Pairing: Booth/Brennan.

Rating: T

Spoilers: Through the Season 5 finale.

Summary: Because neither wants to accept that they're stuck in the in between, they wait for normalcy to happen. When that fails, a catalyst propels them in the right direction to a specific day a year later. The title is from Dashboard Confessional's "Alter the Ending."

I'll Meet You Where We Started Once Again

By Still Stargirl

This is not who they are.

Ever since that night by the steps outside the Hoover, Booth and Brennan haven't been them. They've been stuck between who they were (before talk of 30, 40, 50 years from now and I'm that guy and a kiss, desperate to convince her that they're going to be one of those couples) and who they've transitioned into being (a deflated version of themselves, transparent displays of jealousy – on Brennan's part for once, and an obvious attempt at gruffness to salvage some dignity – on Booth's part, naturally). They've never had to work to fit. They've never had to work on being them.

Because neither wants to accept that they need space – they're professionals and partners, first and foremost – they wait. They're stuck in the in between, but they valiantly carry on as they always have. Except things can never be as they have always been.

When Booth and Brennan have drinks at The Founding Fathers (a glass of red wine for her, a tumbler of scotch for him), they discuss their respective dates (with an FBI director whose acromion is stooped and a scientist who can identify fish bones). They go to the diner and share a meal (but he doesn't try to convince her to eat some of his pie and she doesn't steal his fries). They fill out paperwork simultaneously, but in their own offices (not in her apartment with a six-pack of beer and boxes of mee krob and rice).

–––

In crisis, there's a glimpse of the effortless connection they've forged over the years. Heather Taffet's trial is emotionally and physically taxing on both of them. Brennan is haunted by images of Hodgins bleeding and Booth drowning. Booth has had his share of nightmares, being a former soldier, so he offers Brennan a guy hug (except now she knows it's an embrace of a man who would do anything to protect her). Booth drops his charges against Taffet so Brennan won't be alone in this fight for justice. Because it's what partners do (and what people who love each other do, too).

Yet it still isn't enough to keep Brennan from letting go of Booth's hand to hail a cab after celebratory drinks at The Founding Fathers with the rest of the Squints. Even after Angela and Hodgins' announcement that they're married (in spite of a failed attempt to marry years before, an artist, an intern, and a false positive pregnancy test). Even after Angela and Hodgins confirm that they've married for love and Booth and Brennan share one of their looks.

Brennan moved first, toward change instead of being immobile. She's exhausted. It's impossible for people to remain inert forever. So when Booth tries to pull her back to him, away from the curb and back to the bar, she slips her hand out of his. Brennan hails and slides into a taxi. Her masochistic side forces her to turn around and look at him. You are causing this man pain, so it is only logical that you remove yourself from the situation.

When Brennan raises her hand to wave at him, Booth concludes he fucking hates taxis. Especially when taxis drive away from bars with Brennan in the backseat, instead of by his side.

–––

Though Brennan does not and never will believe in fate, it is convenient that opportunities arise for her and Booth to escape their current lives for their former ones. They've been partners for five years; they've maintained this symbiotic relationship to the benefit of their ability to solve crimes, but to the detriment of their ability to make decisions. Or so Brennan figures.

There was a time when Brennan would've flown to Indonesia without weighing Booth's opinion on the matter. She could make a significant contribution to what is known about the evolution of humankind. She's grasping for the objectivity she used to possess. She hopes to rediscover this objectivity when she returns to a site in a foreign land that holds ancient remains, instead of a crime scene within the vicinity of Washington D.C.

There was a time when Booth would've immediately responded to a letter from the Secretary of Defense to train soldiers to fight terrorists in Afghanistan. He's always been a man of principle, a man of honor and duty. While he's still that man, he's also a man who's seen one of his young soldiers die, even when he tried to protect the boy. He's a father, who must live to raise his son. It makes sense that his son inherited his sense of duty and urges him to go, but he needs to find out what Bones thinks, first.

–––

It isn't usually Booth who's adamantly resistant to change. But he can no longer deny that he feels it from his seat on a bench. The chasm between them grows as Brennan strides toward him. Even as she settles next to him and he feels her inquisitive gaze on him, he knows she's halfway across the world already. Because of this, he can't bring himself to look at her. Instead, he looks straight ahead and though his eyes flicker in her general direction, they never focus on her.

"So Bones, here we are. What's all the mystery about?"

She looks at him intently. "I've been offered the chance to head up the Maluku Island project."

He nods, still avoiding her gaze. "Yeah, I heard. Daisy told Sweets. Sweets told me."

"Oh." She grimaces slightly. "I'd like to accept."

He's surprised. He's used to her running so he says, "Hm. I thought you already had."

She replies defensively, "We've been partners for five years, Booth. I wouldn't make a decision like this without talking to you."

A noiseless, mirthless laugh escapes his lips. "Bones, look, you don't need my permission, okay? It's cool."

Her voice rises to a panicked pitch. "You say that, but you won't look at me. You're the one who taught me the value of making eye contact. So…please?"

Booth is reminded of that night. No, the FBI won't let us work together as a couple! In spite of the fear in Brennan's eyes and the quiver in her voice, he grabbed her by the waist and kissed her. Even then, she was slipping away. He thought that maybe she would take him by the lapels and lean into him as she did a couple Christmases before under the pretense of mistletoe and Puckish prosecutors. But he knew she would want to fall back into what was comfortable (their solid partnership) than risk the pain of an (allegedly) ephemeral romantic relationship (both knew their hearts would be crushed if it ever ended).

But now? Booth knows this is his partner asking for her partner to be upfront with her. To be open with his body language. Truthfully, he doesn't trust himself not to cry if he looks at her.

Still, he turns toward her. "I'm sorry."

She offers him a small smile.

He's dejected, surrendering. "It's just – I don't do good with change, I guess."

"Better than I am," she admits.

"Pyramids are better at change than you are," he jokes, but his tone suggests he's serious.

Her eyes widen.

He doesn't want to offend her, though. Humor masks the ache he feels in his chest. "It's a joke, okay? I was being affectionate."

"Oh!" She laughs awkwardly and immediately turns serious again. "Will you go back to the army?"

He nods slowly, "It's what's best for me right now."

"I'll only be gone for a year." She offers, trying to convince herself and him that this is not the end of them.

"Me too. Eh, so what's a year?" He shrugs.

She answers automatically, "It's the time it takes the earth to make a full revolution around the sun."

"In the scheme of things, y'know, the grand scheme – I'm saying a year is just – y'know, it's not too bad. Right?"

"Right." She nods, smiling. She knows that relative to a human's lifespan, a year is insignificant. "We can come back, pick up where we left off…nothing really has to change."

He shakes his head. "Nah, things have to change."

For once, she doesn't even try to claim I don't know what that means.

"Y'know what? Hey, I taught you about eye contact, you taught me about evolution, so – here's to change."

And so, in the midst of the pull of change, Booth and Brennan bump their coffee thermoses together in a toast (as they've done many times before) and smile wistfully about what is ending (and the greater probability of a new outcome).

–––

The rest of their colleagues (and friends) see Brennan off at Dulles. As each bids her goodbye, she's acutely aware of who hasn't. No properly anyway, as there was no time. But when Daisy insists that it's time for them to go, Brennan's wandering gaze lands on him. Booth is standing by the escalators. His hands are behind his back holding his cap, his hair parted to the side (instead of tousled and spiky), wearing army fatigues (instead of an expertly tailored suit and a cocky belt buckle). She ignores Daisy calling her name and moves toward him, her luggage rolling behind her.

His eyes are full of contrition (typical Catholic). "Sorry, I couldn't get a pass. I had to sneak off the base and come say goodbye."

She's about to say something, but he beats her to it.

"Listen, Bones – you gotta be really careful in that Indonesian jungle, okay?"

She shakes her head. "Booth, in a week you're going to a warzone. Please don't be a hero."

He nods, swallowing slowly.

"Please, just…don't be you."

He moves closer to her as though he'll kiss her. Instead, they both look down and reach for each other's hands. They grasp each other's hands tightly, steadily tethering themselves to ithis/i moment.

Booth stares straight into her eyes and makes a pact, "One year from today, we meet at the reflecting pool on the mall, right by the –"

"Coffee cart." Brennan smiles, reassured that some things never change. "I know. One year from today."

Booth takes one last look at their hands, lets go, and turns to move briskly toward the exit. Brennan watches him walk away, observing that this is the first time he's pulled his hand away from hers. But instead of her running, they're both heading in opposite directions. This is not one of them abandoning the other; this is a temporary, agreed upon separation.

Brennan slowly makes her way toward her gate. Booth stops to whip around and permanently imprint the image of her walking toward their friends (and farther away from him) in his memory. She feels his gaze on her retreating form and peers back at him. They exchange somber expressions (what Angela calls longing looks) and continue on their separate paths.

–––

One year from that day, Brennan arrives at Dulles before Booth. Knowing him, he'll take the bus straight from the airport to The Mall. She's got four hours until he arrives, though, and is in dire need of a shower. She takes a taxi to her apartment, where she cleanses herself of the dust of the dig site and relishes not having to hear Daisy's incessant, hyperactive chatter. She hums "Hot Blooded" as she carefully curls her hair and puts on makeup. She laughs. In her closet, there's a note attached to a hanger, on which there is a vibrant blue dress with a deep v-neck and A-line cut that compliments her curves.

Bren,

It's from a fabulous boutique across la rue from Jack and my Paris apartment. Wear your fancy blue pumps. What's that you say? You don't own any pumps? Check again. I put them next to your sexy Wonder Woman boots.

- Ange

Brennan zips herself into the dress and slips the heels on. She checks herself in her bathroom mirror once more and nods with satisfaction. Angela has dressed her more successfully than she's dressed herself, at times. Grabbing her keys and phone, she locks her apartment door behind her.

–––

One year from that day, Booth is patient as he shoulders his backpack and disembarks the plane from Afghanistan. Once off the plane, he rushes past fellow travelers to baggage claim grabs his duffle bag and takes the bus to The Mall. A half-hour crawls by and Booth squirms in his seat. As the bus stops in front of The Mall, he gathers his things. Luckily, he got a seat in the front. It's only the sanctity of the uniform that prevents him from leaping over other passengers and sprinting for the coffee cart.

Instead, Booth forces himself to breathe slowly and walk even slower. He glimpses a flash of her hair and her hips swaying as she moves to join the line at the coffee cart. She's wearing a dress that perfectly complements her eyes. He snorts, figuring that's Angela's doing. Angela would want to make him defenseless to Bones upon their reunion.

Brennan glances at her watch for the billionth time in the past five minutes. She's so preoccupied that she doesn't notice a man sidle up next to her. Her heartbeat quickens when she realizes who it is (even his shadow showcases his perfect acromion). She can't bring herself to look at him; she doesn't trust herself not to cry.

Wordlessly, they look down and reach for each other's hands. Their fingers laced, they squeeze each other's hands to confirm that this is real.

"What'll it be?" The man at the coffee cart asks.

"She'll have a hazelnut coffee with cream." Booth answers confidently, a smile stretching across his lips.

"He'll have a regular coffee with two sugars." Brennan grins.

Hands swinging between them, they make their way toward their bench. Setting their coffees and his bags on the bench and ground respectively, they appraise each other. She's slightly flushed (she never could tan) and her hair is lighter. The lines at the corners of his eyes are more pronounced (he looks slightly older, not broken), but his eyes aren't haunted like the first time he returned from the Middle East.

"Welcome home, Booth."

Brennan steps toward him, closing the space between them. She loops her arms around his sturdy shoulders and clasps her hands behind his neck.

Booth's hands find her waist and interlock at the small of her back. "You too, Bones."

In these new heels, she's almost at eye level with him. She swallows. They lean their foreheads toward each other, frontal bones touching. Brennan's mouth finds Booth's. They kiss slowly, lips moving in tandem. They savor the relief of reuniting, the fulfillment of promises, and the assurance of evolution (for them, it took seven years, not millions). They cherish the stability, the rush of a new beginning, and their hearts being intact (not crushed).

When Brennan's hands trail down from his neck, Booth knows she won't push him away (she grabs him by the collar, pulling him closer). When Booth's hands leave the small of her back, Brennan knows he's not changing his mind (he holds her face in his hands and tucks an errant curl behind her ear). When they finally part, for lack of air, they laugh. They sit on the bench and pick up their coffee cups.

Booth takes her free hand and tenderly kisses her knuckles before lacing his fingers with hers. He begins, "Well, Bones, I know you taught me about evolution—"

"—but we can agree that both of us had to be willing to consider a different dynamic in which we could interact so that we could adapt to our evolution." Brennan finishes.

Booth smirks. "Who says psychology is a load of crap?"

"I maintain that my analysis is more closely related to anthropology." Brennan rolls her eyes and then holds up her coffee cup. "A toast."

"To us." Booth offers simply.

They bump their coffee cups together and sip, leaning on each other.

This is who they are.

This is who they've evolved into after two year-long separations bookending five years of togetherness (without being together).

This is who they always will be.

The End

Author's note: this was my first Bones fic, so let me know if you enjoyed it & if I remotely succeeded in capturing our favorite crime-solving duo. Thanks! :)