A/N: This author's note contains some spoilers for last night's episode, so if you haven't seen it yet, you might want to skip ahead :-)
This one-shot is my penance for not having updated 'Venturing into the Unknown' for nearly two months. I'm not sure if it's enough to secure my absolution, but hopefully it'll tide you over until I find the inspiration to continue with that story. Multi-chapter fics are always a gamble – I never start anything without aiming to finish it, but even when you have the best of intentions, it's hard to muster the willpower to tackle a fic of that longevity when you're becoming increasingly disenchanted with the show itself. Was anybody else bitterly disappointed by last night's episode? I wrote this one shot in a haze of anticipation, but I could barely bring myself to finish it this morning - talk about being sold short; anti-climactic does not even begin to cover it :-(
I know not everybody agrees with my assertion that the show is rapidly spiralling downhill, and if that's the case, I envy your ability to adjust to the jarring change of direction in its tone, characterisation, and overall quality - not to mention the increasingly implausible plotlines. I didn't sign up for farcical comedy (Double Trouble in the Panhandle) or outlandish fantasy (I could cope with the dream sequence in 'The Fire in the Ice,' but the concluding scene of 'The Hero in the Hold' was frankly an insult to my intelligence). If I wanted ghosts, I'd watch Supernatural -and I'm pretty sure that even the most low-budget of thrillers wouldn't have the serial killer walk into the lab and deliberately draw attention to their incriminating injuries in order to hurry the plot along.
Anyhow, please believe me when I say that I know how frustrating it is to become invested in a story that is only updated on a sporadic basis, but that's the risk inherent in starting a fic that is marked as 'incomplete.' When there's no monetary incentive, you have to write for your own enjoyment - not out of a sense of obligation - otherwise the quality of your work will deteriorate and your much-loved hobby will become a chore. And you don't want me to suffer for my art, right? :-P That's not to say that I don't appreciate everyone who has taken the time to comment on 'Venturing into the Unknown' and express their interest in its continued development, though. I'm eternally grateful for your kind words and support.
Please bear with me, and in the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this piece - that's if I haven't been sent to the Dog House :-)
Booth was hovering in the doorframe of his partner's expansive office, waiting for her to finish surveying the contents of her computer screen. He couldn't understand how someone with barely any semblance of a social life could spend twenty minutes reading her e-mails. Brennan was studiously ignoring him, and he was getting increasingly agitated. All of his attempts at small talk had been quashed, and now he was resigned to instigating the conversation he'd been avoiding since his arrival.
"Max turned up at my apartment last night," he blurted out, sinking heavily onto Brennan's couch.
Brennan glanced at him sharply. "But I thought you were unlisted? How did he get your address?"
"I don't think I really want to know the answer to that, Bones," Booth joked, regarding her wryly, "I just never expected a guy who I arrested to turn up on my doorstep with a six-pack of beer and a smile on his face. Usually they go for a gun or, you know, a grenade launcher."
"What did he want?" Brennan asked, trying to sound nonchalant, but with limited success.
Booth sighed. "Look, he's worried about you, OK? He said you turned him down for dinner three times this week already."
"He works here, Booth. He's perfectly aware that I stay after hours because I have a substantial workload to contend with."
"So that's why you keep on saying 'no,' then? Because you're busy?" Booth hedged, trying to keep his tone neutral.
Brennan continued to stare intently at her computer screen. "Of course."
"But you don't say 'no' to me when I drag you out to the diner," Booth pointed out, quirking his eyebrows in amusement.
"Drag being the operative word, Booth." Brennan glanced up at him, her lips curving slightly at the corners, "Besides, we usually use the time to discuss a case. That's not the same as whiling away an entire evening at my father's house."
"Would it really kill you to spend a couple of hours with your old man?"
"We work in the same establishment, Booth. He sees me every day."
"Yeah, when you're hotfooting it past him in the corridor," Booth countered with an amused snort. "You do realise that the only reason why he wanted to work here in the first place was to be closer to you, right?"
"And I let him stay, didn't I?"
"You fired him, Bones, and then reinstated him as a favour to me," Booth reminded her dryly, rolling his eyes, "It's not like you were jumping up and down at the prospect."
"Well, what do you expect?" For the first time since their conversation began, a flicker of exasperation worked its way into Brennan's tone, "He hasn't played a role in my life for the last fifteen years, Booth. He can't just waltz back in here and expect me to drop everything for him."
"I know," Booth assured her, offering his partner a conciliatory smile, "I know he's got a long way to go before you can even think about trusting him again, but if you keep freezing him out, you're never gonna stand a chance of repairing your relationship."
"If my father really wanted to rebuild a relationship with me, he wouldn't feel compelled to use you as his messenger boy."
Booth frowned at the scathing sarcasm in his partner's tone. "Well, what do you expect, Bones, when you won't even give him the time of day? We're talking about the man who exposed himself to a life sentence without parole because he couldn't bear to abandon you again."
"And he would be serving that life sentence if it wasn't for me," Brennan reminded him angrily, "Or are you forgetting that I compromised my own reputation in an attempt to sway the jury's decision?"
"No, Bones, that isn't something I'm going to forget in a hurry, OK?" Booth ground out, his jaw visibly clenching, "But I didn't sit in front of that jury and rip my heart out for nothing, either."
"Rip your heart out? That's a little melodramatic - even for you." Seeing her partner's affronted expression, Brennan had the grace to look contrite. "I'm sorry. I know it must have been hard for you, Booth, and it was selfish of me to put you in that position, but - "
"You did what you had to do, to save your old man, and I played along because I knew how much it meant to you. I saw the look on your face when Max walked out of that courthouse, Bones," he reminded her gently, "I know you love him."
"I barely know him, Booth. Not anymore."
"And that's not going to change if you keep avoiding him. Did it ever occur to you that those fifteen years were just as hard for him as they were for you?"
"It's not like he had to leave, Booth," Brennan countered, regarding him pointedly. "If Parker was in danger because of our involvement in a case, would you run away and leave his safety in somebody else's hands?"
"No - but I'd make sure the bastard who threatened him in the first place wasn't in a position to do it again. And that's precisely what your Dad did, Bones. His motives weren't malicious. You know he was only trying to protect you by hightailing it out of town."
"I wouldn't have required protection if he wasn't a criminal and a con-artist."
Booth nodded, "OK, I can't argue with that logic, but you've got to remember, he and your Mom gave up that lifestyle for you and Russ. If his past hadn't caught up with him, nothing would've stopped him from being a good father to you, Bones."
"And I'm supposed to feel grateful?" Brennan demanded, snorting derisively.
Booth shook his head. "No, but you're supposed to recognise that he's trying to make it up to you. Look, your old man made some bad decisions, but he's got a good heart, Bones. You know that, or else you wouldn't have gone out on a limb for him like that. All I'm asking you to do is give him a break - before it's too late."
Brennan's posture abruptly stiffened. "Too late? What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing… I just…" Booth sighed, scrubbing his face with his hands. "Nothing, OK?"
"Is he…" Brennan swallowed, her face noticeably blanching, "Is he ill?"
"No!" Recognising his partner's faintly veiled concern, Booth stood up, positioning himself on the edge of her desk and regarding her earnestly. "God, no, nothing like that."
"Then what, Booth?"
"He just wants a quiet life, you know? To settle down and spend some quality time with his family," Booth informed her gently. "He's been seeing quite a lot of Russ and the girls lately, and - "
"Russ is far more adept at forgiving and forgetting than I am?" Brennan interjected, her features darkening slightly.
"Something like that, yeah."
"Well, Russ wasn't the one who was left to fend for himself in the foster system," she remarked - quietly, but bitterly, and Booth silently cursed Max for putting him up to this.
"Look, I know it must've been pretty rough for you, Bones, but your Grandfather got you out when you were sixteen, so we're talking a year, tops, right?" When no response was forthcoming, Booth nudged his partner's knee. "Bones?"
"I was eighteen," Brennan whispered, barely audibly.
An expression of confusion worked its way across Booth's troubled features. "What? But you said - "
"Well, I lied, OK?" Brennan hissed, in a tone that was uncharacteristically harsh. "I didn't have a Grandfather. I didn't have anyone, so don't presume to know what I went through, Booth."
Booth visibly flinched. "Bones… I…"
Brennan gazed at him steadily, her chin jutting out in defiance. Booth's instinct was to reach out to her, but he promptly lowered his arm when she shot him a withering look, making it clear that she wouldn't be receptive to his touch.
"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't know."
Brennan heaved a frustrated sigh. "I don't even know why I'm having this conversation with you, Booth. I presume the reason why my father always enlists you to do his bidding is because he thinks you have some kind of undue influence over me - but you don't, and I wish you'd stop trying to interfere in matters that are none of your concern."
"Hey, I'm on your side, OK?" Booth reassured her, his expression visibly softening. "I just want you to be happy, Bones, that's all. I don't want you to watch your Dad playing happy families with Russ and his kids and feel like you're on the sidelines all over again, because it doesn't have to be that way. Not if you make the effort."
Brennan stared at him fixedly for a moment, and then ducked her head in resignation. "He wants to move away, doesn't he? To live near Russ and Amy?" she surmised, in a low timbre that was entirely devoid of emotion.
"Well..." Booth hesitated, his heart clenching when he saw the flicker of sadness in Brennan's steely azure eyes. Her demeanour, however, remained largely unaffected.
"Russ has offered him a place to stay," Booth admitted after an elongated silence, "But he'd turn it down in a heartbeat if he thought there was a chance of making some headway with you."
"Well, as you seem to be the resident go-between, you can inform him that he should feel free to go," Brennan stated flatly. "It's not like I haven't managed perfectly well without him for the last eighteen years. Russ was always his favourite anyway."
"Come on, Bones, don't say that," Booth admonished her, "Max loves you."
"But he loves Russ more." Seeing that her partner was about to protest, she shook her head firmly. "It's fine, Booth. I'm not an attention-starved child playing a game of one-upmanship."
"Look, I like Russ. He's a good guy - but there's only one of you, Bones," Booth informed her with a soft smile, "Your Dad is so proud of you, you just never give him the opportunity to tell you that."
"Russ has far more in common with my father than I do," Brennan objected matter-of-factly. "They both have a tendency towards felonious behaviour, for a start. Russ was the one who Dad conspired with when he first came out of hiding, and he obviously adopted that ridiculous disguise because he didn't trust me. I mean, you were there, Booth. He handcuffed me to a bench, for God's sake!"
"I know, Bones." Booth's resolve was rapidly weakening in the face of his partner's mounting distress, especially when he was forced to recall the desolate expression on Brennan's face as she watched her family drive away and leave her all over again. "I know."
Brennan heaved another long-drawn-out sigh, evading her partner's compassionate gaze. "Russ is always the one who Dad turns to in his times of need, and the one he confides in. All of the evidence suggests that Dad holds him in much higher esteem than me."
"Did it ever occur to you that maybe your old man just respected you too much to get you embroiled in all of that crap? Maybe he didn't want to implicate you as an accessory, Bones. That doesn't mean he doesn't trust you. It just means that he cares."
Brennan regarded him incredulously. "Are you saying all of this because you're concerned for me, or because you're worried that Parker's going to lose access to his free tuition?"
"You know what, Bones? Just forget about it, OK?" The change in Booth's demeanour was instantaneous. He stood up abruptly, snatching his jacket from the corner of the couch. "Maybe I give Max a fair trial because I know what it's like to live with a father who really doesn't give a damn, but if you don't want him in your life – fine. Watch him walk away - because at this stage, I really wouldn't blame him."
Brennan winced at the anger in her partner's tone, and her chair ricocheted backwards as she hastily sprang to her feet, seizing Booth's forearm before he could traverse the threshold of her office. "Tell me why I should beg him to be a part of my life, Booth, when all he's ever done is abandon me?" she demanded, dismayed to hear the hoarseness in her tone. "If he really loved me, he would stay anyway. He would be willing to do whatever it takes to prove that he's worthy of my trust, and he wouldn't even consider accepting Russ' offer."
She shook her head sadly. "I didn't want him to spend his life in jail, Booth, but I'm not going to make it easy for him - why should I, when he was the one who forced me to question everybody's agenda in the first place?" she beseeched, pressing her lips together as she willed back an unwelcome surge of emotion.
Booth's eyes were brimming with understanding, but they promptly widened when a familiar figure entered his peripheral vision. Max was striding gaily towards his partner's office, completely oblivious to the diatribe awaiting him. Booth gestured urgently towards the door, attempting to alert Brennan to her father's impending arrival. "Bones, I think you should – "
"No, Booth," Brennan interjected, squeezing his forearm tightly. "My father forced me to live a lie when I was powerless to realise the truth - my mother died because he was incapable of earning an honest living like everyone else. And I'm supposed to forgive his transgressions because he occasionally offers me a glimpse of what my life used to be like, when I was too young to know any better? It's not easy for me Booth, so why the hell should I make it easy for…" she trailed off, finally realising that her partner's attention was diverted elsewhere.
Taking in Booth's tense appearance, she spun around, and her face drained of colour when she saw her father's stricken countenance. It took her a moment to realise that Max was sporting a vivid contusion on his right eye, and several seconds elapsed before she could stop her lips from floundering silently.
To his credit, Max recovered from the uncensored tirade with aplomb. "No, you're right, sweetheart," he assured her with his customary jovialness, even though it was hardly befitting of the situation, "You're absolutely right."
He glanced pointedly in Booth's direction, smiling inwardly when he noticed that the Agent had instinctively moved to stand guard by his daughter's side. "Would you mind giving us a moment alone, Son?"
Booth frowned, but nodded obligingly, lightly brushing Brennan's arm as he made his way towards the door.
It didn't take Brennan long to become uncomfortable under her father's intense scrutiny, but she couldn't bring herself to apologise for speaking the truth. "What happened to your eye, Dad?" she eventually asked, scooting a little closer to appraise the injury.
"That partner of yours has a mean right hook," Max lamented with an air of amusement, "I should've seen it coming, but I thought he knew better than to sucker-punch a decrepit old man."
Brennan looked vaguely horrified. "Booth hit you?"
"Well, don't be mad at him, honey. He gave me an icepack afterwards." Max offered his daughter a sheepish smile. "It turns out that Booth didn't like the thought of me taking the coward's way out, either. I might have persuaded him to fight my corner this afternoon, but he was going all-out for you last night."
Brennan's brow furrowed in confusion. "I don't know what that means."
"It means that he read me the riot act, sweetheart, just like you did a moment ago, only he was a little more aggressive about punctuating his point. My reflexes aren't what they used to be," Max concluded dolefully, shaking his head in mock despair.
"But he just told me to give you a chance!" Brennan exclaimed, evidently bewildered. "Why would he do that?"
"Because he wants what's best for you, honey," Max informed her gently, "And he's a good man who understands what it's like to crave a real connection with you."
Brennan frowned, folding her arms. "Booth is my best friend, Dad. We already have a connection."
Max chuckled, and Brennan felt her heart twist with a wealth of memories when her father's eyes crinkled at the corners, dancing with merriment.
"I'm not talking about friendship, honey," Max said softly. "Booth would be out of a job if his bosses knew how many times he avoided arresting me, not to mention how many strings he had to pull to get your brother a reduced sentence. That little detour to the hospital would've warranted a suspension, too."
"Yes, well, Booth is a very considerate man," Brennan retorted defensively.
Max snorted. "Considerate? Honey, Booth's colleagues would laugh him out of the Hoover building if they knew about the stunt he pulled at Christmas. An FBI Agent does not rig up a fully decorated Christmas tree at the local penitentiary for the man who barbequed his Deputy-Director."
"You're saying very nice things about him considering that he punched you in the face, Dad," Brennan remarked wryly.
"Well, who am I to bear a grudge against the man who took a bullet for my daughter?"
Brennan's already defensive posture became positively arctic. "I'd rather not talk about that," she snapped brusquely.
"OK, honey," Max hastened to assure her, "I just… I hope you know that unconditional love is a rare commodity nowadays."
"From my experience, any form of love is a rare commodity," Brennan stated quietly. Her composure seemed to weaken for a moment, but it didn't take her long to regain her impassivity. "Was there a point to your visit, Dad, or are you planning on waxing lyrical for the rest of the afternoon?"
"Sweetheart, you do know that I love you, right?" Max entreated, with an air of desperation, "You kids, you're everything to me. I know I've made my fair share of mistakes, and I know I haven't always been there when it counts, but at some point, you're got to put the past behind you, honey."
"What do you know about my past, Dad?" Brennan demanded, a small measure of anguish infiltrating her tone, "I mean, do you have any idea what it was like for me? You didn't even leave us a note! How could you and Mom abandon us, knowing that we would have to live with all of those unanswered questions? We didn't even know if you were dead or alive. And then when Russ…"
She trailed off, blinking rapidly, and sucked in a ragged breath, "And I'm sorry, Dad, but if you think for one minute that anything I could have endured as a result of you staying was worse than what I had to contend with when you were gone…" She shook her head, refusing to elaborate, "Well - you'd be very much mistaken."
Max's benevolent eyes noticeably darkened. "Did somebody hurt you, Temperance?"
Raw pain characterised Brennan's features for one very revealing moment, before she quickly collected herself again. "Just… never mind, OK, Dad? It doesn't matter now."
"Of course it matters, honey," Max exploded, his voice rising to a level Brennan had never heard before. "I'd never forgive myself if anything happened to you – "
"Look, spare me the concern, Dad, because it's a little too late for that," Brennan remarked evenly, regarding her father with an inscrutable expression, "Besides, it's in the past - and I've got to learn to put the past behind me, right? Isn't that what you just said?"
Max ducked his head in shame. "I didn't mean – "
Brennan rolled her eyes, and began needlessly tidying her immaculate desk, ignoring her father's pained sigh.
"Tempe, honey, you are an incredible woman, and I can't take any credit for that. You built this life all on your own, and you did it the hard way, even though the odds were stacked against you." Max edged towards his daughter, gently closing the file she was pretending to peruse until she offered him her undivided attention. "I hope you know how very proud I am of what you've accomplished and who you've become. Your mother would be, too," he added softly. "She always knew that you were special, honey. Leaving you behind practically destroyed her."
Brennan shook her head, turning to appraise her bookcase so her father wouldn't see the tears welling in her eyes, or the way her chin trembled as she fought to swallow a sob. "Then why didn't she come back, Dad? Why was she going to movie theatres and having fun when I…" Brennan angrily pushed away the arms that encircled her shoulders, rejecting her father's attempt to ease her into an embrace. "Please… just… don't."
"Look, I know I don't deserve to have you in my life after everything I put you through," Max confessed, his tone laced with despair, "But I don't have anyone else in this city, pumpkin - only you, and if you keep pushing me away, life's going to get pretty lonely for me."
"Well, join the club, Dad."
"But you have Booth, and Angela, and the bug guy. They all love you, honey - Booth more than most." Max wondered why that assertion seemed to cause his daughter pain, but seeing another crack in her stoic façade, he tried to appeal to her better nature.
"Sweetheart, I spent a long time away from the people that I love, keeping a low profile, and I did as much thinking as I could bear to do when I was locked up in that cell - is it so selfish of me to want a little company every now and again? To try and make up for all those years that I missed out on? I want to be a part of your life, honey, but you have to be willing to let me in first."
Temperance turned away from him, straightening the artifacts on her cluttered shelf. "You should go and be with Russ, Dad. Hayley and Emma would love having you around."
Max gazed at her intently, his hopeful expression evolving into one of palpable sadness. "Is that really what you want?"
"Yes." The response was short, but firm.
Max tried not to notice the remoteness in Brennan's eyes – the eyes that were so uncannily like her mother's. "Look, honey, I understand that it's going to take you a while to trust me again… but I need you to listen to me now, OK?" When no response was forthcoming, Max reached out to grasp his daughter's shoulders, forcing her to face him. "OK?"
Brennan nodded warily, clenching her jaw.
"Even if I do move into Russ' place, I am not going to abandon you. All you have to do is say the word and I'll be here, no questions asked. No more vanishing acts, I promise, and I'll come and visit you all the time. You wouldn't turn your old man out on the streets, would you?"
Brennan's features softened barely perceptibly. "No, Dad. Of course not."
"Well, that's something," Max conceded lightly, but then his expression became far more serious. "Tempe, I hope you know that if you want me to stay, all you have to do is ask. I'll ingratiate myself until I'm old enough to be packed off to a nursing home, if that's what it takes, but I need to know that I'm not hurting you more by being here."
Brennan refused to grace that entreaty with a response. "When are you planning on leaving?" she enquired instead, retreating to a safe haven of aloofness.
Max's face fell. "I don't know, honey – nothing's been finalised yet."
"Well, let me know," Brennan said in an off-handed tone, "Booth and I can help you pack."
Max's shoulders slumped, but he nodded his agreement, willing to accept any form of armistice from his daughter. "Yeah, that'd be nice."
"I need to get back to work now, Dad," Brennan said, without preamble, and Max glanced at her with a pained expression that made it hard for her to breathe. He ducked his head in acknowledgement, clearing his throat.
"OK, sweetheart. I'll see you later."
Max wasn't surprised to find Booth hovering anxiously by the doorway, but he shook his head when the FBI Agent opened his mouth to voice his commiserations, aware that Booth had probably overheard their entire exchange.
"Not now, son, OK?"
The older man's voice was choked with emotion, and Booth nodded in understanding, his expression clouding with sorrow as he watched Max hastily meandering his way back through the lab. He waited for a couple of minutes, and then tentatively approached his partner's office, knocking lightly on the glass-paned entryway.
Brennan was wrenched out of her melancholy reverie by her partner's unsolicited intrusion, and hastily swiped at her eyes. She pretended to be diligently examining the contents of a case file, but Booth wasn't fooled for a second.
Brennan noticeably cringed at the sound of her first name and the empathetic tone with which it was delivered. "I can't go to the diner right now, Booth," she said tersely.
"We don't have to eat out," Booth assured her softly, "We can pick up some Thai on the way back to your place, if you want?"
"I'm not particularly hungry, and there's a lot I need to catch up on," Brennan bluffed - staring past her partner, rather than at him. "I still haven't cleared my inbox and there are several urgent matters that I need to attend to."
"Well, they can wait until tomorrow, Bones," Booth said firmly, seizing his partner's mouse and checking that none of the computer's programs were still running before he unceremoniously shut the machine down, "Now, come on - let's get out of here."
"I said no, Booth," Brennan ground out through gritted teeth, "I've wasted enough time as it is already. I'm sure Cam wouldn't appreciate personal matters taking precedence over my workload."
"Bones, since when do you give a damn about what Cam thinks?" Booth demanded wryly. "Besides, she's long gone," he pointed out, quirking an eyebrow pointedly at the clock. "It's seven thirty, we haven't got a case, and you were ready to walk out of here an hour ago - "
"Look, we'll go some other evening, OK, Booth? I'll call you when I can afford to spare the time," Brennan interjected, speaking far more rapidly than she was accustomed to. She donned her lab coat, fumbling with the buttons, and then balled her hands into fists in the hopes of concealing the faint tremors that impaired her functionality. "I have to go. I was expecting a delivery from Stanford this afternoon and I need to check why it hasn't arrived - " She trailed off when Booth blocked her exit, resting his hands on her shoulders.
"Stop," he instructed softly, his eyes taking on that warm, compassionate quality that never failed to fracture her defences, "Just stop, OK?"
Brennan sucked in a ragged breath, wilfully evading his gaze. "Booth..."
"You can't fob me off, Bones," Booth informed her intently, cupping her chin to compel her attention, "You don't have to do this, you know. Not in front of me. I'm not gonna walk away."
Brennan knew her partner well enough to decipher the subtext in that statement. She bit her lip, cursing the lone tear that refused to acquiesce to her furious blinking. It trickled forlornly down her cheek, and she hastily reached out to wipe away the incriminating evidence, but Booth beat her to it, capturing the errant droplet with the tip of his thumb.
When it became apparent that her pigheaded partner was intent on blocking the doorway with his imposing frame, Brennan eventually stopped trying to elbow her way past him. After several moments spent absorbing the sensation of Booth's hands pressing warmly against her shoulders, she finally mustered the strength to meet his gaze.
"Booth, I'm fine. Really. My Dad wants companionship and I'm perfectly capable of accepting that I don't have a lot to offer him in that respect. It's only logical that he would choose to live with Russ."
"Well, it's not the decision I would've made," Booth informed her earnestly, and Brennan's lips quirked slightly in response.
"I believe you made that abundantly clear last night."
"Hey, I know where my loyalties lie," Booth retorted with an easy grin.
Brennan offered him a small smile. "Thank you, Booth," she whispered softly. Seeing his searching expression, she lightly squeezed his forearm, "For not giving up on me. I know I haven't always been the easiest person to work with."
Booth gently covered Brennan's hand with his own, tenderly caressing the smooth skin that resided there. "I'm never gonna give up on you, Bones," he assured her warmly, holding his partner's penetrating gaze for what seemed like an eternity. When the intensity of the moment became too much to bear, he cleared his throat, lightly patting her hand, "Which is why it would be in your best interests to stop fighting me and let me take you out to dinner."
Her partner's 'charm smile' emerged in full force, and Brennan rolled her eyes, eventually opting to remove her lab coat and retrieve her jacket.
"Fine," she grumbled, huffing her displeasure when Booth forcibly ushered her out of her office. She waited for his hand to drop to her lower back as he steered her through the lab, and was surprised when his arm settled around her shoulders in a loose embrace instead - a gesture reminiscent of his actions when Sully had left her standing on the boardwalk, feeling achingly alone. She half-heartedly tried to shrug her way out of his gentle grasp, but Booth held fast, tucking her securely against his side.
"I'm not going anywhere, Bones," he murmured, his lips brushing lightly against the tip of her ear, and Brennan tilted her head towards him, wordlessly conveying just how much she wanted that to be true.
Max stood on the balcony overlooking the lab, his weary eyes brightening slightly as he watched his daughter being accosted by the man who worshipped the ground she walked on. Tempe's resistance was purely perfunctory – the sparkle in her eyes, the quirk of her lips, the unchecked expression of adoration on her face as she cast her partner a sideways glance when she thought he wasn't looking – she was clearly smitten, and it was a beautiful sight to behold.
The irony of the situation didn't escape Max – if fate hadn't forced them apart, he would have keenly vetted all of Tempe's over-eager boyfriends until they cowered in the face of his stringent criteria. And yet the only man who demanded his undying respect was the one who had thrown him up against the wall and busted his balls for hurting her. Last night, Max had stared dazedly at Seeley Booth's ceiling, his head swimming and his eye throbbing, and known without a doubt that he had finally found the only man who was a worthy, and willing, recipient of his daughter's fragile heart.
Now, a bittersweet smile graced his features as he watched Tempe's arm slowly wind its way around Booth's trim waist, and he told himself that it was good to see her reaching out to someone, instead of pushing them away.
Booth watched as Russ loaded the last of Max's belongings into the trunk of his Toyota RAV4, slamming the rear door shut. He moved to the front of the vehicle, beeping the horn to indicate that he was finished, and when Brennan emerged from her apartment complex shortly thereafter, Booth slid a little further down in his seat, hoping the dashboard - and the surrounding darkness - would safeguard his anonymity. His heart clenched a little as he watched his partner stiffly accepting her brother's hug, never quite meeting his gaze, but he had to smile in amusement when he saw Max handing a wad of bills to Brennan's doorman, Toby, slapping him companionably on the shoulder as he exited the building.
Max's cheerful demeanour faltered slightly as he drew closer to his daughter. Booth wondered if he could tell that the strained smile Bones had plastered to her face was counterfeit. His partner did an admirable job of maintaining her poise until Max reached out to embrace her, but Booth knew that he was the only one who saw the flash of agony sweep across her features when she buried her face in the crease of her father's neck. For one very telling moment, she clung to Max convulsively, closing her eyes to stave off reality. Booth knew that when she finally relinquished her hold, it was to preserve what was left of her fraying composure, but Max continued to grip her shoulders, speaking to her in hushed tones. Bones nodded gallantly in response to his words, mustering another misshapen smile to appease him, but Booth could see her throat constricting as she struggled to contain her emotions.
Russ put an end to the torture, hurrying his father along, and Booth's jaw worked overtime as he watched his partner tentatively waving her goodbyes. She stood frozen in place long after the vehicle disappeared from view, and Booth quietly disembarked from his SUV, closing the distance between them until he stood unobtrusively by Brennan's side. Temperance didn't flinch when he rested a hand against the small of her back; she merely expelled an overdue breath and regarded him with something akin to amusement.
"Do you make a habit of spying on me?"
Booth's cheeks flushed with embarrassment. "I wasn't spying… I just, you know… I wanted to make sure you were OK, that's all."
"Why wouldn't I be?" Brennan asked, raising her eyebrows. "It's foolish to be upset when I'm inevitably going to see him again."
Her tone was definitive, but her expression was conflicted, and Booth remained silent, not wanting to push the issue.
"Do you think that I'm a bad person, for telling him to go like that?" Brennan asked after several moments of quietude, her façade of composure giving way to uncertainty.
Booth paused for a moment, and then shook his head emphatically, "No. Not when I know how much you wanted him to stay."
"But I never said - "
"Look, I know you, OK Bones?" Booth said with an understanding smile, "And I know why you did what you did. Your old man doesn't deserve a free ride, not after what he put you through, but you love him too much to make him stick around and pay his penance anyway – and that definitely doesn't make you a bad person."
Brennan bowed her head, staring at the sidewalk. "But he'll be happier with them, right?" she whispered, trying to muster some conviction, "Russ and Amy and the girls… they'll be glad to have him around."
"But what about you, Bones?" Booth persisted, gently nudging her shoulder. "What about your happiness?"
Brennan discreetly swiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her jacket. "Maybe I don't deserve to be happy," she concluded bitterly, "I seem to be preternaturally gifted when it comes to driving people away."
"No," Booth stated adamantly, his stomach churning when he realised his partner was trembling with the effort of suppressing her tears, "You deserve all the happiness in the world, Bones."
Brennan emitted a disbelieving snort that sounded suspiciously like a sob, looking up at him with tortured eyes, and Booth instinctively reached out to clasp her slumped shoulders.
"Hey. I'm still here, OK?" he reminded her gently. "I've stuck around for the last three and half years, Bones, and I'm not planning on going anywhere in a hurry. I mean, I might not be the 'be all and end all,'" he murmured, lightly squeezing her shoulders and offering her a teasing smile, "But beggars can't be choosers, right?"
Booth's voice seemed to falter slightly, and Brennan recognised the note of self-deprecation in his otherwise cheerful tone when he struggled to hold her gaze. She reached out to cover the hands that were still encircling her shoulders, offering her partner a tremulous smile when he glanced at her questioningly. "I'd choose you, Booth," she assured him quietly, "Every time."
Booth wasn't sure who initiated the embrace, but when Brennan collapsed against his chest, he didn't hesitate to wrap his arms around her. They stood in the dimly lit street, swathed in moonlight, and Booth held his partner with as much tenderness as he possessed when she finally broke down, sobbing silently against his shoulder and saturating his jacket with eighteen years' worth of disappointment and misery. One of his hands gripped her slender waist, while the other roved over the planes of her back, tracing soothing circles against the the fabric of her jacket while she shook spasmodically in his arms.
"It's OK," he whispered, over and over again, "It's gonna be OK, Bones."
Booth felt his partner shift slightly and, sensing that she was going to pull away from him, he closed his eyes to mask the disappointment... but Brennan's arms merely dropped from his neck to his waist as she nestled closer, and he fingered the ends of her impossibly soft hair, losing himself in the blanket of her sweet, familiar scent. They stayed entwined long after Brennan's sobs died down and eventually ceased, and he felt her lips curl against his cheek as he absent-mindedly began to caress the nape of her neck.
"You know, my Dad has a theory about why you punched him," Brennan murmured after a prolonged silence, sounding uncharacteristically tentative.
Booth shook his head despairingly, pulling back to regard his partner with a mixture of trepidation and amusement. "What is he now, an amateur psychologist? Do I really want to hear this, Bones?"
Brennan bit her lower lip anxiously. "My father is a scientist, Booth. He doesn't place any credence in psychology, either. He simply observed your behaviour from an objective perspective – "
"Which is pretty much the definition of psychology – "
"Psychology is subjective, Booth, not objective - and then he concluded that your spate of selfless actions were indicative of…" Brennan cleared her throat, "...of unconditional love."
Brennan felt her partner become rigid in her arms, and when no response beyond his initial exclamation of disbelief was forthcoming, she abruptly disentangled herself from his embrace, her cheeks burning with embarrassment. "Of course, he's also a pathological liar, so I shouldn't take anything he says into consideration."
She gestured towards her apartment complex, and for some inexplicable reason, found herself fighting back another wave of emotion. "I should go. My publisher is pushing for another chapter and I really need to – "
"Bones?" Booth interjected, gently grasping his partner's wrist and chafing her pulse point with his thumb, surprised to find it throbbing violently. "What if I told you that your old man has a point?"
Brennan smiled at him shyly. "Really?"
"Yeah, Bones. Really." Booth regarded her attentively. "Does that bother you?"
"No! I…" Brennan found herself breaking into an uninhibited smile when her partner tugged her forwards until she was pressed flush against him, and her beam only intensified when his lips grazed her forehead in a tender kiss.
"Good," Booth said emphatically, his eyes crinkling at the corners, "Because I've been wanting to do this for a while…"
Brennan momentarily forgot how to breathe when Booth gently claimed her lips with his own, the heat of his mouth sending a flutter of warmth spiralling through her body. She melted into his embrace and whimpered softly when he tangled his fingers through her hair, strengthening the connection between them. Her stomach coiled pleasurably as she absorbed every facet of Booth's heady taste, and the deftness of his technique compelled her to part her lips and demand a more intimate union. She moaned her approval when his tongue traced her lower lip, and a jolt of arousal coursed through her when Booth finally plunged her depths, her own tongue enthusiastically aiding his passionate exploration. She released Booth's lapels and wrapped her arms around his neck, acutely aware of the way her sensitised breasts brushed against his solid torso as she pressed herself as close to him as possible, flushing with pleasure when she was greeted with the evidence of his own palpable arousal. She threaded her fingers through Booth's lustrous hair, tugging his head towards her, and then began a quest to assault his pliant - but oh-so-adept mouth from every available angle.
When the need to breathe finally overrode their reluctance to wrench themselves apart, Brennan settled her head against Booth's shoulder, her warm breath coming in shallow spurts against his ear. "That was…"
"Amazing," Booth concluded reverently, his lips curling against his partner's cheek. "You're amazing, Bones." He sighed contentedly, burying his face in her silken hair, but his brow furrowed in concern when he felt a small droplet of moisture trickle past the neckline of his T-shirt. His heart sank, and he hesitantly pulled back, his eyes widening in alarm when he realised that Brennan's eyes were brimming with tears. "What's wrong, Bones? Did I… I mean... I thought you... I'm sorry," he floundered helplessly, hastily backing away.
"No!" Brennan exclaimed, shaking her head violently as she immediately reached out to re-establish contact with her partner. "I just… I'm just… happy, that's all," she choked out through a peal of giddy laughter, offering Booth a radiant smile. It faded slightly as she stepped towards him, lovingly caressing his cheek. "You make me happy, Booth," she confessed softly, her eyes shining with sincerity.
Booth ducked his head, and Brennan delicately lifted his chin, gazing intently into his liquid brown eyes. She tenderly kissed away the droplets of moisture that had gathered there, and then took his hand, leading him back towards her apartment complex.
Toby smiled to himself as Dr Brennan and her partner sauntered past his station. They usually acknowledged his presence with a jovial greeting or a curt nod, but tonight, they were too wrapped up in each other to spare him a second glance. He reached into his shirt pocket to retrieve the piece of paper that Dr Brennan's father had unceremoniously stuffed there earlier, and then carefully dialled the number printed in precise black digits.
"Mr Keenan? Yes, he's here," Toby confirmed, nodding instinctively in response to the question that ensued;
"Yes, sir. I think she's going to be fine."