His hand is cracked with the cuts of the harsh New York winter. He flexes his hands in his pockets and the sting almost feels good - familiar. The thin jacket isn't enough to keep the chill from sinking into his bones, but he doesn't care. He doesn't plan on being here long at all. His flight leaves tomorrow night and there's nothing she can say that will change that.

He's got an hour to kill and he considers swinging by the precinct to bump fists with Ryan and Esposito, but he doesn't know her schedule anymore and his stomach roils at the thought of seeing her there, immersed in their old habitat with no touch of him to be found anywhere.

He decides to go to the coffee shop early and wait for her. The shop is brand new, an unfamiliar place he's never stepped foot in. He imagines she chose it for a reason - to make the whole thing easier for the both of them. But the rich aroma does nothing to ease the ache in his chest when he steps through the door.

She's already there. His breath catches sharp in his throat and he wheezes, clutching the sides of the doorway. He thanks God she can't see him, the line of her back straight as a board as she sits in a booth against the left wall, absentmindedly stirring a packet of sweetener into her tea. Despite her stiff posture, she's never looked so small to him.

Her hair is longer and darker now - a rich mocha brown that he already knows brings out the flecks in her eyes -

Jesus Christ. Is this what it feels like to die?

A patron knocks into him on her way out and he hastily apologizes, startled to realize he's still paralyzed in his spot in the doorway.

He's not ready. Maybe he can pull up a stool at the coffee counter, steady his nerves with a cup of coffee before he slides into the seat across from her. Just a little more time, that's all he needs. Just -

"Richard Castle?"

Fuck.

The young woman shrieks in recognition, her painted fingers pressed against her cheeks in delight. She stumbles out of her chair, knocking over a glass of juice in her haste to get to him. She blushes, smothers the mess with a few napkins before she collects herself to greet him.

The commotion is enough that everyone within a hundred feet has their eyes on him.

Fuck.

"I'm your biggest fan," the woman says breathlessly, brushing her blond hair out of her eyes. She grins up at him.

He pastes a thin smile on his face. "Always nice to meet a fan." Politely, he adds, "What's your name?"

"Bethany."

"It's a pleasure, Bethany. I'm meeting someone here, so I can't chat, but - "

She doesn't miss a beat. "Oh, sure, sure. Just a quick autograph then?"

Well, she's certainly one of the most gracious fans he's ever met. He almost feels bad for not engaging her more. Any other time and he'd — well, no, actually he probably wouldn't. Not anymore."Of course."

Her eyes light up. "Great!" He winces as she pulls his latest work from the haven of her large purse. He pats his pockets in search of a pen and brandishes one easily, slipping the cap off before quickly scribbling a few kind words on the cover page.

"Thanks so much," she gushes, clutching the book into her chest.

"Anytime. Have a nice day, Bethany." He smiles, attempting a little more oomph.

"You too!" she breathes, scampering past him.

And then he's frozen again, only this time because he knows without taking a glance that her eyes are on him right now.

His hands ache now. Why didn't he bring a heavier coat?

His phone buzzes in his pocket. He fishes it out.

He swallows hard. It's her.

Beckett: Take your time. I'm not going anywhere.

It's been eighteen months, but okay. She's not going anywhere, but where the hell has she been?

He grips the phone tight in his fist. It buzzes again.

Beckett: I'm aware of the hypocrisy in my statement, Castle.

He hates her.

Buzz.

Beckett: I hate me too.

This is getting ridiculous. He turns down the vibration and pockets his phone again and glances up at her. But she's not looking at him anymore. She's hunched over her tea now, a break in the line of her spine.

It's time.

He sucks in a breath and forces his feet to move toward her. The trip is endless and his feet traipse on tirelessly, but he doesn't seem to get any closer, so many miles still between them.

His hands hurt. He misses the press of his wedding band around his finger.

Finally. He stops before her and she can sense his presence — he knows by the way her fingers curl tightly over her mug, the scrape of paint and ceramic under her fingernails. Her scent dizzies him and he has to steady himself against the onslaught that rushes him — nuzzling her neck as she moans beneath him (Castle), stolen kisses in empty break rooms, engulfing hugs after horrific cases — all of it, it's her. Sweet vanilla, bitey tangy cherries.

Kate.

His eyes slam shut. Fuck, he can't do this.

"It's still creepy you know," she rasps.

He opens his eyes on a shudder that claws at his throat, shortening his breath, speeding the metronome in his chest. He fumbles a little, blur tingeing the edges of his vision. He collapses gracelessly into the booth in front of her.

And then his vision has never been more clear and he can't decide what to zero in on first — the cutting lines of her frame that's thinner than ever, the cracks in her weathered hands that rival his, or the dullness of her murky brown eyes.

He was wrong. He can't find those flecks anymore. The woman in front of him is barely recognizable.

She shivers, her long fingers reaching up to tug at the scarf draped around her neck —

He swallows hard. His scarf. One of the many winter items he'd donated to charity.

Or rather, thought he donated to charity.

"Found it in the back of my closet," she explains flatly.

"Right." He wonders if it still smells like him.

She nods slowly, as if it takes every ounce of energy to do so. Are you sick, he wants to ask. Have you been skipping meals again?

"Do you want a coffee? My tea's cold," she says, tapping her finger against the porcelain cup.

"I could go for one," he says softly. Her tea's cold? "How long have you been sitting here?"

"Half an hour." She pauses, dropping her hands into her lap. "Wasn't sure how long it would take me to get here."

Castle furrows his brow in confusion. It could only be 25 minutes from the precinct, tops. "Traffic's been bad?"

Desolation flicks through her gaze for a moment before shuttering itself away again. "No." She tears her gaze away from him then and fishes out a small wad of ones from her back pocket. It's when she slides out her seat that he figures out why she looks so small to him - she's got flats on.

Chucks, actually. He hasn't seen her in those in years.

He fiddles with the sugar packets until she returns with their drinks and a pastry bag tucked under her arm. She gently tosses it onto the table. "Snagged us a couple of muffins. Wasn't sure if you'd eaten."

If anyone hasn't eaten it's her not him, but he keeps his mouth shut, nods a thanks instead. He watches her curl her fingers around her mug, steeping her tea bag with her free hand.

"You give up coffee?" he asks, trying to keep his voice light.

Her head snaps up and yeah - there was a crack in his voice. "No, God no," she says quickly. "Just haven't been sleeping well lately — "

"Or eating," he murmurs.

"Excuse me?" she asks sharply.

He sighs, scrubbing a hand down his face. "Nothing."

Pursing her lips, she snatches up a couple of packets of sweetener and flicks them with her fingers before pouring the contents into her tea. Despite her current beverage of choice, it's the first time in ten minutes that she's resembled the woman he married.

"How's LA?" she asks him.

"Warm."

"Where are you living?"

He sighs. "Pacific Palisades."

She nods slowly. "That's a nice area."

"Yeah. It is."

It's silent as she takes a long sip of her tea. She winces and he imagines it's still scalding, licking a hot path down the back of her throat. She sets her mug down a little uneasily, hands trembling. "Why'd you come, Castle?"

"You apparently stopped listening when you hear the word 'no'."

"Yeah, well, I got tired of hearing it for the last six months."

He slams his fist down on the table. "Are you fucking kidding me right now?" She startles and he feels the heat of a dozen pairs of eyes on them.

He pastes on his charming smile and helplessly shrugs at the patrons. "Oops, sorry. Just writing a scene for my next book."

He turns back to her. "You made your decision a year and a half ago, Kate, when you walked out of our home together. I'm supposed to come running back the minute you give the all-clear?" he grates out.

"No. I have more respect for you than that," she says firmly.

He laughs humorlessly. "Got a funny way of showing it."

She lets out a breath, leans in close. "What do you want me to say, huh? That I'm sorry? That every night I lay in my bed without you next to me and wonder how the hell I'm going to get up in the morning? That I wonder how in God's name I ended up here again, dismantling you again, screwing everything up again?" She shakes her head. "I could tell you all those things but it won't make a goddamn difference. Because how in the hell could it?" She shoves back against the seat and the fire dies from her gaze.

"You're right. Your words are shot to hell now."

"So why now, Castle? Why show up here now?"

But she knows. She's been sitting on it the entire time she's been in the cafe.

Literally.

"You know why," he says quietly.

Her eyes settle on his - bright and thick with unshed tears, a well he could get lost in, trying to claw his way out. She shifts, reaches underneath her seat and tosses the thick manila folder onto the table. It's loud, so very loud, and he swears the entire room can feel the weight of the contents bearing down upon their shoulders.

The cement just won't stop pouring.

"I guess now we know just how far 'for better or worse' really goes, don't we?" she scrapes out.

"You walked away from me."

Tears spill down her face and she looks smaller than ever. "I always intended to come back," she whispers.

He swallows hard. "That's not how it works. You can't just waltz in and out of our marriage as it pleases you."

"That's not fair," her voice breaks. "Those people - "

"What happened to them is awful. I know it is. And I know you feel like it's your fault because of everything that happened with your mother. But this has been unraveling for almost 20 years now. What makes you think the spool is gonna stop anytime soon?"

"I don't. It just keeps going and going, Castle. And every time I inch closer, I make another sacrifice. Those sacrifices aren't worth it anymore."

He scoffs. "But they were before?"

She swipes the back of her hand across her cheeks. "They were when I thought I could hold onto you from a distance."

"With some half-assed explanation of needing space, you mean."

She sniffs. "I'm not asking you to move back and pretend like nothing's changed. Too much has happened for me to ask that of you."

"What do you want, Kate?"

She taps the folder. "I'm asking you to sit on these for a while longer."

"Time isn't going to make a difference. I'm not going to wake up one morning and decide to move back to New York and forgive you."

"I know that, Castle." She swallows hard. "Which is why I'm moving to Los Angeles."

"I'm sorry. You - what?" he splutters.

"The decision's already been made. I'm putting in a transfer with LAPD's Vice unit. If everything goes to plan, I'll be starting four months from now."

Castle's mouth goes dry. "You're leaving homicide?" Her face blanches a little and his fingers twitch, itching to reach over and link her fingers in his, despite everything. The job has been part of her for so long and he can't imagine how she's feeling knowing it'll end soon.

"I did what I always promised myself I would," she rasps. "I got justice for her, for so many others." She pauses. "But I lost you, when I swore to myself that I would never let that happen."

"Kate - "

She shakes her head. "No, Rick. Even if this has already fallen apart - even if this is done, I still have to do this. For me. No matter what happens between you and I, this chapter of my life is closed."

"I don't know what to say."

"Look, I'll have the job and I'll be settling into my own place. Maybe we can take more time, reevaluate later. I'm not asking you to put the gun away." She sighs. "I'm just asking you to wait before you pull the trigger."

"'The searing light of morning asks unwelcome questions, fragile hopes soon blistered by daylight,'" he recites.

"Castle." An unspoken please.

He squeezes his fist against his thigh. His hands still ache.

He sets his empty cup on top of the envelope. "Call me in four months."

He leaves her at the table, wedding ring burning hot in the pocket of his pants.

Fuck. He's a goddamn fool.