WARM AND FUZZY

"He likes me?" the writer asks, surprise and pleasure mingling on his face. "Your father likes me?"

Kate nods, struck by how much she cares that her father's opinion is obviously this important to him.

"Wow..." he says on an exhale.

She braces an elbow on the counter and tilts her head into her hand, smiling at him slightly.

"Why does that surprise you so much, Castle?"

She sees the sudden mood shift in his body language before he actually speaks.

"I just thought," he says quietly, and she sits straight up when she hears his tone. "I guess I just thought he'd blame me."

He pauses, and she furrows her eyebrows.

"For digging up your mother's case," he clarifies, his voice dropping ever lower in volume until she has to lean forward to hear his words. "For getting you shot."

No. Oh, Castle, no.

The detective presses her palms to her eyes, willing back the rising moisture. When she looks up again, he's sitting slumped in his chair, staring down at his lap where his fingers run gently over Minerva's back. His hand is shaking.

"Castle," she whispers, slipping out of her seat. "Castle, listen to me."

He doesn't look at her, so she stills his hand with her own, picks up the kitten and drops her carefully on the floor.

She twines her fingers with his, her other hand coming to rest on his shoulder.

"This," she starts and has to swallow against the tightness in her throat. "None of this is your fault."

His eyes dart up, and she can see the beginning of a protest as he opens his mouth. She removes her hand from his shoulder to press one finger over his lips.

"No," she says firmly. "It's not your fault."

His power of speech impeded, Castle resorts to shaking his head until she untangles their fingers and brings her other hand up to cup his neck and hold him still.

"Rick," she says, and his eyes widen at the use of his first name. "You-"

She cuts herself off at the sound of the door opening, dropping her hands away from him and taking a step back.

Thankfully, Alexis is absorbed in her phone and doesn't see her father's expression until he's had a chance to plaster on a smile.

"Heading to bed, pumpkin?" he asks, and if his voice is a little rougher than usual, his daughter either doesn't notice or decides not to mention it, a fact for which Kate is grateful.

Though Alexis seemed happy enough to see her this evening and had been pleasant (despite the extremely recent break-up) at their dinner after the hostage standoff, Kate can't help remembering the anger in the young girl's expression that morning in front of the bank.

She'd thought it had to do with Castle being in constant danger because of the detective. But maybe it has something to do also with this guilt he's apparently carrying around his neck like an albatross.

"Yep, I think I will," the redhead answers. "Good night, and Happy New Year."

She leans over to kiss her dad on the cheek, then reaches over to snag Kate's hand for a quick squeeze.

"Goodnight, Detective."

A meow at her feet has her crouching down to scratch behind the kitten's ears.

"Goodnight, Minnie."

Alexis stands and leans into her father one last time, throwing her arms around his shoulders.

"Love you, Dad," the girl says, her words muffled in his neck.

The writer returns the sentiments along with a kiss to the young woman's temple, squeezing her tightly.

"Sleep well, Alexis," Kate calls out as the girl traipses up the stairs, turning back to smile at both of them.

"You too."

Castle stands and begins clearing the remnants of their midnight meal. The detective can tell he's trying to keep his features clear, even retaining a hint of a smile on his face. But she can see the tension in the muscles of his jaw, the way he moves a little stiffly, how he won't quite look her in the eye.

She steps in close beside him, rinsing plates and forks and passing them along to be put in the dishwasher.

"You should be all set in the guest room," he says as he closes and starts the cycle on the machine. "But if you need anything else, let me know."

He turns to her with a smile, but it's the fake one she's seen him use at publicity events.

"Happy New Year, Kate," he says, and she's glad at least that he's still calling her by her first name. "Sleep well. I'll try to be up by seven so we can get going."

Castle flips off the main light switch, leaving the kitchen bathed only in the glow of a small lamp that she's never noticed. Shadows play across his face as he nods at her in farewell.

He makes it halfway to his office before she catches him by the elbow.

There's no surprise in his expression when he turns, but his eyes plead with her not to do this right now. She knows she won't sleep though, not if she's worrying about him.

She says nothing, just pulls him through his office and into his bedroom, shutting the door behind them and then turning to face him.

"As I recall, the guest room is right next to your daughter's, and your office isn't exactly soundproof with that open shelving."

He looks at her in surprise for a moment before he recovers, mask firmly back in place.

"Why, Katherine..." he begins, a playful leer on his face.

But she's not going to let him start on the jokes.

"Sit, Castle," she says, gently, but with no less authority in her voice. "Please."

He does, dropping heavily onto the plush mattress, his hands scrubbing over his face.

"Kate, do we really have to..."

She cuts him off by resting her hands on his knees, bracing herself as she crouches before him. She didn't want to do this standing, but she couldn't sit on the bed with him either. Not yet. So this remained the only option. And somehow, it feels right.

"Yes, Castle, we do," she tells him, her quiet voice reverberating in the silence of the room. "Because I have some things I need to say, things you need to hear."

He pulls his hands from his face, lowering them to his sides, though they hover for a second over hers before they land on the bedspread on either side of his hips.

"Okay."

Here in the half-light of his bedroom, it hits her how tired he looks. It's a bone-deep weariness beyond that caused by the late hour, reflected more in his eyes than in the short stubble on his chin and upper lip. Suddenly, she doesn't remember what she was going to say to him. She just knows that he is hurting and she can't bear to see him in pain.

"Castle," she whispers, her breath hitching in her throat. "I need you to listen to me."

He nods his assent before she continues.

"Do you know why my father likes you?"

He shakes his head.

"My guess is that it has something to do with the fact that he watched you try to jump in front of a bullet for his daughter. Remember that?"

Her tone is as kind as she can make it, but his eyes still flick away from hers toward the city lights outside his window.

"Not that it did any good," he murmurs, and her heart constricts within her chest.

"Well, you know what they say: It's the thought that counts."

He chuckles half-heartedly.

"I don't think that's exactly how this ambiguous 'they' meant it, Kate."

She hums, her alto voice resonating in the back of her throat, and runs her thumbs back and forth just above his kneecaps.

"Maybe not," she whispers, drawing his dark eyes back to hers. "But it's what counts for my dad. It's what counts for me."

He lifts his left hand from the bedspread and presses it to the side of his thigh, covering her fingers with his warmth.

"But I started all of this," he says hoarsely.

She shakes her head.

"No. Raglan and McAllister and-" she pauses to take a deep, ragged breath. "-and Montgomery started all of this twenty years ago, by taking justice into their own hands. By doing things they shouldn't have done. You didn't start anything."

He says nothing, and she knows he's silently disagreeing with her.

The writer is taking responsibility for something he didn't cause, and she's not sure how to make him see things her way.

Even when she's been angry at him for things that involve her mother's case, it's never been because she thought the things that happened were somehow his fault.

She was furious that first year when he went behind her back. And she raged at him last May when he tried to get her to back down, more out of hurt than anything else. Because she thought he was abandoning her.

But he didn't. After she refused to answer his dozens of calls, he still showed up at the hangar, saving her life even when she begged him to let her stay and fight.

And then he stood with her at the funeral, and tackled her, and held her while the world went black.

He came to the hospital as soon as he could, flowers and a joke ready for her. And she sent him away.

Oh.

She sent him away, and she didn't call for four months. Not even after she heard about his fight with Josh. Well, more like Josh heaping guilt upon him and then attacking him in the hospital corridor.

No wonder he thinks he's at fault. She hasn't exactly given him reason to believe otherwise, has she?

Her shoulders sag, and she rocks back on her heels. His left hand tightens around her fingers momentarily before lifting away completely.

He's letting her go. He won't hold her to him if she wants to get away, not anymore.

She hears a scratching and a meow at the door, and she glances behind her, not quite processing the sounds. He stands, her fingers slipping away from his knees, and steps carefully around her to make his way across the room.

"Castle?" she calls, but he's opening the door and Minnie is rushing in, leaping to Kate's knees and then to the bed, making herself very much at home on one of the writer's pillows.

When she turns back, he's still there, silhouetted in the doorway, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides.

Enough. Enough of this now.

She gets to her feet and walks toward him, hands held out in supplication. She approaches him cautiously, as if he might bolt at any second. But he stays still until she reaches him, until she can grasp his hands and unfurl his fingers.

"It's not your fault," she says softly. "God, Rick, none of this is your fault."

His fingers clutch at hers, and he sways toward her just an inch.

"I didn't leave and not call you all summer because I blamed you," she continues, her voice earnest and pleading. "You have to know I could never blame you for Montgomery dying or me getting shot."

She feels him flinch, the way he almost stumbles back into the door frame.

"There are evil people out there, people who want me dead, and probably you too. But you're one of the good guys. You'll always be one of the good guys. And you absolutely did not cause any of this."

She can hear the breath rattling in his chest before he speaks.

"But if I'd let you stay. Or if I'd come armed. Maybe Montgomery would still be alive."

She shakes her head.

"Or maybe all three of us would be dead."

His hands tighten around hers.

"I could have tried harder to get you to walk away," he whispers.

She pulls his hands up between them, pushing his palms together, her long, slender fingers curling around his.

"As I recall, I told you to get out of my apartment," she tells him. "And I seem to remember that I was holding a gun. So you were probably wise to leave."

He lets out a strangled chuckle.

"And when have I ever listened when someone told me what to do?"

She shrugs nonchalantly.

"You listened to my father."

Even in the darkness, she can see the tightening of his mouth.

"He told me, Castle," the detective murmurs. "He told me how he came here and asked you to make me back down."

The writer opens his mouth, another apology, perhaps, on the tip of his tongue.

"That wasn't your job, though," she says. "It isn't your job to make sure I don't kill myself."

He shakes his head, dipping his head to meet her eyes.

"It is my job," he whispers. "I'm your partner. And I screwed it up and they killed Roy and they shot you and I shouldn't have yelled at you that night. If I'd just stayed calm..."

He pulls his hands from hers and steps past her. The move surprises her and when she turns around, she expects to find him pacing, muttering his way through what ifs and could have beens. Instead, he's sitting silently on the edge of the bed, hunched over, head buried in his hands.

She isn't sure what more she can tell him. Everything she says he refutes. So she stands there, watching him. Observing him the way he does her. Taking in the rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathes. She's scrambling for words, but the ideas have run dry.

Is this how he felt when he came to her apartment that night? Was it this gut-wrenching for him to watch her sink into despair and self-destruction? Was it this painful to know that nothing he said made a difference?

She can't just stand here and do nothing.

Before she can move though, Minnie is there, rubbing her little face against his elbow, squirming into the small triangle formed by his arm, chest, and leg.

Kate watches as the tiny creature bumps her head against him, purring and kneading his thigh as if she senses his misery and wants to offer whatever comfort she can. She crawls across his legs, then jumps down, disappearing under the bed.

He sighs, his breath a little shaky, and it jolts the detective into action. Three steps later, she's kneeling in front of him, reaching up to peel his hands away from his face.

"I'm sorry, Castle," she whispers. "I am so sorry."

His head pops up and his blue eyes catch hers in question.

"Why in the world should you be sorry, Kate?"

She squeezes his hands, pulling them toward her as she leans forward. His knuckles brush her forehead as she bends over his fingers. She can't meet his gaze with this grief rolling in her gut.

"For making you bear this burden. For whatever I said or did to make you think that I held you responsible for any of it. You're not. You're...you're the one who's been helping me find the people who are responsible, who did this to me and my family. Castle, you're the one who's been by my side every step of the way. I can't thank you..."

Her words are cut off when he slides to the floor in front of her, their joined hands squeezed in the tight space between them.

He lifts their hands to his mouth, his lips pressing gently against her fingers.

"Always, Kate," he promises, his voice deep and uneven and suddenly blessedly hopeful. "Always."

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