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Chapter 2

The bumper directly in front of them was relatively nondescript except for a small dent on the left side and a peeling political sticker left over from the mayor's first election, yet Beckett had stared at it for the past five minutes. Traffic was agonizingly slow, the cars backed up several lights long at Allen and Rivington, mirroring the unspoken words between them. Castle drew a breath several times with questions on his tongue, but the stifling silence from his partner smothered them before they materialized. She was expressionless, emotionless, almost nonchalant in the way she tapped her thumb upon the leather of the wheel and lounged in her seat, one foot extend to the pedals, the other bent and drawn close to the seat, vibrating slightly with the flexion of her muscles as she shifted her heel in time with the subdued pop music emitting from the dashboard.

If he hadn't witnessed the crack in her steady demeanor, he would have thought she was relaxed, thinking about the case, formulating a strategy of progression. If he hadn't seen that haunted look in her eyes, hadn't caught her as she crouched immobilized and rigid, unable to balance; he would have decided she was amicably silent. It made him wonder how many other times she had previously fooled him.

She wouldn't meet his gaze, wouldn't even look his direction; her right arm was extended high on the steering wheel, effectively closing her body to him, solidifying his isolation. It made him feel somehow responsible for the whole situation. Absurdly so; but her refusal to acknowledge his presence left him with residual guilt. That, and the fact she had ripped his fingers from her coat before shoving him aside.

Traffic shifted forward a few car lengths, then stopped.

The light turned green. No movement. It turned yellow, then red again. Pedestrians swarmed the walk. Only a few weeks before Christmas and the window-shoppers were out in earnest. The light turned again; this time the opposite side was clear and Beckett made it through the intersection only to brake on the other side for another undetermined wait.

"I guess we should've taken Bowery instead of Allen." Castle commented, longing for anything to breach the silence.

"Would've been the same." She was absently biting her thumbnail, too patient, too relaxed. Still staring straight ahead. And killing the conversation with that flat comment.

Another minute agonized by.

"You know, we sorta skipped lunch." He flicked his phone. "It's almost two."

"Hmm." Her eyes flicked to the dashboard clock. "So it is. You hungry?"

"Of course! There's a decent selection once we cross Houston - and a parking garage. Hopefully it has a few spots left."

"I'm good. I can drop you off if you want." Now she was staring out the driver's side window, chin pressed into her palm.

"Oh no, you're getting something too."

"I'm not really hungry."

"Yes you are - you've just forgotten. But the smell of fresh, hot pizza will jog your memory. A stuffed crust slathered in pesto and marinara, topped with succulent mushrooms and spicy pepperoni, infused with the flavor of onion and select herbs, all draped in a blanket of bubbling, soft golden cheeses...tell me you're not interested."

He caught the twitch of her lips and the lift in her cheeks, a small smile that didn't reach her eyes. "I'll order in."

"Well, very sadly, they don't deliver."

She shifted her head off her hand and waved indifferently. "I'll figure something out."

"Beckett." he reprimanded condescendingly.

"What? I will! I'm not stopping for lunch when I can work and eat simultaneously."

"Except you and I both know that'll never happen. I've found too many cold cartons of takeout stuffed in the break room fridge."

"Castle, I said I'll figure something out."

"C'mon, just take a break. You could use the space." He wanted to help her decompress, to give her an opportunity to restructure herself. Perhaps, if he was very lucky, and very careful, she may even confide in him.

Her sharp glance warned him he had stepped too far. "I don't need 'the space', Castle. Except from you mothering me."

Castle tossed a hand up, a futile attempt to disperse the tension between them. "I'm not mothering you." He saw her eyebrows lift in disagreement. "I'm saying let's take a lunch break. For once."

She was staring ahead again, her head tilted in a way that conveyed she wasn't open to listening. "I'm past being hungry."

Castle clenched his right fist beside his thigh in frustration. So obstinate. So stubborn. So closed off. He twitched his jaw and turned away, taking his turn at pedestrian-watching out the side window. Colors, everywhere. Lights, scarves, storefronts, ribbons, red, green, white...a stark contrast to the grey buildings and the concrete carpet flowing between them. A caustic sight to his mood. He flicked his eyes about in perturbation before letting out a carefully controlled breath and turning back to re-center his gaze on the brake lights in front of them.

In his peripheral, he caught Beckett's sudden movement. She had been watching him. He tried unsuccessfully to discern her emotions without looking at her: to figure out what she had been thinking, why she had felt the need to watch his frustration. But she had her cop-face on; the careful calm she projected in the interrogation room.

What the hell, why not. She was already shutting him out; he might as well seal the deal. Haltingly, he turned towards her slightly, eyes hovering over her knee as he drew a hesitant breath and gathered the courage. "Do you wanna talk about it?" he said softly, flicking his attention to her face. He caught her flinch, pressing her lips together. Heard her shallow sigh. She shook her head, her eyes closing an instant too long.

"No." It was gentle, resigned, final.

He dropped his gaze, the rejection still smarting despite the inevitability of it. He watched his thumbs tap each other in agitation upon his lap, trying to decide how far he wanted to go, how deep a hole to dig. He was tired of this. This waiting game. This lack of communication, cryptic wordplay, actions and words in opposition to each other. She was stringing him out...drawing him along; giving him hope only to shut him out again.

"Kate..." he wasn't sure what he wanted to say, but felt something needed to be said.

"Castle." she warned.

He looked at her profile with a quiet steady gaze, wishing he could discern the thoughts locked within her, feel the restrained emotions, share in the crushing burden she carried. His eyes roamed the planes of her face, from eyes to lips, chin to nose - letting the silence build to an expectant void. He saw her blink self-consciously in succession, work her jaw slightly. The pit in his stomach was deepening, the ache in his chest clenching with each passing second. He wanted this so badly. Too much. He was going to screw it up.

"I can't. Just give me some space, alright?" She was almost apologetic. In a demanding sort of way.

He averted his eyes, unable stop the sharp breath that escaped from his chest at her old line. Or the words that tumbled out on their own volition. "I'm your freaking partner." he mumbled.

"Exactly. Not my shrink."

He gave up. She wasn't letting him in. He'd pushed it as far as he dared; any further, and they'd be in a shouting match - most likely ending with him standing on the curb. He wouldn't put it past her. Or himself. Shifting in his seat, he reached into the back pocket of his jeans and withdrew his phone, tapping the maps application and selecting his bookmarks layer. Finding their usual Chinese take-out near the precinct, he pressed the number.

"Yes, order for two? Um, a number 12 and..." he pressed a palm to the microphone and tilted the phone away from his mouth as he directed a question towards Beckett. "What do you want?"

"I don't know." She seemed tired. "You pick."

"The usual? With a side of spring rolls?"

"No rolls."

He uncovered the mouthpiece. "-and a number 21. Fried rice for both. Oh, and extra sauce on the 21. Yes. That's it. Richard Castle. Yeah, I better still be in there. Ok. My work address. Thanks- Uh, how do you say your name? Thanks, Liu. Have a great afternoon." He hung up. "You think we'll be back in twenty minutes?"

"Traffic will be a lot better once we cross Houston. We'll be back in five."

"Good. No free lunch for Esposito and Ryan."

"They're still wrapping up the crime scene." she reminded him.

"I wouldn't put it past Gates either."

"Really? By the book, iron Gates? She'd have to cuff herself for larceny if she did."

"Eh, still don't trust her."

"Pretty sure the feeling's mutual."

And what about you, Kate? Why don't you trust me? "Yeah...I must be getting rusty. My charms are losing their power."

"Why, a little out of practice?"

"Apparently so." He didn't mean for it to sound so acerbic. Or directed at her.

She glanced at him, looking him in the eye for the first time since that dark moment in the cemetery. She let her eyes speak for her. They weren't hard or angry or rejecting as he had expected. They were resigned, hollow, tired. Her gaze was brief, and she slid it slowly away from him, as if it took too much effort.

Something broke inside him. He swallowed air, clenched his jaw, turned his face away to prevent himself from doing the absurd. Like cradle her against his chest. Kiss her forehead. Weep over her. Those wounded doe-eyes called to the deepest part of his psyche, eliciting a response of overbearing protectiveness and compassion, mingled with a desire to fight the world for her, establish a perimeter, create a safe haven in the storm of her past.

If only she would let him. If only she would trust him enough to confide in him. It hurt.

But what really knifed him was the intuition that he was somehow responsible for this. Or that she was holding him responsible. The reaction to his presence in the cemetery; the violent shove to break his hold; the unwillingness to meet his eyes. Her angst centered around him. He wanted to apologize; but he didn't know what for; he wanted to fix it, but she wasn't clueing him in.

"God, Kate." he rasped into the static silence, a raw utterance torn from his soul.

Beckett's hands tightened on the wheel as the Crown Vic rolled through the precinct parking garage and came to rest between the yellow lines, her breathing too shallow, pausing unnaturally at the vertices of her respiration. "I can't, Castle." she said quietly, eyes cast aside. Throwing the shaft into park, she reached to open her door. "I have a job to do. Respect that space, or you are going home."

"Then when?" He sat with his door still shut.

"Later." She slipped out and shut the door, the hollow echoes resounding through the empty space.

Like three months later, Beckett? Like when one of us is dying? Like when I finally tire of this game and you murder my heart? All the words died unspoken within his bosom; felt but not heard. He closed his eyes briefly, and the image of her helpless gaze rose unbidden before him.

Have a little patience, man.

He popped his door and shuffled out, hearing the lock click behind him, the lights pulsing briefly. The elevator wasn't far, and he rounded the corner with a swing in his exaggerated stride, his shoulders back, head set resolutely high, an amiable expression forced into his face. Using his physique to force his attitude into line. Trying to act the part in order to feel the part.

"You waited for me." he stated in genuine surprise, finding her standing with her arm across the double metallic doors.

"Of course." she squinted indignantly, and he caught another flash of hurt in her tone.

Damn. Great display of trust, Castle. He smiled in apology, hoping to allay his lack of faith in her. "Thanks. And I'm sorry."

She sighed, reaching forward to press the floor for homicide. "Esposito and Ryan found the purse and ID: our vic is thirty-four year old Victoria Hammond. I'm going to notify the next of kin, bring them in to identify the body and learn what I can of who this girl was and what she was into. Forensics should send me crime scene photos within a few hours. We should be able to build the murder board tonight with a decent amount of data."

Castle nodded, collecting himself, trying to suppress the heavy sense of foreboding that had settled over him. Beckett stood stiffly beside him, still avoiding his gaze, yet effectively enforcing a verbal restraining order against him. He was being forced to act a role, play ignorant of recent events, pretend the tension wasn't there.

Somehow, they'd screwed up. Probably last weekend. Poker at his place, wine at hers; a big mistake this late in the game. The boundaries of their work relationship had been blurred; the unspoken rule to feign innocence had been subconsciously breached. Somewhere in the last several weeks, they'd made too much progress. He knew he wasn't just her partner. And she knew she wasn't just his muse.

And now she was trying to redraw the lines, deny the inertia. Except the forward motion couldn't be reversed. They couldn't go back - not without someone getting hurt. Or both of them. Emotion and circumstance were accelerating the sand too fast through the hourglass: it was only a matter of time before the charade shattered.

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