You're a coward.

It's been her mantra for the better part of the last few hours. Kate sighs inwardly; when she approached him with a soft smile on her face and his glass of wine in her extended hand, she'd had every intention of saying something, of doing something bold and definitive. Something that would leave no doubt in his mind that this, them, is happening now. She'd been full of swagger and moxie and ready or not, Rick Castle, but then he thanked her and teased her about saving her life more times than she'd saved his, and they fell back into the easy shelter of their banter, always talking volumes without managing to say much of anything at all.

They're sitting around the table now, dinner having long since passed in a delicious blur of decadent dishes, the conversation relaxed and easy and no one wants to break the spell to begin the inevitable task of cleaning up. Kate revels in the closeness of these people; their shared affection for each other doesn't make her feel excluded, but rather serves to reminds her (and not for the first time) that she can have this any time she wants. This man and his seemingly bottomless love for her, this family, this life, all hers for the taking if she'll only just speak up and stake her claim. How can something that sounds so simple be simultaneously so thrilling and terrifying?

Their little party finally begins to break up, the events of the day taking their toll at long last in the form of a few jaw-cracking yawns and drooping eyelids. Martha makes her exit before she can be roped into cleaning, claiming "interminable fatigue" and a date with her bathtub for a long soak. She bends to kiss her granddaughter atop her head and her son upon his cheek, before crossing to take Kate's hand in hers.

"Thank you, Katherine, for keeping my family safe."

Kate can only smile and nod, her throat knotted tight around an emotion that not even she can define, the same one that arises every time she envisions the other ways this day could have ended. Luckily, she's the only one who catches the exaggerated wink Martha throws over her shoulder on her ascent up the stairs.

They stand then and begin to carry the remaining food and dirty dishes into the kitchen. When the table is cleared, Castle dismisses his daughter to finish her homework and get a good night's sleep; Alexis attempts to object, but it's only half-hearted, her exhaustion blunting any real protests. She's a little sheepish when she says goodnight to Kate and thanks her for returning her loved ones safely, and Kate wants nothing more than to say it's okay, I understand your reaction today, I love them too, but this isn't the time for that conversation. She has things to square away with the girl's father first.

Castle walks with his daughter arm-in-arm to the foot of the stairs where they speak in hushed tones for a moment. Alexis stands on the bottom step, bringing her closer to eye level with her dad, and after a few quiet words from Castle that Kate can't make out beyond the vague sound of his rumbling baritone, Alexis nods and throws her arms around her dad, the two embracing tightly. This time, she can hear it when Alexis murmurs, "I love you, dad," and his answering "Love you too, kiddo."

Kate watches the scene unfold from the kitchen, hyper-aware of the insistent beat of her heart as Castle watches his little girl climb the stairs. He's such an extraordinary individual in his own right, especially as a father, and she mentally kicks herself because these are the kinds of things she should be saying to him now. Why keep her esteem a secret? Because it ensures the safe isolation of her heart? Sparing herself the pain hardly seems worth it anymore, not when there's so very much to be gained if she acts, and so much to lose if she forces them to wait too long.

He moves to rejoin her in the kitchen then, and she flushes warm and unsteady in anticipation, because this is it. Now is her chance. They're finally alone and she promised herself she wouldn't leave here tonight until he knows, and while she doesn't doubt his desire for her, she yearns for him to meet her halfway, maybe nudge the conversation in the right direction all on his own. Anything to make this even a tiny bit easier on her, but she knows he won't because he's doing exactly what she asked of him as they sat side-by-side on those swings last month: he's waiting. Patiently, respectfully, diligently waiting. For her.

And that knowledge, the knowledge that he's delaying his own happiness and gratification, because the only future he envisions for himself includes her and he's willing to wait for that? It's everything.

They fall wordlessly into a comfortable rhythm working side-by-side, stowing the leftover food and cleaning up. He loads the dishwasher and washes the more delicate pieces by hand, passing them off to her to dry, his warm, sudsy fingers stroking hers more than once. It's slowly driving her mad and it doesn't help that his sleeves are rolled up to stay dry, her eyes continuously drawn to the muscles that bow and flex in his forearms, wondering how they'd feel banded around her waist. It's a heady swirl of sensation, the way her body responds to him as much as her heart and mind do, and the ache building inside of her at the thought of finally having him is reaching a fever pitch. She's grateful they continue to work in silence, not trusting her voice to mask her trepidation.

He doesn't question her continued presence as they move easily about the kitchen, their orbit around the other seamless and practiced-looking. She's hoping the fact that she's still here, comfortably shoeless and sipping wine, will in part send her message to him. I'm not going anywhere.

They work in silence for few minutes more before Kate finally gathers herself enough to break the silence. "Alexis okay?" It isn't lost on her that Ashley's name was conspicuously absent from their dinner conversation tonight. She knows things aren't quite level between her and Alexis just yet, not since her shooting and subsequent disappearing act over the summer. The girl has never uttered an untoward word, but there's a tension radiating from her lately that Kate knows is due in no small part to the danger she puts her father (and his heart) in on a regular basis. But she cares about Alexis, and it's important to her that her partner knows this.

He gives her a sweet sideways smile as he dries his hands. "She will be."

"Good…good," is all she can manage to get out. She can feel her cheeks warming under his appreciative gaze, her lungs suddenly leaden in her chest. It's time, but how? How does she begin to say what needs to be said?

"Kate? Are you okay?" His words shake her from her musings. No time like the present, right?

"Castle…about today." She shakes her head in frustration; already she's struggling to get the words out. "You could have- I mean we, we could have…"

She can't utter another sound, her throat closing around memories of the panic that gripped her heart today when that explosion rang through the air. The sting of the tears in her eyes gives her barely any warning before they're already spilling, coursing down her cheeks and leaving shiny tracks in their wake. She needs him, badly, and she can't even get the words out to tell him so.

Castle stands frozen before her, unsure of what to do, and she can plainly see the war raging within him. He's dying to embrace her, but they don't do this. They don't touch, and she's just so goddamn done with that right now, but this man is determined to be chivalrous until his dying breath.

"Can you please just hold me, Castle?" she finally manages.

"Oh. Oh God, yes. I'm sorry, Kate. I'm so, so sorry."

Pulling her close and tucking her head under his chin, his bodily warmth is a balm to her harried heart. She allows herself to be enveloped in his arms, his scent and his soft, indistinguishable words of comfort and his hands gently stroking her back exactly what she needs, and oh, why do they deny themselves of this again? Kate grits her teeth at the thought of so much wasted time.

She feels as much as she hears the rumble in his chest when he speaks again. "I'm sorry, Kate. Sometimes I just don't know where the boundaries lie anymore, and the last thing I want to do is make you uncomfortable."

A fresh wave of tears comes streaming down at that because she knows, that's his way of saying I love you and I'll do anything without actually saying the words and putting her on the spot. It's his way of saying he would move heaven and earth at her request, and his devotion fills her heart to the point of bursting.

Pulling back to be able to look in his eyes, she makes no attempt to wipe her tears away. Let him see, she tells herself. She knows that if this is going to be the kind of relationship she's looking for, the one she told Castle she wanted on that day when they fought and made up at the swing set, she needs to let him see it all, including (and maybe especially) her moments of vulnerability.

She reaches up to cup his cheek, his breath warm as he nuzzles into her palm. His eyes fall shut when he touches the softest of kisses to the tender flesh there, and it's positively electric, a current of love and desire passing from his lips to her skin and straight to her heart. He opens his eyes to look upon her again, his face so full of undisguised adoration, and if she's ever wondered before if she would just know when their moment had arrived? Well…now she knows. All she wants to do is give it back, starting right now.

"But that's just it, Castle. I don't want there to be any boundaries between us anymore. I don't want anything between us. I just want you."

She searches his face, desperate for his confirmation that she hasn't overstepped or piled too much on top of this already-emotional day. But more than anything, she just needs to know that this is what he wants too, that she's his charmed third time, his last first, but any concern she has is short-lived. The grin that takes over his face is a truly joyous, infectious thing, and before she knows it, her lips are stretched into the same painfully happy smile.

His expression softens then, something infinitely tender lacing his voice when he murmurs, "Oh Kate, don't you know I'm already yours? I always have been."

She has to look down, a strange, sudden burst of wonder and shyness heating up her cheeks under the burn of his gaze, but Castle doesn't let her escape. Not anymore, she thinks, and she's grateful that just this once, he takes the lead. Using two fingers, he gently lifts her chin until their eyes meet again, his several shades darker than they were just a moment ago, glancing down at her lips like he knows exactly what he wants to do with them. And oh, how she wants him to do exactly that.

The hand at his cheek slides around the back of his neck, and she uses that leverage to pull him to her just as she lifts up on her toes, their lips meeting softly in the middle. And this time, there isn't a single bomb, Broadway diva, or bank robber in sight. There are no more interruptions as Kate drapes both arms around his neck and angles her mouth against his, deepening the kiss and drawing a deep mutual moan of satisfaction.

They stay like that for a few beats, the hard edges of chrome and granite in the kitchen becoming softened and muted around them as their mouths fuse together, tongues gliding and tasting at leisure, so unlike that frenetic kiss in a dark alleyway not quite a year ago, but urgent all the same. It's so good, so right, and really, she's the one who had no idea.

Pulling back at last, their breath comes in little panting exhales, their foreheads pressed together as they struggle to maintain a thread of control. Castle smudges one more kiss to her parted lips, his mouth soft and swollen, wet and made to fit against hers; she's convinced of it.

He puts only enough distance between them to look into her eyes again, smiling in that adorable, crooked way she's sure he reserves only for her and pushing a few stray tendrils of hair behind her ears. His touch is already so reverent, so intimate, and it stirs the butterflies in her belly, making them flutter and take flight into her chest. She's grateful that he speaks first, not trusting the strength of her own voice after those kisses just yet.

"Kate Beckett, will you go on a date with me?"

Like his mother did earlier, Rick Castle has managed to surprise her. She blurts out a completely uncharacteristic giggle before replying, "Really? A date? How very old-fashioned of you."

His smile grows as he shrugs. "What can I say, I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy." He waggles his eyebrows at her and she wonders at his ability to do that, how he manages to infuse sweetness and humor into everything he does. He does that for her, too; makes her lighter, makes her smile more, makes her happy.

"I want to do this right, Kate. You and me-" Shaking his head as if trying to jar the right words loose, his eyes close briefly, but when he opens them again, there's a certainty and steadiness in them that would wipe away any remaining doubts (if she'd had any). "You're it for me. I want you for keeps. And I want to start by taking you out on our first official date. What do you say?"

Her cheeks strain under the force of her smile once more, because this is it. She's looking into the face of her future, and for the first time in a very long time, she thinks the future looks glorious.

"Okay. Let's do it."

A/N: I was absolutely blown away by the response to the first chapter and I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for every review, favorite, and follow. As always, my greatest reward is your enjoyment, and I'm always thrilled to hear your thoughts if you have the time to leave some.

Morgan & Becca & Maribea...thank you, for your beta services and for your pompom waving. Nothing I write would see the light of day without you guys.