Disclaimer: I think cats ate my guppy fish.

Spoilers: 5x15/16 "Target"/"Hunt". Mild 5x10 "Significant Others". Also, can anyone tell me where the piano solo at the end of that episode is from?

Setting: Post 5x16 "Hunt", late in the middle of the night.

-Soph


The Collective

"Kate?"

The voice nudges at the edges of her consciousness, echoing loudly and sinking into her sleep-logged mind. She stirs awake slowly, groggily; pries her eyes open and blearily stares at Rick's feet.

"Mm?" she hums. It's only then that she registers her current position, head resting painfully atop a step and the rest of her body folded stiffly against the uncomfortable stairs inside the Castle loft. She presses two palms into the step beneath her and pushes herself up, groaning as she does so—the hard surface must have made indentations in her flesh by now. "Fuck," she mutters.

Rick settles himself onto the step above hers. "What are you doing?" he asks her.

She waves a disgusted hand at the staircase. "Must have fallen asleep." It's late, after all. She must have waited for him for close to an hour before falling asleep.

"I get that," he answers slowly, eyebrows raised, "but what are you doing here in the first place?"

Her heart twangs at that. She doesn't know if he means 'on the stairs' or 'in the loft'. He had not expressed a wish either way, for her to stay or leave, before he had gone upstairs to tuck Alexis into bed, so she had sat on the stairs and waited for him. Martha had gone upstairs with him, and Kate had been alone in the lower-level of the loft, not quite enough of a guest to leave but not quite enough of family to go and tuck Alexis in with them.

It was an awful place to be.

"What are you doing here?" she asks instead, deflecting.

He grimaces. "I came down for a glass of water. Didn't wanna leave Alexis, but my throat really itches. And then I found you on the stairs…"

"Oh," she replies softly. "You should go get that glass of water, then."

He gives her a strange look, but rises without comment and strides past her, heading into the kitchen and reaching for a glass from the draining rack. She watches the movements, his filling the glass and then turning to the refrigerator for some ice cubes, and they are suddenly as foreign to her as a stranger's. Who is that man?

Somewhere at the back of her mind, she remembers what Meredith the Ex-Wife had once told her: That what she—Meredith—knew about Rick would barely be enough to fill a pamphlet. The detective had brushed the words off then, labelling her own terror towards them as severely unwarranted insecurity, but she wonders now if they have a ring of truth to them.

He had flown to Paris without telling her.

True, he had not told Martha either, but she knows the differing motivations for what they are—Martha, he had wanted to protect. Kate herself, he had wanted to keep out. It is clear enough; has been since the moment he told her he would never forgive her if she made him a promise she could not keep.

Would he ever have told Martha that?

It's not fair to make a comparison, though. Martha's family. She's not—

So caught up is she in her thoughts that she does not realize Rick has returned until he sits beside her once more, a hand pressed reassuringly against her upper back.

"What's going on?" he asks in concern. Her stomach rolls a little. She can't possibly fathom sharing with him her thoughts, irrational as they are. She has never before wanted or tried to insinuate herself into his family, and a surprise trip to Paris, terrifying as it was, is not enough reason for her to start making demands right now.

She's just tired, she tells herself.

It's been a long few days where she was worried about his safety.

And that's why she's wondering whether he will still leave her out despite his promise not to.

It's not because she wants a part of … whatever he has … with sudden fervour, fervour that is simultaneously zealous and fearful.

And if it is because of that, she is way out of line. (Because Really, Kate? Queen of No Commitment and honing in on a ready-made family already? Couldn't you at least marry him first?)

So, she feigns confusion and hums noncommittally. "I think I'm gonna head home. It's late; I'm sure you need your rest."

He catches her wrist before she can stand, and with resignation, she settles herself back into place.

He never did let her get away easily.

"How is Alexis?" she asks.

"Asleep," he replies. "Sleeping better than I thought. Must've been an hour before I could even bear to look away from her."

He had sent the girl upstairs at midnight, and it's a quarter past two now, so he's really further off the mark than he thinks.

"It's normal," she reassures him, "if she were my kid, I don't think I'd leave her side for a month."

She's having trouble enough taking her eyes off him as it is. But she's not about to clue him in to that. It would go to his head.

He studies her, and she tries not to shy away from his gaze; there is no point, anyway, because she knows he reads more from what she does not do than from what she does. She hates how well he knows her sometimes.

Sure enough: "You were worried about me," he says. "That's what you were doing on the stairs. Waiting for me?"

She clears her throat. "Yeah," she concedes.

"I'm fine, Kate."

She nods. "I know." She does know. She just needed to support and be supported by someone—anyone, really—while she worked through the remnants of her own hurt and fear, that's all.

But she had no one to do that with, because they were all upstairs tucking Alexis in, and she isn't—

"But?" he prods.

"There is no 'but'," she answers firmly. Loneliness does not count as a 'but', not when there're no warm, mushy, Full-House-esque feelings involved. She may have gone through the ordeal with them, but she didn't really go through the ordeal with them, so loneliness doesn't really count and she should have dealt with her troubles on her own.

That would have been the adult thing to do.

"You could have come up," he points out.

"That's staking a claim I don't have."

The bitter words spill out without permission, as does the gasp that follows immediately after; she stares at him, horrified, as he regards her with something closely resembling confusion.

"What claim?" he asks.

"Nothing," she insists shakily. "Nothing."

"Kate," he chides.

"Honestly—"

"Kate. Kate, tell me."

She sighs. Gives in. "I wanted to go to Paris with you," she admits.

"But you didn't know I was going."

"That's exactly the point! I wanted to be your partner in this, Rick; I wanted to—"

"—to save Alexis—"

"—too. Yes."

"But she's my daughter. You shouldn't have had to go through—"

"I wanted to. Don't you get it? I—I wanted to do it with you because she matters to you, and even if I don't l-love her the same way yet, I wanted her to matter to me, too. But then you were gone, and you were doing everything on your own, and I was worried about you and worried about her, and I just—I don't—" She takes a deep breath, trying to stifle her incoherent blubbering. She mouths the words, but doesn't speak aloud; he waits her out patiently, to his credit. It isn't until she's sure she won't stumble over her words that she voices her thoughts again. "I came in at a plot-inconvenient point."

His brow furrows at what he obviously must perceive as a non-sequitur. "What do you mean?"

"I mean there's a point in a family's life when the introduction of a new person is performed seamlessly, and the new person becomes part of that family—but this is not it."

"Uh…" Rick mumbles. He's still confused.

"Alexis is a grown woman, and you—you have a loft and money and a social status. And these are things that I get a part of, but they're not things that I am a part of. I wasn't there when you raised Alexis. I did not help you earn the money. I—I don't even know how to behave like you all do."

"Right…"

"And—and when you had to save your daughter, you did it alone, just like you always had, y'know? I get that. If she were my daughter…. But it's just a reminder that I … don't fully belong here."

"Kate," Rick protests, sounding hurt. She raises a hand to stop him.

"I'm not claiming the right to belong," she continues quietly. God, she's making such a mess of things. "I promise I'm not. I'm not so hypocritical as to want to barge my way in after having pushed you and your family away for so long. And it's too soon into our relationship, anyway—you have this person that you need to fiercely protect, not just from the enemies, and I get that. I'm just trying to come to terms with it, that's all, and I'm just not doing a very good job."

"Alexis is my daughter."

"I know." She does. She may not be a parent, but she understands. She just wishes she could have had the chance to prove that she could protect what was his as fiercely as he does.

The loft is silent for a long time.

Rick had hooked his strong fingers around her limp, pathetic ones at some unknown point, and she wonders now with a dreading heart if he resents her for her thoughts. She had certainly never shown any indication of wanting to be this close to his family before tonight—not even immediately after Alexis' kidnapping. How can she fault him for keeping her out of his attempts at saving his daughter when she had pre-emptively excluded herself for so long? How can he trust the veracity of her feelings, sudden and intense as they are, when she and Alexis are no closer than casual friends? Most importantly, why should he share anything of his with her when she had held him at arm's length for four years?

The truth is, the Castle-Rodgers clan has been nothing but accommodating towards her. Even Alexis, the spitfire with a protective streak longer than her father's, has accepted Kate's presence at the loft for Rick's sake; Kate should not, and cannot, ask for more than they have given. They have been a family for longer than she had had hers; she has no right to demand that they treat her as if she has walked alongside them, cried with them and laughed with them and forged iron bonds with them, since their fledgling years, especially since she has hurt them more times than she can count.

Heaving another sigh, she makes to stand up once again. Before she can go anywhere (Read: to her apartment to try and forget the night in a tiny bottle of vodka), though, he is pulling her up the stairs. "C'mon," he urges, and she is surprised by him enough to follow him without complaint.

Her stubbornness re-emerges the moment they stop outside Alexis' door. "Rick, I can't," she protests, standing still and refusing to let him tug her into the room.

"You can," he insists. "You need to."

She frowns and shakes her head. "This is Alexis' room. She's not that familiar with me, and I know that we hung out here sometimes back when I stayed in the loft during that goddamn stalker case, but that was different. We're different now. I don't think she'd like for me to enter."

"She won't mind," he answers mildly. "Alexis is pretty cool about most things, including—surprisingly—her father constantly entering and leaving her room even when she was a teenager."

"Yes, but…" But I don't have the same standing with her.

Apparently, her argument is null, though. He tugs her into the room.

Alexis is sound asleep under a pile of duvets—or perhaps just the most ample duvet Kate has ever seen—her size dwarfed by the magnificence of the bed. Kate's heart literally aches. The girl looks so young under the moonlight; so untouched, as if she has not been marred by the sheer terror and hopelessness that must have plagued her just a day before.

Rick settles without a word into an armchair opposite Alexis' bed and beckons to Kate. She goes hesitantly, but tucks herself into his lap and presses her mouth to his ear.

"Cuddling of this sort is inappropriate in your daughter's bedroom," she whispers, half-teasing and half-reminding, and he chuckles.

"I used to sit here all the time when she was a kid," he replies, clearly ignoring her warning. "Marvel at my wonderful daughter, y'know? I thought she was a miracle, and not just because I had managed to avoid messing her up."

She leans her forehead against his temple. "I think you must have made—and still make—a wonderful father."

He smiles gratefully. "She's … she's fallen to the wayside somewhat, these few years."

"Because of me?" Kate asks, swallowing guiltily.

"Well…" Rick drifts off, seeming to contemplate his answer. "I think she thinks it's that. But mostly it's because of me. I fell in love hard, Kate, and how does that compete with—I mean, I love my daughter, very much, but I'm in love with you in a very consuming way; and I'm still trying to find the balance to it all … trying to find a way to love you both equally."

She shuts her eyes, willing her tears not to fall. It is not the time to cry. "I don't wanna tear you and her apart."

"You won't," he replies confidently, "but I'm just telling you because I want you to know that … that's why I tried to overcompensate, a little, by shutting you out. I needed to prove to myself that Alexis could still be my first priority; my only priority. I'm not sorry for that. But I'm sorry that I—I didn't just stop to think that maybe…"

"Maybe?" she prompts softly.

"Maybe you could've made her your priority, too."

Kate breathes out heavily. "I won't fault you for not trusting me with your daughter, Rick," she mumbles thickly. She can't.

"But I'll fault myself, because I should have. I trusted you to lead the investigation as a cop, and I—I should have trusted you as a part of this family, too."

Her breath catches at his choice of words. "But I'm not—I have done nothing to earn that trust."

"You're wrong," he insists adamantly. "How many times have I run to you for help on my daughter? How many times have you given me sound advice? How many times had Alexis herself come to you in the past?"

"That doesn't—"

"I know things have changed recently," he presses. "Alexis has grown up in ways even I don't fully understand, and I think you and I are both responsible for that to a certain extent. But she's still my little girl, and you're still the woman I trust beyond anything and anyone to look out for my little girl. You never deserved to think you stopped mattering to us, collectively, as a unit."

"Rick—"

"You are a part of this, Kate."

She laughs shakily, her body trembling. "God, you shouldn't just—you can't just—"

"Can't just what?"

"Can't just make declarations like that. Not on her behalf. Imagine if she hears you—"

"Listen," he interrupts fiercely. "Mother already looks at you as part of the family, you know that. Alexis … I know Alexis. She just needs some time to get used to things, and then she's gonna love you because she has the biggest heart out of everyone I know, and it's just not possible not to love you. And I? I need to get my head out of my ass and realize how important you are already, because if I have any intention of making this last—and believe me, I do—then I'm gonna need to start relying on you a bit more." His voice breaks on the last word, but he angles his head, looking at her intently. "And I can't think of a better person to rely on. So, do you think you can handle that?"

She nods. She wants to. Oh god, she wants to. She's not perfect, and there are going to be days when she will wish to leave it all behind, but she really, really wants to. So, she nods.

"Good," Rick breathes, affirming and closing the topic in one go.

They stay silent in that chair until she starts to nod off once more; then, he unfurls her from him and produces from a linen closet a couple of bed sheets and fluffy pillows which he spreads on the floor next to Alexis' bed.

Kate resists his attempts to get her to lie down in Alexis' room at first, but eventually caves, and soon finds herself curled comfortably into his arms as Alexis slumbers away above them.

It's kind of nice, the feeling.

She doesn't know how long it will last.

She doesn't know how Alexis will react when the girl wakes up in the morning.

But right now, it's just perfect.