Huge thanks to Rochelle Templer for the beta work.
The Boy in the Man
They're working a case where the victims are all children and the killer is a faceless, taunting voice on the phone. The first few calls has left Booth dark-eyed and quiet so when Lance answers his own phone and hears that familiar voice, he can't help but feel relief. Better him than Booth, he thinks. Better him than Dr. Brennan.
The room falls silent around him as he waves his arms in the air, gesturing at his phone. Booth picks up on it first, squaring his shoulders and digging through his pockets for his own cell phone.
"Keep him on the line as long as you can," the agent orders, adding as an afterthought; "Put him on speakers."
Lance does, hands steady and mind calm. He's trained to deal with sick minds. Trained to help and heal that which is broken.
"Doctor Sweets," the voice on the telephone purrs. "How lovely to speak to you."
Lance has the time to think, almost amused, at least he's polite before his world is turned upside down.
The ringing in his ears drowns out everything else.
Shock, Lance self-diagnoses as he walks out of the room. His steps are slow and measured, something he finds himself vainly hoping that the others will credit to self-composure. To himself he acknowledges that the only thing prompting the slow movements is fear; if he moves any faster he might start running and if he starts running... well, he's not all that sure he'll be able to stop.
His steps lead him to the men's bathroom and as he lets the door fall shut behind him he reflects that it's been a long time since he's been so relieved to have a closed door between himself and the rest of the world. His fingers struggle with the simple action of turning on the tap and as he glances up at the mirror he finds a gray and colourless face staring back at him.
He runs the water over his hands and then his wet hands over his face and through his hair. As he performs his ablutions the realization that it's somehow easier to accept the physical symptoms of emotional upheaval than to acknowledge the turmoil inside sneaks up on him. The professional in him notes this down as something to reflect on later but for now he settles on focusing his attention on calming his breathing.
It's an easy enough trick which he's gone over with hundreds of patients. Thoughts and worries nudge at his consciousness and while he knows better than to ignore them, he keeps re-directing his focus on his breathing and the mental count he's keeping.
When the door creaks open behind him, the ringing in his ears has been replaced by the sound of running water and the air being sucked in and then pushed out of his lungs at even intervals. He meets Booth's eyes in the mirror; easily spotting the worry and anger laying half-hidden under the more obvious discomfort.
"You trying to drown yourself?" Booth asks, nodding towards the tap. Lance blinks, looks down at the mostly full sink and then fumbles to turn off the water. When he looks up again, the bathroom door is shut and Booth has moved close enough to touch. Lance's breathing hitches –
door closing, broad shoulders, big hands, all alone now, no one to hear him, no one to help him, his heart in his throat, the ringing in his ears, something digging into his spine as he tries to back away, panic and –
- but he catches himself, finding himself face to face with Booth, the sink behind him and a few seconds of time he wouldn't quite be able to account for if asked. Not good, he thinks. Not good at all. He's better than this.
"No," he says, answering Booth's question. His voice comes out far more croaky then he would have preferred but at least he has managed to force words past the lump in his throat. "No, I'm not trying to drown myself."
"Good," Booth answers, his voice coming out at a funny pitch too. "Good. Sweets, I'm sorry but... if you're up to it, we, that is, I, need to ask you some questions. Not about... not about what he said, I don't need to know about that, but if we can figure out how this guy found out about your past..."
It's as close to babbling as Booth gets and though it's wrong for so many reasons the other man's obvious unease helps Lance find his own strength.
"Of course," he says. "Anything to help."
They talk in the break room, Booth stealing a teabag and a splash of milk from some unknown 'squint' as Lance just sits by the table. One thing at a time, he keeps reminding himself; the interview with Booth first, then he'll call in to take the rest of the day off, and then... then he can indulge in a little private meltdown.
"Sweets?" Booth says, interrupting Lance's thoughts as he pushes the tea cup across the table.
"Thanks," Lance murmurs, unclasping his hands to wrap them around the cup instead. As he inhales the scent of bergamot, he finds himself indulging in the whimsical hope that maybe the warmth will eventually help thaw some of terrible numbness he's feeling deep underneath everything else.
A hundred years or so ago, he'd ridden to the Jeffersonian with Booth.
When he mentions that he'll be heading home rather than going back to the office, Booth insists that he'll drive Lance home. The sound of the radio fills the car and, for all that this would perhaps in theory be a great opportunity to demonstrate to Booth that talking about trauma can indeed be helpful, Lance appreciates the lack of conversation.
"Thanks," he says as Booth pulls up outside his apartment block. "Don't hesitate to call if you think of any more questions."
He closes the door without giving Booth a chance to reply. Sometimes he's truly a coward.
As meltdowns go, his is pretty mild.
He locks the door behind him, sheds his coat and locks himself into the bathroom. That makes two locked doors between him and everyone else and it's pathetic how much that helps. He sinks down on the toilet seat, props his elbows on his knees and exhales slowly.
This is a safe environment, he reminds himself. No one can see him. No one can hear him. He's all alone.
Eventually he starts crying.
"Yes, hello...?" he mumbles, waking up with his cell phone in his hand and a voice in his ear.
"It's me," Booth says. "You coming in today?"
Lance blinks, turning his head to stare at the blinking alarm clock. It's later than he normally gets up, but not too late to make it to work. He forces himself to remember the previous day; prodding at his own feelings like a child at a blossoming bruise.
He thinks of wounded animals, crawling away to hide in their dens, licking at their wounds as they wait to either get better or die. Then he thinks of his adoptive parents knocking on his bedroom door, always respectful but insistent enough to get the point across to him.
"Yes," he says, "I'm on my way."
He buys two coffees and steps by Booth's office on the way to his own. Booth's sitting hunched over his desk, filling in a form with a scowl on his face and the pen held too tight in his hand. He looks up when Lance knocks on the already open door.
"Sweets," he says, fake cheer in his voice. "That for me?"
Lance nods, then crosses the floor to hand Booth the extra cup. Knowing Booth the way he does, it's not difficult to understand his choice of coping method. By pretending everything is all right, Booth's no doubt under the illusion that he's doing Sweets a favour... meanwhile happily ignoring that his behaviour also keeps his own past safe from scrutiny.
"I wanted to thank you for yesterday," Lance says, not quite brave enough to be specific. Booth, predictably, just shrugs and chugs down the coffee. After all, Lance translates, Booth can't possibly be expected to involve himself in potentially emotional conversation with his mouth full of Starbucks' best brew.
Fond amusement tugs at his lips as he leaves.
He stays inside his office for most of the day; catching up on paperwork and following up on emails which he at some point has marked as less than urgent. When lunch time rolls around he thinks longingly of the candy bars in the bottom drawers of his desk, but instead forces himself to head out for a sandwich.
As tempting as it is to coddle himself, he knows it won't do him any good in the long run. He finds a group of co-workers; people he wouldn't normally socialize with but who, out of social convention, will unquestioningly let him hang out in the borderland of their social circle.
They talk and laugh and he loses himself in the challenge of not standing out from the crowd.
There's another interview. The questions – some about the case, but most about him – leave Lance shaken and he has no objections at all when he's told that he's off the case.
Come Monday, he rides to the Jeffersonian with Booth.
He trails after the other man, not really owning up to his own cowardice until he, after some time, looks up to find both Booth and Bones staring at him in a way that very clearly implies that they'd like some privacy. His face heats up and he backs out of the room. How abysmally awkward.
Lance doesn't indulge in self-punishment any more than he does in self-coddling, so it's purely coincidental that he crosses the lab to intrude on Hodgins' domains. The man glances up and greets him with a nod but doesn't immediately take his attention away from his experiment. After a while he looks up again though, his face a mask in studied casualness.
"So, is it true then?" he says. "What that asshole said? It really happened to you?"
Beaten like a dog. Begging for scraps. Locked away and forgotten about. How undignified, Dr. Sweets.
"Yes," Lance says, "it did."
Hodgins looks away, jaw clenched and hands like fists. People are so afraid of anger these days, but it's always struck Lance as wrong to turn so categorically against such a useful emotion. Right now, for example, it's providing them both with some measure of comfort.
"Dinner at Bone's place," Booth says that evening. "It won't be anything fancy, but it's better than cereal or ramen or whatever it is you kids eat these days."
The insult slash dinner invitation takes a few seconds to sort through and Booth is gone before Lance can either accept or refuse. It's as text book as it gets and the reminder that they're all just human - fragile and complex and fucked-up – comforts him.
Bones serve a smooth soup with brittle parmesan chips on the side and fresh berries for desert. It's the kind of food, she explains, that gives the impression of culinary skill without actually requiring anything but basic reading comprehension and the ability to follow instructions.
"It's surprising," Bones suddenly says, her voice as sharp as a whip for all that she stares at him with a child's helpless, uncomprehending eyes. "Recent studies all suggest that the long-term impact of abuse in early childhood and preadolescence should-"
"Bones," Booth snaps and from the way she turns betrayed-looking eyes to glare at her partner, Lance can only assume the words must have been followed by a kick under the table.
"It's okay," he assures them, wishing the words didn't feel like such lies.
Bones gives Booth a victorious look, but something in the man's face must still have gotten to her because when she turns back to Lance she doesn't finish her previous sentence.
"You're very well-adjusted," she says instead. "Considering your background."
"Thanks," he manages.
Booth catches the killer three weeks and one dead kid later.
It's a pyrrhic win, Lance thinks as he finds out. Maybe not even a win at all.
The man's close-lipped about the children, close-lipped about his reasoning behind the killings, close-lipped about just how he's come across such private information on those involved in the investigation. Lance sneaks in to look at the killer behind the safety of the mirror window; he looks perfectly average, not at all remarkable, a bit like the old man who lives across the street and takes his terrier for a walk every afternoon.
It's not a surprise; Lance has always known that some things dwell deep underneath.
"He's still not talking," Both announces in lieu of an actual greeting.
He steps inside Lance's office without waiting for leave, crossing the floor and sinking down in a chair as if he owns the place. The dominant alpha male behaviour goes a long way to cover the upset that Lance still sees lurking in the tense shoulders and clenched jaw.
"I have a theory though," Booth continues, stopping only to look disapprovingly at Lance who's sitting by his desk with a straw in his mouth and a sandwich in his hand. "Did you forget that we're all having dinner tonight? Put that down."
Lance sucks so hard at the straw that he can feel his cheeks hollow and an audible slurp fill the room. Booth's eyes widen and he opens his mouth as if he's about to say something, but instead he just ends up shaking his head.
"We know," he starts again, "that Linton worked as a janitor for various government buildings in his life, including the social services office. As you pointed out when it all stated, he was fascinated by at-risk children."
Lance nods, pushing the sandwich away.
"We found traces on his computer that he'd been in contact with others. Like him. They swapped stories; things they'd seen, overheard, read."
"The recurring theme of this exchange being...?"
"Children," Booth answers in a clipped tone. "Abused children."
Booth looks away for the first time, his lips turning down at the corner. A natural reaction for a father, Lance thinks. He knows now what Booth's theory is and the very thought of it – of these strangers sharing stories about the worst moments of his life, getting off on the blood he'd shed and the tears he'd wept – is sickening.
He recognizes though that Booth is working hard to give him closure. That this entire conversation had been meant as a kindness. He wonders if maybe with time he'll able to think of it as such.
"Thanks for filling me in," he forces out.
"We're going to get them," Booth says, leaning forward to close the gap between them. "Our computer guys are all over this, Sweets. They're not getting away."
"To good food and wine," Lance says later that evening. "And to friends and family."
They all lift their glasses.