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

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

She gathered her jacket and watched as he slowly stood and shrugged on his own. He took the detective's jacket from her hands and held it open for her. Even in the midst of his own pain, she thought, he was taking care of her.

"Thanks," she whispered, and he acknowledged her with a slight nod.

"We'll be back in a bit," she called out to Ryan and Esposito who had just settled at their desks a few minutes before. They both gave her questioning looks, but she shook her head silently and darted her eyes toward Castle. They nodded.

She guided him toward the elevator with a hand on the back of his elbow. They rode silently down, walked out the doors, and began to make their way toward the riverfront. She could have taken him to a nearby park, but she knew it would be filled with children and their parents and she didn't want to remind him any more of what he was giving up, of the years that she suspected had passed far too quickly for him.

They crossed streets and dodged cars, not saying a word. For once, she was the one observing him, lost in thought, and quieter than she'd ever seen him. He was the one who always made her laugh, who kept talking even when she wanted him to shut up, who had supported her through everything, risking his own life to stay by her side.

This was not a life-threatening situation, not like the things they had faced together already. But it was clear to Kate Beckett that her partner needed her, needed her to have his back, to cover him as he ventured into unknown territory.

He reached the railing at the riverfront a moment before she did, leaning against the metal bar and gazing out over the water. It was a cloudy day and the wind whipped around them.

She slid her arm through his, wrapping her fingers around his bicep, and leaned against his shoulder. He looked at her, a hint of confusion shining in his eyes.

"It's cold," she said simply. She knew he would likely suspect that she wasn't as cold as she claimed, that she was offering him what comfort she could in such a way that neither would be uncomfortable.

He nodded, but pulled away from her for a moment, hesitating before he slung his arm around her shoulders and tucked her into his side.

"Better?" he asked, and his voice was rough and low.

She hummed her assent and they stood again in silence. It was strange, this intimacy with Castle, she mused. Strange, yet completely comfortable.

Finally, he spoke.

"Alexis was a surprise. I could never call her an accident, because she's the best thing that ever happened to me, but she was not planned. Meredith and I had been dating for a few months when she found out she was pregnant. She was busy looking for roles, and didn't want to be a mother, at least not then."

Beckett felt him tense against her.

"She wanted to have an abortion at first," he whispered, and a shudder swept through his body.

"I convinced her that we could do it, I proposed so she knew she wouldn't have to worry about money or whether I'd stick around. So we got married, and for a little while, things were okay."

Beckett glanced up at him to see a faraway look in his eyes. He was standing next to her, he had a strong arm wrapped around her, but she could tell he wasn't really with her. He was reliving his past, a past that she was beginning to realize was much more complicated and painful than she'd always thought.

"Eventually, I guess she just got tired of it. Of late nights and early mornings and me paying more attention to my daughter than to her. I was the one who got up with Alexis, even from the start. Meredith would sleep right through her crying. I knew then that I'd made a mistake. I just wanted so badly for my baby to have what I hadn't. Two parents who loved her and were there for her."

The detective reached up to squeeze the hand that rested on her shoulder. She meant it to be quick, gentle, a simple reassurance that she was still there and listening. But he turned his hand to grasp hers in return, holding on as if to a lifeline.

"So while I stayed home to be with Alexis, she was acting. One day I had a meeting with the execs at Black Pawn, and I asked her to stay with Alexis. She wasn't supposed to be working that day anyway, and she'd actually been complaining about how she never got to spend time with her daughter. My meeting ended early, and I just had a bad feeling, so I went straight home as quickly as I could. Before I even opened the door, I could hear Alexis crying."

He broke off with a harsh tone, and she looked up to see that he was glaring fiercely at the water below. It wasn't a look she had seen often from him, only once really-when he'd been beating Lockwood to a bloody pulp.

"I didn't know what had happened, but I rushed up to her room. She was fine, just wet and hungry. I changed her and took her downstairs with me so I could fix a bottle. I thought maybe Meredith had put her down for a nap and then fallen asleep herself. Instead I found her in the guest room, tangled up with a casting director who had his pants around his ankles. I kicked her out and started the divorce proceedings that same day."

He paused and when he continued, the detective could hear both the anguish and the resolve in his voice.

"I hated that she was cheating on me, but I knew that I hadn't been giving her all the attention she wanted. So it didn't really surprise me. I just couldn't shake the thought that I'd only been gone a couple hours and who knows how long Alexis had been crying or would have cried if I hadn't come home when I did. She could have climbed out of her crib or been hurt and Meredith wouldn't have known anything was wrong until it was too late."

He dropped his head, closing his eyes, lines of weariness etching themselves across his face. Beckett lifted her free hand, smoothing across his light stubble and turning him to face her, though his eyes were still closed.

"Look at me," she quietly commanded, and he opened his eyes, unleashing their stormy depths. "Richard Castle, you are a good father and good man."

He began to shake his head and close his eyes again.

"Rick," she said, in a tone that managed to simultaneously come across as both sharp and tender. His eyes snapped open at her rare use of his first name.

"There are people out there who are better looking than you."

He looked surprised, but she continued.

"There are people out there who are funnier than you."

He looked suspicious, but she continued.

"There are even people who are better writers than you."

He looked offended, but she continued.

"But I have never met anyone who was a better father."

Now he looked genuinely touched.

"Thank you," he whispered thickly, and he turned his head ever so slightly to place a gentle kiss on the palm that still cupped his cheek.

"I don't want you to ever forget that. The world may love you for your writing, your friends may love you for your loyalty or the way you make us laugh, but your daughter-she loves you because you're her dad, the only one who has always been there for her. She isn't abandoning you. She's taking the strength and the resourcefulness and the wisdom you've taught her and spreading her wings. But she will fall. At some point or another, she'll fall, and she'll need you to pick her up and hold her and give her the courage to spread her wings again and again."

She paused and looked into his eyes. The blue was slowly returning, just at the edges.

"She'll always be your little girl, Castle, and you'll always be the first man she ever loved. And someday, when you do walk her down the aisle, I guarantee that she will have almost as hard a time letting go as you will."

She felt his grasp tighten on the hand that still held hers at her shoulder. She could see the blend of hesitation and need evident in his eyes. He didn't want to cross the line, she could tell. So she crossed it for him, releasing his hand and drawing him into her embrace.

She twined her arms around his neck, sliding one into his soft hair, even as she felt her partner's arms encircle her waist, one coming to rest at her lower back, the other at her shoulder blade. His nose was buried in her dark auburn locks, and she could feel his warm breath on her neck.

He inhaled her deeply, and she fought hard to contain the shiver that threatened to escape. She had to admit, he was a good hugger, warm and solid. He held her tightly, but he wasn't crushing her. She carded her fingers through his hair and whispered soft assurances in his ear as he let out several shuddering breaths.

Finally, he lifted his head and pulled back from her so that there was an inch or two between them. He leaned forward to rest his forehead against hers.

"Thank you, Kate," he breathed, his eyes closed.

She pressed a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth, feeling his lashes flutter open against her cheek.

She retreated, just enough to meet his gaze.

"Always," she whispered.

And she suddenly remembered a color called cerulean frost. It had a hint of shimmer and she had used it often for calm crystal seas. It had always been one of her favorite colors.

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