Ch. 12: The path is overgrown and strewn with thorns.

Brennan stepped into her apartment, letting the door click shut behind her. She had left Booth's place after they had breakfast; he had stood by his living room window and watched her go, flashing her a smile and a jaunty wave as she unlocked her car door.

Here the hardwood floor gleamed a dark gold in the diffuse autumn sunlight, and she allowed her gaze to wander what suddenly seemed like an unfamiliar place. Not that that was rational, of course; she'd only stayed with Booth since Thursday night -- certainly not long enough to have forgotten her own home. Yet in some inexplicable way, it felt as though it had been much longer. If this was an artifact of the physical intimacy she had shared with her partner, she most definitely did not like it.

Frowning at her own foolishness, she shook her head and stacked her mail neatly on the hall table, vowing to deal with it later. Their interlude had been highly satisfactory, she mused with a shiver, but it had ended: now it was time to return to her routine. A woman with her responsibilities could ill-afford to daydream and dawdle.

With fresh determination, she strode down the hall to her bedroom. Perhaps a shower would help clear her head of the fog that had settled in it, and put her back in the correct frame of mind. As she pulled off her jeans, something fell out of her pocket. She bent to retrieve it, her mouth forming a smile when her fingers skimmed over the wings of the origami swan Booth had carelessly flicked her after dinner the night before. He'd fashioned it from a napkin; a rather humble medium, she acknowledged. His words, and the simple dinner he'd made for her, returned to her then: Maybe you should....let people do things for you sometimes.

But that would mean dependence, and the life she now had, the life she had built for herself, rested on a foundation of independence and self-reliance. She didn't need others to do for her; she did perfectly fine on her own, two nights of sleeping in Booth's arms notwithstanding.

No. She should throw it away. What possible reason could she have for keeping a folded napkin?

Sighing, she gently placed the crumpled gift on her bedside table.

xx—xx—xx

She switched on the shower and stepped in without allowing the water to heat up first. The bracing effect of the cold was precisely what she needed to dispel the remnants of her pleasurable but finite time with her partner.

Her movements were quick, efficient, as she soaped her arms and shoulders. But when it came time to do her back, her hands suddenly slowed, the memory of Booth's warm fingers sliding over her skin flooding back with blinding clarity. A heavy ache began between her legs and traveled upward to her chest, where it lodged. She swallowed, assaulted by images of Booth gazing at her with pure masculine appreciation shining in his eyes before he...

The bar of soap slipped and hit the tub floor with a solid thunk that abruptly brought her back to herself.

It was over. Her curiosity had been satisfied; the tension had been dispelled. Yes, it had, she firmly reminded herself. This was ridiculous: she stood in her shower, in her home, yet every small thing reminded her of Booth in a way that defied explanation and deeply unsettled her. Ignoring the throb that echoed in her body, she decided she would finish showering and head to the lab. She would not consider Booth's offer to "do it again."

Most assuredly not.

xx—xx—xx

She had just settled into her office chair and reached for a folder perched on her desk when her cell phone rang. Lips firming at the interruption, she palmed the phone and brought it to her ear. "Brennan," she answered, making no attempt to hide her irritation.

"Tempe, it's me."

Despite the faint crackle of static, the caller's identity was unmistakable. The familiarity of the voice on the other end of the line made her breath stutter. "Max?" she said, catching herself before "Dad" could tumble out instead. "Where are you?"

"Now honey, you know I can't tell you that." A smile colored his voice. "I know I let you get the drop on me once, but I'm not senile yet."

"That is debatable," she replied, scowling.

He chuckled, and she beat back the infinitesimal part of her that warmed at the sound. "Listen, I don't have long. I just wanted to let you know that your brother and I are together, and everything's fine."

After several weeks of wondering how Russ and her father were doing, the unexpected phone call did bring with it some small portion of relief.

But it also raised a bleak, ugly truth: Once again, she had been left behind. The memory of that long-ago "guys' weekend" rose in her mind, and her fingers tightened on the phone. Once again, she had been forced to watch her closest living relatives take off, this time her grief and humiliation compounded by the fact that she had been left handcuffed to a bench.

None of that should still bother her, however, she rationalized. How many years had she survived, no, thrived, without her parents and brother? Two successful, meaningful careers that brought her a high level of satisfaction and allowed her to live more than comfortably. By any objective measure, she was doing much better than simply getting by.

Having thus silently reassured herself, Brennan forced her fingers to relax. "Did you do it?" she asked, fighting to regain control of the conversation -- and her wayward emotions. "Did you murder Deputy Director Kirby?"

"Honey," he chided, "you know I can't answer that."

"The coin, it was there, and he was eviscerated and burnt. I know it was you." She paused, inhaling shakily. "We all know it was you."

"Kirby wasn't one of the good guys," he replied. She noticed he didn't refute her accusation. "Whatever he got, he deserved," he continued, his voice so full of conviction that she shivered in response. "He was a crooked cop. Not like your Booth."

"He's not my Booth," she countered automatically. "We are partners. Nothing more and nothing less." All true -- except that he had held her when the nightmare of her time buried underground had gripped her with icy fingers -- and she had let him.

"If that's what you need to tell yourself... But take it from me; I know a little something about leading a double life."

"I am not going to discuss this with you." The words came out sharp. "As a matter of fact, I am not going to discuss anything with you. This conversation is over."

"I'm sorry I upset you, Tempe. That wasn't my intention." He paused, as if waiting for her to comment. When she said nothing, he sighed into the silence. "Just...take care of yourself, honey. And let people take care of you, OK? Remember, I love--"

She didn't want to hear him say it. Buoyed by a sudden surge of anger, she disconnected the call.

Afterward, she spent several long minutes with her forehead propped on her hands, wishing she didn't feel so irrevocably, unbearably alone.


A/N: If you've got a sec, let me know what you thought. :)