The pleasure part, the aftershock,
The moment it takes to fall apart
The time we have, the task at hand,
The love it takes to destroy a man
The ecstasy, the being free,
The big black cloud over you and me
And after that, the upwards fall,
And were we angels after all?
I don't know,
I don't know...
- The Night Starts Here, Stars
Brennan rounded the last corner of the narrow cement staircase, climbing the final row of stairs to the topmost landing. She paused momentarily to catch her breath; the elevators only went as far as the fifth floor of the parking garage, but not the roof. When she wanted to disappear, she had to take the stairs to do it. She pushed the heavy metal doors open, letting herself out into the frosty late-autumn night.
There was something that was comfortably empty and wonderfully wide open about the rooftop level of the Jeffersonian's parking garage. It was located on the west end of the museum, opposite where she worked—when she turned in the direction the sun would inevitably rise in, she could gaze over the broad, flat tops of the museum's many connected buildings, and in the distance see the Medico-Legal Lab's glass ceiling poking up just above the rest. Even this late at night it glowed dimly, lit from within, and she felt like she was a curious outsider looking in on a resting campsite.
That was what she had felt like for the majority of her life: a curious outsider. No matter how she might try to integrate herself into social settings or maneuver interpersonal relations, it was never adequate. She was like a square peg being shoved into a round hole; she just didn't fit. The subtle verbal cues, the body gestures, things other people picked up without consciously realizing it—things that were second nature to the rest of the human population—were like a foreign language to her.
No, not even; she knew plenty of foreign languages, and was quite fluent in most of them. When it came to subtle social indicators and body language, however, she had far from attained fluency. She tended to plod through delicate social situations with all the grace of an elephant, often completely unaware of her own faux pas until after the fact. It had gotten to the point where she felt it was in her best interest socially to just shut her mouth and only answer direct questions with direct answers. Sometimes, when she was unsure of the emotional cues presented to her, she just smiled and nodded. Most of the time she just watched other people interact.
Watching was what she was good at. Even now, standing on the edge of the parking garage roof, she watched the world go by beneath her. There was little traffic this late (or early, depending on how you looked at it) so the vehicles she did see zoomed unfettered down the gridded city streets like tiny RC cars. A bus stopped at the corner, and a trickle of tiny people leaked out and dispersed, hands shoved into their miniature coat pockets. From up here, the world looked very small—from down there, it looked far too big. This was a much more comfortable angle.
It wasn't that she didn't understand the delicate emotional trappings of human society and culture. She understood the spectrum of human emotions, having experienced most or all of them herself at some point in time. She understood the intricacies of human relationships, and the disparities in the experience of those relationships cross-culturally. She understood the sociocultural motivators for human thoughts and behaviors, and the idea of culture as a vehicle to influence and alter those thoughts and behaviors. On paper, she could understand all those things—in texts, she could pick up on the subtleties of culture, the many intricacies of human life so deeply ingrained into us that we could not even begin to explain them without trying to explain away the very essence of who we are.
But the practical, personal application of those concepts was frustrating—in the real world, despite her best efforts, she usually came up dry. It was this repetitive failure that reinforced the sitting and watching; the distant, third person interaction with society as a whole. As an observer, removed from the actual interactions, she could better grasp and make sense of them. But experientially she, as Booth might put it, sucked.
It wasn't long after he surfaced in her thoughts that she heard his heavy footfalls echoing up the parking garage staircase, as if on cue. Something on him must have been burning, though she couldn't remember what it was he always said. Nose? Toes? Ears? Ears, that's it, she thought to herself. She continued to stare down at the street below, hearing the roof exit open behind her, then gently latch shut. She heard the thump of his shoes as he closed the gap between them, and did not jump when she felt his warm hand on her shoulder, as she had been expecting it.
"Bones, what are you doing up here? It's freezing out." His breaths formed white vapor clouds as he spoke, rising up into the black city sky with hers. Her arms were crossed over her chest for warmth—she had forgotten her heavy jacket in the lab when she stepped out almost half an hour previous. Her fingers were curled up into her palms, but were frigid despite.
"How did you know where I was?" she asked instead of answering his question.
"Come on," he said. "Daffodils, daisies, Jupiter? Give me some credit here—I know you." He gave her a sidelong smile, which she did not return. She was still staring down at the street, watching two men greet each other on the sidewalk. They shook hands nonchalantly, trading goods for cash, and then parted in opposite directions. She wasn't really there either, though—mentally she was somewhere else completely, still tangled up in the thoughts he'd interrupted. He saw the far-off look on her face and sighed, rubbing his hands together.
"It's a pretty night, huh?" he asked, craning his neck back and looking up. He realized what a lame attempt at conversation it was as soon as the words escaped his mouth—thanks to the light pollution from the city, no more than a handful of stars were visible in the empty sky, and the new moon was next to invisible. He had never realized how blank the sky looked without the moon and stars; it was like looking into deep water, vacant and bottomless.
"Not really," she said plainly, uncrossing her arms and shoving her frozen fingers into her pants pockets. Booth took off his jacket and held it out to her. She gave him a grudging look but took it, allowing the long sleeves to engulf her numb hands. Under it he had been wearing only a t-shirt, and his arms prickled as a chill wind blew by. She brushed her hair out of her face and looked to the sky for something familiar.
"Orion's belt," she said, pointing upward.
"There," she said, continuing to point, the tip of her finger barely protruding from his jacket sleeve. "See those three stars in a row?"
"I don't see them," he said, squinting up into the sky as he vigorously rubbed his bare arms. He leaned his head in next to hers, cheeks nearly touching, so he could better see where she was pointing. Then he saw it—a line of three bright stars, almost invisible in the city's glow.
"Those are Mintaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak, the three stars that make up Orion's belt in the Orion constellation," she explained.
"How could you even see them?" he asked. "I can't see anything up there."
"You just have to know where to look," she said. "Plus, they're pretty bright—even with the light pollution they're still usually visible. In fact, Orion's one of the most visible constellations around the globe."
"Yeah?" Booth asked, content to listen to her babble about something, anything.
Since his collapse and subsequent seizure the previous afternoon, she had been painfully quiet around him. In the emergency room when the doctor held up the CT scan that revealed the gumball-sized, low-grade astrocytoma—the cause of his headaches, seizure, and months of intermittent hallucinations—she didn't say a word. Hours later the oncologist assured him that the tumor would be very treatable with surgery and possibly radiation, and he wouldn't even have to remain hospitalized for observation before surgery. He looked to her for reassurance, but she sat listlessly in the chair next to his bed, almost as if she wasn't even listening. When the doctor asked Brennan if she would be the one to drive him to the hospital at five AM two days from then, she slowly lifted her eyes from the linoleum floor and gave the man in the white coat a puzzled look, like he was speaking a different language. "Bones, you'll drive me, won't you? To the hospital? I guess I could ask Rebecca to do it if you don't…" Finally she seemed to come back to planet Earth, clearing her throat and sitting up a little straighter. "Of course I will," she'd said matter-of-factly, snapping back into cool, unaffected objectivity like a rubber band. It had been her only full sentence to him the entire night.
She drew her arms back in around her, hugging his coat to her body and still staring up at the sky.
"Orion was an important constellation in Aztec religious practice," she said suddenly, breaking the long silence that had hung between the two of them, both simultaneously lost in separate thoughts. "Every fifty-two years, a full cycle in the Aztec calendar, they would spend the last five days of the year—the Nemontemi, or unlucky days—abstaining, partaking in ritual cleansing and bloodletting, and destroying their belongings. At sunset on the final day, priests would walk from Tenochtitlan to Huixachtlan, an extinct volcano on the edge of Lake Texcoco. All the Aztecs would put out their fires, and when Orion's belt and sword—they called it the Fire Drill—rose up over the horizon, they would sacrifice a man on the mountain summit. Then they would place a fire drill…"
"What's a fire drill?" Booth asked, hesitant to interrupt her but actually finding himself interested in her anthrobabble for once.
"It's a primitive method for starting a fire, rubbing two sticks together to create friction, and eventual sparks."
"Gotcha," he said, wishing he had a fire drill so he could bring some warmth to the cold, dark rooftop.
"Anyway, they would place the fire drill on the sacrificial man's chest, and when the first sparks appeared they declared the beginning of the new calendar cycle, and a huge ceremonial bonfire was lit. They would then take torches and light all the hearths in the Aztec realm from the bonfire on the mountain, and the ceremony was complete."
"That's one hell of a new year's party," Booth joked, and was glad to see her give a little wry smile.
"They didn't do it every year, just at the completion of every calendar round," she explained. "It was an Aztec belief, one they adopted from pre-Aztec Mesoamerican civilizations, that by completing the ceremony at the end of each calendar round, they could stop the apocalypse from coming. Without the New Fire ceremony it was believed that Tzitzimime would come down from the sky and devour the earth."
"Talk about incentive," he said. She stared out at the street below, brows furrowed, mouth tight. It was the look she had when something didn't add up, when something important was missing or out of place.
"It didn't matter," she finally said. "All of that, it didn't change anything. The Spanish came in the sixteenth century and destroyed their cities, renounced their gods, and implemented a system of subjugation that would eventually destroy their culture. Within sixty years, eighty percent of the indigenous people in the Valley of Mexico were dead from smallpox or typhus. They tried to stave off the apocalypse, but that sounds pretty apocalyptic to me." She sighed through her nose, refusing to meet his gaze as he watched her.
"It doesn't matter what we do," she said quietly, voice almost drowned out by the air brakes of a stopping bus beneath them. "We can't change the inevitable. We have no control, no power, and nobody to appeal to. Everything was made to fall apart; nothing lasts, nothing endures. The Aztecs couldn't stop their world from ending, and neither can we. It just… things just end." She dropped her arms lamely, then crossed them over her chest again, staring down at her feet and blinking hard.
"I don't think that's true," Booth said gently, entertaining the thought of wrapping his arm around her shoulders but deciding against it. She looked too fragile to touch, like she might break or blow away if disturbed. "Some things we can't control, you're right, but a lot of things we can. And I know you don't believe in God because you can't put Him in a test tube or under a microscope… but I do, and I know He takes care of us."
"How can you say that?" she asked angrily, finally turning to face him. "How can you say that someone is taking care of us? Nobody was taking care of the Aztecs when they were dying of smallpox. Nobody was taking care of the six million Jews, supposedly God's children, when the Nazis systemically destroyed them. And nobody… there was nobody in that car trunk but me, Booth. Who was taking care of me then? And who's taking care of you now? If there is some kind of higher power, all it does is sit around and watch. Why the hell would he just sit and watch?" She let out a shaky breath and pawed her eyes, clenching her jaw and looking resolutely away from him.
"Temperance…" he started, at a loss for words.
"I'm just… I'm just so damn sick of watching," she said, chin giving an unapproved tremble that betrayed her stoicism. "I want to do something, but nothing I do helps, nothing makes a difference. Nothing we do means anything."
"Now I know that's not true," he said, opening his arms to her. She hesitated, then stepped into him, letting him hold her tight. "You make a difference to me every day."
"Don't you dare give me that 'you just being there makes things better' rigmarole, Booth," she warned, lifting her head and staring up at him. "Me just being there didn't stop you from getting a brain tumor, and it's not going to make it go away either."
"Fine, then, I won't say it," he said, hands on her back holding her close enough that they both had to crane their necks back a bit to properly see each other's faces. "But I was doing some reading, and there is a lot of research out there on the link between relationships and recovery from diseases. You know, research, that stuff you like so much." He managed to wheedle a smile out of her with his words, and, self-satisfied, continued. "Well, apparently, having a strong support system really improves a person's chances of full recovery from an illness."
"That makes sense," she said. "Most cultural interpretations of medicine view it as a multi-layered mind, body, and soul connection. Optimally, an individual would strive for overall wellness in all three areas, because if one ails, the entire system suffers."
"So, if a person's mind and soul are taken care of, they'll be better off physically, is what you're saying," he said.
"Well, that's what they believe," she said. "I personally don't believe in a human soul, but there is a scientifically proven connection between depression and a decline in post-surgical recovery. So at least as far as the mind-body connection, yes—a healthier emotional state can influence a healthier physical state."
"Exactly," Booth said.
"Exactly what?" she asked.
"Look, there's scientific evidence—stuff you believe in—that emotional health leads to better physical health, and better chances of recovery. You said you can't do anything, that nothing you do helps, but emotionally, I'm better off because of you. And you know, after they roll me out of surgery, because of you I'm going to get better faster. Without you, that wouldn't happen. You are my support system. You make me… well, having you in my life makes me happy. That's what you do. It's that simple." They stared at each other for a moment, his eyes beginning to mirror the mist that clouded hers, and she finally looked away, leaning back into him and resting her cheek on his shoulder.
"I told you not to give me the 'you being there makes it better' rigmarole," she finally said. He laughed.
"But it's scientifically proven rigmarole," he argued. "Doesn't that count for something?"
"I suppose," she said begrudgingly, but not without a smile. He sighed, looking down at the top of her head and daring to lift one hand from the small of her back to brush a piece from her face. I'm going into surgery in a few hours, he thought to himself. If not now, then when?
"I just don't want to go into surgery in—" He pulled his phone out of his back pocket. "—four hours, with you thinking you never did anything to help me, that you can't make this better. You don't just watch, Temperance. You're right there with me, all the time, and that makes me stronger. That makes me brave. That makes me sure that no matter what they find when they crack my head open, that I'm gonna beat it. I'm gonna kick its ass, because I know you'll be right there with me. The titsu-whatevers can't touch this."
"Tzitzimime," she corrected, grinning in spite of the tears that had released themselves without her consent, trailing down the sides of her face. She dried her eyes on the sleeve of his jacket, and he traced the line of her jaw softly with his index finger.
"This isn't the end of the world, okay?" She swallowed hard, nodding.
"I know," she said. "I'm just…" She trailed off, seeming to choke on the word.
"I'm scared too," he admitted. "But it's not the end. It's the beginning."
"Beginning of what?" she asked. He sighed, in a slow way that suggested he was looking for the right words, the right explanation.
"Look," he said, and she did. "I laid awake all night after I got home last night, just thinking about it. What if I hadn't had that seizure? They might not have found the tumor for months, and by then, who knows how bad it would've been? I could've died."
"Don't say that," she insisted.
"Why not?" he challenged. "It's true. That seizure saved my life, and it made me realize something important. I spend way too much time waiting until tomorrow, being afraid of what might happen. But you know what I'm afraid of now? I'm afraid that fifty years from now I'm going to look back and be so pissed off at myself for hesitating, for waiting too long and not going after the things that mean the most to me." He was intense, full of fire, and she could feel it radiating from him.
"I'm done being afraid," he said. "I'm starting over, today. I'm not gonna be scared anymore. It starts here."
"What starts here?" she asked hesitantly, secretly feeling that she knew exactly what he was implying and if her social skills were so bad that she was misinterpreting this very strong signal, there really was no hope for her. He held his finger beneath her chin, gently forcing her to face him. Their noses were next to touching, so close she could count the amber flecks in his dark irises as he seemed to watch her intently. She felt like she could breathe him in; there was nothing between them now. They were too close—there was no room for excuses, no room for error. Not even space enough for a line.