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It’s the Colors You Have

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June 15, 2036
Saint Paul, Minnesota

Holden was already in the car when Bill caught up with him. He was seated demurely on the passenger’s side of their blocky little rental with his hands in his lap, gaze fixed out the front window. Bill took a last, long drag off his cigarette — old school, machine-manufactured tobacco, with all the unsavory additives — and flicked the butt into the street, watching it bounce and spark against the asphalt. He sighed out a stream of smoke, sparing a glance over his shoulder to ensure that none of the local boys had followed him out of the precinct looking for further insights, and stepped into range of the driver’s side auto-sensor.

The door slid open with a hydraulic hiss and a pleasant, female alto greeted, “Good evening, Agent Tench. Welcome back to IntraFleet rental vehicle number 749-A.”

Bill dropped down into the driver’s seat, settling his weight back against the ergonomic curvature as the whole thing rotated underneath him. It shuddered to a stop when he was facing forward and the base locked into place with a mechanical grind and a solid thunk.

“Please fasten your seat belt,” the female voice requested in that same cheerful lilt. Bill tugged the latch up near his shoulder and drew the nylon strap down across his chest and over his belly to slot it into the buckle, which trilled an affirmative chime when everything was secure.

“Thank you, Agent Tench,” the voice cooed. There was a muted click. “All doors have been locked. Please enter the coordinates for your next destination, and we’ll be safely on our way.”

Bill ignored this request, drumming his fingers against the armrest of his seat while he studied Holden out of the corner of his eye.

He looked about as calm and contented as ever, underneath his schoolboy slick-back, but that was hardly unusual. Stalwart impassivity was one of the main selling points where androids were concerned. Despite being a highly sophisticated law enforcement prototype, Holden’s general unflappability was one of several traits he shared with the average housekeeping ‘bot.

The main indication that something was amiss underneath that placid expression came from the LED implanted in Holden’s right temple. Bill could just barely make the little ring out in the faint reflection of Holden in the passenger side window. It was flickering yellow, in rhythm with Holden’s brain or his motherboard or whatever he had behind those big blue eyes that was responsible for what humans called ‘thought,’ while it whirred busily away. Holden was breathing, but only barely — a slow, unnatural cadence that suggested his computing energy was being monopolized by other systems — and the fingers of his left hand were fluttering a quick, arrhythmic beat against his thigh.

“If you overheat again, I’m sending you back to CyberLife so they can upgrade you to a liquid coolant system,” Bill grunted.

Holden blinked and sucked a sharp little breath, turning to peer at Bill like he was surprised to find him there. “That was one time,” he protested with his usual flat glare, “and there were extenuating circumstances. Besides, I already have a liquid coolant system.”

“So, the breathing is just, what? Cosmetic?”

“It plays a very minor role in temperature regulation,” Holden allowed, “but its main function is assimilation. There are several involuntary actions that have been programmed into my physiology to allow me to better blend in amongst humans. Breathing, blinking.” He considered for a second, tilting his head. “One of my preceding models could sneeze.”

“For something that’s supposed to make you seem more human, you sure forget about it a lot.”

“Ah.” Holden glanced down at himself and took a breath so deep his shoulders swelled with the motion. He sighed it back out, straightening his tie over his chest, which was now rising and falling at a nice, natural rhythm, and shot Bill a sheepish glance over his shoulder. “Sorry. I was - distracted.”

Bill reached up to scrub a slow, thoughtful hand across his jaw. He didn’t go in much for pep talks — particularly not with Holden, who was in very real danger of floating away on the buoyancy of his own hubris most days, for all that he claimed to be impervious to such banal human emotions — but some latent protective instinct spurred him to mutter, “Listen, kid. What happened back there? Don’t take that personally, all right?”

Holden’s brow pulled into a shallow furrow even as the corners of his mouth quirked up with something like amusement. He’d turned far enough in his seat that Bill could make out a sliver of soft light emanating from just past his eyebrow — now burning the same bright, unbothered CyberLife blue as the little triangle on his lapel and the band around the right sleeve of his suit jacket.

He dipped his chin and shot Bill a speaking look as he said, “Kind of hard not to.”

“Most of these small town, middle America guys have never even seen an android before, let alone worked with one. PC models are too expensive for the local precincts, and you’re - well.” He didn’t need to point out that Holden was significantly more advanced than the standard beat ‘bot. They were both well aware. “The shit we teach is hard enough for these guys to get their heads around, without throwing an unexpected social adjustment into the mix, all right? Their reticence wasn’t about you, specifically.”

“Just androids in general,” Holden posited.

“Exactly.”

“Of which I am one,” Holden continued, sweeping a gesture down the length of his own body. “Ergo, it was about me. Specifically.”

“You know what?” Bill shook his head, leaning in to jab at the touch screen panel set into the center of the dashboard. “I don’t know why I bother.”

An interactive map sprang to life on-screen and the vehicle AI ventured politely, “What can I help you with, Agent Tench?”

“Show me all the open restaurants in a ten-mile radius.”

“Certainly,” the voice assured. “Are you looking for any particular style of cuisine?”

“American,” Bill supplied. “Burgers and fries, that sort of thing. No fast food or street vendors. I want somewhere with a real, sit-down dining room and waitstaff. If there’s a smoking patio, even better. Androids allowed.”

Holden frowned over at him from the passenger seat. “I thought you were watching your cholesterol.”

“Yeah, well, for humans, sometimes emotional health outweighs physical health.”

“Is that why you insist on smoking commercially manufactured tobacco cigarettes, despite their many documented hazards?”

“That’s as good an explanation as any,” Bill agreed, because he didn’t particularly care to walk Holden through the concepts of nostalgia or prolonged self-destruction.

Holden opened his mouth, presumably to pass further judgment on the questionable choices Bill made governing his food and chemical intake, but the vehicle AI cut him off.

“I’ve discovered twelve restaurants within the requested radius that meet your criteria, Agent Tench.”

“Take us to the nearest one that has a decent whiskey selection,” Bill instructed. Exhaustion crashed down over him in a sudden, unexpected avalanche, frigid and numbing. This was only their third week of Road School together and already Bill was tired.

Tired of the endless stretches of highway sprawling ceaselessly before them; of the tension in his wife’s face, the abandoned fracture of her voice when he vid-chatted with her late into the evening. He was tired of fielding consultation after gruesome consultation for ill-equipped local law enforcement agencies, all looking to him to work miracles. Tired of Holden’s unflinching idealism and his ceaseless drive and his miserable dearth of social graces. It sounded nice on paper — having a partner that never ate, never drank, never slept, whose only function was to solve crimes — but Bill had rapidly come to understand that the practical experience of such a partnership was vastly different than the expectation.

“Setting route to The Tap Room,” the AI announced, while the engine purred to life at the front of the car. “Traffic on this route is light. Estimated arrival time 6:13 PM. Would you like me to call in a reservation for you?”

“No thanks. We’ll take our chances.” Bill dug his cigarettes out from his interior coat pocket and glared at Holden over his shoulder as he shook one loose. “Strap in, would you? The last thing I need is a billion dollar CyberLife prototype going through the window at sixty miles an hour. I’d never hear the end of it.”

“Actually, my projected market value ranges between twenty-five and forty thousand dollars in U.S. currency, depending on inflation rates and the inclusion of certain specialty chemical analysis and spectrometry components.”

“Holden,” Bill sighed, reaching up to pinch at the bridge of his nose, “just buckle your goddamn seatbelt.”

Holden obediently repositioned himself and yanked his seatbelt into place.

“RK400 model reclassified from ‘cargo’ to ‘passenger,’” the AI piped sweetly. “Personal safety measures have been activated.”

Holden curled his palms over his knees and stared blankly out the front window as the car rolled away from the curb and into the flow of traffic. He was silent and still, lost in his own thoughts, while Bill fished his lighter free of his slacks and caught the cherry on his cigarette.

He took a deep drag, nicotine buzzing pleasantly beneath his skin, and exhaled a thick grey cloud toward the ceiling.

“I’ve detected a condensed saturation of non-oxygen chemicals in the forward compartment of this vehicle,” the AI informed them brightly. “Would you like me to roll down the windows or engage interior air purification protocols?”

Holden turned toward the screen on the dash and said, with feeling, “Yes, please. Both.”

“Front windows only,” Bill amended, cutting an amused glance at Holden out of the corner of his eye.

Holden blinked. “What?”

“I don’t know,” Bill shrugged. His energy was starting to return in a slow, syrupy current. “I just didn’t think it would bother you so much.”

“Smoking in enclosed spaces has long been considered a social faux pas,” Holden provided, fiddling with his tie again. If Bill didn’t know any better, he would call it a nervous tic. “I can’t be the first person to have complained about it.”

“Far from it, though you have less of a leg to stand on than most.”

“How do you figure?”

“Well, you can just filter this shit out if you don’t like it, right?” Bill gestured with his cigarette to punctuate his point, trailing thin grey tails of smoke through the air between them. “It’s not like androids are susceptible to cancer.”

“I can filter it out,” Holden agreed, waving a hand to disperse the coiling tendrils, “but I have to allocate energy to do so. Energy that I would rather expend elsewhere.”

“Like mentally reviewing case files?”

“Precisely.”

Bill sighed around his cigarette, twin streams of smoke jetting through his nose, and narrowed his eyes at Holden. “Anyone ever tell you you work too much?”

“You tell me that all the time.” Holden arched a pointed eyebrow in Bill’s direction and then turned to peer out the window. The breeze stirred the curls over his forehead, working one little tuft free of the stubborn shellacking he’d submitted his hair to that morning at the motel.

“Has it ever occurred to you to consider that maybe I’m right?”

“You’re right about a lot of things,” Holden allowed, bland and politic in the way that meant he was queueing up to make a joke. “More than my predictive algorithms suggested you would be when I was first assigned as your partner.”

“Shit, Holden,” Bill grinned, because he felt it was important to encourage that kind of intimate social behavior. “Tell me how you really feel.”

“You’re right about a lot of things,” Holden reiterated, turning to fix Bill with an unimpressed stare, “but this isn’t one of them. I don’t work too much. I can’t.” He shook his head and turned to the window again. “I was built to do one thing, Bill, and this is it.”

Bill took a couple of slow, thoughtful drags off his cigarette, studying Holden’s somber profile while the automatic driving program whisked them breezily through dinnertime traffic. After a few minutes stewing in silent contemplation, he offered, “You’re the forty thousand dollar model, aren’t you?”

Holden swiveled around with a confused hum.

“Your market value,” Bill explained. “I’m betting you’re the forty thousand dollar RK400, right? The one that comes with all the bells and whistles?”

Holden nodded, hedging, “That’s just a projection, based on assumed production costs for components that aren’t currently commercially available, but could become so in the future if there were enough demand to merit - ”

Bill waved a hand at him, brisk and dismissive. He didn’t give a shit about the technological breakdown of Holden’s potential purchase price. “So your filtration system must really be something, huh?”

“It’s fairly sophisticated,” Holden agreed slowly, still staring in Bill’s direction.

“And you said that filtration eats up your processing power?”

“More or less.” Holden put his head to one side, avian and curious. “Bill, I don’t see where you’re going with this.”

“So much for that unprecedented predictive data analysis you’re always bragging about,” Bill teased, grinning when Holden rolled his eyes. He’d picked that particular piece of body language up during his first week on the road with Bill, traipsing along the top half of the Eastern Seaboard to teach modern FBI techniques to tri-state cops, and it always amused Bill to see the affectation in practice. He finished off his cigarette, tossing the butt out the window, and sighed the smoke out between his clenched teeth. Lifting his chin in challenge, he crossed his arms over his chest and asked, “What do you think it would take to divert the power you need for your logic and motor functions to your filtration system?”

Holden considered this for a second. “That question includes too many undefined variables for me to provide a single, concrete answer. There are a number of substances that could fit the bill, across varying degrees of legality and availability. It would have to be something remarkably complex or very high-volume. Potentially both, depending on how much power you were aiming to divert from one system to another. My core processor runs at an average operating speed of eleven gigahertz.”

“Say that last part again,” Bill drawled. “In English, this time, for those of us without degrees in computer science.”

Holden raised his hands in an absent, helpless gesture and let them slap back down against his thighs as he huffed, “My system works very, very fast.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Bill snorted.

Holden tilted his head back and heaved a sigh through his nose before turning to fix Bill with a somber stare. His LED was flaring yellow again and his voice was clipped when he asserted, “You’re obfuscating your point with sarcasm and making intuitive leaps that I lack the relevant data to follow. I would appreciate it if you would cut to the chase, Agent Tench.”

The official title of address alone would have been enough to convey that Holden was about as irritated with Bill as his software allowed him to be. Bill had gone to great lengths to disabuse him of the practice back in Quantico, shortly after Shepard had introduced them, and Holden only fell back on it when he was feeling defensive and wanted to enforce some distance between them, which hadn’t been Bill’s intention when he struck up this conversation.

“I was just - ” Bill started, at the same moment that their rental car veered smoothly out of traffic.

“We have arrived at The Tap Room,” the AI announced, as they rolled to a stop along the curb.

“Shit,” Bill sighed and scrubbed a hand over his jaw. He hit the button to release his seatbelt and jerked his head toward the building past Holden’s shoulder. “Let’s talk inside, all right, kid?”

Holden narrowed his eyes, but undid his own buckle and offered a short, sharp nod before climbing out onto the pavement with the strange, inhuman grace all androids possessed. He was free of the confines of the vehicle before the seat had even started rotating underneath him.

Bill waited until the passenger door started to swing shut on Holden’s retreating form and then addressed the car. “IntraFleet Rental Vehicle 749-A.”

“Yes, Agent Tench?”

“Please obtain nearby parking. Street spots or unpaid lots only. I’ll notify you when we’re ready to leave.”

“Yes, Agent Tench.” His door swung open, seat swiveling as the AI trilled, “Please exit the vehicle carefully. Oncoming traffic will hold at the light in approximately six seconds.”

Bill waited per the AI’s instructions and stepped out into the street. He straightened his tie as he circled around the little cube of a car to where Holden was loitering on the sidewalk. His jaw was clenched under his furrowed brow and he had his hands stuffed into his pockets, looking the picture perfect part of the sulking teenager for all that he had been modeled after a grown man.

Bill clapped a hand to Holden’s shoulder as he approached and flashed him a small, amused grin. “Come on,” he muttered, guiding Holden inside.

The Tap Room was tucked between what looked to be a mom n’ pop barbecue joint and a bookstore. The facade was done up in the bright, swooping metallics that had been popular on old streamliner trains nearly a century before, with a neon sign buzzing overhead, proclaiming the restaurant’s name in looping cursive. The interior was fashioned after vintage diners, with a handful of modern embellishments — holographic menu displays embedded at the center of every table, and another, larger screen menu behind the bar; jazzy Golden Age radio hits piping through a masterfully camouflaged speaker system. The waitstaff were all dressed like soda jerks, with bright red bow ties and spit-polished black shoes and crisp white paper caps. Only a handful of them were androids, some fresh-faced female AV model with freckles and a glossy, curled ponytail hanging down past her shoulders.

“Jesus Christ,” Bill sighed, and tugged Holden in the direction of the hostess stand. “That’s the last time I let an artificial intelligence decide where I’m eating.”

“You said that last week at the tiki bar in Omaha,” Holden pointed out, shrugging free of Bill’s grip and falling into step just behind him.

Bill ignored this unhelpful aside and flashed a smile at the sweet, blonde AV250 standing behind a podium crafted of glittering white enamel and gleaming chrome.

“Good evening, sir,” the android greeted. Her teeth were very even and very white behind her bubblegum pink lips, her features just slightly too perfect and symmetrical in that uncanny way lower-end androids tended to be. There was a brushed steel name tag pinned to her chest just above her model number that read ‘BETTY’ in sleek, white sans serif. The text was backlit with a faint, electronic glow. “Welcome to the Tap Room. How many are in your party?”

“Two,” Bill supplied. “We’ll take smoking if you’ve got it.”

“Of course, sir,” Betty smiled, LED fluttering yellow for a second as she accessed whatever program kept this place up and running and logged them into the seating chart. She made a sweeping gesture toward the aisle behind her and invited cheerily, “If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to the patio.”

It was a nice enough night, a balmy, early June breeze wending its way lazily between the white formica tables, but the patio was empty with the exception of a man in a pair of dingy blue coveralls. He was poking at a half-eaten Rueben at a table a few feet from the door, and didn’t even look up when Betty led them past. She invited Bill and Holden to choose where they wanted to sit and Bill opted to take the table in the corner furthest from the door, tucked snugly against the retrofuturistic fencing that lined the patio from one end to the other. Holden sat down across from him and splayed his hands out against the table.

“Your server will be with you shortly,” Betty announced, while Bill scooted his chair in and dug his cigarettes from his jacket pocket. “Can I bring you something to drink in the meantime?”

“Irish whiskey,” Bill said. “Neat.”

Betty nodded, and didn’t bother looking at Holden as she turned on her heel and sauntered back inside.

Bill tapped a cigarette free and reached out to swipe the menu on. It flickered to life between them, words hovering in the air on streaky bars of shivering light.

“What are you going to eat?” Holden asked.

Bill shrugged, tucking an unlit cigarette into the corner of his mouth. “Whatever sounds good.”

“You said you wanted a hamburger.”

“I said I wanted something in the general vein of a hamburger,” Bill corrected. He fished his lighter free of his slacks as he scanned the menu, tapping the corner against the tabletop in an absent, off-tempo rhythm. “The BLT seems decent. It’s got a fried green tomato on it, and some kind of remoulade.”

“You’re going to give yourself a heart attack if you don’t make changes to your diet,” Holden chided. “I can calculate the precise timeline projection if you want to hear it.”

Bill shrugged again, catching the sparkwheel on his lighter with his thumb and ducking his head to touch the tip of the cigarette to the dancing flame that sprang forth. He sucked a few times, until the cherry caught, and said, untroubled, “Everybody dies someday, Holden. Even you, for a given value thereof.”

Holden huffed a breath through his nose, quick and agitated, and folded his arms so that his hands were resting somewhere in his lap, under the table where Bill couldn’t see them. He lifted his chin and demanded, “What were you trying to ask me in the car?”

“Exactly what it sounded like.” Bill reached over the railing and flicked the ash off the end of his cigarette, more to have something to do with his hands than out of any real need. “I was trying to ask you how your filtration system works.”

Holden cut him a flat, narrow glare. “Why were you asking about my filtration system?”

Bill reached up to rub at his temple with his thumb, cigarette still in hand. He heaved a slow, reluctant sigh, and explained, “I was thinking about whiskey.”

“Whiskey?” Holden frowned.

Bill nodded. “And how it affects people. Humans.” He gestured to his head. “It interrupts our communication pathways, dampens our reflexes. Affects our mood and the way we think.” He caught Holden’s eye and risked a small, speaking smirk. “Lets us get out of our heads for a few hours at a time.”

Holden’s stormy gaze cleared, eyes flaring wide with understanding as his yellow LED shuffled back to blue. “You were trying to figure out how to get me drunk,” he said, tone caught somewhere between bewilderment and accusation.

“I was trying to figure out how to help you relax,” Bill amended. “God knows you need it.”

“Bill - ” Holden started around a soft sound that might have been a laugh, only to be cut off by the arrival of their server.

“Evening gentlemen,” the young man said. “My name is Marcel, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. I’ve got an Irish whiskey for - ” he glanced between the two of them, clocked the obvious android signifiers about Holden’s person, and set the glass down in front of Bill with a smile, “ - you.”

“Thanks,” Bill nodded.

Marcel dipped his chin and clapped his hands together, eyebrows quirking attentively. “Can I get you started with some appetizers?”

“Not tonight.” Bill sprawled back in his seat, giving the menu another cursory once over and scrubbing at his chin. “Just give me the half-sandwich combo, with the fried green tomato BLT and a house salad. No croutons, vinaigrette on the side.”

“I’ll have that right out for you,” Marcel smiled. He didn’t bother asking Holden if he wanted anything, though he snuck a slightly awed glance at the android over his shoulder as he retreated to the kitchen to put in Bill’s order.

“House salad?” Holden asked pointedly, once they were alone again.

Bill took a drag off his cigarette and flashed Holden a smirk, leaning in to swipe the menu off. “How’s that factor into my likelihood of heart failure?”

“Based on analysis of your standard conversational patterns, I’m going to treat that question as rhetorical,” Holden announced. He stared Bill down for a long, loaded moment, the air drawing tight and thick between them. “Why is it so important to you that I relax?”

“I don’t know that it’s important,” Bill hedged, hunching his shoulders in a defensive shrug. “I guess I just wonder whether you can.”

“It’s doubtful,” Holden said, calm and forthright. “I wasn’t built for it.”

“You weren’t built to appreciate new wave, either, but that hasn’t stopped you from playing the Talking Heads’ entire discography every chance you get.”

Holden didn’t blush — only personal companion androids boasted that particular feature — but he had a glaze to his eyes and a tightness about his mouth that suggested he would have been, if it were possible. “I find their compositional structure interesting and unpredictable and therefore worthy of extended analysis and interpretation.”

“That is how music appreciation generally works,” Bill agreed, with a wry smile. “Look, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. You’re an adaptive learner. It’s what the RK series was created for, you’ve said so yourself on more than once occasion. You started rolling your eyes back in Bridgeport. You developed a taste for late 70’s pop somewhere outside Wichita. What makes you so sure you can’t learn to let loose?”

“I wasn’t - ”

“ - built for it,” Bill finished for him, with a defeated sigh. “Yeah, I know.”

Holden’s LED was yellow again, burning against his pale skin while his blue eyes bored into Bill from across the table. “That bothers you,” he observed, brow furrowed with confusion.

Bill considered for a second, dwindling cigarette in one hand and whiskey in the other. “Yeah, I guess it does.” He tipped back a sip from his glass and gritted his teeth against the burn.

Holden shook his head, looking lost, and asked, soft and almost wounded, “Why?”

“I don’t know.” Bill tore his gaze away and let it sink into the depths of his whiskey. “It shouldn’t. I know it’s stupid, but - ” he shrugged. “Jumping from one fucked up murder to the next without anything to break up the horror? I guess it just seems like a pretty pitiful existence.”

He looked up just in time to see Holden flinch and wrench his eyes down to his lap. His LED spun, yellow to red and then back again, a few times in quick succession, chest rising and falling more rapidly than usual.

“I just - it isn’t the life I’d pick for you,” Bill continued hastily. “For anybody, really.”

Holden reached up and straightened his tie, smoothing his fingers down the blandly patterned silk once, twice, three times while his LED flickered and blinked, yellow to red. When he spoke, his voice was very small and thin, so low Bill almost couldn’t hear him. “It’s not a life.”

Bill frowned, stomach twisting. “What?”

Holden stroked his tie once more and then tilted his head up to meet Bill’s gaze. His eyes looked wet, which Bill knew to be impossible, and his mouth was pressed into a flat, pained line. “It’s not a life,” he repeated, with a short, sad shake of his head. “I’m not alive, Bill. Not in the way you mean.”

Something cold and sharp pierced through Bill’s chest, drawing his heart up hard against his ribs. “I know that,” he croaked, and fumbled for another sip of whiskey. He swallowed it down, past the thick, jagged knot that had tangled at the back of his throat, and took a last, shaky draw off his cigarette before stubbing it out against the table’s pristine surface. He dropped the butt onto the floor and curled both hands around his tumbler, watching the amber liquid slosh.

Silence dropped over them like a shroud, interrupted only by the distant rush of passing traffic and Frank Sinatra’s smooth baritone, crooning about blue skies overhead. Bill could feel his gut churning, shame and sorrow simmering together in a miserable soup.

Of course he knew that Holden wasn’t alive — not properly, not in the same way that Bill was alive — and that believing otherwise was foolish. Holden stood sentinel in a charging station at night while Bill drooled through eight hours of unconsciousness, synapses firing and sowing technicolor dreamscapes in the fertile soil of his mind. Holden didn’t eat, unless licking his fingers clean of various unsavory substances he picked up at a crime scene to run them through his internal spectral analysis counted, and he only breathed to put people like Bill at ease.

But he had a heart, even if it was manufactured, and he had a pulse, even if it ran faster and thinner than Bill’s own. He had ideas, and ambitions. He was curious and clever. He liked music, and he made jokes — not good ones, and frequently at Bill’s expense, but still. All of that had to count for something.

Bill sighed and drained the rest of his whiskey, knocking it back in one hearty, burning mouthful with his face tilted skyward. He set the empty glass down on the table with a grimace and startled when Holden reached across the table to brush their knuckles together.

Bill blinked up at him, trying his best to look composed and self-assured despite the doubt billowing tempestuously just beneath his breastbone.

Holden’s eyes were bright and soft in his face, mouth shaded at the corners with something Bill might have called fondness, if pressed. Holden swallowed – as much an affectation as his breathing, though it made Bill feel a little better — and said gently, “I think getting drunk might be a bit beyond me at this point, but - ” He hesitated, swiping his tongue across his lower lip in a swift pink flash, and took a quick, shaky breath. “Maybe we could try something else?”

“Something else?” Bill frowned.

“To teach me to relax.”

All at once, the tension between Bill’s ribs pulled taut and snapped, heart juddering with a giddy tremolo of relief. He smiled, eyes stinging, as he rasped, “Yeah. I think we can probably come up with something.” He took a careful breath through his nose and asked, “Why the sudden change of heart?”

Holden sat back in his seat and lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I figure if you’re willing to suffer through a salad on my recommendation, I can stand to indulge your curiosity at least once.”

Bill barked a laugh, loud and bold from deep in his chest, and fixed Holden with an affectionate smirk. “You’re a real shit, you know that?”

“Well, Bill,” Holden grinned across the table, wide and unrepentant, “I learned from the best.”