuck.” Richard begins, but has to look away, turns his eyes up at the sky. “Ah was captured. They kept me, a few days, still don’ know why they din’t just kill me. Ah think they thought I was intelligence, they could either bargain or torture somethin’ outta me.” He pauses for breath, purses and bites at his own lips, dares to look quickly at Taron. 

Taron looks back at him in a worried, wondrous way that makes Richard’s chest hurt, a dull ache that pushes out, expands against his ribs. He has to look away again. 

“Anyway. Mack found me.”

Taron swallows hard, nods at Richard, as if in understanding. “So he’s a good spy,” Taron adds, quietly. 

Richard doesn’t flinch, but doesn’t look at him, just firms his jaw, counts his inhale. “The very best.” He counts his exhale too.

Taron is very still, looks at Richard carefully, like he’s a brand new thing he’s trying to put a name to. Richard wonders if he’s going to ask more, really this time almost hopes he does. Richard might tell him if he asked. 

“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. But not to you. I was in a fucking war movie with Harry Styles. I don’t know anything.” Taron says it as a matter of fact statement, not like he’s looking to be placated, or for Richard to assure him that he’s wrong. 

“You’re not supposed to get shot at, love. ‘Tis worse for you. In a different way,” Richard finally says. He sits a moment with his thoughts, and his breath, and gradually realizes as the panic ebbs that he still feels hungry. 

That alone is a huge improvement, he thinks as he takes a bite of his burger, allows himself to enjoy it, and for the briefest, sparest moment to be pleased with such small progress. 

*

“You should try an’ get some sleep. Still a long while yet,” Richard says as the sky darkens and there’s less and less to look at.

He can see Taron’s eyes heavy, his mouth soft, when he occasionally looks away from the road to check on him.

“I can stay awake. Keep you company, at least. Can’t do anything else to help, seems like. You know I have all kinds of fight training. Weapons.”

“Ah’m not giving you a gun, Taron.”

“Well I do, have training. I’m fit, I’m good with my hands.”

“Not arguing either of those. But shooting training for a film is no’ the same. Ye have no idea what it’s like to actually shoot someone. Ye cannae imagine it, et’s awful. And god willing, you never will know.” He can feel Taron looking at him in the dim dusk for a few minutes, just keeps driving, quiet and calm. Taron eventually picks up his phone again, shuffles through some music.

“Do you have maybe a crossbow?” Taron finally asks. It’s a little dark for Richard to see his smile but he can hear it in his voice. His face softens, and he rolls out his neck a little, relaxes back into humouring him.

“A crossbow. Yea, in the boot, o’ course. If we get into a crossbow fight, yer absolutely steppin’ up.”

He can see just a glint of Taron’s smile, even in the encroaching blue light of night. 

“Ye know what,” Richard says suddenly, a bit more excited than he intended and Taron perks up. “I bet ye trained for weeks and ye din’t even get to shoot the bow tha’ much. They did it all with editing anyway and Ah bet you’re quite keen of your own accord. So.” Richard could say more, but he holds his tongue. He’s said plenty.

Taron is quiet again, goes back to his phone. He picks a song and hits play, and Richard feels his eyes on him while a hushed voice counts off, then a piano comes in. Taron doesn’t sing, just closes his eyes and leans against the window, finally, resting.

They say ‘you’re a little much for me

You’re a liability’

By the time the song ends, Taron is asleep.

While he sleeps, Richard’s personal cell phone buzzes once in his pocket. He pulls it out and sees an emoji, the snail, from a nonsense number. He looks over at Taron, and decides to let him sleep.

*

Richard slows to turn off to a petrol and lav stop, and the change in sound and momentum wakes Taron. He stretches and yawns, seems refreshed enough after a couple hours of napping. Richard is jealous of his ability to fall asleep and wake up so easily. He hopes nothing changes that for him.

They do what they need, staying close together, probably too close to some stranger’s eye out in the sticks, but Richard doesn’t care. It’s his job to be close. Taron gets back in after stretching a bit more, and Richard pops the boot, takes out the gym bag. He gets in and drops the oddly weighted bag in Taron’s lap and says, “pick one.”

Taron’s eyebrows shoot up instantly with childlike excitement and bloodlust. “Really??”

Richard rolls his eyes and scoffs at him as he unzips the bag. “Nae, don’t be mental, still no. Not a gun, not a castle, not a spy. We’ve to call Mack.”

“Oh,” Taron deflates with disappointment, but still seems to amuse himself picking from the assortment of random, dodgy burner phones. “Here,” he says, holds one up.

Richard slides his own cell out of his pocket and opens the text, hands it to Taron. “Key in that number.”

Taron nods and focuses, much too intent and excited. “Oh my god I do feel like a spy, I don’t even care if you make fun of me.”

“You’re absolutely barmy, T. Just dial,” Richard says, shaking his head and scanning all around them - all long haul lorry drivers and salesmen on road trips, at this time of night. “It has speakerphone, yea, turn it on. Good. Ok now yer a spy, bang on.” Richard snags the phone back and Taron pouts, wounded at his teasing. 

Richard holds the phone while the line connects and rings through, and against every ounce of professional rigor and iota of good judgment in his entire fucking body, can’t help but to lean over and kiss him, just a simple thing, to press his lips to Taron’s, to feel him, soft and sleepy and pouting against his mouth. 

Taron brings one hand up, cautiously touches Richard’s face, holds onto his jaw, and kisses him back. They don’t stop until they hear the line pick up.

Richard swallows as he pulls away, still looking at Taron, Taron still curiously stroking his cheek, his ear, the hair along his neck.

“Fifty-four minutes, Dickie?” Mack asks incredulously. Taron makes a face, stifles a laugh. Richard shushes him with just an arch of his eyebrow.

“Well ye sent the snail dinnae ye?”

“Listen...hi boys, I know it’s the both.” Taron’s eyes go wide but Richard shakes his head subtly to say don’t worry about it.

“Aye, ye do, and it’s fine. What is it then?” Richard pushes, wants to get on with it and start driving again.

“So I think I’ve got something I wanna follow. If that’s alright with you.”

“Wouldn’t have called you if a Lyft driver would’ve done, mate,” Richard says in answer. 

“Fair play,” Mack says. “I might go dark in a day or so. Don’t worry. I know where you’re headed, obviously. I’ll be as close as I need to. Send love to the folks.”

“Stay alive,” Richard says, a sudden lump in his throat.

“Dinna fash, love. You worry about you. And him. Good to see you, Dickie.”

“Yea, mate,” Richard says, his voice choked and a little raspy as Mack hangs up. 

Taron’s hand has at some point settled on the back of his neck, and he squeezes, almost instinctively kneads his thumb into the tension Richard carries there. Richard’s shoulders sink at the touch, wanting more, wanting whatever of this Taron is willing to give him. It feels like so much.

He takes a long slow breath, counts at the top, and slowly lets it out. “Ok,” he says, and starts the car. Taron takes his hand away on his own, but not before Richard can grab back his fingertips and curl them close to him, press a kiss to his wrist. Taron smiles, a little sad.

He tosses the burned phone to Taron, and hands him their bag of snacks from the petrol mart. “Ye wanna be a spy, here. Take out tha’ SIM card, break it into pieces, drop the pieces into the Coke bottle.”

Taron perks up again, hits play on whatever was cued up on his phone. “Awesome,” he says and starts popping the back off. 

“You’re ridiculous,” Richard says, shaking his head again, probably a little too fond, as he pulls them back out to the road.

“So, what’s in Scotland? Where are we actually going, if I can ask?” Taron says, and Richard can hear the concentration in his voice as he snaps the bits of the SIM card in his strong fingers.

“It’s a guest house, on a property my parents own. It is, and I cannae stress this enough, no’ a castle. Nor exactly the ancestral manse. But it’s a good place.”

“Am I gonna meet your parents then?” Taron asks, an odd quirk in his voice.

Richard is taken aback, by both the question and the tone. “What...no, Ah don’ think so. At least I hope not. That would be...unprofessional to say the least.”

Taron unscrews the cap on the Coke with a fizzy pop. “Unprofessional. You love that word when it comes to me.”

“Well,” Richard starts, but he has no defense of himself. “It is. It’s horrible, it’s the most unprofessional thing I’ve ever done.”

“Hang on. It’s horrible sleeping with me? You do know I’m like, shit hot, right? I’m very desirable, to every and all genders of people, and you just called shagging me horrible. I can see why you’re still single, Sergeant.” Taron finishes, drops the destroyed SIM remnants into the Coke and screws the cap back on, tosses it into Richard’s backseat.

“Ye knew what I meant,” Richard says, not even really taking the bait Taron is teasing him with. He’s tired, finally, and really just wants to get there and sleep, sleep like he can only sleep in Scotland. 

“I did, actually. Just wondering something, though,” Taron says, and he sounds so annoyingly alert and rejuvenated now Richard might consider letting him drive a while.

“Hmm?” Richard hums, disinterestedly.

“It sounded like Mack has met your parents?”

Richard presses his lips together tight, doesn’t say anything for a moment. “Aye, he stayed at the house, too. For a while. When we got back...we both did.”

Richard can hear Taron working things out in his head. “He gave you that tie, didn’t he.”

“Aye,” Richard says, straight away this time.

“So were you like...boyfriends?”

Richard shifts in his seat, a little uncomfortable but he’s absolutely let himself get carried this far off course. He might as well muddle on now. 

“It’s a bit more complicated than tha’...the things we got through, got out of...tha’ we even got home at all. We’re both...Ah’m better than Ah was before but Ah’m kinda fucked up, Taron. We’re no’ exactly boyfriend material.”

“Regardless, I suppose I can see why you weren’t overly impressed with me,” Taron blurts out with a quick, self-deprecating laugh and Richard can’t let it slide, for either of their sakes.

“Oi, nae to that. Don’t even joke with me abou’ summat, T. You’re a good man and yer becomin’ important ta me, and yer getting me to tell ye things I shouldn’t do, so please don’t piss me off.”

Taron turns in his seat and tucks his leg under himself, protectively, like he’s trying to make himself smaller. “I’m sorry, Dickie, I am but come on. I’ve got eyes haven’t I? He’s what 190 centimetre, he looks like a bloody Burberry ad. Hell, I kind of want to sleep with him.”

Richard rubs his hand over his face, massages his temples with his thumb and forefinger. He’s so tired. “Are ye done?” He asks quietly after a few moments of Taron not saying anything.

Taron moves carefully in his seat, puts his hand on the back of Richard’s neck again. 

He rubs, his fingers strong and supple, knows just how to find the knots that have formed there over the last few minutes, few weeks, few years. Richard tries to relax, tries to trust it. 

Taron finally inhales sharply, lets out a heavy, resigned sigh. “He calls you Dickie. I shouldn’t have done. And I’m terribly sorry for everything I’ve just said.” He gives Richard’s neck one last squeeze, leans over as best he can and kisses the side of his head. “I’m not much boyfriend material either,” he says, slumping back down in his seat and looking for more music.

“I like you callin’ me Dickie. Was only havin’ ye on about it,” Richard adds a moment later, looks over at the shape of Taron in silhouette, nodding quietly to himself. He puts on an older song Richard vaguely recognizes, maybe from a yoga class, gloomy piano, melancholy. He loves it.

all we do is hide away

all we do is chase the day 

“Can I call my mam in the morning? On one of the spy phones?” Taron asks, staring out the window at the monotonous darkness passing them by in the night.

Richard uncurls the fingers of one hand, white-knuckled on the steering wheel, reaches across the seat to where Taron’s hands lay in his lap, scrolling mindlessly through his deactivated phone. He picks up a couple of Taron’s fingers, carefully weaves them together with his own. 

“Aye, love,” he says, eyes on the road. 

*

The sky is just starting to show a hint of dawn when Richard finally turns down an ancient lane that opens into a thicket of even more ancient trees. A few metres in there’s a huge pothole that’s never been fixed in Richard’s lifetime. He can usually avoid it, but a tree branch in the lane means he drives right over it, the jostle shaking Taron awake with a start.

“We’re here?” he asks, bleary-eyed and stiff-necked from a fitful night of cramped car sleep.

Richard steers around another tree branch and turns in between the massive old stone pillars that stand guard at the very outskirts of the property.

“We’re here,” Richard says. Daylight incrementally illuminates the rolling green land, the trees, the stone arch bridge. Richard grins, repeats an oft told family joke. “This is the new bridge. Tis but a hundred years.”

Taron rubs his face to wake himself and slowly sits up in his seat, looking eagerly around him as all of this comes more sharply into view. They round the last bend in the road and the big lodge appears, lurking in the misty middle distance behind another set of ancient pillars topped with massive stone unicorns. 

Richard watches from the corner of his eye, careful not to veer off the lane and land them in the bog like he did more than once in his teen years, as Taron’s face lights up in actual glee.

“Oh my fucking christ, it is Skyfall. Damn it Dickie, I knew it. Who are you, actually?”

Richard laughs, feeling rather ridiculous about the whole thing, but Taron’s reaction is good, and pure, and Richard feels the warmth expanding in his chest again, pushing at his ribs. He’s exhausted beyond his functional wakefulness, too weak to fight it off just now, so he lets it bloom. 

He takes Taron’s hand in his and kisses his fingers. “Tis just a house. Really it’s...my parents bought it tae have their weird friends come and paint and sculpt and do witchy shit. The unicorns are a folk thing...ah fuck it, Ah can’t explain Scotland to ye in a mornin’. Let’s to a bed.”

Taron looks at Richard, at their hands, interwoven over the gearshift, lifts Richard’s fingers to his mouth to kiss them each in kind. “Aye, let’s.”

*

“Ah’ll give you a tour of the big house Ah promise, but that’s no’ where we’ll sleep. Et’s a logistical nightmare and it’s, er, really fuckin’ weird. Trust me,” Richard says while getting them settled into the much smaller but cozy guest cottage, checking that electric and water and everything is working, and getting ready to lie down.

“Your accent here gets really...god, Dickie,” Taron says, sweet and suggestive as they finally slip naked between the sheets in Richard’s favorite bed. “I know you’re knackered, but, can I...a little somethin’ to help you sleep?” Taron offers, kissing Richard’s neck, his jaw.

Richard is too tired to move, or to put up much of a fight. He tries. “Ye don’t have to, you know.”

Taron nods, kissing over his chest and letting his lips trail down his body. “I know. Want to,” he says and then he’s beneath the covers.

His light, breathy touches and his silky, sure mouth pull Richard quickly under, drifting along the edge of consciousness as Taron brings him off with the softest orgasm he’s ever felt cresting along his spine and sparking out over all of his nerve endings. He faintly registers that Taron gently laps him clean and kisses the insides of his thighs before pulling the sheets up, and then there’s no more to remember.

*

Richard wakes with a rumble in his stomach. He’s naked and his breath yawns out of him as he stretches under the covers and turns over. It’s an indeterminate time of day, mid afternoon, maybe. Watery blue-grey light and the smell of moor and forest filter in through an open window. He lifts the sheets off himself, feeling the rough weft of the coarse woven fabric against the ridges of his thumb. He knows exactly where he is.

He puts his feet on the floor and stretches again, goes to the rickety old wardrobe where he knows there are Tartan robes hanging for guests. He puts on the black and grey one, leaves the blue and green for Taron, and shuffles out to find him.

Taron is standing by the wood oven, drinking a Scotch ale and looking quite competent as he stirs something in a massive pan over the burning logs and embers.

“Ye can cook, T? What other hidden talents await my discovery?”

Taron startles and has to wipe a bit of beer on the back of his hand as he recovers, lays his hand over his heart. “Oi. Hi, love. Ahh, I reckon I can make a few things alright. Lots of veg and potatoes, plenty of beer.”

“Thank the folks for tha. They had lodgers here last week, must have just stocked it,” Richard hums, taking in the aroma of whatever Taron’s put together. 

He meets him at the stove and kisses him, lips cold and spicy with ale. He tastes like home. 

Richard doesn’t even know what that means.

He shakes his head softly against the thought even as Taron leans into him, his hands on the open shawl of Richard’s robe pulling him closer. He lays his head on Richard’s chest but he feels distant, hesitant, in a way Richard wasn’t expecting. 

He wraps Taron in his arms and breathes. “Wha’ is it?”

“Is this…” Taron asks, pulling back like he’s overwhelmed. “Are we good here? I mean...I feel kinda. Weird about it? We’re out here all alone in fuck-all nowhere Scotland - no offense - ”

“None taken,” Richard interjects immediately, moves his hands from Taron’s hips where they were settling, gives him a little distance to talk this through.

“It’s just somehow like, makin’ me more anxious?” Taron says it like he’s annoyed with himself, and Richard hates that. 

He nods sympathetically, takes a deep breath and moves Taron politely aside with a “May I?” to get to the fridge and get himself an ale as well. 

Richard takes his beer in one hand and Taron’s hand in the other, guides him to sit with him in the big leather chairs in the living room. They face the window - no telly anywhere on this property - and look out onto a broad expanse of grassy highlands, and eventually low green hills. Richard takes a drink.

“Yer decompressing from a lot of stress, and not the kinda stress yer acclimated to, but a trauma. It’s goin’ to happen in a different time for you than it does for me. This is my home, but you don’t know this place. Ye don’t know me, no’ really,” Richard puts his hand up when Taron starts to protest that bit. “Hang on, Ah’m makin’ a point. Ye don’ really know me in a normal way. Because we met under stress, we…got together, also under stress. I was assigned to be yer protection officer, not someone ye chose to date, or sleep with, ye know? An’ Ah...forgive me Taron but Ah’m quite fond of ye. But if ye need to step back you have to know, nobody will understand that better’n me.”

Taron furrows his brow and looks at Richard quite seriously, his chest rising and falling a little heavy with it. “What if I don’t want to step back?”

Richard drinks his beer and looks at Taron, the warm brightness in his ribs feeling like it might burst out. 

“Then tha’s fine too. But you’ve got to give yourself time to decompress, to feel like the normal you again, and see how he feels about this. Because he migh’ not like me as much as this you does. Does tha’ make sense?” 

Taron just kind of stares at the old wood floor for a moment, then licks his lips and looks up inquisitively at Richard. “How much fucking therapy have you gone in for?”

Richard laughs around his beer bottle, shakes his head. “A wee fuckton, nigh on. Look, give it a night, and a day. Did ye sleep?”

Taron shakes his head. “Put you to bed and just couldn’t unwind.”

Richard groans as he remembers, feels his cheeks flush thinking about that now, embarrassed. “Aye, right. That ye did. So, give it a night. Sleep in yer own room in yer own bed if ye like. Ah want ye to sleep. And see how it feels tomorrow?”

Taron sips his beer, looks like he’s mulling all this over. “And what if I still fancy a fuck?”

Richard smiles softly and shrugs one shoulder. “Then what the fuck do I know, Ah’m just a barmy soldier prattling on with the shit I remember from PTSD group.”

Taron laughs, the wry smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes, makes him look older than he is. He drinks the last few sips of his beer and starts to get up. 

“I’m afraid,” he says, putting his hands on his thighs and biting his lip as he stands, “that I really do like you.” 

He squeezes Richard’s shoulder as he walks by, heads back to the kitchen, leaving Richard smiling stupidly in his robe as he looks after him. 

“Oh, I nearly forgot,” Taron adds as he pulls some noisy pans out and shakes them around again. “A very large, very hairy gentleman came by to see you.”

“Wha?” Richard asks from his beer bottle, confused at the entire turn of this conversation since he woke.

“Yeah,” Taron says. “I believe he’s still outside the back door, have a look.”

Richard worries his eyebrows but gets up and goes to the door, peeks around the side window as he opens it slowly.

The front half of an enormous Deerhound looks up at him, flipping his head around and starting to wag his tail as he gets the back end coordinated enough to get up and nearly knock Richard down in excitement.

“Ahh, Fitz. Fitz ye found me, good boy, ahhh you’re bloody huge, look at ye! Good dog, good dog,” Richard steps back and lets the massive beast galumph into the house, not thinking until it’s too late to ask Taron if he likes dogs the size of draft horses.

“Yer ok with dogs, love?”

Taron looks up from his cooking and points toward Fitz with the spatula. “That’s not a dog, that’s some kind of...Scottish forest monster. Yeah he’s alright though. He was waiting by your car when I went outside.”

“He’s the next neighbour’s over that hill, nearly four kilometres he comes tae visit. Ye coulda let him in. He’s a good boy, aye yer a good, big boy,” Richard dotes on him, getting down on the floor with him and awing at his size as he stands attentively by his side.

“Well I didn’t know him, I don’t just go letting strange dogs into houses I also don’t know, do I?” Taron calls, still leaning into the oven and moving around what smells like baking potatoes. Richard is starving.

“Aye, fair,” he says, rubbing his hand roughly over the dog’s thick, wiry coat. “Wait, ye went out to the car? While I was sleeping?” It raises Richard’s hackles but he tells himself that’s silly. They came all the way here so Taron can have some peace. He can go outside on his own. 

Taron looks back over his shoulder. “Yeah? I went to grab the phones. But then I figured I had better ask you first.”

Richard pets Fitz, leans down and puts his forehead to the dog’s enormous snout and lets him kiss him. “Aye, Taron, s’alright. Ah want ye to do wha’ ye like here. Go call yer mum.”

Taron smiles, puts the spatula down. He picks a phone from the bag and makes sure it works, and heads outside. He stops to give the dog a friendly pat on the head, and then, thinking better of it, puts his hand around Richard’s head too, pulls him in and leans down to press a kiss to his temple. “Thank you for bringing me here,” he whispers, and Richard feels the warm bright thing clang for attention in his ribs, and he knows it’s his heart. 

He closes his eyes and breathes through it. 

He gives the dog a nudge toward Taron as he opens the door to go outside to call his mum. Richard watches him go, Fitz following closely behind.

*

Taron declines the offer to choose his own room and sleep in his own bed. 

They take a long walk with Fitz after supper, to the edge of the foothills that mark the big dog’s way home, then send him off toward his land and turn back to the house. Richard toys with the idea of holding Taron’s hand, but after brushing his fingers against his wrist as they walk, feels ridiculous and shoves his hands in his pockets. Taron catches this little falter, turns and furrows his brow at Richard. 

“What the fuck, mate?” he says, grinning, before grabbing one of Richard’s hands himself and interlacing their fingers firmly together. They walk home quietly, enjoying the serenity and the lush green land darkening around them as the sun sets behind the hills.

Richard pours them each a small whisky from the cupboard, and they go to bed. 

Taron is clingy, but not overtly trying to start anything, so Richard follows his lead, curls up behind him and wraps one arm around his chest. Taron takes his hand in his again, lifts his fingers to his lips to kiss them, then lays both their arms down around his body. Richard presses his lips to Taron’s shoulder, holds him until their breathing evens out. Once Taron is asleep, he can sleep too.

Richard makes breakfast, maybe bragging a little suggestively that he’s been told it’s his strong suit. Taron drinks his coffee and arches one eyebrow. “Oh I bet you’ve made quite a few breakfasts very happy.”

Richard pokes his tongue in his cheek and cracks the eggs. “A few.”

“Mmm hmm,” Taron hums, looks out the windows toward the big house. “You gonna show me around up there today?”

Richard nods and drops the eggs into a shallow pan of water. “We can do whatever ye want. I’d quite like another hike. We could go into town, pick up meat for supper, since there’s nothin’ but veg here.”

“Oh right...hippie parents,” Taron says distantly, still looking out the window. Richard feels something, then, a warm, pleasant thrum that Taron remembered that detail, from one moment of a conversation that happened weeks ago, and ended miserably. He chews on his lip while he ponders that, and finishes dishing up breakfast, setting down big plates of crispy potatoes fried in a skillet with rosemary and wild garlic from right outside the door, and perfect poached eggs. “God damn,” Taron says, looking down at his food and then up at Richard, adoringly. “Is there anything you’re not good at?” He asks before demolishing his plate.

Richard thinks a minute, smiles and breaks his eggs open with his fork to let the yolk run out, swirls his potatoes into them happily. “Aye, and if you’re very lucky, Ah’ll show ye later.”

*

“Ok...ok yeah. Glad we didn’t sleep here. What the hell is that?” Taron asks as he peeks around every corner of the big house, its bizarre mix of Scottish hunting lodge furnishings and found object artworks.

“That is a burned tree stump, dug up from the woods after a forest fire my dad helped put out. It’s, ah, about man versus nature, tha’ kinda thing.”

“And that?” Taron points wildly at each odd piece in the great hall that catches his eye, this one some sort of artillery casing decorated with tiny rhinestones and broken glass.

“Ehh, something about the commodification of war, if I recall? A lot of them are about that,” Richard says, taking his hand and leading him down a different hallway. There is a taxidermied pig skin mounted to the wall in front of them, splashed with accents of gleaming silver paint. 

“Oh my god, I thought they were vegetarians,” Taron says, perplexed, slowing to a stop to look at the hideous thing. 

“Err, tha’ one might be about me. I don’t know. Let’s go...this way,” Richard turns away from it and hurries them along to the room he’s looking for.

“Jesus, Dickie. That’s pretty fucked up. My mam’s been mad at me a few times when I was late for curfew or what have you, but. Shit.” Taron says, sounding alarmed and a little heartbroken by it. 

Richard has had many years and a lot of therapy to accept this stuff along with all his other stuff, and he knows his parents love him, but it must look very odd to someone like Taron with his very normal sounding mum. 

Richard suddenly wonders though, what his parents would think of Taron if they were here, and how he’d fit in, in a different context. His dad probably loves Taron’s films and has strong opinions about his onscreen grit. His mum would attempt to extract every obscure detail about Elton John’s enormous private art collection and what long-thought lost or missing rarities can be found in his homes. 

The fantasy is pleasant enough to entertain for a moment, then suddenly jars Richard, a brief wave of panic washing over him. Taron still needs him in a very tangible way, not to plan an idyllic family weekend. He takes a few slow, careful breaths on the next landing, looks back over his shoulder at Taron, just checking. He needs to look at his phone later. He can’t wait to get out of this house. 

They pass through the games room, where his mum is apparently assembling discarded artificial Christmas trees, arranging them in a garish rainbow of tinsel around the antique snooker table.

“Hope it’s still here…” Richard says, then grins when he pulls the light chain in the storage closet and sees the entire setup still hanging on pegs on the wall inside, right where he remembers it. 

Taron bounces on his heels behind him and puts his hands on Richard’s waist, trying to see what’s inside. “What what what?”

Richard takes down off the wall and turns to lay in Taron’s hands a beautiful, hand-carved Highland longbow, a sheaf of arrows in a leather satchel on a coat rack right beside. Richard picks those up too and slings them over his shoulder as Taron turns the bow in his hands, captivated, and looks up at Richard, eyes flashing with excitement in the eerie glow of the old light bulb. 

“It’s gorgeous. My god. We’re gonna go shoot?” Taron asks, beaming with excitement. 

“Ah’m just hoping you’ll give me a decent lesson, because I am bloody awful at it,” Richard says, drawing a hand around Taron’s neck and leaning his forehead close to his. “Quite like seeing you happy like this, T.”

Taron clutches the bow between them, brings his other hand up to lay his palm against Richard’s cheek. “Getting all sappy on me, my tough copper,” Taron shakes his head and ducks to kiss Richard’s mouth. Richard feels his cheeks flush, but doesn’t mind so much. Taron takes the bag of arrows from Richard and shoulders it himself. “Come on, let’s go shoot some stuff.”

There’s a clearing at the edge of the forest where Richard’s dad and uncles have left stacks of unfinished and irregular clay pots, discards and rejects from his mum’s kiln, to use as targets. They set a few odd pots up on tree stumps at different heights, and Taron stretches up, puts a couple of them as high as he can reach, in the vee of a huge tree. 

Richard stands behind him, watching how thoughtfully he examines each arrow, how he tests the bow strength and gets his fingers familiar with the string and notch. 

Taron tilts the bow and loads an arrow, pulls back and anchors it by his cheek, takes his aim. Richard holds his breath. 

“Can you not watch? Just the first one,” Taron says from the corner of his mouth in Richard’s direction, never taking his eye off his trajectory.

“Really, T?”

Taron licks his lips, eyes still on the point of his arrow. “Yes, because what if I’ve forgotten how to do this and I’m rubbish? Just let me try one so I don’t feel like an arse.”

Richard laughs and rolls his eyes but of course he wants this to be fun and relaxing for him, so he’ll humour Taron if he’s feeling self-conscious. He takes a few steps deliberately off to Taron’s side and turns to face the endless woods behind them, eyes scanning the trees and distant property line down to the road below, automatically as breathing. 

“Alright, Ah’m no’ looking. Shoot your shot, Robin,” Richard teases him, gazing up and down the line of forest. He hears Taron take a long, slow breath in and hold it at the top just a moment, then on his exhale he hears the whoosh of the arrow and the whipcrack of the air around it, followed by the tinkling shatter of pottery.

“Oh, fuck yes, never mind, I’m bloody awesome. Alright, you can watch me now,” Taron says, grinning and giddy as Richard turns back around to face him. Taron points out the broken pot shards off in the distance, and Richard smiles, charmed by Taron’s pride in his shot. 

He presses close at Taron’s arm that holds the bow, strong at his side, and nudges him gently. “Do it again. Ah want ta see.”

“Pick one for me,” Taron says, nocking another arrow and raising it into position. 

“Tha’ one,” Richard points into the trees. “Big mug with the messed up handle.” He watches Taron in concentration, how he focuses on the point and how controlled his breath is. 

He shoots, just as Richard was trained, about two heartbeats down his exhale, and he doesn’t miss, the arrow zinging through the thin clay and leaving a puff of dust and a pile of debris in its path. 

Taron turns to Richard, biting his lip proudly.

Richard grins back at him, genuinely impressed and, maybe unfortunately, quite smitten. “Really, brilliant. Ah’m...wow. So good, T.”

“Ok, I’m gonna show off now. Probably blow the whole effect,” Taron warns him, picks out two arrows from the sheaf. He points at the two small red pots he set himself up in the low branches of the tree.

“You can do it, love, let’s see wha’ ye’ve got,” Richard says, encouraging him. Taron gives him a little wink and takes a couple of steps back, changes his stance slightly. 

Richard watches in awe as he nocks one arrow and readies the second just right between his knuckles, aims and focuses again, and in the span of that single, measured exhale fires both arrows in perfect, rapid succession, one pot and then the other bursting against the tree bark in mere moments.

Taron yells and pumps his fist, an emphatic “Fuck yes!” He turns back to Richard with a huge smile. “Not as fast as I was in training but pretty damn good.”

He beams and bites his lip and Richard can’t help himself, steps closer and wraps his arms around him and kisses him, longbow under Taron’s arm digging into his ribs. Richard can feel the thrill humming through him, his lips tingling with it as Taron kisses him. 

“You’re pretty damn good,” Richard says, pulls Taron’s bottom lip between his teeth. Taron inhales sharply and rears his head back, a teasing look in his eye.

“Terrible line, mate.” He smiles anyway as Richard shakes his head and leans in to kiss him again.

“Ah don’t care. You’re great. I guess Ah’m just going to tell you that now. I hope it’s alright,” Richard says, carefully breathing the words out against Taron’s lips.

Taron hums and nods, “yeah, s’alright,” holds Richard close as he carefully leans down to try to set the bow on the ground, Richard making a slight sound of protest in his throat.

Taron laughs and stands back up. “Sorry, did you want to shoot?”

Richard shakes his head. “No. Told ye Ah’m rubbish at it. I just like watching you,” Richard says, kissing him roughly again and sliding one hand around his waist, under his shirt so he can feel the skin of his back, warm and soft.

“You wanna snog in the grass then?” Taron asks, curling his body up against Richard’s, shameless and so easy with his affection when he’s relaxed like this, unafraid. Richard hums against his throat.

“Thinkin’ about it,” he says, biting into Taron’s earlobe, smiling when Taron shivers at the sensation. “But rather take ye to a house and a bed and avoid the bug bites in quite uncomfortable places.”

“Speaking from experience, I take it?” Taron asks, picking up his bow and the rest of the arrows. Richard looks sheepish, shrugs his shoulders. Taron laughs again. “Got it, mate. Let’s go then.”

*

There’s a room on the north end with less of a window and no view, but a bigger bed. Richard takes Taron there, unceremoniously pulls all their clothes off and pushes Taron onto the end of the bed. Then he gets down on his knees. 

He takes Taron in his mouth, up, down, dipping to flicker his tongue lower, between, teasing until Taron writhes, lifts his hips for more. 

“What do you want?” Richard asks, simply, holding Taron in his hand and dragging his lips along his length.

Taron shifts his weight, reaches down to touch Richard, finger lightly through his hair, trace his ears. “I like everything. I’ve liked everything...we’ve done,” he answers, a little too carefully. 

“No no no, we’ve just been getting to know each other. What do you really want?” Richard asks again, bites the inside of Taron’s knee. 

“Hold me down, maybe. A little like. Rough. Is good,” Taron says, shyly like he’s not used to being asked or asking for what he wants. Richard smiles, slow, a little snarl on his lips. 

“I can do rough,” Richard says, clawing his fingernails down the tender insides of Taron’s thighs. He reaches for his shaving kit he’s brought with him, fumbles inside for a thin tube of lube. He pulls out some condoms too but Taron grabs his wrist, traces his thumb along the inside of his bones until Richard looks at him, questioning. 

“You can just...you don’t have to. I trust you. So, what I want...I guess that’s one thing.” Taron sounds nervous asking and Richard...Richard knows he can’t give him that. He knows what’s right and he knows they’re closer now, he can feel everything shifting between them and he wants Taron to ask for what he wants...but still. He swallows hard against a rush of new feelings he’s apparently left himself vulnerable to, bends to kiss Taron’s jaw, his neck. 

“Ah’ll be rough with ye if ye like it but I’m still keepin’ ye safe. Long as I can,” Richard rasps against Taron’s throat, moving down his chest and biting everything along his way. He doesn’t hear any complaint from Taron as he tears off a condom and opens the lube, goes back down on him while greasing his fingers, drawing him deeply in his mouth, pulling him right up to the edge of what he knows is too much because he’s gone to that edge before and backed politely away. 

Taron doesn’t want him polite anymore. 

He drags his lips all the way down, gets his mouth underneath and licks Taron there, a trick of the tongue to get Taron and his hips up off the bed in an arch and a whine and that’s when he slides his fingers in, the tip of one to start and the second one sneaking in just an inch or so behind it. Taron yells and gasps for air and Richard groans, gives him a moment and a soothing kiss or two before wickedly twisting his wrist and curling his fingers up, up inside him. 

“Yes, fuck yeah, fuck me Rich, please, please...”

Taron falls apart quickly in his hands and Richard quiets him with the fingers of his other hand slid into his mouth. 

“Gonna fuck ye Taron, I promise. And I’d rather like you to fuck me after if ye think you can hold off.”

Taron growls and grits his teeth, gnashing them around Richards fingers rather painfully and nodding, frantically. 

“I can, I can…” He manages to get out, sucking hard and licking in between Richard’s fingers as he finds his words. “I didn’t know if you’d...want that.”

Richard slows his thrusts and comes up off his knees to hover fully over Taron, looks down at him in wretched awe and disbelief. 

“Of course Ah want that.” He stills everything for a moment, kisses Taron’s abdomen, his hipbone. “T, I like ye so much. Why wouldn’t Ah want it?” Richard asks.

Taron looks up to find his eyes, still pursing his lips, swallowing around Richard’s fingers until his lashes flutter shut and he stops, lets them go with a long lick up Richard’s fingertips. 

“Dunno. Some people...don’t...you never asked before.” He squirms a little uncomfortably underneath him and Richard’s chest clenches at him again. He slips out his fingers and crawls a little higher over Taron, lowers himself down. 

“I tol’ ye. We were just gettin’ to know each other,” Richard says and Taron’s lips curl in a smile beneath him. “Ah want everything from you, Taron. Whatever you want to give,” Richard promises, and kisses Taron, open and deep until he’s liquid and lax underneath him. 

He wants to give Taron what he needs, and that goes way beyond a rough fuck. 

“Ah want you in every way, T. Ye got it?” Richard asks and slides, slick and sheathed, into Taron, Taron’s jaw wrenching open in a silent cry and his head flinging back onto the bedcovers. 

“Ye got it, T?” Richard says once more, taking his wrists under his hands and pinning him onto the bed as hard as he can leverage and fucking Taron until he’s a babbling, begging mess. 

“I got it. Yes...I get it. Fuck...I’m yours Dickie, yes.”

“You are. You’re mine if ye wanna be. Fuck, Taron.”

“Yours...yeah...I want, I...fuck I want you Dickie,” Taron flails a little bit, thrashes against the steady weight of Richard’s arms holding him down, then groans and licks his lips when he feels how tight his grip really is. 

“You got me. You got me good. I’m not goin’ anywhere,” Richard says, and he doesn’t know how but he knows he means it. 

“God, Dickie...I need...” Taron begins to whine, his pitch increasing as Richard hits the sensitive spots he’s found inside him, again and again. 

“Wha’ do ye need, T? Anything.” Richard bends to kiss him again, Taron’s tongue and the sounds from his throat filling Richard’s mouth. 

Taron gasps suddenly and breaks away, pulls Richard against him by the hips. “I tried, I was trying. I want to fuck you...but I need to come,” he all but begs, suddenly desperate for it. 

“Well then come, love. We’ve got plenty of time,” Richard says with an easy laugh, shifting his weight to get Taron’s legs higher around him, giving him more of the angle, the depth he was clearly thriving on. Taron throws his head back, flexes his arms in the tight restraint of Richard’s strong hands, bucking up against every relentless thrust into him until he’s panting, eyes glazed and wild, and Richard sees the exact moment Taron lets go and lets everything inside him unfurl. 

“Come for me, yes T, so good,” Richard purrs, kissing him heavy and hard and still holding him down as Taron shudders and shakes beneath him, coming between their bellies, warm and close. 

“Do ye need me to stop now, love?” Richard asks, still kissing along his jaw and neck as Taron uncoils under his body, supple and pliant under his firm grip. 

“No, no I like it, c’mon keep...keep going. Want you to come in me, come on. Wanna be yours, Dickie,” Taron moans, beyond breathless and desperate. 

“Ye already are,” Richard bites into his neck, grunts and curls into Taron for a few more deep, perfect strokes before his orgasm completely undoes him, the tight clench in his chest and stomach, the warm, heady rush of coming, of intimacy, of things spoken out loud, leaving him boneless, blissful. 

Their foreheads touch and Taron is hot, damp with sweat, his hands trembling a bit as Richard lets go of his wrists, tenderly massages the feeling back into them. Taron just nods, uselessly, peacefully, as Richard kisses his mouth, his cheeks, his eyelids, his wrists. 

“Just need a...a few minutes,” Taron says, on an exhale, Richard resting in the crook of his neck and laying his lips softly to the top of Taron’s clavicle. 

“Take all the time ye need, love.”

*

Richard hasn’t had anyone inside him in a very long time but when Taron slowly opens him, first on his tongue and then his strong fingers, slow and careful and sweet and murmuring in his ear, he knows it’s exactly what he needs. What they both need.

Taron takes his time, reveling in Richard’s body and in the sensations of easing inside him, touching his scars, kissing and petting over the raised-up skin that Richard has let so few other people see, another layer of something stripped away that knocks the wind out of Richard and flattens him chest down into the bed. 

Taron seems to feel this too and goes with it, presses on, takes Richard and molds his hands into the small Richard’s back, nudges his legs and thighs apart, higher, so he can get deep, and close and he’s really really into it and Richard can feel him all around him, the sheer pleasure of being had and taken and filled, shooting all the way up his spine. 

Taron avoids the scarred areas but everywhere else he bites, the backs of Richard’s arms and shoulder stinging with nips of his teeth. Richard can feel the path he leaves, his blood radiating from the tiny pinpoints of bright pleasure and pain. He arches up against Taron and pushes back for more, and Taron brings one hand from his hip to slip underneath and wrap around him. 

“Can you come again?” Taron asks, gently pulling, dragging Richard’s foreskin up and down his shaft and rubbing his thumb over his wet, sensitive tip. Richard bows his head into the pillows under his arms and nods, feels Taron’s lips on the back of his neck. He thrusts back again to encourage Taron to do exactly what he’s doing, where he’s doing it, and grinds his hips into the rhythm of Taron’s hand. 

“Ah can, Ah’ll...yea T just like tha,” Richard shudders and hitches his knee a little higher on one side to change their angle just a bit and Taron brushes over the sensitive spots inside him perfectly, so perfectly, and Taron twists his wrist and palm around him again. 

“Yeah, come on, god, I wanna feel you sweetheart,” Taron says, presses his teeth into Richard’s shoulder, and Richard wasn’t prepared for him to be quite so verbal. His toes curl and dig into the bed as Taron keeps on. “I like making you feel good. You like that, don’t you? You like me taking care of you?” Taron says all very unexpectedly and Richard gasps.

“I do like it, yea, fuck, just like tha’, so good, love,” Richard says, caught up in the sensations and the moment and so, so close.

“Yeah, good Dickie, come for me,” Taron groans and Richard bites his own arm as he comes again, quivers and waves of pleasure roiling out through his whole body, Taron’s mouth on his back, his lips soft now on his scars.

Richard is still floating, detached from his body and place and time but he feels Taron ease himself out, rest his forehead in the space between Richard’s shoulder blades, and rub himself along his cleft and cheeks, finishing himself off, warmth and wetness again pooling between Richard’s thighs and adding to the mess already gathering there. 

Taron lays across him, drapes his broad chest over Richard’s back, their breathing heavy and reluctant to slow. Richard feels Taron’s arms, spread wide over top of his own, splayed like wings across the bed and Taron’s hands taking his own, turning them palm to palm and weaving their fingers together. 

He feels Taron’s lips again, pressed sweetly to the center of his back, and lays like that longer than is strictly comfortable. They finally shift, move their bodies around and get their arms and legs better situated, breathing slow and easy, and Richard can hold him longer like this. He thinks he can hold Taron for a long time.

“What do you think…” Taron starts to ask, lying on Richard’s chest, sticky and flushed, both badly in need of a hot shower.

“Wha’? Tell me.”

“What happens when this...I don’t know what I’m supposed to hope for here. If you’re still with me that means I’m still in danger. If it’s over and I’m safe then you’re...not with me.”

“No, no, ye can’t...don’t think like that, love. You want this to be over. You want to be safe, I want ye to be safe. I would choose...I’d choose you bein’ safe, of course. But I can also choose...if-if it’s your choice, it can be our choice, too, to be together.”

“You’d want that?” Taron looks uncertain, a bit dubious, and it hurts Richard’s heart. 

“I would. Would be a bit harder for you, Ah think. You’ve got a lot of people...they have expectations of ye. Ah don’t know...” Richard trails off as he feels Taron’s lips pressed against his chest, right over his heart, and he doesn't know how to finish anyway. Richard strokes him, smooths his hand over Taron’s back, and goes quiet, closes his eyes and focuses on Taron’s kiss on his skin, on their breathing. 

They stay like that until Richard starts to feel hungry, then inexplicably anxious, and he finds he can’t lie there anymore. He kisses the top of Taron’s head and levers them both toward up and out of the bed. 

“Let’s have a shower, maybe some food,” he says, dragging Taron by the hand against his sleepy, mumbling protests. Taron begrudgingly follows him down the hall, stopping in the doorway to take Richard’s face in his hands and kiss him, thoroughly and searchingly even though they’ve both just expended everything they have. Taron pulls away, tugging Richards bottom lip along in his teeth as he does, looks at Richard intently. “I would choose you. I’d figure it out. Ok?”

Richard stumbles a bit, his shoulders sinking down until he feels the wall behind him, holding him up. 

“I wasn’t sure...ye felt as strongly. Sorry, if that sounds unkind.”

Taron shakes his head. “I told you I’m rubbish boyfriend material, yeah?” Richard watches him, Taron turning to hold out his hand and pull him toward the shower. 

He goes. The steam billows in clouds around them and Taron draws Richard close, kisses him once more on the lips as the water washes over them. “I can get really good at things though, if I practice.”

*

They eat almost everything left in the larder for lunch, roasted vegetables from dinner and cheese piled on the extra baked potatoes. “We can go to the pub for supper, maybe,” Richard suggests as they lounge on the sofa, but Taron looks hesitant. “My dad’s blokes, fire brigade and old woodsmen. Ye’ll be perfectly safe there,” Richard assures him, brushes his fingertips over Taron’s ankle. He hasn’t seen that look of fear or uncertainty cross Taron’s face for a couple days now, and it stings, snaps him back to reality a bit. He squeezes Taron’s foot as he gets up, goes to the entry table by the door where his phone has been charging. He hasn’t had a text or email in two days.

“Actually,” Richard says, unplugging his phone and grabbing his keys and his gun holster, where he left it by the door. Mack would kill him. He swallows down a jagged spike of fear. “Let’s go for a drive.”

Taron eyes the holster warily when Richard straps it on, and they’ve both definitely forgotten. 

“Tis alright. Ye’ve just gotten used to seeing me without it,” Richard says without making eye contact with Taron as he checks the gun inside the leather and holds out his hand. 

Taron is quiet in the car, flicks over the touchscreen of his own inactive phone anxiously but doesn’t put on any music. Only a kilometre or so out of the vale Richard’s phone lights up, just a few texts at first, coming through all at once, and then, cascading in from a series of random origin numbers, a flurry of escalating emoji. The last one came this morning, the numeral 9.

Richard must look ashen because Taron asks right away if the numbers mean something. “We’ve only ever gone as high as 3 before. Grab one of the other phones and call him. Hurry, T,” Richard instructs him, trying to mask the panic in his voice. Taron looks shaken but focuses on what he’s doing, carefully types in the most recent number received and hits talk. Richard drives, and scans, swears under his breath, braces himself for whatever is coming.

Mack picks up in less than one full ring. “Oh good, you’re not dead. Where are you now?”

“Mack Ah’m so sorry, my phone...Ah didn’t know Ah had no service out there.”

“You knew. It’s alright, we’ll talk about it when I get there. I’m forty away. Are ye ready Dickie?”

“Yer...yer comin’ up here? Mack, wha’…” Richard pulls the car over onto the grassy shoulder of the road, his instincts mixing with his panic and he just needs to stop, listen, process. 

“Rich, I can't explain right now but you’ve got trouble heading your way. I’m on my way too. I’ll be there first, god willing. But I need you to tell me the truth. Can you handle yourself if he somehow gets to you.”

“We’re in the car right now, I should just get Taron somewhere else - ”

“No,” Mack cuts him off abruptly. “Let’s go back to the house. We know it. We know it better than anywhere else. It’s an advantage.”

Richard looks over at Taron and Taron looks resigned. His eyes are soft, tired, and he just nods once, almost imperceptibly, and turns away.

Richard puts his head down on the steering wheel, his vision tunneling around him. He knows Taron needs him and he knows what Mack is asking but he doesn’t know how to answer.

“Mack, you know my parents don’t keep weapons. Ah’m not ready for some kinda insurgence if that’s wha’ yer talking about here. I’ve got my service Glock, tha’s it.”

“You’ve never needed more than that Dickie. But you missed. And I wanna know why,” Mack asks, his voice steady and remarkably calm.

“Wha’? I...when?” Richard thinks, tries to remember what happened. He was so focused on Taron...

“Behind the theatre. My position was blocked, I had an excuse, but you had a clear shot, I saw it. And you missed. I’ve never seen you miss a shot. So I need to know you’ll be able to do what’s required, whether I get there or not.”

He was so focused on Taron.

Richard rolls his head back and forth gently so the hard leather of the wheel presses into his temples. Then he sits up in his seat and looks over at Taron, alive and vital and pulsing with fear and blood and potential and love. He touches the gun under his opposite arm, cold and mechanical and reassuring. “Of course I’ll do what’s required. Get here though,” Richard says decisively, puts the car in gear and peals with control back out onto the road. “Wha’ else do I need to know?” 

*

Taron is furious by the time they park back in the clearing behind the guest house, and Richard doesn’t blame him. “So we’re just sitting ducks here waiting for this arsehole? All the way out here in god knows where. No neighbors, no one around. And your parents don’t have any more guns here.”

“I told ye no, Taron. And even if they did - ”

“Yeah, got it, I’m obviously not properly qualified but you somehow are, even though you’ve let this happen to us,” Taron snipes angrily and Richard feels his face fume.

“Ah didn’t let this happen this is just the situation we are in, and Ah’m dealing with it. I will deal with it. It is still my job. But I cannae have a fight with you right now, Taron. You need me to protect you but I need you to help me stay calm.”

Taron freezes mid-thought when he was clearly about to lay into Richard again, twists his mouth up in chagrin, his fists balled tightly by his sides. Richard watches him breathe, count of four in, count of five out, then shake his hands loose, trying to let all that fight out of him. He repeats the breath in and out and Richard stays with him, following the same count until they are synced, and Taron holds out his hand.

“I’m sorry I went in like that. I’ll do whatever you need. I just want this over with. I’m scared. I’m sick of being scared, Dickie.”

“Ah know. We end it soon. Today. Ah’m gonna keep you safe.”

“I know you will. What Mack said...I mean, if you have to shoot - ”

“Taron, I swear to you I will do what is required.”

Taron swallows, nods his head against Richard’s where they are leaned together. “This all got...messy. Because of us. Yeah?”

Richard sighs and tilts his head down too. “Aye. Ye wanted...well Ah made myself, vulnerable, or whatever. There are consequences. Ah’m not supposed to have, ye know, feelings.”

“I know,” Taron whispers, presses his lips to Richard’s forehead. “It’s a shit situation. But I’m glad you’ve got feelings. I’ve got a fucking lot of them,” his eyes crinkling softly at the corners.

Richard feels his face go soft and leans in to kiss Taron, just a touch of lips he hopes is full of promise, full of the things he hasn’t figured out how to say yet.

They’re interrupted by Fitz barking, the thundering of his huge paws from up the lane skidding to a stop with a thud outside the door, his claws scratching, demanding attention.

“He never barks,” Richard says, uncannily calm. 

“Could be Mack?” Taron says, hopeful. 

“Or not. Time to go.” Richard says, checks his weapon again. 

Taron chews on his lip, lets out a long, slow breath, sets his face with resolve. 

Richard goes to the door and opens it slowly, Fitz running through the crack and circling Taron’s feet while Richard scans the property lines. They’ll be losing daylight in an hour or so. Better to get this over with before dark, Richard thinks, coldly. 

The guest house is the obvious choice defensively, with clear and limited entrances, simple square layout. It’s why Richard chooses to sleep there. But on the offense, it makes it a lure. 

Fitz was a good early warning - he can cover a long distance, from the road or any of the surrounding woods, very quickly, so they have at least a few minutes to move Taron calmly to the big house. Richard sweeps it, gun drawn, Fitz running up ahead of them and circling back. “Ye know what to do.” 

Taron nods, squeezes Richard’s hand, his other hand gripping his cell phone, flipping it between his fingers nervously.

Then he has to let him go.

He closes Taron inside the house, hears the huge wooden bolt slide into the lock inside, and turns away with Fitz, sends him off with a wave of his hand and a command, “home.” He’s not his dog, and Richard certainly doesn’t want to put him in danger. Fitz ignores him, lifts his head on alert, and takes off, out into the field. 

Richard waits. Checks the one burner phone that seems to work out here for about the hundredth time to see if Mack has signaled. Watches the sun creep incrementally lower over the hills. Scans the perimeter for any sign of movement and finally, squinting, sees Fitz at the very farthest edge of their land. He’s not heading home, he’s at the edge of the woods, sniffing the air and then disappearing again along the ground and the thick underbrush. Richard watches, checks the phone, looks up again and sees at the furthest clearing his sight allows before the main road, a car creeping cautiously up the lane. He breathes out a mouthful of panic and looks down just as a text appears on the shitty burner phone screen, the wolfish dog emoji that actually looks just like Fitz. He hits dial immediately, even though it’s terrible practice and could give away Mack’s position in any other situation. 

“Don’t shoot the dog he’s a friend,” Richard says first thing when Mack picks up. 

“What do ye take me for, arsehole? I’m not a psychopath. Anyway you’ve clocked this car aye?”

“Aye. About eight hundred metres out. What’s this sodder doin’, just driving right up tae the house?”

“I told ye he’s a fuckin’ nutter. He just wants to talk to Taron. He doesn’t see why he can’t.”

“Aye, well. Ah’m why he can’t.”

“Just remember he’s not a professional and he’s not that smart. Don’t overthink, Dickie. And don’t hesitate.”

“Keep that position but move up the yard. Stay lateral to the woods. Tell Fitz to go home.”

“Not a dog whisperer, mate,” Mack says but Richard hears him hiss under his breath anyway, “Fitz, go home.”

“Ah’m moving now...I’ll go to the north end. You cover the long side and move when you have a visual.”

“Copy...dog seems to be staying with me. Dunno what to tell him.”

“He’ll be alright. Phone down now.”

“Aye. Stay alive.”

“You too, mate.” Richard keeps the phone on so he and Mack have an open channel, drops it into his jacket pocket. He makes sure the door to the guest house is unlocked and slightly ajar, and slips around the back, takes his position, and waits.

The young man who he sees come up from the ravine where he’s ditched the car doesn’t look familiar to Richard. He made no impression on his memory that day, in the whirl of bullets and haze of getting Taron to the car. He looks like any other bloke you’d see at the gym or the pub, just like Richard remembers his initial impression of Taron. He is carrying a duffel bag and a weapon, a different rifle than what Mack saw. 

“He’s got a sniper rifle now,” Richard whispers into the phone sitting in his front pocket as the guy gets closer. He remembers, looking down at his shirt, that he’s not wearing armor, and curses under his breath, looking up at the heavens. 

“So do I,” Mack says softly. “A few other things, just in case.”

Richard grimaces, figures Mack has brought an arsenal to what should be an easy takedown. He’s always been a bit of an enthusiast. 

“He’s got a duffel, too. Not gonna find out what’s in that. I’ll deescalate if Ah can. Move on sight. Silence now,” he signs off, knows where Mack will be now that this threat has crossed the driveway to the edge of the long lawn between them. Richard watches how he walks, erratic, looking over one shoulder occasionally but not scanning, untrained, unpredictable. He’s dangerous and he’s getting close. 

He pauses between the two buildings, seems to be hedging on which one to approach, when Richard sees him notice the back door to the guest house, cracked slightly open. Richard bites his lip and watches, hopes he’ll take the bait, because he has a plan for either way but this’ll be a hell of a lot easier, and safer for Taron.

He steps toward the guest house, turning slightly and lowering the rifle in one arm as he reaches for the doorknob with his other hand, and Richard sees the home-done bandage job around his forearm, stained with days-old dried blood. 

Mack is in the near background over his shoulder, and he knows he’s got his cover, and Richard doesn’t want to wait anymore. He steels himself, takes a centering breath, and moves silently down from his position as the guy begins to push the door open. He’s set the duffel on the ground at his feet and Richard says a silent prayer in his head that it’s nothing explosive as he moves, Mack closing in and staying low, weapon raised. 

Richard never takes his eyes off the other guy’s rifle as he covers the length of the guest house and charges his body hard against the door frame, his shoulder in the back of the other guy’s arm pinning him to the wood and causing a nerve spasm that makes him yell in pain and uncurl his fingers from his grip on his rifle. It falls to the ground and Richard swiftly, easily kicks his feet out from under him and pulls the guy down too, ducking a little because those rifles have a sketchy trigger and the slightest jostle can set them off. 

It clatters in the loose dirt of the sidewalk garden but doesn’t go off, and in another second Mack is there with his foot on top of it and his own rifle pointed at the guy’s chest. Richard has his gun in his hand and never takes his eyes off the guy, staring into his blank face as he squirms and swears at them.

“What’s in the bag, arsehole?” Mack says first, scowling down at him menacingly and pressing the barrel of his weapon closer.

“Who the fuck is this guy?” The kid sputters, trying, stupidly, to get a purchase on the ground and maybe get to his feet with two deadly weapons trained right on him.

“Don’t fuckin’ move,” Richard says, staying as calm as he can and flicking his eyes over to Mack. “Just stay down, and don’t upset my partner here, because he’s very unpredictable. Tell us what’s in the bag.”

“Fuck...why are you always getting in my way? I just wanna talk to Taron don’t I? Fucking christ, you had to make this so difficult,” he whines and tries to stretch his injured arm out toward the duffel bag he forgot and gets Mack’s enormous boot crushing his hand in the dirt for his troubles. He yowls in pain and Mack rolls his eyes.

“God, Rich, cannae just shoot ‘im?”

“Nobody’s shooting anybody. But yer never gonna talk to Taron. So tell us what’s in this bag so everyone knows what to do and how not to get shot, aye?”

The kid just grins, spits through his teeth at Richard. “Fuck you, fuckin’ pouf.”

Richard sighs, drops his shoulders down his back and holsters his gun. “Alright. He’s all yours then.”

Mack grins and grabs the guy by his probably broken wrist and drags him, yelling in pain and spitting angrily the whole way, a few feet in the dirt, just for the degrading drama of it. Mack props him up against the back stone wall and keeps him there at gunpoint, giving the abandoned duffel bag a wide berth. Richard kicks the rifle further out of everyone’s reach and looks down the long driveway as the sound of Scottish police sirens cuts through the quiet, marshy air around them.

An expo unit contains the bag just in case and gets it the hell off the property, first things first. Richard texts Taron’s phone while he waits, hopes they go through.

I’m coming

Stay where you are

You’re safe

The regional cops take the guy and his rifle out of Richard’s sight and off his property. They have questions for Richard to come down and answer, but the second he’s gone Richard just wants to get to Taron. The local cops keep pestering and pulling him back every time he tries to get away and finally Mack rolls his eyes and takes over. “Go,” he says, glancing up at the house. “I wanna see him ok, too.”

Richard feels the bright clench in his chest, then feels it release, the distinct sensation of his ribs expanding, making room for both of them, for everything he has felt for Mack and everything he hopes to feel for Taron, if given the opportunity, and the time. 

Fitz has been laying guard in the entryway and follows at Richard’s heels all the way up the stairs to the old loft, paws at the door closest to where he knows Taron is.

“What happened?” Taron asks anxiously when Richard finally gets to him, safe in the games room, the Christmas trees casting glints of colored light on him as the sun finally sets through ancient glass, his phone clutched in his hand.

Richard resists the urge to rush in and grab Taron forcefully in his arms, instead moves slowly, tries to stay as calm and straightforward about the whole thing as he can. He doesn’t want any more alarm or trauma attaching itself to Taron’s psyche if he can help it. “Et’s done. We disarmed safely and he’s in custody. He’s gone. Nothing blew up - ”

“I didn’t hear any shots - ” Taron interrupts a little excitedly and Richard stays steady, trying to keep them both calm.

“No one got shot. That’s good, T. And you turnin’ your phone back on and callin’ the locals - ”

“I had a hell of a time doing that by the way since I don’t know exactly where I am.”

“You did great. That was very smart.” Richard says but doesn’t try to get closer, lets Taron lead.

“I wanted to do...something...so, wow. That’s kind of anticlimactic,” Taron looks confused, almost disappointed. He finally leans into Richard, tentatively, puts his head against his body like the very first time Richard helped him, was able to touch him. 

“Oi, sorry, did you want more drama in yer life at this moment?” Richard says, his arm around him now, his hand smoothing up and down his back. “Listen, T. We’re gonna have to talk to the police. Separately. They want you to go with them...are ye alright with tha’?”

Taron bites his lip and looks around the big house uncertainly, reaches down to pet Fitz where he’s leaned his head against Taron’s leg protectively. “Yeah. Yeah that’s fine, I guess.” He looks sad and deflated and Richard hates it, hopes this comedown isn’t worse for Taron than being under threat has been. He knows the emotional ride, the crash. He wishes he could stay with him now and be with him for it, but he has to let him go.

Taron stays close, Richard’s hand protectively at his back as they make their way downstairs, out through the great hall and the foyer, passing all the weird art again. Richard furrows his brow as he notices a few books laying about, and knickknacks pulled off their shelves here and there, looks at Taron questioningly. “I was, ah, looking for a hidden passageway. I pulled out a lot of books, sorry about that.”

Richard just stares at him and shakes his head in amusement. He draws them both to a stop before opening the big doors out into the drive. 

“Whatever happens,” Richard begins but Taron’s already trying to ask before he can get the words out himself. 

“What happens now?”

Richard looks down at their feet, takes Taron’s hands in his. “Ah don’t know. Ah know ye need to take a few days though, alright? Just take some time, take your time talkin’ to the police. They’re gonna offer ye some help, some resources, if ye need those. You can take them, don’t feel weird about it, alright?”

Taron nods, his forehead pressed against Richard’s and his fingers gripping his hands, not wanting to let go. “I might go meet up with my Mam, at the shore. I have to deal with some work stuff...but maybe I’m not ready for London, quite yet.”

“Ah think that’s a brilliant idea,” Richard says. “But don’t avoid it too long. If ye don’t want to go home alone, ring me when you’re heading back and Ah’ll go with you, aye?”

Taron nods, and still looks so sad and lost, and Richard can’t help but lean in and kiss him, just quickly, on the side of his mouth and cheek. Taron doesn’t turn into it, or away from it, just closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. Richard pulls away, and opens the front door.

Mack waits at the top of the driveway, opens his big arms for Taron when he sees them both emerge. Richard watches, Taron small in Mack’s huge, engulfing hug, Mack’s mouth in Taron’s ear speaking to him reassuringly. Taron just nods, then looks back at Richard, his eyes soft. Mack hands him off to the victim advocate coppers, and they take Taron to a car. 

Richard’s heart hammers with panic as he watches them close Taron inside without him. He fights the sting of tears behind his eyes and clenches his jaw, tries to breathe through it until he feels Mack’s hands on his shoulders pulling him safe up against his broad chest.

“Fuck, Dickie.”

“Ah don’t know what to do,” Richard shudders, voice muffled in Mack’s chest and shirt. Mack soothes his palm over Richard’s back.

“First, you’re goin’ to call your therapist when ye get back. Then...you gotta get out of this job.”

Richard nods. He knows he’s right. “Ah know. Ah know.”

Mack laughs softly, pulls away and holds Richard out at arm’s length. “Well, as long as you know...you’re way ahead of where I thought ye’d be.”

“Stay alive, mate,” Richard says, sniffling and turning away as Mack gets into the unmarked SUV that showed up for him within ten minutes of a single phone call.

“You too, Dickie,” Mack calls as his door slides shut, the driver whisking him away like he was never there.

*

Richard gives his statements on tape, then gives them again in writing, careful to protect Taron’s privacy, and his own, the nature of their relationship. The officers on the Scotland side don’t seem curious at all as to how the London PPO and his charge came to be alone off the grid in the bloody moors, but more intrigued as to how a seasoned, high-level MI6 agent came to be involved from the field. 

Mack created a nice buzz upon his not-so-covert extraction in front of all those regional coppers, and it continues to protect them even in his absence. Richard is grateful for him, as always. 

The municipality seems satisfied to hand it all back to Scotland Yard, and then Richard is free to go.

He reports to his CO first thing in the morning, gives her his full statement, and fills out the necessary forms for going on extended leave. Then he goes to the armory and hands in his gun.

He goes to yoga in the afternoon, then goes to get some groceries. He makes dinner for himself at home, lets himself have one beer, and goes to bed. He sleeps for twelve hours. 

He wakes up thinking of Taron, and grumbles at himself miserably until he gets up and heads to the gym, then his regular therapist appointment, thankfully. He has...there’s a lot.

He goes to visit Kim, recovering at home and getting ready to go back on desk duty. He catches her up and gets her whole side of the story, which is really how they found him at all, her natural nosiness and eavesdropping on the emergency nurses chatting about the GSW with the very dubious story. She made friends with a security guard, got access to the CCTV feeds around the time Mack showed up to do some snooping of his own. 

They were fast friends, Richard isn’t surprised to hear. “He’s quite a dish. That your type, Skipper?” She teases him over a cup of tea and a little lemon drizzle cake Richard picked up on his way. 

Richard doesn’t say anything to that, just laughs her off. “Glad you’re feeling better, Kim.”

“No...no I think you’re more into the brooding, boyish good looks…” She taps her chin like she’s thinking and Richard arches one eyebrow at her. 

“Please stop.”

She takes a fortifying bite of cake and says all in one breath, “...maybe Welsh though his accent’s a bit muddied...chiseled actor in distress type.” One side of her mouth quirks up in triumph. She knows she’s got him.

“Oh god, leave me alone, Kim,” Richard laughs, starts to cover his face in his hands. “And he’s not brooding. He was terrified. He’s good, he’s...great.”

Kim puts down her cake and eyes him softly. “Wow. Ok, Skipper. Good on you, then. Ok tell me more about your takedown and Mack breaking that arsehole’s arm.” 

The creep had a day’s start by the time they identified him and found all his online activity, links to more explosives he never got to build, and his catalogued, bizarre ideas to get Taron to listen to him about a litany of topics from English independence to what kind of films he should be making. Richard shudders, glad that this guy is safely away from them and hopefully getting some kind of help, he supposes. 

On the other hand, he misses Taron horribly and can very nearly empathize with the deeply felt need to just be able to see him again. He knows in his head that this is what’s best, though it hurts his heart, and he gives Taron space to figure out when, or if, he will see him again. He muddles through, makes his meals, meditates. 

He sees a flyer at his yoga studio for new teacher training that is starting soon and that sounds strangely compelling. A regimented schedule, discipline, training his body to do something new and something good, keeping his mind healthy. He signs up and pays the deposit before he has time to talk himself out of it.

He’s waiting in line for a green juice when he gets a text on his phone, a single emoji. 

It’s the movie camera, with a little piece of film spooling out of it. He’s squinting at it and at the number, saved in his contacts now as simply T, when another text with proper words rolls in right behind it. “Need you with me at a film premiere, Sergeant Madden.” He pulls up Taron’s number and hits dial, grinning like a loon at anyone around the juice shop who might notice him.

“Ah’m so sorry, sir, no longer in that line of work,” he says when Taron picks up on the other end.

“Really. Well that is a shame. I was so hoping to have you at my side for this,” Taron says, his tone light, but not entirely unserious, and Richard can’t tell if they’re joking anymore. He turns from the juice counter and cradles his phone closer. “Do you really want me there, T? Your agents...I wasn’t sure you’d be read- ”

“Got rid of them all. Have a new PR firm, a new agency. They want to work with me. Really with me.”

“Wow...ye been busy,” Richard gnaws on his lip and sips his green juice that the bored-looking girl with the lip ring has just handed to him.

“Yeah, I have. Dickie, how...how are you, sorry?”

“I’m...I think Ah’m good, T. Do ye think...could we have dinner? Like a normal date? Before the whole red carpet thing…” Richard trails off, still chewing at his lip as he tries to navigate this conversation. “Not that Ah’m not up to it. I am, T. I mean...I’ll try my best.”

He can hear Taron’s smile from the other end of the phone. “I know you’ll do what is required, Dickie.”

*

Richard wears a custom tailored dark blue suit that Taron spent way too much on, with the tacit understanding that this was not going to be a regular thing. It matches beautifully with the tie Mack gave him, which Taron also insisted on. He takes a few extra minutes on his hair, a few extra minutes for himself, no longer laden in protective armor or weapons as accessories. He checks himself in the mirror a few more times than necessary, and goes to pick up his date. 

He has no say in the car, which someone else arranges for them, turns out to be a Mercedes S Class, and doesn’t appear to have ballistic glass - it’s fine. Nor the driver, who may or may not have evasive maneuver and close protection training. Richard doesn’t ask. 

Taron is nervous, and stunning in a gossamer grey suit, and holds Richard’s hand tightly with slightly sweaty palms and neatly manicured nails. Richard bites at his cuticle as they check Taron in, his publicist holding all the necessary credentials. An event security guard follows Taron closely, and Richard catches his eye, gives him a nod. 

He still scans the throng of faces, but calmly, more a long internalized habit than any actual alarm response to the crowd. The security is good and Taron doesn’t need him, at least not in that way, anymore.

They don’t walk the red carpet together - Richard is frankly terrified and might never feel comfortable doing what Taron does. He’s quite content to stand precisely on the spot the new publicist tells him to stand, and wait, and watch Taron be this Taron. 

The film is a massive one, a huge studio tentpole that Taron is one of several big names in. It’s the last of his multi-million dollar blockbusters for a while, as he’s signed on with his new agency to do some smaller, independent films, another big gay role that his old agent told him to turn down. 

Taron is on and he is quite fine, his shining best, illuminated, unafraid.

Richard watches for him as he finally nears the end of the press line and waits for him to take the last few questions, most of which have stuck to the topics of the film and its exorbitant production, the internationally famous director, the other actors Taron was thrilled and esteemed to work with. 

But the British press is the British press and there’s always going to be someone looking for a good bit of gossip. “Taron, is it true you’re dating your bodyguard?” the voice asks above the din of clamoring reporters. Taron glances over at Richard at the end of the line, catches his eye and throws him a wink. He gives the line of photographers his best smolder, then turns, proudly, to the assembled cameras and microphones. “One hundred percent not true. I’ve sacked him, he’s no longer my bodyguard, he’s my boyfriend.”

Taron’s publicist looks absolutely delighted, so Richard knows he’s done well in choosing these new people to help him. She holds her finger and thumb in an encouraging well done gesture, beaming at him. “That was perfect. So thrilled for you,” she says as Taron finishes and steps out of the glaring lights, standing for a moment in the cool shade of the theatre awnings, away from the melee. A few flashes pop behind him as he retreats with Richard, but most of them are focused on the next big name coming along behind Taron. 

Taron lets out a huge exhale like he’s been holding his breath for a long time. He takes his pocket square out and dabs a bit of sweat off the sides of his face. “Shit. Shit, I just did that, didn’t I?” Taron chatters, gazes about a bit nervously and Richard wants to kiss him, calm him, but he can’t, not now, and that’s ok.

“You did it, and it was brilliant,” his publicist assures him. “But don’t worry, you’ll get plenty more chances to do it, because people are really dense about coming out and you’re going to have to say it like a hundred times before it sinks in.” 

“Hmmm, a hundred times,” Taron hums as he mulls that over, adjusts his tie, though it looks perfect. He takes a fresh, clarifying breath, and holds out his hand for Richard. Richard smiles, his heart full, warm and bright as he slips his palm inside Taron’s. Taron squeezes his fingers, lifts Richard’s hand to his mouth in full view of quite a few photographers if they’re interested, and kisses across Richard’s knuckles. “Luckily, I can get really good at things, if I practice.”

Richard leans in close, where only Taron can hear. “You are good.”