Two weeks later Brennan woke with a start in the middle of the night. She bolted upright, momentarily confused by sheets that weren't Egyptian cotton, a mattress that wasn't memory foam, and pillows that clearly weren't filled with goose down. Her eyes flared wide in the pitch dark of the room. Her heart raced. Perspiration beaded on her brow. And her breath came in short, tight gasps. It wasn't until Booth's voice penetrated the haze of fear and confusion that she began to recognize her surroundings.

"Easy," His hand brushed hers so gently that she almost thought she'd imagined it. "You're home, Bones." Another, firmer touch, then lean, familiar fingers wrapping around her own as her initial panic began to ease. "You're safe."

The fierce pounding in her chest abated, but she was still breathing fast when she shoved a pillow behind her and sat back against the headboard.

"Damn it!" She mopped at her forehead in frustration. "There's no rational basis for these nightmares." But there was no denying the lingering dryness in her throat or the tension in her neck and shoulders.

"You were kidnapped." He sat up beside her, his shoulder brushing hers. "You were locked in a windowless, concrete room for more than two weeks. How is that not a reason for nightmares?"

She could still smell the damp basement air, but she shrugged the memory off. "I was comfortable," she argued. "Organic food. Reading materials. Luxury linens." She shook her head. "The bathtub was big enough for four!"

"Kidnapped, Bones," he repeated inexorably. "No freedom. No contact with the outside world."

She felt him take her hand again. Her fingers curled around his as he continued.

"No contact with me."

Calmer now, she stared into darkness alleviated only by the faint glow of the bedside alarm clock and let herself lean into the solid strength of his shoulder.

"Inductive reasoning based on an initial fallacy, leading to actions that were outside accepted societal norms." Her voice sounded small even to her own ears as she acknowledged the one fact that made everything so much worse. "It was Zack all over again."

His grip on her hand tightened, then eased. "I'm not a scientist, Bones. Talk me through it."

She let her head fall back against the pillows, attempting to apply logic and reason to a situation that appeared to have neither.

"Hormonal surges during pregnancy heighten a woman's maternal instincts," she said. "It isn't unheard of for those instincts to fade after the birth." Wright had been correct on that point, one very likely gleaned through both training and experience. "And in the past I did make numerous public statements that attested to a lack of interest in child rearing." Booth started to say something, but she cut him off, needing to follow her captors' motivations all the way through to the end. That was how research worked. Gather the facts. Examine them. Draw rational, evidence-based conclusions. "It's equally true that I'm devoted to my work and that the time demands required by my dual careers are significant."

Dabney had spent two weeks hammering Brennan with the facts she was presenting to Booth now. There'd been taped interviews. Copies of magazine articles. Pie charts and graphs and statistical analyses. And always, always, that calmly analytical voice of reason drifting over her from the speakers embedded in the ceiling. Even now, when she closed her eyes at night it was often Natalie's voice that echoed in Brennan's ears.

According to Dabney, Brennan wasn't meant to be a mother and would likely fail at the attempt. No. Brennan was a world-renowned scientist and an author of best-selling novels. She should focus on that and allow Dabney and Wright to raise her child. They had plenty of money, and Wright planned to quit her job. When the time came, they would be able to give Brennan's child all the love and attention that she could not. The arrangement they proposed would, according to them, benefit all parties involved. Natalie would be provided with an heir, Chris would have the family she'd always wanted, and Brennan would be free to concentrate on her work, unencumbered by the demands of parenthood.

"Their conclusion was sound," she finished.

"There's nothing sound-" Booth snarled the word, making her turn in some surprise to look at him. "-about two women trying to steal our baby." His face was bathed in shadow, but she still saw the glint of fury in his eyes.

"Not steal," she corrected. "Adopt."

Private adoption. That's what they'd proposed. She would be openly acknowledged as the child's biological parent, encouraged to participate in his life to whatever extent she chose, and able to maintain her current work schedule, secure in the knowledge that the child was well cared for.

She shuddered as their voices played again in her mind-soft, insidious, and persuasive.

"Steal." Booth's tone didn't brook any argument. "A coerced adoption is stealing. No matter how they tried to rationalize it." He shifted around to face her. "Our baby, Bones." Touching his forehead to hers, he laid his hand on her stomach. "Our little girl."

"Or boy," she said, driven to correct him despite herself.

His lips quirked, and he pressed a quick kiss against her temple. "Or boy," he acknowledged as he sat back once more.

He apparently considered the matter resolved, but Brennan couldn't get Dabney's words out of her head. They were there, always, a hissing swirl of promise and accusation surfing just beneath conscious thought. She couldn't clear her mind, especially not here in DC, where her work was a constant distraction. She needed neutral territory, someplace without the background noise of history and obligation weighting the scales. But she didn't want to go alone.

"Booth?"

"What?"

She waved a hand, its shape ghostly pale in the darkened room. "Can you get some time off?"

He hesitated, then nodded. "Probably."

The hesitation worried her. His job wasn't like hers. If he pushed too hard they might let him go. But she couldn't think about that right now, not while she still had Natalie Dabney's voice in her head.

"I want to go away somewhere. Just for a few days."

"Do you have anyplace special in mind?" He didn't seem surprised by her request, merely curious.

"Mountains." She wanted nature, not man-made structures. She wanted trees, a broad expanse of bright-blue sky, and the fresh scent of pine. She needed space. And time. And a quiet place to think.

She felt his fingers wrap around hers once more. "We'll leave tomorrow," he said.

*x*x*x*x*

The Garrett County cabin belonged to a friend of Booth's at the Hoover who came up twice a year to hunt. When Booth had asked about it Jacobs had handed over the key with a wink, a broad smile, and a warning that the place was rustic.

Rustic, Booth decided looking at it now, was a charitable description. He watched Bones study the ramshackle structure, her head tilted a little to one side, and half expected her to get back in the car and tell him to take her home. Instead, she shot a grin over her shoulder before making her way up the front steps.

"It's perfect," she said.

Booth snorted and shook his head as stepped up beside her to fit the key into the lock.

"You need a new dictionary," he said, to the accompaniment of creaking hinges.

It was a one-room affair. Fireplace to the left, fronted by a shabby futon. Camp cot to the right. Rickety card table and two folding chairs straight ahead. A little exploration revealed a tiny bathroom at the back. Booth let out a sigh of relief when he turned on the faucet and was rewarded by a stream of ice cold water. It had probably cost a small fortune to get well-drilling equipment up here, but thank God somebody had forked over the cash.

Bones eyed the narrow cot. Then she eyed him.

"Got it covered," he said, before she could comment. "Air mattress." He'd gotten the best one he could find, too. He didn't care how much she needed primitive. He was damned if she was going to be uncomfortable while they were here.

She nodded. "Good thing I'm five months pregnant and not eight," she said.

Amen, he thought as he watched her swipe at a cobweb.

He left her to deal with the dust while he hauled in their supplies. They'd been partners and friends for long enough that even in this unfamiliar setting they worked well together, and in an hour the cabin was reasonably clean, their gear stowed, and Booth had a fire going. With no electricity in the cabin they were reduced to cold showers, battery-powered lanterns, and the small propane stove Jacobs had suggested they bring, but they'd manage. Neither one of them was a stranger to conditions like these, and Bones seemed content with the simple surroundings, more at peace than she'd been since he'd found her in Chicago.

After they'd eaten and cleaned up they relaxed on the futon. With the setting of the sun, the room grew darker, until the only light came from the flicker of the small fire they'd kept going after dinner. Bones curled deeper into Booth's side. He draped an arm around her shoulders.

"Comfortable?" he asked.

Her response was a low hum that he took as approval. He brushed his thumb against her arm and returned his attention to the fire. Several minutes passed before Bones spoke again.

"What if they were right?" Quiet words, edged with worry. He didn't need to ask who 'they' were.

"About what?"

"They said I wouldn't be a good mother, that I was too emotionally distant, too busy with my work."

She didn't move, but he felt the tension rise in her back and shoulders. With a silent curse he wished for another shot at Natalie Dabney's throat. He'd take Wright's, too, if he could get it.

"Bones …" She'd come so far since he'd first met her, but two weeks with that pair and she was starting to question herself again. "You're going to make a great mom." He'd said it before, and he still believed it. But her doubts rang loud in the silence of the room.

She twisted around to look at him. "How do you know?"

"Because." He brushed a strand of hair back from her eyes. "I know you."

The slight narrowing of her eyes and the frown that accompanied it were pure Bones. "Anecdotal and inconclusive," she said. "You've never seen me parent, so you don't have any way of knowing whether or not I can do it."

"I've seen you with Parker," he pointed out. "And I've seen you with Michael."

She seemed dissatisfied, so he tried a different approach, biting back his impatience. None of this was her fault.

"Look. Bones ... Nobody knows what kind of parent they're going to be until it happens. You just-" he searched for words, finally giving up and ending on a shrug. "You just do the best you can."

"What if my best isn't good enough?"

He would have laughed at that if she hadn't sounded so serious. "You've succeeded at every damned thing you've put your mind to. You'll succeed at this, too." A log shifted in the fireplace, sending up a burst of sparks. "Besides," he said, as he bent his head to press a kiss against her temple, "you aren't going to be doing it alone, remember?"

She sat up abruptly, catching him by surprise as she pulled away and folded her arms across her stomach.

"I have something I need to say." Her fingers flexed against her shirt as she glanced over at him, then away. "And I can't ask Angela for advice about how to say it, so I'm probably going to get it wrong."

He nodded warily. "Okay."

"I shouldn't have gone back to the clinic without talking to you first." She unfolded her arms to slide her hands over her thighs in a restless, worried sweep he found endearing. "Angela tried to tell me, but I didn't understand until …" She shook her head. Her eyes shimmered with tears.

"They wanted to take this baby, this … part of me. Of us." Her eyes flicked to his again. Slid away. "I told myself that using your sperm was just about chromosomes and genetics. I even believed it for a while. But when I used that sample-" She took a breath. Let it out slowly. "It was like I stole a part of you, wasn't it?"

"Yeah," he said quietly, and hated that she flinched. But he wouldn't lie to her to spare her feelings. He'd been pissed as hell when he'd found out what she'd done. "Yeah, it was, Bones. More than that, I was hurt." She started to answer, but when he shook his head, she subsided. "But I think I understand why you did it, now." He smiled a little, remembering that night at Founding Fathers. "Turns out you've got a couple of pretty staunch advocates."

She stopped staring at the fire to look over at him. "Who?"

The fact that she didn't immediately know should've surprised him, but it didn't, really. "Cam and Angela."

"You told them?"

"I told Cam. Angela already knew."

He'd been pissed about that, too. Even knowing Angela was her best friend it had hurt to learn that Bones had gone to her first.

"I wanted her advice. And I only told her a few weeks ago," she said. "After Michael was born."

"That's what she said."

Bones had made the decision alone, at a time when she'd thought she'd lost him. And she hadn't said anything to anyone about it for weeks afterward. Instead she'd carried her secret in what must have been very lonely silence. Until fate had finally intervened.

"What did they say?"

"What I already knew," he said. "That you were just trying to find a way we could both be happy." He shrugged, and this time it was his turn to look away. God, they were a screwed up pair. "You would have your baby, and I would have Hannah."

The name hung between them in the night air until Bones seized the proverbial bull by the horns.

"You loved her," she said, and he wondered if she was aware of the edge of pain in her voice. "She was a good woman. I wanted that for you."

Hannah was a good woman. It was true. That was part of what made the whole thing such a cluster fuck.

"I thought I loved her," he said aloud. "I tried to love her." Booth closed his eyes. Took a breath. "But she wasn't you, Bones."

He got up to put a fresh log on the fire. When he turned back he found her watching him, her expression oddly intense.

"I got your text," she said. Then, her eyes dropping from his- "After I'd finished my last signing I was waiting outside the store for a cab. Your message arrived just before Chris and Natalie... " Her voice trailed into silence, and she shook her head.

Slowly, he returned the poker to its place. He'd wondered of course, but he hadn't worked up the courage to ask her about it. Now he knew. Several seconds passed before she spoke again.

"Did you mean it?" she asked.

He turned away from the fire and crossed back to her side. Dropping to a crouch, he waited until she met his eyes.

"Yeah," he said, taking her hands in his. "Yeah, I meant it. I still do."

There was a sheen of moisture in her eyes as she nodded, but her tremulous smile and the simple acceptance in her voice made him smile in return. "Okay."

Booth was about to say something else when her eyes widened. She flattened her palm against her stomach, and he wondered for an instant if something was wrong. Then she reached for his hand.

"Feel," she said, "Just feel." There was a kind of awe in her voice that he'd never heard before. She shifted his hand over, placed it carefully. "Right there."

Nothing happened at first, and he looked a question at her, but she only shook her head. "Wait."

Then he felt it, so faintly at first that he thought he might've imagined it. He waited. Felt it again. And grinned at her.

"He kicked me!"

She laughed. "No … she kicked you."

By the time they went to bed the fire had died down to embers, lending a faint red glow to the night as they undressed and climbed under the covers. He drew her close, trailing his fingers over her shoulder and back until she rolled over to face him. Her hands settled against his chest, fingers splayed wide.

"Make love with me," she whispered. She leaned in and brushed her lips against his. "Please?"

"Anytime," he said, after returning her gentle kiss with one of his own. "God, baby. Anytime."

That night, for the first time since the kidnapping, there were no nightmares.

*x*x*x*x*

It was late when she woke up. Or late for her, anyway. The sun was already well above the horizon. She eased her fingers free of his and got out of bed, careful not to wake him. After a quick shower that left her clean, if shivering, she fumbled through making a fresh pot of coffee, her fingers stiff with cold.

She was on the front porch when he stumbled out, sleepy eyed and tousled, a half hour later. He lifted a steaming mug in silent gratitude and crossed to lean against the post at the top of the steps. She studied him while he drank. He'd pulled on jeans and a snug-fitting black t-shirt before joining her, but his feet were bare. His toes curled into the aged wood of the porch. She wondered if he was even aware of it-the flex of muscle and sinew, the strength of bone.

She took a sip of her own coffee, her eyes following his to the tree line, where a squirrel dug busily at the dirt near the base of a tall pine. She watched it work for a few seconds, then smiled when it stopped and picked something up between its tiny paws. It scampered up the tree with its prize as Booth set his mug down on the railing and turned to face her.

"So," he said, then paused to cover a yawn. "What do you want to do today?"

It seemed an odd question. They were in the mountains, after all. "Hike," she said. "There's a trail behind the cabin. I want to see where it leads."

He raised an eyebrow. His gaze flickered down to her stomach, then back up again. "You sure you're up to it?"

Annoyed, she got to her feet. "I'm pregnant, Booth. Not incapacitated."

While he showered a few minutes later she assembled a light lunch, some bottled water, and a small first-aid kit. She added a pair of rain ponchos to the pile, tossed in sunscreen, and divided it all up between their two day packs. By the time he emerged from the bathroom, dressed and freshly shaved, she was ready to go.

They spent most of the next two days outdoors, returning to the cabin at sunset to fix dinner and then sit by the fire. On the third afternoon the path they'd chosen led along the bank of a river. They followed it upstream, arriving an hour later at a pair of downed trees that had fallen across a narrow, stream-carved gully. The trail picked up again on the other side.

Instead of crossing the logs, Brennan dropped her backpack and climbed up on a nearby boulder, dangling her legs over the edge. Booth pulled a bottle of water out of his backpack. He offered it up to her, but she shook her head. She wasn't thirsty. She'd been thinking while they walked, sifting through facts and memories much the way she'd sift through artifacts at a dig site-one small shovelful at a time. Now she wanted to talk.

"They believed it," she said. It hurt more than she wanted to admit. She dropped a twig into the water and watched it tumble and spin its way downstream. "They thought I would leave without saying where I was going."

Booth capped the bottle. "It," he said. "You mean the text you supposedly sent from Chicago?"

Chris Wright had confessed to sending it herself, using Brennan's cell phone, a little while after they'd kidnapped her from outside the bookstore where she'd been waiting for a cab. Pushing aside her memory of that night, Brennan nodded.

Booth tucked the bottle of water back into his pack. "Some did."

"But you didn't."

He straightened. "Not for a second."

"Why?"

"Because I know you. You wouldn't leave without telling people where you were going, not after your parents …" With a shrug, he trailed off, leaving the sentence unfinished. "You wouldn't have done it."

"Even after our fight?" He'd been furious when they'd talked on the phone that night, and by the end of it she'd thought he would never forgive her. When she'd finally hung up she'd been convinced that their relationship was over.

"Even after that." His voice was quiet, but definite. He climbed up to sit beside her.

"Thank you," she said simply as a distant blackbird's raucous call was answered from the top of a nearby oak tree.

He bumped his shoulder against hers. "You bet." There was a short pause during which they both watched the water eddy and swirl. "Bones …"

She glanced over and found him watching her. He'd folded his arms. Muscles bulged against the tight sleeves of his t-shirt.

"Why didn't you tell me about Woods?" he asked.

It was her turn to look away. "I've taken care of myself for a long time, Booth." It came out more sharply than she'd intended it to. "You saw the report," she said, softening her tone. "I handled Woods."

He nodded. "That isn't my point."

"Then what is the point? Woods wasn't a problem. Neither was Chuck." Angry for reasons she didn't understand, she slid down off the boulder, then turned, hands on her hips. "I don't need you to protect me from every little bump and bruise."

He swivelled around to face her. "I know that."

"No, Booth. I don't think you do. When I told you I was doing the tour you tried to convince me to cancel it. When I refused, you insisted I take the train. Your fears were unfounded and chauvinistic, but I didn't want you to worry, so I conceded."

She reached for her pack, having changed her mind about the water. "And it didn't matter. Things still …" She yanked out the bottle as the memories flooded over her again. "Things still went to hell. But I handled it, Booth. Most of it, anyway."

Without answering, Booth jumped down from the boulder, but instead of facing her he moved to the riverbank, leaving her looking at his profile. She saw his chin come up, saw the flex and release of his jaw. "I worry about the people I love, Bones." He shot her a sidelong glance. "You and Parker … this new baby … You're my world." He stared out over the water, and she wondered what he was thinking. Then he pivoted, the heel of his boot gouging into the dirt, and there was an intensity in his eyes that she'd rarely seen before. "When you disappeared …" His voiced caught. He swallowed. "During those two weeks, nothing mattered to me. Nothing-" he repeated, holding her gaze, "-except finding you."

Faced with the undeniable truth of it, the truth of him, as Avalon Harmonia would say, Brennan could only stare. How was she supposed to respond to such unequivocal devotion? And yet she knew that had the tables been reversed, had he been the one missing, she would have done the same. And that was it, wasn't it. That was what bound them together-even more than this baby they'd created. They would always believe in each other, be there for each other.

No matter what.

"I love you, too," she said quietly, and when his eyes lit up, the corners of her mouth tilted into a smile. "But you can't hover, Booth. You'll suffocate me."

He considered that. Nodded. "I'll make you a deal," he said. "I'll do my damnedest not to hover if you'll promise not to keep things from me."

"I'll try," she said tentatively. She'd gotten better about sharing things with him over the years-opening up, Angela called it-but it was still a struggle. "but I might make mistakes sometimes."

His low chuckle rolled out over the stream. He crossed back to her and slipped an arm around her waist. "You might make some mistakes? Hell, I guarantee I will." She felt the press of his lips against her temple before he nudged her toward the fallen logs. "You wanted to do another five miles today, right?"

"Yes." She started across the natural bridge, and he fell into step behind her. "Walking is very good for both me and the baby."

"Then snap to it, woman."

When she reached the opposite bank she glanced back, ready to take him to task for the comment. Then she spotted the twinkle in his eyes. She snorted, shook her head, and when he stepped back onto solid ground, pushed him ahead of her.

"Anthropologically speaking," she said, with perfect equanimity. "The male is supposed to be the trail blazer."

She started to draw her hand back, but he caught it and twined his fingers through hers, drawing her close to his side.

"What do you say we blaze this trail together?"

*x*x*x*x*

On the last day of their trip Booth emerged from the bathroom after shaving to see Bones lacing up her hiking boots in ominous silence.

"Something wrong?" he asked, as he reached for his own shoes.

"No." She tucked in the laces and got to her feet. "I'll meet you outside."

He'd barely stepped out the door when she jumped down the steps and took off, striding up the mountain as if the hounds of hell were yapping at her heels. Baffled, he followed her, letting the screen door slam behind him.

For forty-five minutes he matched her silent, punishing pace, one eye on the path ahead and the other on the rocks and exposed roots that, after the first twenty minutes or so, threatened to send one or both of them crashing back down the steep grade. They finally reached the summit, bursting up and out of the tree line and onto a broad, flat meadow. But even then Bones didn't slow down. She stalked through the tall grass, stopping only when she reached the edge of a precipice. There she spun around, hands on her hips, and glared at him.

"I'm going to love this child," she snapped. Her eyes flashed fire. Her chest heaved with exertion.

"Of course you are." Booth bent at the waist, pressed his hands against his thighs, and struggled to catch his breath, eying her from beneath the brim of the ball cap he'd tugged on before he'd left the cabin. "Bones, what the hell-?"

"I'm not going to leave him with a nanny or send her off to boarding school, either. And when she cries I'll pick her up and I'll hold her." He saw the glimmer of tears and started toward her, but she snapped up a hand, stopping him in his tracks. "Nobody's going to tease her for being too smart or lock him in a trunk for breaking a plate. Nobody's going to make him pack everything he owns in a black plastic bag to be carted away to some stranger's house where most of it will probably get thrown away. My child will never, ever feel like she's an inconvenience, or a burden, or worthless-" Her voice caught. She swiped at her eyes. "...or unwanted."

He watched, frustrated and helpless, as she sank to the ground like a deflating balloon. But when she lifted her eyes to his there was steel in the blue-gray depths.

"I won't give my child to a woman who appropriates the title of mother but can never be her mother." Her voice dropped. Her hand settled protectively over her stomach. "Not like I can."

Suspicion rolled over Booth in a red hot wave. "What happened?" he asked. "Was it Dabney?"

She blinked up at him. "What?"

"It was, wasn't it." Damn that woman. "What did she do? Send you a text?"

Bones looked away. "You were in the shower," she said, in a voice that was uncharacteristically small and uncertain. "I didn't …" She shook her head, her voice trailing off.

"Give me your phone." He held out his hand.

"Booth …"

He cut her off before she could launch into a lecture about him being over protective, because damn it, he wasn't being over protective. He was just doing what she would have done herself if she'd been thinking clearly.

He wiggled his fingers at her, palm upturned. "Now, Bones."

They weren't supposed to contact her. It was one of the many conditions of their bond agreements. They'd also relinquished their passports, been fitted with ankle bracelets, and forked over an obscene amount of bail money. Fuck lot of good any of that had done. He'd known something like this would happen. So had Caroline, who'd argued herself red-faced demanding a remand. But no. That damned idiot judge had taken one look at Wright's tear-filled baby-blues and caved.

Booth took the phone Bones had pulled out of her pocket, punched up the message, and felt his blood boil as he read the display.

When you change your mind, let us know. The offer's still open.

The message was followed by a number that would probably trace back to a disposable phone.

Booth cursed, checked to make sure he had a signal, and punched in a number of his own. When it was answered on the other end he pushed a hand through his hair and turned away from Bones.

"Hey. Caroline. It's Booth."

"Don't you have your own phone, cherie?"

On any other day the acerbic response might have made him smile. This time he felt a muscle twitch in his jaw.

"Bones got a text message," he said. "Earlier this morning. I'd be willing to bet it came from Natalie Dabney."

He read the message and number to her, then waited while she unleashed a string of expletives that would've cowed a sailor.

"Were they dumb enough to sign it?" she asked, after she'd wound down.

"No." He wished they had. As it was, it could be virtually impossible to tie the message back to Dabney and Wright. Booth made a mental note to get Bones a new phone, even as he kicked himself for not doing it sooner. She might complain about the inconvenience of notifying all her contacts, but a little inconvenience was a small price to pay for peace of mind.

"Hmm." Caroline blew out an irritated sigh. "Number's probably a burner," she said. "But maybe those geniuses of yours over at the Jeffersonian can work some kinda magic on it. In the meantime, I'm gonna call that judge and give him a piece of my mind." There was a rustle of paper, the crash of a drawer being slammed shut. "You tell Dr. Brennan I'm gonna take care of this for her, okay? Those two are gonna find their asses back in jail so fast they won't even have time to tweet about it."

It was on the tip of his tongue to fire off a respectful 'yes ma'am', but he settled for "I'll tell her," instead. "And Caroline?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks."

"You got it." There was a brief pause. Then, "How is Dr. Brennan? She all right?"

"She's a little shaken up and a lot pissed off," he said, "but she'll be fine."

"You take care of her, you hear? She's going to need some help gettin' herself sorted back out again, and I'm not too sure Baby Boy Sweets is up to the job."

"I've got it under control," Booth said, imagining what Sweets would say if he'd heard that unflattering assessment. "But I'll let her know you asked about her."

"You do that, Agent Booth."

Caroline hung up to call the judge, and after turning off Bones's cellphone, Booth dropped it in his pocket, resisting the temptation to chuck it off the nearest cliff.

He waited a moment, his eyes on Bones while anger seeped out and something else seeped in, bringing with it the echo of Max's voice.

"She's going to try to be tough," Max had said when Booth had talked to him after it was all over. "I taught her that. Maybe too well. She's going to insist that she can put this thing behind her and never look back." A pause then, and the sound of an indrawn breath. "Don't let her do it, Booth. Don't let her hide from you."

"I won't," Booth had promised. "I'll look after her, Max. Count on it."

Now he crossed back to her and dropped to the ground at her side, sitting quietly until she sent him a sidelong glance.

"Can I have my phone back?"

"If I say no you're going to accuse me of being over protective again," he said, "but Dabney and Wright are still out there, and as long as they are there's nothing to keep them from contacting you."

She considered that, then shrugged. "Keep it." she said, "but only until they're back in custody."

Her tone, one of grumbling acceptance, brought a faint smile to his face.

"Hey," he said, deciding a change of subject was in order. "Randy Jenkins called the other day." He'd been waiting to tell her the news until they'd put the kidnapping behind them, but he figured she could use the distraction now. Sure enough, she emerged from her black mood long enough to cast him a curious look.

"Oh?"

He nodded. "Remember when you called me from Atlanta and I told you that he had a lead?"

"Yes, but since he didn't provide any details, I didn't take him seriously."

"Well you can take him seriously now."

She'd plucked a blade of grass and begun idly tearing it to shreds, but at his words she dropped it and turned to face him. He waited, letting the suspense build until her initial curiosity edged over into impatience.

"Well?" she prompted.

"How do you feel about fire stations?" he asked, deadpan.

"I believe they're useful to have nearby," she responded, "if your house is burning down."

"No. I mean how would you like to live in one?"

She blinked at him, nonplussed. "Why would I want to do that?"

Booth reached into his pocket and pulled out his own phone to show her the information Randy had sent him.

"Because," he said enthusiastically as he opened the file and handed the phone to her, "it'd be way cool."

She took the phone, but she still looked doubtful. "I don't understand why the ambient temperature of a-" she glanced down, then back at him. "-decommissioned fire house would be any different from that of any other home," she said.

"Not cool as in cool," he corrected. "Cool as in awesome. Slick. Neato."

"Neato?" The look she gave him, eyebrows raised, head tilted a little to one side, was old school Bones.

"It's perfect, Bones. Good location, plenty of light..." He pointed out amenities while he talked. "Four bedrooms, two and a half baths, plenty of character."

"No yard," she said. "You wanted a yard."

"There's a park half a block away."

"Parker wants a swimming pool."

He wanted to kiss her for thinking of Parks. Hell, he just wanted to kiss her. He did, then drew back.

"So we'll get a membership at the Y. Besides, a fireman's pole is way cooler than a swimming pool. None of his buddies can say they have one of those at home."

He could tell she was wavering, even if she wasn't yet ready to admit it. "What about the baby?" she asked. "It'll be several years before she'll be old enough to manage a fireman's pole."

"We'll lock it down," he promised. "Build a hatch so that he-" He grinned when humor sparked in her eyes. "-can't hurt himself."

He pointed out the oak floors, the broad expanse of windows. "Floors need sanding and polishing, but that's easy enough."

"Windows are grimy," she observed, tilting her head. "Unless these pictures were taken at night?"

Booth shrugged. "I'm sure they're grimy. Place hasn't been occupied for a while. But it's nothing a little elbow grease won't fix."

When the brush of her finger brought up the floor plans he stopped her, leaning in close and capturing her hand with his.

"And this-" He indicated a large, airy room on the east end of the third floor. He had no idea what the room's original purpose had been, but he knew what it needed to be for her. "-could be your home office."

He waited while she scrolled through the information and then back again, stopping occasionally to read. This place was right for them. He was certain of it. But he knew there was still one thing they had to talk about.

"It's out of our price range," she said, getting there sooner than he'd expected her to.

"True," he said.

He'd fought a hard personal battle over that one. Bones made more money than he did. She always would. And he needed to deal with that, because he sure as hell wasn't willing to let it come between them. Reaching into his pocket, he fished out the Monopoly piece Todd had sent him from Chicago. He took her hand, turned it over, and dropped the tiny metal shoe into her upturned palm, then folded her fingers over it.

"But I think we can afford it together," he said, grinning at her stunned reaction to the small gift and remembering the earring he'd found for her in New Orleans. Things are just things, she'd said then. They cannot have magical meaning or powers.

Her gaze sharpened on his, and he wondered if she remembered that conversation, too. But she only nodded and slipped the game piece into her own pocket without comment.

When she looked back at him, there was a new eagerness in her eyes. "When can we look at it?"

"Soon as we get back. We have an appointment first thing Monday morning."

The sky had clouded over while they'd been talking, and now a distant roll of thunder drew Booth's attention skyward. Getting to his feet, he pulled her up beside him.

"We should head back down," he said, with a pointed look around at their exposed location. "This probably isn't the best place to be when that storm breaks."

They moved back toward the tree line, but the storm blew in faster than they could make their descent, and they were only midway down when they heard the first drops splash against the leaves above their heads. Bones gave him a pained look.

"The one time we don't bring the packs," she said, glancing upward with a shake of her head.

The steepest, most dangerous part of the trail was behind them, but they still had a good twenty minute hike back to the cabin. Booth cast a glance at the few bits of sky that were visible through the trees, then grabbed her hand. "Come on," he urged with a grin. "Let's make a run for it." It was an insane idea. Pregnancy had already shifted her center of balance, and the path ahead, though relatively smooth, still sloped downhill. But fearful as he was that she might hurt herself or the baby, he trusted her to know her limits. There were times when you had to protect the ones you loved, he thought, and times when you had to let them protect themselves.

"Booth-"

She was giving him that look, the one that meant she thought he was being irrational and immature, but he just tugged at her hand.

Dabney and Wright had chipped away at her self-confidence for two weeks, and from what he'd seen since, they'd done a damned fine job of making her doubt herself. But he didn't doubt her, not for a minute.

"Last one back cooks," he challenged. "I'll even give you a head start." She needed to get her mojo back, and while a race wouldn't get her all the way there, it might help to set her on the right track.

He saw the calculating gleam in her eyes an instant before she took off, scrambling down the path like a jackrabbit, though as he'd known she would, she slowed down when she needed to, protecting herself and their unborn child. He felt a surge of pride as he watched her, certain she would be okay, that they would find their way back again. Together.

"You coming or not?" She called as thunder crack overhead and the rain started to come down in earnest.

"Right behind you, Bones."

He stayed two steps back as they scrambled over fallen logs, skirted large rocks and patches of mountain rhododendron, and splashed across a shallow creek.

By the time they broke free of the woods in front of the cabin they were both soaked to the skin. He caught her shoulder, spun her into his arms, and captured her startled gasp with his lips while thunder rumbled over their heads. She tasted of raindrops, and when he drew back her eyes laughed up at him.

"You cheated," she accused him. "Impeding a runner's progress is grounds for disqualification."

He shrugged it off and brushed dripping strands of hair away from her face. "So disqualify me," he said, and sank into another kiss, letting the warmth of her mouth chase away the chill of the rain. When her arms twined around his neck and her body pressed into his he knew that regardless of who crossed the finish line first, he'd won.

They both had.

He loved her. Would always love her. Nothing would ever change that.

As if aware of his thoughts she pressed in closer, and he tightened his hold on her, reveling in the press of her body against his for a few more seconds before drawing reluctantly away.

"Come on," he said, and reached for her hand. "Let's get out of this rain."

*x*x*x*x*

After they changed into dry clothes they moved the table in front of the fireplace and got out a deck of cards. They took turns choosing games, the cards passing back and forth between them with easy camaraderie. After a particularly aggressive round of Slap Jack, Booth got up to tend the fire, and Brennan got up to use the bathroom. On her way back she stopped to get drinks out of the ice chest, a beer for Booth, and cranberry juice for herself. She set Booth's on the table and propped her hip against the shelf that served as a kitchen counter, opening her own while she watched him rearrange the logs in the fireplace.

"Chris Wright had an emergency hysterectomy two years ago," she said conversationally, then watched as Booth lost his hold on the log he'd been moving with the tongs. The wood dropped into the fire, sending up a shower of sparks, some of which slipped past his guard and onto the hearth. There followed a fascinating few seconds of cursing and stomping that ended in a long sigh and him turning to stare at her, hands on his hips.

"You think maybe you could've dropped that bombshell when I didn't have my hands full of flaming log?"

"You weren't using your hands. You were using the tongs," she pointed out.

"Same difference." With a huff of irritation, Booth put the tongs away. "Chris Wright can't have children of her own." He scrubbed a hand through his hair and shook his head. "You didn't think that might've been worth mentioning, I don't know, two weeks ago?"

"No." Brennan sipped her juice, pursing her lips against the bitter tang. "She had the procedure done several years ago. I don't see how it's relevant to the case."

"It goes to motive, Bones." He walked over to stand in front of her. "Think about it. What if instead of setting you up for those fertility treatments your doctor had told you that you would never be able to have children of your own?"

She experienced a twinge of discomfort at the thought, but disregarded it. "There are other ways, Booth."

"That's right." He snapped his fingers. "There's adoption." Folding his arms across his chest, he raised an eyebrow at her. "And Dabney and Wright thought they could choose their kid the same way they chose which vegetables to order from PeaPod."

She set her bottle down harder than she'd intended to, then had to steady it when it wobbled and threatened to tip.

"Adoption isn't the only way."

"After a hysterectomy? Yeah, it pretty much is."

"No. There's surrogacy."

He shrugged that off. "That's just another name for what they were hoping to get from you."

"Natalie could've carried a baby. They could've used donor sperm." As she had done. Her eyes found his. Held. His next words were quiet, but she thought she heard a hint of remembered pain behind them.

"Then why didn't they?"

Brennan picked up her juice bottle again, looking down at it as she rolled it between her palms.

"According to Chris, Natalie was too busy with her work."

He was quiet for a long moment, then he reached over, plucked the bottle out of her hands, and set it back on the counter. She looked up at him in confusion as he took her hand, but followed him across to the futon without complaint. He pulled her down beside him, then turned to face her.

"You aren't Natalie, Bones."

The comment baffled her. "Of course I'm not."

"No. I mean you aren't anything like her."

"Actually," she argued. "We're very similar people. Granted, she isn't as intelligent as I am-" He smiled faintly at that, but she ignored it. "-but she does have an impressive IQ. She's also rational, successful, well-respected in her field, and independently wealthy. " Brennan got back to her feet and moved away from him, unable to look into his eyes while she said the last part, the part she'd been agonizing over. "She wanted a baby, Booth. An heir to her fortune and a family for Chris. And she was willing to do whatever she had to to get it."

There was a long silence. Then she heard the futon shift as he got up. A moment later his hands settled on her shoulders.

"You're forgetting something," he said quietly.

She searched her memory, replaying the conversations she'd had with Chris when Natalie had been away. Then she shook her head. "No, I'm not." .

"Yeah, you are."

His grip on her shoulders tightened as he turned her around to face him. There was a bit of lint on his left shoulder. She stared at it until the pressure of his hand under her chin lifted her face to his.

"Look at me, Bones."

She did, reluctantly. She'd expected to see vindication in his gaze, but what she saw instead made her throat go tight.

"Motive," he said, repeating his earlier comment. "You're forgetting motive."

"I don't understand."

"Natalie acted out of arrogance and greed." He nudged a strand of still-damp hair back from her face, then settled his hand against the side of her neck. "You acted out of love."

"That doesn't make it okay," she said, and found herself blinking back tears.

"No," he agreed. "It doesn't. But I can forgive somebody who screws up out of love. I can't forgive somebody who does it out of greed."

She looked at him and wondered how it was possible to love somebody as much as she loved him, and yet to hurt them as much as she'd hurt him. "I'm sorry, Booth." She dropped her head to his shoulder and felt his arms come around her. "I'm so sorry."

"Shh," he murmured, and she felt him lower his head over hers, felt the press of his lips against her hair. "It's over, okay? Besides, I think I probably owe you an apology of my own."

Confusion brought her head back up. "For what?"

"For Hannah."

She shook her head. "I don't understand."

"I didn't realize it at the time, and I certainly didn't do it intentionally, but I used her to get back at you."

"You cared about her."

"I did. I still do. But the fact remains ..." He paused as the cabin brightened with a flash of lightning then subsided back to the dingy gray of rain-shadowed evening. "I was hurt when you turned me down after we met with Sweets that night, and because of that I made some bad choices."

One mistake in an experiment, or one misinterpretation of evidence, often triggered others, thus invalidating results and forcing the ethical investigator to begin again. Usually she hated when it happened to her, but this time she was grateful.

"No," she said aloud. "You made rational decisions based on the facts at hand. You told me you needed to move on, and I accepted that."

"I wasn't there for you when you needed me."

"You couldn't be. Your allegiance belonged to Hannah."

"No," he said. "My allegiance belongs to you. It always will."

His certainty calmed and reassured her. Somewhere along the line he'd become her rock, despite his often baffling reliance on instinct, supposition and emotion. She dropped her head back to his shoulder and wrapped her arms around him, and they stood there together while the fire crackled in the hearth and the rain beat against the windows.

"I love you," she said at last.

His arms tightened around her for an instant, then loosened. She drew back enough to tilt her head up to his.

"I love you, too," he said, and she reached for his kiss, meeting the warm strength of his mouth halfway.

*x*x*x*x*

The storm brought cooler temperatures and a stiff breeze, so they moved the futon aside and dragged the air mattress in front of the fire. Booth made up their bed while Brennan cleaned up the remnants of their dinner. It was still relatively early when they finished the simple chores, but they crawled into bed anyway, Brennan taking the side closest to the fire.

Booth lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling, watching the play of light and shadows. Beside him, Bones had curled on her side and tucked her cold feet against his legs. It had been a long, emotionally draining day, and he'd thought she might fall asleep despite the early hour, so he was surprised by the sound of her voice.

"Chris had a bad reaction to the anesthesia they gave her when she had her hysterectomy," she said.

"Oh?" Whatever she had on her mind, it sounded like she'd been chewing it over for a while.

"She spent several days in the CCU, and for a while, the doctors weren't sure she was going to make it."

"Sounds familiar," he said, remembering his own surgery and the long, frustrating recovery that had followed.

"Chris's reaction was worse than yours was." Bones shifted to her back and stretched out her legs.

"Bones … Not that I'm not interested, but why are you telling me this?"

She looked over at him. Her expression was serious. Thoughtful. "The hospital wouldn't let Natalie in to see her."

"Immediate family only," he said. "It's a pretty standard policy."

"But Natalie is Chris's family." She returned her gaze to the ceiling. "Chris's parents died when she was a teenager, and she doesn't have any siblings."

"But Dabney and Wright weren't family in the eyes of the law," Booth pointed out. "No matter how they felt about each other."

"They love each other. I think maybe they love each other as much as we do." Her hand connected with his under the blankets. Held.

"Where are you going with this?"

Bones continued as if she hadn't heard him. "The house they bought is in Natalie's name. They each have their own health insurance policy. They couldn't even file their taxes together." She rested her free hand on her stomach, and he wondered if she was aware of the protective way she caressed the rise. "And their child would be asked intrusive, inappropriate questions."

"Maybe." Probably. Dabney and Wright's fictional child wouldn't have fit the standard mold, and children who were different often became the subject of teasing.

She rolled over to face him, and he reached automatically to adjust the blankets. Behind her, the fire snapped and hissed at the rain.

"I want to get married."

Stunned, he stared at her while his heart did a slow, hard thud in his chest. "Bones …"

She shook her head, silencing him. "I don't want people to question what we are to each other," she said. "If you're ever in the hospital, I don't want to have to prove that I have the right to know what's going on." She paused. Swallowed. "And I never want our child to have to explain to her friends why her parents aren't married."

He reached for her hand again, wrapped his own around it. It was everything he'd ever wanted, but he found himself hesitating.

"Are you sure about this?" he asked. "You've always said-"

"I know." She gave a faint shrug. A tremulous smile. "I've decided I was wrong."

He wanted to laugh. He wanted to grab her up in his arms and swing her in circles until they were both too dizzy to stand. He wanted to climb up on the roof and shout it to the heavens.

Instead he leaned in and kissed her, letting his lips linger against hers.

"Yeah," he said, drawing back just enough to smile into her eyes. "Okay."

Epilogue

They decided to combine their wedding and housewarming party into a single event. It was Bones who'd suggested it, reasoning that it made sense to consolidate. Booth had agreed without hesitation. They were already frantically busy, what with buying a house, sorting out whose possessions would go where, and preparing for the baby. Anything that might simplify their situation, even a little, was a good thing.

That was why Booth found himself surrounded by drop cloths and paint cans when he took his vows, as well as why the windows were uncurtained and their buffet table consisted of a pair of saw-horses overlaid with plywood. But Angela had worked magic amidst the chaos, hiding the plywood beneath a lacy tablecloth and covering every available surface with a flood of greenery. Interspersed among the wildflowers and roses were the vases Bones had saved from her trip. Each one held a trio of pale yellow daffodils accented with a sprig of baby's breath. Booth wondered where Angela had found those at this time of year, but he didn't care enough to ask. Instead he only hugged her, whispered a thank you in her ear, and when she hugged him back with a murmured "you'd better treat her right," he'd grinned.

Bones wore a cream-colored maternity dress that brought out the color of her eyes and the highlights in her hair. Booth wore his best suit. Parker was their ring bearer, of course, having accepted the dubious honor in exchange for being allowed to join the wedding party via the-totally awesome, according to him-fireman's pole. And Hodgins and Angela stood as witnesses, prompting a short but heated discussion between Cam and Caroline over who would hold baby Michael during the brief ceremony-an argument Bones solved by summarily removing the baby from Angela's arms and placing him in Todd Richardson's, much to his delight and the women's consternation.

It was Jared who had solved the problem of who would perform the marriage rites. He'd given Booth the name of a retired chaplain, and after meeting with the man once or twice even Bones had agreed that he seemed suitable, a fact born out by the man's boundless patience during the hours of haggling over the wording of the wedding vows.

And so it was that on one of those brilliant fall days when the whole world seemed to be painted in shades of red and gold he and Bones faced each other, joined hands, and exchanged the simple promises they'd agreed upon together. At the end, after the vows but before the kiss, Bones reached up to frame his face with her hands. There was a sheen of moisture in her eyes.

"I love you." She said it quietly, but with an absolute conviction that made his throat close up and drew a long, happy sigh from Angela, who had apparently overheard.

Booth shot Angela a look that made her step back. Then he reached for Bones's hand and brought it to his mouth, pressing a kiss against the simple gold band that he'd slid into place just seconds before.

"I love you, too," he murmured, his eyes locked on hers as a lump formed in his throat.

"Well." The chaplain cleared his throat, and when Booth glanced over he could've sworn he caught the old guy dashing away a tear. "I guess there's only one thing left to do." With that he closed his Bible-a concession Booth suspected Bones had made out of respect for him-and smiled broadly.

"I now pronounce you-"

Booth, already leaning in for the kiss, barely heard the rest, the words all but drowned out by the rousing cheers of their guests and the pressure of Bones's smiling lips against his.

"-husband and wife."

*** The End ***