AN: Thank you to threesquares and jsq for beta work. You gals are wonderful.

This is the end! I hope you've enjoyed, and thank you for reading.

Part 12: Birthday

Christine's birthday came and went, while we all recovered. The party itself would take place some two weeks later.

In the meantime, I learned more about the loose ends of the case.

"We've checked all the video footage from the apartment," Agent Shaw reported. She'd come to my office to get copies of my files, but she answered my questions, too.

"How much did Pelant actually record?"

"Not that much." I'd invited Shaw to sit on my couch, though she looked a bit out of place against the colorful cushions. "He just taped a few segments here and there, to set up the digital video system. Your first thought was right: he probably planned to manipulate the footage, but hadn't made enough progress."

"So… we don't see much of the kidnappers on film?"

"No, although it looks like Pesovic was alone with Christine for most of the time. Wolf didn't stick around, and Pelant must only have come by later. The tapes do support the statements they gave when we interviewed them."

"Or when Booth interrogated them?"

"That too."

"Wait, did you see it?" She nodded. "Do I want to know…?"

"Maybe not. But I will say, as the mother of a small child, I felt vindicated by their responses."

"You mean their fear?"

She lifted one shoulder as if admitting, You said it, not me. When I pressed her for more detail about the kidnappers, she said, "They both swore up and down they never hurt Christine. Pesovic did confess to hushing her, or reprimanding her when she cried. She claimed the child was calm enough the first day, probably because she was used to babysitters, but she got upset that night when she realized she wasn't going home."

"I'll bet," I said. "Poor thing."

I wondered if Bren and Booth had insisted on seeing the footage. I would've begged them not to, but thank God there was nothing too bad on it.

Shaw took a flash drive of my files when she left. She reassured me that it was just to document the clues that led us to Pelant's location, while she wrapped up a report for her boss. I knew the Bureau liked that sort of thing. Neat avenues of investigation. Clear conclusions.

Watching her walk off across the lab, wearing that impeccable black blazer, I realized I hadn't asked about Pelant's death. Did he have any family to notify? What would be done with his remains?

Brennan might have asked these questions. Booth could have found the answers days ago. But me, I didn't care to know.

-.-.-.

The following Friday Brennan took me to the FBI gym. We did a workout on the treadmill, then stretched and exercised our abs. Or rather, our core, which was the trendy term now.

"It's somewhat more accurate," Brennan observed, "and research shows that you should work not just the rectus abdominis, but all the muscles, including intrinsic stabilizers like the internal oblique."

"You must be feeling better," I said, "if you're back to correcting people about the precise nature of all their anatomical parts."

She gave me this cute little head tilt. "You're teasing me."

"Yes, honey. Only because I love you."

We showered and changed, then headed to the diner for lunch. Since we'd missed the busiest time, we could claim our table by the window right away. I dropped my gym bag stuffed with sweaty clothes on the adjacent chair.

"So, should I go with the old stand-by of salad, or should I venture into something new?" I gazed at the menu while Brennan settled herself across from me. She wore a simple brown skirt and pink t-shirt. No jewelry, no make-up. I wished I was that brave. But I always caved in: at least some mascara, especially with the bold geometric print I was wearing.

Once we'd ordered, I got to the point. "Are you gonna tell me, Sweetie? You alluded to some conflict with Booth, but it didn't seem right to yell to each other over the sound of the treadmill." I watched her take a sip of water. "What's going on? Are you two okay?"

"We had an argument." She looked out the window before continuing. "Things are fine now, but I don't think they're… resolved."

While we ate, she told me the story.

"We finally got Christine to sleep in her own bed. I sat with her until she fell asleep, but then she woke up about an hour later. Booth went to check her. She was crying and didn't want him to leave. She wanted to cuddle or listen to him read stories. He ended up staying another hour before she fell back asleep. Afterward, I…"

She paused, so I took another bite of salad. (I had ordered the same old thing, but included a side of French fries. They were probably drenched in grease and salt. Yum.)

"I suggested that Booth didn't have to stay with her that long," Brennan said. "That we should get her used to being alone at night, because I want her to grow up strong and confident, not…" Her mouth twisted and I thought for a second she was going to cry. "I suppose I phrased it more strongly than that, and Booth was hurt. He felt I'd questioned his parenting skills, and I was being too hard on Christine. He said, 'What did you want me to do, leave her there crying?' And I raised my voice, too; I said I didn't want her being afraid of shadows because he was coddling her. But he's right, and I should have told him that: there's no way I could have left her in there alone. Then I…"

"What, honey?

"I cried. I didn't mean to, but…"

Knowing Booth, that had ended the argument. Bren was clearly still wounded by all this; and even if she told herself, rationally, she could be a bit more firm with her daughter, it was another thing to actually do it.

"We apologized, but we're still not…"

"Hey. You went through such an awful thing, Brennan. It's understandable if you snap at each other from time to time."

She accepted that, but didn't look ready to discuss it any more. So I turned the conversation to innocuous topics.

We talked about the birthday party guest list for a while. Booth's grandfather would be there, for one. "We only called him this week," Brennan admitted. "He read Booth a fierce lecture for not telling him about Pelant until it was all over. He used the same word I did, actually. He said, 'Don't you coddle me, Shrimp. I may be old, but I can handle myself.'"

"Well, it sounds like he'll make this party a lot more interesting. You gotta love him, don't you?"

"Yes," Brennan said. "I do."

Now I pushed my plate of French fries at her. "Haven't you had any of these yet? I told myself I needed to replace the sodium I lost while sweating at the gym, but that's probably a delusion."

-.-.-.

We rented a picnic shelter at a park in my neighborhood.

I'd wanted to keep the party small, but I couldn't bring myself to exclude anyone. So the guest list included my family and Brennan's, both our dads, Parker and Pops. Russ and his family, Caroline, Sweets, Cam and Michelle. I also invited Agent Shaw and her son, along with the babysitter Teresa, to show her there were no hard feelings.

Brennan didn't want anyone bringing extravagant gifts. And Christine didn't need much; we were all just glad she was okay. But I knew people would bring presents, so I made one rule about it: no technology. Nothing remotely connected with email or computers or codes. Not even toys that ran on batteries. Just simple, timeless stuff.

My dad, for instance, brought Christine a set of bongo drums. I watched her bang on them in the shade of the picnic shelter. Brennan stood next to me folding the wrapping paper.

"Between that and Michael's guitar," I said, "they could start a band."

My dad watched Christine with a critical eye. Tap tap tap, went her little palms. Tap tap—she gave it good smack—bong. Dad nodded approval. "The kid's got rhythm."

Hodgins and I gave our present next. Booth, sitting at a picnic table, leaned down to help Christine open the big, soft package.

Once she'd peeled away the paper, her mouth opened in surprise and delight. We'd gotten her a stuffed dog, a German shepherd as tall as she was. She hugged him to her chest, her eyes shining.

"Is that a police dog?" Booth asked. "Like in your book, huh?" I knew she had a collection of animal books, and the picture of a police dog was one of her favorites.

"Yeah," I said, "we got a guard dog to keep her safe, maybe help her sleep at night." Brennan turned from watching her daughter to smile at me. It was a sad smile, but I could tell she appreciated the gesture.

"Hey, Angela." Booth glanced up. "Why is there a rhinestone in its ear?"

"Oh, that. I just thought he needed a little something. You know, a little pizzazz."

Booth mouthed at Hodgins, Pizzazz?

He shrugged as if to say, Man, I don't get it either. Then he caught my eye. "We, um, we had this other idea. It was just a passing comment, a joke really..." Booth raised his eyebrows.

"You know those microchips you can get for lost dogs or cats?" I said. "It's pretty controversial for children, but…"

Brennan stared at me. "Are you serious?"

"No… not unless you thought it was a good idea."

"I don't think so." Booth's voice was definitive.

"Well, theoretically," she started to argue, "if it's safe for cats or dogs it should be safe for humans."

"Really, Bones?" He touched his daughter's head. It looked like she was making the dog a hat out of wrapping paper scraps.

Brennan shared a look with him that I couldn't interpret. "I know we don't need more technology to protect her, Booth. I'm confident in your ability to do that."

He held her eyes in a way that made me catch my breath. "Our ability."

-.-.-

The adults played soccer and grilled food, while the kids ran around the playground.

I saw Caroline sitting with Booth's grandfather under the picnic shelter. They were drinking punch out of plastic cups and telling each other wild stories: Caroline's dealings with criminals and Hank's adventures being an M.P.

Teresa and Michelle talked about classes they were taking or guys they'd dated.

Max and my dad were also swapping stories, while they tended the grill. And by the grin on my dad's face, the tales weren't ones they'd want their daughters to hear.

Cam, Booth and Hodgins stood at the edge of the playground, keeping an eye on the little ones.

Everyone else was playing soccer on the tree-lined field. Brennan, Sweets, Parker, Russ, Amy and Agent Shaw—who'd told us to call her Genny, because "only my mom calls me Genevieve." Amy's girls ran up and down the sidelines, cheering for the players.

I circulated, talking and observing.

The sun shone warm on my face, and the scent of blossoms wafted on the balmy air. We couldn't have asked for better weather.

I saw Sweets kick a pass to Parker, who ran with it down the field. Where, I thought suddenly, had he been for all this? Thank God Pelant hadn't come after Parker, too.

Michael interrupted my thoughts, yelling out of sheer high spirits. He, Christine, and Shaw's son Davey were playing some kind of relay game, where they took turns racing from one end of a sand-filled ring to the other.

I went closer to watch. Booth sat at the nearest picnic table, squinting in the sun. He still had to wear a brace on his leg, but was allowed to put some weight on it now. I stood next to him and we both smiled at the kids' boisterous play.

Then Christine tripped and fell in the sand. Landing on her hands and knees, she tumbled to one side and ended up on her butt. Booth was on his feet in a second. He was about to run over there, but I held him back.

She pouted, looking at her sand-dusted hands. I saw her think about crying.

Booth spared me one impatient glance, trying to see if she was hurt. "Just wait," I told him. Because if her dad rushed over there acting all concerned, of course she was going to cry. Yes, she was playing with older, bigger boys, and the sand might sting a little, but…

Davey ran by with my son in pursuit. Michael tapped Christine on the shoulder crying, "You're it!" Both boys raced off again. She watched them, then scrambled up to chase after.

Booth let out a big breath. He looked at me and nodded, as if to say, Okay. You were right.

I sat with him for a while. We lounged in the sun, talking. When the kids tired of their game, Cam and Hodgins brushed the sand off them, then sat them down with some snacks. Minutes later the soccer game broke up, so the players crowded under the picnic shelter looking for food.

I saw Brennan grab some bottled water from a cooler. Her skin was flushed a healthy pink from running around the field, and when she took a drink, her head fell back to expose the graceful line of her throat. I glanced at Booth to find him watching her, too. He smiled like a teenager, that I'd caught him. But then he stared down at the grass for a long time before speaking.

"Bones told me how you stayed with her, in that apartment."

"Oh. Did she also tell you I was hiding behind the door the whole time?"

He didn't react, just continued. "It was killing me not to be there. So I'm glad you were."

"Did, um… Did she mention how she almost smashed Pelant's face after he was dead? I mean, I think that's what she was going to do."

"She mentioned it. Just how… she felt this incredible anger. Because of everything he'd put us through."

"I know." I swallowed. "And if I hadn't walked in and stopped her, do you think she would have done it?"

We watched Bren lift Christine onto her lap and offer her slices of fruit.

Booth's voice hardened. "Yeah. I think she would have."

-.-.-

Christine toddled over to her dad after lunch. I realized I hadn't eaten, so I got myself a plate. Once I loaded it with grilled chicken, fruit and salad, I looked for a place to sit. Hodgins waved me over to his table, which seemed to be all guys. Or I could go sit with more of the girls.

I noticed Booth and Brennan at the edge of the shaded area. Christine was leading Booth back to the playground where Amy's daughters were hanging out. He paused with Brennan, just where the light angled into the picnic shelter, painting a sunny aura behind them.

I'd missed whatever they'd just said. But I saw him touch her bare arm and murmur in her ear. By the way her mouth turned up and the way his hand caressed her skin, it must have been something saucy. It was all I could do not to run over and demand that he repeat it.

I restrained myself long enough to chat with Hodgins at his table. But I hadn't had a chance to talk to Brennan yet. So when I saw her sitting cross-legged under one of the trees, I went over there.

Teresa had been talking to her, but excused herself when I came up.

Brennan watched her go. "She still feels guilty."

Sitting next to her, I stretched out my legs and put the plate of food on my lap. "You're sure you don't mind having her as a nanny, after what happened?"

"She's still a responsible person; that hasn't changed. Christine likes her. And the world is safer without Pelant in it. We'll still take precautions, of course. Teresa knows to double check with us if anything out of the ordinary happens."

"Well, that's good. So..." I changed the subject with no tact whatsoever. "What did Booth say to you just now?"

There was that smile again. "It's not important."

"Oh, on the contrary. It looked very important."

She still wouldn't tell me. And maybe it was just to tease me, but I let her keep that secret. I asked instead, "Does that mean everything's patched up between you two?"

"I think so. We were still a bit tense after arguing last week. But the other night, Christine went right to sleep, so Booth and I had a few hours to ourselves. We talked for a long time, and made love, and now things are…much better."

"I can see that." I managed to stop grinning.

"We agreed that we want to provide Christine with the right balance of challenge and comfort. Our underlying motives are the same, though we might interpret situations differently. In the future, we'll try not to make generalizations, and will consider issues on a case-by-case basis."

"Hm." I frowned in what I hoped was a scholarly way. "That sounds wise. Well, as for meeting challenges, Christine is doing great today, isn't she?"

Brennan glanced at the jungle gym where our kids were playing together. "She is."

"But what about… Sweetie, did you and Booth apologize for what you said to each other on that street, you know, when Pelant led us to the wrong building?"

Her eyes slid sideways, and I could still hear the anger in their voices, the panic.

It sounds like you're giving up on our daughter.

I would never give up on her! It sounds like you're the one who can't face reality.

"No," Brennan said. "We didn't need to. At least…" Her eyes went out of focus, but this time, I swear, she was seeing something fantastic. "At least not in words."

I couldn't help it: I put my hand on her arm and giggled. She smiled in return. And even if it didn't match her usual brilliance, it was pure and genuine.

While I finished my lunch, we watched the playground activities. Booth and Hodgins were helping Christine and Michael scale a little climbing wall. We praised their abilities, gossiped about people at the lab, and talked about returning to full-time crime solving.

Christine came over to show her mother some pebbles she had found. "Oh," I said, "aren't they pretty!" Booth, who'd followed his daughter, leaned against the tree behind us.

Once we'd admired the stones, and Brennan wondered about their geological makeup, Christine decided it was time to rest. She climbed into her mom's lap and was asleep in minutes. (I realized I should have planned this better, to allow the kids their afternoon naps.)

Booth watched his daughter for a bit, then excused himself to join Parker, who was waving at him from the soccer field. I saw him ruffle the boy's hair. Rolling his eyes, Parker asked his dad to toss the ball so he could practice kicks and headshots.

Brennan held Christine in her lap, one arm curved securely around the girl's back, Christine's head resting on her chest. The breeze stirred their hair and dappled their clothes with shadows.

"Hey," I said impulsively. "How do you feel right now?"

This being Brennan, she didn't say whatever came to mind. She considered. "Safe. Grateful. Content."

"Not happy?" It was probably too soon for that: only three weeks after the abduction.

We heard the thunk of feet on a ball and Booth yelling, "Oh, nice shot!"

"Not happy," Brennan said. "Not after…" She tilted her head down toward Christine. The toddler's face was relaxed in sleep, her mouth like a little pink bow. Brennan's fingers played, very softly, with her daughter's hair. "We're safe. But it's not over. The worry."

"Well, I've got news for you, Sweetie. The worry will never be over. I'm finding this out with Michael. You don't stop worrying about them til the day you die."

She sighed in agreement.

"Slow down, there! Don't tackle her." I looked up in time to see Michael running toward me with Hodgins on his heels.

Michael tumbled into my arms, warm and wriggling. He asked to try Christine's new drum set, but we had to hush him so he didn't wake her. "Yes, I do want to hear you play," I told him. "Why don't you go practice with Daddy first, then give me a concert? Brennan and I are going to stay here a little longer."

They ran off again, and I turned to Brennan.

She didn't renew the conversation, so I didn't either. I was happy just to sit with my friend in the spring grass, watching our families enjoy themselves.

I could bet she was thinking about what I'd said, how the worry never stops. And, because of that bastard Pelant, her worst fears had come true.

She and Booth would be haunted by the kidnapping, I knew.

I hated that this had happened to them. Didn't they have painful enough memories in their own past?

Booth the cop, the protector, hadn't been able to protect his own child. And Brennan, who'd seen her parents and then her brother get in a car and drive out of her life… She'd almost lost Booth in a car crash, had seen Christine whisked away by criminals.

She worried that this trauma in her daughter's formative years would have lasting effects.

I worried, too. Because it seemed Christine was recovering better than her parents.

"Brennan?" She turned her clear blue eyes on me. "You know, it's not just a mother thing, this worry." I described how Hodgins had woken up one night, convinced Pelant was still alive and out to get us. Angie, wake up, he'd said frantically, before he was truly awake himself. Call Booth, call your dad—we need all their guns and we're running out of time. I have to get more particulates from the tires. You try to crack the latest string of code…

"I pulled him from the dream by planting my hands and lips on his face. He got even more tense for a second, then he lunged for the lamp, like he expected to find Pelant hiding in the corner. Finally, he looked at me. He was still shaking from the nightmare. All he said was, Oh, fuck. That was a bad one."

Brennan nodded in perfect understanding.

I heard Christine take a sighing breath, and snuggle back against her mom's chest.

"Booth has dreams sometimes. But he says, it's not what his subconscious can come up with. It's when he's awake. The things that went through our minds while it was happening…" Brennan shook her head, eyes glinting. "He was afraid he was going to die 'in a stupid car crash' and leave us all alone. He was more worried for me than himself. And I… there were times I thought we'd never see Christine again." She wrapped both arms around her sleeping girl. "I know Booth would never have stopped searching. And, if time went on and we didn't find anything, eventually that search would…"

"It would eat him up."

She held my eyes, her mouth tight. "Both of us."

"Oh, Sweetie." I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. "This is where I'm supposed to come up with some inspirational saying, but I… I've got nothing."

"That's all right." The corner of her mouth lifted, not enough for a smile. "I understand."

Because sometimes, I thought, there's nothing to say.

I traced my hand through the grass and over the roughness of a tree root. When I looked up I could see Hodgins and Michael in the picnic shelter. They were bent over the drums, experimenting with different sounds.

"Hodgins talked to me about that," Brennan said. "The anger, not the dreams."

"What? He did?"

"This past Monday at the lab, I was working a half day while Booth stayed home with Christine. Hodgins… he asked about killing Pelant. He wanted to know what it looked like, what it felt like."

"Huh. That makes sense, actually."

"He told me about almost killing Pelant himself. When Hodgins went to leave a message in the cemetery, and Pelant found him…"

"I know." He'd closed his hands on Pelant's throat and choked him until he passed out. "He has pretty fervent memories about that. So…" I watched her. "What else did you two say?"

She still has a bond with Hodgins, I thought. Because of what the Gravedigger put them through. And even now: She killed Pelant. Hodgins came close to it. Even Booth, as much as he wanted to, didn't get that close.

"We…" Brennan chose her words carefully. "We came to a consensus about how we felt, in those moments when we had power over Pelant. Power to hurt him, to stop him."

I held my breath. "And?"

She glanced at her sleeping child as if unwilling to answer in her presence. "It doesn't matter now."

But I saw it in her eyes. And I could imagine, because I'd felt it myself, watching Pelant bleed onto the apartment floor.

I'd felt glad. Disgusted. Vengeful.

"Suffice it to say…" Bren's gaze found her dad, doting over Amy's girls at the playground. "My conscience is clear."

I had to take a few deep breaths. Now I heard Michael give the drums a good reverberating smack, while Hodgins encouraged him. "Maybe Hodgins should take up boxing, too. More anger management, just in case. Because all the rubber band wrist-snapping in the world can't make up for the Pelant-level of hatred we were talking about."

"Has he consulted with Sweets?" Brennan asked. "Despite my irritation with his profession, I've found him to be helpful and perceptive at times."

We looked over to see Sweets talking with Teresa at the edge of the picnic area. It seemed like they were having an intense conversation. But then she smiled and he laughed, and I was sure they were flirting. "Maybe they'll start dating," I said. "They are close to the same age. And compared to Daisy, this girl is absolutely unflappable."

If Brennan knew I'd purposefully changed the subject, I don't think she minded. We'd had enough fear and doom. This was a party, after all.

We chatted about Sweets for a while, critiquing the advice he'd given in the past. "Oh, talking things out—that reminds me," I said, my voice taking on a distinctive lilt. "You said that after you and Booth argued… once you had time alone, you talked a lot, and had make-up sex?"

"Yes…"

"Brennan. Don't you know me well enough by now? You can't just casually mention something like that and expect me to let it slide." I leaned toward her like a conspirator. "I'm your best friend. I need to know this stuff."

Christine was fast asleep; she wouldn't hear a thing. True, this was a semi-public place. But I wasn't afraid we'd be overheard. I was afraid we'd be interrupted before she gave me the goods.

I raised my brows and she smiled as if to say, You're incorrigible.

I wanted suddenly to paint her like this. Her blue eyes and the freckles smattering her nose. The way she held her child beneath this tree, while leaves cast lingering shadows on her face.

"Well," she began, "it was memorable…"

I put my hand on her arm and gave it a happy squeeze. Schmaltzy portraits could wait.

"Details, Brennan. I need details."