Disclaimer: All recognizable characters and situations herein do not belong to me. This story is meant solely for entertainment purposes. No infringement is intended.

Notes: This would be my Worst Case Scenario addition to the onslaught of post-finale fic. I really am a happy person in real life. Promise.

Thanks to the M&Ms: Mel and Meg, for the encouragement, the beta and the swift kicks in the butt when necessary. And per Alamo Girl, a good soundtrack for this piece includes "Call Your Name" by Daughtry and Serena Ryder's "All For Love." Because you need more melancholy.

For Kris, who pretends to care about the writing, but who actually pays attention to the important stuff-unless there's an "SVU" marathon on, and then I'm on my own. :)

His return is like scalding coffee on her tongue: startlingly sharp. But she is nothing if not gifted at self-preservation; never a game like his poker, but a necessity for survival. It's training she completed long ago but abandoned, foolishly thinking herself an unknown soldier safely returning home from the battlefield.

She should have known war stalks the weary like prey, and takes advantage of the wounded in the stillness between shallow, hopeless breaths.

Any walls demolished during her blind belief in the pipe dream of partnership have been carefully but meticulously reconstructed. Guarded with the scars only the swift acceptance and even quicker rejection of hope can bring.

She's more impenetrable now than ever before, a buttressed fortification of a broken heart she pretends to call self-awareness. Regardless, she finds steely strength and safety in it, pulling herself to her full height as they stare at each other. One beat. Two.

He's standing in the exact spot where her wishes became horses and trampled her. If the light catches it right, she can still see the chalk outline and the blood smears.

There is nothing to say, only roles to reverse.

She turns and walks away, this time doing the leaving.

It is the Medical Examiner's unofficial opinion that happily ever after is a construct created by people during bouts of serious psychosis, or sheltered (selfish?) writers who claim to live in the real world but truly know nothing of it.

Life - and love - are like the wounds she sees day in and day out. Broken. Bloody. Messily jagged. Inexplicably painful. Ultimately unavoidable.

Monumentally unfixable.

Life, love and loss are a cycle, like the summer breezes that chased Castle out of the building and the falling leaves that forced him back in. If you're lucky - or delusional - you get it in that order.

But for the life of her (a headily satirical statement), she can't name many people who have experienced it that way. What she knows are things she can hold in her hand; the perfect but ironic weight of a scalpel, digging into someone's psyche when she's no idea how to interpret it. The cold metal of the stool beneath her; the one thing that grounds her in a world so upside down.

The singular item that holds her in place, when everything around her is changing.

Everything they do is in tandem, from the way they fold their arms in suspicion to the size of the step they take toward the novelist they've privately deemed untrustworthy. They form a protective barrier around Beckett's desk, even though she's out with the warrant squad (and could put Castle down without half a thought or any assistance from them.)

He vacated the chair of his own free will. He sure as hell isn't getting it back on a similar whim, especially one that reeks of entitlement.

Two small steps forward, four giant steps back. A shuffling ballet with more regression than progression, and one they'd never agreed to participate in.

But now they circle continuously, not dancers but vultures - hawks ever present and mindful. The unspoken embodiment of a warning.

There is a sickening coil in both their stomachs as they realize Castle and Beckett used to be as in sync as they remain; as fluid and natural as rays from the sun that now highlight the disaster their differences and distances have turned them into. As complementary. The very characterization of partners.

But if there's one rule you don't break, it's that one. You go down bleeding, firing, fighting, gasping for air and waiting for whispers on angels' wings before you screw over your partner.

The definition has now become the antithesis, and there is no coming back.

His bullpen is a new divide, born of fiery apocalypse and the burning devastation that comes from disappointment and a charlatan's exposure.

Remaining diplomatic when emotion taints everything red - as though his people don't see enough of that as it is - mutes him even further, and for the first time since he made captain, he's thankful for the existence of the glass that separates his office from their standing.

The specter of "should have" will follow him for the rest of his days. Even after suspects and sufferers' faces and stories have faded from his mind, he will be haunted by the simple words that should have slipped past his lips: politics and the whim and influence of one man be damned to hell.

Instead, he's sentenced good cops to eternity among blinding flames, and somehow, incredibly, has the audacity to flinch alongside them.

The girls sit at the top of the stairs, matching hair and hands gripped tightly in prayer, watching as he waxes the veneer off the wood floor with his pacing.

He hasn't acknowledged them in the two hours they've sat there, just as he hasn't noticed the melancholy spotlight the moon is casting over him-or the shift in the plates of his foundation, in the form of concrete, mortar and a brunette detective in the twelfth precinct. They're both smart enough to understand no illumination will come from the beams, but are similarly naïve enough to still hold on to the childish hope that puts the spring in his step each day.

There are a thousand words to say, a million truths to tell, but though his body is back, his mind is still missing and his ears remain deaf. These are understandings he must unearth himself, when he is ready and able.

They hold on to the lie in the form of "when," not "if," even as they start preparing their own goodbyes, for they can list the fear he calls failures and demons all too easily.

They think he doesn't realize the magnitude of what he walked away from last spring, or what he's leaving now, as an arctic chill settles both indoors and out. They think he does not see through the broken branches bent from frost and chances not taken, paralyzed frozen by his low hanging cloud of a past.

But he's tired of explaining himself to people, especially when they steadfastly refuse to listen.

He's even more exhausted from counting the lines on his face, for they multiply ad infinitum in the early morning light, deeply caustic and accusatory, ever repeating in the dusty past. Caught among time, rust and shame.

Deserter. Liar. Failure.


Terms he's tangled with before; foes he's already fought.

But no more.

He raises the white flag, knowing they're already looking for it, and disappears within the expectations he never really escaped.

There is strength is standing his ground, but there is also potency in parting.

This time when he leaves, the clang of the door behind him is as resolute as his promise that he won't be back.