OK, so this is my most recent endeavour. I wasn't sure about the premise for a while, but it's been plaguing me for over a week now and I've got plenty of ideas to hand. It's going to be a multi-chapter fic and, as per 'Recklessness & Repercussions,' I've got the basics of the narrative mapped out already, so you shouldn't be left hanging on tenterhooks for more than a few days at a time. Once again, I'm branching out into new territory - I'm going to try and stay away from excessive angst and keep things relatively light-hearted, as per Kerrie's request. Consider this to be your belated birthday present, mumrulz :-) I'm not saying that there won't be a few tear-jerking moments, but Brennan and Booth's relationship won't be put into peril at any point, I promise. Team building exercises are all about forging a stronger connection, after all. Oh, and getting intimately acquainted in a tent... if you're lucky ;-)
Please let me know your thoughts!
The crowded parking lot that catered for the Hoover building's personnel had an excellent security system, but Booth still didn't like the idea of abandoning his vehicle for five days. The bitterly cold weather was going to wreak havoc with his battery and the fact that he was being forced to forsake his SUV's cushy interior for the threadbare offerings of a dilapidated minibus just made matters worse. Slamming the lid of his trunk shut, he effortlessly shouldered his backpack before circling the car to ensure that it was secured.
Brennan watched him wordlessly, donning her gloves and scarf and making little effort to conceal the fact that she would much rather be elsewhere. She wasn't surprised when Booth moved to intercept her own unwieldy rucksack, but she promptly snatched it out of his grasp, her defiant glare silently daring him to make a comment about its hefty weight.
Booth promptly abandoned any notions of chivalry and offered Brennan a rueful grin. He had been about to remark how cute she looked in her knitted Chullo hat, but when his partner's frosty demeanour showed no signs of thawing, he heaved a disgruntled sigh instead.
"Look, Bones, if you want to blame someone, then save the abuse for Sweets, OK? Because I'm just as pissed off about this as you are."
Brennan's fierce scowl didn't falter. "Oh, really? Then why didn't you make more of an effort to convince Cullen what an idiotic idea this is?" she countered angrily. "I mean, our success rate speaks for itself, Booth. You said that we've solved more cases than the rest of your colleagues combined."
Booth rolled his eyes. "Come on, Bones, we may be the front-runners in our division, but that was obviously an exaggeration."
Brennan fell into step alongside her partner en route to the elevator, quickly adjusting to the weight of her backpack. "Well, even so, any imbecile could ascertain that we work well together."
"Yeah, we do," Booth readily agreed, although his tone was somewhat weary. He was loath to provide Bones with any more fodder for her impending tirade. He'd already had his ear chewed off for the duration of their journey, and it wasn't even 9am yet.
"I mean, how can Sweets even begin to justify nominating us for this glorified 'team building exercise?'" Brennan demanded after a moment's respite, her features twisting into a look of distaste. "I thought these sorts of… excursions… were designed for partners who have a strained relationship? Surely someone with his credentials can see that we're not even eligible candidates, unless we're providing an example of what everyone else should be aspiring to?"
"I guess we'd better start working on some lesson plans then," Booth remarked with a teasing grin, inordinately pleased that Bones was so quick to defend their partnership.
"It's not funny, Booth," Brennan reprimanded him with a disapproving glare, "Sweets said himself that we make a complementary team, so this reeks of hypocrisy. And as for Dr Saroyan…" Brennan's diatribe momentarily waned as she sucked in a deep breath, "I'm frankly appalled that she would sanction something so preposterous. She of all people should know that I have far more pressing matters to attend to."
"What, and I don't?" Booth retorted, his tone betraying his mounting frustration. "You think I want to spend five days listening to you griping about something that isn't even my fault? You wanted to spend your weekend polishing the bones of some ancient Bronze Age warrior; I wanted to spend my weekend with Parker. Instead, we're stuck playing Tarzan and Jane out in the wilderness somewhere." Booth jabbed repeatedly at the button designed to summon the elevator. "Shit happens, Bones, and I don't like it anymore than you do, but this exercise is mandatory for all the Agents having therapy with Sweets – "
"But I'm not an Agent," Brennan interjected, regarding him pointedly, "I'm a consultant, not an employee, so why do the FBI assume that they have jurisdiction over my schedule?"
"Because you're my partner, Bones, and you can't demand to be given the same rights as all the other Agents - you can't ask to undertake fieldwork and have access to every facet of the investigation - if you think you warrant special treatment the rest of the time. So, unless you want to be lumbered with a new partner, you're going to have to put up or shut up like everyone else, OK?"
Her partner's tone was sharp, and Brennan flinched slightly, biting her lip. They boarded the elevator in silence, and she chanced a fleeting glance at Booth's expression. His jaw was set in a grim line and his eyes were dark with anger. When they fixed on her own, she promptly lowered her gaze.
"I'm sorry that you're going to miss out on your weekend with Parker," she offered after a moment's hesitation, her meek tone barely audible.
Booth sighed aggrievedly, and then nudged her gently with his elbow. "And I'm sorry that you have to neglect your crusty old skeleton, too, OK?" He regarded her with twinkling eyes, and his features gradually softened into a look of unmistakable affection. "Look, this is a pain in the ass for both of us, Bones, but I promise it isn't going to be anywhere near as awful as you think. Just think of it as a free holiday - courtesy of the Bureau." The elevator doors opened, and he stepped out, turning to face his partner with a disarming grin. "Besides… you've got me for company," he reminded her, quirking an eyebrow as he guided her towards the front of the building, "How bad can it be?"
The prominent furrow in Brennan's brow gradually evened out, replaced by a small smile. "I suppose it could be worse," she conceded begrudgingly.
"That's the spirit, Bones. And you know what?" Booth leaned towards her conspiratorially, "The last time I went on one of these things, they had us pairing off for target practice, so you might even get your hands on a gun if you play your cards right."
Brennan brightened considerably. "I'm very proficient at playing cards," she informed him happily, "Especially the more tactical games. I always beat my father, and he was the prison champion." An expression of confusion clouded her attractive features. "Booth? Why are you laughing?" She punched him lightly in the stomach. "They will let me have a gun, right?"
"I hope so, Bones," Booth choked out, clearing his throat as he tried to rein in another round of laughter at the expense of his partner's literality.
As they exited the parking lot and progressed further down the block, a group of eight disparate Agents gradually became visible. Most of them were clad in bulky winter coats and sporting packs of their own. They were congregating outside of a 17-seater minibus, and Booth inwardly cringed when he considered how confined the space was going to be once all of their equipment was loaded. The Powers-That-Be were keeping their destination a secret, probably to avoid them plotting their escape route, but the hiking boots, tents and sleeping bags that everyone had been instructed to bring were a clear indication that they would be camping out - which probably wouldn't go down too well, considering the bitterly cold climate. If Booth had to hazard a guess, they were most likely heading for George Washington National Forest, and that was nearly three hours away - probably closer to four given that the minibus was unlikely to exceed 50 m/p/h. He just hoped everyone had taken a long shower and sprayed a liberal amount of antiperspirant this morning, because they weren't going to be able to open the windows without contracting frostbite.
Brennan eyed Booth's diverse collection of colleagues warily. They were still several yards away from the congregation point so she had plenty of time to gauge the dynamics of the group before they acknowledged her approach. She had expected the other partners to be standing alongside each other, but instead the small crowd had separated into two gender-specific groups, making it almost impossible to determine who was paired with whom. The youngest member of the women's group was a petite blonde who looked to be in her mid-twenties. She was clad in tight-fitting jeans, Ugg boots and a faux-leather jacket that was clearly designed to compliment her figure, rather than retain warmth. Her well-proportioned face was caked in an excessive amount of make-up considering the context, but she nevertheless knew how to apply it effectively as it served to compliment her attractive features.
The blonde was chatting animatedly with a woman who looked to be around ten years her senior. She was also striking, but her chiselled cheekbones and strong jaw line gave her a far more androgynous air. She appeared to be even taller than Brennan herself and wore no discernable make-up. Her almond-shaped eyes were encircled by fine lines, which crinkled appealingly when she smiled, giving her an approachable aura that belied her rigid posture and aggressive stance. Her brown hair was short, but stylish, and she had - like Brennan herself - opted to don clothing that was practical and comfortable, rather than flattering. A short, stout woman in her early forties stood on the fringe of the group, pleasant looking, but comparatively plain. She was mostly silent, but Brennan was surprised to note that when she talked, the other two women listened attentively, occasionally breaking into rambunctious laughter. They appeared to be a relatively cohesive unit, and Brennan immediately doubted her ability to integrate with them effectively.
The men formed an even more eclectic ensemble. There were five of them in total, and her attention was immediately drawn to a lofty Hispanic man in his early forties simply because he was the only one who wasn't vying for dominance by talking as loudly as possible. He wasn't conventionally attractive, but he had an air of self-possession and piercing dark eyes that spoke in his favour. He looked thoroughly disinterested in his colleagues' antics, and clearly had no time for puerile jokes. In stark contrast, the youngest of the group was an overly preened, but admittedly handsome Caucasian who seemed to be keen to make up for his short stature and comparative inexperience by drawing as much attention to himself as possible. He was gesticulating wildly, regaling his fellow Agents with what was no doubt a tawdry anecdote, and they were humouring him with hearty guffaws. Brennan was somewhat surprised to see an overweight, silver-haired man who looked ready for retirement whole-heartedly joining in, his jowls wobbling in the process. The forth man - a nondescript Caucasian who looked to be in his early thirties – intermingled with the crowd but did little to compel the others' attention, unlike the attractive African-American Agent who exuded confidence and had a salient presence within the group.
The women were the first to acknowledge their arrival, and Brennan shifted uncomfortably as they studied her with something akin to disdain. Their gazes swept over every inch of her physique, leaving her feeling uncharacteristically self-conscious, and she wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or affronted when their attention shifted away from her and became firmly affixed on Booth. Brennan knew her partner was an attractive man – he easily outshone the competition – but she was astounded when the women began nudging each other and whispering amongst themselves like teenaged girls. She glanced at Booth to gauge his reaction, but he seemed to be oblivious to their fawning, at least until the young blonde levelled a beaming smile in their direction, wiggling her fingers in a flirtatious wave.
"Seeley!" she exclaimed, making her way towards them. "We were beginning to think that you'd abandoned us."
Brennan thought her partner's good-natured smile looked a little forced.
"Nope, we're raring to go," he assured the slender woman, placing a hand on the small of Brennan's back and ushering her forwards. "Bones, this is Alex Johnson, she graduated from Quantico last year and then transferred here from the Buffalo field office a couple of months ago. Alex, this is Dr. Temperance Brennan."
"Pleased to meet you," Brennan said politely, removing her glove and proffering her hand. Alex obligingly shook it, but failed to return Temperance's attempt at a friendly smile.
"Yeah, you too," the young Agent murmured noncommittally, quickly returning her attention to Booth. "So, it looks like they've hired some disgustingly perky Events Co-ordinator to baby-sit us," she informed him, rolling her eyes. "Some kid with bangs and freckles. Seriously, she looks even younger than Sweets, and we're supposed to be following her lead?" Alex started to laugh. "God knows how much coffee she must have downed to be that chipper first thing in the morning, and you should have seen what she was wearing. I mean, they had to be the pinkest, fuzziest ear muffs I've ever seen."
"The colour is unlikely to detract from their ability to provide thermal insulation," Brennan informed her, eliciting a snort from Booth.
Alex regarded her disbelievingly. "Yeah, whatever," she said dismissively, barely glancing in Brennan's direction.
Booth watched as a look of confusion briefly registered on his partner's features, and then Bones bowed her head, studying the sidewalk intently. He edged a little closer to her, lightly bumping her shoulder. When she glanced up at him sharply, he offered her a warm smile until her lips began to quirk in response. "So…" he ventured, eyeing Alex warily, "Where's Little Miss Sunshine now?"
"Cullen's playing hostess and serving up breakfast for her in his office, and the stupid fucking driver decided to lock all the doors before he went along for the free meal ticket. I think I can safely say that none of us appreciate being left to freeze our asses off out here," she whined, her full lips forming a petulant pout.
"Uh-huh." Booth was starting to look bored, and Alex made a hasty attempt to re-engage him.
"I've got to say, Seeley, I'm surprised to see you here," she admitted, offering him a disarming smile. "I thought you and Dr Brennan were supposed to be tight?"
Brennan sent a quizzical look in her partner's direction, and Booth looped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her towards him in a half-embrace. "We are," he stated flatly, promptly releasing his partner when she sent a murderous glance in his direction.
"Oh." Alex looked vaguely disappointed. "Because I was going to say, if the bone lady is jonesing for a new partner, then I'd be happy to pick up the slack, so to speak."
"Booth, I think she's propositioning you," Brennan whispered in the vicinity of her partner's ear, earning a glare from Alex and a chuckle from Booth himself.
Brennan eyed the blonde Agent coldly, folding her arms. "Barring any extenuating circumstances, I intend to continue working with Agent Booth for the foreseeable future."
Booth grinned, sending an apologetic shrug in Alex's direction. "Sorry, Alex, it looks like I'm already spoken for." Deciding that the blonde had wasted enough of their time, he tugged on his partner's sleeve. "Come on Bones, let's do the rounds. I'll introduce you to everyone."
Brennan followed him willingly at first, grateful for an opportunity to create some distance between herself and Alex, who was now regarding her with inexplicable, but palpable, contempt. However, as they moved closer towards the rest of the group, her pace slowed considerably, and it didn't take Booth long to notice that she was visibly hanging back.
"Hey," he said quietly, turning to face her. "What's wrong?"
"I just… I don't… what if nobody likes me?" Brennan finally blurted out, studiously evading his gaze.
"Then they're a bunch of idiots," Booth reassured her without a moment's hesitation. "Look, Bones, I know Alex was a bitch back there, but don't let her get to you, OK? I'm not one for buying into rumours, but I've seen and heard enough to figure out that she's not someone I want to socialise with after hours. She'll zero in on any eligible guy in her vicinity, and the fact that we're… you know… a pretty close team, means that she probably sees you as a threat, that's all."
"A threat?" Brennan echoed, raising her eyebrows. "I can't see why. I mean, isn't she the epitome of your usual type? Tall… shapely… blonde…"
"Nah, Bones, she's not my type at all." She's not you, he inwardly added, resisting the urge to heave a plaintive sigh. "Between you and me, back in Buffalo, Alex seemed to have some trouble grasping the concept of professional boundaries…" A grin slowly began to spread across Booth's face, "Which is why Cullen decided to partner her with Bob over there." He gestured to the silver-haired, obese Agent who Brennan had previously decided was far too old for fieldwork.
Brennan couldn't help but smile. "Really?"
"Oh yeah, they get along like a house on fire," Booth snorted sarcastically, shaking his head. "Bob's got three decades worth of experience behind him and he's firmly entrenched in the old school mentality; she's fresh out of the Academy and thinks she knows it all. They're supposed to be learning from each other, but watching them interact is car-crash TV. Suffice it to say that Sweets won't be begging to follow them around anytime soon."
"Well, we clashed a lot at the beginning of our partnership, too," Brennan reminded him, smiling softly. "It doesn't necessarily mean that they're a lost cause. Maybe, in time, they really will learn something from each other."
"I never had you pegged for an idealist, Bones," Booth teased with an affectionate grin. "But trust me, what we had back then does not remotely resemble what happens when those two are forced into a confined space together. I mean, you'll see for yourself soon enough. They don't have an iota of respect for one another." He regarded her intently for a moment, before lowering his gaze. "Look, I know we've had our fair share of disagreements, but I respected you from the outset, Bones. I hope you know that."
Brennan brushed her fingers lightly against her partner's hand. "I did. I do," she hastily amended, offering him a warm smile.
"Good." Booth reached out, gently tugging the woollen rim of his partner's hat further over her ears. "Now come on, let's get this whole 'meet and greet' crap over with before people start thinking that we're anti-social."