Disclaimer: I don't own Bones, never have, never will. This is strictly for fun.


Tick, Tick, Tick

There was only a single memory that stayed strong.

Flying arrogantly in the face of the dragging passage of time, of brain tumors and busy lives, of unrequited love and of slowly cracking minds and everything in between… hell is the only thing that remains firm inside the soul. It is the only memory that cannot ever seem to fade.

And he remembered quickly what he'd never really forgotten.

That thick, wet pulsation of dry, baking air and the sticky moisture that seeped from every pore in retaliation, an inadequately adapted human body weeping for mercy where there was none to be found. It was the cruel juxtaposition of the desert, where wet met dry in the doomed battle for reconciliation and dominance, and it only served to reinforce the hopelessness of the hell in which he was stuck… with the word forever ghosting tauntingly up the back of his throat.

Screaming to be released.

But then again… around there… everything tasted like a bitten back scream, like a dam desperate but unable to burst beyond that first slivering crack, tight and pinching in his pretzeling belly like the seamless pain of an orgasm caught on the brink of release and unable to just let go… and not really knowing how…

It was so hard to know what anything meant anymore.

Everything about him felt dry, gritty, like the sand was now fused to his skin so profusely that he'd never be fully rid of it, cemented like a lacquered coating over his flesh as it coagulated with the heavy beads of sweat that he could feel dampening his entire body beneath the many layers of gear he wore. He was heavy, his recent time in the desert sun leaving him feeling worn, wrung out and on the verge of tearing like a piece of saturated paper; too heavy and pulling dangerously against the seams.

The desert digital-checkered camouflage that he wore felt annoyingly familiar, loosely fitted and heavy as he plucked and fidgeted with the coarse material that covered his arms. He could feel the t-shirt that was underneath his jacket sticking to his torso and bunching under his arms when he moved them, much like the boxers that he could feel plastered to his thighs by the sweat he was steeped in.

He couldn't help but wonder why it all seemed so familiar and different all at once, why it felt like it was just yesterday that this had been his whole purpose and his only way out of a life he couldn't stomach anymore, the waiting, the uniformity, the brotherhood… the hunt, so very different from what he did for the F.B.I. now that his civilian job consisted of a different sort of justice. A kinder sort of justice.

Retribution.

Assassination.

She has never seen a dead body. He was in the army and has seen too many.

Booth swallowed hard and wondered what it meant that, even inside her fiction, he just couldn't escape being the kind of man that he seemed fated to be no matter how many times he tried to step back to what he thought was a new beginning. Maybe there wasn't really such a thing as a fresh start; maybe it was still just circling the drain after all, taking breaths whenever you chanced to break through above the surf.

Maybe there was no way to change the end, to change anything.

Maybe it was done.

Okay, then, let's go for a different outcome here…

He also wondered then if he was angry, and if he had the right to be, that even in fantasy she couldn't have spared him that much, that she had given herself a different past, a different present while she had left him stuck in the same violent rut that apparently would never really smooth.

Apparently, even in her eyes, he'd always be that same hard man, capable of violence.

It was a struggle to tell himself that it didn't really matter, and even after hours of silent argument and self-convincing, he still wasn't sure what he believed.

Are we having doubts?

He rolled his head forward and pulled at the bunching muscles in his shoulders.

Not about anything important.

It all suddenly reminded him that he was no longer the young man that he used to be… in more ways than one.

He frowned.

Shook his head.

Why was he here? What the hell was it that they thought he had to offer?

His impatient frustration stemmed mostly from the fact that the last few weeks had passed so quickly that he was hard pressed to remember every little detail, even things like where all he'd been as they had filtered in and out of countries, slipping on and off bases and in and out of cities as they had been prepped and pushed and briefed and trained back into a whirlwind of military duty. Four of the men, like Booth, had been discharged servicemen who had been out of the military for years and, for whatever reason, had been brought in under specific recommendation from a source that had never been disclosed, though none of that really mattered, he supposed.

He was there. No amount of explanations would make that fact any different.

And he was there for a reason, even if that reason of why him in particular still remained a mystery. He was there for a reason, and whether it was because of his specialties or his service record or just having known the right, or maybe wrong, person at some point in his career.

There was something from him they needed from him, he figured logically, a specific reason why he'd been sent a letter requesting reenlistment instead of so many other possible candidates, though he imagined it had never really been much of a request so much as it was an order, and instead of using any one of the other men or women still currently serving in the army or any other subsequent branch. Not that he suffered the delusions of grandeur it would require to believe that he was unique to the extensiveness of the U.S. military, but something he'd done had singled himself out somewhere along the way.

He wondered if it would prove important that he try to determine exactly what that reason had been.

He wondered if he was capable of living up to the expectation.

Irritable and fighting the emotional gauntlet caused by dehydration, he kicked out one foot and propped his elbow up on his other knee, settling his back against the uncomfortable hub of the driver's side truck wheel. It was hard to choke back the twinge he felt pinching his lower vertebrae, but somehow he managed, his scowl never flinching with the weakness he felt.

So this is some alpha-male right of passage?

Without opening his eyes, he cracked his knuckles, struggling to find some sort of relief in that one tiny means of release before he lost his grip on sanity and sent his fist hurtling through the nearest object he could find.

For three days and nights they had been waiting to make contact with their man in the city, waiting for a radio call to come through on the receiver and hoping that the signal was as secured as they had been assured it was; unable to safely arrange the extraction until that contact was made.

In a country where they weren't legally allowed to be, where no official clearance had been given, and where the ramifications of discovery would be felt on a global political and diplomatic level, they couldn't afford to fly blind, couldn't go barreling in to do what was needed.

There was no margin for error.

So for three days and nights they'd been stuck and unable to move away from the low rising, rocky cliff face of the small, wind-cut gully where they'd sought cover from the desert, the only viable source of shade or protection for miles in any direction and about as close to the concentrated population of Tripoli as they dared to get without making arrangements through the proper channels. There was too much risk in proximity, too much chance of getting too close that would unnecessarily close off the path of retreat and opened up the likelihood of being accidentally stumbled upon in a place where there weren't nearly enough places to hide.

There was nothing left to do but wait. They had readied themselves as much as possible, none liking of the passivity of their situation but unable to do anything else.

All things considered, it had been a very long few days.

They were miles away in every direction from what even passed as the most remote parts of civilization, huddled under the sparse shade of a quickly pitched and camouflaged tarp that would, with any luck, blend them into the surroundings enough to keep both them and their vehicle off of any happenstance aerial radar.

So there they waited, six men… six soldiers, all of them armed, trained and impatiently readied beneath an expanse of beige leafed netting and battling the elements like a boiling appetizer, as if fate had not deemed their mission challenging enough and wanted to spice things up a bit.

It was late morning, maybe noon, that rich and robust amber sphere firing the naked blue sky to life with blazing intensity and reminding Booth of yet another day tucked under his belt as he cracked a tentative eye in its direction, squinting as it pierced his delicate retina, vicious even beneath the camo netting. Light speared blindingly through, speckling his face with direct beams of heat, the mesh leaves of the net resting still in the breezeless air.

"Hey… Master Sergeant… you awake over there?"

Something nudged his foot.

Come on, Booth. Come on! Booth… Booth…

Booth mumbled a couple of words back, a garbled response that neither man understood. He wasn't even really sure of what he'd been attempting to say, his mouth apparently on autopilot. But his head lolled obediently over his shoulder, automatically swinging in the direction of his addressor as his brain recognized and acknowledged his rank in spite of the fact that he wasn't fully awake yet, hovering somewhere exhaustedly in between.

The blur was still frustratingly thick inside his head, that soft, sleepy confusion still prominent, his vision still clouded by more than just the sudden burst of sunlight that had ripped his burning pupils wide and seared all the way down to the base of his skull at that first cavalier opening.

God, how had he forgotten just how exhausting all of this waiting could be?

Surely that was a fun little factoid that should have stuck out in his head a little more.

He hadn't been sleeping. Or at least, not really anyway… he didn't think… maybe... Though he had been teetering just on the brink, trapped in that space where deep thought pulls down with the same weight as exhaustion, ready to embrace that feeling of heavy, weighted falling that always made him think strangely of being tethered to an anchor and dropped into the ocean. But he never lost awareness, immediately ready to snap back into focus if the need arose, a man on-watch never truly giving in to a deep sleep.

But his body was out of practice. Badly.

Instead of feeling vitalized from his tentative power nap, his body felt sick, nausea and a blinding stab in his temples the first sensation he noticed before he swallowed both of them back down.

"Booth," he gruffed again, louder that time.

"What?"

"The name is Booth. I think we can drop the 'master sergeant' bit since we're in the middle of the goddamn desert, don't you?" His voice sounded deep and grating, unfamiliar even to himself as he clawed his way back to full consciousness.

"Right then. Booth it is. So… uhhh… you awake there, Master Sergeant?"

He felt a chuckle rumble from deep in his chest, mostly humorless but surprisingly soul-easing just the same even though the greater part of him was dreading the conversation clearly coming at him. He really wasn't in the mood to talk, didn't feel like bonding over bland jokes or girls back home or old haunts or whatever else passed for solidarity these days, even if it was with an old friend.

Or maybe that's what made it harder. He didn't know.

But then, the alternative was his own inner monologue, and he definitely didn't feel like listening to that guy any time soon.

It was his fucking fault that he was stuck here in the first place.

"Something on your mind, Chief?" he asked, his eyes narrow as he opened them both carefully to see the man perched against the truck a few feet down from him.

The other man was squatted down, heels raised and ready to jump as he rubbed the back of his neck with a dusty hand, rocking slightly on the balls of his feet as he attempted to stretch out stiff muscles.

The man shrugged. "Nah, not really. Just can't stand the silence anymore, that's all, ya know?" he sniffed. "That's what's wrong with the desert. No birds, no nothing. Just silence."

Booth grunted noncommittally, realizing that he wasn't the only one whose anxieties were deafening the vastness of the wide-open desert to an odd, muffled silence. Apparently, he wasn't the only one who didn't want too much time to think of about what exactly they were doing out there in the Devil's Playpen, as he'd heard one guy refer to it.

"I know what you mean," he admitted, groaning softly at the tightness in his back.

"You okay over there, Sir? Age creeping up on ya?"

With a soft grunt, he rolled his shoulders against the rutted metal wall behind him, subconsciously increasing his already broad mass with a slight puff of his chest. He was still young, right? He was still virile… still the man.

Yep. He was just a bit more experienced now, that's all.

Fuck.

"Fuck you, Chief," he grumbled, bristling when he heard the other man chuckle deeply.

Intellectually… rationally, he huffed, he knew that it would take more time for his body to adjust to the harsh environment around him because despite his rigorous and continuous dedication to his fitness, the ease of civilian living had softened him. It softened everyone. From the moment he had donned a suit instead of a uniform, it had been unpreventable.

That was something that the wisdom of age allowed him to admit to silently, though it still piqued his masculine pride to do so.

He knew that years of being coddled by the temperate D.C. weather and dinners of burgers with fries and lazy Sundays watching baseball, and all as much as time simply ticking away, had sanded over some of those rougher edges that had splintered during his first foray into war. But even though his soul was sensitive and empathic and experienced and jaded enough to have a very real appreciation for the hardships life could present, he had grown to take many of his own simple pleasures for granted.

Years away from the desert had allowed him to forget the real definition of heat… of swelter… of ache. Briefly, he wondered what else he was going to have to relearn and if he'd have enough time to do so before it all just hit the fan.

Not for the first time, he wondered just what the hell he'd gotten himself into.

Worse than that, though, was that tickling sensation that suggested he knew exactly what…

Booth shifted again, pulling his shoulders in close together for a gratifying crack. He sighed with relief.

"Damn it, Chief," he muttered. "You're still an asshole, you know that? Can't believe they dragged your sorry ass out of retirement."

Chief, or rather, forty-odd-something retired Warfare Operations Specialist, Chief Petty Officer Arthur Rugles, laughed and shook his head as he pulled out a handkerchief from his breast pocket to dab away the beads of sweat that were threatening to roll into his eyes.

He was a larger, middle-aged guy, solid and barrel-chested with thick limbs and, Booth knew from experience, an even thicker skull in every possible meaning, which was mostly bald except for thin layer of silvered buzz-cut fuzz. When he was standing, he towered over Booth by a good three inches, his large stature having often proved to be just as effective as it could be inhibiting, though he was always a good ally to have in any bar fight.

Then again, SEALs usually were.

That was another little fact that Booth knew from experience.

Are Rangers afraid of SEALs?

What? No! Come on, Bones. Rangers aren't afraid of anything, okay? … But SEALs are good though…

In spite of himself, Booth smiled a little at the memory.

"Besides, you're older than me, geezer," Booth grumbled, wondering when exactly he'd become old enough to be elected ringleader of anything, especially this particular ragtag team.

"And stop calling me 'sir.'"

"What was that over there, sonny boy?"

"Nothing," Booth said, then a little louder added, "Fuckin' Squid. Don't you have a puddle to go play in?"

The other man laughed harder this time and settled back against the side of the truck, dropping his backside to the ground with a grunt and nothing that could pass for grace as he let his legs sprawl out in front of him.

"Hey," the guy shrugged, "I'm just babysitting you toddlers here. That's a full time job in itself. Hell, I should get hazard pay just for that."

Booth just grunted and let his head drop back against the truck, and, even though he didn't really feel like it, smiled to himself as he closed his eyes again.

"So what are you doing back here, kid? Last time I saw you, you were dead sure that your army days were over and you were headed for a comfortable civie life. Get blackmailed by a five-star or something?"

I can't change. I don't know how…

He chuckled sadly. Oh, sweet irony, he thought. "Something like that."

Rugles snorted. "Fine. Be a cryptic jackass. Don't catch up with an old friend," he grouched, pretending to be offended.

Old friends they certainly were, having been introduced early in Booth's military career shortly after his brother had enlisted with the navy. Occasional path-crossings had quickly developed a fast friendship between Booth and his brother's commanding officer despite the competitive nature of their separate branches of service.

Having been stationed at nearby bases, they'd frequently ended up running into each other at local watering holes whenever they ventured off base, something that eventually became a typical weekend habit for the two men, always looking for a moderately wild good time as young men often did.

It was a drunken brawl in a backwater civilian bar parking lot that had cemented the two men in each other's lives, both of them impressed with the other's ability to dish it back despite being painfully outnumbered and the tolerance for taking one hell of an ass whipping with no real complaint after the fact. That night they had sat in the holding cell of the local sheriff station for 24 hours waiting on their respective C.O.'s to arrive and ream them a new one, drunkenly laughing about "pretty boy" Booth's broken nose and the rattail that the even-then balding Rugles had torn off of a particular bullish civie after insisting to the drunken man that his barber had missed a spot.

Neither had really minded being punished for what they both had deemed one hell of a good time. Some things are just worth the verbal spankings and busted knuckles, they had both agreed.

They had lost touch for the most part as Booth neared the end of his second tour of duty, his combat engagements in the Middle East and subsequent stint as a POW having put a heavy toll on his mind as he withdrew and settled into a more stable life after moving to D.C., where he also began the downward spiral of a gambling addiction. Eventually it was rehab that kept him busy and having to adjust to becoming a weekend father as he started to climb the ladder within the F.B.I.

He'd wanted to keep in touch, had never meant to brush off contact with a good friend, but as always happens when life gets busy, some areas suffer as priorities are forced to shift and re-shift. Rugles apparently, had remained a serviceman, earning rank in a combat-heavy navy career in between earning red marks on his record, something that didn't surprise Booth in the slightest given his knowledge of the Chief's complete disregard for bureaucracy and absolute intolerance for patience and stupidity.

"Volunteered for a stint in Columbia a few years back," the older man offered after a few minutes, his voice uncharacteristically serious, though Booth suspected it was mostly just to fill the ever-stretching silence.

Booth let an eye crack open slightly. "Yeah?"

"It was hot there too," Rugles said, staring off into space. "Not hot like it is here. Thicker… all that humidity made the air feel like you were walkin' through molasses or something. Never felt anythin' like it.

"It was wetter than I ever thought Hell'd be." And then he added with a throaty chuckle, "…wetter than a slut on a submarine…"

"Hmmm," Booth laughed softly, ever amused with his friend's flaring gift for storytelling.

"Yup," the other man said decisively. "We were there for a few months, huntin' down the drug runners and burning down the fields and factories that we happened to find. The higher-ups wanted to keep it quiet so we didn't have any of the flyboys helpin' us spot. Tryin' to keep politics out of the mix, you know how those pencil-pushers are.

"So instead, there we were, just trudging through that goddamn jungle looking for shit and then burnin' it to the ground as we found it. Not the easiest thing to keep under wraps, you know? Especially when those coke lords got deep pockets and everything they ain't willing to lose."

Booth gave a small nod, thinking that he was starting to see how the pieces fall into place. Rugles talked a lot. But, Booth had to give him credit; there was usually a point.

"What are you trying to tell me, Chief? Think this is gonna blow up in our faces?"

Rugles shook his head then and smiled. "Me? Nah… I'm the optimistic old fuck in this group, remember?"

He couldn't help himself. Booth laughed.

"You're right about the 'old fuck' part," he jabbed.

"Uh huh, and I was just thinkin'… cocaine don't scream when you burn it to the ground."

Booth nodded slowly. "Nope," he drawled. "That it doesn't."

"It snaps, crackles and pops like a son of a bitch, though," Rugles snorted. "Hell of a noise, that. Nothing like it in all the world."

There was another long silence, and then, "Booth. You know these fucks ain't got anything to lose, right? I mean… they're fuckin' crazy."

It was so real… Who are you?

Booth nodded again, his dark eyes glazing over as he stepped a little further back inside his head.

"Yup."

For some reason, Booth was assaulted by memories of his second ever mission in hostile territory, a relatively short period in the Congo almost two full decades earlier, back before he'd trained as a sniper, back when he was little better than a body with a gun, meant to either take a bullet or take a life with minimal training and even less discretion.

He'd taken his first bullet there; a shot to the thigh that had just missed the femoral artery but had gotten even with a nasty infection that had taken weeks to recover from. He remembered that wound the clearest out of all of them, remembered the burn of the entry and the head-spinning nauseous pain that followed as a young field medic had dug the metal out of his flesh with the flat edge of a gin-doused Swiss army knife. None of the other incidents, of which there were a decent number more, seemed to warrant the same amount of detail in memory.

But then again, it was probably true what they said: the first time is always special.

"Do you?"

"What?"

He shook his head slightly.

"Do you? Have anything to lose, I mean?" Rugles asked curiously.

I don't have you're kind of open heart.

Something sad and tender and precious welled inside his chest suddenly, pushing and clawing, bubbling and twisting and threatening to engulf him though he felt the need to guard it jealously, and he had to struggle to swallow the emotion that pushed at the back of his throat.

Too raw to be ignore.

Too fresh to be pushed aside.

Then the corner of his lip twisted up slightly suddenly, his eyes glistening with just the tiniest surge of un-spilled moisture as his heart pushed all the way up to the brim.

"I got a boy. Parker. He's nine now and he's great… he's just… he's great," he managed to get out before he pressed his lips together firmly to hold back anything else that might slip out.

Rugles nodded thoughtfully. "That's good. That's real good. Never did make it there myself. Fatherhood never really seemed to swing my way, what with the job and all, ya know? Never seemed to be the right time.

"That… and I couldn't get a woman to stay around long enough to knock her up… or at least none of them came back sniffin' for child support," he added with an incredulous huff.

Booth's head snapped up and they stared at each other for a brief second before a rip of bursting, hysterical laughter erupted from him uncontrollably, and Booth actually gripped his side to stop it from splitting, his eyes watering while Rugles let his head thump against the side of the truck and pretended to pout.

"I don't know what you think is so goddamn funny," he said, somehow keeping a straight face.

And to be honest, Booth didn't know either. It wasn't really that funny. But sometimes it was either laugh or swallow the barrel end when it all became too much too fast, so for once he didn't question it and allowed himself to spill over the edge of sanity for just a moment and not care why.

"It's a hard life when women only want to use me for this sweet body of mine… seriously it hurts my feelings… I cry about it every night when I have no one to spoon with," Rugles complained in his most pitiful voice.

Booth waved his hands in surrender, humorous tears beginning to creep down his cheeks. It was so easy to slip from one strong emotion to another, so easy to release those unshed tears and call it mirth, that rising unrelenting surge attacking whatever cracks could be found inside him, finally forcing its way out before something could rupture.

"Okay, okay… I'm sorry… Okay… Okay," he struggled to breathe against his laughter.

"Jeez man, that's heavy stuff right there," Booth said, his face sobering. "Although… maybe you should go climb in with Mallard in the back of the truck there. See if he'll give you a cuddle," he said, jerking his thumb behind him toward the covered bed.

"He's been eyeing you since we left the base, big guy. It'd probably make his day." He grinned.

Rugles looked at him seriously. "Yeah," he nodded. "It probably would."

Neither man won the showdown, each one cracking up almost immediately as Rugles finally lost his ability to hold a straight face. Instead he flopped down onto his back with his knees still bent, holding the heels of his hands to his forehead as he laughed and rolled on the ground with childish delight, making the moment almost surreal given everything else going on around them.

After several minutes, Booth sighed as he attempted to catch his breath, grabbing for the bottle of water sitting next to him to ease the sudden dryness he felt coating his tongue.

Rugles, for his part, had stilled but was still chuckling softly, letting his knees rock back and forth while he stared skyward.

"So tell me about your wife," he said casually.

Booth huffed out a laugh. "What makes you think I have one?"

"You got a kid."

"So?"

"I figured for sure an old-time guy like you would've married the poor girl once you knocked her up. You always were gung-ho on that kinda family stuff," Rugles shrugged.

Booth shook his head, relieved that that old wound was one that no longer bothered him.

"Nah, didn't work out that way. I offered, but… none of that really matters, I guess. I mean, Parker's happy and healthy. We make it work so that's all I care about."

Rugles shook his head disbelievingly. "Really? No wife? Girlfriend? Come on, I can't believe a pretty boy like you ain't even nailed down a girlfriend by now. Or two, or three, or, hell, maybe even a harem. Girls always did like you. Never understood it myself, I always thought you had an ugly mug an' all, but what do I know?" he sniffed good-naturedly.

Would you feel better if I told you I loved you?

Booth shrugged.

"Seriously? No good stories to share?" Rugles pushed. "Not a single lady love?"

Booth started to respond and then snapped his jaw shut quickly, his pulse suddenly jumping in time with the prickle at the back of his neck.

Something was wrong.

He turned his head toward the ridge on the other side of him, his black eyes darting across the rocky incline, his body immediately drunk with a flush of adrenaline that tasted of apprehension and anticipation, and a hot, bittersweet tang against his tongue. His whole body vibrated like a hair trigger, the itch between his shoulders making his hands shake ever so slightly with the need for appeasement.

Kind, reassuring brown eyes…

His breath held, caught by more than dryness in the back of his throat.

Rugles was already on his feet when he risked a glance backwards, the large man shuffling quietly and quickly despite his bulk towards the backend of the pickup to wake the others while Booth slipped beneath the netting, his fist tightly gripping the stock of his rifle as he tucked it against his shoulder.

His fingertips tingled.

Capable of great violence.

The ridge was low, sloping down with a gradual curvature that served as a good guard against being seen, and Booth peaked over it carefully, crawling with his belly close to the ground, scanning the rocky, reddish brown terrain for the truck brakes that he knew he'd heard.

And then there it was, blatant and unnerving in its carelessness with a couple Libyan soldiers making their way steadily but unknowingly toward the Americans and their concealed vehicle.


Ok guys, let me know what you think and if you want me to continue... I've got the rest of the story planned so tell me if you want it. Thanks for reading!