AN: Thank you for the warm welcome back and the well wishes! I've missed writing and reading here. It's so good to stretch those mental muscles again.
While many of you were content with a one shot, several of you were interested in a continuation of One Millimeter. This one's a companion and continuation; we're going to rewind just a bit because this time, we're inside Brennan's head.
This chapter also contains a nod to one of my favourite stories. See if you catch it! Hint: it's a bit of unusual dialogue...
Also, warning: I'm a bit... sneaky...
Disclaimer: I disclaim!
TITLE: Collateral Damage
TAG TO: The Hole In The Heart
PROMPT: What if Vincent survived Broadsky's shot? A companion to and continuation of One Millimeter.
Collateral: noun and adjective. Adjective usage defined as "additional but subordinate; secondary".
Linguistics had been torturing Brennan for the last twenty-five hours, ever since her mind had begun searching through the recent months, studying Broadsky's crimes and taunts. The term struck her quickly, and she suspected that Booth's military history would bring it to the forefront of his own troubled thoughts.
Collateral damage: defined here as the life of a young intern hanging in the balance, for no crime aside from answering the phone of an intended target.
Across the room, Angela picked at an order of French fries from the hospital cafeteria, perhaps assuming that by moving the potato strips around the plate she might create the optical illusion of consumption. Hodgins was far too clever for that, but it appeared as though he was willing to believe her lie.
She'd learned a lot from Booth over the years. She could study people now, make the occasional astute inference as to what emotions were suppressed beneath awkward smiles and glares. It was how she knew Booth felt guilty for Vincent's grave condition. His shoulders were hunched forward, hands pressed together almost as if in supplication, although his watchful gaze traveling the room suggested he was on high alert.
Ever the protector. But the protector believed himself a failure, and his slumped posture betrayed that truth.
And what about herself? Logically, she could place clear blame on Broadsky. It was he whom had taken the shot that shattered the glass panels and struck her intern in the chest. It was his actions that had left the young man fighting for life in an ICU. But hadn't she dragged him into forensic anthropology, insistent upon that field being her only internship offering? Hadn't she encouraged him to answer Booth's phone and pretend to be the agent? Hadn't Broadsky targeted them because of her work?
Broadsky thought very little of collateral damage, but for Brennan, it was tantamount to her pulling the trigger. She'd endangered someone innocent. And while her life was her own to risk, Vincent's was a life worth preserving at all costs.
A creaking – a hinge in dire need of oil – alerted her to the opening of the waiting room door. The more patient of the surgeons, Dr. Brock, entered the room with a neutral expression. News.
"Vincent is awake," the doctor stated calmly. A chorus of relieved voices and murmurs were waved away quickly by a raised hand. "He's not out of danger yet, but it's a very good sign."
"That's very, very good," Cam echoed. "Can we see him?"
The doctor shook his head. "He needs his rest, and his mother is with him now. Dr. Brennan, he's asked to speak with you explicitly."
Puzzled, she rose to her feet and smoothed her rumpled blouse. "Then I shouldn't keep him waiting."
She sensed that the doctor had hoped that she, bearing the same professional prefix, would encourage Vincent to rest, but having nearly lost people dear to her before, she was reluctant to deny the request of a man who, by her best estimates, still faced a 65% chance of succumbing to the trauma sustained from the bullet.
She paused momentarily at the doorway of his small room within the ICU ward, biting the inside of her cheek to drive back the tears welling up within. He was incredibly ashen, the blood transfusions having done very little towards reducing pallor. His breathing was laboured, indicative of partial damage to the left lung, and she detected several faint contusions where his arms had struck the lab floor. But it was the frantic expression upon his mother's face that hurt most to behold, somehow, and she nearly retreated before Vincent caught sight of her.
Vincent's mother glanced up, running the sleeve of her sweater over her moistened cheeks. "Dr. Brennan. Thank you for offering to bring me here –"
"Of course," she interrupted quickly, edging inside. It seemed wrong to receive thanks for minor restitution.
"I'll give you a minute alone," his mother said, moving for the door.
"That isn't necessary – "
Vincent nodded weakly at his mother's words, his pupils fixed upon her departure. Unsure of what to do with herself, Brennan took the still-warm chair beside the bed and waited patiently. She had been summoned: it was not her place to speak.
"Dr. Brennan... thank you for... coming."
His words were hushed and pained, his left hand compacting into a fist about the flimsy sheet beneath it. Her hand reached out for his, gently layering upon it. It was a gesture that Booth often exchanged when she herself was pained, and it was soothing.
"I am so, so sorry Vincent," she began hoarsely.
"Broadsky... did it. But there's no time..."
Brennan felt her heart begin to race. "No time for what? Vincent, what's wrong?"
"Message... A dream. A question..." The young man's eyes swung to the side, locking upon hers. "Did you know... that the earliest writing of a near-death experience... is in Plato's Republic?"
She nodded quickly. "I recall that writing, although it's hardly scientific. Vincent, you're not going to die. The doctors are taking excellent care of you. I've threatened them several times already."
And she had. She'd nearly been ejected from the hospital, until Booth had intervened and pointed out precisely who the nurse was contemplating calling the police on... before flashing his badge and that grin of his. It worked, two-fold: both she and the nurse were subdued.
"The Hoover... you made a mistake," Vincent said.
Vincent licked his parched lips, managing a slight nod. "The dream... You made a bad choice, she said. You have regrets."
A cool sensation traversed her spinal cord and she drew herself back into the chair, recoiling as if stung. She'd never spoken of that night to anyone, aside from Angela. Angela had sworn on her life that she would never reveal a single detail to another person, Hodgins included. Vincent couldn't possibly know of this!
"He forgives you. The dream lady... I don't understand the dream," Vincent mumbled.
In her mind, she could hear Booth's words, a personal Echoplex device of misery.
"I mean, you like evidence. Alright, Bones, well, here's the evidence. The evidence is that there's something wrong here. Now, I – I fell in love with a woman. I had a kid. She doesn't want to marry me. And – the next woman, she's..."
"Yeah! And now – I mean, what is it with women who don't want what I'm offering here?"
"No. Just, you know what – drink. Drink. I'm just really – I'm just mad. I'm just really mad at all of you. I'm just mad, okay?"
Later, she would rationally explain her reaction as a combination of exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and the crashing from the norepinephrine and cortisol pumping through her system for the last few days. She would be able to cite studies on the impact of trauma and the formation of emotionally charged memories. In the moment, she couldn't explain it at all.
Temperance Brennan broke down into uncontrollable sobs.
Forgiveness... It was something he believed in, something he'd taught her about more than any story or challenge in life. But anger was a fire she knew well, one that she'd touched repeatedly in life, only to withdraw wounded. Breaking dishes, ominous warnings of waiting for someone to arrive at a house perversely called 'home' – she knew its darkness. So when Booth stated he was angry with her – rightfully so – and that he couldn't be with her unless that anger subsided, she understood that she had not yet been gifted with his forgiveness.
She'd hurt him deeply that night at the Hoover. Some pains never healed. It was the same with bones.
"Did... did you know that evolutionary biologists posit... that crying evolved as a signal... for peace?"
She laughed and sobbed at once, rubbing her eyes with her hands. "I didn't know that."
"It's true... I don't know why I dreamed... whatever... But he loves you," Vincent insisted. "My brain is adamant that you know..."
"I don't know what this means," she murmured.
"Neither... do I," Vincent muttered.
They shared a soft laugh, her hand reaching to squeeze his tightly as he winced in pain.
"Rest, Vincent. You need to heal," she urged him.
"Is here, honey," she announced, returning to his side. "Don't push yourself. Easy does it."
"Tired... Jaffa Cakes. Craving them."
"Oh love, I didn't think to bring any..."
This was her prompt, as Booth would say, to leave. She quietly excused herself and retreated to the bathroom, where she dampened paper towels with cool water and pressed them against her eyes to reduce redness and swelling. High school secrets that never failed her. Don't let them see you hurt. Don't let them see you've been crying. Weakness was never safe to reveal.
Satisfied with her composure, she returned at last to the waiting room, where a dozen eyes locked on hers immediately.
"How is he?" Angela asked.
"Very tired and in pain, but coherent," she replied. "He's resting again. I have to make a call."
Stepping into the hall, she began dialing the independent grocer near her apartment. At the third ring, her call was answered with a warm greeting she presumed sprung from her generous patronage of the store.
"Marcus, I was hoping you might be able to assist me in locating what I believe to be a European dessert product. Have you any idea where I might purchase a... Jaffa Cake?" She listened carefully, nodding in satisfaction as he returned to the line after a brief hold. "Would you be able to obtain those for me on my tab and have them delivered to George Washington's emergency department? What? No, I'm fine, but a colleague is injured and would appreciate them... Thank you."
She spun around at the sound of her partner's voice. "Booth! You startled me."
"What's a Jaffa Cake?"
"Some sort of cookie that isn't a cookie, from what my grocer tells me. We'll find out when they arrive, I suppose."
"Arrive?" Booth asked.
"He located eight boxes at a nearby specialty store. They're being delivered for Vincent."
Booth lingered in silence, the corner of his mouth upturning ever so slightly. Feeling herself flush, she excused herself for coffee. She knew that smile as well as the Boothy grin, only this one was far more rare. Whatever it meant, it was something rather significant.
When she glanced back over her shoulder, he was still half-smiling at her from twenty feet away.
He'd disappeared again.
She'd only just left minutes before, seeking out Vincent's physician to ensure that he wasn't prescribed a painkiller that would impede his breathing further. Satisfied that the low dose of fentanyl was doing little more than making him what the doctor referred to as "loopy", she returned to the waiting room and immediately felt an absence.
"Where's Booth?" she asked quickly.
"Vincent's awake," Cam replied. "He wanted to see Booth this time."
Her stomach turned uncomfortably, anxiety sinking in. Why did Vincent want to talk to Booth? What if he mentioned this strange dream about the unknown woman to him? They'd come so far recently, come so very close to restoring that bond she'd once relied upon to be as certain as gravity. With the guilt Booth surely felt for Vincent's injuries, a reminder of the pain she'd inflicted last year could be devastating, to say the least. It didn't take an expert on emotions to foresee it.
The room was beginning to feel constricted and it wasn't merely the pungent scent of several unwashed people and fast food remnants contributing to her discomfort. The lab. The bones. She needed to be home – her home. She needed to find Broadsky before he struck again, because he would. She had no doubt on that subject.
A flurry of movement jarred her from her ruminations and she understood as her colleagues and friends drifted out of the room and to the right that they had been permitted visiting time with Vincent. Which meant Booth was oh, right there, at the door. His face was a mix of seeming confusion and frustration. She'd come to know it from countless discussions on the platform whilst rattling off injuries to bones and refusing his demands for easy answers.
"First the truth, then the catching," she could hear herself say in distant memory.
Seeking the truth, she slipped past Booth and headed for the exit, hopeful the commotion would draw his attention away long enough to secure a taxi outside. Be invisible, be unseen. She willed it so with each step, but it was futile: Booth stormed in front of her, using his muscular frame to block her escape.
"Hey! Where do you think you're going?"
"Home. I need to shower and change before returning to the lab," she replied calmly, averting her gaze ever so slightly beneath his.
"Like hell you're going there!" Booth countered. "Bones, it's dinner time. Sleep time. The case can wait until morning."
Oh, he was angry again! Vincent must have raised the issue of the Hoover with him during their visit. Her chest ached as she recalled that awful period months prior, where she'd become a part of his scenery in life, one more person to be simply passed by. If they were to return to that place...
"Broadsky needs to be found," she insisted, steering her thoughts from the metaphorical wounds she was salting.
"And we'll find him, I promise you," Booth replied, edging ever so slightly closer. "But not tonight. You're going to rest and have a good meal first."
"Booth – "
"You're staying with me tonight."
It was a command, an order. The military man was executing his strategy without bothering to consult the civilian caught in the crossfire. And yet, even as she simmered with indignation at the thought that years later, he still failed to fathom how infuriating he could be, she noticed that look in his eyes. She felt a brief wave of vertigo strike her then and steeled herself against it.
He was scared for her. Terrified, even. To refuse him would be to hurt him.
"Okay." One word, so much unsaid beneath its surface.
And with his gratitude, he embraced her tightly, and Brennan knew this was no "guy hug", no friendly gesture. His body trembled and she clung to him, needing his strength as much as he needed hers in return. Her face rested against his chest and she inhaled his scent, a mix of sweat and traces of cologne and pheromones that had often driven her to self-pleasure in large doses, much to her chagrin.
"Bones," he murmured against her hair. "God, if anything happened to you..."
"It won't," she assured him.
"How do you know?" he asked quietly, pulling back to study her face.
This was an easy question, one settled by evidence. "Because you won't let it happen."
His lips parted as if to speak, only to close once more. Instead, his hand seized hers, fingers interlaced, and he led her cautiously outside, scanning the parking lot several times over. It felt good to allow him this contact – safe. As irrational as it seemed, Brennan longed to be tiny, to be enveloped entirely in his callused hands. She trusted them to shield her, to keep her from harm.
"Okay, quickly," he urged, leading her to the Sequoia parked seven rows away.
She obeyed him, her own gaze capturing their surroundings for analysis. Every person was scrutinized, every vehicle searched for signs of predatory life. She would never admit it, but she did exhale a breath in relief once safely stowed in the passenger seat. Booth, too, seemed to relax once they were on the move, perhaps calculating the odds of a sniper – even one on par with his skills – striking a moving target darting between lanes of traffic in a tremendous hurry.
"Booth, if you're going to drive so erratically, perhaps you should forewarn the other vehicles and use the siren?" she suggested.
"Baby, we can't use the siren," he replied under his breath.
Baby?! No, she'd heard him wrong, surely! "Why not?" she asked instead, feigning oblivion.
"It would be an abuse of my authority unfortunately, although if this traffic doesn't clear up in the next block, I'm not sure I'll give a damn anymore." He cursed beneath his breath, turning onto a side street. "Sitting ducks out here..."
She placed her hand on his knee, squeezing lightly. "Booth, it's going to be okay."
The car jerked slightly to the right, echoing the heat radiating between her thighs. Mistake. Big mistake. She'd only meant to reassure him, truly, but her physiological responses were amplified by the gravity of their situation. She lifted her hand away, only to have his press her palm back to his clothed thigh.
"You can stay there," he murmured. "I mean... I'm fine. With that."
Brennan squeezed her legs together, willing away the growing ache. This was unwise. There was a line here, one they'd been dancing around for years. Each had taken steps forward only to watch the other retreat. And yet, her hand remained upon his thigh, as directed. With every passing moment, the prospect of denying Booth anything grew more remote.
"Your place is so damn far," he muttered, glaring at the red light up ahead.
"I don't need to go home, I suppose."
She shook her head. "I need a shower. I have clean clothes at the lab –"
"You're not working tonight, Bones," he interrupted quickly.
"Will you let me finish?" she snapped. "As I was about to say, since I am forbidden from doing my job, I merely need something to wear for tonight while washing my current garments."
Booth sighed. "Well, I have sweats and t-shirts that should work for you."
"Then take the next right and we'll be two blocks from your place," she directed him.
"I know where I live," he grumbled.
The rest of the drive was silent, save for the rush of blood inside her skull as she edged her fingertips a millimeter further up his thigh, unable to resist the temptation. Maybe this would be all she would ever have with him. Maybe these few moments were all that she would be proffered. She accepted them wholeheartedly.
A fraction of Seeley Booth was far better than not having him at all.
He searched his apartment thoroughly upon their arrival, yanking curtains closed as he went. She remained, as directed, with her back pressed to the wall beside the front door. Once he was satisfied with the security of his home, he ushered her into the apartment.
"I'll grab clothes for you if you want to jump in the shower. There's extra towels in the bathroom," he told her.
With a nod, she headed into the bathroom, where unbidden memories struck her like a fist in her abdomen. Booth shot. Booth dead. Booth's funeral, where Booth wasn't dead at all. This bathroom, where she'd confronted him in a fit of betrayal, because those two weeks had nearly destroyed her fragile grasp of love and friendship and the inherent risks to emotional engagement. Turning on the water as hot as she could stand it, she willed herself to remain focused on the present.
Vincent said something to Booth. Given the impact of narcotics upon his system and the freedom with which he'd spoken to her, Vincent was unlikely to have censored himself for Booth. The question was, what had he told him?
Whatever he's said to Booth, he doesn't seem angry about it. Booth wore his heart on his sleeve. He certainly tried to mask his emotions, but they were always lurking just beneath the surface of his piercing stare and the quiver of his chin. She'd feel the anger, see it in his body language and posture.
He called me 'Baby'. What the hell was that? She could recall only two other such occasions: once, when he awoke from his coma, believing they were married; and again, when he'd rescued her from that scalpel-wielding doctor – their first case after said coma. Infantile terms of endearment annoyed her, but she appreciated their place in society as tokens of affection. Booth feels affectionate.
Vincent spoke of forgiveness: has Booth forgiven me? Is he no longer angry? An overwhelming possibility. So many doors opened as a consequence, but would she dare walk through them now? If she were to enter a social contract today and lose Booth tomorrow... A blink and tears began to fall in earnest.
"I won't survive it," she whispered.
The solution, then: catch Broadsky, then determine Booth's stance. Relieved at having come to a conclusion based on rational decision-making, Brennan switched off the shower and stepped out onto the mat. She'd only just managed to secure a towel around her torso when she heard it:
Glass shattering. A curse and a thud.
It was foolish, impulsive. Life-endangering. But she ran towards the sound, calling his name in earnest.
"Son of a bitch!" he angrily spat from the kitchen.
She nearly tumbled to the ground, damp feet meeting tile in a furious skid as she drew to a halt. No blood, no gunshots – just a broken wine glass and a very frustrated FBI agent, staring at the shards. And she, nearly naked, staring agape as Booth's gaze fixed upon her.
"Bones, what are you doing?"
"I... I thought..."
He understood, nodding quickly. "I'm sorry. Just dropped a glass." Gesturing to her feet, he added, "Out of the kitchen. You'll cut your feet."
Feeling sheepish and rather exposed, she turned around to retreat towards the bathroom, where she hoped to find something more substantial than what now seemed a paper-thin wrap made of well-worn terry cloth. She made it five steps before strong arms enveloped her from behind, pulling her against a broad chest.
"Bones," he murmured beside her ear.
"Booth?" It was almost a squeak, such was her surprise.
"I have to tell you something." She tried to turn around and face him, but he held her tighter. "No, it's easier if I... I'm not angry, Bones."
Four words. So much power surging beneath the five meager syllables. She drew a sharp inhale, held it to steady herself.
"I screwed up," he continued. "At the Hoover, I... I shouldn't have made an ultimatum. I know you need time to process and think, but I guess... I guess I expected you to run."
Stung, she fought against him, wrenching herself around to face him. "You expected me to run from you?"
"Not because of you, not anything wrong on your part. Bones, I..." He sighed deeply, closing his eyes. "I'm so out of your league. I've always felt that way. I expected 'No' and heard 'No' instead of 'Not yet'."
"Oh..." Her hand reached up to brush his cheek, drifting along the surface, admiring his jaw line.
"Forgive me, Bones. Please?"
"I... I made the mistake," she replied, confused.
"Maybe we both did, then. But I made the first one," Booth insisted.
Mirrored stances now: her right hand still pressed to his cheek; his right hand reaching to cup hers. Something shifted in the air, imperceptible and impossible, and the ache grew within her. Her damp hair clung to the back of her neck, reminding her of her vulnerable state. She was vulnerable that night as well, raw nerves from recalling how they'd almost, but hadn't. Tequila and the stupid line she'd sensed long before he drew it.
"I'm still that guy," Booth murmured. "But this isn't a gamble. You're too important to treat so frivolously."
"What is this, then?"
"Scientific fact. A plus B equals C."
"Hydrogen and oxygen," she offered nervously.
Some molecules, she knew, preferred to form. They happily joined.
"And when they combine?" he asked.
"They form a building block of life," she answered softly. "I-I'm not impervious."
"I never believed you were, Bones. I'm just glad you've realized it."
And with that, his lips crashed over hers and she yielded to him, his shirt the collateral damage of her frenzied need to know him, to be consumed by him. Socks, slacks, boxers adorned by a sports team logo, the towel that tumbled from her torso - a trail of breadcrumbs to the bedroom. More collateral damage as she sought his warmth, tasted his flesh. Speech gave way to hushed promises of love, panted names and tangling limbs as each sough to dominate and claim the other.
It was everything she had surmised it would be and so much more. And while the laws of physics remained intact, Brennan understood Booth's definition of lovemaking at last.
Machines clicked and hummed, the soft beeping the soundtrack of Vincent's last minute on earth.
He'd made his peace now, having been offered the chance to return and see his mother again. He'd had the chance to tell each and every person who'd touched his life how much he cared, be it by phone or in person. But now, as every breath grew more pained, he felt the agonizing pain shoot across his chest in lightning fashion and couldn't speak of it, couldn't save himself.
But he had saved them, hadn't he?
It was the bargain he'd made, and whether that bargain was with a hallucination, an angel or some other force, he'd lived up to his end and been granted his reward. Many of the bodies he'd encountered in the lab had not been granted that privilege.
His fingers strained towards his mother's sleeping face as his heart stilled, the unnoticed damage obscured during surgery. Had someone looked one millimeter deeper...
SHINY NEW EXTENDED END NOTE: I know... Evil woman. EVIL. But I hope this answers the reader who questioned whether Vincent would be so bold. Vincent knew something you didn't know in part one: that he was going to die anyway. He DID survive the shot... but not the surgery, because of doctor error... Technicalities, I know... I love him, I do. But he told me he had to die. Blame the voices in the brain
Let me know what you think of this vision of what could have been... y'know, aside from Vincent not really making it out alive, after all...
If you're a fan of what ifs, you ought to check out The Hand You're Dealt, a semi-AU that plays with those notions, as well as The Ring In The Reflecting Pool. For those who love one-shots, my themed series The Mixed Tape might just be to your liking. And yes, all three will continue soon!