Author's Introduction: This Secret Santa fiction is taking us on a special trip requested by our resident Excellent Driver.
(But the rest of you are welcome to hop in the back and enjoy the ride. And while you're all back there I'll let you in on a little secret: When I first received her prompts and beheld the challenge, I confess to a moment of panic. Some hyperventilating may have occurred. All three of her prompts are very deep, requiring more than a 'one-shot' to develop fully. I mean, we're talking ten chapters! But shh... don't say anything. Also, don't tell her this is my first ever Secret Santa and I'm a little nervous.)
Ahem, nevermind all that stage whispering, just getting the passengers all settled in back there. This trip is all for you, Excellent Driver. I hope it comes close to what you wanted: Booth & Brennan, plenty of angst and a happy ending. Oh, also... one of the angst-filled plots you asked for which I'll reveal later so as not to spoil the journey. :D
PS: This isn't a music-fic, per se, but each chapter title is taken from the title of a song that sets the tone or mood. In this case, the song is Hold On, by Sarah McLachlan.
~ Somewhere in Between ~
There is a dreamlike rhythm to life in a hospital.
It starts with the quiet pings and blips of life support machinery, the soft and steady sounds that quickly become a lifeline to those who sit and wait. Any oddity in rhythm, in tempo, spikes an echo of anxiety. Is it too fast? Too slow? What does that alarm mean? Why doesn't anyone come in to check?!
The numbers tell their stories. Blood pressure and pulse rates are in the normal range. Respirations are slow. Blood gases are showing perfusion, a sign that he's getting adequate levels of oxygen. He lives or dies by the numbers on those machines, so she does, too. She's always looking up, every few minutes, to check.
The sun rises and sets somewhere outside this room, but she rarely notices. In here, time is measured by the changing shifts of the nurses. Elizabeth from 6 am until 6 pm; Serena from 6 pm until 6 am. But that is only the first two days—on the third day she meets Indira. On the fourth, Serena is replaced with Jennifer. These nurses enter and greet her with soft voices as they run through their vitals checks and record everything. She tells them what she's observed and they are glad that she is there. Her competent constancy makes their jobs easier; it's a shame more patients don't have such devoted caregivers.
They run through the Glasgow Coma scale criteria and she watches him fail to respond to every stimulus with her devoted heart breaking into ever smaller pieces. There is nothing she wouldn't do for him but this is pushing her to the very edges of her endurance.
They clean him where he's soiled himself then shift his body and prop his long limbs with pillows, being careful to prevent pressure against the bony prominences that might develop into decubitus ulcers, more commonly known as bed sores. She helps them move him and ensures he's repositioned often. Then his IV bags are replaced. Finally one of them (Elizabeth today, who will come back every two hours) tells her to go get some coffee and stretch her legs.
There's an espresso stand on the ground floor just off the lobby, right next to the gift shop. She's in and out with a fresh cup of coffee and an apple fritter. When the nurses are gone, she eats the pastry and gulps down the scalding coffee to wash it away. She hates the fritter, actually—it's too sticky sweet and makes her gag, but she eats it because he likes them and for some reason she just wants to eat what he likes. She describes the taste to him carefully, giving him the texture and sweetness with flowery words. The crispy edge of soft, grainy frosted crumbs that melt on her tongue eventually gives way to the tang of apple, but the thickness of moist dough is what she has the most difficulty in swallowing. It settles in her stomach like a balled up fist and stays all morning.
But tomorrow she's going to eat another one, and every morning, until he wakes up.
"The barista was in a hurry this morning," she reports to him on the second day. "He forgot to put in the double shot. I'll either have to go back, or do something to keep myself awake." She didn't sleep more than an hour last night or the night before, and the growing exhaustion is creeping up on her. Looking to the laptop computer, an idea takes form. Perhaps she will write something to help keep herself awake. She could read it out loud to him, he might like that.
Dr. Jersik visits early each morning and assures her the surgery had gone well. The only complication was from the anesthesia, and they were doing what they could to let his brain and body rest and recuperate.
Rounds are every morning, usually between ten and eleven AM, where interns and residents report to the attending physicians and plans for patient care are adjusted accordingly. Brennan is always invited to leave Booth's side and participate in rounds, a courtesy that she deeply appreciates.
A physical therapist stops by in the afternoons to move his limbs and shows her how to put his arms and legs into circular motions that maintain circulation and stimulation to his muscles.
Angela is one of the visitors that helps her the most. She hustles in with her usual chirping greeting, a flourish of sound and joy that brightens every room she enters. Immediately she notices Brennan is wilting. She knows Booth's lack of improvement means Brennan won't find any true relief any time soon. "I'll stay with him. You need to eat, Bren."
For an hour, she leaves that small universe and wanders down the hallways, past other small universes where families wait for the dawn (the eyes of their beloved opening). When she reaches the cafeteria, she will select whatever vegetarian entrée is available that night, and tea. She'll grab granola bars and fresh fruit to take back to the room.
She'll update Booth's brother, Jared and Parker's mom, Rebecca, from a corridor high on the sixth floor with a view to the east, where cellular service is not impeded. They will dart her with stinging questions she can't really answer and she will feel even more drained after hanging up. They're unsatisfied, worried, helpless and there's nothing anyone can do.
Then she returns to the small universe where Angela is talking in a low voice to the man in the bed. She's telling him that Hodgins and Vincent accidentally let a spider loose in the Ookie Room and Cam is refusing to let either of them leave the lab until the escaped critter is safely contained, but they can't find it and it's going on 27 hours now….
The story stops because she's scuffed her jacket against the door frame and the curtain rings have scraped along the rod above her, alerting Angela that Brennan has returned. Angela embraces her and says Cam will probably come by later in the evening. Brennan nods. Brushing Brennan's hair back affectionately, Angela suggests Brennan should use Cam's visit to run home and get some clothes for the next couple of days.
She shrugs, because she hasn't showered since the morning before yesterday (back when she was living her normal life) and in truth she is feeling worn and tattered. She's not looking her best but she doesn't care.
"Sweetie, the first rule of care-giving is that you have to take care of yourself first. You're no good to him if you collapse."
"I know," she answers hoarsely. The thought of leaving him for something so trivial as a change of clothing is impossible to entertain.
In the quiet between words, the soft beeps come at their regular intervals. It's only been two full days and already she misses the sound when she's outside of this room. She wants that comforting pe-dop and ping … ping … to tell her his lungs and heart are still on the job. She needs the proof, the aural evidence that he's still with her.
Cam is more insistent, when she arrives at eight o'clock. "I promise I will call you if anything happens. Just run home and grab what you need. It shouldn't take you more than an hour to get back."
She doesn't want to. Touching her arm gently, Cam assures her it will be okay to briefly leave. "You've been here over 48 hours. He'll understand that you went home to get a few things and you're coming right back." Then she smiles, a wavering but affectionate nod to the man they both care about. "If he was awake, he would insist that you go home and sleep."
"And he'd know I would refuse," Brennan responds softly.
"Exactly," Cam agrees. "He'll know you're coming back as soon as possible."
Even though Cam has no authority over her, Brennan sighs and reluctantly agrees to the wiser course. There's no telling how long she's going to be here in this stasis. She does need supplies for the long vigil ahead. If there is anyone else she would trust to stay with him while she actually left the hospital, it is Cam. Being a forensic pathologist means Dr Saroyan has a medical degree, after all.
Going home in a taxi that she pays to wait outside, Brennan flies through her apartment and is back in the taxi within fifteen minutes. She watches the city lights blur past her window, her sense of distortion extending beyond time to space and depth. Out here seems too large, too open and too beautiful. She doesn't belong out here, not without him.
When she enters the ICU room again, Cam is sitting by his bed, his hand clasped warmly in hers. She is telling him the same story Angela did. "It had legs as long as your arm, Seeley, I swear to God. You know how much I hate spiders."
A small part of her misses being part of the lab. Brennan wonders what the spider looks like, why it got loose, and she wonders if she will ever get back to that life. It seems so far away, so unreal.
Cam turns and smiles at her. "Dr. Brennan is back, Seeley, so I'm going to go home to Michelle now. You take care, big guy." She squeezes his hand and returns it to his chest.
Rising, meeting Brennan's anguished gaze, she shakes her head in silent confirmation that nothing has changed. "Do you need me to bring you anything from the lab? Maybe some work to help you pass the time?"
"No, there really isn't enough time to accomplish anything. But thank you for the offer."
The days move fast and slow here, at the speed of light and at the event horizon where all time vanishes into the singularity because nothing changes. He doesn't change.
"I'll stop by tomorrow at lunch," Cam promises.
Then she is gone and they are alone in their little universe.
Brennan takes the seat Cam has vacated and reaches for her partner's hand. She strokes the cool flesh and worries over the mottled appearance. Angela spoke to him and Cam did, and Brennan has been speaking to him. He never responds, and she is despondent. "Booth, can you hear us?"
He is comatose; he can't understand or respond, yet she speaks and waits and hopes with desperation that some part of him does hear her. It is exactly the sort of question she used to ask him, all those times when she would wonder about motive and what he was thinking. It is her own motive she is questioning now.
Is there any point at all in talking to him? She searches his stilled features for any sign of recognition, of emotion. For any reaction at all. "It's completely irrational, given the lack of evidence that you can hear me, but I find myself compelled to keep speaking to you. I am compelled, and yet I've run out of things to say."
She pauses, fighting back the ever-present grief to whisper, "I miss you."
Nothing. Not a flicker. She sighs wistfully. "It is difficult to maintain a one-sided conversation for so many hours."
She reaches out to touch his cheek gently. "I'll read to you instead," she offers. "I know I've never let you see any of my rough drafts but these are special circumstances. It's possible you won't even hear the words and you certainly aren't in a position to tease me. So, just this once, I'll read to you what I've been writing."
It is a story unlike any she's ever written before, skewing heavily towards Noir detective stories and Dick Tracy graphic novels that Booth proudly read to her over ice cream sundaes one night, rather than her more rigidly accurate forensic novels. The experimental format and characterization feels daring to her, so far outside her comfort zone as a writer that she is certain it will never be published. In that moment she decides Booth is the only one who will ever hear it because it's a story she wrote with him in mind. It's nearly finished, only the final scene is waiting and the decision to give the story completely to Booth ironically determines how the story will end.
She'll give him the ending he's always wanted.
Replacing his hand at his side, she retrieves her laptop computer. Opening it, Brennan brings up the Word file and reads over the first lines. She glances up at Booth, wishing, suddenly, that she'd have had the nerve to read this to him before. He would have liked hearing it. Drawing a breath, she drops her eyes back to the screen and starts to read.
"People say, you only live once. But people are as wrong about that as they are about everything. In the darkest moments before dawn, a woman returns to her bed. What life is she leading? Is it the same life she was living a half hour ago? A day ago. A year ago. Who is this man? Do they lead separate lives, or a single life shared?"
Pausing again to glance at her partner, Brennan feels an engulfing surge of emotion. They aren't separate, not at all. Not since the first time she'd stayed at his bedside while he was injured, handing him pudding and the TV remote while he groaned and complained that his whole body ached from the blast. She wishes she could hear him complain now.
They are a single entity, yin and yang; male and female; brain and heart; logic and faith; blazing sun and dreamy moon. 'You complement each other,' Dr. Sweets had said once. The young man was wrong about almost everything in terms of psychology, but right about their complementary partnership. They completed each other as a team, she'd added in explanation when Booth laughed and misunderstood. But here in this small room, surrounded by sounds that proved his life, she knows they complete each other. Period.
He is mostly gone and she feels the aching void of her missing half, knows that is the proof. Without him, she is incomplete.
Steadying herself, Brennan drops back to the words on the screen. It seems the screen has grown blurry, the words fuzzy and rippling under the distorting lens of her tears. She blinks them away and persists in her goal; she will read it all to him.
"A storm approaches. It is still over the horizon, but there is lightening in the air. Are either of them aware of the gathering turbulence? Can they feel the crackle of electricity in the wind, or are they aware only of the power they generate between themselves? The first hint of the storm is not a thunderclap. It is a knock…."
Two hours later, it is after ten pm and she is stumbling over words. Her consciousness drifts out while the words automatically issue forth a few lines, then her tongue trips and she jerks back into awareness. Exhaustion has made her too stupid to read, she finally decides.
"Booth, I'm going to get some sleep. I don't think I've been making much sense during the last couple of paragraphs anyway."
Gathering up the warmer blanket she's brought from home, Brennan deposits herself into the armchair that reclines partway. Sleep comes fast and hard, but never lasts longer than 60 minutes because of the nurse's hourly visits. She is missing valuable REM cycles as a result but that can't be helped.
The next waking cycle is much like the previous had been, punctuated by another apple fritter she tries to savor but regrets again when it sits undigested for hours; by hasty visits from Booth's brother and from Rebecca. Cam slips by for lunch, as promised, and brings Brennan a salad and order of fries from the Royal Diner.
Brennan eats them slowly right next to him and tells Booth he needs to wake up if he is going to get any. But he'd always looked the other way when she swiped his fries (after the first few times, that is) and this time is no exception to his willingness to share. Booth stays asleep and lets her finish them all without protest.
She finishes the short novella not long after lunch and then begins writing in between visits and vitals checks. There is so much fear and hope tumbling through her mind that she needs to process it and the only outlet is writing until no more words come. This day, she reads everything out loud, sharing her deepest thoughts with the man in the bed and this is how another cycle passes. Before she knows it, she is nearing the evening shift change on the fourth day.
"You love someone, you open yourself to suffering. That's the sad truth. Maybe they'll break your heart. Maybe you'll break their heart and never be able to look at yourself in the same way. Those are the risks."
She blinks back another wave of tears, part of her marveling that her eyes can produce such a prodigious amount of lachrymal fluid. All this tearing up is giving her a headache. She closes her eyes for a moment to gather her thoughts.
"… You see two people, and you think they belong together, but nothing happens. …"
Are you a couple? Are you two dating? So many different people have asked them that over the years. So many opportunities to push themselves over the line have come and gone. There has always been some convenient excuse or interruption to hold them back. But really, at its root, what has stalled them has been fear.
"The thought of losing so much control over personal happiness is unbearable. That's the burden. Like wings, they have weight. We feel that weight on our backs, but they are a burden that lifts us. Burdens that allow us to fly."
After all the use it has been getting, her voice is rough and scrapes out the last phrase.
Sensing movement, she stills and stares, hardly daring to hope.
His eyelids flutter.
Even from over here by the glass wall, she can see the flickering movement. Her finger jabs downward on the delete button, erasing her last maudlin musings because what he has to say is so much more important.
"Such a strange dream," he murmurs.
Setting the computer roughly aside, she is at his side instantly. "Booth! You're awake." A breathy laugh mixes with a sob as she sees the acorn brown of his irises for the first time in days. He blinks in confusion, his head turning slowly towards her.
"Your surgery was a success, but you reacted badly to the anesthesia. You've been in a coma for four days." He meets her gaze with befuddlement.
"What took you so long to wake up," she pleads, as if hoping he will have the answer.
All he says is a dazed-sounding, "Felt so real."
She shakes her head, wondering why he is so fixed on dreaming. "It wasn't real," she assures him. He has been sleeping, dreaming. Perhaps it had been such a good dream that he didn't want to leave it…?
Then Booth finally seems to see her, his eyes widening but not with recognition. He asks faintly, "Who are you…?"
And Dr. Temperance Brennan gasps, unable to avoid feeling stunned, terrified, and heartbroken by the question. How much damage has been done? How much has he forgotten...?
Author's Note: How much has Booth forgotten? What does he remember?
The rest of the journey is going to unfold in turns and switchbacks as we go through Booth's memories, and it may seem confusing at times. The key to understanding will be the music (if you listen to the chapter songs, which will provide extra clues), patience, and noting verb tense. Present tense is in the present. Past tense is ... in the past. ;) I promise there's a good reason for me telling the story this way, part of which is an effort to retain some element of surprise for Excellent Driver, who already knows what she asked for.
Meanwhile, get ready for plenty of B&B romance, angst, some sparky bits here and there, and if you're feeling dizzy just let me know. I have Dramamine stockpiled in the glove box. :P
Thanks to everyone who comes along on this crazy joy ride. Fasten those seat belts...