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two whiskeys straight

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Deep in the bowels of Quantico’s basement, Bill’s desk lamp lights up his little corner of the world that is hushed and calm. The lighter scrapes before bursting into flame, and smoke billows from his cigarette as he inhales a rush of nicotine. Faintly, it puts him at ease. He closes his eyes, relishing the sense of peace that comes right after a drag, knowing it will only last seconds. 

The BTK case file is spread out in front of him, displaying in brutal honesty the details of the unsolved crimes. He’s looked at them a hundred times, and smoked a cigarette for every grotesque image, replacing the acid burn of bile with a dry coat of tobacco. Tonight, they look different. The blood redder, the ropes tighter, the skin whiter, the eyes bigger and bulging with fear trapped in their dead pupils. He’s seen enough dead bodies in the past month in Atlanta to make any seasoned agent numb, but he isn’t numb. Somehow he relates more to the pictures in front of him than the family photos Nancy had stripped from the walls of their home on her way out the door.

Bill clamps his mouth around the cigarette in inhales deeply. The simple expansion of his lungs against his ribs makes his chest ache. A heaviness rests beneath his breastbone, threatening to burst free at any moment. Somewhere down there is a well of tears he’ll never let fall - because of his pride, because he’s not deserving of the relief that might come with breaking down. 

Smoke pours from his mouth, momentarily clouding his view of the crime scene photos. His eyes are burning, and he’s sick of looking at dead, mangled bodies. He’s weary and on edge, but he can’t stomach the thought of driving home only to stare at the four blank walls of the house while he eats a microwaveable dinner.  

It’s been a week since she left, taking their son with her. He keeps telling himself that she’ll call. She’ll come back. She’ll show up at the door one night, begging his forgiveness, telling him she made a mistake. The possibility drifts further and further from brusque reality with every morning he wakes up alone in their bed - one of the few pieces of furniture she’d left behind. He hasn’t bothered to buy sheets for it. Just dragged the spare blankets out of the closet and threw them across the mattress. He’s holding out, waiting, clinging to paper-thin hope. 

Bill redirects his attention back to his desk. If he thinks about Nancy and Brian too long, the knot in his throat gets bigger, demanding release. No, he can’t. Not tonight. Not yet. 

Leaning over the desk, he sifts through the photographs, police reports, and witness statements; the bare bones of the lengthy BTK investigation. It’s been going on so long that they should have something concrete by now, but if Atlanta taught him anything, it’s that no matter how hard you work the case, sometimes the evidence just isn’t there. Sometimes all you can do is sit around and wait for the motherfucker to make a mistake while the bodies pile up. 

Letting out a weary sigh, Bill taps the ashes of his cigarette into the tray and watches them dwindle into the glass. Exhaustion tugs at his eyelids, reminding him he’s been up and moving since 5:30 this morning.  

Just go home. There’s nothing left to do today. He thinks, but that idea holds little appeal.

His thoughts navigate in a tight, dizzying circle. Stay, go home. Look at BTK, think about Nancy and Brian. The proverbial rock and a hard place. Isn’t there some gentle gray area in between? 

Bill’s eyelids jolt open when the shrill ring of his telephone alerts him that he’s dozed off with his forehead in his palm. A quick glance at his watch tells him its almost ten. Too late for anyone to be calling the BSU. 

He grabs the receiver, half-expecting a prank call. “Tench.” 

The hum of the empty line greets him, and he almost hangs up. Then, a quiet, familiar voice reaches from the other end. 

“Bill?” 

“Nancy?” 

He’s awake now. Wide awake. 

“Nancy … God, I’ve been trying to call you.” He says, clutching the phone in his fist. “I called your sister, your mom … Christ, I even called the pastor to see if you’d contacted him.” 

“I’m sorry … I just had to get away.” 

He stops, squeezing his eyelids shut against a sudden bolt of strangling emotion. 

“Away from me?” He asks, quietly. 

“Just … away.” 

He draws in a steadying breath, and tries to clear the knot from his throat. “Where are you?” 

“I’m with my mom.” She says, “Me and Brian both are. Don’t be mad at her. I told her not to answer your calls.”

“I’m not mad. I’m worried sick.” 

“Don’t be. We’re fine.” 

“Fine? You expect me to believe that? After you fucking- …” He stops short, realizing his hands are shaking. He licks his lips, and tries to calm his breathing. “ … After you left without telling me?” 

“I told you what I wanted, and you didn’t listen.” 

“I was listening. I just … there was work - Atlanta - and Brian. Honey, I still think the best thing for him would be for both of you to come home. Don’t you think this is upsetting him?” 

“He’s not upset. He’s the same.” Nancy replies, her voice softening. “The same as always.”

Silence hums over the line for a long moment. 

“Twenty-eight.” Bill says, at length. “That’s how many kids died in Atlanta, Nance. Someone had to do something.” 

“Please.” She says, quietly, her voice trembling. “Don’t make me the bad guy.” 

“I’m not. But, I wasn’t ignoring you or Brian. I was doing the best that I could.” 

“I needed you.” She whispers, emotion creeping into her voice. He hears her draw in a sharp, tearful breath. 

“I’m sorry.” 

He doesn’t know what else to say. God, he is sorry. Sorry for all of it. But, he’s looked back on all his choices, and he doesn’t know what else he could have done differently. 

A long time passes, but he can still hear her breathing shakily on the other end. She hasn’t hung up, and that must mean she doesn’t want to. 

“Why did you call?” He asks. 

“I just wanted you to know we’re okay.” 

“And? Are you coming home?” 

She swallows, thickly. “No, Bill … we’re not.” 

He closes his eyes, the prick of tears hot and lacerating against his eyelids. Dropping his head, he holds the telephone tight against his ear, searching for some hint of remorse or doubt in her voice. There is none. 

“What do you want to do?” He asks, “You leaving me, Nance? You want a divorce?” 

“I don’t know right now.” 

“What do you know?” 

“I know I’m not happy. I haven’t been for awhile.” 

“Awhile?” 

“Since you started traveling so much. Please admit that you know it’s put a strain on things.” 

“Yes … I know.” 

Static hisses across the line, and Bill hears a shuffle on the other end, the faint sound of a little voice. He can’t distinguish the question, but he hears Nancy’s reply, “Just a minute, sweetheart.” 

“Was that Brian?” He asks, “Can I talk to him?” 

“It’s bedtime.” She replies, “I’ll call you later. You should go home, get some rest. It’s too late for you to still be at work.”

“Nancy, wait. Just one minute. I just want to tell him-”

“Goodnight, Bill.” 

The line clicks, then hums the dial tone mockingly back him. The cold rejection sets in, taking only a moment to digest before it erupts into a hot burst of anger. He slams the receiver down, and leaps to his feet. He knows where Nancy’s mom lives. He’s been there a hundred times. He could drive there tonight, in less than an hour. He could make her listen, make her hear his side, his pain, his regret … 

As quickly as the tide of anger submerged him, the wave passes, leaving him standing over the images of bloody, strangled bodies, his hours old coffee, his half-smoked cigarette, feeling suddenly, powerfully empty and defeated. 

There’s no convincing her. She’s already made up her mind. He thinks. 

He drops down into his chair, and lights another cigarette. 

It’s nearly gone when he hears the basement door creak open. It has a signature wail that no one has ever tried to grease out of the hinges. 

Bill leans to one side to peer through the open door of his office as the tread of someone approaching grows louder. As Holden enters his field of sight, he quickly shifts his gaze back to the BTK file. 

“Bill?” Holden sounds surprised to see him. 

Bill glances up from the file to acknowledge him. 

“What are you still doing here?” Holden asks, leaning against the doorframe. 

“Just working. And you?” 

“I left some material here on the next interview. I wanted to look it over tonight.” 

Bill checks his watch. “It’s almost ten.” 

“Exactly.” Holden says, pinning him with a pointed gaze. “Shouldn’t you be at home? We spent enough time away in Atlanta. I thought Nancy would be breathing down your neck about-”

“Let’s not talk about Nancy, okay?” Bill says, holding his hand up. 

Holden’s eyebrow raises. “Okay.” 

He turns to leave, but pauses with his hands in his pockets. Bill watches him out of the corner of his eye. He’s indecisive again; wishing Holden would leave, wishing he would stay. It’s not so much Holden, he tries to tell himself. He just wants to tell someone everything, and have them not just listen, but understand. 

“Are you okay?” Holden asks, turning on his heel to face Bill fully. “You’ve seemed stressed ever since we got back from Atlanta. More stressed than usual, I mean.”

“So have you. We’re all on edge. It was a tough case.” 

“Sure.” Holden says, scrutinizing him with a narrowed gaze. “It’s just that … You told me what happened with Brian, and then we never talked about it again. I feel like that’s partly my fault. I was so wrapped up in the case.” 

“It’s not something I really wanted to talk about.” Bill says, taking a drag of his cigarette. “You can let yourself off the hook.”

“No, you were right.” Holden says, shuffling closer to the desk. “I lean on you … But who are you leaning on?” 

Bill meets Holden’s gaze through a haze of smoke. The tenacity in Holden’s eyes is something he recognizes, but it’s never been turned quite so fiercely at him. 

“I don’t need to lean on anyone. I’m fine.” He says, the words biting past his teeth like acid. He’s practically choking on the truth, but he can’t let Holden see it. 

“Really?” Holden asks, circling the desk. “It’s ten o’clock at night. You’re drinking coffee to keep yourself awake. You’re looking at a case that’s been cold for months when you would normally be at home with your wife and son. You’re on edge, and you have been for days-”

“It is not your fucking job to profile me.” Bill’s voice punches from his chest in a strangled shout as he leaps to his feet to meet Holden’s decisive gaze. 

Holden barely flinches as Bill’s enraged breath hits his cheeks. Inches apart, Bill can see the faint flutter of his eyelashes and the pale flush crawling up his throat. Holden’s throat bobs with a thick swallow. 

“Fuck … I’m sorry.” Bill sighs, sinking back to his chair. He presses the cigarette to his mouth with shaking fingers, and inhales slowly. “You’re right.” 

“About which part?” 

“In Atlanta.” Bill says, lifting a weary gaze. “I was distracted … because of Brian. I told you I had it under control, but the truth is …” 

Holden sits down on the edge of the desk, and ducks his head. “You can’t be two places at once.” 

“I kept thinking … one more week, and we’ll catch him. One more day, and we can go home. Just one more clue, and it’ll all be over. We could win, I could get back to my family, I could fix things …” 

Holden is quiet for the first Bill can ever remember. Just listening. His silence is loud yet gentle, like an arm slowly winding its way around Bill’s shoulders. He wants to collapse into it. 

“Nancy wanted me to take time off to help with Brian. He wasn’t doing good, regressing in behavior, not talking, wetting the bed. Then, we had to deal with all the visits to the therapist, and the social worker just dropping by whenever it fucking pleased her. It got to a breaking point when the mother of the toddler who died came to visit Nancy. I think it made something inside her snap. She had to face that it was reality, that Brian - our Brian - really did that. It wasn’t just some bad dream we were all going to wake up from. She said she wanted to move away, sell the house, start over. I told her that we would talk about it when Atlanta was finished; I told her I understood, but she just …” 

Bill’s explanation tapers off into silence. He takes another drag from his cigarette; his lungs fill with smoke, bracing against the sick, unhinged beat of his heart. 

“She left.” Holden says, softly. 

Bill closes his eyes. It hurts worse to hear someone else say it. Hurts more to know that he didn’t even have to admit out loud. Holden just knows. 

“I feel like a monumental fuck-up.” Bill whispers, squeezing the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “I’ve thought through every decision, every conversation; I don’t know what else I could have done, but-”

“You feel guilty.” Holden finishes where Bill’s voice chokes off. He releases a low sigh. “I feel the same way about Atlanta.” 

Bill swallows down the knot in his throat, and takes another quick hit off the cigarette. “So much for our victory lap, huh?” 

Holden offers a stiff smile. Pushing off the edge of the desk, he puts a hand on Bill’s shoulder. “For what its worth, I don’t think you’re a fuck-up, Bill. I gave you a hard time in Atlanta, but I wouldn’t have made it through without you. I mean it.” 

Bill nods.

Holden reaches over to flip the BTK file shut. “Come on. You’re not going to catch BTK running on fumes.” 

“Thanks, but I’m good. You go ahead.” 

Holden hesitates, his brow furrowing with concern. “Okay.” 

Bill watches him cross the room toward the door, his chest seizing painfully at the thought of sitting here for another hour before deciding to leave, fighting to stay awake driving home, and laying in his empty bed listening to the incessant rotation of his own accusatory thoughts. 

“Holden.” He says, rising to his feet. 

“Yeah?” Holden turns to meet his gaze. His eyes are bright blue in the shadows of the basement, almost hopeful. 

“You got plans tonight?” 

Holden’s brow quirks curiously. “No.” 

“I’m stopping for a drink on the way home. You wanna come?” 

Surprise crosses Holden’s face before being eclipsed by determination. “Yeah. Let’s do it.” 

Bill grabs his jacket from the back of the chair, and swings it over his shoulder as he marches past Holden. Holden is left in the doorway for a bewildered moment before he rushes to follow Bill into the elevator. 

 

~

 

The bar is crowded on a Friday night. A dozen conversations meld into a dull roar over the clink of glasses and the announcer commentating the baseball game playing on the TV over the bar. 

Bill and Holden wedge their way into a free spot along the far end of the bar. Holden orders a beer, and Bill asks for whiskey. 

Bill catches Holden’s dubious glance sideways. 

“What?” He asks. 

“Nothing.” Holden says, shaking his head. 

“I can hold my liquor. Don’t fret.” Bill says. 

“I’m not fretting.” 

The bartender returns with their drinks, and Bill mutters a thank you before taking a generous gulp of his whiskey. The alcohol hits his veins with a thud, rushing hot and tingly through his chest and down into his fingertips. The sharp burn is followed by a head rush that makes his temples pound. He drinks the second half before the throb can abate, relishing the momentary burst of sensation that tastes like cavalier forgetfulness. 

The bartender acknowledges his wave, and pours him out another. 

Holden clears his throat, and Bill shoots him a defensive glare. 

“Maybe I should have called up Wendy, and asked her if she wanted me to pay for her drinks tonight instead.” Bill says. 

“I can pay for my own drinks.”

“I think I can cover the cost of one - maybe two - beers.” 

“I’m not asking you to.” 

“Can’t you just say ‘thank you’ and move on?” 

Holden turns the beer bottle around between his fingers. His mouth purses for a moment before he murmurs. “Thank you.” 

“There. How hard was that?” Bill mutters, bringing his glass back to his mouth. 

He sips more slowly this time, savoring the sharp flavor of the whiskey drying out the back of his throat. The headache he’s been fighting all day intensifies, but he ignores the pain for the moment, knowing it’ll only get worse before it gets better. Nothing a few more drinks can’t cure. 

“Do you come here often?”  Holden asks, raising his voice over the clamor surrounding them. 

“Not until recently.” Bill says, biting back an amused smile. Here he is, trying to get plastered, and Holden is trying to make casual conversation. 

Holden nods, and glances around the packed room. He looks out of place with his starched shirt and the full-windsor knot in his tie. God, he’s such a boy scout, Bill thinks. But a smart one. Not all boy scouts are as insightful or as dedicated as Holden. 

“You know, you were right about something else in Atlanta.” He says, bracing his elbow on the bar and leaning closer to Holden. 

“What was that?” Holden asks, archly. He takes a sip of his beer, trying not to meet Bill’s gaze. 

“The profile.” Bill says, “A black male, 20s to 30s, living with a family member …” 

“I’m sure you saw the news.” Holden replies, his eyes darkening. “They’re only indicting Williams for two of the murders. The adults. No children.” 

“You’re not satisfied we got the guy.” 

“There’s no evidence to prove Williams killed all of those kids.”

“I haven’t heard about a single kid being pulled out of a river since the arrest.” 

“That could just mean that the real killer got nervous.” Holden shakes his head, and casts Bill a worried gaze. “We bust Williams, and he goes into hiding. Who’s to say it doesn’t start back up again in a year?” 

Bill sighs. “Look, kid, I’m just trying to say … you did good. It’s one of the toughest cases I’ve ever worked. Physically, mentally … emotionally. You gave it your all, and I hope to God someone in Atlanta remembers it because the mayor and the other politicians sure as hell didn’t give an ounce of the effort that you did." 

Holden glances up at him from beneath the dark fringe of his eyelashes. There’s a faint smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, and the blush of pride hinting at his cheeks. 

“Maybe that makes you feel better, but I still feel like I failed them.” His voice softens, “The mothers.” 

“I know, but it’s over now.” Bill says, putting a hand on Holden’s shoulder. “Sometimes, you just gotta let things go.” 

“I don’t know that I can do that.” 

Bill tips his glass back, and swallows a fiery gulp of whiskey. The edge is dulled just a bit, though not enough. 

“Hey, maybe you should slow down.” Holden says as the last of the whiskey drains past Bill’s lips.

Bill sets the glass down firmly. “Maybe you should catch up.” 

He waves for the bartender to refill his glass. 

Holden shifts on the barstool, and grasps his beer bottle in one fist. Reaching down into his pocket, he lifts a yellow prescription bottle just far enough for Bill to see it before dropping it back inside. 

“I’m not really supposed to combine alcohol with prescription drugs.” He says. 

“Right.” Bill mutters. 

The bartender pours him another three fingers of whiskey, but Bill gazes blankly at the glistening rim of the glass without drinking. 

A fresh wave of guilt hits him, this one more closely tied to Holden rather than Nancy. He clears his throat, and shifts his gaze back to Holden. 

“How have you been doing?” He asks, “With the, um …”

“The panic attacks?” Holden finishes for him. “I’m okay. It comes and goes.” 

“About Atlanta …” Bill says, drawing in a shaky breath. 

He can still hear the sound of the river surging in the background, the hum of insects, and the blur of mosquitoes out of the corner of his eye. He can remember the sweat clinging to his back, and the anger raging to the surface with a power that matched the undertow of the river. He’d been standing there thinking, God, I’m finally gonna take a swing at this kid. Instead, he’d done something worse. He’d opened his fucking mouth. 

Holden’s inquisitive gaze needles into his temple as the thread of conversation dangles. He takes a sip of whiskey, swallowing down the bitter taste of his pride along with the alcohol.

“I probably should have told you earlier.” Bill says, “About Brian.” 

“I understand why you didn’t.” 

“No, you had no way of knowing just how shitty things were for me at home when I told you I had a family issue going on. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. It was uncalled for.” 

Holden scoffs a quiet chuckle. “Yeah, it was.” 

Bill knocks back his whiskey. 

“You take one of those tonight?” He asks, jabbing a finger at Holden’s pocket. 

“No, but I’m never sure when I’ll need to.” 

“So, take the chance.” Bill says, crooking his finger at the bartender. 

“Bill, no-” Holden begins to protest. 

“Two whiskeys, straight.” Bill tells the bartender. “My friend here needs to loosen up a little bit.” 

 Holden’s brow furrows as he watches the amber splash of whiskey fill the glass the bartender produces from beneath the bar. 

Bill nudges the glass closer to him. 

“Getting a little buzzed won’t kill you.” He says, “After Atlanta, you deserve to let your hair down a little bit.” 

Holden regards the drink warily. 

“Hey,” Bill says, putting his arm around Holden’s shoulders, and giving him a reassuring squeeze. “I’m here. I won’t let anything happen to you.” 

Holden’s uneasy gaze shifts upwards to meet Bill’s. “If I end up the hospital tonight, I’m going to hold you solely responsible.” 

“Fine.” Bill says. 

Grasping the taut knot in Holden’s tie, he tugs it loose, and twists open the top button of Holden’s shirt. Holden protests, wiggling underneath Bill’s grip on his shoulder. 

“Come on, relax.” Bill coaxes, giving Holden’s shoulder a convivial jostle. 

Holden draws in a deep breath. Snatching the glass from the bar, he takes a quick drink. When he sets the glass back down, his cheeks are already flushing pink with the rush of alcohol. He swallows with difficulty, and suppresses a cough with the back of his hand. 

“Jesus, that’s strong. You trying to get me drunk, Bill?” He asks, casting Bill a coy smile. 

“Not much trying involved when your drinking partner doesn’t drink whiskey.” 

“I drink it.” Holden scowls. “I just don’t like it that much.” 

“It’s not so bad once you get past the first drink.” 

“Is that right?” 

“Yeah, go ahead.” Bill says, motioning at the glass. 

He leans back, and fishes his cigarettes from his pocket. He lights one as Holden takes another tentative sip. It’s almost endearing to watch. Such secluded innocence in a man who has seen so much. He almost can’t wait until Holden is properly drunk. 

 

~

 

The next time Bill checks his watch, it’s past midnight. The crowd has thinned at the bar, but a few stragglers are still chasing escape in the bottom of whiskey glasses. He’s halfway there himself, having had the sense to slow down after his third whiskey. He tempered the evening with a mug of beer, grasping the cold glass with numb fingers, barely tasting its dense flavor as Holden’s voice carries methodically over the hum of surrounding conversation. 

Holden’s a drunk talker apparently. Once he gets past the first glass of whiskey, he seems to come untethered from the straight-laced persona he hides behind. Most of it is about Atlanta, the frustrations, the short-comings, the bureaucratic bullshit, the kids. Mainly the kids. All those poor, dead kids, their hopes and dreams pouring out into muddy river water along with the youthful spring of their blood. It’s a huge waste, a pity, a tragedy, but worse for the way it ended. 

“There’s no justice in the world, is there?” Holden says, after he’s exhausted his complaints about the mayor and everyone else involved. “Not for people like the ones we met in Atlanta.” 

“There is justice.” Bill says, “Sometimes delayed, but we have to keep believing in the process, or what else are we doing here?” 

“I wanted the work we do the matter.” Holden says, “I wanted the insights we gleaned from Kemper and all the rest to work in application before people died, not after. At the end of the day, our research didn’t do a damn thing. We got lucky that night on the bridge. Williams fucked up. And what if he did only kill the two adults as the evidence suggests? What if the real unsub is-” 

“Holden, you’ll drown yourself in ‘what-if’s’.” Bill says. “Time marches on, with or without us. Sometimes, you just have to keep going.” 

“So, that’s it then?” Holden asks, “I’m just supposed to go back to my life, and pretend it didn’t happen.” 

“No, I didn’t say that. But we have to make peace with our mistakes. We have to live with them. We have to wake up in the morning and not hate ourselves for what happened last week or last year. Sometimes, all you can do is face yourself in the mirror, and if you can do that, it’s a good day.” 

Holden’s glassy eyes wash over Bill with a faint sense of pity. Even drunk, he’s intuitive, his gaze stripping down Bill’s barriers to find his heart in pieces just below. For a moment, that intense gaze is as painful as salt in an open wound, but like the whiskey, it dulls after the initial burn until the dull ache is some kind of comfort. 

“Are we still talking about Atlanta?” Holden asks, gently. 

Bill averts his gaze to the foamy remnants of his beer swimming in the bottom of the mug. Whatever painful memories the whiskey had momentarily erased, an even stronger sense of despair rises up to replace them. Drunk and senseless, he’s not just angry or hurt; he’s afraid. Afraid of the future, what life after tonight means. He’s not even sure he believes what he’s saying. 

“You can talk to me about this stuff, you know.” Holden says, “I’m a good listener.” 

“It’s not that.” 

“I get there’s some things I can’t understand, but I wouldn’t judge you for the choices you made about Nancy and Brian-”

“Oh, really?” Bill asks, shooting him a sour glance. 

“Yes.” Holden says, sounding wounded. 

“So, you wouldn’t sit there and try to tell me exactly what I should do to fix my life?” 

“No, I don’t think-”

“Holden, you’re my partner. I trust you. But sometimes you’re a know-it-all.” 

“Is that why you didn’t tell me about Brian earlier?”  Holden asks, his mouth slipping open in disbelief, a reaction which would have been comical if Bill hadn’t been so tired. 

“I’m sorry, but I didn’t think it would help things.” Bill says, holding up a hand. “I thought I could … you know, handle it on my own. I didn’t think we would be in Atlanta for six fucking weeks.” 

Holden falls silent for a long moment before he draws in a slow breath, and shakes his head. 

“Maybe you’re right. I was so focused on finding the unsub.” He says, quietly. “God, Bill, I’m sorry. Have I said that yet?” 

“No … and you don’t have to. I don’t expect sympathy from you, or anyone.” 

“Why? It’s not your fault.” 

Bill glances away just as the brunt of Holden’s gaze hits him. The weight of that question is like a brick sitting on his chest, fracturing bone, crushing muscle and flesh. Not my fault. Wendy had said the same thing, but he can’t quite convince himself; not after all he’s seen, and all he’s profiled from the lives of killers. 

“It always starts with the mother … the absent father.” He says, hardly realizing the words are spilling from his chest before they’re fully emerged, sitting blatantly in the smoke-hazed air between them. 

“Brian isn’t a killer. He was confused.” 

“Was he? That’s what Nancy keeps saying, but …” 

“And you’re not an absent father.” Holden says, “Yes, you travel a lot of work, but you try to be there for your family. I’ve seen it, firsthand.” 

Bill scoffs into his beer as he drains the last of the drink from his glass. He’s never been preoccupied with Holden’s approval, but it gives him the smallest relief to hear it from someone else. Someone who genuinely cares, despite his flaws. 

He glances up when Holden’s hand touches his shoulder, and their gazes connect in the humming silence stretched out between them. Holden’s eyes are gentle and blue, telegraphing concern, the faint pang of pity, some warm, comforting sentiment. 

Bill draws in a shaky breath. Momentarily, he emerges from the haze of whiskey to see them sitting here at the bar, two tired men airing their complaints to the only other person who could possibly understand. He becomes starkly aware of the sweat clinging to his back, the flush of booze crowding humidly against his throat and cheeks, and the emotion crowding in his chest, just beneath the surface. He’s turned halfway on the barstool, his knee resting against Holden’s thigh, the contact close, comfortable; too comfortable. 

“Come on.” Bill says, “I need some air.” 

He slides down from the barstool, and fumbles with his pockets to find his wallet. He drops the bills on the table without waiting to see just how far they ran the tab up tonight; he’ll be back. 

“Are we leaving?” Holden asks as he hops down from the barstool to follow Bill out of the bar. 

“It’s getting late.” Bill says, checking his watch. 

“Tomorrow’s Saturday.” Holden reminds him. 

No work. Bill grimaces. Nothing to distract him from the emptiness of the house, the way every creak in the floorboards and the scuff of his shoe on the carpet resonates louder than before. 

They emerge onto the sidewalk, where the air is fresh and devoid of smoke. Bill draws in a deep breath as he pauses to glance down the empty street. The overhead lamps radiate a jaundiced light that turns the pink flush on Holden’s cheeks to a gaudy rouge. 

Bill slides his cigarettes from his pocket and takes one out, reducing the remaining number to a depressing quartet. The final four cigarettes rattle against one another as he lights up, and sucks on the filter like its his final lifeline. 

“You could crash at my place for a little while.” Holden says. 

The suggestion erupts out of nowhere, hitting Bill broadside. The cigarette dangles limply from his mouth. 

“Why would I do that?” He asks, the question coming out more defensively than he meant. 

“I don’t know.” Holden says. The shadow of his eyelashes grows longer at he averts his gaze to the sidewalk. “You just seem like you don’t want to go home.” 

“I should.” Bill says, “I should check if … if Nancy has-”

Holden lowers his head, and sighs quietly. “Bill, you and I both know she isn’t there. And she won’t be. Not today, or tomorrow. Probably not next week either.” 

Bill purses his lips. Maybe it’s the alcohol or the late hour. Suddenly, he feels like collapsing, like breaking down into all the little, fractured pieces of himself that are barely stitched together by his pride and a flagging determination to soldier on through this obstacle like every other problem he’s faced in his life. 

Holden fishes his keys out of his pocket, and nods for Bill to follow him. 

Bill trudges across the street behind him, shocked at his own inability to argue. He wants to gather his ire, and tell Holden to go fuck himself. He doesn’t know shit about Bill’s marriage. Instead, he pauses at the passenger’s side of Holden’s car to faintly protest, “What about my car?” 

Holden wiggles his key in the lock while peering at Bill over the top of the car. “We’ll come back for it tomorrow.” He says, “You’ve had a lot to drink. I shouldn’t let you drive.” 

Bill clenches his jaw as Holden ducks into the car and out of sight. Yanking the car door open, he slides down into the passenger’s seat and shoots Holden a glare. “You shouldn’t let me?” 

“Yes.” Holden replies, calmly. “Now, buckle your seatbelt.” 

Bill maintains his defiant glare as he reaches over to pull the seatbelt across his lap.

Holden twists the key in the ignition. Bracing a hand against the top of the steering wheel, he meets Bill’s petulant gaze. 

“And please don’t smoke in my car.” He adds, waving a finger at the window. 

“Jesus. Really?”

Holden asserts a pointed nod at the window. 

Releasing a heavy sigh, Bill rolls down the window and flicks the half-smoke cigarette out onto the street. 

“Thank you.” 

As Holden steers the car away from the curb, he turns the radio on. A jovial tune hums through the speakers at low volume, chafing against Bill’s dour thoughts. He turns his gaze to the window, and watches the scenery blur past as they leave downtown behind. Behind the glaze of his eyes, tries not to think of Nancy, or the brutal truth Holden had spoken. He’d successfully pushed his family to the back of his thoughts for most of the night, but it took little more than one remark for them to inundate him once more. If he can find a way to forget again until the morning, he'll gladly take it. 

Chapter Text

It isn’t until Bill staggers through the door of Holden’s apartment that he realizes he’s never actually been inside. It’s exactly as he expected. Sparse, utilitarian furniture, blank walls, and a noted lack of personal touch. It could have been a hotel suite if Bill hadn’t known better. 

Holden takes his shoes off by the door, and Bill follows suit. 

“Nice place.” He remarks as he wanders into the living room. 

“That’s nice of you.” Holden says, matching the veiled sarcasm in Bill’s tone. 

He shrugs out of his jacket, and throws it over the arm of the couch. As he loosens his tie and opens the second button of his shirt, his back loses some of it’s ramrod rigidity; Bill can almost visibly see him deflate into the comfort of his home, as if he’d been walking around all day propped up on pins and needles in an Oscar-worthy act of serene confidence. 

“Can I smoke in here?” Bill asks. 

“Sure. Debbie used to do it all the time. Just open a window.” 

Bill crosses the room to slide the living room window open, and withdraws his crumpled pack of cigarettes. 

“Used to?” He asks as he drags one free of the packaging with his teeth. 

“Yeah.” Holden says, meeting his gaze unflinchingly. “We broke up.” 

“I didn’t know.” Bill says, “How long ago?” 

“A little bit. Before Atlanta … and Kemper.” 

“You mean before the panic attack?” 

“Yes.” 

Holden’s gaze is placid in the scarce lamplight, but Bill can see something slither just beneath. It’s gone in a second, and Bill wonders how someone who is so upset by the deaths of kids he never met is barely affected by his own break-up. 

“It was mutual, then?” Bill asks. He lights his cigarette, and cuts a glance through the plume of smoke. 

“It was amiable, if that’s what you mean.” Holden says. 

“Good.” Bill says, “It’s always worse when it isn’t.” 

He flicks ashes out the window and watches the warm, summer breeze snatch them away. In the distance, the wail of a siren winds through the air, a faint reminder that tragedy is always just a few blocks away, but Bill is apathetic towards the idea of pain hovering just outside the circle of his own personal misery. He wants to close the window and forget, just for a moment, that the world outside exists. He can only shoulder so much, and tonight, the weight of his own choices and tragedy are too great to remember there’s a job to do after the weekend is over. 

Holden shuffles across the room, and sinks down onto the couch. Lacing his fingers behind his head, he gazes up at the ceiling before interrupting the angry churn of Bill’s thoughts. 

“I kind of knew it was coming.” He says, a little frown maring his brow. “I think she may have cheated on me.” 

“No shit.” Bill says, taking a drag of his cigarette. 

“In the end, I wasn’t mad about it. I understand why she did it. I wasn’t there. I was more involved in the interviews than I was with her. She felt abandoned. I can understand that.” 

“You make it sound simple.” 

“It wasn’t. It hurt, but it made sense.” 

“Is that your way of dealing with things?” Bill asks, “If it makes sense, it hurts less?” 

“It doesn’t for you?” Holden asks, lifting his head from the couch to pin Bill with an inquiring gaze. 

“No.” Bill says, focusing on the dwindling tip of his cigarette. “No, Holden, it hurts more knowing why Nancy … why she left.” 

“She felt abandoned, too?” 

Bill takes a hard drag from his cigarette, and leans against the window to blow the smoke back out into the night. “Yeah, I guess so. But it wasn’t my intention. I flew home every Thursday for the therapy appointments. I stayed the weekends. I called every night I was in Atlanta. I thought I was doing enough.” 

“I’m sorry.” 

Bill smokes the last of his cigarette in silence, and throws the butt out the window. Sliding the pane down, he crosses the room to join Holden on the couch. 

“You know, she called right before you showed up.” Bill says, bracing his elbows on his knees. He stares at the carpet as the memory of the brief conversation winds around his head.

“What did she say?” 

“She said she had to get away.” Bill says, scoffing quietly. “I asked her what she wanted, if she wanted a divorce.” 

“What was her response?” 

“‘I don’t know’.” Bill says, shooting a derisive glance over his shoulder at Holden. “That’s it.” 

Holden nods, processing this information for a long moment before drawing in a breath. “You think she’ll come back. What happens if she does?”

“I don’t know.” Bill says, again, this time out of the emptiness of his own heart. “Christ, I don’t know. I just know that I can’t stomach the thought of it ending like this. Twenty years of marriage, Holden. It should mean something.” 

“Sometimes, it just means you resent each other.” Holden murmurs, “Death by a thousand paper cuts.” 

“Something like that.” Bill grunts, “I do love her.” 

“But, is that enough to fix it?” 

Bill presses his eyes shut. He hasn’t asked himself these questions because he’s been afraid to even consider it. The possibility that Nancy might never come back to him grows stronger with each passing day, but he’s been drinking denial as fast as whiskey. Life without Nancy? It seems impossible, like some alternate universe where everything is backwards and he doesn’t know the rules. 

“I don’t know.” Bill repeats. “I asked her if she was coming home. She said ‘no’. But it’s only been a week. She could change her mind. She could …” 

His voice chokes off as the emotion he’d been cradling deep in his chest for so long comes rushing toward the surface. His ribs heave with a panicked breath, struggling to tamp down the thick, hot taste of tears clumping at the back of his throat, suffocating him. He can’t break down. Not here, not now. Not in front of Holden. 

Pressing his thumb and forefinger to the corners of his eyes, he pushes until the sting is overtaken by a dull ache and the tears swimming against his eyelids start to dissipate. Just as his breath begins to even, Holden’s palm creeps across his back, a slow and steady deliverance that feels like sun on frostbitten skin. 

Bill stares into the carpet, hearing his own breath rushing like the wind in his ears. 

Holden’s hand makes its way up his back until it curls around his shoulder, drawing him closer. A piercing howl of panic cuts through Bill’s mind, demanding that he pull away. This is too close. They’re co-workers, friends. A shoulder to cry on? That’s asking too much. 

Bill forces his eyelids open. 

His shoulder is tucked in Holden’s armpit, his cheek brushing the undone collar of his shirt. Holden smells dense like alpine wilderness, the tang of fir trees and the salty surge of a river. The pulse in his throat is steady, yet visible, the skin overlying that rush of blood so soft, almost delicate. 

“What are you doing?” Bill whispers, his voice rasping hollowly from the back of his throat. It doesn’t sound quite like a protest. 

Holden swallows, his tongue clicking against the roof of his mouth. His fingers peel back from Bill’s shoulder, and his arm begins to retreat. 

“Sorry.” He mutters, glancing away, but not before Bill can glimpse the flush rising up his throat. “That was … I didn’t mean to presume that-” 

“No.” Bill blurts just as the weight of Holden’s arm retreats from his back. “It’s okay.” 

Holden’s gaze is quick to dart back to him. Hunched over, Bill’s gaze his level with his mouth. His mouth. 

Bill closes his eyes against the sudden rush of inappropriate thoughts. What’s happening? He’s too drunk to remember his sexuality? Or is he just so lonely and touched starved, and Holden’s mouth so enticing and plush that he might just be able to convince himself that nothing about this is homosexual? 

Holden’s arm settles against his shoulders, heavier than before. His fingers clutch Bill’s shoulder before easing their way up, along his collarbone. Then his fingers are stroking Bill’s neck, just below his earlobe, and tingles are rushing down his skin like the skitter of hot needles. It feels too good to pull away now, even as his mind his screaming in alarm. 

Holden shifts closer. His chin bumps Bill’s nose as he tilts his head down, breath spilling hot across Bill’s mouth. The sharp scent of alcohol-tinged breath reaches Bill’s senses before his own self-control can produce that logical explanation. They’re both drunk. They don’t know what they’re doing. 

Instead of latching onto that excuse before it disappears beneath the mangled haze of drink, desire, and despair, Bill’s mind drifts away into the electric current of Holden’s fingertips grazing his jugular. 

He lifts his chin just a bit, and their mouths collide. It could have been accidental, except Holden leans into it. His mouth, wet and full, drags across Bill’s in a sloppy stroke. The little whimper that escapes the back of his throat is replete with need, and the pale hint of desperation. It all happens in a matter of seconds, but in Bill’s mind, the universe has paused its chaotic spinning. He closes his eyes as a rush of adrenaline and need hits him, veering wildly down his chest and into his belly. 

Holden pulls back, abruptly, the jagged stutter of his breath cooling the warmth of his saliva left smeared on Bill’s mouth. 

Reality hits Bill like a splash of cold water. Holden’s mouth is on his. He tastes like whiskey and need. His fingers are on the wild beat of Bill’s pulse. 

Bill recoils as horror bolts through his chest, his mind catching up with the malleable crawl of his body. 

“Holden, what the fuck?” He whispers, his voice wobbling in raspy tatters from his throat.

Holden retreats just far enough to leave a gap between their thighs no broader than the back of his hand. He doesn’t say anything, but he’s staring at his lap, breathing hard. 

A long moment passes. Bill can’t move; he can hardly breathe. Already he knows he should have gotten up and left the apartment as soon as Holden touched him, but he’s stuck now. The taste of Holden is on his lips, the memory of the hot, eager press of his mouth etching itself into Bill’s mind. His skin is tingling again, though not from the whiskey. 

Gradually, Holden’s gaze rises from his lap. His eyes pin Bill, the blue of them bright and sharp with blatant desire, the black of his pupils swollen and pulsating. He licks his lips, and Bill’s eyes are drawn once more to the thick swell of his lower lip. 

“Did you just kiss me?” Holden whispers, sounding confused though the answer is quite obvious. 

“Me?” Bill says, disbelief and panic melding into a high-pitched protest. “It was you … you … you-” 

“It was a hug.” Holden says, waving a frantic hand at Bill’s shoulder. His darting gaze snags on Bill’s face, and his brow furrows. “Wait. Were you really trying to get me drunk?” 

Bill stares at him, his mind fumbling through half a dozen retorts. Angry, confused, horrified … desperate. Jesus Christ, this can’t be happening. But it is, and his body is flushed hot with need, and his mind is scrambling for what the next moment could hold; and his groin is growing tighter with every pulse of blood, and he couldn’t mistake this rush and burn inside him for anything other than arousal. But this is Holden, and that can’t be right. But it is. Fuck, it is. 

Bill swallows hard, and the process seems to take an eternity. Words are crowding at the back of his throat that he can’t seem to speak, and a shudder has taken over his belly that feels something like the hunger he used to feel with Nancy so long ago. 

“Bill?” Holden’s voice cuts through the dull roar in his brain. 

“You’re … you’re fucking with me.” Bill says. It sounds empty on the tail end of a kiss, but he has to try. 

“No.” Holden says, appearing genuinely hurt by the suggestion. “I’m not. Are you … fucking with me?” 

“Yes you are.” Bill whispers, averting his gaze to his lap. He can see the outline of his erection straining against his pants. You’re fucking with me. I’m going to fuck you. The thought bolts across his mind, bright orange with fire. 

“I’m not. I-”

Holden’s protest dies as Bill palms his cheek, and drags him into something that resembles more of a feral dog bite than a kiss. Their mouths collide, and Bill feels his teeth strike Holden’s lower lip. Holden whimpers and recoils, but Bill delves his fingers into his hair. He pushes Holden back against the couch cushions, kissing him harder as an aching crater of hunger opens deep in the pit of his stomach. He can feel every sensation, the wetness of Holden’s mouth, the hot gasp of his breath punctuating the slick stroke of their mouths, the softness of his hair between Bill’s fingers; but it seems beyond his control, this new and wild need surging through him, pushing him beyond the muffled panic lurching in the back of his mind. 

Holden grasps at Bill’s chest, his fingers curling around his shirt while the heels of his hands dig in. The scarce pressure offers little deterrent to Bill’s wildly careening desire that stomps through every last barrier he’d constructed between them, but Bill seizes him by the wrist to assert total authority. 

Holden arches beneath him as Bill pins his wrist against the cushions. The little whimpers have turned to whining groans that vibrate from deep within his chest, bolting against the powerful stroke of Bill’s lips. His mouth submits the urgent pressure, lapsing open to accept the hungry caress of Bill’s tongue. 

Somewhere, in the back of Bill’s mind, a vague protest dies away into nothing. Logic is fading fast, swamped by the lust-drunk need flooding his veins. And for this moment, he can’t remember. He can’t remember how he’d spent so much of the last year telling himself not to get too close, not to care too much. He can’t remember the excuses he’d made to himself for his gaze sometimes lingering too long, or how his mind was always on the road with Holden even when he was at home. He can’t remember, but he’d spent hours constructing this wall between them, only to have it toppled in seconds; though in retrospect, the undoing had begun long ago, hairline fractures incited by an intimacy drawn by violence, a tenderness in the face of pure evil. He clings onto Holden now as if it’s the last bit of hope he’ll ever taste, knowing fully he’s going down a road he can’t reverse, yet not caring, not even a little. 

When their mouths break apart, Bill comes up breathing hard. His hand is grasping Holden’s cheek, his thumb pushing against the raw pink blushing across his lower lip. Their gazes jostle uncertainly against one another. A question blooms in Holden’s eyes, unspoken even as his raspy breaths count out the seconds quickly devolving into the dead of night. 

“You’re not fucking with me.” Holden whispers, his voice shaking. 

Bill pushes his thumb over Holden’s lips, silencing any further observation. “Don’t.” He whispers, “Just stop talking for once in your fucking life, Holden.” 

Holden blinks, evaluating Bill with a cunning gaze. That look cuts through him right to the core. And then, all that wide-eyed innocence melts away into a deviant glint of need as Holden’s lips curl around Bill’s thumb, drawing it against is tongue. 

Bill mutes a groan with the clench of his jaw. He looks away, gasping in a breath. The sight of Holden’s mouth around his knuckle is almost too much. He feels light-headed, like he’s dreaming. 

Holden’s wrist pushes against the weight of his fist, and Bill lets go without a fight. All he can focus on is his body pulsing in tempo with the suction of Holden’s lips around his thumb. 

Holden’s fingers brush against his chest, and slowly travel down his belly. His touch is tentative yet determined, never wavering as it makes its way to its swollen destination. There is a torturous stretch of motionless tension, when Holden’s fingers lodge just above his belt buckle, until they slide free to press a palm against Bill’s erection. 

A broken moan spills past his lips, yanked free from his chest before he can stop it. He withdraws his thumb from Holden’s mouth to brace his hand against the back of the couch, holding his body under control as Holden’s palm strokes him. 

He closes his eyes, a myriad of terrified thoughts skirting his mind before the throbbing need bats them away. The moment to stop this is long gone, fading quickly into the distance. He sits still as Holden unbuckles his belt. The zipper grinds open, gradually releasing some of the pressure resting on his cock.  Holden’s chest hitches with a sharp breath as he nudges the fabric out of the way to grip Bill’s cock through his underwear. 

“Oh, fuck.” Bill chokes out, his hips curling toward the sweet promise of Holden’s caress. 

Holden strokes him for a long, torturous moment, rubbing cotton into his aching flesh, before the soft lilt of his voice breaks the tenuous silence. 

“What do you want?” 

Bill’s eyelids crack open. He’d been barreling ahead so quickly he’d almost forgotten that this moment could end in release. That sounded ridiculous but it was the warmth of Holden’s touch that drew him in, the contact of another human touching him with pure, undiluted intent. No malice, just comfort. Holden’s question lays bare the real, brutal honesty of this moment.  He can still stop this if he wanted, but the truth is, he does want . He wants so much it hurts, and in his drunken exhaustion he doesn’t care that it’s coming from another man. 

Bill lifts his head, and cautiously meets Holden’s gaze. Silence stretches between them for a long moment. He can’t bring himself to say it. 

Cradling Holden’s cheek, Bill guides him from the couch cushions, and onto his knees.

Holden’s wide eyes dart from Bill’s face to trace the outline of his cock trapped in his shorts. His cheeks flush deeper pink, but his tongue darts across his lower lip with budding determination. 

He reaches across Bill’s lap to tug his trousers from his lips. The smooth fabric wilts from Bill’s knees and pools at his ankles, leaving one last layer of strained cotton between suggestion and the act itself. 

Bill’s breath quickens as Holden’s palms glide up his thighs. The sensation sends thrills of need through him that radiate to core. The ebb and flow of his desire heightens, and he feels the tug of need drawing him taut and fully hard. His hips lift as Holden's fingers snag on the elastic waistband. The fabric peels back slowly. He feels the rush of cold air, the tickle of cotton escaping down his thighs. Holden guides the boxers below his knees, and they disappear from view. He’s left gazing down his heaving chest at his dick lying rock hard against his belly, twitching against the faint caress of air, awaiting something more. 

Holden’s gaze is bracing, tracking its way down Bill’s chest and stomach to peruse his throbbing cock with almost tangible intensity. His tongue winds methodically across his lower lip as he leans forward, his palms grasping Bill’s knees. Slowly, he pushes Bill’s thighs apart. 

Bill’s breath hiccups from the back of his throat as Holden leans in. His chest has lost its sense of gravity, as if he’s on the verge of falling from the highest drop on a rollercoaster. One hand grasps the edge of the couch cushion while the other sinks into Holden’s hair. He watches through half-shut, panicked eyes as Holden’s chin tilts down until all Bill can see is the top of his head, his own fingers lost in the chestnut strands. 

Time slows to a crawl. Every pulse, every sensation sharpens to a nearly painful degree. The rasp of his breath, the surge of his blood, and the roar of need and hysteria in his ears meld into unraveled, sexual frenzy. His fist shudders as his fingers curl around the hair at Holden’s nape. Need and terror thrust against one another, conflicting messages of desire and flight leaving him in shuddering paralysis as Holden’s mouth descends. Finally, the soothing heat of Holden’s breath spills over the head of his cock just before his mouth makes hot, slick contact. 

The strained silence snaps with Bill’s guttural moan as Holden’s mouth slides over him. His body arches against the cushions, and his fingers twist in Holden’s hair. Pleasure sings through him, bursting from head-to-toe, sending his mind racing with frantic need. It washes over him like a new sensation though he’s been here a hundred times before; it’s been so long, those fine little details get lost in the overwhelming memory of pleasure. But this isn’t quite pleasure, and it’s not quite torture. It a sweet, aching limbo of mounting need that he wants to hold onto, wants to live in, if only for a few minutes. 

Holden’s mouth surges up and down, taking as much of Bill’s cock as he can handle with every thrust. His mouth wraps around the shaft in an unwieldy mimicry of whatever he’s seen in movies or porn. But it doesn’t matter.  Whatever he’s lacking in finesses, he’s making up for with enthusiasm. The pressure it good, the heat and saliva lathering him even better. Fuck, Bill thinks, how does he have so much saliva in his mouth? 

But the question gets lost with all the rest, and all he can think of is the next stroke of Holden’s mouth and how the pleasure is hovering just at the back of his mind, waiting to explode. It’s so close, yet just beyond his reach; and he can’t quite grasp whether or not he wants to extend this moment, or rush to reach the finish line because it’s been too damn long since he could remember what this feels like.

Bill’s clenched eyelids flutter open as Holden crowds between his legs, one hand bracing against Bill’s chest while the other grips the base of his cock. He glances down, and nearly loses his breath when he sees Holden’s head bobbing eagerly over his cock. He grips Holden’s nape tighter, trying desperately to ease the rampant pace of pleasure barreling towards its pinnacle. 

Uttering a soft moan, Holden draws back to the tip, and shoots Bill a heavy-lidded gaze.

Bill draws in a hitched breath, fighting a tortured cry building in his chest. He can’t look away as Holden’s lips pop free of his cock, and his tongue darts out to swirl against the head. 

Bill’s body jolts like a puppet yanked violently by its strings. Pleasure thuds like a drug through his veins, pushing the next surge of blood painfully through his throbbing dick. He’s half-dizzy with it, feeling like the weight of need could trigger an explosion, feeling like the intensity of arousal could rip him apart. 

Holden’s tongue retreats, and his breath trickles hotly across inflamed skin. His gaze drags the length of Bill’s cock twitching desperately in his fist. 

Bill’s hips arch instinctively toward the retreating heat of Holden’s mouth, and he tugs at Holden’s hair. 

“Come on, Holden. Don’t fucking stop.” He whispers, the words rasping from his chest in stammered pieces. 

Holden leans forward again, dragging his tongue up the shaft before fitting his mouth over the head against. The wet heat rolls down Bill’s cock in sublime relief, drawing a choked groan from the back of his throat. Clamping his fingers tighter in Holden’s hair, Bill guides him forward and back again, controlling the pace. 

Holden pushes back against his grip, trying to hasten the speed of his strokes. His mouth clamps with every thrust, applying pressure, eager to please. 

“Oh, fuck.” Bill groans, hearing the curse wrenched from his chest after its already met with Holden’s own muzzled hums of pleasure. 

The edge looms closer, drawing everything tight and rigid. The pleasure is right there, just out of his reach, but he wants to preserve this thoughtless abandon. 

He pushes himself away from the cushions, and sits upright on the edge of the couch. Grasping Holden’s hair, he drags his enthusiastic mouth back to the tip. Holden’s lips pucker around the head of his cock, pinker and fuller now that he’s rubbed them raw with friction. Saliva trails from the corner of his mouth. His eyelids are heavy with need as he lifts a questioning gaze to Bill. 

Bill winds his other pair of fingers into the hair on the crown of Holden’s head, and slowly drags him forward. Holden’s mouth opens wider, and his eyes water as Bill’s cock goes in deeper, but he doesn’t choke or protest. He closes his eyes and leans into the thrust of Bill’s hips as Bill begins to guide his head back and forth. 

A groan crowds in Bill’s throat as the swift pace and the slick glide of Holden’s mouth quickly push him towards the verge of pleasure. He’d meant to steady them, to control his own need that has quickly erupted past the clench of his fist, but he’s already undone, already surging toward the end. Holden is too ardent, too accommodating, his mouth too sweet and wet. There’s no controlling the pleasure that crushes white-hot through his veins, breaking past the held breath deep in his chest, the bits and pieces of his dignity fading into the distance. 

Bill’s mouth stretches open as the climax hits him like a tidal wave rising up to meet the shore, punishing everything in its path, taking the ruins away into the foaming aftermath. He writhes within its grasp, every spasm contorting his shuddering body and wringing helpless moans from the back of his throat. He sinks back against the cushions, clinging to Holden’s hair while the pleasure ripples through him, wave after wave crushing his senses. The pleasure lives hot and bright for several long moments before fading to a lingering glimmer. Even as he comes down from it, the little sparks of pleasure leaping across his sensitized skin is a satisfaction of its own. 

Holden’s mouth departs, but Bill keeps his eyes firmly shut, holding onto the sense of satisfaction humming through his body for the scarce final seconds it has left. 

He hears Holden rise to his feet and walk into the kitchen. He spits into the sink, and turns on the faucet. Bill hears him swishing with water, spitting again. 

He opens his eyes. 

Holden’s apartment is cloaked in half-lit darkness, the only source of light coming from the lamp in the corner. Shadows cling to the naked stretch of his body sprawled vagrantly across the couch. He’s still in his shirt and tie, and his pants are tangled around his ankles. He looks like a one-night stand gone awry in a hurry, like the other half of this ill-fated affair had run out into the midst of lovemaking. Maybe that would make sense if he was with a woman; but he’s with Holden, and Holden is going to come back any second. This is his apartment, after all. 

Bill scrambles upright, and fights with his boxers and trousers to get them back up around his hips before Holden returns. He’s still fumbling with the zipper of his pants when Holden shuffles around the corner. 

Bill stops, his trembling fingers gripping his belt buckle. The guilt or regret hasn’t quite registered. He’s not even halfway through the panic yet. 

“I hope that helped.” 

Bill tries to tie the flat intonation in Holden’s voice to his face, but the darkness has his features bound up in shadow. He can barely make out the glint in Holden’s eyes, let alone the tiny nuances in his expression. 

“Really? Is that all you have to say?” Bill asks. His own voice, the helplessness in it, almost scares him. 

“What do you want me to say?” 

“Maybe … this was a mistake.” 

The floor creaks beneath Holden’s feet. He gradually emerges from the shadows, stopping a few feet from Bill. 

“No.” He says, calmly. “I’ve thought about this … A lot, actually. I just didn’t think you had.” 

Bill tries to muster a reply, but manages only a choked sputter before falling silent. Holden gazes at him without hesitation. No remorse. Jesus. 

“I need a cigarette.” Bill says, patting his pocket. He pulls the pack free, and silently curses the fact that he only has three left. Two after he smokes this one. 

Marching to the window, he lifts the pane and finds his lighter in his trouser pocket. His fingers are shaking as he thumbs at the lighter. The lighter clicks dry three times before catching flame, and he brings it eagerly to the tip of the cigarette. Tobacco ignites, and he inhales. The usual sweet relief that comes with the rush of nicotine is dulled by the panic. 

“I’m not drunk enough for this.” He says, blowing smoke out the window. 

The sky is nearly black except for the pale pin-points of stars. The vastness is tempting, and for a moment, he thinks of leaving the apartment and just walking in the direction of nothingness. 

“I have some beer in the fridge if you want.” Holden says. 

“This doesn’t bother you?” Bill says, whirling around to jab the cigarette at him. “We have to work together, Holden. I mean, Jesus Christ!” 

“I can be professional.” Holden says, “So can you. You’re good at compartmentalizing.” 

“Never in my goddamn life did I think I would have to compartmentalize this .” Bill snaps, waving wildly at the couch. 

“Neither did I.” Holden says, softly. 

A bit of Bill’s anger flags. There’s another side to this convoluted arrangement. He has to face that. 

“How long have you been … thinking about it?” Bill asks, haltingly. 

Holden glances away, and Bill can see that he’s blushing even in the dim light. 

“Pretty much since we met.” 

Bill stares at him blankly, searching for some reply in the echoing void inside his head. He’d thought after three years working together he had Holden figured out, but he hadn’t seen this night coming. 

Turning back to the window, he takes a hard drag of the cigarette. Relief feels like one breath away, but it escapes him even as the cigarette burns to ash. 

“Does that piss you off?” Holden asks. 

“Yeah, it does; a little.” Bill says, tautly. 

“Why?” Holden asks, and Bill has heard that question before. It’s usually followed with an answer; a stunningly intuitive, accurate answer. “Because, it forces you to admit that you’ve had the same thoughts?” 

“No, Holden, it doesn’t.” Bill says, turning to glare into Holden’s searing eyes. “This was a mistake, like I said. An anomaly; it just happened. I’m drunk … you’re drunk. I wasn’t thinking, I was just- … It’s been hard and lonely since Nancy left, and even before she left we weren’t exactly getting along. People have needs; they- …” His explanation dwindles as he sees the doubt shining clearly in Holden’s eyes, silently calling him a liar. Bill clears his throat. “You know what? I don’t have to tell you any of this. I don’t have to explain myself to you.” 

Discarding the last of his cigarette out the window, Bill marches toward the door, but Holden’s hand on his bicep pulls him to a jolting halt. Holden’s shoulder is pressed against his, and suddenly they’re too close again. So close that Bill can smell the heady mix of alcohol and sex on his breath. 

“I just sucked you off.” Holden whispers. “I think you do.” 

Bill yanks his arm free, and takes a staggered step backwards. His face his burning with anger and shame. He could knock Holden out of the way if he wanted. He could leave the apartment, and come Monday, they would go back to work the same way they always had before. Run and forget. Compartmentalize. He’s good at it; isn’t it what he’s been doing his whole life? 

“Or …” Holden says, quietly, “We could forget explaining, and you could forget about the couch. I have a queen bed.” 

Bill tries to form a reply that could encapsulate his utter disbelief, but only a weak stutter emerges. 

Holden carefully closes the space between them, and reaches out to touch Bill’s shoulder. 

Paralyzed, Bill watches as Holden’s fingers slide down past his elbow and forearm to nudge against his knuckles. Bill’s hand goes limp as Holden shifts closer, lacing his fingers in between Bill’s.

“You can yell at me in the morning.” He whispers, “Right now, it’s late, and I …” He glances away, drawing in a quivering breath. “I still have an erection.” 

Bill presses his eyes shut as Holden’s fingers tug his hand between them, and places it over the prominent bulge trapped beneath his trousers. He can feel Holden throbbing beneath layers of fabric, undeterred by Bill’s anger, perhaps encouraged by it.

Holden presses closer, muttering a muted sound of need as Bill’s fingers curl around him of their own accord. He turns his mouth against Bill’s neck, just below his jaw, sending the urgent heat of his breath spilling across Bill’s skin. 

Bill clings to his self-control for seconds longer before it breaks beneath the weight of this ceaseless hunger opening wider in his belly despite his own climax minutes ago. He turns his head to catch Holden’s mouth in a biting kiss that jolts a surprised moan from Holden’s throat. 

Bill hooks his fingers at Holden’s nape, and drags him in harder, starving again for the taste of his mouth. Holden groans as their mouths collide and Bill’s tongue sweeps against his teeth to find its way inside. Clutching at Bill’s chest, he rises on his toes to keep his clothed erection solidly in Bill’s grasp. 

Bill slides his palm up the twitching bulge to locate the sharp metal edges of Holden’s belt buckle. Digging his fingers into the leather, he tugs the belt open, and searches for the button of Holden’s trousers. He gets the zipper down, and tears his mouth free of Holden’s. 

They break apart, breathing hard. Holden gasps as Bill uses both hands to yank his trousers fiercely from his hips. Bill gives it half a second to appreciate Holden quaking his briefs, his pants around his knees, before he tugs the briefs down his thighs as well. Holden’s erection springs free, fully hard, throbbing freely. 

Bill kisses him again before he can lose his nerve. With his mouth busy and his eyes firmly shut, his hands move of their own volition, seeking out Holden’s bare skin, the jut of his hips, the ample swell of his backside, the hard, blunt shape of his cock fitting perfectly in Bill’s fist. 

Holden lets out a strangled cry as Bill’s fist swallows his cock, and strokes him ardently with little prologue. 

Bill eases them back toward the couch, eager to have Holden underneath him, pinned, helpless. There’s something about the soft whines rasping from Holden’s throat that are driving him mad with need, making it hard to remember the fear that had gripped him moments ago. 

They stumble to the couch, and Holden sinks back against the cushions, making a sound of protest when Bill’s hand leaves him.

Bill leans back to remove Holden’s crumpled trousers and briefs from his ankles, and tosses them to the side. Pushing between Holden’s quivering thighs, he picks up the hungry stroke of the kiss where he’d left off. As their mouths grapple in a sloppy, aching kiss, he tears at the buttons of Holden’s shirt, and scrapes the garment back from his shoulders. Holden sits up just far enough to allow Bill to remove the shirt, and tugs at his undershirt with his own trembling fingers. Their mouths break apart for mere seconds as Holden pulls the undershirt off over his head. Bill’s mouth attacks his the moment its gone, pushing him down against the cushions while his hands stroke their way down Holden’s chest and stomach. Holden moans and arches beneath him as Bill heavy-handed stroking finds its way to his hard cock. He grasps onto it again, stroking fiercely. All his repressed need and anger pours into the caress, rubbing so hard that Holden begins to gasp and moan, his hips bucking beneath the weight of Bill’s body. 

Bill draws back to glimpse Holden’s face, tense and contorted with need. 

“Oh, fuck.” Holden moans, his eyes squeezing shut as Bill’s fist squeezes at the base of his cock. “Jesus … Bill.” 

Bill almost stops as his name rolls off Holden’s mouth, tangled up in a moan. But stopping isn’t an option. Not now. 

Holden’s trembling fingers reach up to grasp his nape, drawing him slowly downwards. 

The panic in Bill’s mind has faded to a distant scream. All he can hear is the roar of his own heartbeat as the gentle pressure against the back of his head guides his mouth down, down, down. 

Keeping his eyes shut, he licks his lips. His mouth bumps against the hot, blunt edge of Holden’s cock head, and he recoils only as far as Holden’s grip will allow. Holden drags him back slowly, and Bill opens his mouth. 

Holden’s hoarse whisper of glorious pleasure hits him just before the hard, swollen flesh pushes against his tongue. The dense taste of skin laced with a faint saltiness fills his mouth, and the weight of Holden’s cock thrusts to the back of his tongue. He has to open his mouth wider to take it all in, has to groan into Holden’s cock because he can’t swallow back the sounds of pleasure rising in his own throat. 

Bill opens his eyes to glimpse Holden’s face, slack with pleasure. His head is tilted back against the cushions, his mouth hanging open in satisfaction as Bill’s mouth slides up and down his cock. He looks so vulnerable; Bill has never seen him so vulnerable. He’s like an open door from which all these closely held secrets are flooding, a stream of mesmerizing realization that Bill can’t look away from, and can’t get enough of. 

Bill closes his eyes, and asserts his mouth more firmly to his ministrations. He can feel Holden shuddering beneath him, so close to breaking; and he wants to break him, wants to split him open and see what more is inside, what deviancies lie behind the veil of a puritanical FBI agent - a fucking boy scout. It’s so close he can taste it in the salt on the back of his tongue, and the quiver of Holden’s fingers against his nape. 

Holden moans as Bill’s mouth strokes him harder, faster. His back arches, and his thighs crowd against Bill’s shoulders. He breathes in ragged gasps as the moments compile, pleasure rising up quick and fierce. 

“Oh, God.” He rasps, his nails digging into Bill’s neck, “Oh fuck, I’m going to-”

Bill pulls back just as Holden’s broken cry dwindles into a high-pitched moan. Grasping Holden’s saliva wet cock, he manages only a few strokes before the orgasm erupts hot and slick across his knuckles. Holden’s hips buck against his fervent caress, and his moan stretches into a gasping whine of pleasure as the orgasm rolls through him. 

Bill’s gaze clings in fascination to Holden’s cock as release drips in milky strands from the swollen tip. The slippery drops land on his belly and spill down his heaving ribs as he trembles through the aftershocks of climax. The wet mess coats Bill’s fingers, dripping down his knuckles, and wrist. 

Bill shifts a hazy glance to Holden’s flushed expression of serendipitous bliss. 

As Holden’s exhilarated breathing slows, his eyes slip open to assess Bill in the semi-darkness of the room. There’s a deep satisfaction inside them that almost translates as smugness, but it’s gone before Bill can think to gather his indignance. He lets his head fall back against the cushion, and he lets out a raspy sigh of relief. 

Bill staggers to his feet, and finds his way in the dark to the kitchen sink. Turning on the tap, he sticks his hand underneath to wash away the evidence. 

The overhead light clicks on, washing the kitchen in a stark, yellow light. 

Bill glances up sharply to see Holden entering the kitchen. He joins Bill at the sink, and uses a paper towel to wipe off his stomach. 

“You’re good at that.” He says, his voice muted and raspy in the hollow silence of the kitchen. 

“Don’t.” Bill says, leaning wearily against the counter.

Holden is quiet for a long moment before he clears his throat. “Are you going to stay?”

“I have no car, remember?” 

“You could call a cab.” 

“Do you want me to?” Bill says, cutting a sharp gaze over his shoulder at Holden. 

“No.” Holden whispers. 

“Fine. I’ll take the couch.”

“I don’t want you to do that either.” 

“We’re not sleeping together.” Bill says, straightening to level Holden with a glare. “We’re not cuddling, we’re not doing any of that. This isn’t some romantic office relationship bullshit. I think we can both agree that we’ve been under a lot of stress.”

“So, we were just blowing off steam?” Holden presses, his brows furling in frustration. “Just fulfilling our ‘manly’ needs to have sex?” 

“Yes.” 

“Come on, Bill. You know better than that.” Holden says, throwing up his hands, “You’ve studied human behavior for almost ten years now. This isn’t an anomaly. It’s not stress. It’s not needs. It’s-”

“It’s what, Holden?” Bill says, closing the scant space between them to pin Holden’s with a challenging glare. “What does this look like to you, hmm? Do we look like we’re going to last more than one night together?” 

“I don’t know.” Holden whispers, his gaze dropping. “Maybe.” 

Bill lets out a sigh, and leans back against the counter. Crossing his arms around his chest, he focuses on the swirling pattern in the laminate flooring. He checks his watch. 

“It’s late.” He says. “We should both get some sleep.” 

Holden nods, stiffly. There’s a hurt look in his eyes, and Bill feels as if he’s failed yet again. Holden turns to leave, but Bill catches him by the elbow. 

“Look, Holden, I care about you.” He says, lowering his head beneath the curious probe of Holden’s gaze. “But, what do you want me to do here? I have a family for Christ’s sake.”

Holden nods. “I know. I’m asking too much. I always do.” 

He dislodges his elbow from Bill’s grasp, and escapes the kitchen without looking back.

Bill takes out his cigarettes, and lights up. Dropping the pack on the kitchen counter, he watches the last cigarette roll back and forth while the smoke fills him with a false sense of serenity. He stands over the sink, tapping the ashes away into the drain until the cigarette has burnt down to a stub. When it’s gone, he wanders back out to the living room. 

Holden had left a blanket folded on the end of the couch. It sits there, mocking him with his loneliness. There’s a couch at home he could’ve slept on with the same amount of relaxation he feels towards Holden’s couch right now. He’s stepped on another landmine, blown another part of his life to shit. 

Bill pulls the blanket over himself, and closes his eyes. Sleep evades him despite the exhaustion tugging at every fiber of his being. Each time he closes his eyes, all he sees is Holden above him, moaning in pleasure, Holden below him, mouth wrapped around his dick. But more than that, he sees the glint of rejection in Holden’s eyes reflected in the light above the kitchen sink. 

It’s nearly three a.m. by the time he decides he’s had enough of tossing and turning on the couch. Throwing the blanket on the floor, he gets up and shuffles down the hallway in the darkness until he finds his way to Holden’s bedroom. He eases the door open, and slips inside. 

Holden is curled up beneath the blankets, deep in sleep by the rhythmic sound of his breathing. 

Bill stands over the bed for a long minute, his belly aching with indecision. He almost turns to leave, but the idea of going back to the couch holds him in place. 

What the fuck have I done? He thinks as he sinks down onto the edge of the bed. 

He strips down his underwear, and lifts the sheet just high enough to slip underneath. His body seeks out Holden’s as if by nature, curling against Holden’s back with a sigh of relief. He slips his arm around Holden’s waist, careful to not disturb his sleep. 

His own sentiment that they wouldn’t be cuddling post-sex echoes faintly through his brain, but its easier to ignore his own pride under the cover of darkness, when Holden is unaware of his lack of self-control. He can’t ignore how good it feels to be lying next to someone who doesn’t hate him in all the quiet, indirect ways a wife of twenty years does. Maybe Holden does hate him for doing what they just did and then trying to take it back, but Bill will have to live with it like everything else wrong in his life. There’s no forgetting, just sitting with his mistakes until they become more like annoying sticks prodding his ribs rather than knives piercing his chest. 

Bill curls closer to the warmth of Holden’s body, and tentatively presses his mouth and nose to the back of Holden’s neck. The smell of him is a small comfort, some subliminal tonic that soothes the panic barely concealed in Bill’s chest. The moment he closes his eyes, the world fades away into dreams. For a few hours, he forgets what regret feels like.