As is true of most life-altering events, this one catches Booth unawares. He'd invited Bones over to his place for a drink. Casual thing. They'd done it a hundred times before. A little beer, a little companionship … no big deal, right?
But things have been changing since his surgery. It's just little stuff, really. He isn't even sure she's aware of it. But he is. It's in the way she looks at him, and the way she seems to smile more often. Once or twice she's even sought him out just to talk. Pre-coma Bones almost never did that.
But the real kicker, the thing that makes him consider warning her about changies and takebacks, arrives in the unlikely form of a tropical fish.
"It's a Siamese Fighting Fish," she says, handing him the bowl as she breezes past him into his apartment. "Betta Splendens to be precise. But most people just call them Bettas."
He stares at the fish in its bowl, nonplussed. It's the first time she's ever brought him a just-because gift, and he's having trouble wrapping his head around what that means.
She lifts one shoulder. "Dogs are a lot of work, and I know you don't like cats, but I thought maybe a fish ..." A small plastic sack rustles faintly when she drops it on the counter. He hadn't even noticed she had it. "The woman at the pet store was very helpful. I asked her to suggest a fish that would be easy to care for and that wouldn't die if it didn't get fed every day." She pauses. Bites her lip. Finishes in a nervous rush. "I thought maybe Parker could help take care of it. It's important for kids to learn responsibility, you know."
"So I've heard." He says it with a touch of irony as he kicks the door shut with his foot and carries the bowl into the kitchen. He sets it on the table. "She's gorgeous."
The fish is F.B.I. blue, with palm-frond fins that fan the water in graceful arcs.
"It's a he, actually." She comes to stand beside him. "The male Betta Splendens is more colorful than the female. It's how they attract potential mates."
"Well, then--" He straightens, leans a hip against the counter. "He's beautiful." Booth isn't big on fish, but he'd never tell her that. Besides, she's right. Parker will be thrilled.
She hands him a container of fish food, and when her fingers brush against his, she doesn't immediately pull away--another thing that's different since the tumor. "Apparently they're very aggressive fish," she says. "The woman at the pet store said they'll kill any other fish you put in the bowl. Except, of course, a female Fighting Fish."
"Of course." Because what male in his right mind would kill a potential mate?
He looks into her eyes and wonders if she knows just how monumental this is. "Thanks, Bones."
The moment stretches, the way moments between them sometimes do. She's the one who breaks it, taking half a step back and sliding her jacket from her shoulders. Spurred to action, he reaches into the fridge, pulls out two beers, and passes one to her.
"Thanks." She twists off the top and puts the bottle to her lips. He watches the movements in her neck when she swallows and wonders what she'd do if he ran his tongue along the smooth column of her throat. The wayward thought makes his body react in dangerous ways, and he takes a swig of his own beer before seeking refuge in an examination of his new roommate.
"I thought these things were called Japanese Fighting Fish."
She shakes her head. "It's a common mistake, but they aren't really from Japan at all."
"Right." He doesn't pursue the matter. Bones had probably interrogated the poor pet shop employee half to death. If there was something to know about Fighting Fish, he'd bet his next promotion she knew it.
"They live in rice paddies, you know."
Fish trivia. In the middle of his kitchen on what, for most people, is date night. "Really."
"Yes. They're endemic to Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and parts of China. That's why they're called Siamese Fighting fish. Because Thailand used to be Siam."
She nudges the bowl further back from the edge of the table and leans in to study the fish. "They like warm water, so you may need to purchase an aquarium heater."
"A heater?" For a single fish?
"I'm told they're quite inexpensive."
For some reason this makes him smile. He rests his elbows on the table next to hers, bringing them shoulder to shoulder. "I appreciate your attention to detail."
She gives him that look she reserves for times when she thinks he's being deliberately obtuse. "I always pay attention, Booth."
They're almost nose to nose, close enough for him to see the subtle deepening of color in her eyes, close enough to note the slight change in her breathing. Her hair has fallen forward; a few strands cling to the corner of her mouth. He reaches out, captures the wayward bits of silk, and tucks them gently behind her ear. His hand comes to rest along the curve of her cheek, and instead of pulling away, she tilts her head into his touch. The inherent trust in that simple movement makes his chest go tight.
"You are--" His heart beats a warning against his ribs. Don't push Don't push Don't push. But frankly, he's tired of biding his time. "--so beautiful."
Her gaze drops away, lashes lowered like shades on a window. "Booth …"
"No." He cradles her chin in his palm the way he might cradle a wounded bird. "Don't hide." His thumb brushes across her cheek once. And then again. "Not from me." His voice is soft, but he's pretty sure she hears the intensity behind it. "Never from me."
When she looks up, he sees the hint of fear in her eyes. Even now, after everything they've been through together, she's afraid. He can't decide if that makes him angry, frustrated, or just very, very sad.
"Bones, this ... thing between us. I think it could be something special." He takes a breath, and her scent fills his lungs. It's a clean, straight-forward kind of scent, with a hint of flowers and sunshine behind it. "And I want that. I want it with all my heart." Reluctantly, he lets his hand fall away from her face. "But you have to want it, too."
The simple act of putting space between them is one of the hardest things he's ever done.
"I won't push," he says, "but I'm not going anywhere, either." He reaches for his beer. Condensation dampens his palm. It's cold, and wet, and the distraction of it against his skin steadies him. "You'll have to let me know," he says. "If you want this, if you're willing to give it a try--" A drop of water blazes an icy path down his wrist and stops, poised on the edge of a bone she could name as easily as he names the parts of his gun. "--you're going to have to say something."
She's quiet for so long that he begins to think he's gone too far. With a sigh, he picks up his beer and crosses to the sink. Grimly, methodically, he pours it down the drain, sets the empty aside for recycling. When he turns, he finds her watching him.
"I don't know what to do," she says, and this time the fear is backed by raw vulnerability. His gut clenches. Maybe it isn't just too soon now. Maybe it will always be too soon. He feels something break inside him at the thought.
"You don't have to do anything, Bones." Bitter defeat weighs heavy on his heart. "I told you I wouldn't push, and I won't. In fact, forget I said anything, okay?"
"No. You don't understand. Booth--" she steps close, and he has to fight the urge to draw her into his arms. "I do want this."
The startling admission snaps his head up. His eyes lock on hers. Like a first round draft pick at training camp, he's terrified of screwing up the biggest chance of his life.
"But …?" He says it carefully. His shoulders ache with the tension of holding himself away from her.
"What happens when it's over?" There's a sheen of moisture in her eyes. He wants to wipe it away with the pad of his thumb. Instead, he shoves his hands in his pockets.
She continues, and he's never heard so much uncertainty in her voice. "It's one thing when it's just casual ..."
"Like it was with Mark?" He can't resist the small dig, and he's relieved when it draws a faint smile. But her amusement fades almost as fast as it had come.
"It wouldn't be casual with you, Booth. It … you mean too much to me."
The confession costs her. He sees it in the way she bites her lip and the way she drops her gaze from his. Still, he doesn't touch her.
"Bones, what I'm feeling, what I've been feeling for years … There's nothing casual about it." He tucks his hands in his pockets, out of harm's way. "Look. I don't know what the future holds. Hell, you're the one who's always telling me that nobody can predict the future. But I can promise you this." Her eyes come up, fasten on his. "I would never. Ever. Hurt you."
Her gaze is searching, her brow slightly furrowed--the way it gets when she's puzzling over one of her skeletons. And he doesn't realize how tightly wound he is until she closes the last few inches of space between them and lowers her head to rest against his chest.
"No," she says. "You wouldn't."
He closes his eyes and finally, finally, puts his arms around her, holding her against him with a kind of fierce relief as he sends a prayer of gratitude heavenward. Her arms slide around his waist and her head fits into the hollow of his shoulder as if the spot was custom designed for her. And the only word he can think of to describe the feeling is right. It's a moment, and a memory, that he knows he will always treasure. That fact is as clear to him as the dawning awareness of his body's reaction to hers.
As if she's reading his mind, she lifts her head, and there's an instant when they stand there, frozen, the knowledge of what's happening between them almost a physical presence in the room. And then slowly, so very slowly, he lowers his lips to hers. She meets him half way--which doesn't surprise him--and makes a little noise in the back of her throat--which does. The sound, part sigh, part moan, part something he can't quite define, makes every Y chromosome in his body sit up and take notice.
The heat of her response catches him a little off-guard, because no matter what she's said in the past, this is still Bones. But she's warm, and generous, and when she slides her hands under his shirt and across the bare skin at the small of his back it's all he can do not to take her right there on the kitchen floor. He's still pondering the logistics of that as he trails a line of kisses along her jaw and breathes in the subtle perfume she's dabbed behind her ear. He's just about decided that maybe the floor wouldn't be that bad for his back when he happens to glance over at the table.
And damned if that fish isn't staring at him.
No way on God's green Earth is he going to make love to the woman of his dreams with a damned fish grading his performance.
"Booth?" Bones's voice is sex-starved husky, and that last chromosome, the one hiding somewhere near the tip of his right little toe, leaps to attention. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." He rests his forehead against hers, presses his palm into the small of her back, and snorts in amusement. "Nothing at all."
"Then why aren't you kissing me?" She draws back a little, tilts her head to one side. "You're a very good kisser, Booth. And in my experience I've found that skill at kissing is a fairly accurate indicator of sexual ability."
"It's not my ability I'm worried about." He jerks his chin toward their audience, but he doesn't let her go because frankly, now that he's finally got her he'd kind of like to keep her close.
"The fish?" She looks utterly baffled. "What about him?"
He sees the moment she figures it out, tries not to squirm at the slow dawn of amusement in her eyes.
"Booth, you don't really think--"
He enunciates slowly and clearly. "I am not going to make love to you with that thing staring at me."
"Booth, it's just a fish. It isn't like he's going to be taking notes or anything."
And now he does let her go. He folds his arms across his chest and stares at her, trying hard to look stern, but the whole situation is ridiculous, and he knows it. Still, he's curious to see what she'll do.
He doesn't have to wait long to find out.
"Fine," she says. She rolls her eyes toward the fish bowl and grabs his arm. "Your bedroom, then."
They're already crossing the den, and he's watching in some fascination as she does a sort of one-handed striptease along the way, leaving a trail of clothes in her wake.
"Yeah?" He's halfway out of his shirt, his voice muffled in the fabric.
"Maybe the fish could live at Rebecca's house."
He kicks the door closed behind him and tumbles her down to the bed, grinning at her gasp of startled laughter before cutting it off in a manner they both find wholly enjoyable. He doesn't respond to her comment until he's satisfied his curiosity about the sweet spot at the base of her neck.
"Yeah." He murmurs it against silken skin as her laugh fades to a sigh and slim fingers slide into his hair. "Maybe he could."