He flinches when she flinches, drawing his hands away from her skin, lips already parting in apology. She gives him a look.

"I'm hurting you," he whispers, barely able to hear his own quiet voice over the rush of water.

She shakes her head. "He hurt me. You're making it better. Just stings a little."

He hesitates, but she cocks her head, raises an eyebrow at him. Still, he-

"I want your hands on me, Castle."

He sucks in a breath, takes in the determined expression on her face. He's not certain what to make of it, what to make of this woman who wants him to touch her even though he knows - even though they both know - that she's in pain.

"Kate," he begs, one hand held out in supplication.

Her eyes glitter, dark diamonds in the dim light of the shower. "Rick, please."

There's a roughness to her voice, a deep need that coats the syllables, and he reaches toward her again without thought, dragged under by her murmur.

Soapy fingers glide along her waist, coasting down her smooth lines to flare out over her hips. He gentles his touch when he reaches the darkening bruise on one side, tracing carefully over the damaged skin.

"It's like I was nothing," she says softly. "Nothing I did seemed to affect him. He just flung me around like a ragdoll."

He lifts his eyes to hers, sees the doubt, the fear lingering in her faraway gaze. There's nothing to say, no reassurance he can offer beyond his presence. Silently he leans forward, presses his lips to hers.

She meets his mouth, opening to let him inside. His hand slips from her hip to steady her as she tilts toward him, his fingers resting lightly at her spine.

He holds her there, his grip on her careful, but she presses into his touch, drops her hand to his forearm, curls her fingers around his elbow to bring him closer, tighter, nearer.

Eyes sliding open, he focuses on the furrow of her brows. This doesn't look like peace, like happiness. He breaks from the kiss, his throat clogged. "Kate."

She tips her head, nose bumping his and slipping past as she comes to rest cheek to cheek with him. He can feel the flutter of her eyelashes, the hot splash that blazes a trail down his jaw.

He tries to pull back, but her grip on his elbow tightens, her other hand lifting to palm the back of his neck, holding him to her. Her breath stutters against his skin, echoing in his ear. Her breath, ragged and weary, as more tears cascade down her face.

And all he can do is hold her.

Her breathing slows at long last, and he coasts his hand over her shoulder blade to cup the back of her head, fingers delving into the now clean curls, combing through the long strands as she settles against him.

He's grateful for the steam of the shower, knowing that otherwise they'd both be shivering by now. Pressing his lips to her jaw, he brings his hand forward as he leans back, wipes her cheek with gentle fingers, tucks an errant lock of hair behind her ear.

She opens red-rimmed eyes, dark eyes, aching eyes. His heart thuds hard in his chest. He wants to crush her to him, wants to draw her body inside his own where he can protect her.

Instead he feathers his lips against her forehead and slowly heaves himself up until he's standing in front of her. Reaching down, he tucks her hand into his. But before he can pull her up, she's standing too, long and lean and absolutely beautiful.

Her hands bracket his waist, nails scraping lightly over his slick skin. Pushing against him, she forces him backward. He watches silently as she stares at the shower controls and then turns a knob, switching the flow from the handheld shower head to the one above, a gentle rainfall that washes over them when she tugs him back.

He stares at her, his eyes roving her features, the too-thin lines of her, the dark shadows under her eyes that *aren't* bruises, the harsh angles of her hipbones beneath purpling skin.

And then her hands rise to his chest, warm and sure and caressing him, and he forgets about adding extra calories to her lattes and convincing her to sleep in with him and everything that isn't the way she's touching him at the moment.

She leans forward, brushes a kiss against the juncture of his collar bones, works her way up the column of his throat to the soft spot just below his ear. Her nose brushes the shell, and then she takes the lobe between her teeth. Her whole body cants into his, her breasts meeting his chest, thighs brushing, his uncontrollable reaction to her trapped between them.

He catches her, steadies her with his hands at her waist as he tries to regulate his breathing, tries to adjust to the sudden shift. She was crying moments ago, her face buried in his neck, and now-

Ohh, but it's too good. She's too good, her mouth working at the jut of his jaw, her hands smoothing down the planes of his back. She's too good, and he can't concentrate on anything else.

He follows her when she leans away from his body, magnetized to her touch, drawn to her proximity. She bends down just as he seeks her lips, laughs when she straightens up, light and lust flashing in her eyes. She laughs and kisses him, soft and slow, presses her front fully to his, one arm curling around his waist until they stand flush under the steady flow of water.

"I love you," he rasps, his voice unsteady.

Water sluicing over her cheeks, she tilts her head up, her eyes bright, brimming, her lips parted as though she can't quite believe the words. It's- oh. It's the first time he's said it since he left her after their fight in her apartment. He'd been too caught up when she appeared on his doorstep, too caught up in need and want and maybe a little anger too.

But now. Yes, now, when she's standing in his arms, letting him shelter her, letting him soothe her and hold her - he can't not say it. "I love you, Kate."

One hand slides along his spine until her palm rests against his shoulder blade. Her eyes stay fixed on his, her gaze clear, intense, reverent. "I know."

He tilts his head to take her mouth, dives into her.

And she catches him.

She meets him, stroke for stroke, breath for breath, her hand sliding up and down his back, her hips pressing into him. He feels her smile against him, pulls back to see a flash of teeth and the hint of pink tongue before her lips press tightly together.

"What?" he whispers, an answering smile blooming on his own face. "What is it?"

"Nothing," she replies, shaking her head, and then there's the tip of her tongue again and a sly look in her eyes. "Well, not nothing. You."

He cocks his head. "What about me?"

"I was going to return the favor," she says softly, raising her other hand which he realizes holds the bottle of his shampoo.

"Oh."

"Next time?" she murmurs.

He lifts an eyebrow, a frisson of joy racing through his veins, buoying his already hopeful heart. "Next time?"

She nods, leans down to set the bottle aside, and he groans as the movement drags her skin over his. Meeting his eyes when she straightens, she smirks. "You're clean enough for now."

And then she steps back from him, catches his fingertips in her hand, wearing that same expression she wore earlier. She leads him out of the shower.

Dripping on the floor, he watches as she darts back in to turn off the water, fumbling for a moment with the controls for the steam. He doesn't mind the extra second, just enjoys the view. Even marred by bruises and scrapes she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen, and when she turns back to him - when she *saunters* toward him - that dangerous look in her eyes, he feels his heart speed its pumping, feels his skin start to tingle, feels his whole body react to her.

She snags a towel from the rack on her way back to him, the terry cloth billowing open over her hands as she reaches toward him. Her touch gentle, she dries him in slow strokes, catches all the nooks and crannies of his body.

It's-

It's nothing he's ever experienced before - this intimacy of being cared for by another person, by a lover. But as she presses against his shoulder, turns him to face away from her, he realizes it shouldn't surprise him. She's always had his back.

She's halfway down his thighs when he pivots toward her, his fingers catching under her elbows to tug her up. He's undoing all her work, her wet skin sliding against his, and she makes a soft sound that might be annoyance, but he catches it with his mouth, keeps it from escaping.

Bending, he scoops her up easily, and he's certain that if this wasn't so new she'd throttle him for the liberties he's taking. But it is new, and she's still kissing him, and he kicks the forgotten towel out of his path, steps carefully across the room to avoid hitting the counter and bruising her more.

He has to maneuver to get the door open again, but her arms are hooked tight around his neck, her thighs clenched around his waist. She's not going anywhere.

Hours have passed, lifetimes surely, but it's still dark when he glances out the window, street lights and neon signs reflecting off neighboring buildings. The bathroom light cuts a wide swath into the room, illuminating his path as he carries her back to the bed. Bending, he starts to loosen his hold on her. But then the light catches on a bruise.

He turns instead, sinking down onto the mattress. She settles on his lap, breaks from his lips to breathe against him, her nose tucked against his cheek.

"Let me love you," she murmurs into his ear.

She- oh, she really... Try as he might, he can't keep the hitch out of his breathing.

Shifting her weight over him, she pulls back, hands rising to curl around his ears. He'd laugh at her choice of grip if it weren't for the look on her face - desperate, longing, apologetic. And terribly tender, fiercely devoted.

"I do, Castle," she says, her voice steady. "I do love you."

He tilts his forehead to hers, sucks in a shaky breath, keeps his eyes open. "I know."

"Four years," she whispers. "Four years, and you were right here in front of me."

There's a regret in her voice that tears at him. He doesn't want that. Not now. Not when they're finally here.

"We're both here now," he answers. "Together."

She sighs. "Together."

He lifts his hands to cup her cheeks, to kiss her swift and strong, pouring his gratitude into her, all his love and want and hope.

Hands on his shoulders, she kisses him back, lips and tongue and teeth, and then she's pushing against him, laying him down and hovering over him, her hair a curtain, her body a cloak.

"Let me love you," she repeats, her fingers tripping over his chest and his stomach, making his muscles jump, mouth at his cheekbone.

"You do, Kate," he breathes, his hands cradling her, gentle against her perfect body, and then he's breathless, surrounded by her, only her - always her. "You already do."

the end