This had to be the longest day ever. It just had to be. As in, longest period day period ever period.
In reality, Kate couldn't remember the last time she had a day that was this laborious, this frustrating, this infuriating, and it was this case that was to blame. It was making her head hurt. Literally.
Tons of people with motive, all with firm alibis. No solid evidence turned up. No new leads. Dead-ends everywhere.
And the person of interest that she just sped to the ER to interview? He was whisked away for emergency surgery before she could even lay eyes on him, so she wouldn't be talking to him anytime soon. She stalked out of the hospital, the sudden onslaught of bright afternoon sunlight painfully reminding her that her head was splitting.
She stopped briefly at her cruiser to grab some ibuprofen from the kit she keeps in the trunk, then crossed the street to a nearby café. She knew her best chance at easing her headache was with a strong cup of coffee and the tablets in her pocket. Her stomach suddenly rumbled noisily. Something to eat might be good, too. When was the last time she ate, anyway?
When she thought about it, she last ate with Castle at the loft that morning, and it was now half-past three. He had even made her one of her favorites: a toasted sesame bagel with a paper-thin layer of whipped cream cheese on top. Just how she liked it. Her empty belly protested noisily again at the thought of some nourishment.
Kate sighed…rather pathetically, she thought. When the man wasn't being a complete pain in the ass, he was completely and totally amazing. And damn it, she missed him today. He would find a way to spin this case, say something that would dissipate the tension in her shoulders. Hell, maybe he'd even provide her with an insight, a lead of some sort. He certainly would have taken care of her and made sure she had eaten. But she couldn't bring herself to resent him, not when he was off doing his actual job: finishing final edits for the next Nikki Heat novel. As a devoted fan who couldn't wait to read the continuing exploits of her alter ego, she reluctantly left him to his own devices.
She stepped up to the counter, ordering a sandwich and a latte with an extra shot, then proceeded to huddle down at table in the corner next to a sunny window. After swallowing the tablets, she took a moment to check in with Espo and Ryan and peruse her emails, enjoying the burn of the coffee while willing the medication to act quickly. Her food arrived shortly thereafter and she made quick work of it, downing about three-quarters before she started to slow down. By then, her head was already feeling remarkably better. She browsed through current news headlines on her phone while sipping her cooling latte, barely noticing the tinkle of the bell on the door and the foot traffic moving through the café.
It wasn't until a shadow fell across her table that she looked up and saw…Josh. Wow.
She gaped at him, momentarily incapable of speech, but he just smiled at her warmly. "I thought that was you. I saw you through the window so I came in to see if I was right. How are you?"
"Josh! Um…hi. I'm good." she managed to stutter. She shook her head, suddenly realizing how awkward she sounded. "Sorry, I'm not usually so inarticulate. It's been a crazy day." Not wanting to be rude, she checked her watch and made a split second choice. "You know, I have a few minutes before I have to take off. Do you want to sit down?"
"Sure, I've got few minutes myself before I have to get back." He sat opposite her, shrugging off his hoodie and slinging it over the back of his chair. She noted his usual cup of chai cooling in his hand; some things never changed.
So yeah…Josh. Wow was right. She hadn't even considered the fact that this was his hospital (or at least it had been the last time they had contact). If she was being completely honest, she hadn't spared him a thought in ages; they hadn't spoken or crossed paths since their break-up. It hadn't been a nasty one, and he hadn't seemed particularly surprised when shortly after her release from the hospital she uttered the dreaded phrase, "We need to talk." She would be lying if she said the conversation preceding their split hadn't been tense and full of questions she had either refused or been unable to answer for him, but in the end, there was no shouting or name-calling, and he left her that last time with a brief hug and a subdued "Take care of yourself, Kate." She knew that she harbored no hard feelings, but was quietly relieved when it appeared he didn't either.
"What are you doing out in this direction, anyway? Something for a case?"
"Yeah. I was just over at the hospital, in fact. But the guy I need to interview is currently undergoing surgery, so…." she trailed off.
"So that would make it pretty difficult for him to answer your questions."
They both laughed at that. "So, how about you? How's life at the hospital treating you? Still enjoying opening up people's chests?"
"I'm well, thanks. And life at the hospital is good, no complaints. There's a new batch of surgical residents, which always makes my life interesting. Oh, and I'm off to Darfur next month for a medical mission."
Kate nodded in acknowledgment as she polished off the last sip of her latte. "Of course. 'Doctors Without Borders,' right?"
"How long will you be away?"
"About 6 weeks this time."
This time? She suddenly wondered if this is the life she would have been condemned to had she stayed with Josh. Would she have been forever lonely? Seeing her significant other on major holidays that fell on full moons when he wasn't busy saving humanity? God, she sounded snarky and selfish, even to herself. But she had meant it when she told Castle that she wanted to dive into life together with someone. Togetherness required being present, and let's face it: Josh had never been present long enough to take that plunge with her.
When she reflected back on their relationship, the truth was that they really hadn't done much actual dating. When they first started seeing each other, they went through the formalities of going to dinner or a movie, and had even taken some long rides on their motorcycles together. He had seemed like such a good match for her at the time: driven and passionate, but not demanding of her time or unreasonable in his needs. He was certainly easy on the eyes and more than proficient in bed. And while their relationship may have started out as a Band Aid for her bloodied feelings in the aftermath of Castle waltzing out of the precinct with Gina on his arm, it didn't remain that way. There had been affection there, genuine affection. He had been sweet and attentive and appreciative when her bruised ego had needed it most. More importantly, he made her forget a certain murder-mystery novelist, even if it was only temporarily.
But after they started sleeping together, they also stopped making plans and taking time for each other, settling into a random routine of stealing moments when they could manage it. And they had tried. Truly, they really did try to make time for each other, but as the months wore on, their busy schedules relegated most of their interactions to brief catch-up sessions over late-night takeout or sex when they had the energy for it. Josh hadn't been a bad boyfriend; he'd just been absent a lot, as had she. Neither of them was an innocent party in the matter.
"That's a long time. Anyone at home missing you when you're gone?" She had noticed that there was no ring on his finger, but that didn't mean anything these days.
"Actually, yeah." He smiled while he dug his phone out of his scrubs. "Anna. She's a doctor, too. Met her here at the hospital. Comes with me on some of the missions. She a pretty great gal." His regard for her was written all over the soft expression on his face.
She looked down at his phone, at a picture of a attractive sandy-haired woman who looked serious even with a smile on her face. Maybe that was exactly what he needed.
"She's pretty. Is it serious?"
"Yeah. I mean…I think so. It's hard sometimes, what with our busy schedules. I feel like we don't get to spend as much time together as we'd like..." he trailed off as he shrugged and dropped the phone back into the pocket.
"Sounds vaguely familiar," Kate said softly, looking down into her empty cup and flashing back to their last confrontation; when the topic of how little they saw each other came up, both had accused the other of being more invested in their job than they were in their relationship. At the time, Josh had also suggested that a certain writer was, in part, to blame for their estrangement, to which Kate had replied, "This isn't about him!" knowing full well that to some extent, it was.
"Yeah. Yeah, I hear you," he mumbled sheepishly.
She looked up at him then. He looked…smaller somehow. Contrite. Like he was torturing himself for wrongs long past.
He looked up to meet her eyes.
"Hey. Don't do that. Don't beat yourself up. Your job, what you do…it's important to you. And I know that it's not just a job to you. It's a calling. Trust me, I understand that better than anyone."
He smiled at her gratefully. "Yeah, I guess you would. I know how devoted you are. It's what makes you such a great cop."
She felt a twinge then…was it guilt she felt? He knew so very little of her tragic history, and even then, she had only doled out the bits and pieces she felt safe exposing to him. She may have let him into her bed, but never really let him into her heart.
But the time for those confessions was over. "Thanks. You know, I actually left the NYPD for a while. Tried out a federal gig, with the Attorney General's office."
"No kidding? Well, you obviously came back. And the Nikki Heat books haven't stopped being published, so it couldn't have lasted too long."
"It only lasted a couple of months. You know, in the end, I just wasn't cut out for it. It's a different mind-set, and I wasn't a good fit."
"Alive and kicking."
"And your partnership with her creator?" He kept his segue subtle and his eyes on his chai the whole time, she noted.
He met her eyes then, his eyebrows raised. "That's all?"
She brought the left hand that had been resting in her lap up to rest on the table, her sparkling diamond engagement ring acting as a prism and casting rainbows in the late afternoon sun. No sense in hiding something she wasn't ashamed of, not to mentioned had been broadcast for all to see in the newspaper. "We're getting married next month."
Josh nodded and smiled wistfully at her revelation. "Ah. Color me surprised."
"Josh…" Kate began, trying to ward off a repeat of their last conversation.
He stopped her with an upraised hand. "No, Kate...just listen, please. I don't want you to misunderstand me. I'm not upset. I'm happy for you. And I mean it; I'm not surprised." She looked into his eyes and believed him. There was no anger there.
He continued then. "You know, when we started seeing each other, I was completely unaware of all the Nikki Heat stuff, and you were never really forthcoming about that part of your life. Do you remember how I first found out about it?"
She couldn't recall, so she shook her head, suddenly, painfully aware of just how closed off she had been. God, had he ever known her? Not really. Certainly not as well as the other man in her life, the one that she hadn't been sleeping with at the time.
"You had met me for lunch at the hospital one day. One of the MDs I work with saw us together and recognized you from that spread in Cosmo. I mean, it was surreal, Kate. I had no idea. I went home that night and Googled you. I couldn't believe that the woman I was dating was famous."
"I don't know about famous, and certainly not by choice, I can assure you," Kate grumbled, her hands now twisting her napkin into a crumpled mess and her eyes securely fastened on the remnants of her snack. As much as she loved her fictional counterpart, there was still that side of her that would never quite be comfortable with the notoriety that Nikki had bestowed upon her inspiration.
Josh nodded his understanding. "I know. You never exploited your status. It's not your style. But it wasn't until I read the books, and maybe more importantly the dedications that I realized just how much you meant to him. And then there was the way he looked at you…"
She looked up at him then, wanting to nip the notion of infidelity in the bud. "Josh, nothing ever happened between he and I. Not when we were together, and not even for a long time after we broke up."
It wasn't entirely true, and she knew it. In spite of Josh's presence in her life, Castle had invaded her thoughts (and if she was being completely honest, her fantasies) promptly following his return to the precinct many years prior, after their disastrous parting right before Memorial day and the subsequent summer spent apart. But once again, it wasn't the time to confess to Josh that one of the hottest kisses of her life had occurred in a dark alley with a man who wasn't him while they were still dating. The one that replayed in explicit, arousing detail behind her closed eyelids every time she kissed him after that, and every time he believed her passion and enthusiasm was for him. It wasn't.
He shook his head at the very idea. "I know that, Kate. I don't doubt it for a moment. It's not who you are."
"Castle and I…" she began again, and then paused, shaking her head and letting out the breath that had caught in her lungs. "Our relationship was complicated back then." That much was 100% true.
"Well, time and distance gives one perspective. I probably didn't want to see it at the time, but now, looking back…the man was crazy about you Kate, even back then. Like, madly in love with you. You had to have known, on some level."
She looked into his kind eyes again and like before, there was no animosity behind his words. She felt a sudden surge of gratitude for how astute he was. "I guess I did. I just didn't know what to do about it then. And of course, there was you. I cared about you a lot, you know." She cringed internally at the pleading tone in her voice, but it was important that he understand how much he had meant to her, that he hadn't been some meaningless fling.
"I know. You wouldn't have been with someone you didn't care about. Like I said, it's not your style."
She just nodded, unsure of what to say next, but Josh spoke up first.
"Kate, when we split up that summer, I knew you two would end up together. If not immediately, then eventually you would find your way. Some things are simply meant to be."
She bobbed her head in agreement, mortified that she was tearing up a little at his comment. But she couldn't help it; he nailed it. She and Castle really had been drawn to each other, magnetically, inexplicably, unalterably. They had always been meant for each other, and it had taken them four years to act upon the connection that Josh had picked up on within a few months of casual observation.
He reached across the table to touch her hand. She was surprised by the gesture, but kept her composure and didn't flinch.
"Are you happy Kate?"
Her face split with a wide, contented grin and she nodded emphatically. "Yes. Very."
"Then I'm happy for you. Please don't doubt that."
She gritted her teeth, willing herself not to shed tears at his earnest declaration. "Thank you."
His phone buzzed audibly from an incoming text at that moment. Pulling his hand away from hers, he retrieved the phone from his pocket and read the message.
"I'm so sorry, Kate, but I have to run. They need me in surgery."
"Of course. Go."
He shifted to stand, pulling his hoodie from the back of the chair. "Hey, I'm really glad I ran into you. Take care, okay? And tell Castle I said 'congratulations'."
She chuckled at that. "I will. See you around, Josh."
She watched the back of his head intently as he moved away from her, out the door of the café, and very likely out of her life for the last time. There was always a chance their paths might cross again, of course. Manhattan was a little crazy that way; you never knew whom you might encounter on any given day. But in a city of over eight million people, the likelihood was slim. And that was okay with her.
She lounged in her window seat for a few more minutes, basking in the late afternoon sunlight. Her head was blissfully pain-free now, and there was a certain lightness about her, too. Her split from Josh hadn't been messy, but she knew that he walked away from her hurt and confused that day. It did her conscience good to know that he understood, and that he'd moved on himself.
Her own phone chimed with an incoming text then.
And how is my gorgeous fiancée on this fine May afternoon? Any chance she could be convinced to knock off work at a reasonable hour and join me for dinner tonight? I promise to make it worth her while… **wink wink**
She couldn't hold in her laugh. She knew exactly how he would make it worth her while, and right about now, a home-cooked meal and some TLC sounded like the most divine offer ever. With her person of interest still in surgery, it was highly unlikely she could talk to him before tomorrow morning anyway, so she eagerly tapped out a response.
I think she could be talked into it, but may need some more convincing. Feel free to expand on what the **wink wink** entails. See you 7ish. Love you.
Her phone buzzed continuously throughout the remainder of the afternoon, a racy play-by-play of their anticipated evening arriving with provocative new details every few minutes, a faint blush creeping up her neck and staining her cheeks each time.
She and Castle lay in bed together later that night, their naked skin pressed against each other as pounding hearts calmed, slick flesh cooled, and rapid breaths evened out. Their lovemaking had been particularly passionate, and his orgasm-addled brain couldn't help but wonder what had gotten into his fiancée. Their sex life had always been phenomenal, but tonight she had been very enthusiastic, to say the least.
"You should have horrible, infuriating cases every day of the week if this is your coping mechanism. I'd be happy to help you work your frustrations out." He couldn't help the giddy, breathless tone to his voice. She had made his toes curl.
He could feel her smile against his chest where her head rested. "That is a generous offer. Thank you."
"Seriously. Not that you aren't a fantastic lover any night of the week, but I mean…wow. You were positively inspired tonight."
She propped her chin on his chest then to look him in the eye, the rest of her damp body draped over his.
"Are you implying that our lovemaking is ever not inspired?" she asked teasingly.
His eyes widened. "I would never say that. I can only hope my litany of risqué texts to you this afternoon was part of that inspiration."
"Mmmhmmm," she hummed, smiling at his smugness, realizing only then that she hadn't yet told him about seeing Josh that afternoon. The sexting had of course been partly responsible for her fired-up state when she returned home, but running into her ex had stirred up something primal in her and the rest of her workday had been consumed with thoughts of seducing her fiancé. She couldn't explain it; she just knew that before the night was over, she needed him to know in no uncertain terms how deeply her love and desire for him ran. Dinner was barely over when she climbed onto his lap, any pretense of going slow completely abandoned. She wanted him, and she wanted him now; he was only too happy to oblige.
She was quiet for a moment before speaking again. "I ran into Josh today."
"No kidding? Wow. When was the last time you saw him?"
His reaction was carefully casual. There was no love lost between her fiancé and her ex-boyfriend, but she knew that Castle didn't see him as a threat so much as a reminder of his painful longing for her during that time in their partnership.
"I know…it was crazy. I haven't seen or talked to him since we broke up. It was right after I left the hospital that summer."
"Was it…okay? I mean, he wasn't unpleasant to you, was he?"
"Oh, no. Not at all. It was fine, really. In fact, he was very happy for me. For us."
"Really." His eyes widened as he made no attempt to hide his incredulity.
She grinned at his reaction. "Really. We had a good talk. Told me to tell you congratulations on our engagement. Seems he knew all along we were meant for each other."
He stared at her for a beat, then lifted his head to touch his lips to hers, a soft, slow smudging of their mouths, a little tease of warm tongue to show his intent, that she was his just as he was hers. She laid her head back on his chest when he drew back, both content to melt into the other for a long moment.
"Perhaps he wasn't so terrible after all," she heard his voice rumble through his chest.
"That is noble of you to say so."
"Hey!" he protested weakly. "I'm a noble kind of guy."
He pulled her tightly against his body, and she reveled in his bottomless craving to be close to her. He could never be a controlling, jealous man; it simply wasn't in his nature. But she also knew he could never share her, not now, not ever. It wasn't about ownership, or viewing the other as a possession. He just loved every part of her: her mind, her heart, her body…every last little bit. He wanted it all, as did she, and neither would settle for any less.
"It's weird," she murmured softly against his skin, "seeing someone you used to be really close to, and feeling like they're almost a stranger to you now. He's a good guy, he just…"
She trailed off, but he waited her out, patiently. He wanted to let her finish, wanted to know her story, like he always had. Always would.
She lifted her head then and smiled at him again.
"He wasn't you."
He reflected her smile, his eyes crinkled with happiness at her declaration.
"Poor guy never stood a chance."
They melted into a fit of laughter then, Kate flopping onto her back and Castle following her to settle between her thighs before she could even form another coherent thought. He spent the next hour driving the rest of them from her head.
A/N: Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated! It's been a while, but I was finally able to churn this one out. I thought the idea of Kate running into her (extremely hot) ex was intriguing, and this is what came out of it. As always, a review is appreciated (truly, any input helps me to improve as a writer) but certainly not required. Your enjoyment is reward enough!
And Bec, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your beta services and encouragement. The wine is on me this summer.