Castle's hand, large and warm, settles on her thigh, stilling the nervous jerk of her knee. Kate takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly and forces herself not to pull back from him, not to yank her leg out of his reach. Not to unlatch the seat belt tethering her down, open the door and leap.
"Kate," he says, low voice bleeding into the soft edges of the night, "are you okay?"
"I'm fine." She consciously relaxes the muscles under his palm, transfers the tension to her hands, tying her fingers into knots she's not certain will ever come undone. "I just don't like cars." It's not the whole truth and she knows he knows it but he lets it go and Kate feels the weight on her chest lighten a few ounces.
She's still getting used to that. To the idea that he - he makes things better. Used to the way she feels when she's with him. That she wants to be near him, to feel the warmth of his presence and the comfort of his touch. She wants him in her life and she has no idea what to do with that.
He shifts his grip on the steering wheel but leaves his other hand on her leg, thumb rubbing slowly back and forth over the ridge of her kneecap. They drive in silence for a few minutes, the sound of tires on asphalt filling the car with a low hum. She listens to it, tries to let it drown out the panicked thump of her heart.
"How do you usually get up here if you don't drive?"
Castle's fingers tighten around her leg when she jumps at the sound of his voice. It takes her a moment to find her own, to pull in a breath deep enough to force the words out of her lungs. "I really don't come here much," she says, "but when I do - I ride my bike."
"How the hell did I forget that you have a motorcycle?"
Kate hears the faint note of glee in his voice and gives in to the smile pulling at the corners of her mouth.
"That is so hot," he breathes, his hand slipping just a little higher up her thigh. "Is it one of those tiny Kawasakis? No," he answers his own question, shaking his head, "you're not a crotch rocket kind of girl." She chokes on a laugh and Castle looks over at her, mouth slanted in a grin. "That didn't sound as dirty in my head."
Kate hums, lips pressed tightly together to hold back a smile. "And just what kind of a girl do you think I am, Castle?"
"A Harley girl," he says, the words sharp and decisive. "You definitely have a Harley."
"Because it's classic. It's what a motorcycle should be. Powerful, badass, sexy; like you."
"Did you seriously just compare me to a motorcycle?"
"Maybe a little?"
He sounds like a kid with his hand caught in a cookie jar and Kate laughs lightly, untangling her fingers. "Relax, Castle," she says, patting the back of his hand. She lingers, the tips of her fingers hooking around the side of his palm. Neither of them acknowledge it. "It is a Harley. '94 Softail."
"Please tell me it's red and blue to match your suit. Please."
"Sorry to ruin your fantasy but it's black."
"But that's the beauty of a fantasy, Kate. Reality has absolutely no bearing. In my head, your bike is red and blue and you ride it while wearing -"
He laughs but obeys. Kate turns to look out the window again, her cheek brushing against the rough edge of the seat belt. The warmth of Castle's hand grounds her, gives her something solid to focus on, a thin layer of protection against the creeping cold of her past. She's hasn't been up here in years but the road is still painfully familiar, every mile littered with a dozen different memories.
The reflective tape of a road sign flashes in the high beam of the headlights and Kate closes her eyes against the glare. She doesn't need a sign to tell her where she is, to be aware that she's just over two miles away from the last physical connection she has with her parents. An involuntary shiver skitters down her spine and Castle flips his hand over, laces his fingers through hers.
"This exit?" He asks in a gentle voice that makes her want to curl into his side, let him drape over her like a blanket, a cover for the aching pit opening in the middle of her chest.
He flicks on the blinker at her nod and they pull off the highway, turning onto the pitted and cracked dirt road that leads to the cabin. Memories assault her, slamming into her chest and ripping off pieces of her hide, leaving her exposed and raw. Kate's free hand fists on her thigh and she concentrates on her breathing, counting to ten on each inhale, trying to control the riotous thump of her heart.
Every time hurts just as much as the last. It's why she stopped coming up here. Why she locked the windows and doors, the memories stuffed hastily inside, and walked away. It was too much for her. Still is.
Kate inhales sharply when they round the final bend and Castle's hand tightens around hers, the pads of his fingers pressing hard against her skin. She watches the headlights fall across the front of the cabin, dull against the grimy windows. The gutters droop and the front porch sags in the middle and for just a moment she sees it; sees the house smiling at her, welcoming her back after far too long.
Castle slides his hand from hers and shifts the car into park, shutting it off with a smooth twist of his wrist. The chirp of crickets replaces the hum of the engine and she closes her eyes in a slow blink, unfurling her fingers and reaching for the door handle.
Leaves crunch under her boots as she walks around to the front of the car, the heat of the still ticking engine seeping through her jeans. Castle comes to stand beside her, the backs of his knuckles brushing against her thigh.
Kate gives him a breathy laugh. "You gotta stop asking me that, Castle." She sees him nod out of the corner of her eye and leans to the side, knocking her shoulder against his. "Let's go."
The porch creaks when they mount the steps, the age softened boards springy under her feet. She digs the keys out of her pocket and Castle clicks on one of the flashlights, aiming it at the door. The knob sticks when she twists it, the rusted brass rough against her fingers. Pressing her shoulder to the wood, Kate turns the handle and pushes, stumbling when the door gives, opening on a loud pop.
Musty air fills her lungs and she coughs, taking the flashlight Castle holds out for her, sweeping the beam around the room. Boxes line two walls, the cardboard dusty and sun bleached. Kate stands rooted to the spot, heart hammering in her chest. She can feel Castle's presence behind her, his slow breaths brushing over her shoulder.
"What are we looking for?"
She's oddly proud of herself for not jumping at the sound of his voice this time.
They sit on the plastic covered couch, boxes scattered around their feet. Rick watches her in his periphery, tries not to be overt in his observation. When she'd told him about this place, her father's fishing cabin, he'd felt that familiar burst of eagerness zip down his spine, the anticipatory thrill of learning more about her blooming hot in his chest.
Guilt had quickly extinguished the flame. He shouldn't be excited about this. Not when it was painfully obvious that it was going to hurt her. That diving back into her past, no matter how vital the evidence she might uncover, was the last thing she wanted to do.
He's trying. Trying to be supportive without smothering, trying to be encouraging without annoying. He thinks he's getting better at reading her the more time they spend together but her moods are still mercurial, shifting without warning. The softness in her eyes can turn to steel in the space of a breath, the rigid set of her shoulders can relax in the time it takes him to say her name.
He doesn't know how to predict her.
Is fairly certain he never will.
Rick slides the lid back onto the box he's been rifling through for the past five minutes, pushing it away with a sigh. "You couldn't have labeled these damn things?"
Kate chuckles half-heartedly, the beam from the flashlight cradled in the crook of her elbow wobbling across the floor. "I wasn't really concerned with creating a comprehensive storage system at the time. I just -"
She hesitates and Rick forces himself to remain quiet and motionless, to let her sort the words and emotions out for herself. As much as he wishes he could do this for her, could spare her the heartache, he knows he can't. All he can do is sit as close to her as she'll allow and pull the lid off another box.
"I just needed it to be over," she finishes a minute later, switching to another box. "I spent weeks going through the house, deciding what to keep or sell or donate. Everything - it all hurt. Packing up their clothes for charity, doling out knick-knacks and mementos to their friends. It took six months to sell the house and by the time it was done -"
"So were you," he finishes, unable to stop the words from tumbling out.
"Yeah." Kate nods, running her fingers over the row of books in the box she's just opened. "I threw it all into boxes and drove it up here in a rented truck. I didn't really care anymore."
That's a lie and they both know it.
"You didn't have anyone to help you?"
"Not really. My dad's firm helped me with the legal things. Wills, life insurance, selling the house. But the rest of it was up to me. My parents were both only children and all my grandparents were gone by that time so - I was the only one."
The tightness in his chest chokes him and he fights for breath, tries to control the shaking in his hands. Thinking about her at nineteen, grieving and alone, crushes his heart, makes him want to pull her into his arms and not let go. No one should have to do that by themselves but especially not her.
Kate takes one of the books out of the box, her fingers running over the broken spine. She leans into the corner of the couch, pulling her legs up and resting the book on the ramp of her thighs. The sound of her nails scraping over the edges of the pages combines with the chirp of the crickets in a weird sort of melody and Rick closes his eyes, listens to the music.
Her whisper takes him by surprise.
"This was my mom's favorite book. To Kill a Mockingbird. She said it was what made her want to be a lawyer." Kate huffs out a tiny laugh and shakes her head. "My dad made fun of her for it all the time. Told her it was a cliche to claim it as a favorite, to cite it as the inspiration for a career in law. I don't think I ever saw her angrier than the time he told her Atticus Finch was a piss poor excuse for a lawyer."
"Not even when you snuck off to Mardi Gras and ended up topless?"
He thinks she smiles but can't tell through the shadows.
"If she'd ever found out about the topless part, that might have topped it. But, no. Not even then. He slept on the couch for three nights after that Atticus comment."
"He deserved it, besmirching the good name of Atticus Finch like that," Rick says, leaning back and letting the flashlight drop down next to his thigh.
He wishes he could see her, could watch the memories play across her face, but he's almost certain that if there were more light, if she were exposed to his naked perusal, they wouldn't be talking this way. She wouldn't be talking.
There's security in the dark, a sense of freedom. Words slip out easily and blend into the blackness, gone almost as soon as they're spoken. The night forgives; the shadows receptive and silent, a safe haven for secrets too delicate for the harsh light of day.
They sit in silence, Kate running her fingers over the cover of the book, smoothing out the curling corners. Rick watches her, waiting.
"What if I can't find the answers? The justice they deserve? What if I never solve it?"
Scooting down the couch, he reaches for her, can't stand not touching her anymore. Not when she sounds so lost and broken, her fear spilling out and making him ache. He lays a gentle hand on her wrist, stroking his fingers over her skin.
"You'll solve it, Kate."
She scoffs. "You don't know that. It's been over ten years and I have nothing. Nothing. This -" she waves her hand around the room - "isn't going to just magically give me all the answers I need."
"No, it won't. But it's a place to start. We look here and if we don't find it, we look somewhere else. We'll keep going until we get there."
"And if we don't?"
He slides his hand up to her elbow and tugs her closer. She lets him wrap his arm around her back and gather her up, cradle her against his chest. She grips the book with one hand, curling the fingers of the other into the front of his shirt, her forehead pressed to the side of his neck.
"You're not alone in this anymore," he breathes, lips pressed to her crown. "We're going to figure it out. Together."
Rick closes his eyes, concentrates on the way her body feels pressed against his; the heat of her seeping through his clothes, the light breeze of her breath across his neck. She relaxes in increments, her body slowly loosening and sinking into his. He takes her weight willingly, one hand stroking her waist and the other cupping the side of her head as he presses his mouth to her hair, fills his lungs with her.
"Thank you," she murmurs, her lips grazing his skin so softly that he thinks maybe he imagined it. "For this. For - everything."
"You don't have to thank me, Kate. I'm here because I want to be."
She looks up at him, her hand releasing his shirt and smoothing slowly over his chest. He tries to read her face but the shadows are too deep, the night too dark. Her thumb dips into the hollow of his throat, fingers curling lightly at the side of his neck. Brushing his index finger along the sharp line of her jaw, Rick lowers his head.
Their lips meet softly, a tentative graze that has him immediately craving more. He needs to taste her. Now. Kate parts her lips and he accepts the invitation, pulling her into a deeper kiss, holding her close with a hand curved around her neck. She kisses him back, mouth warm and open, tongue sliding against his. Her teeth graze his bottom lip when she slides her hand up the back of his neck and into his hair, nails scraping over his scalp and pulling a groan from low in his chest.
"I've wanted to do that for so long," Rick sighs, breaking the kiss and resting his forehead against hers.
"I know," she says, her fingers still running through his hair. "Me too."
He kisses her again for that, lips and tongue demanding. She gives back with a matching intensity, her breasts pressing against his ribs as she stretches up into him. Rick slips his hand under the hem of her shirt, the pads of his fingers running over the velvety skin at the dip of her waist, and Kate hums out a moan, her hand fisting at the back of his head. She pulls away from him with a smack, breath coming in ragged pants.
"We have to stop."
Rick skims his hand along her side, smiling when she shivers. "Why?"
"Because we came here to find the files from my parents' office, not make out on a couch covered in protective plastic."
"We can do both," he says, brushing his lips across her forehead. "I'm very good at multitasking."
Kate presses a hand to his chest and pushes. He loosens his hold so she can slide away from him, missing the feel of her as soon as she's gone. "Files now," she says, picking up her flashlight and sliding the the book back into its box.
"Kissing later?" He asks, trying to play the neediness in his voice off as humor.
Kate looks over at him and he can just make out the curve of her smile. "If you're good."
Rick laughs, moving back down to the other end of the couch and grabbing his flashlight. "Trust me, Kate," he says, leaning over to dig through the open box he'd abandoned, "you have no idea just how good I can be."
Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always appreciated.