I imagine this one takes place after The Salt in the Wounds.

Substitutes and Surrogates


"Yes, Parker?" He's sitting on the floor in front of my coffee table, working on homework and otherwise waiting for Booth, who's running late for picking up Parker from Friday afternoon science club.

"How come you didn't go with Max to see your brother this weekend?"

I shake my head, not wanting to think about it-- but I would hardly fail to answer a question so innocent. "He was doing things with Russ and his daughters-- they're going to go to the amusement park and do some other things."

"So why wouldn't you go?" He's simply curious, and I think to myself that it was a small gift that he seems to find my company tolerable.

"I probably would have, Parker, but they didn't ask and I don't think it's polite to invite myself somewhere." I tamp down the urge to give voice to the thought that they wouldn't even have each other to get together with if it weren't for me. He doesn't need to hear that, and Booth would probably kill me for saying it anyway.

He thinks this over a long moment, and I watch as some new thought occurs to him. Really, it's like watching Booth except smaller, they have so many similar expressions. "How come you don't have any children? Your brother does. Mom and Dad have me. Lots of kids at school have parents your and Mom's age."

I choke down my surprise. "I ... well, it's complicated. Not everybody has children."

"How come you're not married or don't have a boyfriend, then?" he asks.

"Well, some people stay single, Parker. Not everyone has a long term partner or spouse."

He thinks some more, then says "You're my Dad's partner."

Oh, boy. "Not that kind of partner. I meant the kind of partners who have children together."

He thinks even more-- it's fascinating to watch the shift of expressions. "Dan in my class has two moms and they call themselves partners, is that what you mean?"

"Sort of." Good lord, he is in an interrogative mood today. Somehow, I don't think Booth would appreciate it if I give Parker a long exposition on the gay marriage issue.

"Well, you like boys, don't you?"

"I do, Parker." This is a strange conversation, but it is certainly interesting. It's always interesting, seeing where he might go, what he might ask me. Sometimes it has something to do with homework, sometimes science club, sometimes something Booth told him about work. He's almost endlessly curious.

"So if you like boys, why don't you have a boyfriend or spouse? You're pretty." He says it as a matter of fact, like the sun in the sky. I feel myself smiling-- he's too small to be insincere, but I'm sure that his perceptions of me are colored. The question is still painful under the compliment, though.

"People have boyfriends or girlfriends or partners who care about them for lots of reasons, Parker, not whether they're pretty or not. You want to laugh with somebody, find them interesting and like talking with them, have fun doing similar things, and know when they need help, and think they're pretty in the way that grown-ups do." That was pretty sanitized, Booth couldn't possibly be angry at me for that explanation.

"But you're all those things, Bones? So how come you don't have a boyfriend?"

He gets up and comes over to stand next to the desk, giving me the trademark Booth quizzical look.

"Well, most boys don't think like you do, Parker. It's hard to find someone who likes you as much as you like them. I've met lots of boys but none of them ended up liking me very much." No matter how hard I try.

"Bones? Do you think your family doesn't like you enough to ask you to come spend the weekend with them even when you let Max work here even after he broke some of the rules? Is that why they didn't invite you?"

Ah, shit. He's too much of a Booth. My throat closes and my eyes well as yet another Booth boy nails my insecurities right to the wall. I clear my throat, say "I don't know. I think they don't think I enjoy being around children," and get up to go to the water cooler. "Excuse me Parker," I say. "I'll be right back. Please stay here until I return."

Wide-eyed, he nods at my sudden departure, but seemingly recovers himself, because I can hear him trotting along after me, as persistent as his father ever is.

"But Bones," he calls. "You like me and I'm children." He catches up to me and tugs on my pants leg to make me look at him. Eyes glittering, I say "Yes, Parker, I do," and swallow hard before turning back to the water cooler. The long cold glass of water doesn't dissolve the lump in my throat.

"Come on, pal," I say, grabbing his hand. "Let's go back to my office and finish your homework."

He looks at me evenly, in that way his father does of saying we're not yet done discussing this, but comes along compliantly.

A half hour later we've finished his homework but for his geography. He's having trouble with finding and drawing in rivers, so I come to sit behind him on the floor and point out where he needs to put them. He's drawing along the lines I've been tracing with my index finger when he shifts, sits in my lap, and says "It's easier this way."

"Far be it from me to argue with a determined young man intent on his rivers," I say, teasing.

He laughs, says "you're funny, Bones," and gets back to drawing the rest of them in. Finished, he puts down his crayon with pride and half-turns to look at me, a bright smile on his face. "We did it, Bones. You did it even better than Mom. You should really have kids, you're a really cool Mom, but if you want, I can be your kid in the meantime. Or your boyfriend. Because I do think you're funny and pretty and I like spending time with you. But I'll do it until you have your own kid or boyfriend."

The innocent sweetness and plain matter-of-fact words and the combination of those Booth puppy-dog eyes make me realize I'm even more emotionally fraught than I thought I was. Tears start rolling down my cheeks without any will of my own, my throat and chest tightening.

"I appreciate that, Parker," I say, my voice strangled.

He looks at me, says "Don't cry, Bones," and turns half in my lap to brush at the tears spilling down my cheeks, much as his father has. "You should be happy, not sad."

I nod, not trusting myself to talk, and try what must be a terrible smile.

He just looks at me sadly, said "Don't be unhappy, Bones, I love you and Daddy does too," and reaches up to give me a kiss on the cheek.

It's too much and I bolt out of the room, saying only "please stay here, Parker," while I head off to the bathroom. I can't stand the fact that his son is saying all those things with such an innocent purpose. It's like having my heart ripped in two. I make it into the stall at the end and sink down onto the floor, my back to the wall, willing the cold tile to cool my fevered, unhappy thoughts. It doesn't help, so I concentrate on trying to maintain deep even breaths while the tears stream down my cheeks, so that at least anyone immediately entering won't hear me sobbing hysterically.

I walk into Bones' office to see Parker alone, looking serious as he sits on her sofa, his homework all piled neatly in front of him.

"Hey, Bub. Where's Bones?" I ask.

"I don't know," he says, looking more and more worried. "I think I made her upset, but I don't know why. I just told her I loved her and that I'd be her kid or her boyfriend until she gets her own."

My heart falls to my stomach. "What did she do when you told her that?"

"She started to cry and then started crying some more when I told her you and me loved her and then she left but she told me to stay here, so I did." He looks torn between doing as Bones said and his obvious concern for her. I desperately want to know what prompted the two of them to be talking about babies and boyfriends, though.

"Well, I'm sure you didn't do anything wrong, little man," I say, sitting down next to him. "But maybe you'd better back it up for me, hunh?"

He nods solemnly. "I asked her why she didn't go with Max to see her brother and his family this weekend and she said she wasn't invited to go to the amusement park with them and that she thought it would be rude to ask and then I asked her why she didn't have kids or a husband and she said she liked boys and liked kids but it was complicated and that she liked me but that most boys didn't think she was funny or pretty like I did and didn't like her that much to have babies, and that she didn't think people thought she liked kids anyway, including her family which is why they didn't invite her. Which was dumb, so I followed her when she went to get water and told her she liked me so she liked children and she nodded because she agreed with me. And then we did homework and I told her she did rivers better than Mom, and that she was cool and should have kids and a boyfriend, but that I'd be whichever she wanted until she had ones of her own. So she cried, and I told her not to cry because she shouldn't be sad and I loved her and that you loved her too, and she cried even harder and got up and told me to stay here."

Parker is the master of the run-on sentence when he thinks he's done wrong, and my heart falls from my stomach to my feet as he relates his conversation with Bones.

"Bub, you didn't do anything wrong, I'm sure of it." I say, trying to reassure him on that end. "Just ... Bones and her family are weird and they don't always understand each other as well as they could. I think she was already upset to begin with and you didn't do anything wrong, but by being nice to her, you reminded her about other people's not being so nice, so that made her sad."

He thinks about it and nodded, then says "How come you're not her boyfriend? Bones says you're not partners like Dan's two moms are and that you're work partners which is different than boyfriends. But you like Bones, and you think she's funny and pretty and like doing things with her, right? And then you and Bones could have kids and I'd get to be a big brother."

Ah, shit. He's a natural questioner, and it's only gotten worse since he's started hanging around the Max and the squints. And Bones, the most inquisitive, informative person in the world.

"It's not that easy, Parker," I manage.

He just looks at me in that way I have of saying bullshit, the only person you're lying to is yourself and said "Sure it is. You said if you loved someone or something then you should do whatever you can to take care of them because it's important to be happy, and you're happier with Bones than when you're not because you look tired after I go to bed and then come out for water. And," he said, taking a breath, "I'm happy when we hang out with Bones and Bones doesn't smile so much except when you're around unless I tell her a joke. So it's not hard at all." His chin's set in that stubborn way Bones had, and it occurred to me again-- it's been almost five months since I'd asked Bones to let Max stay in the lab, and Parker was picking up stuff from her that I've never given him.

"You do love Bones, right, Dad?" he asks, screwing his face up as he looks at me. It's not quite the stare I give perps when I'm pinning them down, but it's damned close.

"Of course, Parker. Bones is my friend and I do like doing things with her. Friends can love each other a lot."

Parker sighs. "No, Dad. I mean you love Bones like Brent loves Mom or like Grandma and Grandpa or Dan's two moms love each other. You look at Bones like Dan's one mom looks at her other mom."

Great. I look at Bones like a lesbian lover? Well, at least it's good he's not homophobic. And wait-- I'm so obvious my own kid gets it? He catches whatever look is on my face, then says, "Well, yeah, Lisa's a girl, but she kinda looks like you, she's got short hair and you can tell she really, really thinks Andi's pretty and smart. Because Andi is. She's maybe the coolest lady I knew besides Mom and Bones and Angela. And you think Bones is really, really pretty and really, really smart, don't you?"

"Yeah, I do," I say, flummoxed.

"So... don't you want to make Bones happy?" he asks, making my prior flummoxing feel as if I'd never been flummoxed at all in comparison.

"Of course I do, Parker."

"Because she thinks you're handsome and funny and she likes you a lot, she loves you too," he says, matter-of-factly.

"Really. How do you know, Bub?" More flummoxing. This is my night, I guess.

He looks around, as if it's a secret. Maybe it is. "Because she smiles when she gets off the phone with you and she turns red when Angela teases her about you and she gets mad when Max asks where you are and she looked sad last week when you ran so late that you had me go home to Mom and Bones drove me home looking really, really sad. Then she said she was going back to work. Like, all weekend, dad. That's not happy."

"You're sticking your nose into lots of stuff around here, aren't you, Bub?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "No. That's nosy. I'm just keeping my eyes and ears open like you said." He nods sagely, crosses his arms, and says "If you're not going to go find Bones then I am. It's late and I want some chicken fingers. There won't be too many girls in the bathroom and Bones won't care, I think. And that's where the girls at school go to cry."

I'm thinking hard about how to stop him from busting into the ladies' room when something changes in his face. "Actually, I think you should go find her. She cried the most when I said that you loved her too. I think she thinks you don't, Dad."

Shit shit shit. But I have to go and make her stop being upset-- sometimes I think I should have just killed Max when I had the chance. He gets her hopes up and then does thoughtless shit like this and she gets all watery-eyed and it just kills me. Parker too, apparently. Hating seeing Bones cry runs in the Booth genes, I guess. Note to self, dangle Max from the lounge railing on Monday.

"Okay, Bub. Well, you know what? I'm going to find Bones, I think you're probably right about the bathroom. Will you be okay if you wait a bit more?"

He nods.

"Good. But if you need me, you use Bones' phone to call me just in case she's not in the bathroom and I have to go looking for her."

"Okay," he says, settling down and looking relieved now that I'm on the case. "You go get Bones and then we'll all go get chicken fingers."

"Bones?" I call, opening the door cautiously. A quick scan shows no feet except for Bones', along with what I can see of her bottom half sitting up against the very back wall of the bathroom, in the very last stall. She doesn't say anything in response, but there's a long sniffle, so I walk back and slowly open the door, since she didn't bother to lock it. Squatting in front of her, I have to swallow. I've seen her practically cry lots of times. I've seen her cry a fair bit a few times. But she's so red-eyed and red-nosed and white cheeked this time that I don't quite know what to do, especially since she's looking to the side of my head and won't look at me.

"Hey," I try. "Parker said Russ and Max are total shits."

She bites her lip and keeps looking away-- not her usual cute "I'm thinking here" nibble, but a serious chomp, the kind when people are holding back hysterical tears and the only way not to is to make something else painful enough to be distracting. She nods, finally, and wipes her eyes and nose with the back of her lab coat like she's a little kid. She's breaking my heart here. I'm going to have to take a ride down and dangle Russ off of something too. She gets the whole family all back together and straightened out, and they don't invite her along for the weekend? What the hell?

"Well, Parker insists that he's starving, and he wants to go get chicken fingers."

She bites her lip even harder, her eyes welling and spilling over this time. Angrily, she scrubs her eyes again, then says, her voice strangled, "Did he tell you that he offered to be my child and my boyfriend until I get ones of my own?"

"He did," I say cautiously, kind of surprised. I thought she was upset about her family-- she's always going on about monogamy being unnatural and how not everyone needs to have kids.

She scrubs her nose again, pushes up from the wall, and looks at me for a long time with this look that's sad and almost hopeless. When I stand, there's hardly room for two of us in the stall, so I back out and she follows me, then goes over to the sink to splash water on her face and dry it as she looks hard at herself in the mirror.

Turning, she has that same look as she says, "I think I'll pass on the chicken fingers tonight, Booth. I ... I'm ... Parker's a lovely boy and he's very ... dear, but ... I ... I can't handle substitutes and surrogates tonight."

Quickly, she turns and strides out of the bathroom and all I can do is watch as she goes, thinking about that look on her face just now.

I don't know what this means.