A/N: I know I said that "Break Even" was a one shot... but I lied. Sort of. The story kept growing in my head until it became a second part, this. There is also a third and possibly fourth part on the way to finish it up. They will all be separate pieces, though, not a single chaptered short fic. I have my reasons for this. Anyway, enjoy, and let me know what you think... and if you like, then keep your eyes opened for part III in the near future.
Their words mostly noises
Ghosts with just voices
Your words in my memory
Are like music to me
And miles from where you are
I lay down on the cold ground
I pray that something picks me up
And sets me down in your warm arms...
- Set Fire to the Third Bar, Snow Patrol
Brennan sat in a fold-out chair on the edge of a roaring fire pit, jacket blocking the chill night air. It never ceased to amaze her, the temperature difference between day and night in the desert. It was immediate, like jumping into an icy pool. The moment the sun set behind the ragged horizon the heat dissipated into the cloudless atmosphere, and they were plunged into a gritty chill that sent her digging for her jacket, skin crawling with goosebumps.
She emptied the last of the contents of her beer bottle and let it roll lazily out of her hand onto the sand at her feet. It was all they had at the temporary morgue, beer and water. Water for the day to keep you hydrated, and beer at night like an antiseptic, to clean off all the horror of the day. There was never any shortage of it, either—their U.N. providers supplied it like it was a vital necessity, and sometimes there was actually more beer on hand than water. Maybe it was a necessity, to forget. To blind yourself temporarily so you could wipe away the rotting faces, the skeletonized corpses, the blood-encrusted UNICEF teddy bears blown through with bullet holes.
She watched the orange light from the flames flicker off the brown glass bottle, completely detached from the boisterous conversation around her. They were forgetting, alright—the term 'drowning your sorrows' came readily to mind. It was all they could do, after spending all day up to their necks in rotten corpses. Sorting out remains—this one a man, this one a woman, this one a dog.
Why the dog upset her so, she didn't know. Maybe because the dog had no concept of war, of ethnic cleansing, of escape. The dog didn't know it could flee the borders into neighboring countries, curl up in a crowded refugee camp and live to see another day. Like the children they dug up, the dogs didn't do anything but stand in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was so nonsensical—the dog had no ethnicity, no religion, no political affiliations. He was just a dog, but someone had blasted a hole through his skull and thrown him into a heap of dead human bodies anyway.
She took the cold bottle offered to her by the forensic odontologist seated nearby and thanked him without really thinking about it, taking a sip and wiping thoughts of dogs and toddlers from her mind. Thinking too much in the desert, surrounded by dead bodies and emptiness, hearing shots in the distance and wondering if they were from the gun of a child soldier, was enough to drive anyone to drink. The pain in this region was so overwhelming that it was tangible, static, something you could feel in the air, reach out and grasp with your fingers like a thin coating of sand that covered all things.
But she had chosen this. Eight hours and over six thousand miles away there was comfort, but she had left it behind. She trimmed comfort down to the size of a suitcase and fled without any true parting words, sat in the front of an airplane with a first class good-morning martini and cried when they hit thirty thousand feet. By half-way across the Atlantic Ocean she had pulled herself together, and when her final plane touched down in Ethiopia she appeared stoic and unaffected, just like every time before she had pared her life down to twenty pounds or less.
But this time there had been so much left behind. She could not fold him up and tuck him away in her luggage, or cram him into a carry-on bag. Not that she wanted to, that was half the reason she'd left, or the whole. Or was it? Nothing about that made sense to her anymore, and three weeks of pondering her own decision had yielded no real answers. Maybe because every time she started thinking about it she was sitting in front of a fire with a drink in her hands, and it was much easier to drink than to think. During the daytime hours she could throw herself fully into her work, and at night she could drink until her eyes went blurry and fall asleep in a sandy tent until it all started over the next morning.
Three weeks ago it had made sense. Three weeks ago Darfur sounded so right, she felt so sure about her decision to leave. They needed her, she rationalized. Thousands of unidentified victims of genocide needed to be given names, repatriated to their families, recorded so that a tribunal could one day find their murderers guilty as charged. This was her work, this was what she was trained to do, why turn down the request for her expertise? She was, after all, the best in her field. Didn't they deserve the best?
I need you. His words rang through her head like a gunshot, and she tipped back the bottle and drained it. He didn't need her. He wanted her, but he didn't need her. He would live without her—he had lived the first thirty-something years of his life without her, and he could keep right on breathing with her gone. He would return to his old life and she to hers, and they would both survive.
Dr. Goodman had gotten in touch with her two days prior, asking when she'd be back. She hesitated, then replied, "I don't know." He reminded her that she had not filed extended leave paperwork with the Jeffersonian, that if she wanted to take a year-long sabbatical to work in Sudan she should have at least done the paperwork. She countered by reminding him that she had six weeks of paid leave accumulated over the years. She would get back to him in three weeks, she said, and let him know whether or not she would be returning. He was satisfied, and that was the last time she spoke to anyone from back home.
Home. It was a concept that hadn't hindered her during previous relief efforts. In Srebrenica, Guatemala, Rwanda, all of those places were just as much a home to her as the place she had come to them from. She never had a family to keep up with, not even as much as a goldfish to feed, and certainly did not have the web of friends and relatives and significant others that she had now. In the past her concept of home had been hazy at best—home was where you slept at night, where you returned after a day's work, where you cooked your food and kept your belongings and maybe occasionally brought someone back to have sex with. She could do all of those things just as easily in Bosnia or South America as she could in Washington D.C., so 'home' was less a matter of roots and more of present location.
This was different, though. Now she had roots, and they had names, and faces, and lives that were very much entwined in hers. She had a drawer in his dresser and a toothbrush on the edge of his sink, and she realized as she tossed and turned in her sand-encrusted sleeping bag that there was most certainly a difference between this bed and his bed. All beds were not created equal, all doors did not open the same happiness in her heart, and she realized that what she had referred to before as a 'home' was simply a dwelling. Now she knew what home was, and it hurt.
She stared vacantly into the fire, feeling the cold empty glass bottle between her fingers. Home is where the heart is¸ was a phrase she had heard before. It seemed so saccharine and cliché at the time, but now that she understood it, it gave her nothing but a hollow ache in her chest. Home was where her heart was, not here—here in the desert she was walking around with a hole in her chest, blasted out of her with all the sudden senselessness of a dead dog's remains in a mass grave.
But she was not the victim here; she held the gun. She bought the plane ticket, she packed her bag silently in the early-morning light, she tore herself in half and threw the other half away and cried every night since, drinking to fill the vacancy but never able to. She had done this to herself, and to him, and she didn't know why. For all the nights she had drank and cried and asked herself why, she did not know. She loved him, and it scared her, and she left. That was all she knew so far. She left the half that was his and took what was still left to her name, the part of herself she had not buried deep within him, and ran with it.
She excused herself for the night and crawled into her tent, curling up into her musty sleeping bag and staring up at the domed ceiling. She thought about the UNICEF bears, and the skinny brown dog, and the hole Booth's fist left in the plaster as she walked out the door. She wanted nothing more than to be in his bed—their bed—right now, instead of lying in the sand in the African desert. She wanted to be with him, to feel him breathe, to feel his heart beat, to feel the sound of his chest rumble as he spoke softly in the night when he was unsure of whether she was still awake or not. She wanted to go home.
Who was she kidding? There was no home left. She had burned that bridge with two words. You'll live. It was as sure as if she had doused the apartment building with gasoline and lit a match, tossing it over her shoulder as she left. There would be no home left for her to return to, only the charred remains of what she had once had. She had destroyed it, burnt it to the ground out of fear and tried to run to something that didn't even exist, something that wasn't real—safety.
She wanted to be safe. Safe from heartbreak, safe from the sudden, wrenching, unimaginable loss that seemed to loom around every corner of her thoughts. But in running she was searching for something that didn't actually exist. There is no safety in love; loving someone is the riskiest thing you can do with your heart. Even six thousand miles couldn't take the love out of her, couldn't make her safe, because once you love someone there's no such thing as being safe anymore. There is only faith that they won't hurt you, but what faith could he have in her now? What faith could she have in herself?
He put his love, his faith, in her, and she ran. She left the part of her that was his and now all she had left was this tent, this sand, and this pain. She felt the tears slide down the side of her face as she blinked, heaving for air as quietly as she could. It crushed her, immobilized her, the realization of what she had done to them, to him.
She wrapped her arms around herself and cried until there was nothing left. Nothing but an empty dwelling in her chest, the echo of what once was.