Everything tasted wrong. It was ash in her mouth.

She brushed her teeth again, but still tasted blood.

She washed her hands in scalding water, until her skin was raw and red, until the burn flayed her nerves, until Castle jerked her hands from the faucet, wordless, and clasped them in his own, shaking, trembling. Was it him or her? trembling.

She ignored those pleading eyes, hated those pleading eyes, hated him with a cold numbness that made her despair of ever being rid of it, rid of any of it, and returned to the couch. The boys were steadfastly avoiding each other. Ryan had a bruise against his windpipe in the shape of a finger. His lip was busted on the inside. She'd said nothing about it, just sat again with them and used her ragged, bitten-down nails to work at the cracked places in the skin of her knuckles.

Castle sat down, closed his hands around hers, crushing her fingers, nearly breaking them, but she stopped slicing open her own skin.

She would say what she needed to say.

"This doesn't leave our family."

Castle hovered. Ryan and Esposito came and left in separate vehicles; she hoped they went home and got some rest before-

She couldn't put a name to it yet. Couldn't. She was still on the cold concrete floor with the hot blood under the palms of her hands, still on her knees with the body, the face too slack, the smell of loose bowels and blood. Castle had gone home to change, had come back to find her still sitting on her couch with her hands pressed between her knees.

"He spent his whole life making up for it," Castle said.

She shook her head at him and closed her eyes. She'd forgiven, she'd forgiven and it was gone.

"You were his sign from God," Castle said. "To atone."

Shut up. Shut up. She took another long gulp of water to wash the taste out. Her hand was shaking; she held the glass too hard. It was an effort to put it back down.

"Did he atone? Or did he make it worse? Keeping it all hidden. Keeping it covered. Keeping you in check."

He still had to talk, so much useless chatter. Talking solved nothing. She needed a name. A name for the dark shadow that had fallen over her life. She wanted silence and space to be nothing, lest the shadow take her over. But Castle was keeping her here, tethered; she needed nothingness.

"Where's Josh?"

"What the hell does it matter, Castle?" She sprang to her feet and snatched the water glass from the table, shoved her way past him.

"It matters because you need someone here. With you. Not alone." He grabbed her hand as she broke for the kitchen, snagging her, the water sloshing over to her floor.

"It's always been like this for me," she grit out, her teeth clenched. "Today is no different."

"Then come home with me."

She wilted, withdrew, closed her eyes. "I can't. I can't do it."

"My mom's there; she's good at distractions. Alexis. Alexis is worried about you. She wants to see you for herself. And I. . .I'm afraid to leave you alone."

Kate shook his hand off, but didn't move away. Get her out of here, Castle.

"I can't."

"You don't have to sit with us. You can hide in my room; it's alone on that end. You don't have to talk to anyone. It's not right for you to be alone. After this."

I believed in what we were doing.

She backed away from him, from everything he offered and represented, from everything the close of day was trying to take from her. "He was my. . .he was my captain. He made me a detective; he trained me, showed me how to do this." She shivered.

"I know. I know he did." And Castle came close, too close.

I put it all into the job; I became the best cop.

"He was by the book; he made a difference. His legacy. . .I won't take that away. His wife is, his wife and his daughters and I just. . ." She clutched at her sides, drew in, in, in to keep it all in place. A breath, a shallow breath that got caught in her lungs. "He let me talk about her. About my mother. For hours. I would sit in his office and he'd pour a drink, just one because he knew, and I'd just lay it all out. Piece by piece. He let me talk theory. Oh God."

He let her talk theory. He built theory with her. All this time, carefully steering her away from the truth. And he was the one to tell her, You're too close; you've buried yourself in your mother's case. It's time to step back and let it go. Oh God, he'd called her off.

God forgive me.

"He was keeping you safe," Castle said, and turned her around into him. Like last night. His hands were steady, cupping her face like something precious. She'd not been precious, cherished by someone, in so long.

This is my stand.

"He kept you safe, Kate." And his arms were tight around her, holding her up, holding her in, so that her insides didn't spill out everywhere. "He protected you because he couldn't protect her."

"It didn't have to be like that. It didn't have to go down like that."

"So change it now, Kate. Change things now." He gripped her tighter, too tight; she couldn't breathe. "Set a different course. Don't let it go down like that. Your life, your life can be different."

She choked on a sob, muffled it against his shirt, tried to stand but found her legs were unusable. Castle held her up; Castle kept her standing.

"I'm sorry," she rasped, trying to clear her throat of tears she *would not* cry. Not now. Not today. Not again. "I'm sorry. We're not over; it can't be over. I didn't-"

"I know. I know." He held her tighter, pressed his cheek to the top of her head so that she felt all of him, a solid wall of him holding her up.

And still, the words caught fire in her mouth, sifted to ash on her tongue. All of it was wrong.

"I'm taking you home," he said finally.

She dressed carefully in her uniform, placed her hair in a tight bun, took it down, tried again. She held it up at the back with her fingers to keep the hair from touching her collar. She wanted it exact. She was in Castle's room; she was not herself. The woman in the mirror was stern faced and untouchable.

Alexis came in with a fistful of bobby pins, quiet. Kate took them, let her hand touch Castle's daughter's palm, tried to show appreciation in her eyes. She was afraid of what came out instead. She stood in the room with the bobby pins like a handful of tacks and tried to make herself known.

Alexis walked out.

Kate placed the bobby pins where her fingers held up each curling wisp. She tugged on her hat. She should bobby pin it as well, but she felt raw in her uniform, naked. She needed the armor of a suit jacket and holster; she was too vulnerable.

Castle entered, came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. His lips went to her neck and rested there. She shivered and closed her eyes against the image in the mirror.

And then she shrugged him off. "I can't. Not today."

He stood up straight, nothing on his face except maybe a trace of the old wounds; she was grateful for that at least. She knew he understood. She still battled. She had no stage to make her final stand, no place to dig in and ride it out. She had him.

That could be enough for her. But not today.

"Kate. Kate, I-"

She looked at him finally, her eyes deadly calm. He looked back, his words dying on his lips. He sighed, let it go, and she was grateful to not have to hear it.

He looked dark in his suit. Dark and light. His hair golden, his eyes too bright, even though touched with grief when he looked at her. He offered nothing other than the crook of his arm. She patted his shoulder instead, tilted her chin up to see past the brim of her uniform hat, and walked out of his room under her own power.

This was the only victory today.