AN: I'm envisioning this piece as a collection of brief moments in Booth and Brennan's story. I'm calling it 'Alchemy' because I'm playing with the idea of moments that could have the power to subtly, molecularly transmute their relationship. Some will be lighter, some will be darker. Please let me know what you think!

Chapter 1. Father Figure

Max had barely left the diner before Brennan leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered to Booth, "Sometimes I think you're more of a father to me than my dad is."

The sandwich that Booth had been enjoying suddenly exploded in his mouth, threatening to choke him as he coughed, reminding him of just how treacherous it could be to eat around his partner. Even after all their years together, she had this knack for saying things that nearly strangled him. As he valiantly attempted to swallow the menacing bite, he could see his tombstone in his mind: He should have just ordered coffee.

"Bones," he stammered, horrified, "are you saying that... that you think of me as a father figure?!"

"No," she demurred, "not exactly. But I do think you take better care of me than Max does."

Warming to her compliment, even if it had been delivered in such a disturbing manner, Booth's heartbeat returned nearly to normal. He should have known better than to relax though, because her feline-tilted eyes were still narrowed in thought and she barely paused to let him recover before barreling on.

"Maybe it's because of how good you are with Parker."

Booth nodded slowly, still trying to determine whether this information was good or bad. He was a raw nerve when it came to his son, and for some reason, Bones' opinion of his parenting weighed too precious in his mind. Her praise brought a tender smile to his lips as he studied his partner's contemplative expression.

She had been opening up more and more lately, and sometimes he worried that the person emerging from the scientist-shaped shell was too radiantly good for him. It almost felt like he had created a monster by encouraging her to open her heart; now, the heart that she was beginning to reveal was even more exquisitely sensitive than he had expected. And he wondered if it was more than he deserved.

"It's little things," she continued, "like how you tuck the blanket in when I fall asleep on the couch.

And how you always have things like tissues and band-aids around your home, and you always have snacks and juice and my refrigerator is almost always empty. And how you nag me to eat and rest and wear my winter coat. Even though my dad and I are, well, certainly on better terms now, I neither need nor want him to look after me."

At his continued silence, she finally looked up, perceiving some sort of discomfort in his uncertain expression. "Even though I'm a fully-actualized, independent adult, Angela says that we all need someone to look after us," she explained as an aside.

"She's right, but I'd hardly say I nag you," he argued, attempting to steer the conversation into more casual territory.

She snuffed brattily. "I disagree. You nag at me to eat all the time. In fact, I fully blame you for the weight I've put on recently." She patted her stomach with a slight scowl.

His eyebrows jumped as he ran his gaze over the part of her figure he could see above the table. "I don't think you've put on any weight, Bones," he said sincerely.

"I guarantee you I have."

"Well," he grinned, holding up two cupped hands in an unmistakable gesture, "then you put it on in all the right places."

Her jaw dropped in a shocked smirk at his comment, and he could only desperately hope that his audacious flirting would distract her from their previous discussion. Unfortunately, Brennan's focus was as stubborn as everything else about her.

"Regardless," she continued, her smile fading slowly, "I don't have anyone else in my life who looks after me like that. Just you. And I thought... maybe it's because you're a father."

Wiping his mouth on his napkin carefully, Booth cleared his throat. "You know, Bones," he started haltingly, "those kinds of things you mentioned aren't just for fathers. Those are friend things too. Things that good friends do for each other." So don't ever, ever for the love of all that is holy think of me as your father again, he thought fiercely.

Her piercing eyes met his earnestly. "Who else have you ever done those things for, other than Parker?"

He rubbed his large hand over his jaw thoughtfully, wishing he could evade the conversation entirely. "Well, Becca, obviously... and maybe Cam—a long time ago... and, I don't know," he shrugged defensively.

"So just women you were romantically involved with?" she prodded intently.

Several moments passed as their eyes froze in a shared gaze, the patter and clink of dishes waning in the background. A subtle shudder of muscle played at the corner of Booth's jaw and an untraceable current of air lifted the tips of Brennan's hair. Otherwise, the partners were motionless in the sudden tension.

It was Booth who chose to sever the heavy pause, pulling his face into a casual smile and leaning back in a slouch of easy relaxation. "Yeah, well, Bones... you're very important to me. I care about you."

Brennan nodded slowly. "Attagirl," she whispered under her breath, almost quiet enough for Booth to miss it. Quiet enough that he could guiltily pretend, at least for now, not to have heard it at all.