They aren’t even supposed to be in the same country when it happens.
Bond is passing through Algeria after having to quietly escape Mali, and Tanner is supposedly meeting one of MI6’s oldest informants, in a less than salubrious part of Algiers. He’s fair enough, as contacts go, but he’s also a paranoid old bastard who never leaves his house and doesn’t trust the new M.
It’s just Tanner’s bad luck that the informant decides to sell him out, but it’s not his fault that he ends up with Bond as a highly trained body guard. 007 was just the closest agent by about six hundred miles.
They don’t blow Algiers up, thankfully, just, maybe one small neighbourhood. Tanner gets a migraine just thinking about all the paperwork. Bond looks absolutely too proud of himself.
It’s all a giant cock up from start to finish, and Tanner would rather be back on British soil and not running through darkened streets, dodging bullets, but that is unfortunately what he ends up doing.
It is maybe worth it for the surprised look he gets from Bond when he hot wires an old jeep and then gets a perfect headshot over Bond’s shoulder before diving into the passenger seat so Bond can drive. Tanner knows his limits.
“I wasn’t always a desk jockey, you know,” he says loftily, and Bond chuckles as he takes a hard left, knocking over a fruit stand.
“Good. Red car, on our six. Make sure you take out the front tyre,” Bond says, and Tanner rolls his eyes and hangs on for dear life.
He takes out the driver. Seems easier.
Two days and one international incident later, they manage to take down the leader of the little group (Italians, surprisingly, and in it for the stupidest reason: money) but end up hiding thirty miles outside Algiers at what was probably once a very nice resort and is now an half abandoned hole in the desert used mainly as an oasis for people like them and those who don’t want to be found.
Tanner has escaped mostly intact, ignoring the bruised ribs (car crash), cut on his cheek (a very close encounter with the Italians) and scraped palms (scrambling down the side of a two story house), but Bond is less lucky. A bullet has put a very deep gouge in his shoulder, and it’s bleeding far too much for Tanner’s liking.
He manages to haggle a med kit, an antique iPhone and some spare clothes from one of the people in the isolated compound by offering his vintage watch and tries not to resent it too much. Bond did end up shot because he pushed Tanner out of the way, the least Tanner can do is make sure he doesn’t bleed out before they get home.
Bond, unsurprisingly, manages to find half a bottle of whiskey, ice and codeine.
They’re holed up in the abandoned hotel, waiting for an evac chopper that may or may not turn up the next morning and Bond, of course, has taken over the presidential suite.
The temperature is dropping, but it’s still too warm, the desert breeze coming in through the windows that open out onto a rickety balcony that neither of them have risked stepping on. It’s a decent exit though, the mostly-full pool only two storeys below. The main door to the suite is locked and they’re as secure as it’s possible to be.
At least the shower still works, he thinks.
“You know, water would be a better idea considering we’re in the middle of the desert,” Tanner says, coming out of the bathroom and eyeing the whiskey glass in Bond’s hand. Bond doesn’t even open his eyes where he lies sprawled over the raggedy chaise longue, and swirls the glass until the ice cubes clink together.
“Ice is water.”
“That’s how you get typhoid fever.”
“Had all my shots.” Bond’s lips twitch in a tired smile and Tanner sighs but takes the other glass that’s waiting for him.
To bloody hell with it all, he deserves it.
“Right, let me sort you out,” Tanner says halfway through the glass, and Bond just hums in agreement. He’s shirtless still after his own shower, the thin trickle of blood that oozes out from under the wad of gauze stark against his pale skin. He doesn’t comment when Tanner inspects the wound, teeth clenched but making no noise as Tanner sutures him up.
“Sorry,” Tanner says, and Bond just waves him off lazily, a faux easiness only betrayed by the occasional catch of breath.
Tanner wonders how many times Bond has patched himself up like this, most probably alone, and then remembers he doesn’t have to wonder. He knows Bond’s file by heart, always the man besides M’s shoulder, listening in to every cut, scrape, bruise and shot.
His eyes catch the scar, the one he remembers more vividly.
‘Take the bloody shot,’ she’d said, and Eve had. Any of them would. You always listened to M.
He still feels a pang of regret at it.
“I’m sorry for that day. The train.”
Bond’s body goes impossibly still and when Tanner looks up, he finds those unnerving, piercing blue eyes pinning him in place.
“You didn’t pulls the trigger,” Bond says.
“I would have.”
Bond’s smile is a sharp, bitter thing.
“We were always her little lap dogs, weren’t we.” It’s not a question.
Tanner thinks of a dozen ways he could respond to that, but goes with the most innocuous.
“Cheers to that,” he says and clinks his glass against Bond’s. Bond laughs and drinks too.
Tanner should have stopped after the second glass he thinks, staring at the empty bottle. R has let them know evac is nine hours away, considering the international incident they were part of, and Tanner knows Mallory is probably fuming back in the bunker.
Ugh, Mallory. Tanner groans and rubs at his aching temples, tries to push the thought away because he is too tired and too bruised and too drunk to open that particular door. He doesn’t need to think of cut-glass vowels and green eyes and kick-ass competence, wrapped up in pin-striped perfection.
Bond seems to be taking it all in his stride or, as Tanner suspects, is just hiding it better. He’s had as much to drink as Tanner and yet he’s not looking anywhere near as blurry around the edges, and Tanner wonders if the double-oh program also includes annual liver transplants. He makes a mental note to check that out.
“I hate waiting,” he sighs from his place on the floor, back pressed to the side of the chaise longue. This corner of the suite is done out like some Arabian harem and the big circular cushion he’s sat on is remarkably comfortable. Bond shoots him an amused look.
“Eager to get home?” Bond says, his tone too light to be anything but a jab.
Bond just chuckles, that annoying deep throaty laugh of his. “And here I thought you’d be keen to get back to your tall, dark... paperwork.”
Tanner elbows him inelegantly in the side and doesn’t feel at all bad it’s the spot Bond fell off a balcony on to. Some people know better than to bait a double-oh, but Tanner stopped being afraid of the lot of them around a decade ago.
“You know I could retire you, with one piece of paper and two rubber stamps, right?”
Bond just smirks again. Git.
“And don’t act like you’re not itching to ‘return your gear’ to Q branch,” he adds, making sloppy air quotes.
Bond’s knee hits the exact spot on the back of Tanner’s head where the scrape had just stopped stinging.
"I never return my gear to Q branch, Tanner, you should know that much. I'm sure Q complains about it endlessly."
“I noticed as much when you threw your Walther at the Fiat driver’s head,” Tanner says drily, mouth curling into a smile. As much as he hates seeing good gear wasted, the face the Italian had made as the empty gun flew through the air and hit him straight between his eyes had been worth it. “And yet that won’t stop you from casually strolling into Q branch to announce you lost everything, again,” he says, and this time his reflexes kick in, albeit lazily, and Bond’s knee barely brushes the back of his head. “Speaking of Q...” Tanner trails off.
“Speaking of Gareth,” Bond shoots back, and quirks an eyebrow in challenge.
“We weren’t speaking of Gar- M.”
Bond’s smile is downright predatory.
“Just as soft as yours.”
Bond holds his gaze for a long moment and Tanner doesn’t back down. Finally Bond’s jaw clicks.
“Has anyone told you you can be a complete bastard?”
Tanner just grins.
“I’ve been working with the Double-Oh program for years, it was bound to rub off on me.”
"Yes, well, by all accounts that's not the only thing that's rubbed off on you." Bond’s gaze is hawklike but Tanner knows his own poker face doesn’t so much as flicker.
"You've been listening to gossip again, Bond. I've told you before that you really shouldn't pay attention to what gets whispered in corners. I’m just a mousy, grey little bureaucrat, remember.”
“Yeah right. Chief of Staff and M's right hand man. The rumours are rife.”
“I don’t pay attention to rumours.”
"Even if they’re true?"
"Oh, especially if they’re true."
Tanner doesn't bother asking which rumours Bond has heard - and he has probably heard a lot more than he was supposed to. Then again, the double-ohs are trained to gather information as well as kill people, he reminds himself. But it means that Bond can't be one hundred per cent sure which ones are actually true, and Tanner knows it will irritate him hugely.
He isn't entirely sure when his association with Bond slipped from 'colleague' to 'friend' but he reckons it was about six years or so ago, under the old M and the last Q, when he had been at his desk late one Friday night, idly listening to two or three feeds from different double-ohs in the field. Bond's terse "if anyone is listening, I'd very much appreciate a hand" had cut through the background chatter and Tanner had not even considered waiting for one of the regular handlers to respond.
"Bond, Tanner, what's up?"
"I need someone to remotely access the traffic lights for downtown Brno." The noise behind him was distinctly percussive and Tanner idly wondered what Bond had blown up this time.
"Everything to red or to green?" he asked, tapping away at his keyboard. This wasn't his speciality but he'd been in MI6 long enough to be able to do this relatively simple thing.
"Green until I say red," Bond replied. Over the link came the rat-a-tat of a repeating pistol.
"Who have you pissed off this time?" Tanner asked. He hit return and had to smile at Bond's pleased little "yesss" a second later.
"How long have you got?" Bond asked, and Tanner had to laugh.
"What's that expression for?" Bond asks idly. Tanner looks up, blinking owlishly. There was a reason he didn't normally drink a great deal.
"Remembering Brno and the traffic light debacle." Tanner has to smirk at Bond's bark of a laugh. "The first of many times I've saved your arse.”
"But it's such a fine arse to save." Bond rolls forward slightly and peers over his shoulder, as if admiring his own backside.
"Yes, you narcissistic dickhead, it's a very nice arse, but I'd rather you didn't try to get it blown off every bloody mission. The paperwork alone is a nightmare.”
"So you think I've got a nice arse then? Really, Tanner, so those particular rumours are true."
Tanner fixes him with a look that would have sent lesser minions scurrying from the room, but Bond just grins. Like a shark, Tanner thinks, predatory and disconcertingly attractive.
"There are many rumours," he says equitably. "Some truer than others."
"You know, Tanner, you pretend to be such a pen pusher but you really are anything but. Isn't that right, Major?"
Tanner tries not to react to that 'Major'. He misses active service with a passion, but there is no way on the planet he will ever be cleared for field work on the scale that Bond is used to. A milk run once in a while is all well and good, the odd suitcase exchange, an occasional contact meet and greet. He doesn't want to admit just how much he’s enjoyed the previous forty eight hours with Bond.
Probably because HR would shuttle him rapidly through a psych eval that he totally doesn't want to do.
"We all have our secrets, Commander. You more than most are aware of that."
Bond draws a deep breath, probably to retort, then winces slightly. Most people would have missed it but Tanner is rather good at observation.
"Probably." Bond looks down at his empty glass. "Seems we're all out of pain relief, too. Now what are we going to do?”
Maybe he’s too drunk for all this, for the way Bond’s sharp eyes catch his, for the way his skin breaks out in goosebumps at the faintest touch of a breeze. He’s too drunk and yet when Bond presses his thigh to the nape of Tanner’s neck he still leans his head back, returning the pressure.
Bond trails his finger tips down the side of Tanner’s neck, and it says something for the trust Tanner has in his agents that he doesn’t even flinch.
Bond does it again and Tanner’s eyes drift shut at the sensation. Christ, it’s been so fucking long since anyone touched him in any kind of way that wasn’t either a) trying to kill him or b) sparring with him so he can practise stopping people trying to kill him.
“You always let trained killers put their hands on your neck?” Bond asks, sotto, fingers drifting across Tanner’s adam’s apple, and Tanner feels the smile stretch his lips.
“Only if no other body parts are available,” he replies and yes, that was a distinct catch in Bond’s breathing. God, he loves being able to draw an unguarded response from people with bullet proof poker faces.
Bond’s hand tightens around his throat, and Tanner swallows against the pressure, lips parting on an inhale. He’s sure Bond can feel the rapid spike of heartbeat under his palm, the catch as Tanner swallows. Bond’s hands are scarred and rough and feel so good. Tanner almost laughs at the thought of how many people have had Bond’s fingers tighten against their throat, most of whom are probably dead, and yet here he is, melting under it all.
Bond lets out a satisfied hum.
“Tell me to stop, and I will,” he says, grip going soft, and Tanner already misses it.
He should stop this, the logical side of his brain screams at him. But Tanner’s body buzzes under Bond’s touch, and he wants this. Wants whatever this is. The fact that he knows Bond will let go if asked, and walk away like nothing has happened, is the last push he needs.
“As always, double-oh-seven, I’ll give the order when I feel like it.
Bond's expression flits from focused and predatory to what Tanner can only term delighted, in a there-and-gone widening of his eyes.
"And you think I'm going to listen?"
"You normally do," Tanner tells him. "And when you don't, things often get... exciting."
A detached part of his brain wonders what the fuck he is doing in that moment, but the thrumming of the blood in his ears effectively renders that rational corner mute. This isn't what (who) he wants, per se, but he sure as hell needs something after the last day or two.
And who will know? They have no comm gear, no way of anyone listening in to their conversation or discovering their exact location. The mobile phone that Tanner managed to obtain and hack to request evac is switched off in a drawer.
At that precise moment, everything is dark, secluded, faintly blurred around the edges by whiskey and exhaustion, and Tanner is fed up of denying himself things.
"Exciting.” Bond nods, as if to himself, and Tanner sees the exact moment that Bond makes the same jump of logic and reason he did - that is to say, he abandons them entirely. "You may not be a double-oh but you appear to have the same lack of self preservation."
"It's not like anyone would miss me."
"MI-6 would grind to a halt in short order if you disappeared, Tanner,” he points out. "And I know a certain someone would be most put out if you didn't return."
Tanner tries not to think about who Bond is referring to, but it's so late it's early, and his defences are starting to slip.
"Only because he'd have to organise his own bloody meetings," Tanner says. He swallows and feels Bond's hand still resting loosely against his throat. "And he's not here with his thumb against my carotid."
Bond's smirk is a practised thing, but the light in his eyes is genuine. He presses, very gently and Tanner wills himself not to blatantly react. In spite of the quantity of whiskey he's put away, Tanner is well aware that it would only take a quick glance for Bond to realise the effect he is having on Tanner's composure.
"And what would you do if he was?" Bond asks, his voice rough. Tanner wonders if Bond has ever had the urge to wrap his hand around Q's throat, and thinks, fuck it.
"This." He reaches up, slides his fingers into Bond's short hair and pulls him down.
Their first kiss isn't tentative. It's not exploratory or cautious. It's nothing a first kiss should be, and everything a kiss filled with need and relief and leftover adrenaline is. It's fierce and overwhelming, almost feral and Tanner finds himself thinking 'fuck, yes' on repeat.
In a move so smooth it should be illegal, Bond rolls off the chaise longue and stands, pulling Tanner to his feet and not breaking the kiss for a moment, in spite of the fact that Tanner is a couple of inches taller. Bond more than makes up for that in width, Tanner thinks hazily.
Now they're on a level, Tanner can do what he's thought about more than once and touch. Bond is still shirtless, a necessity to enable Tanner to stitch up his injured shoulder, but for whatever reason, Bond hadn't finished dressing after they'd moved onto the whiskey.
Tanner doesn't complain about this, because it means when he puts his hand on Bond's waist, his fingers meet hot, bare skin.
Bond's hands are at Tanner's waist as well, but they're busy, tugging up the loose white shirt which had been in the parcel of clothing he'd obtained along with the med kit. Loathe to break the kiss, Tanner moves just enough for Bond to pull the shirt up over his head and throw it haphazardly to one side.
Somewhere between the chaise longue and the (frankly enormous) bed, the baggy tan trousers come off as well, and when Tanner’s back hits the mattress, they are both gloriously naked.
“Pen pusher, hm?” Bond asks, pulling back enough to draw breath. “That’s not a bullet wound.”
Tanner looks down at where Bond’s hand is stroking over his chest, and hums.
“Shrapnel,” he explains. He watches, rapt and probably more aroused than he should be by each gentle touch of Bond’s blunt fingers to the series of scars that pepper his torso, ending up back at the big, messy, spiderweb of white lines which crawl across his left pec and shoulder. “I didn’t lose my arm, so I count that as a win.”
“You are a dark fucking horse, Major,” Bond mutters. Tanner laughs and leans back in to kiss Bond, because he can, and right now, he’s going to take every last scrap of contact.
Bond appears to be totally onboard with that concept, as he picks up the kiss where they left off, pushing Tanner flat on his back. Bond crawls over him to hold him down with his bulk. Tanner is entirely okay with that too. Bond is solid and heavy, hot skin and thick muscle and Tanner threads his fingers into Bond’s short blond hair.
He’s never entirely sure what changes though.
One of them shifts, a slide of heated skin on heated skin, a leg slips between thighs and the kiss… softens. It’s not exactly gentle, but neither is it the fierce, feral thing that had started by the chaise longue. Bond kisses with all the skill and finesse of someone who totally deserves their reputation as a consummate lover, and Tanner meets him move for move.
This isn’t the kiss of a one night stand, of a quick ‘thank god we aren’t dead’ fuck. It’s the kiss of someone who is just as touch starved, and in desperate need of connection with someone who isn’t just a means to an end.
It’s only when he rocks his hips up and Bond gasps against his mouth that Tanner realises just how fucking hard he is, and Bond is clearly in the same state.
“Please tell me there’s lube in that med kit,” Bond mutters, shifting his mouth to Tanner’s neck. Tanner shudders as Bond’s teeth leave marks, and tries to remember exactly what the question was and how to answer it.
“I… not in the kit. But I saw something…” He groans and then, mustering up all his brain cells and a few tricks he picked up a decade ago, he twists. The element of surprise and his two inch height advantage are all it takes to flip Bond onto his back and it is so worth it for the stunned expression Tanner gets to see. “Don’t move,” he tells Bond with a wink, and rolls off the bed.
In the bathroom under the sink is a box mostly full of tiny shampoo bottles and shrink wrapped soaps, but there are various other bits and pieces, and Tanner pulls out a bar of what appears to be labelled ‘tadlik’ in a very convoluted decorative script.
“Soap?” Bond asks, leaning up on one elbow as Tanner comes back into the room. Tanner takes a moment to appreciate the long, pale lines of Bond’s body, the swell of muscle, the speckle of old scars, the sheer fucking competence of the man; and he grins.
“If my Arabic serves me right, it’s a massage bar.”
Bond holds out a hand and Tanner tosses it into the centre of his palm. Throughout the entire exchange, Bond’s erection has barely flagged and Tanner decides he should really take shameless advantage of this probably once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As Bond rips the paper wrapper off the bar, Tanner crawls up the bed and wraps a hand around Bond’s erection.
The swallowed oath is a sure sign that Bond was not expecting that and Tanner smothers his laugh by leaning forward and licking the head of Bond’s cock.
“Fucking hell,” Bond groans. As Tanner bobs, Bond reaches out and runs a too-gentle hand over the back of his head.
He doesn’t get to indulge himself for long though. All too soon, Bond is pushing him off, hauling him up the bed with a grip on his arms that’s going to bruise and kissing him fast and dirty.
“Do you want me to fuck you?” Bond asks, and now it’s Tanner’s turn to groan.
“God, yes.” He leans in and steals another kiss. “Before I give in to the temptation to just rub off against you.”
Bond’s grin is bright and oddly open.
“Tempting, but this is going to be so much better.” Without further preamble, he reaches down and slides a hand between Tanner’s legs.
Bond must have been holding onto that bar for a while, Tanner thinks, because there is a whole lot of slick warmth there. Capable, blunt tipped fingers massage Tanner’s perineum and then one slips inside of him with a confident, practised move which has Tanner seeing stars.
He can’t complain though, as Bond has taken up kissing him where he left off and any breath he may have had for words is entirely stolen by that two pronged attack. He gives up thinking and just feels instead.
Feels Bond slip another finger in as his body relaxes under that skilled touch. Feels Bond’s kisses grow deeper and slower. Feels the desert air in the room grow thicker and warmer with the heat from their bodies and their breath.
He expected Bond to be rougher. It’s not like his kisses don’t have an edge of sharpness that makes Tanner’s stomach swoop, and his free hand holds his hip in a possessively bruising grip, but everything about this feels incredibly sensual. Tanner throws himself into the pleasure and Bond catches him without blinking, lets Tanner let go and fall into it all; Bond dedicates every inch of his body to Tanner’s pleasure and it’s overwhelming to be the center of this kind of hedonistic attention, while also making Tanner’s entire body thrum with it, a spark lit inside him that grows into a roaring fire.
Tanner’s wanted to be touched like this for so long, but he’s learned to take that need and suffocate it, keep it hidden away. But under Bond’s expert touch, he feels it all coming to the surface, so strong it might drown him.
It should scare him. And yet, he knows Bond needs this as much as he does. He wonders vaguely when was the last time either of them were touched by someone they could trust?
Bond doesn’t use words. He doesn’t need to, because all it takes is a touch, a suggestion of movement and Tanner shifts beneath him, lifts a leg to hook over his hip to give Bond better access. Tanner doesn’t know who is responding to whom though, because he wants Bond’s mouth on his neck and somehow, the next thing Bond does is sink impossible gentle teeth into the tendon just under Tanner’s ear. He follows that with a line of kisses, a third finger and Tanner is done with prep, done with waiting, done with wanting and not having.
“Fuck, please,” he breathes, and he swears that’s a chuckle against his skin. But Bond moves his hand and then, yes, finally, pushes in, slow and steady and implacable.
Even in that moment, as sublime as it is, Tanner knows that they both want different people. He closes his eyes, deliberately doesn’t think about a taller, leaner frame and digs his fingers into the heavy muscle of Bond’s arse. Bond groans, hips snapping forward and yes, that’s exactly what Tanner wants.
Except Bond, the bastard, has other plans. Even as Tanner tries to speed him up, to demand with grasping hands and choked off groans that he fuck him like he promised, Bond slows, rolls his hips and nails that perfect spot inside Tanner with deadly precision.
Tanner wants to swear at him, to urge him on but Bond’s mouth on his silences him and when he makes the mistake of letting go of that incredible arse to try and get a handful of hair, Bond catches his wrists and pins both arms above Tanner’s head.
If it had been almost anyone else - literally, because later Tanner will only be able to think of one other person he would let pin him down - Tanner knows he would have tensed up, fought back, thrown whoever it was off him. But this is Bond, someone who has put his life in Tanner’s hands on more than one occasion, and Tanner finds it almost second nature to give himself up to Bond.
He relaxes, just the tiniest fraction and Bond’s answering groan is enough to convince Tanner he made the right call. Why that clinical corner of his mind is noticing all this, he doesn’t know, as the rest of his mind and his entire body is back to running on a litany of ‘fuck, yes, more’.
Bond appears to know exactly how to push to make Tanner’s body respond to the delicious pleasure, knows the exact way to roll his hips and hit that perfect spot that makes Tanner see stars behind his eyelids. His cock twitches, dripping wet and untouched, but Tanner doesn’t mind, too full and too overwhelmed to care.
Bond catches his mouth, swallows every one of Tanner’s needy gasps, and his fingers dig into Tanner’s wrists until it’s just pleasure pain all around.
He tries to speak, wants to curse this infuriating fucking man who is taking him apart, piece by piece but Bond kisses him, fast and filthy, and Tanner opens his eyes to find Bond staring back at him. Blue eyes blown nearly black, focused and intent and Tanner bucks up to meet him, thrust for thrust. He’s gratified to hear Bond’s deep groan.
“Come on, Bond,” Tanner tells him on a gasp.
Bond rears up, releasing Tanner’s wrists to grasp him firmly by the hips and if Tanner had thought he was a machine before, this is another level of fucking. The angle Bond is holding him at means every thrust hits the target and Tanner will swear he never made noises like that in his life.
He’s never come untouched like that before either. He’s not sure what pushes him over the edge. By that point, he’s not even sure what his name is but Bond does something and fuck, that’s it. He grips Bond’s forearms hard enough to leave matching arcs of fingerprint shaped bruises and comes so hard he can’t breathe.
As he does, he feels Bond go to draw back and yeah, no.
“Fuck, no,” he growls, tightening his legs around Bond’s hips until Bond gives a strangled groan and comes too, arms shaking with the effort of holding himself in Tanner.
Tanner releases his grip on Bond’s forearms and pulls him down to kiss him, not willing to give up the contact just yet. He’s heard about Bond’s infamous habit of fucking and running, leaving his conquests to wake up alone and no, Tanner is not about that right now. Not that there’s anywhere for Bond to run to at that precise moment, but he draws him down.
To his surprise, Bond comes willingly, blanketing Tanner with his body in spite of the mess between them. They kiss, breathless and needy until somewhere along the way it softens into gentle and comforting. Tanner runs a shaking hand over Bond’s hair, his other hand trailing up and down the heated, sweat slick skin of Bond’s back.
“I think we need another shower, Commander,” he says, barely recognising the fucked out tone of his own voice and Bond huffs a half laugh.
“You can probably call me James now,” Bond tells him, gratifyingly out of breath.
They do eventually make it into the bathroom and shower. Oddly, they do it together, scrubbing each other’s backs under the cool water, spending extra unnecessary seconds touching old scars and, in Bond’s case, much newer ones.
Tanner redresses Bond’s shoulder, glad to see the stitches have held and relieved that nothing else appears to be broken or bleeding. Even his bruised ribs aren’t hurting as much, leading him to hope that it’s only a single rib and not all that damaged.
He digs toothbrushes out of the seemingly bottomless box of things under the sink and when he returns to the bedroom, he finds Bond has stripped the blankets off the bed, leaving them with just a top and bottom sheet. More than enough in the now gentle warmth of the desert night.
“We should sleep,” Bond says, looking towards the window. “Evac will be here in seven hours or so, and we have almost an hour’s hike to the rendezvous.” He hands Tanner a bottle of water and Tanner is relieved to hear the crack as he breaks the seal.
“I reckon I could nap a while,” he says after draining half the bottle. His nonchalance is ruined by his yawn and Bond laughs. He looks open and relaxed, Tanner thinks, blue eyes soft and that smile coming more easily than Tanner has ever seen.
“Good. Everything is locked up tight.” Bond stretches and Tanner can’t help look. Naked, he’s an incredible looking man. “No,” Bond says, and Tanner’s eyes snap back up to Bond’s face. “Never thought I’d say it but I’m too tired.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone you said that.”
“Get into bed, Tanner.”
Tanner drains the rest of the bottle and tosses it in the general direction of the corner.
“You should probably call me Bill now,” he says.
By some miracle, they make it out of the semi-abandoned hotel unmolested, and Tanner is as surprised as Bond is when the helicopter actually turns up when and where it’s supposed to do.
He feels his work persona returning as the big unmarked Puma lifts off, the dust cloud of sand obscuring the view for a minute or two and by the time they clear the coast of Algeria and turn towards Rome where they’re booked on a regular flight back to London, Tanner is back to being Chief of Staff.
“Call from HQ, sir,” the Lieutenant at the controls says once they’re over the Med.
“Patch it through,” Tanner tells him, and there’s a crackle of static in his headset.
“Good morning, Tanner. Eventful trip?” Eve’s voice is professionally neutral but Tanner can hear her smile none the less. Bond’s snort of amusement means he can hear Eve too.
“Nothing much out of the ordinary,” Tanner replies as Bond shakes his head.
“Baby sitting the office staff doesn’t tend to make for overly exciting expeditions,” Bond adds, and Tanner’s poker face is sorely tested as Eve cackles.
“You still managed to lose the gun Q branch gave you,” he points out. “You’re going to have to do some fast talking to explain things to Q.”
“I’ll deal with Q,” Bond assures him. “You get to debrief M.” There’s a touch of amusement in his voice that Tanner sincerely hopes Eve doesn’t notice.
“I think Bond has the best part of that deal,” Eve tells them, as the Lieutenant banks the chopper in an elegant arc to avoid the coast of Sardinia. “M has been in a foul mood since you two fell off the radar.”
“Great.” Tanner sighs and rubs his face with both hands, wincing at the combination of half healed palms and slightly sunburned cheeks. “What do I have to offer for you to run interference?”
“I’m not sure you have that much bargaining power,” Eve tells him sweetly. “I’ll see you when you get here. Baxter will meet you at Heathrow.”
They have precisely twenty five minutes at the safe house near the airport (for safe house, read a tiny one bedroomed apartment which is nevertheless stocked with a full range of clothing in different sizes, toiletries including razors, and a damned good first aid kit) and they make it to their plane with time to spare. Clean, shaved and not covered in sand, which Tanner counts as a win. Bond manages to make the generic black trousers and white shirt look delectably casual. Tanner feels like a waiter who’s lost his tie.
“Get some sleep,” Tanner murmurs as Bond takes his seat, two rows in front of where Tanner will be sitting. Bond’s raised eyebrow says volumes, but a glance around the half full cabin shows Tanner the threat level is minimal. “I’ll keep an eye open,” he promises. “You need the rest.”
Bond’s skeptical expression softens, and he nods as if to himself, not turning to watch Tanner take his own seat.
Tanner watches Bond throughout the flight, and surprisingly, Bond does actually sleep for almost two of the two and a half hour journey. Tanner isn’t entirely sure what Bond’s week in Mali had entailed, but he would no doubt find out soon enough. Sleep obviously hadn’t been on the agenda, however. He isn’t sure what to do with the knowledge that Bond trusts him enough to let him keep guard, either.
Then it’s the whirl and press of humanity in Heathrow airport, finding M’s driver, Baxter, who has come to meet them. Slogging back through early afternoon traffic, hardly able to believe they were in Algiers just that morning. Baxter fills them in on some of the gossip as they crawl through the middle of London, and little corner of Tanner just wants to go back to that run down hotel in the desert and hide from the mess.
The main part of him is raring to dive back into MI6, though, and he really doesn’t want to look too deeply at the psychological implications of that.
“Well,” M says as Tanner and Bond step out of the elevator together. “That was a bloody great cock up, wasn’t it?” He’s stood by the door to Q branch and Tanner really isn’t ready to face him just yet. It appears M has preempted them, however.
“I don’t know, sir,” Bond says mildly. “One less terrorist cell is always a bonus.”
“Yes, quite.” M doesn’t look impressed in the slightest. “And how, pray tell, do I explain the unfortunate fireball that mysteriously destroyed a goodly portion of the Cité Nador?”
“Blame the Italians?” Bond suggests, and Tanner bites the inside of his cheek in a desperate attempt to keep a straight face.
M isn’t fooled one iota.
The door opens and Q appears, tousled and squinting suspiciously at them all.
“Why do you two look like a pair of disreputable waiters?” Q asks, and Tanner loses his inner battle not to laugh.
“If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find some of my own clothes,” he says. “Q, don’t ask Bond about the gun, whatever you do. Sir.” He nods at M and goes to walk away.
“Tanner, my office, ten minutes,” M snaps.
“Yes sir.” Tanner catches Bond’s eye and can see the suppressed laughter, the bastard.
He’s only been away from the place for five days, but it feels like coming home as he makes his way to the part of the underground bunker which has been fondly nicknamed ‘the Ritz’. There are tiny cells containing bunk beds, for when you’re into hour seventy two of whatever the crisis of the week is, need sleep before you pass out but daren’t leave the building. Tanner has lost count of the cat naps he’s taken down there. Rows of tall narrow lockers hold half a dozen changes of clothing for the staff who tend to all but live there on occasion, and best of all, there are four luxurious shower blocks. Luxurious because there is unlimited hot water and a plentiful supply of decent towels. To the largely ex-military population, this is beyond decadent. Tanner takes a couple of minutes to scrub down, even though he only showered a few hours ago. Plane travel always makes him feel grimy.
He spends probably longer than strictly healthy admiring the bruises that litter his body. Finger marks around his wrists and biceps vie for attention with a harsh red and black line across his ribs from the car crash. There are some gratifying fingerprints on his hips too and he’s at once grateful and regretful that the bite mark on his neck is comfortably covered by his collar.
It’s closer to fifteen minutes before he makes it up to M’s office, and Eve just grins at him.
“That was an exciting little interlude for you then,” she says, and Tanner laughs.
“Life is never boring with a double-oh around,” he tells her. “Although I think my bruised ribs will be glad of a little desk work for a while.”
“You should really go report to medical first then.” Her expression shifts from teasing to concerned. “No one mentioned bruised ribs to me. What if you’ve broken one?”
Tanner shrugs, keeping the movement small because, yeah, ribs.
“I’ll be fine. I need to see what his nibs wants.”
“His nibs,” M says from the doorway. “Agrees with Moneypenny. Medical, now.”
“Honestly, sir, I’m fine. I think it’s just a little light bruising more than anything, and the bang on the back of my head doesn’t even hurt any more.”
Eve fails to muffle her giggle, but Tanner is more intrigued by the range of expressions which flit over M’s face. Before he can catalogue more than ‘irritation/exasperation/concern’, he finds himself being all but frogmarched back down into the depths of the bunker to where Medical sits right next to Q branch.
Tanner is highly amused to see Bond already there, shirt off, having his shoulder tended to.
“Et tu, Bruté?” Bond asks in response to Tanner’s laughter.
“You should have come here first,” Tanner points out as one of the medical team ushers him towards an open cubicle and instructs him to take his shirt off. They aren’t big on privacy around here, but then again, it’s not like modesty is a common trait around MI6. “I am no surgeon when it comes to stitching up gun shot wounds.”
“That much is obvious.”
“And my ribs are just bruised, yours are definitely cracked.”
“If you’d taken out the driver a hundred yards before -”
“If you’d kept a straight line so I could aim through a three inch square hole -”
“Will you two stop it,” Mallory interrupts with an irritated bark. Tanner turns to apologise but catches Mallory looking at Bond. Well, yes, he thinks, that’s definitely worth a once over but then freezes.
M is looking at Bond’s arms, at the perfectly matching set of finger marks on each forearm. Tanner would feel proud of those, but then M turns his eyes on Tanner and, oh, oh fuck. His fingers spasm in the fabric of his shirt that’s he’s just taken off in front of M. M’s eyes flit between the now visible mark on Tanner’s neck, the lurid bruise over his ribs, the fingerprints on his biceps, and back to Bond’s arms.
The air in the room all but vanishes.
“I expect you both in my office once you’re done in here,” M says, tone clipped, before turning on his heels and not-quite storming out.
“Well,” Bond says into the silence. “That’s going to be fun.”
Tanner sits on the edge of the bed and lets the medic strap his ribs (“probably just bruised but take it easy”) and check the back of his head and his palms (“just scrapes, keep them clean”). He barely hears Bond’s prognosis (“keep that shoulder clean and dry, just the one cracked rib, it’ll be two weeks before you’re cleared for active duty again”). All he can see is M’s gutted expression, hear the hollowness in his words.
Fuck it, he thinks, slowly buttoning his shirt. He’s just got to put his best poker face on and be one hundred percent professional and dispassionate, because that’s exactly what M will do.
He looks up at a presence and finds Bond stood next to him. There’s an uncharacteristic softness in those blue eyes.
“Maybe you should just tell him,” Bond says. Tanner rolls his eyes.
“Because of course that’s what you’ve just done, hm?”
Bond’s smile turns wry and a little bitter.
“Not quite. But you’re a far better prospect for something permanent that I am.”
“You’re a fucking idiot.”
“Pot kettle?” Bond reaches out and ghosts a hand over Tanner’s collar, right over the mark. “Come on, let’s go let him shout at us for a while. Then I reckon we need something to eat.”
“I don’t think I’m particularly hungry.” Tanner hops down off the bed and straightens his tie. Suit jacket on, armour firmly in place. He can do this.
They head towards the elevator in step, shoulder to shoulder, and Tanner is never sure what makes him look to his left.
Q is watching them from the doorway to Q branch.
Tanner and Q have been friends pretty much since Q’s first day at MI6. About the only thing they have in common is their predilection for getting caught up in insanity, but in spite of being from totally different back grounds, the whole Silva debacle had cemented their camaraderie in the way that intense life or death situations often did. Tanner has lost count of the evenings he’s spent in Q branch, drinking beer from the hidden fridge in the corner of the situation room.
The look Q shoots him at that moment is one of pure betrayal.
The elevator arrives before Tanner can think of what to say and as the doors close, he watches Q disappear back into his subterranean domain. Bond’s face is utterly blank and Tanner doesn’t even know where to start with that pair of idiots.
He deliberately doesn’t dwell on the fact that they might not be the only pair of idiots in the place.
Eve looks up at them as they step into her office and the smile on her face is somewhat strained.
“You’re both to go right in,” she says, and Tanner hates that they might have put M into a bad enough temper that he’s taken it out on Eve.
“I’m sorry,” he starts to say, but she waves him off.
“Save your apologies for M,” she tells him. “I have never seen him in that kind of mood before. I don’t know what you two did in Algiers but it must have involved some high level death and destruction.”
“Something like that.” Tanner squares his shoulders and nods at Bond. “After you, Commander.”
M is sat at his desk, a sheaf of papers spread out before him and a completely inscrutable expression on his face.
“Ah, double-oh seven, take a seat. Tanner, I need the file on the far end of that unit, the red one.” M looks from one to the other and Tanner wonders if it’s too soon to relax because something has obviously changed since M left medical.
He scoops up the file, noting that it’s nothing to do with Algiers at all. Bristol, he thinks. That should have been signed off three days ago.
“It appears,” M says wearily. “That between the two of you, you inadvertently managed to take down a spin off Mafia cell that Interpol have been trying to track down for several years.”
“Mafia?” Tanners asks, placing the red folder on the desk in front of M.
“I know they were Italians, but really?” Bond frowns. “They weren’t particularly good.”
“Yes, well.” M sniffs. “The one they found behind the wheel of his vehicle with a bullet hole through his left eye was the ringleader.”
Bond glances at Tanner and the corner of his mouth twitches.
“Okay, so maybe the driver was more expedient than the front tyre.”
“I hate to say I told you so.” Tanner tries not to sag with relief. He had been fully expecting a thorough bollocking about it all, and whilst Bond was more than used to having a strip torn off his hide, Tanner really didn’t want M to look at him like that.
“Enough of that,” M snaps and Tanner notes how Bond doesn’t even blink. “It’s only because the local police in Algiers managed to apprehend the last few remaining members of the cell and therefore, are able to take all the credit from Interpol, that you are let off the hook for the destruction of that part of the city.”
“Fortuitous,” Bond murmurs.
“You’re just bloody lucky that the station chief in Algiers rang me before you returned from Medical, as I was about to assign your destructive arse to Tromsø for the rest of the month. And you,” M turns to Tanner who is standing at parade rest by the window, trying to stay out of the way. “What the hell were you playing at? You only went over there to talk to Leclerc. A twenty four hour round trip, maximum.”
“He sold me out to those Italians,” Tanner replies. “I radioed in, dispatch told me my closest agent was double-oh seven, and Bond was there within an hour.” He shrugs. “If Bond hadn’t turned up when he did, I would have had a bit of difficulty getting to a point where I could call in an evac, because the Italians had me pretty much cornered.”
“What the hell did they want you for?”
“Not me specifically. I just happened to be a British intelligence agent in the right place at the right time for them.” Tanner isn’t hurt by M’s apparent disbelief that someone may have actually wanted Tanner. “I was little more than a potential bargaining chip.”
“Money, what else?”
M pulls a face, then turns a steely eye on Bond.
“Well, thank you for retrieving my Chief of Staff, albeit with somewhat more havoc than necessary.”
Tanner bites back the ‘but no more than normal’ comment he’s dying to make. There is a time and a place, he tells himself. And this is neither.
“So, report to Divisional, give them a run down of where exactly you were, then I believe we have a small incident in Singapore which could do with your attention.” M nods at Bond. “Dismissed. Oh, and Bond?”
Bond raises an eyebrow as he stands.
“Try not to blow anything up this time.”
“I’ll do my best, sir.” He nods at M, then at Tanner, and Tanner is almost certain there was the ghost of a smile there in the corners of Bond’s eyes. “Major.”
“Commander.” Tanner returns the nod and fights back his own smile.
“I don’t know what’s so fucking funny,” M says as the door shuts. “You could have been killed and then where we would be?”
“At my funeral, probably,” Tanner replies before his sense of self preservation overrides his smart mouth. He’s obviously spent too long in Bond’s company. “Sorry sir. Oh, and um, Medical has signed Bond off for two weeks.”
“But he never said a word.” M scowls at the door through which the agent in question had vanished with alacrity.
“It’s probably not on the system yet. Maybe he’s hoping to get on a plane before Medical can update his file and ground him for a fortnight.” He smothers a yawn. “Sorry, still on Algiers time.
“That’s only an hour ahead, Tanner.” M sighs, and suddenly looks impossibly tired. “Well, I’m just glad you’re back before the PM’s debrief tomorrow. I suggest you spend the rest of the day getting up to speed with everything you’ve missed since last Thursday and then I want you back in here for five and we’ll go over the Bristol mess.”
“I thought the Chief Super had straightened that out last month.”
“So did I.” M shakes his head. “Dismissed.”
Eve is thankfully on the phone as Tanner leaves. He doesn’t really want to have to explain everything to her just yet, although he knows that at some point, she’ll figure out everything, like normal, and expect a blow by blow recount of exactly what went on.
The stack of files on his desk is enough to distract him from the past few days and he willingly dives into dealing with all the nonsense that his position as Chief of Staff attracts. It’s not even as if he can delegate any of this, he thinks, as every other folder has a ‘For Your Eyes Only’ sticker sealing it shut.
Five o’clock comes and goes without him noticing.
“By Algiers time, it’s nearly seven.”
Startled, Tanner looks up and sees M in his doorway.
“It’s what?” He looks at his wrist but it’s bare. “Oh fuck. I mean, sorry sir.”
“Where’s your watch?”
“I, uh, sold it.”
“You sold your Omega? Do you have gambling debts I don’t know about?”
“No, no. I exchanged it, for medical supplies, a phone and some clothing, in Algiers.” Tanner rubs his eyes, regretful and exhausted. He’s been staring at tiny print for hours and he can’t remember the last time he ate. “Bond was bleeding out from that shoulder, and I had nothing else to bargain with.”
Tanner blinks and looks up, and finds M studying him intently. Whilst M looks perfectly put together and good enough to eat - navy waistcoat over fine pinstripe blue Oxford shirt, dark blue silk tie in an immaculate half-Windsor knot - Tanner feels distinctly rumpled. He shed his suit jacket shortly after sitting at his desk, rolling his sleeves up when the heating got too much, and he’s not sure when he lost the tie.
“It’s just a watch, it can be replaced,” Tanner tries to brush it off. He stands, pretending not to see the way M is looking at his wrists. “Right, Bristol. Let me grab the file.”
He follows M back to his office, noting that Eve has already left for the day. Lucky Eve, he thinks, dropping into the chair next to M’s desk like he always does, opening the file, work head firmly engaged. He’s deliberately not thinking about Algiers or stitching up Bond or his missing watch, or even about the way M is looking at him, like he can see right through Tanner and out the other side.
The Bristol file only takes half an hour or so to go through, for which he’ll be eternally grateful. He might even make it home before eight, he thinks, shutting the file with a snap of satisfaction.
A moment later, a glass of cognac appears in front of him.
“You look like you need it.” M’s expression is unreadable, although Tanner thinks that he’s probably not in trouble at that moment. “Did you stop for lunch?”
“In all honesty, sir, I don’t recall eating anything today, except for a slice of pizza in the departure lounge in Rome. Which was, I don’t know, nine hours ago? Ish?” He picks up the glass and takes a mouthful. It burns in a good way, all the way down. “Thank you.”
M nods, sipping his own drink, green eyes intent.
“In your own words, Tanner, run me through exactly what happened in Algiers, from the moment you got off the plane.”
Sit rep, Tanner thinks. He can do this one.
M refills his glass twice more before Tanner gets to the hotel in the desert.
“And that’s where I swapped my watch out for supplies. Clothing, a phone, and a fairly decent medical kit. I was able to stitch Bond up to stop him bleeding out, because although it’s just a flesh wound, it’s deep. By the time I’d nailed down an evac time and location, it was late, so we got what sleep we could and headed out first thing, as the closest retrieval point was almost an hour’s hike away.” He yawns, only just covering his mouth in time. “Sorry, sir.”
“I should let you get home,” M says. He swirls the last half inch of cognac in his own glass. “And don’t forget to eat at some point.”
Tanner nods, standing up and only realising that he still has his sleeves rolled up when he goes to put his jacket on. Ah, well, he thinks. It’s not like the gradually deepening red and purple ovals can be mistaken for anything other than what they are.
“Will do.” He scoops up the pile of files and goes to leave.
He turns in the doorway, finds M looking down at his empty glass.
“And - well. Your wrists?”
Tanner feels something cold curl through his belly, but then the cognac fights back and he can’t help the huff of a laugh which makes M glance up.
“Sometimes, when you can’t have what you really want, you learn to want that which you can have.” Tanner’s smile feels too tight. “Good night, sir.”
Things return to some semblance of normality over the following weeks. If normality can include such things as three major incidents in London alone, only one of which reaches the press and for once, Bond isn’t involved.
Tanner has to sit on M’s Friday afternoon meeting with 003, though, who isn’t particularly contrite but then she never is when she believes she is in the right.
M has that expression on his face which means the cognac is going to be making an appearance very shortly after 003 is dispatched to Divisional for official debrief and reassignment. Tanner doesn’t know whether to hang around for the brandy or make a break for home and the leftover Thai he knows is in the fridge.
M takes the decision out of his hands, as no sooner does the door close on 003, two glasses appear out of the bottom drawer of M’s desk.
“That good, eh?” Tanner asks. He shuffles the last of the paperwork into a yellow manilla folder and seals it with a P&C sticker. At some point, he’ll toss it in the general direction of Personnel and let them deal with the filing. Thankfully 003’s specialisms are outside his remit.
“If she wasn’t one of the best infiltration agents we have, I would have permanently assigned her to the Embassy in Chattogram.” M draws a hand over his face and sighs before picking up the bottle to pour. “I am getting too old for this.”
“Your predecessor was nearly two decades older than you are, sir,” Tanner tells him cheerfully. “You’ve got a few years left in you yet.”
“She was superhuman. Or inhuman, depending on your point of view.”
Tanner thinks about it for a moment, accepting the glass of cognac with a murmur of thanks.
“A little of both, I believe,” he says after the first sip. “She was the first woman in that role, in an industry which doesn’t have a great many women in it. Dealing with the old guard, the entrenched sexism within government bodies, the rapidly evolving world of espionage.” Tanner chuckles as he recalls a particular moment. “Once she told me she missed the Cold War.”
M snorts into his glass of cognac.
“Why does that not surprise me?”
“She believed, though.” Tanner is surprised at how the memories of the old M come back so strongly. “She was tough, uncompromising when she was doing what she thought was the right thing. A little like 003, to be honest. She would have made a marvellous agent.”
“My last memory is of her quoting Tennyson to that irritating bloody minister.”
“Same.” Tanner lifts his glass and peers into the amber depths. “I never liked Tennyson but I made a point of reading that poem after she died.”
“I prefer Shakespeare,” M admits, and goes up yet another notch in Tanner’s estimation. Like he can go any bloody higher, Tanner thinks.
Before he can spiral down that particular (favourite) rabbit hole, every phone within earshot starts to ring.
“Well,” M says, looking resigned. “That bodes well for our evening, eh, Tanner?”
Tanner looks from his phone to the half inch of cognac in his glass.
“Cheers,” he says, and knocks the lot back in one as he swipes his thumb over the screen. “Tanner,” he rasps into the phone.
He does manage to get home before midnight, and the reheated curry makes up for the international headache caused by counter-terrorist agents getting caught with their pants down in the wrong embassy.
At least it wasn’t Bond, Tanner thinks, falling into bed. All things considered, that particular double-oh has been doing reasonably well as of late. Which means, of course, that something is likely to go drastically sideways at some point in the not too distant future, but right at that moment, Tanner is warm, full of food and looking at a solid eight hours sleep, maybe longer if nothing of international importance disturbs his Saturday morning.
Something wakes him up a little after five.
He lies there, aware, not alarmed for some reason, but he knows something woke him up. He can smell coffee, of all things. And cordite.
Bond looks up from where he’s perusing the contents of the fridge in Tanner’s tiny kitchen. There’s a large takeaway cup of what Tanner presumes is coffee on the counter, and Bond looks like he hasn’t slept in a while.
“Get dressed,” Bond says, giving Tanner’s sleeping shorts a once over. “Baxter will be here in eight minutes.”
‘Why the fuck are you going through my fridge at ten past five in the morning? Don’t you have a fridge in your own flat?” He frowns. “Baxter is M’s driver.”
“M is missing.”
Time ceases to operate the same way. The eight minutes between Bond’s pronouncement and the arrival of Baxter are occupied solely with finding clothes, drinking the coffee Bond had brought and being filled in on exactly what Bond meant by ‘missing’.
“M was scheduled for a 0300 call with the head of the Russian embassy in Karachi, to sort out last night’s debacle, and Baxter napped in the car until he was ready for home. When he hadn’t come down by half four, Baxter went up to check everything was okay. M wasn’t there.”
“Had he taken the call?” Tanner finds himself dressing in his normal weekend gear of jeans, polo shirt, grey hoodie. Bond looks like he always does, suit, shirt, no tie. Tanner idly wonders if he has an unlimited number of suits to hand.
“Apparently not. Two empty cognac glasses on the desk, his jacket on the floor at the side of the desk. Phone and keys were in the pocket.”
“So, hang on.” Tanner rubs his eyes, tries to marshall his thoughts into something approximating rational and logical, not just a hollow litany of ‘M is missing’. “This makes no sense. I left M at about eleven thirty, because he said there was no point both of us going short on sleep for what was hopefully going to be a ten minute phonecall. How do you know all this if Baxter is the one who found him missing, just forty minutes ago? Why are you here and why is Baxter on his way here? And why do you think he’s missing?”
Bond smiles, and there’s a world of understanding in his expression.
“The doors to his office and Eve’s were both wide open. His overcoat was on the back of the door, his suit jacket on the floor. He’s hardly likely to leave of his own accord without those at this time of year.”
Bond’s phone pings and he tips his head towards the door.
“Baxter’s here. He rang me, told me to get you moving, alerted security and with a little luck, Q will be in the situation room when we get there.”
“How the hell would anyone be able to get to M’s office without someone noticing?” Tanner grabs his phone, keys, wallet, lanyard, and the last of the coffee on his way out the door.
“I don’t know, but I’m hoping Q will find some answers on the cameras. But with M missing, you are next in command,” Bond points out, and Tanner tries to pretend that doesn’t make his heart leap in his chest.
When he sees M’s office half an hour later, his heart turns to lead.
What Baxter had neglected to tell Bond was the fact that there are very obvious signs of a struggle. The chair Tanner had been sitting on just twelve hours earlier is lying on its side under the window, M’s chair shoved hard back against the wall. M’s favourite fountain pen lies on the floor amidst a flurry of paper, crushed and leaking black ink in a puddle which looks too much like dried blood for Tanner’s comfort. M’s jacket has been picked up off the floor and hung on the back of the door with his overcoat, but the first thing Tanner does is take the phone, keys and wallet out of the pockets.
“This is blood,” Tanner says, running his thumb across a dark mark on the wall next to the door. He keeps his tone clinical. “We need to know if it’s M’s or if it belongs to whomever else was in here.”
“I’ll get forensics up here,” Baxter offers. He presses his finger into his ear. “Gate says Q just arrived.”
“Good. I want a full team to go over this room with microscopic precision.” Tanner watches Bond inspect the window. “Bond. Let’s go.”
It says something for their working relationship that Bond immediately turns and follows Tanner from the room. They don’t speak until they get to Q branch.
“Q, what do you have?” Tanner asks, striding into the situation room. Q blinks at him blearily, but he’s typing away at a computer to one side whilst unintelligible streams of numbers scroll across the big screen.
“Absolutely sod all.” He glances up at the screen. “That bloody thing was set to update and reboot at midnight so it’s still chewing the data over.” He taps return with a flourish and three smaller screens to Tanner’s left come to life. “But I can’t find anything. Security shows nothing. No unauthorised access, no unusual activity anywhere. There’s nothing that shouldn’t be there, which is suspicious in itself for a Friday night. There’s usually some agent activity that’s not authorised but it’s ridiculously pristine. Not even a stray double-oh where they shouldn’t be.” Q deliberately doesn’t look at Bond, Tanner notices with a detached amusement, but it’s fleeting.
“There are cameras on M’s corridor.”
“They don’t show anything.” Q does something and the corridor comes on on the centre screen. The numbers in the corner start to fast forward, and Tanner spots himself leaving M’s office a little after 23:30. M comes out, goes back in with a mug of coffee. Then there’s nothing until 04:25 when Baxter appears.
“Hang on.” Tanner steps closer to the screens. “Wind it back. There, stop. Go back, now forward. There, look.”
“Well spotted,” Bond murmurs. Between one time stamp and another, Eve’s door changes from being closed to being open. They don’t see it open, it just - is. The angle of the camera means it isn’t immediately obvious.
“How the bloody hell has someone hacked into the security feeds without leaving a trace?” Q exclaims. He suddenly looks a great deal more awake. “Cheeky bastards.”
Tanner tries not to let the darkness creep in around the edges of his vision. M is missing, and it is up to him to find out who and why and where they’ve taken him.
Bond is leaning on the edge of Q’s desk, watching intently. More people drift in, quietly taking their stations, bringing computers online, widening the net of surveillance.
Someone will find something, Tanner has absolute faith in that. His people are good, the best in fact, and they will find Mallory.
By nine o’clock, Tanner is starting to vibrate with the amount of coffee he’s consumed.
He turns from the screen and sees a brown paper bag in Bond’s hand.
“I’m okay,” he tries to wave Bond off, not wanting to be distracted from his task of going through the feed of Covent Garden’s external CCTV for even a second, but a hand closes, warm and heavy, on the back of his neck.
“Eat the bloody sandwich, Tanner, or you won’t be of any use to anyone inside of three hours.”
He wants to bow his head forward under that weight but then his brain catches up to Bond’s words and he nods.
“Yeah, good point. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Bond hands over the paper bag. “We’ll find him, Bill.”
The use of his name is what very nearly pushes Tanner out of his carefully constructed professional mind set. He has to swallow hard before nodding again.
The sandwich is from the little deli a few hundred yards from the main gate. Tanner doesn’t even want to think about the logistics of Bond obtaining his favourite bacon and brown sauce on soft white but it does the trick. Before he’s even halfway though, he feels more alert and he fully credits the calories with the fact he’s barely finished the last mouthful when the most ridiculously bloody obvious thing occurs to him.
“Q,” he says quietly, moving to stand directly behind the quartermaster. “Just out of curiosity, is M’s tracker from his diplomatic days still live?”
Q stares at him in something akin to disbelief.
“It’s located just above his right ankle,” Tanner murmurs. “Not widely known about, but after Northern Ireland…”
“Just because I’m in espionage doesn’t mean I should have to find out every sodding thing myself. Bloody hell,” Q grumbles and starts typing like fury.
“How did you know about that?” Bond asks. Tanner isn’t sure why Bond is still lurking around Q branch, apart from the obvious, but he is never far from either Q or Tanner.
“I just checked the locations of the double-ohs we have on hand in the UK and remembered a conversation about trackers from a few months ago.” Tanner shrugs. “He never said if it was still live, only that the procedure to put it in his leg just above his ankle had been rather uncomfortable.”
Bond rubs his forearm reflexively.
“Yes, quite,” he says.
“It’s behind a layer of protosecurity that I’ve not seen in a while,” Q announces after another minute or two of mad typing. “Some of these are laughable. Others are, well, ridiculous. It wants M’s blood type.”
“A rhesus postive,” Tanner says absently. He misses the look that passes between Bond and Q but he doesn’t miss the way the screen flickers to a map as Q types the information in.
“Bloody hell, it’s live,” Q says and Tanner fights back the urge to whoop. He scans the map, spots the dot and he’s halfway to the door before Bond grabs his arm.
“Where the hell are you going?” he asks, and Tanner rolls his eyes.
“Same place you are,” he says. “Carter, scramble Puma team six. Q, keep me updated.”
“You aren’t going anywhere,” Bond tells him.
Tanner fixes him with a look.
“Either you come with me, Commander, or I’ll put those two stamps on that piece of paper.”
To his relief, Bond actually laughs.
“Armoury first,” he says, and Tanner has to agree.
He lets Bond pick the weaponry and isn’t disappointed. Baxter is ready and waiting for them, engine running and Tanner slides into the front seat before Bond can even think about it.
“Erith, near Dartford,” Tanner tells Baxter. “How quick does this thing go?”
The ex-forces, police-trained, armed response driver just grins at him.
The warehouse is old, run down and set way back from the road behind a neglected hedge and rusted iron railings.
“Why is it either an old industrial unit or a sixty floor glass office block?” Tanner asks, looking at the grim, three storey building. The late November day hasn’t improved from the wet, miserable start and he isn’t sure if it’s mist or smog that swirls sluggishly around the broken gutters.
“You can always wait in the car,” Bond says lightly, and Baxter smothers a snort of amusement.
They are clearly waiting for them. They’ve not even got halfway down the rutted driveway before the car is sprayed with automatic fire.
“I wish they’d make the paintwork bullet proof as well,” Baxter grouses, throwing the big car off the track and aiming straight at a set of tall wooden doors. The armour plated Jaguar punches straight through as if they were made of paper and they find themselves in amongst big wooden crates.
Tanner and Bond bail out of the car and Baxter reverses, at speed, right back through the big hole he’d just made, drawing more fire. From above the building comes the sound of a helicopter and Tanner just hopes it’s a Puma and not someone trying to do a runner with M.
Dodging around the crates reminds him of an old arcade game he’d played as a kid. He finds himself humming the 8-bit music as he skulks along the far wall, barely even pausing when he hears three sharp cracks ahead.
“Three down, four heading towards the rear,” Bond’s terse voice is in Tanner’s ear. Tanner feels his blood pound in a most satisfying way. He makes a mental note to remember not to mention to HR just how much fun he is having.
It all gets very loud, very fast.
There’s more gunfire. One of the crates explodes into a million splinters and Tanner feels pain bloom across the top of his left arm. It only distracts him for a moment though, as two men burst out of an open doorway ahead, their eyes fixed on the mezzanine above where there are three familiar, black clad, military types wielding Glocks. Puma team 6, Tanner thinks with a glow of satisfaction, and lifts his Walther to put a bullet into each of the men in front of him.
“Not bad,” Bond says, stepping out of the same doorway a few seconds later. He nudges the nearest body with his toe as Tanner checks his clip. “Chopper on the roof, eight of ours now flushing the upper floors.”
“Any sign of M?”
“I overheard someone mentioning the boiler room needed checking.”
The boiler room turns out to be in the basement, neglected and rusted mostly shut, but there are signs of recent habitation. It’s actually blatantly obvious which door M is behind because it’s the only one still on its hinges. Bond shoots the lock out and yanks the door open.
“It’s about bloody time,” comes the thoroughly pissed off voice from within. Tanner’s heart absolutely does not do a happy little hiccough at the sound, but he can’t keep the grin off his face. Peering into the darkened cubby, he sees M, sat on a few sheets of cardboard, hands tied behind his back.
“Well,” Tanner says, dropping to his knees next to M, who is sporting a rather good shiner. “Nice to see you were your normal cooperative self.” He pulls a knife out of his pocket.
“I’m going to ban you from talking to the double-ohs,” M mutters. He turns slightly and watches over his shoulder as Tanner slices through the zip ties that dig cruelly into his wrists.
“Jolly good,” Tanner tells him. The zip ties give way with a satisfying snick. “That means you can take over dealing with them then.”
“Christ, no.” M starts to shake his hands to get the feeling back into them, but Tanner stops him, catching one hand between his.
“Don’t do that,” he says softly. “You’ll make it worse.” He takes a moment to briefly massage M’s forearms, then skips over the red raw and weeping wounds around his wrists and digs his thumbs into the palms of M’s hands. M stifles a groan. “How long have you been wearing those?”
“Long enough for the rest of me to seize up entirely as well.” M rolls his shoulders and Tanner realises he’s just holding M’s hand.
He can’t let go though. He freezes, looking down at the marks on M’s wrists, feeling M’s cold fingers start to warm in his grasp. M must have struggled for a while, Tanner thinks absently, for the plastic to cut so badly.
“I’m all right,” M says softly. His fingers squeeze Tanner’s gently, but Tanner notices that he doesn’t let go either. “I knew you would find me.”
“I…” Tanner swallows, wondering where all the air in the cold little room has gone.
“I’ve been through worse,” M reminds him. “And, uh, you’re bleeding.”
Tanner glances down at his arm and shrugs.
“It’s just a scratch,” he says. The stinging isn’t too bad.
“Now you’re even starting to sound like a double-oh.” A flicker of a smile passes over M’s face and Tanner has to fight back an urge to lean in and press his lips to M’s.
“This is all very touching,” Bond says from the doorway. “But let’s get moving before Baxter finds something else to destroy with the Jag.”
Tanner can’t help his laugh as M’s eyebrows go up.
“Waiting semi-patiently outside now, but he did offer to make a few more holes in the walls if we wanted him to.”
“Maybe it’s the bunker,” M muses, struggling to his feet. Tanner is right there, sliding an arm around M’s waist to help him up and keep him from toppling over, and absolutely not so he can feel the lean, wiry strength of him. “Since we moved underground, everyone has delusions of Churchillian grandeur.”
“Maybe it’s your leadership and sterling example to us all,” Bond tells him, standing back so Tanner can help M out of the tiny room. Storage space, Tanner thinks, looking at the marks on the wall that may once have held shelves up.
“I mean, you did take over with your arm in a sling after being shot,” Tanner points out. M just rolls his eyes.
Bond leads the way back up the rusted iron steps, to the main floor of the warehouse. There, they’re greeted by the sight of all eight members of Puma team 6 who have collected all the bodies (live and dead) into two neat piles.
“Nice work,” Tanner says to the Lieutenant who greets them. He ignores the four dead bodies and looks at the five remaining kidnappers. “Maybe if you’d like to truss this lot up and take them somewhere they can answer a few questions?”
“Yes sir,” the lieutenant nods. “Will you be needing a lift?”
Tanner shakes his head.
“You’re going to be running close enough to capacity with those extra on board.” He wonders which one is responsible for the seamless security breach. “We’ve got a car waiting outside for us.”
The Jag is indeed outside waiting for them, engine running. Baxter doesn’t look too disappointed to be denied the chance to drive through more walls, and is clearly happy at being able to help M into the back. Bond climbs into the front with a smirk, leaving Tanner to get in next to M.
“Hang on a moment,” M says, looking between each of them in turn. “Are you telling me it was just you three for the initial incursion?”
“Baxter did most of the work to start with,” Tanner tells him, and Bond snorts.
“Looking at the state of the car, I can believe it.” M frowns. “And you scrambled a military helicopter with a full black ops team, just to get me.”
“You are the head of MI6, sir. It’s not like we could simply say, ‘oh, he’ll find his way back at some point’ and carry on.”
“But then you yourself led the extraction on the ground.”
“Baxter was chomping at the bit and, to be honest, by the time the ops team were airborne, we were most of the way to Dartford.”
M nods, looking exasperated and amused in equal measure, in spite of the exhaustion writ clear on his face. There’s also an openness to his expression which Tanner isn’t familiar with.
“Tanner, in my absence, you are the de facto head of MI-6. You aren’t really supposed to abandon your post, grab a gun and a double-oh, and start kicking down doors yourself, you know.”
“There was nothing else in the diary for today, sir. And Bond is fairly reliable when it comes to backup.”
“And you freely went along with this hare brained scheme, 007?”
Bond’s smile is rueful.
“I didn’t have much choice in the matter, sir. Tanner here pulled rank and threatened me with retirement if I didn’t.”
“You did what?”
“I didn’t actually mean it,” Tanner protests. “But I needed a wingman and there wasn’t anyone else who I’d trust in a situation like that.”
He catches the odd expression which flits across Bond’s face and something twists inside him as he realises that trust is a commodity which tends to be in short supply in the life of a double-oh.
“It wasn’t that great a hardship,” Bond says, his tone light. “I mean, you’ve not shot me yet.”
“As tempted as I may have been on the odd occasion.”
“After today,” Baxter says, unexpectedly. “I’d be happy with either of these two at my back.”
M smiles, green eyes fixed on Tanner’s.
“I’d trust you with my life, too.”
Tanner can’t maintain eye contact any longer, because it feels like M is looking into his soul so he carefully lifts one of M’s hands and inspects the damage around his wrists. “It looks nasty but I think it’s mostly on the surface. It’s going to sting like hell when they clean it up though.”
M’s fingers curl around Tanner’s own and his grip is strong.
“I think I’ll cope,” he says. “Your arm doesn’t look particular clever either, if I’m totally honest.”
Tanner looks down and sees the arm of his grey hoodie is soaked with blood. He’s not sure what is more surprising, the fact that he can’t feel what is obviously quite a serious wound, or that he charged straight out of the control room to get M without so much as donning a stab vest. He’s still in his weekend clothes and he wonders at what exact point between Algiers and here he’d tipped over from mousy grey little bureaucrat back to active service.
“It’s nothing,” he says. “A few splinters from one of those crates.”
“Here.” It’s Bond, twisting in his seat to hand a first aid kit back to Tanner. “Wrap some gauze around M’s wrists, and then get that jumper off and make sure there’s no debris in the wound.”
Tanner doesn’t argue, and by the time they’re turning down the ramp that leads to the underground bunker, he’s carefully wrapped M’s wrists and is dabbing at the mess of blood and splinters that is his left deltoid muscle.
“Let me,” M says, taking the lint pad from Tanner’s hand and pressing it gingerly to the deepest gash. “Looks like I’ll have company in medical for a while, hm?”
His arm takes nearly three times as long to de-splinter and stitch up as M’s wrists take to clean, so by the time he manages to escape Medical, he finds the control room at a bare tick over. Most of the staff who’d been hauled in for the search have gone to enjoy what’s left of their weekend and the only bodies in the room are Q, M and two technicians. There’s no sign of Bond.
“There you are,” Q says as Tanner walks in. “I thought you’d buggered off home.”
“That’s hardly likely.” Tanner makes a beeline for M. “How are the wrists?”
“A couple of weeks and you’ll hardly notice them.” M looks at the neat white bandages he wears like bracelets. “And your arm?”
“A little messier than I realised. Eight stitches, antibiotics, a tetanus jab and orders not to lift my arm for anything more strenuous than putting on a shirt.” Tanner pulls a face. “Any news from the Puma team? Where have they dropped their passengers?”
“Glasshouse, apparently.” Q squints at his screen. “Aldershot, I think? Either way, there should be a full report Tuesday or Wednesday.”
Tanner isn’t sure what’s more surprising, the fact he manages to get home before dinner time, or that he actually gets that lie in on Sunday morning.
“You don’t have to do everything yourself,” M had pointed out as they’d left the control room together, M heading to Baxter and the battered Jag, Tanner to the tube. “Turn your alarm off, and I’ll see you Monday morning.”
“Very well.” He’d given M a hard look. “And take your own advice. Get some rest.”
Things are oddly quiet at the start of the following week. They have two meetings with the PM and orchestrate the recovery of a shipment of ‘misplaced’ Hellfire missiles that should have been delivered to Mildenhall but had somehow ended up in Lisbon. M is a little distant, which Tanner puts down to his ordeal at the weekend, but he catches M looking at him more than once, with the oddest expression on his face.
Then on Thursday morning, someone decides to attempt a coup of the government in Moldova, and it takes until late Friday afternoon to coordinate with the Romanian and Ukrainian governments to track down the Transnistrian rebels responsible.
“And this is what happens when some genius decides to say those five, fateful words,” Tanner rubs his eyes.
“If you are referring to me,” Q starts, but M cuts in.
“The next time anyone even thinks the phrase ‘it’s been quiet this week’, I will assign them to Yellowknife for the winter.”
“That would do for me,” Tanner says, not thinking. “Snowed in for five months straight.” He rubs a hand across the back of his neck. At least he’d managed to catch a few hours sleep down in the Ritz. He knows for a fact that Q hasn’t left his post for more than the occasional loo break and to make tea. He’d fallen asleep on his console at about 4am and Tanner had left him there, taking over the watch until Q had woken with a start about an hour later.
“You’re not going anywhere, Tanner,” M tells him sharply.
“Nice try.” Q pats his hand. “Ugh, I need a bath and twelve hours of sleep.”
“Get home,” M says. “Tanner, bring those files up and then you can get off too.” He looks around the control room at the other techs who are gradually shutting down their stations and tidying up the empty teacups and coffee mugs. “Thank you, everyone.”
Tanner scoops up the folders from the end of the main console and follows M up to his office. There, he drops them all onto the corner table and then smothers a yawn.
“If it’s alright with you, sir, I’ll deal with these on Monday morning.”
“Yes, of course.” M runs a hand down his face. He looks distracted, Tanner thinks, like he’s still chewing over the past thirty six hours.
“Everything alright, sir?” he has to ask. He’s not used to M being anything except calm, collected and competent. This uncharacteristic uncertainty is putting Tanner on edge.
“It’s fine,” M tells him, and yeah, no. That is not a word that Tanner is comfortable with hearing because everyone knows fine is not fine at all.
But M doesn’t say anything else and Tanner fights back the sudden urge to demand answers that he probably won’t like.
“See you Monday then, sir?”
M just nods. Tanner pats his pockets down to check for phone, keys and wallet and just makes it to the door when M speaks softly.
“I thought he’d hurt you.”
Tanner freezes, hand on the doorknob.
“Sir?” He can’t turn round, not yet.
“In Algiers.” Mallory sighs. “I saw the bruises. I thought he’d hurt you.” The slightest huff of a laugh. “I was on the verge of sending him to N’Djamena. Permanently.”
Tanner takes a deep breath and turns. Mallory is sat on the edge of the desk, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, showing off his toned forearms and the half-healed lacerations around his wrists.
“He didn’t hurt me.” The words threaten to stick in his throat, but Tanner knows they need saying. “He didn’t do anything I didn’t want him to.”
A flicker of what Tanner can only describe as pain crosses Mallory’s face.
“I see.” Mallory looks down. “And is this a… a regular thing?”
“What?” The question is jarring, because it wasn’t at all what Tanner was expecting him to ask. “God, no. It was adrenaline and half a bottle of whiskey and a ‘thank fuck we aren’t dead’ moment. I am definitely not the one he wants.”
“So Q is still a thing.” It’s not a question and Tanner has to laugh.
“Oh god, can the whole of MI-6 see it? They are utterly oblivious.”
“003 did mention that the unresolved sexual tension in this building is likely to be a threat to national security shortly.”
“That’s one way of putting it.” He looks at Mallory’s wrists, remembers the feel of holding his hands in the car on the way back to base. He just wants to touch. He needs to leave. “If that’ll be all, sir?”
Mallory starts to nod but then frowns.
“Just, one more thing, Tanner.”
Please don’t ask me to come in tomorrow, Tanner thinks. He wants to sleep, to spend twelve hours in utter oblivion before he needs to refuel his body and restock his fridge and start to even contemplate coming back to work.
“Technically Bond outranks you.”
“Technically? I suppose yes, he does.” In practise, however, Tanner isn’t so sure. He’s never thought about it, to be honest.
“So, in that kind of situation, it could be seen as an abuse of power. Senior officers should not - cannot - press an advantage.” Mallory isn’t meeting Tanner’s eyes.
“I know that, sir. Which is why I made the first move.” He clearly remembers reaching up and pulling Bond’s head down to kiss him.
There’s a lot Mallory isn’t saying, Tanner thinks. He lets himself really look at Mallory, and everything he sees is wrong. The wry twist of M’s mouth is rueful regret and there’s a defeated slump to the normally square shoulders that Tanner has never seen before. It’s more than just exhaustion.
“It was a one off, sir. It won’t happen again and it will not compromise the working relationship I have with the double-ohs. I can assure you of that.”
Mallory’s nod is almost imperceptible.
“Unless, you wish to… re-assign me?” Tanner goes cold.
“Christ, no.” Mallory looks almost sick at the thought, eyes snapping up to Tanner’s. “You are not leaving my side, Tanner. My predecessor made you Chief of Staff and I would be a bloody fool to let you out of my sight, no matter what.”
The relief that washes over Tanner is a visceral thing.
“Just checking,” he says. “Is there anything else, sir?”
It hangs in the air between them for a loaded moment, a question so common and yet, Tanner feels like there are a hundred new answers. Then Mallory shakes his head wearily.
“No. I’ll see you on Monday.”
Tanner tries to put Mallory’s disappointed expression out of his mind on the journey home. Christ, it’s been over a month since the incident in Algiers. Surely in an industry like theirs, where the last crisis is forgotten just as soon as the next one comes along, it should be long relegated to the archives.
The little Thai takeaway by the Tube station supplies Tanner with a decent dinner, and he’s more than relieved to shed his suit for a shower, some worn combats and a faded rugby t-shirt the moment he walks in through the front door of his flat.
He’s bought three times what he needs out of habit, because some days, leftovers are as much as he can manage. He portions himself out a generous helping and puts the rest of the green curry and rice to one side to cool before going into the fridge.
Food, he thinks. Then sleep. And with a little (lot of) luck his phone won’t ring until Monday morning.
He’s almost finished his dinner before it hits him.
Mallory, holding his hand in the car, not letting go for a moment.
”I knew you would find me.”
“I trust you with my life, too.”
Mallory, looking down at the floor, unable to meet Tanner’s eyes.
“Senior officers should not - cannot - press an advantage.”
“You are not leaving my side.”
“I would be a bloody fool to let you out of my sight.”
Tanner sits back, the last few mouthfuls of rice abandoned. Surely, he thinks, it can’t be that obvious. Or that easy.
In his line of work, nothing is ever obvious or easy, unless it’s some kind of trap. Tanner looks at the remains of his dinner and decides a beer is probably a better option.
He manages three mouthfuls before he finds himself in his bedroom, swapping his old clothes for a decent pair of jeans and a thick black hoodie.
“You’re an idiot,” he mutters to himself as he locks his front door and heads down to street level.
The night is cold and clear, the odd star even visible above the sodium orange light the city spews into the sky.
“You’re a fucking idiot,” he repeats to himself, getting on the Tube.
Friday night on the Circle line, just what he needs to be doing after the insane month he’s had. He should still be sat in front of the telly, catching up on weeks’ worth of recorded shows, trying not to scratch the half healed mess of his left bicep.
“You still have time to walk away,” he tells himself, stepping out of Sloane Square station and heading down Kings Road.
Except, of course, he knows he won’t. If there’s one personality trait that he is self aware enough to acknowledge he has in spades, it’s sheer bloody mindedness and the inability to abandon a course of action once committed. Tanner knows that it’s likely to go spectacularly wrong at some point, but he really cannot live like this any more. Either he is wrong, and it’s the beginning of the end for his current career path, or he is right, and the possibility of that happening is too much to even begin to think about at that moment.
Mallory had been trying to tell him something, and Tanner hadn’t listened. So, he is going to find out if he’d heard right, or ballsed it up entirely. Only one way to do that.
Actually, there are several ways, but Tanner blames his penchant for leaping first and asking questions later firmly on the double-ohs.
“Tanner?” Mallory stands in the open doorway, looking perplexed. “What’s happened?”
Which, of course, would be Mallory’s first reaction, Tanner thinks. His Chief of Staff turns up, unannounced, on his doorstep, on a Friday evening, so the sky is probably falling somewhere.
Tanner just hopes it’s not on his own head.
“Superior officers cannot press their advantage,” Tanner says and Mallory freezes. “But what about subordinate officers?”
Mallory stands there for a full six seconds. Every single one feels like an entire minute to Tanner, and he takes the time to contemplate an off duty Mallory. No tie, no waistcoat, sleeves of a soft grey v-neck sweater rolled up to his elbows, black trousers, black socks, no shoes.
Tanner’s eyes snap up from Mallory’s feet, to find green eyes looking at him in awe.
Wordlessly, Mallory takes a step backwards and opens the door wide in invitation.
Tanner steps into the hallway of Mallory’s beautifully proportioned Georgian terrace and can’t help notice a million tiny details at once - the original tiles on the floor, the scent of beeswax polish and coffee, the sound of Wagner somewhere deeper in the house, the old church pew in the hallway piled with manilla folders and an umbrella…
The door clicks shut behind him and he turns.
Mallory looks at him for a long moment, then swallows.
“You were saying?”
Tanner can’t blink, can’t look away from those intense green eyes.
“I’m just curious,” he hears himself say. “If a superior officer cannot press home an advantage, does that mean a subordinate officer can? Be insubordinate, if you will.”
Mallory takes a step towards him, and Tanner feels his pulse spike.
“It all depends on the type of advantage the subordinate officer wishes to - press.”
“Would one type be more welcome than another?” Tanner asks.
“Right now, I should think any type would be favourably received.” Mallory looks Tanner up and down, and that’s it, that’s about as far as Tanner’s self control and his nerves and his self denial can be stretched.
He closes the gap between them, steps right into Mallory’s space and is gratified at how Mallory doesn’t even flinch.
“Good. Because there are a great many things I wish to press, but right now, this is all I’ve been able to think about.” And he leans in to press a kiss to Mallory’s lips.
There is sometimes a moment, Tanner thinks, in which you know that you have irreversibly changed the course of your life, forever. For good or for bad, there is that one, often tiny, step that there is no going back from, even if you wanted to.
This is one of those moments, and Tanner realises that he never wants to go back to a time before he knew what it was like to kiss Gareth Mallory. Whereas Bond’s kiss had been fierce and almost feral, this is oddly gentle. Warm. Exploratory, but not tentative.
It feels like home.
Tanner curls a hand around the back of Mallory’s neck, fingers sliding through dark hair and against the soft skin of his nape. Mallory’s hands are on Tanner’s hips and they stand like that in the hallway for long minutes, trading kisses which get gradually deeper until Tanner has to pull back a fraction to remember how to breathe.
“Well,” Mallory murmurs.
“Indeed.” Tanner is loathe to move, to risk breaking the moment. Mallory’s pupils are dark pools that he wants to lose himself in.
Mallory lifts a hand and brushes the backs of his fingers along Tanner’s jaw.
“So, what prompted this this evening?” he asks.
“A few things clicked,” Tanner tells him. “You haven’t been exactly subtle and I’m sorry it took me as long as it did to get a clue.” He has to smile. “I’m not usually so dense.”
“Oh, that’s quite alright. We got there in the end.” Mallory kisses him again. “My only question now is, what happens next?”
Tanner hasn’t thought much past the whole ‘knock on M’s door and ask to be insubordinate’ so all he can do is shrug.
“Two options, really. We could be sensible and go talk about this over a cup of tea.” When he doesn’t continue, Mallory raises an eyebrow.
“And option two?”
“Involves less talk and fewer clothes.”
“Oh. Oh, I am most definitely in favour of option two.” Mallory’s little smirk is delightful and Tanner gives in to the need to try and kiss it off his face. He doesn’t quite succeed but the gratifying groan Mallory gives as Tanner’s hand slides down over his backside is totally worth it.
“Then, lead the way, sir,” he murmurs against Mallory’s lips and god, that particular sound is one he wants to hear again.
“My name is Gareth, Bill, and I would ask that you use it. And not ‘sir’, because I have to listen to you say that in public.”
Bill fights back the giddy urge to laugh and kisses Mallory - Gareth - again.
“Then, Gareth, maybe we should take this conversation elsewhere?”
The look Gareth gives him is both fond and utterly delighted.
“Come through whilst I make sure the place isn’t going to burn down,” Gareth says, and Bill nods. He follows Gareth through the house, watches him turn off lights, put the guard up before the open fire and check both front and back doors are securely locked.
There’s nothing awkward between them, however. It’s like they’ve done this a hundred times before.
The feeling continues once they’re in Gareth’s bedroom, surrounded by rich dark wood and white linen. Gareth shuts the door and reaches for Bill, and everything between them is at once new and thrilling, yet comfortable and familiar. Bill tugs Gareth’s cashmere sweater up and off over his head as Gareth slides his hands under the hem of Bill’s hoodie. It probably takes longer than strictly necessary to undress as they keep trading kisses and getting lost in one another, but Bill can hardly count that as a bad thing. It’s only when he takes a moment to wrap both arms around Gareth and finds his skin against bare skin that it actually hits home what he’s doing.
“Are you sure about this?” he can’t help but ask.
“Of course,” Gareth says, arms tightening possessively. He pauses. “Unless… you aren’t?”
“Oh Christ, I’ve never been more sure of anything,” Bill tells him. “I just, I have to double check.”
“You’re not at work now. There’s no need to treble guess your every move.”
“Habit,” Bill says. “Things often backfire spectacularly if I don’t.”
“Do you have your next move planned out then?” Gareth asks. Bill is very aware of how Gareth’s smooth voice appears even deeper than normal, how he smells of sweet coffee and red wine underpinned by a trace of expensive aftershave.
“I rather thought to divest you of the rest of your clothing,” Bill says off hand. “And then take the opportunity presented by that decidedly large bed over there.”
“I can work with that.” Gareth nods.
Bill has a sudden urge to see just what it takes to crack Gareth’s calm, stoic facade and draw an unguarded reaction. Before he can remind himself that he is dealing with the head of MI-6, his hands are moving of their own accord, unzipping Gareth’s trousers and doing their level best to strip him naked in a short a time as possible. Gareth, it appears, is entirely on board with this particular plan.
Shortly after, Bill comes to the startling realisation that Gareth Mallory is a hedonist.
It’s nothing specific at first. It’s more in the subtle way that Gareth responds when Bill touches him: a soft moan of pleasure when Bill presses a kiss to the underside of his jaw, a hitch of the breath as he trails gentle fingers along the inside of Gareth’s thigh, the restrained shudder as Bill wraps his hand around Gareth’s erection and licks delicately across the head. There’s something in the sinuous roll of Gareth’s hips as Bill slides a finger along his perineum, the blatant way his legs fall open as Bill’s finger slips inside him, the guttural groan as Bill sucks a bruise into the soft skin in the crease of his thigh. Gareth’s eyes are closed, his mouth slightly open and Bill adds a second finger as he revels in the trust he is being shown.
A disjointed image flits through his mind, of Bond doing this exact thing to him, but he bats that memory away as fast as it surfaces. This isn’t Algiers, and this is most definitely not a quick fuck fuelled by whiskey and adrenaline.
No, this is something infinitely slower and deeper and, Christ, Bill has to bury his face in the warm skin of Gareth’s flat belly as he fights back a wave of some dangerous emotion he absolutely cannot think about right now.
He pulls his fingers free, sliding up the bed to kiss Gareth fiercely. He definitely did not expect to find himself on top tonight, that’s for sure, but he is not about to complain, especially as Gareth is now curling both hands around Bill’s backside to pull him closer.
They both groan in unison as their erections rub together.
“Bill, please,” Gareth says, voice wrecked.
He can’t help but rock his hips, but then a sliver rational thought pokes him in the back of the head. “I - just... condom?”
Gareth draws a shuddering breath, and fixes Bill with a look.
“What have you done since your last medical, three weeks ago?” The jig of an eyebrow. “As much as I have, I’m guessing.”
“Well… point. But, I’m usually better prepared.”
Gareth pulls Bill’s head down and kisses him, slow and deep and filthy, until Bill’s breathing is ragged and he’s so hard he hurts.
“If you didn’t come here with the intention of fucking me through the mattress, I’ll be sorely disappointed,” Gareth murmurs.
Bill smothers his laugh with another kiss.
“I imagined it being the other way round,” he says. “Although I am entirely flexible.”
“Fuck, yes.” It takes just a brief moment to slick himself up before he’s pushing in, slowly, carefully; pausing only to kiss the gasps from Gareth’s lips.
Then he’s there, all the way, Gareth tight and hot and trembling around him.
“Fuck,” Gareth breathes, and Bill has to kiss him some more, slow and deep until Gareth shudders beneath him and relaxes.
“Been a while?” Bill asks with a sinuous grind of his hips. Gareth’s reply is probably meant to be a word but Bill just picks up the odd consonant. “Good.” It makes something flare hot and dangerous inside him at the thought. He wants to make sure that no one else ever has this.
“Stop looking so bloody smug,” Gareth manages to say, and Bill grins, dips his head for another kiss. They fall into a rhythm, mouths, bodies, moving like they’ve done this a million times before and it’s so much better than Bill could have hoped for.
He feels Gareth try to slide a hand between them and no, Bill isn’t having that tonight. He rears up, hitching Gareth’s thigh up over his own hip and wraps his hand around Gareth’s straining erection.
“I want to watch you,” he says, and Gareth’s breathing stutters.
“You need to come for me.” He can feel his own orgasm gathering pace and he tries to coordinate the movements of his hand and hips. “I want to see your face.”
“Christ, yes, like that.”
Bill watches as Gareth’s eyes close, words dissolving into a litany of ‘yes’ and ‘please’ and ‘Bill’. He can’t help it, can’t hold back any more and then he’s coming and coming, hands tightening, one on Gareth’s hip, the other around his prick. Before he can even think of stuttering an apology though , Gareth groans and spills hot over Bill’s hand, muscles gripping Bill so tight he can barely move.
By some herculean effort, Bill does not collapse face first but instead manages to just about roll to one side. Gareth makes a sulky noise as Bill slips free and it’s so endearing, Bill can’t help the rush of fondness he feels.
“Yes, you may look as smug as you like,” Gareth murmurs, twisting to face Bill. He leans in to kiss him, softer and sweeter than Bill could ever have hoped for, or even imagined. “Maybe I should have been a little clearer with my hints.”
“Maybe you should have just come out and said something directly.” Bill reaches up and smoothes Gareth’s wayward hair back into some semblance of order. “We could have been doing this weeks ago.”
“You’re probably right.” Gareth nods. “But we should discuss it further after we’ve had a nap, hm?”
“I was hoping for twelve hours of sleep tonight.” Bill glances at his wrist and pulls a face. “Still keep expecting to see my watch.”
Gareth peers over Bill’s shoulder.
“Ten to eleven,” he says. “Maybe we could try for a solid eight hours, before my ridiculous body clock wakes us up at precisely seven fifteen.” He looks serious for a moment. “Unless, of course, you wish to sleep in your own bed?”
“Only if you’re in it,” Bill replies, the words coming automatically. Before he can be embarrassed by his sappy response, Gareth’s face lights up.
“I believe staying here is the most obvious answer then,” He leans in and Bill meets him in a kiss which echos their first. Warm, familiar, home. “But first, maybe we should clean up a little, hm?”
Gareth’s en suite is a masterpiece of pale grey marble, glass and chrome. Bill finds himself tugged under a broad shower head and thoroughly washed by a surprisingly tactile Gareth who seems intent on cleaning every inch of Bill with a decadently soft flannel and masses of luxurious bubbles.
A spare toothbrush is offered and Bill finds himself being scrutinised in the mirror as he finishes brushing his teeth.
“What?” he asks, dropping the toothbrush into a white mug next to the sink.
Gareth reaches out and touches Bill’s face with a reverence that almost hurts. “I don’t do random assignations,” he says softly. “Not least because in our line of work, it’s hard to know whom to trust.”
“I trust you,” Bill says immediately.
“You were less than keen on my appointment,” Gareth points out.
“At the time, I felt you were shoving M out of the door, with less deference than maybe you should have,” Bill admits. He wonders how much to say, if admitting he’d been smitten for bloody months was a sensible thing to do. “But then you caught me and Q plotting Bond’s jaunt up to Scotland…” he tails off, unable to help the smile at the thought.
“You were in shirtsleeves, arm in a sling and your reaction was nothing like we expected. That ‘then we’re all buggered’ in response to the question about the PM,” Bill can’t help his chuckle. “I think that was the moment I realised I was sunk.”
“For senior officers in an espionage setting, you both looked ridiculously guilty.” It is clear that Gareth has a very clear recollection of that evening as well. “I have to admit, I noticed you then as well.” He places his forefinger in the hollow of Bill’s throat. “Your top button was undone, and you looked somewhat dishevelled. I rather fancied the idea of seeing just how much more I could… mess you up.”
“Fucking hell.” Bill’s eyes close as he feels a wash of heat go through him. He’s exhausted after the last thirty six hours of insanity and yet he can feel his body valiantly trying to rise to the occasion. “You’re trying to kill me.” There is no way he can even begin to contemplate another round but his libido is trying to convince him otherwise.
“The likelihood of that is non-existent, and considering your track record, I wouldn’t have much success even if I was.” Gareth takes Bill’s hand and leads him back to the bedroom. “But for now, I believe we need some sleep.”
“Are you sure you don’t mind me staying the night?” Bill can’t help but ask. He watches Gareth turn out the main light, leaving just a single bedside lamp on to illuminate the room with a warm, golden glow, before turning to face him.
“You can stay as many nights as you like.” There’s something diffident in the way he says it, and Bill feels a warmth suffuse him.
“Be careful what you offer,” Bill says, climbing into bed. Gareth slides under the duvet next to him, and Bill isn’t sure who reaches for whom first. “I may never leave.”
Gareth kisses him, soft yet hungry, hands cupping Bill’s face.
“I might hold you to that.”
The fire crackles and snow falls thickly outside, blanketing the city in soft, muffled white.
Bill finds himself hypnotised by the dancing flames. Beneath them, three logs glow red gold and the scent of woodsmoke takes Bill back to his grandparents’ place in Oxford. An open fire, a mug of hot chocolate and Grandad making plans for his spring garden.
“That’s a thoughtful expression,” Gareth says, and Bill looks up to see him stood there with two steaming wine glasses. Gareth holds one out. “Penny for them?”
“You’re in the intelligence game,” Bill tells him, taking the glass. It’s almost too hot to hold, bringing with it the scent of sweet red wine, cloves and orange. “You should know it’s a damn sight more than a penny these days.”
Gareth laughs, dropping into the elegant armchair that is the match to Bill’s.
“I’m sure we can… negotiate.” He tips his glass towards Bill before taking a sip and Bill marvels at how the most innocuous words can make his skin heat and prickle when it’s Gareth saying them with that look in his eyes.
“What advantage do you bring to the table?” Bill asks him. He takes a careful mouthful of the mulled wine, feels the knot of tension at the base of his neck start to unwind. “Oh god, that’s good.”
“Secret recipe,” Gareth says. “I’m sure revealing my advantage before the negotiations start is a bit of a rookie mistake.”
“I won’t hold it against you. Not that, anyway.”
The smirk that Gareth has been trying to hide gives way to a proper laugh.
“We have all weekend to negotiate,” he says. He takes a sip of his own wine and sighs in contentment. “And if the forecast blizzard does dump several inches of snow on the capital, then we might have a few days more.”
“I’m not sure what I’d do with that much time off.” Bill inhales the fragrant steam and catches the arch look that Gareth throws his way. “Well, I can think of a few things, I suppose.”
“None of which involve work, I hope.”
Bill rolls his eyes.
“It’s Christmas on Tuesday,” he points out. “The likelihood of us not having to go into work between now and then is slim to none.”
“About the same odds as a white Christmas in London.” Gareth carefully places his mulled wine down on the table next to his armchair and reaches into his pocket. “Now, I know I’m supposed to wait until Tuesday, but just in case there’s some kind of national emergency between now and then, I want to give you this.”
He takes a half-housebrick sized box out of his pocket and passes it to Bill.
“You said we weren’t doing gifts,” Bill says. “What was it? Oh yes,” he fixes Gareth with a hard look. “Christmas is a trite, over commercialised waste of a perfectly good pagan holiday.”
“I never said it was a Christmas gift.” Gareth’s innocent look is almost believable. Bill has to admit, the wrapping on the small box isn’t inherently festive, but nonetheless, the dark blue paper and silver ribbon makes it look expensive.
“I see.” Bill rubs the end of the ribbon between his finger and thumb. “So do I open it now or wait until Tuesday?”
“Oh for god’s sake, man, get on with it.”
Bill starts to tug at the ribbon, then pauses. He sets the box down on the small side table before rising.
“I feel I should give you this then,” he says. He reaches into the lower branches of the Christmas tree in the corner and retrieves a small, slim box wrapped in gold paper.
“No presents, hm?”
Bill gives Gareth the gift and sits back down, scooping up his box and proceeding to rip the paper off it.
His movements stall at the Omega symbol on the top of the bright red box.
“You…” He has no words. Hands shaking, he flips the top of the box up.
The deceptively simple Speedmaster sits nestled in white velvet, its black strap and face offset by the chrome surround.
“I know how much your last one meant to you,” Gareth says, voice soft. “I know we can never get your uncle’s watch back, but I tried to replace it with one as close to the original as I could.”
“Well, there’s this amazing invention called the internet, and-“
“No.” He can’t take his eyes off the watch. “I mean, how did you know what my old watch looked like? How did you know it was my uncle’s?”
“I remember it being an Omega with a black leather strap. People’s watches say a great deal about them.” Gareth pauses for a sip of his mulled wine. “Understated, reliable, exquisite quality.”
Bill takes the watch out of its plush velvet. He can’t process the compliment behind Gareth’s words just yet, so focuses on buckling the strap around his wrist. It feels solid and familiar.
“And it was Q who told me about your uncle,” Gareth continues. “I knew your father had been absent but I didn’t realise it was your mother’s brother who stepped up to the crease.”
“Uncle Ken.” Bill strokes a thumb over the smooth, cool glass of the watch face. “I…” He swallows, blinking. “Thank you.”
Gareth’s smile is a gentle, pleased little thing.
“You are more than welcome, dear boy.”
Bill sniffs and clears his throat.
“Okay, your turn,” he says.
The slim box is wrapped in gold paper. Bill had fully intended on decorating it with a ridiculously large bow, but the opportunity to obtain one just hadn’t arisen. He watches Gareth carefully peel off the paper to reveal a simple wooden box some eight inches long, by an inch and a half wide, and half that deep.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Gareth murmurs, and flips the lid open.
His reaction is soundless, a widening of the eyes and a very satisfactory jaw drop. Pretty much exactly what Bill had been hoping for.
“It’s the original nib,” he says, as Gareth lifts the antique fountain pen from the smooth green silk lining the box. “The yahoos who tried to kidnap you last month crushed the main part of your pen, but Eve rescued the nib. It just took a bit of searching to find the right body for it.”
The polished brown surface of the slender barrel glows warmly in the flickering firelight, and Gareth twirls it between his fingers, the gold trim throwing back glints of red and gold.
“It even feels the same,” he marvels. Bill tries not to feel too smug.
“I took the nib and what was left of the rest of the pen to a tiny shop in Islington, where the elderly lady behind the counter went into rhapsodies over the remains of what she termed ‘one of Onoto’s finest’ and, two weeks later, they’d done that with it.”
Gareth peers closely at the lid.
“I do believe this is the original clip as well.” He places the pen back in its box, puts it carefully on the side table and stands. “You, my dear man, are extraordinary.”
Before Bill can protest that no, he’s not, he finds himself pulled to his feet and being thoroughly kissed.
“It’s just a pen,” he tries to say but Gareth pulls back to frown at him.
“And that is just a watch then?”
Bill glances at his wrist.
“Fair point,” he says and goes in for another kiss.
He’s just considering the pros and cons of pushing Gareth down onto the thick rug in front of the fire or persuading him that an early night is probably an excellent idea, when there’s a loud knocking at the front door.
“What the fuck?” Gareth asks. Bill cackles. It takes a lot for the head of MI-6 to swear like that, and the delightful combination of dishevelled, aroused and pissed off is hugely entertaining.
The knocking comes again, heavier this time. More urgent.
Gareth glances towards the front hall then back at Bill, and as their eyes meet, they both snap into work mode. Arousal melts away to be replaced with a wary alertness.
“You get the door, I’ll back you up,” Bill says. Gareth nods, smoothes his hair back and leads the way to the front of the house.
Bill snatches up the gun that lives in the tiny Edwardian side table in the hallway and holds it loosely at his side as Gareth pulls the door open.
Two figures stand at the top of the steps, wrapped in thick coats and scarves against the blizzard which hasn’t slowed for a moment.
“Yes?” Gareth asks. Bill has a sudden shiver of premonition and realises he knows exactly who is on the doorstep. The shorter of the two figures pushes his hood back with one hand to reveal a wild mass of curly dark hair and a trickle of blood from one nostril, glasses askew. Q’s other hand clings onto the sleeve of Bond’s jacket and for a moment, Bill isn’t sure who is holding whom up.
“I think we need a spot of help,” Q says, and Bond pitches face first onto the floor.