Every Time A Bell Rings

A Christmas Story

A/N: Okay, guys. I knew I wanted to do a Christmas fic this year, and after the heartbreaking madness that was 6x09, I NEEDED to do something dealing with the aftermath of that. So here is my short, multichapter offering of both. Not too much needs explaining. I'm really excited about this one. It'll be six chapters (most of which are written, no worries), updated daily between now and Christmas…with the proper motivation of course (shameless plug is shameless).

If you want to head over to youtube and listen to "River" (either Joni Mitchell or Sarah McLachlan's versions are beautiful) while reading this…well, it wouldn't hurt.

Chapter One

River

It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

"Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once mo-"

Temperance Brennan closed the door of her office, succeeding in muffling the distant Christmas carols drifting from the Jeffersonian lounge above her office.

Returning to her desk, Brennan once again began to focus on the paperwork in front of her, a welcome distraction.

The team was holding their own little Christmas gathering upstairs. Hodgins, Angela, Cam, Michelle, Sweets, and all the interns were there, drinking spiked eggnog, eating Angela's Christmas cookies and participating in some tradition Brennan didn't understand called Dirty Santa (though there had been a long and heated debated on the proper term. Frankly, none of the other names, such as White Elephant or Yankee Swap, sounded any more appealing).

Brennan, though, had never had any intention of joining them. Her attendance would be too counterproductive to her current objective: ignore Christmas altogether.

After a few minutes of silence, there was a knock on Brennan's door. She looked up to see Angela smiling at her. There was an elf hat perched on the artist's head, and someone had apparently stuck a large red bow on her pregnant stomach.

Following Brennan's gaze to the bow, Angela rolled her eyes. "Hodgins is at the point where he thinks this is the most hilarious joke anyone's ever made. I should never have given him a pass on the sober solidarity."

Brennan forced a laugh. "Are you two leaving soon?"

"No rush," Angela replied, her eyes softening as she looked at her best friend. "Please come up for awhile, Sweetie. This thing isn't nearly as much when I'm not drinking, and I want to see you before we leave."

"You're seeing me now."

"You know what I mean. I want to hang out."

Avoiding her gaze, Brennan addressed the files in front of her. "I really can't, Ange. I've got all this to do…" She swallowed, then tentatively asked, hating herself for it, "Booth never showed up did he?"

There was a pause, and when Angela replied the warm sympathy threaded through her voice made Brennan's chest tighten. "No, he didn't, Bren. Sorry."

Shaking her head, Brennan stated firmly, "Oh, I knew he and Hannah were probably going to be gone by now. I was just confirming."

"Right," Angela said softly.

Brennan continued to pretend to be absorbed in the file in front of her, until Angela's hand appeared in her view, setting down a green napkin wrapped around two Christmas cookies.

For some reason, staring at the cookies, a Christmas tree covered in green sprinkles and a bell shaped one with red icing making a bough, brought an unexpected lump to Brennan's throat.

"Just thought you might want to try some," Angela said, turning to go. "You'll come up if you change your mind?"

Brennan smiled clumsily at her best friend. "I will. Thanks, Angela."

Angela smiled at her from the doorway. "You leaving for Russ' tomorrow?"

For a second, Brennan blinked at her, uncomprehending. "What? Oh…" Again, she found her smile. "Yes, tomorrow."

"Cool. I'll stop by before I leave, okay?"

And then Angela was gone.

Brennan glanced down at the cookies on her desk, the lie she'd just told doing little to assuage the tightness in her throat.

She'd told Angela weeks ago that Russ was hosting Christmas at his own house, and when Angela had understandably assumed Brennan would be attending, she hadn't bothered to correct her.

It was Brennan's own fault really. Max had called her just after Thanksgiving, explaining that Russ, guilty over missing last year, wanted to host Christmas for both his side of the family and Amy's.

Brennan had been seconds away from accepting when her father had casually mentioned, "I told him I'd go up a few days early…you and Booth are welcome to stay, too."

It was this, the casual, dizzying assumption that Booth would be joining her, that of course they'd be spending Christmas together this year (as they had every holiday for so many years), that caught Brennan off guard.

That phone call had happened barely a week after her confrontation with Booth in his car, and Brennan still hadn't shaken the fragile, overly emotional state the conversation had left her in. At least, that was the only explanation she could imagine for the fact that her father's innocent comment had left her precariously near tears, so much so that she'd blurted out a ridiculous lie about doing their own dinner at her place again, so Parker could join, and hanging up after the refusal.

Truthfully, Brennan was hoping for more insistence, but Max had been disappointed but understanding. Now, she could only dimly remember the rationale behind her refusal to join her family; something about explaining Booth's absence had seemed unbearable.

And so, two days before Christmas, she found herself with no plan other than to spend the holiday alone.

As the party upstairs dwindled down, the others drifted by the say their goodbyes and wish her a merry Christmas.

First Cam and Michelle, who were going to visit Cam's father in New York. Then Sweets and Daisy, spending Christmas in a cabin in Vermont. And finally, Angela and Hodgins, who were flying to Texas the following morning to see Angela's father and tell him about the baby in person.

Then, the lab was empty.

Brennan shook her head slightly, trying to focus on her work.

She reminded herself, firmly, that she'd spent Christmas alone for years. She didn't subscribe to the Christ myth, and even if she did, December 25 was not the correct date of Jesus' birth.

The day had no meaning other than that people assigned to it. It didn't matter.

Still, her father's words were repeating incessantly in her head.

Being alone at Christmas means nobody loves you.

It was her own fault, of course. She could have been with her father and brother. She'd had the option; they hadn't shunned her.

Still, if Brennan was being honest with herself (and for the past month, she'd been really trying to be), what hurt the most was the wrapped gift in the bottom drawer of her desk, the one she wouldn't be giving to Booth.

They'd wrapped a case yesterday, and Brennan had waited for him to mention to the Jeffersonian gathering, or any sort of reference to the holiday. But they were careful with each other, as they had been for the past month: an awkward, overly polite partnership that barely resembled the close bond they'd had a year ago. Booth had only once made an offhand remark about his holiday plans with Hannah (taking Parker with them to visit her parents) and had gone immediately red, backtracking and talking about the case.

Only when he'd dropped her off at the lab, Brennan halfway out of the car, did Booth say. "Oh, Bones? Merry Christmas. In case I don't see you."

Her heart had sunk, the reality crushing that, yes, Booth would be entirely uninvolved in her holidays this year. So she forced a smile and managed an unsteady "You, too." before hurrying inside.

Being alone at Christmas means nobody loves you.

There wasn't enough data to fully support that statement. All Brennan could say wih certainty was that Booth did not.

Opening the desk drawer, Brennan pulled the present out, absently twirling her fingers around the ribbon spiraling from the red bow in the center. She had been pleased with herself in finding the present, and very much wanted Booth to have it…maybe she could save it for his birthday, when reciprocity wouldn't be a social obligation.

Or maybe she should just forget it. It didn't top her phone idea, and she'd given that one to Hannah without thinking.

Returning the gift to its place in the drawer, out of sight, Brennan returned to her work, staying in the office for the next few hours, until it was well after midnight.

"Knock, knock."

The voice, piercing through the hours of silence, startled Brennan. Looking over at the speaker, though, she smiled. "Hello, Micah."

"Evening, doc. Looks festive out there."

"Yes, there was a party tonight."

"Sounds fun," Micah commented. "Just came to tell you, you should probably head out. That snow's starting to turn to freezing rain…could get pretty ugly out there."

Brennan shrugged. "If the roads get terrible I'll just stay here."

"No way," Micah tossed her coat over, shaking his head. "And get stuck here on Christmas Eve alone?"

"You're here," Brennan reminded him.

Micah grinned, hanging Brennan her bag. "I'm nobody, doc. You gotta have better options than me for Christmas."

So Brennan smiled tightly, accepted her bag, and left the office, allowing Micah to believe that was true.

~(B*B)~

"Last Christmas, I gave you my heart. The very next day, you gave it away-"

Brennan finally reached out and turned off the radio. The Christmas music on every station was grating on her nerves, and the increasingly heavy sleet was doing enough of that.

A light changed, and when Brennan braked too quickly, the car continued skidding, momentarily uncontrolled, and she came to a stop almost directly under the light.

For a moment, Brennan's heart thudded in her chest, adrenaline buzzing through her body.

She thought unexpectedly of Dr. Lauren Eames, putting herself in dangerous situations just to feel something.

The heart surgeon probably spent Christmases alone, too.

The light switched back to green, but Brennan just sat, frozen, under the light, gripping the wheel to stop her hands from shaking.

Suddenly the sharp, piercing sound of a car horn sounded from behind her, and Brennan snapped out of it, hurriedly pressing her foot on the gas and driving forward.

She could feel tears gathering in her eyes; unfortunately, that wasn't an uncommon occurrence lately.

The Eames case had forced Brennan to admit to herself so much of what she'd been trying to repress.

Like how much she missed Booth. And how hard it was to see him with Hannah. And how lonely she felt, all the time.

Once she'd admitted it, given into the emotion, it was impossible to distance herself from it again.

Then, suddenly, her car skidded on a patch of ice.

Startled out of distraction, Brennan spun the steering wheel in a panic; for a second, the car didn't respond, the tires turning uselessly on top of the icy road.

Then the car began to spin off the road.

~(B*B)~

Brennan opened her eyes, her breathing harsh.

There were shards of glass in her lap, from the windshield and the window beside her. The front of her car was scrunched against a tree on the side of the road.

Slowly, Brennan began to take survey of her body, checking for pain or paralysis. She could feel something wet and sticky rolling thickly down her left cheek, but other than that, everything seemed okay.

Brennan grabbed her cell phone and groaned; no signal. She gripped the handle of the car door and, with difficulty, slammed her shoulder against the door until it opened and she could crawl out.

Tugging her coat tight around herself, Brennan swiped a sleeve across the cut on her face. The freezing rain stung against her skin, and Brennan ducked her head to shield her face, staring down at her cell phone as she paced, waiting for a signal.

For five minutes, she waited. Not one car passed by, and the freezing rain only intensified.

Brennan sucked in a breath, and a crooked noise suspiciously like a sob rose out of her. She was soaked, freezing, and alone.

Kind of fitting for this Christmas.

She cast a glance at her car, a mangled heap against the tree. Booth would say something ridiculous, about how it was a Christmas miracle that she'd gotten out with only a scratch.

But right now, all Brennan could think was, What's the point?

Her makeshift family, the one she'd been so surprised to find herself in over the past five years, had split off and were forming their own families.

And once again, she was alone.

To them, Brennan didn't matter anymore. Like Lauren Eames, there no one to miss her, not really miss her anyway. No one who's life would be much worse off if she didn't even exist.

"Oh, now you shouldn't think things like that."

Brennan whipped around. The voice belonged to an elderly man, standing about ten feet away from her, dressed in a trench coat and a black hat. He was smiling at her.

"You'll make my job much more difficult thinking things like that."

Brennan squinted at him; it was hard to make out distinct features in the darkness, especially with the rain thick around them. "I…I'm sorry, do I know you?"

He chuckled. "I shouldn't think so, Dr. Brennan, but I know you. I know all about you. I watched you grow up."

Backing a few steps away, Brennan tensed. "How do you know my name?" She shook her head suddenly. She was a prominent public figure; lots of people read her books, and in DC many were even familiar with her and Booth, thanks to their high profile cases.

This man was unbalanced, and strange, but it wasn't impossible that he would recognize her.

Brennan's eyes darted to her car, trying to access the damage, and the best route to get to the gun she kept hidden in the glove compartment.

In spite of his strangeness, though, the man didn't seem to mean any harm. Brennan glanced around, trying to find his vehicle, but there didn't seem to be another car in sight. Homeless? No, he was dressed too well for that.

She sighed, reminding herself that she was stranded. "Do you have a cell phone, by any chance?"

The man frowned, confused. "A what?"

Brennan turned away from him, annoyed. She glanced back at the road, trying to determine how long it would take to walk back to the Jeffersonian.

"Oh, I wouldn't do that if I were you," the man stated calmly, as though they were in the middle of a conversation. "It's a good four miles back, and the temperature's dropping. Walking won't end well."

Again, Brennan whipped around to stare at him, her eyes wide. "Are you…?" She stopped herself, immediately. She'd obviously spoken aloud without realizing it.

"Now back to what we were discussing," the man continued, approaching her. "It's a ridiculous notion, you not existing. What about Angela and Hodgins? Sweets, Cam? And, obviously, Booth would-"

"Who are you?" Brennan demanded, her stomach twisting. "What do you want?"

The man smiled, and stated with great formality, "I'm Albert, AS-2." He placed a hand on her arm. "And what I want-"

The second he touched her, Brennan seized his arm ready to flip him away. But after only a second, her fist closed, and she found herself holding onto nothing, an empty space where the man had been.

"What I want," his voice continued calmly, now on the other side of Brennan, several feet away. "Is to help you realize that you matter. You've been forgetting lately."

Brennan turned slowly, unable to understand how he'd moved away. Real fear began to trickle through her, and she stared at him and repeated, "Who are you?"

"I told you. Albert. AS-2. Angel, second class."

For a moment, Brennan could only stare. "Angel?"

"Yes. Your guardian angel, if you want to get technical."

Brennan laughed once, harshly. Of course this was how her Christmas Eve would begin; conversing with a crazy man in the rain after a car accident. "There's no such thing as angels. They don't exist."

"That's a bit insulting," Albert told her. "But I didn't expect any less from you."

She began walking toward her car, thinking it would be better to wait in the wreckage, out of the rain, until this man lost interest.

Predictably, Albert followed her, grabbing her arm again. "Wait just a second."

Brennan whirled, her eyes blazing. "Let go of me."

He did, holding up his hands in surrender. "Don't worry, doc. I wouldn't dare try to hurt ya. All that martial arts training of yours, you'd have no trouble with a 287 year old geezer like me."

"You aren't 287," she spat through gritted teeth. "The oldest verified living person today is 114."

"Well, I wouldn't say I'm living," Albert conceded.

"Right. You're an angel," Brennan replied. "Though they don't exist."

"If I'm not, then how come I knew what you were thinking earlier?" Albert asked challengingly.

Brennan paused, swallowing back her own unease. Choosing her words carefully, she said, "My partner…he often gives the impression of knowing what someone's thinking, including me. He's just very adept at reading people."

"Ah, yeah, Booth is good at that. Especially with you."

The second mention of Booth's name from this stranger made Brennan's chest constrict. "Please just leave me alone…" She turned and continued down the slope to her car.

"Can't do that. Not when you're entertaining ridiculous notions about it not mattering if you didn't exist."

"That…that isn't any of your business," Brennan stated flatly, continuing walking. "And, frankly, it's starting to feel very true…"

"Fine." Albert snapped his fingers. "It's done."

In spite of herself, Brennan stopped walking and turned. With a sigh, she asked, "What's done?"

"What you said. You don't exist. You were never born."

"Ridiculous," Brennan muttered, reaching into her pocket for her phone, for another fruitless attempt at calling.

She froze; her pocket was empty. She checked the other. "Shit…" She'd dropped her phone somewhere on the road.

Albert was watching her with an amused look on his face. "People who don't exist don't have, um, cell phones, or whatever you called it. They don't have wallets or ID either. Or car keys, or cars…"

Brennan blinked at him for a moment, then turned to her car.

Which was gone.

Brennan closed her eyes, then opened them, not trusting her own vision. It wasn't possible, she'd been standing here the whole time…

"One good thing about it…your cheek's stopped bleeding."

Automatically, Brennan touched her fingers to her face. Not only was the sticky, smeared blood gone, but she could feel no evidence of a cut.

"No, that's…." she stared, wide eyed, at Albert. "That isn't possible."

"Kinda like angels, huh?" Albert teased.

"No, it's…there was a car accident. There's elevated levels of adrenaline, it's affecting my cognitive processes, there…" A strange, manic laugh escaped her. "My car was there. It…it doesn't make sense."

"You never saw anything that didn't seem to make sense, doc?"

Instantly, Brennan thought of the photo of Lauren Eames, that had looked exactly like her. Or her voice on the tapes.

"That's what I thought," Albert continued gently. "You think it wouldn't matter to anyone if you didn't exist…that their lives would be no different. So we're going to see if you're correct. We'll call it an experiment, if that makes you feel better about the whole thing."

For a long moment, Brennan considered what he was saying. Then, she caught herself, and anger surged. "You..you've…drugged me or…or something, that's the only explanation."

Sighing, his voice infinitely patient, "Then how do I know your name? Or your friends'?"

"It wouldn't take much research, we're very prominent-"

"Then how do I know about the gift you got Booth? The one you left in the drawer of your desk? It was sweet that you remembered the story."

"Wh-what-"

"Jared losing the record collection…"

"Stop it…" she cried out, a note of hysteria inching into her voice.

"The way Pops always played it for them when they were kids…"

"How are you doing this?"

"It's not the kind of music Booth usually listens to, but he always remembered that song. And you found the original, not even rereleased-"

"How do you know that?" Brennan yelled, panicked. She was slowly losing her last tenuous grasp on control. Her wallet, her keys, her phone…of all of it was gone, inside a car that wasn't there anymore.

"I also know what happened between you and Booth last month," Albert said, his tone gentle. "That was very brave of you to do, Dr. Brennan. I'm sorry, I know it must've hurt, what he said…"

Hot tears were rolling down her cheeks, a sharp contrast to the chilling rain. Choking back a sob, Brennan begged desperately, "Why are you doing this to me?"

"To show you that you're wrong," Albert said simply. "We're in a world where you don't exist, doc. Let's find out if everyone really is okay." He patted her arm, and this time Brennan didn't jerk away. "Why don't we start off by going to see Angela?"

~(B*B)~

A/N: So there's chapter one, a little longer than the next few. Hope you're intrigued by the premise, and even if you aren't familiar with It's A Wonderful Life, you can enjoy.

Reviews are the best motivation, guys. I'd love to hear from you! It'll make the next update super fast haha (second shameless plug is even more shameless).