Booth stared at himself in the mirror. He was a wreck. He'd showered twice, shaved with a new razor, and tried on half a dozen shirts before finally settling on the plain, close-fitting black one he'd started with. This was insane. He was a grown man, a decorated NCO, and one of the FBI's top investigators. There was no damned reason why he should feel like he was hovering at the edge of a stroke, and yet his pulse was pounding, his hands were shaky, and he couldn't seem to string together two coherent thoughts in a row.
He'd been back in D.C. for three days. Long enough to see Parker, clean his apartment to a spit-polish shine, and restock the fridge. He'd also checked in with Hacker and Cam, finished the last of his separation paperwork for the army, and sorted out his bills. There was nothing left now but the waiting.
And it was driving him mad.
He'd missed her while he'd been in the desert, had dreamed of her at night and thought of her by day. He'd written letters he never mailed, made phone calls that never connected, and wondered, every damned minute, what she was doing. It had been the longest six months of his life. And now that he was home, how many times had he reached for the phone? Ten? Twenty? But each time he'd pulled his hand away. He wouldn't call her. That wasn't the way this needed to go down. She couldn't tell him what he needed to know. He needed to see it in her eyes.
He checked the time again and reached for socks and shoes. He'd dressed casually, but what if she showed up wearing something fancy and expecting him to take her out to an expensive restaurant? He considered changing again, cursed, and yanked on his socks. If that happened, they'd just come back here so he could change.
And that was a bad, bad thought, because he had a sudden vivid image of Temperance Brennan, naked, in his bed, and all at once his freshly pressed slacks felt way, way too tight.
Damn the woman, anyway.
Loving her was going to kill him.
But he ached to hold her again, to feel her body pressed against his and tangle his fingers in her hair, to watch her when a slow smile lit up her eyes and tease her into exasperated laughter when she was so stressed out that she couldn't see straight. He thought about the way she'd looked in the moonlit river, and the way she'd trembled at his touch, and he wanted that, too. He wanted to make her come apart in his arms the way she had that night and then hold her, safe and protected, while she found her way back. He wanted ...
God. What if she'd reconsidered? What if, in the six months since he'd seen her, she'd decided he was too big a risk? What if she'd started doubting herself again? What if, when he saw her, he discovered she'd rebuilt the walls he'd worked so hard to tear down? What if-?
With another muffled curse, he shoved his foot into his shoe, yanked the laces too tight, and then swore again as he reached down to loosen them. He had to stop obsessing over this. All he could do was show up, hope to hell that she did too, and pray, dear God, pray, that she hadn't retreated back into her shell.
Shoes on, he shoved his wallet in one pocket, his cell phone in the other, and reached for his keys, pausing as his eyes settled on the little skull. He wrapped his fingers around it, pressing the hand-carved bone into his palm just as he'd done on so many lonely nights in the Afghani desert, and felt his chest go tight all over again.
He hadn't been this nervous since he'd asked Sally Brenneman to the eighth grade dance. She'd been taller than he was, with a body that had starred in more wet dreams than he cared to remember, and he'd all but swallowed his own tongue when he'd tried to ask her out, only to have her turn him down with a toss of her head and a flash of blue-eyed disdain. The last he'd heard, Sally was married, had a couple of kids, and lived in Chicago with her graphic designer husband. He hoped she was happy, despite the way she'd humiliated him that day.
This was his turn at happiness, his shot at the brass ring, his winner-take-all, once-in-a-lifetime chance.
One last glance in the mirror, one last push of his fingers through his hair, and he turned away, flicking off the light switch and striding through the apartment without looking back.
It was time.
Angela had met her at the airport, like she always did. They'd traded exuberant hugs. Then Angela had stood back, eying her critically.
"Something's different about you," she said.
"No. It isn't," Brennan argued, then, "Well, unless you mean the suntan, but that's to be expected after a year in the tropics."
Angela shook her head. "No. It's something else." She gestured, one finger spinning in the air. "Turn around."
Baffled, Brennan did.
"Something's different all right." Angela folded her arms across her chest. "Tell me everything."
Brennan had tried, but Angela had brushed aside every disclosure as not being "the thing." In desperation, Brennan had finally resorted to asking about Paris, then breathed a sigh of relief when Angela launched into an enthusiastic travelogue. Apparently she and Hodgins had enjoyed themselves very much.
Brennan didn't tell Angela about Booth. She hadn't told Daisy, either, despite the intern's open curiosity when she'd learned he'd been to the island. And when Tia had asked her about him, Brennan had shaken her head and made it clear that she didn't discuss her personal life on the job. Eventually people had stopped asking, their attention diverted by the damage to the caves and the need to get the dig back on track. Everybody had chipped in to help clear the fallen rock and then evaluate the damage to the precious paintings and artifacts still inside—everyone except Brennan.
Brennan never returned to the caves.
Nobody had questioned her decision. Nor, as far as she knew, had anybody realized that she and Booth had been trapped inside during the cave in. It wasn't an experience she cared to relive through discussion, nor did she feel any need to. Booth had been there. He knew.
That was enough.
She'd taken off his watch the morning the others were due to return, tucking it away in her trunk along with the little origami star that she'd somehow managed not to lose in all that had come after—the star that was in her jewelry box, now. And if she had, on occasion, retrieved the watch from her trunk and pushed it under her pillow during the long, dark nights, it was only because she found the back-lighting useful when she woke up in the early morning hours, restless and alone, and wanted to check the time.
Setting aside the anthropology journal she'd been trying to read for the past half hour, she glanced at the clock again. She'd wound it just yesterday, and yet she was certain that more than ten minutes had passed since last she'd checked the time. The antiques dealer she'd purchased it from shortly before she'd left for Maluku had insisted it was a reliable timepiece in perfect working order, but perhaps its mechanism required cleaning. She would ask Cam to recommend a repair shop. Brennan didn't trust such things to businesses chosen at random from the yellow pages.
Decision made, Brennan set the problem aside and crossed to the window, but when she looked out she saw, not the familiar sights of her own neighborhood, but instead a waterfall, and a river, and a sun-drenched glade filled with butterflies. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she saw the same river and felt the touch of his hands on her shoulders as he told her that the important thing was where the river was going, not where it had been. A third blink, and the river appeared in moonlight, and she felt again the touch of his hands on her skin, only this time in much more intimate ways.
Abruptly, she spun away and strode to her bedroom. It was too early to meet him, but she couldn't seem to concentrate on her journal anyway so maybe she would take a shower. Catching a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror as she strode past, she paused and shook her head. She would wash her hair as well. It would give her a chance to try the shampoo Angela had brought from that salon in Paris. Apparently it was supposed to make her hair gorgeous, or something. Brennan didn't know, but maybe if she tried it Angela would stop asking about it, and since she had the extra time...
She used her favorite soap, washed her hair twice, shaved again, and ended by wrapping herself in a thick, fluffy towel. As she tucked the end between her breasts, she found herself thinking about Booth again. What would he think of the two new sarongs she had hanging in her closet? Would he prefer the emerald? Or the deep garnet threaded with gold ...? She'd never purchased clothing with a man's preferences in mind before, though Angela seemed to do so quite often. And on that last day in Maluku Booth had seemed quite interested in her wardrobe choices. Besides, she liked the idea that something she wore might please him.
After drying her hair and brushing it to a deep, rich shine, she took her time applying makeup, ending with a light application of lip gloss. That done, she crossed to the dresser for underwear, then over to the closet, hesitating only briefly before selecting a simple cotton skirt and blouse in a light, floral pattern. She finished with a pair of dangly earrings and a chunky necklace, then studied herself in the mirror. Despite the lingering shadows under her eyes and slight tension in her jaw she deemed herself acceptable.
She was still early, but it was a beautiful afternoon. If she arrived before Booth she would buy a cup of coffee and wait for him on their bench. After slipping a pair of sandals on her feet and fastening the thin straps at her ankles, she started to leave, then stopped and turned back to her dresser.
There was one more thing she needed.
As she locked her apartment door a few minutes later the thought occurred to her that maybe he'd be late, or not show at all, and she experienced an instant of blind panic. Then she discarded the idea as ridiculous. Booth wouldn't let her down. He would be there.
She only hoped he still wanted her.
Booth approached the mall in an anxious haze. One minute he was convinced everything would be fine, and the next he imagined her not showing up, or worse, showing up on the arm of another man. The thought made his stomach knot, and he shoved it out of his mind. She wouldn't do that to him. Even if there were another man in her life, she would never, ever, bring him here. This was theirs. She knew that.
He strode the length of the reflecting pool, his eyes darting from one tourist to the next. Half a dozen times he thought he'd spotted her, only for the woman in question to turn out to be someone else entirely, someone too tall or too short, too fat, or too thin. Someone ... not Bones.
And then he saw her. She was sitting on their bench, her hands wrapped around a coffee cup that had to be much too warm for an afternoon like this one. Her head was turned the other way, and he imagined her searching the crowds for him as he had been doing for her. He stopped, waiting for her to see him. His heart pounded in his chest, and he thrust his hands into his pockets lest he be caught clenching and unclenching them at his sides.
When her eyes finally found his, everything else—the people, the sounds of passing traffic, even the faint smell of coffee—disappeared. He saw her smile and get to her feet, but his answering grin faded when she turned away. Had he lost her after all, then? Had she only come today to let him down gently? He swallowed hard and gathered his resources. If she'd chosen another path he would support her, no matter the cost.
He was contemplating his next move when he realized that she was only dropping her coffee cup in a nearby garbage can. She turned back, searching him out, and he forced himself to stand still and wait to see what she would do. Whatever it was, it had to be her choice, freely made. He'd been the one to follow her to the island. Now he needed her to come to him.
Maybe she understood that on some level, or maybe she was just coming to meet him because it was what they'd agreed upon all those months ago. It didn't matter, really. All that mattered was that a few seconds later she was standing in front of him, smiling. She had shadows under her eyes, which wasn't a surprise, and a worried furrow along her brow, which was. Had she doubted him? But when he met her gaze, all he felt was relief.
The Temperance Brennan he saw in her eyes was the one he'd left in Maluku, not the one he'd found there.
With a low groan, he folded her into his arms, ignoring the curious stares of passing tourists as he drew her body tight against his. She wrapped her arms around his back and relaxed into him, her head coming to rest against his shoulder as he buried his face in her hair. And for the first time since he'd been back, he felt like he was home.
The crowd eddied around them, and a light breeze tangled her skirt around his legs, but all he cared about was the fact that he was holding her in his arms again, and she showed no signs of wanting him to let her go.
"Sandalwood and vanilla," he murmured, when her grip on him finally eased. As greetings went it was a little unusual, but he thought he felt her smile against his chest.
"Do you prefer cinnamon and nutmeg?"
"No." He tilted her face up to his. "I prefer you."
Maluku had been a kind of fantasy world, just the two of them, away from everything and everyone else. This was different. It was home turf and work and friends and cold, hard reality. So he wouldn't have been surprised if she'd backed off.
He wouldn't have been surprised, but he would have been devastated.
But instead of backing off, she leaned in. Just before her lips met his she paused.
"I prefer you, too."
The kiss started out soft, a light, exploratory brush of her lips against his, but it escalated quickly as six months of separation—of wondering and worrying and hoping and dreaming—coalesced into this one moment and he knew they were going to be okay. He held her close, reacquainting himself with her taste, his arms tightening around her when she gave a low hum of approval at the first slide of his tongue along hers. He hadn't forgotten how good she was at this, but as his body responded to her nearness he realized that he'd greatly underestimated his reaction to the feel of her pressed against him.
Ending the kiss before it could get away from them, he rested his forehead against hers.
"I missed you," he said quietly.
Her smile was soft and a little misty. "I missed you, too." Drawing back, she lifted her arm and showed him the watch she wore on her wrist. "I told you I'd bring it back."
The look she gave him, part eager-to-please little girl, part sexually-confident woman, made his heart turn over in his chest.
"I never doubted you would," he said. Shifting his right hand from behind her back, he laced his fingers through hers. "Looks like you took good care of it, too."
"Of course I did."
She sounded surprised by his observation, as if she couldn't imagine why he might've expected anything else. And he hadn't. He'd known that the watch Pops had given him on his twelfth birthday was as safe in her hands as it was in his.
Reaching into his pocket with his free hand, he pulled out the little keychain and dangled it in the air between them, smiling faintly.
"I bet you thought I'd lose it," he said.
"No, I didn't think that at all. In fact-" She flashed him a look from beneath lowered lashes that made his blood rush to places that were decidedly inappropriate in the crowded mall. "I thought you might want to try it out."
The invitation caught him off guard, and he swallowed, wondering if he looked as flushed as he suddenly felt. "Now?"
"Of course." Her eyes flickered over him in a way that left no doubt as to her intentions. "Six months is a very long time to go without sex, Booth. Besides, there are some positions I'd like to try that require the use of a proper bed."
She was killing him here. Did she know that? Eyes narrowed, he considered her for a moment and realized that not only did she know exactly what she was doing, she was enjoying herself immensely at his expense. He found that he didn't mind, though. In fact, as far as he was concerned she could tease him all night if it meant she would keep looking at him like that.
She tilted her head. "Did you think I would change my mind about us?"
"I wasn't sure," he said honestly. He was having difficulty focusing on the conversation, too busy wondering exactly which positions she had in mind.
She stepped in close again, her fingers still tangled with his. "Pyramids are better at change than I am. Isn't that what you said?"
That pitch-perfect memory of hers was downright intimidating at times. "Yeah," he said. "That's exactly what I said."
She pressed her free hand flat against his chest. "But once they change—" She gave him a quick, impish smile. "They never change back."
It was all he could do not to yank her into his arms and show her then and there exactly what effect she was having on him. Hot didn't even begin to describe it.
"Right." He tugged her into his arms and lowered his head to give her a quick, hard kiss, holding her tightly enough that she couldn't possibly miss the evidence of his arousal. "What do you say we go try out that key?"
Stepping back, he laced his fingers through hers and pulled toward the metro station. Her low, husky laugh followed them through the late afternoon sun, and as Booth slipped his arm around her waist and felt her head settle against his shoulder he remembered their last conversation by the coffee-cart, just over a year ago.
Nothing really has to change.
No. Things have to change. You know what? Hey, I taught you about eye contact; you taught me about evolution. So … Here's to change.
… To change.