"You know what, forget it," she bites, "being stupid." Kate goes limp, likely in the hopes that his guard will let up and she can run the moment he backs away. He does not.

"No," his voice rumbles softly, belying the resolve and force of the statement. "What did you mean?"

She resists a while longer before giving him the bare minimum of an admission he needs to work it out.

"I came to see you the other day." Her voice pleads with him to fit it all together, to tap into their shared brain thing and understand, to not make her say it. Gina. His clothes. Shit. Gina hadn't said a word to him about it when she called and canceled on him – again – but now he wonders if the publisher's been actively avoiding him, rattled in her own right by the encounter with Beckett. He admits he's not had much time to talk to her, between her cancellation and his preoccupation with the barkeep's murder, securing the Old Haunt, and Beckett driving him to distraction.

Running a hand over his face, Castle growls out a sigh. "We had that benefit the night before," he tries to explain, "she had a little – a lot – too much to drink and while she did come back to the loft, the only thing that went on was her passing out and me taking the couch and being scolded by my mother."

Beckett makes a click with her tongue that manages to convey her complete disbelief. "Why should I trust you?"

"Because I don't lie," that's perhaps a poor statement, as untimely as it is fundamentally untrue; he amends, "not to you. You know that. I learned that lesson a while back."

Castle can't even bring himself to be annoyed by her doubts of him. In the first place, the shock of seeing Gina in his clothes probably looking like they'd been at it all night would have rattled anyone, and in the second place, he's simply accepted that this is what she is, for the foreseeable future. She's going to continue testing him, pushing him as far as she can to see if he'll leave like everyone else has. She's going to say and do whatever she can to make him leave so that she doesn't get blindsided again when she's left or rejected. It's not at all what he wished for, what he hoped he'd find in her, but he can't love her any less because of it. Instead, he wants desperately to prove her wrong, every day if he has to, that he's not going anywhere. If only he could find what she needs to believe it.

"Why didn't you say anything?" he asks, gently this time. She's distracted, looking for the exits, looking for something to say to save face and to keep him from getting too close again, that she hardly notices it when does precisely that. The author draws her nearer to him, manipulates her like a ragdoll until she's cosseted against his chest and turning her face into his neck on instinct.

"Kate?" he prompts, and the lump of words that's set up in his throat for weeks swells and sticks while he tries to force them out or push them back down.

"Let me go."

His arms constrict around her, crossing her smaller frame as if he can keep them together if he just holds tightly enough. "I can't." His admission is broken even to his own ears. Castle kisses her temple and she reacts as if he's burned her there. "Tell me what happened," he urges.

"Just let me go," she repeats; there's a dark tension in her voice when she repeats it again, and then again, as if she's stuck in some kind of thought loop or simply can't say anything else while she's clinging to him and muttering into his collarbone. She's making no attempt to leave now. Just keeps telling him to let her go. He wonders what she would do if he did, and tests it by relaxing his hold, giving her opportunity to escape again. It has no effect; she quiets some, but doesn't move or even seem to particularly notice, if not for the way she shifts to rest slightly more comfortably against him; as much comfort as the narrow stairwell will allow them, anyhow.

Like anyone even halfway versed in the scientific method, he mentally notes the result of giving her what she asked for, and adjusts the variable by doing the opposite.

Bringing an arm around her waist again produces no discernible reaction. A panic rises in him, a fear that something he's said or done or not said or not done has flipped an off switch in her.

"Kate?" she shakes her head. He wants to grab her shoulders and shake her until she's her again, until she snaps at him or kisses him or threatens to arrest him. Anything to get her back to herself. He's out of things to say. He doesn't have anything else to offer her except the truth.

"I love you." Finally expelled from their fortress in his throat, the declaration and tacit admission of his guilt stretches between them for a second so dark and heavy it may as well be a black hole threatening to suck everything they are into nothingness.

"No," Kate mouths, her eyes widened as if she's got a gun pointed straight to her heart, caught without her weapon or backup. A catlike twist in his arms leads immediately to one of her bony knees connecting painfully with his chest. Instead of stunning him, it spurs him to action.

"I love you," repeats Castle, a steely edge of conviction underscoring the statement she least wants to hear right now. Too late; it's out there and damned if he's taking it back. At least it's brought her back into herself – just a distinctly less agreeable version of herself he's not seen in a long while.

Allowing her to kick him if she pleases – she does, he doesn't care – Castle closes a large hand around her delicate wrists and flips them, repositioning her under him again, mindful as he can be to not hit her head, though the clunk of what's possibly her shoulder bone into the stairs takes the worst of the awkward position.

"I love you," he tells her as she struggles under him, her eyes squeezing shut as if she's in the throes of a nightmare. It then occurs to him that this is precisely what it is for her.

"You don't get to do that," she asserts, elbowing him as physical punctuation. "You can't keep me here!" - more thrashing; he refuses to be moved - "You can't control me!"

Her jibe doesn't go unnoticed. He suspects he's too deep in now to talk her down, and the only way is straight through. Electing for brute force over form, he leans a forearm across her arms, stilling her and forcing her to look at him.

"I love you, Kate." Promises not to control her, manipulate her, leave her, lie to her, betray her, use her, would fall on deaf ears. She's heard it all before and words aren't going to fix that. Time, he realizes – time and proof – are the only things that can. Along with a healthy dose of stubbornness. His voice softens, he kisses her face where he did the first time, years ago, certain the gesture's not lost on her. Then, she was too stunned to respond; now, she shrieks at him in anger and he presses on. "I love you."

"Let go of me," her command comes out as forceful as she can make it, but Castle can see the tinge of need, a plea to him to fight for her, pacing and caged in her eyes. It gives him an unexpected kick he'll not admit now, looking down on her and knowing that at the moment, she's surrendering to him. Not looking for the right answer; not trying to please him; not so far out of herself that she isn't at least somewhat aware of what she's doing and what her options are. Despite the occasional struggle, he's under no delusion that she couldn't free herself should she really wish it, or that she'd spare any part of his anatomy in pursuit of that end.

But he has to be sure. He lets her stand, lets her shove him off. It's a balm to the doubt lacing through his remaining working conscience, that she gets only a few steps past him to the top of the stairs and looks back at him with fury burning full, but under that, expectation. Invitation, even. It's still there when he catches up to her, intending to apologize with a kiss he doesn't get to take from her before she shoves him. Castle seizes her sinewy upper arms and pushes her none-too-gently with a curt bark of up into the bartop that still gleams lowly in the dim lights he's kept on. Standing so close, he can smell her faint perfume, her shampoo, and something dark and fiery and intangible, a heady combination of anger, fear, and lust.

A thrill pulses through him and he's certain it's the first time he's ever felt even a little in control around her. He could choose to do whatever he likes. He's at and past his limit for bad behavior for the night, but there's still an intoxicating rush of predatory pride in having waited out her attempts to push him away. He wedges her knees apart a little too easily for all her protesting, and lets himself in, stepping between her thighs. The ferocity flares in her eyes as if his proximity's pushing a pedal straight to the acceleration of her most basic drives to fight or fly or fuck all at once. Inching nearer, he leans in until the tips of their noses touch.

"Let me go," she barks, but he can hear her resolve wavering.

"I love you."

A faint sob escapes her and nothing else. He doesn't expect her to say it back – wouldn't want her to right now, given the circumstances. At best, she's given him conditional surrender, and maybe it should occur to him to stop, but he can't. He just needs to show her, to make her feel it, to make her understand. His mind's fogged over and he's far too taken up by the feeling of her – indomitable top cop Kate Beckett – small and malleable under him, he doesn't even realize he's driven their mouths together until the skin of his chest jumps and twitches under her bare hands. He's let her arms drop at some point, busied his fingers into a fist in her hair and his other hand wrapped loosely around her waist.

"I love you," he husks, moving to her neck and hardly noticing when she swats at him, clearly not wanting him to leave marks. Too bad. He's past redeeming his conduct for the night and if he'll be apologizing – profusely, he's sure – later, he might as well rebel while he can. "Love you, love you-"

"Alright already," she mumbles, the corners of her mouth pulling into a ghost of a smile at last.

Castle decides she's accepted him again and abandons his forceful hold, rewarding her instead by stroking her bare back where her shirt's fallen away and now lies draped only at her elbows. Kate covers his hand with her smaller one, redirecting it from her face down her body, dipping beneath the waist of her trousers, into her panties. She lets out a soft curse and he wastes no time, slipping two fingers over her nerves while she squirms her way out of her clothes as much as she can.

Assured she won't run again, Castle relinquishes his teeth's hold on the delicate skin of her neck. "I love you," he murmurs into her temple, wondering what she means when she nods and sighs and hitches a gasp as his fingers curl and scissor inside her, working to take the edge off her until she grinds against his hand and shudders and falls against him all at once, her body clutching to his fingers as she shatters. Castle chuckles; she's never come so quickly, with so little effort on his part. She's been worked up for a while, and he knows her secret.

"Shut up," she repeats, too blissed out to even put a bite into it. Even now, he can feel her need still at boiling point, a match to his own.

Struck dumb by the fortune of the locale, he steps back, pausing a moment to admire the view of the glistening skin between her spread legs and to clean the taste of her off his fingers with his tongue, taunting her. A spark of pride fizzes in him for her, that she fails to recoil in shyness the way she used to at such a salacious display. She still waits for him, but this time it's different. She's not looking to be told what to do because she's desperate to please him; she's waiting to see what comes next, because she wants him to take care of her, because she trusts him to take control. Because, in some way, he's won the right to, tonight.

Castle helps her down, wickedly pleased at the way she sways before finding her balance and toeing off her shoes, standing bare before him and unashamedly letting him look at the mess they've already made, glossy and wet between her thighs. The alcohol's long since worn off. He steers her several paces, keeping their mouths and hands working together, backs her into a familiar booth where, if she opened her eyes, she'd find the younger, cockier version of him staring down at her.

He'll show her cute.

Maybe he should take it slow. Maybe, now he's finally told her, he should be gentle, worshipping, sweet. But he can't.

Kate tears at his shirt, gives it a sharp yank when the last two buttons are too stubborn and he hears them clatter across the floor in opposite directions. Along with the ripping of fabric that invariably comes with such displays – he laments that that doesn't happen nearly as smoothly as it does in books – and a feral, desperately turned on whine from her that makes up for it entirely. In turn, he finds the clasp of her bra and pulls, jerking the garment down her arms and throwing it somewhere to the side before dipping his head and sealing his mouth around her breast.

"Bastard," she snaps when he grazes his incisors over the sensitive peak, her fingernails digging into his shoulder, still fighting mad and scared but pulling him closer just the same. Her heartbeat tapdances in the thin, spidery vessels that jump between his teeth and under his tongue as he makes his way across her chest, down the slim valley that runs straight down the center of her. When she makes to sit up, Castle throws his arm across her again, standing up and gazing on her supine form, pinning her to the table and reminding her that she can gnash her teeth and scratch his shoulders and pull his hair all she likes, but it's not going put her back in charge.

Pulling back and pausing to tease her with just the tip of his cock nosing between her folds, he catches sight of her, flat on her back beneath him, subject to his hold; he might have laughed at the indignant expression furrowing her brows and set into the corners of her mouth if he weren't still so unsure of what kind of fire he's been playing with tonight.

"What?" Kate snaps.

Castle shakes his head, unsure of how to put to coherent answer just what it is that has him all tied up. Maybe it's that she's not running. Maybe it's that she's allowed him control without looking for the right answer. Maybe it's that this is the first time he can totally reconcile Detective Beckett and Kate without being reminded any at all of any of the various faces she's tried on in a misguided attempt to be what she thinks he wants her to be. Or maybe it's that this is exactly what he wants her to be – razor sharp and delicate, bossy and submissive; exhausted from her iron control on herself and desperate for someone to take it away from her – and none of the superficially pleasant, anxiety-ridden puppet she tried to shape herself into once upon a time. She's all her own maddening contrast – a mystery he's certain he'll never fully solve. All her.

He's suddenly unsatisfied with teasing, finished with foreplay. He needs her, and he needs her now. Unable to resist the aching pull of desire any longer, he pushes into her without ceremony on one long stroke, groaning at the vice of her body constricting around him on the hitch of her breath. Holding her down and gripping her thigh, he can feel every jump of her skin, every twitch of her muscles, every thrash of her head from side to side. She squeezes her eyes tightly closed and bites her lip the way she does when she's clawing for control, trying to patch together her pieces to keep from flying apart again just yet. Her fists curl up around the edge of the table as he begins to move in earnest, loving the view of how her whole body jerks with every deep thrust.

"God, I love you," he murmurs, letting her up slightly and meeting her halfway in a fierce kiss, all teeth and truth and no grace, "only you, Kate."

Castle revels in the moment she shifts, stops fighting him, stops fighting with her feelings, and surrenders. She comes alive under him, searing hot and wet and vibrant, her hips rising to meet him on every stroke, voice a chorus of whines and short screams. Her eyes open, dark and glimmering little hotcoals staring up at him and seeing straight into him like she could pull out his soul if she wanted.

Kate writhes and pleads, scratching at his arms, begging him in half-uttered words to make her come, faster, harder, now. Instead of giving her what she wants, Castle slows down, angles his hips to rub his pelvis against her clit, drawing a high, thready whine out of her. Heels dig into his lower back, trying anything she can to get him to move.

"Again," she cries, and he's not sure what she's asking for until she amends, "tell me..."

Castle lets go of her thigh, instead threading this fingers with hers and pinning both her hands above her head, driving into her roughly again. "I love you," he tells her, pouring it all unhindered into her, willing her to look at him and understand. Her wide and guileless eyes

"Tell me… only..."

Oh, Kate. His throat closes, almost too much for him to squeeze the words out again. It's not the truth, he knows that and he's sure she knows as well that it's not right now, at least until they can both find some hereto untapped reserve of courage.

"Only you," he lies. "Only you."

It doesn't feel like a lie.

Thighs shaking and her breath coming in quick, sharp stutters, Castle plunges into her again and again, feeling her arch off the table only to be slammed down each time, anchored only by their joined hands. He tells her again, incapable of stopping the words from falling from his lips. Kate screams, pulsing maddeningly around him and shuddering uncontrollably as she comes, so tight and frantic that his own orgasm feels like it's being pulled out from the inside as he follows her over the edge.

If not for the table, he's suspicious he'd have simply fallen to the floor. Instead, he uses the last of his strength to let go of her hands, pull her close, and collapses into the booth, pecking her cheek when she sighs with the loss of their connection. In reward, she settles in his lap and they wait it out while their breathing and heartbeats reorganize into something more like normal.

The occasional shiver still catches between them when Castle regains the energy to move, to fish his phone out of his discarded jacket's pocket with one hand, the other full of mostly-naked Beckett, presently toying with a lock of his hair between her fingers and busying her mouth alternating between feather-light kisses and playful nips all over his chest, his arms, his neck, whatever she can reach. The whiplash of her moods is no longer unfamiliar or frightening, but it still occupies a curious space in his psyche.

Kate sighs adoringly, coiling herself around him as tightly as possible, as if doing so could keep them like this. She can't, of course; the booth's not comfortable by any stretch of the definition with both of them squeezed into it, and the Old Haunt grows colder by the minute without the warm glow of a chattering crowd. He calls them a car, keeping his tones low and hushed to not upset her when she's so at peace, but still she stiffens when she hears him bark his home address.

"Shhh," he soothes, hanging up the phone with a curt goodbye and returning his full attention to her, "I'm taking you home."

Her eyebrows knit together in concern and uncertainty. "What about your mom? Alexis?"

Not bothering to even make a show of considering it, he tilts her chin up, thumb stroking across the ridge of her cheekbone.

"I don't care."

The loft is quiet when they wander in, arm and arm with hushed tones but no sense of secrecy. He'll panic later. But at least until morning, he'll once again put aside thoughts of the real world and the deep and dark grave they're digging themselves, and put his mind to her. Good things happen when they focus on each other and say, however temporarily, to hell with everything else.

She strips down again for bed, putting a little shimmy into sliding her pants down her legs and artlessly flinging off her bra and shirt. There's a moment of hesitation, almost a request for permission – no, no, come on, you're past that, he mentally chants – when she stands inches away from where he's watching her from bed, but it's banished in an instant by a happy giggle he could spend a lifetime trying to get her to make every day before she dives in, seeking him out immediately.

Wrapping his arms around her nude form and murmuring things of no consequence to her, Castle lets his eyes drift closed and allows himself the joy of her touch. Her fingernails glide over his features, stroke the curve of his nose, entwine with the untidy locks of his hair. He finds himself mapping the knobby bones of her spine, each protrusion and dip. Delighting in her closeness and the aimlessness of their exploration, he finds himself content for the first time since Philadelphia when they spent long hours on their cold case and longer hours alone in the sanctuary provided by an anonymous city and blackout curtains.

But something's different tonight. The urgency and devouring need of before, the nervousness that made them eager to busy their hands and bodies to banish it has given way to sweet familiarity, tender promises tapped out in code only they understand. There's no race to the end, not like the times before, nothing at all like the possessive, desperate fucking at the Old Haunt. When he pulls her closer, she twists in his grasp and pythons her arms around his neck, snuggling close to him and taking him inside her with no demand for an ending or anything at all besides connection. Kate breathes deeply and heaves a tired sigh, the motion stirring his cock to twitch with arousal involuntarily. He feels like he could melt into the floor at the look of apology she shoots him. She stills, something passing between them without verbalization. He understands. They've been saying it this way for so long; how could he not understand?

He cups her free hand in his, shifting to find a more comfortable position to keep her pressed to him, and senses the exact moment sleep takes her, noting the tranquil not-quite-smile on her face. The last hints of anxiety or pain or doubt slip away from her, and Castle finds himself scrambling to burn this into his memory, knowing somehow that he'll need to draw on it when they have to go back to the real world again.

Sometimes, just being with her is enough.

Still here. Slowly working through terrible block and whatever the writer's equivalent of performance anxiety is.

Comments, questions, concerns, complaints, and constructive criticisms much appreciated.