Disclaimer: All Castle characters are the property of Andrew Marlowe and ABC

Author's Note: I think there will be at least one more chapter to this.

Kate Beckett returned from the break room to find a steaming cup of coffee and a paper bag waiting on her desk as her unofficial partner, Richard Castle, stared off into space. He was still standing, jacket in his hands but not yet draped in its usual place over the back of "his" chair. He seemed to be frozen.

She knew he was sometimes struck by sudden inspiration She had seen how he would zone out for a moment or two before returning to her, usually with a twinkle or a wicked glint in his eye. He would pull out his pen and notepad or sometimes his phone to quickly record a few words-an idea, a turn of phrase-occasionally entire paragraphs.

This was different somehow. He looked thoughtful, yes. But not the way he did when he was puzzling his way through a story, or even one of their cases. He always looked at least a little excited then. Now he seemed, well, pensive, she would say if she were required to put a name on his expression.

She knew her eyes seemed to change colors depending on what she wore. Though her drivers' license simply called them green, they sometimes took on the hue of rich earth, or the gold of a lion's mane, or the sparkle of emeralds. Her partner's eyes were blue. And though they reached a sapphire tone when he wore certain shirts as compared to his normal topaz, they were always blue.

Except today. Today they seemed clouded, more gray than blue.

She was struck with a memory of afternoons spent coloring while her mother read to her when she was young. Even then she had wanted to keep things neatly in their boxes, well-defined. There had been a particular crayon whose name had always nagged at her. It was called cadet blue, but it was gray (at least it had always looked that way to her) and she had debated-at the ripe old age of six-whether to classify it with the blues to match its name or with the grays to match its tone. It was a stormy color, perfect for thunderclouds.

She didn't like that color in her partner's eyes.

"Castle?" she asked gently, keeping her tone quiet.

It took a moment, but he snapped from his daze. He turned to her with a smile. As usual, when he smiled at her, it was not just with his whole face (she secretly loved the way his eyes crinkled), but with the rest of his body as well, his shoulders relaxing and his previously closed posture opening up before her.

"Good morning, Detective. No new case yet?"

"Not yet, just paperwork from the last one," she replied, taking a sip of the coffee he'd brought her and ripping off a chunk of bearclaw to pop into her mouth.

She sat and scooted her chair closer to the desk as he arranged his jacket over the back of his chair and took his own seat, leaning with an arm on the edge of her desk. They were quiet for a moment and she could see him slipping back into his thoughts.

"Hey," she said softly, "You okay?"

"Hmm?" he murmured, turning to face her. "Oh, yeah, I'm fine."

She normally wouldn't push, but there was something about the gray in his eyes that caused her to forsake her usual policy.

"Are you sure?" she asked. "Because you don't seem fine. C'mon, Castle. What's up?"

He pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes and she wondered if the bags she saw there were not from a late night writing but a late night worrying instead.

"Alexis is going to college," he said clearly, though his voice sounded scratchy.

"She had to grow up sometime, Castle," she pointed out, her words cushioned by her soft tone.

"No," he exclaimed, looking up at her suddenly. She leaned back.

"I mean, yes, I know she has to grow up, as much as I hate it," he paused and the detective took in the pain blooming on his face.

"But she wants to go early," he said, and she began to understand. "She wants to go to Stanford in January."

"Oh," she whispered, but he carried on.

"To be with Ashley," he spat, and the way the writer said the boys name surprised her.

"Oh," she repeated. "Is that why he came to see you? When you said he wanted you to advocate for him?"

"He came to ask me to talk her into trying a long-distance relationship," Castle said. "I told him I didn't want to interfere, but something he said made me reconsider, so I talked to her. And then, when I got home last night, Ashley was there, and she told me that since she's been taking extra classes all through high school she'll have enough credits to graduate in December and in January she's going to enroll in Stanford. Who knew that having a smart and hard-working daughter could backfire on me this way? I always thought she might stay close to home, go to NYU or Columbia. I mean, we've always been so close. I never thought she'd run off to California with her boyfriend."

Beckett waited patiently until he finished his heart-broken tirade. She thought about saying that at least she wasn't pregnant, just to lighten the mood, but then decided he might not be in the right frame of mind for that particular joke, especially with the way he'd turned Ashley's name into an expletive the moment before.

She settled for leaning toward him and offering some compassionate words.

"I'm sorry, Castle. I know how much having her here means to you."

He slowly met her gaze. The bullpen was still mostly empty, and the few detectives who were around seemed to be busy working on paperwork or talking on their phones.

"Thank you," he said. "I'm just not sure what to do without her. Who will I play against in laser tag? Who will eat my pancakes? Who will I hug at the end of a long and trying case?"

She couldn't resist teasing him a little this time.

"I'm sure you can find someone around here," she drawled, pausing a moment to let the hope rise in his expression before she continued. "I mean, you already play poker with the guys, and you know they'll eat anything. Plus, I hear Esposito's a good cuddler."

She leaned back in her chair and silently laughed at the shock in his wide eyes, although he quickly narrowed them, pursed his lips and shook his head at her as he always did when she gave as good as she got.

"I really am sorry, though," she said, and she moved her foot to knock lightly against his under the edge of her desk. "At least you've got awhile to get used to the idea."

"Or kill Ashley and hide his body," Castle said under his breath. She kicked him.

"Castle, you do realize you're sitting in a police department, surrounded by HOMICIDE detectives, don't you?"

"Hey," he said, putting on his wounded look. "A guy can dream."

"Yeah, well, you should probably stick to dreaming about other things, okay?" She realized as soon as she said the words that she'd left him an opening he wouldn't be able to turn down. Sure enough, he smirked, and she blushed.

"Oh, don't worry, Detective" he intoned, his voice dropping an octave. "Nearly all of my dreams consist of 'other things' and by the lovely shade of red on your beautiful face, I'm guessing you know exactly what I mean."

"Oh shush, Castle," she said, shaking her head at his usual antics. "Anyway, I'm curious. What was it that Ashley said to make you reconsider? I mean, dads don't usually side with their daughters' boyfriends, after all."

It was his turn to redden.

"He just appealed to me as a man who's been in love, that's all," he stuttered out.

She could tell that wasn't the whole story and debated whether she should dig for the rest. She looked at him, seeing the way he refused to meet her gaze.

"So that's all it takes? If he came to you and said, 'Mr. Castle, I'm in love with your daughter and I know you've been in love at some point, so please give us permission to go to Vegas and get married,' you'd just give him your blessing?"

As expected, Castle blanched at the thought of his baby girl getting married, especially in Vegas.

"God, no! I would never let them do that! But what if that's exactly what they do? What if they decide one weekend to drive over to Vegas and get married in some little chapel with Elvis presiding over the wedding? What if..."

She cut him off with another small kick under the desk.

"Relax, Castle, I think that's a bridge you won't have to cross for a while yet. Alexis is smart and she loves you. She would never get married without you there to walk her down the aisle."

He relaxed some at her words, but she could tell he was still a little riled up, so she figured she might get a bit more out of him yet.

"I'm just surprised. You've never seemed to be a huge fan of Ashley."

"I just found out we have more in common than I realized, that's all," he said quietly, and Kate watched as the blue that had come back into his eyes during their conversation and banter seemed to seep out again.

She decided to drop her questions for now, sensing that he wouldn't be receptive to her teasing.

They sat in contemplative silence for a little while, her pen scratching across the surface of her reports. For the first few minutes, he simply sat, but finally he pulled his phone out of his pocket. She thought she would hear the sound of birds being shot at pigs or the tap-tap of his writing a message or a scene for his new book. Instead, when she glanced up at him, he was just flicking his thumb across the screen, pausing every few seconds to mull something over and then continuing.

Normally, when she scooted away from her desk and stood up, he would respond like an over-eager puppy, practically begging to be taken out for a walk-to the morgue, to interview a witness, occasionally just to get coffee. This time, he stayed in his seat, his focus still on the small device in his hand.

She walked around behind him, curious. She should have known, she realized, when she saw what held his attention. It was a picture of him with Alexis, and she could tell both by their postures and the girl's dress that it had been taken before the last dance she had attended. He had, as a proud father, shown her pictures of Alexis all dolled up for the big night. She didn't remember seeing this one though, this candid moment of Castle twirling his little girl, the laughter on her face, the pure and unadulterated adoration on his.

"Oh, Castle," she whispered, and he startled, realizing for the first time that she was no longer at her desk. He tilted his face to look at her, and she was crushed to see the tears swimming in his eyes.

She didn't touch him often. The occasional shoulder bump or brush on the arm if one of them was having a rough day. Sure, they had tightly gripped each other's hands after Tyson got away, and he'd held her in the freezer, and she'd nearly jumped into his arms after he'd defused the bomb, but she considered those special circumstances, brought on by the need to celebrate, or keep warm, or simply make sure that they were both okay.

Now, though, there were no bombs or serial killers, just her partner with those devastatingly gray eyes that were pleading with her to make this better. She knew it was intimate, far too intimate for the setting and their lack of a romantic relationship, but she ignored the reasons why not and placed her left hand on the back of his neck, squeezing the muscles that were too tightly coiled.

"What if something happens to her or he breaks up with her or she hates it in California or..." The words tumbled out of his mouth until she swept her thumb across the skin just below his ear, catching the fine ends of his short hair.

"Come on, Partner, let's go for a walk."

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