A story by daphnebeauty

Chapter One:

She didn't taste like she should.

She didn't fit in his arms like Kate would.

He could almost, almost make himself believe that the dream curled into his side was Kate. That the long, brown waves of hair that flowed over his bare chest belonged to the woman he had let slip through his fingers, and not to a mere figment of his imagination.

If he could go back, he would. He did it every damn night in his dreams. He went back to the nights of silly laughter and the mornings of slow and sleepy love-making. He went back to the day it rained so hard she was drenched through and through and he had kissed her under a maple tree. He went back to the night she had named the freckle on his left knuckle. He went back to the feeling of her wet body pressed against his chest in a bath. He went back to the feel of her laugh on his chest.

He went back every night since she had left.

Eight months, fourteen days, and a few gut-wrenching hours since she had left and never come back. He hadn't followed. He only went back in his dreams. The dreams that lie torturously in between bliss and nightmares and woke him with an ache in his chest that never lessened with time. She left such a hole in him.

He couldn't quite pin the moment things had gone wrong. Somewhere between the laughs and the smiles, there had been something much darker. And she had faded. Faded right before his eyes and he hadn't even noticed until she had walked away and disappeared completely.

There should have been signs. There should have been fights and breaking glass and tears and slaps and fire and thunder and four horsemen. But there was nothing. She had one day simply slipped though his fingers like fine sand.

He had begged her to stay. He had knelt on the floor and held her by the stomach and begged like a man losing his life. Because in essence, he was. She was his everything. And to lose her would be to lose life itself. His tears had soaked her shirt and his hands had stretched it out as he gripped and pulled to make her stay. Her tears had fallen from above like rain.

She had used her strong and gentle hands to pry him away. She had used her long and lovely fingers to dry his tears. She had bent at the waist and kissed his head and then she had walked away.

"I can't."

Today was a special day. He would officially have been without her for longer than he had been with her. He had spent a portion of that time searching for a replacement. A placeholder. A warm body. But no one was enough and he always went home alone. The vodka couldn't blur his vision enough to make their eyes green. It couldn't numb his fingers enough to ignore the lack of scars. It didn't wipe his memories enough to make him forget.

It wasn't enough. Nothing ever would be again.

He quietly dressed himself in the dim morning light. There would be no more sleeping and he didn't want to lie in bed contemplating exactly how empty the other half of it felt. How empty he felt. Castle snuck out of the apartment and made his way to the streets of New York.

It was early enough that the traffic was still entirely too calm. He hadn't been awake and about at this hour since…well, since Kate's warm and low voice had called him to the crime scene of the last case they had worked together. There was something about the blue-grey light of the morning that made him feel completely and utterly alone. More alone than he had felt in the entire eight months he'd been without her.

Maybe it was this loneliness. Maybe it was the chill in the air. Maybe it was the innate quality of man to strive for routine. Whatever it was, Castle switched the direction he had been walking on the streets and headed towards a long-unvisited destination. Smelling his goal long before he reached its doors, Castle let the memories of countless mornings of the past wash over him.

Pushing on the brass bar of the glass door, Castle entered the bakery. He hadn't been here since Kate had left. This had once been where he got her coffee and pastry every morning and the thought of returning here again had turned his stomach. He couldn't even drink coffee anymore and had switched to tea long ago. The smell of a rich brew only reminded him of the taste of her tongue after she drank a cup.

Today, the cheery jingle of the bells on the door greeted him as if no time at all had passed since his last visit.

"Richard!" an exuberant voice called across the room. "Ben! Ben, get out here! Richard is back!"

Castle couldn't help the small smile that quirked his lip. Angela Dunning and her husband ran the bakery and he had formed a friendship with them over the years.

"How are you Angela? It's been a while."

"A while! Richard Castle you haven't been by in ages. Did you know my Maggie is pregnant? About to burst, she is!"

Castle's eyes widened. Apparently he had missed some things.

"I had no clue. Tell her congrats for me, will ya?"

"Tell her yourself. She'll be in tomorrow. You are coming back for good, right?"

Castle looked down at the pastry display for a short moment, trying to hide the guilt in his eyes. He didn't think he'd be coming back here. It smelled too much like a happier time.

"Don't think so, Angie."

"What's this I hear about Richard Castle being back?" Ben came bumbling out of the back room, wiping his hands on an incredibly dirty apron.

"Hey Ben."

"So it's true, then. You decided to grace us with your presence once again? Had enough Starbucks?"

"Ah, don't be like that, Ben. Starbucks means nothing to me! I was thinking of you the whole time."

Ben waved a dismissing hand at him. "You and your flattery. Not gonna talk your way outta this one. Where have you been?"

Castle scratched his cheek and rubbed his neck, buying himself a bit of time to find a way to answer the question. He couldn't think of a response that he liked enough so he avoided it altogether. "I hear Maggie is finally giving you guys a grandkid."

"Yep. Should have a little boy bouncing around here soon. Gonna give out free pastries the day he decides to get here."

"A boy, huh?"

Angie interrupted the exchange by nudging her husband with an elbow. She had stopped what was sure to be a long and endless proud papa speech.

"Ben, save it for another time. Look at the circles under the boy's eyes. He's obviously here for some coffee. You don't look good Richard."

"And you look more stunning than ever."

She blushed a deep shade of red and let out a loud bark of laughter.

"Get him some coffee quick, Ben! He's obviously gone mad." Turning back to Castle she leaned over the glass display case. "Since you're here again…can we assume this means Katie dear is back in the picture?"

The tug somewhere between his stomach and his heart was a little more acute than he could handle at the time and it must have showed on his face.

"Ah…I see. We were hoping things might change. She comes here sometimes, you know."

Castle immediately looked around the bakery, as if he might see his Kate hiding behind a newspaper at one of the small tables. He felt a warmth over his hand and looked down to see Angela's hand over it.

"She's not here today, dear. She usually comes in on the weekends or certain Mondays."

"Right." Castle nodded. He didn't even have a clue what he would have said to her even if she had been sitting at one of those tables with her power heels on and a shirt buttoned one button too high.

Ben slid his piping hot coffee over the counter and nodded his head towards the man in such obvious pain.

"On the house, son. Maybe it'll get you to come back more often."

"Maybe. Just not on weekends or certain Mondays." He allowed himself a self-deprecating smile that left all three of them at a loss for words. He backed away from the counter with a quick downward tilt of his chin and a slight wave with his free hand.

Turning and looking down at the coffee cup in his hand, he walked with care to make sure not to spill a drop over the lid. Reaching out for the door and pushing it open, he turned his head at the last minute to say his farewells.

"Bye guys. Thanks for the—"

He ran straight into a customer who had been entering the glass doors. His coffee smashed straight into their chest spilling dark brown, steaming hot liquid all down both of their fronts.

"Shit!" she yelled in pain.

Castle knew that voice. His stomach dropped to somewhere around his shoes and his heart seemed to disappear entirely. Looking for the face he already knew was buried under a curtain of dark brown hair, he took two, three, four steps backwards and dropped his almost empty cup altogether. Whatever remained of the drink sloshed out onto the floor as the cup rolled on the tile.

This could not be happening.

This could not be happening.

She still hadn't looked up from wiping the liquid off her shirt, but he knew it was her. Those hands. Those arms. Those legs. That hair. Everything. Everything. He couldn't breathe.