Author's Note: I have two (yes, two!) multi-chapter fics I'm working on right now, why on earth did I write this? I asked myself this more than once, and really the only answer is this: I have no idea. It just kind of came to me the other day (I was having a bad day) and I went with it. Not sure if I like how it turned out, but whatever. It's a oneshot with a bit o' fluff. Hope you like it!

Spoilers: None really, there is no timeline.

Disclaimer: Blah blah blah ... not mine ... blah blah blah.

The first time was an accident.

He'd come back for his wallet, which in a rare moment of thoughtlessness he'd left sitting on her desk after paying for lunch that day. While he had known he'd find a skeleton crew in the bullpen, he had not known to expect Kate herself. Her jacket was still slung over the back of her chair; he double checked his watch to make sure his eyes weren't playing tricks with him. Almost a quarter after ten at night: why was she still here?

He'd forgotten his wallet and instead taken cautious steps toward the lounge. He saw her shoulders before he saw the rest of her, and the greeting he'd been about to call out died on his lips when he rounded the corner. Her head flew up out of her hands and eyes glistening with tears had fixed mutely on him. She had been crying, was still crying, and he was beside her in the span of a heartbeat.

Kate did not make a sound, but when the arm he slipped around her shoulders was not immediately thrown off his stomach flipped in worry. Rather than shying from his embrace, she leaned into it and laid her head in the pocket of his shoulder. The acceptance of his support frightened him almost as much as her silence.

He dared not ask her why she was crying, lest the sound of his voice break whatever spell had fallen around them. He could count on one hand the number of times Kate Beckett had cried in front of him; he was afraid to ask, and afraid of not knowing.

He held her and his silence, the minutes stretching out into what felt like forever as they sat on that familiar little couch. After a while, when her breathing had evened out and the small circle on his shirt no longer felt warm with tears, he deduced that she must have fallen asleep.

When she pulled away seconds later, he knew he had been wrong.

She leaned in to press a gentle kiss to his cheek. Her eyes were begging him not to question her: don't say a word, they seemed to say.

She needed the silence as much as she needed the release, so he held his tongue and let her have it.

The second time was a surprise.

They'd been in interrogation, and he'd watched as she had not so much as unraveled as simply broken apart. He'd been keeping a closer watch on her since the night in the lounge, although he did his best not to let her know he was doing it. He had hoped to see it coming, but he had been just as blind sided as the suspect. One minute she had been asking him a question and the next – when he had fired off some snide sexual innuendo as a reply – she had been slamming the table into his gut and pushing him backward in his chair. She was towering over him, both hands on the table as she very nearly spit venom into his no longer smug countenance. He was slow to recover from the surprise but quick to act, one hand sliding unnoticed out of his lap to rest warmly on the area of her leg just above the kneecap. The gesture was hidden underneath the table, and very clearly focused on keeping his face impassive. The muscle under his hand was taut, the tension in her body leeching into his as if by osmosis.

Three breaths, four, and then the muscle began to unwind itself and she relaxed minutely. His hand stayed where it was; she reseated herself with effortless grace, poker face firmly in place once more. He waited until she had resumed asking questions, their perp obviously intimidated into giving real answers, before letting his hand slide slowly out of its spot on her leg and back into his lap.

The rest of the interview passed without incident; he did not allow himself to drop his guard until they were safely out of the room. He was about to step off toward the board when her voice, soft and serious, stopped him.


He glanced sidelong at her: her expression was impassive, but those beautiful bright eyes were telling him all he needed to know.

He gave her a lopsided grin and the barest hint of a shrug.

"Any time."

The third time was a disaster.

Gates had just spent the morning ripping into them (well, mostly Kate because she still refused to acknowledge him as part of the team) because their suspect had managed to evade capture. Ryan had taken a mean spill in the chase; luckily, the ankle that they had originally thought broken was only badly sprained. He could tell that her teammates' injury weighed heavily on Kate, and Gates was only making it worse.

By the time they were dismissed, both Kate's expression and her body language were hardened. She had retreated behind her wall of anger and guilt, and Castle knew that she would not permit him inside those defenses.

He tried anyway.

Not only did his attempt to cheer her backfire, it painted a giant target on his chest. She turned her anger on him, lashing out in response to his quip; despite her attack, he would not raise to the bait. She was angry with herself, he knew, angry with the man for evading them and angry with the Captain by association. Her friend had been hurt and she felt helpless; try as she might, the tumult of emotions would not stay confined to her breast.

He remained stoic in the face of her outburst, careful to keep his face devoid of expression. He thought of the last two incidents before this one: her tears in the lounge, and her eruption in interrogation. Although neither the tears nor the anger were entirely unheard of in his partner, they were not commonplace enough for him to dismiss them out of hand.

Something deeper was going on here.

The first incident had required silence; the second, acknowledgement. He thought he had a pretty good idea of what this one required.

After Ryan and Esposito left that night, she had stopped in the middle of her paperwork and turned to where he sat in his chair by her desk. She wanted to say something, he could see it in the twitch of her lips, but couldn't find the words. He had anticipated just this moment, so he saved her from her uncertainty with a heavy gaze.

"We'll get him, Kate," He said evenly, his voice soft

"I didn't mean to take it out on you."

"I know."

The fourth time was a reflex.

One year. One year to the day after Roy's death; he had known it the moment he'd opened his eyes, known immediately where the weight on his chest had come from.

They had soldiered through the last year. They had thrown themselves into their work, all four of them; they'd thrown themselves into any and every distraction they could find. Ryan and Esposito clung even tighter to their significant others; he and Kate had barely managed to hold on to each other. They'd stumbled and faltered their way to this day, and now it was here and would not be ignored.

Everything about the day was subdued. The colors and sounds of the world seemed muted and dim, as if reaching toward him from across a great chasm.

The same fog seemed to hang around his counterparts when he got to the precinct. No one mentioned it, but their faces were lined and drawn despite their best efforts. Their jabs at each other and attempts at gallows humor seemed to fall flat, no matter how they tried.

For the first time in a long time, Castle felt like an outsider.

The dynamic between the three teammates was not something he had come to understand easily, but understand it he did.

At least, he had thought that he did.

Standing in the squad room unnoticed, however, he watched the three of them where they now stood next to Kate's desk. They were standing closer than usual, as if to provide one another support while at the same time defending against intruders. Their obvious concern (which they were each attempting to hide) for one another suddenly had him feeling like an interloper, and he thought that maybe he didn't understand the bond between them at all.

Underneath the slab of dull pain that had encased it, his heart beat with another kind of pain.

Perhaps he wasn't as much a part of their team as he had thought himself to be.

Perhaps he would never be.

He left without a word, unable to bear the secretly excruciating weight of his dark heart. He was restless in a terrible way, his thoughts stubbornly trying to replay the last time he'd seen Roy alive.

The hangar.

The confession.

The way Kate kicked and yelled to be let go as he dragged her away from her mentor, friend, Captain.

The apology the only solace he could offer her as he held her against her will, until that last gunshot had torn away even his resolve.

No; he would not replay it again.

The cemetery was quiet in the cool evening sunlight, and he was grateful for it. He climbed the hill automatically, his feet carrying him to the place he had not known he wanted to be.

The turmoil within him reached a head then, a painful spike of sadness and regret and anger and too many other things to name piercing him with its venomous tip.

Roy's resting place.

The scene of Kate's shooting.

The physical reminder of his (unheard) profession of love.

He didn't think he could stay. The clean, pale façade of Roy Montgomery's headstone stood silent and unmarred before him, but all he saw was pain. Every beat of his heart seemed loud and ugly in his ears.

All around me, all I see, devastation where life used to be.

The words sang softly in his mind, a dark and gloomy litany of loss. He was untethered, lost and floating in inky black water that threatened to drown him in a current of remorse.

A slim warm hand slid into his then, and through a sheen of denied tears he turned his head to find Kate beside him; less than a breath later they were joined by Ryan and Esposito.

No one spoke.

They stood close, although he and Kate were the only ones touching. She left her hand in his, which registered with dim surprise in a tiny corner of his mind. The surprise didn't matter: they were here, alive, and they were together. They had survived that day, just as they would survive this one.

Kate dropped her head to his shoulder with the minutest sigh; he laid his cheek against her hair, breathing in the scent of cherries as he squeezed her hand.

The pain and the weight had not fled or lessened, but he no longer feared that it might eat him alive.

They were here with him, their pain and weight shared and spread between them like a grim ribbon of battles hard fought.

The fifth time was intentional.

Another anniversary, more so hers than his, but no less melancholy and grim. He knew the day, not in the way that he had known that other day not so long ago, but as a memory recalled from a not far removed corner of his consciousness. Another anniversary, another death, another hurtful memory.

Why did they have to have so many?

He did not want her to be alone this day; Saturdays did not provide even the distraction of work for his intrepid Detective. Knowing this, and knowing that she would be better for the company (even if she denied it later), he decided to create a distraction.

To his delight, she accepted his invitation to come over. He had been ready with several excuses of why she needed to spend the day with a friend, but he hadn't needed them; he'd even chosen the word friend very carefully, and repeated it aloud to himself a few times to make sure he didn't put too much stress on it. The argument had never come, however.

The argument had not, but Kate had.

Company she needed, he assessed, but not pestering. He'd decided even before she arrived that he would provide as much distraction as she needed, but only if she needed it. He could also just sit and be quiet with her, if that was what she needed.

A combination of both was what the situation required, it seemed.

With Alexis at Stanford and his mother busy with her acting school, the loft had seemed strangely quiet around them. He'd suggested a movie: when she agreed, he made her pick.

So they sat, close but not quite touching, watching King Kong in companionable silence. A strange pick for her, he'd remarked silently to himself, and wanted to smile at the unexpectedness of it.

He noticed after a while that she was only half paying attention to the movie; the other half of her focus seemed to be on keeping the barely restrained tears in her eyes from falling. She'd been quiet all night, responding to his humor and his quips but not quite fully engaged.

Glimmering tears standing in her hazel eyes, hair tumbling down her shoulders, Kate looked as vulnerable as he had possibly ever seen her.

He wrapped an arm around her petite shoulders and pulled her into his side, feeling her stiffen only slightly at first and then relax into him. She tucked the crown of her head up under his chin and pulled both legs up onto the couch to curl tightly against him.

Castle willed all the comfort and love and tenderness in him into his embrace so that it might wash over and warm the aching woman in his arms. So much pain in such a small body; Kate stood tall against the rest of the world, but here, in the safety of Castle's arms, he wanted her to know that she could be small. Small and hurt and afraid, and it was okay, because he was here to stand tall and watch and protect.

He knew the moment she fell asleep. The cadence of her breathing deepened and slowed – he could not hear it so much as feel the rise and fall of her chest against the side of his. He dropped a whisper of a kiss against her hair, filling his nostrils with the scent of cherries.

The sixth time was a promise.

She showed up unexpectedly at his door, all rosy cheeks and uncertainty when he swung open the door. He'd invited her in, and for the span of a few moments she actually looked like she was contemplating turning on her heel and running from the building.

His concern made his stomach drop and do cartwheels.

She came inside anyway, and when she requested to speak to him – privately – he lead her to his office with a growing sense of dread.

"Did you mean it?" She blurted as soon as the door was closed

"Mean what?" He replied, brows knitting together in consternation

"I heard you. I didn't remember at first, but it came back. You said you loved me."

More cartwheels from the region of his gut. Almost a full year and a half later, and now she was bringing it up? Not a word spoken of it before, and now here she was like the most beautiful whirlwind he'd ever seen, eyes bright and hair adorably mussed.

"Yeah, I said it," He finally responded

"Did you mean it?" She asked again

"I'm not in the habit of saying it if I don't," He said carefully, watching the dark play of shadows in her wide eyes

"And what about now?" She asked, and he could see the doubt written plainly across her features

"Now?" He repeated, confused

"Now, when I'm broken; when the puzzle pieces of my life are so shattered that I'm not sure I'll ever find them again, let alone put them back together. Do you love me still?"

He was caught motionless for what felt like forever, or perhaps only the seconds it took to breathe several breaths. What answer was she looking for? Did she want the truth? Did she want him to push it aside, so that she could brush it under the rug and put it from her mind?

Damn the rug, and damn that idea.

He crossed the small gap between them and put both hands on her biceps, squeezing them gently in reassurance as he locked gazes with her.

"You are not broken, Kate, no more so than the rest of us. You're shaken and scared, although I'm sure you'd deny it until you were blue in the face. And that's okay. I just hope you know that I'm here for you, whenever you need me. Whatever you need."

"You didn't answer the question."

Damn. She would have the truth it seemed. He was silly for thinking otherwise, of course.

"Yes, Kate. I still love you. Then, now, the next time you ask … my answer is the same."

She sighed in … what? Resignation? Sadness? Disappointment?

"I love you too."

Soft words, soft voice, but no less effectual. He wanted to dance ridiculously in the middle of the room; he wanted to hoot and holler from the top of the tallest skyscraper; he wanted to hang his head in his hands and weep.

"I love you, Rick, but I don't know if I can do this now. So much of me is still devoted to finding my mother's murderer, and Roy's; I don't think I can give you what you deserve until I've finished. I don't have enough left of me to split: I can't focus on both without letting one slip."

"I'm not asking you to," He answered solemnly, "I'm not asking for anything."

She looked so torn and weary then. He pulled her to him again, both of her arms sliding around his waist as his settled around her shoulders. She turned her head so that her cheek was nestled against his chest, and neither of them showed any inclination to move.

"What if I lose myself again?" She whispered against his shirt

"You won't."

"How do you know?"

"I will be your tether, your safe harbor in the storm; your anchor and your sail."

She pulled back, his arms loosening to let her do so. She did not moved away, however, just pulled far enough away to give him the ghost of a smile. She kissed him then, a slow simmering press of lips that was both sweet and passionate. A promise of things to come, a small voice whispered.

"Anchor … and sail?" She asked when they had parted

He touched his forehead to hers, feeling the warm puffs of her breath on his lips. Their arms were still laced around each other.

"Anchor and sail," He reaffirmed, "Always."

Her smile was bright and gorgeous and meant for him alone; he smiled back, his heart dancing merrily within his breast.