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Held On The Hand That Takes

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~*~

If questioned, he’d claim it was the rattle of the key in the lock that woke him.

It’s a lie, of course. But Billy, bless him, is in the habit of indulging him in harmless lies; everyday ones like I’ll be fine and don’t worry and of course I know you’re coming home. Billy knows him too well to believe a word, but it’s rare that he makes an issue of it. Goody has little enough pride left. More than anything else, he’s grateful to Billy for being willing to spare what remains.

Billy’s absence is always difficult to bear. He distracts himself as best he can, immersing himself in work, in blueprints and tactical planning and the dispassionate, deceptive neatness of a bloody life like the one he used to lead laid out on paper. When his hands and mind are occupied, the empty space by his side doesn’t ache quite so much.

He valiantly ignores the bittersweet pang of loneliness when he’s finally broken from his focus by a growling stomach or nodding head, and not by his partner patiently coaxing him away as it should be. It’s like a half-healed wound, like the gap of a missing tooth. It only hurts if he’s fool enough to poke at it. But he can’t help the way his thoughts drift back to it like fingers to a scabbed-over cut, worrying at the edges until it bleeds afresh.

For the first few days, there’s something almost pleasing in the novelty of having time alone, having the apartment to himself. He’ll cook meals he doesn’t often because Billy dislikes the smell, watch the kind of delightfully pretentious arthouse films that Billy fondly rolls his eyes at. In any long-term relationship there’s a time and a place to be alone, to indulge in not having to accommodate the needs and preferences of another person. For a little while it’s a pleasant change of pace.

The shine is quick to wear from the novelty, though; he always misses Billy sooner and more sharply than he misses Louis Malle films and blue cheese.

Their apartment is a compact space, modestly if somewhat eclectically furnished; they’ve each led rootless lives for too long to own much to clutter it with. It fits them like a well broken in pair of boots, molded to the shape of their shared life. It’s only when he’s left there alone that he realises how much empty space there is around the edges, in the absence of Billy’s warm silence to fill it.

He doesn’t sleep well at the best of times. Even with the reassurance of Billy’s body curled in close against his, it takes a rare confluence of exhaustion and painstakingly cultivated peace to grant him anything more than a restless doze. No matter how he busies his hands and mind, old hurts and old guilt continue to haunt him, waiting for a quiet moment to whisper doubts into his ear.

He isn’t young or naive enough to really believe that love could heal him. He’s a self-confessed romantic, and he would never lessen everything that Billy has given him; just to have someone to help him bear this burden, to catch him when he falters, is more than he’d ever dared hope for. That he still has the strength to struggle on when it would be so easy to give up is testament to how much Billy’s support means. But nor would he place the responsibility for healing his hurts on Billy’s shoulders. This is his and his alone to carry.

Most nights, he tries not to let his own restlessness disturb Billy’s sleep. He’ll wait until Billy’s breathing evens out and his heartbeat slows before carefully slipping out from underneath the blankets, moving as quietly as he can. It’s all but impossible not to rouse Billy at all; by habit and necessity his love is a light sleeper, ever ready to respond to any threat. But it warms his heart every time, to see Billy curl back into the blankets and drift off again, sleepily accepting of Goody’s right to be here in his space when he’s at his most vulnerable.

There’s a well-worn smoothness to the way they move around each other, to the familiar way they navigate their shared space. The days when they fought beside one another are long past now, unlikely to recur save in case of disaster. But the hard-won ease with which they’d learned to anticipate each other will never truly leave them. Alien as the thought of making a home together had once seemed, now that they’re here, they share peace just as easily as they’d once shared war.

Their ghosts, of course, have settled here with them. But they’re well practised in stepping around those too.

Some nights he’ll ease open the worn old sash window and sit out on the fire escape; light a cigarette and listen to the sound of cars passing and the distant wail of sirens as he seeks a fragile peace in the familiar acrid taste of smoke. Occasionally he makes a brief attempt to quit, uneasily aware of the fact that he might well live long enough now for the habit to catch up with him. But sooner or later he always finds himself back here, watching smoke curl up toward the night sky, and ash drift down to the street below.

Every so often Billy quits for six months or a year at a time, seemingly out of nothing more than a mild curiosity to see if he can. After a while, apparently satisfied, he’ll pick the habit up again. It gnaws at Goody sometimes, in quiet moments like these, the thought that Billy could stop if he really thought it mattered. If he really believed he was going to live long enough for it to make a difference.

They’ve had that conversation more than once, at some length. For himself, stepping back from field work was a matter of necessity. Consulting serves him well enough when he needs something with which to occupy himself. But for Billy, the physical nature of the work is every bit as important as the intellectual. He can’t ask Billy to give it up before he’s ready, no matter how desperately some pitiful part of him might wish to.

If he asked, Billy would stop. He knows that with a certainty that scares him a little if he dwells on it too long, overwhelmed by the thought that his wants could mean enough to Billy to make so huge a change. But he won’t. Much as he’s afraid to lose Billy to the inevitable job that goes too badly wrong to salvage, he’s so much more afraid of a slow drift apart; of what might follow if he asks Billy to give this up for the sake of his own petty, selfish fears. He couldn’t bear for Billy to grow to resent him.

It’s easier to quiet those lingering fears on nights when he’s left Billy sleeping in their shared bed, when he can slip back between the sheets and reassure himself with the warmth of Billy’s skin under his hands and the soft rush of his breathing. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes in the warm darkness of their bedroom — of this precious space that’s theirs and theirs alone — just the solid reality of Billy sleeping by his side is enough to comfort him. He’ll tuck his face into the crook of Billy’s neck and breathe in the scent of him, and in the empty hush of the steel-grey hours before dawn, be awed anew that he’s truly so lucky as to have this.

On other nights, of course, it’s Billy who wakes him; familiar hands reaching out to rouse him, pulling him from the claws of some formless nightmare. Sometimes the details have already slipped through his fingers before he even wakes, leaving behind nothing but sick guilt and creeping dread. Other times the afterimages are burned into his mind’s eye for days.

In the hazy space between deep sleep and true wakefulness, the threads of the nightmares are harder to unpick from reality, the familiar shapes of their bedroom made alien by the darkness. Too many times he’s snapped awake in a panic, scrambling away from some illusory enemy. So far he’s done nothing worse than flinch away when Billy reaches for him. He lives in fear of the day that instinct has him blindly lashing out instead.

The night after Billy left he’d jerked away from some imagined threat in the wee hours of the morning, still half in the grip of a nightmare, and his elbow had caught the glass of water on the nightstand. It was only when he moved to stand and the edges of broken glass bit into his bare feet that he realised that part had been real.

He’d brushed the shards from his skin and moved around to the other side of the bed, fetched a brush and a pan and kitchen towels and gone through the motions of cleaning up the mess in a mechanical trance. There was no blood; just water dripping from the edge of the nightstand and glass shards catching the low light of the lamp. The room was silent save for the steady tick of the clock, and the rasp of the brush over the floor.

Afterwards, he’d lain in bed with the hot rush of adrenaline still prickling over his skin and stared unseeing at the ceiling, watching the lights of passing cars play over the cracked plaster. It’s all so much more raw when he’s here alone. It’s as though whichever part of him unconsciously turns to Billy for comfort, for a steadying hand, is still desperately questing for that missing piece.

There are still tiny shards of glass glimmering in the gaps between the floorboards.

So when he’s broken from his empty reverie in the middle of the night by the rattle of the front door unlocking, the sound strangely loud in the silence of the apartment, the relief that rushes through him leaves him breathless. No matter how many times Billy comes home to him just as promised, it never feels any less like breaching the surface of some dark and fathomless sea just as his lungs start to burn.

He gives a soft sigh and closes his eyes, listening to the familiar sounds of Billy moving around the apartment; the swish and click of the door swinging shut and locking again, the muted thump of him pulling off his boots, the soft creak of the floorboards under his feet. As the subtle sounds of another presence change the texture of the quiet, the shadows of the apartment seem to curl in that little bit closer and more warmly. With a sigh of settling beams, the space becomes a home again.

There’s something stilted though in the creak of the floorboards, an unfamiliar hesitation in the rhythm of Billy’s footsteps. Goody blinks his eyes open again and frowns at the ceiling as light spills out into the hallway, and the low whirr of the bathroom extractor fan starts up on the other side of the wall.

It could be nothing, of course. The poisonous whispers which haunt his thoughts in quiet moments do so love to twist the unremarkable into some awful portent; it would be far from the first time he’s sent himself into a hopeless tailspin over something wholly innocuous. But as the moment draws out, as he lies alone in their bed and listens to the sound of running water and the quiet clink of metal on tile, by slow inches his fears solidify into a sick certainty.

He sits up and pulls the covers aside before he can second guess himself, the floorboards cool under his bare feet as he swings his legs off the bed. There’s a pair of sweatpants still hanging where they’d been carelessly tossed over the back of a chair earlier in the night; he pulls them on as he crosses the room and opens the door, squinting against the sudden brightness of the light spilling out from the half-open bathroom door.

Billy’s kit bag is lying on the floor just outside the door. He steps carefully over it and pushes the door open the rest of the way; the knot of worry in his chest tightens unhappily as his gaze catches on the bright bloom of blood.

The smile Billy gives him is tired, wry in the way of a man who knows that he’s been caught out. He’s sitting on the edge of the tub, torn shirt discarded at his feet and their well-stocked first aid kit open on the countertop. Even with him upright and alert, clearly intact enough at least to patch himself up, it still makes Goody’s throat tighten to see him bleed.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” Billy says quietly. Goody sighs and reaches out to curl a tender hand into his hair, stepping in closer; Billy leans in, closing his eyes and resting his forehead against Goody’s stomach.

“You know I want to be woken for things like this,” Goody replies, gently reproachful. He feels more than sees the fractional nod Billy gives.

This isn’t the first time they’ve been here like this. They’ve patched up each other’s hurts too many times to count; much as he hates it, the fact is, the coppery scent of Billy’ blood hanging in the air is not an unfamiliar one. He’s had cause far too often over the years to see marks on Billy’s skin that he didn’t get to put there himself out of love. They’ve led dangerous lives. The sheer number of scars they each carry is a silent testament to how lucky they are to be here with each other.

He cards his fingers through Billy’s hair, taking comfort in the warmth of his presence and the steady sound of his breathing. He knows what the job entails. He can accept Billy coming home bloodied, so long as he always comes home.

For now, there are more practical ways for him to reassure himself. He leans back and looks Billy over with a more assessing eye. Most of the blood seems to be coming from a gash on his forearm, but there are slow trickles running down the inside of the tub which suggest another wound on his back. Superficial, for the most part, though the mottled bruising over his ribs could stand to be inspected more closely.

“Let me take care of you, darling,” Goody murmurs, tracing his fingertips along the line of Billy’s jaw.

Billy turns his face into the touch, pressing a kiss against his palm. “Always,” he says softly.

Goody indulges himself in savouring the tender brush of Billy’s lips a moment longer before turning his attention to business. There will be time for affection after Billy’s injuries have been cared for.

By necessity, the first aid kit they keep is rather more well-equipped than comes as standard, better suited to a combat medic than to an apartment bathroom. The nature of their respective professions is such that simply dialling 911 isn’t an option for them. Not unless they want to answer unfortunate questions about the provenance of their injuries, and exciting places their fingerprints may have been found in their younger and more careless days.

Here and there — blessedly few times in all the years of their partnership — there have been wounds severe enough to need the attention of a professional. He can still recount every detail of each and every occasion they’ve had to make that call with the nightmarish clarity that only trauma can provide. His mind still shies away from contemplating just how close they’ve come to losing each other.

But more often than not, when one of them comes home from a job injured, it’s just like this. They care for each other’s hurts with practised hands, businesslike but not unkind. It never gets any easier to see Billy in pain, but there’s some small measure of comfort in knowing that at least he can care for his partner through it.

He sits down beside Billy on the edge of the tub, curling a hand around his wrist to examine the gash on his forearm. There are a few smaller cuts scattered over the skin as well, but even at a glance, it’s clear they won’t require much attention.

The process is well worn into muscle memory by now. He reaches first for the antiseptic wipes, to finish the job Billy had started of cleaning the tacky half-dried blood and miscellaneous other grime from around the wound. It looks clean, at least, the edges defined and the blood still trickling from it carrying no dirt or fibres. It’ll need stitches, but it should heal neatly.

He knows he’ll sleep easier tonight if he doesn’t dwell too closely on how exactly Billy’s injuries came to be. But he spent long enough in the field that he can’t help but read into the details of the wounds, the angle and depth and placement. The edges of the cut are too clean for it to have been made with anything other than a blade. It bites in deep at first over the hard edge of his outer forearm near the elbow, where the bone sits close to the surface, and slashes down more shallowly across the muscle. A reflex in the heat of the moment, no doubt, to catch it on his forearm. That blow was meant for his chest.

Swallowing down a sudden tightness in his throat, he nudges Billy slightly. “Can you move your hand?”

There’s a fresh pulse of blood as Billy complies, grimacing. But the movement is smooth and easy as he flexes his fingers experimentally and rolls his wrist. Something uncoils a fraction in Goody’s chest. It’ll scar deeply, to be sure, but it seems that there’s no serious damage.

From there it’s a simple matter of dousing the wound more thoroughly in antiseptic, and pinching the deeper parts of it shut with butterfly stitches. It’s an uncomfortable process at the best of times, but Billy bears it without complaint, watching with tired patience as Goody finishes anchoring the strips in place and wraps the whole area in sterile gauze.

When the end of the bandage is pinned in place, Billy leans in and kisses him softly.

“Ribs?” Goody murmurs against his lips.

“Just bruised,” Billy replies, pressing another kiss to the corner of his mouth before pulling away again. “Nothing’s broken.”

Part of Goody wants to insist on examining them anyway; were their positions reversed, Billy would be quite right to do so. But he knows Billy well enough to trust his judgement. He’s a practical man, and he’s smarter than to risk injuring himself further without good reason. There’s little enough to be done for ribs in any case that he feels comfortable letting it slide.

“If you say so, darlin’,” he agrees easily. “Shall I take a look at your back?”

Billy sighs and gives the resigned nod of a man who knows full well that he isn’t going to enjoy what comes next. He turns, baring his back to Goody, who can’t help but wince in sympathy at the sight laid out before him. His skin is a canvas of glinting glass flecks half hidden in bloody scratches, concentrated around the deep bruising blossoming vivid shades of blue and purple around his right shoulderblade. It’s not serious, but it must be very painful.

“Hasty exit, I take it,” Goody murmurs, tracing a thumb over an unmarked patch of skin as he tries to gauge where to even begin.

Billy huffs something that’s not quite a laugh, nodding. “Through a window, onto another roof. Misjudged the distance a little.”

He can see it if he closes his eyes, can feel it as though he were there himself. The sound of glass shattering, the shimmering fragments haloing Billy as he falls. The bone-shaking thump of the landing, the instinct to roll. The sharp bite of the shards littering the ground. In the moment it feels like nothing; it’s on the long trudge home that they start to sting, torn flesh catching and tugging on the blood-wet fabric stretched over it.

There are tweezers in the medical kit for this very purpose; he clicks them together absently as he considers where to begin. Not that it matters, really, so long as he’s methodical. The important part is not to risk missing any of the glass by rushing it. He chooses a smaller cut at the nape of Billy’s neck to start with, and sets to work.

It’s a painstakingly slow process. Billy rests a forearm across the edge of the counter and leans his forehead against it, keeping still to let Goody work; Goody tries his best to ignore the pained hitches of his breath as the tweezers dig in, to focus only on chasing the tiny shards of glass from the wounds. They clink gently against each other as the little pile of them slowly grows, glinting in the bright glare of the lights overhead.

There’s something almost meditative in the simple repetition of it, catching each shard in turn and carefully coaxing it free. It’s a small mercy at least that he knows he can trust Billy’s self control; he needn’t worry about doing more damage if Billy flinches at the wrong moment.

They’ve been partners in every sense for long years now, and purely professionally for longer even than that. But even after all that time, after everything they’ve been through together, it still strikes him breathless to be offered so much trust. There is no-one else in the world that Billy would so readily turn his undefended back to. Not bloodied and hurting as he is. It makes something ache deep in Goody’s chest to see the relaxed line of his shoulders, the thoughtless way his eyes drift shut.

He leans in and presses a gentle kiss to an unbroken stretch of skin over Billy’s spine. “Almost done, darlin’,” he murmurs. Billy gives an absent hum of acknowledgement.

It’s a small mercy at least that none of these cuts are deep enough to require stitches; they’ll heal on their own with little further interference. When the last of the glass has been patiently teased out, he sets the tweezers aside and reaches again for the antiseptic, starting again at the beginning and methodically wiping down each cut.

It still makes something twist unpleasantly in the pit of his stomach, to look over his handiwork and see nothing but the mute evidence of pain torn into his partner’s skin. But there’s a quiet satisfaction too in being the one to care for Billy for once. So often it seems that he does nothing but lean on Billy; even if he’s been promised time and again that it’s no burden, it still weighs on his conscience and stings what’s left of his pride. It lightens something in his chest to know that in some small way, he can return the favour.

He sets the antiseptic aside and leans back, inspecting the wounds with a critical eye. After a moment he nods in satisfaction and reaches out to squeeze Billy’s uninjured shoulder gently. “You’re good, chéri,” he says. A smile curls on his lips almost despite himself; he lets his fingers drift down to tug playfully at Billy’s waistband. “Unless you’re hiding anything else of note…”

Billy laughs, thin and tired but genuine. “You can check all you like later,” he replies, casting a wan smile back over his shoulder as he leans into the touch. “But right now, I’m starving.”

Goody smiles in return and drops a kiss to his shoulder before moving to stand. “Fear not, I’m well acquainted with your priorities. Why don’t you wash up and change clothes. I’ll scare us up a late dinner.”

“It’s three in the morning, Goody.”

“A very late dinner,” he amends reasonably, giving Billy’s shoulder another parting squeeze. “Don’t get your stitches wet.”

The soft rustle and thump of clothing being shed and the sounds of running water continue to drift out from the bathroom as he busies himself in the kitchen. It’s easy enough to prepare something simple and filling on autopilot, humming absently under his breath as he sets water to boil on the stovetop and chops vegetables to toss into a gently sizzling skillet. It would probably be quicker and easier to order takeout or find some leftovers to reheat, and make little difference either way; certainly he knows Billy well enough to know that tired and drained as he is, he’ll likely wolf the meal down too fast to really taste it. But it soothes some deep, animal part of him to channel the restless energy that’s been simmering under his skin ever since he first saw that bright bloom of blood into caring for his partner as best he can.

By the time Billy emerges, clad in nothing but a clean pair of boxers with his damp hair hanging loose around his face, Goody is in the process of filling two gently steaming bowls. He can’t help but take a moment to appreciate the sight; the faint sheen of moisture haloing the lean lines of Billy’s body, the easy grace in the way he moves even now. Even weary and bruised, he’s still truly beautiful.

“Feeling better?” he asks, stealing a quick kiss as he hands Billy one of the bowls.

“Much,” Billy replies with a nod, leaning around him to snag a fork. “This smells amazing.”

“Only the best for you, mon amour.”

There’s a strange kind of peace to the moment as they settle in to eat, leaned up against the kitchen counter with no pretense at table manners. Truth be told, Goody doesn’t have much of an appetite tonight; he has little enough at the best of times, and the pit of his stomach is still uneasily tight from the lingering vision of blood painted across Billy’s skin. He hadn’t wasted any effort in portioning their meals out evenly. The vast majority is in Billy’s bowl. What he’d taken for himself is more a gesture of solidarity than a reflection of any real hunger on his part.

There's something that never fails to make his heart hurt in the way Billy eats when there are no watching eyes to put on a show of manners for. He eats quickly, his shoulders drawn up defensively, eyes intent on his meal and a hand wrapped around the edge of his bowl as though part of him expects it to be taken away again. The dim mists of the time before they met are something they speak of rarely, and certainly Goody has no intention of prying. But he's seen them enough to recognise the mannerisms of someone well used to going hungry.

As much as the scars they share, as much as the nightmares — and Billy has them too, quieter though they may be — this is another silent witness to the hardships they’ve lived through. As much as the fresh bandages, as much as the lingering scent of antiseptic in the air, it’s another aching reminder of how desperately fortunate he is to have Billy come home to him one more time.

Swallowing around a sudden tightness in his throat, he forces down the last few mouthfuls and turns to the sink to busy his hands with washing the bowl.

A few moments later a creak of floorboards and a light touch to the small of his back alert him to Billy’s presence immediately behind him; forewarned, he doesn’t tense when Billy reaches around him, slipping his own scraped-clean bowl into the sink. Something in him eases just a fraction as, instead of pulling away again as part of him is half expecting, Billy leans in closer against his back, arms winding in around his waist. Still immersed to the wrists in soapsuds, he smiles.

Even after all these years, he knows it still doesn’t come easily to Billy to seek out affection. He’s never cold, for all that some might think it from the understated way in which he expresses himself; never anything but welcoming when Goody reaches for him. But at some point long before they ever met, clearly he learned self-sufficiency in this too. It’s rare that he’ll initiate contact for his own sake, to ask for affection rather than to show it.

He dries his hands on the dishcloth and tosses it carelessly aside, his eyes drifting shut as he settles back into the warmth of Billy’s arms around him. He can feel the soft whisper of Billy’s breath against the side of his neck, can feel the faint tremors running through him as exhaustion and pain take their toll. Some fiercely tender instinct ignites in his chest; he turns in Billy’s arms and wraps him in an answering embrace, gratefully breathing in the scent of him.

“Let’s go to bed, darlin’,” he murmurs, brushing a feather-light kiss over the soft skin below Billy’s ear. Billy gives a wordless hum of agreement but doesn’t move.

Goody isn’t keen to part from the comforting warmth of his partner’s arms either. But the thought of curling up in bed together is motivation enough to have him pulling away with no small effort of will, lacing his fingers through Billy’s and tugging him gently toward the bedroom. Billy sighs and follows.

The bedroom is as he’d left it, sheets thrown carelessly aside and the faint glimmer of glass dust between the floorboards. He pauses to strip off his sweatpants as Billy sinks gingerly onto the bed, careful of his injuries. Goody can’t help but give a small wince of sympathy. He’s been in the same position often enough to know that his partner is in for an uncomfortable night. Some degree of discomfort is unavoidable when there’s no way of sparing one injury which doesn’t aggravate another.

He’s no less careful himself as he settles onto the bed; weighing the need to touch, to reassure himself that Billy is whole and safe and here with him, against the fear of causing him further pain. It’s a delicate balance to strike. But he’s spared the necessity of overthinking the situation when Billy turns into him at the first touch, pressing in close. He closes his eyes and buries his face in the soft fall of Billy’s hair.

More often it’s Goody who finds himself seeking out comfort, hiding from his demons in the fleeting safety of his lover’s arms. He’s lived with shame for too long for that fact to sting his pride as it once did; he’s long since accepted that although the horrors he’s seen are no greater, he’s by far less equipped to live with them. The constancy of Billy’s steadying presence by his side has done so much to help him bear those old shadows that he scarcely knows how to express it.

Far better this way than the reverse; he would not ever wish to see Billy so haunted by the past. But still, there’s something almost pleasing in the rare occasions he is called upon comfort Billy, an animal satisfaction in being able to care for his partner. In these moments, the guilty whispers at the back of his mind that he’s nothing but a burden fall briefly, blessedly silent.

His fingertips map out familiar paths across Billy’s shoulders and down his back, skimming feather-light around the scratches peppering his skin. After so long together it’s unconscious habit to find the places that make him shiver, make his breath catch; the base of his skull, the hollow above his collarbone, the dip of muscle where neck meets shoulder. With every tender touch, Billy relaxes a little more against him, almost inaudible noises of contentment and satisfaction on his lips.

It’s almost meditative, the world distant and meaningless somewhere beyond the softness of Billy’s skin under his hands and the steady beat of his heart. There’s a peace that comes to him only rarely in slowly coaxing the lingering tension from the line of Billy’s shoulders.

Apparently apropos of nothing, Billy huffs a soft, sleepy breath of a laugh against the side of his neck. A fond smile curling on his lips, he nudges his nose against Billy’s temple. “What?”

Billy pulls back just enough to kiss him, grinning against his lips. “I should come home banged up more often if this is the reward.”

“Don’t you dare,” Goody replies, nipping at his jaw with mostly-feigned reproach.

He knows there’s something in it that strikes a little too true for both of them, for all that they might laugh. It pains them both to see the other hurting, to be faced with so stark a reminder of how easily this could be taken away from them. He can see the thought cross Billy’s mind at the same pace it does his, the amusement in his eyes fading into something more pensive. After a long moment, he leans in and kisses Goody again, slower and more lingering this time.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs.

Goody sighs softly and closes his eyes, leaning their foreheads in together. “It’s alright, darlin’,” he says. “Believe it or not, I knew what I was getting into.” This is the life they lead, for better or for worse. They’ve always known the risks.

“That doesn’t mean it’s okay,” Billy replies. Something in his voice makes Goody open his eyes again, seeking out his gaze. He looks...conflicted. The expression seems wrong on his face, utterly confident in himself as he normally is, and it tugs at Goody’s heart to see it. He doesn’t want to be the cause of Billy doubting himself.

He doesn’t know what to say. He can’t pretend he wouldn’t be desperately relieved if Billy decided that he wanted to step back from field work and take on a less dangerous role. The fragile sense of peace and purpose he’s found, what small delight he takes in his life for all the struggle it is sometimes...it’s all built around Billy. He doesn’t know what he’d do if he lost Billy. His mind quails away from the very thought.

But he loves Billy, heart and soul. And just as much as he loves these quiet, tender moments of shared affection here in their bed, he loves Billy’s unflinching pragmatism and his calm confidence in the face of danger. He loves the wild light in Billy’s eyes when there’s adrenaline singing in his veins. He loves the way Billy moves in a fight, sure and fluid and utterly without fear.

The darker parts — the parts that still scare him a little when they come to the fore — are as much the man he loves as everything else. They’ve seen each other at their worst in the years they’ve been together, and after all of that, he would never do Billy the disservice of wishing to change him. Their sharp edges have always lined up better than he would have dared hope for.

He can feel the shape of some reassuring platitude on his lips. Rather than put voice to it, he swallows it down and considers his answer honestly. The least he owes Billy in this is a measured response. He catches Billy’s hand in his and laces their fingers together, his eyes serious as he holds Billy’s gaze.

“Darlin’, if and when you decide you’re ready to step back, I’ll be relieved,” he admits. He pauses, considering his next words, and can’t help but grin a little as they take shape in his mind. “But until then, I’m still madly in love with the crazy sonuvabitch who brought a hairpin to a gunfight and won.”

The phrasing startles a laugh out of Billy, who relaxes a little against him. There’s something a touch melancholy in Goody’s smile as he raises their joined hands to his lips and presses a kiss to the inside of Billy’s wrist. Billy squeezes his hand gently, his gaze searching as it moves over Goody’s face. He draws breath as though to speak before pausing, and Goody recognises the slightly distant look that comes into his eyes as the one he wears when he’s choosing his next words very carefully.

The silence draws out, and after a moment, Billy gives a small nod and brushes a kiss of his own over their joined hands. “I’ll do everything I can to make sure I always come home.”

It’s precious little, as promises go; they both know well that there will come a day when everything Billy can do isn’t enough. But with that knowledge hanging between them, it’s no use promising anything more, not when the truth of it lies so far beyond their control. Much as it makes his heart ache to contemplate the thought of the job Billy doesn’t come home from, there’s a cold comfort in the fact that even in this, Billy won’t lie to him.

He sighs and presses his forehead to Billy’s, holding him a little closer as he closes his eyes. “I know,” he whispers, curling his fingers into Billy’s hair. “I know.”

They stay like that for a long time, their breath mingling and their arms wrapped in tight around each other. After a while, Billy’s breathing slows and evens out, the last lingering threads of tension fading as he begins to drift off to sleep. He stirs and mumbles something unintelligible as Goody shifts into a more comfortable position to see out the night in, but doesn’t fully wake; a few reassuring touches are enough to have him settling in again, his face tucked into the crook of Goody’s neck.

Goody strokes his hair gently back from his face, something aching sweetly in his chest for the sight of his wary and capable partner sleeping so trustingly in his arms. He knows in his bones that he would do anything for Billy. Even this. Even waiting helplessly at home as he goes off and risks himself, even seeing the mute evidence of the harm he’s come to torn into his skin afterwards.

He wonders sometimes if it would be better if he was still out there in the field himself. If seeing the aftermath of Billy’s injuries is hard, being there to witness them happen would be so much worse, but he can’t help but wonder if it would ease his guilt to be there to back Billy up in the moment. If maybe, somewhere down the line, his presence could be the difference between life and death.

In his heart, he knows he’d be of little use. His demons are capricious things; he can never know from one moment to the next when he’ll be able to struggle through and do what needs to be done, and when he’ll be left frozen helplessly in place. The scars left by the things he’s seen and done and suffered run too deep. Just the thought of seeking out that life again makes him feel sick.

If Billy asked it of him, he would do it.

But Billy won’t ask, any more than he would ask Billy to give up his work and come home. They each value the trust that’s been given to them far too much to call upon it lightly. They’ve been through too much, together and separately, to begrudge each other the ways in which they quiet their demons. Goody needs distance, a safe place to hide from the shadows of his past. And Billy needs to fight.

The lights of passing cars chase each other across the ceiling, carved into strips by the slatted blinds; somewhere in the distance, a siren wails. Goody strokes absently through his lover’s hair, and takes some small comfort in the steady beat of his heart.

Maybe somewhere in the grey hours before dawn he’ll find sleep. Or maybe insomnia will haunt him until morning, until the world stirs again from the breathless hush of secret hours, and mundane reality drowns out the sound of his thoughts for just a little while. It scarcely matters either way. A sleepless reverie with Billy by his side is more restorative by far than any peaceful night alone has ever been. And it feels ungrateful to squander any moment of this night in sleep, when once again he’s been so fortunate as to have Billy come home to him.

Any other night may be the night all of this comes to an end. But tonight, all that matters is that they’re here together.