A/N: The title for this comes from the short story by the same name by Frank Stockton, about the implications of choice. Stockton's story is online, and well worth reading.
(Many thanks to my betas: Natesmama, some1tookmyname, readerjane, and Frankie707, and to LulaSan, who let me pick her brain about DNA.)
Brennan leaned against the wall, struggling to breathe. What had just happened? She wasn't fond of figures of speech, but it was not inaccurate to say that her world was upside down, as if immutable laws of nature were suddenly working backwards.
Booth didn't want to marry her. As long as she'd known him, she'd known marriage was important to him, and for two years, he'd been telling her she'd someday ask him, which she'd taken to mean he wanted to be married to her.
And now he'd said no.
No, that wasn't accurate. He'd said yes, and seemed happy. And then he'd changed his mind.
Shock and hurt struggled for dominance. But hurt required an understanding of what had happened, what it meant, and she didn't have that. But the basics were there: Booth didn't want to get married.
At least not to her.
She took a deep, steadying breath, and went upstairs, where she traded the bride's magazine for the Journal of Forensic Science. When life didn't make sense, science always did.
Downstairs, Booth waited until he heard her go upstairs. It was an old house, and despite his and Wendell's best efforts, the floors creaked in places. The pause, when she was just on the other side of the wall from him, was agony.
She'd stood there, mere feet away, when for all practical purposes, she might as well have been back in Indonesia.
He could fix this. He could write a single word, 'PELANT', on a piece of paper, and she'd immediately understand.
Two things stopped him. The first was that the little psycho was watching them. Watching every move they made, so far as Booth could tell. Angela said he was capable of hacking into any surveillance camera linked to the internet, and that appeared to be damn near everywhere.
Including their house. He'd removed the cameras he'd installed in their house - mostly for monitoring Christine - but since Pelant apparently felt free to come and go as it suited him, Booth couldn't afford to take the chance that he'd installed other devices.
The second was Pelant would be expecting tension between them, would be expecting things to be wrong. Could Booth risk lives on his and Brennan's ability to act as if they were broken when they weren't?
Shit. He rubbed his eyes. He was becoming as paranoid as Hodgins had ever been. His lip twisted. What was that old saying? It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you?
He was screwed, either way. He could tell Brennan, and they'd have to act, every moment of the day, as if he hadn't, knowing that people would die if they failed. Or he could hurt her, trusting that once they got the bastard, they'd be able to put their lives back together.
Rage rose and he beat it back. He was one of the world's best snipers because he understood that success required more than good aim. It took patience and emotional control while hunting.
And Booth was hunting now.
Calling the space in the basement of the Hoover building a conference room was an exaggeration, Cam thought. Although there were the requisite number of chairs, there was no table, and the boxes pushed off to the side shouted 'storage.'
The room was crowded, and she suspected that she wasn't the only one unsure of what was going on. Apart from herself, Brennan, Hodgins, and Angela, everyone else was FBI or, in Caroline's case, the Justice department: Sweets and Agents Flynn, Shaw, Sparling, and James.
Flynn was gaunt, and still restricted to desk duty, but it was good to see him back at work, Cam thought. Sparling was watching Sweets with a slight frown on her face, but the psychologist seemed unaware of her. In fact, he seemed uncharacteristically unaware of everyone. Brennan was listening to something Angela was saying to Caroline, but Cam couldn't shake the feeling that her attention wasn't really on the other women any more than Sweets' was on Sparling.
Booth stepped in and closed the door behind him with a soft click. He moved to the other end of the space, where a large flip board rested on a stand, before he spoke.
"Effective today, catching Christopher Pelant is our number one priority. We may work other cases, especially the squints, but stopping this bastard is job number one."
Unease slithered down Cam's spine. Booth looked…off. Exhausted and pissed, and yet somehow calm. The combination unnerved her. Something was very wrong here, something beyond even Pelant's latest attack on Sweets.
Shaw glanced around. "We're a task force, then?"
"Call it whatever you want. We're going back to the beginning, taking a fresh look at everything we have on him. Agent Flynn is on loan from the domestic terrorism division to help however he can from the desk while he recovers. No field work until the doc okays it," he added with a pointed look at Flynn. Turning to Shaw, Sparling and James, and said, "The rest of you are here because I trust you. This isn't a normal case, we don't work it in the usual fashion."
Before any of them could ask, he continued. "No computers. Nothing gets documented about the case online without discussion. Same holds with phones. Don't discuss the case over a phone unless directed to do so by me."
"I understand the ban, sir," said Shaw. "But why the possibility of an exception?"
Sweets stirred, and spoke. "Pelant needs to think he's in control. He also needs to be the center of attention. Not giving him anything will make him more dangerous."
"How do we communicate if we can't use phones or computers?" Sparling asked.
"In the old-fashioned way," Booth said dryly. "Write it down on paper. I'll coordinate between the bureau and the Jeffersonian. If and when it becomes necessary, we'll have more meetings here. This room isn't wired."
He picked up a marker, turned to the board behind him. "We need to find him and we need to build a case against him that can withstand his ability to reinvent his identity. Angela will continue to work the computer end of it." He wrote 'computers' on the board, followed by her name. "Anything you can give us that sheds light on his current location or environment, or shows us how to limit his access, we need."
He wrote the word 'family,' before turning back to them. "His grandfather is alive and was cooperative when we arrested Pelant for Carole Morrisey's death. We need to go back to that, find anything he has that will help us re-establish that Pelant is Pelant. He may not exist legally, but his family knows him."
Sweets seemed to come out of whatever fog he was in. "It's important that Pelant not know we're following up that angle. He'll kill his grandfather without a second thought."
"Good point. Next, we're going to go back over the house he lived in after he was released from prison. We went over it once, but we're going to make damn sure there's not something there, something that will give us a leg up on his current location. What does he need to do his computer mumbo jumbo?"
"I'd like to see that house," Angela said.
Booth nodded. "You and Sweets will go with the bureau team later today." He turned, wrote, "injured?" on the board. "Third, we're going to find out where he went after he was shot."
"We checked the clinics and hospitals, and none of them had seen him," Cam said.
"He went somewhere. He said my shooting him changed the game, and that wouldn't be true if I'd only scratched him. So we need to think about other places he might have gone. Were any drug stores broken into that night? Any clinics that aren't open over night?"
Silence fell as they absorbed that, then Hodgins asked, "What about us?"
"He's using our own lives against us: Ethan, your money, Sweets' research. It's a long shot, but try to look at your life the way a psycho would and see if there's anything he can use."
"He's already done that," Hodgins pointed out.
"Not with Angela."
Hodgins' eyes went flat, and he shifted his chair closer to his wife.
"He's using other people to kill now," Booth continued. "People he can easily manipulate. It's another long shot, but if you think of anyone from your past who would qualify, let me know."
"What about the money?" Caroline motioned toward Hodgins. "It went somewhere. Could we trace it?"
Angela shook her head. "I tried. He had it automated to move from one account to the other so fast that by the time I tracked even one fund, it was gone, the next account emptied. I'm still trying to see if there's a different way of getting to it."
Caroline followed up with another question, but Cam largely tuned her out. Three things had just occurred to her. The first was that the mood in the room was inexplicably grim for a team which had, if they'd failed in their main goal of catching Pelant, succeeded in thwarting his attempt to kill Sweets. The second was that Brennan hadn't said a single word, and the third was that she and Booth weren't making eye contact.
It wasn't as easy as it used to be to shut out everything but the work in front of her, and Brennan took it as a personal victory when she finished reassembling the skeleton. A tourist had had an unfortunate encounter with a bear in a national forest, and the family had insisted on a full autopsy and exam. Apparently, they'd have preferred it be murder to stupidity. To her relief, there was no evidence whatsoever of foul play, so it wouldn't be a case for the team.
It troubled her to admit how relieved she was not to have to see Booth any more than necessary now. In theory, things should be the same as they had before her disastrous proposal. After all, nothing had changed in any tangible fashion. They were still sharing a house, still spending time with Christine. They'd eaten breakfast together that morning.
But things were different, and until she could figure out how to get back to that place where they'd been, it was just easier not to spend time with him.
Startled, she looked up. "Hi, Angela." How long had the other woman been standing there? Brennan was not nearly as alert as she should be.
"Tell me what's going on."
"What do you mean?" It was a play for time. She knew exactly what Angela meant, as she'd seen her giving them sharp looks after the meeting at the bureau. She just didn't know if or how to respond.
"You've barely said 'boo' all day and said less than that at the meeting this morning."
"I didn't have anything to contribute." Pleased that her voice was level, Brennan brought the camera over to take a photo of a scar on the skeleton's humerus. It would be a good example for students of a blow that had damaged the bone but not broken it. "It was mostly a discussion of avenues of investigation the bureau will be pursuing. Unless or until they find something for us to examine, we have nothing to contribute."
After a moment, curiosity got the better of her, and Brennan looked up to see Angela staring at her through narrowed eyes.
"Booth and I aren't getting married," she blurted.
Angela's expression sharpened. "Why?"
It wasn't the response Brennan had been expecting, somehow. And now, she didn't know how to answer. Pride – the temptation to say it had been her choice - struggled with desire to understand. And lost. "He changed his mind."
"No. No, he didn't."
Brennan wanted to snap at her in response, but how could she be irritated with Angela for being so sure when she herself was so confused? "He did. He said he didn't think we should do it, that he should have thought about it more. That he wanted it, but I didn't."
"So he doesn't believe you really want to marry him?"
"That's not it. It sounds like it is, but it isn't." She didn't know how to explain her own certainty on that point. "I told him I'd changed my mind, both when I asked him and last night. That I wanted him to be my husband." Opting for frustration over the tears that wanted to come, she added, "If he doesn't believe me, there is nothing I can do."
"What else did he say?"
"That we've been under a lot of pressure. That what we have already is enough."
"He blamed the proposal on Pelant?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"He didn't say anything else? That's it?"
"I'm not forgetting anything, Angela. I know what he said." Not what it meant, but his words were frozen in her head. "He asked if I was okay, I said yes and went to bed. He slept downstairs."
Angela was frowning. "He wants to marry you. You know that."
"No. I don't know that. I thought I knew that. I was wrong." She drew a breath to collect herself. "I need to finish this analysis. Please leave."
"We'll be discussing this further." On that, Angela turned and left.
With relief, Brennan watched her walk out the door. She could only think about what had happened for a short while before crying, which she refused to do.
There was no warning. One minute, Cam was buried in the peaceful boredom of time sheets, and the next, she was enveloped in the tornado that was angry Angela.
"In what universe does Booth not want to marry Brennan?"
"He broke their engagement."
Cam blinked. That should have explained everything that had been wrong during the meeting that morning. But it didn't come close. "Why?"
Angela paced around in a fast circle, then stopped and glared. "She doesn't know. Something about him not believing that she wants it, only it's not that." She pointed to toward Cam. "You need to fix this. You're the one who has known him forever. If I go, it won't be pretty."
Back in his car, Sweets took a moment to try and collect himself. He was parked outside the house where Pelant had been living when they first encountered him. Booth had asked him to meet Angela at the property on the chance that he might notice something this time that he'd missed before, while Angela looked for clues to his computer setup.
In terms of the house, they'd both come up dry.
But his ears were still ringing with what she'd unloaded on him, and he could still feel the place in the center of his chest where her finger had drilled in while making her point.
Sweets' parents had been from an older generation, and their influence on him ran deep enough that he didn't swear much. Never had, apart from his requisite teen rebellion. But now?
Shit. Fuck. Damn it all to hell.
He thunked his head against the headrest. He knew, with absolutely certainty, that Pelant was behind Booth calling off the engagement. He'd told him that Pelant wouldn't react well to the engagement. He'd told him.
His job required him to keep files on the agents, and the ones on Booth were particularly detailed. Pelant, refusing not to be the priority, had struck to cause as much damage as he could to Booth. And thanks to Sweets, he'd known just where to aim: Booth's relationship with Brennan.
Sweets didn't know what to do. He'd dedicated his life to helping people by showing them how to recognize and face the truth about themselves and their world. And that was the one thing he couldn't do here to fix the mess that Pelant had deliberately made. Pelant would have forbidden Booth to tell Brennan the truth – what was the point, otherwise?
Could he tell her? No. He dismissed the thought immediately. Pelant would blame Booth, even if he knew perfectly well that Sweets had been the one to tell her. Could he hint somehow, though?
Best not to risk it.
What were the chances Brennan would figure it out on her own? And what would Pelant be expecting from her, based on Sweets' profile? He closed his eyes, thought about her file. It emphasized her difficulties in processing emotions, both hers and others, and noted that she often retreated behind rationalism as a coping mechanism. Understanding others, particularly those more driven by their emotions, could be difficult for her.
He'd said that. He knew that.
But he'd also said that she put the same amount of effort into understanding those she loved as she did any other intellectual endeavor. She knew Booth, understood Booth, because he mattered to her. She took the time to try and understand him in a way she didn't just everyone.
That meant that there was a good chance that once she got beyond the initial hurt, she'd figure out what had happened, at least to know it would never be Booth's choice not to marry her.
The irony of the situation was that he thought she might well have figured it out faster a year or two earlier, before she traded some of that ability to hide behind rationalism for the greater vulnerability that allowed her to freely love, and be loved by, Booth.
It also meant that she would feel the hurt more now.
Jack Hodgins gripped the pistol firmly, sighted the target and fired. Again and again, until there were no more rounds. Then he lowered the gun, stared at the results.
He was getting better - three of the rounds had hit the head area. But the others had gone wide. He didn't want the shoulder, and really didn't want to miss completely and risk hitting a bystander.
He wanted to kill. If he had another opportunity to kill Christopher Pelant, he was going to do so. And he damn sure wasn't going to miss.
In grad school, he'd once entered into a philosophical debate with friends about whether or not they could take a human life, under what circumstances, and how they'd feel about it later. Back then, before Pelant, hell, before Taffett, he'd not been absolutely sure he could kill someone, even to save his own life.
Now? Now he woke up every morning with one single, massive regret: that he'd not killed Christopher Pelant when he'd had the chance, that day in the cemetery. Yeah, he'd have been charged and almost certainly convicted, but whatever it was like to sleep in prison, he doubted it was worse than waking up wondering if there would be a mutilated body above you. Wondering, for that matter, if you would wake up, or if the next time, the gas would kill you, your son, and your wife.
But it wasn't even just about him, about Angie and Michael Vincent. It wasn't about Angela giving up the canopied bed she'd loved so much, knowing neither of them would ever sleep in it again. And remembering how much she'd loved that bed, that really pissed him off.
No, it was the three people Pelant had killed since that moment in the cemetery, two of them FBI agents. Not one of them had deserved to die, and all of their deaths were on his head. Oh, he knew what Sweets would say to that. The same thing Booth had said when Broadsky killed Vincent: Broadsky was solely to blame for the intern's death.
Yeah, he got that. He did. But it didn't change the fact that those people would be alive if Jack had finished killing Pelant when he had the chance.
And then there was the money. He and Angie were fine. If he were honest, the Jack Hodgins who had wanted to be nothing more than an ordinary scientist sort of reveled in knowing he had to get up, had to go to work every day if they wanted to pay the bills.
But so many others had had their lives screwed with over it – jobs lost due to Cantilever's desperate restructuring, scholarships, charities scrambling to make up the loss – the number of people Pelant had harmed in some way was staggering.
Closer to home in the screwed-up-lives department, he was absolutely certain that Pelant was behind Booth calling off his engagement to Brennan. When someone acted that far out of character, you looked first to see if something external was behind it. And Hodgins hadn't had to look far to know that the same man who'd delighted in making him choose a girls' school over a fortune had done the same damn thing to Booth.
He didn't know the details, and hadn't spoken of his beliefs, even to Angela. She was too angry at Booth to see reason on it, anyway, and since whatever else was going on, Pelant had obviously forbidden Booth to tell anyone – including Brennan – Hodgins wouldn't risk saying anything.
But he knew.
Grimly, he reloaded and fired.
Booth stared into his drink, and wished he could get blind drunk. Drunk enough he wouldn't know where he was, what he was doing, or all that was wrong in his life.
But he couldn't. Drunk, he might do something he couldn't afford to do.
Like tell Brennan why he'd called off the engagement.
So here he sat, nursing the same drink the bartender had put in front of him over an hour ago, putting off going home as long as possible. And that pissed him off even more. He wanted to do all the things he'd come to cherish so much in the past two years.
Like help put his daughter to bed. He'd slipped over to the Jeffersonian daycare to see her that afternoon – and it had felt so wrong to be there without going up to see Brennan – and Christine had looked at him so suspiciously, it was as if she knew something was up.
But he couldn't go home. One look at the hurt on Brennan's face that morning and he'd been three seconds from blurting out the truth, damn the consequences.
He glanced at his watch, figured he had another hour before he could reasonably expect her to be in bed. The night before, he'd worked at his office until eleven o'clock, but there was only so many times he could read over the Pelant file without his eyes crossing.
He was too much a cop not to be aware of every person entering and leaving the bar. So he knew when Cam walked in. Though he thought 'stalked' might be closer to the mark. She didn't hesitate, didn't take the time to observe the rest of the bar patrons. Oh, yeah. Definitely stalking.
"Seeley." She settled next to him, motioning to the bartender for a drink.
"Camille." He didn't look at her. Didn't need to, to know what she was going to say. What the hell was he supposed to say in response?
Ignoring the glass of wine the bartender placed in front of her, Cam turned toward him, giving him all her attention. "Talk to me."
"Can't." He threw back the last of his drink. What the hell, thought, and motioned for a refill.
But the woman next to him had gone too still. "Can't," she murmured after a pause. "Not won't. This wasn't your choice," she said slowly.
"It's none of your business." He put force in the words, desperately trying to communicate something, everything, in the tone. But Pelant must have known they'd ask. Did all those IQ points add up to enough to know it wouldn't do any good to lie to them? Particularly the woman sitting next to him?
"Little prick." It was so quietly muttered, Booth barely heard it. She took a sip of her wine, and then said more loudly, "Actually, when Dr. Brennan is home alone, and you're here, that's very much my business, because it affects my lab." She brought the glass to her lips, and then set it down untouched. "I don't know why you broke the engagement, and I don't care."
"But I've known you for too long to buy you're not in love with her anymore."
He swallowed the shot, debated his response. Everything was a mine field. "Yeah, so?"
"So you should be showing her that instead of sitting here feeling sorry for yourself while she's home alone."
"Go to hell."
"And join you and Dr. Brennan there? I'll pass." She reached over, laid a finger on his wrist. "Seeley. You have a lifetime to figure out the marriage thing. You don't have that long to fix this."
Maybe it was the bar, maybe it was the booze. But he suddenly heard Cam's voice from years earlier echoing in his head. "If you crack that shell and then change your mind, she'll die of loneliness before she'll ever trust anyone again." Something cold ran down his spine. "I didn't change my mind, damn it," he muttered, then wondered if there was a microphone nearby, if Pelant had heard him. This was why he shouldn't be drinking.
"Whatever else is going on, find a way to let her know you still love her." Cam finished her wine and stood. Then, under the guise of leaning over to pick up her handbag, she whispered, "Don't you dare let that bastard win this one."