A/N: The island I've used for purposes of this story, though loosely based on those in the Maluccan Archipelago, is purely fictional.
She hadn't noticed his arrival. Her head was bent low over something on the table in front of her. He couldn't tell what she was looking at, but whatever it was, she was studying it with single-minded intensity. He hadn't forgotten her ability to focus, but seeing it again after all this time brought so many memories flooding back that he was glad she hadn't noticed him yet because it gave him time to gather his resources. He hadn't realized just how much he'd missed her until now, when the curve of her cheek and the glint of sun in her hair made his chest ache.
Without turning her head Bones picked up a small brush from the table beside her. She leaned in close, wielding it the same way he'd once seen Gordon Gordon handle a razor-sharp paring knife - with a kind of deft self-assurance that looked effortless, but probably wasn't. Flick. Pause. Blow. Flick. Pause. Blow. It was mesmerizing. She was mesmerizing.
He sensed the exact moment she realized she was being watched. Her hands stilled, then lifted away from the artifact. She set the small brush back on the table. Then her head came up, her eyes surveying her surroundings with piercing intensity. When her gaze found his she broke into a brilliant smile, and he felt an answering grin spread across his own face. But hers was only a flash, replaced in an instant by confusion. Wiping her hands on her khaki cargo pants, she rose and crossed to meet him.
She didn't offer to hug him. In fact when she came to a stop nearly two feet away she seemed almost nervous. Stiff as a fresh recruit, she crossed her arms over her chest and eyed him warily.
"Booth. What are you doing here?"
"Hello to you, too." When she only continued to stare at him he shrugged, his t-shirt clinging to sweat-dampened shoulders. "It's Christmas, Bones."
"No, it's the nineteenth. And I assumed you would spend the holiday with Parker."
"Parker's gone skiing with Rebecca and Captain Fantastic, and Pops is taking one of those senior citizen bus tours with a bunch of his friends, so I thought I'd use my leave to visit you." He hesitated, not entirely sure he wanted to hear her answer to his next question. But six months in a war zone had reminded him that sometimes it was better to risk everything and lose than not to risk at all. "Aren't you glad to see me?"
"Of course I am." Unfolding her arms, she dropped her hands to the knotted tails of her blouse, fingers tangling restlessly in the thin cotton. "But I'm working, Booth."
"Alone?" Three tables away a woman murmured into a digital voice recorder, dark glasses pushed high on her head. Beyond her, a gray-haired gentleman poked at assorted bits of pottery. Otherwise the site was deserted. "Come on, Bones, it's Christmas." When she raised her eyebrows, he revised. "It's the Christmas season. Surely they can spare you for a few days."
"I promised I would catch up on the cataloguing over break." She waved a hand back toward the work tables. "I have three crates of remains to tag and photograph, notes to write up ..." A hint of frustration crept into her voice as she concluded, "And since Daisy's gone to Australia with some of the other scientists I don't even have an intern."
Her hair was shorter, and her skin had taken on a deep bronze tan. But she'd also lost weight. And the shadows under her eyes told him she'd been working too hard again. Bones prided herself on her independence, but she really needed a keeper.
"Two days." He tugged at the brim of his hat, trying in vain to shade his eyes against the fierce sun. "Surely you can spare that much time."
"Hey, I came 6,000 miles and you can't spare a few hours to show me around?" He softened the words with a smile, aware that he was dangerously close to begging. He was enjoying sparring with her. It made him feel normal for the first time in months. "We can go for a sail, do some snorkeling ... I've always wanted to try snorkeling." He swept an arm toward the sandy beach and the ocean beyond. "How often do you get a chance to go snorkeling in December?"
"I've spent several Decembers in tropical locations, Booth. There's nothing special about it. Besides, I find scuba diving much more enjoyable than snorkeling."
"Then we'll go scuba diving."
Bones cast a dubious glance toward the ocean. She started to shake her head. Then her expression brightened. "I could show you the dig site," she said, excitement rising in her voice as she warmed to the idea. "It's a fascinating study in early hominid development under ecologically isolated conditions."
Booth swallowed a groan and scanned the assortment of folding tables underneath their canopies of sun-browned palm fronds. "I thought this was the dig site."
Shaking her head, Bones gestured toward a narrow footpath that disappeared into the jungle. "The main site is about ten minutes in. We set up camp here in order to minimize the excavation's environmental impact."
Six months of squints and dusty artifacts had driven her back into her shell. She was edgy with him. Distant. He didn't understand why, but he recognized the signs. Okay, then. He would see the dig, and he would do his best to look interested while she went on about bones and prehistoric tools and whatever the hell else she was so excited about. But in the silences between he would try to show her again that the world of the living could be pretty damned fascinating, too.
Striving for an enthusiasm he didn't feel, Booth nodded. "Lead on, Bones."
She pointed at his worn duffle bag. "We should stow that in my tent first."
And that probably didn't mean at all what his libido wanted it to mean. "Your tent?"
"Well, you could leave it here if you like. Nobody would bother it, but you might find a selenocosmia effera inside when you come back."
He grinned. "I love it when you use the big words."
And how much had he missed seeing that look on her face?
"Tarantula," she said patiently, forming her thumbs and forefingers into a circle. "They can get pretty big here - six or seven inches in diameter."
From scorpions to giant spiders. Perfect. "Right. Your tent it is."
He fell into step beside her, pausing when she stopped to speak to the woman with the glasses. The woman - middle-aged, with black hair that hung down the center of her back in a neat braid, and a brightly flowered cotton shirt - took one look at Booth and fired off a stream of what sounded like Spanish. Bones shook her head and responded calmly, but her shoulders tensed, and she gave Booth a quick, uneasy glance. The other woman answered with a regretful click of the tongue, a shake of the head, and then a nod.
Bones turned back to him. "We should take some water with us. The combination of heat and humidity can cause rapid dehydration."
"And we get that where, exactly?"
"Dining hut," she said, hooking a thumb toward a small building separated from the main camp by a shallow stream and what looked like a well-used fire pit. "My tent is over there," she went on, and pointed toward a ragtag grouping of canvas structures a few yards away. "Second from the left. I'll get some bottled water and meet you at the trailhead."
She started off, stopped, and turned back. "I'm sorry. I should have asked. Are you tired? Hungry? I can get you something to eat ..."
"Slept on the plane, ate on the boat. I'm good." He glanced up, checking the angle of the sun. "Besides, it's better if I stay awake until it gets dark."
"Right. Jet lag." In her eyes he saw the first hint of the Temperance Brennan he remembered - the warm, thoughtful woman he'd left behind in DC, rather than the distant, prickly one he'd met six years ago. "Five minutes?"
He watched her walk away, admiring her confident stride. He was about to move off himself when something drew his attention back to the black-haired woman. She was watching him, a knowing expression in her eyes and a faint smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Booth shifted his grip on his bag and turned toward the tents. He couldn't explain his relationship to Bones in his own head, so there was no way in hell he was going to discuss it with a complete stranger - especially one who didn't even speak the same language he did.
The sturdy canvas tents were raised on stilts which, considering the length of the rainy season and the variety of local wildlife, seemed like a smart move. Booth boosted himself up the short ladder, ducked inside, and looked around. The small space was almost painfully neat. And sparse. The only personal item he saw was a framed photograph of Bones and Angela at what looked like some kind of street festival. Other than that there were only two wooden packing crates stacked on top of each other to serve as a makeshift table and a neatly made camp cot covered with mosquito netting. The photo was on top of the crates, along with a kerosene lamp, a ballpoint pen, and a book, The Ecology of Nusa-Tenggara and Maluku. He picked it up and flipped through it. At almost a thousand pages, it'd make a good doorstop - if she'd had a door. With a shake of his head, he returned it to its place.
He set his bag on the bed and rummaged inside. He'd packed light, so it only took a second to find his deodorant and bug spray. After applying liberal coats of each, he returned them to his duffle, zipped it up, and set it out of the way on the floor.
Bones was waiting near the path she'd pointed out earlier, a khaki daypack slung over one shoulder and a long, wicked-looking knife in her hand.
"All set?" she asked.
"What's in the bag?"
"Water, flashlights, first aid kit ... We keep the packs in the dining hut for people to check out whenever they leave the work site."
"And the machete?"
"It's called a parang." She examined its edge in the sunlight. "And it's for snakes."
Bones handed him a foil packet and a bottle of water. "Antimalarial tablet."
"Ahh." He popped the pill out of its packet and downed it along with the water, then dropped the empty containers in a nearby trashcan. "Now I'm ready."
He waited until they moved into the shadowy edges of the jungle to bring up the black-haired woman.
"So," he said, "they speak Spanish here, huh?"
"Tia's from Madrid." Bones caught at a low-hanging vine and tugged it out of her way. "We have scientists here from all over the world. Watch out for those palm fronds. The petioles have sharp thorns."
"They're cycads. They don't have feelings. Look." She dropped to a crouch and leaned in to point out a five-petaled flower whose colors reminded him of a spin art picture Parker had once given him. "Phalaenopsis amboinensis."
She laughed. "It's an orchid. Isn't it beautiful?"
"It certainly is." But he wasn't looking at the flower."So where's this dig of yours?"
"I'm sorry. I know you're anxious to see it. It's just that this island is so fascinating. There are flora and fauna here that you won't find anywhere else in the world."
They started walking again, working their way up the side of a steep hill in the company of raucous bird calls, whining insects, and oppressive humidity. Booth was glad he'd thought to bring his bandanna. In Afghanistan he'd used it to keep sand out of his mouth and nose. Here he would use it to wipe the sweat out of his eyes.
"So tell me about this big discovery you're working on," he said, less because he was interested than because the sound of her voice was one of the things he'd missed the most over the past six months. "What's so special about it?"
She launched into an animated explanation, and as usual when Bones got excited about her work most of what she said went right over his head. But he did catch a few words here and there, and it didn't take long to put two and two together.
"Wait." He caught her elbow, pulling her to a stop. "We're going inside an active volcano?"
"Yes." She seemed surprised by the question. "Well, not inside, exactly, but some portions of the cave system we'll be in were formed by slow moving lava. You do know that the Maluccan archipelago is located at the intersection of three tectonic plates, right? Geologically speaking, all of the islands are very active. Earthquakes and mudslides are quite common."
"Really." Leave it to him to spend his Christmas leave in a place where he couldn't trust the ground beneath his feet to stay where it belonged. Sand storms were bad enough, but earthquakes? Mudslides?
"Yes," she said. "Didn't you do any research at all before you came?" Then without waiting for his response, "It's just up here."
Seconds later the trail came to an abrupt end at a narrow opening in the overgrown hillside. It was no wonder the place had gone undiscovered for so long. Its entrance was all but buried in the thick undergrowth.
"Geez, Bones. In there? Really?"
"It gets wider once you're inside," she answered, dropping to a crouch and shrugging out of her pack.
Booth waved away a cloud of gnats and watched Brennan dig through the faded canvas bag, coming out a few seconds later with a pair of flashlights. She handed one to him.
"Wow. You're a regular Boy Scout," he teased.
Bones blinked up at him. "I don't understand what that means."
"Boy Scout, Bones. Be prepared?" At her puzzled look, he shook his head. "Never mind."
She flashed a bottle of water. "Thirsty?"
"No thanks. I'm good."
He waited while she drank. Finished, she screwed the cap on and tucked the bottle back into the bag.
"Want me to carry that for a while?" he asked.
"To give you a break," he said. "Besides, it's the gentlemanly thing to do."
"That's an antiquated and chauvinistic social construct, Booth. I'm perfectly capable of carrying my own gear."
He lifted his hands in surrender. She was prickly as a blind porcupine. He didn't understand it, but he sure as hell intended to respect it. "Whatever you say, Bones."
Zipping the pack closed, she rose to her feet and flipped it back on her shoulders, then picked up the parang from where she'd left it leaning against the trunk of a tree. "Ready?"
Booth nodded. Maybe if he was lucky, the damned bugs would stay out here.
They squeezed through the opening single file, setting off a small avalanche of dirt and pebbles in their wake. Two yards in the tunnel opened into a broad, low-ceilinged cavern - clearance to stand, but only just. Booth shone his light at the uneven ceiling and made a mental note to keep his head down.
"Careful not to touch the walls," Bones said. Her voice bounced back at them from what sounded like a hundred different directions at once. "This first section is primarily composed of-"
"Limestone. I know." And the oils on his skin would kill the formations. "Parker and I took a trip to Skyline Caverns last spring."
The air inside was a little stale, but it was also both drier and cooler than the air outside. Booth scanned the cavern with his flashlight, the beam dipping under stalactites, rippling across flowstone, and edging around wide columns. The room they were in opened out in half a dozen different directions.
"Which way?" This must have been what Hansel felt like when he realized that birds had eaten the trail of breadcrumbs that was supposed to lead him home.
"Follow me," said Bones. "But be careful. The stone is slippery in places."
As it turned out, slippery spots were the least of his problems.
The cave floor had an infuriating tendency to be someplace other than where he expected it to be. And all those cool formations that were conveniently spotlighted and roped off back home ambushed him here, and Booth soon found that if he tried to protect his skull he inevitably tripped, but if he watched his feet he banged his head.
"This is where you've been working for the last six months?" He slouched around another corner, then ducked under a low hanging stalactite just before it gave him a concussion.
"Not every day, no. Flashlight beams aren't conducive to thorough examination of bone structure. This next section is tight. You'll need to crawl."
He swallowed. "Crawl?"
"And keep your head down. Better to scrape your scapula then puncture your parietal."
"Why, Bones. You're a poet."
"Shut up, Booth."
But there was laughter in her voice, and as he crawled after her he smiled to himself. They were going to be okay. Things were just a little weird after so much time apart, that was all. They'd get their rhythm back.
"This is where the first remains were found," she said a few minutes later. She stretched the kinks out of her back and brushed her hands off on her pants. The parang clanked against a stalagmite as she switched it from one hand to the other.
The cavern was shaped like a lima bean and about the size of a mess tent, with ceilings that rose several feet above their heads and the only level floor they'd encountered since entering the system. It was drier here, too. And the air smelled like dust. He shined his flashlight at the walls. Not limestone. Granite? Or maybe it was volcanic. He thought back to his high school earth science class and that boring-as-hell unit on geology. Basalt. That was it.
"We've cleared the artifacts from this chamber," she was saying, "but you can still see the paintings on the walls and the soot marks on the ceiling. People actually lived here thousands of years ago, Booth. They used sleeping mats and sophisticated stone tools. They cooked their food. They lived together in families and communities." She crossed to the wall and pointed out what looked like smudges of dirt. "Crude pictographs. They recorded their kills and tracked the rainy seasons."
"And-" Even though he didn't really understand her work, he was proud of how good she was at it. "You know how they died."
"Some of them, yes. I can also tell you whether they were left or right handed, which ones limped, and how many of the women gave birth. We've even determined that their primary food source was pygmy elephants. But the most fascinating thing about them is that their bone structure is markedly different from that of almost every other early hominid."
"Well, they were unusually short, for one thing. Just over three feet tall. And their brain volume was only about 400 cubic centimeters. That's about the size of a grapefruit." The excitement was back in her voice, along with the thrill of discovery. "They shouldn't have been able to make stone tools at all, much less the relatively sophisticated ones that have been found both here and on Flores."
"Three feet tall, you say?"
"About that, yes, though their feet were unusually large relative to their height."
He grinned. "It sounds like you're digging for hobbits, Bones."
He'd been joking, but she gave him a look of sharp disapproval. "I dislike that nomenclature. Hobbits are fictional characters. These hominids were very real."
"So you're telling me that once upon a time, many, many years ago, itty bitty humans hunted itty bitty elephants on an itty bitty island in the middle of nowhere."
"That's a vast oversimplification, but basically correct. Yes."
"Okay, I can see how that would be kind of interesting, but these people died thousands of years ago." He lifted his hands, palm up. What he was about to say was a risk, he knew that. But he needed to know that she was happy with the choices she'd made. "I hate to sound insensitive, Bones, but why does it even matter now? What makes this ancient history stuff so much more important than the murders you and I solved every day?"
"Because it is history, Booth. Our history. Everything we learn about these people helps us understand ourselves a little better."
Booth tilted the flashlight so he could see her face without blinding her. How far could he push before she pushed back? "If that's true," he said, "then by now you should understand everything there is to know about the human condition, right? I mean when you consider the number of bones you've examined over the years ..."
She held his gaze for the briefest of moments before looking away. "It doesn't work like that."
"No," he said quietly. "No, I guess it doesn't."
But she'd already moved off, her flashlight beam dipping into an opening in the far wall. "There are dozens of chambers like this down here. And that's just in the sections we've finished mapping. It'll be years before the work is complete and the caves can be opened to the public. Come with me. I'll show you what I mean."
As he fell into step behind her he could've sworn the figures in the cave paintings watched him go. And maybe they did. What if the souls of some of those little people were still hanging around? They'd lived their lives in the best way they knew how. Hadn't they earned the right to rest in peace?
"Uh. Bones? What happens to all those bones when you finish studying them?"
"They'll be mounted, tagged, and placed in acrylic cases for display. Some of them will probably be part of a traveling exhibit."
Booth shook his head. "See. Now that's just wrong."
"They should be given a proper burial. Hell, to be honest, it's a little creepy that a bunch of squints are coming in here and disturbing them like this. Don't you worry that there might be some kind of voodoo curse on the place?"
"Of course not. Curses are designed to take advantage of people's superstitious natures, that's all. They're meant to cause fear rather than actual pain. Besides, these people have been dead for thousands of years. They can't hurt anybody."
"What about the Curse of the Pharaohs?"
Bones tucked her flashlight under her chin so that it gave her face an eerie glow, and spoke in sepulchral tones that bounced off the stone walls and made the hairs at the back of Booth's neck stand on end. "The gods will not allow anything to happen to me. Anyone who defiles my tomb ...the crocodile, the hippopotamus, and the lion will eat him."
Booth shuddered. "Yeah. Like that."
Dropping the flashlight from her face, she directed the beam at him. "Hogwash."
"You did not just say that. Nobody says hogwash anymore."
"Well obviously that's not true, because I just did."
She strode off down the steeply sloping tunnel, and he hurried to catch up to her. "I can't believe you're joking about this."
"I'm not joking. I just don't believe that superstition and fantasy should keep us from learning everything we can about the past."
Booth skidded to a stop, wondering if he'd heard that right. "Is that what this is about? Is that what it's been about all this time?"
Ahead of him, Bones turned. "What are you talking about?"
"You think that if you analyze enough bones, solve that whole mystery of life thing, maybe then you'll understand what happened to you."
"Don't be ridiculous. One has nothing to do with the other." Dismissing the question, she dropped to her stomach and slithered into yet another tunnel.
A beam of light collided with his kneecaps. "I'm right here, Booth." Her irritation bounced off the stone walls.
So close, but still so far. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."
The light disappeared, and Booth swallowed a curse as he dropped to his stomach and slithered into the narrow space behind her.
A few seconds later he found himself in a space that was about four feet long and maybe three wide. The low ceiling meant they couldn't stand, so Booth levered himself into a sitting position next to Bones, back to the wall, knees tucked up under his chin.
"Cozy," he observed wryly.
After he was settled Bones directed her flashlight beam at the opposite wall and Booth sucked in a breath as it came to life. A procession of simple images marched across it, disappearing around a corner at the other end of the tiny alcove.
"This was one of their burial chambers. The entire system is honeycombed with them." She pointed her light at the wall behind his shoulder. "Do you see the chip marks in the stone? The sharp angles and straight edges?"
"Here?" He pointed. "And here?"
"That's right." The enthusiasm was back in her voice. "These chambers were hand carved out of solid stone. Each one must have taken years, and we've found dozens."
"Wait. They actually buried their dead? I didn't think ancient humans did that."
"There's evidence that Neanderthals started burying their dead 100,000 years ago, and these remains are much younger than that, maybe fifteen to eighteen thousand years old."
"Okay, now hang on. You're telling me that right this minute I'm sitting in somebody's coffin?" The thought made him a little queasy.
"Catacombs would be a more accurate comparison, but those were usually built under cities, and the earliest known evidence of urbanization didn't appear until five or ten thousand years later."
"And you found somebody's skeleton here?"
"Well, yes. In fact I was studying the bones of this particular skeleton just yesterday."
"Wonderful." He wanted to be excited for her, or at least supportive, but the best he could manage was a weak smile. "Can we go now?"
She gave him one of those looks that meant she was trying to work something out in her head. Then her eyes widened. She lifted her hand as if to touch his arm, and he wanted that, wanted it desperately. But almost before he could acknowledge the thought she hesitated, her fingers drifting uneasily through the stale air before falling back to her lap.
"I'm sorry, Booth. I neglected to consider your religious beliefs. I imagine this is very uncomfortable for you. Yes, we can go now."
But before either of them could move, there was a low rumble from the ground beneath their feet. They stared at each other as the rumble grew to a dull roar. The floor began to shiver and roll, and Booth acted on instinct, pushing Bones down and covering her body with his. She cried out. Or he did. Chunks of rock fell from the ceiling. Choking dust rolled over them and dirt and gravel rained down on their heads and backs.
Somewhere on the other side of the tunnel they'd come through Booth heard a loud crash. Acting on instinct, he reached for his gun, found it missing, and remembered where he was.
In a cave.
During an earthquake.