She hated him.
"I hate you."
"I know," he answered, tightening his arm around her waist. "One more step."
"One more step?" Brennan stubbornly refused to move. "My room is at least 15 feet away," she complained, with a nod toward the end of the hallway. "If I take one more step are you going to then carry me?"
Booth ignored the biting sarcasm in her tone and shook his head. "Are you kidding?" he asked, with a comically fake sense of disbelief. "That cast weighs more than you do," he said, "especially now," he added significantly. "Come on," he urged again. "Baby steps."
It was a scene repeated daily. If he'd been annoying while she was unconscious, he was even more provoking during the process of her rehabilitation. He ordered her around mercilessly, bulldozing over her complaints during physical therapy, and pushed her to complete every exercise until she'd done exactly what was ordered. Only when he was satisfied with her effort did he allow himself to be solicitous and caring, fighting his natural inclination to hold at bay anything that caused her pain. When she snapped at him like a frustrated dog at the end of a leash, he either ignored her outbursts or prodded her further into a tension-relieving explosion. What he didn't do, what he couldn't do, was leave.
Brennan hated these short walks in the hallway most of all; used to a fit, active body and lifestyle, it was galling to face her physical weakness, to hobble pathetically, forced to lean on his strength for every inch of progress.
"No." She couldn't even stand still without sagging into his shoulder. "It hurts, Booth." Thrusting her chin forward, she refused to look at him as she blinked rapidly to avoid a sudden rush of tears. "It hurts. My leg hurts - my uninjured leg hurts! My arms hurt. My head hurts -"
"Do you feel dizzy?" he interrupted quickly, his eyes sharp as he looked her over.
"No," she admitted, "but - Yes!" She changed her mind abruptly, and snuck a peek at him from beneath her lashes. "Yes, I feel dizzy."
Relieved, he just laughed. "Too late," he said and squeezed her closer. "One more step."
"I'm tired," she sniffed so piteously he almost expected her to stomp her foot. "I don't want to do this anymore."
"You can't be tired." Booth hardened his heart and dismissed her words. "You slept for a month. One more step." He urged her forward. "Come on, Bones. Pretty soon you'll be able to run - we can race and I'll let you win."
"Let me w-" She shot him a narrowed-eyed gaze, fumed at her doorway and then hobbled forward resolutely.
He leaned close to her ear. "Good girl," he murmured with a smile.
She added another inch of progress. "I hate you."
"I know, baby." He pressed a quick kiss on her temple. "One more step."
Grumbling the whole way, she made it back to her room. He was getting her settled into bed when a young volunteer arrived with a covered tray. "Perfect timing, Bones!" he said cheerfully. "It's lunch time!" The girl blushed furiously when Booth graced her with a smile and dropped the plastic tray on Brennan's table with a clatter of silverware. He waved aside her apologies as he rolled the table across the bed. "Look here," he exclaimed as he lifted a plastic dome. "You've got . . . goop." He didn't even try to hide his grimace of distaste at the plain fare she'd been given.
Too busy watching Booth to pay attention to her exit, the young volunteer bumped into a nurse just entering the room and earned herself a scowl. While she beat a hasty retreat, the older woman held out a foil wrapped plate. "I know you aren't calling my pot roast 'goop,' Seeley," she joked as Booth took it from her hands gratefully.
"Definitely not, Alison." He lifted one corner of the foil and sniffed appreciatively. "Mmmmm, this smells great, thanks!" When he bestowed the same wide grin on the nurse, it was only the benefit of three more decades of age that stopped her from flushing as hot as the teenager who'd just left.
Brennan watched the interactions with an ill-natured scowl. When Alison finally giggled her way out and they were alone again, she poked at a bowl of steaming green . . . well, goop . . . with her spoon. "What did they do," she sneered as Booth lifted a full fork of beef and vegetables to his mouth. "Adopt you?"
He nodded as he chewed. "I think so," he said after he swallowed. "I haven't eaten this well since -" He considered a moment. "Well, ever." He filled another fork. "I may move in here," he added, only half joking, before he stuffed his mouth again.
"Yes, I'm sure the nurses here would be thrilled," Brennan muttered beneath her breath. When he looked over curiously, she threw the spoon down and crossed her arms in mutiny. "I don't want to eat this anymore."
Booth put down his fork and eyed her patiently. "Well, you have to," he told her, in the same tone of voice he used with Parker when the boy was on the verge of a tantrum. "Your body has to learn to process food again, in stages. They explained this to you, Bones."
Booth looked away to avoid laughing at her pouting face. "I tell you what," he offered, as he picked up his fork again. "You be a good girl and eat your . . . goop," he gestured toward her tray, "and when you can have real food, I'll bring you one of those plastic turkeys you like."
Her response was a huff of irritation and a roll of her eyes. "It's not plastic it's- Never mind." Disgruntled, she reached for the spoon. "There are other things I could eat now - grains, soft vegetables. The dietician here is very unimaginative."
He murmured in what he hoped sounded like sympathy and continued eating his own meal while Brennan, with obvious reluctance, picked at hers. Finally, she tossed the spoon away and gave the rolling table a shove for good measure.
She watched petulantly as he ate with relish before finally, she cleared her throat. "I need your assistance to get to the bathroom."
"Okay." Booth put aside the crossword puzzle book he'd just picked up and walked around to the other side of the bed to help her stand. He carefully supported her faltering steps as she made her way across the short distance. At the door to the small room, he stopped. "I'll be right here," he said as she closed it in his face. When she opened it again several minutes later, he was standing there, hands on his hips, glaring at her.
He looked pointedly at the empty container in the toilet bowl and back at her. "I heard you flush, Bones. You know they're keeping track of that, so they can make sure your kidneys are -"
"I noted the volume first," she mumbled irritably, without quite meeting his eyes. He'd been intimately involved with every facet of her care, she knew that, but did he have to be so bloody blase' about it?
Booth shook his head. "I can't believe you, of all people, are embarrassed about a little pee." Velcro ripped from velcro when he detached the pen from the whiteboard on the inside of the door. "How much?"
She told him and when he raised his eyebrows, she lowered hers. "If you say 'good girl' again, I will hit you," she threatened ominously.
"Then I won't say it," he told her as he turned his back and jotted down the number. "Out loud," he added, making sure the words were loud enough to be heard.
Brennan slapped at his hand when he wrapped an arm around her waist to help her back to bed. A glance toward her reflection when they passed the mirror gave her a moment's pause.
Her fingers fluttered over the ragged edges of hair above her right ear as she turned her head to get a better view of her scar. "It's very unattractive, isn't it?" She wasn't aware that she'd spoken the words aloud until she heard her voice.
Booth watched her carefully. "It's not so bad," he disagreed gently. "You kinda have that Boy George look."
Their eyes met in the mirror. "Who is that?"
"Right," he drawled. "Just picture that hair and -" the fingers of one hand waved around his eyes, "a lot of eyeshadow."
Brennan frowned at her reflection while she considered his description. Her next words were a surprise to both of them. "Will you cut it?" she asked impulsively.
"What?" His head turned as he stared at her profile instead of her image.
She still watched him through the mirror. "It's just hair," she shrugged, as she warmed to the idea. "Filaments composed of keratin. It will grow back."
"My father was the barber, Bones," Booth tried to decline her request. "Not me. I've used clippers before but . . . No," he shook his head. "I'll find you someone who knows what she's doing. They wanted to cut it before you woke up but . . ." I wouldn't let them.
She turned to face him. "I trust you." Just you.
Silence passed between them, a moment that stretched out when neither could look away from the other. Then Booth nodded. "Okay." He put the lid down on the commode and eased her to a seat carefully. "Don't move," he ordered sternly.
Before she could make a crack about running a marathon or escaping out the window, he was gone.
He made his request at the nurses' station outside Brennan's room, and then had to wait several minutes while the call went out until a set of clippers was located and delivered from another floor. Back in the bathroom, he opened the soft vinyl case and carefully examined each cutting guard until he found the one he wanted. After looking over the tool itself, he turned to Brennan.
"So, do you want a high-and-tight or a flat top?" When her answer was an uncertain frown of confusion, he smiled. "I'm kidding." He held up the clippers. "This will leave it pretty long. I promise you won't look like GI Jane."
Predictably, she asked "Who?"
"Nevermind." His expression turned serious. "Are you sure about this?"
Brennan didn't hesitate. "Yes." She closed her eyes and lifted her chin. "I don't want to look like George or Jane."
"Boy Geor -" Booth started to correct her, then shook his head. "Alright. Keep your eyes closed."
Without allowing himself time to think about what he was about to do, he made one slow pass through the thick mass of hair, pausing only to watch the first locks fall to the floor. He glanced down at her often as he worked, sitting in front of him, back straight, eyes closed, hands open and relaxed in her lap. She moved once - when he adjusted the angle of her head with a soft touch on her chin, she gently covered his fingers with her own for a few seconds before letting them fall away.
In a matter of minutes he was done and her hair was a sleekly fitting cap of dark, shining silk.
Brennan's eyes opened slowly and lifted to his. He smiled encouragingly and helped her stand. "Take a look."
He was just behind her as she examined her reflection again. The hair above her right ear was still shorter than the rest but the total effect was not unbecoming.
"Well," sighed as she tugged at the short fringe on her forehead, "it's different."
Booth cupped his hands over her shoulders and ran them down her arms to the elbow. There was a new fragility to her that tugged at his heart. "You could never be anything but beautiful," he said simply. Through the mirror, her gaze flew to his.
"Why did you stay with me?" she whispered suddenly. The air in the small bathroom was instantly too thick to breathe. "All this time . . . you stayed."
His hands tightened over her shoulders as he stared at the face in the mirror. Beneath the new hairstyle, her eyes were huge and dark, the irises almost hidden behind distorted pupils. "You needed me." His voice was as rough as it was soft. On her cheek he could see the faint trace of a new scar.
Her sharp intake of breath was audible. "Oh." She blinked once, and then again. "Of course." Her eyes dropped to his hands. "I thought . . . maybe . . ."
His jaw hardened; a muscle jumped visibly. I have never ever cheated on any woman that I've ever been with. He couldn't respond. Not the way he wanted to. Not yet. "Bones -"
"That's beautiful!" A bright, cheerful voice shattered the moment. Booth dropped his hands and stepped back immediately. "You're so pretty, Temperance!" Deborah beamed at both of them. "You look just like Mia Farrow!"
"I'm not familiar with that person." Brennan's head turned as she watched Booth take a few steps deeper into her room. His back was to her but she saw his shoulders sag and his head drop forward.
Her eyes went to the mirror again and she watched herself blink away a sudden surge of tears.
Deborah helped her back to bed.
The next few minutes were busy, as housekeeping personnel came to sweep up the bathroom and take away her lunch tray. The nurse kept up a prattle of conversation and seemed not to notice that neither Brennan nor Booth gave her much more than monosyllabic responses.
When Deborah finally left them alone again, the silence that fell was heavy and awkward. Attempts at conversation landed painfully flat, and lengthy pauses ended with both of them speaking at once before their voices dropped away again.
For the first time in almost seven weeks, Booth suggested he go home for the night.
Brennan immediately smiled and insisted she was fine, that he should absolutely feel free to leave, that a hospital full of nurses were more than capable of seeing to her needs.
Having her permission to go, he seemed suddenly unwilling to actually do so. He shuffled around the small room instead, slowly gathering up the personal effects he'd accumulated over the time he'd been there.
When he chanced a look at her, she seemed engrossed in one of the journals she'd asked Angela to bring from her office at The Jeffersonian.
Normally so observant, this time Booth didn't notice that she never turned a page.
Finally, he could come up with no good reason to dawdle any longer. He gripped her hand tight then leaned over to press his lips against her forehead.
"I'll be back first thing tomorrow morning," he promised when he straightened.
Brennan tried to smile. "That's not necessary," she said. "If you need to go back to work -"
"First thing," Booth interrupted, already regretting he'd suggested leaving. "Before breakfast even."
Eyes over-bright, not trusting herself to speak, she nodded her understanding and remained silent. Unable to watch him physically walk out of her room, she stared down at the journal in her lap instead.
She didn't see him stop at the door, and again one step outside her room.
She didn't know he stood in front of the elevator for six minutes without punching the button.
Or that he sat in his SUV for 13 minutes before he put the key in the ignition.
She knew she was alone and without correcting the metaphor with fact, she knew that the largest empty space in the room was in her heart.
Booth turned the key in the lock, pushed open the door to his apartment and hesitated for the space of two breaths before he crossed the threshold.
He tossed his keys on the small table against the wall and let the black duffel bag in his hand fall to the floor as he looked around.
Waning late afternoon sunlight filtered in through the windows, aiding the glow of the one lamp left burning in a corner.
A thin film of dust covered every surface.
The refrigerator hummed to life, the sound overly loud in the silence. More for something to do than because he was actually curious or hungry, Booth wandered into the kitchen and opened the door. Angela had followed his instructions well. Two bottles of beer were on the top shelf. A plastic tub of French onion dip on the second. A bottle of mustard and another of Tabasco sauce were on the door. And that was it.
He walked into the bedroom. Knowing what he would find, he pulled open the top drawer of his dresser.
Inside the closet, a few bare hangers tried to fill the otherwise blank space of one wall.
He went back into the living room, sank down on the sofa and let his head drop into his hands. His fingers were just rubbing at his temples when he saw the square white envelope lying flat on his coffee table.
He stared at it for several minutes before he leaned over and picked it up.
Then he stared at it again.
Finally, he stuck his index finger beneath the gummed seal and tore it open.
He read the simple words over and over.
He slipped the plain card back in the envelope, then took it out once more and read it again.
Resolute, he threw the card aside, stood up, and headed for the door.
Brennan finished the last of the crossword puzzles in the book he'd left behind and laid it on the table beside her bed.
She spread the fingers of one hand wide and with the other, silently counted off each bone.
She brushed against her newly shorn hair with a somewhat insecure gesture.
She stared around the empty room. Her eyes always returned to the chair beside her bed.
With a sigh, she looked up at the TV hung high on the wall and picked up the remote control.
A laugh track filled the silence.
She changed channels.
She changed channels again.
Someone began to describe a storm system over Kansas.
She lifted the remote control again . . . and paused when a tiny movement caught the corner of her eye.
Booth stood in the doorway of her room, one shoulder leaning against the frame.
The remote dropped to the bed.
"Hey." His voice was a low rasp of sound.
"Hey." Her reply was soft and hesitant. "I . . . I thought you were going home."
He pushed off from the door. "I was," he said. He stopped at the foot of her bed, his eyes deep and fathomless on hers. "When I got there I realized home is where you are."
She couldn't see through the wash of tears that filled her vision. "Booth -" Shifting in bed, she brushed against the remote. The channel switched abruptly.
" . . . including eight dead in Jalawla. al Qaeda-backed Sunni insurgents have claimed responsibility. This is Hannah Burley, reporting live from Baghdad. Steve?"
Booth reached for the remote control, pointed it to the TV and shut it off. As the sound faded, he walked around the bed and placed it on top of the crossword puzzle book.
Brennan glanced up at the now dark TV and then back at him. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "Earlier . . . I wasn't thinking -"
He ignored the chair and sat down on the bed beside her. "I'm sorry, too," he replied when her words trailed off. "I hurt her. I didn't mean to," he looked down at his clasped hands, "but I know I did. I haven't seen her since -" When his eyes lifted to hers, they were full of remembered anguish and fear. "You were all that mattered."
Brennan took a heavy, painful breath. "I'll talk to her," she offered sincerely. "If you want . . . apologize . . . if it would help . . ."
Booth was already shaking his head. "I'll talk to her. I owe her that." He hesitated. "She left me a note."
Her eyes were large and round, shimmering in the fluorescent light above her bed.
He unclasped his hands and reached for hers. "Be happy. That's what she said. Be happy."
Brennan sank her teeth into her lower lip when she felt it began to tremble.
Booth watched his thumb trace a line in her palm and then suddenly, captured her gaze in his. "I loved her. I want you to know that," he said. "I loved her. She wasn't a . . . a consolation prize because I couldn't have you." He watched his thumb again, as it drew random patterns across her hand. "I didn't think I could fall in love again after . . ." He paused and left the rest of the sentence unspoken. "But I did," he said instead. "I loved her."
A minute ticked away.
And then another.
"I could have been happy with her," he finally continued. "I would have made it work - I was making it work. But when you . . ." His hand abruptly ceased the restless stroking of hers when he looked up.
"I could have made it work," he said again. "I could have been happy with her." His eyes burned into hers. "But I can't live without you."
A tear slipped free and fell unheeded over her cheek. "I was wrong," she whispered. "That night . . . in front of Sweets' office . . ." She struggled for composure. "I was afraid. I didn't want to take the risk . . . I couldn't take the chance." Another tear followed the first. "Now I'm afraid not to." She wiped her cheek dry. "I understand now, we only regret what we never try." She was open and vulnerable, as he'd rarely seen her. "I don't want to have regrets, Booth." Her eyes searched his. "Is it too late? Am I too -" Fear closed off her throat. She couldn't speak.
He took what seemed to be the first full breath of air he'd had since the phone call about her accident. His shoulders relaxed, the heat in his expression became something else, something warm and comforting. "It's never too late. Today is the first day of the rest of our lives," he answered with a smile.
A small lined formed between her eyebrows. "Well, yes, but technically that's true of -"
He silenced her with a kiss, with the simple pressure of his lips on hers, a kiss she accepted almost reverently. A gentle kiss salted with tears, that hinted at tomorrow and promised forever.
When he finally lifted his head, his eyes remained closed.
And so did hers.
Until blue eyes opened to meet brown.
"Booth, I -"
"Bones, I -"
"I knew you couldn't stay away!" Deborah's bright voice intruded like a splash of cold water. "I guess you'll be needing another blanket and pillow tonight, huh?"
Booth dropped his forehead against Brennan's.
"I hate her," he whispered.
Brennan laughed. "Baby steps," she whispered back, and kissed him again.
I always feel sorry when a multi-chapter story comes to an end. It's like saying goodbye to old friends.
Thanks again to Excellent Driver for this most excellent prompt. Without her idea, this story would never have happened. If you read it and enjoyed it, you should be sure to tell her thanks, too.
Also, thanks to Biba79, who organizes this Secret Santa fic exchange. Is it 2013 yet?! :-D
And last but definitely not least, thanks to all of you for reading!