Holden spent less time alone in his office, and more time in the new bullpen over by Bill and Wendy, focused on consultations and steadfastly not talking about Samantha Mulder or Number Sixteen.
Great, the old Bill would have thought, naively. He’s gotten it out of his system. But the new Bill had learned to be a bit more vigilant. Holden was like a kid sometimes. He needed attention and a nudge in the right direction, or he might go snooping somewhere he shouldn’t, just for the mental stimulation.
They had dinner twice a week, usually store bought, though Holden surprised Bill now and then with something home cooked. Holden usually tried to steer the conversation towards work, and Bill had to make an effort to steer it anywhere else. The sparse emptiness of Holden’s apartment — not that Bill was in any place to judge — only drove home for Bill how essential it was that Holden be distracted.
He couldn’t let Holden become so consumed with work that he went to pieces again. For one thing, how would it look for his unit? Bill was supposed to be in charge, and part of that was not letting your subordinates crack under the pressure. Fox Mulder had been in charge of his own unit, which was probably one of the reasons he went so far off the rails. (That’s one of the reasons Mulder was usually only spoken of in hushed tones these days. The whole thing was an embarrassment. Somebody with real authority should have been looking after him, not a junior agent sent to benignly babysit and report back on Mulder’s doings.)
One Monday, over a month into this new arrangement, they sat in their main meeting area, the two of them and Wendy, discussing an interview she had done with Gregg. Bill discreetly took Holden in. The kid looked fine— better than he had a few weeks ago, anyway. But dinners and TV at his place twice a week were starting to get a little stale.
Holden needed something to do with his time outside of work, and it’s not like he could take the kid bowling. He tried to get him to go to a football game once, but that plan was dead in the water the moment he suggested it.
Back in the day, on the road, they would have diners and bars and local cops inviting them to things, but they didn’t have anything like that now. Holden didn’t seem to have a group of young guys to hang out with in Virginia, and no girlfriend anymore, apparently. Bill vaguely remembered meeting Debbie at dinner, though he’d argued so much with Nancy for the rest of that week that it sort of blocked everything else out. Then Holden just never mentioned Debbie again, and Bill was the one to go collect him from the prison loony bin.
Bill was pretty sure he was the only person Holden had to look after him at all.
Bill realized, with a start, that he was Holden’s Dr. Dana Scully. It was almost like something out of the Twilight Zone when Dr. Dana Scully herself entered the basement at that moment.
“Dana,” Wendy said with a tone of surprise.
“Dr. Scully,” Holden said, while he and Bill stood from their seats.
“Agent Ford,” she said, giving Wendy and Bill both a businesslike nod. “I take it you haven’t heard the news, since you haven’t been flooding my office with messages.”
Holden looked like a dog who heard something in the distance. “What is it?”
Scully set a hefty file on the table. “They found more remains, almost an entire skeleton. And a nightgown. It’s a Cloth Heart.”
Holden grabbed at the file with zeal, and flipped through it like a housewife with a new Sears catalogue. “Is it her? Is it Samantha Mulder?”
Scully didn’t look surprised that Holden was so eager for that particular answer, which made Bill think her statement about him flooding her office with messages hadn’t been hyperbole. “We don’t know,” she said. “We couldn’t find her dental records. And there was only a fragment of her jaw.”
Holden spread photos out on the table, eager as a kid with finger paints, re-creating the skeleton of an unfortunate McCarthy-era 8-year-old. It wasn’t the full skeleton, but it was most of it, enough to bring to mind the girl that once possessed it.
“What’s this?” Bill asked, pointing to a small scrap of fabric that didn’t seem to match the nightgown.
“We think she was wearing ribbons,” said Scully. “Or at least one. It takes about two years for hair to decompose in soil, so after it was gone, it would have been easy for any other ribbons to be lost. There’s been a lot of development in the area, so the soil was moved around over time. It looks like the skull was pushed up, which let animals get to it. Most of the body was two miles from where the skull was found.”
Bill felt like he’d been punched in the gut. For some reason, knowing that this girl was wearing ribbons was fucking him up. Maybe it finally made Number Sixteen real for him. Hell, maybe his own kid sisters wore ribbons like that once, not that he’d remember. Maybe he was just human, and there were only so many murdered children he could think about in one day.
He sat down heavily and rubbed at his face. Next to him, Holden pored over the pictures, bright-eyed and eager.
“I can’t believe how much of the nightgown is still intact,” said Holden. “Mulder said his mother couldn’t tell from the heart whether it was her nightgown, but maybe with this whole thing… and the hair ribbon. This is exactly what she had on when she was taken. Isn’t it remarkable, Bill?”
Bill only lit a cigarette in response. Wendy caught his eye, and she tilted her head at him. He looked away.
“Did you get a chance to examine the body yourself, Dr. Scully?” Holden asked.
“Yes.” She looked as closed off as ever, arms crossed in a practiced stance. “I went there this morning. You’ll see my report along with the local ME’s. But the bones don’t really tell us anything new, except confirming her age. John Roche mostly killed by strangulation, and we wouldn’t be able to see that at this point.”
“He cut a heart from her nightgown,” Wendy said carefully. “And it matches the trophy. What else needs to be known?”
“Her identity,” Bill muttered.
“Yes,” Holden nodded. “Her identity.”
“Agent Ford,” said Dr. Scully. “If you’re planning on bringing this news to Mulder, I have to say that I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Holden gawked, and Bill wasn’t that far behind him. “Why not?” asked Bill.
“I don’t think it’ll help anything,” said Scully.
“But what if it’s her?” asked Holden. “Without her dental records, the only way to identify her is to have him do it.”
Scully hesitated a moment. “I don’t think it will help anything,” she said again.
Holden looked bewildered. He turned back to the photos, adjusting the way they laid out, spacing them a little bit more perfectly.
“But he’s going to find out about the body sooner or later,” Scully said. “It’s better coming from you or me, and if you’re so eager to do it, I’d rather it be you.”
Holden blinked up at her. “Agent Scully, of course, if you’d like to tell him—”
“Or if you’d like to come with us—”
“No.” She shook her head, sharp red bob swishing. “But tell me what day you plan to go.” She hugged herself a little tighter and turned to leave. Hesitated.
Wendy stepped towards her, almost put a hand on her shoulder.
Scully turned back to the agents. “Take the entire file with you when you see him. Especially my report. He won’t believe you without it.” Then she stepped briskly out into the hallway. Wendy followed her.
Holden looked to Bill, face bland. “We’re about to bring home the last Cloth Heart victim.” When Bill didn’t answer, Holden frowned. His brow slowly furrowed. “Do you think she was upset?”
“Of course she’s upset,” said Bill. “This thing drove her partner to actual madness. And our best case scenario here is that a little girl was murdered.” He sucked on his cigarette and felt like a black hole had opened up inside. Regardless of how great it would be to close the case, a part of him had been really hoping this girl wasn’t a Cloth Heart victim. Sometimes children just died, no sinister nothing afoot. Why couldn’t that ever be the case here?
Get a fucking grip, he told himself. He hadn’t survived this long in his career by shaking his fist at the sky and asking why.
“But she’s usually so… clinical,” said Holden. “And rational. That’s what everybody says about her.”
“This is personal,” said Bill. “Her and Mulder are close.”
Holden only stared at him.
“Holden, if it was my kid sister’s desiccated skeleton on the table, and you had to tell me about it, wouldn’t you be upset?” Bill asked. You know, as a friend? he didn’t add.
Holden’s brows were now fully scrunched. “You’ve never talked about your sisters, Bill. I don’t even know their names.”
Bill scowled. He made a show of checking his watch. “I have to make a phone call.” He went back to his office, and missed his old office, the one without any windows.
They booked a visit later that week, on Friday, pre-cleared with Dr. Scully for whatever reason, and drove on out to Maryland. It was dreary and wet, the sky clouded over with grey, which Bill figured was appropriate. Not that there was ever any good weather for telling a family member they’d found their missing child, and the missing child was dead.
Holden was, for lack of a better word, chipper. He patted the considerable Number Sixteen case file on his lap, as Bill took his time turning off the engine. “Let’s go, Bill.” He tugged at the handle on the passenger side door.
“Wait,” Bill said, suddenly seized with the need to stop Holden getting out of the car with an arm across his chest. “Close the door.”
“What is it?” Holden blinked at him, but gently closed the door.
Bill jerked his chin towards the other end of the parking lot. One of those sinister black town cars. The grey-haired old man they’d seen before leaned against the car, smoking a cigarette. He was too far away to see his face, but Bill could swear he was staring right at him.
Holden looked around the parking lot like an owl: eyes big, head jerking back and forth obviously. “What’s wrong?”
“That guy,” Bill hissed, almost whispering. “He was here last time. No, don’t look at him.”
Holden glanced over as discreetly as he could, which was not discreet at all. “Who, the smoking man?”
“He hangs around Gunn’s office,” Bill almost-whispered. “And he hangs around here. He weirds me out.”
Holden turned back to Bill, tilting his head. “I’ve honestly never seen him anywhere except here.”
“Maybe you’re not as observant as you think you are,” Bill muttered.
Holden’s jaw dropped.
“Let’s just…” Bill made a helpless hand gesture. “Pretend we’re talking about sports.”
Holden looked at him like he’d lost his mind.
“Fine,” whispered Bill. “Let’s just sit here quietly, then.”
Holden rolled his eyes and heaved a heavy sigh, like an impatient teenager. He didn’t say anything, but radiated the sentiment of “And they call me the crazy one.”
They waited almost ten agonizingly long minutes for the cigarette smoking man to leave. Bill considered himself a seasoned smoker, but he never savoured one for that long unless he was covering for something. Especially if he could just get in an empty car by himself and smoke while he drove.
Holden was about to sigh himself flat as an old balloon by the time the sinister black town car drove away. Bill watched it go in the rearview mirror while Holden fidgeted beside him. “Can we go in now, please, Bill?”
“Yeah,” Bill said, his throat dry. He didn’t have the time to explain to Holden how hunches and gut feelings worked— not Holden, with his unquestionable instincts! But every time he’d ignored those gut feelings he lived to regret it, and so far his gut feeling was to avoid that cigarette smoking guy as much as he could.
Holden was already at the hospital door by the time Bill got out, lit a cigarette, and locked the car behind him. He hurried up when Holden disappeared inside without him, but luckily the kid was only impatiently standing in the waiting room when he arrived.
“Hold this,” Holden said, then rushed off to the restroom.
Bill got them registered as visitors and finished his cigarette. Holden returned and took the file back from Bill with what Bill could only describe as grabby hands.
Anna, the nurse who had seen to Mulder on their last visit, came to walk them to the common room. “He’s okay now,” she said. “But he had a bad spell the last few days.”
“What do you mean?” asked Holden, no doubt already worried about Mulder’s ability to identify their body.
Anna paused, keeping the agents between two sets of glass fire doors. She seemed to consider whether to tell them whatever she had to say. “I’m not exactly sure what’s going on. Somehow, Fox has been able to trade his medication for ketamine. My money’s on one of the nurses, but I haven’t been able to prove it yet.”
“What does that do?” Holden’s brow furrowed deeper. “Is he lucid?”
“He’s lucid now,” said Anna. “But he spent the last two days dissociating. It’s always very calm with him. He just stays in bed. Right now he’s… well, at times like this, he’s even more committed to his beliefs than usual.” She gave Bill a meaningful look, and left them at the entrance to the common room.
Bill blocked Holden’s path. “That’ll explain his dreams,” he said.
“Ketamine gives you hallucinations in the right dose,” said Bill. “The way she’s talking about it, it sounds like he saves it up and takes it when he has enough. More than enough, even, to spend entire days like that. That’s why his dreams about his sister feel like she’s visiting him, because they’re not really dreams.”
Holden nodded thoughtfully. “That makes sense.”
“If he just had this experience yesterday, he’s going to be even less inclined to identify this body as his sister,” Bill said gently. “I think we need to be prepared for that.”
“I understand, Bill,” Holden said, maintaining Bill’s eye contact. “I wouldn’t bring it to him if I wasn’t sure it was her. Where else could she be?” Just like he’d forgotten the entire conversation he’d had with Bill on the subject.
They entered the common room in the midst of some type of drama. A bedraggled blonde woman was sobbing and screaming, while a small team of orderlies tried to usher her out of the room.
Mulder sat on a couch nearby, talking a steady stream to (or at) either the woman or the orderlies. Another man clung tightly to his side, keeping one of Mulder’s arms in a death grip. It was Alex, the hateful Russian, glaring out at the room with one ear pressed into Mulder’s shoulder.
“You won’t find him!” the woman wailed as the orderlies finally bundled her out of the room. “You never stop looking, but you won’t find him! You won’t!”
“You tell ‘em, baby,” Mulder called after her.
Holden stared big-eyed in the woman’s direction as he and Bill walked up to Mulder.
“That’s Sharon,” Mulder said to them, in lieu of a greeting. “Her brother Max was an abductee, too. They took him right off a passenger jet, just before it crashed.”
“Is he starlight as well?” Bill couldn’t help but ask.
“I don’t think so,” said Mulder. “We’re pretty sure Max was taken by grey aliens.”
“So many factions,” mused Bill. “It’s like March Madness up there.”
“Sometimes,” Mulder smiled. “Little less fun, though. To what do I owe the pleasure, agents?”
Bill glanced over at Holden, who was now staring pretty obviously at Alex. Alex glared back, and didn’t move from his spot cuddled up against Mulder.
Mulder followed Holden’s gaze. He jiggled his shoulder. “Come on, Alex. Scram. I gotta go talk to these guys.”
Alex muttered under his breath, glaring hatefully at Holden, and didn’t budge.
“I’ll play cards with you later. Okay? I promise.” Mulder gently pried Alex off him. Bill realized that Alex’s left arm ended before his elbow. His sleeve was tucked into the pocket of his robe.
Alex grabbed at Mulder with his good arm. “Federál-nyj,” he spat, still glaring at Holden.
“I know,” Mulder said, gently pushing Alex away again. “But I was one too, for a long time. You sit and think about that.”
Mulder ushered the agents a few steps away. They all glanced back. Alex peered over the top of the couch at them, narrow-eyed. He looked exactly how Mulder had described him: like an angry, stupid kitty cat.
“Okay, well, he’s gonna keep staring,” said Mulder.
“Is there anywhere private we can go?” asked Bill.
“They won’t let me see guests outside of the common areas,” said Mulder. “They don’t have the staff to provide security for that. But there’s what we generously call the library.” He lead them to a window corner, semi-secluded by a few low, sparsely stocked bookshelves. “You can go anywhere with the books at your local library.”
They settled in, and Bill looked out over the common room again. Alex was still spying on them from the couch.
Holden awkwardly put the thick case file on the table in front of him. Didn’t say anything. His certainty and boldness now seemed muted in the prospect of actually asking Fox Mulder to give up his entire life-and-career-ruining world view.
Anna, unprompted, brought them some drinks-- coffee with cream and sugar for Bill, and two herbal teas.
"Uh, Anna," Mulder started.
"Not today, Fox," she said. "I'm not in the mood."
"Hmm," Mulder mused, watching her with respect as she left them to go scold Alex.
"I do appreciate a woman that doesn't take any shit," Bill said, ripping open a sugar packet for his coffee.
"Me, too," said Mulder. "So what brings you two back to my neck of the woods?"
Holden cleared his throat, picked up his tea, then put it back down without taking a sip.
"What's that?" Mulder asked, gesturing at the case file. "Looks juicy. You guys want my take on a case? Only nobody's come out to ask me to consult on anything. I keep begging Scully to let me in on a case, but she's become immune to my begging."
"She didn't tell you about why we were coming back?"
"No, she comes to visit me on Saturdays, and then I only found out you guys wanted to visit me this morning." They had arranged the visit on Wednesday, two days earlier, but Mulder would have been in his ketamine hole at the time. Anna must have been so familiar with his little stunts that she knew he'd be back to normal by the time Friday came around. Fox Mulder had more than just Dr. Dana Scully looking after him, Bill mused. He had a whole team of caregivers.
He felt suddenly miserable, and he lit a cigarette.
"She didn't, uh," Holden broke himself off to clear his throat again. "She didn't call you?"
"We don't really talk on the phone," said Mulder. "Except to reschedule her visits. Or just small talk." He leaned forward. "You never know who's listening on the phone. You should never, ever trust a phone line. No matter who says it's secure. I mean, you’re FBI. You know.”
Holden nodded sincerely. "Thank you for the advice." He finally took a sip of his tea, then set it aside and nudged at the case file again. "Um... we do have a case for you. We have something you need to look at."
"Is it about John Roche?" Mulder rolled his eyes. "Because it's like I said, I already shared everything I knew about that asshole."
"It is and it isn't," said Bill. "Holden here will walk you through it."
Holden shot Bill a quick, dark glance. Then he straightened up and put on his big boy face. "Agent Mulder, we found a body in Martha's Vineyard. John Roche's first victim, Number Sixteen. We were unfortunately unable to identify—”
Mulder grabbed the file from Holden, and opened it with such force that pages and photos flew out everywhere. Bill hastily made sure none of them went walkabout.
"Where was she found?" Mulder asked. "Where on the island?"
"Uh-- Men-- Menemsha," Holden sounded out awkwardly.
"Menemsha. In Chilmark." Mulder leafed through the case files haphazardly, immediately focusing on the photographs. Chilmark was the town where he had grown up, Menemsha a small fishing village within.
"Um... yes," said Holden.
"It makes sense," Mulder muttered, still feverishly sorting through the files. "We knew from the cloth that Number Sixteen was killed in the '50s. That's been confirmed, right? That's how old the body is?"
"Yes," Holden repeated.
"And she was eight years old." Mulder said it like a fact, not a question, and didn't wait for an answer. He sorted the photos out in an array, the same way Holden had, bringing to mind the image of a girl.
Bill stood and cleared his coffee off the table to make room, and gestured for Holden to do the same with his cup.
“Menemsha was smaller then,” said Mulder. “I mean the whole place was rural, but Menemsha was like a park. It’s building up more now. They shot Jaws in the fishing village. It’s getting more tourism. They found her because of construction?”
“That’s what it looks like,” Bill said, his heart sinking.
“You could walk to the fishing village from our house,” Mulder said, almost to himself, voice pitched low. He finished placing the photos just the way he wanted them, and stared intensely at them.
Fuck, thought Bill. The look on Mulder’s face was the worst look you could see on the face of a murder victim’s family member: hope. It was a perverted kind of hope this time, hope that went in the wrong direction.
Bill had been around the block enough times to know that the whole thing was six of one and half dozen of the other. Families would demand that they uncover the truth because they needed to know, and then as soon as they knew, wish they could go back to not knowing. Damned if you do and damned if you fucking don’t.
Mulder was looking very, very hopeful. He touched the photos gently— the little hand, the hem of the nightgown, the place where hair should be.
“She had ribbons,” he said, his voice breaking. “Look at it. It’s still in a bow. She had those braids— you know how they braid it on top? French braids, I think it’s called.” He gestured at his head. “My mother did her hair before my parents went out. Two little ribbons in bows.” He touched the photo of the ribbon again, gently, reverently.
“So it’s her?” Holden asked, on the verge of one of those self-satisfied little smiles. “We couldn’t identify her, but if you can give a positive ID…”
Mulder didn’t seem to hear him. He stared unblinking down at the photos, fingers carefully tracing the little dead girl’s collar bone. “Uh— did Scully examine her?”
“Yes,” Holden said. “Here.” He helped Mulder look through the mess of disorganized pages on the table, and found Scully’s pathology report, neatly attached to the Massachusetts’ medical examiner’s.
Mulder eagerly pored over Scully’s report, holding it close to his face, brow furrowed, taking in every word. He looked between the report and the photos, reaching out one hand to gently trace the collarbones again.
Bill felt like biting his nails. He looked over at Holden, who beamed guilelessly back at him. If Bill was the praying type, he’d have prayed that whatever happened next wouldn’t be an absolute shit show.
“It’s not her,” Mulder suddenly announced.
Holden’s face didn’t even fall. He just blinked, like he had misheard. “Pardon me?”
“It’s not her,” Mulder repeated, voice breaking again. He sniffled and blinked hard. “Samantha broke her collarbone when she was six. We had a rope swing in our backyard. It was her left collarbone. I don’t see a break here, and Scully would have found it.” He looked between them imploringly. “Scully is really, really good at her job. If there was anything to be found here, she would have found it.”
“Okay,” Holden said gently, still looking confused. He reached a hand out towards the photos. “But maybe… I mean, it was so long ago.”
“No,” Mulder said, raising his voice. “It’s not her. I was going through this whole doctor phase when it happened, and my dad told me that when someone breaks a bone, you can see it on the skeleton forever after that, like a scar.” He turned to Bill, eyes wide and frantic. “That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Bill, heart in his stomach. “A medical examiner can tell the difference between an old fracture and a new one.”
“So Scully would have found it. This isn’t my sister.” Mulder shook his head rapidly, eyes going hard with adrenaline and anger. “For a second, I…” He covered his face with his hands in a look of pure despair.
“Holden,” Bill started, gently, trying to usher his young partner out.
“Maybe it’s still— it could still be her,” Holden attempted. “If you can help us find her dental records, maybe we can still identify her.”
Mulder’s hands fisted into his hair. “I was fucking twelve years old, man. I don’t know where her dental records ended up. They should have been in the original case file, but I never saw them.”
Bill knew for a fact, and so did Holden, that Samantha Mulder’s dental records were not in her original missing person case file. Perhaps whoever had redacted huge swaths of that investigation with thick black marker had also quietly gotten rid of the only means anyone would have of properly identifying her corpse.
“Her collarbone is fine. It’s not her. It’s someone else.” Mulder stood, sending his chair crashing down. Holden jumped back like he’d been shot at. “So why don’t you go and find out who she is, huh?”
“Okay, Fox, we’ll get out of your hair,” Bill said as gently as he could. He started gathering up the case files, and tried to catch Holden’s eye, but the kid was only staring at Mulder in shock.
Mulder stared right back. “Why did you come here?” he demanded.
“We— we thought— we thought it was her, and we needed you to identify her,” Holden sputtered.
“I told you what happened to her!” Mulder shouted. Other patients were gawking at them and whispering, and in some cases, shouting nonsense of their own, now. Orderlies and nurses were starting to try and restore order, though they didn’t intervene with Mulder yet. Just kept a wary eye on him.
“I—” Holden kept trying to interject.
“You won’t find her,” Mulder said, throwing his hands up the way a lot of people did around Holden. “You’ll never find her. So stop fucking looking, okay?”
“Okayyyyy.” Anna the nurse appeared at Holden’s side, making him jump again. “Let’s all just calm down, alright Fox?”
“I wanna talk to Scully,” Mulder muttered, pacing around behind his table, but still maintaining dark, angry eye contact with Holden.
“I’ll call her for you,” said Anna. “But you have to take a breath, okay?”
Bill finished hastily stuffing all the files back into their folder. He tugged at Holden’s elbow. “Let’s get out of here,” he muttered.
Holden resisted being tugged away. “Agent Mulder, I’m… I’m so—”
“I don’t wanna talk to these guys anymore!” Mulder shouted. “Get them outta here! I wanna talk to Dana Scully!” He jerked away from Anna as she tried to touch his shoulder. “I wanna talk to Dana! Scully!”
“Okay, Fox, we’re leaving,” Bill said, raising his voice, but not to Mulder’s level.
Mulder quieted down, and stopped shooting Holden deadly glares. His shoulders shook and he swallowed these tight little noises that Bill really didn’t want to hear.
“Let’s go,” he hissed, pulling Holden away.
Holden followed him meekly. They passed the couch, where Holden suddenly jerked in surprise. He’d made eye contact with Alex, who was now sprawled out languidly and grinning at them. They left the room to the sound of Mulder’s muttering, and that Russian fucker’s satisfied laughter.
When they got past the glass doors, Holden, still white-faced and wide-eyed, turned back. Bill turned with him, for one last look— he didn’t imagine Mulder would want him to visit again.
Far on the other end of the common room, Mulder had curled up next to a window, hugging himself, gazing mournfully out. His shoulders still shook, and he occasionally wiped at his face. It was a really good spot, Bill thought, for looking up at the sky. On a clear night, one might be able to see some stars.
But not tonight.
They drove for a long, silent stretch before either of them said anything.
“Well,” Holden started. “That was… unexpected.”
“Was it?!” Bill finally snapped. “How fucking obtuse are you? I told you to be careful. I told you to be prepared for the possibility that Number Sixteen wasn’t Samantha Mulder. And I’m pretty sure I told you that Mulder’s delusions were the only things keeping him out of trouble. Why do you always have to go poking?”
Holden looked scandalized. “What was I supposed to do? There’s no other way to close this case, Bill. And there was no other way to identify Number Sixteen.”
“You fucked that guy up.” Now that Bill had raised his voice, it was hard to un-raise it. “You gave him hope for a second, and then it all went to shit. He was dangling on a fucking precipise, and you shoved him right off. And for what? So the great fucking Holden Ford could close a fucking case?”
“I thought it was her,” Holden’s voice shook slightly. “Everybody thought it was her. There weren’t any other explanations, except— except aliens. And you didn’t believe that theory either, Bill.”
“It doesn’t matter if you or I believe it. It’s how he was getting by. It’s called coping, Holden. People have been doing it since the beginning of time. Psychology genius like you should know that. They’d lose their children and they’d say it was goblins, or elves, or fucking fairies. Second star on the right and straight on’ til morning.”
“Do me a favour,” spat Bill. “The next time you feel the urge to vacation in someone else’s pain, go watch Brian’s Song and leave the rest of us out of it.”
Holden flinched, eyes and mouth round with indignation. “Vacation…!” He broke off and glared out the window. “That’s not— that’s not what I do.”
“Well, fine then,” Bill weakly, starting to feel a little bad. He’d been conflicted about this whole thing. He didn’t want to shatter all of Mulder’s life-sustaining delusions; he didn’t want to have to tell an old colleague that his kid sister had, in fact, been murdered by some pervert.
But, if it had been Samantha, then it would be another case closed, which would always be worth it. Bill wouldn’t have to know that there was yet another nameless child out there, tortured and dead and maybe unmourned. He wouldn’t have to walk around with the knowledge that there was one more family who never got to bury their daughter, who never found out what happened to her. He’d give anything to not have to know that.
And worst of all, John Roche went to his death with a smirk on his face, pleased as punch that he was the only person who would ever know the true identity of Number Sixteen. It was enough, on a bad day, to make Bill sick.
They drove in silence for a while, the air tense. Holden breathed heavily beside him, and Bill started to worry.
“Are you… are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Holden said, but his voice was small and tight.
“Do you have your…?” Bill’s mouth got heavy, like it always did when he tried to talk about these things outside of teasing or insults.
“Yes, I have my medication,” Holden spat. “I’m not going to have a panic attack just because you yelled at me, Bill. I’m not a child.”
As if that’s the only thing that happened, thought Bill. “We can pull over if you want.”
“No,” Holden muttered, voice even tighter. He tried to turn further into the window, staring steadfastly away from Bill.
“Open the window if you have to,” Bill offered.
There was an uncomfortable moment of silence. Then Holden cracked open the window, and took a long, noisy breath.
“Look, Holden,” Bill said after a long and very awkward pause. “I know you were just trying to help. And of course I want justice for Number Sixteen as much as anyone else. And that drive, that’s what makes you a good agent. A really good agent. But for your own sanity, you have to accept that sometimes, the truth is just beyond us. Just like Ada Jeffries. Just like in Atlanta. Sometimes you have to take the loss.”
Another stretch of silence. Bill drove on endless, flat, straight road, while Holden sat rigid and still. When it appeared that Holden was not about to hyperventilate after all, Bill lit a cigarette. Holden turned his face to his cracked open window, stared out at the sky, and didn’t say anything.
“Dinner tonight?” Bill offered. After a pause, he continued. “We can go to mine. I got new furniture.”
“Yeah, uh… you know, to stage the place. Nancy and I decided to sell it. Split the proceeds. No need for me to be in a big place all by myself.
“Gonna find an apartment, like yours. As long as it has a little room for Brian when he visits.”
Holden said nothing, still staring out at the sky.
Bill coughed uncomfortably. “So it’s all kitted out now. And I have a guest bed, too. It’s a twin. It’s for Brian. But if you wanted, you could, you know. Crash. It’s big enough.”
Holden turned and regarded Bill for a long while. “I don’t need you to keep tabs on me all weekend.”
“I wasn’t saying that,” Bill said, hackles rising. “Jesus, kid, you want to eat dinner with me tonight or not?”
“Okay, yes. I’d like that, Bill.”
“You can drink and not have to worry about getting home,” Bill added defensively.
“I understand, Bill.”
“Good.” Bill nodded. “We’ll get pizza and beer on our way in.”
Silence again. Bill considered turning on the radio, but even that felt awkward.
“I really believed it was her,” Holden finally said. “I really, truly did. Or… or I…”
“You wanted to believe,” said Bill.
Holden nodded, gaze dropping to hands resting timidly in his lap.
Bill took a drag on his cigarette. “Yeah. So did I.”