Holy Mary Mother, the story is complete! Clearly, I'm dreadful at deadlines - good thing I chose a business where you never have to worry about those. Oh, wait... :-) Anywho... At long last, Murder in the Marriage is done. Hope y'all like it, and I will see you back here in May!

"Booth, this is absurd – I'll only be a few minutes."

"Just tell me what you need, Bones, and I'll get it."

She was in his truck, in the parking garage of her building. Brennan crossed her arms over her chest and leveled her best glare at him. Not unexpectedly, it seemed to have no effect. Booth stood at her door, refusing to move out of the way despite the cold or the fact that, at least according to him, they were running substantially late for plans he had neglected to tell her they even had.

"There are a stack of gifts in the closet that I need to get," she said.

"We can come get 'em later – I already told you. Whatever you need this morning, I can get for you."

She grabbed his arm before he could go anywhere. "One of the gifts in the closet is yours – I would prefer if you didn't see it."

"I'll close my eyes, Bones."

"If you close your eyes, how will you – "

"Jeez, Bones… Just let me do this, huh?"

She didn't let go of his arm. After a stalemate of a few moments, Booth exhaled deeply and took a step closer to her. She smelled his aftershave and the peppermint of a candy cane they'd shared on the ride over.

"Your present's inside the apartment, okay, Bones? If you go in, it'll ruin the surprise. Now, would you just tell me what you need so I can go get it and we can get on with this?"

In spite of her feelings on the season in general and the past few days in particular, she felt the color rise in her cheeks.

"How did you get it inside the apartment while I was gone? What is it?"

"Now, that would really ruin the surprise, Bones," he said. "C'mon, babe… Give a guy a break."

She turned back around to face forward, resettling herself in her seat. "Fine. Just get the small stack of gifts wrapped in red paper in my hall closet. And my scarf – the blue one that I like."

"With the little sparkly stripes?" he asked.

She liked that he knew that. She had no reason why she should like such a trivial thing, but she did. She nodded, and watched him jog off toward her building's entrance feeling more at peace than she had in quite some time.

It had taken the conversation in Booth's kitchen before Brennan had felt him begin to look at her as something other than a glass about to shatter. She wasn't certain what had been so pivotal about that moment, other than her ability to look him in the eye and tell him with absolute confidence that she was all right. It had felt good to her as well, she had to admit; over the years, she'd spent so much time being comforted by Booth, that it was nice to have an opportunity to return the favor.

I get scared, and I'll hug you, he'd said, years ago.

She felt as though that was exactly what had happened that morning.

The problem was that, despite her determination in that moment, Brennan found that she still felt an ever-present, inexplicable tremor ever since her conversation with Booth in Washington – as though everything was happening in the glare of a bright, bright light that she could not escape. The world seemed too close, noises too loud, typically inoffensive smells acrid and overwhelming… She felt like an exposed nerve; like her skin had become too thin to protect her from the world around.

It was absurd, the way that she felt. Absurd, and very annoying.

At the sight of Booth coming back toward the truck, she pushed such thoughts away. He was loaded down with the gifts Brennan had been purchasing sporadically over the past two months, which he dumped into the backseat without ceremony as soon as he reached the truck. Then, he clambered back behind the wheel and peeled out of their parking space. He was clearly in a hurry.

"Werner said you were supposed to take a few days off to relax," she said, referring to the tension in his shoulders and the way he clenched the steering wheel.

"And that's exactly what I'm doing, Bones," he said.

They were headed toward the Beltway. The sun was bright in a clear blue sky; it was two days after Christmas, and there was no longer any snow on the ground.

"You don't look very relaxed to me," she said.

"I'm relaxed, Bones." He glanced at her with a hint of a smile. When he spoke again, his voice had lost much of its tension. "Trust me, Bones… I'm more relaxed than I've been in weeks. I'm good."

En route to picking up Parker, Brennan caught a glimpse of the site where the Hoover Building had stood just days before. The street was still cordoned off, with crews working around the clock to clear the debris. She glanced at Booth. His mandible tightened as he ground his teeth together at the sight.

"What do you think will happen to Sheriff Lincoln?" she asked.

It was the first time they'd spoken of the case since she and Booth had left for Oregon. Based on the look on Booth's face, however, she suspected he'd been giving it a great deal of thought.

"I don't know. He saved my life in there – no doubt about it, Bones. If he hadn't stepped in, Hartwick would've slit my throat right there."

"But he was part of the conspiracy – taking Parker's bus, Janie Billings's murder, the destruction of the Hoover itself…"

Booth rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, Bones, I know. He's not gonna get off – trust me, I know that. He'll go down as a domestic terrorist, and I don't have a clue what'll happen to Maylene and their boys, and it'll just be more shitty fallout from Black Ridge."

He looked out the window, his jaw tighter than ever now. "Just a little more blood on the hands of the jackasses who set the whole thing in motion almost twenty-five years ago."

"I know how much you love this country," she said. "And how difficult it is for you when the government is cast in a questionable light…"

She waited for him to dismiss her statement, or cut her off with some pat explanation of why the government wasn't to blame for what had happened on Black Ridge. Instead, he merely looked sad.

"They really fucked up there, Bones," he said. "I mean… I just can't stop thinking of how that could've been me just as easy as Bill Lincoln. How many times have I answered the call, taken the assignment, gone in the field without ever asking why? You don't second-guess your country, Bones. Especially not when it's one as great as this."

She knew better than to argue with him right now, despite the fact that she was not completely in agreement. It was too raw a subject for him. It heartened her to realize that she understood at least this much about him now.

"But this case has you rethinking your position?"

"Nah, Bones – I mean, not really. It's just… What if that was me? And they send me out there to do my job without even really knowing what they're sending me into… And then, when it all blows up in my face and I'm forced to gun down little kids just to save my own life and the lives of my men, then the high-ups not only pretend they don't know me, they actually make up the fuckin' story that seals my fate."

He scratched the back of his head, his eyes steadfast on the road ahead.

"It couldn't have been a widely known decision," Brennan said. He looked at her, his forehead creased. She had to admit that, occasionally, it was nice that he had to be the one to have concepts explained further.

"This case – Black Ridge – was known only to those at the very highest levels of the government. Which means there were likely very few individuals actually involved in the decision to keep Lincoln and his men's role in the operation a secret. So… Rather than blaming the entire government and America as a nation, perhaps you could lay the blame at the feet of those few parties who actually handed down the decision. You know there are always a few bad aids in bureaucracy – we've certainly run across our share."

"Eggs, Bones," he said. "It's bad eggs." A faint smile returned to his lips, the tension in his shoulders easing perceptibly.

"Oh," she said. "Well… The rest of my theory stands, regardless."

"It's a good theory, Bones." He smiled at her, his eyes lingering for just a moment before he returned to the road ahead. "I'm gonna do my damnedest to believe it."

By the time they reached Rebecca and Brent's home, Booth's mood had lightened considerably. He pointed out Christmas lights (which Brennan hardly could have missed, but she didn't tell him this), put in another of his seemingly limitless supply of Christmas CDs, and was unmoved when Brennan pointed out that the holiday had actually passed two days before. To be fair, she was enjoying herself, as well… For once, she was willing to let the semantics slide for the sake of a bit of light-spirited fun.

Rebecca didn't seem to realize that Christmas had passed two days ago, either. An evergreen in her front yard was still decorated with blue lights, and there was an animatronic Santa Claus stuffing toys into an unrealistic-looking animatronic sack to the left of the front door. Once they'd pulled in and parked, Brennan rooted around in the backseat while Booth stood impatiently to the side.

"Bones, we're gonna give Parker his stuff later – you don't need to haul it out now."

"These aren't for Parker."

His brow furrowed. "Well, then who the hell are they for?"

"They're for Rebecca and Brent."

Booth looked perplexed. "Bones, you don't have to get stuff for Rebecca. She's…"

"She's Parker's mother, Booth," she said. She finally found the two packages – scented candles for Rebecca, a book on pioneer aviation for Brent, both recommended to her by Angela, and both wrapped in bright red gift paper. "I spoke with Angela… She agreed that this would be a nice gesture."

Before Booth could pursue the matter any further, Parker came barreling out with his backpack over his shoulder. Rebecca stood in the doorway and waved to them.

"Are you guys ready?" Parker asked immediately. "Dani's been waiting for me."

"Sorry, bub – hang on a second, we're gonna go in and visit with your mum and Brent for a few minutes."

Parker looked as though his father had just suggested that Martians were invading the planet – a combination of horror and confusion that Brennan found quite similar to some of Booth's expressions.

"But why?"

Booth shrugged. "Don't ask me – it's Bones's idea."

"Because it's a gesture of civility and goodwill," she said.

Parker heaved a sigh, put his backpack in the truck, and trudged back up the walkway with just a fraction more melodrama than his father. Rebecca merely looked confused when they all met her on the doorstep.

"Bones says we have to visit with you now," Parker said.

Brennan was momentarily uncertain of the move herself, but relaxed when Rebecca smiled, though a trace of confusion lingered in her eyes.

"Uh… Yeah, of course. That could be… nice, I guess."

Rebecca and Brent's living room was still decorated with Christmas lights and garland, a fire roaring in the fireplace and the smell of cinnamon in the air. For a moment, Brennan felt a twinge of regret that she wasn't better at creating such an environment herself. She thought of her own apartment. Not only was there no tree or decorations, it seemed like it would be a literal safety risk to even bring Parker there, let alone celebrate Christmas in the place. Booth bumped up against her with a small grin, in an attempt to pull her out of such ruminations. She started at the sudden contact, but recovered before he seemed to notice her reaction.

"No deep thoughts, Bones – it's Christmas. Have a cookie."

He handed her a sugar cookie in the shape of a wreath, and waited until she'd taken her seat in an overstuffed chair in front of the fire before he perched beside her on the arm. Brent and Rebecca disappeared in the kitchen for a moment, and Parker went to call Dani and tell her he was going to be delayed.

Booth's fingers drifted absently beneath the collar at the back of her shirt, rubbing her neck lightly. It was an innocuous gesture – he'd touched her that way dozens of times since they'd first begun dating, neither of them giving it a second thought. But something about it – the pressure of callused fingers at the base of her neck, heat from the fire in front of her… something that she couldn't even identify, made her stomach clench. She pulled away from him, just slightly, and felt her throat tighten at the hurt that flashed in his eyes before he had time to hide it.

"I'm sorry," she said quickly.

"Don't worry about it, Bones." He got to his feet and stood awkwardly beside the chair.

The cookie she was eating was too dry; it stuck in her throat, her heart rate uncomfortably accelerated yet again at Booth's touch. She wished she had never insisted they come here – the whole thing had gone so much more smoothly when she'd imagined it.

"This was a mistake," she said. At the look on his face, she added quickly, "Coming here, I mean. They clearly weren't expecting us."

He moved away from her chair and leaned with his back against the wall instead. She could tell that he was trying to make it appear like a natural transition, but it felt like anything but.

"It'll be fine, Bones – Rebecca lives for this kinda thing. They're gonna come out of the kitchen in about thirty seconds with a tray of hot cocoa and some crackers and cheese, and we'll sit around and make awkward conversation about Parker and work and, if things get really bad, me and Brent can talk about the Steelers for a while, and you and Becca can compare recipes."

She stared at him. "Why would we do that? I don't even know any recipes."

"'Cause that's what extended families do, Bones… Society says we've all gotta get together in the same room a couple times a year to prove we're still civilized." He shrugged, taking a bite of his cookie. "I didn't make up the rules – and I would've been more than happy to let this whole thing slide, anyway. This was your idea."

Though his words sounded casual enough, it felt like there was an underlying edge to them – or perhaps it was just sadness she was hearing. Silence stretched between them until, just as Booth had said, Brent and Rebecca emerged from the kitchen a short time later with a tray of hot chocolate and some hastily-prepared hors d'oeuvres. Parker returned with a hand-held video game that he played while seated on the floor in front of the Christmas tree. The conversation, however, wasn't quite as staid as Booth had predicted.

"We heard about the Hoover," Brent said when they were all seated, plates balanced on their laps and instrumental holiday music playing in the background. "What a week, huh? Thank God you and Parker are both okay."

Brent was dressed in jeans and a Boston University sweatshirt, wearing slippers that Brennan suspected he'd gotten for Christmas, based on their obvious lack of wear. He was an attractive man with an unobtrusive manner that typically seemed to set others at ease. He didn't seem that unobtrusive about this particular subject, however.

"And you're sure you got all of them, Seeley?" Rebecca asked. Her voice was taut. "No one else who was part of this will suddenly, I don't know, come out of the woodwork to settle a score?"

Parker put his video game away, turning his head to listen to the adults' conversation. Booth looked uncomfortable.

"We got everybody who was involved, Becca," he said. "Parker's safe. I'm safe."

"Dr. Sweets almost died, though," Parker said.

"Where'd you hear that?" Booth demanded.

"Dani told me," Parker said. "Her dad told her about everything that happened. How they shot Dr. Sweets, and you kept him alive 'til they could get him out."

"For somebody you just met a couple days ago, you and Dani sure seem to be burning down the phone lines." Booth said. Parker blushed.

"Oh, you have no idea," Rebecca said. She seemed to lighten slightly at the change in subject matter. "We barely saw him while we were in Vermont. If they weren't texting, they were talking; if they weren't talking, they were chatting."

Parker squirmed, but remained silent.

"And wait 'til you see what he got her for Christmas," Rebecca continued, apparently unaware of her son's discomfort.

"Mom," Parker said, his cheeks brightening still further. "Be quiet. Dad, can we please go?"

"Hey, bub – don't tell your mum to be quiet," Booth said, though it seemed an automatic response, rather than one with any real weight behind it. Brennan noted with some relief that Booth did retrieve their coats, however.

"What did you get her?" Brennan asked, genuinely curious.

She was flattered when the discomfort fell away and Parker looked at her with what appeared to be real enthusiasm. "Wait 'til you see – you'll really like it."

"The rest of us wouldn't get it," Rebecca explained to she and Booth. "Only Temperance and Dr. Hodgins, apparently, are cool enough to appreciate this kind of awesome gift. I just hope Dani's parents are cool enough to appreciate it."

"You'll see it when she opens it up," Parker said. "But – well, okay, I'll tell you. She's gonna love it." He waited a second or two, clearly enjoying the suspense he'd created. "I got her…an ant farm."

Booth's eyes widened. "Wow. That's…" She could tell he was doing his best not to laugh. "That's a great present, Parks. Does Dani… I don't know, like ants?"

"Dad, she's gonna be an entomologist – like Dr. Hodgins. Or else a primatologist. She hasn't decided yet. But since I couldn't get her a monkey, I thought…"

"I think it's a wonderful gift," Brennan said. "I remember my first ant farm – it was very educational. And if Dani's already focused in that direction, I think it's wise to give her something that encourages that. When I was her age, I would have much preferred someone had given me an ant farm than jewelry or some impractical trinket."

Parker linked arms with her and pulled her toward the door. He glanced over his shoulder at Rebecca, Brent, and Booth, with just a hint of disdain.

"See. I told you Bones would get it."

"I think this'll probably be the last year I spend Christmas in Vermont," Parker told them imperiously, as soon as they were back on the Beltway bound for the hospital.

Brennan turned around to look at him. Booth seemed distracted; he kept his eyes on the road, and had made no attempt to make any type of physical contact with her since the incident at Rebecca's.

"I thought you enjoyed spending Christmas in Vermont," she said.

"But the city's really pretty at Christmas," he said. "It's nice to just walk around and look at all the lights in the Capitol."

She saw Booth's mouth twitch. "What does Dani think of Christmas in D.C.?" he asked.

"Dani's spent three Christmases just walking around the city with her dad," Parker said immediately. "And two years in a row she went to New York City, and she said they spent the whole day ice skating and they ate hot dogs in the park. And one year she spent Christmas in Austin, Texas."

Parker said "Austin, Texas" in much the same way Brennan imagined others might say "Paris, France."

"Dani doesn't like cities usually – her dad's taken her on safaris and camping and she usually just likes to be outside. But she says if you're gonna be in a city, Christmas is the best time."

"Dani seems to have a great deal to say on the subject," Brennan said.

"And a whole lot of other subjects," Booth said dryly.

They shared a smile while Parker, oblivious to any derision in his father's tone, continued to tell them in painstaking detail about his new friend's taste in music, movies, and television, not to mention landmark events in her past, present, and projected future.

By the time they reached the hospital, Brennan felt she could write a fairly comprehensive dissertation on the subject of Dani Humboldt.

After the explosion that had killed the officer from the bomb squad a few days earlier, Dani had been staying in the burn unit at the GW University Hospital. Parker became more somber as they walked through the maze of brightly lit corridors in search of Dani's room. More than once, they heard the moans or cries of pain from patients whose injuries were likely agonizing. The tenor of the place seemed to affect Booth, as well. Brennan noted with dismay that he was still being careful to keep his distance since her reaction at Rebecca's. He hadn't initiated contact once while they were driving to the hospital, and now he walked with Parker in between them as they made their way through the hospital.

When they finally reached Dani, staying all alone in a room that had been brightened by dozens of cards, vases of flowers, and balloons, Parker hesitantly stepped away from them. In his absence, Brennan reached for Booth's hand. She held it tightly in her own as Parker approached his friend's bedside, noting sadly how relieved Booth seemed at her touch.

Dani seemed smaller in the hospital bed than she had when Brennan first met her at the school bus the other day. The right side of her face was bandaged and her red hair was scorched on that side, her right hand likewise wrapped in bandages. From what Brennan could tell, that seemed to be the extent of the child's injuries.

Parker's steady stream of chatter had ceased shortly after they entered the hospital. Now that they were actually in the room with her, Brennan could see his uncertainty. It was only when Dani turned, her blue eyes shining brightly, that he took a step closer to her.

"I thought you'd never get here," she said. "I've been soooo bored."

Parker had her gift – awkwardly wrapped and decorated with half a dozen garish bows – in his arms. As soon as she spoke, he practically launched it over the bed's plastic railing at her.

"This is for you," he said.

Brennan half-expected him to turn around and run out of the room as soon as he'd delivered it.

"You got me something?" she asked.

He shrugged. "It's no big deal. I just saw it and thought of you, so… I can take it back if you want."

Dani wrapped her thin, unbandaged arm around the package protectively. "No way. At least, not 'til I see what it is."

Brennan glanced at Booth. They stood with hands entwined, but she noted that he was still making an effort to keep some distance between them. She lifted his arm and wrapped it around her shoulders, knowing he wouldn't dare to make the move himself.

A question flashed in his eyes.

"I'm all right," she mouthed to him.

He nodded, and smiled faintly. She leaned into him as Parker helped Dani unwrap her ant farm, which was met with an enthusiastic squeal.

"This is perfect," the girl said happily. She proceeded to read to Parker from the back of the box, explaining all of the benefits of this particular ant farm over all other ant farms on the market.

She drew Brennan into the conversation before long, when Parker told Dani that Brennan had also had an ant farm as a girl. While they were talking, Booth nodded toward the doorway.

"I'm just gonna head down to see Sweets – you can come down when you're ready," he said.

"I can come with you," she said quickly, starting to get her coat.

"Nah – stay here, teach the junior squints a thing or two." Something about the way he said it told her there was a reason he wanted her to remain behind. "I'm sure you guys'll be done before too much longer."

He was very sweet saying goodbye to Dani, giving her a quick hug and a paternal kiss on the forehead that, Brennan suspected based on the girl's rising color, was not viewed as at all paternal by Dani herself. Brennan watched him go, and then was immediately drawn into a conversation about entomology versus primatology and her own preferred areas of study. Ten minutes later, with Parker showing no sign that he would be finished with his visit in the immediate future, Brennan excused herself and went to find Booth.

It occurred to Brennan as she was rounding the corner on the floor below, bound for Sweets's room, that she had spent a great deal of time visiting sick friends in the past few days. She wasn't typically one for resolutions, but if it was at all possible, she resolved to spend much less time in hospitals in the year to come.

When she reached the room where Sweets was staying, she paused just outside the door –

which had been left ajar – at the sound of Booth's voice. He was shouting. Not shouting outright, perhaps, but she could hear the frustration in his tone. She was about to knock to announce her presence when she realized he was talking about her.

"If you knew something like this had happened to her, why the hell didn't you say something?" were his exact words, actually.

She stepped to the side of the door and stood against the wall outside, her head tilted in the direction of the conversation.

"Booth, I swear… I didn't know." Sweets sounded weak. This wasn't the type of conversation he should be having in his condition – even she knew that. Booth was usually more sensitive about such things. "I just… It was a feeling, that's all. She told me a little about some of the dreams she'd been having, and the combination of knowing what I do about her past, and the panic attacks…"

Silence fell. Brennan held her breath, waiting for them to continue.

"Is she okay?" Sweets finally asked.

She heard Booth's sigh all the way into the hallway. The weariness cut straight through her.

"What do you think, Sweets?" He lowered his voice, so that Brennan had to move slightly closer to hear him.

"It's like she's in it all over again, and I don't know what the hell to do about it. This is out of my league. I shouldn't even be talking to you about it – I don't know why the hell I'm here. It's just… If you'd seen her face, Sweets." Booth's voice broke. A second or two passed before he spoke again, his voice strong once more. "I don't know how to help her."

"She needs to speak to someone," the psychologist said.

Brennan felt herself tense at the mere mention of the subject. She realized that her heart was pounding, as though she'd just run up a flight of stairs. She felt nauseous. And tired. And, perhaps most of all, angry enough to beat someone bloody. Sweets seemed like the first likely victim.

"There's no way she's talking to you about this stuff, Sweets, believe me. She'll barely talk to me about it."

"Not me," Sweets said quickly. "She doesn't trust me enough for that – and I don't have the expertise for these types of issues, anyway. But I have a colleague who's dealt with this kind of trauma before…"

Brennan noticed that Sweets's voice was fading, his speech beginning to slur.

"Sorry, Sweets," Booth said, apparently having noticed the same thing. "Jesus, I know you're not exactly in shape to talk about this shit."

"Yeah, but… The fact that you're talking to me about it at all suggests that you're pretty desperate."

More silence. Booth started to tell Sweets that he would go and let him rest, and Brennan tried to steady herself enough to pretend she'd heard none of the conversation. Before any of that could happen, however, Sweets stopped him.

"Booth… I know this happened several years ago, so she – and possibly you – will be tempted to treat this as an old wound. Something that's already done a lot of the necessary healing…"

"You don't think that's true?" Booth asked.

A nurse was coming toward Brennan from down the hall. She was overweight, with a clipboard in one hand and a steely glint in her eye that Brennan suspected probably meant trouble for anyone in her path.

"These things don't resolve themselves in a few days, Booth," Sweets continued. His speech was so slurred now that it was difficult to understand him. "Rape victims can go months, even years, without being able to handle physical intimacy… She's in it now because it's the first time she's allowed herself to confront that trauma. This won't easy for either of you, but Brennan – "

The nurse reached Sweets's door and pushed her way inside with barely a glance at Brennan.

"I thought I said five minutes, and no stressing out my patient," the woman demanded of Booth, once she was inside the room.

Brennan brushed any residual tears from her eyes, squared her shoulders, and walked in to face her partner. She was angry when she came through the door, shaking with emotion. Sweets's physical condition, however, diffused much of her anger. The nurse was injecting what she suspected was a sedative of some kind, into the IV port in his left hand. He was paler than she had ever seen him. In the hospital bed, the psychologist looked thin and frail and both older and younger than she knew him to be. His eyes were already fluttering closed when she reached his side.

"Dr. Brennan," he said. "I'm glad you're here."

Booth looked at her guiltily and swiped tears from his eyes, trying to hide them from her.

"I'm sorry I couldn't get here sooner," she said. Her voice sounded cold to her ears.

"S'alright," Sweets slurred. "I wish I could…" He shook his head, obviously trying to clear it of the medication. "I don't think I can stay awake," he said.

Before she could respond, his eyes had drifted closed. The nurse was still working on him – checking his vitals, updating his chart, obviously waiting for them to leave.

"We should go," Booth said. "I have… We've still got some things to do this afternoon."

She nodded. She walked out ahead of him. He made no attempt to catch up to her.

Despite Brennan's insistence to the contrary, Booth refused to take them to pick up Dosha before he drove them back to her apartment. She was in a foul mood – tired and oversensitized, a sense of hopelessness having invaded after overhearing the conversation between Booth and Sweets. Her partner was exhausted by her; she could hear it in his voice. And who could blame him, really? It felt as though she'd brought nothing but unnecessary drama to his life from the time they'd first started dating.

She missed the lab and her old life, suddenly, very much.

To her relief, Parker kept up a running commentary through most of the trip back to her place. In order to placate Booth, she'd agreed to let him take them both up to the apartment briefly so that she could open her gift, before they went to lunch and returned to his apartment for the evening. She wasn't looking forward to any of it; in fact, through most of the ride she'd been trying to come up with a convincing excuse to get out of all the festivities and just be left behind.

By the time they took the elevator to her apartment, she wasn't in the best state of mind. To her surprise, however, Booth and Parker seemed to be rebounding quite nicely. Parker kept giggling the closer they got to the third floor. Something had taken hold of Booth, as well – as though even the darkness surrounding them at the moment wasn't enough to shut out the light of the season. The mood was undeniably contagious; it was difficult to remain too downtrodden with her two favorite Booths whispering to one another, casting sidelong – and wholly obvious – glances her way.

"I wish you'd just tell me what you've done," she finally said, as they stepped off the elevator.

"Whaddya mean, what we've done, Bones?" Booth asked innocently. He put his arm around her shoulder – gently, with trepidation, but she felt him relax when she didn't recoil.

"Yeah, Bones, whaddya mean?" Parker said, imitating his father's expression perfectly. He took her hand. The three of them walked the well-lit corridor together.

The closer she got, the more difficult she found it to remember her troubles. Despite everything, she felt a small quiver of anticipation. She liked the gift she'd gotten for Booth; she was looking forward to seeing him open it. And she loved the things she and Booth had picked out for Parker together, over a month ago – before any of this nightmare had started.

Once they reached her door, Parker tugged off his scarf and handed it to Booth. "You should blindfold her, Dad," he said. "This is worth a blindfold."

"Uh – that's all right, bub," Booth said smoothly. "Bones can just close her eyes. I trust her." She knew why Booth had elected against the blindfold, and was grateful – and equally grateful at how easily he seemed to skirt the issue.

"Okay," Parker said grudgingly. "But you have to close them tight, Bones. No peeking." He seemed more excited about whatever was behind the door than any of them.

She put her hands over her eyes, laughing now, because Parker was tugging on her and Booth was trying to get the door open, and this, she realized… This was the Christmas she had been missing all those years. This was her life. Whatever grim forecasts Sweets may have predicted, whatever difficulties may lie ahead, as long as she could still have moments like these – Booth on one side of her, Parker on the other, their home just past the threshold – then perhaps they could weather any other storms that might be on the horizon.

Once she was inside, she heard the door close softly behind her. Her apartment smelled like pine needles and freshly baked cookies, and she couldn't help but open her eyes when a cold nose touched her hand.

For a long moment once her eyes were open, Brennan found that she could only stand there in silence. The apartment had been transformed. Not repaired, exactly; there were still holes in the walls that would need to be patched, the television set was broken and two of her paintings had been removed as a result of the damage inflicted… But it was clean, and homey, and - most surprising of all - a beautifully decorated Christmas tree reaching nearly to the ceiling stood in the center of the living room, gifts stacked high beneath it.

"How did you…?" she asked Booth.

Parker was very happily getting acquainted with Dosha, the two of them excitedly exploring the gifts beneath the tree. Booth looked at her shyly, slipping his hand into hers.

"I know Christmas is rough for you, Bones," he said. "So, I figured… Maybe I can let you have the 25th to remember what you lost, if you feel like you need it. But then maybe we can have a different day that's just ours, to celebrate what we do have."

She wrapped her arms around him and held on tightly, so close that it felt suffocating and fierce and yet she refused to let go, refused to put anymore distance between them.

"We have a lot, Bones," Booth said in her ear, his arms still tight around her. "We have a whole hell of a lot more than most."

They stood that way for a few seconds, holding one another beneath the shadow of the tree. It felt good to lean into him this way, to feel him strong and unshakable by her side. Before long, however, she looked up to find Parker looking at them with unmistakable disdain.

"Look at all the stuff under the tree – you guys can hug anytime. I wanna see what you got me."

"Not so fast, bub," Booth said. He disentangled himself from Bones, still holding her hand as he punched numbers into his cell phone. "We've gotta feed the decorating committee first."

Within half an hour, the apartment was filled with their friends, who, Brennan learned, had spent the past two days cleaning, cooking, and decorating in anticipation of their return.

"So you've known about this since we left, and you never said anything?" she accused Booth later that evening.

They were gathered in the living room – Cam and Tripp seated by the tree and Angela and Hodgins on the sofa. Brennan was in an armchair with Booth seated on the floor in front of her, his hand resting casually at the back of her ankle. The interns had all gone home, leaving the six of them chatting amiably, surrounded by discarded wrapping paper and opened gifts.

Booth grinned. "Hey – I know how to keep a secret, what can I say? All I know is, you dodged one hell of a cleaning bill this way."

"Oh, it was totally worth it," Angela interjected. Hodgins had an overflowing plate of food balanced on his lap, of which Angela seemed to be enjoying the majority. "How else am I ever gonna actually be sanctioned to look through Booth's drawers?"

Booth's eyebrows shot toward his hairline. "Hey – That wasn't part of the deal. I just told you to put up garland and colored lights, I never said anything about…"

"I'm pretty sure she's kidding, Seeley," Cam said coolly.

Booth blushed. "Yeah. Sure she is."

Brennan didn't miss the subtle smile on Angela's face. And knowing her best friend as she did, she was willing to bet the artist had, in fact, gone through Booth's things without a moment of guilt. She decided it was probably best not to tell that to Booth, however.

"All I know is, I'm glad you didn't have to stay out west any longer," Angela said, after a moment's silence. "Knowing you were back on that mountain headed toward that psycho's cabin… I don't care if he is dead, it still gave me the heebie jeebies."

Parker looked up. He was on the floor with Dosha, apparently teaching her to lie down – with a surprising degree of success. "Who's dead?"

"Nice, Angela," Booth muttered. "Nobody, bub. Just work stuff."

"It's not like you can't talk about that stuff in front of me anymore, Dad," Parker said. "I've seen dead guys before. I've seen a ton of bodies in Bones's lab. And that guy who saved Dani the other day…" He stopped abruptly, a shadow cast over his young face. No longer addressing the rest of the group, Parker turned his attention back to Dosha. "I've seen stuff," he said quietly to the dog.

The room fell silent for a moment. Brennan could tell that Booth's attention was now fixed on his son – she could feel the tension in his body, watched the way he studied Parker, who was now fully focused on Dosha.

Hodgins cleared his throat. "Well, hey… I hate to break up the party, but we should probably head home. If the little woman stays up later than eight these days, the baby gets cranky." He grinned. "And by baby, I mean Angie."

"Oh – you did not just call me the little woman." Angela said.

She got up with ease, her swelling stomach still not significant enough to slow her movement. When Hodgins held out his hand so that she could help him up, she rolled her eyes dramatically and turned her back on him.

"Jack's right, I really should get going. Cam, Tripp, you mind if I catch a ride with you guys?"

Cam glanced uneasily at Tripp. "Uh… Sure. I guess. Always room for one more."

Hodgins's eyes widened. "What? Angie… I was kidding. C'mon. You know I totally respect…"

Angela turned and looked at the scientist. A single raised eyebrow was all it took for him to sigh with a combination of relief and consternation.

"Kidding. You're kidding," he said.

"This time," she said. "Trust me, call me little woman again and you'll find out just how serious I can get."

Booth and Brennan stood and walked their guests to the door. When they were out of hearing range of Parker, Tripp nodded toward the little boy, looking inquiringly from Booth to Brennan.

"You think he's okay?" he asked.

Booth grew somber. "I don't know. They've got kids' books about everything from taking a crap to having two moms, but I haven't seen anything about how to handle a guy blowing up all over your first girlfriend."

Angela hugged Booth, then Brennan. "He'll be okay – he's got great people in his life. Just talk to him."

"It's a helluva time for Sweets to have to almost die," Booth griped. "I've finally got shit I could use him for, and he's gotta get shot."

"Yeah," Cam said dryly. "Some people are so inconsiderate."

Tripp hugged Brennan and dropped a kiss at her temple, pausing to offer quietly, "If you guys need anything, you know where to find us."

She met his eye and smiled appreciatively. Booth's words in front of the diner years ago came back to her: There are all kinds of families, Bones. Her father was god knew where, Russ was with Amy and the girls… But she truly did have a family of a sort here. And she was grateful for that.

"I know," she said to Tripp. "Thank you."

Once everyone had been ushered out, she and Booth stood at the door of the suddenly-quiet apartment for a few moments. She'd noticed over the course of the evening that Booth was not initiating contact with her, though he seemed grateful when she did so. It felt awkward in a way, particularly as it was so unlike him, but she appreciated that he was trying to give her the space that she needed. She went to him and wrapped her arms around his waist, laying her head against his chest. Tentatively, he returned the embrace.

"Are you ready for your present now?" she murmured into his chest.

A few days ago, she knew that such a question would have been followed by some type of sexual innuendo. That knowledge made the silence that ensued that much more awkward.

"You didn't have to get me anything, Bones," he finally protested. "I've got everything I want."

"Of course I got you something," she said. She kissed him quickly on the mouth, but moved away before he could reciprocate.

Parker looked up when they returned to the living room. By mutual agreement, they had saved the gifts meant for the three of them until after everyone else had gone. Now, the little boy brightened considerably when Booth pulled three large packages from the hall closet.

"Can I go first?" Parker asked as soon as the gifts were out.

Booth looked at Brennan, who nodded readily. "Go for it."

Booth and Brennan sat on the sofa together, with Parker on the floor and Dosha lying with her head in his lap, as though she couldn't quite bear to be separated from the boy. The first gift was from Booth – a new pair of hockey skates, as Parker had had another growth spurt over the past year and had outgrown his latest pair.

"No more growing for at least two years, Parks – I mean it," Booth said.

Parker rolled his eyes. "Right, Dad. I'll do my best. These are awesome, thanks." He lost interest quickly, turning to Brennan with a grin. "It's your turn next, Bones. You can open mine first."

She glanced at Booth, who nodded his affirmation. Parker handed her a surprisingly weighty square box, and then perched beside her on the couch, watching eagerly as she opened it. Inside, buried in a flurry of tissue paper, she found a homemade, misshapen mud gray coffee mug with a message written in sloping red letters all the way around it.

She studied it for a moment, trying to decipher the words.

"World's Best Fornes?" she asked.

"Bones," Parker said. "World's Best Bones." He looked sheepish. "I was gonna write 'World's Best Forensic Anthropologist'… But after the first three letters, I knew I'd run out of room. So… I turned it into Bones. See," he pointed at the first letter. "There's a line there – it's a B. Sort of."

It was without question the ugliest mug she had ever seen in her life. And she'd never gotten anything that moved her more.

"Thank you," she said, hoping to inject a fraction of her emotion into the words. "I love it. I'll take it to work with me, and use it everyday."

"I don't think you should drink out of it," he said, looking alarmed. "It probably leaks, or you'll get poisoned or something. It's more to look at."

"I could put my pens in it, then," she said immediately. "I'll keep it on my desk – I'll never move it. Unless I have to clean, of course."

The boy smiled at her shyly. "You really like it?"

"I love it. It's the best gift I've ever gotten." Despite the many fine gifts she'd gotten over the years, Brennan firmly believed that she was speaking the truth.

It was Booth's turn next. Before he could pick up his present from Parker, the boy pushed it out of the way and grabbed the large box that held Brennan's gift to him. Or rather, he tried to grab the large box Brennan had gotten his father.

"Jeez, Bones, did you get Dad a sack of bricks for Christmas?" Parker asked.

Booth looked at her curiously. "You didn't have to get me anything, Bones. I mean… Not anything expensive, anyway."

"It wasn't expensive," she said. "Just open it."

He gave her one last disapproving glance, before he dove in and unwrapped the large package. Once he'd removed the paper and opened the box, he sat back. He bit his lip and scratched his head, his brow furrowed. Parker peered over the edge of the box, repeating his father's gestures and expression almost exactly.

"Huh," Parker said. "You did get Dad a sack of bricks for Christmas."

"Thanks, Bones," Booth said. "This'll be great for that wall I… never really planned to build."

"Those are from my childhood home," she explained. "I went there last weekend, while you and I were apart. It had been torn down, but these were still on the property. I began thinking of how much I'd loved that house, and I realized that if I was going to build a house of my own with someone one day…" She paused for a moment, trying to figure out how best to phrase what she wanted to say.

"You wanted a solid foundation," Booth completed for her. "One with some history."

She bit her lip, feeling rather self-conscious about the gift now. She should have gone with season passes to some sporting event or other, though Angela had assured her this would be more meaningful to Booth.

"I could get you something else," she said quickly. "I just… When I started thinking of us building a house together, I began to get…" She sighed. She was doing this all wrong. "There's something else in there, actually. You just have to move a few bricks."

"It's not a puppy, is it?" Booth asked. "'Cause if so, you probably should've used a different box."

Parker giggled. Brennan merely rolled her eyes. "Just look."

Booth carefully removed three of the bricks before she heard paper crinkling. She saw his brow furrow as he took out three sheets of copy paper, wrinkled and dirty from being under the old bricks.

"These are…"

"Plots of land," Brennan supplied. "I didn't purchase them, of course. But that weekend when we were apart, I began to look around online. Which was absurd, because I didn't even know if we'd get back together, but… I couldn't help myself. And I know you'll want to weigh in on them, but I just wanted you to see that…" She took a breath. "This is what I want, too," she said. "I'd like us to build a house. I'd like us to… have a life. Together."

Booth was beaming as though she'd given him a new car. Parker, however, was unimpressed.

"Seriously? You got him bricks and a bunch of paper?" He shook his head. "An ant farm would've been a lot better."

Booth shook his head, his eyes glistening. "Sorry, Parks – I'd rather have this than a bunch of bugs any day of the week. Hell, I'd rather have this than a pot of gold."

He seemed uncertain as to whether or not he should hug her, so Brennan made the decision for him. She leaned in and wrapped her arms around Booth's waist, and he held her close while they watched Parker open the remainder of his gifts – a genuine Jeffersonian lab coat with his name monogrammed on the pocket from Brennan, and a new snowboard that Booth and Brennan had purchased together.

When he was finished, Parker looked at Booth eagerly. "Now Bones should open the present you got her," he said. There was a sparkle in his eye that made Brennan distinctly uneasy.

Booth scratched his neck. "Maybe we should open my present first," he said. He looked at Parker. "That one you keep pushin' to the back of the tree? How about we start with that?"

Brennan had been curious about that herself. "That's fine – open that," she agreed.

Parker didn't look nearly so enthusiastic. In fact, he looked unmistakably… terrified.

"It isn't a very good present," he said before Booth could take the box from him. "Let me take it back, and I'll get something else. I could get something a lot better."

"What're you talking about, Parks?" Booth asked. A trace of concern was beginning to show in his eyes. "You know I'm gonna love whatever you get me. Now fork it over, huh?"

With great reluctance, the boy handed the package to his father. It was approximately the size of a shoe box, wrapped in lime green paper with a purple bow.

"Mom said it was a good idea," Parker said defensively, as Booth removed the last of the paper.

He stared at the box for a few seconds in silence. Brennan sat beside him, her hand on his knee, the darkened apartment lit by Christmas lights and candles. Booth had put Bing Crosby on a short time earlier; the old crooner sang Merry Little Christmas in the background, as Booth ran a shaking hand over the carved wooden box in his lap.

"Where'd you get this, Parker?" he asked, his voice suddenly serious.

Parker shifted, his eyes on the floor, his hands tangled in Dosha's fur.

"I called that guy – Mr. Hyte, from your old house?"

Booth looked at him. Something had hardened in his eyes, all of the tension that had dissipated over the course of the day suddenly returned.

"Why would you do that, Parker? I told you I didn't want anything to do with that place."

The boy's eyes filled with tears that he tried in vain to hide, his head ducked down and his gaze locked on the dog beside him.

"I just wanted to know… I wanted to ask him some stuff. There are all these questions that everybody else my age knows, and I know all about mom's side of the family, but I can't ask you anything." The words were coming out in a torrent now, as though he'd been holding on to them too long. "I don't even know what happened to your mom and dad – I don't even know if they're alive or dead. And I thought maybe since Mr. Hyte lived there, he might know."

Booth let out a long, slow breath. He set the box on the sofa between he and Brennan, and then reached for Parker.

"Come on up here, bub." Parker did as he was told, settling beside his father on the edge of the couch. "Mr. Hyte moved there long after we moved out, Parks. There was no way he would've known anything about my folks."

Parker nodded, his gaze still fixed on the floor. "I know – that's what he said. But then he said he found this, so I thought…" He finally looked up, his dark eyes pleading for Booth to understand. "I didn't open it up, but I saw the cover and I thought… No matter what went wrong between you and me, if something happened and we weren't together anymore, I'd want that box."

Brennan looked at the words carved crudely into the front of the wooden box.




OCT 19, 1980

She touched his hand gently. "This was at the house when you moved?" she asked.

He didn't say anything, his attention focused entirely on the box between them.

"Parker," she said. Parker looked at her curiously, almost as though he'd forgotten she was in the room. "Your father and I have this new game we were going to start playing – called Truth."

The boy looked intrigued. "Like Truth or Dare, you mean?"

"No – there's no dare. You just have to tell the truth. You ask the person a question, and they have to answer honestly. And then they ask you a question, and you have to answer honestly. Would you like to give it a try?"

It was as if Booth was no longer part of the conversation, still locked in some piece of his past that he couldn't seem to let go of. After a moment of thought, Parker nodded.

"Yeah. Okay. What do we do?"

She considered the question. "I suppose you could ask me something, if you'd like."

"Anything I want?"

It seemed a dangerous proposition, but she nodded with only a moment's hesitation. "Anything you want."

He thought for a very long time. When the question finally came, it wasn't anything like what she'd expected. He sat back down on the floor, cross-legged, stroking Dosha's head gently.

"Those guys that killed that man… The ones who tried to kill me and Dani, and Dr. Sweets and Dad…"

She nodded, already feeling as if she was out of her depth. "Yes. What about them?"

"Why did they do it? What could be so bad that it'd make somebody want to kill a whole bunch of kids, and blow up a huge building like the Hoover? How could anybody do that?"

She looked at Booth pleadingly. At the question, he seemed to come to. He got down on the floor beside Parker and pulled the boy – so much bigger than he'd been when Brennan had first met him, already bearing the weight of things she wished he never had to know – into his lap.

"They lost people they loved, Parker," Booth said. "And sometimes when that happens, people look for somebody to blame. They decide that somebody has to pay, because they think that's the only way they'll ever feel better."

Parker leaned back against his father, his head fitted just under Booth's chin the way she remembered him resting as a little boy.

"It must be awful to feel that way," he said thoughtfully.

Booth nodded. He dropped a kiss on the top of Parker's head. "Yeah, bub. I think it probably is." He looked over his shoulder at Brennan, still seated alone on the sofa.

"C'mon, Bones. Get over here. And bring that box, wouldja?"

The three of them sat in a circle on the floor, the box set in the middle. Brennan looked at Booth expectantly. He was obviously still feeling uncomfortable about what they would find, but was doing his best to keep the moment light.

"So, you think I should open it, Parks?" he asked.

"Yeah," Parker agreed. "You don't know what we could find in there – there might be treasure, Dad. We could be billionaires."

Though Brennan thought this an extreme statistical improbability, she refrained from saying anything. At last, Booth opened the box.

He took out the items one by one, laying them side by side on the carpet.

A doll in a red jumpsuit with a black eye. "The Bionic Man," Booth said, as though he'd just uncovered a Hindu relic. "You know who this guy is, Parks?"

Parker looked at him cluelessly. Booth looked at Brennan.

"C'mon, Bones… You're not all that much younger than me. You've gotta know who this is."

She shook her head. "Why did you have a doll with a black eye?"

Parker snickered. Booth sighed. "He wasn't a doll, Bones – he was an action figure. And he didn't have a black eye… It was bionic. That's it, the next thing we're renting is The Six Million Dollar Man."

Parker peered into the box and picked out a harmonica. Booth palmed it, blowing into it and producing a surprisingly accurate rendition of Yankee Doodle.

"This was your grandmother's," Booth said to Parker. He handed it to the boy. "She said since we couldn't fit her piano in there, this was the next best thing."

"This belonged to your mom?" Parker said. "She used to play this?"

"All the time," Booth said. "She'd tuck your Uncle Jared and me in when she could, and she'd play us something on this. She was good, too."

Parker gazed at it in wonder before he returned his attention to the box. He stared at the next item he withdrew in complete bafflement. Booth laughed.

"It's an eight-track," he explained. "My old man was the last guy in the neighborhood to have an eight-track player in our car. He loved the thing. This was one of his favorites."

Brennan noted the title – The Band, Last Waltz.

"Leonard Cohen," she said. Booth looked at her in surprise. "I like Leonard Cohen," she explained. "My parents loved The Band when I was growing up."

Parker was already diving into the rest of the box, oblivious. He looked puzzled when he came out with one item in particular, setting down a glass bottle half-filled with dark liquid. The question was plain in his eyes.

"Wild Turkey," Booth said. "It was my dad's favorite." He scratched his neck. "The weekend we buried this, your granddad had stopped drinking. He wanted us to celebrate… This was what we came up with. We spent all weekend putting the box together, and we all carved our names on the front there. We took the last of the booze from the house and emptied everything out."

Booth palmed the bottle, staring at the label. "This was the last of it. I was about to dump it when your granddad took it. He said we should keep it – to prove he was really done, instead of dumping it we'd bury it with everything else. 'That part of our lives is dead and buried now.' That's what he said," Booth said quietly. He set the bottle back down again.

"And was it?" Parker asked.

Booth shook his head. He looked at Parker. Brennan suspected the last thing he wanted to do was answer the question, but she was proud of him when he maintained eye contact with his son.

"No. The night after we buried it, I went out and dug it up and buried it someplace else. Just in case. It was a good thing, too… About a week later, I woke up at about two in the morning and he was out in the yard. Trying to find it."

Based on the look on Booth's face, Brennan suspected the story didn't end there. Parker had grown somber again. Booth poked him in the ribs with a smile.

"C'mon, bub, don't stop now. We're just getting started. Keep diggin' – I'm pretty sure Uncle Jar's got some good stuff in there."

Sure enough, there were more treasures to be found. Baseball cards; a signed photo from two brothers Brennan had never heard of, pictured hanging out of an orange car with a Confederate flag on the roof; another signed photo of the same car, this time with a long-legged woman in impractically short cutoff jeans, hanging out the window. There was a toy gun, a worn baseball, and a tattered copy of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette lining the bottom of the box. After Parker had removed it, he gazed into the box with his brow furrowed in confusion.

"That's it, right Parks?" Booth asked.

"Nope – one more thing. I guess you must've forgot." He took out a cracked and faded leather belt. "And there's a note," Parker said.

He handed them both to Booth, who had paled visibly.


He nodded. "Yeah… No, I just… Uh, I didn't know this was in here."

"What's the note say?" Parker asked. He seemed to sense the change in atmosphere, his tone more cautious than it had been.

Booth hesitated only a moment before he unfolded the crumpled note. When he didn't say anything, Parker looked over his shoulder.

" 'God Forgive Me,'" Parker read. "Why would you write that?" he asked. His voice sounded shaken. "And why'd you put it with your old belt?"

"It wasn't my belt, Parks," Booth said. "It was my dad's. And so was the note."

"Oh," Parker said.

Brennan could tell that Parker didn't understand the implications of the leather belt and the note, and for this she was grateful. She gently took them both from Booth, piling it and the rest of the items back into the old wooden box and sealing it shut.

The music had stopped some time ago. The apartment felt still and somber and oppressive. Brennan got up impulsively, grabbing Booth and Parker's hands and pulling them with her.

"Come on," she said.

"What?" Booth asked. "Come on where? It's almost ten o'clock – way past somebody's bedtime."

"It's our Christmas," Brennan protested. "Get dressed. We have to take Dosha out anyway – let's go for a walk around the block. We can look at the lights."

Parker didn't need to be asked twice – perhaps grateful for a reprieve from the intensity of the day, or perhaps merely because he was anxious for an adventure, he was already diving into the closet for his jacket and boots.

"C'mon, Dad. It'll be fun."

Booth grudgingly got himself dressed, and before long they were outside in the streets of D.C. Parker had insisted on taking Dosha's leash himself, though there was some confusion as to who was walking whom. A light snow was falling, Christmas lights reflected off the wet pavement as she and Booth walked down the street hand in hand.

"You still haven't given me your gift," Brennan said, when Parker was farther ahead.

A moment of uncertainty crossed Booth's face, but vanished quickly. "I know. When we get back. I'd rather wait 'til it's just you and me."

She looked at him curiously, but decided not to pry. "Parker couldn't have known the implications of giving you that box," she said instead.

"I know. But, y'know, I'm glad he did. It's better to talk about it than keep everything bottled up – I never realized how much worse it's been for Parker, me not talking about this stuff."

Brennan shivered involuntarily at a particularly gusty wind that swept down the street. Booth put his arm around her without thinking, then hesitated when he realized what he'd done. He looked at her, a question in his eyes.

"It's all right, Booth," she said.

He studied her for a few seconds. "It's not, you know." He looked down at the ground, his arm still around her as they walked. "No matter how much we both wish it was… You can't take back what happened to you. It's not gonna just go away this time, Bones."

She leaned her head against his shoulder. "I know that," she said quietly.

"We'll get through it, though, Bones," he continued. "And you'll be stronger for it – we'll be stronger for it, if you just stick with us. It might take a little time is all."

"And that's all right?" she asked. She disliked how much seemed to be riding on his answer.

"And that's just fine, baby," he said. He twisted his neck and kissed her temple, never breaking their stride. "Take all the time you need. I'm not goin' anywhere."

That night, after Parker and Dosha were sleeping contentedly in the spare room and the dishes were done and the tree unplugged and the apartment once more in some semblance of order, Brennan fell into bed in exhaustion. Booth came out of the bathroom still brushing his teeth, wearing only his boxer shorts. He hesitated when he saw her beneath the blankets.

"I could sleep on the couch, if you want…" he said.

She shook her head. "Please don't."

He padded back into the bathroom. She heard him spit and rinse into the sink and then finish his bathroom rituals before he came out again a few minutes later. He looked almost shy as he approached the bed.

"You're sure you'll be okay?"

Her chest was already tightening. Rather than pretending she was fine, she shook her head. "I'm not. Sure, I mean."

"But you want me to sleep here anyway?"

"We won't figure this out if we run from it," she said. "This has never happened to me before – I have no way of knowing what will trigger it, so I have no way to form a sound hypothesis. A good scientist must use a certain degree of trial and error, before ultimately forming a theory that can then be either proven or disproven."

Despite the gravity of the situation, Booth laughed. He sat down on the edge of the bed.

"So… That means you do want me to sleep here, right?"

She reached for his hand and pulled him toward her. "That means I want you to sleep here."

He got under the covers, lying tensed on the other side of the bed until she inched closer to him. She moved his arm as though he were a mannequin, posing him the way that she wanted him and then settling herself with her head on his shoulder. He turned to face her. They lay beneath the blankets, his forehead tipped to hers. Brennan was acutely aware of every point of contact between them. Bones to bones – metatarsus to metatarsus, patella to patella, her pelvis against his, his hand at her ribcage. She felt her heart beat more rapidly; she waited expectantly for the flood of chemicals that signaled arousal.

They did not come.

"You never gave me my Christmas gift," she said, after a few seconds of silence.

He nodded, his head bumping very lightly against hers. "I know," he said.

"Are you going to?"

He hesitated. "I'm not sure it's the right time."

"Oh." Another silence. She sighed. "Is it a horse?"

He laughed. It felt good to her – his body moving against her that way, the lightness of the moment.

"Why the hell would it be a horse, Bones?"

"I don't know." She shrugged. "It definitely wouldn't be the right time for a horse."

More laughter, this time from both of them. "Well, you can relax, 'cause it's not a horse," he said.

When the laughter had faded, they lay there in the silence for a few moments. Booth's hand moved lightly along her side.

"I love your laugh," she said, after some time had passed. "After your eyes, it's the first thing I loved about you. Though I was always partial to your body, of course."

It was true. She couldn't remember a time, even in those early days when he was driving her crazy, that she hadn't been attracted to him physically.

"I don't remember what I loved about you first," he said. "I don't even remember falling in love with you… It's like it was just always there. I met you, we fought, we worked together, you knocked a guy unconscious, we kissed in the rain, you slapped me so hard I saw stars… And then you were gone, and I couldn't get you out of my head."

"But then you must have gotten me out of your head, because you dated other people. We both dated other people."

"'Cause we were friends, Bones. And the last time I tried anything, you left me standing in the rain and almost knocked my teeth in a couple days later."

"And now here we are," she said.

He nodded thoughtfully. "And now here we are."

She tilted her head up and was just about to touch her mouth to his when he spoke.

"I bought you a ring," he said.

She moved away from him. "What do you mean?" she asked. "Like a…"

"An engagement ring," he said. "It's in my coat pocket. It's been in my dresser drawer for a while now." His voice was quiet, a touch uneasy. "It was a stupid thing to do – I know how you feel about marriage."

"If you'll remember, you also thought you knew how I felt about having children."

He stopped. Moving, breathing, speaking. "What?" he asked uncertainly.

"I'm simply saying… People's views of the world evolve."

"So you're saying your view of marriage…?"

She ran a hand through his hair, studying the planes of his face in the shadows. When she kissed his mouth, he tasted like toothpaste. His lips were soft. Familiar, comforting. Tender enough to be heart crushing.

"When I was staying with Angela, we talked," she said. "I told her what I'd been thinking lately… About having a child with you."

"And Angela said we should get married before we have a kid?" he asked. Based on his tone, she was guessing he thought this an unlikely scenario.

"Not for the moral implications. But because of Parker." He didn't say anything. "Angela says it would be difficult for you to be in another situation with someone who wanted to have your child, but refused to marry you."

"So, if I gave you a ring right now and asked you to marry me…"

She hesitated. It seemed as though a great deal was riding on the moment. "I wouldn't say no."

A second passed. "Would you say yes?"

She shifted her body and pressed her mouth to his. He hesitated. She did not. She reached her arm around his broad back, pulling him closer. She could feel him, already hard, pressed against her center. Pressure was building in her chest and in her head. She draped her leg over his hip and pressed herself against him, deepening the kiss despite the fact that it was becoming progressively more difficult to breathe.

Booth was the one to pull back. "Temperance," he whispered.

She didn't answer. Her head felt heavy, her breathing labored.

"Slow down, babe," he said. "It'll happen."

"How do you know that? Nothing about this makes sense… I was fine before, and now suddenly we have one conversation on a mountaintop in Washington and it feels as though something is missing, as though my body has been rewired in some way."

"Nothing's been rewired, Bones. Nothing's missing. But you're not gonna be able to just push through this, or stuff it in some corner of that big brain of yours while you go on with life like it never happened. Things will be hard for a while. I told you… We'll get through it."

"I don't even know why you'd want to marry me – I'm a mess," she said dryly. "I want to have your child but I panic every time you touch me… I think the institution of marriage is archaic and demeaning toward women, and yet the thought of you and I, bound by something that has weight and tradition behind it is…"

"Is what, Bones?" he asked.

He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, his eyes searching hers. The world seemed very quiet, suddenly. She felt the beat of his heart beneath her hand, the steady flow of blood through his strong, warm, vibrant body. She imagined them growing old. Statistically, it was probable that he would die before she would… What would it be like, losing him after a lifetime of moments like this? How did anyone face that?

"The world is a very precarious place," she said carefully.

"Yeah. It is," he said. She liked that he didn't try to refute the statement.

"There are no guarantees," she continued. "Even if we were married, a thousand scenarios could unfold and split us apart. There are natural disasters, murderers, car accidents, plane crashes."

He smiled. Without fear, without hesitation. He pulled back so that he could look her in the eye.

"Tornadoes," he said. "Earthquakes, fires, floods…"

"Those were implicit with the natural disasters, actually. I'm simply saying that a wedding ring doesn't guarantee anything. Anthropologically speaking, males are biologically programmed with an urge to reproduce. After I'm no longer able to conceive, it's entirely possible that you could – "

"Bones, stop," he said, his voice still surprisingly light.

Before she could respond, he sprang out of bed and went into the bathroom. When he returned, still in his boxer shorts, one hand was behind his back. Brennan sat up in bed.


He knelt on one knee beside the bed, and presented her with a velvet box. She had no idea what to say.

"You make me nuts, Bones. You've always made me nuts – the way you correct everything I say, the way you don't know normal human stuff like that there are field goals in football or who Marsha Brady was, or how you hog all the blankets and help yourself to my fries 'til I only have three left, and then get pissed when I take one of yours."

She straightened in the bed, pulling the blanket around herself. "That only happened once."

"It happens all the time." He shrugged. "And I don't care. Maybe I'm crazy, but the fact is, I love it. I love everything about you – especially the things that make me nuts. But the thing I love best about you, Temperance, is that you're brave, and you're honest, and you make me want to be a better man. That's not gonna change in a year, or ten years, or fifty years. I can't make any promises about floods or car crashes or giant asteroids."

He straightened, his knee cracking as he did so, and sat down on the bed beside her. He opened the velvet box and held it out for her to see.

"I can promise you that the way I feel about you won't change, though – not in sixteen lifetimes. So, how 'bout it, Bones?" He bumped her shoulder with his, giving her that grin she'd tried so hard to resist when they'd just started out. "Will you marry me?"

She took the box from him. Her knees were folded up to her chest, the blanket tangled between them. The room was dimly lit, the apartment quiet. It was remarkably easy to breathe, considering the weight of the moment.

"It's beautiful," she said of the ring. Booth didn't say anything. There were so many reasons this was not a good idea.

"I don't want to change my name," she said.

"Yeah, there's a shocker."

"And I don't want a large wedding."

"No problem, Bones," he said. The trepidation had left his eyes, a faint glimmer of hope in its place. "I hate big weddings."

"And I'd like to wait – just a little while," she said, more seriously. "Just until I feel like myself again."

He took her hand and nodded, equally serious. "That sounds fair."

She eyed the ring. "Can I still wear it, though? Even though we aren't setting a date right away?"

He grinned so widely she could see nearly every one of his white teeth, even those in the back. "Yeah. Yeah, if you want to, of course you can wear the ring. I mean… It's an engagement ring. There's no rules about setting a date first."

She held out her hand. It was difficult to tell which of the two of them was shaking more as Booth slipped the ring onto her finger. She held it up to the light, not at all certain of what she was supposed to be looking for.

"I made sure it wasn't one of those blood diamonds," he said quickly. "It was a little harder to swing, but I knew you wouldn't want something like that."

For some reason, it was that statement that moved her more than anything else about the entire night. She lay down, pulling him with her so that they were once more side by side. The ring felt odd on her finger. She studied it, her hand resting on Booth's broad chest. He kissed her forehead.

"We should get some sleep," he said. "It's been a long day."

He rolled over and turned off the bedside light, then returned to her. She thought of the way they would have celebrated something like this, just a few days ago; of what it was like to feel his body moving with hers, the paradox of all of that physical power coupled with a tenderness she'd never felt from anyone before Booth. Even as she tried to push herself to take action, she felt her body tense.

Booth felt it, too. "Sleep, Bones," he said. "Everything else'll come in time."

He waited for her to find a comfortable position, then relaxed with his arms wrapped loosely around her.

"Thank you," she said into his chest, just as they were falling to sleep.

"Don't thank me, Bones," he said. His voice was soft in her ear. "You're the one who saved me, a hundred times over. I'm just grateful you keep me along for the ride."

A few minutes later, she was in that peaceful, heavy state just before sleep when something brought her back to wakefulness. She furrowed her brow.

"I don't hog all the blankets," she said, Booth's earlier statement finally registering. "And I know who Marsha Brady is."

He chuckled. "Go to sleep, Bones."

She closed her eyes once more, listening to the reassuring sound of his heart. With sleep, she knew, would come dreams she didn't want to have; moments she didn't want to relive. Secure in a warm bed in a warm apartment with a family she'd never imagined she would have, wrapped securely in Booth's embrace, she let herself drift. If this was what she awoke to, she could handle whatever monsters awaited her in her dreams.

She slept.


I would be remiss if I didn't thank just a few people who have provided not only incredible encouragement in this writing quest of mine - both in the world of fanfic and RL writerliness - but have also become great friends along the way. Between Twitter, LJ, Facebook, and , everybody has about a thousand different usernames, so it can occasionally be hard to tell who anyone is at any given time, so I'm just gonna go with LJ names... For no other reason than those are the ones I remember best.

Amilyn, ladychi, trust_your_hart, labsquint, temper_temper, cupcakebean, jillianfish, spacekid77, huronia, ama_blue, lizook12... Wow, is it bad if I list my entire list of LJ friends? Anyway, you get the point. Both friends I've made on Livejournal and those I've met here have been so supportive and kind, and I'm grateful for everyone's patience and encouragement along the way. Thank you to everyone who has read and commented and taken an interest in this little world we've created!

One more thing, then I promise I'll let y'all go. If you're on Livejournal, mosey over and say hello at bloodwrites dot livejournal dot com - it's been a great way to meet people, and I'm hoping to be on LJ much more frequently in the coming months. In addition, I'm still working on building this whole RL writing career, so if you're on Twitter looking for a friend, by all means, follow! You can find me at twitter dot com/jenblood. And, last but not least, check out my RL website for the latest on some of the writing stuff happening in my world these days, at jenniferblood dot net. I'm doing a new e-zine available for download beginning June 1st, called Maine Mined, and I'll be updating folks via Livejournal about some cool perks for those ff fans who are willing to drop $.99 for original fiction, author interviews, and an in-depth profile of a different Maine animal rescue or animal welfare organization each issue. $.25 per download will be donated directly to the feature animal welfare organization, so the more support I can get, the better. I promise it'll totally be worth that $1!

All right... End of plug. Thank you again to everyone for reading, and I can't wait to return again in May with the sequel to Murder in the Marriage!

All the best,