He finds her in the stairwell.
He's not looking for her. He's not. He's just been trying to get into better shape, trying to take the stairs rather than the elevator. Yes. That's all.
It has nothing to do with the way she's looked at him for the past few days. Nothing at all to do with the confusion, the hurt in those autumn eyes.
And definitely nothing to do with the betrayal etched in the pained lines of her face when she stepped into the break room to find him on the phone with another woman, laughing and speaking softly, assuring Jacinda that yes, he can make their date and no, he doesn't have to stick around - they can solve the case without him.
Oh, who is he kidding?
It has everything to do with those things. His mother was right. Love isn't a switch that he can just flip.
He loves Kate Beckett, and he doesn't want to see her hurting, especially because of him.
Even if she'll never love him back.
He stares at her for a moment through the narrow window in the door to the stairwell. She's tucked into a corner, her form barely visible. But he can see her thin shoulders. He can see the way they shake.
And it propels him forward.
She stills when he opens the door. Stops breathing for all he can tell.
He should leave. She probably wants him to leave.
But he's let this go on long enough.
Even if she doesn't want him to be the one comforting her, holding her, loving her-
She needs someone. And he's here.
"Beckett?" he whispers into the silence of the stairwell, hears his hushed voice echo.
And then another sound joins the muted chorus - a single sob.
He steps fully through the doorway, catches the silver lever to keep the door from slamming and startling her further.
"Beckett?" he repeats, but she doesn't turn toward him, doesn't look up. If anything, she folds further in on herself, her body shifting a little closer to the wall.
He's not sure what he should do.
Go to her and risk her pushing him away, like usual?
Leave her in peace, give her the space she always claims to need?
Or just stand here, just stay here? And wait.
He can see the merits of any of the three approaches.
Waiting, though he'd always thought it was working in the past, seems unappealing now.
While he'd thought he was waiting, staying silent and strong by her side, she was apparently taking for granted that he'd always be there, a faithful puppy who'd bark at danger, maybe bite if needed. But who would also stay on the leash and follow wherever she led.
He'd given her space in the past too.
She'd thanked him for it once, after the sniper case. Thanked him for letting her deal with it on her own, even if he hadn't, not really. He'd enlisted Esposito to act as his stand in, to give her strength when the writer couldn't, to show her she wasn't - isn't - alone.
He'd given her true space before that, of course. Three months of aloneness that left him heartbroken and bitter, weary. She'd found him eventually, forsaken her beloved space to come to him. But for what? Because she missed him, wanted him, loved him? He thought it was a possibility at the time, but now-
Now he wonders if maybe she just wanted the files he possessed, needed him so she could continue killing herself.
Space might not be the right option.
But he could go to her. He could slide down the wall next to her, pull her into his arms.
He wants to. Oh...he wants to so badly.
Because frankly, he's had enough.
Two weeks have passed since he found out about her lie.
Two weeks of showing up every day and working side by side with her, working to convince himself that it's the cases that matter, that he's not just a masochist.
Two weeks of shuttering his eyes when looks at her, trying to hide the blended love and hurt that he just can't tamp down.
Two weeks of blonde bimbos with whom he shares his time and his money but who get nowhere close to either his bed or his heart.
Two weeks of catching her studying him with furrowed eyebrows, with warring confusion and pain.
And he can't do it anymore. Can't do any of it anymore.
His mother told him he should move on.
His head told him he should move on.
His heart speaks different advice.
He hesitates a moment longer, then drops to a crouch next to her still form. "Beckett?"
She doesn't respond, doesn't turn to him, but she does go silent after sucking in a rattling breath.
He reaches out with a shaky hand, pauses, and then closes the distance, pressing his palm to her shoulder. "Are you okay?"
She lets out a sound that might be a laugh, might be another sob, and when she speaks her voice is deadly calm. "Of course I'm okay. No need to worry yourself about me, Rick."
The detective doesn't pull away, doesn't dislodge his hand, but he lifts it off her shoulder anyway, feels as though he's been burned.
"Beckett..." he tries again, but then she turns to him with eyes that are red-rimmed and angry.
She says nothing, but he takes the hint. He's no idiot.
He stands, turns his back on her and swings the door to the stairwell open, some part of him relishing the bang of wood and metal against the brick walls.
She calls his name as he walks away, but he doesn't turn around, just strides back to the bull pen.
"Listen, who's the expert on gangs around here?" he says as he gathers his jacket from the back of the chair he's always thought of as his.
Esposito looks at him skeptically. "Why you wanna know?"
He shrugs. "Book research, of course."
"You've got Nikki going up against a gang?" Ryan chimes in, his voice a little incredulous.
Castle nods, holding Esposito's steady gaze. Finally the detective clears his throat. "Slaughter. Detective Ethan Slaughter."
"But man, he's rough," the Latino detective warns him as Ryan shakes his head. "You don't wanna get involved with that dude. It won't be like it is here."
That sounds pretty perfect. He gives the two of them a casual shrug of his shoulders, a half smile that he knows won't reach his eyes. "No worries. Just want to ask him a couple of questions."