It strikes her as strange when her consciousness so obviously returns before she gives any thought to opening her eyes; she's pretty sure both happen simultaneously when she awakens in any other situation. Then pain slices through her body, deep and unforgiving, and she knows this isn't like any other situation.

What the hell is going on?

She coaxes her eyes open just long enough for the bright white room to force them shut again, and she hears a low whine drag on for several seconds before she realizes it's coming from her. There's a hand on her shoulder almost immediately, clipped commands she doesn't understand from a voice she doesn't recognize, and then she's asleep again.

The cycle repeats a few times – or she thinks it does. Pain, lights, voices, and more sleep. She has no idea how long the delirium lasts before she claws her way back to the land of the living.

When she finally opens her eyes for more than a second, she sees her father sitting in a chair beside her and makes a noise to get his attention. There are immediate flashes of memories, a violent thunderstorm in her head, and she needs help making sense of it all before the anxiety swells to a level she can't control. She wants to reach for him, but even breathing hurts, and she hasn't figured out how to make the rest of her body work.

The relief washing over Jim's face is obvious, and she knows she must have been in bad shape to have worried him so. He wraps his fingers loosely around her wrist, careful not to disturb the tubes that run the length of her forearm, and tells her the story of a sniper at her captain's funeral, knowing better than to hold anything back, even as she fades in and out of sleep. Lack of answers will only bring more questions, so she hears about Ryan and Esposito's efforts to find the person – or people – responsible. She hears about the way Lanie has helped translate the medical jargon, keeping everyone calm with a concise explanation of gunshot wounds, surgical procedures, and the expected post-operative recovery process. And she hears all about Castle, a man her father seems to respect more by the minute.

She's captivated by her father's description of Castle's dive toward her, the way her partner had reacted before anyone else knew what was going on. It strikes her as similar, yet critically different from what had happened at Lockwood's arraignment several days ago; though they'd each knocked the other down in the face of danger, Castle's instinct had driven him into the line of fire. The comparison frightens her, the ease with which he chose to save her, never the coward and always her hero.

Once she's learned as much as she can, disrupted only by her own bouts of unconsciousness and the care of her nurses, she offers Jim a grateful and sleepy nod before making one request.

"Will you please call Castle for me? I want to see him."

Castle is so hesitant when he approaches her bedside with a bouquet of flowers and only a hint of hope, and it further breaks her already damaged heart. There is still a lot she needs to fix between them, but she figures it won't hurt to open with a joke, her voice weak but her will strong.

"Heard you got into a fight with someone on my ER team. Is Dr. Motorcycle Boy going to be the villain of the next Nikki Heat book?"

He chokes out a laugh as he settles into the chair her father had occupied earlier and takes one of her hands between both of his. "Probably not my best moment, but what are the odds that the one time Josh wasn't off saving the world, he was busy saving my girlfriend instead?"

"Your girlfriend, huh?" She smiles shyly, tugging her lower lip between her teeth. "Is that what I am?"

"Only until you're ready for more."

And, god, that says so much. More than they've managed in most of their conversations.

Shaking her head, she whispers, "I'm sorry I've screwed this up so terribly."

"Yeah, I'm not sure I've ever read a Cosmo tip that included getting shot in the chest as a way to improve a relationship."

"You read a lot of Cosmo? That explains a ton." She feels good – her physical pain aside – but he can't let her off the hook this easily, and she forces herself to continue until he understands. "I'm serious, Castle. You were right when you accused me of hiding. Of chasing this thing for too long. I've been selfish and blind and stubborn, and I can't do it anymore. I almost died and all I could think about was you. I just want you."

It takes him a second to stand and work around the bedrails and machines, but his kiss is intimate and reassuring, and her heart is that much closer to settling into a comfortable rhythm. His hand comes up to brush wisps of hair from her eyes before he lets his fingertips trace the curve of her smile. Then he looks sheepish, and the flicker of concern in his eyes confuses her until he clears his throat and takes a deep breath. "Um, can you hold onto that thought? Because I want you, too, and the good news is we are about to get a lot of each other. Probably for the next several weeks."

"We're what? And why?" She freezes in her hospital bed, heartfelt confessions dumped onto the cold tile floor as she tilts her head. "How much am I not going to like whatever you're about to say?"

"There weren't a lot of great options, really. You're going to need a lot of help when you're released, and I would never make your dad do that alone, and it will just be easier if you're at the loft where I can be at your beck and call. And come on, being able to boss me around all day? It will be just like the 12th, but with more expensive furniture."

"You think I'm moving in with you?"

"I think you're recuperating at the loft." He winks and she gets her eyes ready to roll. "The moving in can happen once you've fully recovered."

She doesn't have the opportunity to argue – and she isn't convinced she wants to anyway – a nurse interrupting them to change the IV bag and check Kate's vitals. Seeing his chance to escape further questions about his plans for their future, Castle hurries to lean over the bed once more, pressing another soft kiss to her mouth.

"Get some rest. I'll be back later tonight and we can talk more."

He starts to pull away, but she tugs him close again, mumbling against his lips so the nurse can't overhear her.

"I'm looking forward to it. And, Castle? I love you, too."

Three months later

The sunset is everything she had dreamed it would be. The wine might be even better.

But the man sitting by her side is the best.

She and Castle had arrived in Napa Valley in time for a relaxing lunch, then spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the grounds of their inn, enjoying the view and the gorgeous California weather and taking a quick dip in the pool before dinner. She's excited about the winery tours and tastings that will keep them busy tomorrow, but it's been wonderful to keep a lighter schedule after their six-hour flight. They'll be spending a few days in wine country before they need to return to their responsibilities, but for now they're curled together on the patio of their cottage, sipping one of the local wines and soaking up the pinks and purples swirled over the horizon.

The vacation is fulfillment of a promise made months ago and a reward for making it through a summer that could have driven them apart for good.

It had been easy enough to go along with Castle's plan to keep her at the loft during her recovery; the hospital's drugs had been an excellent buffer against any possible arguments to the contrary. The reality of it was much harder – on everyone involved, really – and they've had their share of passionate fights over the past several weeks. Some stemmed from Alexis's rather cool reaction to Kate's presence and from Martha's typically ebullient desire to help, suddenly suffocating in its intensity. Others started after her father checked in on her too many times or Lanie and the boys stopped by unannounced, Kate unwilling to see or talk to anyone during her weakest moments. And she knows several fights resulted from her lingering concern that Castle would decide she simply wasn't worth the trouble anymore. That last problem has been the focus of more than one of her mandated therapy sessions, and she's grateful that Dr. Burke continues to help her work past such a damning insecurity.

She and Castle both deserve better.

As for her shooting and its connection to the deaths of both Captain Montgomery and Johanna Beckett, the investigation has been officially curtailed, the new captain considering the case cold. They've got copies of the files at the loft and her team will continue to work it on the side, but she's insisted that their safety is more important than the answers she's been obsessed with for too long. None of them need to attend another funeral of someone they love, no more lives should be lost to a tragedy that was never destined for a truly happy ending.

She'll get justice for her mom, even if it's not today. Today is a celebration of the future, as she awaits the results of her final psych evaluation and her return to the precinct next week; she's already received full physical clearance and is grateful that the worst of her pain is behind her.

"Penny for your thoughts?" Castle asks, brushing his thumb over the hand entwined with his.

Her head falls back, heavy from the wine and her mirth. "Come on, you're a multi-millionaire. You're gonna have to give me a lot more than a penny."

"Oh, really? Well, in that case, I rescind my offer. Besides, I know you well enough that I can guess what's on your mind."

It's true, but she smirks anyway. "Go ahead then. What's on my mind?"

He tilts his head, his exaggerated concentration causing her to push back a laugh with the glass she holds to her lips. "Okay, there are a few things happening in there."

"Just a few?"

"Shhhhh, Beckett, don't interrupt me." He clears his throat and begins again. "First, you're thinking about you mom's case. Not in the bad ways that used to hurt you, but in the ways I've seen you embrace over the summer. You're hopeful, but realistic, and no longer driven by anger and vengeance. You know we'll get the bad guy eventually. Second, you're nervous about going back to work. It's a love of yours, but you've never been away from it like this, and it will be different when you step back into the bullpen for the first time. You're wondering about the new captain, and whether you'll be as extraordinary as you always were before."

The word takes her breath away, just as it had the first time he'd used it to describe her, but she protests nonetheless. "Castle, we may need to find a less complimentary adjective for me."

"Well, tall works, too. It just doesn't have the same emotional oomph to it."

She hums her agreement, then arches an eyebrow toward him. "Anything else, my clairvoyant one?"

He doesn't answer right away; instead, he slips the now-empty wine glass from her fingers and sets it aside with his. Then he cradles the side of her face with his hand and draws her closer, their mouths easily opening for a kiss, quiet moans witnessed only by the darkening night. The kiss itself isn't anything they haven't shared a hundred times before, but the setting makes it magical, and she can't help the whine that escapes when he pulls away.

"I'm pretty sure you're also thinking about how awesome it is to kiss me." He touches his mouth to her jaw and hums against her skin, sliding upward until his hot breath teases her ear and rocks her body with arousal. "You're thinking about how fortunate you are to get to kiss me every day, and what a shame it is that you waited so long to give in to my charm."

She'd roll her eyes or push him away or chastise him for his unabashed arrogance, but it's difficult to do anything when she wants to press her body into his, her arms wrapped around his broad shoulders and legs twisted with his until they're a tangled mess on the patio loveseat. When it's all too much, or maybe not enough, she fumbles her way to her feet and drags him with her into the cottage. They keep tripping over themselves, their path anything but easy, and it's a fitting summary of their entire relationship, the inability to move forward without a few bumps and bruises along the way. In between kisses, she just smiles.

They finally reach the bed, million-count sheets beckoning, and she sucks on his neck as she slips her hands beneath his shirt. "Not bad, Castle, but you were only partially right about that last one."

His eyes blaze dark and needy, and his lips part around the words he can't seem to find; she takes pity on him and explains.

"I'm thinking about doing so much more than kissing."

A/N: Thank you all so much for your incredible support and encouragement throughout this story. I've never had this kind of response to a fic and I'm overwhelmed by the kindness so many of you have shown. Some of you have been more critical, but I've sincerely enjoyed the chance to go back and forth with you, and it's helped me be more confident in my own choices along the way. Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to challenge myself! -morgan