A/N: If anyone is still following The Crack in the Center-first of all, good for you. I've sorely neglected it, and I'm sorry. But I do plan on finishing it; whether that's any time soon remains to be seen. In the meanwhile, hopefully you'll enjoy this one-shot. It just wouldn't get out of my head until I wrote it down, so I did. I need Booth and Brennan to get together, even if it is only in my head. Thursday can't come soon enough.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything Bones related. Any quotes in bold are from the show (specifically episodes 3x01, 4x13, 5x16, and 5x22).
Here's to Change
"One year from today, we meet at the reflecting pool on the mall. Right by the…"
"…Coffee cart. I know. One year from today."
Truth be told, it wasn't one year from that day. It was more like eleven months, three weeks, and five days. Brennan had gotten back from Maluku a bit earlier than expected and she didn't really know what to do with herself until Booth got back, too. She'd told Angela and Hodgins and Cam stories of her time in that muggy Indonesian jungle; she'd even gone to visit Zack. He seemed particularly interested in the science part of her journey, which was a welcome relief because nobody else really cared. Well, maybe Angela did.
"Did you find something that completely changed your idea of humanity?"
"No. But it changed anyway."
Angela and Hodgins and Cam wanted to hear about the culture, and all the exotic foods—while Brennan had no trouble sharing her experiences, she wanted someone to ask her about science. Because science was easy; science was safe and constant. People were unpredictable—they acted on whims and impulses. Skeletons never did anything but lie there, and as she shared the trials and triumphs of her year, she'd never been so grateful for that. So when Zack asked about the bones, she talked fast, so fast she almost slurred her speech. She would have slowed down, but she knew Zack would understand. He was always the one person who understood the part of her brain that no one else did. And sometimes, when she was talking about the anomalies in some of the mandibular structures, she'd have to explain about her assistant Santoso and how he would sometimes tell her they found a body, only to realize they hadn't and he'd just been smelling the patch of Rafflesia arnoldii hidden under a tree. (She'd spent hours looking at that, neglecting her bones because Rafflesia arnoldii were exceptionally hard to find as their flowers only lasted a few days. It was an unexpected treasure). Sometimes Brennan would have to digress and explain some custom or flower, and Zack would get a lonely, haunted look in his eyes, and Brennan would feel sad and realize that even the most rational of all beings was still human. Zack may not have asked about the people, but he still was one, and Brennan could never escape that.
And so it was that two weeks ago, Brennan started sitting on a bench next to the coffee cart. She knew it was irrational to hope that Booth would come home early because the Army was known for being a strict institution. Still, she couldn't help panicking over the idea that Booth would come home and look for her, and she wouldn't be there. So she sat and made friends with the coffee lady (it had taken three days to learn her name was Julie), and she just watched. At first, she had watched for Booth. It was a vigil, that nine-hour shift she spent steadfast on the bench, and she meant to keep her eyes open. But it became a sort of research experiment. When she realized that Booth's army fatigues weren't going to be popping up anytime soon, she'd taken to observing the ever-present crowd of people.
They moved in small groups, or sometimes there would be a solitary person like her. Only rarely did they sit next to her on the bench, and when they did, she calculated that 92% of the time they asked for her autograph. (The other 8% didn't even speak). It was fine with her; she didn't really have much to say. She had grown up watching people—that freaky kid with the big blue eyes whose only friend was the janitor. Most people didn't really like that, so she learned not to like most people. But still she watched and wondered.
For two weeks, she watched families and couples and groups of friends walk by the reflecting pool; some stopped to take pictures. Some set up blankets and ate lunch. If it was raining (which it sometimes was), Brennan sat under her umbrella and on top of a garbage bag and watched the few people that were wandering around. The rainy days brought out the sad people, but none of them were sadder than the lady on the bench.
Even from far away she could read the sadness in their eyes, and it made her long for the person who had taught her to see it in the first place.
"Morning, Dr. B." Julie's voice was chipper—as always.
"Hi, Julie." She took her large coffee without thanks because Julie had told her to stop saying it. But she was still grateful for the never-ending supply of free coffee. Julie refused to take her money once Brennan had told her what she was doing. "Why?" she'd asked. "Call me a hopeless romantic," Julie had said with a smile. So Brennan took the coffee and drank it and resolved to dedicate her next book to her friend at the coffee cart.
"Today's the day, Dr. B. I can feel it."
Brennan smiled sadly. "You say that every day," she countered. It was her usual response.
"Yeah, but today feels different."
Brennan took a sip of her coffee and stared straight ahead. "We'll see."
By noon, she had switched to tea to avoid the jitters. She had seen seven people with hats turned backwards (a trend she absolutely despised), three couples arguing, and countless more enjoying a romantic, sunny day. At four, she would switch to water and Julie would hand her a blueberry muffin, and at six, she would pack up, give Julie a sad smile, and go home and write.
She'd written half a novel in three weeks, and only a tenth of that was about science. Angela would have been proud.
"Because. You and me – the center."
"And the center must hold."
"Right. So, are we gonna hold?"
"Yeah. We'll hold. We're the center."
When she finally saw his bland uniform (two days later, she might add; Julie was misinformed), she held onto her cup of coffee like it was her only lifeline. He looked at her and she started to cry. When he ran over to her, she buried her face in his shoulder, not caring that it clearly wasn't a guy hug or that he still smelled like the sterile air inside an airport, which she normally couldn't stand. It only mattered that she could feel him again, that she could make sure he really was a person and not just something she had wished for.
"Gee, Bones, I thought you'd be happier to see me."
She snapped her head up. "Booth, I couldn't be more—oh. You're joking." The smug smile on his face let her know that he'd missed her.
"Thanks for all those letters you sent, by the way." Still joking.
"My letters would have been full of facts about bones, and yours would have been nearly incomprehensible because the Army doesn't like civilians to know things. It was better not to write."
"You mean I missed out on a year of lectures? Boy, that's a shame." Still joking.
"I missed you," she said sincerely.
He pulled them apart and looked in her eyes. "I thought about you every day," he murmured. Not joking.
She hugged him again and closed her eyes. He wrapped his arms tightly around her back. Somewhere behind her, a hopeless romantic was beaming.
"So, we got any new cases?"
"I…I don't know," Brennan stuttered. "I haven't really been in the lab too much lately." He looked at her like she was crazy. "Well, Angela and Hodgins only just got back from Paris, and Cam seemed to like being alone!" she said indignantly, figuring that the angrier she sounded, the more likely he was to believe her excuses. "I didn't want to mess up the status quo."
"The status quo," he repeated. "Bones, we are the status quo. You, me, the squints—it never changes. It's all of us."
"Except for the fact that we were all gone for a year. That changed," she pointed out.
He looked exasperated. It was such a familiar look that Brennan almost felt giddy. "Let's just get you back to the lab, huh? Boy, I guess you never change."
He put his hand against the small of her back and led her away. She wasn't the only one who hadn't changed.
But he had changed. Later that night, while she was sitting in her apartment and telling him about her adventures in Indonesia; while she ate Thai food out of cartons and watched him pick at his; while she watched his eyes wander and go out of focus, she realized he had changed. (She felt secretly relieved because she had, too. She couldn't wait to tell him just how much).
"Booth, are you okay?" she asked, putting down her food.
He finally looked at her. "I'm fine, Bones."
"I don't believe you," she said simply.
He shifted on the couch so he was facing her and took a deep breath. "I gotta tell you something, Bones."
She turned so she was facing him, too. "What is it?"
"I'm seeing someone." His words came out fast and desperate, like he was so afraid of telling her that he just needed to get it off his chest. She, on the other hand, had no words. At least not right away. She couldn't say anything because, not for the first time in her life, he had rendered her speechless. "Say something, will you? I'm dying over here." He tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a whimper.
She took a deep breath and steeled her face against her feelings. "Good for you," she said confidently.
His eyes were the picture of relief. "Yeah?"
She nodded. "Yes."
He slumped back against the couch. "Oh, that's great. That's really great. I just needed to tell you. Because it's us, you know? It's us."
"Right," she agreed. "It's us. The center."
For a moment, he looked surprised and touched. "Yeah, Bones, we're the center. Are we still holding?"
The last time Booth had been this desperate around her, he had asked for the impossible—to give a relationship a try—and she was so flustered that she couldn't lie to him. But she'd been away from him for a year, and a year can do a lot.
She had changed.
"Absolutely," she said.
"Well, entropy is a natural force that pulls everything apart at a subatomic level. Everything changes."
"Not everything, Bones."
It took about three months for Booth to notice that the "us" that they used to be wasn't the "us" that they currently were. Booth was constantly with Rachel, the woman he was seeing. (It had taken Brennan at least a week to stop frowning when she heard Rachel's name; it was too…normal of a name for Booth. She wasn't jealous, not by a long shot. She just suddenly found she didn't like the name Rachel). He rarely stopped by the lab anymore; the first few days that he had, they'd eaten lunch in her office and he talked about Rachel all the time. It was on day six that he realized she wasn't listening anymore. She'd chalked it up to the unfamiliarity of being back, but when she still wasn't listening three weeks later, he stopped coming by for lunch.
And just like that, they stopped holding. Once he stopped dropping by the lab, it was easy to stop going to the diner, and pretty soon, there were no more late-night knocks on her door. Oh, sure, they still saw each other at work. They still worked cases together and caught as many murderers as before. But there was no heart—it was all science and police-work.
Angela was the first to notice it. She'd pulled Brennan aside after a week and asked her if there was anything wrong. Brennan, true to form, had said no and brushed Angela aside. (Later that night, she'd felt guilty and apologized and told Angela everything. But she still didn't let her help). Cam noticed it next, and Hodgins noticed because Angela told him. Brennan noticed that they noticed, and that was the end of it.
She had to accept it for herself and by herself—that she and Booth were changing, and it wasn't for the better.
It had come to a head one cold day in September, when Brennan sat in her office with her jacket wrapped tightly around her. Lately, she'd been having a problem keeping herself warm. Nothing seemed to do the trick.
"Bones, got anything for me on Katie Edwards?"
"Not since you asked three hours ago," she replied tersely.
"Well, get a move on, huh? She could still be alive," he shot back just as coldly.
"I'm trying as hard as I can, Booth! If time is so sensitive, then why are you here talking to me? Why aren't you out there looking for her?" She knew her jab was harsh; if there was anything for Booth to be doing, he'd be doing it. But she was just so frustrated.
"I'm talking to you, Bones, because you're my best shot! Jeez, did that year in Indonesia make you forget how to work?" He put his hands on his hips and paced around briskly.
"You're not the only one who's been difficult!" Brennan accused. "You can't just come in here and expect me to give you answers. That's not how this works, Booth," she hissed.
"You know, you've had a stick up your ass ever since we both got back, and you've been taking it out on me." He pointed his finger in her face furiously, and she had half a mind to swat it away.
"I'm surprised you noticed that at all, Booth, since you and Rachel have been having such a great time together—"
He threw his hands up in frustration. "I knew it! It's killing you to see me happy, isn't it? You know, Rachel really tried to see why I like you so much. She tried so hard to be your friend, Bones—"
"Don't call me Bones."
"—she tried really hard," he repeated, talking over her, "and you just dismissed her. You can't stand anyone I date because they don't measure up to your ridiculously high standards."
"No, Booth," she spat without a second's hesitation, "I can't stand anyone you date because they aren't me."
He looked at her, his mouth frozen mid-word. Hope flashed across his eyes before it was quickly replaced with anger. "That is completely unfair, Bones. I told you, before we left; I told you that I needed to find someone. I thought I'd made it perfectly clear that that someone wouldn't be you. You made it perfectly clear that that someone wouldn't be you."
"You said things had to change, didn't you? Well, look at me—I've changed."
"I can't put my life on hold for you, Bones! I can't wait for you forever. You had your opportunity, and you missed it."
"You missed your opportunity seven years ago, and you still tried again. Why do you get to try for a second time and I don't?"
His hands were on his hips again and he looked smug. "Because your second chance will turn into a third chance, and a fourth and fifth chance, and then I'll be lonely for the rest of my life. You're too scared of your heart to commit, Bones."
Angry tears welled up in her eyes; she was determined to never let them fall, at least not when Booth could see. "I don't have time for this," she said as she stormed out of her office. "I have work to do."
Booth followed her, matching her hurried pace. "Oh, no. You don't get to walk out on me. You need to hear this."
People were turning to look at them; Cam and Angela had come out of their offices to investigate the loud voices. Brennan just wanted to be alone so she could cry. "Please leave me alone, Booth."
"Not a chance," he snapped. "I have some things to say, and you're going to hear them."
"I'm not in the mood, Booth."
"I don't care!" he yelled. Work had stopped and all attention was focused on them. "Stop walking for one minute and just listen to me, will you?"
She whipped around fiercely. "What?" she hissed.
He caught up with her and jammed his finger in her face. "We could have been great together. I always knew that; I'm that guy. But you were too afraid to try. And now, you come back a year later and expect me to up and leave Rachel because suddenly you're ready?"
"No," she said defiantly. "I expect you to leave Rachel because you still love me."
His face softened but didn't relent. "I'll always love you, Bones," he said gently. "But I can only devote myself to one person at a time. I have to let someone go, and right now it's you."
She nodded and closed her eyes when tears began escaping. "Can you go now?" she whispered hoarsely.
He didn't say anything, but when she opened her eyes again, he was gone.
They'd changed drastically over the past year, and it had torn them apart. They weren't the center anymore.
Three days later, when she and Angela had finished eating their second pint of Ben and Jerry's Mint Chocolate Cookie ice cream, Brennan heard something slide across her floor. She checked on Angela, who was curled up on her couch, and walked slowly toward her door. There was a manila folder halfway hidden by the door with a yellow Post-It on top. She picked it up and peeled the Post-It off.
New case, thought you might want to get a jump on it. I let Rachel go. I don't know if that means you have a chance or not. Thai food tomorrow?
See you at work, Bones.
"I'm that guy. Bones, I'm that guy. I know."
"I—I am not a gambler; I'm a scientist. I can't change. I don't know how. I don't know how."
They never really got back to what they were. They had changed—it was too late to ignore that. So instead of eating Thai, they got pizza. Brennan tried pie at the diner and was surprised to find that she liked it. Booth let her drive the car more than once in a blue moon. (Brennan actually learned what that phrase meant, and Booth wasn't the one who told her). Brennan learned to listen to her gut, and she found that it quite often had good things to say.
They learned how to change together, and so it wasn't a surprise when Booth's hand found its way to the small of her back again; it wasn't a surprise when Brennan would ask Booth to explain some part of people that she didn't fully understand. It wasn't a surprise when Brennan would snake her arm around Booth's back as they walked away from one of those conversations.
And when Booth came over, his hands brimming with their now-usual pizza, Brennan traded him the box for a beer and put two pieces on plates. They sat down on her couch to talk about a case, but the conversation soon dissolved into insignificance.
"I'm sorry, Booth," she finally said.
He finished chewing. "I know," he said as he wiped the cheese from his mouth. "I'm sorry, too."
She put her pizza down on her plate and leaned back into the couch, resting her head on his shoulder. It was a rainy night, and Brennan watched the droplets snake their way down her windows. She found the sound of their splattering soothing, and she almost fell asleep to their calming rhythm. Booth leaned back against the couch and grabbed her hand, entwining their fingers smoothly. Brennan closed her eyes and smiled at the touch.
Booth didn't say anything for a moment; when he finally did speak, it was so softly that Brennan was so sure he thought she was asleep. She strained her ears to hear him, grateful that she wasn't.
"I don't know if I can handle you, Bones," he said as he pulled her hand up to his lips and kissed it. "You drive me mad."
Brennan's eyes flew open. "Booth…" she whined.
Booth let go of her hand like it was on fire. "Jeez, Bones! I thought you were asleep!"
"You can't handle me?"
His eyes looked pained. "I…I don't know if I want to be a gambler anymore, Bones. There's a reason I had to stop. It was too addictive. It was slowly killing me."
"Are you saying that I'm killing you, Booth?"
He got up and walked to the door, grabbing his coat and shoes. She followed him soundlessly.
He was almost out the door before he finally spoke. "No, Bones," he said softly. "I'm saying that I don't know if I want to give you the chance to." He left quietly, and suddenly the rain wasn't so soothing anymore.
A loud rapping tore her from her sleep. The clock said it was 2:47, but her body told her that she had been asleep for more than two hours.
She stumbled groggily to the door, wiping her eyes laboriously. "Booth, you better have a good reason for coming back," she said, knowing it would be him. It was always him.
She opened the door, and her heart stopped. Booth was standing, completely soaked, still in the clothes he'd left her house in. There was a wild look in his eyes, and for a moment, Brennan forgot how to breathe. His eyes made her forget everything except for the desperate man standing less than a foot in front of her.
"Here's the thing, Bones," he said calmly as he slowly made his way into her apartment. "You do drive me crazy. I can't stand the way you still freak out about snakes; I hate that you insist on eating burritos with silverware. I hate that you always correct me about everything. It drives me crazy that you're always right, and it drives me crazy that you make me want to be a gambler. I hate that you're so addictive. So I'm gonna gamble one last time, and if it doesn't pay off, I'm done." Brennan didn't know when he had closed the gap between them, but suddenly he was inches from her face and gripping her arms in a vice. "Can I gamble on you?" he asked desperately, his voice gruff and husky.
Her eyebrows contracted in compassion and relief; on the inside, her organs turned to mush. "Yes," she exhaled. In an instant, he stole her breath and replaced it with his. The rain drummed against her windows, but it had nothing on the steady thump in her chest. She melted against his mouth, and realized that, if she really thought about it, she'd known how to change all along.
Booth had always told her how. She just had to trust her gut, and right now her gut was telling her to kiss Booth like her life depended on it—because it did. Booth had always been the one that it had been worth gambling for. She just needed a little change to see that.
The center was back, only they weren't the center anymore—they were the core, fused together so completely that not even the worst change could rend them apart.
"So, hey, what's a year?"
"It's the time it takes the Earth to make a full revolution around the sun."
"In the scheme of things. You know, the grand scheme. Just saying, a year is just, you know… it's not too bad."
Truth be told, a year really wasn't much. It wasn't too bad at all. It was the four months and three days after that year that were hell. But on that rainy night, it stopped being so bad. And so it was that Brennan found herself, one year later—after everything had started and stopped and started again—walking toward the coffee cart by the reflecting pool.
"Hey, Dr. B!" Julie said enthusiastically. "It's been a while."
Brennan smiled. "Yeah, it has. A year, I think."
Julie looked shocked. "Really? That long? Boy, it seemed shorter. What's a year, I guess, huh?"
"It's the time it takes the Earth to make a full revolution around the sun," a deep voice murmured.
Brennan rolled her eyes. "Booth, she was being facetious."
Booth smirked. "I know that," he huffed. "What, you think I don't know that? So was I, Bones."
Julie smiled. "This is the guy?"
Brennan smiled and squeezed Booth's hand. "Yeah, this is the guy. I guess there's some merit to being a hopeless romantic after all."
"Well, now I can't give you free coffee. I only did that because you looked so miserable waiting for him. Now that you're happy, I'm afraid you're gonna have to pay."
Brennan chuckled. "I intended on paying, anyway. Plus I wanted to drop this off." She placed a package on the small counter.
Julie furrowed her brows in confusion. "What's this?"
"A thank-you, I guess. Open it." Brennan watched as Julie tore off the simple brown paper; she smiled once she saw the crisp, shiny book inside.
"Hey, thanks, Dr. B!" She opened the spine with a crack and read the dedication inside. "'To Julie—thanks for the coffee and your ear. Hopefully, now you're just a romantic.' Jeez, Dr. B, this is really great."
"Consider it payment for two weeks worth of coffee."
Julie chuckled. "Not even close, but I'll take it anyway. You want the usual?"
Brennan nodded. "Please." Julie made her coffee and handed it to her; Brennan was glad for the warmth of the Styrofoam cup. "Booth, I don't have my wallet on me," she said sweetly, knowing he'd give in.
Booth rolled his eyes. "You're never gonna pay for coffee, are you?"
"Not as long as you're there to buy it for me." With a wave to Julie, they walked away.
"How about this—if you can go for two days without having me pay for something, I'll let you drive for a week."
She took a sip of her coffee. "I thought you said that I was your last gamble."
Booth sighed. "I thought you said that you'd stop correcting me."
"Well, I have to correct you if you're wrong."
"But I'm not wrong, Bones. I said that if it didn't pay off, I'd stop. It clearly paid off for me."
"Now you're the one correcting me. I don't think that's fair."
"You drive me crazy, Bones."
Brennan squeezed his hand and swung their arms. "I thought you liked that about me."
Booth smiled and stopped walking, pulling her closer to him. "No," he said, his face dangerously close to hers. "I love that about you."
"You're correcting me again," she smirked as she reached up to kiss him. "No fair."
He smiled against her lips. "I'll correct you every day for the rest of your life. Get used to it."
She closed her eyes and tangled her hands through his hair. "Every day?" she breathed.
He wrapped his hands around her back and hugged her tightly. "Yeah, Bones, every day. I'm that guy."
Well. He didn't have to tell her that.
She knew it already. He told her every day just by looking at her, and every day, she felt grateful for the change that a year had brought. It wasn't that much, but it was everything.
"We can come back, pick up where we left off. Nothing really has to change."
"No, things have to change. You know what? Hey, I taught you about eye contact, you taught me about evolution. So…here's to change."