"Castle, wake up." The sultry hum of her voice in his ear has him swimming to the surface of his slumber, awareness spreading through his limbs, the touch of Kate's lips to his ear tugging a smile from his lips.
Rick reaches for her without opening his eyes, finds the curve of her shoulder with his palm and feels her knee slide over his lap, the warm weight of her body lowering to settle over him. His eye peel open at the brush of her lips to his cheek, the corner of his mouth, the blur of sleep and sunshine fading after a few blinks to reveal her hovering above him. The light is like a halo at her back, illuminating her golden skin, her sparkling eyes that assess him with so much adoration and it'll never stop amazing him that he can make Kate Beckett this happy.
"Morning," he breathes, cradling one of her grinning cheeks in his palm and caressing the lovely line of her lips.
Kate pecks a kiss to his thumb before she leans in, smudges another to his mouth, her smile contagious.
"Happy anniversary," she corrects, nipping at his bottom lip. Her laugh echoes through her childhood bedroom as he rolls her over and sinks down to rest atop her wiggling form.
They've been returning to Big Sur every summer since they met, always managing to reserve a week to spend away in her father's cabin, submerged in the welcome second home of the woods no matter the changes that take place in their lives. And there have been many. He had even proposed to her here, after a hike along their favorite trail through the forest on the fallen redwood that will always be the spot where he is certain he first fell in love with her.
That had been five years ago.
"Happy anniversary, Mrs. Castle," he returns, stroking back the chestnut locks from her face. "Are the kids still with your dad?"
"Until noon," she confirms, folding her legs high around his waist and sweeping her hands up to twine her fingers at his nape, the cool strip of her wedding ring imprinting against his skin. "And it's only nine."
Castle rumbles with delight, earning another breath of laughter from her lips. It's been seven years since they met and sometimes, he wonders if the spark between them will ever dim, if the ever present butterflies and the hot flare of arousal will one day fade away, but it never does, and he hopes it never will. He never wants to stop looking at his wife and feeling his heart swell with joy and ripen with gratitude.
"Care to share what suddenly has you thinking so hard?" she murmurs, withdrawing a hand from his neck to dust her fingers along his brow.
Rick lifts a hand to catch her by the wrist as her turns his head, smears a kiss to her palm before pinning it above her head. "Just you," he mumbles, admiring the flecks of gold in her eyes, the swirls of varying greens and browns that caught his attention on that very first day. No, he thinks, as long as she has his heart, there will never be a risk of it being empty. "How much I love you, Kate."
The hand still curled at his neck draws him down to meet the refuge of her lips that part for him on a sigh, her tongue welcoming his with a caressing stroke that sends a pleasant burn through his veins.
"I love you too, Castle," she whispers around the firm press of her mouth. "Always have."
They emerge from the cabin just before noon, just in time to see Alexis and Jim walking the path that winds through the woods and connects the two cabins that have taken a permanent residence in Castle's heart.
They had all traded for the night – Jim heading over to the rental, where Castle had stayed during his first time in Big Sur, where they usually stayed now since the Beckett's cabin could no longer hold all of them, while he and Kate had traveled the familiar trail to her father's place for some long anticipated alone time to celebrate their anniversary. Kate wasn't aware yet, but he planned to buy the rental cabin before they headed back to New York. The owners had already offered to sell to him multiple times, seeing as he has always been their most consistent summer resident, and he's finally ready to call the place their own. It will never be the second home the former hideaway her dad's cabin had become all those years ago, but by now, it was almost equal in the amount of fond memories it held.
Kate lifted on her toes as their family grew closer, smudged a kiss to his cheek, his jaw, before dropping back to the soles of her shoes, her smile still in place while her arm slid around his waist.
"Stop glowing, your dad's going to know how we spent the morning," he huffs, pressing his lips to her temple.
Her eyes flash with something, like a secret brimming gold like a halo along the circumference of her pupils, but before he can question it, an excited shout from ahead steals his attention.
Ava breaks free from the chain of hands she's made with Alexis and Jim Beckett, sprinting forward and leaping into Castle's waiting arms, wrapping her tiny arms around his neck and hugging him tight, as if it's been days rather than hours since she last saw him.
"Hey sweetpea," Castle chuckles, propping their daughter on his hip. "How was the slumber party with Lexi and Grandpa?"
"It was the best," Ava gushes, her green eyes bright like the jade stone she wears around her neck, the simple cord of black leather and gemstone a gift from Alexis that had nearly brought Kate to tears at the baby shower. "Lexi painted my nails!"
The younger of his two daughters holds out her right hand proudly for him to see the shimmering turquoise painted onto her fingernails.
"Oh, look at that," Kate hums, taking their daughter's hand in hers and skimming her thumb over the polish. "Reminds me of the ocean."
"Because Ava wants to be a mermaid," Alexis informs her, joining the three of them to stand at Kate's side. "We enjoyed two and a half viewings of The Little Mermaid last night."
The apples of Ava's cheeks flood pink, a quirk inherited from her mother, and Castle chuckles, patting the girl's back. "Don't worry, honey. Alexis used to think she was Ariel because of her hair."
"Dad," Alexis huffs.
"Don't worry, Lex. Katie used to think she was Belle from Beauty and the Beast because she loved books," Jim chimes in, earning a toothy grin from his granddaughter.
"Oh, Mommy," Ava sighs, wistful as she reaches for her mother and Castle's passes her over. "Momma's Belle, Alexis is Ariel, who'm I?"
Kate chuckles, swaying softly when Ava rests her cheek to her Kate's shoulder, a habit his wife took up when Ava was still nothing more than a tiny bundle in her arms. "Whoever you want to be, baby. You could even make up a new princess, create your own story and everything."
"Like Daddy does with his books?" she gasps, the rosebud of her lips parting with excitement. "Oh yes, I'll write like Daddy!"
"Gram is going to be crushed," Alexis murmurs, drifting closer to her father and nudging him with her elbow. "Her hopes of finally having a grandchild who would follow in her footsteps and become a Broadway star had just been renewed."
"She's just as proud to have a M.E. in training for a granddaughter," Castle reminds her, lacing an arm around Alexis's shoulders and smacking a kiss to her cheek that she squirms away from.
He had secretly worried that Alexis wouldn't enjoy Big Sur as much as he had imagined she would, but just like her approval of Kate upon first meeting her, her approval of the California coast came with ease and enthusiasm. His eldest daughter fell in love with the serenity of the ocean and the tranquility of the forest just as quickly as he had and he thinks now, after all these years, Alexis may even enjoy vacationing here more than the Hamptons.
"Have you guys already had lunch?" Kate asks, setting Ava down on her feet and stroking a hand through their daughter's lengthening brown locks.
"Yep, and Alexis got Ava all ready for a day at the beach," Jim informs them.
"Not coming along, Dad?" Kate teases, knowing her father never joins their family outings to Pfeiffer beach in favor of some peace and quiet amidst the woods.
Jim spears her with a glare that Castle has been on the receiving end of by the older man's daughter many times. "I'll see you three for dinner, and Lex, I'll see you at the next meal we have together in New York."
"Deal," Alexis shoots back with a smile.
Warmth unfurls in Castle's chest without fail when Jim embraces his daughter and Alexis clutches him back, as if he's never been anything short of real family. Rick has never had a father figure, and in turn, his daughter had never had any form of grandfather. Until he met Jim and the Castles managed to merge with the Becketts.
"Have fun in the purple sand, Ava," Jim calls, releasing Alexis and patting Ava on the head, nudging Kate with his shoulder and smirking when she purposefully allows herself to be shoved into Castle.
"I will, Grandpa. I'mma build a purple castle!" Ava returns, waving to her grandfather as he climbs the cabin steps and disappears inside with the affectionate grin still firmly in place.
"C'mon guys, my flight is in only a few hours," Alexis reminds them, sighing softly at the loop of Ava's arms at her knees. With Alexis's busy schedule, her time with her family, with her little sister, is always limited, and while Ava rarely expressed her craving for Alexis's time and attention, he knew that his youngest daughter hated for her big sister to leave early. "I'm working with Lanie on Monday and I want to enjoy the beach before I have to go back to looking at dead bodies all day."
"This I can relate to," Kate laughs, abandoning his side to sling an arm around Alexis's shoulders. "But I also know you're dying to see that cute boy who works parking."
Castle sputters as Alexis's cheeks burn bright red and she elbows Kate in the side, sharing a silent joke with his wife. And yeah, he knows Alexis is all grown up now, but he doesn't think he'll ever soften to the idea of his daughters and boys.
Especially not Shane from the parking lot at Pfeiffer beach. No way.
"Calm down, babe," Kate hums, drifting backwards and winding her arm around his waist while Alexis bends to her knees, allows Ava to hop on her back. "Just some innocent flirting between those two. I just like to tease her."
"Am I that obvious?" he huffs, tangling his fingers with the hand splayed at his side.
Alexis starts down the two mile long path that will lead to the parking lot just outside the redwoods and wildlife with Ava clinging to her back and Kate tugs him along after the two, their footsteps in sync as they maintain a slow pace behind the girls. "Extremely obvious."
"Well, now I have two to worry about, that's twice as many boys, Kate. And if Ava's anything like your dad says you were as a teenager…" Castle shudders and she socks him in the ribs for it.
"You wish you'd known me as a teenager," she mumbles, craning her neck to nip at his jaw, throwing them off balance.
"Oh, so you suddenly think I could handle Rebel Becks?" he teases, clutching her hip as he rights them before the forest floor can trip them up.
"Not at all, but it would have been fun to see you try."
"I would have made you fall for my charms back then, just like I did seven years ago. Just like I still do now."
Her eyes roll and her lips purse, but she doesn't deny him. "Maybe."
"Faster, Lexi!" Ava's voice rings through the trees, alarming a few birds, inviting others to join in with cheerful tweets and songs of greeting.
"Faster?" Alexis groans, hitching Ava higher on her back and continuing her jog uphill much to Castle's amusement.
"Yeah," Kate adds, listing further into his side, a lovely smile flirting with the edges of her mouth. "You definitely would have."
It was their last night in Big Sur, the last few hours of their anniversary, and he was sneaking out to meet his wife in the starlit darkness.
Rick eases the cabin door shut behind him, the chirp of the crickets disguising the click of the recently installed automatic lock and the crash of the nearby ocean waves in the distance muffling his footsteps along the porch, down the wooden stairs. He spares a moment to inhale the salt in the air, the wilderness that surrounds them like a warm embrace.
In the last seven years, he and Kate have been through almost as many nightmares as adventures, the calm sea of their lives often disrupted by deadly tidal waves in the forms of snipers and senators, of death threats and bullet wounds, even a tiger not long after he finally weaseled his way into shadowing her at work. Big Sur was once her safe haven, where she hid away to lick her wounds and heal in peace, but she had allowed him into fold of the woods she had grown up exploring, offered him a taste of serenity in the sand along the oceanside, and now, this place had become a haven for him too.
And it always made leaving so bittersweet.
Castle glances back to the cabin, his eyes tracking to the window where the soft glow from Ava's nightlight illuminates the tiny guest room that has slowly turned into her own after three years. At no sign of movement, he makes quick work of the jog around the side of the cabin, where he knows Kate is waiting, and sure enough, he finds her lying in the grass peppered with wildflowers.
She senses him the moment he appears, probably heard the moment he rose from their empty bed where her lack of presence had him waking with a disgruntled huff.
"Hey lover," she whispers, redirecting her gaze from the night sky above onto him, her smile glowing in the dark.
Castle grins and joins her in the moonlit clearing behind her father's cabin. It isn't an unusual occurrence for her to disappear to this spot in the night, even less unusual for him to plop down beside her, spend the night talking or making love beneath the stars. But tonight, he can tell she has something on her mind, something she's been yearning to tell him all day if the sidelong glances and glimpses he's caught of anticipation brimming in her eyes, along her lips, is any indication.
Rick extends his legs forward, relishing in the cushion of the soft, green grass, and positions his arms behind him, leans back until he can tilt his chin up to the sky.
"I should've brought a bottle of your favorite wine out with me, finished off our anniversary in style," he muses, shifting his weight onto his left hand so he can comb the hair back from her forehead with his right, aid the stray locks in joining the rest splayed across the green earth.
Kate's lips quirk at the suggestion. "Trying to get me drunk so you can take advantage of me, Rick Castle?"
"I don't need to get you drunk to do that," he shoots back, earning a quiet huff of her laughter as she sits up beside him.
"No," she hums, drifting towards him to dusts her lips to his shoulder, the brush of her mouth eliciting frissons of electricity along his veins. "You don't. But I actually wanted to talk to you about something," she murmurs, pulling her knees up to her chest, her usual pose for serious discussions, and the blooming arousal in his bloodstream cools, evaporates under the anticipation climbing his spine.
It has him straightening up beside her, scooting closer, but not touching. Not yet.
"I'm listening," he encourages, watching her shoulders rise with the deep inhale she takes, but the look on her face isn't foreboding or anxious. Maybe a little nervous, but mostly… hopeful?
"We haven't talked about the future recently," she begins, chewing on her bottom lip, a habit he doesn't see quite as often anymore, but doesn't ever think she'll truly break. "About what the next few years could hold and what we both want from them."
Castle nods. "Well, your captain's exam is coming up this month and I really think-"
"No, not – I wasn't talking professionally," she informs him with a small smile. "I meant… with us. With our family." Kate's eyes rise from the ground, flickering up to meet his with soft delight gleaming in hers, and he swallows hard, feels the hope he saw on her face earlier invade his chest. "I know Ava was a surprise for both of us-"
"Wait," he interrupts her, his breath already beginning to catch in his lungs. "Are you saying you want more kids? That you want to – to start trying for another?"
The smile breaks wide and brilliant across her face, her eyes twinkling brighter than the glimmering stars above.
"We don't have to try, Rick," she chuckles, the sound so light and beautiful to his ears as she shifts to her knees, eases one over his lap and weaves her arms around his neck. "We already succeeded."
The breath evacuates from his lungs, the shocked smile already spreading across his lips. "You're pregnant?"
Kate nods and he surges forward to embrace her, to cradle her body snug and tight against his, to bury his awestruck expression in the cove of her neck and allow her the chance to muffle her laughter in his shoulder. And oh, he knows they hadn't talked about it, hadn't expressed any desire for a second child yet, but as his heart explodes in his chest and his cheeks begin to ache from the spread of his smile, as Kate's upturned lips press to his jaw and the gentle laughter continues to spill from her mouth to his skin, it's quite clear that the desire is mutual.
"Do you remember," she murmurs, her lips caressing the shell of his ear. "That first week, when you talked about coming back here one day, with our family, with grandkids?"
"You remember that?" he whispers, his eyebrows hitching against her jaw before he pulls back. He had teased her with that joke before she was even his, terrified her with the prospect of a future that he never would have fathomed her wanting then, but now…
"I still hope we have that one day," Kate confesses, biting down on her bottom lip again and Castle lifts his hand, dusts his thumb over the swelling flesh until its set free. "I never thought that this – that I could have it. After my mom died, I never thought I even had a chance at a future like this, but then you… I just hope you know how much it means to me, how much our family means. How much I love you, Castle."
"I do know," he whispers, brushing his thumb along the harsh edge of her jaw. His chest is swelling, his throat closing up with the urge to cry and his eyes beginning to burn with the effort of keeping it back, and Kate drifts forward, touches her lips to the corner of his eye before the moisture can fall. "You changed everything for me too, Kate. Second I met you, life became extraordinary," he reminds her, quoting vows from their wedding that have her own eyes sparkling with tears.
"I still want the lifetime," she gets out, her voice unsteady and her smile shaking. "Lifetime of swimming."
Castle laughs, quietly in the peace of the woods, and lifts to taste her lips, to touch his tongue to the corner of her mouth, where she opens for him on a sigh, hums at the promise he paints with his tongue.
"It's already yours," he murmurs, welcoming the press of her forehead and the kiss of her nose to his. "All yours, Kate."
A/N: There are not enough words to express how grateful I am to all of you who read this story and provided feedback in the form of a review, a follow or favorite, a tweet or a message through tumblr - each and every response has been so very meaningful, to say the least. Thank you. And of course, a major thank you to Nadia for the stunning cover art that provided a beautiful vision to go along with this fic.
This story in particular was a special one for me and it was such a privilege to share it with all of you. Until the next journey.