Variations on a Theme

Disclaimer: For the love of God, don't sue me.

Obligatory Explanation: I liked The End in the Beginning. I thought it was awesome, and fun, and interesting. The only thing I didn't like was the theme that, if Brennan's parents had not abandoned her, then she would not be so against marriage. I like her independent, and kick-ass, no matter what reality she is in. This is what grew, and I do mean grew, out of that irritation.

Eternity starts with a job interview.

She is wearing some scoop neck blouse, and her boots, oh man her boots. Hugging her calves like paint, ending just under the hem of her swirling skirt. Hinting at everything they don't reveal. It's a killer combo, and he takes the time to admire as she walks towards his desk, devotes his full attention, works from the shoulders down.

Baby Brother had taught him the wisdom of going in reverse. Gives an enjoyable ride if the face can't live up to the body; keeps an extra little surprise for the end if it can. And okay, he's not 16 any more. He's learned a few things about how personality can be good, that respect is mandatory, but the directional flick of his eyes is habit.

Her face completes the package all right. Except for the blue and yellow palm print curling over her cheek. That kind of spoils it. Turns his discreet assessment into blatant staring, makes her chin tip towards a defiant angle.

"Should I just tell you my cup size?" Her first words to him are clipped and caustic.

"What!?" he splutters, feet sliding from the desk he has covered with invoices and manifests. Her chin, if possible, gets just a little sharper.

"You were making a blatant assessment of my physical characteristics. And you work in a nightclub. Taken in conjunction there is a high likelihood that you will base your hiring practices on how attractive you find me."

Befuddled, and sensing serious danger signals, he blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. Being: "Hey! I own this nightclub, sister."

Her eyebrows arch significantly and he understands that he has just proven her point, though what the point is exactly, he's not entirely sure. "And I don't hire based on...uh, chest measurement," he finishes lamely. She holds the look for a second longer, then sits in a guest chair.

"Well then, maybe you should tell me what sort of tasks you expect me to oversee as a manager."

"Have I hired you?" He means it to be archly sarcastic, or maybe a little bit flirty, but the feeling of being caught up in the middle of a freak whirlwind is disorienting, and it comes out very like a question.

"There's no reason you shouldn't. I'm very smart, I'm highly efficient, and I have excellent organizational skills," she spares a glance towards the paper storm spread across his desk, then back up to meet his eyes boldly, "and I've been told by several different men that my breasts are more than adequate.

"I'm the logical best choice, whatever criteria you are using."

He takes a deep breath. It has negligible effect. "Do you have any experience managing a night club."


"What about a restaurant?"

Negative head shake. Very firm. He is all set to laugh her out of his office, out of his finally, finally profitable night club. Safely away from his little dream of having some free time and maybe not having to sweat the small stuff right along with the big.

Except his hand has become a suddenly autonomous vehicle, sliding a tax form towards her. "Fill it out. Six months trail period. Don't try to negotiate the salary."

Later that night, describing it all to Baby Brother, he will distill the decision down to either cyborg appendages, or some sort of demonic possession. Jared will snort into his whiskey and mutter about dry spells and the southward relocation of his brain. He will smile behind his own glass in response, admitting nothing. Especially not how being around her makes his internals feel like a Souza march.

That, and he wants to see what happens when her immoveable force meets the irresistible motion of a drunk.

She takes the extended pen and signs the forms with her left hand. Forming the letters slowly, with a deep concentration. Horrible visions of illiteracy flick through his brain, until the cast on her other hand finally registers. Previously hidden by the ridiculous minstrel-like fullness of her shirt sleeves.

"I hope you kicked him to the curb, whoever he is," he feels himself blurt out, as if her own bluntness is infectious. Her head jerks up, bright spots on her cheeks, but she calmly says: "I broke his noes. Does that count?"

"Did you break your hand doing it?" Her smile is a wry acknowledgment, which is good for the overall structure of her face, and makes the age old awareness of a man in the presence of a woman tick like a cooling engine.

"Well, then it only half counts," he tells her. She nods, solemnly, like she is taking in the wisdom of ages.

"I'll keep that in mind."

She tolerates it for just over two weeks.

He stares. At her. A lot.

It made her self conscious at first. Sending her to the bathroom to check for embarrassingly lodged food and to evaluate the division her neckline makes between covered and uncovered.

Each examination proves satisfactory, and she looks wider. Mistakes, blunders, suspicions of theft. She double checks paperwork and keeps her hands away from the till. But still, his eyes. Always just flicking away when she looks up, when she turns fast.

She feels hunted. Haunted. So she waits two more weeks, then as his eyes hastily slide past her to examine whatever is behind her head for the goddamn last time she snaps "Stop looking at me like that."

He startles at being caught, on the edge of embarrassment maybe, but recoups. Smiling, forehead crinkling in a way she knows he believes is endearing. "Why not?"

The question throws her. He's like those high-school boys; the ones who played football and traveled in packs. Ceaselessly calling her name, laughing uproariously when she finally looked up from her book. She didn't get the joke then, doesn't get it now, but she knows ridicule when she sees it.

"It's not polite," she tells him, burning in the same way she had back then, furious that she has allowed him to make her feel inadequate.

He shrugs lightly, smiling even more. "Okay. I guess I'll have to start going back to the museum when I want to see pretty things. I hear the Jeffersonian's nice."

He leaves before she can work that through. All the way down the hall before, oh!, understanding darts through her. Long and slim as an exclamation point.

She doesn't see him again until much later, catching sight of him across the increasingly busy dance floor as he leans in towards a blond woman. Eyes lowered and lips curled, forehead set into those groves.

Oh, she thinks again, unable to categorize the feeling in her chest.

The next afternoon he greets her with a smile and a wink. She huffs and rolls her eyes, making his smile grow, but the annoyance is mostly faked. She understands the rules now.

At least this time she gets to be one of the players.

The cast is on for nearly three months. Turning slowly grey as she gets better at writing left-handed and he flirts shamelessly. As the club bursts through some event horizon, gaining patrons at a geometric, or maybe logarithmic, rate.

Definitely one of those -ic things. Doesn't matter which one. The club is good, and the Spring day is good, all of which is making Seeley Booth feel good indeed.

He's busy basking, slouched in the desk chair with his feet up and his head couched in his laced hands when she comes in. He grins.

"Morning, mi amiga."

She pauses just long enough to give him the stink eye, then stashes her purse in the corner. "Afternoon, actually. Why are your feet on my desk?"

"I'm waiting for you." Right on cue: the groove in her forehead. The one that comes out when she thinks he is being ridiculous. Or obtuse. Or, hey, breathing.

He lets his feet thump to the floor, leaning towards her. "Do you know what today is?"

"The first of the month."

"Exactly! The first of the month." His finger stabs in emphasis. The Grove progresses to Three Headed Alien. He ignores. "That makes yesterday the last day of the month."

"Yes," she says, ignoring him in favor of flipping through the mail. "That's generally the normal progression of events."

He perseveres: "More precisely, yesterday was the last day of the first month that the club finished in the black."

"Oh, that." But all the annoyance has leached away, and she looks like she is trying to mask intrigue.

" 'Oh, that' ", he mimics back. "Come on, Bren! This is, you know, major. We need to celebrate."

"You are getting very excited over seventeen dollars." Her tone is reproach, but she has a reluctant half smile on. Whatever her remaining resistance, she's hooked.

"Seventeen dollars and sixty-three cents, ma petit alouette."

She puts the mail down, eyeing him. He jumps to his feet and holds his arm out like a gallant knight. "I'm not a skylark," she tells him, obviously wishing to clarify the point. He simply holds his pose and watches her waver. "Just you and me?"

He thinks of Baby Brother, who is also Sole Investor, and says, "Can't think of anyone else I'd rather be with."

Something flares in her eyes, and is shuttered just as quickly. Too fast to read. Her eyes flick away when he cocks his head, and she suddenly becomes the definition of motion. Grabbing his arm hard enough to swing them both face forward.

"Well fine, let's go. I'm hungry."

He spends the meal considering things that are probably nothing but the edge of fantasy.

The lease on her apartment expires. Non-renewable, no explanation necessary. At least none her landlord is willing to provide in the stairwell. She goes to angry. Wakes up afraid. Goes to work and slams things until he catches her wrist.

"Whoa! You sound like a heard of elephants in here. What did the filing cabinet ever do to you?" She tries to pull away, but the bulge of his triceps and bicep are not decorative. All the tugging accomplishes is to focus his attention more firmly.

"Bren, what's wrong."

"My landlord isn't renewing my lease. I have to move." She tells him, giving up on trying to get free. He groans.

"You better not be one of those types that wusses out on the beer."

Standing with her wrist still circled by his fingers she waits. He elaborates, "You know, pizza and beer. I hate it when people welsh out on the alcohol." He gives her absolute lack of understanding one of those mildly pitying stares that she dislikes greatly. "...when we help you move...."

Traitorous relief surges through her. How do you magic up enough money to pay first, last, and movers? You turn the movers into pizza and beer. Abracadabra.

Except, no. It's too much. Too close. She rises to her refusal, but he cuts her off, his voice far to gentle for what they are actually talking about. "Pizza and beer. You promise?"

She bites her lip and gives in. Pride only stings when the excess has to be scraped away. "Fine. Beer too."

Two weekends later she stands in the entryway of her slowly filling apartment, watching a duplex of Booths strain under the weight of her TV cabinet for the second time that day, wondering about the nature and definition of friendship.

Beauty is subjective.

He doesn't need poets to tell him, just his buddies. Their slack jaws and mournful howls whenever he tells them that endless access to beautifully undressed women is not heaven on earth. That it can be boring and trite.

They always refuse to believe. Crying foul for leading them on, bogarting all that joy for himself. "No way, man. No. Way." But it is the absolute truth. Seeing her in a V neck to the knees is not an occasion.

It's her Saturday morning special that kills him. Her jeans with the frayed cuffs and plain tee-shirt he that he can't keep his eyes from. The implied intimacy of her hasty pony tail that makes him feel dry throated and flayed.

Because God likes humility, He grants a wish. Saturday night she pits herself against a drunk, and he learns how long it takes to cross the dance floor at a dead sprint. Seven seconds, give or take.

Long enough for the man she is evicting to grab her arm and shake. Long enough for her to rear back and pull some Kung Fu move, buckling a man with at least five inches on her. Exactly long enough for her to grab his thumb and wrench down savagely, bending it towards his inner wrist until the pop of it dislocating travels well above the music.

Only then do the man's friends reach out to restrain him, holding his shirt as he sobs and rocks around his damaged hand. Only then can he reach her.

He slams into the knot without any loss of momentum, planting both hands into a chest and shoving, sending one of the holders reeling backwards. Pivoting around to grab the other by the shirt, forcing him to stumble forward. Both men stare at him for a frozen moment, eyes wide with surprise.

"Why you screwing with us, man? We were trying to help."

Booth twists the shirt he is holding tighter around his fist. The man inside it flinches and shuts the hell up.

"Yeah, you and your hombre over there are regular Boy Scouts, letting your buddy beat on a woman." Shirt man clutches both hands around his own, trying for breathing room. Reluctantly he pushes back the sharpest edge of his rage.

"I tell you what," he says casually; both men twitch with unease. "You two are going to get that fuck stain out of my club. Then you're going to make it your personal responsibility to make sure he never comes back. Ever." He twists, "Tu comprendes?"

Both men nod eagerly, but he's already turned towards his major concern, laying a hand across her neck and squeezing gently. "Hey, you okay? He didn't hurt you, did he?" She accepts his touch but gives him a look that divulges nothing.

"Yes, I'm fine. That man was drunk. Plus he clearly had no martial arts training. Overpowering him was extremely easy."

"Okay, but you're sure you're alright? That guy was pretty big."

She shrugs off his hand. "I'm not traumatized, if that's what you're implying." Suspicion makes her eyes narrow. "Are you overreacting like this because I'm a woman?"

"No, I'm reacting because Andre the fuckin' Giant just tried to put your lights out. I'd be concerned for anyone."

"I neutralized him in two moves, Booth. I'm obviously capable of defending myself, giant or no. You should be happy I kept him from doing any damage to the bar." Her voice is pissy, impatient. He blows air out his nose, then smiles his best Get Out of Jail smile. Sometimes capitulation is the easiest road to compliance.

"You're right. That really was something. I didn't know you were a Kung Fu master." He uses the words to cover the fact that he is gently forcing her towards the office.

She gives him a long look before deciding to accept his words at face value. "Karate, not Kung Fu. And thank you."

She lets it drop after that, spending the rest of the night off the floor. Which is fine by him; it's much easier to keep an eye on her that way. Exactly as he wants, and not because he fears for her delicate mental health.

She had not hesitated for a second before ripping that guys thumb out of its socket, and that had started an uncomfortable hum inside him. Instinct is to freeze when attacked. A hind-brain legacy that Drill Instructors spend hours and high volume words to extinguishing. Experience did it. Not training, certainly not formalized karate tournaments.

So where had she learned? What kind of lessons had those been?

They start doing things together. Breakfasts, or early dinners before the club opens. Today they walk the Mall, joining the scattered early Winter tourists gawking at the majestic sweep of the World War II monument. Beside her, his fingers grip into the granite until the tips are white, his face pensive.

"It always gets me," he tells her with sober eyes, "how many people died. The human toll. The last moral war." She likes that he is looking at her with such openness. The access in his eyes starting a heat in her belly that she cannot easily define. She puts a hand on his back, surprised at her own audacity.

He smiles a little under her touch, but his eyes shutter as he shoves away from the wall. "We should... we should probably be getting back."

She nods, taking her hand back. "Okay."

The space between them is charged with discomfort, and she wants to apologize, but doesn't know how, or for what. She starts walking, because there doesn't seem to be anything else to do, and eventually he follows like a dog snapped at the end of a leash. She feels his eyes, but refuses to let him catch up until she is sure the heat has left her cheeks and her eyes no longer sting.

Has she become so greedy that the rarity of his friendship is not enough?

He notices that despite her Matrix level black belt, she throws like a girl. Elbow leading as she laughs and snaps a stray peanut back at him.

He knows it will become one of his truths about her. The ones that would overtake him if he allowed, tumble him straight into loving her. Like the absolute value symbol that bracket her sense of justice, and the curve of her smile, and all the things that are not words, but a warmth in his chest.

Being gorgeous doesn't exactly hurt either.

Into his revery, the back door crashes open. What he does not love is the way Baby Brother has taken to coming around. To say hi, or to break a dollar, or just to pass the time. Suddenly wanting to be involved in a way he had always refused before Booth hired an assistant.

She smiles back at Baby Brother with evident pleasure. He leaves the room.

Caroline Julian has a deck. This becomes important. She uses it to escape the heat and noise of the party. The cool bite of December feels good on her flushed skin. It is not particularly surprising when Angela appears.

"I'm hiding from Jared," her friend says. "How 'bout you?"

"Too hot."

Angela spares a glance towards the kaleidoscopic merry makers swirling behind the lead glass french doors. "Yeah, well. They are lawyers."

She rolls her eyes at her clever friend. Their breath steams lightly in the air, and she remembers pretending to smoke as a child. Eager to grow up.

"Gonna tell me why you're really out here?"

Damn Angela and how effortlessly she offers what she herself finds so hard to communicate. Understanding. Empathy.

"Some of Caroline's guests can be unkind. I might not be good with social cues, but I can tell when people are making fun of me." She makes her voice brisk. A minor annoyance. Angela gives her a chiding, skeptical look.

"Bren, you care about what people think of you about as much as a cockroach cares about nuclear winter. Try again."

"I care what you think about me," she defends, watching her finger trace a grain of wood. The breeze is starting to make her skin tighten painfully. They will have to go inside soon.

"Yes. Because we're friends. I'm talking about the great unwashed. Which you know perfectly well. And for the record, I would kick the ass out of anyone who teases you in front of me. Now stop playing dumb and tell me what's really bothering you."

Involuntarily her eyes find Booth. Standing inside sans jacket, top button undone below his loosened tie. A concession to the overcrowding heating up Caroline's house. Holding a lowball glass of amber liquid he looks raffish. Beautifully rumpled, and a million unattainable miles away.

"Ah." Angela's face is knowing. She keeps silent, in the hopes that Angela will let if drop. She manages to feel both disappointed and relieved when she doesn't play along.

"Whatever he said, Booth didn't mean to hurt your feelings."

She gives her friend a sardonic look. "I know that, Ange. You just finished telling me I'm not stupid."

"No," she contradicts gently. "Bren, you really don't know. Teasing someone like that, in front of strangers, it's a way of bragging. He was showing them that you two are close enough to leave behind normal social etiquette." She hesitates, then adds, "It's a way of laying claim."

"By pointing out my deficiencies?"

"Yes. Contradictory as it might seem, I can 100 percent guarantee that he wasn't trying to make you feel bad."

"That's..." she gropes for the appropriate level of scathing, "really dumb." Oh well. Win some, loose some.

"All I need to know I learned in Kindergarden," Angela quips, and then she is plunging once more into the breach. Giving Booth a sharp pat on the cheek before leaving him rocking in her wake, his fingertips pressed against the faint red spot on his own puzzled face.

Later, when they are gathering coats from a spare bedroom, he pulls her aside to ask if he's done something wrong. Something offensive, maybe. His eyes are earnest and his hand is on her arm, holding gently. She has had just a little too much to drink, and she has to ball her hands to keep from touching him.

"Bren, what's wrong?"

Damn him right along with Angela. For thinking he can read her, and for being so wrong. "Nothing. It's fine. Angela explained. Sometimes..." she pauses, but forces a breezy continuance. She is not confessing anything he doesn't already know. "Sometimes I miss the nuances of social interaction."

They are very close to each other, in an overheated bedroom, and she watches as the juxtaposition occurs to him. His grip relaxes, and he steps back. She feels a sudden and crippling sadness.


"Yeah?" More caution. She grits her teeth against it.

"We're friends, right?"

"Yeah," his voice is soft, his smile soothing. "Yeah, we are."

A pulse beats in his throat. She watches it in order to avoid his eyes. It's dangerous, what she's doing here. Manipulating him into affection. It's beneath her; unworthy of him; and tonight she cannot resist it. Cannot keep from circling.

"You sure you're okay." His eyes scan across her face and a nameless shame spikes into her chest. She pulls her arm from his grasp.

"Yeah. I'm fine. It's getting late. We should find Angela." She starts sorting coats, to show that 'we' means he. He looks doubtful, but his alligator skin shoes wick across the carpet. She bows her head, glad he left, wishing he had pushed her for a confession.


He finds Angela, of the unfathomable face slaps, talking to a pale haired Ulysses. Pupils blown from the promise rolling off her skin, and the poor guy without a mast to lash himself to.

"Escape while you can," he tells the half seduced man, lounging significantly against the wall and nodding towards Angela. "Here be Charybdis."

The guy, eyeing the size of the windward shore's muscles, beats to weather. Angela pouts.

"Hey Cowboy, you just ruined an hours worth of work."

"Sailor, Angela. Mixed metaphors never end well." He pushes off the wall, arms still crossed. She looks at him with a scathing displeasure of her own.

"Are you drunk?"

"No. Why did you slap me?"

"Why did you run my guy off?"

"Because of your love tap, sugar-britches. I can't hit you back, being a girl and all, but I sure as hell can ruin your night."

A telling shrewdness comes into Angela's eyes and he knows that their banter, or whatever, is over for tonight. "You're lying."

"Maybe," he allows. She crosses her arms in the brief stalemate. He gives in, uncrossing his own. "What's wrong with Bren?"

"You were teasing her. I explained why."

"No. She's upset about something. Won't tell me what."

She gives him an withering look. "Maybe about you making fun of her in front of a bunch of strangers."

He returns the sentiment. "If she told you, and you explained to her, then there wouldn't be any reason to be annoyed at me," he explains. She has become unreadable, which means there is something besides the teasing. "Angela, what?"

"Booth," his name is both rebuke and regret, "she hasn't exactly told me either."

"But there is something?"

"You need to ask her, Booth."

"I just did! She won't tell me." His frustration is in his voice. Her smile is more exasperation than amusement.

"Idiot boy, think about it. Isn't that your answer right there?"

He decides to cease talking to her, right then and there, and the ride back to their respective apartments is full of silence and discomfort.

She shouldn't like it. The way he opens doors and holds her coat as she puts it on. Definitely not the surety of his hand on her lower back, guiding her along.

Women who's battle standards she holds as her own would blaze up in fury over his patronizing actions. But the truth is (and she believes one should always admit the truth, no matter how uncomfortable) it doesn't feel patronizing. It feels warm, and steady, and unassuming.

The truth is she likes it very much. The reality is she shouldn't.

He hires a doorman. Wendell Bray of the streets, because the club is busy enough now. Jam packed with weekend loosened bodies that block his line of sights. He needs a satellite.

The first evening he pins the kid with a heavy hand on the shoulder and a Drill Instructor stare, dredging up what he remembers of Older Man to Younger Man speeches. Things about responsibility, and integrity. He suppresses a grin, and then suddenly doesn't have to anymore when his new hire nods soberly. "Yes, sir."

The kid walks away, head twisting to inspect his surroundings, and Booth makes the disagreeable realization that exertion might not be why the old aches keep cropping up earlier in the day. He cautiously rotates a ball and socket joint, testing for stiffness, and she shows up next to him, bumping her own shoulder against his arm. "Nice speech, Grandpaw."

She has been subtly distant since Caroline Jullien's party. Shying away from his touch and offering obligatory smiles. This re-inception of teasing thrills him. He smiles and slings an arm around her shoulder. "Sure was, Grandmaw."

She does not tense, but smiles tolerantly back. He squeezes her tightly against him.

Later that same night, that very goddamn night, Mr. Bray gets to earn his first paycheck. Escorting a gaggle of E-nothing high and tights out the door. They express their righteous discontent, and she is immediately into the fray, dumping the most obnoxious of them onto his ass and keeping him there.

Subdued and embarrassed, the Marines slouch back towards 8th and I, Wendell stares at Bren open mouthed, and Booth feels an undeniable tug of pride. For her fierceness. For her emptiness of fear.

She grins at him, full of high color and triumph, but his own smile falters on return. Something is flushing through him; an understanding of Angela's irritating crypticness. When she tried to remind him that people share victory and happiness, hide fear and uncertainty.

She is hiding. He intends to find out why.

She really wants to shake them. To shake the holy jesus out of both of them. Except she is Angela Montenegro. Who rises above.

She rises above the people who mob her father, desperate to touch fame with their own skin. She has compassion for stranded spiders (along with a piece of cardboard and a jelly jar). And she display amazing, exquisite, goddamn near otherworldly forbearance towards the cluelessness of Booth and Brennan. Right up to the moment she can't anymore.

Can't arrives on an innocent Spring day, full of dewy grass and the cheep of newly hatched birds. The whole vibe wafts in through the flung open windows and doors, undercutting Bren's gape mouthed shock in a frankly hilarious way.

"I'm absolutely serious. You need to sleep with him."

"Angela! I do not need to sleep with Booth!" Bren's indignation is pure, and a little squawky, and she smiles at the deliciousness of best friend agitation.

"Please. He runs after you like a sad little puppy dog, begging you to pat his little head."

She smirks at her own double entendre, but it is lost on Bren, who has shifted from indignant to wary. She looks suddenly both young and besieged, her shoulders pulled in and her arms crossed. "He doesn't."

"He does, Bren. I know it. God knows it. Little fluffy sheep in their pastures know it." She makes her voice gentle, because some profound upsetness is settling into her friend. "You just need to catch up a little."

"No, Angela. I don't. He doesn't." Then the woman just walks away. Except later she catches her eying the teenyboppers swooning over the pure sex that is Booth's casually rolled shirt sleeves, something pensive on her face.

Tuesday afternoon and she walks, actually fuckin' walks through the door like it's nothing. Like there isn't a deep purple bruise on her throat. Like her "good morning" isn't a exercise in how to talk without pushing air past vocal chords.

His anger is a great and welling cold. He cannot breath past it. He is across the room, her arm in his hand, his voice demanding that she give him a name, give me a name!, because that man is going to hurt and then die. She splutters; he squeezes, shakes. She stands very still and maintains a careful eye contact.

"Booth, you're hurting me."

Yes, he sees that now, eyes flying to where his grip has pressed her skin white. It will be another bruise, tomorrow. He erupts away from her, caught in horror. Twisting around to grab the edge of the bar, digging his fingers into the wood, head bowed down. God. I'm sorry. Oh god. I'm sorry. Not me. Not me too.

He sucks in air that feels stripped of oxygen and whimpers prayers to a God who only cares about saints. Her hand and voice are tentative, "Booth?", and then both dig in, pressing into the hollows between his ribs, sharp on his eardrums. "Booth, stop. Breath."

He fights for control. Lungs bellowing and aching, but moving slower, deeper, until he can speak again.

"You need to leave him, Bren." He bows his head toward the smooth wood of the bar, avoiding the anger in her eyes, the denial he knows is coming. Her utter conviction that the bastard just needs to be understood better, loved better, minded better. "Even if he's sorry, even if he swears he will never do it again. You need to leave him."

She takes her hand away, and he feels the swell of a futile anger. Just like Mom.

"There isn't anyone to leave."

"No - " his voice is a harsh snap.

"Karate, Booth. I was careless last night, and a beginner got through my defense. My error, my fault."

He whirls around for a second time, protest and outrage at the ready, but he can see from her face that it's the truth. "But...your hand?"

"A mugger. He hit me; I smashed his nose." She smiles, "It would have been quid pro quo, except his nose broke my hand."

He manages a smile, feeling the rising sting of a third degree humiliation. "Oh, um. Oh."

"Oh, indeed." Her eyebrows are sharp punctuation, but they both grin at the absurdity. Gapping at each other for a second, for an eon, until the wry arch of her brow fades.

"Would you really kill...?" The words fade off, but her voice is the question. He runs a hand over his face, pulling the edges of his lips down, but the honesty still escapes past his dragging fingers.

"No one hurts you. Not while I'm around."

She blinks, mouth falling open, but if it's surprise or retort he'll never know. Her newest and most irritating acquisition chooses that exact moment to bumble into view, freezing when he sees them, blinking in startlement from under his floppy hair as their eyes jump away from each other like guilty teenagers.

The night after the incident she puts it resolutely out of her mind. It's ridiculous to be afraid of something that almost, but didn't quite happen. Irrational. Except the edge of sleep finds her snapping awake again and again, returning to that surprising thump of the mat and Lucy's panicked sobs.

Being roughly flipped as hands scrabble across her throat, seeking out whatever damage is making her clutch and retch, her blood fizzing with panic and her heart thumbing towards it's own oblivion. The instructor's hands trying to pry her's back, even as his white face is blotted out by bright crackle of visible ozone.

Trachea spasm; the emergency room doctors said. Alarming, but self righting. He doesn't have to add that the righting mechanism is passing out and thinking you're dying. The brain checking out so the muscles can relax and air can flow back in.

It had been disturbing, and then embarrassing, but the persistency of both does start to fade. What does not wane is her memory of the look on Booth's face.

He sidles in the next day while she is restocking behind the bar, walking with a nonchalantness designed to draw attention, half hiding the three cold packs he slides into the freezer. "For the next time you go all ninja," he says with a grin, insufferably pleased with himself.

He looks happy, but she remembers his cold malice. The possession in his words. She needs to think about what that means. But not right now, with his eyes bright and begging her to play. She obligingly rolls her eyes, but his gaze has shifted over her shoulder, the easy lines of his face suddenly fixed.

Jared comes into sight, and she feels something shift. Perspective, maybe. The Brothers Booth stand together same as always, but where she had once seen only the unacceptable possibly of settling for less, now she sees something more.

The club needs re-painting.

He gets price quotes, chokes on them amusingly, and then declares that real men do their own sub-contracting. By the last stroke of the first wall they have worked out an agreeable work ratio; whereby he paints and she does not.

He's using the long extension paint roller when she brings lunch, the muscles in his back and shoulders bunched to angle the roller against the wall twenty feet above his head. She pauses to admire.

He puts the roller down. She holds up a foil wrapped sandwich. "Lunch."

He lunges; she backs up.

"You'll owe me. And it's only bologna," she tells him. He stares at the food with intensity.

"Owe you what, exactly?"

A good question. She tries to come up with something, but he is staring at her now, smiling and leaning into her non-answer. It's unnerving. Exponentially increasing as he drifts further inside her personal space. This is not within the guidelines of how they act towards each other.

"Give me the sandwich." The pitch of his voice vibrates potential though her, and suddenly she wants nothing more than to see how right Angela might be. In the open spirit of investigation.


"No?" he asks.

"No," she repeats firmly. His eyes narrow, amusement and satisfaction, near enough now that her exhalations are his inhalations. She is busy wondering exactly how careful her toothbrush had been that morning when he calls her bluff.

His lips are cool against, his hair and skin smell of paint. She breaths in the sharp chemical tang, caught at the epicenter of her own rippling surprise as Booth's hand...pulls the sandwich from hers. The foil is off and he is chewing before equilibrium returns, his smile wide and full of a boy's victory. "I win."

She is willing to conceded that he has.

It takes him all summer to realize that things are wrong. All through the hot, sticky swamp days of mapping her body, and into the crisp harvest when his study should have unfurled into something rooted, something elemental.

Except they are train tracks. Chugging along, with only the illusion of convergence. He whispers the future into her skin, and she smiles fondly back. Saying nothing as her fingers brush over his brow, checking to see if his fever has broken.

He wants to be fire, and she is air - continually moving away. Out of his embraces, away from his caresses, until his fingers hold nothing but where she used to be. So he circles, frustration decaying into anger, until she reaches over their little Saturday afternoon cafe table to say, "I love you."

He reels. Dizzy from bewilderment, and hard joy, and having to snatch her retreating hand back towards himself. He cradles it in his own, tracing the creases in her palm.

"I'm sorry I waited so long," she says as his fingers drift towards the base of her thumb.

"Why did you?" The space between them is exactly deep enough to drown in, as he waits to see if they are weights finding a fulcrum, or billiard balls caroming off each other.

"I wasn't sure."

"Are you sure now?" he asks. She sighs.


"What, exactly, are you unsure of?" He says the words carefully. He wants things to be very understood right now. Clean and sharp and precise. Her jaw slides to the side, and he thinks again how odd it is that contrition and deliberation look the same on her.

"When I first started working at the club, you flirted with me, and I found it very flattering." She licks her lips, and offers a better truth. "I liked it...very much. But I realized it was because I'm attractive, and not from any real interest.

"Then we became friends, and I found that to be much more satisfying. I missed the flirting, missed having you find me appealing, but I found that being your friend was an adequate trade." Her eyes drop away. Whatever comes next is the crux of the matter.

"The point is, you never mixed them. The friendship, and the flirting. Until Jared. You never wanted me; until Jared did."

In the eerily clear millisecond before his synapses are bathed in rage he is bemused to realize that it was Jared who finally spurred him to action. Baby Brother, lurking around, making him see the possibility of loosing something he does not want to give up. Then the shame and anger is flushing clear to his toes; because how dare she? He yanks his hand back.

"So you think me being with you is, what, a competition with Jared? You think I'm that kind of man?" He leans forward across the tiny table, forcing her to lean back. "The kind who would flaunt you in front of his brother, rub his face in the dirt until I do what, wake up? Get bored? Realize what a severe pain in the ass you really are?"

"No," she says quickly, "Booth, that's - ", but he's already slumping back in his chair.

"I love you, Bren," he says helplessly.

"I know," she says just as softly, and his heart wrenches to know that she believes his honesty, she just doesn't believe his truth.

She can feel the heartache he is setting them up for. It clings to his skin as he pulls her knee up. Slicks against her as he sinks forward into the space he created. Arcs between them as he holds them both in stillness. Flush along their lengths and panting as his eyes hold hers like fire. A challenge, and a plea. Demanding that she believe in his eternity.

She can't. Energy exists forever, or so the scientists say. Electrons and atoms spiraling in vast pirouettes from buried body to ground to tree to fire to air to living body. No one ever said love gets a free pass. It lives; it dies; it crops up somewhere else. Pretending otherwise is nothing but delusion and pain. But spending existence thinking about nothing but its end is as close as she understands of sin.

He runs a knuckle down her cheek, like she is something fragile, but she uses her own hand to pull him down for a searing kiss. He groans; she gathers all her strength to flip them. Hands braced on his chest as she forces a pace that will keep him here. Now.

Afterwards she gathers him up, holds him tight and hums against his damp skin. Pressed chest to back as she breaths him in, feeling his heart slow and his breath steady, knowing his eyes are full of agony.

He wants eternity, but there is no such thing.

She is in the Lost and Found when he finds her, kneeling down to paw through a bin full of hats and mittens. His footsteps give him away, and she says "don't," without turning around.

"Don't what?"

She examines two gloves for parity, rolls them up, tossing them into a pile. "Come in here asking me about Bren. I may talk a lot, but I don't betraying my friends' confidences."

She feels him watching as she inspects a knit cap, finally asking, "I'm not your friend?"

She sits back on her heels, reaching for words to explain, but he saves her the trouble. "Don't worry, I've already figured it all out." He pauses for effect, leaning in even though she can't see it. "I know that she's a KGB operative."

She snorts out surprised, convulsive laughter. "Yeah," she says, gasping, "yeah, that's it. No family, no past, faithfully carrying out her last orders to infiltrate the DC club scene, always hopeful that the Motherland will rise again."

"Plus it explains the thumb ripping off thing," he adds. Her shoulders shake with laughter gone past sound; his voice falls. "Was she out on the streets, Ange? Is that where she learned all that stuff?"

The laughter dies. She closes her eyes and waits, but as usual the universe is silent. They both know he is manipulating her. They both know she's going to allow it. "Yes."

"How long?"

"In foster care? Three years, give or take. I don't know much of that she spent on the street. She doesn't have a High School diploma, despite being the smartest person either of us will ever know."

She is still kneeling, back towards him as she listens to him occupying space. After several beats she says "don't" again. He breaths in sharply, but she doesn't give him a chance to talk. "Don't you dare pity her. She's stronger than you and I combined."

"I can't even be sad for that little girl, a long time ago?"

She she stands up now, turning to face him. They are nearly the same height, and she uses it to stare him down. "No. You're trying to write her off as damaged, just because she doesn't share your views on love. But she grew up to be big, and strong, and she's not afraid. That's further than most people ever get."

His reply is quick and angry, his hands balled up under his armpits. "Her parents did what? Died? Abandoned her? Kicked her out? The people who were supposed to love her more than anyone else, but they didn't. You don't think that had any effect?"

"Or maybe she's been paying attention, sees the divorce rate. Nothing about love is easy. I just did something that will hurt her, because I decided the benefit will outweigh the harm." Across the glorified little closet she notices how pinched his face is. She sighs and relents.

"She's not pushing you away, Booth. You want her to believe in eternity and the choirs of angels? Give her time, and give her some proof. Something concrete. Don't just give her words, telling her that someday she'll understand."

He gives her a long glowering look of evaluation, and then he leaves. She sighs, rubbing small circles into her forehead. This whole thing was a lot more fun when it didn't mean so much.

Ten and a half months. Forty-two weeks of hustle, and her constantly perplexed looks. A second job, weekend gigs, handyman favors - all reduced to a slip of paper that Baby Brother snatches out of his hand with a sour look. Plus forty minutes at his lawyer's, who curses him, and then harangues him, and then surrenders the papers.


He rolls them up like a scroll, tied with a piece of twine and set carefully on her desk. He follows her when she shows up for work, waiting in the doorway as she finds them, as she strips them flat, as she looks towards him.

"What's this?"

"Forever," he tells her. Something familiar settles into her face. Irritation, and exasperation, and pain, but she does bend her head to read. When she looks back up, her face is smooth and he can no longer see what she is feeling.

"Equal partners? Half ownership?"


She stares at him. "I don't understand."

He moves across the room slowly, pulling the papers out of her hand to look over the whereby's and to whit's himself. "Yes," he says, looking back up, "you do." He forces the papers back towards her, until she grasps them automatically. "Maybe you're right, and we'll break each other's hearts. Maybe I'm right, and we'll die together in matching old-folks rockers on the porch. Either way, I've realized the only way to know is to live it."

"And these?" Her hand is tight on the document. It will be forever wrinkled. He smiles, despite the fact that she looks terrified, and not at all joyous. This close he can see the white striations that make her eyes so pale. He taps the edge of his proposal once, says "incentive", and then does something he thought impossible. He turns and walks away.

He doesn't see her again until the club is already jumping. Steamy in the early spring heat as she leans her forearms against the catwalk railing. Dress shimmering and earrings swaying as she scans across the elevation. Finding him, and catching his eye with a smile he knows he will forever remember with a little hitch.

The hour she first believes.

She is wearing white and breathing too fast.

Holding his elbow firmly, with her eyes screwed shut. Because as long as she stands here griping the solid familiarity of his bones without looking, he remains Booth. Not some terrifying and incomprehensible man wearing a tuxedo.

"Oh, god," she whispers as the room tilts in a wave of vertiginous nausea.

"Hey," he says back, pulling her close enough that she can hear the calm beat of his own heart, "it's gonna be okay. I promise."

The tuxedoed man smells like Booth, and it comforts her enough to savagely hiss, "No. It's not. How can you be so calm?" His chuckle rumbles against her ear.

"Easy, I just imagine 'em all in their underwear."

The non-sequiterness of it pulls a bark of laughter out of her. Just as he meant, but instead of relaxing, it only winds her up further. They both wince at the chalkboard squeal of hysteria. "Booth. That's not why I'm nervous."

Gripping her shoulders firmly, he pushes her back, holding her at arms length until she risks opening her eyes. Careful to focus only on his face, keeping that terrifying tux a peripheral blur.

"I know." His face is full of compassion. Eyes and smile soft, forehead crinkled (goddamn it) charmingly. It loosen something in her chest, relaxes the fierce squint of her eyes. Which is a mistake. His bow tie swims into focus and she feels her windpipe slam close.

This is asinine. This...this outdated transference of ownership. Being nervous about it is stupider still, and yet here she is, one oxygen molecule heavy of passing out.

Out of the high buzzing Caroline somehow appears, looking both regal and pissed off. Taking in the scene, her face settles even deeper into dyspeptic disapproval.

"You people do understand we haven't gathered here for our own sense of enjoyment, right?"

She closes her eyes again, but she still knows that Booth is looking at their imposing attorney with mute appeal. She hears a sigh that could only be born of an ample bosom, and after a final squeeze his hands fall away.

"I didn't much like you at first," Caroline breaks the brief silence.

She slits her eyes to confirm Booth is actually gone, and nods. It's only the truth. "Yes, I know." The older woman harumphs from deep inside.

"Well, tall dark and handsome seems attached. He also seems to think my natural feminine empathy will somehow get you down that aisle."

"So you started by telling me that you don't like me?"


Caroline watches her without let up. She opens her mouth to argue antiquated rituals and ideas of ownership. Closes it. Opens it again and finds herself saying: "Did you know in Hmongculture it's taboo to compliment a child? They believe that calling attention will make the spirits take notice and steal the child for themselves."

Caroline's look is a flat stare.

"I read it in a book," she finishes lamely.

This time the woman's sigh is tempered by some great restraint. "Look here cherie, happiness is a constitutional right, not a goddamn guarantee. No one's going to promise you happily ever after. Ain't no such thing. But that's statistics, and eventually old age, not a jinx."

She considers it. "That...actually makes sense."

Caroline looks like she's barely suppressing an eye roll. "Course it does. I'll tell you what else is inevitable: the increase in my retainer if I find that I put on my firmest support for nothing. That happens, Mount Everest will have a hard time paying me. Understand?"

Taking as fortifying a breath as her own firm support allows, she lets herself be prodded towards the nave door. Inside she can hear the swell of some very traditional music. "Yes," she nods, "I understand."

This is how she knows. She starts to smell things with an acuteness a dog would envy, and she gets clumsy. Standing very still as he sweeps up shards of glass around her feet, she stifles the urge to put a hand to her stomach, and she starts to count.

The tally comes out perfect every time.


Firstly: Yes, I know non-sequiterness is not a word. I used it anyway.

Secondly: If only you could know, imagined reader, how many ways I've tried to manipulate you into reviewing. I've written 'em all: coy; off the cuff; nonchalant; and shameless face-pressed-to-the-floor-whole-body-toddler begging. I even tried a couple variations of I'm a Lonely Girl Far From Home.

I've written 'em all, but in the end you'll review, or not, as the spirit moves you. I tried for a very spare, stripped down style in this fic, and it would be neat if you could tell me if it ended up making any sense (by neat I mean fan-damn-tastic, but you probably know that).

Thirdly: If I really missed the mark, and you want a return on the time invested, go read anything written by Gwasshoppa. Who writes incredible stories full of finely wrought, beautiful, understated life. I highly recommend.

Lastly: 20º 18' 31"N, 72º 10' 23"W.

21 Jan 2010: abominable spanish fixed thanks to undumblond, who is very gracious.