"So I've been thinking of getting a dog."

The look she gives him is mildly incredulous, laced with something he's been realizing looks a lot like affection.

"Really?"

The way she draws the word out pokes at something inside of him. But it's gentle. Teasing instead of taunting.

"Why?" he asks, letting the same tone infuse his own speech. "Can you think of some reason I shouldn't?"

She shakes her head, leans over to pat his hand where it rests on the desk. He resists the urge to flip his palm over and capture her fingers before she draws back. No. At the precinct, under the watchful eyes of Ryan and Esposito and Gates. Not the time or the place for any kind of blatantly romantic overtures.

Not that they don't all know how he feels about her. He's followed her around for ages now. And he's pretty sure he's not fooling anyone with the "research" excuse anymore. They know why he sticks around.

He took one of those silly online tests once. What breed of dog would you be?

He'd thought it would tell him he'd be a beagle, known for its distinctive voice. Maybe a poodle - he does have impeccable fashion sense.

But the result it gave him, well, that was unexpected. And revealing.

A golden retriever. Friendly. Eager to please. Loyal to a fault. And quick to jump into danger to defend a loved one.

Maybe that was why he and Royal got along so well.

"Are you sure you'd remember to take care of it? To feed it?" she asks, her eyes back on her computer screen.

"I feed you, don't I?"

Uh-oh. His mouth spoke without giving any prior notice to his brain, and he braces himself for swift, probably painful retribution.

But it never comes.

Instead she nods, lips pursing in that way he's noticed she does when she's trying not to smile too much.

"I guess you do."

Really? She's going to acknowledge that in at least some small way, he takes care of her?

The detective has been different lately. Laughing more. Smiling more. Teasing more.

It's like something has shifted for her. Something major. She's letting go maybe. Freeing herself from the weight of the hurt imposed upon her these past thirteen years.

All the while he feels the weight become evermore burdensome week by week. The longer he hides his investigation and his contact with shadowy figures who only agree to meet in empty parking garages, the more he feels the walls pushing in on him. And he knows, he knows that the pressure will build until there's an explosion.

But for now, she looks happy. And he'd do anything to keep her that way.

"Speaking of eating, how soon will you be done?"

She's just doing paperwork today. And while normally, he avoids paperwork days like the plague, he wanted to see her, wanted to tell her about his idea of getting a dog. And she smiled when she saw him walking out of the elevator with a pair of coffees. So he's pretty sure she was glad to see him too. Either that or she just really needed the caffeine.

"It shouldn't take me much longer," she tells him, glancing up to meet his gaze.

Her eyes are sparkling. Not twinkling in humor. Not glinting with not-so-secret wickedness. Sparkling.

Joy.

And ever since Royal came to the precinct, they've barely stopped sparkling. He has a feeling that she wasn't the bad cop at all once he left her alone with the dog.

Strike that. He knows she wasn't the bad cop. When they were kneeling across the room from each other, calling for the dog, she said something about how comfortable her couch is. Oh, she caved. She totally caved.

And she called him baby. Royal, that is. He's never heard her use that term before. Unless it was to tell him or one of the boys to quit being one.

Her whole voice changed too. It got higher, more affectionate.

He really needs to get a dog. If this is what it would bring out in her? Or maybe get her a dog.

"Castle?"

Her voice cuts through his thoughts. It's her no-nonsense tone (though really, aren't they all?), but a hint of warmth still lingers.

"Yeah?"

He turns to see her watching him, amused frustration playing across her face.

"I asked what you had in mind."

"For what?"

She sighs and lifts a hand to push a curl behind her ears. Her hair has been curly a lot lately. Even when she's had it up in a bun, it's been a little more laid back, a little more loose. Casual, rather than the strictness that a tight bun with straight hair suggests. Maybe it's one more sign of her changing attitude. He likes it.

Likes it down, too, of course. His fingers itch sometimes with the need to run themselves through her luscious locks. But when it's up, he can see the defined curves of her long neck. The nape that he aches to kiss as he wraps himself around her from behind, his hands molding to her waist, to the firm muscles of stomach.

"Lunch?"

Even when she's not trying, she distracts him. He shakes off the thoughts of her hair and her neck and the way she would feel under his fingers as he-

Yeah. Not so helpful, those images.

A rubber band hits him squarely in the chest and he looks up in surprise.

"Castle, focus. Lunch. I'm hungry. You wanna go grab a bite?"

He momentarily ignores the fluttering in the region of his heart that shows up every time she sounds like she's inviting him to do something outside of work. Something that sounds like more than partners.

"How does a nice bowl of Kibbles 'n' Bits sound?" he jabs.

She shakes her head, standing up and snagging the coat on the back of her chair.

"How about you save that for your dog?"

He grins as he follows suit, getting to his feet and pulling his own coat over his shoulders. She was too quick for him today, and he didn't get a chance to help before she was buttoning the trenchcoat and tying the belt.

"So you really think I should get one?"

She nods amiably, lifting both hands to run them under her collar, pulling her hair free. His fingers twitch, and he clasps them together to keep from reaching out to her.

"Sure. Maybe a dog would be good for you. Keep you company when Alexis goes to college."

She steps back from her desk, pushing the chair in and he watches her, waits until she turns back toward him to give her a wink.

"Or I could get one for you. Visit a lot. Then I'd have both of you for company."

She doesn't roll her eyes as he expected. Just cocks her head to one side. She looks puzzled.

"Why would I need another pet?"

Wait. What?

"Another-"

She smirks, and he narrows his eyes at her.

"Touché, Detective."

Her elbow brushes against his side and then she's calling out to the boys, asking if they want any lunch. Both of them refuse, for once. Ryan's meeting Jenny. And Esposito apparently has plans as well, though he offers nothing in the way of explanation.

"Just the two of us then," she says, and he can decipher nothing from her tone aside from the fact that she doesn't sound displeased at the prospect.

He offers his arm, and she threads her own through it, keeping pace with him as they make their way to the elevator.

"So where are we going?" she asks as the doors open.

It's a nice day, and the romantic in him would love a walk in the open air with her by his side.

"I can has hot dog?" he jokes, letting her walk half a pace in front of him as they enter the elevator, despite the fact that they could easily step in as one. He may be broad in stature, but she certainly isn't.

"Did you just say 'I can has,' Castle?" she inquires, tilting her head to look at him with one eyebrow raised in disapproval at his grammar. Yeah, that's kinda hot. Oh, who's he kidding? That's really hot.

He just laughs and shakes his head.

"I'll explain on the way."