They had stopped talking about their case about ten minutes ago, having run out of information until they arrived at the crime scene. Since then Bones had been quiet and Booth could sense her watching him intently as he manoeuvred their vehicle with the light traffic of the late afternoon. He glanced at her, a small frown querying what had her so entranced. She just smiled back as if nothing was amiss and he had to return his eyes to the road.
Her gaze continued to rest on him though, and, a few seconds later, he flicked his sight to her again, this time asking, "What's the matter, Bones?"
For a split second she looked panicked, but she hid that quickly behind a smile. "I'm fine, Booth," she told him and if not for the slight quiver to her voice, he might have believed her.
He checked the road again as he pursued it further, not willing to let it drop when there was clearly something going on with her. "Are you sure? You seem to be watching me very closely." He added a small laugh to the end of his statement – partly to put her at ease, partly to hide his own increasing concern and confusion.
"I didn't mean to distract you," she apologised immediately.
"You didn't distract me, Bones," Booth told her, his eyes flitting between her and the road.
"Clearly I did otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation," she countered.
Booth was further puzzled by this tangent to their discussion. "I wouldn't say I'm distracted, I'm just curious as to why you're staring at me."
"And therefore you're not giving the road the attention – "
"Bones, we always talk while I'm driving. You staring at me is no more distracting than that. Or this conversation that we're having now. I was just wondering why you were staring… And you are trying to change the subject," he accused.
"Why would I do that?"
"You tell me. You're the one doing the staring."
"Booth, I frequently find you staring at me – "
"Whoa! Frequently?" Booth interrupted her. He hadn't known that she had noticed his increasing tendency to gaze at her. It was something he was finding increasingly difficult to control. Apparently he would have to try harder.
"Yes… When we're working I often glance up to find you looking at me."
"I'm waiting to hear what you find, Bones…" he covered. "Why are you staring at me now?"
"Because we're talking – "
He stopped her before she could pretend she didn't know what he was referring to. "Bones, you know exactly what I mean."
She made a tiny noise that almost sounded like a sigh and Booth realised he so rarely heard Bones sigh.
"I was thinking," she informed him, as if that was a sufficient response to his question.
"About?" he prompted her to elaborate.
She didn't respond. Another sideways glance at her revealed she was staring at him again, her brow creased slightly as if she was working through something in her head, Usually he loved that look of concentration, but now it worried him, bringing a frown of his own to his face. What was going on?
He nearly missed their left turn, but managed to catch it at the last minute, keeping them on track to their destination. Once settled on the new road, he glanced at Bones again and encouraged, "Bones?"
"I think I'm in love with you."
Booth nearly choked on the air he had been inhaling and the car jerked sharply to the right before he pulled it back on track. Pulling his thoughts back on track, however, was not as easy.
"See, this is distracting you," Bones argued, turning away from him and looking out of the window.
Booth was still in a state of disbelief and wondering if he had imagined what he had heard.
"Bones – "
"It's safer if we don't discuss it," she told him, her gaze remaining fixed on the passing houses.
Her words were an odd echo of what Booth had been telling himself for several months now: It was safer if he didn't tell her how he felt. That revelation had the power to completely transform their lives. So he had kept it back. He knew other people could tell – everyone at the lab was no doubt well aware of it, but it had been kept from Bones because he had no idea if she shared his feelings and there was no way he was going to put her in a position that she wasn't ready for. He had not seen this coming.
Swinging the car into the next side street, Booth pulled over to a stop, turned off the engine and adjusted in his seat so he was facing Bones as best he could. His heart was pounding and his mouth was a little dry – he wasn't sure he had ever been this nervous before in his entire life. How should he start this?
He opted for a small joke to, hopefully, relieve some of his anxiety. "There we go. No danger now," he remarked.
Bones turned her head to face him and the look in her eyes told him that she too saw the bigger danger linked to this line of dialogue.
The silence was heavy with tension and anticipation. They had to decide right now whether they discussed it, or they ignored it. Booth could see Bones' walls going back up. She was ready to retreat. But he wasn't.
"You think you're in love with me?" he asked. He wanted them to talk about this, but he had to be sure that she was secure in her feelings before he confessed anything to her. She could still get hurt here.
She nodded. "You asked what I was thinking about. That's what I was thinking about."
Her tone was defensive, but nervous.
"How long have you been thinking… that?" he asked, wanting nothing more than to show her how happy he was to have heard her words, and how deeply he returned her feelings. But she was obviously terrified and unsure, he had to take this carefully – it was far too important to screw up.
She swallowed hard, her eyes holding his as she hesitated a second before answering. Booth hoped she was taking comfort from the fact that they were talking; he hadn't laughed; he hadn't told her she was crazy; he hadn't backed away at her admission.
"There were a couple of times over the years that I wondered if… maybe I was falling for you," she told him – a confidence to her voice now that he knew was all part of her defence mechanism. She wouldn't show that she was vulnerable. If this didn't go well then he would be assured that she was fine to carry on as if it never happened. Typical Bones. "… Then, in the last few weeks I realised that…" She paused and Booth watched as she built up the courage to continue.
"That you are?" Booth finished for her, his heart swelling with hope.
"No," she told him quietly.
His joy was just deflating when her chin rose slightly in a show of strength and she added, "That I have."
Booth exhaled sharply, an uncontrollable grin spreading across his lips – an outward indication of the surge of excitement he felt inside.
Bones seemed surprised – and a little confused – by his reaction and he remembered that he had still given no clue that he shared her feelings.
He reached his hand out and took her delicate fingers in his, preparing to rectify that.
"Bones…" And then words escaped him. How could he possibly express the depth of his love for her? How could he convey how happy she had made him with her surprise declaration? Why the hell, in all his months of loving her from afar, had he not come up with the perfect way to tell her he was in love with her?
He stroked his thumb over the back of her hand, gently caressing the soft skin, and he gazed into her wide eyes. She was waiting for his next words, growing concerned by his silence.
"Bones," he repeated, bringing his other hand to join the first in holding hers. He watched their hands for a second, marvelling at the fact that this was really happening. Then he raised his eyes back to hers, knowing exactly what he need to say. "I love you."
He watched as Bones fought not to smile, forcing her lips down, but unable to stop the sparkle that ignited in her eyes. "You do?" she asked him. She was checking that he was sure now – just as he had done with her.
"I do," he assured her, still smiling uncontrollably. "I just didn't know that you felt the same and I couldn't risk our relationship for the sake of my selfish hope."
"It's not selfish to hope, Booth," she told him, her lips now permitted to twitch into the smile.
Seeing that she was happy about this made Booth's smile widen.
She continued, "I would have been flattered to know that you were in love with me."
He raised an eyebrow. "Really? Flattered or freaked out?"
She smiled at his accurate deduction and briefly ducked her head. When she looked back at him she admitted, "Maybe both."
They shared a small laugh, and Booth closed his hands around hers, leaning closer to her as he did.
"I can't believe this is happening, Bones," he whispered.
"I admit that I hadn't expected that we would ever actually talk like this… Especially not this afternoon – with the case and – "
Booth actually grimaced at her mention of the case, as it pulled a little reality back into the car. He tightened his grip on her hand as his thoughts turned seriously to how they could proceed from here.
"Bones, I know neither of us were prepared for this to come out today and I know we're in the middle of a case, but we're not going to ignore this now, right? By the end of this case we might have started to have doubts; we're going to have time to think about all the reasons why we kept our feelings to ourselves; we might convince ourselves that we're better off as we were… But that's not true and we both know it." He swallowed hard and fixed his eyes securely on hers as he continued, "So – even though I might regret this when I can't think about anything else all afternoon – whenever you feel a doubt surfacing, think about this instead."
And he leaned across the small space and kissed her.
It wasn't their first kiss – Booth still remembered vividly the way she felt, and the way she tasted, from that – and of course Booth's mind still offered him memories of their life together, from his coma. But this was their first real kiss, and it felt good.
He moved his lips gently over hers, his stomach somersaulting when she responded in kind. It was slow, tender and a promise that they meant what they had said to each other – and there was no going back.
He had been right about potential regret though as he found it very difficult to pull away before it got more heated. But he knew he had to. They had a case to solve; there would be time for all this later.
Prising his lips from hers they touched for brief kisses before finally stopping; their faces mere centimetres apart; their eyes meeting.
"Now that," Bones said, her lips quirked in a mischievous smile, "Is going to be distracting." Her smile widened and Booth laughed.
"This case had better be a no-brainer," he near groaned.
"We probably should get back to the case," Bones pointed out, ever logical, but Booth was pleased to see disappointment in her eyes.
"Yeah," he agreed reluctantly, "The sooner we start, the sooner we finish."
Bones nodded. "And the sooner we start."
Booth grinned contentedly, looking into her eyes a moment longer. When he was dangerously close to kissing her again, he pulled back and repositioned in his seat so that he was ready for driving.
He started the engine and was checking whether it was clear to make his U-turn when he sensed Bones watching him again. Looking at her, he found an amused smile on her face.
"What?" he asked with a small frown.
Bones responded playfully, "You know what."
Booth smirked proudly and moved his eyes back to the road.
"I sure do," he said, pulling the car out and returning them to their route to what would hopefully be the easiest case they had ever had.