They followed the paved road for a few more miles, Alan not sure how he felt when they passed the turn for the site and kept going out towards empty tundra. The tension between them was different than when they had first started out to dinner. Yet the awkward conversation had left him feeling like they had finally taken a step in the right direction.

Billy shifted back in his seat as they slowed down for a turn, putting more pressure between Alan's legs. He tried to swallow and failed.

*A student, dammit.*

The road went to the left to avoid a rocky butte, but Billy kept going straight and off to the right, around to the other side. He slowed the bike down a bit, and Alan was grateful. His backside was a mass of knots and tension.

After a bumpy mile or so, they finally stopped. The view of the sky was breathtaking. Billy removed his helmet and Alan followed suit, but neither moved to get off the bike. The heat of the other man burned his front and made him shiver as the night coolness started to descend.

"Worth a ride on the death trap, huh?" Billy asked with a smug grin. Alan gave him a 'That's debatable' look and got off the bike quickly.

"This is a gorgeous view." He said, oh-so-subtly changing the subject.

Billy smirked, dismounting and leaning against the bike. When he didn't reply, though, Alan looked away uncomfortably. He had wondered at the detour during the ride, when he wasn't reminding himself not to touch, and he had the feeling that Billy had decided to have The Conversation. Of course, Alan would have been perfectly happy to continue on as they were.

But then, that was his problem, wasn't it? Never saying what he meant. Losing so many chances because he was afraid to speak up. Ellie had left, would Billy move on, too?

The sound of Billy's voice startled him, interrupted his internal debate.

"So, are you still angry?" The other man's tone was solemn, not casual but not accusing. Alan flinched anyway.

"About what?"

Billy sighed. "The raptor eggs."

Hunching his shoulders unconsciously, he jammed his hands in his pants pockets, formulating a response. "I think I stopped being angry at you around the time you threw yourself off that balcony. I think I lost a few years off my life then, too."

He snuck a glance at Billy and the young man was studying his own dusty boots. "Oh."

They were silent a moment longer.

"Then why are you avoiding me?" Trust Billy to get straight to the point.

"I've been very busy with meetings since." He trailed off at Billy's frown.

"I know, Alan. I was at all of them, too, remember?" Now he was beginning to get snippy so Alan held up his hands in surrender.

"I haven't been avoiding you."

Billy just snorted. "Right."

More silence as Billy stood up and walked over to stand by Alan. They didn't really look at each other, just stared out at the red wastelands. The younger man took a deep breath.

"Look, I'm sorry, all right? I wasn't thinking when I took them and I sure as hell didn't mean to put you in danger." Quite specific pronoun and they weren't pretending to discuss the Kirbys.

"I'm not angry about it, Billy. Honestly." Alan swallowed, mulling his next words over carefully because he didn't want to make the same mistakes that he had with Ellie. "I might have been scared, more than anything else, and when I thought you were-"

He still couldn't even think about the Pteranadons going after Billy without his stomach dropping to his knees. Couldn't verbalize the emotions that had stolen his breath away when they had gone on without the younger man. The hellish day when he thought Billy was dead.

That was the pain that made him want to run in the other direction. To put as much distance between him and Billy as possible. He quickly turned away from the other man.

"Look, you're a brilliant paleontologist, and you have a promising career ahead of you, Mr. Brennan-"

"Oh, cut the bullshit," Billy interrupted furiously. "We're not just colleagues, and you know it. You've always known it."

He wanted to kick himself because this was exactly what he hadn't wanted to do, but the list of how much was on the line kept getting longer. "I'm your advisor, Billy. Your mentor and your direct supervisor-"

"And my friend." Billy stalked around to face him, expression at his most stubborn. "We're partners, Alan."

When Alan might have interrupted him, Billy shook his head. "No. You can't deny it."

Staring into Billy's determined eyes, Alan sighed in defeat and looked away. "I know."

Some of the tension eased between them, and Billy rocked back on his heels. "If you're worried about the fact that I'm your student, well, I'm not anymore."

Alan's heart clenched painfully and he quickly looked up at Billy. The younger man grinned. "I turned the final draft of my dissertation in to the committee last week-- which you would have known, had you *not* been hiding in your trailer. The committee approved it."

Remembering to breath again, Alan stammered, "That's-- That's great."

"Yeah." Billy's grin turned into a wide, teasing smile. "You honestly didn't notice everyone calling me Dr. Brennan all week? They're even planning a party at Bob's when the official notice comes."

"Well, I've been rather preoccupied." Alan mumbled, averting his gaze again. Yes, he had many problems with interpersonal relationships. But Billy already knew that. He stood straighter and cleared his throat. "Congratulations."

"Thanks." The wry tone made him roll his eyes. "Look, if you're worried about my reputation, there's no reason to."

That made Alan glance at him questioningly. Billy cocked his head, expression one of fond exasperation, and changed tactics. "Who does everyone ask when they can't find you? Or when you're in a bad mood? Or they just don't want to deal with you? Have you noticed that Mrs. Kimble, the new department secretary, doesn't even bother asking you about your expenses or travel plans? The old secretary put me on speed-dial."

Alan frowned warily. He hadn't known there was a new secretary. "You *are* my assistant."

"Yeah. I'm your assistant for the dig, but who handles all the bills for your apartment and truck, and balances your check book?" Billy let that sink in. "I'm on your account, Alan. I know the people at your bank better than you do."

Shifting uncomfortably, Alan realized that he actually hadn't done much besides sign things since Billy started handling the paperwork. But that was just because Billy had a system and was efficient, and everyone knew Alan hated being distracted from his real work. And Billy never seemed to mind handling his personal finances along with the dig paperwork; he'd volunteered to do it when Alan kept getting phone calls from his landlord, which had been a damn nuisance. It had just made sense to put his name on the account so that Alan didn't have to keep authorizing things left and right.

But then, maybe that was a little more domestic than someone who was just an assistant.

Crossing his arms, Billy sighed with amusement. "We order each other dinner without thinking. We just assume that the other will be available when we want and we generally make sure we are. Have you noticed that Dr. Gaben expects me to give him updates for you?"

Frowning harder, Alan protested, "Yes, but he's always calling with inane questions."

"He's your boss, Alan. The questions are valid, believe me." Billy's tone was dry. "But he always spends a few extra minutes asking me how we're doing, and what our plans are for the weekend."

Billy laughed at his blank look and continued prompting. "When was the last time I went out on a date, Alan? Or even left the site without you or a group of students?"

Alan paused, wracking his memory. Normally, he paid attention to Billy's comings and goings just because they ran the dig between the two of them. When *was* the last time.?

"Believe me, it was a while ago."

"But you're always flirting-" Alan sputtered, realizing that he hadn't seen Billy with anyone in particular since before they'd even arrived at the dig.

"True, and they're all great about it." Billy smiled, then continued wryly. "Then they ask me how long you and I have 'worked' together. I even caught one of the students warning the latest girl-the one with the brown hair and tiny hands?-that I was taken. No one thought twice about it when I didn't protest."

That, Alan hadn't expected. He didn't like being surprised and couldn't help his defensiveness when he demanded, "So you're telling me that we've been dating all this time, and I just haven't noticed?"

Billy's answering expression was put-upon. "No, Alan, I'm saying that it's not a big deal if we do. The only thing that would change if we started dating is that we'd finally be getting some."

Flustered, Alan opened his mouth, but just as quickly shut it, because *that* statement brought up a whole slew of thoughts he'd been working hard to suppress. He was amazed that Billy was acting like this was totally normal for him. Maybe it was.

How much had he missed while he was busy burying himself in his work? The paper was important, true, but he hadn't gotten as far with it as he should have, given the amount of time he had been holing himself up in his trailer.

Part of him had designated his wariness as reluctance to date a coworker again. When Ellie had left, he not only lost his girlfriend; he lost his dig partner and a valuable staff member. Sure, she had other interests to pursue that would have eventually taken her out of the field, but he always felt like he had driven her to writing her books and cultivating her new family. What if he did the same to Billy? What if Billy decided he wanted a family one day, too? Because Alan didn't do casual dating, and he didn't do children, either.

What if they tried a relationship and failed, and Billy thought his only option was to give up the fieldwork that he loved? Alan couldn't do that to him. The digs meant so much to Billy, and Alan had to admit that listing one of Dr. Grant's digs on a resume was impressive, but if they thought Billy had gotten in just by sleeping with Alan. The small community of paleontologists was a cut-throat one at times, and in the event of a working pair splitting up, other members were sure to pick sides in the ensuing mess and Billy was at a disadvantage when it came to Alan's connections. It could get so ugly and horrendous. The thought made him ill just thinking of the damage that could be done-

His thoughts must have shown on his face, because Billy interjected dryly, "Do you think we could at least try a real relationship before you consign our imaginary one to the pits of Alan Grant's Personal Hell?"

He straightened at that. "Excuse me?"

"Look," Billy took a fortifying breath. "I know the thought of commitment makes you run screaming for the hills. I've heard you talk about past relationships enough times to know you don't trust easily and you expected them to fail eventually. I'm fine with all that. I know it's not going to change over night.

"But I'd just like to have a chance. That's all I'm asking for. We can take things slow; I'll even let you set the pace." He gave a teasing grin. "As long as we're headed somewhere."

Alan thought about it for a moment. About everything a relationship would entail, the risks and the obvious rewards. Then he thought about what would happen if he didn't try. If he ignored the attraction and the friendship and the company, and pushed Billy away for his own good so Alan wouldn't have to deal with thinking about someone other than himself. And that pain was worse than the thought of ruining Billy's career, because he *knew* Billy.

He knew that Billy was young and foolish at times, but that he always had his heart in the right place. The other man wasn't so young that he didn't know what he wanted, and it was insulting for Alan to think that only *he* knew what was best. Obviously Billy hadn't walked away yet, and he'd seen Alan on some of his worst days. Billy was a rational adult and Alan trusted him. He just didn't trust himself, really, so the question was, would he be willing to try?

Alan was used to touching Billy; a friendly clap on the shoulder, squeezing into a booth next to him, leaning over his shoulder to study something. But this time he cautiously took his hand, sliding his rough fingers over Billy's similarly calloused ones. The heat of his touch was a stark contrast to the cooling desert forgotten around them, and it reassured Alan.

Smirking, he said, "I think I'd like to try, if you can handle it. After all, I can't be worse than an island full of dinosaurs."

Billy snorted, but gripped Alan's hand tighter and grinned. "You obviously haven't watched yourself socialize."

"Then maybe I should send *you* out to pan-handle for grants," Alan replied as he tugged Billy closer, heart pounding. The other man gave a breathless laugh. He smelled like dust and sweat, and Alan couldn't help smiling.

"I think I like where I am right now," Billy murmured as Alan ducked his head, lips hovering over the younger man's for a moment before finally pressing forward in a chaste kiss. Letting his hands fall to Billy's waist to pull him closer still, Alan knew for certain then.

It was worth everything.




Bob's Bar and Grill was packed with its usual patrons, plus all the students and the locals that had volunteered in the months the dig had been open. Marie, one of the grad students who had been at the dig the longest, had arranged a party of sorts for the final week of the dig and to also celebrate Billy's doctorate. Alan honestly hadn't expected this many people to show up.

He was firmly ensconced in their usual booth, sipping from his beer as his grad students carried on three different conversations around him. Normally the end of a dig wasn't something he enjoyed, since it was usually closed for lack of funding and meant incomplete research, but he had managed to gather quite a bit of data on this one and was eager to get back to the lab so they could study their finds in greater detail.

"Hey, Dr. Grant," the guy across the table called his attention. Peter was another long-term grad student. "Does the presence of feathers on the Caudipteryx imply that theropods are connected to aves? Because I don't see how we can make such a wide statement without more proof--"

"Whether there are theropods that have feathers or not, the Archaeopteryx has been proven to be closely related to coelurosaurian tetanurine theropods, while at the same time having more in common with modern birds than nonavian dinosaurs. We don't need the Caudipteryx to establish a connection; the feathers merely support it-"

Billy chose that moment to return from playing darts. As the younger man slid into the booth, Alan trailed off as he leaned back to make room, letting his arm drape along the back of the seat.

"The feathers could just be for insulation," Billy interjected as he reached out to drain the rest of Alan's beer. Jean appeared with two new pints for both of them and winked at Alan, who just nodded his thanks over Billy's head. The other man didn't take any notice as Alan swapped the full mug for the empty and slid it down to Jean.

From Pete's side, Marie defended her original statement, "I was just saying that the fossil record now has definitive proof that there were land- dwelling, bi-pedal dinosaurs possessing feathers-"

Shifting forward, Billy's hand fell on Alan's thigh under the table while he argued, and Alan tried not to tense. He knew the other two paleontologists had to have noticed the contact, but no one even blinked as they continued to toss theories and findings around.

Relaxing into the corner of the booth, Alan tuned the conversation out again. He was there to rest his brain for a bit, not tie it back up in knots. Pressure on his thigh and he glanced over at Billy, who grinned reassuringly at him and leaned over to be heard.

"Only another hour, I promise. Then you can crawl back into hiding."

He just rolled his eyes. "I do talk to people on occasion, Billy. I'm just highly selective."

"Then I guess I should feel honored."

Before Alan could respond, a volunteer came up to the table, bringing with her a horde of well-wishers. "Congratulations, Dr. Brennan!"

Billy was pulled out of the booth for a round of hugs and well wishes, and the girl asked eagerly, "So what are your plans now? Are you staying at the university?"

The answer came not from Billy, who was opening his mouth to reply, but from across the table.

"Of course we're keeping him!" Pete said with a pound on the table, and the sentiment was echoed by the other grad students at the table. "Isn't that right, Dr. Grant?"

Alan pretended to debate with himself, eyeing Billy. "I suppose we must. He's damn difficult to get rid of, and I do hate paperwork."

"Yeah," Marie added with a sly smile at Alan, "Can you imagine Dr. Grant's office without him?"

The laughter was louder than Alan thought the joke warranted, but it was worth Billy's blush. Talk changed to sports and Billy returned to the seat, scooting over to make room for another volunteer. Crushed between Billy and the wall, Alan couldn't think of a better place to be.

An hour later, helping Billy out to the truck, he realized that aside from the hand on his thigh, it was basically a normal evening for the two of them. Smirking, he thought that Billy had been wrong-They *were* dating all this time. Alan just had to notice it.


Finis. Finally.