Brennan had been intent on penning another chapter of her novel this weekend but, after spending Saturday morning toiling over three mediocre paragraphs, inspiration seemed destined to evade her. Lunchtime saw her heading towards the Jeffersonian; one of the few employees who willingly worked after hours without expecting to be paid overtime for her efforts. A grim-faced fire warden greeted her at the entrance, and Brennan's eyes narrowed as he regretfully informed her that the lab was off-limits. An idiotic intern, still recuperating from his Friday night excesses, had unwittingly caused an explosion that was violent enough to warrant the presence of all three emergency services. A disgruntled Cam had arrived on the scene to catalogue the damage, and was destined to spend the best part of her weekend overseeing the extensive clean-up operation.

After seeking repeated reassurance that her team's equipment hadn't been damaged in the ruckus, Brennan resigned herself to 'tidying' her already spotless apartment, sorting through her closet and rearranging her eclectic collection of CDs. After fixing herself a mid-afternoon snack, she took a moment to relax and began thumbing through the latest Journal of Forensic Anthropology, but, seeing Michael Stires' name listed amidst the index of contributors, Brennan found it difficult to swallow her agitation. She was appalled that such an esteemed publication would endorse the work of a man who was willing to compromise his objectivity for the sake of a court fee, and she skimmed her former mentor's article with disdain, finding his ostentatious prose lacking in any real merit. She couldn't believe that she had ever looked to him for guidance.

Brennan rarely felt uncomfortable in her solitude but, curled up on the couch in her expansive living room, she was suddenly acutely aware of how empty her apartment seemed. She repressed the urge to call Booth or Angela – it wasn't their job to entertain her; they had lives of their own and she arguably took up enough of their time already. Russ' cell rang straight through to voicemail, so Brennan found herself in the unlikely predicament of searching for something constructive to do.

She eyed the stack of paperwork on her coffee table contemptuously. Their caseload had been intensive during the last few months, and both she and Booth resented having to record their every move in an administrative capacity. Still, the forms had to be filled in, and there was no use trying to escape the inevitable. Booth had volunteered to help her clear the backlog on Monday evening, but Brennan was bored enough to consider relieving him of the burden. Of course, that could result in Booth choosing to spend his time with someone other than her, but it would be foolish to let that influence her decision. With her mind made up, Brennan retrieved the stack of documents from the table and searched for a pen, swallowing a sigh.

Some time later, the ringing of her cell phone abruptly shattered her intense concentration, and Brennan couldn't suppress a smile when she saw the name on the display. Booth knew that she had a tendency to work late and sleep on the couch in her office, and it no longer came as a surprise that he felt compelled to check up on her. Cam had obviously told him about the explosion and, although Booth's concern used to irritate the hell out of her, she was no longer suspicious of his motives. She used to think that he was patronising her, undermining her ability to take care of herself, but she had gradually learned to become more receptive to her partner's protective instincts. For some inexplicable reason, Booth seemed to care about her welfare, and this wasn't the first time he had sacrificed his free time to reassure himself that she was still in one piece. Her partner's easy banter promptly assuaged the pang of loneliness that had been haunting her since that morning and, even though Brennan's phone manner was usually a little stunted, she chatted to him uninhibitedly until the memory of Michael Stires' betrayal faded into obscurity.

Brennan wasn't sure what prompted her to gather up the paperwork and head across town later on that evening, and she was practically on her partner's doorstep before it occurred to her that she should have called in advance. Halfway up the stairwell to Booth's apartment complex, she stopped dead in her tracks, realising that she was using the pretence of requiring his signature as a pre-cursor to what would hopefully be an invitation to stay for a little longer. The gesture seemed so pathetically transparent, she almost turned around again, but the raucous din emanating from her partner's apartment piqued her interest.

With Parker out of town with Rebecca, it hadn't occurred to her that Booth would already have company. Judging from the noise, it sounded as though he and his friends were watching a sporting event of some description, and even though Booth knew she considered such behaviour to be a waste of time, she still felt the pang of sorrow that always accompanied the sensation of being on the outside looking in. This was a facet of her partner's life that she would never be privy to. She hadn't met many of Booth's friends at the FBI and the few who she had encountered seemed to develop an instant aversion to her. Brennan didn't need to be schooled in psychology to determine that Cullen didn't like her, and her partner's mentor, Sam, had specifically asked him not to invite her for drinks after the successful resolution of their case. She wondered if Booth's friends talked about her in derogatory terms or made jokes at her expense, whether they thought she was worthy of working alongside him given her father's heinous past. Brennan knew she was exemplary at her job, but that job had seen her labelled a 'freak' on many occasions, and a lot of people couldn't understand her imperviousness to working with cadavers. She wondered if Booth felt embarrassed about having a partner who could never be 'one of the boys,' and if it affected his social standing within the group.

Plagued by uncertainty, Brennan was once again tempted to turn around and pretend that she'd never even been here, but she had never cowered in the face of adversity before, and she wasn't about to start now. Her hands were damp with sweat as she hesitantly knocked on the door, realising that she would have to increase the volume if she wanted to be heard over the deafening roar of the television. Nearly a full minute later, the door swung open, and Booth regarded her with an expression of barely concealed dismay.

"Bones! What are you doing here?"

Booth's tone lacked its usual warmth and he glanced behind him apprehensively before giving his partner his undivided attention. Brennan instantly realised that she wasn't welcome and flushed hotly, backing away. "I'm sorry, I'll go."

"No." Booth reached out, capturing his partner's forearm before she could make a hasty retreat. He only had to glance at Bones' expression to realise that she had completely misinterpreted his reaction to her arrival.

"It's OK, Booth. You obviously don't want me to meet your friends. I understand." Brennan refused to meet her partner's gaze, adjusting the pile of folders she was cradling in her arms. "I'm sorry for disturbing your evening."

When she made another attempt to leave, Booth had to resort to placing his hands firmly on her shoulders in a bid to restrain her. "Bones, will you just wait a minute? For someone who hates it when people jump to conclusions, you can be pretty quick off the mark yourself." Seeing his partner's perplexed expression, he gave her a tense smile. "The only person disturbing my evening is my obnoxious ass of a brother. My parents are in town tomorrow and he decided to fly in for a family reunion without even bothering to give me a heads up." He sighed, shaking his head. "I generally like to have a couple of days to psych myself up before being subjected to Jared's company." Booth gently squeezed his partner's shoulders. "But you… you're welcome here anytime, Bones. You should know that by now."

Brennan finally found the courage to meet her partner's affectionate gaze, looking faintly embarrassed. "I thought you were engaging in some kind of male bonding ritual." She peered through the crack in the door, trying to get a glimpse of Booth's rambunctious brother. "How is it possible for one person to generate that much noise?"

"Well, if you want to tie him to an autopsy table and have the Squints run some tests, feel free. I'll foot the bill myself."

Brennan laughed, but didn't fail to notice the underlying bitterness in her partner's tone. Booth was fiercely protective of his family and friends, and she had never expected to hear him disparage his own flesh and blood. "You've barely mentioned your brother up until now. Is he really that bad?" she ventured, with a teasing smile.

Booth snorted scornfully. "Let's just say that he takes sibling rivalry to a whole new extreme."

Noticing the way Booth's jaw had clenched and the deep furrow of his brow, Brennan couldn't deny that her curiosity was piqued. "Can I meet him?" she asked, laying a reassuring hand on her partner's forearm when she became aware of the hesitance in his expressive brown eyes. "Come on, Booth; considering my family history, I'm hardly in a position to judge you on the basis of your gene pool."

Booth sighed, studying his partner intently. There were a myriad of reasons why this was a really bad idea, but he found it difficult to deny Bones anything, especially when she was looking at him with such an endearingly hopeful expression. He inwardly cringed, resting a hand on her lower back and guiding her into his apartment, closing the door behind him.

"Jared, we've got company! Turn the goddamn TV down," he hollered, heading towards the kitchen and motioning for Bones to follow him. He gestured towards the pile of folders she was clutching. "Just dump those on the kitchen counter, Bones. We can take a look at them later."

"There's no need. I managed to work my way through most of them this afternoon. All you have to do is check and sign."

Booth gave her a teasing smile. "What happened to our plans for Monday night? Are you trying to blow me off, Bones?" He coloured slightly when he realised his inadvertent double entendre, but thankfully Brennan remained oblivious.

"No, not at all," Brennan reassured him. "The lab was out of bounds and I wasn't getting anywhere with my writing, so I wanted to do something useful, that's all." She hesitated. "You can still have dinner at mine on Monday, if you'd like? I mean, I'm sure you've got better things to do now that your evening's freed up, but…"

Booth shook his head violently. "No, that'd be nice. Now I can actually look forward to Monday instead of having nightmares about drowning in a mountain of paperwork." He gave his partner a warm smile. "Thank you, by the way. You didn't have to do that."

"Just don't get used to it," Brennan countered wryly, her eyes sparkling good-humouredly.

"Look, how about we hit Nolita's on Monday, instead? It's the least I can do after you saved me from a week's worth of writer's cramp."

"So you're willing to forsake the mac 'n' cheese I was planning to make?" Brennan teased, laughing when her partner's face visibly fell. "It's fine, Booth. I already have the ingredients, and I find cooking quite cathartic. The dishes, however..."

"Yeah, OK, I'll be sure to bring my rubber gloves."

They grinned at one another for a moment, before Booth cleared his throat and turned away. "You want something to drink? I've got beer, wine, juice... take your pick."

"Do you have red wine?" Booth nodded in the affirmative and Brennan mentally calculated how long she would have to stay before the alcohol worked its way through her system. She knew that one glass was unlikely to affect her ability to drive home, so she threw caution to the wind, gesturing to the bottle that Booth was poised to extract from his wine rack. "OK, I'll take a glass of that then, please."

Booth obligingly poured her a sizeable glass of the opulent liquid, and their fingers brushed lightly when he handed it to her. The ensuing jolt of awareness was almost enough to make Brennan loose her grip on the glass, but she was distracted by a piercing wolf whistle emanating from the direction of the doorframe.

"Well, well, well, what have we here?"

Brennan frowned, turning to appraise Booth's brother with a contemplative eye. Jared was dressed in form-fitting jeans and a T-shirt that accentuated his exemplary musculature, and he shared Booth's dark good looks. They were both tall, with imposing frames, and appeared to be relatively similar in age, although the lines around Booth's mouth and eyes were more ingrained, suggesting that he was probably a few years older. Jared's face was more traditionally handsome than her partner's; he had a clean-cut and well groomed look that made Booth appear far more rugged in comparison, but his features lacked the character and integrity she had come to associate with her partner. In her opinion, Booth was unquestionably the more attractive sibling; Jared's eyes may have been the same chocolate brown as her partner's, but they didn't dance with the warmth and kindness that characterised Booth's tender gaze. Instead, they roved appreciatively over her physique, at first preoccupied by the ample swell of her breasts and the barest hint of visible cleavage peeking over the conservative neckline of her blouse, and then shamelessly scrutinising the womanly flare of her hips. She didn't know whether to be amused or offended by Jared's blatant ogling, although her lips quirked slightly when she realised that he was currently treating her to his very own version of Booth's 'charm smile.' Unfortunately for him, she found his grin to be more obsequious than disarming and, when he proffered his hand, she took great pleasure in demonstrating how forceful her grip could be.

"Bones, this is my brother, Jared," Booth ground out through gritted teeth. "Jared, this is my partner, Dr Temperance Brennan."

"Your partner?" Jared squawked in faintly veiled disbelief. "You seriously expect me to believe that you're tapping that?"

"For God's sake, Jared, show a little respect." Booth flushed, waiting for Bones to correct his brother's mistake, but she merely withdrew her hand from Jared's grasp, shooting him a look of distaste.

"Temperance, I'm so sorry. That was unspeakably crass," Jared apologised, laying a placating hand on Brennan's forearm. Booth watched with amusement as his partner promptly snatched her arm away, unconsciously moving closer to him as she did so. Jared, however, was incapable of taking a hint and he regarded Brennan with the kind of appreciative gaze that never failed to have a favourable effect. "Come on, Temperance. You can't seriously begrudge me for wondering why a woman as stunning as you would be remotely interested in my boneheaded brother?"

Brennan glanced in Booth's direction, only to find that he was looking at her with an expression of agonized expectancy, clearly waiting on tenterhooks for her to divulge the true nature of their relationship. She shook her head slightly, leaning casually against the counter before turning her attention back to Jared. "Why wouldn't I be interested? Booth is an exemplary partner. I don't have any complaints."

"Bones…" Booth was gazing at her with a mixture of surprise and confusion, wondering if she knew that his brother was going to take that comment completely out of context. Brennan answered his unspoken question with the barest hint of a mischievous smile, and suddenly his eyes were brimming with a mixture of affection and gratitude.

"No complaints? Really?" Jared raised his eyebrows, snorting derisively. "You must be a very accommodating woman, then. You're a Doctor, right? So I'm guessing that you didn't have a lobotomy at some point in the distant past?" He gave his brother a good-natured grin in an attempt to belie the scathing nature of his words, but Booth glared at him, far from amused.

"Lobotomies haven't been practiced in this country since the 1970s," Brennan informed her partner's brother, her tone suggesting that she thought he was an idiot with no redeemable features. She edged closer to Booth, casually resting her head against his shoulder so her lips were level with his ear. "Is he inebriated?" she whispered under her breath, unable to believe that someone was capable of being this irritating without an extenuating cause.

Booth was momentarily distracted by Bones' unexpected proximity. He tried not to notice how soft her hair was as it brushed lightly against his cheek, but he couldn't help inhaling the intoxicating scent of her shampoo, and he hoped she didn't notice that his laughter was marginally delayed. "I think we can safely assume that he's had a few beers," he murmured, "But the asshole thing is innate, I'm afraid." He gazed at his brother contemptuously, before turning his attention back to his partner. "Look, Bones, you don't have to hang around and watch us trade insults, OK? You can go if you want." Booth knew it was only a matter of time before Jared saw through his partner's ruse, and he didn't know if he could handle that kind of ridicule.

Brennan sipped her wine, shaking her head. "No, it's fine, Booth. I always find it interesting to watch such virulent displays of alpha male posturing."

"Virulent displays of what?" Jared echoed, looking faintly bewildered.

Booth briefly contemplated intervening before Bones gave his brother a lecture on tribal warfare, but he bit his lip when he saw the glint in her eyes.

"Alpha male posturing," she reiterated, hastening to explain. "There's an inherent rivalry in sibling relationships because you're forced to compete for your parents' love and attention. Somewhere along the line, Jared, you've obviously determined that Booth has been ascribed a higher status than yourself – "

Jared snorted sceptically. "You're kidding, right?"

"No, I'm not." Temperance's expression was deadpan, and she was undeterred by Jared's incredulity. "You clearly resent Booth's superiority. You've both reached the age where success is determined by such factors as your profession, your marital status… the ability to produce a suitable heir, and you're trying to usurp Booth's supremacy by claiming that he's an inadequate mate. Mocking the validity of our partnership is just a futile attempt at one-upmanship." She gave her partner a winning smile. "He's just jealous of you, Booth, that's all."

Booth cringed. For once in her life, his esteemed partner was completely wrong. He had never been the Golden Boy, Jared had always been the favourite, and the smug little bastard had relished every second of it. Jared was the one who his parents gloated about over dinner, the one who had always managed to wrap them around his little finger. He took one look at his brother's self-satisfied smile and resisted the urge to vomit.

Jared leant across the counter, his eyes focused intently on Brennan's. "OK, Temperance, so if I told you that I have a gorgeous wife and three kids who are all top of their class, that I work as an investment banker and earn three times as much as your boyfriend here, and that I could fit his entire apartment into my utility room, would you reconsider your opinion about who's the better brother?"

Brennan looked stunned for a moment, and her eyes flitted towards Booth, seeking affirmation.

"It's true, Bones." Booth sighed, grabbing a bag of peanuts and swallowing a handful in the hope that they might remove the bitter taste from his mouth. "He's the success story around here."

Brennan was beginning to understand why her partner vehemently resented affluent people with delusions of grandeur. She'd just never imagined that the problem had developed its roots so close to home.

"I guess it depends whether you favour materialism or integrity," she eventually countered. "Booth selflessly risks his life every day to make the world a better place, without expecting a monetary reward. But society owes him a debt, nevertheless. He's saved countless lives, put cold-blooded criminals behind bars. Where's the honour in investment banking?"

To Brennan's surprise, Jared started to laugh. "I guess Seel neglected to mention what he used to do before he became a Good Samaritan? He was a hired assassin, Temperance," he informed her, his tone laced with distaste. "He slaughtered people from a safe distance, knowing that they didn't have a hope in hell of defending themselves. Where's the honour in that?"

Brennan's eyes were beginning to flash with anger, and Booth's pained expression only served to exacerbate her frustration. "Those 'people' were murderers and propagators of genocide. What Booth did was for the greater good, a concept that probably completely eludes you because you're so concerned with your own selfish needs."

"OK, that's enough!" Booth was sick and tired of being talked about as though he wasn't even in the room. "Jared, if you want a roof over your head tonight, you need to learn when to shut the hell up, OK? If you think I'm the scum of the Earth, fine, I can live with that. You're not my favourite person, either. But don't take it out on Bones."

Brennan looked aghast. "You're not even going to defend yourself?"

Booth shrugged. "His mind's made up, Bones, what can I do?"

"But he's wrong!" Brennan exclaimed with heartfelt vehemence, laying a hand on her partner's forearm. She hated seeing him so uncharacteristically defeatist. "You're a good man, Booth," she stated, willing him to meet her unflinching gaze. When her partner continued to evade eye contact, Temperance's exasperation amplified tenfold. Once she had decided to fight her corner, she was like a dog with a bone, and she turned to regard Jared with an expression of unbridled animosity. "Does your 'gorgeous wife' know about your tendency to ogle other women? Booth looks at my face when he's addressing me, Jared, not at my breasts."

Jared started to laugh. "You think I envy my brother because he gets to curl up with an argumentative bitch every night? I mean, you may be a fine piece of ass, Bones, but if this is what the pillow talk is like, then I think I'll pass."

Booth had his brother pinned up against the kitchen wall before he even had time to react. Jared attempted to fight his way out of Booth's vice-like grip, but Booth slammed him against the wall with an impressive display of feral strength, momentarily winding him. "Don't you ever, ever talk to her like that again," he hissed, his eyes flashing with untamed anger, "Or I will kick your cocky ass out on the streets and I won't give a damn if Mom's left crying over her supper because we couldn't endure each other for one freakin' night." He shook his brother as though he was a rag doll. "You got that?"

"Booth, relax. It's OK." Brennan gently prised her partner away from a defiant Jared, who showed no signs of being cowed by his brother's untimely outburst. She couldn't help but feel touched that Booth was so quick to defend her honour, but she hated that his brother had the capacity to shatter his self-control.

"Seel, you need to chill the hell out and have a drink." Jared made a beeline for the refrigerator; extracting two bottles of beer and cracking the tops open before handing one to his brother. "Beating on your little brother went out of fashion about twenty years ago, but Mom always did say that you had a temper. I think she's going to be stoked that you've finally found a keeper, though." He winked conspiratorially at Brennan. "You are planning on sticking around, right? Because the last time Seel proposed to someone she pretty much ran in the opposite direction and I really don't think the 'rentals could handle that kind of disappointment again." He smirked disdainfully. "I think he's offended their Catholic sensibilities enough for one lifetime."

"And I bet they count their blessings every time they see you," Brennan countered, in a tone that was dripping with sarcasm. She discreetly curled her fingers around Booth's clenched fist, running her thumb lightly over his knuckles until his grip gradually loosened. She slipped her small hand into his much larger one, feeling her stomach quiver slightly at the contact, before turning her attention back to Jared. "Booth has all the qualities of an ideal husband and Rebecca was clearly a fool to let him go. I imagine she regrets her decision every day, because she won't ever find anyone capable of replacing him."

Booth glanced at his partner sharply, but there was no mirth shining in her eyes. Brennan was regarding him with utmost sincerity and she gently squeezed his hand, willing him to believe the truth in her words.

"Nah, I think old Seel here is just destined to fall for women who are completely out of his league, that's all." Jared smirked in his brother's direction, unaffected by the unbridled contempt in Booth's gaze. He'd obviously hit a nerve with that one.

Booth couldn't take much more of this. Having been rendered virtually speechless by the sensation of his partner's hand gently pressing against his own, he contemplated exactly how much of the last three years he had spent willing fantasy to become reality. His brother may have thought Bones was his partner in more than a professional sense, but he was suddenly crippled by the realisation of what he would never have. "Fuck you, Jared," he muttered, his resolve finally cracking. He reluctantly relinquished his hold on his partner's hand, storming off in the direction of his bedroom.

Seeing Brennan's torn expression, Jared gave her a sympathetic smile. "Don't worry about it, he's always been a sulker." He moved towards Booth's bedroom door, raising his voice several decibels to ensure that his brother heard his supposed words of wisdom. "Come on Seel, don't be a pussy. I'm happy for you, man, I really am. You've really outdone yourself this time, which is why I don't want you to fuck it all up again." Jared was sure that he could hear Booth muttering a host of obscenities under his breath, and he fought to conceal a smirk. "I'm just trying to give you a bit of brotherly advice here, that's all. If Temperance doesn't run for the hills when you propose, you should take a leaf out of my book and at least wait until you're married before you get her knocked up."

"OK, what is your problem?" Temperance demanded, yanking Jared away from her partner's door and regarding him venomously.

Jared gave her a placating smile. "Come on, Temperance, I'm just looking out for him, that's all. I mean, it must be hard for him, only getting to see his kid once in a blue moon and not being able to…" He trailed off as Temperance seized his elbow, dragging him towards the door with a surprising display of brute force. "What are you doing?"

"You need to shut up and get the hell out," Brennan informed him, opening the front door and gesturing to the expanse of hallway outside of it. She pushed him over the threshold and Jared let out a surprised laugh.

"You're kidding, right?" Temperance was blocking his entrance back into the apartment and Jared shook his head amusedly, stepping forwards in a bid to move past his brother's obstinate partner. The next thing he knew, he was lying flat on his back, gasping for air and gingerly rubbing the back of his head where it had impacted with the tiled floor.

"Jesus Christ, are you on steroids or something?" he muttered, struggling to his feet and backing away when he saw that Brennan's hands were positioned in what appeared to be a very effective guarding block. Sensing that it wouldn't be advisable to attempt to out-manoeuvre her again, Jared bowed his head slightly in a bid to convey that he had received the message – loud and clear.

Brennan shot him a smug smile before slamming the door in his face, her nimble fingers rapidly working the lock and chain. She sighed, taking a minute to gather her composure before tentatively approaching Booth's bedroom door. She knocked softly, pressing her ear against the solid wood to listen for a response.

"Booth?"

"Just go home, Bones," her partner mumbled, but there was no real conviction in his tone.

"But you're upset."

"So let me wallow in self-pity for a while. I'll get over it."

Booth was attempting to sound cavalier, but Brennan could hear the underlying pain in his tone. She tentatively inched open the door, and the light from the hallway served to illuminate her partner's prostrate form. He was sprawled across the length of his bed, but the darkened room made it impossible for her to decipher his expression. Steeling her resolve, she shut the door quietly behind her and entered Booth's cramped bedroom, fumbling her way down the wall in a bit to locate the light switch.

"Leave the light off, Bones."

Booth's voice sounded hoarse, almost as if he'd been crying. The thought made Brennan's stomach clench reflexively and her heart pound at a slightly more erratic pace. She granted his request, because she didn't know if she could bear to see the extent of his pain. Instead, she kicked off her shoes, heading blindly in the direction of his bed and cursing when she stubbed her toe on the leg of a nearby table.

"Are you OK?" Booth inquired, his voice torn between amusement and concern.

"I think I'm the one who should be asking you that," Temperance countered, clambering onto her partner's bed and situating herself besides him.

"I'm fine, Bones. I'm just sorry you got caught in the middle of all that shit." He sighed, picking at the bedspread. "I'm sure you had better things to do with your Saturday night."

"Well you did try to warn me," Brennan reminded him, frowning slightly. "Your brother really is an obnoxious ass, Booth."

"Yeah, I'd noticed."

Brennan was silent for a moment, collecting her thoughts. "So, why did you let him stay with you in the first place?" she eventually inquired, her tone clearly conveying her confusion.

"Because Mom always gets upset when we fight and I thought I'd be able to handle him for one night." Booth snorted wryly. "Apparently I overestimated my tolerance threshold."

"Jared would test the patience of a Saint, Booth. No rational individual could possibly expect you to put up with that."

"Well, as much as I appreciate your efforts to defend my honour, Bones, even someone as intelligent as you can't…" He trailed off, biting the inside of his cheek in a bid to control his emotions. "You can't argue with the truth."

"Booth…" Her partner's broken tone caused a lump to form in her throat, and Brennan suddenly felt compelled to reach into the darkness, her fingers inadvertently settling against Booth's thigh, and then his forearm; only stilling when she finally managed to locate his hand. She twined her fingers through his, struggling to keep her tone even. "Jared clearly has some kind of pathological need to put you down," she stated softly. "Everything he said tonight was purposely engineered to stoke your insecurities, but it wasn't the truth, Booth. Far from it."

Booth didn't respond, and Temperance's heart skipped a beat when she felt a droplet of moisture hit her hand. She had seen Booth teetering precariously on the verge of tears a couple of times before, but he always managed to hold himself together, and she knew it was because he didn't want anyone to see him lose control. Her chest ached when she realised just how much Jared must have hurt him, and her mind was frantically trying to devise a way to ease his torment. Wishing she could see his expression to gauge whether her actions were having a positive effect, her hand trailed the length of her partner's arm until she reached the contours of Booth's shoulder. She reached upwards, cupping his face with her hands, and used her thumbs to dry his damp cheeks.

"Booth, when Jared looks at you, he's blinkered by his own irrational preconceptions. He doesn't see what I see," she said firmly, "And I have a far more objective eye."

"Yeah? So, tell me, Bones, what do you see?" Booth ventured warily, his tone almost defiant, and Brennan could feel the tension coursing through his rigid physique.

It was the question she had been hoping he would ask, but now she was terrified of revealing the answer. She took a deep breath, gathering her resolve. "I see a proud, strong, stubborn man who always does the right thing, even in the face of adversity. I see someone who I respect immensely because he has a moral compass that never fails to point in the right direction, a man with a good, pure heart who mistakenly carries the weight of the world on his shoulders." She tightened her grip on her partner's forearm, knowing that he was listening to her attentively. "I see a wonderful father whose son idolises him, and I know that Parker has the kind of role model other children envy. You only have to see the way he looks at you, Booth, to know how much he loves you. And nobody can ever take that away."

She hesitated when Booth drew in a hitching breath; and then smiled softly when her partner unexpectedly rested his head against her shoulder. She should have been disconcerted by his proximity, especially considering where they were, but instead she found herself impulsively running her fingers through Booth's hair and shifting closer to him.

"I wish that were true, Bones," Booth confessed sadly, "But I've got to face facts. Rebecca may have turned me down, but she's going to say 'yes' to someone, someday, and then Parker is going to have a new 'daddy' to look up to and I'm just going to fade into the background."

Brennan shook her head violently, jostling her partner's head in the process. "Booth, trust me, you could never fade into the background. You'll fight for Parker, and he'll fight for you. I know it. He ran away at Christmas to be with you, remember? He's not going to be coerced into abandoning you, even when you're competing with Captain Fantastic himself." Her partner's lips were pressed against her hair, and she was relieved to feel them quirk slightly at her allusion to Rebecca's latest boyfriend.

"You really think I'm a good role model?" Booth ventured hopefully, and Temperance squeezed his hand.

"Yes," she assured him, without a moment's hesitation. "Booth, when I look at you, I…" She trailed off, biting her bottom lip, conscious of how easy it would be to say too much. Brennan had always found it difficult to articulate her feelings, but this time, she knew she had to be willing to try, "I see someone who is humble enough not to take anything for granted," she eventually concluded, her eyes shining with the sincerity of her words. "A man whose face lights up at the simple pleasures in life and who will fight to ensure that everyone else has the opportunity to enjoy them. I see kindness and compassion, and an intellect borne of experience… loyalty, bravery and integrity, and someone who taught me how to enjoy life and have fun. You're my best friend, Booth and I… " Brennan faltered, her voice thick with unshed tears, and she hoped Booth hadn't deduced anything from her abrupt silence. No such luck.

"Bones? Are you crying?" Booth's tone was a mixture of concern and dismay, and he promptly flicked on his bedside lamp, his heart wrenching when he saw his partner's tear-streaked face. Brennan flushed with embarrassment, evading his gaze and using the sleeves of her blouse to hastily wipe away her tears.

"Hey, it's OK," Booth reassured her, gently brushing an errant strand of hair away from his partner's face. "What's wrong?" he murmured, cupping Brennan's chin with his free hand and forcing her to look at him. "Please, Bones. Tell me."

Brennan stared at her partner for the longest time, seeing the worry and the love in his eyes, and something about that raw emotion, in all of its unadulterated intensity, encouraged her to admit something she never thought she'd have the courage to say out loud. "Booth, you're the only person who ever took the time to understand me, and you… you're… " Her voice wavered, and the tears began to flow again in earnest, "You're the only person who has ever made me feel like a somebody, instead of a nobody," she admitted, hiding her face in her hands.

"What?" Booth looked astounded, and hesitantly reached for his partner, engulfing her in a warm embrace when she didn't offer any resistance. He cradled her against his chest, and Brennan clung to him convulsively, burying her head in the crook of his shoulder while desperately trying to rein in her sobs.

"Bones, how can you possibly feel like a nobody?" Booth demanded, truly bewildered. "I mean, there are only a handful of people in this world who can claim to be special or unique, but you're one of them. Don't doubt that for a second." He placed a chaste kiss on his partner's forehead, clasping her tightly against him. "You're a bone fide genius, Bones; you're gifted at everything you do."

Brennan shook her head bitterly. "Then why do I still feel like the nameless, faceless foster kid who everybody wanted to give back, Booth? Even my own brother couldn't abide me. I had seven addresses in the space of two years, and none of them felt like home." She clenched her fists, willing back a fresh onslaught of tears. "So I did what any rational human being would do. I worked tirelessly in the hope that one day, someone would look up when I walked into a room, somebody would listen to my opinions and genuinely care what I had to say." She bit her lip, tightening her grip on her partner, reminding herself that she finally had someone to anchor herself to.

Booth pulled her closer, his heart aching as he was finally given an insight into the true extent of his partner's pain. "They do, Bones," he whispered, his thumb lightly caressing the nape of her neck. "You know that."

Temperance drew in a hitching breath, shaking her head almost imperceptibly. "When I first started gaining recognition for my work, I thought I'd finally discovered what it felt like to be happy. Everyone wanted my professional opinion, and all of a sudden I wasn't invisible anymore. People were treating me like some kind of an authority figure, but I was terrified that one day, someone would see through the act, because underneath it all, I still felt like a lost little kid. I just wanted to find my parents, Booth."

"Oh, Bones..." Even though she was still cradled tightly against him, at that moment Booth didn't feel as if he could ever be close enough to his partner. His own anguish faded into obscurity, and he traced soothing patterns across the small of Temperance's back, relieved to feel her sobs gradually abating.

Brennan didn't realise that she was wringing her hands until Booth gently encompassed them in his own. "My services were coveted by some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, strangers were approaching me on the streets and asking me to sign their books, but when I got home at night I still felt so… lonely, I guess." Brennan squeezed her eyes shut to ward off the painful memories. "And I started to realise that respect and acclaim would never be an adequate substitute for love, and laughter, and looking into the eyes of someone who knew everything about me, but still cared enough to stick around." She cleared her throat of excess emotion, willing herself not to break down again. "So I guess it was easier to convince myself that love simply didn't exist. Then I couldn't agonise over what I was missing." A few rebellious tears began to leak from her eyes, and she discreetly attempted to wipe them away before continuing. "But you, Booth… you're the only one who ever made me question whether I was wrong. You're the only one who ever made me feel like I belonged somewhere." She began to laugh through her tears. "And Jared can go to hell if he thinks he's going to convince me otherwise."

Booth was rendered speechless for a moment, and when Brennan finally dared to glance up at him, she was shocked to see his eyes swimming with unshed tears. He held her intense gaze without flinching, tenderly caressing her cheek, and Temperance's hands began to tremble as she gradually began to decipher his unfathomable expression. Booth was regarding her as if she was the only thing that had ever mattered to him, as if she was his past, present and future all rolled in to one. It was the sensation of warmth that accompanied this realisation that finally encouraged Brennan to tentatively lean forwards and press her lips against her partner's mouth, trying to convey with one simple kiss that there was a reason why she had allowed Jared to believe that she and Booth were romantically involved, and it didn't stem from pity. She poured three year's worth of repressed passion and cherished memories into that kiss, trying to reassure her partner that she wasn't out of his league, that he would always be enough for her, and that if she had any faith at all in the antiquated institution of marriage, Booth would be the only man she would ever consider walking down the aisle for. She didn't pull away until she was sure that her partner had finally grasped the depth of her feelings, and then she smiled softly at his shell-shocked expression.

"Wow. That was just… wow." Booth's eyes had started to crinkle at the corners, and he was pretty sure that he was sporting the most heartfelt grin to have ever graced his countenance. Brennan laughed, pushing him into a prostrate position and settling her head against his shoulder. Booth obligingly wrapped his arms around her, and she nestled against him, closing her eyes to savour the sensation. They were silent for a moment, Booth lightly caressing his partner's hair and Brennan tracing patterns across his stomach.

"Am I going to offend your parents' Catholic sensibilities, Booth?" Brennan eventually inquired, her eyes dancing with mischief when her partner began to convulse with laughter beneath her. "What?"

"Yeah, you probably are. But you know what, Bones? They're just going to have to like it or lump it. Because you're always going to be a somebody to me." He hesitated, but seeing the gleam of affection in his partner's eyes, he eventually found the courage to continue. "I love you, Temperance."

Brennan swallowed the prominent lump in her throat, knowing she had finally found what she had spent the last fifteen years inwardly searching for. "I love you, too," she murmured, moving to claim her partner's lips for a second time; obliterating their insecurities in a heady rush of contentment.