Atlanta, Bill thought, was the tipping point.
Sure, Holden had started having those panic attack things before that, but he was able to manage them for the most part. He never broke during an interview or a meeting, although sometimes Bill would go to the bathroom afterward and find him curled into a ball on the floor, his breath coming in high-pitched whimpers. Even then, most of the time all it took to calm him down was some space and a Valium. On the whole, the kid was the same smarmy asswipe he had always been. But upon returning from Georgia, Holden seemed… different. Quieter, less arrogant. He no longer tried to give his input unless prompted, only speaking when spoken to. His face looked nearly emaciated; he clearly wasn’t eating enough, and the deep bags under his eyes alluded to how much sleep he was getting.
Most concerning, perhaps, was the fact that he kept turning down interviews.
Sometimes Bill and Wendy went, sometimes Wendy and Gregg, and even Bill and Gregg on one disastrous occasion that ended with John Wayne Gacy laughing in their faces and telling them to kiss his ass. But Holden never did, anymore. He refused. He turned down Gacy; that was a definite sign that something was wrong.
There was always some excuse he gave– he wasn't feeling well, he didn't have enough insight into their head, Bill or Wendy or Gregg would be better suited for this particular case– which they never bought, but Wendy instructed Bill to pretend that they did.
“Atlanta took a toll on him, Bill. I think he’s earned a bit of a break from field work,” she told him, early one morning in her office. Holden was just outside, poring over crime scene photos of a new case they’d gotten from Tennessee. He had arrived there before either of them had.
Bill huffed, rolling his eyes.
“Maybe so, but he’s also our best interviewer; we both know that. You and I are great at what we do, but no one can get into their heads like Ford can.”
“Remember how you claimed he’s, quote, ‘fucking immune’? Clearly he’s not, and he’s still contributing to our investigations and analyses. I say we give him a week or two before broaching the idea. The last thing we need is him believing that we don’t trust him to do his job,” Wendy suggested, distractedly scribbling notes on a yellow pad.
Bill sighed, but acquiesced. She did have a point. Atlanta had hit Holden harder than it had the rest of them; he bore the guilt of it on his shoulders as though he were single-handedly responsible for those dead kids. And on the other hand, there hadn't been any upper-level complaints about the BSU since he retired the spoon that he usually used to stir the pot.
“I’ll admit, it has been nice not having to deal with the bureau on our ass every other day because of some scandal from him. Maybe being down one psychopath is a good thing,” Bill joked.
He registered Wendy’s warning glare a beat too late, and turned to see Holden standing in the doorway with a stack of papers enclosed in a manila folder. His hands were trembling and his cheeks were red as he directed his gaze to the floor. Wordlessly, he held out the documents to Bill.
“Holden, I didn’t–“
“Sorry to interrupt,” he mumbled, and scuttled out of the office, shutting the door behind him with a click that echoed through the room like a gunshot.
“Great,” Wendy sighed, taking the file from Bill’s hand and tossing it onto the desk.
“Shit,” Bill muttered, running a hand through his closely cropped hair.
“Now, how the fuck am I supposed to fix that?”
“You can’t possibly be so emotionally stunted that you don’t know how an apology works, Bill.” She looked extremely irritated, her lips curled into a scowl.
“Unfortunately for you, and luckily for me, you’re going to have to fix this one by yourself.”
Bill spent the rest of the afternoon in his office, trying and failing to get work done. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t banish the memory of Holden’s hurt, downturned face from his mind. It was occurring to him, much too late, how hard of a slap in the face it must have been for Holden to hear himself being referred to with the same term that they used to describe the murderers they studied. Even if Bill didn’t intend it that way, it still sounded as though he was equating Holden with a serial killer.
Not to mention, he had made it sound like the only reason he cared about Holden's wellbeing was because of the work. Bill let his head fall against the wooden desk in frustration. Somewhere between the nights on the road and the infinite amount of meetings he had to attend because Holden couldn't keep his damn mouth shut, he had, grudgingly and against his will, begun to care about the guy. He was starting to wish he hadn't, if only so that he wouldn't have to go deliver this apology.
A little voice in his head that sounded a lot like Wendy told him to get his shit together, because he was a grown ass man and should be able to hold himself accountable for his actions without being forced to.
God, he hated that voice.
And, for the umpteenth time that day, he thought to himself, I’m a fucking idiot.
When he finally managed to yank himself from the soggy mass of guilt his brain had been reduced to, the office was dark with the exception of Holden’s desk. The single lamp revealed the nearly sheet-white pallor to his skin, and the darkness under his eyes created a jarring contrast. He was worrying his lower lip between his teeth as he only did when he was in deep concentration, and his normally impeccable suit was wrinkled.
Realizing that now was the perfect time to talk to Holden, Bill groaned softly to himself, gathered his belongings and headed out of his office. Holden glanced up at him briefly, immediately returning to his work after giving Bill a once-over. It reminded Bill of a frightened child, almost– it was something Brian did, whenever he was in trouble. He would shoot fleeting glances at Bill and Nancy, like if he looked at them for too long they would punish him more.
God, Brian... Jesus, focus. Don’t think about him right now; worry about your infinite list of other fuck-ups later.
“Hey. Mind if we talk for a second?”
Holden shook his head and gestured to the empty chair next to him, not looking up. He continued to write, with a fervor Bill had never seen in anyone before he met Holden. Shit, he was stalling. With a deep sigh, he sat down, back too straight and hands awkwardly folded in his lap. After a moment, he grit his teeth and spoke.
“Look, I’m not great with apologies, you know that. But I’m sorry. That joke I made earlier was out of line, and I didn’t mean it.” It sounded strained even to his own ears, and the encouraging smile he had assumed he was offering felt more like a grimace.
I fucking hate this.
“It’s okay,” Holden replied, shifting uncomfortably, voice terribly soft. He still wouldn’t meet Bill’s eyes, and began to fidget with his pencil, the leg closest to Bill rocketing up and down in a nervous tic.
“You weren’t wrong. I cause the unit a lot of trouble, and maybe I am a… a psychopath. I mean, I can get so into these guys’ heads that it scares me, sometimes. Maybe I’m no better than them.”
Fuck. What the hell kind of button did I push? Bill’s chest ached fiercely at the younger agent’s defeated tone, a feeling that took him by surprise. Exactly when did he get so sympathetic toward Holden? He didn't know, and he didn't like it.
Shaking his head to clear it, Bill shoved the thought to the very back of his mind– he’d deal with it later– and simply sniffed in mild discomfort, resting a tentative hand on Holden’s shoulder. Holden seemed to flinch slightly at the unexpected contact, but relaxed so quickly that Bill questioned whether he actually had or not.
“Don’t say that shit. You may be a know-it-all, but… just because you’re intelligent enough to get into their headspace doesn’t make you like them. Sure, you’re reckless with it, but you’ve gotten more insights from these bastards than Gregg, Wendy and I combined.”
“Yeah? And what does that say about me, Bill?” He finally looked up, defiant, jaw locked. Bill nearly shuddered under the intensity, and wracked his mind for a response that could put Holden at ease.
"How about you and I go get a drink?"