A/N: Long time, no story. My apologies. Quick explanation. I found out I'm pregnant. First baby. Distracting enough, huh? Well, I'm having some problems, too. Doesn't make for a whole lot of writing mood or time. I'm getting some tests back tomorrow that may let me know if everything's going to be okay or not going forward. I would appreciate any thoughts or prayers you're willing to donate my way.

This chapter is a little longer in apology. :-)

Disclaimer: Not mine.

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"I ought to kill you." They're the first words Kate has uttered since leaving the precinct, crawling into Lanie's passenger seat, and being driven to what is inevitably going to be the most awkward meal of her life.

"You won't, though," Lanie says around an ice cube that she's just slurped from her glass of water. She rolls it to the side of her mouth, lets it rest in the hollow of her cheek as she continues. "Who else is going to fix it when you're being an idiot?"

"Inviting Castle and Alexis to lunch isn't going to fix anything."

"Might." Lanie says, simply, with a shrug. "When Castle finds out why you're shunning him, you and Alexis are both in for it. You'll be forced to stop this stupid game you're playing."

"Oh, no you don't. First off, this is not a game. Secondly, Castle is not finding anything out. I thought I made this clear, Lanie. You do not say a word to him." She's pointing a finger at Lanie, trying to give her most stern face, but her friend is completely ignoring her, not intimidated in the least.

The door chimes, signaling an entrance into the diner. Lanie's little wave signifies that their party has arrived. Kate shifts down in the booth to make room for Lanie to come sit next to her. They've already discussed this. But, her friend is mirroring her, gliding further towards the window on the opposite side of the booth.

Kate glares at her and panic wells in her chest. This is not good. There is no way this can go well. Oh my God, why the hell is she even still here? She needs to escape. As she begins her exiting slide along the sticky vinyl seat, she slams into a body. His body.

He gives an 'oof ' and staggers back to his feet. "Bathroom?"

"Um," she pauses, but it's not for dramatic effect. It's because she doesn't know what she's doing. Alexis is poised next to Lanie, her fiery red hair peeking out from the top of the menu that she's already holding in front of her face.

Castle and Lanie are both staring at her.

There's no way she can leave the three of them here alone. A series of embarrassing, bad, and worst case scenarios scan through her mind. At least if she's here, she can control the conversation, she tells herself. "No, I'm good. I just didn't want to sit by the window."

"Oh. Okay." He smiles before slithering in, looking out the window then back at her, all while squirming out of his jacket that it's too damn hot for anyway. God, he looks delicious, green tee shirt, twinkling eyes. He looks hopeful.

Well, he shouldn't.

Add that to the list of why this was an atrocious idea.

She slips back into the booth, and it's too tight. He's tucked his jacket by the wall and scooted further towards the center of the seat, leaving their thighs and shoulders pushed together.

And, of course, there are only three menus. Lanie probably stuffed one under the table so now she and Castle are forced to share. Her personal space is non-existent; his arm stretches along the back of the booth, so he's less impeded as he leans in to peruse the lunch options with her.

Alexis lowers her menu and is watching them. Kate squirms a little, shifts to her left, but she's already got a leg hanging out of the booth. When the waitress comes back to bring Alexis and Castle ice waters, Kate's foot nearly trips her, so she has to move back in, wedge her shoulder into Castle's side. He's warm; this heat he emits has got to be the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Okay. Yeah. Not thinking about Castle and warm bodies.

"You smell good," he says at her hair and she whips around intending to admonish him, but his lips are right there, a breath away from her own. Her eyes trail down to them and his tongue peeks through the seam of his mouth, then slides back in. She wants to chase it with her own.

"What is everyone having?" Lanie lowers her menu, then says 'Shit' under her breath when she sees them jerk apart. Kate clears her throat. Jesus, they nearly jumped each other in front of his daughter. And Lanie. Exactly why being near him isn't a good idea. Hands, mouths, and all sorts of other body parts always find a way to connect. So not good.

She dares a glance at Alexis, who is staring at Castle, dissecting him as if he were a science experiment.

"I think I want breakfast," Castle decides, sliding his finger to a picture of a Belgium waffle with strawberries and whipped cream topping.

"It's lunch time," Lanie protests.

"So? Breakfast is the most essential meal of the day. Who cares when you eat it?" He grins, and Lanie just shakes her head at him.

"Yeah, dad cooks breakfast for dinner at least once a week. Kinda like a tradition he's started." Alexis finally speaks, seems surprised that she has. But she keeps going. "I went camping with some friends last week, so we missed it," she tells Lanie, glances apologetically at her dad, but then winks at him before continuing. "Looks like we'll have to start a different tradition."

"I made Kate eat my famous French toast a night last week. My tradition is alive and well, thankyouverymuch."

"He puts jelly on it, not syrup," Kate explains to Lanie. She had thought it was weird, but it really is yummy. He made her admit that to him, tell him that he was right and call him a master chef. She did with a little nudging (and Castle holding her plate hostage). Even her deep laugh and eye roll didn't keep a smug smile from overtaking his face. 'I really do like the way it tastes,' she had added before licking at his grin, sampling the sweetness of his mouth. He growled into hers before making love to her, hot and quick against her kitchen counter.

She can feel the heat of a flush creeping up her neck, and they're all staring at her now, Castle knowingly, his fingertips barely grazing her shoulder. He might as well have his hands roaming all over her body for the shiver that runs through her at his touch.

She looks at Lanie, who is staring at Alexis.

And Alexis is staring right back at Kate.

Oh.

And her dad's hand.

Kate twitches her shoulder, obviously shrugging Castle off. He jerks his arm back into his own lap, and she doesn't have to see him to picture the hurt expression he's wearing.

Has she mentioned that this lunch was a bad idea?

"I definitely think we should start a different tradition," Alexis says, tone too calm and even, the words evidently meant for Castle's ears, though she never releases Kate's gaze.

"I'm sorry," Kate mutters, and she's not sure who her words are meant for.

"What's going on?" Castle has shifted so that his back is to the window and he's facing all of them; she can feel his eyes boring into her. Guilt melts down Alexis's face, erasing the coldness she had been wearing there.

Kate looks at him and shakes her head, hopes he lets it all go, though she can see it's futile. He's glancing back and forth between her and Alexis and his eyes flash with something she's never seen behind them before. "No," he says fervently. "Please tell me that what I'm thinking is so far off-base. Tell me right this second that I'm crazy," he seethes.

No one says anything, which is the loudest admission of all.

Lanie is sharing her pitiful expression around the table and Kate just wants to shout 'I told you so' at the top of her lungs. This is exactly what she didn't want to happen.

He knows. Enough.

"So, what, you didn't approve of our relationship and you tell her that?" Kate has never heard this deep anger-laced voice aimed towards his daughter before. "How did you even find out? Did you tell her?" He turns to face Kate, accusation in his tone. "I thought we agreed to do it together."

"Daddy—"

"Castle—"

All three women at the table move to speak at the same time. He needs to calm down. His breaths are harsh and shallow, eyes darkened with betrayal and hurt.

"No. You know what, I don't want to know." He slams his water glass down on the table, the liquid and ice sloshing over the side. "I know enough. I know that you," he points to Alexis, "reiterate over and over that you want me to be happy. But you don't really, do you?"

The girl takes a breath to speak, but he continues.

"And you," he faces Kate, but is looking through her, "you don't care about me. What a relief that you had such a convenient excuse to end things, huh? Though it may have been amusing to see what else you would have come up with if my daughter hadn't come to your rescue."

"Rick, please—" He's hurting her with his words. The words that have saved her so many times, the words that made her love him, be enraptured before she ever laid eyes on him; those words are breaking her heart right now.

Her feet are lifting her from the booth before she even knows where she's going. She bumps into their waitress as she scrambles to her feet and jets towards the restroom, slamming her palms into the door, relieved when it pushes in, unoccupied.

She leans against the wall, tears welling in her eyes, cobwebs of grief stealing her breath and choking down the sobs as she tries to let them loose.

This was a horrible idea.

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She hears the bathroom door creak open, and she should have had the forethought to lock the damn thing after slamming through it. When the door clicks shut, but no sound of surprise or apology is uttered, she knows who it is.

"Lanie, now do you understand why I didn't want to do this? Did you see his face? I hurt him. Again."

"I think we both did."

Not Lanie.

She turns around to face the girl. "Alexis," she breathes out. She swipes at her eyes, pulls herself together. "I should go." More raw emotions and confrontations right now won't be pretty. She starts towards the door. Alexis doesn't move. But when she gets to the handle, the girl stops her with a question.

"Do you love him?"

Kate takes a stuttering breath. There are a lot of questions that she may have skirted, side-stepped, had to formulate a response for. But, not this one. This is the easiest one of all.

"Yes." Voice strong, she acknowledges to his daughter the thing she hasn't said to the man himself. And she probably won't have that chance. "More than I want to."

"Because of me." It's not a question.

"Because of you." Kate agrees, no malice in her words. "You're his world. I don't want to affect that." Kate thinks about leaving it at that. It's the only explanation she really has. But, Alexis sighs deeply, then inhales, as if to speak, but nothing comes out. Kate takes a few strides backwards and lifts herself up onto the counter to the left of the sink, knocking her shoulder against the paper towel dispenser. "One of those days," she pokes fun at herself with a slight grin and lift of her eyebrows when Alexis faces her.

Surprisingly, the redhead smiles back, then joins her, jumping onto the other end of the counter and swinging her legs.

"I didn't like Gina," she admits, head down, voice low. "Heck, I didn't like my mom much either."

Kate doesn't know what to say to that, if she's expected to say anything.

"I've never seen him in love," she starts. "I mean, I guess he probably loved my mom and Gina, right?"

Kate hums, but she's not sure whether it signifies agreement, opposition, or just plain surprise at the conversation. "I wouldn't think your dad would get married if he wasn't in love."

"Maybe. But, it wasn't like it is with you."

Kate can feel her heart thumping quickly, her blood rushing in her fingertips where they curl against the countertop tightly. "I'm afraid to ask what you mean by that."

Alexis shrugs. "Just that my dad married my mom because she was pregnant with me. He denies that, but mom's the one who told me. She said that even when she cheated on him, he said he'd stay with her for me. He doesn't know I know all of this, so don't say anything."

"I won't," Kate agrees, still a little shell-shocked by how civil and open and meaningful this conversation is.

"And then there's Gina." Kate watches Alexis shake her head. Yeah, Gina hits a sore spot with her also, but she's not telling the girl that. Way too much information for this session. "Again, dad will deny this, but he totally married Gina to give me the "real mom" experience. I was young, but I wasn't stupid. Well, Gina didn't want a kid. She didn't want my dad either. She wanted his alter ego." She sighs heavily, pushes her red hair behind her ears and continues. "They fought all the time. About anything and everything. Dad thought they had kept that a secret. He didn't get any acting genes from Gram, and Gina didn't even try to fake the happiness. I was glad when they didn't work." She huffs at her own words. "That makes me sound like a monster."

"It doesn't. You didn't think your dad was happy—you just wanted that for him." She clears her throat and inhales deeply in preparation for the next part. "Same reason you don't want him with me?"

Alexis laughs. "That's um…no, not quite." The girl bends her knee and pulls it up onto the counter so she can sit sideways to fully face Kate. "I kind of lost the moral of my story somewhere, I think." She smiles wryly, self-depreciated, so different from the young woman from a few days ago who seemed disgusted to be in Kate's presence. "You have so much power over my dad."

"I don't want power." God, she doesn't. She's never felt like she's found her equivalent before she ever met Castle, even before they were in a relationship. He pushes when she pulls. He's the Yin to her Yang. She says black and he says white. And in the end…it always turns out perfectly. He knows how to push her buttons (oh, does he) and she knows what gets under his skin. But, they always find their way back to one another. On equal footing.

"You may not want it, but you've got it. He's so madly in love with you, that you could destroy him in a heartbeat."

"And he could destroy me."

Alexis is silent at that for long moments.

"Well, what about the thing with your mom's case? He's been obsessed with it, Kate. I've heard him talking to Gram. He'd rather die than let anything happen to you." The girl takes a deep, stuttering breath, nearly a sob. "I don't want anything to happen to you either, Kate. But he's my dad."

"I had no clue what he was doing…all the investigating and the secrets. He kept that from me; otherwise, I would have put an immediate stop to it. If anything happened to your dad…." Kate's thoughts trail off with a shake of her head.

She feels like she understands exactly where Alexis is coming from now. When he works with her at the precinct, she gets to watch him, protect him, and assure that he's safe. When she found out he was looking into her mom's case, she felt completely powerless, knew that there was no one there to shield him from danger. That's how Alexis must feel when she watches him walk out the door every single day, not knowing if she'll see him walk back in.

"What about now? You guys are back on cases. There's no way you can keep him away from your mom's case if you find something. You know how he is." Alexis is still keeping her tone light, despite the seriousness of what they're talking about. She's really trying here. And Kate appreciates it.

"Alexis," she pauses, is looking forward to telling her what she obviously doesn't know yet, "I'm not working on my mom's case anymore. Therefore, neither is your dad."

"What do you mean you're not working on it anymore? Did you find something out?"

Kate shrugs. "Not really. If it solves itself one day, or if someone else stumbles upon something and wants to see it through, I won't say that I wouldn't be happy to get some closure on it, but I'm done with it."

"I don't understand."

"You sound like your dad. He even made that face." Kate smiles at the shell-shocked look crossing the young Castle's features. "I'm done with it. I almost lost everything I care about because of it. I almost—no, I did lose myself in it. It took nearly dying for me to get my priorities straight. Well, even then I wasn't ready. It took your dad to set my priorities straight."

"And my dad was one of them?" Kate is ashamed that Alexis seems genuinely surprised by this.

"Top of the list."

"And you are willing to give him up for me?"

There are two quick raps on the door before it's pushed open slowly. Castle peeks his head around the door and something like surprise flashes in his eyes at seeing them sitting on the counter in a public bathroom. Perhaps he was expecting something a little less civil.

Frankly, Kate's not sure what to expect of his seeking them (Her? Alexis? Both of them?) out.

"May I come in?" Well, he doesn't appear as angry as he did at the table. But, he's looking at Alexis, hasn't yet met Kate's gaze.

"Ladies' room, Dad," Alexis points out, hesitant teasing in her voice.

He smiles at that, and Kate's pretty sure she can hear the relieved breath the girl releases. "Yes, a room with my favorite ladies in it. I'm coming in," he says with a decisive nod that holds less confidence and flare than Richard Castle normally carries into a room, but he enters regardless. Kate can't help but stutter out a relieved chuckle. His eyes reach hers and there's apology warring with residual disappointment there.

Alexis jumps down from the counter and hugs her father tightly. She's mumbling what Kate assumes are apologies into his neck as he cradles the back of her head with his large palm. With a slow blink, he meets Kate's eyes and huffs out a heavy breath into his daughter's hair. Alexis pulls back with a last squeeze and looks expectantly at Kate, with an intention that she can't decipher.

"Dad, is Lanie still here?"

Castle looks a little sheepish and Kate takes that to assume that Lanie finally got a chance to say her piece after she and Alexis left the table. She's not so sure she wants to know exactly what that involved. But, she and Castle are sharing the same space, and that incensed darkness has melted from his eyes, so whatever it entailed, she's a little thankful. "Yeah, she's still at the table. We ordered some lunch. In to-go boxes."

"If you guys don't care, I'm going to see if she'll give me a ride back to the morgue. I, uh, have some questions I needed to ask her about a case."

The young woman doesn't wait for an answer before rising on her tiptoes to kiss her father's cheek and bolting from the room.

Kate slides down from her perch by the sink and she's suddenly standing right in front of him. She's not sure if there's a magnetic force drawing them together or she's just a bad judge of space in this tiny room, but she wasn't expecting him to be so close. He reaches an arm out to steady her, but pulls it back to his side before he allows the touch.

It's awkward. And she's pretty sure the walls are closing in on them, and it's hot in here, and her pulse is thrashing against her wrists and temples, her chest his thumping dangerously hard. And she has no earthly idea what the hell is happening.

"Kate—"

"Oh, oops!" An elderly lady has pushed open the restroom door and is looking at both of them with kind confusion on her face. She eyes the skirted shadow on the bathroom door indicating that yes, she is at the correct gendered entrance. Castle has the courtesy to appear embarrassed. Well, Kate is backed into the counter and he's hovering very close to her, and her hair is probably a God-awful mess from where she's fingered it in frustration, so, yeah, they undoubtedly appear less than decent. She feels the immediate need to explain, but Castle beats her to the punch.

"So sorry," he says as he wraps a warm palm at Kate's elbow. "My wife was feeling ill, and I didn't want her to be alone."

"Oh." The woman pauses, looks relieved. "Honey, that's quite alright. So sweet. I hope you're feeling better, darling." The little old lady looks like she wants to feed Kate chicken noodle soup and give Castle an affectionate pinch on the cheek.

"So sorry for the inconvenience, ma'am. I'm going to take her home now. I'm sure she'll be just fine." He gives her a little wave of his fingers as he ushers Kate out the door. "Sorry," he whispers to Kate, letting go of her arm, taking his heat with him. "I'm pretty sure she thought were were—"

"Yeah, I know."

They make it back to the table and the other two in their party have already left, two white Styrofoam containers the only occupants of their booth.

"She drove," Kate sighs, just realizing that her ride left without her. Lanie would pick the diner on the other end of town…

"I can give you a lift back to the precinct," he offers.

"That's okay. I have the rest of the afternoon off. I'll just take a cab. Maybe walk for a while."

"It's going to storm, so you probably shouldn't walk." He's staring at her, and she wonders if he's thinking about the night she showed up on his doorstep, battered and bruised, drenched to the bone, seeking him, his warmth, his love. He gave it all.

And now she has none of it.

Kate ducks a little to spy out the window, confirm the weather. It does look a little ominous. "Cab it is," she winces.

"I'll forgive the fact that you totally didn't believe my weather report and still extend the offer of a ride home."

She smiles. "Castle, you don't have to."

He fishes out his wallet, throws some bills on the table and picks up their untouched lunch. "What if I want to?"

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Thank you.