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flesh and bone

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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?"

Chapter Text

you're like a mirror, reflecting me
takes one to know one, so take it from me
you've been lonely
you've been lonely, too long
we've been lonely
we've been lonely, too long

“dust to dust”, the civil wars

Bill probably should have learned his lesson from the Atlanta Constitution disaster, but drunk Holden was physically incapable of shutting up. For once, though, it was a relief rather than a nuisance. Even though he was wasted, Holden was speaking more than he had in weeks, and the never-ending stream of words came with a wave of nostalgia for Bill.

Nostalgia for their time on the road, before Kemper and Atlanta and Gunn, when the most distressing aspect of their day was whether they'd have enough gas to make it to the next motel. It was before his marriage had gone to shit and his son had witnessed a murder, when his mind didn't have to be anywhere but on the next teaching session. 

Well, on the next teaching session and Holden.

The ride to the pub had been silent and fraught with tension. Despite readily agreeing to go out, Holden resembled a cornered animal, picking at his cuticles and crowding against the car door. He kept shooting Bill quick, suspicious glances, as though he was expecting Bill to change his mind and dump him on the side of the road. Bill tried to make small talk, desperately attempting to get Holden engaged in conversation, but no dice.

He hadn't prayed in a decade, but nearly did in gratitude when they reached their destination.

The second they sat down at the bar, Holden ordered a tequila sunrise for himself and a beer for Bill, then downed his like his throat was on fire before immediately ordering a second. Once upon a time, Bill would have poked fun at Holden’s preference for mixed drinks, but he decided that he’d made enough jokes about Holden for one day.

God forbid that push another button.

For the first hour or so of his intoxicated state, Holden talked about the Georgia case, which, eventually, led to him questioning the objective of the entire unit. It would be obnoxious if Bill wasn’t so used to Holden being so sure of their work, but because he was, it was just unsettling.

“It’s like, it’s like… it’s like, does any of’t really matter?” Holden complained, flicking his hand in a sloppy ‘well?’ gesture.

He was five drinks in and his words were becoming more of a broken garble. His pressed white shirt was unbuttoned, revealing the top of the tight undershirt beneath, and his face was flushed from the liquor. He was sitting half off of his stool, both of his knees grazing the side of Bill’s thigh as he leaned in to talk over the din of the bar. It was a casual intimacy, one Bill had been deprived of for weeks. It was comfortable.

"Of course it matters. We got a guy locked up, and the murders have stopped, haven't they?"

"Bu' they aren't even prosecuting him f'r the kids. I failed them," Holden mumbled darkly, swiveling around to the bar once again. Bill let out an irritated sigh at the blatant pessimism, flicking his lighter to light his cigarette. His leg was cold without the contact.

"You didn't fail anyone, Holden. We aren't going to be able to catch them all."

“Then why are we even bothering? If we can’t catch these motherfuckers, whasss even the point?” he asked, turning back to face Bill. His breath smelled like tequila. It wasn't as unappealing as it should have been.

“Careful there. Last I checked, I’m supposed to be the cynical one,” Bill snorted. He raised the cigarette to his lips and took a long drag, glaring as Holden's eyes followed the motion. What, did he take issue with Bill smoking in a damn bar?

After a beat, though, Holden seemed to pull himself from his stupor, and grumbled indignantly. 

“Yeah, yeah, I’ma ‘blue-flamer’, or whatever,” he said, waving in dismissal.

“But it doesn’t feel like I’m doin’ good. It feels like I’m ruinin’ things, as usual. As I always do.” He grabbed at his drink, taking a gulp and wiping his mouth with the cuff of his shirt. Bill watched as some of the condensation that had gathered on the glass dribbled down and over the pull of Holden's Adam's apple, and shifted in his seat.

"I don' know when to stop. I push people too much, even though I try not to."

"Well, I'm not gonna deny that," Bill couldn't resist retorting, but immediately wished that he hadn't. Holden didn't react beyond nodding vigorously.

"I destroy things, y'see? Rog– Roger. Roger Wade, an' Shepard, an'–"

“Alright, I think you’ve had enough there, buddy. Let’s get you home.” Bill squirmed uncomfortably at the self-deprecation. He never imagined that he would miss Holden's arrogance, but then again, he hadn't imagined a lot of shit that had happened in the last month. He slammed back the rest of his beer in a few swallows, pulled on his coat and stood to leave when Holden scowled at him, petulantly crossing his arms.

“You serious? ‘M not a damn toddler, Bill.” Bill raised an eyebrow.

“Really? Could have fooled me. Let’s go, Holden.”

With an annoyed huff, Holden stood up, but stumbled as his feet tangled in his discarded jacket. He nearly pitched headfirst into Bill, who reached out on instinct, catching him by the waist. His hands latched onto Bill’s shoulders and they stared at each other, just a bit too close, just a bit too long. Holden’s pupils were blown wide, and his grip tightened slightly.

Clearing his throat, Bill took a step back and adjusted his own jacket, reaching into his pocket to grab his lighter and another cigarette.

“Yeah, no way are you driving home. You can crash at my place, it’s closer.” He wasn’t sure why he offered, given that these days his house was more like a prison than a home, but Holden gave him a small, grateful smile in response.

“Thanks, Bill.”

 


 

They arrived at Bill and Nancy's– at Bill's– house after an equally quiet ride back. The air between them was heavy, for some reason that Bill couldn't quite put his finger on. Holden paused before walking through the threshold, as though he was afraid to go inside, until Bill nudged him forward, tossing their coats haphazardly on the floor before making his way down the hall to get a set of sheets for the bed. 

(She even took the damn coat rack.)

He had avoided sleeping there since Nancy left, instead choosing to spend his nights on that awful fucking couch. The bedroom felt too much like a graveyard, and when he tried to go in there he couldn't breathe.

Might as well let Holden use it; he was in no shape to be sleeping on a couch anyway.

When he padded back out to the living room, Holden had already curled up on the hideous green monstrosity. He was staring at the ceiling tiles and muttering to himself. It sounded almost like he was counting. Bill dumped the sheets unceremoniously onto his lap and gestured expectantly for him to get up.

"What?" Holden asked, sitting up slightly.

"You're taking the bed. I don't want to wake up and find that you've fallen and cracked your head open or choked on your own vomit. It's a bad look, when people die in the FBI agent's house." To his surprise, this made Holden laugh, a hoarse and gentle thing. How long had it been since he'd laughed? His voice nearly crackled with disuse. Bill frowned. 

Once the bed was all set up– Bill couldn't look at it for too long, just enough to help Holden put on the fitted sheet– he figured that it was about time he put an end to the extremely weird night, and moved to turn off the bedside lamp.

“Well, I’m gonna hit the hay. Sleep tight,” he said, but Holden’s hand on his arm stopped him. He was sitting up against the headboard, legs laid out in front of him and crossed at the ankles. He was clad only in his briefs and a shirt of Bill's that was too large on him. Swallowing thickly, Bill averted his eyes, focusing instead on the spot above bed where a family picture used to hang.

”Don’t leave yet, I’m not tired. Le'ss talk.”

Bill sighed frustratedly.

"Holden, I'd really rather not–"

"You've been havin' a rough time." It wasn't a question. Holden watched him carefully, with that (even drunk off his ass) ridiculously intuitive gaze, head tilted to the side. It was almost cat-like.

"You can talk t'me, I–"

"My wife abandoned me and took my son with her, of course I've been having a fucking rough time," Bill snapped. He ran a hand through his hair, placing his other on his hip.

"Shit. I didn't mean to get pissed at you. It's just... it’s been a lot." 

"I understand," Holden replied. With the lack of hurt on his face and his calm demeanor, Bill truly believed that he did. Against his better judgement, he decided to bring up the topic that had been eating at him all day.

"You wanna talk? Let's talk. I won't lie, I had an ulterior motive to bringing you out tonight," he said, taking a cautious seat next to Holden. He adjusted himself so he was also leaning against the headboard, sitting next to him, trying to avoid making it feel like an interrogation. 

"I know you're a little drunk to be discussing this, but I wanted to speak with you about work." Holden froze, shrinking into himself, but Bill kept going.

"Why won't you do interviews anymore? I know that you've also been having a hard time, but we kinda need that intuition of yours. The prisoners we've been talking to lately haven't exactly been as forthcoming as Kemper is, and Wendy and I are at the end of our rope with Gregg's attempts to talk to the bastards." Bill began to chuckle, but stopped himself when he caught a glimpse of Holden's face. It had gone stark white, and his breath came quick and shallow.

It was like watching a fish out of water, and Bill realized that this must be the beginning of a panic attack.

"Jesus, fuck, um– do you need a Valium? Where are they?" Bill asked, but Holden shook his head frantically.

"Can't... drank..." He can't mix it with alcohol.

"Shit." Bill stared at Holden, clueless as to how to help him. He had seen panic attacks before, in the war, but hadn't known what they were at the time. The guys having them usually either waited it out alone or got shot in the process. The latter obviously wasn't going to happen, and the former wasn't exactly ideal.

"I can't, I'm... I can't breathe," Holden gasped, rocking back and forth.

His arms were wrapped tightly around his middle, knees pulled up, fingernails digging into his sides. Bill himself was beginning to lose it, hand hovering inches away from Holden's back, debating whether he should touch him or not.

"What can I do?" Bill asked. A tear slipped down Holden's cheek, and he let out a whimper. Hearing it was physically painful. Making a split-second decision, Bill gently grabbed his hand and put it against his own chest, just over his heart. 

"Try and, uh, breathe with me, okay, Holden? Match my breaths." He inhaled and exhaled exaggeratedly, making sure his chest noticeably rose and fell. Holden struggled to follow along, gripping the blanket with his free hand. There was blood spotted on the fabric, from where his nails had ripped into the skin of his palm.

What felt like an eternity passed before Bill saw the clouds in Holden's eyes part and light up in recognition. He grinned in relief.

"There you are. Good. Again," he instructed.

This time, Holden breathed shakily with him. Falling into a rhythm, Bill would breathe in and out, gently rub Holden's back. Rinse and repeat. His eyebrows were furrowed in concern as he watched the younger man wrestle with himself. He repeated the exercise again and again until Holden seemed to be able to manage on his own, was no longer quivering, and couldn't look Bill in the face. He snatched his hand back like it had been burned.

"'M sorry, Bill. You shouldn't-a had to see that," he whispered. The attack had clearly sobered him up a bit, but not much. Bill awkwardly patted his shoulder.

"Look, I know I haven't exactly been... the most understanding, about this panic stuff in the past." Understatement of the fucking year, he thought to himself. He winced as he considered and regretted, not for the first time, the way he'd dealt with it so far.

You can still dress yourself, can't you?

Get it together.

I tell you to shut your mouth, you shut your mouth.

It wasn't a great time for me to leave work.

You look anxious. Take a fucking Valium.

He squeezed his eyes shut as he thought about the hopelessness in Holden's voice on that plane ride.

"Sorry. There wasn't anyone else I could call."

No shit, Holden felt like he had to apologize. Bill had been awful to him about it.

"I, uh, should have tried harder, before. But I... I'd like to try and help. When I can." He went quiet, unnerved by his own admission of guilt, but Holden just shook his head.

"You do help," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. He looked up at Bill, eyes wide and startlingly wet, so fragile and vulnerable that it was jarring.

“I feel safe when you’re here." With that, he dropped his head onto Bill’s shoulder.

He jolted in shock, but Holden didn’t seem to notice. Bill's first instinct was to tell him to get the fuck off, to stand up, to leave the room, to do something. Instead, his cheeks burned with embarrassment as he stared at the opposite wall, trying to look anywhere but at the man using him as a damn pillow. After a minute, though, the initial disgust wore off, reduced to a dull pinprick in the back of his head. It should have been emasculating, to have his very male coworker leaning on him, but it mostly just felt nice. Holden fit perfectly against him, stupid Boy Scout hair lightly brushing against his jaw, one thigh pressed up against Bill's own.

It occurred to him, distantly, somewhere in the outer corners of his mind, that he could just move. He could get up, go to the couch and pretend that this hadn’t happened, but something in him stopped him from leaving. Whether it was because he wanted to comfort Holden or because he had been touch-starved since Nancy left, he didn't know, but it had to be one of the two.

He slowly lowered his head so that it rested against Holden's, holding his breath, as though one wrong move would blow the moment to hell.

(And maybe it would.)

Holden sighed softly, and nuzzled deeper into the crook of Bill’s neck. His breath was pleasantly warm against Bill's throat, and there was a slight scratch of stubble on his cheeks. 

“I can... I can still feel ‘im, Bill. I can still feel it, feel his fuckin’ hands…” he slurred. Bill’s blood ran cold.

“What?” Holden’s lids had fluttered shut. Bill prodded him gently, worry spiking in his chest.

“Feel whose hands, Holden?”

No response. His breathing had evened out, signifying that he had fallen asleep.

A rage unlike anything he had ever felt boiled up in Bill at the idea of someone touching Holden without consent. Every part of his body felt hot, and the hand of the arm not pinned to his side clenched with an animalistic urge to hurt. Randomly, he thought of Holden's throat enveloped in Kemper's thick fingers, the raw fear in his eyes, and desperately wanted to punch something. Staring down at the other man's snoozing form, at how vulnerable he looked, woke up a protectiveness he had only been faintly aware of before.

When he was absolutely sure that Holden wasn't awake, Bill wriggled his way out of his grasp, pausing to wrap the blanket more securely around him before quietly making his way out of the bedroom. All but collapsing onto the sofa, he tossed and turned, unable to shake the nausea at Holden's words. Who the fuck hurt him? Was it Kemper? Was it someone else?

Eventually, haunted by nightmare scenarios and curled up on that wretched couch, Bill fell into a restless sleep.

Chapter Text

break the truth inside of me
climbed down to hell on the devil's tree
i clutched a branch of soot and flame
a thought that rose, to scorch my feet

i walk alone, beside myself
nowhere to go
this bleeding heart
that's in my hands, i fell apart

— “flesh and bone”, black math

Holden woke with a start.

His brain was pounding like a steel drum against his skull, and the inside of his mouth tasted stale. He smacked his lips together in disgust, making a face. He looked down to see his legs tangled in an unfamiliar blanket, and thought back to the previous night. He remembered drinking with Bill and having way too much and–

Shit. 

Bill had to take care of him like a damn child. He'd invited him for a drink, finally tried to reach out to Holden and treat him like an equal, and what had Holden done? Too much, too fast. Just like he always did. Bill was probably furious, and he had every right to be. Holden had invaded his home, just because he was so drunk that he couldn't drive himself back to his apartment. He ran both hands through his hair, trying to assuage the pain of his aching head and control his breathing. It wouldn't help anything to freak out now.

Great fucking job, Ford. Way to prove to him that you can handle yourself.

Atlanta made him realize how little he actually knew, how much he had been spurred on by his own ego and was hurting the people around him. He should have listened to Wendy, should have been there for Bill, but he was so intent on being proven right that he screwed over everyone. His coworkers, the other cops working the case…

The mothers.

Since then, Holden had learned that silence was valuable. He resigned himself to only talking when asked for his opinion, and even then, he kept it short and sweet. It yielded good results– Wendy no longer pursed her lips in well-concealed irritation when they had to converse about a case, and Bill didn’t roll his eyes or groan wearily, as though the very act of speaking to Holden was taxing. Some days, he never spoke at all. It was hard sometimes, to shut his mouth against the words that begged to rip free, the words that he had never bothered filtering before, but he managed. Holden was just glad that he was making them happy.

His psychiatrist frowned upon his technique, said that it was unhealthy, but panic attacks over speaking out of turn were a small price to pay for the respect of his coworkers. He had become much better at sensing attacks and getting himself the hell out of there, even as they became more frequent. Bill had walked in on a handful and awkwardly tried to comfort him, so Holden started locking the door. It was clear that the whole situation made Bill uncomfortable.

The last thing in the world he wanted was to make Bill uncomfortable.

His self-loathing was interrupted by the sound of the bedroom door opening. Bill shuffled in, seeming hesitant. His hair was still a bit ruffled from sleep even though he was in his suit, and one of his objectively ugly yet somehow endearing geometric-patterned ties hung undone around his neck. Holden ignored the pang in his chest he'd become accustomed to feeling when he saw Bill, and waved meekly.

He wasn't sure when it was that he began to view Bill as more than just his partner. Realistically, he imagined it started in those first nights on the road. The more intimately he came to know Bill, the more he wanted him. He had mistaken it for simple admiration, at first– he had a vast amount of respect for Bill, from the moment they had met, and boiled it down to that. But there were moments, with increasing recurrence, where he felt a tug of need in his abdomen when Bill touched him. It wasn't until after the car crash that Holden realized his feelings went far beyond sexual attraction. Something about seeing Bill so vulnerable, combined with the kind of existential crises that come with near-death experiences, unearthed the extent of the affection he had shoved down for months. Being around the other man, most days, felt as easy as breathing. They clashed, of course, but Holden had never felt closer to another person; not even Debbie on their best days.

Bill could never, ever find out. He'd kill him. Scratch that– he'd kill him, resuscitate him, kill him again, and then have Gunn fire his corpse in the time it took rigor mortis to set in. And he'd be justified.

“Sorry to drop in on your pity party, but here.” Speak of the devil. Bill approached the bed, startling Holden out of his head, and held out an aspirin and a cup of coffee. With a sheepish smile, Holden took both gratefully.

"Thanks," he said, dry swallowing the pill while his drink cooled. Bill shifted his weight uncomfortably from foot to foot.

“Holden, I wanted to talk to you about something you said last night.”

Holden winced. He couldn't remember what Bill could be referring to, but he knew it wasn't Holden's feelings for him. He would be much, much angrier if it had been.

“Could we not talk about last night ever again?” He would be reliving his behaviour for the rest of the week already, minimum. He really didn’t want to talk about it with anyone, especially not Bill. Regardless, some small part of him wiggled guiltily, knowing the older man deserved an explanation. 

“I wish. But you said some… concerning things.”

“I’m sorry, what? Our job is to work with serial killers. Around eighty percent of everything I say is concerning. I apologize for all of last night, I’ll make it up to you somehow, but if we could just never bring it up again...” He took a large sip from his mug as a last-ditch effort to avoid the conversation, trying to remain nonchalant. Bill groaned in exasperation. 

“You said something about feeling some guy’s hands on you.”

Holden choked on his coffee. Sputtering, he coughed a few times, punching his chest.

He must have been thinking about Kemper, as he tended to do when he was in a bad mental place, and said something about it.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

"I said what?" he wheezed, making the quick decision to play dumb. God, he hated himself. Bill was impatiently tapping his foot, waiting for an actual answer.

“Trust me, I want to be talking about this about as much as you do. If it weren't necessary, I wouldn’t be asking at all, but if one of our subjects... touched you, I gotta know.”

"I- what? No one touched me," Holden insisted, a hysterical edge to his voice.

Not in the way you're thinking, anyway.

He wracked his brain for some kind of excuse, some way to explain away the situation he'd gotten himself into. He could tell the truth, but how would that look? A grown man, having panic attacks over a hug? He was weak, and the last person he wanted to know that was the man in front of him. Bill watched him closely, arms crossed, unimpressed.

“...It was a nightmare."

Bill raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"A nightmare," he repeated, voice giving no indication of what he was thinking. Holden nodded.

"I was mostly asleep and drunk off my ass, Bill. Bad dreams happen, this was one of them. There you go. Are you satisfied?”

A beat passed. Nothing.

"For what it's worth, I'm sorry that I concerned you, and I'm sorry for my behaviour last night. It won't happen again." The last few words became grave as Holden eyed Bill, trying to discern whether he bought it. After another pause, Bill threw his hands up in the air.

 "Alright. Question answered, apology accepted. Was that so hard?" he scoffed, tossing Holden's clothes from the day before onto the bed.

"Thank fuck. Now we can pretend that all this never happened." He turned and left the room, muttering under his breath. Abruptly, he paused to call over his shoulder.

"Get dressed, your suit from yesterday doesn't smell. We're gonna be late if you don't haul ass." 

 


 

"We've got a new subject in Tennessee," Wendy announced without preamble. She slid into her seat and tossed a file onto the table. Holden snatched it up before either Gregg or Bill could and scanned it with quick eyes, frowning. Immediately after doing so, he realized his mistake– that was selfish, that was something the old Holden would do, god, Wendy and Bill were going to fucking hate him again– but Bill gestured for him to continue reading, not looking annoyed in the slightest, and Holden felt himself relax minutely.

"Another one?" Bill craned his neck, trying to see. Holden shifted the document so that Bill could view the photos. The first pictures depicted a bald-headed woman, tied up wrists to ankles. Her neck was marred with bruises. It was clear that someone had stabbed her in the face, multiple times. She was unrecognizable.

"Albert Jensen. White male, early thirties at the time. In '64, he murdered four young men and one young woman, all under the age of twenty-three. Fingertips cut off, teeth sloppily removed, heads shaved.”

“He knew what he was doing,” Holden muttered, mostly to himself. Wendy nodded solemnly.  

“It seems so. Official cause of death was strangulation, for all of them. He stabbed them multiple times in the face, trying to prevent them from being identified. The bodies were found in a lake near his home. Jensen raped the corpses after he completed each murder. He turned himself in once Nashville PD started honing in on him." 

"Jesus fucking Christ," Bill said, lighting a cigarette. Holden hummed in agreement, still skimming through the information. 

"Holden and Bill, I want you two down there next week, at the absolute latest."

Holden froze, looking up in shock. Wendy actually wanted him to go? He could feel himself beginning to protest, but was beaten to the punch.

"Wendy, is that really such a good idea?" Gregg piped up. Wendy swiveled around in her chair to face him, and though Holden couldn’t see it, whatever look that she gave him was enough to make him physically flinch.

“And what do you mean by that, Agent Smith?”

”I... I don't mean any disrespect, it's just that... we really don’t need another OPR investigation, and Holden seems to be doing well holding down the fort around here, and–“

”Oh, you piece of shit,” Bill snarled. Holden jolted in shock at the defensive, angry tone of his voice.

"It's fine, Bill, he has a point–" Holden whispered, but Bill held up a hand.

"Holden, stop." He rounded on Gregg, seemingly about to give him a piece of his mind, but Wendy whipped around and leveled her icy glare at him.

”I can handle this, Bill. Your input is unnecessary and unwanted.” She turned back, addressing Gregg once again.

”Gregg, Agent Ford has gotten more results from these interviews than both yourself and myself. It is entirely inappropriate for you to publicly question his skills. If you have concerns, you should have discussed them with me in a private setting, rather than in a meeting where you risk embarrassing a fellow agent. Now, are you finished behaving querulously, or would you like to continue being unprofessional?”

The room fell into a stunned silence, and Gregg shrunk down in his seat with a mortified apology. Holden thought back to when Wendy chewed him out for publicly calling Gregg out over the tape, and he tried to process it all through the confusion. Why was she going to bat for him? Gregg was absolutely right. He wasn't competent; he'd proven that over and over again. Wendy looked over at him, her face slightly more gentle.

"Holden, I know it's been a while, but Gunn asked for you and Bill on this. That is who will be going, and that's final." The last sentence was directed at Gregg, and with a twitch of her jaw she collected her files and strutted out of the room, frustratedly mumbling to herself. 

Holden and Gregg stared at each other across the table, neither willing to speak first. After a tense-filled minute, Gregg stood and marched back to his desk, looking like a scolded puppy, leaving Bill and Holden alone in the room. Holden could feel Bill's eyes burning into him, and pointedly didn't make eye contact.

"Holden, you okay?"

He didn't know. On the one hand, he didn't want to disappoint anyone, especially not Wendy after she defended him in front of everyone, but on the other, he would fuck it up. He'd go too far and screw up the interview, just like he screwed up everything he became involved in eventually, and that would reflect poorly on the BSU, which would lead to Wendy and Bill being affected and maybe he'd cost them their jobs, just like he did Shepard and Roger Wade and holy shit, he couldn't fucking breathe.

"Holden?" he heard, distant and muffled, and a heavy hand rested between his shoulder blades. It was Bill. He knew it was Bill, who else could it be, but Holden flinched violently away, mind automatically thinking of Kemper. Kemper with his big hands and his arms around him and how he could have done some interesting things before the guards showed up

“Ed, please don’t…” he whispered, wrapping his arms around his stomach as he doubled over in his chair. Judging by the sound of shoes against tile and the weight leaving his back, Bill took multiple steps away.

“It's Bill, Holden. Bill Tench. Kem– he isn't here. It's just you and I, and I’m not gonna do anything, see? I’m all the way over here. No one is going to touch you, Holden.” His voice cut through the panic, soothing and soft– not normally words he would associate with Bill– a small yet comforting thought among the swirling pool of anxiety his brain had become. But it wasn't enough, and Holden desperately clutched at his knees.

"Pull yourself together, Holden," Bill said, but despite the seemingly harsh words, Holden picked up the undercurrent of worry in his voice. It sounded more like a plea than an order, and Holden's gut clenched at the reminder that he was burdening Bill, yet again.

"Bill. Leave. Please," he begged. Bill hesitated, but after seeming to mull it over, dipped his head in acknowledgement. 

"Okay," he said. He pulled open the door, about to step out, but turned around and stared at Holden. 

"Are you sure you'll be alright?"

Holden nodded, attempting a smile but failing miserably.

"Yeah. The worst of it is over, I think."

Bill nodded back. The slamming of the door sounded so much louder than it actually was.

 


 

Holden arrived at home just before ten, after a long and tedious day. They had all avoided each other after the meeting, choosing to work on their own subjects instead. Holden had eventually gotten it together and made his way back to his desk, still trembling slightly. Bill hadn't said a word to him, and was in a mood for the remainder of their time in the office. He had pissed the man off, just like he always did. He was incapable of maintaining any kind of relationship without destroying the other person. He was some fucked up form of King Midas, where everything he touched crumbled under his hands.

He practically fell through the door, only just managing to lock it before collapsing to the floor in front of it as his breath became shallower. His vision tunneled, and he let out a broken sob, chest heaving. He had had another attack in front of Bill, the second in two days. This one at work, no less. He couldn't handle it, he was spiraling and dragging the entire unit down with him. He considered just popping all of his Valium at once and washing it down with the vodka in his room, or slitting his throat with the knife he could see glinting on the kitchen counter, or jumping from the roof of his apartment complex. Anything to make it all fucking stop.

"No, shut up, shut up," he muttered, grabbing fistfuls of his own hair so tightly that he nearly ripped it out of the roots. He couldn't stay focused on any one thought. His brain was rotting, breaking down and decaying and it was a pain unlike any he'd ever felt. He was going to die, he was going to die alone and hurt and so fucking worthless that it made him want to scream. All he did was hurt, hurt himself and hurt others.

He was faintly aware that he was banging his head back against the wall, but he couldn't feel it beyond the high-pitched ringing in his ears. 

Eventually, five seconds or five minutes or five hours later, he managed to stumble to his feet, staggering to the bathroom like a drunk man. His shoulders hit the walls as he squeezed his crossed arms so tightly that he could feel blood welling up underneath his fingernails. The slight pinch was oddly soothing.

He gripped the sides of the sink with both hands, staring at his reflection, trying desperately to come back to himself. It was like he was floating above his body, like he wasn’t real. He looked curiously down at his forearm. The soft flesh almost seemed fake. Suddenly, he wanted to peel it back, see the red and bone beneath– see that he was human, that there was something shifting under his skin other than badbadbad, that he wasn’t as empty inside as he felt.

***

Hesitantly, he eyed the straight razor sitting out on the sink.

He picked it up with shaking hands, curled one into a fist. He took a long breath in through his nose, doing little to quell the nervous energy racing through him. 

When the blade slid across his arm, leaving a trail of scarlet in its wake, he bit back a cry. He hadn’t gone very deep, but he had enough to feel it beyond the superficial. The second time, he felt a wave of relief so strong that his eyes filled with tears. For one brief, glorious moment, his brain was silent. He didn't know panic or fear. All he knew was the sting, the blood trickling down to his wrist, a reminder that he was alive. He kept going, entranced, making sure to avoid cutting anywhere that could be fatal. The floor was spotted with red, and he sighed as it oozed down his thigh. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so serene. The sensation of blood seeping out of the wounds was euphoric. He closed his eyes and pretended it was his failure, dripping out of his body and into a puddle on the cool tile. Distantly, he considered how fucked up it was that it took slicing his own skin to ground him, but he was so far past caring.

After several moments, Holden stumbled to his feet, washing his arms off in the sink. He had lost count of how many times he had dragged the razor against his skin, but they were a red soaking mess. He grabbed his severely lacking first aid kit in the cupboard nearby and wrapped gauze around each of them, pulled on a long-sleeved shirt and flannel pants, wiped the blood off of the floor and tiptoed into his bedroom. He wrapped himself up in a thick, warm blanket and pulled his knees up to his chest, relishing in his quiet mind.

And he slept, broken.

****

Bill rolled his sleeves up as he drove, huffing in the heat. The plane ride had been suffocating, and Bill had counted the seconds until it was over. The sun beat down on the arm he had resting on the windowsill of the car. Vacaville was always sweltering, and the temperature only fueled his anger. The prison gates loomed ahead of him, open and menacing. They should have been formidable, but Bill became numb to their impact decades ago. It was part of the gig. His first time visiting a prison, he had to have been about twelve, to visit his uncle. He remembered the fear, the paranoia that one of the “bad men” would escape and hurt him. Right now, one of those “bad men” inside the ominous, concrete building should be afraid that Bill would hurt him.

Because right now, Bill was on a fucking mission, and nothing was going to get in his way.

Chapter Text

i broke all my bones that day i found you,
crying at the lake
was it something i said to make you
feel like you’re a burden?

oh, and if i could take it all back
i swear that i would pull you from the tide

— “line without a hook”, ricky montgomery

Upon entering California State Prison, Bill slapped his badge against the guard’s window, handed over everything on him and was through security before the other man could get in so much as a “Have a nice day, sir”. 

As soon as he returned from work after Holden's attack, he had headed for the airport. He didn't remember much beyond the incessant thumping of his pulse and the blood rushing in his ears as he replayed Holden's desperate pleas, over and over in his mind. Kemper had done something to him, and Bill would be damned if he wasn't going to find out what it was. He booked a private room, and requested that Kemper remain cuffed. He wasn’t planning on going in with any friendly pretense this time. He had never been one to flash his badge for privileges, but he'd done so to ask that they not be watched. 

The guard rolled his eyes and shrugged, huffing, “You’re FBI.”

It was both convenient and deeply concerning how many people took his rank at face value, but that was an issue he'd think about another day. 

Walking down the halls felt like a funeral march, but to whose funeral, Bill wasn’t sure. By the time he and the guard reached the room, he was festering with resentment. With every step he took, Holden’s petrified I can still feel him echoed in his ears. Kemper was sitting at the table already as Bill was escorted in, and a deep hatred bubbled up inside of Bill at the sight of him. It took every ounce of his willpower not to bash his unassuming head against the metal. The larger man seemed to be deep in thought, sipping a coffee, and only looked up when the door slammed shut without any more words from the guard.

“Agent Tench! I didn’t know you were visiting– such a nice surprise. I figured it was you, seeing as I'm still handcuffed, and the change of scenery. Where’s your partner?”

"Just me this time, Ed."

Kemper raised an eyebrow. Bill noticed a flash of disappointment cross his face, and felt the sizzle of white-hot rage down his spine. He carefully schooled his features into a neutral expression. He knew that Kemper could tell how he was actually feeling to some degree, regardless of how good his poker face was– the guy was used to faking emotions, after all– but he had to bring some excuse for his little trip back to the BSU.

"And sorry about the cuffs, they're just a precaution. I'm sure you understand," he continued, offering a saccharine smile. Kemper met it with an equally fake one of his own.

"I see. And what insights can I provide for you today, Bill?" he inquired.

Bill slapped a case file down in front of him (with the classified information redacted, of course) and lazily propped his feet on the table. Might as well try to get something useful while he was here.

 


 

They discussed the case for a good hour, and Bill nearly lost himself in the horrifyingly familiar rapport. It still didn't sit well with him, that he was able to converse so casually with a murderer. It had been so long that he could almost pretend he was chatting with an acquaintance. However, every time he got too comfortable, he remembered Holden's eyes. Bill remembered his trembling hands and terrified gasps, and it reminded him of why he was really there.

Once he got enough information to suffice a visit, he went through their outro and switched off the tape recorder, taking his time packing it away. Kemper watched him intently. It was much like a predator eyeing its prey. Bill simply stared back, waiting for him to make the first move.

"Oh, are we already finished for the day?" he asked, feigning innocence.

“Cut the bullshit pleasantries, you sick fuck,” Bill replied, before he could stop himself. Kemper let out a full-bellied laugh, his shoulders shaking with the force of it. The sound felt like a warning.

"There it is. I didn't think you'd fly all the way down here for a chat. Holden, sure, but not you. Care to enlighten me as to what this is about?"

“I want to know what the hell happened that day Holden visited you.” Bill struggled to keep his tone even, despite his previous colourful words. They had been a mistake. He had come here for answers, and he wasn't going to find out shit if he went in guns blazing.

(He wished he had his actual gun, so he could do the world a favor and shoot Kemper right between the fucking eyes.)

“Which day are you referring to? You’ve come here many times, you’ll have to be more specific.” Kemper blinked slowly and knowingly, looking disinterested, clearly unfazed by Bill’s anger.

“You know. I wasn’t here, and he came to visit you in the hospital.”

“Ah. That day.” He smiled to himself, as though thinking back on a fond memory. The thought of that smile being in any way associated with Holden made Bill’s skin crawl.

“Holden was so kind to stop by. Of course, it took real showmanship to get him here,” Kemper drawled, raising one of his arms. There was a thick, raised scar running down the length of his left wrist. Bill had known about it, of course, but seeing it made him nauseous. 

“Metal casing of a pen. Resourceful, wasn't it? Had to make him my medical proxy and everything; you'd be surprised how long the process is. Next time, maybe he’ll answer to a simple card, eh?”

“You manipulative cocksucker,” Bill growled, his control slipping. He returned both feet to the floor and leaned forward, hands gripping the table. Kemper smirked in response, an ugly, smug little upturn of his lips.

“But I didn’t come here for your fucking sob story. I'm not going to ask again. What. The hell. Did you. Do to him?” 

“What do you mean, Agent Tench?”

“You did something. You fucked with him, fucked with his head.”

“Fucked with him? Oh, no. I'd never do anything to hurt Holden. We’re friends, he said so himself. We simply... shared a friendly embrace,” Kemper said, sounding perplexed at the very notion.

A friendly embrace?

It took Bill a moment to process exactly what that could mean, but once he did, Holden’s terrified face popped into his head. Glassy eyes after an attack, flinching away at contact, the hushed begging of ‘please don’t’. Once he did, he suddenly remembered what the man sitting in front of him was in jail for.

Bill surged forward, over the table, and grabbed Kemper’s collar. Logically, he knew that the 6’9 man could easily push him off and probably kill him, even cuffed, but all he could think about was Kemper's insatiable bloodlust, how he fucked the corpses, how he constantly sought sexual gratification. Bill's head was pounding and his blood was running hot and fuck logic when Holden could have been– he might have–

Kemper met his eyes, unflinching. For some reason, he wasn’t fighting back. He seemed amused.

“I swear to god, if you… touched him, I’ll kill you right here. I'll get my gun, and I‘ll fucking kill you with it, and no one's gonna give a shit. They'll fucking celebrate, if anything.”

“'Touched' him? I presume you mean sexually? Oh, I would never. I'm no queer, and he doesn’t exactly fit my MO, as your bureau would describe it. It was only a hug, and then he ran off. Possessive, aren't we? Am I encroaching on your territory?”

Your territory. Bill’s mouth fell open in shock. He released the larger man’s collar like it had burned him and took two steps back. It suddenly felt harder to breathe and he blanched at the accusation, stuttering through a response.

“I wouldn’t, you fucking– Holden is my colleague, I–“ His protest made Kemper light up like a child on Christmas Day.

“Just a friend, then. How quaint. Tell me, have you told him that?”

Bill froze.

“The fuck are you going on about?”

Kemper chuckled, leaning back in his chair, clearly enjoying himself. One hand drummed its fingers on the table, and the idea of those hands within even a foot of Holden made Bill seriously contemplate just strangling Kemper with his belt now and asking questions later.

“What can I say? It takes a deviant to know a deviant. So he hasn’t told you, then. Very interesting, what with the amount of time you spend together.” He hummed, as though finding the answer to his own question.

“Although, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Sodomy is a felony in the state of Virginia, is it not? And I can’t imagine your bureau would take it well. They’d kick him out if they caught so much as a sniff of such things. Granted, the way he looks at you isn’t subtle, but I’m sure it’s dismissed as some kind of hero worship.”

What? 

Holden wasn’t actually a homosexual, was he? Bill's mind was racing, thinking back to when they had first met. What could he have missed? He picked his brain for memories that could back up the theory. Sure, there were a few moments where Holden would get too close, or sit on his bed, but he had always assumed that was because Holden had little grasp on boundaries.

No, he couldn’t be. He went out with Debbie.

(But he didn't seem too torn up when she dumped him...)

Bill snorted to himself, ignoring the seeds of doubt and discarding the very thought. Kemper was just trying to shake his faith in his partner. This was a psychopath he was talking to, trying to get a rise out of him. He wasn’t about to let it work. These were the ramblings of a crazed man, and the last thing Bill should do was entertain them.

On the off chance that Kemper was right, and Holden was one, at least the part about him being... interested in Bill had no basis in reality. Bill tried to sort out how the idea made him feel, but all he could detect was an odd twinge in his chest. He didn't know what it meant, and he didn't think that he wanted to. He did what he did best, and pushed it down.

“Holden is a lot of things, but a queer ain’t one of ‘em. Besides, Kemper, I'd think that kind of thing would disgust you,” he said, trying to appear unaffected. Kemper chuckled, sipping his coffee. It, surprisingly, had not spilled in their scuffle. When he set the cup back down he licked the liquid off of his upper lip, slow and obscene.

“Bill, I’ve had intercourse with a human head. It isn’t exactly my place to judge others for their sexual lives.” His lips curled upward, an unnerving glint in his eye.

“But circling back to my previous point, I didn’t hurt him. I didn’t, but I could have. I told him that, too. There’s no alert system in the ICU, you see. I could have done anything I wanted to him, and no one would have come to save him. Isn’t that right? He has no family, no friends beyond yourself, if I could even call you that– why else would he drop everything to come and visit me?”

Bill fought back a shudder. Kemper was right. Holden was alone, with no real friends or close relatives to speak of, and if not for the case, even the bureau wouldn’t have noticed that he was gone. God, and he had just walked out on OPR– if he hadn't called Bill, no one would have even wanted to look for him.

“So you see, I could have done as I wished, and Holden himself handed me that power. He delivered himself here, all but wrapped up with a bow. It makes one wonder, doesn’t it? Whether he knew that, deep down. Whether he wanted me to be in control here, whether he didn’t care about what the outcome of his visit was. Maybe, on some level, he wanted me to hurt him. Why did he come out to see me, anyway? He had to have felt unwanted, back in Virginia. I can't imagine what else could have driven him into seeking my company.”

Bill’s head was spinning, and he felt sick.

'What'd you tell them, Bill?'

'I told them the truth.'

“Oh, Bill, you should have seen it– he was shaking like a scared kitten. Reminded me of the cats I used to kill, back in the day,” Kemper chuckled. 

“He couldn’t breathe properly, his eyes were full of tears. His jaw was trembling. He looked so afraid. He whimpered when I hugged him, and ran out the door. Not even a minute later someone started yelling for a doctor, and I knew that he must have collapsed, or something of the sort. It was beautiful. Seeing someone that put together simply... fall apart, there's nothing like it.” His eyes were hazy with recollection, and he was smiling faintly.

“That’s it, we’re done here,” Bill hissed, the chair screeching backward as he stood. He was halfway to the door, about to signal the guard when the man behind him called out.

“Oh, and Bill? One more thing.”

“What?” he barked, stopping in his tracks but unable to look back, lest he murder Kemper with his bare hands.

“How easy would it be, do you think?”

Bill sighed and rubbed at his temple, aggravated.

“I don’t have time for your fucking mind games, Ed.” He spat the name like bile. “Either say what you need to say, or stop wasting my time.”

“How easy would it be, to get a man like that to snap?”

Bill stiffened, and turned on his heel.

“What?”

“Holden is extremely uptight. Calculating. And there’s something glinting underneath all that, some kind of... darkness. A violence, of a kind. He makes me think of myself when I was young. How hard of a push do you think it would take to break him?” Bill’s stomach churned, and he took a menacing step forward.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“He is a little too enthusiastic about all of this murder business, isn’t he? And we both know he’s intelligent enough to avoid making the mistakes I did. With the added advantage of being FBI? If I had to place my bets on someone being able to get away with serial killing, it would be him.”

Before he even registered what he was doing, Bill was punching Kemper straight in the face, relishing the feeling of the murderer’s nose snapping under his knuckles. The guard outside didn’t care enough to even glance up. Kemper didn’t try to defend himself, simply grinning through bloody teeth.

“I wonder if you’re so worked up because you think I’m spewing bullshit, or if it’s because you know I’m right. Holden and I are the same in many ways, you know. I was just as desperate to prove myself, and was shot down much like he is. No one wanted to interact with me, either.”

“You,” Bill seethed, “are never going near him again. If I find out you’ve seen, contacted, or even thought of contacting him, I’ll put you in the deepest hole I can find. Alcatraz is going to look like a fucking vacation home compared to where you end up. I’ll personally make sure you never see sunlight or breathe fresh air, ever again. Am I understood?” His voice trembled with rage, and he shook the convict again for emphasis.

"You're never seeing Holden again, and I'm going to spend the rest of my life hoping that they flip the fucking switch on you."

Kemper laughed, a sound that it sickened Bill to call a giggle, but that fit it the most accurately.

Bill just glared at him, disgusted, and stormed out of the room.

  


 

Quantico was quiet, everyone neck-deep in work. Gregg was at his desk transcribing a recent interview, Wendy in her office on a phone call. When Bill marched in, exhausted and jet-lagged after a restless flight back to Virginia, Holden was standing by the coffee machine. He was flipping through a thick file, deep in concentration.

Bill had done a lot of thinking on the plane. At first, he contemplated not telling Holden that he knew anything at all, and just living with the satisfaction of not having to wonder anymore. The more he considered it, though, the more it ate at him that Holden had literally no one to talk to about this shit. Bill had never been known for his listening skills, nor for his empathy. Nancy had always hated that about him, his inability to deal with emotions (both hers and his own).

But with Holden, he found that he wanted to try.

Taking a deep breath, he strode forward and gently grabbed Holden's forearm, trying to get his attention. Holden hissed through his teeth, clearly pained by the gesture, and Bill quickly removed his hand.

"Shit, sorry. I didn't think my grip was that tight."

"It's fine, it wasn't. You're fine," Holden muttered, ducking his head.

"Hi, Bill. What do you need?"

Fuck. What do you need. His first instinct was that Bill wanted something from him. Bill tried not to dwell on exactly how badly he'd failed Holden, for that to be the case.

"We need to talk," he said. Holden nodded.

"Okay," he replied. Bill jerked his head in the direction of the bathroom, and began walking. He could feel Holden's nervous tension radiating behind him, and it crossed his mind that this probably didn't look great– two male agents sneaking off into the bathroom– but he ignored the thought, too focused on the task at hand. 

"I saw Kemper yesterday," he announced, the second Holden shut the door behind him. Holden barely concealed a full-body shudder.

"Oh. That's where you were? Was it, um... was it for a case?" he asked, clearing his throat, eyebrows furrowed in questioning.

"Partially. I know what he did to you, kid. Why didn't you tell me that he hugged you? Christ, Holden, why didn't you tell me that he threatened you?" Bill tried to rein in the anger that was beginning to leak into his voice, and Holden sighed, running a stressed hand through his hair and mussing it up. 

"It's not a big deal, Bill. I was just overreacting–“ He began anxiously fidgeting, eyes trained on the ground.

"Hey. Look at me," Bill gently instructed, taking Holden's hands in his to keep them still. Holden's head snapped up.

"No, Holden. It is a big deal. None of our subjects are going to touch you, ever again. If they do and I'm not there, you tell me, and I'll fucking kill them." He startled, seeming taken aback by Bill's words.

"I... okay," he said, dumbfounded. Bill bulldozed on past the discomfort before he lost his nerve, releasing Holden's hands and crossing his arms.

"I want you to be able to feel like you can..." he grimaced around the words, "talk to me about stuff. If you, uh, want to. And I'm sorry that I threw you to OPR. A partner is supposed to have your back, and I didn't have yours."

"No, Bill, that whole mess is on me. You don't have anything to apologize for. I was reckless and fucking stupid–"

"Oh, I'm not denying that," Bill interrupted, huffing exasperatedly.

"You were an absolute idiot, and you better not pull that shit ever again. But I should have been there for you regardless. Next time, I'm gonna be, okay?"

The awe and hopeful confusion on Holden's face took Bill's breath away. He looked so shocked at the idea of someone wanting to be there for him, that it made Bill want to hunt down everyone who hadn't been.

"Fuck it. C'mere," Bill muttered, pulling Holden into his arms. He took caution to go slowly, give Holden enough time to back away if he wanted to, but after an initial squeak of surprise the other man let himself be held. His arms snaked around Bill's neck, and he sighed into his shoulder. His body was lithe, fitting snugly against Bill's, and Bill wondered why they had never done this before.

"I never took you for a hugger," Holden teased, the sound muffled against Bill's shirt. He huffed.

"Watch it, you little shit," he retorted gruffly, but he knew that the smile in his voice was unmistakable. Holden hummed in acknowledgement, and Bill held him even closer. He was hit with the ridiculous urge to press a kiss into Holden's hair, when he remembered what Kemper had said.

Am I encroaching on your territory?

Granted, the way he looks at you isn’t subtle, but I’m sure it’s dismissed as some kind of hero worship.

The words were a screeching alarm in his brain, a bucket of freezing cold water dumped on the moment. Bill extricated himself from the hug, arms falling behind his back in a parody of parade rest. Holden blinked at him, something undecipherable crossing his face. Bill awkwardly sniffed, shuffling his feet and taking a cigarette out of his pocket, popping it between his lips.

"You tell anyone about that, you'll regret it. I have a reputation to uphold,” he mumbled around it, trying to flick on his lighter. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Holden took it from his hands and did it himself, holding it to the end of the cigarette. Bill stared at him, at the way he gnawed on his lower lip in concentration, like the cheap lighter was some puzzle he was trying to figure out.

Handing the lighter back to Bill, he smiled. It was a soft thing, almost dreamy. His face was slightly flushed and his eyes were so fucking blue, and it all made Bill warm in a way that he fucking hated.

"Whatever you say, Bill."

Chapter Text

so please, hurry, leave me, i can't breathe
please don't say you love me
胸がはち切れそうで

one word from you and i would
jump off of this ledge i'm on, baby
tell me "don't", so i can crawl back in

— “first love / late spring”, mitski

It was another hot day in Virginia, and even with the new and improved BSU facilities, the air was thick and heavy.

Despite the much larger space being many steps above the basement, both literally and figuratively, the room was sweltering. Gregg, Holden and Bill had all discarded their jackets, and even Wendy shed hers and was fanning herself with a notepad. Bill and Gregg had their sleeves rolled up as high as the restrictive cuffs would go, but Holden simply left his as normal. He couldn't roll them up; not when his arms were littered with uncomfortable questions.

Cutting had become an integral part of his nightly routine– enough that if he had to go without it, he was antsy and restless. It was so much easier, to let his mistakes manifest themselves on his skin rather than wither away in his head. The release was addicting, the numbness that followed even better. The pain it entailed was less than he deserved, but it would do.

Sure, he had to wear long sleeves at all times, but he was more than willing to sacrifice comfort for the reminder that he was real, the reminder that he was flesh and blood despite his sins, despite everything. He took solace in the punishment of it all.

Some days, though, he wished he'd picked a different place to take up shop (for lack of a better phrase, he snorted to himself). Today was one of those days. His shoulders were beginning to sweat through his shirt, and he groaned softly, pulling the thin cotton away from slick skin. Across the room, Bill rolled his eyes, taking a drag of his cigarette.

“It’s ninety goddamn degrees out, Holden. Why are you letting yourself suffer like this?” he asked. There was a teasing lilt to his voice, but the heat combined with the sting of the cuts from the evening prior led Holden to be hit with a sudden irritation, and he turned to glare at Bill.

“Maybe you should mind your own business,” he snapped. Bill quirked an eyebrow, and Holden went rigid. That was a horrible thing to say.

Bill was only trying to help, and of course, he was Holden fucking Ford and he had to go and be an asshole about it. He always was, wasn't he? He treated everyone who cared about him like shit, no wonder nobody bothered anymore. He didn't deserve Bill's concern, fucking hell, why did he always have to ruin everything–

“Calm down, Holden. I can practically smell you starting to freak out. I'm not mad. The heat is getting to all of us; besides, I'm way too overheated to lecture you on not being a dick." His tone was serious, but the slight upward tick of his lips gave away his amusement.

Holden relaxed a fraction, trying to twist his mouth into something resembling a smile. Over the week since their talk in the bathroom, Bill had been encouraging him to talk more: he always made sure to directly ask for Holden's opinions on their cases, and even initiated gruff small talk from time to time.

Holden was still working his way up to doing interviews again. The idea of having to have a friendly chitchat with someone who murdered innocents, someone like the person that could very well still be running amok through Atlanta, was too much. He was pulled from his train of thought by the feeling of eyes on him, and he glanced over his shoulder to see Bill quickly shifting his eyes elsewhere.

He looked good today. He was wearing one of his better-fitted suits, coat half hanging off the back of his chair. There was a sheen of sweat on his forehead, and the same tie he had worn the day they met– the one with the circles– was loose around his neck. Holden's eyes followed a bead of sweat as it trickled down Bill's throat and settled below the unbuttoned collar of his shirt. He watched the flex of muscle in the older man's forearms, remembering the press of them against his lower back, and felt the familiar surge of desire budding in the pit of his stomach. He knew that he should be shutting those thoughts down as they occurred, but why bother?

He was already sinning anyway; why not take it the whole nine yards?

Holden was startled out of his ogling by the telltale click of heels, signifying that Wendy was standing up. Her lips were pressed tightly together in an expression that he recognized as her "I mean business" face. Bill often referred to it as her "If you try to change the subject of this meeting, I'll kill you without breaking a nail or a sweat" face.

"Bill, Holden. Gunn wants you both to head to Tennessee tomorrow morning," she said. Holden admired many things about Wendy, but close to the top of the list was how blunt and direct she was. She didn't beat around the bush; she cut it down and used the branches for kindling.

"Tomorrow morning? Jesus, couldn't we have been notified earlier?" Bill said, swiveling around in his chair to face her. Wendy sighed, shaking her head.

"I only just found out myself, Bill. Your meeting with Jensen is in four days, and there's a case down there that Nashville PD wants us on." She tossed a thick file onto his desk, and it skidded to a stop in the dead center.

"I'm driving," he announced, beating Holden to the punch. Holden groaned, and Bill smirked at him. He couldn't help but smile back.

 


  

Despite how aggravating he could be outside of the car, Bill had been delighted to discover back in road school that Holden really wasn't a bad person to drive with.

He made a point not to buy loud, crunchy foods, even on the occasion that he indulged in candy (he liked gummies better). He kept the radio at a decent volume, and he didn't flick through the channels mid-song. Nancy always did, and it drove Bill insane. Every once in a blue moon, when there was a track he loved, his singing was surprisingly good: it was strong and melodic, and Bill often found himself paying more attention to it than the actual song. No big loss– nine times out of ten, Holden's voice sounded better than the singer's, anyway.

He largely kept to himself, unless he was discussing a case, and he didn't invade Bill's limited amount of personal space in the car. Of course, sometimes his elbow would knock against Bill's and his head had lolled onto Bill's shoulder once or twice while he was sleeping, but Bill didn't mind. It was kind of endearing, though he would never say so out loud.

This particular drive was a quiet one. Holden crashed three hours into the nine hour trip, and Bill took the opportunity to smoke as many cigarettes as humanly possible in that time frame. Holden didn't like it, and Bill didn't want to hear him complain the entire time. As he slept, Bill pondered the topic that he'd been thinking about for the majority of the last week: his conversation with Kemper.

He had noticed things about Holden, things he'd never picked up on before– like the way he would occasionally give other male agents a once-over in a manner that Bill could only describe as "checking out", how his hands would linger just a beat too long when touching Bill, the enamoured smiles and the wide-eyed stares. They reminded Bill of Nancy, during their first few months of dating.

Maybe it was just something about their dynamic. Two men, alone on the road together, having to be exposed to the most vulnerable parts of each other while working with people who were evil to the core. It made sense, that there'd be a slight infatuation. By the time the study was concluded, Holden would be well over it. Perhaps he'd even get himself a boyfriend.

(The thought had crossed his mind, it was hard for it not to. Holden being with some random man, another man’s hands on him. It all created a sourness in Bill’s throat. He had never considered himself a homophobe, per se, but he chalked the feeling up to discomfort around the idea of two men being... intimate.)

The last part of what Kemper had said, about Holden snapping, was even more unsettling. The Holden he knew was too fond of justice to ever hurt an innocent person, but what about a guilty one?

What about himself?

Holden's eyes opened just as they pulled into the motel parking lot. He looked... Bill didn't want to say adorable, but it was the first word that came to mind at the sight of Holden's hair sticking up all over the place as he blinked the sleep out of his eyes.

Bill shot him a sardonic smile.

"Good morning, princess. Did you enjoy your beauty sleep?"

Holden, in a truly childish manner, stuck his tongue out at him.

"I did. Sounds like something you could use a bit of." His eyes were alight with mischief, and Bill gently shoved his shoulder.

"Smartass."

As soon as they stepped into the room, Holden dumped his suitcase on the closest bed and made a beeline for the bathroom, citing an urgent need to shower. Bill toed his shoes off by the other bed and settled into a chair, picking up the newspaper and listening to the water run, acting like he wasn't hyperaware of the thin wall between them.

 


 

It wasn't until after Holden had cleaned himself of blood and applied gauze over the worst of the wounds, that he heard the phone ring.

"I ain't getting it! I'm too busy taking a mental shower, seeing as you've been in the real one for three years!" Bill called out.

Holden hurriedly pulled a long-sleeve grey shirt over his damp hair and stepped into a pair of black sweatpants, checked to ensure that there weren't any visible red stains, and jogged to answer it, flipping off Bill as he went. Bill chuckled at him, and Holden playfully rolled his eyes.

"Hello?" he asked.

"Holden! How are ya?" Gunn.

"I'm fine, sir, how are you?" The other man laughed jovially.

"Fantastic! Listen, I got a question for you: how would you feel about having a little colloquy with a Mr. Theodore Bundy next month?" 

Holden almost dropped the phone.

"I'm sorry, what?"

"You heard right. I got you and Bill Bundy, for the eighteenth."

Holy. Fucking. Shit.

As soon as the call was concluded, so after Holden had thanked Gunn around a thousand times, he turned to Bill.

“He got us Bundy,” he announced, breathless. He was practically trembling with excitement, and he watched as Bill’s eyes snagged on the up and down motion of his chest before meeting his own.

“What?”

“Bundy, Bill. Gunn got us Ted fucking Bundy,” Holden repeated, all but bouncing on his toes. He understood that it was a bit fucked up to be this enthusiastic about meeting a monster like Ted Bundy, but he was one of the most infamous serial killers of their day. Holden could only imagine the insights they could glean from him. Bill raised his eyebrows, impressed. He set the paper aside and stood up, popping his back as he did so.

"No shit?"

Holden nodded frantically, and Bill let out a low, appreciative whistle. Without thinking, Holden crossed the room in a few short strides and placed a hand on Bill’s bicep.

“This is it, Bill. This is our pièce de résistance, even more so than Kemper or Manson.”

Bill's gaze darted down to Holden's hand, up to his face and back again. A flurry of emotions flickered through it, so quickly that Holden couldn't pinpoint any of them. Eventually, Bill let out a shaky exhale and plucked Holden's hand off of him.

"Holden... Agent Ford, this?" He gestured between them. "It needs to stop."

The bottom of Holden's stomach fell out, and he could hear a high-pitched ringing noise in his ears. It almost sounded like a siren, reminding him of the duck-and-cover drills from grade school. Steeling himself, he set the stack of papers he was holding down on the bed, defensively crossing his arms.

Play dumb. Play dumb. He probably doesn't mean what you think he means, pull yourself together.

"I'm sorry? And since when do you call me 'Agent Ford'?"

“I know, okay? Don’t try to pull that innocence bullshit with me.”

“Maybe I wouldn’t be pulling ‘innocence bullshit’ if I understood what you were referring to,” Holden insisted. He nervously tapped his foot, waiting for the bandage to be ripped off. Bill let out a weary sigh, as though Holden was the one not saying what he was supposed to.

“Your… deviance. Homosexual tendencies. I know, and I’m telling you for your sake and mine to back off.

Never fucking mind. Holden desperately wished that the bandage had been left on to rot.

He couldn't feel his body. He was floating somewhere else, somewhere far away and painful. Some part of his consciousness registered that Bill was saying his name, but the world around him was reduced to a dull roar, Bill's voice bouncing around the inside of his skull like a pinball.

His psychiatrist had called these "dissociative episodes", but that term felt too clinical. Too scientific. He was floating, floating too high up and he wanted the pain to stop, but he'd rather die than return to his body, his treacherous fucking body, always wanting things that it shouldn't and taking up space that it shouldn't. He itched for a razor so badly that his fingers were flailing uselessly, searching for the familiar, cool metal. He wanted nothing more than to see himself bleed, to break the dam of his skin and let everything he didn't want inside of him pour out.

“Bill,” he wheezed. It was choked and raspy, and it was odd to think he was capable of making a sound like that. 

“How did you… h–“

“I, uh... I know you pretty well by now. I have eyes, Holden, I’m not an idiot,” Bill answered, a guilty note to his voice. He sounded like he was underwater. Holden’s pulse was a hummingbird heart; it was a sickeningly persistent, quick throbbing, and he wanted it to shut up. His arms uncrossed to grasp at his chest as his eyes began to fill with tears, and his useless shell all but collapsed onto the bed. 

“Hey, now,” Bill started, slowly approaching him, hands held up in surrender. Holden shook his head. He was heaving as he clawed the mattress for purchase, trying and failing to regulate his breathing.

Wordlessly, he slid off the bed and dropped to his knees at Bill’s feet.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Bill hissed, backing up. He seemed horrified, but Holden had only sat back on his heels and clasped his hands together, fully prepared to beg. He thought that maybe this should feel undignified, but he didn't give a shit about dignity– not when the career he'd spent his entire life working for was now a rug that Bill could easily yank out from under him.

“Please, pl… Jesus, just don’t tell anyone, Bill. I’ll be fired, I can’t get fired, this job is my life. Bill, please don’t tell anyone, I’ll never speak to you again if that’s what you want but please don’t–“ His voice cracked violently, every word embarrassingly thick with the threat of tears. He'd leave the unit, go back to negotiation if Bill really wanted him to. It would be awful, but the idea of having to leave the bureau entirely was too much to bear.

“I’m not going to tell anyone,” Bill cut him off. He crouched down so he was at Holden’s level, trying to make eye contact. Holden refused to look at him, keeping his face downturned. How could he ever look Bill in the eye again? With a sigh, Bill gently lifted his chin with two fingers, forcing him to look up.

“Hey, look at me. I promise that I won’t tell anyone, okay? I’m not going to Wendy, or Gunn, or anybody else. This stays between us, alright? You got my word.”

Holden let out the breath he had been holding the entire time Bill spoke, and slumped against the side of the bed, boneless with exhaustion.

"Thank you," he whispered. His eyes fluttered shut, and he thought he heard Bill whisper something, but he was probably imagining things. 

With a start, he realized that Bill’s fingers were still resting under his chin. There was heat spreading out from where they made contact, but whether it was because Bill's hands were warm or Holden was blushing, Holden didn't know. Bill was probably disgusted with him, why was he touching him? Couldn't he see that Holden was fucking dirty, that he was tainted?

Selfishselfishselfishselfish.

Ashamed, he scrambled backward, feeling another swell of panic begin to fog over his brain.

“I… I’m sorry, I…” he trailed off, unable to finish. He stumbled to his feet and made a break for the bathroom, too afraid to look back.

 


 

Bill watched Holden dart into the bathroom like a bat out of hell, and sat down heavily onto his bed.

That went well. Nice fucking job, Tench.

He'd done it all wrong. He called Holden by his title, in a failed attempt to make it all less intimate. He had lied about how he knew– the last thing he wanted was for Holden to have another attack after realizing how well Kemper could read him. Bill ran a hand through his hair. What the fuck had he been thinking, bringing it up so randomly? Holden had just... he had touched him, and the feel of Holden's palm against his skin was all Bill could think about, and he had to stop it.

He had to stop it, because... why?

Because if you hadn't, you would have kissed him.

A wave of nausea overcame Bill and he doubled over, squeezing his eyes shut against the truth he'd managed to deny for so long. 

He couldn't lie to himself anymore, even though he wanted to, wanted to shut it out again more than he wanted anything. It was all so glaringly obvious, now that he actually processed it. How in God's name had he managed to convince himself that what he felt for Holden was platonic? Christ, he was fucking delusional. He was good friends with a few of his coworkers, with one or two of Brian's friends' fathers, but he hadn't ever felt about them the way he did about Holden.

He'd never felt the need to protect, to defend. Never felt the warmth that flooded him when Holden smiled, the flip of his stomach when their thighs brushed as they had a celebratory drink after a successful interview, the feeling he got when his arms were around Holden... like Holden belonged there.

Hell, he had never felt anything that strong with his own wife, even during their best years. He loved her, of course he did. But where she was a cool, soothing steadiness in Bill's chaotic life, Holden was an inferno. He lit Bill on fire and burned him to ash with that damned snark of his, how he bit the tip of his tongue ever so slightly when he laughed and you could see it poking out from between his teeth, how you could feel his gaze on you long after he'd looked away.

Clenching his hand into a fist, Bill punched the mattress. The rickety springs creaked in protest.

What kind of a man was he? What kind of a husband, of a father? He was pining after his coworker, his male coworker (as if emotional infidelity involving another woman wasn't awful enough), like a dog yearning for scraps. It was pathetic, disgusting, abhorrent. He was a big fat fucking hypocrite, pointing the finger at Holden to avoid holding himself accountable for his own emotions. Was Holden even interested in him, or had Bill taken what Kemper said and ran with it because of his own wishful thinking? Was he just projecting?

It didn't matter. Even if Holden felt the same, nothing could happen. Nothing would happen. It would be the end, for both of them. They'd lose their jobs, their families. Their entire lives would be destroyed.

Coming to that conclusion shouldn't have hurt Bill as much as it did.

 


 

Later that night, the two agents sat on their respective beds. They had ordered room service without saying a word to each other, and the air was permeated with a heavy, suffocating silence. After emerging from the bathroom nearly two hours after he disappeared into it, Holden was reacting to everything like a feral stray. He would jump at the slightest sounds, flinch away from walls and turn corners extremely slowly, each step perfectly calculated. Bill felt sick, watching it and knowing that it was his fault.

It was Holden who ultimately broke the quiet, because of course it was.

“I understand if you… if you don’t want to work with me anymore.” His voice hitched as though he was on the verge of tears, and Bill could see in the faint glow of the moon that his shoulders were hunched, nearly up to his ears. Not for the first time that night, Bill wished that he had the ability to knee himself in the groin.

Look what you've done, you piece of shit. You hurt him, just to cover your own ass. Feel any better?

“I’ll switch out of the BSU, if that’s what you want. Transfer back into negotiation,” Holden offered. The resignation in his voice was palpable, and it made Bill’s chest ache. How long had he been mentally preparing for this? Had he spent their entire time working together just counting down the days until Bill discovered his secret, and kicked him to the curb?

“I promise that I won’t let this thing,” he spat out, utter disdain for himself evident in his tone, “affect your work. Just, please. Don’t tell anyone else.”

Bill sighed, shaking his head even though Holden couldn’t see it.

“I don’t want you to transfer, Holden." He struggled for something to say. "You’re just... confused. Look, we’ll keep this between us, and I’m sure it’ll blow over.”

He didn't know if he was trying to convince Holden or himself.

There was a long pause, and for a second, Bill thought Holden wasn't going to respond at all. He'd have every right; he'd be justified in never talking to Bill again.

“Okay,” came a nearly inaudible whisper. He didn’t sound remotely convinced, but there was such relief in his voice that Bill chose to let the matter drop.

"Goodnight, Bill."

He watched Holden's silhouette as the other man laid down in the bed and pulled the comforter up to his chin, curling up as small as possible on his side, turning to face the wall away from Bill. God help him, Bill wanted to be next to him– to hold him until he stopped shaking, to kiss him out of that head of his.

Bill knew that if all that religion shit Nancy had so much faith in was real, he was going to hell. He had accepted that years ago, but until tonight, he had never genuinely felt like he deserved it.

"Goodnight, Holden."

Chapter Text

put your lips close to mine,
as long as they don’t touch

out of focus, eye to eye,
till the gravity's too much

and i'll do anything you say
if you say it with your hands
and i'd be smart to walk away,
but you’re quicksand

this slope is treacherous, this path is reckless
this slope is treacherous, and i like it

— "treacherous", taylor swift

The following couple of days were tense, to say the least.

Bill and Holden didn't talk about much beyond work, on the rare occasion that Holden actually spoke. He was eerily formal, keeping at least a foot of distance between himself and Bill when he could. Gone was the playful slugging, the pats on the back, the brief and casual side-hugs. Holden was as stiff with Bill as he was with Wendy. Sometimes Bill saw him reach out for a casual touch, but his face would quickly contort and his hand would jerk away. Sometimes Bill would touch him, and he would flinch and move away as quickly as possible. He never looked Bill in the eye, even when talking directly to him, rather choosing to keep his gaze directed toward the floor.

It had barely been two days, and Bill already missed it all– the contact, the intimacy, even Holden's voice yammering on and on about a case. He was finally starting to talk again, and Bill had sent him several steps backward with one conversation.

Fuck.

They walked into the Nashville Police Department at eight o'clock on the dot the morning before their interview. A man a bit older than Bill with white hair and a horrifically unflattering chinstrap was already there, nervously shifting his weight from foot to foot as he waited for them to approach.

"Detective Chandler, I'm Special Agent Bill Tench. This is my partner, Special Agent Holden Ford," Bill greeted.

"Pleasure to meet you, sir," Holden said. Bill internally sighed in relief. At least Holden was talking to someone. It didn't have to be him.

The detective shook each of their hands, offering a grim smile.

"May not be too pleased in a minute, Agents. I 'preciate y'all comin all the way out here. If you'll follow me. Lemme bring ya up to speed."

Three girls murdered over the course of the same number of weeks, all home alone and between the ages of 15-18, all via a clean slit of the throat. Their bodies were mutilated after death, carved up meticulously. Little to no evidence of struggle, the killer seeming to have attacked from behind. Their houses were broken into in the middle of the day, the only signs of forced entry scratch marks around the locks, proving them to have been picked. There was almost no evidence of the killer, other than that he wore a size ten shoe, as evident by a muddy footprint found in one of the girls' foyers.

“He did this shit in broad daylight and there wasn’t a single witness?” Bill asked. Chandler sighed and nodded.

”They all lived in pretty remote houses. I imagine that’s part of why he picked ‘em.” 

Holden was flipping through the crime scene photos, his face the special kind of calculating it became when he was deep in thought.

"There's no way he just guessed that they were home alone. He had to have been watching them, for a while. Learning their schedules, their parents' schedules. Have you spoken with any neighbours?"

"We've interviewed four people 'cross all three victims. They didn't see anything. Like I said, they're remote houses, ain't too many neighbours to speak to."

"No semen?"

"None that we could find."

Holden turned to Bill, raising an eyebrow.

"Sacrificial, maybe? The slit throat seems significant, almost ritualistic." Bill nodded thoughtfully, and turned to Chandler.

"Did you find anything that could suggest more than one perpetrator?"

"No, sir."

Holden hummed, looking back at the pictures. His hand paused over a school photo of the youngest one, a fifteen year old brunette named Deborah. Debbie to her friends, Chandler had said. He looked pained, so unbearably sad that it took all of Bill's restraint not to wrap him up into a tight hug and shield his eyes. He was clearly thinking about his ex-girlfriend. Bill could see the moment he snapped himself out of it, his gaze becoming less foggy as he moved the picture to the side with the rest.

"Chances are, we're looking at a white male. Most likely in his twenties, could be thirties. All of his victims have brown hair, that's something to take note of. It could mean something," he said, voice holding a note of command that it hadn't had for months.

Holden was in his zone. Right now, he was untouchable, and Bill watched in familiar admiration and attraction as he moved, a flurry of directions and questions that clearly overwhelmed Chandler. Bill would step in regularly to deliver the information Holden had thrown at him in a less abrasive manner, and to contribute his own insights. He had nearly forgotten how good he and Holden were together: a well-oiled machine, cogs working smoothly in tandem with one another. They bounced off of each other effortlessly, finishing sentences and communicating thoughts with something as simple as a look.

If he closed his eyes, Bill could almost pretend that it was road school, with nothing to deal with beyond himself, Holden and a full tank of gas.

 


 

When they arrived back at the motel, at some ungodly hour of the night, Holden went straight into the bathroom.

He stared at his reflection, trying to convince himself that the husk of a person staring back was him. His eyes raked over the water dripping from his eyelashes, the blotchiness of his face, the slight part of his mouth. None of it seemed real. He scratched hard down one cheek, leaving a pink and irritated streak in his wake. He barely felt it. His dissociative episodes had been worsening, and even slicing his skin was beginning to lose its effect. Everything was falling apart.

He didn't know how he was supposed to act around Bill anymore. He could go ahead and add their relationship to his ever-expanding mental list of "Things Holden Ford Has Turned To Shit". Maybe he should start writing it down, give it to potential friends and lovers. Let them decide from that whether they wanted to get to know him or not. At least then, when they left, he wouldn't have had time to get attached, and they wouldn't have either. It would be so much easier for everyone that way.

God, he missed Debbie so much that it hurt. She would know what to say to get him out of his head. He'd seen her a week before leaving, but even that seemed like years ago. He had confided in her bits and pieces about his current state– enough to get somewhat accurate advice, but not enough to scare her. She worried about him, though. He could see it.

He didn't deserve her worry.

("Holden, please don't hurt yourself," she had begged him, once.

They were sprawled out on her couch, his head in her lap as she played with his hair. He looked up to see that her big blue eyes were full of tears and straightened himself, opening his arms. He didn't say anything, just held her close. She took his silence as a promise. He let her.

He hadn't said anything.

He wasn't lying to her now, wasn't breaking any promises, not really.

He hadn't said anything.)

He thought of those dead girls, of the youngest one, and of how he couldn't let her down. He couldn't let any of them down, nor their families. Not again. This was one promise to a Debbie, that he was determined to keep.

His arms stung. He barely felt it.

 


 

“You okay? You were in there awhile.” Bill was sitting on his bed, a lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth as he idly turned the page of the book he was reading. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Holden climbed into bed and wrapped the comforter securely around his waist.

“I’m fine.” His voice was taut. Bill didn’t look up from the book, just nodded. He finally closed it and set it on the bed, then swung his legs over the side, facing Holden.

"We need to talk about the elephant in the room. If we go in there tomorrow with obvious tension, Jensen's gonna latch onto that and use it to his advantage." Holden didn't say anything, and Bill sighed. Probably against his better judgement, he got up and sat on the edge of Holden's bed, leaving a considerable amount of distance between them.

"How the tables turn," Holden muttered. Bill bit back a smile at that glimmer of the smartass he met in the cafeteria so long ago– or at least, it felt like so long ago. Some days, it felt like he'd known Holden forever.

"I'm sorry, Holden," he admitted. He was pretty sure that he'd apologized more in the past month than he had ever apologized over the course of his entire life, and they were all to Holden. Go figure.

(It was a pet peeve of Nancy's; Bill's inability to admit when he was wrong was one of their most common issues, other than work. Of course, in her eyes, he was always the one in the wrong.)

He pushed the painful thought of his wife from his mind and refocused on Holden, who looked confused.

"I... what? What do you have to be sorry for?"

"Jesus, kid, you gotta stop acting like you deserve every bad thing that's been done to you. I'm sorry for springing that conversation on you, the other day. That was unfair. It's none of my business, and it was wrong of me to make... assumptions."

Holden's eyes were glistening as he settled back against the pillows.

"No," he whispered. "It really isn't your business." His voice was timid, as though he was afraid of calling Bill out.

Bill simply nodded. He deserved that.

"It isn't. If it doesn't interfere with the job, I shouldn't be butting in. And I want you to know that it doesn't change anything. About us being partners. I'm not suddenly afraid of you, or disgusted by you, or whatever else is going through that head of yours. Your, uh... whichever way you swing, it doesn't matter to me."

Holden looked at him skeptically.

"But doesn't it, Bill? How do I know that I can trust you? How do I know that you won't rat me out to Gunn the second I piss you off?" It was a valid point. Holden was far too paranoid to take Bill's words at face value, and far too intelligent to ignore the distinct possibility that Bill was bullshitting him.

"You don't," Bill admitted.

"You don't know that. You're gonna have to take a leap of faith, Holden. You're gonna have to trust my word. I know I haven't given you much reason to in the past, but I swear to you, I won't let you down on this." Holden contemplated this. His lips were pressed together, and Bill watched his jaw work as he formulated a response.

"If I'm going to do that... we have to talk some more first," he eventually said. Bill groaned, and Holden nodded.

"Yeah, yeah, I agree. I hate it as much as you do. But I know you, Bill, and I know that you have questions. So, spit them out. I'd like to be able to get past this, but I don't see how we can do that without clearing up everything, not just what little we're comfortable with." He sat up straight, gesturing for Bill to go ahead.

Damning him for thinking so logically, Bill took a minute to mull over Holden's offer. The other man really knew him too well; of course he had questions. There were things he wanted to know, and, embarrassingly enough, needed to know to figure his own shit out. He didn't know what the fuck he was feeling, and who better to ask than someone who had similar feelings? If he could word his questions in a subtle way, maybe he could puzzle out some of them. What the hell else could he do, pull up to one of those bars and ask for advice? He was in law enforcement, not exactly the most liberal of professions; he didn't know gay people. His father had made sure he knew them exclusively as something to spit on.

Don't ever let one of them faggots touch you, you hear me? he'd said.

You kill 'em first.

Bill hadn't understood why, but he'd avoided them nonetheless– so his life wasn't exactly teeming with homosexuals. Deciding that the pros of asking Holden questions outweighed the cons, he, reluctantly, went for it.

(The Wendy-esque voice reminded him that it was probably a stupid idea to ask the man he was attracted to about, well, attraction, but as he always did, he ignored it.)

"Okay. How long have you known you were... you know?" he asked, trailing off rather than speaking the word aloud.

"Gay?" Holden clarified. Bill only flinched a little at how glib he was about it.

"You can say it when we're alone, you know. It's not on the deviant terminology list." He blew out a long breath, staring at his lap.

"Since I was probably around, I don't know, twenty? It's always been there, but I wasn't fully aware of it before that." 

Oh.

The panic, the disgust, the shame Bill had agonized about over the past few days, ever since his little discovery– Holden had been grappling with it every day for over a decade. He suddenly felt like the most selfish person on the planet. He had always had passing thoughts, sure, but he'd assumed that everybody had those. Holden, on the other hand, was the first man he'd ever had significant feelings for. But it made no sense. He loved Nancy, he was sexually attracted to her. He had always been sexually attracted to women, despite a man slipping in every now and then. What did that make him?

"How, uh, did you realize that?"

Holden cocked an eyebrow, crossing his arms over his chest.

"You're a big boy, Bill. You figure it out."

An unpleasantly pleasant heat began to build in Bill's abdomen at Holden's words, and he squirmed uncomfortably. Holden, brilliant as he was, caught the movement immediately, and his smugness faded into guilt.

"Shit, sorry. Too far? I was just kidding. It was a lot of little things, really, even looking back at my childhood. Let's just say that I paid a lot more attention to Ricky than I did to Lucy." This time Bill chuckled, albeit a little breathlessly. Holden lit up at the sound, relieved.

After some deliberation, Bill decided to broach the topic that had been needling at him since Kemper.

"What about Debbie? Was she your... what's the term..."

"Beard?" Holden responded. A pause. Then, he threw back his head and laughed. He had perked up at the mention of her, eyes alight in a way that Bill hadn't seen in God knew how long, and an irrational stab of jealousy pricked at him.

"You've met her– can you really picture her as anyone's beard? No, that was me trying to convince myself that I could be straight. I figured that if I were to be in love with a woman, it would be Debbie. And maybe if I was with her I would, I don't know, turn or something? Surprise, surprise, it didn't work," he explained, adding the last part with a huff and a roll of his eyes.

"I love Debbie. She's my best friend, but... I just don't love her like that. She's more sisterly than anything else."

"Does she know?"

"She's the one who taught me the term 'internalized homophobia'. I told her about a month after we broke up."

"How did she take it?"

"...She slugged me on the arm and said 'I know, you fucking idiot'." 

Bill grinned at that. It was absolutely something he could picture: romantic or not, he had seen how adept the girl was at putting Holden through his paces.

"She gave me an earful about using her to lie to myself, an earful that I absolutely deserved. Then she hugged me, called me a idiot again and that was that. She keeps trying to set me up with guys she meets in her classes."

There it was again, the jealousy. Bill swallowed it down, almost able to feel it tangible in his throat.

"So she knew, huh?" Bill asked, trying to subtly change the subject. Holden rolled his eyes again, this time playful, loving.

"Apparently so. She said that I am, quote, 'in retrospect, clearly as gay as the day is long' and she suspected it from the moment I asked her if I was satisfying her in bed, because, quote, 'a heterosexual man would never bother to do that'. No offense, Bill."

Bill just shook his head. He could see the proverbial lightbulb go off above Holden's head, more than likely trying to deduce whether Bill had meant 'none taken' or 'no, your statement about heterosexual men doesn't apply to me'.

"So you told Debbie. Why didn't you tell me?" he blurted, going off on another tangent to distract him, trying to keep the slight hurt out of his tone. It did feel pretty awful that Holden hadn't trusted him, after all. Holden just shot him an unamused look.

"You're not serious, are you? We work at the country club, and you've not exactly been a sign-holding ally, Bill. I had no way to gauge whether you would have ran straight to Shepard.”

Touché.

He tried not to grin at Holden's reference to the first time they met. He was surprised he remembered him saying that at all.

(Bill remembered every detail of that day, of course he did. Maybe these feelings had been dormant since he saw Holden playing with his tie under the cafeteria table.)

"Fair enough, stupid question. I, um, I just have one more." Holden flicked his wrist in a 'proceed' gesture, and the words left Bill's mouth before he could stop himself.

"Do you... have any feelings for a man right now?"

He silently cursed himself. Regret was quickly becoming his default emotion, it seemed. Holden's face turned pink and he stuttered, taken aback. 

"That's overstepping a bit, Bill," he said, chuckling nervously. He was absolutely right, and Bill hated himself a little more for asking.

"Fuck, I shouldn't have–"

"But, uh... yeah," Holden whispered.

"I do." He stared at Bill, flushed with want.

If eyes could speak, Holden's would be screaming what Bill already knew, deep down. The black of his pupils bled into the blue, glazed over with desire, and Bill was the furthest thing from a poet but he could drown in those eyes and die happy. Holden's gaze was hypnotic, and Bill could feel himself unintentionally shifting closer. He wanted it, too. He wanted and wanted and wanted. Their faces were so close that he could see the tiny freckles dotting Holden's cheeks. Just a couple of inches and their noses would be touching. Bill licked his lips, and he could hear Holden's trembling inhale as his eyes tracked the motion. Slowly, his lids fluttered shut, and Bill nearly closed the distance between them, he was shuddering with anticipation–

On the other side of the wall in the room next to them, something hit the ground with a thunk, followed by a holler of "Shit!", startling them apart. Bill took the opportunity to move away, closing his eyes and breathing deeply, summoning his self-control.

"Well, it's late. We got a long day tomorrow," he said as he stood and put a good deal of space between them, injecting an air of finality into his words. 

"You don't have to come if you're not up to it. I know you've been having a tough time with interviews lately, and I don't want to push you into anything you aren't ready for." Holden shook his head and threw back the comforter, standing to be level with Bill. His face was set with determination, his lips full and bitten at, and Bill let himself imagine for one moment what could have been if the idiot next door was better coordinated.

"I want to. I trust you, Bill." The intensity of his gaze told Bill that he was referring to more than just the interview. With a gentle smile, he clapped a hand on Holden's shoulder and briefly rubbed his thumb back and forth, relishing in the brief moment of contact before getting into the uncomfortable twin bed. Holden went back into the bathroom, leaving the door open enough to reveal a sliver of him splashing water on his face.

For the first time since Atlanta, Bill found himself almost looking forward to an interview.

Chapter Text

i had a thought, dear, however scary
about that night, the bugs and the dirt
why were you digging? what did you bury
before those hands pulled me from the earth?

i will not ask you where you came from
i will not ask and neither should you
honey, just put your sweet lips on my lips
we should just kiss like real people do

— “like real people do”, hozier

When Bill and Holden were led to the specified interview room in the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, a large blonde-haired man was waiting for them. He was sitting in one of the metal chairs, clad in a standard prison jumpsuit and cuffed to the table, with thick black tattoos winding up his neck. His eyes were sunken in, almost glowing an unsettlingly piercing green under the fluorescent, and they zeroed in on Holden the moment he stepped through the door.

"Can we get the cuffs off?" Holden asked the guard, who shrugged and unlocked them before stepping outside.

“Mr. Jensen. I’m Bill Tench, and this is Holden Ford. We’re from the FBI, and we'd like to ask you some questions regarding your crimes.” Bill sat down, gesturing for Holden to do so as well. Jensen smirked, turning to address Holden.

“What’s a lil' piece like you doin' around these parts?”

Jensen's demeanor and thick accent made Bill think of Richard Speck, the way he called Holden 'little boy' and stared pointedly at Bill while doing so, voice dripping with malice. Presumably having learned his lesson from that day, Holden didn't respond– just smiled faintly, carefully keeping his features warm and inviting. It set Bill’s fucking teeth on edge.

“We’re conducting interviews with people who have been convicted of violent crimes. We’ll be asking about family history, antecedent behaviour and thought processes surrounding the crimes. Our goal is to publish a statistical analysis which will not include your name. Does that sound alright?”

“Anything could sound alright comin’ outta your pretty mouth,” Jensen replied, his lips curling into a sly grin. Holden cleared his throat, shuffling his papers around awkwardly, but seemed otherwise passive.

"Cigarette?" Bill offered, trying to get the man's attention onto him instead. Sure enough, Jensen finally looked away from Holden and held his hand out expectantly. Bill plopped one into it and lit it for him, relieved that he was focusing on something else for a few seconds.

“So, Mr. Jensen–” Holden started to say, opening up his file.

“No need for formality from you, sweet thing. You can call me Al,” he interrupted, eyes roaming Holden’s face. Bill’s grip on his lighter tightened, and he took a careful, measured breath.

Fuck this, I’m taking it from here.

“Okay, Al–“ Bill began, but he was cut off by a glare from Jensen.

“Not you,” he drawled, “you can keep callin' me Mr. Jensen.”

Bill opened his mouth, fully prepared to rip the guy a new one, but Holden shot him a warning glare. He was torn between trying to ensure that Holden knew Bill thought he could handle it, and making Jensen shut his mouth. He didn't like it when their subjects spoke to Holden in a sexual manner– it made him angry in ways he was only just beginning to understand. Nevertheless, Bill held his hands up, conceding, and backed off.

“Al, then. How would you describe your childhood?” Holden asked.

“Fine,” Jensen said with a smirk, leaning back in his chair and smacking his lips around the cigarette.

"Pops wasn't in the picture, Ma looked after my sister all by herself." Holden leaned forward, intrigued. Jensen seemed pleased at the closer proximity.

"Just your sister? Why don't you include yourself in that?"

"She didn't look after me all that much, Mr. Ford." The last bit came out as a purr, and Bill fidgeted in his seat.

"Sometimes a man needs some lookin' after, wouldn't ya say so?"

"I agree," Holden replied, voice soft, fully ignoring the innuendo. Bill knew that he was too intelligent to have missed it.

"Tell me about the night of the first killing. Rhonda March, wasn't it?"

There was a long pause.

“If you want me to go into more detail, you’re gonna have to give me a lil' somethin’ in return," Jensen eventually proposed, lazily taking another drag. Bill rolled his eyes, but Holden simply held out his hands in a ‘well?’ gesture.

“What is it that you want? Depending on what it is, maybe we could pull some strings.”

Jensen’s eyes raked up and down Holden’s body, narrowing suggestively.

“Haven’t gotten a blowie in a good minute. Maybe you could help me out with that, hot stuff.” He reached an uncuffed ankle out to brush against Holden’s, and grabbed his wrist in a far more gentle hold than one would expect. Holden went rigid at the touch, and Bill saw red.

“I’m sure those pretty lips would look even better wrapped around my c–“ That was the last goddamn straw.

“Fuck you,” Bill hissed, getting up out of his seat and looming over Jensen. He kicked the man’s leg away and twisted his wrist, forcing him to release Holden's. He didn't even cry out, simply laughed.

“Bill!” Holden whispered, trying and failing to usher him out of the way.

“Protective, aren't we? We were just havin' a conversation; I don't see your name on 'im. What, you piss on him or somethin'?”

“Either answer the questions, or stop wasting our fucking time. And keep your filthy fucking paws off of him.”

"And what are you gonna do? Put me in jail?"

"I'll report you to the bureau for assaulting an FBI agent. When that happens, you can kiss any privileges you've earned goodbye, you piece of shit."

Jensen sized Bill up, clearly searching for a retort, but eventually deflated with a shrug.

"Mikey! I'm ready to go now," he yelled to the guard, who came in and began to re-cuff him. He turned to Holden, tossing him a wink.

"C'mon back anytime, sweetheart. I'll take real good care of ya."

"You motherfucking–"

"Bill!" Holden snapped again. He was livid in a way that Bill had only seen during the OPR debacle. His mouth was pulled into a straight line, and his eyes were pure ice. As soon as Jensen was in the hall, he inhaled sharply, organizing his things.

"We're going to talk about this when we get back."

Bill reluctantly followed him out to the car, feeling like a scolded child, still fuming. He all but slammed the door shut when he got in, resting his head on the steering wheel. Holden slid in next to him, pointedly staring off into the distance.

Shit.

 


 

The journey to their motel was silent and angry. Both men were looking at anything but each other, and the tension was palpable. Bill was practically seething, unable to scrub the memory of Holden's panicked face when Jensen's hand closed around his wrist from his mind. He didn't feel ashamed about how he had reacted in there, not even a little. Holden was going to get himself killed humouring these people. Bill shuddered at the idea of what could have happened if he wasn't there. Jensen was a big guy; he wasn't as big as Kemper, but he could still take Holden in a physical fight with ease.

Holden was glaring out the window, his entire body facing away from Bill. He hadn't said a word, and let Bill drive without complaint. That's how Bill knew he was really in for it– he had always assumed that the day Holden stopped asking to drive, would be the day hell froze over. 

Hopefully Satan has his fucking skates ready.

In the tiny elevator to their room, they had to stand close enough together that every once in a while, their hands would brush. He couldn't stop thinking about the night before, about how close they had been to...

Bill wondered if Holden could feel the air crackling around them, too.

The second they walked through the door, Holden rounded on him, furious.

”You want to tell me what the hell that was, Bill?”

“What the hell what was?” he said, closing it behind them.

“You treating me like a kid who can’t handle myself in there!”

Bill threw his jacket onto the nearby chair and pulled out a cigarette.

“That’s what you are.” Holden scoffed, taking the cigarette out of his hand and tossing it to the side. Bill opened his mouth to say something, but Holden cut him off.

“I’m a grown fucking man, I don’t need you to take care of me. It was extremely inappropriate!”

“What he was saying was inappropriate!”

Holden shook his head, shoulders squared. He began angrily pacing, his hands flying around as he wildly gestured. It was a side of him that Bill hadn't seen before.

“It doesn’t matter!  We have to get rid of that tape now, go back to the BSU with nothing! He was listening to me. I had it under control–“

“Did you?” Bill snarled. Holden stopped in his tracks.

“Did you really, Holden? Because the way I see it, that interview was a stellar example of your dangerously low self-preservation instinct.”

“For fuck’s sake, I can field a little flirtation, Bill, I'm not effete–“

“You think that was a little flirtation? He was rubbing up against you like a fucking cat! Do you have no idea what these men are capable of?”

“Of course I know what they're capable of! God, every time this happens, every time a subject gets flirtatious, you flip your shit. Why do you even care?” Holden countered. Bill hadn't realized how close they had gotten. There was a vein protruding from Holden's forehead, and he was flushed with anger. Strangely enough, it was a good look on him. Shoving the unnecessary thought away, Bill groaned, fed up with Holden's lack of self-respect.

“Because I care about you!” he roared, turning and slamming a fist against the wall. Overcome with a sudden exhaustion, he slumped against it, the textured wall grinding into his forehead.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Holden," he laughed, the sound bordering on hysterical. "I thought you were supposed to be some genius. Maybe I don’t enjoy seeing people I care about getting treated like a piece of meat by murderers.” He closed his eyes, shaking his head as if to clear it.

“Maybe, I want you to be fucking safe! Is that really so hard to comprehend?"

Silence. For a long minute, Bill thought that Holden had turned and left. Wouldn't that just be fucking perfect? He was so emotionally stunted that when he did emote, it scared people away. Christ. Had that been the catalyst for Nancy? Had he driven her away with his inability to process things like a normal fucking person?

A hand came to rest on his back, bringing him out of his head, and he opened his eyes to see Holden looking at him thoughtfully. 

“I'm sorry, Bill. I... I never thought about it like that,” he said, slowly. His gaze was analytic, like he was searching Bill for something.

Whatever it was, Bill wished that he would just find it already.

“Of course you didn’t, you never fucking think! You just jump straight into the thick of things without ever considering the consequences! How long do y–” Taking a deep breath, Holden cupped Bill’s face in both hands, tilted his chin upward and captured Bill's lips in a kiss.

It wasn’t dirty or even passionate; it was sweet, exploratory. Holden’s palms were warm against his face, his mouth soft and inviting. A fuzzy feeling passed through Bill as Holden’s tongue briefly caressed his, and he melted into the embrace. 

It was both exactly and nothing like he had expected; over the past week, he'd spent a humiliating amount of time imagining kissing Holden, and this was so much better than it was in his head. Holden fit against him just as perfectly as he had that drunken night, his body an anchor Bill clung to as he tried not to get swept away by the relief of Holden's lips finally, finally against his. For a split second, he thought his knees might actually give out. 

He snaked one of his hands around to the small of Holden’s back, tugging him even closer, resting the other between his shoulder blades. Bill backed them up so that he was gently pressing Holden against the wall, taking control of the kiss. Holden let out a quiet noise that was some cross between a whimper and a sigh, and Bill was overwhelmed by how much he wanted to hear that sound again.

One of Holden’s hands left his cheek and trailed around his neck, toying with the short hair at his nape. Holden’s teeth lightly tugged at Bill's bottom lip, dragging a small noise out of the back of his throat and startling him out of his reverie. 

It all hit him at once: he had a wife, and he was currently kissing a man. He was kissing Holden. He was married, and he was kissing his fucking work partner, and he was enjoying it. 

What the hell am I doing?

Bill moved a hand to Holden's chest and pushed him away, backing up slightly so that they were apart again, less than a foot of space between them. It still felt like too much. The most uninhibited part of Bill wanted to yank Holden back to him, to kiss him until that mouth that never shut up was reddened and panting. Thinking about it was one thing, but actually doing it? They had crossed some invisible line that they could never cross back. Holden looked terrified, awaiting his reaction, and all Bill could think about was him on his knees but instead of begging to keep his job, he was begging for–

“No. This isn’t a thing that’s going to happen.” He turned and started searching for his coat, unable to recall where he left it. His head was foggy with desire, and he made sure to avoid Holden’s eyes. He had to get the hell out of there, before he did something else he’d regret. Holden didn’t move from his spot against the wall, watching him knowingly.

“It’s a thing that’s been happening, Bill, and we both know it. You feel it, too.” The sureness in his voice contrasted the fear on his face. It was a rare moment of recklessness, one that Bill hadn't seen in months. Holden was actually trusting his instinct again, and if it were about literally anything else, Bill would be overjoyed.

“I don’t know what in God’s name you think you’re talking about. I'm married, Nancy and I... this was a mistake.” He pulled on his jacket, which he finally located on the back of the chair, and made his way toward the door.

“Where are you going?” Holden asked, following closely behind.

“Away from here. I need a fucking drink,” Bill muttered. He started to twist the knob, but Holden laid an urgent hand on his arm, stopping him.

“Bill, please. Stay. I see the way you watch me, in the office. The protectiveness, during interviews. At first I assumed it was platonic, but after today…” 

“You’re delusional,” Bill growled.

“And you’re a coward,” Holden shot back. His eyes were searching, and Bill fought the urge to squirm under his intense scrutiny. The feeling of his hand was distracting, but Bill dragged himself out of his stupor with a cold sneer.

“You watch your fucking mouth.”

“Am I wrong?” Holden cocked a challenging eyebrow, and Bill felt a sudden surge of rage wash over him. Who the hell does he think he is? He grabbed the wrist of the hand Holden still had on him and peeled it off of his arm, gripping tightly but not tight enough to hurt, his fingers digging into the skin there. He could feel Holden’s pulse against them, quick and hot, and he noticed himself hardening in response.

“Holden. Back. Off. I’m warning you.”

“Look me in the eye, Bill, and tell me you don't want to,” Holden murmured, moving in closer, eyes hooded. He didn’t try to free his wrist, and his tongue darted out to wet his lips. They glistened in the low light of the motel room. Bill knew, vaguely, that he should step away. He should really leave.

Leave, you fucking idiot. Move your goddamn feet and leave.

His body seemed to have other ideas, though, and he took a step closer, getting up in Holden’s face. Their noses were nearly brushing, and Bill could feel the other man’s breath hot against his mouth.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“Make me,” Holden dared, chin up, defiant. The lamp behind him glowed around his head, giving off an almost angelic effect. He was absolutely infuriating, and ridiculously beautiful, and Bill was so fucking tired of holding back.

Bill grabbed the lapels of his suit jacket and hauled him across the short distance into another kiss. This time, there was nothing gentle about it– it was a clash of teeth and tongue and pure desperation. Bill flipped them around and shoved Holden against the now completely closed door, pinning Holden’s body and working a leg between his. He nipped at Holden’s earlobe, soothing it with his tongue and eliciting a breathy whine from the younger man.

"Do you have any idea how much effort it takes to be around you every day?" Bill asked, messily kissing down the length of his throat.

"Effort?" Holden repeated, breathing heavily. Bill nodded, lunging for his mouth again. He could kiss Holden for the rest of his life and it still wouldn't be enough.

"Yeah. Effort. I can't seem to stop thinking about you, and it's becoming a real fucking problem." 

“Bill, please,” Holden gasped, his voice hitching, bordering on wanton. He shamelessly rubbed himself against Bill’s thigh, and Bill let out a low, needy sound he didn't think he'd ever made in his life. He all but ripped open Holden’s shirt, revealing the skin beneath (Jesus Christ, he hadn't worn an undershirt), and was about to push it off his shoulders when Holden stopped him.

“Don’t.”

“What?”

“Leave it on.”

Bill met Holden’s gaze, about to ask why, but there was a seriousness in his voice that prompted Bill to just nod, and let the thin fabric fall from his hands. He’d inquire later, now was not the time– not when Holden was dragging their mouths back together, the slick warmth of his tongue causing Bill’s brain to grind to a complete stop.

“I knew I read this right,” Holden murmured against Bill’s lips, clearly fighting a smile. 

“Bed. Now,” Bill whispered back. 

He didn’t have to ask Holden twice.

Chapter Text

and i would say i love you
but saying it out loud is hard
so i won't say it at all
and i won't stay very long
but you are the life i needed all along

— “futile devices”, sufjan stevens

The station reeked of coffee and body odor. Bill knew that Tennessee was hot and sweating was going to happen, but would it kill some of these guys to bring deodorant to the office? All the men working the case Holden and Bill had been assigned to were sat around a table during their break, having a smoke while Detective Chandler regaled them with tales of his army days. The overwhelming, almost nauseating scent combined with Chandler’s droning voice was enough to make Bill wish he was back at the motel, in bed.

Preferably with Holden.

Christ, even thinking his name stirred up need in Bill. Every single time he closed his eyes, he saw visions of two nights prior– Holden riding him, eyes screwed shut in pleasure, deliriously moaning his name like it was the only word he knew. He was too good at it all to have never done it before, taking Bill without much preparation. Somehow, it hadn't really occurred to him that Holden would have experience. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had sex that... passionate. 

Holden was so eager, attentive in a way that Bill wasn’t used to. He had routinely checked in and made sure it was as good for Bill as it was for him, if not better. Nancy hadn't been inattentive, per se, but any physical intimacy between them in recent months (maybe even years) had been purely out of obligation. There was no desire, no chemistry in the act. It felt almost performative, whereas fucking Holden was anything but. 

Bill had never seen anything like Holden, who was usually so tightly wound, finally coming undone because of him. He wanted to see it again.

It had been oddly easy to wake up, with surprisingly little awkwardness. Holden had fallen asleep in Bill’s bed, a warm press against his side, and he had opened his eyes to find Holden already awake, tracing an idle finger up and down the arm Bill had wrapped around his shoulders. They had, in their brief discussion on the way to work that morning, agreed to maintain professionalism. They were both extremely experienced at compartmentalizing– it was an essential part of their job. But of course, there was inevitably going to be an issue.

And that issue was currently sitting five feet away, pen in hand.

Holden sent a coy glance toward Bill, as he did whenever he got the chance, borderline fucking fluttering his long lashes. He ran the end of the pen over his bottom lip, pulling it down slightly. Bill couldn’t tear his eyes from the smooth curve of Holden’s jaw, the sheen of his slightly wet lips as he rolled the pen between dexterous fingers before returning it to his mouth. He nibbled on the end of it, and Bill shifted in his seat. Holden shouldn’t have this much of an effect on him with only his mouth and a fucking writing utensil, but here Bill was, half-hard at ten in the morning. Holden licked his lips, looking Bill dead in the face.

Bill saw the glint of mischief in his eyes, and couldn't help but give in.

“If you'll excuse me. Bathroom,” he said to Chandler, then stalked off with a polite nod. Making sure no one else was paying attention, he cast a pointed glare at Holden over his shoulder, jerking his chin ever so slightly. The widening of Holden's eyes and the poorly concealed smirk on his face told Bill that he got the message.

There was a specific bathroom in a more remote part of the station, rarely used. Holden would know where to go. Bill walked in and pressed his head against the cool wall, trying desperately to quell his growing (both literally and figuratively) need.

Had he lost his mind? He'd told Holden that that night was a one-time thing. Holden took it without complaint, but was unable to hide the flicker of hurt that flashed across his face. That hurt had kept Bill up the past couple of nights.

He'd declared it a one-time thing, and yet here he was, initiating it. 

You aren't twenty anymore, what are you doing? Think of your family, you fucking moron. You aren't going to get them back like this.

(But did he even want them back? Not in the case of Brian– of course he wanted his son back. He missed the kid so badly that there was a physical pain in his chest. But his marriage, the walking on eggshells? The constant animosity toward him and his work, something Bill wasn't sure could go away with all the couple's counseling in the world... was that what he wanted for his life?)

The sound coming from the clock hanging on the bathroom wall seemed to bounce around the empty room, ticking in time with Bill's pulse. He should leave. He should go back to the table, listen to Chandler's stories until his break was over and wade neck-deep into this case. Lately, he'd spent a concerning amount of time considering what he should do, and then not doing it. 

When Holden finally came in, locking the door behind him, Bill immediately and thoughtlessly dragged him in by the hips, crushing their mouths together, throwing all resolve to the wind. Every concern he'd had to the contrary fizzled out with the feeling of Holden's tongue against his.

“You’re a fucking tease, you know that?” he murmured. Holden smiled into the kiss, and Bill couldn’t help the fondness that cropped up in him at the feeling. One of Holden's hands rested on his chest and the other lightly gripped his short hair as their lips worked in time with each other, a mess of desperation and heat.

“Mhm,” Holden replied, grinding against Bill as he worked his way downward, toward the junction of Bill’s shoulder and neck. Bill craned his neck to give him more access, all but panting with want.

“You’re insatiable,” he said, faux-complaining. Holden hummed in agreement against Bill’s throat as he mouthed at the skin there.

“Right again, astute observations,” he whispered. Bill groaned when Holden’s hand brushed over where he needed it, hard and aching, and he bucked into the touch.

“This– oh, fucking hell, Holden– this isn’t... very professional,” he breathed. Holden pulled back and raised an eyebrow, before shrugging playfully as he turned and began to make his way to the door.

”Alright, then. Professional it is. I guess I’ll just head back out th–”

”Don’t you dare,” Bill hissed, grabbing him by the elbow and spinning him around so their bodies were flush together, wanting nothing more than to kiss away that infuriating smirk. Moving downward, Holden grinned up at Bill as his knees hit the tile, and he nosed at Bill’s cock through his slacks. Bill choked out a moan, his fingers tightening in Holden's hair.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Holden, you’re gonna be the death of me.”

Holden laughed, rough with arousal but tinged with a sweetness that knocked the wind out of Bill. He could listen to that sound for hours. Suddenly wanting nothing more than to see Holden fall to pieces again, Bill grabbed his collar and dragged him back up, sliding a hand into his briefs.

”Wha...” Holden started to say, but it tapered off into a whimper as his hips jerked forward.

”I changed my mind,” Bill whispered, kissing the skin just below his ear. The only noises that rivaled Holden’s laugh were his cries of pleasure. They didn’t quite usurp its position, but they came close.

They sounded beautiful echoing throughout the bathroom, and Bill couldn't help but feel a wave of possessiveness wash over him. In that moment, Holden was his and his alone, and he relished in it.

 


  

It all became routine easily, with little fanfare.

They were barely been able to keep their hands off of each other when working, let alone when not working– Bill's golfing days were over. At first, it was just sex: hot, quick, often frenzied release after a day of reviewing evidence, or lack thereof. Bill would quite literally pound out his frustrations, and Holden got to let go of his incessant need to control and not think for a little while. Holden would stay the night in Bill’s bed, and they’d be on each other as soon as they woke up. It was almost foreign; Bill had forgotten what being “hot and heavy” felt like. It was an arrangement that worked for both of them.

(For some reason, Holden refused to take off his shirt every time. He would let Bill unbutton it, but never fully remove it. Bill was curious, but he figured it wasn’t his place to question it. He had pried enough into Holden's sensitive business over the past few months, and for all he knew, it could have something to do with his panic disorder. The last thing Bill wanted was to trigger him just because he didn't understand.)

But to Bill’s surprise and, at first, mild discomfort, Holden was a cuddler. He would wake up every morning to find the other man’s face shoved against his neck, an arm slung over his waist in a vice grip. Though he would never admit it, once the initial awkwardness of it all faded away, Bill found that he enjoyed the contact. He had never been particularly tactile, but something about the way Holden curled around him felt nice, comforting. In the months before Nancy had left, they slept as far apart from each other as possible– that is, when they slept in the same bed at all. It was strange yet pleasant, to be wanted in the subconscious way of sleepy cuddling.

He couldn’t deny that as good as it felt, it weighed heavily on his conscience, even more than the sex did. Those moments in the aftermath were so intimate, and it felt like a betrayal. He would try to justify it to himself every time.

She’s the one who left.

As he thrust inside of Holden, watching that pink and gasping mouth open in a wrecked moan: she’s the one who left. 

As Holden pressed kisses up the curve of his inner thigh: she’s the one who left.

As he reveled in the feeling of Holden in his arms afterward, skin slick and breathing hard: she’s the one who left.

It had been months since he’d seen his son. They talked on the phone once in a blue moon, Nancy listening in. She only spoke to tell Brian when to hang up. She never said a goddamn word to Bill, other than one occasion where she had said they would "talk soon". Watching his marriage crumble, the woman he’d formed his life around leave, should have hurt more than it did. It should have felt like a piece of him was being severed. But instead, it felt like a bandage that had been on too long was finally being ripped off. It hurt, yes, but the festering wound beneath could finally breathe again.

That didn’t stop the guilt, though. Nothing did.

The case had been uneventful since their arrival. There were no leads, and Bill could tell that Holden was getting tense about it. He had an awful habit of locking himself in the bathroom when they got back to the motel, especially on the days where nothing could be accomplished. It was worrying; he seemed to take each failure so personally. On those nights, Bill just held him, knowing how many lines he was crossing but not caring enough to stop himself. He just wanted Holden to stop hurting, to stop carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders when he didn't have to.

("But what if we don't catch him, Bill?" Holden whispered one night as they both laid awake, kissing mindlessly. The question was almost childlike in its naïveté, and it made Bill want to punch Gunn for ever putting them on this case. Nothing should ever make Holden sound so... hopeless.

Bill pulled him close, running a thumb over his cheekbone, staring into those endless fucking eyes that were pooled with a sadness Bill couldn't begin to understand.

But he wanted to.

God, he wanted to.

"If we don't catch him, that's on nobody but him, Holden. He's a sick fuck, and as long as we've done everything in our power, there's nothing more that we can do."

Holden hadn't looked convinced in the slightest.)

After more than a week had passed with no bodies, they had been instructed to return to Virginia and consult from there, with orders to go back if there was another murder.

The drive back to Quantico was starkly different from the ride there. It was tense, but with a different kind of tension. The air in the car felt thick with need, and Bill could barely keep his eyes off of Holden in the passenger seat. Holden seemed to be having an equally rough time, seeing as even when Bill was looking at the road, he could feel Holden’s gaze burning into him. When they came to a long and empty backroad, Holden wordlessly unbuckled Bill's seatbelt and blew him while he drove. He nearly swerved off the road when he came, fucking up into Holden's mouth– that would have been one for the obituary.

Area man passes away in car crash, with limp dick in coworker's mouth.

Yeah. Not the most dignified way to go.

After spending nine hours locked in a car together, they finally pulled into the parking lot of Holden’s apartment complex, both breathing slightly heavier than normal. The dim lighting caused shadows to play across Holden’s face, his eyes glinting with something Bill couldn’t put his finger on. He seemed almost scared.

”Would, um... would you maybe want to come up, maybe have a coffee or something, maybe?” he stuttered, staring at his hands rather than looking Bill in the eye. Bill flicked his cigarette, and mulled it over.

It’s 11:30, Holden, it’s way too late for coffee, he didn’t say. What was waiting for him at home, anyway? An ugly green couch and half-eaten leftover pizza? Being alone with his thoughts had never been his favorite thing, but now it was almost unbearable.

"Sure, Holden," he did say, and Holden beamed. Their hands brushed as they walked into the building, and it made every hair on Bill's body stand up. He felt like a teenager again, nervous and awkward but so pure that it burned, even though what he was doing was the complete opposite of pure.

Holden toed off his shoes at the door and Bill followed suit, looking around the apartment. He had only been inside once, and that had just been in the doorway. The place was meticulous, not a speck of dust or a lumpy pillow. It was unnerving, how clinical it all looked.

"You sure you live in here?" Bill asked, setting his briefcase down on the table. Holden chuckled sheepishly, biting at his lower lip.

"I guess I just... like to keep things clean."

"Clean? I'm pretty sure I could eat food off your floor and be fine."

He flushed a lovely pink, mumbling something under his breath. The sight made Bill's mouth twitch into a smile.

"Can I ask you a question, Bill?" he asked. Now he definitely looked scared, and Bill would do anything to make that go away.

"Shoot. Metaphorically speaking," he added, gesturing to Holden's firearm on the counter and snorting at his own dumb joke. Holden cracked a smile before settling back into seriousness.

"I don't want to seem pushy, but I just wanted to know... what is this?"

Bill sighed, running a hand through his hair. Leave it to Holden to get straight to the point.

"I don't know, Holden. I have no fucking clue. Can it... can it just be, for now?" he pleaded. The last thing he wanted was to label whatever they were.

Labels imply some degree of permanence, and permanence means consequences– that's why you're running from this.

Fucking Wendy. Bill was going to start having an angry, Pavlovian response to her voice alone, and it wasn't even her fault.

Holden looked impassive, but Bill knew that meant he was processing. There was so much happening inside that head of his, that it would be exceedingly difficult for his face to keep up. After what felt like the longest pause of Bill's life, he nodded once, and they spent the rest of the night enveloped in each other.

 


 

Bill began spending more time at Holden’s apartment than in his own home. What had started as just sex escalated into Holden's leg brushing his under the table during meetings, into having dinner together before they fucked and getting breakfast the morning after, escalated into something dangerously resembling domesticity. They never set foot in Bill's house, though. He made a point of never bringing Holden there, for obvious reasons. The last thing he wanted was to be with another man in a bed that was already filled with the ghost of his marriage.

It made Bill sick to admit it, but being with Holden was just easy, in a way that being with Nancy had never been– that being with anyone else had never been. He understood Bill’s work. If he had a rough day, Holden never took his silence personally, instead leaving him be until Bill approached him. He was intelligent and determined and so earnest that it took Bill's breath away. He hadn't ever let himself think of Holden like this, but now that he'd abandoned those reservations, he couldn't understand how he hadn't figured it out before. 

As he did nearly every other day, he found himself knocking on Holden's door shortly after work, takeout in hand. Holden liked Indian food and Bill preferred Chinese, so they typically got a bit of both and split them. Some nights, though, Holden would cook. He was a surprisingly deft hand in the kitchen, and he made the most mind-blowing pasta of Bill's life.

(The nights he cooked also often ended in the most mind-blowing sex of Bill's life, but that was besides the point.)

Holden opened the door, his mouth falling open in a cute little "o" of surprise. He was wearing faded jeans and a sweater, hair mussed up, and the sight of him so unusually casual went straight to Bill’s groin.

“Hey. I brought ta–”

He was cut off as Holden pulled him into the apartment by his belt loops, a playful grin on his face as he wrapped an arm over his shoulders.

“Good evening to you, too,” Bill chuckled, kicking the door closed behind him and letting the bags of food hit the floor with a thump as Holden pressed their mouths together in a surprisingly chaste kiss. He pulled back after a moment and smiled.

"So I'm reading this book about the Briar case-"

Bill let himself get lost in Holden's babbling, happy just to hear his voice. He was so fucking smart, and Bill was relieved to see him talking more. There were flashes of the Holden he'd met in the cafeteria years ago, and he cherished them. Not that he cared for Holden any less after what he'd been through, but it was nice to see that the spark was still there.

"Bill?" Fingers snapped and Bill refocused his gaze. Holden seemed amused, leaning lazily back against the arm of the couch. The setting sun was peeking through the window and coating him in gold.

How the hell is he even real?

"You're staring," he said. Bill shook his head in disbelief.

”You’re incredible,” he whispered, and Holden leaned over to kiss him, deep and scorching.

They were playing a losing game. Bill knew it, and he knew that Holden did, too. They were speeding past all the boundaries they should be keeping up. Christ, Bill was still legally married. If someone had told him five years ago that he'd be sneaking around on his wife, he'd have laughed in their face. If they had said it would be with a man, he'd have knocked their lights out.

He wondered how Holden was dealing with it all, mentally. Did he feel the remorse Bill did? Was he ashamed of being "the other woman" of the situation? Of course, Bill knew that the majority of the fault rested on his own shoulders, but Holden internalized so much. He took on burdens that were not his to bear. Would this be another one of them?

This... what should he even call it, Bill wondered? Whatever it was, it wouldn't be good for him nor Holden, in the long run. They'd end up hating each other or themselves, and it would all go to shit, as things tend to do.

But as Holden took his cock into that slick, hot mouth, whimpering encouragingly, Bill forgot about everything but the man kneeling in front of him.

 


 

“What’s this from?” Holden asked, thumbing over a misshapen line just above Bill’s navel.

They were entangled on Holden’s bed, naked and fucked out. Holden was laying on his side, a leg slung over Bill's thighs, propped up slightly on one elbow. Bill laid on his back as he nursed a cigarette, watching the smoke curl upward in the light of the moon outside. Holden had spent the last ten minutes asking him about his various scars, trailing his fingers over them reverently. It was a kind of intimacy that Bill hadn't experienced before. Nancy didn't ever want to hear about his work, so they didn't discuss his injuries much beyond the necessary. 

No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't seem to stop comparing what he had with Holden to his marriage. It felt almost worse than forgetting his wife entirely during these stolen moments. Sure, they were separated– but for how long, Bill didn't know. Nancy had taken that answer with her when she walked out the door. He wondered if she was seeing someone else.

If only to assuage his guilt-ridden mind, he hoped that she was.

“Bill?"

"Oh, uh, minor stab wound. Ballsy perp. You should’ve seen how he came out of it.”

"What about..." Holden's hand grazed upward, flicking over Bill's nipple and prompting him to inhale sharply. Holden's finger came to rest on a scar over his left pectoral.

"...This one?"

"Can't remember. Probably got it when I was a kid or something, I was pretty reckless." Holden grinned at the admission.

“I can imagine. And... this one?” It was located on Bill's right shoulder, a familiar ache, and he smiled grimly.

“Let's just say my old man wasn’t afraid of the belt,” he said, before he could stop himself. He wanted nothing more than to blame the confession on the fogginess that came with coital bliss, but there was something about Holden's presence that made Bill want to tear his own walls down.

And if that wasn't the scariest fucking thing in the world, he didn't know what was. 

Holden looked up at Bill, eyes full of sympathy and sadness, and pressed a feather-light kiss to the puckered skin.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, the warmth of his breath sending a shiver through Bill’s body. Feeling entirely too vulnerable, he shrugged off the concern.

“That’s life,” he said, nonchalant. His father had been a deeply unkind man, a piece of shit, and Bill avoided thinking about him most days. Holden blinked at him, and slowly shook his head.

“Someone you love hurting you isn’t just ‘life’, Bill. I don’t… I don’t want you to dismiss the things you’ve been through.” His voice held a note of anger, defensiveness on Bill's behalf, that made Bill swallow thickly.

“That's enough. Let's not talk about it anymore,” he pivoted, wrapping an arm around Holden’s shoulders and pulling him close. He went willingly, resting his head on Bill’s chest, his hair tickling Bill’s chin. This time, Bill gave into the urge and kissed the top of his head, and he let out a content sound.

Bill was up long after Holden's breathing had evened out, staring at the ceiling, just... thinking. Thinking about Nancy, about Brian, about his father.

About Holden. 

And, eventually, he slept, restless.

 


 

As soon as Bill closed the door behind him upon leaving the next morning, Holden slumped into a chair at his kitchen table and buried his head into his hands. His body felt heavy, like it was being weighted down by invisible chains. His brain wouldn't shut up. He should feel good. Why didn't he feel good? What was wrong with him?

He finally had what he'd been yearning for for years, and he still wanted to cut himself up. As soon as he was alone with his thoughts, he wanted nothing more than to get his razor and dig into his suffocating flesh. He wanted to rip his hair out and break his bones one by one and scream until his voice was hoarse and fucking disappear. 

He wasn't good enough for Bill. Didn't deserve him. Didn't deserve anyone, but especially not Bill. Bill, who was strong and loving and so fucking kind, so unlike Holden; Holden was selfish and pretentious and he left chaos and destruction in his wake. And yes, Holden was a lot of things, but stupid wasn't one of them– he knew that he was a placeholder for Nancy, a stand-in until she took Bill back. He was a source for what Bill craved: intimacy, both physical and emotional. He was an outlet, a good enough for now, and he was okay with that.

At least he had some part of Bill. "Some part" was more than he had a right to, anyway.

Stripping his shirt off and walking into the bathroom, he glared at the scars crisscrossing his arms. The older ones were a pale pink, the fresh ones jagged and red. The thing about hurting yourself is that sure, it feels great in the moment, but once the sting fades you're left with a permanent reminder. Every goddamn day you have to see it; you have to live with the fact that this is how you've chosen to cope. The shame is unbearable.

He's going to leave once he sees how fucked up you are. The second you're shirtless, he's going to run for the hills.

Holden knew that Bill wondered why he always left his shirt on during sex. He could see it in the concerned looks, the questioning glances. But Bill clearly didn't want to pry, and Holden wasn't about to tell him to.

He was no fool. He knew that the limbo they were stuck in wasn't sustainable. One of these days, Bill was going to lose his patience and ask or Holden was going to fuck up and make a mistake with his sleeve, and that would be the end of it all. This thing blossoming between them could have become so much, if Holden wasn’t such a worthless piece of shit. How was Bill interested at him all, even if it was just sexually? 

He wasn't deluded enough to have ever thought that Bill reciprocating some level of interest would magically fix his problems. He knew that they were deeper than that, that they were something so inherently him that nothing would ever truly cure them, but he’d thought that maybe it would make things a little better. Just a little, but it didn’t. It wouldn’t, and he’d just take Bill down with him, or Bill would see common sense and leave.

But God help him, he was too selfish to give it up.

He was too selfish to give up Bill's arms around him, his kind words, getting to see his sleepy grin– all of it. Holden would fight tooth and nail for it all, to keep it, even though he knew he didn’t deserve it.

And that’s what made him so fucking awful.

Chapter Text

you took these starving limbs, tried to see
tried to see what they could be
i thought i would be something, 
i thought you'd complete me

that you'd erase all the pain
that i felt in my brain
if you fill my heart with love,
then you'd fill my voids above

now you see,
that didn't change a thing

— "empty", pvris

Holden stood outside the large brick building, staring up at it with disdain. He hated his biweekly psychiatrist appointments; not because he disliked his psychiatrist, but because there was something deeply humiliating about having to go somewhere and spill your guts to a stranger so they can pump you full of pills to make you function like a normal person.

He tried to skate the line between honesty and dishonesty with her. Be honest enough that she doesn't misdiagnose you, but not so honest that you end up in a padded room. Steeling himself, he hiked up the stairs to the seventh floor, knocking softly before entering the small office.

Dr. Mary Hyland was a short, dark-haired woman in her late sixties. Holden liked her because she didn’t indulge him in any of his bullshit– she gave it to him straight, and called him out when he was being foolish. This session, after pleasantries and the usual so how are you feeling?, she cut straight to the chase with the topic of their previous meeting: Bill.

“So, how is your relationship going?”

Holden hesitated.

“I’m not... sure I’d call it a relationship,” he said. Mary raised her eyebrows. 

“Why not? You engage in intimacy, both sexual and emotional. And seeing as Bill and his wife are separated, you only do this with each other, correct?” 

He nodded, his shoulders rising to his ears.

“He stays at your apartment nearly every night; you’re all but living together. If that’s not a relationship, what would you call it?”

"I don't know. An arrangement, I guess?"

"That's a very clinical way of putting it."

He shrugged, fiddling with the sleeve of his cardigan. Since the night they returned from Tennessee, he and Bill hadn't even mentioned discussing what they were to each other. It was a conversation neither of them wanted to have: Bill was plagued with remorse about his family, and labels were the last thing he wanted to talk about. Holden didn't mind– he was afraid of what the answer would be, of the inevitable rejection. 

"Do you enjoy the time you spend with him?"

He sighed, picking idly at a frayed thread by his elbow.

"Of course I do. Bill isn't the problem, I am."

"Can you elaborate on that?" she asked, leaning forward a bit.

"I don’t know. There’s just always something. There's always an... an undercurrent, of... something.”

”What do you mean?”

"I can't ever fully be in the moment. I don't feel better, and I should. This shouldn't feel like it does," Holden admitted, voice soft. Mary looked vaguely concerned, and Holden's gut curdled with guilt. He was always worrying people, always making them upset.

You worthless piece of shit. You’re everything Shepard said you were and more.

"You aren’t going to feel better because of a relationship, Holden. You can't put people up on a pedestal. It isn't fair to them, and it isn't fair to you. You’ll never get what you want from it, and it leaves the other person to shoulder unfair expectations," she said. Holden sighed frustratedly, running a hand through his hair. She wasn't getting it, why didn't anyone get it?

”I don’t expect him to fix me, Jesus. I know this doesn't fix anything going on with me. Figuring my shit out isn't Bill's job, and I never thought it was, I just... this was supposed to feel good. I think I love him, Mary. I think I love him, and I thought that love was supposed to feel good, but I feel like I’m being eaten up inside.”

"What do you mean?"

She asked him that all the time. What do you mean? It was a stupid fucking question. People asked him that at the BSU, too. Always explaining himself, always justifying his actions– he never got a fucking break from it all. He had no clue what he meant, or what anything meant anymore. Maybe it all meant nothing.

"I see him, and my heart swells. When I'm with him, I feel okay for once in my fucking life, at least for a minute. And... sometimes I almost feel like it's okay to not be okay, with him. He's the most amazing person I've ever known, and I think I've loved him since the day we met. But it... it hurts, knowing that when he comes over, when he holds me, when he fucks me, he doesn't feel the same way. He cares, yeah, but not in the way I do. It doesn't mean to him what it means to me. I know he doesn't feel the same way."

"Have you tried asking him?"

Holden huffed out a bitter laugh.

"Have I asked him? And what do you recommend I ask him, Doctor? Hey, Bill, I know that you’re married with a kid, but I’m completely fucking in love with you, so do you want to kick them to the curb to slum it with me? Yeah, right. What’s the fucking point?”

Mary didn’t say anything, just looked at him. He looked at the floor. He was suddenly exhausted; that happened more and more these days. He found that he didn’t have the energy for anything anymore. Not for the cases, not for anything beyond hurting himself.

”I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get angry at you.”

”It’s okay, Holden. You’re allowed to be angry. You’re allowed to feel, sweetie. I want you to get angry when we talk. Be angry, be sad, be happy. You’re allowed to take up space; you have every right to express your emotions. Something tells me that you don’t recognize that.”

Holden shifted uncomfortably in his seat. 

"It’s just... why bother? Like I said, he's married. I'm just here until she forgives him,” he said, changing the subject. Mary pursed her lips. 

"Holden, we both know that you have a very low opinion of yourself. Have you considered that these assumptions may not be grounded in reality? He isn't a mind-reader. You have to talk to him before jumping to conclusions."

"I know that," he snapped.

"Logically, I do, but he has no reason to want anything beyond what we have."

"Why not?"

"Because sex is the only thing I have to offer him!" Holden shouted, something in him splintering away as a surge of anger washed over him. He balled up his fists and dug his nails into the palms of his hands, the bite of them into skin a relief. He wanted to slam his head against the wall.

He was so tired.

"I don't have anything else. I don't deserve him, I'm not enough, and he's not an idiot."

A brief silence.

“Holden, I’m not sure that you’re in the right mental space for any relationship, let alone one of this… instability,” Mary told him, her voice gentle. Holden wanted to slap her. He wanted to cut himself. He wanted to burn everything down to ash. He wanted everything to stop.

“Yeah, well, what if I don’t care?” he countered, the whiny response slipping out before he could stop it and making him feel a bit like a petulant child.

“Why don’t you care about what happens to you, Holden?”

Holden didn’t respond. He could give her a thousand answers to that question, but he had no intentions of getting institutionalized. He pulled his arms close to his chest, almost instinctively, as though she could see through his clothes to the horrors beneath. Mary sighed, uncrossing her legs. She looked so disappointed. Of course she did. He disappointed every fucking person he met, why would his psychiatrist be any different?

“I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me. What happens if he does leave?”

The question echoed in his head. What would happen? When Nancy forgave him, how would he break the news? Would he do it gently? Would he be angry with Holden for taking advantage of his vulnerability and loneliness? Would he ice Holden out entirely?

“You mean when he leaves? I’ll manage,” he corrected. She frowned.

“When? What makes you say that, Holden?”

Holden scoffed.

“I know what I am. I know that I’m difficult and draining and being in any kind of a relationship with me is a fucking burden because I’m such a selfish fucking piece of shit,” he snarled, shoving his forehead into one of his hands. He took several deep breaths before continuing, desperately attempting to ground himself.

“I push. I ask for too much. I'm somehow too attached and too detached at the same time. I spend all of my relationships preparing for them to leave, okay? I know the routine. I know that ‘it’s not you’ means it definitely was you, I know that ‘we can still be friends’ means ‘I hope you die in a house fire’. I’ve gotten ready for Bill to leave a thousand times over, and probably will have double that by the time he actually leaves. So when it happens, I’ll manage it how I always do.”

“And how is that?”

Holden gave her a rueful smile, and shrugged.

"I'll wing it," he said. Mary sighed, setting her clipboard down.

“Honey, that mindset? It’s not healthy. You can’t spend your entire life waiting for people to leave, and then expect them to stay. You’re setting yourself up for an infinite loop of let-downs.”

“Yeah,” he whispered, “maybe. But what else am I supposed to do? Get my hopes up, only to have to watch them run for the hills anyway? I don't have the mental strength for it. I don't. I can't fucking handle that."

"Yes. I know that it's hard, but that's what you're supposed to do, Holden. You have to get your hopes up; that's how meaningful connections are formed. There's going to be risks involved, for both sides."

The meeting concluded shortly after that, with her requesting that he please come back next week instead of the week after, as was their regular schedule. Holden agreed to, knowing full well that he would cancel in a few days. It had begun to pour outside, but he couldn't feel it. He couldn't feel anything. He walked to his car and started it on autopilot, watching the rain slide through the grips of the windshield wipers.

But what if I'm not worth the risks? he didn't say.

 


 

He was in the bathroom when the intercom buzzed. Torn between cleaning up the mess he’d made and seeing who was there, curiosity won out and he haphazardly wound on some gauze before running to answer.

“There’s a Special Agent William Tench at the door for you.”

"Fuck," Holden hissed. His arms were a burning, bloody mess. What the hell was Bill doing there? It was barely six in the evening, and he usually didn’t come until later.

"Let him up," Holden said into the speaker, then dashed for the bathroom. He grabbed a tissue and hastily wiped the blood from the tile, his breath coming quick and panicked. There was too much blood, it was everywhere. He wasn't going to be able to clean it in time.

Bill’s going to see it. He’s going to see it, he’s going to know, and he’s going to finally realize what a worthless, pathetic fuck you are.

The floor bit into his knees, cold and unforgiving as he frantically scrubbed. It felt like every time he looked back at the ground, more blood had dripped onto it, crimson against the otherwise spotless surface. He'd gone too far this time, probably, if his spinning head was anything to go by. He secured the gauze more tightly around his forearms; he couldn't risk them dripping in front of Bill. He tried to calm himself by practicing the breathing exercises he learned in therapy, but his attempts were fruitless.

Just as he finished dressing the wounds, there was a knock at the front door.

Holden managed to get rid of the last bit of blood and throw a black long-sleeved sweater on before his knees gave out completely, and he crumpled to the floor. He shoved his head between his knees and gulped desperately. There was no air, how the fuck was there no air? The world narrowed into a tunnel of fear. He couldn’t feel the ground under his feet, couldn’t feel the wall against his back. He was floating again, not in his body but somewhere even worse, somewhere somehow even more suffocating than the husk that bore his face.

”Holden! Shit, are you okay?”

Bill. Bill was good. Bill was safe. Holden held a hand out, searching. BillBillBill, help, please–

“I’m here, Holden. I’m right here. Is it alright if I touch you?”

Holden nodded frantically and all but launched himself into Bill’s lap (when had Bill gotten on the floor?), gasping into his neck. He would be mortified later, he knew, but right now Bill’s arms around him were all that mattered. Bill’s hands came up to rub his back and his scalp, gentle and slow.

“I’m dying, I can't– I can't breathe. I'm dying,” he whispered, chest heaving. He could feel Bill shake his head.

”You’re okay, I promise. You’re not dying.”

I wish I was, he didn’t say.

"You arrogant, self-serving twerp."

"You vainglorious little shit."

Shepard was right. He was right, Holden was a piece of shit, he was a burden, all he did was destroydestroydestroy and he couldn't stop, he couldn't stop ruining things because that was all he knew how to do. He had failed the mothers in Atlanta and he was going to fail the girls in Tennessee, just like he'd failed Wendy and Debbie and his parents and Bill. He was a smartass and selfish and holy fuck, he was dying but maybe that was for the best.

Maybe him dying would be for the best.

He didn’t know how long he was out of it for, but judging by the naked fear on Bill’s face, it must have been a while. Time swirled by, hazy and distorted and Holden didn't know minutes from hours from days. When he finally returned to his body, Bill brushed the hair out of his eyes.

“There you are,” he said, smiling softly. Holden would never get sick of that smile. He pressed a kiss to Bill’s collarbone, nuzzling into his shoulder.

“I’m sorry."

"You have nothing to apologize for." Holden shook his head, but he was too weary to argue.

"I'm tired, Bill,” he whispered. Bill almost cradled him as he helped Holden up onto shaky legs. They made it to the bedroom and Holden collapsed onto the sheets, making grabby hands at Bill.

”One second,” Bill huffed, but there was laughter in his voice. Holden watched as he stripped down to his boxers before climbing into the bed, pulling Holden into his arms. Holden wished he could feel Bill’s skin against his, rather than through fabric.

Add that to the list of things you’ve ruined for yourself.

He wished it, sure, but he couldn’t give up his razor. He had tried, multiple times. He could never do it. It was the only thing that calmed him down, the only thing that put his mind at ease. Nothing else had quite the same effect, the same relief. 

He couldn’t give it up.

”You're thinking pretty deeply there,” Bill whispered, startling Holden.

”You want to tell me what that was about?”

“I’d rather not talk about it,” he whispered back. He was so tired.

”Can we just sleep, Bill?”

There was a hesitant pause.

”...Yeah, Holden.” Bill kissed his forehead, and Holden’s eyes fluttered shut.

“We can just sleep.”

"Are you truly oblivious to the wreckage you leave in your wake?"

He wasn't, even if everyone thought that he was. He was perfectly aware that he ruined everything he touched.

He deserved everything bad that happened to him, and then some. He was aware of that, too.

 


 

It was early the next morning and they were making out like teenagers when the phone rang, loud and obnoxious. Bill broke away from the embrace with an irritated sigh, running a thumb over Holden's cheek.

"I should get that, it could be work," Holden said, smiling when his lips brushed against Bill's as he spoke. Bill rolled his eyes and stole another kiss.

”Fine, but you better get your ass back here quick,” he ordered, punctuating the words with a playful squeeze of Holden’s backside. Holden could feel his face flushing, and he nipped lightly at Bill’s lower lip before climbing off of him and moving into the living room.

“Hello?” he greeted once he picked it up.

"Holden, hi. Is Bill there? I need to speak with him," an extremely familiar woman's voice replied.

Holden's hand tightened on the receiver, and he stopped breathing. He hadn't thought that it would be this soon, he thought they had more time. His mind raced with what ifs: what if he just didn't respond? He considered hanging up, slamming it down. Telling Bill it had been nothing important. Going back to bed.

This was the call he’d been dreading for the past few months, the one that would shatter the facade of a relationship he'd built up in his head. He stared at the phone, and willed it to break under his gaze. He should hang up.

He couldn’t bring himself to.

"Holden?" the voice repeated. He put it back to his ear, hands violently trembling.

"I'm here, sorry. Couldn't hear you. Just a minute."

He covered the mouthpiece with his hand and hesitated.

"Bill?" he called. His breath hitched and broke on the name, and he hated himself for it. Bill poked his head around the corner, looking worried.

"Everything okay? Who's on the phone?"

"Oh, it's fine. Some woman, asking about you. I think it might be work related?" he said, his voice managing to steady itself. He wasn't sure why he lied. Maybe if he didn't say it, it wouldn't be real. His stomach bottomed out as he passed off the phone, knowing that he was handing off his only chance at Bill staying.

Let him be happy, you selfish prick. You knew you wouldn't get to keep him. You don’t deserve him anyway. For once in your life, do something that isn’t selfish.

Bill took it, confused.

”Tench speaking.” His eyes widened slightly at the response, enough that anyone else wouldn’t have noticed. But Holden knew Bill well, and he was perceptive.

“I’m sorry, Holden, can I take this alone? It’s a family issue.”

Holden nodded once and retreated into the bedroom, barely holding back the tears that threatened to spill over. He curled up in the middle of the bed and wrapped his arms around his middle, waiting.

He could hear Bill’s awestruck whisper of "Nancy?" through the wall.

Chapter Text

i run away when things are good
i never really understood
the way you laid your eyes on me,
in ways that no one ever could

and so it seems i broke your heart
my ignorance has struck again
i failed to see it from the start
and tore you open ‘til the end

— "sorry", halsey

The diner was almost empty.

Bill sat in a booth, eyeing his untouched beer as though it was the source of all his problems. He mindlessly bit at his thumbnail, waiting for his wife to show up. Was she even his wife anymore?

Why had he agreed to this? What would he even say to her? Long time no see, Nance. Yeah, I’m doing great, I’ve just been avoiding having this very important conversation with you because I don’t want to stop fucking my colleague, who is fifteen years my junior and oh, didn’t I mention? He’s also a man. And how have you been?

Nancy had apparently called the house multiple times, but Bill hadn't answered. Eventually, she had given up and decided to call Holden, because Bill's work extension had changed since they separated and that was the only other place she could think to reach him.

He grabbed the drink and drained it in a few swallows. It all would have been funny, if it wasn't so fucked up. She didn't know how right she was.

Bill had told Holden that something happened with Brian's case worker, and that he was going to meet with her. Ironically, telling that lie felt more like cheating than what he was doing with Holden did. What did that say about him?

He didn't know why he felt the urge to lie. Holden wasn't his wife; Bill didn't have to answer to him for anything he did, especially regarding his family. Holden had nodded, his face full of concern and something else as Bill had rushed out the door. It looked like sadness, but Bill didn’t know why. He felt horrible for leaving like that after Holden’s attack the day prior, and glanced over at the nearby payphone. Should he call him, make sure he was alright?

“Bill.” His head snapped up so quickly that his vision swam for a second. 

Nancy looked good. Her hair was blown out, a stark difference from her usual style. She was wearing a maroon blazer with shoulder pads, and black pants. She clutched at her purse, something Bill knew that she did when she was nervous.

Seeing her wasn't at all like he thought it would be. He had imagined that the next time he saw her would feel like coming home. Instead, he felt like he was trespassing in a stranger's house.

“Nancy.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, searching for something. Some shred of the person they had married, maybe? A tiny flash of who they used to be?

"Can I sit?" she eventually said. Bill gestured to the other side of the booth.

"Please."

She sat, back stiff. They were quiet for a long time. The waitress came over and took their orders– Nancy a coffee, Bill another beer. Once she strutted away, Bill hesitantly spoke.

"How, um... how have you been? How's Brian? I miss him."

"I'm fine. Brian is adjusting. He misses you," Nancy replied, directing her gaze at anything but Bill.

The silence was suffocating. They had been able to talk to each other once, Bill was sure, though he couldn’t remember when. He couldn't look her in the eye. The guilt of what he'd been doing in her absence meshed with his anger and confusion over what she had done, creating a painful amalgamation of emotion that made Bill's eyes prick with tears.

"What happened to us, Nancy?" he whispered. Nancy's eyes were damp as well, and she stared intently at her folded hands resting on the table.

”You tell me.”

Bill scoffed. She was doing what she always did, making him the singular problem. He shook his head.

“This isn’t just on me. I’ll take blame for half of it, hell, maybe even most of it. But you were the one who left."

"I had to do what was best for Brian, Bill–"

"You know what? I don't know if I'm even talking about that! You left me long before you packed up the house, Nance.”

Nancy laughed bitterly, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Oh, I get it, Bill. I’m the bad guy, as per usual. Remind me, who was the one who left all the time? Who left me to raise our son alone–“

“I was working, Nancy!”

“You were working to get out of the house!”

The words hung between them, a shot fired into the air. Bill rubbed his face tiredly, not even bothering to deny it.

”What do you want me to say, Nancy? That I’m sorry for having a job? I can’t help my hours, you know that.” Tears were streaming freely down her face. Bill's heart ached at the sight.

”You could have if you wanted to, Bill. Do you have any idea how those late nights made me feel? I felt like you were more married to your work than to me! Your partner saw you more than I did!”

He tried not to flinch at the mention of Holden. Her scathing tone made it seem to Bill's paranoid mind like she knew, somehow, even though it was impossible. 

”What am I supposed to do, Nance?” he eventually murmured. Nancy sniffed, wiping her cheeks.

“If you really want to fix this, you can quit.”

“Quit?” he repeated, shocked. She nodded.

“You heard me. If you want to fix our marriage, you can quit. Or transfer to a less intensive unit, I don’t care. If you can’t do that, I want a divorce, Bill. I can’t live with half a husband anymore.”

“And let me guess, you can’t have Brian living with half a father?” Bill finished. Nancy gave him a sad, thin smile.

“No. I wasn’t going to say that. You’re a great father, Bill, regardless of what’s been happening between us.”

She gathered her purse and stood to leave. Bill didn't know whether to protest or not; they had so much more to discuss, but he didn't want to. Every minute he spent with her felt like a stolen one.

A wasted one.

Nancy leaned down to kiss his lips, but almost unconsciously, he turned at the last second so she caught his cheek. Something about the idea of kissing her seemed... wrong. Like some kind of trespassing, as though his wife kissing him would be infringing on someone else's territory.

On Holden's territory.

He had wanted nothing more than to see Nancy for months, and now that she was in front of him, Holden was still clouding up his brain.

Go fucking figure.

When Nancy pulled back, she looked like she was about to cry again. Bill closed his eyes against the sight.

“Here’s my new number. Call me when you figure it out, and we’ll go from there. We can arrange for you and Brian to go out to eat or something soon.” She handed him a folded-up slip of paper.

“Yes,” Bill replied, quickly. He missed his son so much that it hurt, and though he was bitter about the meager scraps Nancy was throwing him, he would take what he could get.

“Whatever your decision is, Bill, I love you. I always will," she said. It felt like a goodbye, and it made Bill sick to his stomach.

“I love you too, Nance,” he whispered. 

 


 

He sat at the table for a while, after. A few hours at least, knocking back drinks and thinking as the sky changed from blue to black.

He should do it. He should switch out of the BSU, fix his marriage. Bill Tench was a family man, he needed to repair his family. Nancy loved him. 

Did he love her?

Of course he did. He’d always loved her, since they were kids. Nancy was his entire world, had been since the day they met. He’d always love her.

But do you love her in the same way you used to?

The answer didn't matter, though. No matter which way he spun it, all signs were flashing billboards screaming that he had to end things with Holden.

(It wasn't fucking fair. None of it was.)

It wasn't sustainable. They weren't sustainable. If they continued whatever was happening between them and it got out, it would destroy them. They’d be fired at best, arrested on charges of sodomy at worst. Holden was bright and brimming over with potential; Bill couldn't ruin that for him. And he had to fix his marriage.

His marriage.

His marriage.

Think about your fucking marriage. Think about Nancy. Don't think about Holden.

Don’t think about Holden. Don’t think about Holden or his fucking laugh or his stupid fucking smirk or his freckles or how he’s always the smartest person in the room or how he’s so goddamn passionate, even when the people he’s talking to don’t understand or deserve to see it or the little sound he makes just before he–

He slammed his head against the table, causing other patrons to look up in shock at the loud bang.

How the fuck was he supposed to end it? He'd be delusional if he pretended that what he felt for Nancy was anything close to what he felt for Holden. Where his feelings toward his wife were resembled a comfortable companionship he almost wanted to call platonic, for Holden, they were different; dialed up to eleven, all-consuming. Bill wanted him, all of him. Every fucking piece. He wanted the pretentiousness and the stubbornness and the panic, because they were Holden.

He wanted to stay, which was exactly why he shouldn't. He was in too deep; they both were. Bill had to stop it before they couldn't claw their way back up.

Fed up, he grabbed his keys and left the diner. He didn’t know where the fuck he was going and he was probably too intoxicated to drive, but he couldn’t sit in that booth anymore. It felt too much like a marked grave.

Marking the death of what, he wasn't quite sure.

 


 

He stood in front of Holden’s door, not clear on how he got there. The ride from the restaurant had been a hazy, angry blur, though he’d sobered up some on the way. He had just gone where muscle memory took him– he didn’t want to think. Thinking meant feeling everything he had been avoiding, whether it was by throwing himself neck-deep into work or balls-deep into his goddamn coworker.

“Bill?”

Holden was clad in a loose, long-sleeved grey Henley and black briefs when he opened the door. His hair was messy and sticking up on one side, as though he had just woken up. 

“What time is it? Not that I’m not happy to see you, but– mmph!” He was cut off by Bill smashing their mouths together, in the doorway where anyone could walk by and see. Bill found that he didn’t much care. He needed Holden’s tongue against his, needed that mouth, needed to stop fucking thinking. Not thinking was easier, with Holden. Everything was, except how it would look to other people. Holden quickly yanked him inside and locked the door without breaking them apart, but pulled back once they stumbled into the kitchen, Holden pressed up against the counter.

“Are you insane?” he asked, breathless. His lips were swollen and pink, and his gaze was assessing. Bill supposed that he saw something he didn’t like, because he frowned.

“Bill, are you alright?” he asked, raising a hand to rest against the side of Bill’s neck, thumb stroking the sensitive skin just below his ear. 

Bill shivered at the touch but didn’t respond, simply sucked on a patch of skin near the hollow of Holden’s throat and backed them toward the bedroom. Holden grunted as Bill shoved him onto the bed and climbed on top of him, continuing the assault on his neck.

“It’s okay if… mmm… i-if you’re not okay,” he stammered as Bill’s hand glided down his torso.

“Do you… ah... want to talk about it? We can talk about it if– oh, fuck, Bill– if you want.“ The words fizzled out into a whimper.

“Holden. Stop. Talking,” Bill murmured, punctuating each word with a sloppy kiss as he started to tug at the waistband of Holden’s briefs.

“I need to… to not think, for a while. Can you make that happen?”

He glanced up to see that Holden’s eyes were dark, pupils blown wide with a mix of arousal and concern as he nodded, dazed. He maneuvered them so that Bill was on his back, and settled in between the other man’s legs.

“I can do that.”

He pulled Bill in again, but it wasn’t filthy like Bill had been expecting– rather, it was so tender and sweet that his eyes began to burn with tears. One slipped free and traveled down his cheek, settling right where their faces touched, and he could feel himself redden with humiliation. Holden could definitely feel the wetness. Bill pulled back, ashamed.

“It’s okay, Bill.” He started to shake his head, but Holden kissed him again, parting just enough that they could see each other.

“Hey. Bill, look at me.” It was soft, but a command. Bill stared into the swirling blue, full of worry and affection so strong that it made him sick.

“What do you need? Just tell me. It’s okay, baby. Let me take care of you. Can I do that for you?” His voice was so sincere that Bill inadvertently found himself nodding, allowing himself to go lax under Holden’s gentle touch.

Holden smiled, pressing his lips to Bill’s briefly.

“Yeah? I’m gonna need a verbal response.”

“Yeah. Please, I want... I want you to,” Bill croaked. He relaxed into the mattress and let himself bask in the feeling of being cared for, of Holden’s hands running over his chest as they kissed. And kissed, and kissed, and kissed until their lips were raw with friction but neither of them could bear to pull away. The rest of the world faded away except for Holden's caress, his scent, his mouth. They only broke apart so Holden could remove Bill’s shirt and press soft kisses along his collarbone, whispering sweet nothings that made Bill’s chest ache with fondness.

He didn’t know what he’d done to deserve the man on top of him, but here he was, and he was going to make the most of it while he could. Holden’s head moved downward and Bill weaved his fingers into Holden's hair with a sigh.

When you wake up tomorrow, you’re ending this.

It was best for both of them. But for tonight, as Holden mouthed his way down Bill’s abdomen, Bill let himself get lost in it.

 


 

He woke early, squinting up to see the sun barely clearing the top of the buildings outside. He was splayed out on Holden’s bed, one arm around his shoulders. Holden had his face smushed against Bill’s shoulder, naked except for one of Bill’s work shirts. He had a thing for wearing Bill’s clothes, and Bill had a thing for seeing him in them. There was a spot of drool at the corner of his mouth, and he snored just a little.

He was fucking beautiful.

With one finger, Bill began lightly tracing the curve of Holden’s jaw. He inched down the bed and pressed a soft, open-mouthed kiss to the underside of it, prompting Holden to hum happily. His eyes fluttered shut as he arched into the touch, exposing his neck and lighting up with a tired smile.

“Morning,” he greeted, voice rough with sleep. 

“You ass. I knew you weren’t really sleeping,” Bill replied. He drank in the sight of Holden like this, warm and content and his, one last time. Holden flipped over completely so that he was lying on his stomach, chin resting on his hands as he laid his arms on Bill’s torso. Bill cupped his face in both hands and pressed a gentle kiss to his lips, then to the tip of his nose, running a thumb along his cheekbone. 

“Are you trying to seduce me, Agent Tench?” Holden teased, looking up at Bill innocently through his lashes and swirling a playful finger around on Bill’s chest. Bill smirked, carding his own fingers through Holden’s hair.

“Maybe. Is it working?”

Holden’s nose scrunched up and the creases around his eyes deepened as he laughed, a nearly musical sound. He tilted his head to kiss the inside of Bill’s wrist, grinning into it, and the realization of what he was about to give up slammed into Bill like a freight train.

Jesus Christ, it was never supposed to be this hard.

“Are you feeling any better?” Holden asked, his manner becoming more serious. Bill trailed his hand from Holden’s hair down to his cheek, feeling the familiar pull of want in his stomach when Holden turned to kiss his palm.

“Yeah,” he lied, his voice hoarse.

"You gonna tell me what happened?"

Now that he knew what it felt like to kiss Holden, to sleep with him in his arms, to be inside of him, he didn’t know how the hell he was supposed to go back to being just partners. How was he supposed to see Holden every day, and not be able to touch him beyond the occasional shoulder pat? How was he supposed to talk to him without slipping in a flirtatious joke, just to see him blush and smile?

How was he supposed to ever see anyone else the same way?

But one of them had to grit their teeth and do it, and Holden wasn’t ever going to be the one to. Bill had sworn to himself that he would do this.

You end this when you get up tomorrow morning.

He was up, and it was time.

“Holden, I can't do this anymore. We can't do this anymore. I'm sorry, it… it can’t happen again,” he announced, his mouth fumbling around the words. He slammed his eyes shut, wishing he could take them back, wishing he’d never fucking said them.

But the damage was already done.

“What?” he heard Holden say. It was in the form of a disbelieving chuckle, as though Bill had just told him a questionable statistic and not that their… whatever it was, was over. He could practically hear the cogs in Holden’s brain churning, and could tell the exact moment it registered– he let out a sharp intake of breath.

Bill’s eyes flew open as Holden pushed himself onto his knees and sat back on his heels. The morning streaming in from the window added a golden tinge to his skin. It burned to look at him. Bill couldn’t look away. His normally meticulously combed hair was curly and all over the place. It was endearing in a way that Bill didn’t want to think about– not when he was finally doing what he’d been agonizing over doing for weeks. 

He sat up to face Holden, with new resolve. They couldn’t keep this up; Bill had a family, for fuck’s sake. He was betraying them and he couldn’t ever forgive himself for that, even if Nancy had betrayed him first. When Holden moved, the collar of the shirt fell back to reveal the lovebites littered across his chest and up his throat. Bill averted his eyes, hating himself for leaving such a territorial reminder.

“You’re serious.” It was decidedly not a question.

“Yes, I’m serious.” 

“But… why?” he asked, seeming confused. Bill sighed. Was he really going to make him say it?

“Come on, Holden. Stupid isn’t a good look on you. You know why.”

“I want to hear it from you. I want you to tell me why.”

“Fine, then. Which reason do you want? We can’t keep doing this shit, we aren’t teenagers. It’s unprofessional, immoral–“

“Oh, don’t start with that,” Holden protested, defensively crossing his arms over his chest. Bill had noticed that before– whenever Holden sensed rejection coming, he immediately closed himself off. His voice was clipped, betraying nothing about how he was feeling beyond irritation, but the catch was that after so much time spent together, Bill knew what that nothingness meant.

“Maybe it’s unprofessional but it’s sure as hell not immoral.

“Homosexuality is still considered–“

“I don’t care!” Holden exclaimed. His face was alight with determination, and he moved in close enough that he was practically seated in Bill’s lap.

“Don’t make this harder than it has to be, Holden,” Bill pleaded, but Holden ignored him. He reached out and grabbed Bill’s face in his hands, guiding him into a kiss. His grip was tight, but not so tight that Bill couldn't pull away if he wanted to.

He didn't want to. God, how could he ever want to?

Bill couldn’t stop himself from kissing back as Holden’s lips hungrily plundered his. He groaned, shifting them so that Holden was straddling him. It was sloppy and hard and desperate, and it scared him, how little he could resist Holden. Eventually Holden drew back, breathing heavily, and rested his forehead against Bill’s.

“I don’t care what other people ‘consider’ it to be, and you shouldn’t either."

Bill pulled away as much as Holden's grasp would allow.

"This isn't healthy for either of us and you know it, Holden. If anyone found out–"

“You went to see her yesterday.”

He should have known that Holden, clever as he was, would figure it out. Trying to continue the lie would be pointless.

”Yes.”

“How did it feel?”

“...Like talking to a stranger,” Bill admitted, hanging his head. Holden lifted his chin with a finger, forcing him to look up, their noses nearly brushing.

“If you love her like you say you do, why did you come back here?”

Bill didn’t have an answer for him. He looked at the ridiculous swoop of Holden’s hairline, the stressed wrinkles in his forehead, and wanted nothing more than to smooth them out. His lips were parted, sharp little inhales barely audible.

“Please don’t leave, Bill, I... I’m in love with you,” he whispered.

Bill’s breath stuttered, and he pulled away, staring at Holden in bewilderment. Holden met his gaze, eyes wide and scared and so fucking earnest. Holden fucking Ford, who threw himself into everything without thinking about the repercussions, who was reckless and idiotic and probably the most incredible person Bill had ever met in his life.

Holden, who was apparently in love with him. The thought sent a thrill through him, a warmth that he wanted to cling to, followed by a disgust for himself so deep that he felt nauseous. What the fuck was wrong with him? This was bad, this was very bad. Bill had never meant for things to spin out of control like this. He'd never meant for any of it to happen. Now Holden was attached, and damn it all to hell, Bill was, too. It was enough to make Bill wonder what it would be like, if they could do this. If he could come home to Holden at night, or vice versa, seeing as Holden had a tendency to pull late shifts far more than Bill did. If he could kiss Holden awake in the mornings. If they could be happy, somehow. 

But they couldn't. The idea that they could ever be something outside of motel walls and Holden's bedroom was a fool's dream.

Shut it down, Tench. This is for the best. For both of us, he reminded himself, fighting off the part of him that was screeching at him to stop. 

“No, you're not. You… you can’t just say that kind of shit. It has consequences.”

“I’m not ‘just saying’ anything, and I’m well aware of the consequences,” Holden insisted, his voice tinged with hysteria. He stood up and stepped into his briefs, then began pacing, wringing his hands nervously. Bill swung his legs over the edge of the bed and planted his feet on the floor.

“I have a fucking family to think about, Holden. I’m married!” He wasn’t sure why he said it; it wasn’t as though stating the obvious would change either of their feelings, but it felt like something he should say.

“Yeah, Bill, you are. But tell me, where’s Nancy right now? Hmm? Where’s Brian, for that matter?” Holden countered. His voice was cold and sharp, and it cut deep.

Bill flinched at the reminder, the chasm inside his chest that he’d tried desperately to close ripping open yet again. He hadn’t seen his son in months, and it was his own fault. He could accuse Holden of carrying the shovel all he wanted, but in the end it was him that dug his own grave.

Watching the emotions work over Bill's face, Holden seemed to register the depth of the wound he’d reopened. His voice fell soft, apologetic.

“I… I’m sorry, Bill. That was a low blow.”

“You’re damn right it was,” Bill snapped, molding the pain into rage. It was what he did best with feelings, after all– push them down or turn them into something useful, something defensive. He rounded on Holden, standing up and glaring down at him. 

“You don’t get to use my family against me. You’re ‘in love’ with me,” he scoffed.

“What, did you think I’d want to be your damn boyfriend or something? That we’d date-date? You may be a good fuck, Holden, but don’t flatter yourself. You’re the last person I’d ever want to ride off into the fucking sunset with.” He was so furious that he was out of breath, fists clenched at his sides to keep from punching the wall in frustration. 

Holden’s face crumpled, for a moment, with unspeakable hurt. He took a step back and nearly stumbled, inhaling shakily, eyes too bright. Bill felt the anger wash away and sadness replace it, like someone had dumped a bucket of ice over him and ripped his fucking heart out of his chest. He closed his eyes, and when he reopened them, Holden’s expression was scarily blank.

“Okay,” he whispered. Wordlessly, he walked over to the dresser, picked up his bottle of Valium and popped one in his mouth before turning back to Bill. His hands were trembling violently as he fiddled with the cap, making it harder for him to close the container.

“I’m sorry, Bill. Go home. I’ll see you Monday.” He started to walk away, presumably to the bathroom.

“You’re acting like a fucking child,” Bill called after his retreating figure. He didn’t know why he kept pushing; he just wanted Holden to react. To yell, to hit him, to do something other than stare at him with those broken blue eyes.

Holden stopped but didn’t look back, shrugging.

“Yeah, well, I guess I didn’t seem so childish while I was sucking your cock. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. You got what you wanted out of me, so let’s not drag this out. Water under the bridge. I’ll see you at work.”

You got what you wanted out of me. 

Bill winced at the utter defeat in his tone. When he saw the younger man’s shoulders shake, clearly trying to hide sobs, it hit him exactly how cruel his retort had been. “Holden, I–“

“Get out of my fucking apartment,” Holden ordered, voice frighteningly monotonous, closing the door firmly behind him. Reluctantly, Bill gathered his clothes, silently watching the bathroom out of the corner of his eye. The sound of the sink running was the only noise that echoed through the apartment. He walked over to the drawer he had taken up in Holden’s room, and began to empty out the clothing left in it. The gesture felt final, and he wanted to fucking cry.

Stopping just in front of the door, he hesitated.

Holden had finally let himself be vulnerable, and Bill had shot him down. Once again too late, Bill felt the sick roll of regret deep in his stomach. Holden had just poured his heart out to him, whether he had made a rude remark or not, and Bill used it against him. Implied that he only cared about Holden for sex. Eventually, the guilt overtook him, and he marched toward the bathroom, opening the door without knocking.

Holden was staring at his reflection, eyes unseeing and red-rimmed. Bill’s shirt hung loose around his thin frame, and he was gripping the sides of the sink so hard that his knuckles were alarmingly white. Bill couldn’t stop himself from reaching out and placing a hand over his.

“Holden. Please look at me.”

Holden batted his hand away.

“You don't get to touch me, Bill. Leave.” His voice cracked on the last word.

With a final glance at the man in front of him, Bill did.

Chapter Text

i'm wasted, losing time
i'm a foolish, fragile spine
i want all that is not mine
i want him, but we're not right 

in the darkness, i will meet my creators
and they will all agree, that i'm a suffocator

oh, love, i'm sorry if i smothered you
i'm sorry if i smothered you
i sometimes wish i'd stayed inside
my mother, never to come out

— “smother”, daughter

Debbie startled awake to a dull pounding at her front door, someone knocking frantically. Thinking that perhaps she overslept, she fumbled blearily for her clock. 1:06 AM.

What the fuck?

Rubbing the sleep from her eyes as she threw back her comforter, she yawned as she padded outside, bare feet cold against the wood. Who the hell was at her door at this hour? She scanned the living room for any weed paraphernalia, just in case it was the cops. When she was sure there was no trace of anything illegal, she opened the door, and any and all anger she had at the unexpected visitor ebbed away when she saw who was on the other side.

Holden stood in her threshold, hair sopping wet and plastered against his forehead. His eyes were red and his face was blotchy, like he’d been crying for hours. His arms hung awkwardly by his sides, and he wouldn’t look at her. Debbie was suddenly desperately afraid for him.

"Holden, Jesus Christ. It's one in the morning. What happened?" He was staring intently at the faded 'welcome' rug, as though he hoped the ground would open up and swallow him.

“I’m sorry, Debbie, I didn’t... I didn’t have anywhere else to go, and I– I couldn't stay there. I didn't meant to disturb you; I shouldn’t have come. I’m sorry,” he wheezed over the din of the rain, and turned to leave before Debbie had any time to process what he had just said. His breath smelled like... cigarettes?

”Holden, wait!” she yelled, and tore after him. It was a cold downpour, the first of autumn, and it immediately soaked her to the skin. She caught up with Holden just as he was about to unlock his car, and shoved herself between him and the door. For a long moment, they were caught in a stare-down, her defiant and him numb. Eventually, Debbie won, as she typically did with these things, when Holden looked away.

"You're shaking," she said, rubbing his arms, trying to create some warmth. Holden didn't respond, just stood there and let her do it. Debbie moved to grasp his waist, guiding him around the car and back toward the door. 

”Turn around and start walking. You're coming inside,” she ordered, removing her arm from around him and taking his hand. He mutely followed her, and the emptiness in his eyes unsettled her to her core.

Watching him hurt was like a physical pain, a phantom wound. Their break-up had brought them closer, both for obvious reasons like having the same intentions for their relationship and for the little things, like being able to be fully open with one another. Even though she dumped him, Debbie had been angry for a week or two after Holden had come out to her. At the time, it felt like she had been used, and she told him that. His heartfelt and selfless apology had removed any animosity, though, and they fell back into the comfortable affection of their relationship, but so much less awkward. She'd almost been in love with him, she knew, but had been just enough above the surface to be able to convert it into something platonic, after taking some time to process it all.

She worried about Holden often. He was only a few years older than her, and he’d been through shit that most people didn’t deal with in their entire lives. Debbie knew that he blamed himself for everything bad that happened, and it frightened her. His complete and utter self-hatred frightened her. 

Debbie sat him on the couch and wrapped a blanket around his shoulders before retreating into the kitchen, wringing water out of her hair. She set a pot of tomato soup on the stove and started making cocoa, the way she remembered Holden liked it– damn near close to water. He would always say that the chocolate flavour didn’t need to be overpowering to be good, and she would always say that he was an idiot.

When it was finished, Debbie sat next to him, making sure not to spill any of the drink, and wrapped her free arm around his shoulders, tugging him against her. He curled into the embrace, resting his head against her collarbone.

"Here’s how this is going to work: you’re going to drink this,” she held up the cocoa, “and eat that once it's done,” she pointed at the pot of soup, “and you’re going to tell me what happened, and you’re not going to bullshit me. We clear?”

Holden didn't argue. He just nodded meekly and pulled the blanket closer, taking the warm drink with the softest thanks she'd ever heard.

"Now, talk. Please.”

He refused to meet her gaze, instead focusing on the wall in front of him.

"He's gone, Debbie. I c– I couldn't get him to stay,” he said, sounding like he was on the verge of tears.

"Who, Holden?"

"...Bill."

Debbie closed her eyes.

She had suspected that Holden had a thing for Bill for a while. Holden never wanted to meet any of the guys she offered to introduce him to– young, attractive, gay men. It didn't make sense, but now it did. Hell, even when they were dating, Holden had always looked at Bill with a nauseatingly besotted expression and talked about him with an affection that Debbie knew he rarely used for anyone, let alone coworkers. But while Holden's feelings may have been obvious, she never imagined that Bill would return them. Is this better or worse than him rejecting Holden to begin with? 

“What are you talking about?”

Holden let out a pained little noise, burying his face into his hands. This was worse. Definitely worse.

And he told her everything. They ate their soup and he explained it all, his doubts and the back-and-forth they'd played, before it became something more real. How Bill went back to his wife. Debbie considered herself a good listener, and Holden was usually a talker. But this time, he would only speak with repeated coaxing from her, and mostly in clipped sentences that left her to fill in a lot of blanks. Luckily, she was skilled at that.

”You smell like cigarettes,” she commented, once he was done. She didn’t know what else to say, how to react. Holden huffed out a laugh.

”It’s stupid. I thought... he smokes cigarettes, obviously, and I'm so used to the taste and smell... I thought maybe it would help. Help me sleep,” he whispered.

”But I can’t, Debbie. He’s not really there and I can’t fucking sleep.” 

He sounded absolutely destroyed. Debbie wanted to wrap him up in bubble wrap and keep the evils of the world away from him forever.

”It’s going to be okay. I promise.” Holden shook his head against her chest, and she bit back tears at the hopelessness of the gesture. She knew him well enough to know that this went far beyond what had happened with Bill. The exhaustion written all over his face was something so much deeper, so much older.

“Go to sleep, Holden,” she whispered. With some prompting from her, he adjusted himself so that his head was pillowed comfortably on her lap, his face smushed against her abdomen. He was out and snoring in seconds. She secured the blanket more tightly around his trembling form, and spent the night sitting with a protective hand on his arm– a guardian until morning came.

 


 

The BSU was dimly lit, the normally violently fluorescent lights flickering and buzzing. Holden rolled his eyes. Wasn't there enough in the new budget to help them see their fucking work?

It looked different, but Holden didn’t pay it much mind. It was dusty and there were cobwebs gathering in every corner. It was like no one had been there in years, even though everyone was working except Bill. Where was Bill, anyway? His desk was empty.

Shepard strode over, breaking Holden from his thoughts, looking as irritated as he always did.

"There's a new case, Ford. You're on your own on this one," he grunted, tossing a file onto Holden's desk.

"Thank you, sir," Holden chimed. Shepard didn't leave, but instead stood there, glaring down at him with disdain. Not wanting to make him angrier, Holden took the file and peeled it open, only to drop it like it was on fire.

"No," he whimpered, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes.

No , please, no.

The withered crime scene photos showed Bill splayed out on the floor of some basement, in a pool of his own blood, gaze unseeing and lips blue. His skin was covered head to toe in deep lacerations, straight down to the shock of white bone. There were dried tear tracks on his face and his mouth was open in an unheard scream for help.

Holden threw up on the desk.

"It's your fault, you know." Wendy. She was sitting across from him, lips pursed and legs crossed. He straightened up, wiping the bile from his mouth with his sleeve.

"I don't–" he started to say, but she cut him off.

"It was all one murderer, Holden. Atlanta. Nashville. All those unsolved cases? There was only one man. You know who he is, don't you?" Wendy pressed. He felt his eyes fill with tears, and bit his lip as he shook his head.

"No, that's the problem. I'm... I'm trying, I just can't–"

"You know who he is, Holden. You do, and you always have. Just think a little harder. Look a little closer. You're so close."

The tile cracked, then, the sound deafening. Holden jumped, backing away as fast as he could as the floor in front of him opened up into a hole, long and deep and filled with light brown dirt. A chunk of plaster fell by one end, creating a sort of tombstone. He stared into the pseudo-grave and flinched at the feeling of a hand on his back, pushing him forward. He turned to see who it was, but there wasn't anyone there.

"What do you think we should do, with whoever killed all of them?" Wendy asked. She leaned forward, inquiring, and jerked her head toward the hole.

"What do you think he deserves, Holden?"

Her face was empty of any expression, but it gradually turned into a frown the longer his silence went on as he tried to puzzle it out.  He almost vomited again when it hit him.

He had worked on all those cases. He hadn't worked hard enough on all those cases. Those people, those kids, were dead because of him. Bill was dead, too, and it was because of him, somehow. Something inherent in Holden killed people, destroyed everyone around him.

He was the common thread. It was him

"My fault," he whispered. Wendy nodded.

"They all were. Your fault, I mean. You killed them," she said with a casual shrug, like she was recounting the nightly news. Holden felt his stomach grow heavy with guilt, with disgust. Disgust at himself, at the fact that he was still living and breathing when others weren't, innocents weren't, all because of him. 

"It was all you. Every one of those deaths was by the same man. I can't imagine what hurting that many people is like, being responsible for all of that destruction."

Something was screaming, a long and broken sound. It took him a long time to realize that the noise was coming from his own throat. He hated himself. He was the reason why.

"They were all the results of his heinousness, his failure. So, let me ask you again: what do you think this man deserves?"

Holden knew what the right response was, what the truth was. Wendy was right; he'd always known.

"...He deserves to die," he whispered. Something settled in his chest, a kind of relief at saying the words aloud. He felt almost like a judge, giving a hard-won and justified sentence.  Wendy rose to her feet, seeming pleased with his answer, and walked around the hole to stand by his side.

"It's illegal for us to give him the death penalty. So it's up to you to figure out what to do about that." She patted him on the shoulder. Her hand was freezing cold.

Holden jerked awake to the sound of his alarm, kicking off his blanket with a gasp. He shot up, one hand pressed to his heaving chest and the other gripping his hair so tightly that he could feel the warm wetness of blood under his fingertips.

"Holden? You okay in there?" Debbie.

"I'm fine, Debs," he called back. His response was breathless but steady, and he shoved his head between his knees as he tried to recover, Dream Wendy's words haunting him.

So it's up to you to figure out what to do about that.

Filing the phrase away into the back of his mind, Holden meandered his way through his morning routine, running on fumes. He barely recognized himself in the mirror as he brushed his teeth. It all felt robotic, like he was a marionette being yanked through the motions. He was eternally grateful that he spent the weekend at Debbie's place instead of his own– once Bill had left, the apartment felt so much bigger than it was. 

The thought of Bill made Holden lurch forward, grabbing the sink and trying to muffle the sobs that threatened to escape him. He'd thought they would have more time. When Bill came back after seeing Nancy that day, Holden thought that maybe, Bill had made his decision.

That maybe Bill had chosen him.

Holden brushed off the memory. It was stupid; he was stupid. He had been a complete and utter fool. He shouldn't be surprised; he had known it was coming, hadn't he? He prepared himself for it. That's what he told Mary, didn’t he?

(He knew from experience, of course, that no matter how ready you think you’ve gotten for people to leave, you never truly are when they actually do. But that didn't stop him from feeling like a fucking idiot.)

He pulled on his suit jacket and walked over to Debbie, where she was standing and worrying the silver charm on her necklace. He felt horrible for ruining her weekend and intruding, but she had refused to let him leave; she stole his keys with a promise to give them back on Monday morning, so he could go to work. She held them out to him now, guiding his face downward and pressing a kiss to his forehead as she placed them in his hand.

"Come see me again soon, okay? We'll do coffee." Her voice turned softer, more urgent.

"Please take care of yourself," she whispered. Holden smiled at her. It felt fake, like plastic, and he nodded.

"I will, I promise.”

It was a lie, of course it was. He didn't know how to take care of himself, and he had no interest in learning, but she didn’t need to know that. What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, and Holden knew that he'd hurt her enough already.

 


 

Once he arrived at Quantico, Holden managed to do an excellent job of avoiding Bill for the most part.

The pettiest, most insecure part of his brain was operating the rest of him, and he ignored Bill flat out. In their daily meeting, he only spoke to Wendy, seeing as he never spoke to Gregg anyway. It clearly left Bill irritated, and that pained Holden, but he knew that he would only burden Bill more the longer he hung around. Whatever he had to offer had been used up. He wasn’t needed anymore, by Bill or anyone else.

It was midday by the time that Bill finally seemed fed up, and walked over to Holden's desk. Holden glanced up quickly and nodded in acknowledging dismissal, before returning his gaze to his work. Bill didn't leave, though.

"We need to talk," he demanded, keeping his voice low, mindful of the people around them. Holden shrugged, trying to seem more nonchalant than he felt.

"We don't, though. It's okay." The words sounded disingenuous even to his own ears, and Bill picked up on it immediately.

"It's not okay, Holden. I'm certainly not fucking okay, and I don't think you are, either," he said. He looked tired, sad, and Holden felt a deep pang of concern.

"Don't flatter yourself, Bill," he sneered, swallowing it down. He couldn’t afford to lose anymore of his pride. He had never intended on falling as far as he had already. 

"I'm fine."

Bill sighed and ran a hand through his hair. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his handsome face was wrinkled with anxiety.

"Please, Holden, can we just... can we please talk?"

Holden couldn’t say no to Bill, not when he asked with such unconcealed emotion in his voice. Maybe it didn't actually come from a place of care: it could be a facade, a ploy to get Holden to forgive him and not cost him his job, but Holden couldn't find a shit to give within himself. He acquiesced, standing up and following Bill to the bathroom.

The walk was silent, neither of them willing to look at each other. Holden was afraid that if he did, he'd do something stupid, like cry or apologize or beg Bill to come back.

He made his choice. He made the right choice. Leave him the fuck alone.

“What did you want to talk about?” he asked, once the door was shut. He noted that Bill hadn’t locked it. So this wasn’t going to be a repeat of their prior escapades, then. Holden shivered as he thought back to the amount of times Bill had fucked him in that very bathroom, his touch sweet and gentle and stop thinking about it.

”Look, Holden..." he trailed off. Holden felt a flash of annoyance, and crossed his arms.

"Say what you need to say, Bill. Spit it out. I can take it."

Bill sucked in a sharp breath, closing his eyes and nodding to himself. When he opened them, they zeroed in on Holden, keeping steady contact.

"I get that it’s not my business, but I need to know: are you okay?”

Of all the directions Holden had been expecting Bill to take this tête-à-tête, that had not been one of them.

”I... what?”

”You haven’t been yourself since Atlanta, and I don't just mean when it comes to work. I should have mentioned it sooner, I honestly can't even tell you why I didn’t. I was caught up in my own shit, yeah, but that’s not an excuse. I know I probably don’t have the right to ask–“

”You don’t,” Holden interrupted, shocking himself with his boldness.

"You don't have the right to ask, Bill. You've made what you think of me very clear, so if you'd be so kind, I want to go back to being normal coworkers. I'm perfectly fine," he said, his initially determined voice fading into a choked-out lie.

"Fine, my ass," Bill said, stepping closer. His hands brushed over Holden's sides, and he inhaled shakily.

"I know you, Holden, and I know when you're lying. Why won't you let me in?"

"I did. You didn't stay," Holden shot back, his voice dropping to a nearly inaudible tone.

"I'm sorry," Bill whispered. Their faces were so close together, Holden could see every speck of grey in his eyes.

They’d done this dance so many times before, that it was by pure habit that their mouths collided.

Bill growled into the kiss, tongue slick against Holden's as their mouths clashed, possessive and hungry. Holden whimpered into it, letting Bill press him against the wall and take complete control. The tile against his back was a juxtaposition of the senses as the familiar hot, pulsing need stirred in him, and it wasn’t until Bill’s palm grazed over his burgeoning erection that he remembered why they couldn’t do this anymore.

He thought of Dream Bill, and how it was all his fault, and screwed his eyes shut. He pushed Bill away by the chest, the rapidly cooling coat of saliva lingering on his lips.

”This is wrong, Bill." Holden backed toward the door, wrapping his arms around his middle. 

“You're the one who said we can't do this anymore. You picked her.”

”I didn’t–" Bill began to defend, but he seemed to think better of it. His hands fell from Holden's waist, and he stepped back as well.

"I know,” he said, softly. He looked like he was about to cry, and it took every fiber of Holden’s willpower not to rush over and hold him until he was okay.

But he couldn't. Bill wouldn't want him to, anyway.

“You may be a good fuck, Holden, but don’t flatter yourself. You’re the last person I’d ever want to ride off into the fucking sunset with.“

He wouldn’t want Holden for anything like that.

”I know that I should make this easier for you. I promise that I will. It's like I said, water under the bridge. You chose her, and I knew you would, and it’s alright," Holden whispered.

"You don’t have to keep pretending that you care about me. You love her. I know what I was to you, I knew the entire time, and I was okay with it. I'm okay with it, just... please, Bill, stop fucking around with my head. It hurts too much, and I can’t deal with it anymore.” He could feel tears welling up, and moved to exit the bathroom before he could humiliate himself further.

“Wait, Holden! It’s not like that. Please don’t go,” Bill said, voice breaking over the words. He reached out and grabbed Holden’s forearm, and Holden felt the phantom pain of the touch before it came. Once Bill’s hand clamped down, he couldn't hold back the wince, and Bill's eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"I know I didn't grab you that hard. What is it? What's wrong?"

Holden’s pulse picked up speed, the thudding a warning alarm sending signals to his brain: get away get away get away.

"Nothing. I'm fine, it just startled me,” he lied. He could feel a nervous flush creeping up his neck, and Bill shook his head.

"That's it. I haven't said anything because I didn't want to trigger you or something, but there's clearly something wrong. You're in pain, and you have been for a while. Show me your fucking arm, Holden."

"No," Holden snarled, whipping around to leave, but Bill seized him by the wrist before he could go very far. Holden struggled violently against the grip, but Bill was stronger than he was. The older man managed to shove Holden’s sleeve up, and he felt himself go light-headed with panic as the cold breeze from the air conditioner glanced over the mess underneath.

And it was a mess, he knew it was. Nearly every accessible part of his arm was completely covered in cuts, overlapping and jagged. Bill gawked at the marred flesh, his eyes so wide that the whites were visible, his face drawn and pale. His other hand moved to touch the wounds, but pulled back at the last second, like he was afraid to touch them.

Like he was afraid to touch Holden.

"Holden?" Bill whispered. He sounded scared, and Holden could feel himself starting to hyperventilate. He wanted to move, but he was frozen. His ears filled with a fuzzy ringing, and his vision blurred to the point that he could barely make out the shape of Bill. By some miracle his legs didn't give, but rather locked into place.

Heknowsheknowsheknowsheknows, he thinks you're pathetic, you are pathetic. This is the end, he's going to tell Gunn, your career is over and your life is over and it's all over and you have no one to blame but yourself.  

"What... why?"

Holden wrenched his wrist out of Bill's hand and tucked the offending arm against his chest, breath shallow and echoing throughout the bathroom.

"Leave it alone, Bill. Leave me alone," he managed, and all but ran for the door. His heart was pounding, his stomach rolling, a scream bubbling in his throat.

He had to get the hell away, before he lost it completely.

 


  

The night after he– broke up with? stopped seeing? He didn't know what it was– Holden, Bill stumbled back to his house as though in a daze, and drank himself into oblivion. Every sip burned like Holden’s hurt eyes did, and he relished in the protective glaze the alcohol dripped over the memories. He couldn't remember the pain when he was drunk; he could only remember mornings cuddled together and nights of pure ecstasy.

He passed out at some point, though he couldn’t exactly remember when. It was somewhere after whiskey number six, and he jolted awake to the sound of the phone ringing. Bill shuffled over to the cursed machine, massaging his aching head, and picked up.

”Bill Tench,” he grunted. A familiar voice crackled over the line.

”Bill, it’s Wendy. Would you mind meeting up for dinner tonight? There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”

And that’s how he and Wendy ended up engaging in small talk over drinks in a dingy little pub that Holden had apparently introduced her to, one that didn’t seem like either of their scene. They had just finished discussing a potential interviewee, when her tone turned somber.

“Bill, please forgive me for how incredibly unprofessional I’m about to be. I asked you here because I want to talk about Holden,” she said, setting her Manhattan to the side. Bill's chest jumped at the sound of his name.

“What about him?” He took a hearty gulp of his beer, trying to come across as disinterested. He couldn’t help the spike of worry in him at the words.

“What’s he done now?”

“It’s not something that he’s done,” Wendy began, fidgeting her hands. It wasn’t something he’d ever seen her do before– that prompted him to put down his drink and lean forward.

“In your opinion, has he been acting... odd lately?” she asked. 

“What, odder than usual?” Bill tried to play off his unease with a joke, like he would have done a year ago. The blonde didn’t take the bait, simply glared. 

Falling back into seriousness, Bill considered the question, thinking it over. He knew that Holden wasn’t in the best mental place, and that part of that would be because of him come Monday (add that to your list of fuck-ups, asshole). But there was clearly something wrong, something that had been there since Georgia. He'd assumed it was guilt, but was that really all it was? Could guilt over one case really put someone in such a rut? Could there be an underlying issue, something Bill missed?

“Come to think of it, he has been a little off as of late. Worse than before.”

Wendy’s lips drew together in concern.

“He doesn’t sleep, he doesn’t eat– he’s lost weight, and I saw him stare at an untouched granola bar for an hour in the office on Wednesday, only to immediately throw it away. I wanted to give him space, but with all that and him still turning down interviews, I...” she trailed off, picking at her cuticles. It was a shock to see the usually impassive woman express a nervous habit.

“I believe that this is a way of punishing himself. For Atlanta, or for something else.”

Bill snorted in response, desperately attempting to quell the fear rising in him at her words. She was right. Holden picked at the food they ate together on a good day. He usually fell asleep after Bill, and was up before him as well, so Bill had no idea how much or how little he’d been sleeping.

“Seriously? C’mon, Wendy. I know you’re a psychologist, but Christ, not everything is a diagnosable issue. Maybe he just hasn’t been hungry, maybe he’s just really tired. It happens all the time– sometimes when I’m overworking, I get into funks like that. It’ll blow over in no time.”

He didn’t know if he was trying to convince her or himself.

After shooting him an annoyed look, Wendy knocked back the rest of her drink without breaking eye contact, slamming it loudly back down onto the bar.

“Holden once told me that he’s not intimidated by being around women smarter than him. Tell me, Bill, are you the same?”

His mouth opened and closed as he tried to formulate a response, and an angry crease appeared between her eyebrows.

“I’m a licensed psychologist. I am the authority on mental health issues in the BSU. Understand that I know much, much more about this than you do, and I would never dream of mentioning it to anyone, least of all you, unless I believed that there was serious cause for concern. The fact that I’m speaking on it at all is unprofessional, but I’m not going to let our colleague suffer just because you are afraid of emotions.”

Bill sputtered in protest, but Wendy ignored it.

“Look, Bill, you’re the only person in the unit that he has a modicum of trust in. He would never answer any questions I asked, but with you, he just might. Talk to him. Please. He’s indispensable to our work, and you can deny it all you want, but I know that you care about him.”

With that, she slapped a few bills on the counter and grabbed her purse. As she started to walk away, Bill finally managed to pull himself together enough to call after her.

“What makes you think he’ll talk to me?”

She shrugged.

“Call it a hunch,” she said. Her eyes glinted knowingly, and with what almost looked like sadness– there was something that she wasn’t telling him. 

Before he could ask her about it, she turned and walked out of the pub. The click of her heels seemed much louder than before.

 


 

Bill strode into work on Monday with a scowl etched on his face. He was in the worst mood he’d been in since Nancy left, and the fact that it was overwhelmingly his own fault only pissed him off more. He sat down in his chair with a grunt, glaring at his unsharpened pencil.

“What, does it owe you money or something?”

Bill looked up to see Gregg hovering near his desk, an expectant grin on his face as he waited for Bill to respond to his joke. He quickly managed to catch on to the fact that the only response Bill was going to give him was a broken jaw, though, and retreated.

Holden walked briskly in, punctual as ever. He nodded at Gregg and waved to Wendy, a single flick of his hand.

He didn’t look Bill in the eye.

The day continued on like that, with Holden staunchly ignoring Bill. He was quieter, more timid. Every time Bill turned a corner and Holden was there, Holden’s face would turn pale and he’d skitter away. Bill wanted to cry at how afraid Holden seemed of him.

He eventually shut himself into his office, chain smoking and throwing himself a pity party, when Wendy barged in.

“You fucking moron. What did you do?”

She was looming over him, sharp black suit making her look even more menacing. Her mouth was drawn into a thin line of disapproval, and the look in her eyes could probably scare some of the men they interviewed into submission.

“What are you talking about, Wendy?” She shut the door and placed her hands on Bill’s desk, cocking her hip to the side. 

“Holden. What did you say to him?”

Bill leaned back in his chair and sighed, putting a cigarette to his lips and raising his lighter.

“What makes you think I said anything to him?” he asked.

Wendy smacked the cigarette out of his mouth. Bill sat up straighter, about to give her a piece of his mind, when she held up a single finger.

“No. You don’t get to play that bullshit with me. The last time we spoke, I told you to talk to Holden. I know for a fact that you did, because just last week he was looking at you like you hung the fucking moon, and now he's openly ignoring you. It's unprofessional, just like the rest of your behaviour."

"I'm sorry?" Bill said. He was taken aback by her harshness, despite the fact that he knew it was deserved (though not for the conversation she thought they had). Wendy scoffed.

"Wow, you two really do underestimate me. Do you think you were actually subtle about those quickies in the bathroom, or in what I assume was one of your cars before you came into work?”

He felt nauseous with fear. She knew. Bill opened his mouth, about to respond but Wendy cut him off.

“I’m not finished,” she hissed.

“Let me assure you, I am not under the impression that he’s innocent in this. I'm well aware of the fact that it takes two to tango, Bill. You’ve both been idiotic at best; using the term 'idiotic' is generous. What were you thinking, jeopardizing the entire unit just because you couldn’t wait a few hours to get off?”

Bill stood up to meet her eyeline. Although he was larger than her, she didn’t even flinch.

“Pardon the disrespect,” he mocked, “but this is none of your fucking business.”

“You made it my business the second you put my job at stake,” Wendy countered. Bill deflated a bit, thinking through what she had said.

"You... you knew, this whole time? And you didn't tell Gunn?"

“I’m a lesbian, Bill," she said with a roll of her eyes. Bill blanched at the glibness with which she said it.

This new information was both immensely surprising, and not at all. He thought back to the story she told Henley, about being in a relationship with that woman. Had it all been true?

"So no, of course I didn't tell Gunn, and I won't do so in the future. But I don't give a damn what gender the coworker you're screwing is– you put our careers on the line. Do you see me fucking my girlfriend at work? Have I let my personal life affect my job? You’re going to speak with Holden, you’re going to clear up whatever the hell is going on between the two of you and you’re never going to let it interfere with your work ever again, am I understood?"

Once Wendy left, Bill had gotten up and decided to speak to Holden. He'd expected a lot of different things to come from that conversation. He'd expected Holden to be angry, hurt, and he'd been prepared for that. He had been ready to weather Holden directing his pain at him.

Bill had never imagined seeing Holden direct his pain at himself.

 


 

After Holden stormed off, Bill stood there for a moment, looking blankly ahead as he tried to process all that had just happened. After an eternity, he stumbled blindly to the toilet and threw up.

He curled over the cool porcelain, trembling and retching. Every time he closed his eyes he saw Holden's arm, riddled with cuts of various age and severity, and it sent another wave of nausea through him that wracked his entire body. How could he have missed it? After all these months, maybe even years– he didn't know how long it had been going on for. Holden had been suffering so much that he ripped himself apart, literally, and Bill hadn't seen it. 

“Jesus fucking Christ,” he whispered, dropping his head against the toilet bowl. It was unhygienic, but he didn't give a fuck. He was only vaguely aware of his surroundings, of anything outside the images swirling through his head.

How could he not have known? The bloodstain on the sleeve of that one shirt of Holden's, always wearing long sleeves even during sex, how he always flinched when anyone grabbed his arm. Bill had thought that was a byproduct of the panic disorder, rather than due to physical injuries. He had heard of self-mutilation, of course he had. He was with the FBI, for fuck’s sake– he dealt with perps regularly who would slice themselves open. But Holden wasn’t like those people; Holden was kind and stubborn and too smart for his own good, and all of a sudden, Bill was furious with him.

Or maybe it wasn't with him. Maybe it was with the world for being so cruel, for wearing Holden down the way it had. Maybe it was with Kemper, with Shepard, with anyone who had ever hurt Holden.

Maybe it was with himself. 

By the time Bill finally collected himself enough to return to the office, it had been close to an hour. He stumbled to the water cooler and chugged several cups, files in hand, staring at his work but unable to focus on actually doing it. Holden still had yet to reappear, and Bill wondered what he was doing. Could he be... what if he was...

Before he had a chance to go too far down that train of thought, the man in question burst through the door and sat down just as his phone began to ring, and Bill almost sobbed with relief.

"Holden Ford speaking," he greeted, in his usual matter-of-fact manner. Bill was standing close enough that he could hear the speaker's voice, loud and worried.

"Agent Ford, this is Detective Chandler. We need you and Agent Tench down here as soon as possible... there's been another murder. Two of them."

Chapter Text

my body is a cage
we take what we're given

just because you've forgotten,
that don't mean you're forgiven

i'm living in an age
that screams my name at night
but when i get to the doorway,
there's no one in sight

i'm living in an age
that laughs when i'm dancing
with the one i love,
but my mind holds the key

— "my body is a cage", arcade fire

Bill always hated airports. They were crowded with people running around like they were on fire, required too much waiting around, and were just generally a pain in the ass. Holden, on the other hand, found them fascinating. He loved to people-watch, and would wax lyrical to Bill about how interesting it was to see so many contrasts, all in the same place.

("Think of it this way, Bill: what other environment will you see men in full suits somehow coexisting with people sleeping on the ground?"

"Any goddamn city street in America, Holden.")

Typically, the waiting period would be spent listening to Holden ramble as Bill rolled his eyes and feigned irritation, keeping to himself. This particular time, though, Holden wasn't saying a word, and Bill nearly got into a fistfight with a man in an ugly checkered vest over the last bag of pretzels at a kiosk.

So, in essence, it was going better than Bill had expected it to.

They were flying to Tennessee instead of driving, due to the urgency of the situation. Holden stared blankly ahead, behaviour almost robotic. Not that Bill was much better– he had no idea what to say, or where to even start. Small talk seemed pointless in light of what he had learned, of what Holden was doing to himself. Bill watched him intently picking out a magazine for the flight, and sighed. Should he act as though he never found out? Should he go to Debbie? Should he drag Holden to a psych ward?

The latter idea made him want to vomit, and he squeezed his eyes shut against the surge of images that flooded his brain: Holden in a straitjacket, in a padded room, empty-eyed and silent. Bill worked in law enforcement; he had seen the condition of psychiatric wards all over the country, and to say that they left something to be desired was a gross understatement. But was that fate worse than Holden cutting himself up, or going even further?

Were those the only two options, locked away or dead?

Bill desperately wished that Wendy was with them. She would know what to do, how to handle it all. He'd considered going to her about it, but he wasn't sure if that was the right thing to do. Was there a right thing to do, in this situation? He didn't know if Holden already told his psychiatrist about what he was doing, and the last thing Bill wanted to do was embarrass him further by involving more people.

On their way to the airport, Holden had turned the radio up nearly as loud as it would go and slouched down in his seat. Bill had let him; this didn't feel like the sort of conversation you could have in a car. He tried not to become hysterical over the thought– since when had he started considering where to have different kinds of conversations?

Maybe Wendy was with him after all, in the form of her influence.

The plane ride was more of the same uncomfortable, tense quiet. They were in seats next to each other, for better or for worse, and thanks to their greedy seatmate were shoved so close together that their shoulders were touching. Bill couldn't stop looking down at Holden's sleeves, now that he knew what was hidden away beneath the fabric. Holden noticed, because of course he did, and crossed his arms, turning as much away from Bill as he could given the circumstances.

"Holden, we need to t–"

"No," he muttered. He looked terrified, and it broke Bill's fucking heart to know that he instilled that kind of fear in Holden. Was this the culmination of all that eye-rolling and feigned irritation? Had he made Holden genuinely afraid to share things with him? He thought back to Saturday morning, to the devastation on Holden's face that Bill put there. 

Of course he's afraid to share things with you, you fucking moron.

"Not here, not in public," Holden said. Bill sighed at the response, and readjusted himself in his chair.

"Fine, but this conversation is happening."

Holden let out an indignant huff, and slumped so low in his seat that his shoulders were pressed against his ears. It was jarring to see him, normally so proud, in such a sheepish position. 

It felt like years later when they landed in Tennessee. When they finally arrived at the motel, Holden escaped the rental car as soon as it slowed to a stop, his feet hitting the pavement before Bill's foot even left the brake. He hurried into the hotel, as though putting distance between himself and Bill would somehow prevent their talk. Bill trudged behind him, just as unenthusiastic about it all. The lobby was nondescript, so much like the ones they'd stayed in during road school. Bill approached the smiling woman at the front desk while Holden lingered in the background, lips pursed in an expression just short of a pout.

"Tench and Ford," Bill grunted. The receptionist nodded, lips staying ticked upward, and looked at their listing.

"Room 404," she said, offering him the key. Bill raised an expectant eyebrow.

"404 and?"

"There's only the one room, sir."

"What do you mean, only one room?" Holden piped up, his voice tinged with anger. In all their time traveling together, Bill had never once heard him get impatient with a worker. Holden was usually the one telling Bill to calm down.

A week prior, he would have been smirking at the mistake, and dragging Bill upstairs to take advantage of it. Now, he just looked like a caged animal: mad and scared.

"I'm so sorry, sir. We were all booked up when your reservation was made; we only had the one room. There are two double beds, though, and I can reserve you a room as soon as one opens up tomorrow."

"That sounds good. We'll survive one night. Thank you very much," Bill said, offering her a smile as he took the key. Holden trailed behind him, arms crossed over his chest. The sound of the elevator doors closing carried an unsettling finality.

Once upon a time, the ride up to their motel room was filled with a thick, needy tension; each second of it was a divine kind of torture, waiting for those doors to open so that they could get to the room and get their hands on each other.

There was about two feet of space between them, but it might as well have been two hundred feet. They walked down the hall in silence, and Bill fumbled with the key when they reached their room.

"We're not talking about this," Holden announced without preamble as soon as they stepped through the doorway, tossing his suit jacket over a nearby chair and making a beeline for the bathroom. Bill closed the door behind them and instinctively reached for his arm, but thought better of it at the last second and set a hand on his shoulder instead.

"Yes, we are."

"Why, Bill?" Holden exploded, whipping around and shrugging Bill's hand off of him. His eyes were flint, his mouth drawn into a defensive line. His cheeks were pale when they should have been flushed. He was usually so expressive, and the lack of emotion on his face was unnerving.

"Why? It's a part of me that isn't my cock, so why would you care?"

Bill reared back as though he'd been slapped, and closed his eyes. He deserved that. He thought about how he'd handled that morning every goddamn day; he didn't know how he'd managed to fuck up so spectacularly. He crossed his arms and breathed in and out, slowly, trying to keep himself together.

"Listen to me. What I said to you that morning was a lie, okay? You aren't just a fuck to me, you're... look, I was angry and being an ass, but you brought my family into this. I can’t fucking accept th–"

"Your family has always been in this!" Holden shrieked. Taken aback, Bill stepped away, giving him space as he began to pace back and forth. 

"You were the one who started this, Bill. I would have backed off, after that night. You said it would be one night, and then you led me into that bathroom. I would have been fine, I could have dealt with it, but you continued it. You were lonely and you wanted a warm body, and I fell for it. I went and fell for that little domesticity act like some pathetic fucking mistress, and that's on me, but don't you dare blame me for what this has done to your family."

He sounded like he was on the verge of tears, hands wound into his hair and his body hunched in a defensive stance. Bill felt a surge of anger wash through him at Holden’s words, molten and sluggish. It took him a moment to formulate any kind of response.

It takes two to tango, does it not?

”Oh, so you’re a saint in all this, huh? Are you forgetting that you kissed me first? You’re a grown ass man, Holden, you could have said no. I’m not saying I don’t bear a good share of the blame– hell, I have most of it– but fucking Christ, we both know you were perfectly capable of rejecting me.”

The blame. He immediately regretted his phrasing, making their time together sound like some kind of problem. Holden’s nostrils flared and he dropped his hands to his sides, jamming them frustratedly into his pockets as he took a step toward Bill.

”Oh, yes, let’s talk about rejection, why don’t we? Let’s talk about the fact that you left, you broke this off, and then you fucking kissed me days later. I don’t know what sick, selfish fucking power trip you get from jerking me around. Is that what you did to Nancy? Is that why she left?” he spat, venomous.

His words were cruel, and aimed at the jugular in a way that only Holden was capable. Bill felt his throat grow tight, and stalked forward until his face was inches from Holden’s.

”What the hell is your problem? I don’t know who hurt you, Holden, but you can’t pin all your fuckin’ issues on me. You lash out at me because you can’t face the fact that you’re just as selfish as I am. I’m so done with this shit,” he snarled. Some part of him was yelling, telling him to stop doing further damage to his and Holden’s tenuous connection, but he ignored it, too swept up in the hurt that fueled his words.

There was a long and heavy silence, and Holden’s eyes widened, as though only just realizing what he said in the heat of the moment. His entire body deflated, any and all fight sucked out of him. He took several steps back until he was pressed against the opposite wall, shame rolling off of him in waves.

”You're right,” he whispered. It was like a switch had been flipped. He was staring intently at his shoes, and when he finally looked up, his eyes were glassy.

"I'm sorry. I’m so sorry, Bill. That was a horrible thing to say.” His voice trembled violently, and it was painful to listen to. Any grudge Bill was trying to hold dissipated, and he slumped against the wall closest to him, just as tired as Holden was.

”I accept your apology,” he grunted. A beat passed.

”And, uh... I’m sorry, too. Some of what I said was too far.”

Holden shook his head, and Bill couldn’t tell if he meant that Bill wasn’t sorry, or that he didn’t have to apologize.

”Is this what we are, now? Is screaming at each other all we do?” he whispered. Holden shook his head again, a tear dripping down the bridge of his nose. Bill had to fight the urge to kiss it away.

“I don’t want this to be what we are. I... I know I hurt you, Bill. I know I fucked up your life. I didn't mean to, I swear. I can’t pretend I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was fully aware going in that it all meant more to me than it did to you, and that’s okay."

Bill decided that he much preferred angry Holden to this Holden, the one who turned everything back on himself. He used to be the most stubborn person Bill had ever met, and now it took so little to make him give up. It was fucking heartbreaking.

It all meant more to me than it did to you. He said he was in love with Bill– how long had that been going on for? The yearning, the pain and wanting that had haunted Bill over the past handful of months; had Holden felt that the entire time they'd been working together?

Holden, who Bill tossed aside like a child’s toy to save a marriage that deep down, he knew was beyond repair. Who Bill had treated with so little gentleness, even before anything happened between them.

Had he been a reason that Holden started...

Closing his eyes, Bill pinched the skin between his eyebrows and breathed deeply. He felt like he was going to throw up. He knew, though, that now was not the time to ask that question. Now was the time to focus on Holden’s wellbeing. He scrambled for the right words to say. What words could possibly be a good response? What the hell could he say to Holden, who had just all but ripped his heart out and handed it to Bill? Emotionally, he was raw and ripped open, bleeding freely for Bill to see. 

“You didn't fuck up my life, Holden, Jesus. And I– you know what? We’re getting off topic. This isn’t about... us, Holden. I wanted to talk about you.”

”I’m fine.”

”Oh, really? Because I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that 'fine' people don’t slice themselves up in their spare time,” Bill snapped. Holden flinched, so he quickly backtracked and tried a softer approach.

”Look, I’m worried about you. This isn’t healthy, Holden.” Bill’s voice dropped, became more tender than he had ever known it could. Holden sighed, long and irritated, the vulnerability from seconds prior once again concealed behind a veil.

“I haven’t done it in a while, alright? My psychiatrist knows everything. It looks worse than it is," he attempted to soothe. Bill searched his face for any trace of deception, of a lie, but found none. None of his usual tells were there– no pink cheeks, no averted gaze.

”Anyway, so about potential leads,“ he began, but Bill cut him off before he could finish the thought.

”Stop it! You’re changing the subject again. We aren't done here."

"Can't we be?"

"No, Holden. This is serious shit you're playing around with. Do you have any idea how many guys I know who came home from Korea and blew their fucking brains out? I’ll be damned if I sit back and let that happen to you. This isn’t a fucking game. Now I’m gonna ask you a question, and you’re gonna answer honestly: are you suicidal?" he asked. His voice shook over the words and Holden snorted in response, rolling his eyes. The scared Holden from moments before was completely gone, replaced by someone that was defensive, hurt, and deeply exhausted.

"If I wanted to kill myself, Bill, I would have done it already." The nonchalant way he said it was unsettling, and Bill wasn't convinced. 

"That's a bullshit answer and you know it."

Holden's expression hardened once again, and his lip curled. He looked less furious than he had that afternoon after the Jensen interview, but Bill could see the pain swirling under the mask. Sometimes, Holden seemed to forget how well Bill knew him.

Clearly you don't know him well enough to notice that he’s hurting, Bill scolded himself.

"No, I don't want to kill myself. Sorry to disappoint," Holden sneered. Bill's stomach lurched. 

"Of course I'm not... how the hell could you ever think that? You know I care about y–“

"Do I, Bill? Do I know that?”

He had no retort, no defense for himself. How could he? He'd been absolutely fucking horrible at showing his care, yanking Holden around in his desperate attempts to figure out who he was, what he was feeling. In his fear, Bill cast Holden aside as soon as Nancy came back, so determined to maintain normalcy. His disgust with himself grew into something potent, into a weight that sat on his chest and on his shoulders.

Holden seemed to take Bill's silence as all the answer he needed; he nodded and looked away, avoiding Bill’s eyes.

"Glad we hashed this out. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to take a shower." 

Bill was suddenly very afraid of what that shower would entail. He inhaled shakily, and blocked the way to the bathroom.

"Am I gonna have to sit on the fucking toilet while you shower?" he asked. Holden just laughed. It was cold and sharp, so unlike his usual warm chuckle. It turned Bill's blood to ice.

"This isn't your problem, Bill."

He started to walk toward the bathroom again, but Bill stood in his path.

"It is my problem, Holden. You hurting yourself is absolutely my problem."

"It's not. You lost the right for it to be your problem when you went back to her.” He tried to walk around Bill, but Bill was unmoving. Eventually, Holden threw his hands into the air in frustration.

“Jesus Christ, do you want me to hand over my fucking razor? Don't worry about me. We have far more important things to worry about than that, we have a case to solve,” he muttered, stalking over to his bag and fishing out his razor. He held it out to Bill, in a gesture of proof. 

Bill paused before taking it. The mental image of Holden dragging the silver over his skin, getting satisfaction from seeing himself hurt and believing that he deserves it, made Bill want to punch something.

"You swear you don't do it anymore?"

"Yes," Holden insisted. Bill scrubbed a hand over his face and took the sharp blade, pocketing it.

He didn't have much cause to believe otherwise, did he? None of the wounds he'd seen in the bathroom looked fresh, and Holden had willingly given up what Bill assumed was his usual tool. Maybe he had actually stopped.

That didn’t mean Bill hated himself any less for not noticing, though.

"I'm gonna take a leap of faith here and trust you, Holden.” Holden met his gaze head-on, expression indecipherable. 

"Thank you so much," he drawled. 

“Should I drop to my knees and thank you properly? That’s the only way you want me, isn’t it?”

He shouldered past Bill, slamming the door behind him with a resounding bang.

Utterly lost, Bill let him go.

 


 

Once inside the bathroom, Holden started gasping for air, crumpling to the floor like a rag doll. He clicked the lock as he went down, legs splayed out on the tile and one hand braced against the wall. He brought the other to his mouth, muffling the distressed noises he knew he was making.

If Bill didn't hate him already, he sure as hell did now. Holden had said terrible things, yelled at him and accused him of being the one to blame.

You’re the homewrecker. You’re the selfish one. He was lonely and you took advantage of him, you sick piece of shit. He should hate you. He does hate you. He just doesn't want your blood on his hands.

Every minute since Bill shoved up Holden's sleeve had been a waking fucking nightmare. He hadn't slept since, unable to close his eyes without visions of Bill dragging him to an asylum or getting him fired burning into his brain. How could he have been so foolish? He shouldn't have let any pain show outwardly, when Bill grabbed his arm. Stupid stupid stupid.

He only felt a little bad about lying, he decided as he tugged his briefs and slacks down his legs to reveal the reddened, cut up expanse of skin on both his hips. It wasn't a complete lie; he hadn’t done anything to his arms as of a week prior. It was better if Bill didn't know the truth, anyway. He was already wasting enough of his  time having to worry about Holden with what little he did know. 

Mustering up what strength he had left, Holden shed the remainder of his clothes and dragged himself to the shower to stand under the scalding water, turning it as hot as it could go. He could feel his skin flushing as the warmth seeped into him, the spray glancing over his wounds and creating a sting that calmed him down. The panic receded as the pain increased, and he slung an arm over his eyes as he leaned against the shower wall.

The dream he'd had that night at Debbie's stuck with him. Every murder he didn't solve, every child whose killer was never charged, every person who wound up dead under his nose– it was all his fault. He may as well have wrapped his hands around their necks or wielded the knife or beat them himself. The modern-day Sherlock Holmes, people had called him. He could almost laugh at the memory. The only thing he had in common with Sherlock Holmes was the fact that neither of them had ever been responsible for any real good.

At least Holmes had the excuse of being fictional. Holden was just fucking useless.

What had he been thinking, giving up his razor? That was a stupid fucking thing to do. God, why had he done it? Now he’d have to find a way to sneak out to buy another without making Bill suspicious. He couldn’t scrub the image of Bill’s scared face when he took it from his mind. Holden was hurting him. He hadn't wanted to burden him, and yet here they were. It seemed that Holden was incapable of existing without hurting other people. 

He should just do everyone a favour. Suck it up, head out back and put his gun in his mouth. The idea seemed very appealing, until that little, guilt-ridden voice that haunted him began to whisper.

No. The case. You can't fail those girls. You have to solve the case first.

Of course, the case. There would be time for other things after. He had promised he’d do right by this case, and he intended on keeping that promise. He wouldn’t fuck it up this time. He would get justice for those girls. He would get justice for those girls.

He would get justice for those girls.

(Maybe if he repeated it to himself enough, it would come true.)

 


 

After his fight with Holden, Bill grabbed his keys and just drove. He ended up at a discreet-looking bar about thirty minutes away from the motel, bustling on the inside but with very few people lingering outside. He barely remembered to lock the car before he was shouldering his way through the masses until he reached the counter.

The bartender was a bearded man wearing a black, short-sleeved button up. He smiled sympathetically as Bill slid onto a stool.

”Long day?”

”You could tell?” Bill huffed. The man shrugged.

”You start to be able to tell those kind of things. That guy down there just got dumped,” he pointed to a man sitting a few seats down and staring dejectedly at his bourbon, “that one was just fired, and that one lost somebody.” He pointed to a disheveled and blank-eyed man and another who was drinking like it was the end of the world, respectively.

Bill snorted.

”Yeah, long day. You could say that. Try long fuckin' year.”

”Well, you’ve come to the right place. Isn’t every year a long year, for people like us?” Bill laughed along at the joke, though he didn’t quite get it.

He made himself comfortable and drank until the edges of everything were bleeding out into the air around them. He found himself chatting animatedly to the bartender at first, until he inevitably landed on the subject of Holden.

“...An’ I don’ know what to do, ‘cause he takes everything so damn personal. He’s too good. He thinks the world rests on his fuckin’ shoulders,” Bill explained, gesticulating wildly. He was distantly aware that he had been talking about Holden for a while, but the bartender didn’t seem to mind. He was listening as he poured drinks, nodding along.

”I jus’... I’m scared he’s gonna do somethin’ stupid, an’ I’m not gonna be able to help him.”

“Your boyfriend is an adult, babe. He has to ask for help, has to want it. You should be there for people, but you aren’t responsible for saving them.”

”Boyfriend?” Bill slurred, raising his eyebrows. The way the man said it hadn’t been mocking, like the straight men Bill knew would have said it.

”Aren’t you dating this guy? You mentioned his ass, like, six times.”

Startled by the nonchalance, he finally looked up from his glass, and took the time to survey the bar.

The interior was dark, everyone packed in close together due to the amount of patrons.  Now that he was semi-aware of his surroundings, he noticed that the attendees were largely male, and some seemed... very comfortable with one another.

This is a gay bar, he realized.

He could get arrested for being there, lose his job. He knew that he should leave, but he found that he didn’t care enough to. Whether that was because of the alcohol, exhaustion, or both, he didn't know. His initial reaction was not, to his own shock, to run for the door, but to wonder if Holden had ever frequented places like this.

The recurring thought of Holden presented a confusing mess of emotions to Bill, both blurred and enhanced by the alcohol. Worry and fear and affection and desire and warmth, and something deeper. He thought of Nancy's ultimatum, and stopped to envision the future, if he stayed with her. He'd transfer out of the BSU, probably go back to doing road school. He wouldn't be able to see Holden every day– he wouldn't be able to see him at all, if he was trying to save his marriage.

The idea of never getting to see Holden again made Bill's chest clench with panic, so overwhelming that it nearly knocked the wind out of him, and in that moment, Bill knew that he wouldn’t ever quit Quantico. He would never be able to leave Holden, even if he somehow managed to give up his work. He cared about him too much.

He loved him too much.

Desperately pushing through the layer of disgust that was ingrained into him, Bill let out a long exhale as he mulled the phrase around in his head. Once he delved underneath the surface, it wasn't as scary as he'd always thought it would be; rather, it felt like a gasp of air after being underwater for years. It felt like an inevitability, one Bill couldn’t even be angry about. Holden was a stubborn, infuriating mess, and Bill loved every fucking inch of him. The realization felt so natural, like breathing. Bill couldn't find it within himself to be upset or afraid. He didn't know what it would mean, for him or for Holden, but he was in far too deep to give a shit. What he did know, was that he couldn’t fucking leave Quantico. He couldn’t leave Holden.

Which meant that he had to tell Nancy.

Nancy, he had to call Nancy. The idea of ending his marriage in a gay bar was almost laughably ironic. She deserved to know his decision, though he was sure that she already did. The fact that they had grown apart didn't erase the thirty years they'd spent together, and she still knew him like the back of her hand. He stumbled his way through the crowd to the pay phone and stuck in his change with shaky hands, dialing in the number that he knew by heart. He had spent enough hours staring at it to memorize it.

She answered on the fourth ring.

"Hello?"

"Nancy," Bill whispered. He slammed his eyes shut and swallowed thickly.

”Bill? What's that noise? Are you drunk?”

"I can't quit my job, I... I don't want to quit. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he choked out. To his own horror, hot tears began to slide freely down his cheeks. He sobbed into the receiver, burying his head in his free hand. He was brought back to some semblance of sanity by Nancy making soft shushing noises.

"I know. It's okay, baby. I know. I... I want a divorce, Bill. It's best for both of us, and for Brian. We're unhappy." He leaned heavily against the wall, letting a rush of air out through his nose.

"I know. You're right. I love you. Jesus, Nance, you know that, right? That I love you?"

"I know you do. I love you, too."

There was silence on both sides of the line. What more was there to say? It had been a long time coming, and they both knew it. There was too much bad blood, a lack of passion that rendered their relationship pointless. Their marriage began to crumble long before Holden was ever involved, even before they adopted Brian.

Brian

”Brian. I’m so sorry, Nancy, for everything, but please let me see him. I... please,” Bill croaked. Nancy sighed wetly, like she was crying, too.

”We’ll get joint custody. He’s your son too, Bill. I’d never take him from you.”

He could have sobbed with relief, if he wasn’t already. He collapsed completely against the wall, his limbs going slack as the tension bled out of him, and he let himself be comforted by the sound of Nancy's breathing. It was comforting, familiar. Nancy, his best friend for decades. He was suddenly gripped with fear at the idea of losing her completely.

Because at the end of the day, he did love her. Even if it wasn't in the way that he used to.

"I don't want to lose you," he murmured, his lack of filter courtesy of the alcohol. Nancy went quiet for several moments, and Bill could practically hear her thinking.

"I... I need some time, Bill. I don't know how long. But give me time, okay? I don't want to lose you, either, I just... I'll call you when I'm ready, and we can get lunch. Is that alright?" she said, voice trembling but laced with a streak of determination. He smiled at the sound.

"Of course." It wasn't as though he could begrudge her anything.

For a crazed moment, he considered telling her about Holden, or at least that he was seeing someone else. Despite his actions implying otherwise, he really fucking hated lying to Nancy, but the idea faded as quickly as it had arrived. It would be a nail in a coffin that was already sealed, would be nothing but pain for them both.

They talked for several more minutes regarding the logistics of it all, and arranged a day for Bill to spend with Brian before bidding each other a bittersweet goodbye. When Bill set the phone back into the cradle, he felt a freedom that he hadn't felt in years, like a gigantic boulder had finally been lifted from his chest.

"You okay?" A man in a white tank top was leaning against a nearby wall, looking at Bill in concern. Bill politely nodded at him.

"I'm fine, thanks."

And, maybe for the first time in a long time, he meant it.

 


 

Bill yawned as he followed Holden into the Nashville precinct, chugging deeply from his coffee mug. It had been nearly one by the time he returned to the motel and Holden was already dead asleep, curled up into a ball, the comforter yanked up to his chin as he hugged a pillow clearly stolen from Bill's bed. He had learned early on that Holden couldn't fall asleep unless he was holding onto something.

The memory made Bill smile, despite himself.

He had toyed with the idea of telling Holden about Nancy throughout the night. Eventually, he decided not to– Holden was fragile right now, and Bill didn’t want to risk hurting or confusing him. Sure, he could tell Holden he was getting a divorce, that he loved him, but that didn’t mean that Bill was secure in anything yet. The last thing he wanted to do was to play with Holden’s feelings anymore than he already had.

"...please, Bill, stop fucking around with my head. It hurts too much, and I can’t deal with it anymore."

Yes, waiting was the best course of action. When Holden was feeling better and Bill had more of a grip on himself and his life, then they could talk about that, if Holden wanted to.

If Holden would even be speaking to him by then. 

(The pang in his chest when he saw Holden didn’t go away. The need and affection and care didn’t go away, and at this rate, Bill didn’t think that it ever would.)

When they walked into the building, Chandler was waiting for them, clearly nervous. It was an unsettling parallel of the first time they had met him. One of the officers nudged him, and he looked up to see Bill and Holden. His face lit up with relief.

"Oh, thank God," he murmured, rushing over to shake both their hands.

"Agents, thank you so much for comin' in on such short notice."

"Of course," Bill said. Holden nodded in agreement, and Chandler tried for a smile. It came out as a grimace, and he looked increasingly more worried as he led them to the back.

"We have no real leads, an' people are gettin' scared. We found two girls matching our guy's MO. Same age range, similar physical features."

He handed them each a file containing the crime scene information. Bill watched Holden's face carefully as he flipped it open, watched the slight disgusted curl of his lip as he read through the details. Bill read through his own– a sixteen year old girl named Helen, bled out when her throat was slit. Like the others, she was alone. Her body was marred with cuts, and Bill had to look away. He shoved aside the fact that it reminded him too much of Holden’s arm.

Despite his years at the bureau, he still wasn’t used to seeing children in horrific situations like that. It made him think of Brian, of how he would feel if that was his son. He swallowed back the growing nausea and closed the folder.

"Sick fucking bastard," he muttered around the cigarette. Chandler nodded. 

"And you still don't have any suspects?" Holden piped up. His eyebrows were drawn together in concentration, and his gaze didn't stray from his file's contents as he spoke.

Chandler hesitated, causing Holden to perk up in interest. Bill recognized the near predatory look in his eye.

"There is one guy. Lived near Cadence Emerson, the girl you’re reading about. Got some assault allegations against 'im. Name's Michael Rotham."

"I want to speak with him," Holden said immediately. Bill sighed at his partner's abrasiveness.

"Please," he added, on behalf of Holden.

Less than an hour later, they were turning into Michael Rotham's residence. Chandler rode separately from them, and Bill and Holden’s car ride was as tense as expected. The house was moderately big, with almost no windows. Bill could practically see Holden's brain working at the sight. The autumn air bit at their faces as they walked up the long, isolated driveway to the decaying porch, pinking Holden's nose and cheeks. He looked almost cherubic, and Bill tried to ignore the protective warmth the sight stirred in him.

Once they reached the door, Holden took the lead, knocking lightly. The door opened a small fraction, after a beat.

"Michael Rotham?"

"The fuck you want?" a raspy man's voice asked, one eye peeking through the crack. Holden flashed his badge.

"I'm Special Agent Holden Ford, and this is my partner, Special Agent Tench. FBI. Us and Detective Chandler, I'm sure you know him, like to speak with you regarding your neighbour, Cadence Emerson."

"That's the girl that died, ain't it? I don' know shit." Bill knew Holden was mentally taking note of the resistance, even as he offered a warm smile.

"This is simply routine procedure. We'll be out of your hair in no time." 

Michael slammed the door in their faces, but the rude gesture was followed by the lock chain sliding open. He opened the door and let them in, eyeing each of them carefully. He was a skinny and short man, early thirties, with brown hair and green eyes. He wasn't so short that he would be unable to overpower a teenage girl, though. His lips were chapped, and he looked deeply fatigued.

So far, he fit virtually every stereotype the bureau had developed, and Bill couldn't help but feel as though it was too much of a coincidence.

When they sat down, Bill was in an armchair while Holden and Chandler sat on a nearby couch, dirty and old. Michael placed himself across from them, one leg bouncing up and down as he lit a cigarette. Holden leaned forward, setting his file closed on the table. He was shifting into the interrogation mode that Bill hadn't seen in so long, every move carefully calculated. Bill would never stop being in awe of how he planned every head tilt, every voice tremor, every shift of his gaze.

"So, Michael–“

"Call me Mike. Michael was my old man." There was a startling amount of contempt in his voice. An aversion to being compared to his father. It fit Holden's profile. Bill noted that for later.

"Mike, then. Did you ever interact with Cadence, see her around the neighbourhood?"

Mike took a shaky inhale of his cigarette and shrugged.

"Sure, I saw her. Maybe told her to get outta the road once or twice. Them kids are always playin' in the damn road, it ain't safe. I sold a chair to her ma, once."

"I see. And did you talk to her mother much?"

"I... not really. She, uh, came by the day I moved in. Baked me a pie."

"That was nice of her,” Holden commented. Mike nodded, taking another long drag as his leg continued to bounce. He seemed nervous.

"Yeah. Nice family. I didn't know 'em very well."

"Did you ever see anyone around the neighbourhood talking to Cadence?" Chandler piped up. Mike's eyes shot over to him, and he shrugged again.

"Nah. Quiet kid, kept to herself mostly."

"I thought you didn't know her?" Holden pressed. Bill shot him a warning glance, but he pointedly looked straight ahead. Mike shifted uncomfortably.

"I don't. But people talk, an' the general agreement is that she was a shy one," he said, voice wavering on defensive.

"How well did you know her mother?" Bill asked.

"Like I said, nice woman. Didn’t see her much. I don’t know what y’all want from me.”

”Tell us about what you were doing two days ago,” Holden said. It was decidedly not a question, and his voice had lost a bit of the friendly tone. The other man's eyes widened, just barely.

”Two days ago? I, uh... I can’t remember. I went to the store. I watched the game. That’s pretty much it, I think.”

As far as answers go, it was a very bad one, but he insisted that the grocery clerks could cement his alibi. As the two chatted about Mike’s time in the neighbourhood, Bill listened in and subtly jotted some notes down. Just as they were preparing to leave, he noticed Holden's eyes zero in on Mike's pants, and his eyes widened.

For a split second Bill was about to scold Holden for being unprofessional, but then he followed the gaze to see that Mike had an erection.

Shit.

"You have a good day, Mike. You may hear from us soon, just as a follow-up."

Mike grunted in what sounded like affirmation, and flung the door shut so quickly that it hit the backs of Holden's shoes.

As soon as they were back in the car, Chandler headed to his own, Holden turned to face Bill. His eyes were alight with a strange, nearly manic glint that Bill recognized from Atlanta. It was his I saw one thing that was suspicious, and now I'm going to cut the puzzle pieces to fit look, and Bill's heart sunk. He knew how badly Holden wanted to figure it out, to stop anyone else from dying, but his eagerness blinded him to facts and procedure.

"He was visibly aroused. We have to bring him in for further questioning," he declared, the second they pulled onto the main road. Bill thoughtfully drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

"Holden, I don't know that we have grounds for–“

"You can't deny that that's suspicious. He had a hard-on while we were talking about a dead girl, Bill."

"It is suspicious. But I think we have to do some more research before we drag him to the station. He could've been thinking about the mom, or something," Bill pointed out; he didn't want Holden jumping the gun. Other than that, they had no real evidence to support Rotham as their guy, depending on whether the grocery workers could confirm his alibi. 

"But is that a risk we're willing to take?"

"Holden, I'm a bit concerned that you want to solve this case so bad, you don't care who you're bringing in,” Bill admitted. Holden stared at him, incredulous.

"You're joking, right?"

"Frankly, I think that your judgement is clouded. Remember that blue flame I told you about? The last thing you wanna do is let it burn someone."

Holden’s face cycled through a myriad of emotions, none of which Bill could pinpoint but all of which were negative, before his mouth settled into a frown.

"You think I'll fuck up the case," he said, his eyes narrowing. Bill noticed the trembling of his hands, thought he couldn't tell if it was from nervousness or anger.

"Don't put words in my mouth. I just meant–"

"No, you know what? I understand, Bill, I really do. I get it. But I have to trust my instinct on this one. We're bringing him in eventually. I think we should question him formally, and soon.” He sounded defeated, resigned to what he perceived to be Bill's opinion of him.

They continued the rest of the ride in silence. Once they pulled into the station, Bill switched off the car and they sat for a few minutes, so much hanging unacknowledged between them. Holden breathed out heavily, the low temperature making him look as though he was smoking.

"How the tables turn," he joked, trying to ease the tension. Holden raised a questioning eyebrow, and Bill pointed at his cloud of breath, making a smoking gesture with his hand. Holden smiled, soft and amused, but it was the first positive emotion he'd displayed in front of Bill since Bill ended things. He grinned back. Despite the fact that neither of them were saying anything serious, it was oddly intimate.

Checking around them for passerby, Bill let his hand slide across the console and lay there, palm up. An invitation. Holden stared at it, seeming confused, as though he couldn't understand what Bill was doing.

After the longest thirty seconds of Bill's life, Holden tentatively reached out and wove his fingers through Bill's.

Bill tried not to sigh at the contact. Holden's hand was warm, slightly calloused, but not as calloused as Bill's. He rubbed a thumb absentmindedly over Bill's knuckles, eyes trained on their intertwined fingers. Bill had almost forgotten how right touching Holden felt, and he gripped his hand tightly.

”Holden, I–“

The moment splintered when Bill broke the quiet, and Holden startled. Eyes widening, he yanked his hand away, awkwardly shoving it into the pocket of his coat.

”I, uh... I need to go talk to Chandler.”

"...Okay," Bill relented. He watched as Holden marched over to meet the detective, his shoulders sagging with weariness. As soon as he was out of sight, Bill slammed his hands on the steering wheel, then rested his head on his hands. God, he couldn’t handle anything right. It was as though every time he and Holden took a step forward, Bill set them back three. He wished more than anything that Holden would stop hoisting the weight of the world onto his back.

He wished that Holden would just let him help.

 


 

Less than a week later, at Holden's insistence, they found what they had been looking for: incentive to bring Rotham in. Chandler had been the one to spot it, after Holden had dragged them back to the house. He wasn’t the least bit deterred by the fact that employees they interviewed had all confirmed that they’d seen Mike at the store around the time of the murder. A doll, clearly well-loved by a child, was found in his backyard behind a shrub. The letter was embroidered on the back in gold, but it may as well have been in scarlet, because all it took was one conversation with Cadence Emerson's mother to know who it belonged to.

"This is bullshit," Mike snarled from his metal chair in the interrogation room. He had deep bags under his eyes and his hair was wild, balding in places. Holden was standing in front of him, hands on his hips, and casually slid into the seat opposite him at the outburst.

"Is it?”

”Yeah, bullshit. I've been waitin' for someone to tell me why the fuck I'm here for hours. I told ya, I didn’t do shit.”

”I’m here to help you, Mike,” Holden replied smoothly, holding up a placating hand. Bill crossed his arms over his chest. So he was playing bad cop, then, as Chandler had opted to sit in and watch, let the FBI do their thing. Bill typically played bad cop– Holden’s wide eyes and trim build didn’t make him the most intimidating person.

”We just want to cover all the bases, is all. All we need is for you to be honest with us, and then you’re free to go. Does that sound alright?”

”’Course. I ain’t got nothin’ to hide.”

“That’s good. So, why don't you start by telling us about Julia Munroe?"

Mike's face went deathly pale, and his gaze fell to his hands, clearly having been caught off guard. His breath came out heavy through his nose, and he cleared his throat.

"She's a fuckin' liar, is what she is."

"How so?" Holden pressed, tilting his head inquisitively. 

"Said I hit her. I ain't do nothin' of the sort."

"I see. And are Nina McNamara, Melissa Foster and Grace Oldman also fucking liars? Because they all accused you of similar attacks, and you were convicted on two of them."

"Yeah, they were lyin'. Fuckin' lying sluts, is what they are," Mike snarled. Bill desperately wanted to punch him. He fucking hated it when their subjects degraded women like that.

'You talk about all women like that, Mike? I guess the no girlfriend thing makes sense," he said instead, sharing a conspiring glance with Holden. Holden inclined his head so slightly that anyone who didn't know him as well as Bill did, wouldn't have seen it, but Bill did and interpreted it as go on.

"Fuck you, pig."

"When's the last time you had an intimate encounter?" Bill continued, breezing past the insult.

"...I dunno."

"You don't know? I think I'd get desperate, if I went that long without getting laid,” he retorted. Holden nodded in agreement.

"The fuck you implyin', asshole?"

"Pussy is pussy, isn't it, Mike?" Holden said, shifting forward in his seat. His voice dropped to a low and husky tone, one that was uncomfortably close in pitch to how he always sounded after sucking Bill off, and it took ever fiber of Bill’s being to focus on the words he was saying. 

"It's all the same, really."

"Damn right," Mike snorted. 

"I noticed that all the girls you've been involved with are a great deal younger than you. You like fucking younger girls, Mike?"

"Sure. It's a lot tighter," he said, smug. Holden gave him a fake half-smirk.

"I'm sure. So why don't you tell us about what you were really doing the night before last?"

The other man seemed to realize then exactly what Holden was getting at, and he straightened in his chair, incensed.

"What the hell? Why the fuck am I here? I didn't do shit to the lil' brat!"

"You had an erection while we discussed the murder of a little girl. I'm sure you understand how that was a bit of a red flag."

"What, you spend the whole time starin' at my dick, you fuckin' queer?" Mike hissed. He cleared his throat and spit at Holden's feet.

Bill nearly blacked out with rage. He started to stand, but Holden's hand on his arm stopped him. They locked eyes, and Holden gave a minute shake of his head. His gaze was warmer than Bill had expected it to be. He sat back down, rendered helpless by those blue fucking eyes. The skin that had been beneath Holden's palm was covered in goosebumps, and Bill hated that Holden had such an effect on him with one tiny touch.

"It's in your best interest to answer the questions, Mike. None of your explanations provide us with any insight as to why we found this doll,” he slid the item across the table, sealed into a bag, “in your yard.”

Mike leaned forward and stared at it, squinting.

”That’s not mine.”

”We know it isn’t. It belonged to Cadence Emerson. Enlighten us– why was it on your property?” Bill asked. Mike shook his head frantically.

”I don’t know. I never seen that before, I swear.”

"Why did you have a hard-on that day, Mike? Reminiscing?" Holden asked, placing both hands on the desk.

"No!"

"Why do you slit their throats from behind? Too ashamed to watch them die?"

"I already told y'all, I don't know shit about who killed the girl! I was fuckin' her mother, okay? That's why!"

The room fell quiet, Mike's laboured breathing the only sound echoing against the walls.

“I didn’t wanna say anythin’ about it, ‘cause I was afraid this shit would happen. Fat fuckin’ lot of good that did me,” he snorted.

Chandler was gaping at him, mouth slightly open, eyebrows practically up to his hairline. Bill closed his eyes briefly as he attempted to process the information. When he opened them, he looked over at Holden.

His face was eerily blank, and his hands were gripping the edge of the table so hard that his knuckles were white. All his muscles were pulled taut, and he looked seconds from breaking down.

Before Bill could move to comfort him, they were interrupted by an officer bursting in and urgently gesturing for the three of them to come outside. They meandered out of the room in a single file line, all wearing variant expressions of defeat. Holden was the last one out, gone completely quiet. Once they were out of earshot of anyone else, in a small side room with the door firmly closed behind them, the man held out a brand new file.

"The boys found another body, about half an hour ago, recently killed. As in, so recent that Rotham was here. If this is all one guy, it ain't him," he breathed, seeming almost afraid.

Bill groaned, turning and punching the wall in frustration. They'd been so fucking close, he'd thought. Holden had been so deadset on the guy; it was almost a direct mirror of Atlanta.

Wait. Fuck.

It was almost a direct mirror of Atlanta.

Turning to check on Holden, Bill eyed him as he swayed on his feet, silent.

"Holden?" Bill asked, unable to keep the concern out of his voice. He watched in mute fear as the younger man's eyes glazed over, and he toppled to the floor.

 


 

"The boys found another body... Rotham was here... if this is all one guy, it ain't him."

Holden's vision tunneled, and his hearing shorted out. Everything suddenly felt as though it was moving in slow motion, a haze forming along the edges of everything he looked at. Even his breathing felt like it was slow, though he was sure he was hyperventilating based on the movement of his chest. The world tilted and he was faintly aware of his body hitting the floor, followed by Bill's muffled voice.

"Holden!"

It ain't him. No. It had to be. All of the signs pointed to Mike. They did, didn't they?

He overthought it, again. He extrapolated based on very little concrete information, just because he was so desperate to bring someone in for it all, and now another girl was dead. It was Atlanta all over again, he had the wrong guy, and there was even more blood on his hands. 

"Is he okay?" Chandler. His voice was distorted, but the Tennessee drawl was unmistakable. Holden curled even tighter into himself, ashamed. Maybe if he became small enough, he would disappear.

He could feel himself trembling against the floor, the cold of it burrowing itself into his skin. He was on his side, he thought, based on the feeling of his cheek pressed against something hard. He couldn't think much beyond the pounding in his ears, found another body on loop. Another girl was dead. Holden could add her to his ever-expanding list of people whose suffering he was responsible for. He had distracted them. Maybe they could have found the guy, if Holden hadn't wasted their valuable time questioning Rotham.

He was hindering the case. He was hindering everyone’s lives. 

”He’s fine, Detective. It's a, uh, health condition. If you’ll excuse us,” Bill’s voice said, the dismissal in his tone clear. Footsteps left the room, and Holden took the opportunity to let a terrified gasp break free of his lips. 

"Holden, it's alright, you're alright. Breathe for me, okay?" he guided, but when he tried to touch Holden's shoulder, Holden shrunk away. He couldn't let Bill touch him, couldn't infect or taint him with whatever it was about Holden that destroyed things. He couldn't destroy Bill, too. Bill's hand fell to his side where it hung uncertainly, clenched into a fist. He continued to talk but his voice faded into a dull roar, white noise, a backdrop against Holden's buzzing mind.

He knew, logically, that touch often brought him down from these states, but he didn't want to be brought down. He deserved the fear that was trickling through his veins, deserved the lack of oxygen, deserved the humiliation. He kept instinctively grasping for something to ground him to reality, and tried his best to fight the urge. He didn't know what was worse, the panic or the calm. At least when he was panicking, his singular focus was to keep on breathing, or try to, anyway. When he wasn’t panicking, he thought about everything in clear, unflinching technicolour.

After what felt like an eternity, the fog cleared, and he stood so quickly that his sight went dark.

"Careful, honey," Bill murmured, seemingly instinctively touching his arm in an attempt to steady him. Honey. The term of endearment made his chest flutter, and he hated himself just a little bit more for it. He woozily leaned against the wall, taking a moment to right himself before stumbling toward the door.

"I'm going back to the motel for the night. I think I've done enough damage here for one day."

”Holden, wait!" Bill called out from behind him.

”What, Bill? What?” he seethed. He was barely holding it together, and if he heard kind words he didn’t deserve, especially from Bill, he would actually lose it. 

"This wasn't your fault.” Holden scoffed, throwing his head back in a bitter laugh.

”Like fuck it wasn’t.”

“It wasn’t. I wanted to bring the guy in, too. He was suspicious as hell, but this shit happens. Sometimes you bring in wrong suspects–“ Bill started to say, but Holden interjected before he could finish.

”Yeah, but the difference is that another girl died, Bill. I wasted our time, and her time. We could have been out searching for this fucker but because of me, we were sitting comfortable here while a child bled out. How the hell is that not my fault?”

“Because it isn’t, okay? I’ve been working with the bureau for longer than you have, Holden. These things happen, and they aren’t anyone’s fault. You have to stop being so hard on yourself.”

Holden didn't respond for a moment, rolling the words around in his head.

You selfish piece of shit. You've tricked him into saying shit like that, with your little innocent act. He pities you. He wants you to go away. Go away.

"Okay."

"Yeah?" Bill said, his voice full of relief.

”Yeah,” Holden lied, summoning his best I begrudgingly accept the fact that you’re right face. It was one that got him through years of school without getting in trouble for mouthing off. Bill offered up a small smile, resting a hand on Holden's shoulder and rubbing his thumb back and forth against the muscle there. Holden melted into the touch, letting his eyes shut for a precious second.

“Get some sleep tonight, Holden. We'll start fresh tomorrow. We can go for a drink, if you want?"

"Thanks, but I'm just going to go to bed," he whispered. 

"Are you gonna be okay by yourself?"

The care in his voice made Holden's eyes burn with tears. He blinked hard and nodded his head.

He didn't deserve any of it.

"I'll be fine, Bill. I'm a grown man. I just need to go to sleep."

After a long, hesitant pause, Bill nodded.

"You go on, then. I'll wrap things up here for the night. Sleep well, okay? Stay out of that head of yours." He punctuated the order with a gentle tap against Holden's temple, then turned and left, moving into the adjacent room to speak with the officers working the case. Holden robotically gathered his things– all of them, taking great care that no one paid him any attention. Before he walked out the door, he took a final look at Bill over his shoulder.

He was bent over a file, talking animatedly and urgently with Chandler. His handsome face was lined with determination, and Holden felt just a bit better at the sight of him.

Bill would start fresh tomorrow. Bill would be okay.

 


 

Once he arrived at his motel room, Holden barely toed off his shoes before he slumped to the floor, heaving with sobs. Thank fucking God he and Bill had managed to get separate rooms. The carpet was scratchy beneath his socked feet, and he slammed his head into the wall behind him so hard that he saw stars. People were dead, so many people were dead and it was all his fault. He wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t fast enough, wasn’t enough.

He wanted to die so fucking badly. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t do it anymore, he wasn’t strong enough, he couldn’t–

He curled in on himself and screamed, a ragged and broken noise that scared even him. He wanted to bash his skull in. He wanted violence, wanted pain, wanted to hurt himself as badly as he hurt everyone else. He couldn't fucking deal with any of it anymore. It was like the walls were closing in, and there was no air, and he couldn't take it.

Everyone leaves or I make them leave and it hurts and I can't fucking do it anymore.

He thought of what Shepard had said, about him being oblivious to the wreckage he creates. Of how the entire unit began to see him as some kind of loose cannon, after Atlanta– a failure. Of how they were all right. He was faintly aware of the taste of blood on his lower lip, blossoming in small wounds left by his teeth.

Stop stop stop stop stop.

He wanted his brain to shut up, why wouldn't it shut up? Weren’t you supposed to be able to control your brain? That was the whole point, wasn’t it? Most of the time, Holden felt like he was a puppet, being yanked around against his will, and it was all in his own head, and he couldn’t stop it. Bill once told him that he had a “remarkable amount of control” over himself. Clearly, Bill was fucking wrong about that.

What kind of a pathetic person needs pills to control their own fucking mind? 

Holden’s thoughts were a broken record, revolving and revolving and screeching insults at him in a never-ending symphony.

What the fuck is wrong with you? Why do you keep inflicting yourself on innocent people? Why do you keep taking up people’s time when you know you aren’t worth it? Why didn't you do enough? Why do you ruin everything you touch? Why do you still exist when you never should have to begin with?

He could never be free. Not from what he'd done, from the blood on his hands and in his mouth. He'd never stop breaking people around him. He was rotting away from the inside out; he could feel it happening. He was disgusting, cowardly. Manipulative and cocky and selfish at his core. He was poison. He could feel it seeping into his soul. He could feel it spilling into everything he touched, everything he did.

He balled up a fist and bashed it against his head, over and over and over until his vision was swimming. The voices still wouldn't go away; if anything, they became louder. He should be dead. Why wasn’t he dead? Everyone would be better off if he was dead. Hell, even he would be better off. He wouldn’t fuck up any more cases, any more lives. He wouldn’t fuck up Gunn's life or Wendy's life or Debbie's life.

He wouldn’t fuck up Bill’s life.

***

His cried tapered off into heavy breathing as he thought about it. 

Of course the thought had always been there, like a constantly lingering presence at the back of his mind, but it had never seemed so logical before. If he looked at the data, the numbers of it all, dying was the most selfless thing he could do in the meaningless fucking existence he’d led. And even that wasn’t completely selfless– if he was dead, he wouldn’t feel this way anymore. But at least it benefited other people, too.

It's illegal for us to give him the death penalty. So it's up to you to figure out what to do about that.

Holden stood slowly, squeezing his eyes shut against the tears that threatened to spill over, and made his way into the bathroom. He thought, faintly, that maybe he should call someone. Maybe he should call Bill, apologize for all the pain he’d caused him and everyone else. He could call anyone, really– he had no shortage of people he owed apologies to– but selfishly, he wanted nothing more than to hear Bill's voice, for Bill to hold him and swear that he would be okay. But maybe that would make it worse; maybe it was for the best that he go without telling anyone. If he told someone, they’d feel obligated to tell someone else, and he’d get caught and locked up somewhere and force-fed Valium until he couldn’t tell where it ended and he began.

He didn’t want anyone to feel like they had to save him. They shouldn’t have to pretend that he was worth saving.

Besides, Bill wouldn't care anyway. Even if he did, he'd get over it. Debbie, too. They’d mourn him for a day, maybe a week, and then move on like they deserved to. Find someone better, someone less draining. Someone worth caring about.

With shaky hands, Holden turned on the faucet, the sound of the running water a small comfort. As a kid, he'd always liked bathing. There was something cathartic about being weightless, alone and enveloped in warmth. Sometimes he would pretend he was back inside his mother's womb, safe and untouched and loved. Back when he was nothing more than a concept, a clump of cells; before anyone on the outside knew what a disappointment he would become.

Once the water had filled it to the brim, he climbed into the tub, leaving his clothes on. He didn't want anyone to find his body unclothed. It seemed trivial, but he was already giving up his final shreds of dignity– at least this part, he could preserve. When he was fully immersed, he hesitated, albeit briefly.

Was this really how he wanted everything to end? Was this what his entire worthless fucking life had been leading up to?

He wasn’t a brave warrior who just couldn’t keep up, and he wasn’t an Angel who wanted to go home. What he was about to do wasn’t beautiful, like the poets tried to make it seem. It was a last resort; it was a last-ditch, final effort to absolve himself of all the fucking pain. It was desperation, animalistic and all-consuming. He'd always thought that it would end like this, ever since he was a teenager and he tried to kill himself in his mother's car. She'd found him before the carbon monoxide could finish him off. As out of it as he had been at the time, he could still remember her screeching and weeping as she broke the window with a rock and dragged him from the vehicle.

"Holden, how could you? What the fuck were you thinking!"

She had called a friend of hers, who was a doctor, to come and help– she never took him to the hospital. He told her that he had regretted it as soon as he did it, and that the feelings would go away. She ate it up, relieved. Now he could almost laugh at his own foolishness. He had genuinely thought they would go away, that he was deserving of happiness, deep down; he just had to prove it.

All he'd proven, both to himself and the people around him, was how undeserving he was of anything, especially not happiness. Whatever. At least there was no one to drag him out this time.

(He ignored the part of him, however small, that hoped someone would come over unannounced, come save him. He didn't deserve it.)

Holden was an atheist, but if all that religious shit was true after all, he hoped he’d see his mother. Even if it was just a glimpse as he screamed past her on his way down to hell.

Suddenly, scarily empty, he fumbled for his razor that he stole from Bill’s room, before he lost his nerve.

****

Chapter Text

oh, god, i’m so tired of being afraid

what would it feel like
to put this baggage down?
if i’m being honest,
i’m not sure i’d know how

i want to take shelter, but i’m ready,
ready to fight, and somewhere in the middle
i feel a little paralyzed
but maybe i’m stronger than i realize

— “atlas: six”, sleeping at last

It was nearly midnight when Bill approached the door to Holden’s room, hat in his hands, shaking the rain off of his jacket. He hadn't even stopped at his own room to drop his things off before making a beeline there. In a twist that none of them had seen coming, Cadence Emerson's mother was now a suspect in the case. The girl who had died while they interrogated Rotham was a fifteen year old named Patricia Wright, once again in the same ritualistic manner, and Bill dreaded nothing more than having to go over the developments in the morning with Holden.

How upset, how panicked was Holden going to be? His profile had been off, and a girl died. Though Bill knew that it wasn't his fault, that these things happened and the only person at fault was the killer, Holden clearly didn't know that. He had watched the younger man crumple to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut; he hoped that Holden had just gone straight to bed. 

The possibility of him going back to the room and hurting himself had crossed Bill's mind as he'd let him leave. He strongly considered telling him to stay, maybe in a separate room to recover from his attack. But he knew Holden, and Bill knew that if he stayed, he would insist on getting involved. That would just send him further into the rut he was in, learning all the gory details and stewing in them. He said, promised that he'd stopped, and he clearly needed to get the hell out of that station.

Besides, Bill had safely hidden the razor away in his own suitcase.

After standing around a bit, he hesitantly knocked, three times in quick succession.

"Holden, it's me. Are you alright?"

No response. With a sigh, he tried again, louder.

“Holden, I know you’re in there. Please, can we just talk?”

Bill paced back and forth on the worn and ragged carpet, before knocking yet again. Even louder and more insistent, this time.

Nothing.

He tried the doorknob. Locked. He decided to attempt a different approach.

“I know you, uh, probably don’t want to talk to me right now. I get that. I mean, fuck knows you have a thousand reasons not to trust me with your feelings anymore. But... God, honey, please at least tell me to fuck off, so I know you’re okay in there.”

He listened closely for movement within; for the shuffling of feet or the click of a lock, even for the television.

Nothing.

“Holden, if you don’t open this door, I’m gonna let myself in.”

Having run out of patience, Bill left Holden's doorway and jogged down to the front desk. The same receptionist from the first night was working, and she gave Bill a friendly smile.

"Hi, there! What's got you in such a hurry?"

"I seem to have misplaced my key," Bill replied, summoning a sheepish grin. She didn't know which of them was in what room, due to the mishap with their booking.

"No problem!" she chirped, and began to search for the spare.

"We get a lot of folks losing their keys around here," she commented, running her finger over each number as she read them to herself. Bill smiled indulgently back and nodded, tapping his foot. He could barely focus beyond the thick panic that gripped him as he waited, and it was all he could do not to snap at her to hurry up.

"Here you are! 408. Now, in the future–“

Bill grabbed the key from her hand and all but sprinted for the elevator, before changing his mind at the last second and taking the stairs.

"Thank you!" he called over his shoulder. 

He reached the fourth floor in record time, panting as he approached the door. Nervous about breaching Holden's privacy, he knocked one last time. Once again, he was met with unnerving quiet.

"Holden, I'm coming in," he called, and opened the door.

It was dark inside. Bill took off his shoes and tiptoed through the room, trying to stay as quiet as possible just in case Holden was asleep, looking around for any sign of him. He wasn’t in the bed. His jacket was tossed haphazardly on it, so unlike his usual neat folding, and his shoes were kicked to the side. His briefcase was next to his jacket, and a small box of his things from the station sat on the floor by the bed.

"What the hell," Bill muttered. He was nearly to the bathroom when he stepped in wetness, the liquid seeping into his socks. Making a face, he looked down to see what in God’s name Holden had spilled, and saw what looked like wine in a puddle on the ground. He kneeled to get a closer look, and realized that it wasn’t wine at all, but bloody water.

And it was leaking from under the bathroom door.

“Holden!” He ran for the door, trying the handle. Locked. Taking a deep breath, he slammed his shoulder into the wood as hard as he could muster. Something sounded like it splintered, but it still wouldn’t open. He did it again and again and again until his side was numb, but it still wouldn't quite open. Taking a deep breath in, Bill backed up, aiming a kick directly below the knob. When his foot collided with it, the door busted open, wood cracking and pieces falling to the ground. 

***

The bathroom was a mess. Water overflowed onto the ground, tinted red. Holden's straight razor, the one Bill thought he had hidden so well, was on the ground, glinting in the fluorescent light. The focal point of it all, Holden was laying in the bathtub, eyes closed. His arms hung limp over either side of the tub, covered in those lines Bill had seen in the bathroom that day, and he appeared to be unconscious.

There was so much blood.

“No,” Bill choked, collapsing to his knees beside the other man’s unmoving form. Frantic, he felt his neck for a pulse with trembling fingers. It was there, soft but sure, and he let out an inhumane noise of relief that he couldn't believe came from him. He grabbed a set of hand towels from under the bathroom sink and wrapped them around each of his wrists before running to the phone and dialing 911.

“I have a guy bleeding out here, he slit his wrists, get here right the fuck now,” he snarled into the receiver. His hands shook violently, the phone nearly slipping between them, and he tried not to think about what they were covered in.

He answered the operator’s questions quickly. No, he didn't know how long Holden had been there. Yes, Holden had a pulse. No, Holden didn't seem to be conscious. He gave them the hotel and room number before hanging up, running back to Holden's side and putting pressure on the wounds. The blood wasn't spurting, so Bill knew that no arteries had been severed.

"Fuck, please don't leave. Don't leave me," he pleaded nonetheless, watching Holden's chest shallowly rise and fall. 

Please. Please don't die. Please.

"B...'ill?"

Holden was stirring, his eyes fluttering open. He looked extremely confused, and Bill rushed to comfort him.

"Holden," he breathed, freeing one hand to stroke the damp hair from his forehead before returning it to his wrist.

"Hey, it's gonna be okay. I'm getting you help, baby, you're gonna be fine."

"N... n-no." Holden began to struggle, squirming around as much as he could, his eyes wide and scared. Bill bit back a sob, keeping a tight grip on his wrists.

"Shh, please, Holden, calm down. Look at me." A hazy gaze met Bill's, flitting back and forth between his face and the blood trickling onto the floor.

"You're going to be okay. I promise, I... I promise."

In the army, there had been an unspoken policy: your fellow soldier could be missing the entire lower half of his body, but you're obligated to tell him that he’s going to be fine. You have to tell him whatever lies are necessary to keep the waters calm, to give him as peaceful a death as possible. That familiar drive kicked in, and Bill just kept whispering soothing nonsense, over and over.

"It'll be alright, you'll be okay. I promise you’ll be fine, you’re gonna be fine." 

He didn't know if he was trying to convince Holden or himself.

"No, 'm sorry, no... please no help," Holden whimpered, trying desperately to pry himself from Bill's grasp. Bill held him down as gently as he could, attempting to keep him from aggravating his wounds. It wasn't much of a contest; Holden's movements were feeble and delayed, but the mere fact that he didn't want help nearly broke Bill. He was trying not to openly weep, for fear of upsetting Holden further. Instead, he just kept talking, watching intently as Holden faded in and out of consciousness, and did his best to keep him awake.

****

After what felt like years, there was noise out in the main room, signaling that the paramedics had arrived.

"In here! Hurry the fuck up!" Bill yelled, his voice hoarse.

The time in between getting Holden into the ambulance and arriving at the hospital was a blur. It was as though one second Bill was watching him being hefted onto a gurney, and the next doors were being slammed in Bill's face as they wheeled him in to stitch up the wounds. Before he knew it, he was slumped in a chair, still covered in Holden's blood, a shock blanket wrapped around his shoulders.

He was so tired, but he didn't close his eyes. He couldn't. Every time he did, he saw Holden bleeding out, begging Bill to not get help, to let him die. He saw the razor on the floor, the razor he hadn't hidden well enough. He saw the mass of scars on Holden's arms. He couldn't close his eyes.

So in the narrow hallway, for the first time in fuck knew how long, Bill prayed. 

 


 

The beep of the heart monitor was the only sound filling the sterile room. Even Holden’s breathing was barely audible– Bill regularly checked to make sure his chest was still rising and falling, despite the fact that he knew the machines would go haywire if it wasn't. Holden just looked so... fragile, almost child-like. He was laying eerily still, an IV sticking out against the protruding tendons of his hand, lips parted slightly. Seeing him that vulnerable, looking so fucking young, it hit Bill exactly how much Holden had seen, what he had already gone through for someone his age. He wasn’t even 35, and he’d been to hell and back.

Debbie sat in a chair on Holden's right, her head lolling onto the back of it, covered with a thin hospital blanket. Bill called her soon after they brought Holden in for surgery, having gotten her number the night she came over for dinner. She hurled obscenities at Bill, some so creative that he was legitimately impressed, before announcing that she'd be there as soon as possible and hanging up. He called Wendy after, and she was there within the hour. The three of them held vigil by his bed, Wendy in a seat next to Debbie and Bill in one to Holden's left.

A vague and overhanging fear still lingered, even though he knew now that Holden would be okay. Any ability to create coherent thought was sitting on the floor of Holden's bathroom, next to the razor he'd used to–

It all rang eerily like the day of the car crash, but so much worse.

I didn’t see it coming, Holden. You could have been killed, and I didn’t see it coming.

According to the doctors, Holden had woken up once, thrashing and yelling, and was subsequently sedated. They had said he was "distressed" and that they "feared he would hurt himself or someone else" if they didn't intervene. 

As he'd drifted off, apparently he had asked for Bill. 

No matter how hard he tried, Bill couldn't shake the guilt. It was suffocating. It haunted his every waking moment, and not even his dreams offered a reprieve; they consisted mainly of Holden, as they usually did, but now they were sinister. Moans became pained screams, and loving whispers were hopeless sobs. 

Ultimately it was Wendy who walked in on Bill crying at around six in the morning, quiet in a way that he'd perfected over the years. She wrapped a cautious arm around his shoulders and he leaned into it, his face pressed against her stomach, one of her hands against the nape of his neck as she just let him cry. He shook in her embrace, months of fear and pain finally coming to a head. 

"Wendy... I... he almost..." he gasped, unable to quite find air. She shushed him, patting his shoulder.

"I know. But he didn't, Bill. He's here with us, he's safe."

After several minutes of trying to control himself, he pulled back and wiped his face, the burn of humiliation stinging his cheeks.

"I'm sorry, Wendy, that was... that was very unprofessional."

"I think we crossed the boundary of 'professional' long before this ever happened, Bill," she said, voice gentle as she released him and made her way back to her chair.

"And don't apologize for showing emotion. Forgive me if I'm overstepping, but I think you might want to consider a therapist. I can give you a few numbers, if you'd like," she offered, keeping her voice low to avoid waking Debbie. Bill snorted, crossing his arms over his chest self-consciously.

"You're definitely overstepping," he said, only half joking.

"What, you think I'm crazy or something?"

Wendy rolled her eyes in that way she always did, the way that screamed do I really have to spell this out for you?

"No, I think you're struggling. And that's okay. Therapy isn't just for the Mansons and Kempers of the world, Bill. Holden sees a psychiatrist, does that make him crazy?"

"...No," he relented.

"You're in the middle of a divorce, right after your son witnessed a murder. You're coming to terms with your homosexual feelings for a coworker, who just tried to kill himself and whose body you found. Most people can't deal with one of those things without help, let alone all of the above. Just let go of your pride and take the damn numbers. You don't have to use them, though I think it could be beneficial if you do."

He tried not to flinch at all of his personal shit being laid out so bluntly, but despite how uncomfortable it was to hear, he was oddly appreciative of it. That was Wendy: logical and to-the-point, an anchor of sorts. After a long moment, he nodded.

"Okay. I'll take the numbers," he agreed, staring intently at the floor. He couldn't tell if the idea of therapy made him more ashamed or relieved. Probably more ashamed, but he couldn’t deny that there was some appeal in the idea of being able to let it all out to an objective party.

"What is that?" 

Jarred from his thoughts, he looked up to see Wendy staring at the exposed skin of Holden's left arm– the arm that wasn't fully covered by the blanket. She reached over and took his hand in hers, gently rolling his arm over. Bill heard her sharp intake of breath, and didn't need to lean over to know what she was looking at.  

"I didn't know that he... did you know about this?" she asked, voice trembling so slightly that anyone who didn't know her wouldn't have noticed. But Bill did, and he noticed.

"I saw it the day before we left for Tennessee. He told me his psychiatrist knew already. I didn't know what to do, Wendy."

They sat in silence for a long time, Wendy's face unreadable. She wasn't looking at Bill, but rather at Holden, as though if she stared at his sleeping form long enough she'd figure him out.

“Why the fuck would he do this to himself? I still don't understand,” Bill eventually whispered. When Wendy returned her gaze to him, she was teary-eyed, a far cry from her usual cool demeanor. 

“Self-mutilation isn’t uncommon, Bill. It’s commonly seen in people with some kind of trauma. It often stems from a need to punish oneself, for either committed or perceived crimes. It’s also used as a coping method, to create physical pain to distract from the emotional pain, or to offset an inability to feel emotionally.”

Bill stood up abruptly, pacing back and forth. God, he needed a fucking cigarette, but he didn’t want to smoke up Holden’s hospital room. He would hate that. Bill’s mind was racing, trying to process. How had Holden developed such a poor opinion of himself that he resorted to that? What brought him so much pain that he'd found solace in ripping himself apart?

And why hadn’t he ever said anything?

“I don't... he couldn’t just drink or fuck to feel, like the rest of us? Why didn't he say something, tell someone? How could he fucking–“

“Bill!” Wendy snapped.

“Consider, just for a moment, that this is not about you. It’s not about me, either. This is about Holden, and he certainly wasn’t intending to hurt either of us. You need to get your head out of your ass and be there for him. I frankly don’t care about how mad you are at him right now– though it seems to me that it's yourself you're really angry with. Regardless, we are all he has.”

All the fight leaving him with a single exhale, Bill collapsed back into his chair, hiding his face in his hands.

“I know,” he whispered. 

“Fuck, Wendy, you think I don’t know that? I can't get it out of my head. Seeing him like... that, was worse than any fucking crime scene I've witnessed at. I just– I can't stop thinking that I had some part in driving him to this. I wasn't there for him enough; I hurt him, badly. I didn't see it, Christ, how could I not have seen it? I'm his... I should have seen it." He scrubbed a hand over over his forehead.

"And you know what the worst part is? I know it's not his fault, I know that, and yet I'm so fucking angry. I'm angry at him and at me and everyone involved in anything that made him feel the way he does. I don't know how I never noticed. I knew he was struggling, but I never imagined..." he trailed off, lost for words.

Wendy's face softened, and she squared her shoulders to face him, clearly slipping into lecture mode. Bill held back an indignant groan. As much as he appreciated her insight, he didn't know if he could handle being patronized.

"That isn't how it works, Bill. Holden has a mental illness. Suicide attempts typically aren't spurred by any one singular person or event; you couldn't have loved him out of that headspace. It's not possible, and you're putting an awfully heavy burden on yourself by thinking you could have. There are aspects of your relationship with him that you could have handled better, sure, but that goes for myself with him, as well. It goes for everyone, in every relationship– we're imperfect people. When it comes to these things, the blame game is pointless. You’re not a mindreader, Bill. It’s not your job t–“

“Then whose job is it?” he interjected, fully aware of the fresh tears trickling down his face. God, why couldn't he stop fucking crying today?

They were interrupted by the doctor knocking on the door. Bill cleared his throat and swiped at his eyes in a desperate attempt to preserve some of his dignity. Once his hands returned to his lap, Wendy called out, "Come in!", and Bill nodded at her gratefully.

"I'm Dr. McMahon, I'll be overseeing Mr. Ford throughout the duration of his stay."

Dr. McMahon was a tall and lanky man, with brown hair that was greying at the temples. He had deep bags under his eyes, but still managed to keep a pleasant smile on his face as he turned to address Bill.

"I assume you're William Tench, Mr. Ford's emergency contact?"

"That would be me. What are we looking at, Doc?”

McMahon hummed to himself and checked his clipboard.

“Other than the obvious? Dehydration, lack of nutrition. I've been told he has a panic disorder?” He addressed the latter question to both Bill and Wendy, who nodded.

“Based on the information I’ve been given as well as his attempt, it’s likely that he has clinical depression, but we’ll have to wait until he’s awake before we attempt any official diagnosis. We have him on 48 hour suicide watch, and he likely won't be entirely lucid when he first wakes up; he has a lot of medication in his system right now. So if he wakes up, don't expect anything very coherent for a few days. Now, Mr. Tench, I have a few questions for you regarding Mr. Ford. Does he have any living relatives? Parents, siblings?"

"None that I know of. His parents are dead, and he's never mentioned any siblings," Bill said, stomach churning.

We really are all he has.

"Does he live alone? We need to know that when he's cleared, he has a safe environment to go back to, to ensure that he doesn't try again."

"I don't... I don't think he would ever..." he started to say. The idea of Holden trying again made him sick to think about. The doctor eyed him in a pitying way that made his blood boil.

"You'd be surprised at the number of people who survive attempts, only to get discharged and go straight home to do it again. I'm sure Mr. Ford is a very strong man, but we can't risk it. The state of his arms alone is enough to warrant committing him.” 

"He can stay with me," Wendy offered, beating Bill to the punch.

"And what is your relationship to him?"

"We're coworkers. Friends," she clarified. The doctor nodded and jotted it down.

"Does Mr. Ford have access to any firearms?"

"Yeah, he's an FBI agent,” Bill answered.

"You're going to want to make sure he's unable to have it until he'd cleared to. Is there anyone who can confiscate it?"

"I can probably hold onto it.” He knew exactly where Holden kept it, and thanked God that he hadn't chosen to use that instead. By the look on Wendy's face, she was thinking the same thing.

"What about prescriptions?"

"He takes Valium, for the panic... thing."

"And did he ever express any suicidal thoughts before this?"

"No. I mean, he was having a rough go of it, but..." he whispered, more to himself than the doctor. McMahon wrote down a few final notes, before clapping his hands together in a way that was far too cheerful for the circumstance.

Read the room, dickhead.

"That's all I need for now. Thank you for your help, Mr. Tench," he said, and exited the room with a promise to be back shortly.

"You can say disorder, Bill. It's not a dirty word," Wendy commented, as soon as the door shut behind him. Bill didn’t reply. He still wasn't used to using such a word when referring to Holden; the connotation of it was far too closely related to their work.

"He could have stayed with me," he muttered, aware of how childish he probably sounded. Wendy sighed.

"Do you really think that's the healthiest choice for Holden right now? Or for you?"

Bill took a second to think about it, logically. He'd hurt Holden badly, he knew that, and now they danced around one another in some odd sort of limbo between something and nothing. Probably not the best setting for mental recovery.

"No, I guess not," he conceded, slumping down in his chair.

"You both need time to figure out your own issues. I know I've been hard on you in all this, Bill. Trust me, when Holden's less fragile, he'll be getting just as much of an earful."

"I fucked up real bad with him, didn’t I?"

”Yes,” she said, simply.

”Isn’t that where you’re supposed to say ‘no, Bill, you’re fine’?”

”I could say that, but then I would be lying, and I don’t care much for lying. You don’t, either.”

Bill chuckled bitterly. She was right, as usual. He didn’t want to hear a lie, especially not from Wendy.

”I was confused and afraid, and I jerked him around because of it. I should have treated him better, I shouldn’t have ended it the way I did.”

”You’re talking about it as though it’s over. Is it?”

He huffed, aggravated, his leg bouncing up and down. He didn’t want it to be; of course he didn’t. But they couldn’t go on the way they had, and after the shit he pulled, he couldn’t imagine Holden ever fully trusting him again.

"It's not realistic, Wendy. How I feel doesn't matter. I broke his damn heart, and even if I hadn't, it’s against the law. Holden has so much fucking potential; I can't be the one to ruin it for him. I can’t be the one to hold him back."

"Don't you think that Holden should get to decide that himself?" she said, quietly.

"People like us... relationships aren't easy. I'm not going to lie to you and act as though sneaking around the way we have to is sexy and fun. It's the most frustrating thing in the world. But when you find the right person... it's worth it, Bill. I promise you that it is." She was clearly holding back a smile, and Bill recognized the enamoured look in her eyes.

"And have you found her? The 'right person'?"

Wendy finally let her lips curl upward shyly, her cheeks pinking.

"Perhaps I'll introduce you to Kay one of these days. I think you'd get along."

Bill grinned back at her, happy to see her happy.

"I'd like that."

They smiled stupidly at each other for a long moment, a multitude of things between them unspoken yet understood.

"Bill?” came a hoarse, soft whisper. His gaze darted to the bed, where he saw Holden’s eyes creaking open. They had a slightly hazy look to them, evidence of the sedative not having worn off yet.

”Holden,” he whispered, reverently, unable to stop himself from reaching out to cup the other man's cheek. He was alive. He was okay. He would be okay. Holden leaned into the touch, covering Bill's hand with his own shaking one.

”How are you feeling?”

”C-cold.”

Without prompting, Bill walked over to the end of the bed and spread the spare blanket over his body, making a mental note to bring him something warmer. The noise Holden made when Bill's hand left his face was pitiful. He sat down on the edge of the bed, taking Holden's hand in his, and Holden gripped it like it was his only tether to reality. 

"You gave us a real good scare," Bill joked, trying to break the tension. Unfortunately, it seemed to have the opposite effect, and Holden's eyes filled with tears.

"'M sorry, Bill," he whimpered. Bill shook his head.

"You have nothing to apologize for. I'm just glad you're okay," he said, lifting up Holden's hand to press a kiss to his knuckles. Holden sunk back against the pillows, turning his head slightly to the side until he saw Debbie.

"Debs," he croaked. Debbie's eyes flew open at the sound of his voice, and she shot out of her seat so abruptly that Bill and Wendy both startled. She gawked openly at Holden, and her eyes became glassy. She reached for his other hand slowly, clearly trying not to spook him.

"Hi," he whispered, a sleepy smile on his face. She snorted and rolled her eyes.

"Don't 'hi' me, jackass," she muttered, but there was no real heat behind it. She stood, leaning closer so their foreheads were touching. Her tears dripped onto his face as they whispered to each other and Bill looked away, feeling odd about witnessing such an intimate moment. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wendy doing the same.

"Don't you ever scare me like that again." Debbie’s voice was fierce yet fond, in a way that Bill was sure only she could pull off.

"You guys didn't... you don't have to be here. I'm sorry. You should all go home."

"We aren't going anywhere, Holden," she said, pressing a small kiss to his forehead and the tip of his nose before sitting back down, rubbing her thumb over the back of his hand with so much unbridled affection that it made Bill's throat tighten. Holden’s chapped lips slid into a frown, his brow furrowing. His lids were fluttering closed, fighting against the wave of drugs that were trying to pull him under.

“Bill."

"Yeah?"

”Bill! Bill!” he repeated, sounding increasingly more afraid.

”I’m here, Holden,” Bill reassured him, punctuating the words with a gentle squeeze of his hand.

”What is it? What do you need?”

"Please don’t leave,” he whimpered, tearing up. He looked absolutely devastated, grasping the front of Bill’s shirt in his hand, trying to pull him closer. Bill obliged, scooting up the bed so that his hip was pressed against Holden’s ribs. He brushed the hair back from the younger man’s face, smiling sadly.

”I’m not leaving, Holden. Not ever again.”

Holden sighed, a heartbreaking little sound, and turned his head to press a feather-light kiss to Bill’s palm.

”Love you,” he mumbled. His breathing evened out, signifying that he was asleep. Bill desperately blinked the wetness from his eyes, grasped Holden's hand tighter.

”Me too,” he whispered.

 


 

Loud.

The first thing that faded into focus was how much noise there was. Beeps and voices, all meshing together, and Holden tried to cover his ears, but he found that he couldn't move his hands.

Open your eyes. One, two, three, go.

Light flooded his vision, and it hurt. He could hear a pained noise escape him, at least it sounded like him, and all the voices stopped.

"Holden?"

Bill. Bill Bill Bill Bill. Bill would know what was happening. His thoughts felt like molasses, like sludge, slowly churning through his brain not quite quickly enough to make sense of anything.

"What... what happened?" he groaned, watching through bleary eyes as three forms swam in front of him.

"Do you remember where you are? You're in the hospital."

That was definitely Wendy. He could make out a shock of blonde hair, and blinked multiple times. Everything began to shift into clarity, the worried faces in front of him becoming more evident.

”Fucking hell,” he hissed, suddenly registering the pain in his arms. Debbie cracked a smile at his language.

”He’s definitely up now.”

The memories came flooding back: the dead girl, dead because of him, his panic attack, going back to the room and getting in the tub, pressing the blade to his skin, blissful darkness. Anything after that was blank.

He failed.

He wanted to scream. He wanted to punch something, cut himself. He wanted to sob and throw shit. He fucking failed, and now there were all these people who felt obligated to baby him. 

Nice job, you fucking idiot.

Go deeper next time.

”What happened? How am I here?” He meant in the hospital, but immediately regretted his phrasing as all three of them winced.

”Bill found you,” Wendy supplied, and Holden’s eyes darted to him. Bill was looking at everywhere but his face, and Holden’s stomach sank. He’d gone and fucked with Bill’s life, yet again.

”I’m sorry,” he whispered, and that made Bill snap to attention.

”I told you, you don’t owe me any apologies. I’m the one who should be sorry.”

Before Holden could ask what he meant by that, an unfamiliar man walked in. His doctor, Holden assumed. 

“Holden! Glad to see you awake. I’m Dr. McMahon, I’ll be taking care of you. How are you feeling?”

”I’m fine.”

”That’s Holden for ‘shitty’,” Debbie chimed in, and Holden glared at her. Et tu, Debbie? he mouthed, and she grinned cheekily back at him. God, he fucking adored her. Even when he was at his lowest, she didn't change how she treated him.

“Any pain?”

”No,” he lied. Does emotional pain count? Because in that case, you should probably know that I’m about to have a full-on fucking breakdown right now.

”I’d like to ask the three of you to step out, so I can talk to Holden alone,” McMahon said, and though they all looked disgruntled about the order, they filed outside.

The doctor asked a lot of questions.

How long had Holden been hurting himself? How long had he thought about hurting himself? Had he ever attempted suicide before? How long had he been having suicidal thoughts? Did he have a family history of mental illness and/or suicide? What kind of stressors were in his life? Did he have any other ways to manage them? Was he eating regularly? Why not? Did he feel like he didn’t deserve it? How did he feel about himself?

By the time Holden was finished playing 21 Questions, with a few brief breaks scattered in between for the sake of his health, Bill and Debbie had gone home to shower and eat, at his insistence. Bill had looked like he was about to protest, but eventually deflated with a soft "Whatever you need, Holden." Debbie had fought the idea tooth and nail, only backing down when the doctor and Wendy both sided with Holden.

This left Wendy, who had already been home since arriving, peering at him inquisitively from the hospital chair.

"What?" he grumbled. He was sick of people staring at him like he was some sort of zoo animal, a guinea pig to be poked and prodded at. 

“How are you feeling?”

”Fine,” he muttered through gritted teeth. Wendy didn't seem convinced.

"Are you?"

"Yes." Why was Wendy even there? Why was she wasting her time babysitting him? Her time was valuable; the study was valuable, but half the unit was in the hospital holding his hand, just because he couldn't deal with his own shit. He was childish and selfish, and even when he tried to do the right thing and just off himself, it backfired and he hurt even more people.

Just fucking great.

"Because you're allowed not to be, you know."

"I'm fucking fine! Jesus Christ, don't you have anything better to do besides nag me?" he snarled. Wendy didn't say anything, just primly crossed her legs and leveled a look at him.

"If you're trying to make me leave, it isn't going to work," she said. All the anger bled out of Holden and regret replaced it, leaving behind an exhaustion that he could feel echoing in his bones.

"I'm sorry, Wendy, I... that was uncalled for. I don't know why I said it."

"Luckily for you, I'm a psychologist– I have some ideas," she said, offering him a small smile. He returned it, and she seemed to take the gesture as a green light to drag her chair closer to the bed. The brief silence was split by the screech of wood against the floor, and they both cringed.

"It's alright to be angry, Holden. Not that you should take it out on the people who care about you, but it's okay to let yourself feel it."

"...Whenever I let myself feel things, it ends badly," Holden said with a shrug. When he was angry or hurt outside of his own head, whenever he expressed it, it always led to things becoming worse.

He deserved to feel as shitty as he did, anyway.

"What do you mean?"

”My emotion always hurt other people. I always hurt other people.” He picked at a thread on the thin blanket with a singular focus, then let an idle finger drift over the scars that lined his arm. No point in trying to cover them now, was there? Wendy's eyes followed the motion, but she didn't say anything, and Holden could have cried in gratitude. The last thing he wanted was to get into the details of his self-destruction; not right then and not with Wendy.

“I don’t know how to do this, Wendy. I don’t know how to function like a normal person, and it feels far too late to learn,” he settled on admitting. Wendy shook her head.

”Even if you were ‘abnormal’, which you’re not, it’s never too late to learn, Holden. With time and the right coping mechanisms, I’m confident that you can recover. We’ll all be here to help; Debbie, myself, and Bill.”

Holden didn't even try to fight back the question that had been on the tip of his tongue since waking up.

”Is Bill mad at me? I must have scared him.”

He couldn't imagine that finding him like that was a pleasant experience, and he shuddered to think that he'd destroyed Bill even further. He'd never intended to stick around to see the aftermath, and now that he did, he felt more disgusted with himself than ever.

”Of course he isn’t mad. Not at you.”

"I was trying to help him," Holden whispered miserably.

"I was trying to help everyone, by... by going away."

"The only way you can help us, is by helping yourself," Wendy said.

Holden went silent. It was hard to differentiate the voices in his head. Which one did he trust: the one that told him that Wendy was right, and they genuinely cared, or the one that screamed that she was lying to make him feel better? It was confusing, and he itched for his razor. It would settle the thoughts in his head, keep them at bay.

He wanted her to leave him alone so he could tie his shirt around his neck. He wanted to try again, even though he knew he shouldn’t. He shouldn’t want that. When you failed to kill yourself, you were supposed to have some giant revelation about the meaning of life and how it’s actually beautiful and all that bullshit, right? So why were the thoughts still there?

"I don't know whether I believe you,” he eventually replied, his voice shaky even to his own ears.

"You don't have to fully believe me right now, Holden. You just have to trust me enough to give it a try."

Holden mulled the idea over. Trust was a laughable concept to him; he was on suicide watch. He couldn’t even be trusted with himself, how could he begin to trust anyone else?

But Wendy did make it sound like they cared. She sounded did sincere. And they were here, weren’t they? But didn’t they know that Holden would only drag them down? He didn’t understand.

If only to satisfy her, he took a deep breath, and managed a nod.

"Okay. I'll... I'll try, I guess."

"That's all any of us want," she said, smiling encouragingly.

"Bill and I were speaking with the doctor earlier, and he said that he needs to know that you have a safe place to go back to. I was wondering: how would you feel about staying with me for a bit? I know you'd probably rather stay with Bill, given the nature of your relationship, but if you would prefer a bit more of a distance, my door is always open."

'I'd like that," he said, and he meant it. It took a moment for his brain to process all that she said, but once it did, he startled.

"Wait, the nature of our relationship? You know? About Bill and I?"

"Of course I knew, Holden. I assume you thought it wouldn't matter because I'm the only woman in the unit, but the women's room is right next to the men's, you know. Those are thin walls, and I'm not deaf," she pointed out, teasingly.

He could feel his cheeks warming, and he averted his gaze. She laughed, a soft sound.

"Speak of the devil," she said, looking pointedly out the small window. Bill was walking down the long hall and toward the room, a thick blue blanket thrown over his shoulder that Holden recognized from the brief times he'd been to Bill's house. Even looking as tired as he did, he was still the most beautiful person Holden had ever seen.

"Do you want a moment alone, or should I stay?"

"Could I talk to him alone, please?" Wendy nodded.

"I'll be back later," she said. She stood with a pat to Holden's shoulder, but paused once she reached the door.

"Bill cares about you, Holden. He wants to help you. Let him."

 


 

Bill knocked on the door seconds after Wendy left; Holden saw them exchange a few passing words. He poked his head in, raising his hand in greeting.

"Is it okay if I come in?"

"Of course. You don't have to ask about stuff like that," Holden said, huffing out a laugh. 

"I do, though," Bill said as he walked in, closing the door behind him and sitting tentatively on the edge of one of the chairs closer to Holden. He laid the blanket over Holden’s legs, and Holden whispered his thanks.

"How are you feeling?"

That seemed to be the question on everyone's mind, didn't it? And Holden had no clue how to answer it. He couldn't tell if "okay" was a lie or not. He supposed he was as close to it as he could be, given the circumstance.

"I'm okay, I guess. Taking it by the hour." Bill nodded, and an awkward silence rippled between them. There was so much to say, but how could they say it? Where did they start? Who went first?

"Can we–“

"Holden, I–“

They broke off their speaking in unison with laughter, and for the briefest of seconds, everything felt normal. Like it did back when they first started whatever it was that they were.

"You go first," Holden offered, but Bill shook his head.

"You go. I know how much you like talking."

Holden felt himself smile, a slight but genuine quirk of his mouth that made Bill's face light up.

"Can we talk, Bill? About what's going on here?” He gestured between the two of them, and Bill shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

"You should be focusing on yourself right now, Holden. I don't want my screwups to take priority over that."

"They aren't. I just need to clear some things up. Please."

"Are you sure you're okay to?"

"I'm not made of glass, Bill," he hissed. The other man stiffened, looking taken aback, and Holden felt a surge of guilt crop up in his chest. Bill was only trying to help.

"But I appreciate you asking," he added, and Bill relaxed.

"I care about you, Holden," he said, matter-of-factly. The sky was blue, grass was green, and he cared about Holden. It should be that easy.

But it wasn't. Holden couldn't shake the memory of Bill's rejection, of his harsh words, of how he tossed Holden aside as though what they’d had never mattered, as though Holden was nothing more than a fucktoy. Of how Holden knew that he deserved it, but it still burned. 

"You hurt me." Bill closed his eyes and nodded, looking more remorseful than Holden had ever seen another person look, and he worked in law enforcement.

"I know."

He took a deep, shuddering breath.

Here goes nothing.

"But I hurt you, too. I took out my insecurities on you, lashed out at you because you were the closest person to me, and that was unfair." Bill's eyes popped open, full of worry, as though Holden being able to say that he was partially in the wrong would end in another attempt.

“It doesn’t matter what you did, Holden. I was the one w–“

”It does matter. My issues don’t entitle me to treat the people I care about like punching bags, or to get cruel with them the second I feel abandoned. I said some shitty things to you that morning, without ever trying to see your side. I went straight for the jugular instead. This isn’t a self-pity apology, Bill. This is me trying to acknowledge that I hurt you, too, and tell you that I’m so sorry.”

And it wasn’t. He could see the other side to it more logically, now: Bill was married, and Holden had used his wife and his son against him that day. He could see that it was possible for him and Bill to have both fucked up.

“I forgive you,” Bill whispered. 

"But you don’t have to forgive me. I don't expect anything from you, Holden. You don't have to forgive me, but I need you to know that I’m here for you.”

Holden could feel his throat starting to ache, the threat of tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. How could he not forgive Bill? Sweet, kind, good Bill, who made mistakes and fucked up, yes, but still cared about him. He was beginning to see that, even if it didn't make sense to his brain, the parts that whispered that he wasn't good enough, wasn't deserving of care.

”Of course I forgive you. I mean, the ‘forgetting’ part... it might take– some time. A while. I’m, uh, going to work on it.” Bill shook his head, moving in closer, clearly unaware of it.

”You don’t have to forget anything. You shouldn’t. You don’t owe me forgiveness, Holden.”

”You’re right, I don’t. But I think you deserve it.”

There was a long stretch of quiet, both of them staring at one another, unsure of what to say. Holden knew that this would be the first of many talks, more likely than not, and that there was still so much more for them to talk about. But for now, Holden also knew that despite their fights, he could tell Bill anything, and he blamed that realization for his next words.

”The thoughts are still there, Bill. I thought they were supposed to go away, but they won’t,” he found himself confessing. The words left his mouth before he fully registered them, and he immediately wanted to take them back. Bill accidentally let an audible inhale escape him, but beyond that, kept a remarkably good poker face.

”Have you told Dr. McMahon?”

”Not yet. I’m... I’m going to, I swear," he promised. And he would. He told Wendy that he would try, didn't he? Even if he was destined to fail, he wanted to keep his word.

"Could, uh, you be here, maybe? When I tell him?”

Bill stood, moving to sit on the edge of the bed. He reached over and held out his hand, an offering. Holden slid his cold fingers into Bill's warm ones and sighed. It felt like coming home.

“Yeah. I’ll stay. It’s like I said, Holden: I’m here to help you, I want to help you. But you have to want it."

"I do want it, I'm just... I'm scared, okay? I'm fucking terrified."

"Why?"

"Because I don't know who the fuck I am!" he snapped. Not at Bill, not even at himself– he couldn’t do anything to stop the words from leaping out of his throat, angry and hurt. Luckily, Bill didn’t seem to look offended, so Holden continued on.

"I always have something to focus on, to put all of my energy into, to define myself by. Work, or hurting myself, or just feeling as shitty as I do all the time. I thought it made me sharper, made me better. It was easier to solve a case or nail an interview when I’d punish myself for not meeting my own expectations,” he said, with a wry chuckle.

”I don’t know who I am without that drive, Bill. I don't know what the hell I'm going to be when I'm not sad and anxious. I don’t know if I’m going to be as good of an agent, and it scares me that I care more about that than I do about being okay.”

Saying it out loud felt like a boulder being removed from his back. He could breathe a little easier, having put it out in the open. He didn't know who he'd be, with a gaping hole in his life where the darkness had once lived. He didn't know how he'd manage without it.

Bill was silent for a long time, clearly trying to decide how to respond. The silence felt too much like rejection, and Holden began to cringe away, wishing he'd never opened his fucking mouth, never burdened Bill more by vomiting emotions onto him.

Eventually, though, Bill spoke up.

“That drive isn’t your sadness, Holden. It’s you. I’ve seen you work; I know your work better than anyone else. You’re brilliant in your own right. Your brain being shitty to you has nothing to do with that,” he murmured. He lifted Holden’s chin with a single finger, forcing him to meet his gaze.

”You being okay is the most important thing in the world. You deserve to be. Do you trust me?”

”Yes,” Holden breathed, and it wasn’t a lie.

”Then listen to me: you’re more than this.”

The words broke the dam in him, and Holden could no longer restrain his sobs. He folded in on himself, gasping out choked little noises, wrapping his arms around his middle as his body heaved. Bill held his hand through it, the contact comforting and steady but not overwhelming.

He’d been so lost in it all for so long, so accustomed to reducing himself to the whispers of others and the scars on his arms and the voices in his head. Hearing that maybe he was more than it all, even if he didn’t believe it yet, cut something loose in his chest that he didn’t know had been knotted up. It's a strange thing, to hear words you never knew you needed. Strange, yet it means so much. 

Once the metaphorical dust settled and Holden had calmed down, he curled up as much as he could with the IV sticking out of him, facing Bill but staring at Bill’s shoes.

”I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to function without it. I’m scared, Bill,” he admitted, voice barely audible, even to himself. He wasn't entirely sure what it was. Maybe it was self-harm, maybe it was the sadness, maybe it was both with a fuckton of other things mixed in. He looked up to see Bill’s eyes on him, piercing blue brimming over with warmth, with concern. 

"What can I do?" Bill asked. He was being so genuine that Holden couldn't keep looking directly at him, and hid his face in the pillow.

"...Can you just hold me?" he asked, the sound muffled. He wanted to slap himself for asking such a childish question, but he remembered Wendy's words.

He wants to help you. Let him.

"Like you did after I got wasted at the bar?"

Each beat that passed was an eternity, and each inch between them a mile. Bill was too far away and Holden ached to pulled him closer, but he wouldn’t. Not unless that was what Bill wanted.

Holden was mere seconds away from pretending he was still drugged up and taking the request back, but then Bill moved from his perch on the edge of the bed to sit next to Holden. It was a tight squeeze, with Holden half in Bill’s lap, their legs tangled together, but it was the most comfortable Holden had been in a long time.

Wordlessly, Bill pressed a kiss to his hair, wrapping an arm around his shoulders in a mimicry of that night. He melted into the embrace, his head pillowed on Bill's shoulder and his face pressed against the side of Bill’s neck, inhaling his scent.

Bill was warm. Bill was safe. Bill was home.

"It's gonna be okay," he murmured.

And for the first time, Holden was starting to believe him.