Kate glances up from the screen of her phone to see Castle watching her, that gentle smile on his lips that always spreads to hers without fail, and she shakes her head, pockets the phone and her conversation with Espo and Ryan. Her boys at the precinct had been sending her updates on their latest case, but had sent a couple of well wishes after learning that her flight had landed safely.
"No," she murmurs, covering the hand he retracts from the steering wheel to drape at her knee. "Excited, actually."
"Do you think she'll still remember us?" Alexis inquires from the backseat of the car, leaning forward to prop her chin on the edge of Kate's seat.
"They do say elephants never forget," Castle muses, squeezing Beckett's fingers, brushing his thumb over her wedding band out of habit, before returning his hand to the wheel.
"I think she'll remember you for sure, Kate," Alexis nods, a tender smile flickering across her lips. "You were her family."
"Yeah, but you and your dad became family too. Even after I stopped working at the zoo, she still saw all of us on a regular basis for the next few years," Kate reminds Alexis, reaching up to pat the girl's cheek, grinning at the memories of Alexis as a little girl, playing with Bailey the elephant like a best friend after school every day for nearly five years. And sobbing into Kate's shoulder when they had been informed that the zoo was shutting down the elephant exhibit, and their favorite elephant would be making the move to a sanctuary out of state.
Though, Kate had cried just as hard when the time to say goodbye had come.
"She'll be happier in a sanctuary," she had reasoned on that final day, standing inside the exhibit with Bailey's trunk wrapped around her waist and Castle at her side. "She'll have so much space and freedom."
"And we'll visit whenever you want," Rick had promised her, stroking his hand along the side of Bailey's face, but the elephant she had trained for three years had stared at her, soaking in the sorrow of a goodbye Kate had always known would come, but had never been the least bit prepared for. "I already spoke with the head of the sanctuary and we have a year round pass."
Kate had smiled at his efforts, grateful that her husband understood how much her connection with the gentle giant meant, and pressed her forehead to her elephant's, trying so very hard not to cry.
"Good girl, Bailey," she had murmured, dusting her fingers over the familiar layer of leathery skin. "Be a good girl."
Bailey's trunk had unwound from her waist and Kate had stepped back, accepting the hand Castle offered to her and backing towards the exit, waving one last time, choking on a sob even as she smiled when Bailey waved back.
"You'll see her again," Rick had promised once they were outside of the zoo, standing in the parking lot and shielded by his SUV as she finally lost her composure, buried her face in his neck to conceal the tear-stained state of her cheeks. "We'll see her again, Kate. You just say the word and we'll fly out to visit her."
Beckett had nodded against him, having every intention of taking him up on the offer, but her work as a detective had been far more time consuming than her former job as an elephant keeper had ever been, and between balancing her career with her marriage, her time with Alexis, the opportunity to fly to the sanctuary in Tennessee had eluded them.
Until Castle had decided to make good on his promise and surprise her for her birthday this year.
She had woken days ago to a plush elephant atop his pillow in their bed, an envelope with her name in his handwriting scrawled across the front, and three plane tickets and updates on Bailey from the sanctuary owners inside.
"I've been watching tons of elephant reunion videos online," Castle informs them, breaking free of traffic and taking the necessary exit. "Elephants can remember their owners for decades after they've separated. It's only been five years, Bailey's going to remember us."
"I hope so," Alexis sighs, leaning back in her seat and returning her headphones into her ears. "I've really missed her."
Kate spares just a second to study Alexis from over her shoulder while the girl reopens the book she had been reading on the plane, her lips quirking in the corners at how much her stepdaughter has grown in the last ten years.
"Gets to you sometimes, doesn't it?" he chuckles softly, catching her in the act, and Kate hides the blush of her cheek behind her hair, huffing when Castle reaches out to tuck the strands behind her ear.
"Remembering the reason we met brings it all back," she admits, gazing out the window at the cloudless blue sky overhead. "Makes me grateful that I landed that job at the zoo. I don't know if I would have met you guys otherwise."
"You would have. Not in the same way, obviously, but you would have met us sooner or later," Rick assures her, not a trace of doubt in his words.
Kate tears her gaze away from the scenery passing by outside and returns it to the man in the driver's seat, angling her body towards him and preparing for the story. "Yeah?"
"Of course, Beckett," he scoffs. "If you wouldn't have taken a few years to work at the zoo, you would have gone straight into the police academy, kick started your career and become a badass detective a couple of years earlier, but we still would have found each other."
"Probably would have ended up arresting you," Kate chuckles, biting back her smile at his huff of indignation.
"The only time I have ever come anywhere near being arrested was during that book party a couple of years ago, where I was falsely accused of being involved in those copycat murders-"
"Ah, are we forgetting about the time with the police horse?" she inquires, smirking at him as the tips of his ears begin to burn bright red.
"I still consider it a violation of privacy and an abuse of police privileges that you looked that up," Rick mutters, but laughter dances in the corner of his eyes.
They pass the welcome center the head of the sanctuary had mentioned to them over the phone after their plane had landed and Rick drives the last four miles to reach the sanctuary entrance, explaining who they are to the keeper of the main gate and earning a friendly smile in return as the man lets them through.
"Thank you again for this," Kate murmurs once they've parked in the gravel driveway and a woman is emerging from the barn that allows entry into the near three thousands acres of land laid out before them.
Castle glances over at her with a soft smile on his lips, the light in his eyes glistening back at her, and she doubts that it will ever fail to steal her breath when he looks at her like that, with so much love and adoration even after ten years. "Nothing to thank me for. If anything, I should be thanking Bailey. I think she played a pretty big role in convincing you that my child and I were irresistible."
"Dad," Alexis chuckles from the backseat, excitement in her eyes as she closes her book and unbuckles her seatbelt. "Bailey was not your wing-woman.
Kate rolls her eyes and unlocks the passenger door, steps out of the rental car they had driven from the airport to meet the woman approaching them.
"Hi! You must be Kate?" the older woman with short blonde hair greets with a bright smile as she extends her hand to Beckett. "Along with Richard and Alexis?"
"That's us," Kate nods, shaking her hand, allowing Rick and Alexis to do the same.
"We're so pleased to have you. My name is Carol and I can't wait to give you a tour, and of course, reunite you with Bailey. It's not often that we get to have the elephants reunite with their trainers."
"I wish I could have come sooner," Beckett expresses as Carol motions them onwards. "I should have made time-"
"Oh no, dear, it's completely understandable," Carol waves her off while she guides them through the barn entrance, past the rows upon rows of feed and supplies, out into the grassy landscape that stretches on for miles. "Rick informed me that you're a busy woman and traveling all the way from New York so often wouldn't be feasible for anyone. And I can promise you that Bailey doesn't hold it against you."
"She'll remember us?" Kate asks, because like Alexis, she herself has wondered if the animal could remember them after so many years apart, so many changes.
Carol smiles. "I was going to show you around the grounds first, but I think this reunion is far more important."
"I agree," Castle nods, beaming from beside her like an eager child, and she feels Alexis inch closer, leaning into her father's side and looking to Kate with hopeful eyes.
"I'd really love to see her again," Kate concurs, casting her gaze out to the sprawling acres of wooded hills. The vast expanse of land looks like a modern day paradise for an elephant, so much space to roam free as if they were back in the wild again, but the closest elephant is miles away from what Kate can see, nothing more than a grey outline amidst the trees, and she begins to brace herself for disappointment.
"If you call to her, she should come running the second she recognizes your voice," Carol says from beside her. "She may be pretty far out, but as I'm sure you know, elephants have excellent hearing."
Kate nods and takes a step forward, cupping her hands around her mouth and calling out Bailey's name for the first time in five years, repeating it a few times when the head of the sanctuary nods to her in encouragement.
"Is that her?" Alexis gasps, pointing from over Kate's shoulder to the elephant approaching in the distance, moving in a familiar trot to make it across the stretch of land as quickly as possible.
After years with the animal, Kate had acquired the ability to pick Bailey out from any herd, memorizing her physical appearance and personality traits that separated her from the rest. And as she recognizes the flap of ears and waving trunk, the familiar build of the elephant she once saw on a daily basis, Kate touches her fingers to her lips to catch the breath of laughter that escapes.
Bailey had heard her.
Bailey trumpets as she comes into view, slowing only once Kate is close enough to reach out and touch. The elephant's trunk swings back and forth while her feet dance from side to side, and Kate laughs, soothes the clamoring excitement with her touch to the elephant's face, scaling her palms along Bailey's skin and murmuring words of greeting as she feels the familiar embrace of a strong trunk around her waist.
"Hi sweet girl," she whispers, running her hands over the familiar face of leather and wrinkles, grazing the flaps of Bailey's ears, and pressing her cheek between the elephant's eyes like she once used to when seeking the comfort of a loving creature. "Yeah, I missed you too."
Kate lifts her head, turns to seek out her husband and finds him watching her, always watching her, with a tenderness that she knows well, cherishes.
"I don't think I've ever seen her so enthusiastic," Carol comments from the sidelines, watching the exchange in fascination, knowledge settling in her eyes the longer she studies the interaction between Kate and the elephant. "You must have been incredibly good to her, Kate."
"Oh, she was," Castle chimes in with a soft grin. "Before Kate and I were together, I used to visit her at the zoo, watch her do her job, and she would dedicate hours to all of the elephants, but Bailey was always glued to her side."
"I wasn't the only one," Kate murmurs, meeting Castle's eyes for a brief moment, hoping he can read the overwhelming gratitude she feels, before glancing to Alexis. "Lex, come here."
Alexis steps up alongside Kate and laughs aloud when Bailey untangles her trunk from Kate to nudge at Alexis in greeting, reeling the two of them in closer.
"All of my favorite females together again," Castle chuckles, holding his phone up to snap a picture, joy filling the lines of his face, brimming in the bright blues of his eyes. Kate motions him over, burying her laughter in her husband's shoulder when Bailey hooks her trunk around both of them, curls them into her side. "Didn't she do this when I proposed?"
The memory makes her smile, smearing a kiss to Castle's jaw before she draws back.
"After she tried to steal the ring, yeah, she was celebratory," Kate recalls, patting Bailey's trunk for her to release them, watching in amusement as she coils it around Alexis instead, tucks the girl protectively into her opposite side and lowers the flap of her ear to shade her from the sun overhead. "And that was always her way of hugging Alexis."
"Kinda like a big sister," Castle muses, brushing his hand along Bailey's forehead, and the theory may be a little far-fetched, but Kate decides to hum her agreement.
Alexis and Rick had become her family a long time ago, but Bailey had claimed a spot in her heart too, a place in their family, even while she had been thousands of miles away.
She notices Carol drifting away, approval radiating through her features as she offers them a few moments of privacy, and Kate takes advantage of the seconds of solace with him, of Alexis bonding with Bailey.
"You were right, in the car," she murmurs, twining her arms around his neck and grazing her fingers through the fine hairs at the base of his skull while he tilts his head in question. "We would have found each other, but I'm glad it was sooner rather than later, that you decided to bring Alexis to the zoo that day, that you just kept coming back."
Castle's gaze softens, warmth seeping through the cerulean of his eyes and into the curve of his mouth. "Well, I figured out pretty early on that staying away was never going to work out. I knew I was at risk of loving you when you had your elephant wave to my kid."
"Smitten, I remember," she mumbles with a grin, checking on Alexis over his shoulder, still playing peek-a-boo with Bailey. "But anyone could have done that, you know. Charmed you with a cute trick."
"But you wanted to make Alexis smile. And you kept making her smile, making me smile-"
"You guys did the same for me," she tells him, touching her thumb to the corner of Castle's mouth, tracing the laugh lines carved into his skin. After ten years of knowing him, six years of being his wife, she doesn't have to explain what he and his daughter mean to her, how they became her possibilities for joy in even her darkest hours, but she never wants him to forget how deep the channels of her love run. "You still do, Castle. Always will."
"You two are getting into that sickeningly sweet stage again," Alexis groans, craning her neck to see over Bailey's trunk between them.
"My fault, seeing Bailey again has me feeling sentimental," Kate teases, smoothing her hand over the elephant trunk swaying between them, content to touch along their shoulders.
"Sure it's not something else?" Alexis hums, arching her brow and hiding behind Bailey when Kate shoots her a playful glare.
Alexis is the only one who knows, not only about the truth, but how she planned to tell Rick.
"What are you guys talking about?" Castle chuckles, leaning back against the support of Bailey's side.
The sun is streaming down onto them, warming Bailey's skin and casting light over her husband, illuminating the happiness that exudes so easily from every inch of him, contagious as it soaks through her skin. Not even in her wildest dreams had she imagined this is where she would be in ten years, taking a week of vacation time from her work at the Twelfth precinct in New York to stand in an elephant sanctuary in the heart of Tennessee with her husband and a girl she had helped raise like her own. Never had she thought that joy would be something she would be allowed to possess after her mother's murder.
But it was staring right back at her, always by her side, and today it overflowed, surrounded her from every angle.
Bailey's trunk nudges her hip, as if in encouragement, and Kate inhales a shallow breath through her nose, tries to calm the sudden gallop in her chest, willing the race of her heart to steady. There's no reason to be nervous.
The way he's looking at her now, with reverence and curiosity in his eyes, only gives her the extra burst of confidence, the confirmation that she needs.
"Do you think we can bring the baby to visit in a couple of years?"