"Howareyou?" she'd asked, but it hardly took much effort to see she'd meant something else entirely. Her eyes had sought his with wide-open, full-speed-ahead honesty, the smile on her face sending him reeling. Without their usual wall, the unobstructed view was dizzying.

Now, Castle opened the door to his loft and allowed Beckett entry before him. Naturally, his mother was there to accost her, folding Kate into her arms with her customary wail of exuberance. As he stood back to make way, he couldn't stifle a smile of appreciation.

It wasn't just the rear view of Kate in her-his-favorite jeans, though that was treat enough. It was the idea of the open-armed welcome, the hint of the promise of Kate and Martha as allies that literally warmed him; he shrugged out of his coat at the door as he stepped around them to find Alexis.

Later, around a dinner table laden with duck l'orange, scalloped potatoes, French green beans with slivered almonds, and lemon meringue, the conversation was giddily light, but from Kate's corner, Castle still felt the occasional weight of her gaze. He kept catching her at it: sneaking looks his way saturated with that same open appreciation that, had he been putting pen to paper, he'd have been tempted to describe as 'tender', or no, that was too mellow: maybe, dare he say, 'adoring'? Too sappy. Perhaps...perhaps she was just relieved. He frowned down at his duck sauce.

How are you?

Eventually, their punch-drunk banter gained intensity. Alexis requested a play-by-play of the afternoon, which Martha, never one to dodge a spotlight, delivered with dramatic flair. Soon enough, the lightning-quick questions turned Kate's way:

Had you had training as a hostage negotiator?

Did you break Dad's Morse code right away?

How did you know what to do as an EMT?

When the mercenary held that gun to Richard's head, what on earth made you say—

"That's enough, Mother." Across the table from him, a shadow had fallen over Kate's face.

Upon further reflection, she looked more battle-worn than he'd seen her in a long time (and he'd just seen her tear-streaked in the middle of a restroom). Truth be told, they were all a little worse for the wear: beside him, Alexis was rubbing her temples, and even he felt suddenly drained of energy. "I think we'll all a bit emotionally spent."

Kate shot him a grateful look before rising to clear the dishes. He joined her at the kitchen sink as his mother made herself scarce (at least she knew when to make an exit) and Alexis retreated to her bedroom.

How are you?

She glanced over at him apologetically before taking a roasting pan from his hands and filling it with water to soak. "You're all so animated, Castle, so…" she lifted her soapy hands in question as she searched for the right description. "Full of joie de vivre," she finished. "Sometimes I just…" A frown. "Need a moment to process it all."

"I'm sorry. We get carried away, I know."

She gave him a small smile, and when she returned her concentration to the sink, he watched her reflection in the glass of the convection oven, still not confident, after all this time, in his ability to read her. She looked fatigued, no doubt about it, but a hint of her earlier exuberance still colored her cheeks. He took a chance.

Stepping close behind her, he rested his chin on her shoulder while reaching around her to fish her hands out of the warm water. She let out a tired breath of a laugh, but didn't pull away. She stilled, stiffening, yes, but allowed him to guide her hands—folded in his own to keep them from dripping—to the dishtowel on the counter to dry them. "Come sit down with me," he said.

She followed him to the oversized couch across from the glass-enclosed fireplace, but he noted that the customary caution, chased away by the events of the day, had returned to her eyes. He gave her half a cushion more space than he'd planned.

Tucking her feet up against the end of the couch, she leaned back into the cream throw pillows and smiled yet again at him, nearly a full-bodied ghost of the one in the bank vault. "When I saw you sitting there, Castle…" she shook her head, still smiling. "I could have kissed you."

He didn't smile back. He didn't crack a joke. He didn't deflect. He was over all that, and wanted her to know it. She got the message quick; the curve of her smile left her lips, and she was caught, staring at him silently, as his eyes locked on hers. "I could have kissed you, too," he told her softly, and hand-to-god, he actually saw the quiver go down her spine.

She swallowed and sat up straighter, telegraphing anxiety. "But enough about that," he said, and then he did allow his lips to quirk up at the corners, letting her off the hook as quickly as he had caught her there. "Tell me more about this fascinating paperwork you speak of."

She chuckled. "Oh, you'd love it, Castle. So full of intrigue and suspense. It's very sexy."

"I do like sexy."

She buried her face in her glass of pinot noir; all he heard was a pointed "hmm" before her phone buzzed, prompting her to set her glass down to retrieve it. She glanced at the screen, then tucked it to her ear while offering, "My dad. Must have seen the news."

How are you?

Castle made a show of disgruntlement. "I see you pick up for some people."

She made a shushing motion with the hand that had set down the wine glass. "Hey, Dad. Yeah, don't worry." In the pause that followed, her face softened still further in the yellow light of the fireplace. Across the arm of the couch, she caught Castle's eye again, and the word he was looking for still tugged. Admiration? Affection? He knew what he wanted to call it, what he would call it, without hesitation, were he but a impartial spectator in this particular-

"Everyone's alright," she said, and he stuffed his suspicions away to watch her nod into the phone again. Her eyes were still locked on his as she answered her father's last question with a sobering finality that left no room for doubt.

"I promise," she said. "I'm fine."