A/N: Sorry for the delay on this one, folks…dontcha hate it when real life gets in the way of fanfiction? :) Anyway, hope you like…

Added 6/20/11: I haven't forgotten about this story-not by a long shot-but it might be another week or two (or, let's face it, three) before I can update again. Just wanted to let you all know...and thanks again for the reviews, favorites, and alerts. They make my day-every single one of them!

Chapter Six: The Heart of the Matter

It started off just fine.

Bones had, as instructed, put on something nice for the occasion. So nice, in fact, that Booth had trouble concentrating on the short drive to the restaurant.

"What are we waiting for?" she asked.

He suddenly became aware that he had, apparently, made multiple turns and parallel-parked the car, all the while trying to figure out just what mechanism was fastening Bones' snug red wrap dress in place. So he could get it off as quickly as possible, later.

The human mind was a great multitasker.

"Wait here," he said. Coming around the SUV, he opened her door and stretched out a hand for her to take.

She looked at him, amused. "Booth, I've been getting out of the car by myself for years. I think I can manage." So saying, she swept gracefully by him, not even wobbling on her spiky black shoes.

He took her elbow as they walked up the pathway. "Hey, Bones, just work with me here, alright?"

"I'm sorry. You're making these gestures to symbolically indicate a shift in the status of our relationship."

"No, I'm not."

"Yes, you are. It's rather sweet, actually."

"No…I'm just finally getting to do all the stuff I've wanted to do for a long time."

"Like what?" she asked, as they climbed the brownstone's concrete steps.

He swung the black door wide, gesturing for her to go ahead. "Like treat you like a lady."

Bones stopped in the vestibule, her face serious. "Booth, treating me like a lady means listening to me, valuing my opinion, being respectful. And you've always done that."

His eyes stung a little, and he nearly blurted out, God, I love you...but he had a feeling he'd better tread carefully on the declaration front. He settled for a smile, ushering her into the warm, mahogany-accented restaurant.

The maitre-d' led them to a table fronted by a huge picture window. The sun spread its last rays over the Potomac, slipping through the arches of Key Bridge and gilding the top of the Washington Monument.

He was savoring some very fine single-malt when the executive chef appeared, beaming, if slightly rumpled, in his white coat and black-checked pants. "Dr. Brennan and Agent Booth—it is a singular pleasure."

Bones jumped up and hugged him. "Gordon! I didn't know this was your place. Booth, did you? Oh-I guess you did." She subsided into her chair, answering his grin with a deliciously conscious little smile.

"I gather that tonight is something of...an occasion," Gordon twinkled. "Not to worry—I shall do my best to make sure that the culinary portion of your evening is an unqualified success." Throwing a loaded look Booth's way, he bowed and headed back through the swinging door.

True to his word, Gordon sent out plate after plate of mouthwatering little bites. The talk flowed easily while they tasted, laughed, and tasted again. At one point, Booth simply sat back and enjoyed watching Bones shed her workaday intensity: her eyes lightened, her smile widened, the planes of her beautiful face softened in the dusky light.

His filet mignon and her...vegetable something...were nearly gone when they had another visitor.

"Why, Seeley Booth! What a surprise!"

Booth looked up and groaned silently. Of all the people to run into on their first date, it had to be one with a nose for gossip , a viper's tongue, and a willingness to deploy them both, no matter the carnage that ensued. He plastered on a smile. "Margaux! I didn't realize you were back in D.C.!"

"Ah'm here on special assignment," she drawled, her glance sliding pointedly to Bones.

"That's...great! Oh—Agent Margaux Renard, Dr. Temperance Brennan." To Bones, he said, "Agent Renard is based out of the Charlotte office, but she's been loaned out to corporate a few times. We were at Quantico together."

"Dr. Brennan!" Margaux exclaimed. "You must be Seeley's bone lady! I hear you're just brilliant." He doubted Bones would notice the condescension that dripped from her words...but it came through loud and clear to him.

"You heard correctly!" Bones flashed the slightly overeager smile she sometimes gave when she was trying to navigate a sticky social situation. "So, Agent Renard, vous devez parler francais, bien sur...comment aimez-vous le FBI?"

"Sorry, honey, I didn't catch that."

"I just assumed, from your name, that you would speak French. Also, it's fairly common, I thought, for agents to be bilingual. Isn't that right, Booth?"

Margaux's brown eyes narrowed nastily, and Booth scrambled for a topic at once neutral and dismissive. He'd seen that look before—usually in the interrogation room, right before she pulled the rug out from under an unsuspecting perp.

Unfortunately, Margaux beat him to it. "Seeley, how is that lovely Hannah? The last time I was up here—it was the Bureau Christmas party, wasn't it? You two were so cute, under that mistletoe..." Her laugh tinkled like broken glass.

"Hannah's gone!" he growled. Don't give her more ammunition. He forced his voice into a normal register. "She took an extended assignment..."

"...in Yemen," Bones finished. He could've kissed her. Probably he should.

"Well, now, that's just too bad. Oh—looks like my sugar's gettin' impatient." She waved across the room, then said in rampantly insincere tones, "So nice meetin' you, Dr. Brennan."

And she was finally gone. He turned his attention back to Bones, who was picking at her Tower of Vitamins, or whatever it was called. She put her fork down and took a deliberate sip of her wine.

"Am I...am I the consolation prize?"

He choked on a lump of filet. "What? No! No, of course not. Bones—you—"

"Then you lied to me," she interrupted softly, eyes on her plate.

"Bones, look at me." Reluctantly, her gaze met his; he hoped that some small portion of those feelings he wasn't ready to name were showing in his eyes. "You are not a consolation prize. You're the One, Bones—I told you that, a year and a half ago."

"But last December, you told me Hannah wasn't a consolation prize. If you meant it—" She shook her head, rolling the stem of her wineglass between her fingers. "Two opposing facts can't both be true, Booth."

Frustration boiled up inside him. Goddamn Margaux! Tonight was supposed to be perfect—had been perfect—until she derailed them with her evil innuendo. He slapped a hand down on the table. "You know what? Can we just...take a minute, here? I need to—" He gestured toward the restrooms.

There was bound to be a back door to the parking lot. Maybe letting the air out of Godzilla's tires would calm him down. Her car was easy to spot; he knew she always rented a red Mustang.

Turned out he only had time for one tire before a busboy came out on the back stoop, cigarette in hand. Still, it helped. He came back to the table, whistling.

She wasn't there. She must've gone to the Ladies'. He was just sitting down when a flash of red caught his eye through the window: Bones, striding purposefully down the darkening street.

He was out the door and down the steps almost before he could take another breath. "Bones! BONES!" Catching up to her, he panted, "What the—where are you going?"

She shrugged and turned to the right, stopping at the low wall that edged the river. It was a clear, calm evening; all the Harbour lights shimmered silently in the water. "I'm not hungry anymore."

Silence fell heavily between them while Booth struggled to find the words to explain. He'd hoped, somehow, that their indirect conversations about anger and strength and imperviousness would be enough to exorcise Hannah's ghost. That burning a random date on a piece of paper burned away the evidence: only three months ago, he'd chosen someone else.

Bones deserved better than that. A lot better.

Her fists were clenched, there on the stone wall. He owed it to her to try, anyway. "I like to think I'm an honorable man, y'know? I wanted to believe that I wasn't just...trying to replace you. I wanted to think I'd moved on—a new era! A new me! But the truth is—" He shook his head.

"The truth is, what?"

"The truth is, that when you told me you didn't want to have any regrets...I almost drove off the road, Bones—off the road and into the nearest hotel I could find, and damn the consequences."

"But you didn't. Because you're an honorable man." She said it as a statement, a fact, totally without irony or sarcasm. How the hell had he earned such loyalty? "What would you have done if she said yes?"

"I would've probably made the biggest mistake of my screwed-up life," he said vehemently. "God, Bones—I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for what I put you through."

She studied his face for a long moment; he wondered what anthropological precedents she was trying to apply to their situation. Or maybe she was just weighing which martial arts move would most efficiently leave him on his ass.

But here, as so often, she surprised him. "I suppose if I hadn't been afraid to try, last year, none of this would have—"

He cut her off. "No, Bones—this one's all on me."

The night had grown cool; she tightened the shawl around her shoulders. "There's something I don't understand."

"What?" If she would forgive him, he would explain anything—would crack himself open like a book for her to read, examine, dissect—

"Why were you so angry with her?"

Rubbing a hand over his jaw, he considered this. "I guess I wasn't...I mean, I was, at first, until I realized that she'd saved us both. Then I was angry with myself—and Fate, or destiny, or whatever."

She made an impatient little gesture. "I don't believe in Fate."

"I know you don't." He couldn't help himself; he had to risk it, risk putting his arms around her and drawing her close. "I believe...I believe enough for both of us. You'll see, Bones—thirty years from now, we'll be sitting in matching rocking chairs on some old porch, while you tell our grandkids all about the Malongi tribe from East Wherever." He kissed her temple, her cheek, her—

She shoved him away. Hard.

"You can't know that! You can't promise me we'll be together forever!"

"Bones, come on—we've been through this!" His penitence was giving way to exasperation; they couldn't keep combing over the same ground.

"No, Booth! If this is going to work between us, you're going to have to accept that it might not be perfect...it might not last!"

"And you're going to have to accept that it might!"

Cupping her face in his hands, he wiped away the tears that coursed down her cheeks and rested his forehead against hers, whispering, "You're right. There's no guarantee, no magic fairy dust that can give us forever. But I love you, Bones—every damn inch of you, inside and out. I love that your IQ is double mine. I love the way you mess up your clichés. I love the look you get when you've figured something out, and when you smile at me, my stomach flips over—Every. Time. For six years, Bones! I love you, and I want to keep loving you for a long, long time." He kissed her, just once, very softly. "Is that OK with you?"

Her fingers traced the path of his own tears, and she nodded. Then her mouth was on his, and they were clinging together, breathless, as the river slid quietly by beneath them.

"Car?" he gasped.

"Yes."

They ran across the street, hands linked. As he shut Bones' door, Booth paused a moment to offer a wink and a wave to the star-dotted sky.

It never hurt to hedge your bets.

-0-0-0-

Behind them, Gordon Wyatt stood in the picture window, a plate of molten chocolate cake in his hands. The sparkler candle he'd stuck in the top sputtered, and he ran one finger through a thickening puddle of raspberry coulis. Too bad—he'd really outdone himself on this one.

Shrugging his shoulders, he smiled and went back to the kitchen.

It was only dessert, after all.

TO BE CONTINUED

This one's for lizzie...thanks for the inspiration. ;)