Happy New Year! I hope you all had a wonderful holiday. I'm sorry that my break was a little longer than anticipated – I guess I never should have taken one in the first place, because I struggled to reclaim my motivation after being lured away from my computer for so long. My family have been home for a while, and we spent appalling amounts of time in front of the television. I discovered some great new series – 'Dexter' and 'The Closer' being the two prime examples. It didn't take me long to fall in love with the character of Brenda Leigh Johnson, although she's never going to be able to fill Brennan's shoes, even if her manners are comparatively impeccable. Now every time someone says 'thank yew' to me, I crease up laughing. That trip to the asylum can't be too far away.

My muse is refusing to play nice – after all the fluff I've been writing lately, she demanded to go back to her angsty roots, and this one-shot sprang forth after I spent a long time agonising over Brennan's behaviour in 'The Con-Man in the Meth Lab.' I know a lot of you were subjected to my rants about that, so I'll spare you the spiel, but I think I can safely say that this 'WTF were you thinking?' piece packs a punch, and it's helped me to reconcile her actions. I'm pretty sure that no one's gone down this road yet, so I hope it has an air of originality. I decided to challenge myself and write from a first-person perspective this time around, too, and I hope the quality of my writing hasn't diminished in the process.

I will, of course, be returning to 'Venturing into the Unknown' shortly – I wrote 60,000 words in less than a month and it got to be a little overwhelming, but I think my head is screwed on straight again now.

Anyhow, onto my first endeavour of 2009…

Shortly before his ill-advised meeting with Pam Nunan, I told Booth that he was a superb Agent, and I was surprised when he confessed to being unsure about whether he played an equal role in our partnership - at least from my perspective. That alone should have made me realise that Booth wasn't as cock-sure about his capabilities as he appeared to be, but at least then I told him that it would be self-destructive for me to work with someone who was beneath me and, considering that I'm the foremost Forensic Anthropologist in my field, I obviously believed him to be of a similar ilk. How could I let Jared convince me otherwise in the space of one evening, especially considering that all of his evidence was based on hearsay? How could I forsake my own findings in favour of an outsider's hypothesis?

Research, along with quantifying and evaluating evidence, is a core component of my career. Forensic Anthropology comes naturally to me; analysing human interaction does not. The data I've accumulated with regard to Seeley Booth might not be scientifically viable, as it's largely qualitative in nature, but whether I'm analysing his behaviour from an anthropological, sociological, or - God forbid - a psychological standpoint, Booth always provides a reliable, favourable outcome. Unfortunately, that process hasn't served me particularly well in the past and, even though my wariness has grown exponentially over the years after learning that people are never what they seem to be, I continue to be deceived by those closest to me.

I spent fifteen years living alongside my parents – the affable Science teacher and the unassuming bookkeeper. My childhood was unremarkable, but pleasant, and all of the evidence suggested that my parents were good, upstanding citizens. I would have found the concept of them being notorious criminals laughable, and even though the facts speak for themselves, it's something I still struggle to grasp. As it was, my comfortable upbringing was built around a web of lies and funded by the proceeds of robbery and extortion. My father is a murderer who deceived me every day of his waking life, and my mother was a willing co-conspirator. I thought they loved me unconditionally, but they abandoned me without explanation and left me without hope. There may have been mitigating circumstances, but it doesn't change the fact that the memories of my childhood are forever tainted, and when I look back, all I see is a sham leading to my eventual neglect. I will never be able to truly trust my father again; no matter how much energy he invests in wheedling his way back into my life.

The same goes for Russ, too. The brother who I thought was protective and honourable, the popular and sociable 'jock' who was never too 'cool' to look out for his shunned little sister, didn't seem to have too many qualms about leaving me to fend for myself, either.

Then there were the teenaged boyfriends who promised their undying love and devotion only to leave when I rejected their premature advances. Unfortunately, they didn't seem to evolve much in the ensuing years. As a naive grad student, I idolised Michael Stires. He told me I was his muse, and said he would never grow tired of my intelligence - until it surpassed his own. Then he embarked on a quest to ruin my reputation and I realised he cared more about his own celebrity than justice. Peter, David, Will, Sully – all of them seemed like nice, successful, stable men who would make exemplary mates, but any hopes I had of a fulfilling relationship were vanquished when they, too, were exposed as frauds.

I thought I'd developed an immunity to grief and disappointment, until Zach… and that was perhaps the most devastating blow of them all, because I'd convinced myself that no-one would ever be able to hurt me like that again. He was my protégé, and I watched him flourish with a sense of pride. He was exceptional in his own right, but playing a role in his development - watching him heed my guidance and become an accomplished young Doctor - was extremely satisfying. I marvelled at his objectivity and logical ingenuity, which admittedly surpassed my own, and I empathised with his inability to connect with those around him, even as I became somewhat attached to him. He was a model student, and the sense of fondness I developed was inevitable given the time we spent together. Zach went out of his way to earn my respect and trust, and to my discredit, he succeeded. I never imagined his brilliance could be exploited and I didn't think that a young man who was so endearingly gullible could have a treacherous bone in his body, but once again, I was proved wrong. He destroyed my belief in the sanctity of logic, and he destroyed my faith in my friends. His betrayal was on par with my father's – committing a monstrous act with a supposedly pure motive, and leaving me wondering what I did wrong. Both of them forced me to examine the grey areas between good and evil, but ultimately, Zach's actions only served to solidify my belief that I am an appalling judge of character.

Even though I've never had cause to question Booth, it's still hard to accept that I've finally found someone who is beyond reproach – someone who would never betray me, someone who I could never stop recognising, someone who isn't going to leave me at the first sign of discontent. Booth has been so good to me; sarcasm, argumentativeness and stubbornness aside, he has proved to be intelligent, sensitive, dependable and accommodating, to the extent that I couldn't envisage working with anyone else. I'd be loath to admit it to him, but I've come to depend on Booth to some extent - he is the person I confide in, the man who guides me through the complexities of human interaction, both educating and reassuring me along the way. I can let my mask of professionalism slide when I'm with him, and he accepts me in all of my temperamental glory when lesser men would - and have - walked away. Though he may not always agree with me, he listens to my opinions, and he's never attempted to manipulate me for his own gain. His presence is comforting, rather than suffocating, and no matter how much he irks me, I always feel a thrill of excitement when he walks into the room, and a sense of loss when he leaves it. I'm aware that my quality of life would rapidly deteriorate if I was deprived of his company, but I never seem to be able to illustrate that sentiment in a tangible way.

It scares me that I've yet to discover a chink in Booth's impermeable armour - and it sickens me that Jared was so willing to manufacture one - but I'm even more appalled at myself for willingly lancing my partner when he was at his most vulnerable. I accepted Jared's conjecture on the basis that he'd known Booth for far longer than I had; he possessed a comprehensive knowledge of his past and watched him evolve and develop during his formative years. Jared said Booth was an underachiever, someone who faded into the background without the desire to reach his full potential, an Average Joe who disappointed his father with his lack of ambition. I should have been affronted – I work with Booth every day, I've witnessed his drive and thirst for justice, I've seen the wealth of qualities he exudes and I know he is exceptional in every arena. I also know that him being power hungry and chasing after glory isn't in my best interests, because if he does get the promotion he undoubtedly deserves, our partnership would be annulled.

Why then, did I automatically assume that he was the one who had done something wrong and caused the FBI to lose credit on the RICO investigation? Why didn't I hasten to reassure him when he asked me if I thought he was a loser? This is the man who has risked his own life to save mine - even though he has a lot more to lose. I've watched him leap in front of a bullet to shield me, and limp out of his hospital bed with injuries that would have felled any other man, all to save me from a would-be murderer. And yet, when he asked me if I thought he was a loser, I didn't negate his query. My affirmative silence spoke volumes. Angela, Cam and even Sweets went out of their way to defend his honour. I'm supposed to be his partner, but I refused to heed their well-meaning advice. I left Booth to bleed, without even trying to find the cause or tend to his wounds. They are his true friends, and now I know I don't deserve that privilege.

I feel lost, adrift in a sea of uncertainty. My intelligence is the one thing that I've always been able to depend upon – the one thing that no one ever succeeded in taking away from me. It was my escape route when I was entrenched in mediocrity, my point of pride when people were attesting to my worthlessness, and the buffer between the bleakness of reality and my aspirations for the future. Now, I feel humbled and shame-faced by my idiocy, and I don't know how to make things right.

I don't understand why Booth is inviting me to sit alongside him when I don't deserve to be in his company. I can't comprehend why he's confiding in me when I've proven to be disloyal; how he can smile at me when I've caused him nothing but pain. Even now, I'm hovering ineffectually by his side, unable to formulate an appropriate response to his revelation. My Dad drank. I want to cry, because he's opening up to me and telling me things he's never told anyone before, giving me a second chance without me having to beg or plead for it, and I know that if our situations were reversed - if he doubted my abilities, if he believed a stranger's version of events over my own - I would shut him out, ignore his calls, sever our partnership; I would destroy the most rewarding relationship I've ever had for the sake of vindicating my wounded pride. Booth is of a similarly stubborn nature, which makes it even harder to fathom why he accepted my feeble attempts at reconciliation. Perhaps he is simply too drained after his fight with Jared to yell at me - or perhaps he has become sick of schooling me in sensitivity.

I cannot, however, convince myself that my actions have not affected him. My breath catches when he heaves a sigh and lets his head loll against the bus shelter, and something inside me constricts when the dim street-lighting briefly illuminates his tired eyes. The brown orbs are not warm and reassuring anymore, they are dull and weary; and I bite my lip upon realising that I've always taken Booth's optimism and exuberance for granted. I generally overlooked any glimpses of sadness or despair, and my rare attempts at comfort have been rooted in a simple touch or a respectful silence. Right now, I want to tell Booth that he's the best man I know, that I was wrong to make such an unforgivable assumption about him, but a part of me is wary of acknowledging my transgressions in case he suddenly realises what a terrible friend I am. I'm relieved that he isn't acknowledging my betrayal, and I know that makes me a coward, as well as a fool, but I'm terrified of impinging on our fresh start and losing him for good.

I inwardly cringe when I relive my earlier attempts at an apology. Booth's forehead was scrunched up as though he was trying to determine whether I was inebriated when I launched into a wildly metaphoric speech about colourful plumage and shiny baubles. I suppose he's become accustomed to my literality, but I hope that he saw the intent behind my elaborate rambling – namely, that I knew it was senseless to consider that his brother might be the bigger and better man. I knew I was opening myself up to a lifetime's worth of ridicule by asserting that Anthropology could, on occasion, be wrong, and I hoped Booth appreciated the magnitude of that admission, because the terror it inspired within me was as potent as my guilt for doubting him in the first place. It's difficult to acknowledge that the subject I placed in such high esteem has offered me little more than a remote understanding of humanity and how ordinary people interact and function on a day-to-day basis. I suppose my inability to integrate with, and be understood by, the general populace should have forewarned me that academic theory isn't the best method of decoding subjective behaviour. I thought objectivity could provide me with superior insight. Instead, it blinded me.

Now, I lean a little closer, remaining mute but hoping that my proximity alone is enough to offer some placation. Booth obligingly takes another forkful of cake, a pitiful peace-offering considering the magnitude of my crime. He accidentally jostles my protruding elbow in the process, and I gladly absorb the pain that shoots through my injured arm. As irrational as it seems, I can't help but think that the bullet hole is my penance for hurting a man who has always tried to heal my pain. Of course, Booth doesn't see it that way. He thinks he's failed me again; that his inability to protect me from my own flaws is a further testimony to his inadequacy. Oh God. It suddenly occurs to me that he might not merely be offended by my lack of response in the interrogation room; perhaps I made him question his worth, made him doubt his abilities. Booth is so self-assured that sometimes I forget about his harrowing past, and now it's clear that there's a wealth of pain that I'm still largely oblivious to. The thought that I may have exacerbated his insecurities makes my stomach churn nauseously. How could I be so fickle?

We finished the cake a long time ago, and now Booth regards me with a smile that is a feeble derivative of his usual grin. "We should go back inside," he murmurs unenthusiastically, and my stomach reacts with an altogether different sensation when he gathers the plate from my lap, his fingers inadvertently brushing against my thigh in the process. He holds out his free hand. It's a lifeline, and I cling to it accordingly, twining my fingers through his and gently squeezing his palm as he tugs me into an upright position. He looks at me with an expression I can't comprehend, and then leads me back into the building. We immediately become the centre of attention, and it doesn't take Angela long to notice our linked hands. She grins, and for some inexplicable reason, I find myself blushing.

Jared is propping up the bar and clearly hasn't heeded Booth's warning about drinking in moderation. He lurches towards us, and I wince as his leaden frame collides with my injured arm. I try to withhold a sigh of frustration when Booth releases my hand to steady his brother, and I marvel at the transition when the fingers that had been softly caressing my palm curl around Jared's shoulders in an oppressive grip. Booth's knuckles are turning white, but he somehow manages to retain his composure.

"For God's sake, Jared," he hisses quietly, and Jared affects a look of innocence.

"Seel, you're thirty-six, you're not getting any younger," he slurs with mock seriousness, extending a hand to pat Booth's shoulder and missing it by several inches, "I just wanna give you some brotherly advice, that's all."

"I don't think you're in a position to be imparting words of wisdom, Jared," I say coolly. Jared points his index finger in my general direction, and then turns to regard Booth with a wide grin.

"Just kiss her already," he enthuses loudly, quickly garnering everyone's attention, "It's not like she's gonna run for the hills. It's your birthday. I mean, she kissed me," he informs Booth with a rakish grin, sending a conspicuous wink in my direction.

Booth tries to rein in his reaction, but his eyes flicker towards me and his shoulders seem to slump slightly.

"Booth, it didn't mean anything," I hastily reassure him, although I'm not entirely sure why I feel consumed with a churning sense of guilt and the need to explain my actions.

"Nah, man, I was just testing the waters," Jared chimes in, without much sincerity, "It was just a peck, nothing special. Like I said, that ship has sailed." He lets out an undignified snort, pulling up his shirt and tugging down the waistband of his pants to reveal the expansive purple bruise on his coccyx. "See?" he demands wryly, turning around so everyone in the bar can appraise the damage.

Booth glances at me questioningly, and I offer him a rueful smile, opening my mouth to explain, but to my horror, Jared adopts an effeminate tone and proceeds to grossly overplay our earlier conversation.

"You made me think he was a loser! He's never going to speak to me again," he sobs melodramatically, and my breath catches in my throat when I see Booth's cheeks flush and his eyes darken. He seizes Jared's arm, hauling him outside, and Jared's attempts at resistance seem pitiful in the face of Booth's barely suppressed rage.

Pushing Jared off a bar stool clearly didn't have the desired outcome. Maybe I should have pushed him into oncoming traffic instead. My own cheeks are burning as I finally dare to make eye contact with my co-workers. Sweets shakes his head slightly, looking away, and Angela stares at me with disconcerting intensity, clearly feeling no sympathy for my plight. Cam is the only one who dares to approach me, and she is regarding me with the kind of thin-lipped contempt that characterised our early encounters. I'm not very good at reading people, but her intentions are abundantly clear, and I try to staunch the anticipated tirade.

"You were right about Jared, and I should have listened to you. I'm sorry," I offer meekly, and she seems taken aback for a moment. Then her eyes narrow, and her expression shifts from shock to anger.

"You damn well better be, Dr Brennan."

"I am," I assure her, and she seems to sense the desperation in my tone, because her features soften slightly.

"Look, Booth's pretty good at putting on a brave face, but I never would've gotten involved if I didn't realise how much he was hurting," she informs me, her tone low and solemn. "I called him in when he lost out on the RICO case. I haven't seen him that cut up in years, Brennan, but he was still too noble to tell me what went wrong. I figured he could use a little moral support from the woman he worships - and that's you, incidentally - but if I'd realised what a mess you were going to make of it, I would've offered him a shoulder to cry on myself, instead of wasting my time trying to talk some sense into you."

I blink rapidly to allay the threat of tears, and nod wearily. "You're a good friend to him, Cam."

"And so are you," she fires back, her brow furrowing, "Which is why I can't understand why you'd even contemplate going on a date with Jared in the first place?"

"Well, if you hadn't cancelled, he never would have asked me," I retort, and Cam rolls her eyes.

"Fine, blame this whole incestuous mess on me." She shakes her head slightly, and her incredulous smile rapidly fades. "Booth would crawl over broken glass for hours to save you a second's worth of pain," she informs me intently, "And every single one of us can see that… so, why can't you?"

I swallow the lump in my throat, and shake my head helplessly. "I don't… I don't know. In retrospect, I realise that I made a terrible mistake, but I'm not sure how to rectify it."

"A word to the wise, Dr Brennan. Don't let this fester," Cam informs me with quiet intensity, "Tell him how you really feel about him, and for God's sake, don't let him go home thinking that he's a loser, because we both know that's not true."

I offer her a curt nod, and then stroll hurriedly towards the door, taking a moment to squint into the comparative darkness outside. I can see Jared's lofty figure hunched in the confines of the bus shelter, but Booth's broader frame is conspicuously absent.

"Where is he?" I demand, sauntering towards Jared without preamble. He looks up at me with bleary eyes, blinking rapidly, and then his shoulders rise in a nonchalant shrug. I grip his collar with my one good hand, and shake him violently, ignoring the pain it causes me in the process. "Where is he, Jared?"

"For fuck's sake, Tempe, will you quit beating on me? I don't know, OK?" he says petulantly, and I can feel my eyes welling with tears of frustration. Jared stares at me for a moment, and then he heaves a weary sigh, finally sensing my urgency.

"Look, all he said was that he was sick of being a stand-up guy when everyone's trying to kick him to the curb, and that he was going to convene with some other losers." He holds his hands out in a gesture of cluelessness, "Whatever the fuck that means."

My heart sinks and a feeling of dread settles in the pit of my stomach. I don't recognise the shrill timbre of my tone when I demand, "Which way did he go?"

Jared points to his right, and I set off at a brisk pace, studying my surroundings assiduously in the hope of having an epiphany about my partner's possible whereabouts.

"You know, I never asked him to look out for me," Jared hollers after my retreating form, and I shake my head sadly. Neither did I, but it suddenly occurs to me that Booth has always been there to catch me when I fall, without any agenda or fanfare. Maybe it's time I returned the favour.

I hear the discordant din coming from the seedy casino before I see the gaudy neon signs advertising its existence. For some reason, it calls to me, and I offer the brutish doorman a small smile as he holds open the door and allows me to enter the crowded arcade. It's hard to look for Booth and maintain a peripheral awareness of everyone else, and my arm is jostled and jarred as I manoeuvre my way through the throng of people, desperately searching for a glimpse of my partner. I can feel a sheen of sweat gathering on my forehead, and my thumping headache is compounded by the unrelenting clamour. Occasionally a catcall of victory will ripple through the crowd, and as I edge closer towards the bar, the sickening smell of alcohol becomes omnipresent. I finally see Booth standing in front of an unoccupied slot machine, cradling what looks to be a double shot of whiskey. He's watching the contraption whir and flicker in all of its garish glory, but although it's clearly beckoning to him, he seems more interested in torturing himself with the temptation than actually giving in.

For a moment, I'm paralysed with uncertainty, and I simply stare at him as he hastily gulps down his drink. I only find the courage to propel myself forwards when he shoves his hand into his pocket, emerging with a handful of small change and regarding it with disconcerting intensity. I rush towards him then, and grasp his wrist with my free hand. If he's surprised to see me, he doesn't show it, but he still won't allow me to lead him to safety and forcefully resists my attempts to tug him towards the door.

"I'm a loser, Bones, this is where I belong," he informs me scathingly, and his speech is slightly slurred. My heart twinges in response, and I shake my head violently, heedless of the gesture's affect on my throbbing skull.

"That's not true, Booth."

"You wouldn't even be in here if you didn't think the worst of me," he reasons, with devastating logic.

I don't know what to say, and he smiles sadly, slowly depositing the change back into his pocket. "It hurts, you know?" he whispers, so quietly that I can barely hear him. I use my thumb to caress the back of his hand, barely able to contain my tears of remorse as I watch him crumple in on himself. I don't recognise him anymore, this defeated, browbeaten, vulnerable man who barely constitutes a shadow of his former self. I don't recognise him, and yet I do, because right now, Booth's external appearance is mirroring what I sometimes feel like on the inside, when I return home to an empty apartment and become insufferably aware of my solitude. The thought that I caused him this amount of pain is making it hard for me to breathe, and I agonise over a remedy.

"How can I make it better?" I ask feebly, but Booth doesn't seem to hear me. Instead, he stares at me blankly, looking so lost that I want to duck my head and evade his gaze, but I know I can't flinch away from him. Not now.

"You know, I always tried to be the best man I could be for you, Bones," he confesses solemnly, "But I guess… it's just never enough. I'm never enough."

His voice is strangled, and my self-hatred becomes unbearable when I watch him swipe discreetly at an errant tear. I wonder why it hurts me so much to see him cry, and I realise that this choking sensation is so much more than mere empathy. I instinctively lean towards him, resting my head against his shoulder. "You're the best man I've ever known, Booth, and I'm so sorry that I made you believe otherwise," I whisper fervently, knowing my voice wouldn't be able to withstand a more forceful delivery. "I know I acted like an idiot earlier, and I know I let you down, but please believe me when I say that you're not a loser, Booth – you never could be."

"Look, don't feel bad, OK?" Booth says lightly, squeezing my hand and then promptly releasing it. "God knows, you're not the only one who thinks I'm lacking in some respect. Rebecca, she…" he trails off, staring at the floor, "…and my Dad, he made it abundantly clear that he thought I was a worthless piece of shit, right before he…" he shakes his head, clearing his throat, and the brief flash of terror in his eyes makes my stomach clench reflexively. He laughs then, and it's hollow and horrible, and I can't swallow the lump in my throat when he offers me a distorted grin.

"Now Jared thinks I'm an asshole, too," he concludes wryly, his tone belying the sorrow in his muted brown eyes, "I think it's pretty clear that there's a general consensus here, Bones."

"No," I say firmly, and my chests tightens painfully when I realise Booth is comparing me to all the people who have hurt and abandoned him - the people who abused his loyalty and still had the audacity to expect more. I realise with a sense of horror that I've effectively become what I despise – I've been a traitor like Michael Stires; a deserter like Sully, and I never stopped to consider the ramifications of my actions. Booth has a crippling inability to walk away from the ones he loves when they need his help, but I don't want to be like Jared, I don't want to take advantage of that fact.

It's difficult to illustrate the extent of my remorse in a tacit manner, so I engulf him in a one-armed embrace and once again, bury my face in the crook of his shoulder. He stiffens slightly, and after a moment, I realise the prospect of him returning the hug is nominal. Still, I can't give up.

"I never told you this," I say, pulling back to regard him earnestly, "But I'm actually a card-carrying member of the Seeley Booth fan club," I inform him, hoping that my remark doesn't sound flippant, "And I… I paid for a lifetime's membership, Booth."

He looks at me strangely, probably surprised that I've said something relatively contemporary without making a malapropism. "You seemed pretty keen to jump on the Jared Booth bandwagon, earlier," he reminds me, and I flinch slightly at being reminded of my stupidity.

"Yes… well… clearly I experienced a temporary lapse of judgement."

The gravity of the situation is still weighing heavily on Booth, and I feel terrible for trying to assuage it with a feeble attempt at levity. He evades my gaze, staring at the floor.

"I should've seen it coming," he mutters, and I briefly wonder where this conversation is heading. "Jared was always everyone's favourite. In high school, he always got the best grades; the best girls – he always hit a home run; made Mum and Dad proud. I was popular enough, I guess, but once my friends met Jared, I was destined to play second fiddle. He made it his personal mission to steal my glory and everything that mattered to me, and after all these years, nothing's changed. People still lap up his charm, and I'm the idiot who's left to mop up his mess," he concludes bitterly.

"Booth, if it wasn't for you, Jared would be facing a disciplinary hearing and demotion right now," I remind him, my tone laced with anger, "He's a reckless, arrogant reprobate, with no regard for the safety of others. You should never feel inferior to him, because you're the only one protecting him from failure."

"You say that now, but he didn't have a lot of trouble pulling the wool over your eyes earlier, Bones. I thought you would be different, you know? I didn't think that he could come between us like that, but it's the same old story - he always tries to take what's…" he trails off, clenching his jaw.

"What's yours?" I venture, and instead of feeling affronted that Booth feels some sense of ownership towards me, I feel… touched. "I am yours, Booth," I assure him softly, but he doesn't look relieved. Instead, he snorts derisively.

"You're nobody's, Bones."

The words sting violently, and the truth of them makes my eyes burn in conjunction with the tightening sensation in my chest. The weight of my guilt and the burden of Booth's sorrow suddenly becomes too much to bear, and I can't control the tears that spill from my eyes unremittingly. It suddenly occurs to me that I'm fighting a lost cause; I don't deserve forgiveness, and I have no right to ask for it. I stumble towards the exit, garnering several questioning looks as the noise from the crowd thankfully swallows my sobs. The bouncer barely glances at me as he automatically pulls the door ajar, and I suck in a shaking breath, running awkwardly towards the taxi rank I noticed during my earlier expedition.

I am too consumed with anguish to recognise Booth's footfalls as he sprints towards me, and it isn't until he grabs me around the waist, forcing me to a standstill, that I finally acknowledge his presence.

"Oh God, Bones, I'm so sorry. I really didn't mean that how it sounded," he informs me breathlessly, all traces of slurring gone, "I just meant that you'd probably take offence at the thought of belonging to someone, because you're so damn independent. Not that nobody wants you."

Much to my chagrin, my tears start anew, because Booth still cares enough to chase after me and offer me comfort when I'm the one who should be on my knees and pleading for forgiveness, and because he always knows the right thing to say, even when he's inebriated, and I can't begin to muster a coherent apology when I'm sober. I launch myself into his arms, heedless of my own injuries, and this time, he cradles me delicately against his chest, almost as though he can sense how close I am to breaking. The relief is all-consuming, and I burrow into him, suddenly realising how bleak my life would be if I lost this wonderful, selfless man and all that he's offered me over the past three and a half years.

"I'm sorry," I sob, over and over again, and at some point I realise I'm begging him not to leave me, and he's begging me not to cry anymore.

"Bones, shush. I'm not going anywhere, OK? And you really need to stop apologising – I mean, one sorry would've sufficed," he jokes, but his levity barely registers with me, and he heaves an anguished sigh. "Come on, Temperance, don't cry. I was just being a self-pitying bastard, that's all."

"You're not a bastard," I inform him angrily, and he starts to laugh, pulling me close.

"Well, that's good to know, Bones. Listen… do you want to come back to my place for a bit?" he murmurs, and I nod, offering him a tremulous smile as he gently pulls away from me to requisition a taxi. I clamber into the back seat and leave him to sit on my left hand side, and after a moment's hesitation, I forego my seatbelt and sidle towards him, resting my head against his shoulder without having to worry about squashing my arm in the process. Booth obligingly tucks me against his side, resting his cheek against the top of my head, and after he relays our destination to the driver, both of us are lulled into a light sleep by the vehicle's steady motion.

I awake to the sensation of Booth caressing my cheek, and I smile at him lazily, accepting his hand as he helps me out of the taxi and leads me sluggishly towards the elevator. I am physically and emotionally drained, and I only have to look at him to know that he is, too. A semi-awkward silence descends on his apartment as he fumbles around in the kitchen, and I hover in the doorway until he emerges with two glasses of water.

"I'm kind of beat, Bones. Do you want to crash here tonight? I can take the couch, if you want, or we could…"

"I don't mind sharing a bed if you brush your teeth and promise not to vomit on me," I interject wryly, trying to ignore the way my stomach flutters in conjunction with my words. As if I would allow Booth to forsake the comfort of his own bedroom for my benefit. Even his small acts of kindness seem too generous now. Nevertheless, I accept the baggy T-shirt he hands to me and disappear into his main bathroom, doing what I can to freshen up. I'm all-too-relieved to find a spare toothbrush in the recesses of Booth's cabinet and, as I vigorously scrub my teeth, I begin to wonder how I can possibly feel nervous about sharing a spacious bed with my partner when only moments ago, I was invading every aspect of his personal space.

I pause in the doorway of Booth's tastefully-decorated bedroom, summoning the courage to traverse the threshold, and I watch unobtrusively as he emerges from his en-suite bathroom, wearing a loose-fitting set of pajama pants and a T-shirt. He sinks lethargically onto the sizeable bed, throwing the covers aside, and I take a moment to breathe in the comforting scent of his cologne, which is even more prevalent here. He assumes a prostrate position and closes his eyes, and I gingerly enter the room, realising that my hands are sweating profusely. Booth's sudden flurry of movement startles me, and I watch in a mixture of amusement and concern as he dives towards his bedside table and seizes the picture frame residing there.

Feeling emboldened, I wordlessly snatch it out of his hands before he can stuff it into his bedside drawer, knowing that he won't put up a fight because of my injured arm. I turn the frame over, and I'm shocked to see a candid picture of myself staring back at me. I don't remember the photograph being taken, but I am stood on the platform in the centre of the lab, wearing my usual unflattering attire. Shapeless blue lab coat, latex gloves, wisps of hair falling out of my haphazard ponytail. It's really nothing special, except that I'm smiling broadly, and even I can recognise the rarity of my unrestrained amusement. Only Booth can make me smile like that, and the realisation that he treasures my happiness enough to covertly capture it on film leaves me choked with an emotion I can't explain. Booth is embarrassed, though. His cheeks are flushed and he won't meet my understanding gaze, and so I crawl under the covers, gently returning the frame to its original position.

"We should take more pictures," I venture hesitantly, hoping to ease his discomfort, "I'd like some of you, too."

"Well, next time our forensics guy starts snapping off some shots, remind me to strike a pose, OK?"

I start to laugh. "I'd like something a little more tasteful than us squatting over a cadaver, Booth." I edge a little closer to him when he turns to face me. "You know, Brainy Smurf and Jasper are on my bedside table," I inform him, my cheeks warming slightly.

He looks surprised. "Yeah?"

I nod, offering him a self-conscious smile. Silence descends for a moment, and then I realise that there's something I desperately want to say. "I… I'm sorry that you had a bad childhood, Booth," I murmur after much deliberation, and he flinches slightly.

"Don't worry about it." His tone is light, but his eyes are quick to darken. "We all have our crosses to bear, Bones. What you went through makes my childhood seem like a walk in the park."

I sigh in frustration, because I know, now, that Booth likes to trivialise his pain. "It's not a competition, Booth. You don't have to downplay things for my benefit."

"Yeah… well… maybe I do it for mine." That unfathomable look of sadness etches its way onto his features again, and I curl up against him, sliding my arm around his waist and hoping that he won't reject the gesture. He enfolds me in a warm embrace, and I repress a relieved sigh, nestling closer. He doesn't offer any objections when I rest my head in the crook of his shoulder, and I smile instinctively at the sensation of his lips puckering against my forehead, although they retreat far too rapidly. This should feel awkward, but even though my heart is hammering against my ribcage, it doesn't take me long to realise that my chest is swelling with an overwhelming feeling of happiness and contentment. I don't deserve this, but I know for a fact that I will never do anything to jeopardise it again.

"I'm sorry I doubted you, Booth," I whisper, and he gives me a tender squeeze that makes my heart soar.

"I think I can safely assume that your faith in me is restored," he deadpans, and I tilt my head upwards to regard him seriously.

"But I never should have lost it in the first place," I hesitate for a moment, and try not to descend into a blind panic when I blurt out, "Because I think… I mean, I know… that I… I love you, Booth." Booth must be able to feel the tension chorusing through my physique, because even though his shell-shocked expression briefly acknowledges the gravity of my declaration, he somehow knows not to take it too seriously. Instead, he regards me with twinkling eyes and a teasing smile.

"Let me get this straight. First of all, Anthropology is wrong, then you suddenly develop the ability to apologise, and now you believe in love?"

I regard him earnestly. "Only where you're concerned."

"Are you sure they didn't operate on your brain, instead of your arm, Bones?"

I start to laugh, but then suck in a breath when Booth unexpectedly instigates a tentative kiss. Like his brother before him, his lips don't linger against mine for long, but this kiss doesn't feel wrong; it feels heart-stoppingly, mind-bogglingly, right. The contact is softer than I expected, but sweetly intense, and in that fleeting moment, Booth is able to convey more to me than all of the men before him combined.

"I love you, too, Bones," he tells me softly, his expression becoming mischievous, "But do me a favour?"

"What?" I ask, my cheeks flushing with pleasure when I realise his eyes seem to have regained their sparkle.

"If it turns out that I'm too wasted to remember all of this, will you say it to me again tomorrow morning?"

I nod, breaking into a smile that's so wide my cheeks feel like they're being stretched beyond their limitations, and then I reach for the picture on his bedside table, depositing it safely into his drawer. "You don't need a substitute anymore," I explain to him teasingly, "Because from now on, when you wake up, I'll be here to smile at you in person."

For one terrifying moment, Booth appears to be close to tears, but he quickly regains his composure.

"Is your arm OK?" he eventually asks, clearing his throat, and I nod, even though the position I've adopted is a little painful. I'm happy to deny my discomfort, because I want to show Booth how much I care, and right now, I know he needs this contact as much as I do. All the things that I've left unspoken fade into obscurity, because we've finally forged a tangible connection, and I know I won't have any qualms about holding onto Seeley Booth for the foreseeable future - both literally and figuratively.