I don't own these characters, or much of anything else really.
Their latest case couldn't have come at a better time. They had both been buried under mountains of paperwork all week, and were anxious for an excuse to get back in the field. The body that had been discovered by hikers was found on a remote peak in a corner of Virginia state game land, and getting to the site would require some hiking and a short stretch of rock climbing. Brennan was eager to get to the site before the rest of the Bureau's forensics team, and had explained that she appreciated some time alone to study the remains in an unaltered condition. Booth had agreed, seeming to accept her argument. But really, he had to wonder if there was something else behind her rational explanation: the doctor dearly loved competition. Especially competition with him. Anticipating a no-holds-barred race up the mountain, he grinned in anticipation. Whatever Bones could dish out, he could take.
They arrived at the trailhead not long after sunrise, and took only a few minutes to pack their gear and check their climbing harnesses and lines. As expected, they soon started arguing about who would lead during their climb up the rockface, and who would second the belay line.
"…my climbing experience is more extensive than yours, Booth," she argued. "Logically, I should be the one to lead."
"Logically," he corrected, "we should allow simple physics to settle this argument. I weigh significantly more than you, Bones. What exactly are you going to do if I slip? Lecture me about gravity?"
"If the anchors are set correctly at each pitch, it's quite safe even considering the difference in our body mass! The lead climber's role is about judgment—picking the best holds and navigating the most optimal course up the rockface," she argued.
"I'm not doubting your judgment, Bones, I'm doubting that you weigh more than 110 pounds." He glanced at her scowl. "What, 120?"
She ignored his comment. "You just can't stand to not be in the lead. Why can't you just say, 'Bones, I am physically incapable of ceding leadership to you because it hurts my giant manchild feelings and makes me pout'?"
"My voice does not sound like that. And I don't pout!"
"Like a toddler!" she insisted.
Their bickering continued as they made their way up the steep trail, tampering off only when the ascent demanded they conserve their breath. The woods were gorgeously saturated with midsummer green, and humming with life. The sunlight dappling through the canopy stippled them with spots of brilliance as they walked briskly, both relishing the chance to test their legs against ground more primitive than their usual urban landscape of pavement and sidewalk. For Brennan, it was a reminder of how long it had been since her last sabbatical. Not that she mourned her current circumstances—though catching murderers had never been one of her career goals, she marveled at how willingly she'd slipped into another phase of her work, at the rewarding world that partnership with Booth had opened up for her. Working with him was actually one of the most exciting things she'd ever done, though she would never have guessed it when she first met him. No, then she'd found him arrogant, condescending, unintelligent, pedantic, manipulative, crude…
Catching the private grin that stole across her face, he paused, puffing for air. "Penny for your thoughts?"
She stared back at him, uncomprehendingly.
"What are you thinking?" he rephrased.
"Nothing much," she shrugged, taking the opportunity to grab a sip of water.
Studying her intently, he shook his head. "I know exactly what you're thinking. That you're going to beat me to the top of this trail and start climbing before I can stop you."
"I wasn't thinking that, but it's not a bad idea," she said playfully. Recapping her water bottle, she started to say something but stopped suddenly, staring into the woods behind him with an alarmed expression on her face.
"What?" he demanded, turning around to follow her gaze. She laughed, and took off at a full run, flinging herself up the steep trail.
"Sonofa…" he mumbled, disbelieving that he'd fallen for such a stupid trick. Since when had Bones learned tricks? Without hesitation, he chased after her.
The trail wended its way upwards, through woods that gradually thinned from deciduous trees to hardier conifers as the elevation soared. The incline was punishing, and littered with the rocky remnants of ancient, tectonic collisions. Booth lunged after her fleet form, scampering up the steeper parts of the trail with a complete lack of grace. He focused on the flash of her boot bottoms as she rushed over the path, forcing himself to keep from looking any higher, at the delectable distraction of her legs and—nope, just keep looking down, he reminded himself. He was gaining on her, could hear her gasping for air. She was more nimble ascending the big rocks, and slipped more easily through the narrow parts of the trail, but he had power on her and hopefully, he noted at the sound of her next gasping breath, endurance. He managed to break even with her just as his thighs threatened to combust underneath him and they suddenly found themselves at the end of the trail.
They collapsed on the rocky ground, both gasping for air in the oxygen-thin altitude. The trail had emerged above the treeline, onto a bald copse of boulder-strewn mountaintop that dramatically bisected the neighboring mountain ridges and cantilevered over the valley far below, slicing through the green swell of Virginia forest like a shark fin rising from the water. The view was astonishing. Even the redtail hawks that shared their rarified altitude failed to get quite as high as they were, wheeling lazily on thermal swells underneath the cliff edge.
Rolling out of their packs, they both grabbed their water, still too fatigued to speak. Greedily swallowing air in an attempt to quench the starbursts behind his eyes, Booth studied their surroundings more closely. The rockface that they had to climb rose next to them, only 30 feet or so tall. If the rock had been in a gym, Booth thought, he wouldn't have hesitated. But perched as it was, over a sheer dropoff that he didn't even want to look into the depths of, he started to reconsider their approach. Bones was right that she had more experience climbing, and regardless of their bickering, he very much intended to take advantage of her judgment. On the other hand, he just kept picturing how quickly she'd be plucked from the mountainside if he was to fall, and how many levels of hell he'd have to endure if he killed his partner with his own clumsiness.
Getting his breath back, he said, "I think we should go up individually… unconnected."
She rolled over, pinning him with the intensity of an unfathomable gaze. "That would make it very hard for one of us to help the other, if anything happened."
He rolled onto his back to look up at the curtain of cloud-dotted blue sky suspended above them. "I know. I just don't like our options. I don't trust these puny little anchors to hold if I fall. The truth is, we're just badly matched. For climbing," he amended.
She stared at him thoughtfully. "If you're uncomfortable, we could wait for the team."
"I didn't say I was uncomfortable, Bones."
She didn't like the subtext brewing under their conversation. When she had accused him of being uncomfortable, it may have been because she was feeling uncomfortable, subconsciously. And when he'd gotten so irritable at the idea that he was uncomfortable, it may have been because he knew she was actually the uncomfortable one. Uggh. Shaking her head slightly, she got to her feet and offered him a hand up. "Usually, when I feel stuck between two equally unsatisfactory solutions, I find that it's best to start over completely, and rethink the puzzle in front of me, without making assumptions."
"So… what does that mean?"
Backing away from the rockface, she peered up at the shape of the natural holds they would have to choose from. "We study the puzzle as it is, not as we perceive it to be."
"Um, okay Confucius. I'm…studying it. Studying…the big rock. Still looks like a rock."
Taking another step back, going as close to the edge of the cliff as she dared, she pointed to an outcropping near eleven o'clock. "See that hold over there?" she asked.
He moved behind her to follow the line of her arm. "Which one? The one that looks like a muppet or the one that looks like—"
His words were swallowed by a deafening whoosh as the ground beneath Booth gave way. From her peripheral vision, she saw him plummeting straight down, too fast to comprehend. Instinct threw her arms out to him, and she was able to grab one of his wrists at the last second before he disappeared over the edge completely. She held onto him with both hands, wrapping her fingers desperately around his skin, as his weight pulled her inexorably towards the rim, simultaneously in slow motion but fast enough that she couldn't register pain as her flailing limbs scrabbled desperately for purchase on the graveled ground skittering beneath her. All she could see were his eyes, obsidian-dark and dilated with fear and disbelief, stark against the chalk-white color of his face, as they plunged towards oblivion. She twisted her hips around, struggling against the earth, to dig her heels into anything, to stop them. Just before they both went over, her boots found stanchion against rock, and she squeezed her eyes shut at the searing pain as his body weight snapped up against the sudden stop, two nauseating popping sounds reverberating from her shoulders as her arms separated from her shoulder sockets. An unearthly shriek filled her ears, and it took her a moment to realize that the supernaturally chilling sound emanated from her own throat. The pain felt like a fire-heated blade completely severing her arms from her body, but she knew that her rotator cuff would hold the humerus in place even if it had separated from the scapula. She still had strength in her muscles and tendons, even if the bones had completely broken. She could hold on as long as she could keep her fingers clinched vise-like around his wrist.
She marshaled her breath in through her nose and forced it out from her mouth, tamping down the hysterical swirl of panic and pain, all of her considerable will focused with laser precision on the contact of their hands tethering him so precariously to life. She would not let him go; she would not let him fall. She could do this.
"Bones!" His hoarse shout brought her eyes open. Their eyes met in a moment that could have been an eternity—intense currents of understanding passing between them. She saw the moment that his shock commuted into cold clarity, as he instantly assessed the situation. She saw his pain, his fear, his stubbornness. She saw the very moment he accepted the inevitability of his own death and knew that his only choice was to ensure that she didn't meet that end with him. He gasped, "Let go!"
She didn't spare any breath to answer, but instead channeled her entire concentration into just holding on. She never listened to him anyway, and she sure as hell wasn't going to start now.
"You can't hold me, you have to let me go!" he shouted.
She gulped another breath of air, lost in the depths of his eyes.
He glanced down, the valley yawing thousands of meters beneath his helpless feet, looked at the bed of rocks that would soon rush up to crush him into nullity, and felt only a terrible tenderness that he had to leave this way, leave her this way. It wasn't fair, it wasn't fair.
His voice was a ragged whisper. "I won't take you with me." And with those words, he released his grip on her.
She grunted in agony as his wrist slipped centimeters further from her grasp. The pain that she thought couldn't worsen grew even more unbearable, her muscles strained well past the point of fraying. But the drop he expected didn't come. He stared at her in disbelief, seeing her stubborn grip on him tighten.
"No!" he swore at her. "Let go NOW, goddammit!"
She saw the resolve in his eyes and cursed it to hell a thousand times over. He wanted her to let him fall. He wanted her to give up. And maybe it was just the adrenalin, but she suddenly saw everything so clearly—understood more about their partnership, more about herself than she ever had before. She wasn't afraid. They had only two options. Either they would both reach safety together, or they would both go down together.
She flexed the fingers of her right hand, locking her grip around the base of his wrist, where the carpal bones of his hand swelled, hoping desperately that she could somehow hold his weight one-handed for the few seconds it would require to do what she needed to do. Her plan ran quicksilver through her agile mind. Yes, she could do this.
Locking her vision onto his, she released her left hand. She saw the flare of finality in his eyes, and something else—gratitude?—as he slipped downward another inch. She tightened her grip on him with her right hand, feeling his radius and ulna constricting towards each other like tweezers under her strength. Fighting nausea, she reached her left arm to her vest, grabbing the carabiner that hung from her climbing harness and whipping her nearly-useless arm out to his shoulder, her fingers scrabbling clumsily to snap the metal clasp onto the carabiner on his own climbing vest. The metallic click of success met her eyes triumphantly and she returned both hands to his wrist, breathing desperately against the pain.
When he saw what she had done, clipping herself to him so that his fate would become hers, his mind overflowed with rage. The horrible reality of it washed over him in icy fear. "No no no no no no damn you! What are you doing?!" he roared at her.
Her face was set in a pale, pained mask of concentration, sweat beading on her brow, and was that—it was—a small smile curving her lips?
"Dammit Bones!" he swore uselessly, so consumptively angry he could barely see.
"…Have to pull," she panted. "Have to…" She knew that her only hope was to use her legs to lever him far enough that he'd be able to reach enough ground to pull himself up. Really, only a foot and half or so, she told herself. Just a matter of a few inches. She knew her arms would give out any second—there was no time to think anymore. Inhaling, she hoped that the rocks beneath her boots would hold and pushed against them harder than she'd ever strained in her life, knowing that their survival depended on her finding a nearly deistic well of strength somewhere inside herself. Screaming in pain, she strained against the rocks, her back arching up off the ground like a tensed bow, her entire being focused on her mission, her muscles retracting in agony. Dimly, she perceived that she had managed to haul him back up a few inches. Sucking another shot of air, she screamed again as she arched up and back, her legs bearing down into the footholds as her arms fought to pull him closer into her. Fear and adrenalin barreled at lightspeed through her veins, blocking the pain, stoking her muscles with unimaginable ferocity.
And then he was scrabbling for a foothold himself, reaching his other arm up and around the rock she flexed against, adding his strength to her efforts. Each inch she gained was an inch that he could use to pull himself up, to haul himself back from the brink. A sharp report broke around them, rock or bone or fate cracking beneath their will, and he was suddenly heaved onto the ground half on top of her. Even as she felt him pulling his lower body up onto the ledge, she didn't relinquish her deathgrip on his wrist. Even as she felt him circle her waist in his other arm and heft her to safe ground, she didn't let go. Even as she saw the blackness encroaching on the sides of her vision, and felt the relentless fist of shock squeezing the air from her lungs and forcing her unconscious, she didn't let go.
He half-dragged, half-carried her farther from the edge of the cliff, blocking out the revolting sight of her arms hanging loosely at unnatural angles from her body. Later, he would have time to reflect on what she had done, on the command that she had stubbornly disobeyed, on the audacious risk she had taken when she'd tethered them together—not to mention the shocking improbability of how she had possibly managed to haul him to safety even though he was almost double her own body weight. Time for dwelling on all of that later. For now, he had to take care of the present.
Whipping his jacket off, he threw it over her and rooted through their packs for extra clothes to ward off the chill of shock. Her arms were obviously both dislocated or broken, and he was thankful to the pain inasmuch as she'd finally passed out, rather than continue to suffer. The word tough didn't even begin to describe his partner. Tenacious, fearless, possibly superhuman, still didn't come close to what he'd just witnessed. Grabbing the tape from his first-aid kit, he wrapped it mummy-style around her torso, pinning her wobbly arms to her body just to keep them stable while he got her to a hospital. He wrapped the tape as tight as he dared, knowing that the jostling she would have to endure would only make her injuries exponentially worse. He dipped his fingers to her neck, finding her pulse slow and shallow, barely thrumming under her cold, clammy skin. Digging for his car keys, he pocketed them and a bottle of water, leaving the rest of their gear where it lay. He lifted her, still bundled in fabric, as carefully as he could and gathered her high against his chest, taking off down the trail at a near-run.
Later, as the reality of the emergency room waiting area began to seep into his awareness, he wondered at how time could stretch taffy-like. When he had been hanging from that cliff, bound to life only by the fragile grasp of her fingers—that had seemed to stretch into infinity, though it had probably been less than 60 seconds. The sprint down the mountainside with his partner clutched to his chest, sobbing in and out of painful consciousness, which had taken almost two hours, seemed to last only for seconds. And the race to the emergency room, as she lolled against her seatbelt inanimately and he accelerated into the switchback turns on two squealing wheels, seemed to take so little time that he wondered if it had really happened at all. And now this waiting room, where he had seemingly been for the last few years of his life, if not decades, waiting anxiously for word of his partner.
And when a doctor finally appeared to let him know that she would be okay, time screeched to a total stop as his heart flooded in gratitude. Torn ligaments, broken scapula, dislocated shoulders, fractured humerus, but okay. Sinking into a chair, his head collapsed into his hands, shaking. He had been so certain he was about to die that everything since the edge of that cliff felt like borrowed time—some cosmic mistake had reinserted him into the world of the living again. Well, he thought to himself darkly, either a cosmic mistake or the cosmic stubbornness of Temperance Brennan. Swiping the back of his hand against the tears that threatened to leak from his eyes, he thanked God for his partner. He would never again criticize her for not listening to him. Clearly she just knew better. Not that he'd ever tell her that…
Gratefully accepting the doctor's offer to visit her, he found himself standing by her bedside, hands gripping the bruised fingers protruding from her bandages as if to reassure himself that they were both still real. She smiled up at him dreamily, absolutely conked out of her mind on painkillers, looking more beautiful than any mortal had a right to. Lifting her hand to his lips, he placed a reverent kiss on her skin, inhaling the scent of her, the slowly absorbing the possibility that they weren't actually dead after all.
"S'okay Booth," she murmured sleepily. "S'fine."
"Bones," he said raggedly. "I don't know how to… I don't know what to…" He didn't begin to know how to thank her for saving his life.
She patted his hand in understanding. "It's what we do," she said simply.
He couldn't handle this. The chaos of emotions inside him, what to think, what to feel. He knew exactly why he'd jumped in front of Pam Nunan's bullet, taken that shot for her. And it wasn't just because they were partners, or even best friends, and it sure as hell wasn't because it was a part of his job. He'd taken that damn bullet because he loved her. Nothing more, nothing less. He had to know…
"Why did you do it?" he asked.
She closed her eyes, as if to consider her answer carefully. He waited as patiently as he possibly could, tension strung inside him in the silence. "Bones?"
A soft sigh escaped her lips, and her face relaxed into her pillow. He watched, incredulous, as her breathing deepened in what was obviously sleep. He pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead. What else could he do? After what she'd done for him today, the least he could do was let her rest. So he pulled a chair to the side of her bed and brushed her hair away from her neck tenderly. Everything else could wait. It would all happen eventually anyway.
AN: It's oneshot time! And why? Because I'm planning out a multi-chap, and procrastination is delicious! Hope you enjoyed it, and hope you let me know even if you didn't. : )