Title: thin layer

Pairing(s): Booth/Brennan

Fandom: Bones

Rating: PG

Words: 1993

Spoilers: Post-ep for The Pain in the Heart

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

She's led countless men up these stairs, but has not once let one lead her.

And, yet. Her hand is warm and sweaty, clasped tightly in Booth's palm as he cautiously ascends the narrow staircase. She can hear the noise of the traffic falling away as the front door slides shut, can feel the low murmurs of her neighbors behind thin walls as they traipse down the hallway.

She wants many things. She misses the young doctor, the way he hung at her waist, his quiet concentration as he slid his fingers across skull fragments. She misses him, and Booth understands this – he understood this as her head fell to his shoulder, as he stroked the skin of her wrist, as he drove her home wordlessly. Booth understands that there are things she would rather not talk about her, things that she often begins a sentence with, before letting the words fall away to a silent abyss.

They stop abruptly at her doorway and the air is saturated with an hour-long hush. She can feel the space underneath her skin compressing as she wordlessly, tiredly, digs for her keys.

"Let me," he croaks out when she fails in her attempts to dig the key into the lock. He is worried, she can see it in the way he lifts his shoulders and can feel it in his hooded glances.

The day has been long. The night will be longer.

Her apartment is dark and Booth busies himself with flicking on light switches as she trains her hands across the cool surface of her marble counter.

"Thank you for the ride home." The words are flat and she wonders what they mean to him. They are not a dismissal, nor an invitation. She uses them to fill the silence. The clock on the wall reads 9:27. She registers the aching in her muscles as exhaustion. She won't will herself to sleep.

"No problem." Simple, and there is hardly ever hidden meaning in the manner in which he speaks to her, but sometimes in the words. Making love, or something along those lines, and at the time she hadn't let herself look away.

"You don't have to…" she trails off, meaning to say go but recognizes immediately that he thinks she means stay. He takes a step back and his expression is unreadable and so she rushes her next statement while looking down.

"No, I mean. You're welcome to…you can stay."

His expression softens as he unzips his jacket and steps towards the counter. She wonders fleetingly where the line is, but then thinks of hotel beds and costumes and personas they've donned like a second skin. The words I miss that would sound foreign and odd on her tongue, so instead they stay locked inside her closed mouth.

But she does. She does miss that. The brief moments between cases that hit too close to home, and that satisfying feeling of sinking into a new identity. Of being Roxy, free, young, inhibited, when there is no Zack and no Gormogon and no fake deaths and everything sits on the surface where it is easier to breathe. She would tell him this, but certain things have broken recently.

"Do you want a drink?"

She's never been a fan of hard liquor, except at times when she wants to believe that love is transcendent, and even then it had been on the scratchy linen of his couch. She can see him trying to mask his surprise as she pulls a bottle of vodka and two glasses from the cupboard. She does not wait for his reply; she knows his answer, because it's been three years and surprise comes rarely now.

"Uh, Bones, maybe you shouldn't –"

"Shut up Booth," she interrupts and he does.

She pours for the third time and doesn't realize until now that he hasn't touched his glass.

Her elbows rest on the counter and he is across from her, sitting on one of her stools. They don't speak but sometimes she relishes in these quiet moments and sometimes these moments are easier. Right now, well, this isn't easier, nor harder. This is just this, and she wonders if he recognizes that.

She knows that he's opened his mouth to tell her to stop numerous times, only to fall silent and let her continue. She draws patterns with the perspiration from her glass onto the marble counter and she can practically hear him counting the breaths she's taking.

"Are you going in to work tomorrow?"

She nods.

"Maybe you should take a day…"

A day. A day to lie in bed or read or watch the shadows caress her bedroom walls from sunrise to sunset. A waste. Because she doesn't grieve. She copes, and not in waves, but in a long continuous stream of transference. She works until the rush of pain runs dry and it no longer hurts to pause or to remember.

"I feel…"

She is frustrated. Things are blurring and pausing around her and Booth is as patient as he's always been but she wants him to stop because she needs someone to be angry at other than herself. She can feel the alcohol seeping through her pores and she wonders when it started feeling better to be bad than good.

She tries again. "I feel bad."

Booth nods. "About Zack."

She shakes her head, slow and sluggish. There is a low throbbing at the back of her neck, but she takes another sip and the clear liquid burns all the way down her throat. "No. Well, yes, about Zack. Partially. But more about the fact that it's not really him I'm thinking about."

She is making little to no sense. She recognizes this, and it bothers her, but a small smile plays across Booth's lips. She very rarely wishes to know what he is thinking, the very prospect of it she finds daunting and unnerving and altogether too much to handle, but she currently finds herself in one of those rare moments. They happen most frequently after a look, a touch, a smile, when she recognizes that things are shifting.

"Who is it then?" He asks, but doesn't push, and she thinks that if she believed in such things, she could love him for that.

"It isn't a who. It's a what. The funeral. And the not knowing. Or that your death was a fact until it wasn't anymore, and that rarely ever happens to me."

Frustration mounts as she ducks her head and digs her nails into the countertop. "I'm not making any sense," she murmurs.

When she glances up, he's watching her. With that look. And those looks scare her more than any word or declaration or speech ever could. She bites down on the inner lining of her cheek and breathes out shakily.

Booth sighs and reaches across the counter. His hand locks over hers and there is something warm and familiar about this moment. She wants to hate it but she doesn't. Sometimes these gestures pass by more quickly than the scratching of the second hand across the base of the clock. Blink and you miss it. An antiquated aphorism to justify, to ignore, to detract meaning. This means something.

"I'm sorry," he says, and the trust quietly regroups.

There is nothing more to say other than "I feel as though I've failed," and it's the truth but more of a blatant retelling of something he could already read in her eyes.

Booth pries the empty glass from her fingers and she doesn't notice. There is only so much he will let her ruin, because sometimes ruining feels better than building, but only to a point. He checks the clock. 12:47. She needs to sleep. He retreats to the kitchen to wash the glass.

Brennan's coherency slipped away about an hour ago, somewhere in between, "sometime I don't want to do it anymore," and "I don't deserve this. You." The latter rectified his own self-doubt, even as he whispered quietly that you deserve everything. Inebriated, she speaks in nuances of her normally composed self, the pieces scattered invisibly across the oak floor of her apartment.

He returns to the living room to find it empty. She has slipped away, and he wonders briefly if this is a hint. A clue. I want to be alone, she'll process in her mind, but fail to verbalize, because at her most vulnerable, Bones fails to be candid.

Retreating down her hallway, he finds her, perched miserably at the foot of her bed. This is intimate, he realizes, but almost too late as he steps in to the dimly lit bedroom. He has never been in here. They are not like that. They are about leaving things unspoken and a dull pain that beats at the foot of his heart as he fails for three years to tell her exactly how he feels. Maybe he will learn at some point that certain lines are made to be crossed, but right now, he lives in shades of regret.

"I was betrayed. I – I don't like being betrayed." She slurs ever so slightly across her words and Booth has to wonder if that isn't the most honest thing she's ever said to him. And he knows, even throughout a shrouded layer of doubt, that she isn't speaking of Zack, but of him. He's apologized and she's forgiven him, but sometimes bridges take longer to mend.

"I know." He takes a step forward and kneels down in front of her. She turns away slightly. He needs to be slight, calm, slow. She's shut him out enough times for him to know she can't be rushed. "I know, Bones. But right now, you need to sleep."

She nods, submitting to cold hard evidence that he knows she can feel in every part of her aching limbs.

"Do you, uh, want me to get you something to sleep in?" And even in these moments that are private but comfortable, he can feel the tension in the room. Knows that it lurks under the surface of every word they breathe around each other. Sober, she would recognize this too.

"Second drawer." He follows her words to her dresser and pulls out the first piece of clothing he can find. A long, worn and faded, FBI t-shirt. An early birthday present, Bones. Since I know you secretly wish you were an FBI agent. Four months ago, and he'd assumed right along with her eye-roll and small thank you that it would never be worn. But like usual with her, he assumed wrong.

When he turns around to face her again, Brennan is unbuttoning her shirt, letting it fall lightly to her sides. Booth swallows, and trains his gaze on her face. Sober, she would have recognized the deep shade of purple his face was turning. Sober, she would have asked him to leave a long time ago.

And self-restraint has never been so difficult as he pulls the t-shirt over her head, the black lace of her bra disappearing under soft cotton. She will scold him tomorrow for letting her be so helpless. He won't care.

He kneels in front of her again. It is nearly 1 a.m., and in the morning she will find him curled up on her living room couch. He watches her as she picks at the material of her jeans and lets out a long shaky breath. "I need." She pauses and tries again. "I need." An assertion of a command he'd follow even without any assertion at all.

Booth boldly cradles her face in both of his hands. A lone tear slips from her eye and coats the rough skin of his thumb. "What do you need?" His voice cracks.

Brennan touches her forehead to his. "I need you to stay. Just – just for awhile."

He nods and strokes her hair lightly. He'll stay forever, if that's what she needs.