Disclaimer: The only part of Castle that I own is the TV on which I watch the show.

It's the annual post-Christmas, pre-New Year's Eve homicide slump, and all is quiet in the bullpen. Kate Beckett is catching up on paperwork, wondering if boredom can induce a coma, when an aromatic sixteen-ounce latte lands on her desk. Unless the Coffee Fairy has suddenly decided to fly into the Twelfth Precinct to spread caffeinated joy, there's only one possible source.

She looks up. The benefactor doesn't have wings, though he does have spectacular blue eyes. "Castle? What are you doing here?"

He looks a little put out. "You're welcome."

"Sorry, I'm sorry," she says, picking up the cardboard cup and taking a sip. "Thanks for this, it's exactly what I needed. I'm just surprised to see you since there's no carrion for you to circle. We haven't had a murder all week."

"Yeah, I know." He slumps dejectedly in his chair next to her desk.

"Sorry if that's ruined your holiday spirit."

He looks even more gloomy. "Whatever."

Whatever? He just said whatever? There must be something wrong, especially since this is his favorite time of year. "Castle? Are you okay?"

"Yeah. No. I guess."

He's not even making eye contact with her. "I've never seen you so down in the dumps. Hey, how about this? There's nothing going on around here, why don't we get lunch? My treat. You can even have two desserts."

Not a smile. Nothing. Well, a sigh, but not of contentment. This is worrisome.

He looks at his watch. "It's nine fifty-seven, Beckett. Not time for lunch."

She's thinking as fast as she can. Something has gotten to him, and the fact that he has shown up here for no reason seems to indicate that he's hoping that she can help. For once in their relationship (relationship? uh-oh), she's going to have to be the pryer, not the pry-ee. She pushes her chair away from her desk, stands up, rounds the corner to his chair and pulls him to his feet. "Okay, a snack, then. It's always a good time for a snack. You probably have that tattooed on your—uh, arm. Come on. I know just the place."

He hadn't even noticed her tattoo gaffe, which is both a relief and not. "Better not be the vending machine," he says, in a mixture of crankiness and doom. "Only thing left in there is very old Cheez Doodles. Don't think they'd even work as bait in those cockroach races the night shift have."

"Nope, much better, I promise." She turns to Ryan and Espo. "Hey, guys? We're going out for coffee. Be back in thirty."

"Better bring us something, Beckett," Esposito says.

She waves an acknowledgment and nudges Castle in the direction of the elevator. When they get outside, she finds that the weather is as glum as her partner; they immediately turn up their collars against the wind and sleet. "It's only three blocks, Castle, think you can make it?"

"Yeah."

The sidewalks are perilously slippery, so she concentrates on keeping her footing rather than talking until they reach the place she has chosen. "Here we are," she says, turning left to descend a small staircase. She pulls the door open and ushers him into an Italian cafe-bakery with four gleaming espresso and cappuccino makers on the counter and a twenty-foot long, glass-fronted pastry case.

Castle looks around approvingly. "How come I've never seen this place?"

"It's pretty new," she says, taking off her gloves and shoving them into her coat pockets, "and since it's a few steps below street level it's easy to miss. You want to get us a table, or come with me and choose your pastry?"

"Didn't you say I could have two?"

Oh, she thinks. Things are looking up. Two pastries: that's the Castle she knows and lo—. The Castle she knows and likes. Really, really likes. "Yes," she smiles at him, "I did say that you could have two."

She orders two coffees and chooses two small sesame biscotti for herself. He, however, opts for a slice of Italian cheesecake and two chocolate cannoli. "That's three things," she says.

"Not really."

"Not really? Let me check my math here." She points to each sweet in turn. "Yup, three."

"But no one ever orders a cannolo, Beckett. Doesn't even sound right, cannolo. They're a pair, so it counts as one."

"Your point isn't exactly irrefutable, but it's your stomach, so go right ahead." She doesn't add, "And if that's what it takes to make you happy, I'll buy you a dozen more."

"Thanks." He puts their mugs and plates on a tray, and follows her to the very back of the shop. It's an oddly angled corner which accomodates only two chairs and one table, so it's quiet and ideal for the talk she hopes to have, to find out what's bothering him without anyone overhearing.

"So," she begins, once they've shed their coats and settled in. She's nervous, trying to cover her jitters by stirring a coffee that will not benefit from excess stirring. She faces down murderers on a regular basis, so why is she skittish about asking questions of this big softie? She knows why, exactly why, but she's not ready to answer her own question. "So," she repeats, drawing herself up. "You gonna tell me what's making you so blue, Castle?"

"Way to ambush a guy, Beckett," he says, slightly whiny.

"I already asked you in the precinct, and you brushed me off. You can't really be surprised that I'm still trying to find out. You're not the only who's persistent, you know."

"Yeah, I noticed."

She inches her hand across the table top until her fingers are almost, but definitely not, touching his. "I'm worried about you, Castle. You're usually Helium and Sparkle this time of year, floating around, all ebullient."

"They left."

That's all he says, but he looks miserable.

"They left? Who?"

"All of them."

"Have another bite of that cannoli—cannolo—Castle. I still don't understand."

"The loft is empty."

Oh, okay. Martha and Alexis must have gone somewhere? His reaction seems a little extreme. "You mean Alexis? Has she gone on a trip or something?"

"Skiing, with her friends. Last minute opening, and off she schusses. All of a sudden she needs to be away from home. And me."

"She's a teenager, Castle. Stretching her wings."

"Doesn't have to stretch them during the holidays," he mutters. "We always spend all out time together for them."

"What about your mother? Isn't she around? Besides, you're always saying how much you love it when she leaves you in peace for a while."

"Yeah, well, she decided she needed, as she put it, 'the curative powers, the spiritual cleansing, Richard,' of some restored Alpine spa. The owners are apparently in league with Alexis's ski lodge, dangling the last-minute cancellation lure. So all my family plans are gone in a puff of new powder."

"But Gina's still—" Oh. Oh, oh. She sees it the instant she says it, the flicker of pain in his eyes. Or disappointment? That's it, though. That's the last part of the Crushing-Castle's-Holiday-Spirit Trifecta. But surely Gina's not gone, gone. As in for good. Is she? The thought shouldn't make Beckett giddy, but it does, and she tamps down her internal rejoicing. "Castle? Did you…?"

"Did I? No. Did she? Well, yeah. She's gone."

"What happened?"

"Who."

"What?"

"Who happened."

Does he mean Gina dumped him for another man? She can hardly believe it. "You mean, uh."

"Perry Marsden," Castle says, through a bite of cheesecake.

"Perry Mason?"

"No, Marsden, but you're right. It sounds like Perry Mason. Shamelessly obvious. Perry Marsden. It's clearly a bogus name and totally, lamely retro, right? He's a new mystery writer she signed. Did some god-awful book and she gave him a million-dollar advance for it." Castle stops and takes a few swallows of his coffee. "He can't even come up with a decent pseudonym and she's all over him." He puts his cup down and waits a beat. "And I do mean all over him."

She leans forward a little. "I'm really sorry, Castle."

"You know what's weird, Beckett? I should be mad. Pissed off. But I'm not. I'm just, I dunno."

"Sad?"

"Yeah, sad. I hate settling, you know? And I settled for her. It was easy. But then she throws me over for that jerk? it's depressing. And on top of that all of a sudden Alexis is grown up."

"Not quite, Castle," Beckett says with a reassuring smile, while realizing that something suspiciously like hope is beginning to creep up her spine.

"Well, it feels like it. Anyway, she's gone and my mother took off. And then Gina, with that Marsden guy—"

"Took it all off?" Oh, my God, what has she said? She looks at him in horror, wishes that the seeds covering her biscotti were arsenic rather than sesame, and would kill her on the spot. The cafe owner could just put her body in the dumpster out back.

His expression is frozen, as is his fork, halfway to his mouth. The tiny lines at the corners of his eyes change first, deepening. Then the spark comes back into his eyes, and then the laugh. She watches until every part of him is eventually laughing, and she's stunned. When he finally stops he looks at her and says, "Well, she hasn't done that for me in months."

That makes Beckett laugh so uncontrollably that latte comes out of her nose, and for some reason he doesn't tease her about it. Instead, he takes a handkerchief out of his pocket—she had never noticed that he had a handkerchief, for God's sake—and wipes the coffee off her upper lip.

"That felt really good, Beckett," he says, refolding the handkerchief.

She feels her face flush. "What, getting the snotty coffee off me? Sorry, I must have looked disgusting."

"No, telling you about Gina. Getting it off my chest. Thank you." He's quiet for a moment, and then says softly. "And just for the record? I can't imagine any circumstance in which you'd look disgusting."

"Even when I'm all sweaty after working out in the precinct gym?"

"You're kidding, right? Especially then."

Ah, Castle is back. Completely back. But he's different, too. And so is she. They both know it, even if they haven't acknowledged it. She feels as if she should be uncomfortable, but she's not. She clears her throat.

"So, New Year's Eve is right around the corner. What are you going to do?" Oh, shit, did that sound like she was asking him out? "I mean, you must be going to a party. Or, you know, giving one."

"Nah. I think I'll just stay home. Not minding the idea of the empty loft now, thanks to you. What about you?"

"Oh," she says, flicking a sesame seed across her plate. "I have plans."

TBC