Chapter 16: The Lover and the Loved
While exclamations and chatter rose up around them, Booth and Brennan just looked at each other. Her face gave nothing away, but he didn't need it to tell him anything. Not anymore. Booth leaned in close and kissed her, and she wasn't about to stop him, even though they were in public. She needed this and opened her mouth slightly under his. Just enough to connect them, to taste him. The kiss ended soon enough, unremarked by most of those around them, and Brennan curled into him, smelling his Boothy smell that not only meant sex and strong thighs and beautiful hands but also meant safety and comfort and understanding when she didn't understand herself. Even though he was kissing his way up her cheek now, nuzzling a little into her neck, under her ear, she didn't stop him, and no one was paying any attention. He slid his arm around her, pulled her close, and whispered, "Where's your Dad, Bones? Where's Max?"
She pulled back to look into his eyes. "Pelant made you break the engagement didn't he?"
A small gasp nearby made it clear that Angela had heard the question.
"Yes, he did. He threatened to kill a group of specifically targeted random people if I didn't and if I didn't keep the reason secret." Brennan nodded. The two were jostled as Angela pushed to the side to make room for Shaw and Sweets to stand, preparing to join the on—scene investigation.
"Do you have any more secrets to share with me at this time, then?" She said this with some emphasis and he reached out to squeeze her hand.
"No, Bones. Nothing I can think of. That was the big one. I'm sorry, ba—"
"I don't know where Max is anymore, Booth. I really don't." He realized that this was her way of telling him that she wasn't lying. She really didn't know where Max was, or what he had done. He suspected that probably Max had been at the Jeffersonian this afternoon, somewhere, in reserve.
Cullen was suddenly beside him and Booth stood, shaking his boss' hand. Cullen asked him to sign for the charges at the end of the night, and Booth understood that he wouldn't be allowed to be involved in this investigation, nor would any member of the Jeffersonian forensic team.
For once, he didn't give a shit. He was with his people, and they had a story to tell him.
In the end, Caroline and Sweets stayed too, and Daisy left. Just too awkward still, Booth supposed. And it was just them. He and Bones, Hodgins, Angela, Cam, and Sweets. Caroline. Clark, Wendell, Arastoo, and Fisher. Zach wasn't there. But he kind of was, just the same.
Bones was ravenous and ate more than he had seen her eat since she was pregnant, not that he was going to say that. Everyone had something they wanted to know and so the details emerged out of order but eventually, most questions were answered.
Hodgins, predictably, was one of the loudest, persistent, and most obnoxious questioners. "Ange, did you find my money?"
"No, I was too busy trying to save people from dying," she mocked pointedly, but then smiled, "but I do think that I have an idea, seeing how his infrastructure was set up, of where it might have gone."
"Good, cause baby, I'm ready for things to get back to normal. I—"
"Wait," said Booth, "How did you find him, anyway?"
Angela exchanged a look with Brennan. And so, it was Brennan who answered, deliberately casual, her attention seemingly on her plate of food. "Well, Angela and I were together a lot two weeks ago, in the days after we prevented Pelant's drone from killing Sweets." Many people looked at Booth, or just as pointedly, didn't look at Booth, knowing as most of them did that he broke the engagement with Brennan right around then.
But Brennan continued, " I suspect, if we hadn't been talking quite so much, that we might never have made the insights that led to today." She took a deep breath. "While we were together one afternoon—" her eyes shifted from Angela to Booth and then back again, flitting briefly to Cam.
"They skipped out on work to get drunk!" Cam whispered to Sweets. "I KNEW something was up. I can't believe they went without me!" Sweets smiled but his attention was on Brennan. Brennan, however, caught Cam's eye and her smile was a apologetic. Cam smiled back, a little weepy. Damn, she was emotional today.
"—talking about...things...Angela mentioned that it seemed that Booth and Pelant had something in common." Booth did a double take that made Sweets laugh, but he waited for her explanation. She looked up at him, her eyes dark in the amber light of the room. "Me."
"I love you, you know." His voice was husky but deliberate. Everyone in the room stilled. Booth was a careful man, a private man. He talked a lot, but long ago learned how to hold his true thoughts and feelings close. Every person in that room was suddenly proud to be there, aware of his trust and that he was declaring himself publicly. If he had been actually naked, he could not have stripped himself more bare in that moment.
Brennan didn't look at their friends. She straightened a little though, as she held his gaze with her own bright eyes. Her mouth was the only part of her body that acknowledged the pain of the last few weeks and it is possible that no one but him could see the small tremble before she swallowed and said, equally deliberately.
"I thought I understood what it meant, that I loved you. But then you didn't." Booth's eyelids dropped a little, like he wanted to shut his eyes, but he didn't. She stopped talking and he thought, they all thought, that she would not continue after this cryptic statement. But she did.
"But then you did. Love me. Every night." This, they thought, was less cryptic. They were wrong. But Booth understood. She took a deep breath and turned slightly to include everyone again. She continued to explain.
"I felt like I was acting like a Damsel in Distress. There is nothing I hate more than feeling like a puppet." This last was said with vehemence and more visible emotion than anything before. "But once I stopped feeling and started thinking I realized that this was how I have felt since Pelant came into our lives. Like I was in a fantasy novel, or a romance novel, or a thriller. And I wasn't the only one. Over and over again, each of us responded to stimuli that we didn't recognize as such and Pelant used it. Depended on it. What was extra obscene—I can't believe I have to modify the word "obscene"—" She was clearly disgruntled a being forced into hyperbole, "what was extra obscene about our interactions with Pelant was how complicit he made us. We seemed to be contributing to our own destruction by playing the roles he assigned us. He was telling a story and it felt as though we were characters in it."
Angela interjected. "And I realized that Pelant had been planning on taking Brennan out of prison, not killing her there."
Brennan nodded. "And together we realized that the story was different than we thought it was. Pelant was just as bound into his own story as we were—more so because we knew it and he didn't—so once we figured it out, we could use it."
Brennan was getting tired of talking already. She knew all this. She just wanted to go home. With Booth. "Using what we gleaned about the narrative he had created for himself, one in which he was playing a game with me—albeit one that I wasn't aware of—we were able to deduce where he might be observing us and that led me to create an event in which I would challenge him so that Angela could dismantle his infrastructure.
I went and saw Zach, as I usually do, at the beginning of the next week. I told him about our insights, about my suspicion that Pelant was a gamer, and he provided the independent analysis and assessment. Creating the game was complicated but not hard. What was difficult was leaving the narrative unfinished. That was the key."
Arastoo spoke up, nodding. Understanding, finally. They had all been assigned roles by Brennan but she hadn't explained much. "Because every time, every time, we tried to predict what Pelant would do next, to get ahead of him, we failed."
"He was a better storyteller than we were." Cam acknowledged, but Hodgins disagreed.
"No. He just knew what story we were in."
"Reminds me of my Nonc. Not actually an uncle but he could talk the hind leg off a dog. And he'd draw people in, not just us little ones, and when the story ended we'd all be laughing or in tears just like he'd wanted."
Wendell interjected after Caroline. "I don't get it, though. Forgive me, Dr. Brennan, but you aren't any kind of storyteller really. I mean, in your books...obviously, as an author, you know what you are doing, but something like today?"
Brennan looked a little embarrassed now. "I agree, Mr. Bray. I got Zach and Sweets to help me write a story, a game, that Pelant would want to participate in, but ultimately it was the fact that I didn't try to manipulate the narrative that was my contribution. We wrote the story that Pelant would engage in. I didn't participate. We didn't."
Angela, having questioned Brennan closely through the development of the game, broke in to clarify. "She asked us to choose passwords based on what Pelant likely knew about us, slip into his narrative for a minute. But she didn't. Notice he couldn't really predict what she would say about us, and then, ultimately, she did the most dangerous thing I have ever seen her do."
Brennan looked shocked.
"I'm sorry, Sweetie, but it was. You set this whole thing up and then let the chips fall where they would."
"Ange, if I had tried to engineer the ending, he would have been able to predict it—"
"Oh, I know, Bren. Believe me. You did what you had to. But you did your part, and then you left it up to us to save you. Talk about damsel in distress."
No one knew quite what to say after that. The idea that Brennan had not known that Booth was going to save her but had left things to chance was mind-boggling and terrifying.
"Well, I didn't leave as much to chance as you all seem to think!" Brennan protested finally. "I gave Booth and a few other people clues. I had-" She cut herself off, started again. "I had calculated a reasonable chance—"
Excited, Hodgins shouted and pointed at her. "You had FAITH! That's what you were going to say! Admit it! Wasn't it?"
Brennan's mouth twisted in reluctant agreement and amusement. She looked at him and said, "Fine. I 'had faith, baby.'" He grinned wider at her acknowledgement, and he raised a glass in silent toast to their shared memory of the day, the moment, when he had last said that to her. She raised her glass too, and drank. Booth looked between them, recognizing a story she hadn't told him. Later, he thought.
"Booth, how the hell did you get into the Jeffersonian?" Angela wanted to know, and Cam joined in.
Booth's eyes were twinkling now. "If you think, after that night I had to shoot my way in, that I wasn't going to have a back way to get into the lab, you're crazy."
"Crazy like a fox." Cam muttered, affectionately. "You aren't going to tell us, are you?"
"Hell, no." He grinned and slipped an arm around Brennan, rubbing her shoulder and playing with her hair. He didn't seem to be aware that he was doing it, but Brennan was, and she allowed herself to lean into him a little more. Now, suddenly, she wished she could stay here forever. In this bar, with Booth's hand on her, surrounded by friends and people who challenged her.
Hodgins raised his voice. "Remember that time we concocted a preposterous and elaborately complex scheme to trap an evil villain, said scheme requiring that we work together as a team like never before, trapping him by means of his own arrogance and with only a slim chance of success?"
Everyone laughed. Except Brennan.
"Wait. What? That just happened!"
They all paused uncomfortably. Angela said, gently teasing. "He knows, Sweetie. It's..."
Fisher spoke. "A narrative convention, Dr. Brennan. Or a play on one. A joke. Since you were talking about stories."
The look of distaste on her face cleared. "Oh, because it takes longer than," she checked her watch, "4 hours and 47 minutes for an event to recede far enough into the past for it to be recalled as a story. Yes, I can see that." She looked at Booth and declared, "Very funny!"
Caroline said, "I'd say not any more it isn't, but you know what? It still is!" Laughter.
Booth knew what was coming and wouldn't have dreamed of stopping her.
"Remember that time that we used chaos theory to modify a particular model of game theory to allow for the presence and possible action of both independent, dependent, and undefined variables to...to...foil the master criminal?" She looked around expectantly. Confusion gave way to more laughter as they deciphered what Brennan had said.
"Good one, Bones." Brennan beamed up at Booth, and everyone else laughed again, genuinely laughed. Because it was funny, and in relief, and at the return to normality. In fact...
"Remember the time that we left two small children in the care of a guitar-wielding, gun-toting Texan who had band practice at Madison Square Garden this afternoon?" Angela added and grinned. Booth's head swiveled to glare but anything he might have said was cut off.
"Remember that time we had to applaud like idiots in the peanut gallery?" Clark grumbled and turned to Wendell, "How come you got to stand in for Angela?!"
"Remember that time we went to the Jeffersonian on a Sunday to open ourselves up to the ridicule and scorn of a truly awful man and the worse part was, in some insane way, listening to facts about yourself revealed to the people you most respect?" The faces turned toward Cam showed understanding and undiminished respect.
She nodded, eyes dry. She was done with crying today; however, she had more to say. She turned to Arastoo. "Remember when you came down and stood by me?"
Arastoo looked back at her calmly, his mouth quirking in self-deprecation, his poet's voice deep and lovely to her ears.
Sweets cleared his throat. "Remember that time that taking down Pelant meant that I just had to play hours of online RPGs with Fisher and Zach?" He grinned around the table. "What!? It was research! And, and, and remember that time that Zach used the magnetic strip on my library card to break out of the loony bin? I wish he had done it today. We could have used him." They all laughed again, but not as hard. Maybe a little sad.
The eleven friends around the table had years of shared experiences and one day soon, as they did every once in a while, they would sit around another table, at this or a different bar, and reminisce more. Some day. When the tide of fear and hope and anticipation, of dread and revulsion and recognition, had receded. When the deep, dark water didn't feel so high. When the pull of the moon was not so strong.
"Remember that time I asked you to marry me?"
Everyone was staring at Brennan again. Angela's mouth was open and she groped for Hodgins' hand behind and next to her. The only head that hadn't swiveled to focus on her was Booth's. He was as he had been for a while now, facing forward, relaxed in his chair, arm around Brennan so that he could touch her, a glass of water in his other hand. He had to drive home, after all. He was going to get to drive her home. He had heard what she said, felt the weight of her gaze on his face. He turned his head, finally, and met blue eyes with brown.
"Remember the time I asked you?"
*So my favorite story title in One Thousand and One Nights is "The Tale of King Omar bin al—Nu'uman and His Sons Sharrkan and Zau al—Makan, and What Befel Them of Things Seld—Seen and Peregrine". But I also like "Tale of Tàj al—Mulúk and the Princess Dunyà: The Lover and the Loved".