Bones had respected his wishes during the long hours of their drive, not asking any questions, but as they made their way up the torturous gravel road with its sharp switchbacks and notable lack of guard rail, Booth felt the weight of her curious stare.
"There's only so much farther this road can go," she finally said, breaking the easy silence of the past several miles. "And it's going to be dark soon."
He didn't look over at her, opting instead to keep his eyes on the narrow track and hope like hell they didn't meet anybody coming the other way.
"Right on both counts," he said. "We're almost there." He hazarded a quick look at the clock on the dashboard and swallowed a silent curse. They were late. He hoped not too late. So much had gone into the planning of this little excursion—not the least of which had involved convincing a skeptical Bones that Christine would be perfectly safe in Max's care, even if they themselves were unreachable for a while.
"I still don't see why we didn't bring Christine," she said, as if reading his thoughts. "She loves the woods."
Booth's jaw clenched reflexively at the reminder that there were things Bones knew about their daughter that he didn't.
"This trip isn't about Christine," he said, and tightened his grip on the wheel as the tires spun on a patch of loose gravel.
The trip was, in fact, all about Bones. And it had taken a lot of fast-talking and cajoling to make it happen. It had also cost him a pair of front row seats at the next Capitals game-assuming the damned lockout ever ended, anyway.
Bones huffed out a sigh and sat back, apparently conceding that he wasn't going to tell her anything she didn't absolutely need to know. "So it's about me."
He flicked a glance at her as the SUV finally emerged into a clearing near the top of the mountain. "Something like that."
They got out of the car and made their way toward a small cabin tucked back in the woods. They were halfway there when the front door opened.
The man who stepped out to meet them was old, his face as weathered as tree bark. Tall and lean, he wore faded coveralls over a stained white t-shirt and worn hiking boots. The man planted himself on the front porch, folded his arms, and eyed their advance suspiciously.
"You Booth?" he called out. The voice was raspy but strong. It was also irritated.
"That's right," Booth said, stopping at the bottom of splintered wooden steps. "And this is my partner, Dr. Temperance Brennan."
The man studied them for a moment, then shook his head, unimpressed. "Sumner," he said, confirming Booth's assumption that this was the man they'd driven so far to see. "You're late."
"I know," Booth said. "I'm sorry about that—"
His explanation was cut off by Sumner's impatient snort. "Ain't got no use for people what can't be where they're s'posed to be when they're s'posed to be there."
"Did you already-?"
"Naw. Figgered I'd wait til sundown. Show'll be prettier then anyway."
"Show?" Bones, who'd been silent until then, peered past Sumner toward the cabin.
Booth shot her a warning glance. His contact at the FBI had warned him that their eccentric host could be as skittish as the animals he worked with, and he didn't want to risk losing this chance for Bones.
"I want to thank you," he said, directing his attention back to the man whose eyes still bore hints of wary distrust. "I know you don't usually allow spectators."
"Damn straight I don't. Scares the critters." Sumner clunked down the steps and shoved his face so close that Booth took an instinctive step back. "Animals is smarter'n people, you know. They can tell if you mean to hurt 'em."
"Booth?" Bones sounded vaguely uneasy, and he heard her shift beside him.
Sumner rocked back on his heels and swiveled his head to look at her. "You're that lady anthro-pologist, ain't you." He stretched it into two words, his tone simultaneously derisive and dismissive.
Booth half expected her to follow it with her standard best-in-the-world remark, and allowed himself a faint sigh of relief when she didn't.
"Uh huh." Sumner sounded unimpressed. "Ain't got much use for book learnin' up here, only-" he jabbed a finger toward Bones's chest, and Booth saw her take the same half step back that he had moments before. "—heart learnin'." Sumner's eyes narrowed as he scanned her figure up and down. "What's a hoity-toity city girl like you care about my birds, anyway?"
"Birds?" Her open confusion almost made Booth smile. Yes, Bones. Birds. We just spent most of the day on the road so this guy could show you a bird. It was why he hadn't tried to explain earlier. Until she saw it for herself, she wouldn't understand, and there was no point arguing with Bones unless he had solid evidence in hand.
"That's right." Sumner jerked his head, drawing their attention to the ancient barn behind the cabin. "Got me some owls, couple 'a falcons, even a hawk or two. Keep 'em back there in the shed."
Booth saw caught the flash of fury in Bones's eyes and rushed to intervene before her leap to judgment got them both kicked off the property.
"Sumner does rehab, Bones." And according to Booth's sources, Sumner was one of the best, successfully rehabilitating birds others would've put down.
Sumner's gaze flicked from Bones to him and back again.
"'Course I do rehab. What else would I want with a barn full of birds?" He sidled over to Bones and leaned close, invading her personal space as he drew his thin lips back in a yellow-toothed grin. His voice took on a sinister edge that fired Booth's protective instincts. "Or maybe you think I eat owl stew for dinner."
When Bones's eyes went narrow and hot, Sumner drew back with a snicker, then snapped a hand up to forestall Booth's move to intervene.
"Calm down,' he said. "I ain't gonna hurt yer girl." With that he shoved his hands into his pockets and set off around the side of the cabin, setting a jaunty pace as he called out over his shoulder. "Come on, then. I ain't got all night."
The interior of the barn was dim. In the seconds it took his eyes to adjust, Booth took in the pungent smell and the warm, musty air. When he could see clearly again, Booth realized that the space was meticulously maintained, with spotless floors and freshly painted walls. Signs on the doors that led off to either side of the main corridor indicated that they weren't in a run-down old barn after all, but rather a high-tech veterinary facility. X-ray, MRI, Lab One, Lab Two, Hatchery—there was even one door labeled Research and Development, though Booth couldn't fathom what might go on behind it.
"Over here," Sumner called, and they followed him through the cavernous building to a back entrance, where a large cage rested on an open trailer that had already been hitched to a tractor. The cage was covered, but a faint rustle from inside indicated that it was occupied. "Gotta go up the mountain a ways," Sumner explained as he climbed onto the tractor's seat. "Hope you city folks can keep up."
Without waiting for a response Sumner shifted the tractor into gear and drove it out of the barn. Booth looked over at Bones, whose thoughtful gaze was directed back the way they'd come.
"What's going on, Booth?" She folded her arms as she turned back to him. "Why did you bring me up here?"
"Come on," he said. "I'll explain on the way." Sumner and his slow-moving tractor had already rounded a corner, and Booth waited until they'd caught up before continuing.
"You have—" He glanced over at her as they climbed the steep path, "kind of a reputation at the bureau, Bones."
"That's to be expected. You and I have been partners for years. I'm sure many of your colleagues are aware of my abilities."
It was true, but that wasn't the reputation he'd been referring to. "I mean when it comes to animals."
She stopped, hands on her hips, and studied him. "Animals?"
"Keep walking." Booth had a feeling Sumner wasn't going to wait for them, and he didn't want Bones to miss what was coming. "Look. They know you love animals. So when word got out about that tiger…"
"You told them I was upset?" The hurt and disbelief in her voice had him looking over at her again. "That was between us!"
"No, of course not." He hadn't mentioned it to anybody, and the fact that she thought he had stung. "Look, Bones. You know how it works. Casey goes to lock-up, he talks to the other perps, they talk to their buddies … Word gets around."
A rock slid from under Bones's feet, and Booth caught her arm to steady her. Both of them were breathing hard now, the tractor getting farther ahead of them with each passing moment. They exchanged a glance. Bones blew out a breath. They started walking again.
"Anyway, it's pretty well known around the bureau that you're an animal lover, so when Guernsey tracked me down after a meeting one day—"
"Guernsey? Like the cow?" The amusement in her voice had him sliding a narrowed glance her way.
"Look, you want to hear this or not?"
"Sorry." But there was still laughter in her voice, and Booth bit back an answering grin. It was a ridiculous name.
"Anyway," he said. "Guernsey told me he knew someone who knew someone who … You know how these things go."
That she was serious would have surprised him once. Not so much anymore. "People talk, Bones. They share information."
"So when Guernsey asked if I thought you'd be interested in meeting—" Booth gestured ahead to where the tractor was rounding another bend. "Sumner, I said 'sure'."
He didn't tell her that Sumner, who was as well-known in his field as she was in hers, was also a renowned hermit. Nor did he mention that it had taken more than a month-and dozens of conversations with Guernsey's connections-to learn the location of this place, or that the entire event had been offered grudgingly along with a clear ultimatum that this was a one time-and one time only-opportunity. None of that mattered. All that mattered was Bones.
"You folks coming or what?" Sumner's voice echoed around the next bend in the trail.
Booth glanced at Bones, saw the spark of conspiratorial amusement in her eyes, and angled his head toward the top of the trail. "Race you."
They burst out of the tree-line seconds later, hearts pumping and rocks skittering away beneath their feet. Booth shot Bones a triumphant grin and received a snort in reply as they bent to catch their breath.
"The two of you make a hell of a racket," Sumner said, his voice ripe with disapproval. "Be a wonder if this poor bird ain't too scared to fly."
"Sorry," Booth said, between pants. He was in top physical shape, but DC didn't have many mountains, and this one, steep as it was and several thousand feet higher in elevation than he was used to, had winded him.
"Hmm…" Sumner didn't look like he believed that, but the sparkle in Bones's eyes and the flush of color in her cheeks made Booth not care.
"Right then." Apparently deciding the two of them were hopeless, Sumner crossed to the cage and began unhooking the clips that held the cover in place. "Let's get this show on the road."
Having regained his breath, Booth looked around. A few yards ahead, the mountain dropped away to a rolling vista of red, green, and gold. Apparently fall colors showed earlier up here than they did back home. The sky was a deep, cloudless blue, and there was a chill in the air that had Booth snugging his jacket a little closer and watching Bones do the same. Over their heads, a pair of large birds winged circles on the light breeze.
"Red-tailed hawks," Sumner said, following Booth's gaze. "Been nesting up in the crags for years. I call 'em Bill and Sally." Sumner shot Booth a toothy grin. "Personal friends of mine." He bundled the tarp he held into the trailer and jerked his chin toward the sky. "Them two raise a couple of young'uns every year, right as rain."
"How can rain be right or wrong?" Bones had come to stand beside Booth, but she was looking at Sumner.
Booth nudged her shoulder with his. "It's a saying, Bones. It means that rain is good."
"Sure is," Sumner again. "But this here fella, he may not like rain so much, see'n as how it's what brought him down."
Booth let Bones move ahead of him to the cage. She stopped in front of it, her eyes wide as she studied the bird inside. "He's beautiful."
"Yup," Sumner agreed. "Great horned owl. Prime specimen." The admiration in Sumner's eyes was so intense that Booth shifted, feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic. "'bout two years old. Still too young to know better'n to be out and about in a thunder storm."
The huge bird shifted on its perch, its wings rustling softly. Its head was hooded—to keep it calm, Sumner explained—but there was tension in the bird's carriage, a kind of suspended animation that spoke of leashed power and a yearning desire for freedom.
"Had a bad storm 'bout two months ago," Sumner said quietly. "Took out a pair of old-growth trees just below a bald a few miles from here. Couple of tourists found this guy. They called the ranger, and the ranger called me." He picked up a pair of thick leather gloves. "Poor fellow was hurt bad. It was touch and go for a while." Gloves on, Sumner reached for the latch on the cage, then paused, glanced over. "You better step back. Owls don't always do what you 'spect them to."
Booth took Bones's arm and drew her back several feet. Sumner opened the cage. He was saying something to the bird, and though Booth couldn't make out the words, the tone was calm, soothing. Long seconds passed. Sumner seemed to be waiting for something, some sign from his feathered patient, but damned if Booth had any idea what it was.
"Owls hunt at night," Sumner said at last, just loud enough for them to hear. "It's a little early yet, but this guy's hungry, and he's not been so long with me that he don't remember how to hunt." He lifted the owl out of the cage and gave it a moment to find its balance on his thickly gloved arm. "Watch close, now. He ain't likely to hang around long." With that he reached up, flicked a catch on the back of the hood, and pulled it off the great bird's head.
The owl hesitated, its head swiveling as it took in its surroundings. Dark, penetrating eyes found Booth, then Bones. There was a heartbeat of breathless silence as bird and human observed each other. Then the owl rocked forward off of Sumner's wrist. For a horrified moment, Booth thought it was going to crash to the ground, but at the last instant the wings spread wide, caught the breeze, and lifted the bird into the air.
Those first clumsy beats of the owl's wings soon smoothed into a powerful sweep that carried it over the edge of the cliff and into the fading sunlight. It spiraled slowly down, only to rise again on the currents of wind that swirled through the hills and valleys below.
Booth felt Bones's fingers tangle with his. Surprised by the unexpected display of affection, he caught, held, and they watched together until the owl disappeared in the distance. Then Sumner turned, latched the empty cage, and climbed onto his tractor. Booth saw his gaze flick down to their joined hands.
"I trust you folks can find your own way back down," Sumner said gruffly. He scanned the empty sky before turning back to meet Booth's eyes. "And I 'spect you'll keep the secrets of this place to yerselves."
Booth nodded but said nothing, and moments later he and Bones were alone in the deepening twilight, the sound of the tractor's engine fading in the distance.
Her head settled on his shoulder, and something warm and peaceful bloomed in his chest. He gathered her close, but neither spoke, their gazes pinned to the place where the owl had disappeared beyond a ridge. Night birds broke into song around them, joined by a chorus of chirps and whistles from assorted insects. Somewhere a dog—wolf?—howled. By the time Bones shifted, darkness had fallen, and the sky was filling with stars.
"Thank you, Booth."
He rested his cheek against the top of her head and felt in his pocket for the little flashlight he'd tucked inside at the last minute. The moon was full, but the path down would be hidden in shadow.
Bones spoke again, her voice soft. "I'm glad you made me come."
It was all he needed to hear. The begging and pleading and groveling, the emails and text messages-and yes, even the hockey tickets—had all been worth it. Because yes. Sometimes people do horrible things to animals.
And sometimes … Booth's gaze tracked out over the tree-covered mountains where a newly healed owl hunted its dinner.
Sometimes they don't.
He turned her into his arms and lowered his mouth to hers, kissing her gently. Her arms tightened around him, and her body melted into his until he lifted his head and brushed a strand of hair away from her face, letting his hand linger at her nape.