Set after the events of Tick Tick Tick/Boom.

"This storm is getting bad."

Kate jumps at his voice; how on Earth did she not notice his approach? Sure, the violent downpour outside is a distraction, but it's the middle of the night when everyone should be fast asleep, and if a week of crashing at his loft has taught her anything, it's that Castle isn't exactly known for his stealth. Maybe it's all in her head, but her senses have seemed sluggish ever since her apartment went up in an explosion of flame and ash. Some cop she is.

It's possible she's simply exhausted after tracking down a serial killer who was hell bent on making her his next victim, and might have succeeded had it not been for her...partner? She's more unsure than ever what role Castle occupies in her life; yet another topic weighing on her mind. Or maybe it's because after all is said and done, she's homeless. Except that she's not homeless, not in the strictest sense of the word.

Castle has been talking himself blue in the face, jumping on every opportunity to assure her that she's welcome to stay as long as she's willing to accept his hospitality. He takes great delight in including her in their family meals and movie nights, and he regularly offers to do her laundry for her, which she has steadfastly refused...he doesn't need to be handling her undergarments. She even gave in and played laser tag with him earlier that night (and trounced him, soundly) when he whined that Alexis is at study group and there's no one to play with me, Beckett! She's certain her imagination is playing tricks on her frazzled mind again, but it's like he wants her to stay, and she definitely cannot do that.

Can she?

"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you." He shoots her a crooked, apologetic smile that she can't help returning. The man is the consummate host; as much as he loves a good prank, she knows he'd never purposefully spook her.

He joins her in front of one of the big windows in the living room where she's been watching Mother Nature's grand display, shoving his hands into the pockets of his robe after he yawns and rubs the grit from his eyes. She sneaks a glimpse of him as he peers out into the storm, engrossed by the rain pelting the panes of glass. He's sleep-rumpled and soft around the edges, his hair flopping boyishly onto his forehead.

There's something about beholding him this way, within the comfort of his home. It's oddly intimate, seeing him cook and play and laugh, watching him be an amazing father and a dutiful son, observing him as he becomes engrossed in his writing. There's no trace of the flippant smartass or the slick ladies man. It's just all so...normal, and witnessing that side of him thaws something inside of her that she's long believed to be rock-hard and impenetrable. Good God, what is wrong with her lately? She's getting soft.

"No apology necessary. It's your home, Castle."

"Hey, until you pack your stuff and walk out that door, it's your home, too."

She can sense his eyes focused on her directly now, but she continues to stare straight ahead, avoiding his knowing gaze. It feels like he looks through her sometimes, exposing her secrets, her lies, her innermost desires with just one glance. It's more than a little unnerving, and it makes her wonder how he's burrowed so deep into her head in such a short amount of time.

"Well, I appreciate you putting up with me, Castle. It's nice to not be rushed into finding a new place." Not going to look at him.

"I wouldn't call it putting up with you, Beckett. We want you here." Still not looking.

"And I appreciate that, but I'm sure it'll be nice to get back to your normal routine when I'm finally out of your hair." Looking in the opposite direction now, in fact.

She jumps again (seriously, where are those nerves of steel she always prides herself on?) when she feels his warm palm sliding against hers, his fingers lacing gently with her own. She looks down at their linked hands in stunned fascination, and when she finally raises her eyes to him, he's standing so much closer than before. Like, more-than-just-friends close. Close enough that she can make out the cool blue of his irises and the faded, practically invisible scar on his forehead, and a few faint, scattered freckles atop his cheekbones. How has she never noticed those before?

"Kate." His voice is so solemn, so sincere. Who is this man and what has he done with the reckless child she thought she was saddled with? "Listen to me. We want you here. I'm not sure why you believe anything to the contrary, but you need to put that out of your head. This is your home, for as long as you'll allow it to be."

Their eyes lock and she can feel her cheeks heating up with the intensity of the moment, but she can't look away. She's not used to being this accepted, this wanted. Not by boyfriends past, not by her friends. Hell, not even by her own father. For years, he preferred the company of a bottle over her, and while he's come so far and made so much progress and has gone out his way to make it up to her, his rejections from way back when still linger and sting when she least expects it.

She swallows hard and glances away, the purple-painted toenails of her bare feet suddenly the most fascinating things in the world, deserving of her undivided attention. Anything to not have to look in the earnest depths of Castle's eyes, something present there that she's not quite ready to acknowledge, to examine too closely. They're partners. Friends. Just friends.

Yeah, right.

"Thank you, Castle. It means a lot. Really," she stammers out, closing her eyes and nodding, refusing to look at him out of fear of revealing too much.

Why does he have to be so damn amazing about this? It's so inconvenient, effectively dismantling her beliefs that he's some callous womanizer or insensitive cad. But if she's being completely honest with herself, she can't remember the last time she believed him to be either of those things. He's proven himself to her, over and over. With every case they solve, every meal they share, every hidden piece of themselves that they reveal to each other, he peels away a little more of the façade that no doubt helps him cope with the trappings of his fame and wealth. She's discovering the man behind the mask; the real Richard Castle.

So why does she keep railing against the change in her attitude toward him? It costs her nothing to give him the credit he deserves, and she can't help but ponder: if she does that, where does it leave them? If she acknowledges that she was wrong about him only being interested in her as a conquest, does that imply the possibility of a future for them as more than friends, more than partners?

She can't decide if it's too late at night or too early in the morning to even be considering this.

"Hey, what has you up this late, anyway? You don't strike me as the type to cower at thunder and lightning." He still hasn't let go of her hand, and she wonders if she's happy about it or deeply disappointed in herself for feeling happy about it.

"A lot on my mind, I guess. It's been an eventful week."

"You know, Beckett, no one would think less of you for taking a little time off, especially after everything you've been through. I think Espo and Ryan could probably manage on their own while you take a break from single-handedly saving the city for a few days."

That elicits a genuine laugh from her, and she finally looks up only to find him wearing the warm, sweet smile he usually reserves for when he thinks she's not watching. Her heart somersaults in her chest, and her eyes tilt downward to stare at his mouth for just a second too long before she forces her gaze away from him altogether.

"Yeah. Maybe."

"Hey, I know! Oh, why didn't I think of this before? I could drive you out to the Hamptons for a few days." She scoffs and shakes her head at the suggestion, but he rambles on before she can launch into what would have likely ended up being a half-hearted protest against the idea.

"No, seriously, listen. We can do this. Oh, you'd love it could swim, read, walk on the beach...hell, you could just do nothing all day if you wanted. Sure, it's cold out right now, but I'll crank up the heat on the pool. I'd handle all of the cooking, so you'd be free to just relax and have fun. I can do some writing while you're doing...well, whatever it is you want to do. What do you say?"

Against her better judgment, she glances at him again, and oh god, he looks so damn excited. He's really serious about this, isn't he?

"Castle, I…" she trails off, because what the hell does she even say to this? There's the part of her that wants to throw caution to the wind and just say yes, let's go, right now, please and thank you. Then there's the staid and stuffy Detective Beckett side, telling her in no uncertain terms that this is a terrible idea and that she can't possibly do this. No way, no how.

He squeezes her hand, and begins to tug her in the direction of the kitchen, a gleeful little-boy grin plastered on his face.

"C'mon Beckett, I'll make some hot cocoa and tell you all about the place. Oooh! And show you some pictures. You won't be able to say no once you've seen it."

He finally releases her hand as she slides onto one of the bar stools and he rounds the island to set about gathering supplies for their drinks, babbling about his place in the Hamptons all the while. Oh it's such an amazing place, Beckett. You'd love the pool, Beckett. The library has any book you could possibly want to read, Beckett. I'd make all of your favorite meals for you, Beckett. She doesn't doubt the validity of any of his statements. And she doesn't doubt that he'd be a perfect gentleman the whole time.

No, what has her worried is her resolve. She'd be lying if she denied the attraction between them, and while it may have began as a solely physical pull, it's more than that now. He's a solid friend, a valued confidant. Their chemistry is potent and magnetic, and sometimes she wonders if being with him is inevitable, if running away from it is an exercise in futility. Maybe she doesn't want to run anymore.

The rich smell of chocolate fills her senses as he divides the creamy beverage between two mugs, and offers whipped cream, mini marshmallows, or both as garnish. She nods at the whipped cream, as she envisions other things they could do with it. Oh shit, she has got to stop this.

He takes up the spot right next to her and swipes at his phone, showing her picture after picture with accompanying narration as she sips at her cocoa. The house really does look amazing, right on the beach with impeccably manicured gardens, a crystalline-blue pool, a library just as impressive as he described it, a kitchen fit for making a thousand feasts. She'd have to be crazy not to want to go.

This should be simple. It's just one friend inviting another on a harmless getaway. Right?

Except that there's nothing simple about their relationship anymore. Oh, sure, on the surface, they're the same as they've ever been, with the banter and the barbs and the thinly-veiled innuendos. But in the deepest, darkest recesses of her heart lurk some very strong feelings for this man, and while she wouldn't venture so far as to call it love (not yet, she chides herself), it feels like something that could evolve into that. And that scares the shit out of her.

She glances over her shoulder, back to the big living room windows, the wind and rain continuing to throw themselves against the glass to no avail. She understands that kind of fruitless struggle all too well. She wants to be simple, unburdened. She yearns for a life unhaunted by a murdered mother and a recovering alcoholic father. She wishes she was the kind of woman who had that Stanford law degree, who lived a blissfully ignorant life, who wasn't hunted by serial killers. The kind who could accept an invitation to a Hamptons getaway with a friend-on-the-verge-of-becoming-more without overthinking it.

But she's not that woman, is she?

When she turns her attention back to Castle, the screen on the phone is dark, the excited, expectant look on his face gone, only concern in its place.

"Hey, are you okay? Listen, I'm sorry if I overwhelmed you with all this talk of the Hamptons. I was just trying to take your mind off of everything. I mean, the invitation is sincere! I'd love to bring you there. But, you know, if it's all too much, I get it." She looks into his eyes and all she sees there is understanding. There's no judgement, no pressure.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knows she should be leaping at this opportunity. And it's not just about getting this offer from a wealthy, handsome, professionally successful and stable man. He's...yes, he's all those things, but he's more. He's sweet and genuine when he wants to be. He likes taking care of the people in his life. He's sharp and smart, but doesn't make others feel inferior when he uses his intellect. He's protective. Funny. Loving.

And yet, she hesitates.

Suddenly, she's exhausted, weary to the bone. On some level, she knows why she balks at the idea: what she wants, and what she believes she can have, are two entirely different things. She and Castle are both broken, in their own unique ways, but the odds of their mismatched pieces dovetailing just so are too unlikely, regardless of their friendship and attraction. Some people just don't fit, no matter how good a match they appear. There's no possible way they could make a go of it.

So why does it feel like she's actively working to convince herself of that?

"No, you're fine, Castle. And I really appreciate the offer. Let me think about it, okay?" she replies, knowing she could probably give him a definitive answer right now. Of course I can't take time off. Of course I can't go to the Hamptons with you. Of course I need to move out as soon as humanly possible. Of course we'll never work.

It doesn't matter that she might be wrong. She knows how the final chapter of the story reads for women like her. She doesn't get what she wants, isn't allowed the happy ending, has to live with the doubts and the what-ifs, the numerous loose threads and unanswered questions. Damaged, lonely nobodies don't end up with people like Castle. Or if they do, it doesn't last, and that's a failure she's not sure she could survive.

No, it's better to back away from the precipice. Put some distance between herself and almost certain catastrophe. Regroup. Find a nice man who has a steady nine-to-five job and low expectations. One who will just ignore her emotional baggage, or, at the very least, not ask too many prying questions about it. And she'll be as close to fulfilled as she possibly can be.

"Listen, I'm beat. I'm gonna go to bed, okay? Thanks for keeping me company, Castle. And for the cocoa. And the invite. I'll see about getting some time off and let you know, okay?" She hates herself for lying to him, especially after all he's done for her, but she doesn't have the strength to turn him down tonight, not when her heart is still trying so desperately to overrule her brain.

His answering smile is as bright as the night is dark, and her loathing of herself and her dishonesty (and her eventual rejection of his generous offer) festers a little bit more.

"Fantastic. You deserve a break, Beckett. No one works harder than you do. A little TLC would do you some good." His grin only grows, along with her inner turmoil over it.

She stands and begins to move toward the stairs when his hand grabs hers once again, and honestly, he has got to stop doing that. Her reaction to his touch is far too powerful.

"Hey, Kate?" Oh no. Why must he use her given name? "I meant what I said before. You're welcome to stay here for as long as you want. Mi casa es su casa, and all that stuff." He squeezes her hand, probably to punctuate the sincerity of his words and God, could he make this any more impossible for her?

And yet before she can stop herself, she squeezes back.

"Thanks, Castle. Good night."

He releases her and she misses the contact instantly, which is her cue to get upstairs now and not look back. She senses his eyes on her, tracking her movements as she runs away from him and away from whatever this thing is that's growing and blossoming between them.

She collapses onto the bed, the sheets thoroughly jumbled after her restless tossing and turning earlier that night. They're lumpy and uncomfortable under her back, but she doesn't much care. Her mind is buzzing and her hand is tingling where he touched her and she knows - she knows - there will be no sleeping tonight.

She rolls toward the window, the blinds in the room still open, and watches the inclement weather lashing against the panes, just as she did downstairs.

Only it's safer to watch it here, away from Castle.

Taken from Alex's Castlefanfic Prompt Challenge: Season 2 - "This storm is getting bad"

Thank you, as always, for taking the time to read. If you'd like to share your thoughts, I'm always thrilled to hear from you!

A huge thank you to Alex for creating this fun challenge, and for her tireless support of our fanfic community. You are a superstar!

Many thanks to J for the editing and suggestions. Nitpick away, my dear.