Title: Ink That Brands

Disclaimer: Really? Really? Really? Really.

Summary: He really wishes she wouldn't smile like that.

Author's Note: This popped into my head after I left a review for Peachy-x's "The Fall." Everyone should read it. It's fantastic.

He doesn't want to know. The smile she's throwing him, all calm and happy and so very beautiful—he doesn't want it.

Well no, he wants it, more than anything. He wants everything the smile implies—the late nights, the hands, the hearts, the lips and body and breath. Her love. He wants her love. More than anything he's ever wanted. Second only to his daughter's happiness, he wants to hear her say she remembers.

And it smarts. It does. It cuts through his chest, knowing that she knows—that she's known for months and months upon months. Hell, she's probably known for years. It's not like it was new information, by any stretch.

The realization socked him in the gut, threw him for the ultimate loop. The day they found the body covered in cement and he asked if she remembered, and she paused, he knew. She's been lying. For all this time, she's been lying to him. And while it wounds his pride and hounds his ego and crushes something in his chest, he understands.

This is the woman who asked him to wait, who explained that day on the swings under the sun. When her cheeks were sallow. When you could practically see her ribs beneath a tank top. When she still curled inward at the sight of a gun. When she couldn't breathe right, couldn't look him in the eye and say she was okay.

So he gets it. He understands why she's waiting.

He hates himself for it some days. He hates that he's waiting. Hates that he's let her do this to him. Hates that he's become this mat waiting for a woman to come back to him, taking all the hurt and angry words and lashing she can dish out. Were he a man with a lick more pride, he might walk away.

Pride—pride he's given up. He can have pride, or he can have Kate.

She turns back to him, raising a cracked mug in his direction. They're drinking beer out of coffee mugs in the middle of the precinct. He rather thinks they should be ashamed of themselves, but he can't help but love that they're pulling the wool over Gates' eyes.

The way Kate's smiling erases any desire for maturity. She looks at him like he's some kind of super hero and he stands straighter, laughs louder, becomes a better man.

He wishes she wouldn't smile at him like that. Wishes she wouldn't trust him so much. He just wants to take her smile and pack it away, wall it up, send it back.

She's been laughing more, smiling at him more every day. She touches him, too. Brushes along his fingers, hands at his shoulders, fingers on his thigh—she's invading his bubble on purpose. He knows. He can see it.

She's cracking. Something's happening to her wall. Something's changing her. Ever since the sniper case she's been better, fuller, whole. It's wonderful to see. He's missed the smiles and easy laughter. He never wants to see her eyes that hollow again, never wants to hear her crying, see her shaking.

It's a dichotomy of feeling though, because the closer she comes to normal, to whole, the further he drifts away. One day soon—maybe not soon, but he's in love with her, it's hard to be pessimistic—she's going to say she remembers. Maybe she'll cry. Maybe she'll beg him to understand. Maybe she'll even say she loves him back.

Once she's done that, he'll have to tell her. He'll have to bring her into his office, her eyes full of hope, her smile so full, her body so close, there for him, there with him. He'll have to take her in there, when she's finally his, when she's said she's ready, she's whole, she's broken down the damn wall.

And then he'll have to tear her world apart.

He's going to hurt her. He's going to destroy her. And if he doesn't destroy her, he sure as hell knows he's going to destroy himself. He's going to look her in the eye, see everything he's ever wanted, and break it. All the weekends at the Hamptons, all the nights in his bed, her bed, all the mornings wrapped around her, the showers, the dances, the hugs, the kisses—all of it, everything he wants, will disappear.

She'll swallow it down, take a step back, and then—then he doesn't know. She'll yell. She'll demand information. She'll probably hit him.

He'll yell back. He'll scream about why he did it. He'll beg her to stay out of it, to stay safe. For him. "Do it for me."

He doesn't know what her answer will be. And all the optimism in the world can't squeeze his admission into a pretty picture, with a tearful, "I forgive you."

He doesn't want her forgiveness. He doesn't need it. He hasn't done anything wrong.

But he knows it won't end in a neat package. He knows she won't see it the way he does. He hates that about her. He loves that about her. She's a mystery he'll never solve.

Without those answers, he's lost.

And every time she smiles like that, with her heart in her eyes, he dies a little inside, because it's just one step closer to the end of everything—to what could be the end of them, the beginning of him and her. He's found that he doesn't like singular pronouns anymore.

Them is what he wants. He is nothing. She is everything.

And every time she brushes her hand along his arm and asks, "You okay, Castle?" brings him closer to a fight in his office that might just shatter the world around them.

"I'm fine," he says, giving her a smile.

She's gotten worse at hiding, and he's gotten better. If he weren't staring at a bleak future, he'd love it. He's changed her. She's changed him. They've left brands on each other that can never be removed—white ink to a laser.

As she smiles and says good night, reminding him that he needs to be there tomorrow—he's lost a bet and now has to come in to watch her do paperwork—he feels his heart sink. Every single beautiful look brings him one step closer to the inevitable end.

He watches her leave, dawdles behind to clean up their mugs, laughing absently at one of Ryan's jokes. He can't help thinking that maybe it would have been better if he'd never said it at all. Then she wouldn't have her secret, and she wouldn't be able to tell him.

He pauses at her desk, shrugging into his coat with slow, heavy fingers. There's a ring on her desk from his mug, and the train of sticky-notes he made yesterday is still there. She doesn't get rid of his things anymore. She's even let him keep his nesting dolls on the corner of her desk. He caught her playing with them a few weeks ago. She didn't even blush, just shrugged and handed them over.

He's branded her desk, her life. In his better moments, he likes to think he's left his inky fingerprints on her soul.

Hers are everywhere, all over him. Things she's moved in his loft, collars she's straightened, notes she's scrawled, hands and shoulders and feet and legs she's touched—he thinks her trailing fingers are permanently seared into his back.

He likes it. He loves it. He loves her.

And he really wishes she wouldn't smile like that, even just from the screen of his phone.

"Castle," he answers, staring at her empty desk chair.

"Go home," she says, laughing.

"How do you know I'm not home?"

"Because you're freaking the boys out," she replies. He turns to find the guys smirking at him. Traitors. "Go eat dinner with Alexis. If Gates sees you there without me, she'll find some way to kick you out."

"Worried you'd miss me?" he tosses back as he heads toward the elevator, his mouth far ahead of his brain.

She's quiet for a second and he lets himself slump against the wall, sighing.

"Yeah, Castle. I'd miss you," she admits, her voice soft.

He closes his eyes and hums for her benefit, hears her tinkling laughter and the sound of the call cutting out.

It would be so much easier if she didn't love him back.