The insistent knocking cut through the quiet music from the stereo. Booth sank deeper into the couch and turned a page in his book, trying to ignore it. He'd planned for a quiet night in, and dammit, it was going to be quiet.
Or so he thought until a familiar voice filtered through the door. "Booth? You home?"
Booth closed the book, keeping his place marked with his finger. "Angela?"
"Yeah. Can we come in?"
He set the book down completely and went for the door. A look through the peephole confirmed that it was Angela, dressed for a night out, but there was a hunched figure just at the edge of sight. "Who's 'we'?" he said carefully.
"Me and Brennan and Zack," she answered, sounding normal enough. "I hate to barge in on you like this, but we had a little incident."
That certainly didn't sound good, but her tone still didn't indicate anything out of the ordinary. Booth undid the chain latch, leaning his full weight against the door, and then jerked it open wide, staying behind it.
Angela walked in casually. "That was a little overdramatic," she observed.
Booth didn't answer as he came out from behind the door and looked past her. Brennan was coming through the doorway slowly, and it became obvious that the hunched figure he'd seen was Zack, half-draped over her shoulders and limping. "Agent Booth," he said stiffly. His voice was nasal and muffled, no doubt because of the blood running down the lower half of his face. The hand that wasn't hanging on to Brennan was streaked with red, suggesting that he had tried to stanch it and failed. Another dribble of blood ran from a cut above his left eye, and the skin around the eye itself was already swelling.
Booth took a step back at the sight of him, but recovered from his surprise and immediately ushered them through into the kitchen. "What happened to you?" he demanded, pulling out a chair. He shot Brennan a look. "What, did you start another bar fight?"
"Yes, actually," Brennan answered. "Do you have first-aid kit?"
He pointed down the hall. "Yeah, in the bathroom."
"I'll get it," Angela volunteered.
"First door on your left, under the sink." He headed in the opposite direction, opening the freezer and pulling out the ice tray. He was getting a dishrag from the counter when a small grunt of pain from Brennan startled him. He turned to see her shrugging Zack off her shoulders and into the chair, and he noticed that she was favoring her right hand. "You hurt too?"
"Just sore," she assured him, flexing her wrist. "I threw a bad punch, that's all."
Booth set the ice and the rag on the table, then returned to the freezer and grabbed a bag of frozen vegetables, which he handed to her. She waved it away, resting a hand on Zack's shoulder. "Just lean forward and keep your head down, okay?"
"I'll take care of it," Angela said. She had returned with the first-aid kit already open in her hands and a bottle of rubbing alcohol tucked under one arm. "You just ice down that wrist."
Booth held out the frozen vegetables again, and couldn't completely smother a triumphant look as Brennan took it and draped it over her wrist. "Nobody's really told me what happened."
"We were at a club and there was a fight," Angela said, kneeling in front of Zack. She'd pressed a wad of toilet paper into his hand, and he had it pressed against his nose. "Bleeding slowing any?" she asked. He nodded, and she ran her fingers across the bridge of his nose, holding his shoulder firmly as he jerked back. "It's not broken. You're lucky. Just relax, breathe deeply, and you'll be fine." She turned to look at Booth. "We were asked to leave, and we came here because your apartment was the closest and you'd said you planned to stay in tonight. Like I said, sorry to barge in on you."
"No, not at all," Booth assured her. He shook his head. "Bones, you're a dangerous person to hang out with."
Zack said something, but it was muffled by the toilet paper. "What was that?" Booth asked.
"Just hold still, sweetie," Angela admonished as she dabbed at the cut over his eye, but Zack lifted his head with a sigh.
"I said, I started the fight."
Booth's eyebrows shot up. "You're kidding." Zack glared at him from behind a mass of blood and toilet paper, daring him to laugh. "You're not kidding."
"Is it that much of a stretch to imagine? No, don't answer that."
Booth couldn't do much more than stare. "It's just…what? Why?"
"For my sake," Brennan said. Her voice was cool and detached, as if she was just discussing evidence in the lab. "A large and belligerent man at the club took offense at my disinterest in him. He apparently recognized me from television and launched a verbal assault. Zack stepped in, some form of challenge was issued, and…I imagine the rest of the scenario doesn't need an explanation."
Booth raised an eyebrow. "Must have been one hell of a verbal assault."
"I tuned out after 'freaky necrophiliac.' I suspect there was more."
Zack's flush was obvious even with so much of his face obscured. "I refuse to repeat it," he said. His voice was tight, and Booth suspected that this was ground the three of them had already covered on their way over.
He looked up at Brennan. "And I guess you took over and prevented him from doing any permanent damage?"
Brennan nodded. "That's when we were asked to leave. I assume the other patron was ejected as well once they got him upright."
"And you didn't even find a corpse. Looks like you're slipping, Bones."
"Every ticket can't be a winner," Angela said. "Bleeding stopped?" At Zack's nod she took the toilet paper from him and dropped it on the table, trading it for the dishrag stuffed with ice. "On your eye. Stop at least some of the swelling."
Booth hurriedly handed her a garbage can. "If we could not leave the dripping, bloody stuff on the furniture?" He'd be the first to admit he had a habit of taking his work home with him, but he had to draw the line somewhere.
"Sorry," Zack mumbled.
Booth sighed. He was still holding firm on his desire to avoid interacting with the kid whenever possible, but there was only so distant he could be at a moment like this. "It's not really your fault. I mean it is, in that you felt the need to pick a fight in order to defend a woman who could throw you across the room, but…"
"I doubt I could throw Zack across the room," Brennan said, her voice oddly cautious.
"Why not? Sounds like that's what you did to the guy who dropped him."
"He did not drop me," Zack insisted. "I never hit the floor."
"Only because I caught you," Angela said quietly.
Booth tried to hide a smile, earning him a glare from Brennan. It occurred to him that she hadn't spoken a word directly to Zack since they arrived. She was clearly trying to salvage some of his dignity by taking it upon herself to explain the fight, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that she was also embarrassed for him.
Booth suspected that if she ever expressed the same feelings about him, he'd have nightmares about it for the rest of his life.
Angela sat back on her heels and eyed Zack critically, the way she might look at a painting she wasn't quite sure she was done with. "That's about as much as I can do," she said finally. "Anything else you need?"
His reply was almost inaudible. "You not telling Hodgins about this."
A sympathetic noise. "Honey, that black eye isn't going away before Monday. The story's gonna come out, and it's better he hears it from someone who loves you than from the office gossip."
"You are the office gossip," Booth couldn't help retorting.
"Well, life's a funny thing sometimes." Angela chucked Zack under the chin, offering him one of her brilliant smiles. "Hold your head high, tough guy."
"If we're all taken care of, we should probably go home," Brennan said.
"You don't have to." Booth cleared his throat. "I mean, sure, this cut your clubbing short, but if you guys want to hang out here…"
Zack raised an eyebrow, his expression dubious. At the same time, though, there was something hopeful behind it. Booth let out a small sigh. Working with Zack was like suddenly having a preadolescent younger brother dropped into his life fully formed and without warning. It was a situation he hadn't chosen, and one he intended to step away from at the earliest possibility, but for the moment the only thing he could do was play it through. Besides, he added to himself, what right did he of all people have to get down on the kid for trying too hard to keep Bones safe? "I've got about a million movies in the living room," he continued. "We could plug something in, throw some popcorn in the microwave, make a night of it."
"We shouldn't," Angela said. "I mean, we've imposed on your quiet night in enough already."
"You're not imposing. Well, all right, you are, but I really don't mind. I mean, how often do we talk outside of work?"
"Never," Zack said quietly. "At your insistence."
"How about we just call this an olive branch, okay? Pretend we're normal people for an evening."
"Well, if you're going to insist," Angela said with a smile. "Come on; show me your DVD shelf and make a recommendation."
She offered a hand to Zack, but Brennan stepped up and waved her away. "I've got him," she said. "I don't think you really expect me to help pick out a movie."
"Fair point. Booth, I'm in the mood for something mindless. What have you got that's mostly made of explosions?"
"Everything with Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, or Star Wars in the title, for starters."
Booth started to follow Angela out of the kitchen, but the sound of Brennan's voice stopped him short. "Zack."
She wasn't talking to him. He shouldn't listen in. And yet, Booth was dying to know what she was going to say to him, now that she was actually saying something. "You acted unwisely out there tonight," she started. "You let someone provoke you into fighting unnecessarily, and you took a pretty big risk in doing so." She was scolding him like a kid, and he was starting to look like one, too. As Booth watched from halfway around the corner, though, he could see the corner of her mouth curve up. "But I'm not giving you any new information. What I do need you to know, though, is that I understand your motives."
Zack blinked in surprise. "You do?"
She nodded. "You saw what you perceived to be a threat to your social family and acted accordingly to protect a person and a connection you value. I would be remiss in not recognizing that – and thanking you for it." After a moment of awkward gesturing, she gave in and hugged him – hard, from the look of it. "Thank you for valuing me," she said quietly. Then, more firmly: "But don't express it in that manner again, all right? Leave overprotecting me to Booth. It makes him feel useful."
Booth suppressed an insulted snort, but he couldn't help suspecting that she'd said that as much to him as to Zack. He cleared his throat, trying to act as though he'd just poked his head back into the kitchen. "Bones, please tell me that you've at least seen Star Wars."
"That's the TV show, right?"
Zack winced. Booth had to agree. "All right, you just picked tonight's movie."
After all, he thought as the three of them headed into the front room, a movie about the amazing things that happen when a clueless kid walks into a conflict that's bigger than anything he ever expected? There'd never be a better time to watch it than now.