Chapter 17 Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Ryan and Esposito are dealing with the normal run of New York murders, nothing interesting, nothing weird. The new Captain has kept their noses firmly to the grindstone, and since they're short-handed there's plenty to do.

And there, right there, is why it's no fun. They're short-handed, and the hands that are missing are Beckett's. Also missing are the snark, banter and drive that made the three of them, and later four, the best Homicide team in the city. It's not their fault she's missing, but they haven't exactly done anything to find her, either. Every day that passes they're less sure how to start.

They haven't contacted Castle, either. The memory of what he said stings every time Esposito thinks of it – and he's reminded every time he looks across the bullpen at Beckett's empty desk. No-one's dared sit at it, yet.

"What we gonna do, Ryan?" Esposito's unusually quiet, guilt and defensiveness slithering under his words.

" 'Bout what?"

"Beckett, dumbass. What're we gonna do about seeing her?"

Ryan shakes his head. "Dunno. You think she'll wanna see us? You think she's seen anyone?"

"Nah. Didn't tell you, but a bit after she got back here she called Lanie." Esposito stops. He's had to listen to Lanie's guilt too.


"Lanie chewed her out for not calling. Beckett didn't take it well."

"You don't say," says Ryan sarcastically.

"That's the thing, Ryan. Not like that." Ryan flicks up a worried glance. "She just fell apart. And when Lanie went round Beckett didn't answer. Lanie hasn't heard from her since."

"Oh." That's not the Beckett they know and love. In an entirely comradely, cop, unspoken way. "So you think we should try to go see her?"

"You got any better ideas?"

"Nah. But...I think we should call first. She might not be in." Or, he thinks, she might not want to see them. After all, she hasn't wanted to see them for the previous three months.

Ryan dials Beckett's cell and is not entirely surprised to find it goes straight to voicemail. He leaves a brief message to the effect that he and Espo think she should come out for a beer with them, and stops at that. It's a start. They need the team back together. It doesn't feel right with just two of them. And being unemotional cops, who don't do sappiness, neither of them admits to missing Beckett out loud.

Kate listens to Ryan's message with some bemusement and not a little trepidation. Bemusement is relatively easy to unpick: after Lanie – who hasn't been in touch – she hadn't expected to hear from the boys, still less to receive invitations to share beers in bars. Any bars. Ryan's suggested the Old Haunt, but that, she feels, for the same reasons as she'd picked an unknown coffee bar, is too close to home, in many senses. She leaves that and considers the other side of the Beckett coin: trepidation. What's she scared of? The boys' reaction to her missing summer; their view of her failing the psych eval – she's sure they know what she failed, by now – the fact that she's almost sure to have the noise and bustle of a busy bar, and they'll see it and either pity her, be worried, or be contemptuous of her cowardice. None of these is in any way palatable. Fact is, she realises, she's quite simply scared of going out. It would be so much easier to stay home and hide, not face her...what? What are they now? Co-workers, colleagues, team, or friends? She doesn't know.

She parks the whole issue. Today, at least, she has bigger things to worry about, as 4.30 inexorably marches closer. The nearer it gets, the more she wishes she'd simply said no. But then she wouldn't achieve either self-absolution or a clean break. The first is necessary for her to continue recovering: she needs to know she's given it her best shot. (she shudders at the phrase) The second – well. Um. It may not be what she wants, but it's likely the best available option in the circumstances. In which case, better get on with it. Ducking unpleasantness rarely works for long. Certainly it hasn't worked any time these last three months.

And on that note, it's time to go, leaving a little early in case of...unexpected delays.

She's there a bit early: orders her own coffee. She'll need to get used to that again: may as well start now. It's good coffee, if a little pricy. She sits and drinks, carefully moderating her breathing, slow and deep. It's not too busy, and she's not near the windows. She drinks her coffee, rather too quickly, tries to find words to say what she needs to in the dregs in the cup.

Castle reconnoitres for a short time before entering: a safety measure to ensure he's got an exit route if it all goes bad on him. Or on Kate. He spots her tucked into a corner table with her back to the wall, head slightly down, clearly looking at her cup or the table, rather than her surroundings or for him. Her cup. She's got her own coffee. He always buys her coffee. Bought. Bought her coffee, before... And now she's got her own coffee. It's right up there with you'll find another muse, in terms of sharp pain. All these small things, and in every one he feels her slipping away from him. Maybe she already did, three months ago.

He trails over to her table, already sure that this won't go well, says hey softly. Kate looks up, a brief flick of shadowed gaze and then eyes down again.

"Do you want another coffee?" Please, please let us do something normal. He's tense just waiting for the answer: somehow he feels that whatever she says will determine how hard this is going to be.

"No, thank you." His heart drops hard. But she hasn't finished yet. "May I have a herbal tea, please?" The polite formality is subsumed in the rush of relief that she'll let him get her something. But still –

"Herbal tea?"

"Please. Green tea." Okay, that's not Kate's usual. Maybe she'll explain. Maybe, as so often, she won't.

When he comes back she's still staring into the bottom of her cup, fathoms deep in reserve and, under that, tension. Her shoulders are braced, a crease she didn't have before this summer between her eyebrows, eyes clouded, her hands knotted tightly round the empty cup. When she thanks him she sounds remote, as if she's already someplace else. His heart sinks again. This is not starting well.

Kate is trying to gather her thoughts into something that will make the most sense in the shortest possible time. In the end, all she can think of is just to dive in and hope to resurface rather than drown.

"I left because every time I saw your face it triggered a flashback to the shooting. I couldn't deal with the memory." He doesn't say anything. Especially, he doesn't say do you remember everything? He doesn't want to interrupt this explanation, given in a chilly, concrete tone that he suspects is damming up a whole broad river of emotion. "I couldn't deal with everyone's worry. I thought going up to the cabin would help. When I came back I failed eval. I've been benched for four weeks more." She looks up for the first time. "No more Nikki. You won't be following me if I'm not there. " She looks down again. There's no more to be said.

It's not enough. It's too short and too blunt and too cold, and it doesn't explain anything at all except the stripped down skeleton of why she left. But her hands are locked tight around her tea cup, and her breathing is suddenly shallow and too fast and her head is back down and she looks like the tea cup is the only thing in the whole wide world that's holding her in place.

"Why herbal tea?" What a stupid, silly question, Rick. Of all the vital information he wants to know, all the things he wants to say, he asks about tea? But magically, it seems to be the right thing to do, because her hurried breaths even out.

"One cup of coffee a day, still. Apparently caffeine's a stimulant. I never would have guessed that." Her sarcastic tone is almost, almost like it used to be. It's too good an opportunity to miss.

"Don't they know that limiting you to one cup of coffee a day is cruel and unusual punishment..." - he pauses for effect – "...for the profits of Manhattan's coffee bars?" and she smiles. A genuine, sardonic, Beckett smile. (not a Kate smile. Definitely, definitely, a Beckett smile.)

"Clearly someone didn't get the memo."

"There's always decaff." She zings a glare right between his eyes, but swiftly looks away again. So. Partway, but not there.

"Decaff is not coffee. Decaff is dishwater." Stay with this. Anything to stay with Beckett as she ought to be. Even if she still can't look at him, the zip and flash of banter is a start.

"Good decaff is just as good as the real thing," he says provocatively, luring her deeper into the argument. "You've just never had it."

"It is not," she says forcefully. "Decaff is a con. It pretends to be coffee and it isn't. It's a fake." She stops suddenly.

He jumps in, desperate to stop the thought that's writing itself across her face. "You saying that decaff is the equivalent of a comic compared to a book?" She's distracted, slightly, forced to response by the question.

"More the difference between fluffy fiction and classics." She's pulled a little away from the thought that had stopped her cold.

But the moment of normality has passed. Her tea is almost done. She's laid out the blunt words and all he's asked about is why tea? It's not just the tea that's done, it's them too. Her limited ability to deal with noise and bustle is rapidly reaching expiry, and she knows it's time to go home. She starts to reach for her purse, jacket; gather up the small pieces that are all that's left of her life. She's holding it all together just fine, until Castle looks at her and says "You're not leaving, are you?"

"Yes, Castle. I don't think there's anything more for me to say. I've told you why I left and that I can't be Nikki any more. You've heard me out. Time for me to go."

"No!" He doesn't mean it to be so loud, so...impassioned. "You can't just walk away from me." Again is unspoken but completely audible. "Don't go yet."

"I have to go home." Perhaps a little truth will help, smooth her exit, her escape. "I've been out for as long as I can manage. I need to go home before" – she grits her teeth on the words – "anything goes wrong."

Castle hadn't thought of that. Still, there's a lot more explanation that he could do to hear. A few sentences isn't in any way sufficient to cover the ground that they've lost over the summer. "Can I escort you home?" he offers smoothly. Normal, he thinks, just be normal. Act like you would before any of this ever happened. Kate looks deeply uncertain. He takes the opportunity to pre-empt the expected protests, holding her jacket for her to slip into, but terribly, frighteningly careful not to touch her. He doesn't know what a touch will do, though he wants so badly to pull her in close, tuck her into the curve of his arm, reassure her that it's not about Nikki; hasn't been about Nikki since round about the second day of shadowing her. She can't depart, can't leave him, before he's had the chance to say some things too. Probably starting with another round of sorry.

She still hasn't responded, and he takes that as permission – he can always seek forgiveness later – and follows her out to flag down a taxi and direct the driver to her apartment. She's not arguing as he slides in beside her, taking considerable care to shut the door gently – no sudden slam, no evocative noises, nothing that might upset her, trigger anything. He doesn't know if this lack of argument, objection, is good or bad: whether she is content – not happy, that's a step too far – for him to accompany her, or just too wrung out to either care or complain.

There's no talking in the cab, nothing to break the silence during the entire journey: tension stretching out between the seats: a lot of thinking circling between them and remaining unspoken.

Kate's not sure how this happened. One minute she was about to leave, by herself; next minute she's in a cab with Castle, who appears to be quite determined to ensure she doesn't travel alone. The strain of not being able to look at him for more than a flicked second or two – it's different imagining his face in a quiet apartment from trying to hold it together in front of the reality in a busy coffee bar in central Manhattan – is beginning to scrape along her nerves, make her skin twitch. All she really wants is to curl close in and let him protect her from flashbacks, pain, failure; she's chewed her lip to shreds of skin, and headache is biting, bleeding in behind her brow. She doesn't understand this: his lack of curiosity and questions; and then his emotional refusal to let her leave him behind (again); his immovable desire to see her home, but she's survived the day this long, so she can manage this: albeit of the half-hour or so they've been in each other's company a sum total of half a minute or so has actually encompassed looking at him. By contrast, she could have described with an artist's precision the grain of the table top, the delicacy of the china of the tea cup, the exact hue of the tea at any stage from surface to dregs.

The cab has reached her block. She fails to produce payment for the cabbie swiftly enough to forestall Castle; exits with haste; but Castle's right on her heels. If he must be there with her, that position, at least, is easier to cope with. No prospect of seeing him, if he's behind her. A thought skitters across the surface of her mind: that she wouldn't be able to see him if her head were against his shoulder, if she were wrapped in his arms: and is as soon gone as noticed. No point wishing for things you can't have, and shouldn't want. She may have made some progress, in that he hasn't triggered an instant episode, but she's reluctant to test the limits of that mercy. Even were that not so, there are all the other matters. Clean cuts. Castle will see the sense in that: she just has to explain it to him better. As if Dr Burke didn't make her talk enough, she thinks miserably. It's not him, it's her: or more specifically the lack of her previous self.

Castle's following Kate until, he decides firmly, he either receives some better answers or she tells him to leave. So far, neither has shown much sign of occurring. But if she tells him to leave, he'll be back tomorrow; he'll persist, insist, as far as he can, due weight given to her injuries. Still, she's been in his company for the best part of an hour and she has neither zoned out nor run away. Well, mostly not run away.

And now they're at her door, and Kate didn't look at him once in the elevator, stared fixedly at the floor while he listened to her force slow, deep breaths, all her concentration directed fiercely inward; and she still hasn't told him to go. He's being as unobtrusive as possible: staying out of her direct sight line, no speech, no touch.

And now he's followed her inside, and the very first thing she does is kick her heels off, which he's never seen her do before. Of course he's seen her without heels, just never this desperation to take them off, this haste. More's changed than he'd ever thought possible. He closes the door quietly, for the same reasons as earlier, but at the click of the latch she spins round and seems to be surprised that he's there. Something else flickers through her eyes before they drop away: nervousness? Relief? She still hasn't said go. So it must mean, she must mean, stay. But perhaps he ought to check.

"Kate?" She emits a tired, unwelcoming mmm. "Did you want me to stay?"

"Stay, don't stay, doesn't matter. As you choose."

Thank you to all reviewers.

There may not be an update tomorrow. If not, normal service will resume on Friday. Sorry.