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auld lang syne

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Gunn’s house looked exactly as Bill had expected it to.

The zealous man had offered to host a New Year’s Eve party for the bureau, in an attempt to “build morale.” His home was a decently sized brick building with a white fence surrounding it, and an immaculate lawn. The lights of three different Christmas trees twinkled inside, left up after the holidays.

There were silhouettes of a surprising number of people in the windows– so the party was in full swing, then. There weren't many people socializing outside aside from a few having a smoke, most likely due to the cold. Bill wrapped his jacket more securely around himself and made his way up the stone path, without anyone on his arm for the first time in nearly twenty years.

He had called Nancy the morning after he came home to an empty house, after taking a few hours to collect himself and keep from losing it at her. It was a futile effort; their fight had been ugly, accusations being flung left and right. She called back later that day and apologized, and Bill did, too. She and Brian were staying with her mother, with plans to move into their own house once Nancy could afford to.

Bill thought back to when he signed the papers, a mere few weeks prior. Nancy had agreed on joint custody, much to his relief. Bill would take Brian on weekends, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Eve, while Nancy had him during the week, on Easter, and on Christmas Day. Brian was dealing with it surprisingly well, according to his therapist, and the boy didn’t seem to hold any animosity toward Bill about it, so he took that as a win. He was just glad that they lived close enough that he could see his son every weekend.

Despite the fact that his divorce was settled, he wasn’t exactly looking forward to the party– he had fully intended on skipping it altogether, but Holden had begged him to come, and he’d never been able to say no to Holden anyway.

When he pushed open the large wooden door and headed into the main room, Holden was already there, chatting up a group of guests who looked about ready to flee. No doubt they’d wanted gory details of an interview, and were instead subjected to Holden’s rambling.

He looked more handsome than he had any right to, talking animatedly to his perhaps unwilling audience. He was wearing an outrageously well-fitting black suit, one that made Bill’s mouth run dry. His Boy Scout hair was perfectly in place, but there was a flush crawling up his throat, which Bill took as a sign that he’d been drinking. He couldn't help his fond smile as he watched the scene from afar for a few moments. 

Holden had taken the fuck-up in Atlanta hard, and it was nice to see him back to himself, even if it was in a small way.

When he locked eyes with Bill from across the room, his face spread into a rare, brilliant smile that made Bill’s stomach twist. It was unlike his usual wry smirk, or the close-lipped half smiles he usually donned on the rare occasion that he smiled at all. It was a full-on grin, one that scrunched his nose and dimpled his cheeks endearingly. Bill had never seen it used toward anyone but him, and he couldn’t help but return it.

He shouldered his way through the crowd, eventually arriving at Holden’s side and clapping him on the back.

“Hey, there.”

”Bill!” Holden’s voice was pleased and his eyes were alight, shining from what was probably a combination of his apparent good mood and the alcohol. He set a warm hand on Bill's elbow, letting it linger for just a beat too long as he helped him integrate into the little circle.

"You all know my partner, Special Agent Bill Tench, I assume?"

His introduction prompted a few scattered nods, and Bill nodded back in greeting. He tried not to laugh at Holden’s eagerness. He knew everyone there already– perks of working at the bureau for as long as he had.

”Agents,” he greeted, shaking each of their hands.

”I’m a bit late to the party; hope my partner here hasn’t been stealing all the credit for our ventures,” he joked, setting a friendly hand on Holden's shoulder. Holden leaned into it, and Bill could feel some of the tension gathered there bleed away.

With some regret, he removed the hand after a moment– he and Holden had been touchy enough already, far more than two partners probably should be. The gesture seemed to go unnoticed by their colleagues, however, who simply smiled at the joke.

“Actually, he was just enlightening us as to how the unit would be remiss without you,” one of the agents piped up. Bill turned to Holden with a raised eyebrow. He knew that Holden respected him, but he’d never been one to openly shower Bill with praise. 

”Has he? I'm honoured," he deadpanned. The pinkness had made its way up to Holden’s cheeks, and he looked away hastily, toward the exit. Bill took that as a cue to rescue him from the group.

"I hope you don’t mind if I steal Boy Wonder for a bit. Unit-related things to discuss.”

The group nodded in near perfect unison, all clearly in various states of relief. With a final wave, he placed his hand on Holden’s back to steer him through the throng and toward a less populated hallway of the house. Holden followed with only a little grumbling, allowing himself to be herded away. Once they reached a spot away from the din, Bill leaned back against the wall, to Holden’s right.

“You have a bit to drink, there?” he asked, though he knew the answer. Holden waved him off with a sloppy, dismissive hand. 

"No more than you, I’m sure,” he muttered, and Bill chuckled at his indignation.

”Yeah, but I can handle it way better than you can.”

"Sure you can,” Holden said, his lower lip jutting out in a pout. He was fully facing Bill, resting his head on the wall beside him, watching him with those scarily intuitive eyes. Bill couldn’t look away, rendered helpless and off-guard by Holden, just as he always was.

“So. What was with the whole... singing my praises thing, in there?” Holden blushed anew, dropping eye contact immediately. He was quiet for a long moment, to the point that Bill was starting to think he wasn’t going to respond at all.

”Well, someone has to,” he eventually mumbled, kicking at some invisible obstacle on the ground with the pointed toe of his Oxford shoe. Bill scoffed, and that finally made Holden look up at him.

”What? Bill, your contributions have been just as significant as mine, if not more so. I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you that enough before.” Bill just gaped at him, utterly confused at what the hell prompted Holden’s sudden lack of ego.

”Not... not that I don’t appreciate it, but where is this coming from?” Holden shrugged, his gaze returning to the floor.

”It’s a new year, Bill. I’m going to do things right, this time. I’m going to be better.” He seemed so far away, lost in his own musings, and Bill could practically see the cogs and wheels of his mind working.

He was visibly jolted from his stupor by a gaggle of drunk agents shuffling by, laughing to themselves. Bill watched him shrink away from the people pushing past him, crowding against the wall, looking like a deer in headlights.

”Would you maybe want to get some air?” he asked, turning to Bill and cocking his head toward the door. Bill hesitated– how bad would it look, two agents sneaking off together? But in the brief time he spent considering the offer, Holden had walked out regardless, weaving through the crowd toward the door.

With a frustrated sigh, Bill chased after him.

”Hey, wait up. Dammit, Holden!”

He followed Holden outside, around the house toward the backyard. He eventually caught up with him behind a shield of bushes, where he was leaning against the side of the house. There were no windows on their level, and their position hid them from view of anyone on the second floor. 

It was a cold night, but not unbearably so. Bill sighed, slowing his pace as he got closer and taking a cigarette out of his pocket.

”Christ, Holden, why’d you run out like that? Where’s the fire?” he asked, as he attempted to light it. He kept flicking the lighter, but no flames were produced, and Holden smirked.

”Not there, evidently.”

”Smartass,” Bill retorted, rolling his eyes. He felt a hand brush against his own to cup around the cool metal, shielding it from the wind. The tip of the cigarette caught and Bill took a long drag, his fingers brushing against Holden’s as he pocketed the lighter.

“Thanks,” he muttered, and Holden just nodded.

They fell into a comfortable silence, both leaning against the side of the house, their breath coming in clouds. Bill finished the last of his cigarette and stamped it out, looking up at the sky. A smattering of stars was visible despite the well-lit street, and he stared up at them, actively trying his hardest not to stare at Holden instead.

When Holden next spoke, it startled Bill.

“Do you ever feel like we aren’t doing enough?”

”Enough of what?”

He walked around so that he was in front of Bill, his hands in his pockets, tie loose around his neck. His hair was messier from the breeze, and his cheeks were reddened from the cold. Bill watched him bite his lower lip, and swallowed hard.

”Not enough of, enough for. Enough for ourselves, I mean. I know how important the work we're doing is. Trust me, no one knows that more than me– I talk about it enough,” he said with a soft huff.

"But, I don't know. Lately, I guess I've been feeling... unfulfilled?"

A streak of panic shot through Bill at his words. Was he thinking of quitting? Was that what this was?

"In the work? Because if this is your way of telling me you're quitting, I might have to kick your ass.” Holden held up his hands placatingly, and shook his head.

"No, of course not. I meant unfulfilled in life, just in general. Everything but work, really. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. My life is my work, and I know that yours is damn near close.” Bill dipped his head in concession as Holden continued on.

“We spend so much of our time on these people. Do you ever feel like we should be... I don’t know... chasing our own happiness?”

He sounded so sure of what he was saying, similar to how he sounded when he gave his little spiels after they won a case. Bill fought the urge to laugh at the phrasing, mashing his lips together to keep the sound from escaping.

Chasing happiness, huh?” he repeated. Holden turned to look at him, eyes narrowed.

”You’re laughing at me.”

Bill snorted so hard that it hurt his throat, desperately attempting to swallow the sound.

”I’m not. I... I’m not, I swear.” Holden rolled his eyes, fake-laughing along with him, and made his way back around so that he was standing next to Bill.

”Hilarious. Uh-huh, laugh it up. Get it all out now, Bill. I promise you won’t be laughing come Monday; I’m on coffee duty, remember?”

His curt reply made Bill actually laugh, so loudly that it caused Holden to jump with surprise. The movement only made him laugh harder, and after a beat, Holden joined in. It was odd; Bill couldn't remember ever seeing Holden laugh beyond a huff. The sound made Bill's chest flutter, like he was a fucking teenager.

Anyone who walked by would probably think that they were insane, doubled over and cackling like they were deranged, but Bill found that he didn't give a shit– it was the most fun he'd had in months. Once the mirth faded, he leaned back against the house, wiping wetness from his eyes.

“So, this... happiness you plan on chasing. What does it look like?” he asked. Holden simply exhaled, his shoulders sagging, and looked at him pointedly.

There was something in his eyes, an expectation, like Bill was meant to figure out the answer, though Bill was sure he already had: this thing between them, that they'd been dancing around for so long. The thing that Bill wanted to address, wanted to finally act on more than anything, but was too fucking chicken. The words were there, sitting in the back of his throat, but they were too heavy to leave his mouth.

When Bill didn’t respond, Holden sighed and shrugged, looking down at the drink in his hands.

”It’s almost midnight,” he pointed out, tapping the face of his watch. Bill nodded, suppressing a smile.

”Guess so. Nothing gets past you, Holden.” Holden rolled his eyes, but made no move to retaliate. They stood with their shoulders brushing, the music coming from the party the only sound for several minutes, looking at the sky and their breath and decidedly not each other.

"Are you alright?" Holden eventually asked. Bill raised an eyebrow.

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"It's your first new year without Nancy, isn't it?"

Leave it to Holden to be as blunt as humanly possible. Bill shifted his weight from foot to foot, waiting for the wave of pain that he’d expected upon hearing the words, but there wasn’t one.

There was a sadness there, one that would probably never leave, but the agony had faded to a gentle ache. He and Nancy were both better off apart, without a doubt, and when he considered it all, he found mostly acceptance. He nodded, more to himself than to Holden.

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess it is. I’m fine. It’s... weird. Different.”

”Good different or bad different?” Holden asked. He shifted closer, his side a firm, warm press against Bill’s.

”Good, I think,” Bill decided, leaning into the contact.

From inside the house, the introductory violins of Etta James' At Last filtered into the air, soft and romantic and not at all what Bill needed. He turned to Holden, about to make some flippant comment about mood-setting and irony, but any thoughts he had about the song went out the window at the sight of him swaying back and forth to the swell of music. His eyes were shut and he was loose, relaxed in a way that Bill only occasionally saw him.

"I love this song,” he murmured. He looked peaceful. Bill watched him for a long moment, unable to stop the upturn of his own lips.

"Me too," he blurted out, and Holden’s eyes shot open as he raised a skeptical brow and fixed that gaze on Bill, openly analytical. Bill turned away, sheepish– not because he was uncomfortable with the look; it was a look that Holden nearly always had, one that Bill was used to. He turned away because he knew what Holden would find.

Bill didn't like that song. Bill hated that song. He used to always tell Nancy to turn it off, and he told Holden to do the same on the road whenever it came over the radio. He thought that it was cheesy and overplayed, but watching Holden move to and fro, a happy little smile on his face, he suddenly found a new appreciation for it.

“Dance with me,” Holden said, abruptly.

”...What?”

He set his champagne flute on the ground and held out an expectant hand. Bill‘s eyes flitted between it and his face, unable to discern whether he was fucking with him.

”Ha ha, okay, cut the shit. You’re being ridiculous," he eventually managed, and he saw a flash of hurt pass over Holden's features before his face shuttered defensively. 

”What, wanting to dance is ridiculous?”

”Not inherently. Wanting to dance with me? Yeah, it is. I'm not... I'm not some kind of–“

"Some kind of what, Bill? It's just a dance."

Bill grimaced as he weighed his options. His common sense was screeching in his ear, that he wasn’t that kind of guy, he wasn’t someone who danced around, much less with his male coworker at a fucking work party. And God forbid they got caught– they would lose everything. Even setting that aside, he hadn’t danced with anyone in years, not since a bureau party with Nancy when they were younger. 

But Holden looked so earnest, waiting for a response. Bill couldn't deny the amount of times he'd imagined that body against his own, though in a much less innocent context. 

Holden startled him out of his contemplation by curling his fingers invitingly, bringing Bill's attention back to his hand.

"It's just a dance," he repeated. Bill didn't move, just searched his face for some kind of anxiety about what he was offering, some kind of reservation. But there was none, nor did he particularly expect there to be. Holden was unabashed as always, no remorse. Was this something he should feel remorse for?

His heart beating in his ears, Bill turned around in a circle, checking for any potential witnesses. Holden had found, it seemed, the one place on the property that was hidden from view. The bushes surrounding them were placed in such a way that they would be able to see anyone approaching them before the person saw them.

”It’s okay. No one can see,” he murmured, easily reading Bill as he always did, pressing closer. His eyes were bright and his hand was still right there and Bill was only human. He took it, allowing Holden to crowd against him, settling his free hand lightly on Holden’s waist.

Holden wasn’t much of a dancer. His movements were jerky and clipped, the clear product of someone who gleaned his knowledge of dancing from movies and books, not practice. Bill stopped them in place by squeezing his hip.

"C'mon. If we're gonna do this, I'm gonna show you how to do it properly."

"I know how to dance," Holden scoffed.

“If that’s what you call dancing, then I pity whichever junior high girls had to be hospitalized for what you did to their feet.”

He began to direct Holden, leading him in a slow waltz to the music, acutely aware of everywhere their bodies were touching. Holden was a comforting heat against him, leaching away the cold, and yet Bill shivered under his touch. His fingers grazed the back of Bill’s neck, raising the hairs there on end. As they continued to move together, his dancing became more fluid, falling into a smoother rhythm.

”You’re good at this,” he commented. Bill just shrugged.

”I’ve been to a few dances in my day.”

”It seems so. Anything else you’re keeping from me?” Holden’s tone melted into coyness, and he fluttered his lashes playfully. Bill rolled his eyes, looking away from that obnoxious, beautiful fucking face. He inhaled sharply when he felt Holden’s head make itself at home on his shoulder, his face buried against Bill’s collar. The closeness was unbearable, but distance would be infinitely worse.

There was a sudden uproar inside the house, guests shouting different celebratory phrases meshed with those same phrases being cut off, presumably via kiss. Holden shifted, humming thoughtfully.

“Midnight, I suppose.” The words were spoken against Bill’s jaw, and he shuddered at the feeling of Holden’s breath on his neck. He shrugged him off, using two fingers to lift Holden’s chin up.

”Holden–“ he began to whisper, but he was cut off by the firm press of Holden’s lips against his. He didn’t have much time to think about how bad of an idea it was, because any coherent thought was overridden by Holden’s mouth and tongue and scent and hands.

The sensation was overwhelming, and he heard himself audibly groan into the kiss, gathering Holden as close as physically possible. Holden’s dress shirt was coarse under his fingers, and they itched with the urge to remove it. Bill backed him against the wall, clutching his face and coaxing his mouth open wider, flicking his tongue against the back of Holden’s teeth. Holden whimpered, winding his hands around Bill’s waist as he matched the desperate pace, swelling into his arms. 

When they finally parted for air, their foreheads still firmly pressed together, Holden reached up to stroke a thumb across Bill’s stubbled jaw. The scarce space between them was filled with their laboured breathing, hot and needy against each other’s lips. Holden grinned, playfully nudging Bill’s nose with his own, his soft skin stirring up desire unlike anything Bill had felt in years. He gathered Holden flush against him, hands flat against the small of his back as his hands curled against Bill’s chest.

Bill was about to close the distance, their lips about to collide once again, when he heard the sound of a branch snapping nearby.

Fear struck low and hot in his belly as he all but shoved away from Holden, adjusting his suit and trying to create some kind of neatness. He knew what he must look like, pupils blown wide and lips swollen, but he fixed what he could. Holden was doing the same, straightening his tie and messing with his hair, and all Bill could think about was how they were both about to be fired, when the person walked around the bush concealing them.

“There you are.” Wendy. Bill nodded stiffly at her, afraid of how his voice would sound if he gave a verbal greeting. She didn’t say anything about the somewhat compromising position they were in, simply watched them curiously.

”Gunn is looking for you, Holden,” she said, gesturing for him to follow her. Holden nodded, dusting imaginary lint off of his jacket. While he wasn’t paying attention, Wendy’s gaze moved to Bill, her eyes narrowed slightly. She looked almost... amused?

Bill watched in open disbelief as she pretended to zip her mouth closed and throw away the key, clearly hiding a smirk.

He relaxed, then, taking out another cigarette and lighting it with shaky hands. Wendy wouldn’t say anything. They were okay. Holden seemed to reach the same conclusion, nodding gratefully at her. As the pair began to walk away, he kept turning around to look at Bill, with eyes full of mischief that took Bill's breath away.

“Happy new year, Bill,” he called over his shoulder, wiggling his fingers in an almost flirtatious wave. Bill blinked furiously, still somewhat dazed from it all.

”Uh... yeah. I mean... yeah. Happy new year, Holden,” he stammered. 

Holden didn’t try to conceal his smile as he followed Wendy back into the house, and once they vanished around the corner, Bill stopped biting back his. He finished his cigarette before heading inside, whistling as he went.