Chapter 14: Finally

Disclaimer: The characters of Castle belong to Mr. Marlowe and ABC Studios. I'm merely borrowing them.

Curled on her good side—the half of her face not a morass of pain and watercolor stains—she stared at the stoplight-red of the digital clock on her nightstand, 1:26 the readout displayed, and despite the sedative some frazzled charge nurse had administered, sleep was leagues away. Every time she closed her eyes, the weight of what she'd witnessed, what she'd thought, what she would have done if presented with a choice, pressed ruthless and unremitting against swollen eyelids, aching throat. Not even the pain of her injuries—the flaying jolt along her spine, the wringing pressure in her head, the straining pulse across cheek, jaw, eye—lingered to divert her thoughts. Eight-hundred mils of ibuprofen had seen to that. And seen to the heat of her fever—strep, most likely, the nurse had said with a look of sympathy, and since they'd frontloaded her with a shit ton of antibiotics for the abrasions she'd garnered from her falls, for the delicate scoring on her face from the whip-like scourge of the branches, the infection was the least of her worries.

The break in the case, the chase, the takedown—it had all happened with frantic speed, the pace whiplash-fast and terrifying. A call from Sorenson had pulled her from a bed too warm from the heat of her feverish skin, his weary voice telling her there'd been yet another abduction, but that they had leads this time, real ones provided by CCTV cameras, footage showing a grainy Dillon McCormack on his bike, the glowing outline of a van, his abduction, and—serendipitously, miraculously—partial plates. And they'd found him. With surprising and infuriating ease. One minute he was a mystery, a nightmarish, almost inhuman monster, and the next, nothing more than a simulacrum of a man—a shadow in a tiny upstate town, a lonely specter every local knew of but no one truly knew. They'd made their way to a fallow piece of acreage, the deed made out to Calvin Lee Arnault, and searched the property—slunk through fields fizzing with cicadas and studded with ominous ramshackle outbuildings and his abnormally spotless and starkly spartan farmhouse—to no avail. It was only when they'd ventured into the bottle-green light of the woods behind the farmyard, wended their way through pine and sycamore trees and pushed through tangling overgrowth, that they'd found him. Or, rather, he found her. He was all pugilism, untethered ferocity—fists plowing into Kate's face, driving her into the ground, persisting despite the solid hits she landed, and then he was gone, vanishing into the foliage with Kate prone, blinded by blood, and Sorenson pounding toward his partner and the site of the melee.

And after that? After that, the memories were smudged and elongated, like lights through a rain streaked window. She'd followed Sorenson to a basement better categorized as a tomb, into hallways dark and sinuous as catacombs. Arnault had surged from the shadows, had nearly killed Will with a wild blow from the same shovel he'd have, with ironic pleasure, used to dig the agent's grave. While Sorenson foundered, tried to regain his bearings, she'd gone on, had found Dillon, found Arnault with a gun pressed to the boy's chest, and watched in a fuzzed and horror-stricken stupor as he pulled the trigger. Shot the boy. Shot himself. One bullet, two lives. Birds and stone—a terrible, gruesomely rendered cliché. Their blood coating the floor, her heart on the floor, doing what she could to mend, to hold together, to save. In vain—vanity, vanity, vanity—because they'd both slipped away, their blood slick, so slick, that perhaps her grip had failed. Hands unable to maintain their feeble grip. Both lives lost—the innocent boy and the man who'd taken it all away.

Generally, she'd appreciate the reprieve, the blanket of silence, but not here, cloistered in a sterile, frigid room at St. Joseph's, hospital sheets like sandpaper against her rubbed-raw skin, scent of Purell prickling in her nose, timeworn color scheme—all creams and muted teals and sunwashed mauves—sharpening her unease, and the harsh and tremulous silence wrapping, coiling tight around her chest.

God, the silence. Even the percussive tones of her patient monitor did little to detract from the totality of the hush. It was good for her concussion, she knew, the rest a respite for her overwrought brain. But it was bad, bad for the muscles and sinews of her emotional control. The quiet atrophied her stranglehold on stoicism, thinned it. And she wasn't allowed to lose herself to it quite yet. Not 'til later. Until she was home. Alone and secluded within the insulating layers of doors and walls and sound-blotting textiles. Then, she could come undone.

Technicolor flashbacks bombarded her, bits and nubbins of fraught expressions, gruesome intonations, agony and wet warmth and her debilitating impotence all playing episodically. He'd died. As she'd done what she could to stop it. Eyes falling shut, she tried to snuff out the sight of her failure, her helpless inability to save, but it was inscribed on her. In her—too little, not enough.

Even in self-imposed darkness, she saw him, and the image was damning. He was gone. He'd been gone before he hit the floor, over before she even hit the floor with bruising force to press her hands against his chest, to save him, fix him—not knowing the only fixed element in that moment had been the fight. A nonexistent battle. Because he'd been gone.

Bloody vignette after bloody vignette, they just kept coming. It had been easy, watching the life leak from Arnault, coolly observing it slip scarlet from him and leech sentience from eyes, and the way she looked on with cold and easy observation bore deep scrutiny and contemplation. But not while convalescing and swelling and weathering and hurting. As with coming undone, she labelled this later and roughly shelved it.

After his mouth had gone slack and his gaze went glassy, she'd turned to face Will—who'd found his way to them after the report of the gun, after Dillon had fallen, as Arnault struggled to breathe and started to fail—and met his frank appraisal. His eyes were very dark, communion and respect and fatigue living there. He'd traced a visual path down, then, her gaze moving to follow, and they both stared at her red hands for a long, still moment.

"Where's my gun?" The rhetorical query interrupted the lull weakly, insipidly, and Sorenson ignored it, closed his eyes and rested the back of his skull against the cool stone. After a bleary scan of the room—steeling herself against the bright blood—she'd spied her Glock, pitched and wedged into a dim corner when, she surmised, it'd all gone to chaos and shit. Stiffly padding over, she'd retrieved it, the familiarity of the grip settling, smoothing something in her, and she'd moored it reverently in the leather groove of her shoulder holster before continuing to the doorway. Kneeling down, she'd looked at Sorenson—who, if it could be believed, was more mangled than she—and exhaled slowly. I'll be back, she'd reassured, his flickering grimace proof that he took a measure of comfort from her promise. And she gave herself over to the shifting shadows and the wend of the walls and the gathering neurosis, the resurfacing infinitely slower, far more chilling than their frenetic descent.

Once she hit daylight, it hadn't taken her long to locate the truant members of their search party who all looked on in horror before staggering after her. Seven of the eight had plunged through the cleft in the earth at her instruction while one cow-eyed kid, all ears and nose and inexperience, shifted disquietedly at her side.

To her surprise, she'd managed to stumble over a patch of benevolent ground, cell mustering a few flickering service bars and dubious reception. Faint relief unspooling in her, just as specious and wavering as those waffling bars, she'd punched in her professional area code—fingers finding 9-1-1—and rattled off her name and badge number to the operator, asked to speak to Syracuse PD, and recounted the pertinent elements in a flurry of epinephrine and verging hysteria. But somehow, the captain made sense of her stumbling, breakneck delivery because he told her—round, thick voice pouring over her, blunting her frenzy like a glaze of warm honey—help was on the way, that ambulances, reinforcements would arrive before she knew it, and not to worry.

An impossible directive.

She didn't feel confident she'd be able to climb out of the cellar a second time—much less voluntarily return to the black vacuum—so she swayed in place, rigid beneath the drippy concern of the tenderfoot, county mounty Dougie Howser, awaiting the arrival of both the EMTs and her battered partner.

After—what she irascibly, edgily felt to be—an interminable passage of time, the men clambered from beneath the forest floor. The seven latecomers—rocked by the carnage, and oh, she'd forgotten to warn them, prepare them—visibly racked with ripe, blue-flame agony that would progressively fade, or so she hoped, to a chronic, well-repressed ache. And one asshat agent—looking wrung out, skin as white as the bones beneath, but face wiped clean of every thought and feeling. She'd wondered if she wore the same mask. Thought she must, because since leaving Will to keep company with two corpses, her features had settled rigidly in place.

She'd worn it as she sank gracelessly to the underbrush, joining Sorenson to lean mutely, dazedly against a tree. She'd worn it as a bevy of Syracuse cops crunched and helloed toward them. She'd worn it as she flatly, unequivocally refused to leave until the coroner arrived and the scene was secured. She'd worn it as the buses rolled in with stretchers and black body bags and kind-eyed medics. She'd worn it when dusk settled over the clearing and fireflies danced in her double-vision and they were cajoled and shuffled into a waiting ambulance. She'd worn it on the long ride into Syracuse, through the indignity of riding flat-backed on a gurney, as a matronly attending drew answers from her bruised lips and palpated her Stay Puft skin and regarded her with knowing eyes so very like Lanie's. And she wore it still, body rucked into a shrunken curl, room too still, thoughts too riotous.

She was contemplating flipping the TV on, flouting the doctor's staunch "advice", because better an extended recovery time than this self-imposed torture. Hand reaching for the remote, she startled, stopped at the sharp report of a fist against her door. Her frazzled charge nurse—Amy, she remembered hazily—slipped her head, then half her torso through the seam of the opening door and gave a weary, albeit genuine, smile. "Is there anything you need?" She asked, her voice low and gentle.

At Kate's hummed no, she nodded, paused, then pressed on. "Would you—do you think you could handle some company?" Her mask slipping, bewilderment bleeding through, the nurse elaborated. "It's your partner. Sorenson? He wouldn't leave it alone, insisted we wheel him over," she chuffed, soft smile growing wider, wryer, "and I'm sure you know exactly how tenacious he can be. But if you don't want anyone here, if you can't, I'll wheel him right back. Don't mind being the bad guy," she tacked on, pushing red, water-chapped hands into the pockets of her scrub top.

For a moment, Kate considered refusing, tuning in to some mindless sitcom or campy reality show instead—an infomercial the likelier feature at this hour, though—and shuffling it all to another later box. Maybe a never box. Because the alternative—discussing, rehashing, revisiting—sounded about as appealing as the process of burn debridement Lanie had once explicitly, instructively related to her. Which, she reasoned dully, it was. Emotionally. Scrubbing the protective, outer layer to expose the raw meat beneath, to stimulate growth, to use the anguish as a vehicle for healing. But rather than shy away as she wanted—oh, she wanted—to do, she bobbed her head tersely, Amy withdrawing for a beat before pressing into the room, steering a gowned and pasty Sorenson to a stop beside her bed.

Amy departed with a considering look and a, "behave" directed at Sorenson, the door snicking behind her, steeping the room in a second wave of silence. Rhythmic feeps and murmurs peppered the quietude neither partner moved to break, and Kate shifted uneasily, mindlessly twisting and tangling her fingers as her eyes all but burned through the outmoded wallpaper.

"Hospital green's not really your color, Beckett," he finally mumbled, nodding at her paper-thin smock, and it almost, almost coaxed a barely-there curve from her mouth.

"Yeah," her voice was still raspy, but at least it had lost its watery quiver. "Well, black-and-blue's not your best look either, but at least I have the tact to keep my mouth shut."

She swiveled her neck slowly, gaze coasting to find him tracing her features with an odd expression. "Touché," he remarked, tucking away that singular look when he registered her scrutiny. He adjusted the cotton blanket over his legs, focus still trained on her, and briefly allowed the quiet to wrap around them.

"How're you doing?" He proceeded finally, and she sighed, found her patch of wall again, grimaced at its mauve and teal brushstroke motif.

"I've had worse." No, she hadn't. "Nothing painkillers and time can't fix. Better question is—how are you doing?"

"Physically? A pretty serious concussion, or so they say. Neuro doc said everything checked out on the CAT scan, but you know how they are about heads—better safe than sorry, let's just keep you overnight to be sure, on and on. Emotionally? Entirely different story. And, Beckett, c'mon. You know that's not what I was talking about. Level with me," his almost tender clarification has her bristling, fighting back the upsurge of emotions she'd credited as securely under wraps. "How are you, really?"

Wrong, so wrong. It was all there, right beneath the thinnest of skin, waiting to rise, to roll, to sink her. "I've had worse," she persisted, eyes narrowing, mouth thinning, jaw riveted so taut her ears pulled back.

No, she hadn't.

Everything with her mother had been hell, had been hideous. The pain worse, the impact deeper, the scars more numerous, but this—a child breathing and blinking and hoping one moment, nothing more than cartilage, bone, and tissue the next. Looking on dumbly as the lights went out, futilely holding his body and her wilting hope and willing them both to survive. And straining to beat back the crowding speculations—if I hadn't said this, if I had said that, if I'd foregone the talk and shot the sick fuck, if I'd known what I was doing. All of it was agony.

Would it have all played out differently? Was she the dependent variable in this tragic, ill-fated equation? And if so, how did she shoulder the enormity of that burden, move beyond it, learn to live with the load? It had taken something from her, carved it right out of her chest and filled the gaping socket with hot guilt and stifling shame and all-consuming doubt. Their final clash, Dillon's liquid eyes, the silent seconds before the shot, her useless hands and mouth and brain—the hypotheticals and potentials would live while she lived, die only when she died. The wondering, the maybes, the culpability, they would never really leave, would they? Ebb and flow perhaps, depending on circumstance, but always, always they would remain incapable of resolution.

And the censure in Sorenson's red-rimmed eyes told her he didn't buy a word, syllable, letter of her jaded quip. A tight swallow drew her eyes to his neck, the corrugation of his windpipe, and back to his face as he turned away, gave her the harsh curves of his profile. "First time this happened, I had, too," his admission stunned her, and she froze, "you know, had worse. I lost a brother a long time ago, to something dark and violent—probably a lot like your worse, the kind of worse that makes or breaks you, drives you to work toward justice or into the ground. It's why I joined the bureau. Imagine it's why you joined the force," the accuracy of his assessment clutches at her chest, wets the corners of her eyes, "and we have this funny way of assuming that because we've known grief intimately, our one encounter will be the holding pattern for every other loss. Pain the same, grief process the same, healing the same. And that's just fuckin' bullshit.

"First time life broke the mold was a little girl. Didn't die in my arms, but might as well have, close as we were to saving her. Minutes. Just—it was only minutes." A heavy sigh spills from his mouth, and his throat works again as she watches, barely breaths, suspended in rapt anguish by his words. "Second, a boy, little younger than Dillon. And he did. Die in my arms. Parental abduction gone wrong, goddamn custody dispute, father takes off with the kid, and when we tracked 'em down he just—he lost it. Shot the boy and shot himself. The ME said he'd been drinking but we both knew that had nothing to do with it. The fucker was—he was evil. Something twisted and dark in him, liquor or no. And now," he murmurs, winding down, "my third. So I consider myself uniquely qualified to tell you that you haven't had worse, because every last one is worse. Each loss is its own."

She didn't know how to respond, felt a tumble of words, a soliloquy's worth knocking around in her chest, but somehow, the shape of them all felt wrong. Empty. A sudden crawling sensation traced over her cheeks and in her nose, left her nonplussed. Was she bleeding again? Raising a hand to collect the moisture, she brought it back to her line of sight and went still, eyed the translucence as the crawling grew to warmth grew to palpable wetness and her eyes pricked and her nose stung. It was all leaking out of her, those bulletproof walls she prized as substantial as sieves now, and then she was gasping, "I just—I let him die."

Sorenson whipped his head around and went soft, almost pliant with shared grief at her tears. "Who? Dillon?"

"No—yes," she managed thickly, almost choking on her tears and viscous saliva, "him, too. But I—he was—Arnault was dying, he was bleeding out and I just let him."

"Even if you'd gone to find help, you couldn't have made it back in enough time. Just wasn't possible," he placated her, and in the mellow timbre and pitch of his quiet reassurance, it sounded true, real. The sin allowable. But her neglect, her callousness wasn't excusable. Yeah, Arnault had been dead even breathing, his foundering heartbeat a technicality in those last savage moments, but it was more than that and she didn't, couldn't vocalize it, couldn't entrust it. Not to Sorenson. Maybe not ever.

But maybe yes. Maybe to Alex.

It was the first time in the course of twenty-two bad, brutal hours she'd given herself permission to consider him, bring to mind his warmth, the preternatural way he saw into the quick of her through miles of telephone wire and layers of viscera and emotional barricades. And the urge to hear his voice, let the familiarity of his growling baritone ground and center her, pulled a fresh, silent sluice of tears from her.

But Sorenson was still surveying her through drained-dry eyes, the blue glassy as iridized marbles and shot through with ribbons of red. If she had any mercy in her, she needed to wrap this up and allow him to pitch fast and easy into sleep, into forgetfulness as she so wanted to do.

So she croaked out a feeble, "Thanks, Sorenson." And she meant it. He'd been there—in the trenches of this manner of loss—navigated the topography, recognized the landmarks, and he wanted to give her his roadmap. The gesture was kind, was confidential—a brothers-in-arms disclosure. And she was honored.

Dipping his head in acknowledgement, he canted forward and mashed the call button with a thumb, quietly requesting assistance before sitting back with a hitching groan. Another measuring glance, a shallow breath, and he was intimating muted words. "And whatever you feel about this, whatever shame or guilt you attach to your choice, you should know that what you've shared, it terminates here. It's never gonna move beyond this little room unless you let it, Kate."

Her name was soft and warm in his mouth, and for a moment the thought drifted through her mind that his sentiments might stretch beyond brotherhood and bound-by-trauma camaraderie. But instead of dwelling on the notion, she tipped her mouth in a grateful expression, pressed dry palms over water-spiked lashes, and cast her face down as a nurse—not Amy, a smaller woman, darker, more reserved, her shift rotation replacement, she supposed—slipped in and after a brief exchange with Sorenson, adeptly wheeled him, slump-shouldered and shutter-eyed, from her homage-to-the-80s accommodations.

Alone again, feelings unleashed and splayed wide, she honed in on the one thought that loomed, beetled, troubled her—and maybe troubled was too tame, because it was darker than that, baser. One thought festered in her. What she'd done, standing, hands primly folded and eyes casting dark judgment as a man—a human still, no matter his sins—exsanguinated a scant yard away, what did that make her? Even knowing help and medical measures were far above at ground level and a good mile removed, she'd done nothing but look on with clinical disdain.

And perhaps that was permitted, a forgivable offense all things considered, but it went beyond that. She'd seen him suffer and she'd luxuriated in it—a voyeur of death, a connoisseur of suffering. So what did that make her—allowing, scrutinizing, savoring a man's death?

Pragmatist? Vigilante? Just?

Or killer?

Blank eyes fixed on the bed rail, she decided she didn't know.

She surged upright in the bed, a dry, sucking gasp ripping from her throat, and swept her eyes over the room, hypervigilance drawing her body taut, combat-ready. It took her a moment, eyes adjusting to the dark and skittish pulse coming to heel, before she relaxed and took stock of her surroundings.

Right, hospital. St. Joseph's, grade-2 concussion, face so bruised she'd give Violet Beauregarde a run for her father's used car money.

Good times.

Whatever the dream—the nightmare, she amended—its dark fingers had faltered, grip relinquished, and only traces and transient wisps of its substance lingered. For which she was thankful. Give it time, and there'd be a surfeit of remembered retellings, sleep-induced terrors. But for now, sedatives on board, they remained at bay.

Angry red numbers burned in the dim room, fuzzy at their edges and doubled ever so slightly, reading 5:17 now, which all things considered was a decent stretch of uninterrupted sleep. And with her concussion, a nurse would've roused her shortly, if her dreams or bladder hadn't beat them to the punch. Swinging her legs over the side, she swallowed around a moan at the pangs that branched, blistered through her at the movement, but it galvanized her—the pain, the vulnerability, made her want to rout it, prove it wrong—and she stood on rickety legs, using her IV pole to brace her weight as she rolled, shuffled, sighed to the en suite.

By the time she emerged, she felt a little sturdier, less like a newly dropped foal and more like the woman who sprinted in Stuart Weitzman half-boot stilettos. And when she folded herself into the pleated, now-cool covers, she turned her face toward the windows, drank in the grey glow that seeped through the blinds, and let her thoughts drift toward happier territory. To Alex. And oh, to the once impending and now imminent thing that hung between them.

Meeting him.

Putting a mouth to the voice and hands to the letters and eyes to the insights. It flared in her, the thought, a kernel of warmth blooming behind her ribs, rising to float, lift her mouth, bend it up.

Maybe the thrill of survival still sang in her, fueling impetuosity, and maybe it was the release, the closure—no matter how bitter, how aversive—and the reality gifted to her by the end of it all. And maybe it was just her—the wanting, the the thought of him. The need to know, and to make this real in a new and tangible form. But, naked beneath her paper gown, more dips and swells on her face than a raised relief map, she did the thing Alex had nurtured, inspired with his thereness, and for the first time in a long time, she leapt.

Palm settling on the handset of the cream desk phone—clueless as to the whereabouts of her cell—she raised it to her good ear, punched in his number from dim and specious memory, and listened with bated breath as the line chirruped brightly, and oh god, it was 5:30 in the freaking morning and Jesus where was her brain? Slumbering sweetly beneath a dose of clonazepam? Flushing at her poorly timed impulse, she gingerly stretched an arm to press her fingers against the switch hook when the line gave a tick and a rumbling hum bled into a rasping, "Yeah, hi? Who's this? Is it—I'm—Oh. Kate. Hey."

It started bleary and by the end was summery and certain and how had he known? And yeah, he sounded so smugly, stupidly pleased at his mental sleight of hand, his astute deduction—and the scouring grit of his voice, the five-o'clock-shadow of it rubbed rough and warm over her, provoked the best kind of shudder. He was too agreeably, readily pulled from sleep when the sun still hid itself behind the curve of the earth and the jagged city skyline, and she liked to think he wasn't traditionally a morning person. That she might be the reason for his wakefulness, his brightness.

"Kate?" He prompted after a moment, real concern in his voice, which she expected now the fog of sleep had fallen from his mind and awareness took its place. Because it was early, too early, and she'd never called before nine or after midnight to date.

"I'm sorry," she breathed contritely, pushed closer against the handset, lips grazing the mouthpiece, "I wasn't even thinking when I picked up—just, sorry. I'll—I'll call back later, once the sun—"

"I'm glad you called," he stated plainly, and she heard a rustle as he shifted on the bed, the sound evoking thoughts that stained her cheekbones red, "I tried to call you last night but you didn't pick up. And you—well you usually shoot me a perfunctory text if you're in the middle of something, even if it's just a word or two, so when nothing came I was—yeah, I was worried," his huff of sheepish laughter torques her gut, because yesterday had been bad and sparse degrees shy of going sideways, and if she hadn't made it out, what then? What would he have thought? And god, what a shattering way to learn—through the nightly news or a section in the Times or a web search because she'd never called him back. She had to swallow against the burl of remorse in her throat.

"Kate?" Her name was sharper now, the worry honed to a fine point, and she debated for the space of a moment with how honest to be, how open. And as he jerked in a tight, preparatory breath, she decided.

"I'm in the hospital," she told him calmly, seamlessly following it up with a placation, "but I'm okay. Or—no, I'm not okay. But I'll—I'll be okay. No permanent damage or anything too serious. Promise."

All she could hear was her own breathing looping through the mouthpiece and into her ear, wondered if maybe she'd dropped the call, shitty Syracuse service to blame, when he was back, his voice urgent and intent, "Where are you? What hospital?" And an awareness slunk through her, a tender gratefulness that his first thought was to be with her, and it bypassed nerve sheaths to whet, awaken feelings. A surfeit of them. That she had no business feeling.

"Alex," she started, trying for soothing, but the swelling around her mouth asserted itself, muffled her words, and the effect was a strange one, stopped the distant rustle of his movements, "I'm not in the city," she provided more clearly as his voice coasts over hers simultaneously, demanding, "What happened?"

Waiting, letting the tension fade, she hummed and repeated simply, "I'm not in the city. It—we were working a case, and things—well, things happened, and I'm a little worse for wear. Not as bad as my partner, though, which is—that's a good thing, believe me." Her reassurances trailed off weakly faced with his silence, his tension, pulsing and vivid. "You, ah—you there, Alex?"

"Here," he returned softly, and she forced herself to wait, bite the meat of her lower lip impatiently as the quiet stretched between them. "Kate, what happened?" Oh. Oh, he sounded like a little boy, voice catching, unguarded and despondent, and her heart faltered. "Were you—were you shot? I mean, what—"

"No, no. I'm not shot, not anything that—that final."

No, of course not. You felt, watched the life leave a kid you were tasked to save, and then gloried in the slow death of his killer.

So, yeah. Nothing that final.

"I'm just—I'm a little banged up, is all. Perp got the drop on me, gave him the advantage to land a couple of hits—" hard hits, brutal hits, concussing hits, but she sidestepped any descriptors for his sake, "—and roughed me up enough that they—uh, wanted to keep me overnight. For observation."

"And where are you?" He needled. And it should've pissed her off, the presuming way he inserted himself into her life, expected to know and to help and engage. But instead, as Alex did with most aspects of her life, he proved an exception. Grudgingly, privately, she liked it. And some of the starch and biting fear had run out of his voice, so she looked the other way, chose not to call him on it.

But that didn't mean she was obligated to comply. "Upstate," she equivocated, and could feel the disapproval filtering through miles of wire and handfuls of plastic. "I'm fine, Alex."

"Don't," he warned quickly, jaggedly, but pleadingly, "you don't get to tell me you're fine when you're holed up in a hospital, too roughed up to walk it off. And if you think I'm gonna accept that bit of shined up bullshit? Well, on behalf of my intelligence, I'm insulted. So just—just don't, okay?" How did she follow that up without spilling more equivocations or slanting her words? The case was miles from settled, was splintered and fragmented, in fact—pieces of it flung to every angle, sun spokes of details and paperwork and evals and reports and statements and legalities stretching before, skirting around her. And until they'd salvaged all the scattered bits and smoothed it all pat for the higher-ups and public, anything around this case, this goddamn debacle, was out of bounds and destined for redaction. It was just too messy.

"'kay," she breathed, and adjusted her shoulder, spine smarting, cheekbone throbbing, and she blames the sedative—again—for the honesty that spills out of her. "If I could talk about all of this—well, the situation that's consumed me since we started swapping letters, you'd be my go-to guy, you realize? But they, uh—that'd actually violate a veritable slew of hard-and-fast rules, and another surfeit of implied statutes. So, in place of the openness you're wanting, the most I can tell you is—all things considered, looking back on how it might've played out, weighing what I know against what went down—I'm the lucky one in this equation."

A fleeting snapshot of Dillon lying on the floor flickered, vanished behind her eyes, and her eyes screwed tight against the visual. Because that was just too goddamn sobering.

"Lucky," he parroted, appalled, and then the line hissed and popped as a laugh scraped free from his chest. "I can't—I can't talk about this anymore. I—It's driving me up the wall. So we'll—we can discuss the finer points of this later. Please? When you're not in the hospital and you're farther from it, and when I'm not so—not so on edge."

"Sure," she complied easily, just wanting to move from this very dark palaver to brighter dialogue, something that leached the blackened notes from Alex's voice. After a spell—collecting his thoughts, gathering his composure, busying himself with coffee or the crossword, she didn't know—he ventured quiet words.

"You have a ride?"

"Back to the city?"

He answered with a feathery hum and she released a breath. "Yeah, I—a friend is gonna pick me up this morning soon as I wrap up with discharge papers."

But you wanted to offer, she knew, and what was more, she might've said yes.

On another day. In another life.

"Good, that's—I'm glad you've got someone there with you," his voice lifted as he affirmed her, and she couldn't help the smile that blossomed and burgeoned all the way up to her eyes, because she knew, was certain, that the scrimpy cluster of phrases about to break free would shock the hell out of him, maybe effect an about face and pirouette his day around. Her day around.

So, here goes. Her little moment to glow if not shine. And a chance to give him something because far too often she was on the receiving end of his too seldomly reciprocated thoughtfulness, his quiet tenacity. "Yeah, yeah, me too, Alex. Oh, and we—well, we managed to wrap up our case—" ignore the pain, look past the bloody, shitty conclusion, she thought sternly and pressed her teeth into her lip, hard and cuspate and grounding, before continuing, "—which should leave me with plenty of time to, oh, I don't know, catch a movie, take a stroll in Central Park, grab a coffee from this vendor I really, really—"

"Don't toy with me, woman," he demanded on a growl, and this time it set her on edge in all the right ways.

"Don't expect me to stop," she quipped smartly, and was gratified—relieved more than anything—by the pleased, albeit subdued, laugh that escaped him.

"I would never presume to do so, detective," her title slid smoothly from his mouth to wrap around her, more endearment than label, "but I will presume in asking you to—just meet with me, Kate. Anywhere, anytime. Name the place, the date, the conditions, all of it's in your court, because after all, you are the one with the gun." The innocent comment slices through her, a resurgence of guilt and flashbang of shame that she has to shoulder past. Because she wants to stay in the moment—this happy slice of grey morning before the bitter day ahead. So, she huffs in a passing semblance of a laugh before he goes on. "So, uh, tell—tell me what's cooking in that mysterious brain of yours?"

Oh, so many things, Alex.

First and foremost, the notion of finally connecting with no space, no depersonalization to serve as a buffer thrilled her even as she shrank from the thought. A friendship—is that what they had?—couldn't function on anemic, sporadic interactions for long. Not if it was expected, intended to last or flourish or deepen.

There was that.

And then there was the thought of Alex, whose name, she often failed to remember, wasn't Alex at all. At the outset, his admission—using a pseudonym, possessing some high-profile alter ego—had struck her as a fiction. A romanticized embroidery meant to dupe her, impress her. But when the honest, plain-spoken reluctance of his words had penetrated, she'd believed him, was shocked, piqued, upset. And after processing, after letting go of the lie, she was grudgingly intrigued. Because he was a mystery, and mysteries were her unequivocal long suit, meant to be solved and explained and brought to a close. This future meeting at Remy's—in the late afternoon, she decided, while the sun was still high and the foot traffic light—it was their close.

And maybe, hopefully, a beginning.

Winding a strand of unkempt hair around her finger, a contradictory amalgam of contentedness and alacrity and grief collecting in her chest, she let out a slow breath, relaxed into her pillows and stared at the tomorrow sky. "Until I can tell you in person, my thoughts are my own. After all, this is my last chance to play the infinite enigma that inspired your letters, and I'd like to hold on to that while I can, just a little longer. It's my prerogative."

And very softly, artless and earnest, he averred, "I think, no matter how much I learn, you'll always be a mystery to me, Kate."

Two weeks, she'd insisted. Two interminable weeks before they were slated to turn up at Remy's—it killed him that they'd both frequented the diner, both loved the grease-sodden cheeseburgers and crisp steak fries and that their paths had somehow, lamentably, never connected. Two weeks before they could set eyes on the other, figment into flesh.

It was killing him.

And he was practically delirious from the wait, positively moonstruck.

He'd never been to Disneyland, Disneyworld, any of the Disneys as a kid—regularly scheduled Broadway shows tended to conflict with potential family excursions—but having seen Alexis' dippy, persistent elation in the weeks before they left for California, he imagined this chafing, bundle-of-nerves sensation to be the adult comparison of her boundless joy. Or a near thing, at any rate.

But being more keyed up than a Steinway did wonders for his writing. Once after some launch party a couple years back, he'd gone home with this leggy, fledgling model, all hungry eyes and bottle-blonde hair. And back at her closet-sized walkup, he'd made Bisquick pancakes while they'd passed a blunt back and forth, toking on it and consuming massive amounts of his burnt-edged, syrup-soaked workmanship, and about an hour in, a blaze of inspiration swamped him, compelled him to write and write and write, as the model slept inelegantly splayed on her sofa—lithe body still untouched—and the sun struck the crusted panes of her windows. Everything was brighter and sharper and so incredibly simple and the words flowed in a seamless runnel from brain to hand to paper.

To date, it was still one of his favorite scenes—descriptions crisp, characterization flawless, dialogue snappy and humorous—and that feeling of clarity and wakefulness was back. She'd resuscitated it with the promise of two weeks.

Paula was thrilled by the development. Gina was ecstatic. And he was grateful for the heightened vision, and indebted to Kate—an inadvertent muse. Not that he'd tell her that. Knowing the contrary woman, she'd be peeved by the saccharine suggestion, so he smugly tucked the thought away because if she was entitled to her secrets, he could cache a few of his own. Maybe that was childishly vindictive, but really, really—it wasn't even a proper secret.

A week deep into their holding pattern, Martha had dropped by, a mesh farmer's market tote in hand bulging with dirt-caked root vegetables and mysterious oblongs wrapped in brown craft paper. "Did you know," she chimed, kimono fluttering, some tuberose scent suffusing his kitchen as she transferred unknown foods into his crisper drawer and freezer, "that there's the most darling little setup off of Grand and Mulberry? A couple dozen vendors hawking their wares—reminds me of Europe—and I just had to pick up a carton of kumquats to make that glorious tagine that Elaine Stritch just raved over."

Staring at her over the edge of his laptop, he forced back a barb of sarcasm, a dismissive aside. Ever since their biting tabletop discourse, she'd been trying to slowly, organically—taking that approach to new and literal heights, he thought, smirking at the produce—mend the rift. And he'd been letting her, because meddlesome and mildly egotistical though she was—and pot, meet kettle, yeah, he knew—the woman was his mother, and he cared for her, about her, and valued their unorthodox relationship more than he'd ever let on. Padding to the counter, he pinched one of the thimble-sized fruits between his thumb and forefinger and contemplated it intently. "Marvelous," he muttered smilingly, "they match your hair, mother."

"Yes, well, as with kumquats, redheads are the "golden gems" of the coiffured world," her hand traced a flourish as she retorted, threw a spiny little look his way, then stopped. "You look—well, you look good, darling."

Both eyebrows rucked upward at the compliment, rarely doled out as they were. "Thank you for that," he returned hesitantly, trying to draw a bead on her odd expression, "I'm using this new multivitamin and I, you know, ate all my Wheaties this morning, so—"

"No. Stop trying to be funny, Richard. I mean it. You look—well, you look happy," her remark was warm, and the warmth filled her eyes and canted her head to one side. And wow, if this version of Richard Castle bore such a marked difference from his previous self, what must that have looked like?

Somewhat defensive, he looked away, corners of his mouth deepening. "Ah, yeah. So, I wasn't happy before?"

"You were," she clarified hastily, arms folded, one hand coasting from elbow to shoulder in an absent, soothing gesture, "Or at least, I always assumed you were. You have Alexis and your writing and a wonderful, enriching life, so no, I never doubted you were happy. But this is—this is more. I haven't seen you like this since your—well, not in recent memory."

Expectant eyes—the sky blue of his daughter's, the less saturated shade of his own—regarded him, the array of splashy rings clinking as she interlaced her fingers. And he debated for a moment—to share or not to share—because he didn't feel like justifying his life choices to a woman who'd once taken a role in Marquis de Sade, the musical, but in the end he'd caved. Mouth creasing, face brightening, he let the whole of it tumble forth—her once the case is over avowal, her radio silence and justifiable rationale, her the case is over declaration, and the consequent, detective-imposed waiting period. Through the telling, Martha sat placidly, wordless and receptive, burnished head canted to one side, until he concluded with a very un-writerly, utterly anti-climactic, "so, yeah." And then waited for her response, a little rigid, a little anxious.

It took a moment, but that award-winning smile took over her face, and she was suddenly all garish kinesis, skirting the counter to envelope him in a tight and bony embrace that he returned on instinct, and then in earnest. "My dear boy," she said against the flannel of his shirt, undoubtedly staining the fabric with her vivid lipstick, "I'm so very, very happy for you. And if she's half the woman you've intimated—and half the woman I've read about—I'm wholly delighted. Quite literally."

"Just watch the cart," he huffed, pleasure still lighting up his eyes, but abashment bleeding through, "the horse is—well, she's skittish. And even if I know my feelings, she's hard to read, especially given our exchanges are all blind."

"Duly noted," she pulled back, still all smiles and glaringly blue eyes, "but, darling, a bit of advice. Never, under any circumstances, draw on horse metaphors when discussing women. It's bound to end in tears. Likely on your part."

Right, yes. No equine comparisons. His mother, a fount of veritable wisdom.

She'd stayed for the rest of the afternoon, just the two of them while Alexis toiled away in some mahogany paneled classroom led by ivy league graduates and holders of . They'd prepared the tagine after all, made use of the kumquats, and served the stew over brown rice, savoring it slowly between sips of Cabernet. It was a good afternoon, sweeter than the rich, round red they'd shared—unequivocally, one of the best memories he had with his mother—and he, at least peripherally, had Kate to thank for that.

And his mother wasn't the only barometer attuned to his sunny, emotional shift.

That Saturday, he'd ordered out for pizza, and he and Alexis had nested themselves in a crater of cushions and timeworn blankets. Knuckle-deep in a bowl of kettle corn, eyes trained on some godawful straight-to-video flick, she'd sighed, asked abruptly, "Are you still talking to your friend? The one you think you like like?"

He fought the urge to turn toward her, focusing instead on maintaining his cool, formulating the right response, with honest words framed properly, an accurate representation of the dynamic between him and Kate. "Yes, we're still talking," he affirmed, and he felt her head bob dip, bob dip in acknowledgement, though she didn't look away from the gaggle of animated characters, the worst CGI he'd seen since Spielberg in the 80s. "And I think—well, we are going to meet. Soon. Just for coffee, to talk and, you know, see each other in person."

She fumblingly pressed a prodigious handful of popcorn into her mouth and chewed slowly, considered deeply, her narrowed eyes like slivers of broken mirror. Swallowing down the mouthful, she turned to him, strawberry hair stained cinnamon from her bath, the fruity notes of her shampoo wrapping around them. "That's good," she told him decisively, in that endearingly bossy, sagaciously assured manner every kid seemed to own and only kids could pull off, "you smile more."

Oh, that almost hurt. That his kid noticed such a marked difference in him, an alteration attributable to the promise of coffee in a diner. Didn't matter though—he could be drinking warm Coke in a Chinatown alley with her and still feel like the luckiest bastard this side of the equator, effervescent as the soda he'd choke down beaming. But still. She'd noticed. And he hated that. "You always make me smile, pumpkin. You know that, right? That you make me happier than anything—writing, laser tag, ice cream," he flared his eyes at her and she gave up a reluctant grin, pink tongue peeking through the space a tooth once occupied. God, his kid was perfect, and he knew every parent said it, thought it, but they were wrong—their kid wasn't her. Ergo, wrong.

Growing sleepy and soft, she raised a hand to press the cotton of his shirt, ran fingers over the wet blot her hair had left behind. "Sorry," she apologized and he scoffed.

"You kidding me? It smells like fruit punch now instead of corn chips. By all accounts you did me a favor." Shaking her head at his playful brush-off, she sank boneless into the pocket his chest wall and bicep formed, curled against him with all the finespun warmth of a kitten.

"I know I make you happy, dad. But it's okay if she makes you happy, too," she murmured around a mouthful of black t-shirt, ever his little emissary of happiness. "And she sounds cool," she added, voice admiring and a little dreamy.

That took him aback—that his daughter had mentally assessed the hints and glimmers of information he'd provided, had drawn an opinion on this abstract woman he so admired. "Yeah?" He prompted.

"Mm-hmm. She's a detective, so she's gotta be tough and smart, and you like her so she's probably funny and nice. And you guys both like mysteries—you could, like, get your own van and be like Fred and Daphne."

A laugh escaped him before he could stifle it, the thought of trading in his Ferrari for an Astro van, pimping it out with garish splashes of color and psychedelic accents absurd but oddly appealing, somehow. Only if she was there, though. "With your red hair? Pretty sure you're Daphne, kiddo," he propounded, but she shook her head decisively, lashes of her wet hair sliding against his forearms.

"Nope, I'm Velma. She's short and she's really smart and kind of serious and if the team didn't have her everything would—poof—just, like, fall apart, you know?" Her rationales should've tickled him, and did in part—because really, she was so assertively presumptuous—but there was more than a modicum of truth to her words at least in regards to him. Because she was, or had been for years, the primary component, sugar-and-spice adhesive that held the parts of him together—he looked before leaping, kept himself healthy and safe for her, because of her. So, he couldn't laugh at her claims, because her innocent assertions hit too close to home.

"Fair enough," he allowed gently, running a rough palm over the satin of her shoulder, "and you think—do you think Daphne and Velma might get along? Better than what we saw in the show, at least? All that bickering and cattiness in the Mystery Machine—I mean, our Daphne and Velma wouldn't resort to nastiness, am I right?"

Movie temporarily forgotten, she'd glowed, smile wide and real, mind tracking with his analogy and lighting up at the implication. "I'd—I mean, Velma and Daphne would probably really like each other. They both rock a skirt, and they're tough and not afraid of anything, and they help other people together, so yeah. I, um—I think they'd get along okay. Our Daphne and Velma would."

It was more than he'd been hoping for, especially as he'd never done this—introduced, even tangentially, a woman into Alexis' life, her sphere of consciousness. The risk had always seemed too great. Bringing the feminine warmth and curving softness and maternal implications of a flesh and blood woman to their doorstep and expecting Alexis to remain uninvested was cruel, outside the bounds of reality. If her little finger even grazed the pulse of his relationship—a meaningful conversation, a shared dinner, an exchange of glittering smiles—she'd fall for the lovely creature, whoever she was, in the space of two blinks.

But this, Kate, it was different. Not only because his gut insisted it, or because some inner voice soothed the ruffled feathers of his overprotective paternalism, but because it was, for all intents and purposes, out of his hands. She'd crept into the cracks of their conversations, into the spaces of offhand remarks, her name bleeding inadvertently, thoroughly into the normalcy of the everyday. Alexis referenced her, he repeated something she'd said, his kid checked out library books on law enforcement. Like it or not, want it or not, Kate Beckett was an ever-widening thread in the weft of their lives.

So he was glad. That his daughter didn't feel threatened, or displaced. That she bore some excitement at the prospect of Kate and of a one-day meeting and at the growing shape of his something-more-than-friendship with her. It freed up a tangle in his chest, loosened the pressure in his gut, and allowed him to imagine and yearn for things he'd shunted aside for as long as two letters in.

"I think so, too," he'd affirmed, voice rasping with deep feeling, and curled her more tightly, more closely against him, reveling in her little girl softness and tropical sweetness, dreaming of the promise of Kate and of the checkerboard floors and paper lined baskets, of Remy's and tomorrows and one days and maybes.

Lunch, she'd told him. A late one—two o'clock at Remy's, last booth on the left, and she'd be wearing a green blouse. It felt a little like espionage, their first encounter, all secrecy and unknown faces and assumed names and designated meeting points, but so much better. Because instead of state secrets or damning manila folders, they were trading in conversation, in realities.


Every last insecurity, each fretful fiber in him buzzed anticipatorily, though. Excitement merged with anxiety at the thought of that finally—at the thought of eyes colliding, of breath catching, of impending exchanges, of I'm Richard Castle, I'm Alex.

I'm a liar.

Well, not a liar, perhaps. Not exactly. But an editor, riding the coattails of omitted facts and redacted details that better suited his preferences, protected their relationship. Given they had any relationship to speak of after his divulgence. Because it just seemed specious, could seem dissembling or false, or at worst, even prove terminal to a girl so hurt by the lies and virtual desertion of her father—the author of a book once lost returns it, he solves the mystery, confers with an enigma, peels back her layers, insinuates himself into her life. He could only imagine the play of her thoughts, the implications she would read into his action and inaction, both—was this a flash in the pan, the page 6 playboy in it for the mysterious thrill, slated to flake out once the excitement had waned? How those moments, those explanations would go over was anyone's guess, but the worry ate at him, bright and greedy—a flame licking, devouring paper, curling its edges to ash.

And it was all here. All here. The morning of today. Of finally.

The nighttime hours had stretched elastically, dripping viscous as ropy strands of molasses, and sleep had slipped over and off of him in predictably wavelike, rhythmic surges. And despite the inconstancy of his restfulness, he was wide-eyed now, thrumming with the vitality of a half dozen espressos, and just so very, very alive.

Saturdays were ordinarily reserved for late wakeups and resplendent brunches and hours of drowsily followed cartoons, but he'd vaulted from the quilted recess of down pillows and expansive duvet, the arrival of finally too animating, too stirring for anything languorous or relaxing. So he'd lurched into the frenetic day with a lung-searing run, siphoning the blood from his brain to fuel straining muscles and desperate alveoli, scrubbing out thought for a good forty minutes. And a stretch beyond that, too, body so drained and wrung dry that his only sense of longing was for water—in his body, on his body, any way he could get it.

But stepping from beneath the spray of the shower meant resubmerging himself in thoughts of her and the accompanying barrage of possibilities and hesitations and fears. It unequivocally sucked, not being able to truly enjoy the finally of the day. But really, he had only himself to blame for that. And, too, when had anything between them—conversations excluded—been easy?

Time to suck it up and tighten the laces, Ricky.

Toweling dry his hair, he'd dressed himself in the comfort of ratty and well-worn castoffs, and drifted to the kitchen, thoughts of coffee sustaining him, soothing the live-wire nerves on the surface of his skin, frayed and exposed in his stomach. Food was impossible, though—he was too nauseous and keyed up to even consider anything beyond liquids, though distantly hopeful that the warmth of a steaming cup would ease the sick tangle in his stomach.

His hand clenched protectively around a pale grey mug, body jolting as a little voice broke into his thoughts, "You look weird."

"Do I?" He recovered with unanticipated finesse, flashing a reassuring grin at the glacial eyes peering shrewdly over the back of his sofa. God, they didn't miss a thing, did they? "I'm—well, I'm meeting Kate, my friend, today, remember?" He elaborated, thumbing the porcelain handle absently, "and I'm excited about it. A little—um, maybe a little nervous, too."

"You're nervous?" Her forehead crumpled, the tiny hills of her shoulders surfacing from behind a wall of cushions as she braced her elbows on the rear ledge of the couch.

Turning his back to her probing gaze, he busied himself with rummaging for the burr grinder and a bag of breakfast blend beans, and decided upon honesty. "Absolutely. She's an interesting, fierce, brilliant, and—according to your grandmother, who is not easily impressed—an attractive woman. And I'm—" something of a lothario, a divorcee, have a kid, haven't exhibited the soundest of judgment, "—kind of a wild card. And she still doesn't know who I am. That I write mystery novels, that my name is Richard and not Alex."

"What does 'wild card' mean?"

Huffing a laugh, he depressed a button and quirked an eyebrow good-naturedly as the grinder brayed and crackled and the rich, buttery, cloying scent of coffee permeated the air. "A wild card," he began when the ruckus had faded, "means someone who's unpredictable. You don't know what they might do or might say, and sometimes that's exciting, and sometimes—well, sometimes that means you can't depend on them or trust them the way you might want to."

"I don't think you're a wild card," she remarked solemnly, and his throat tightened at the grave set of her mouth and the sincerity in her translucent eyes.

Well, she wouldn't. He never was with her—always constant, always loving, always dad, and he always would be. Permanence and stability were invaluable and rare, so rare, especially in high-income households headed-up by high-profile parents with high-priority careers, which were almost always, afflictively antecedent to their children. A girl confident in her father's love, a wizened psychologist had shared—the man a wellspring of knowledge, his authority on human nature informing several of his storylines, his character development—is one of the loveliest, strongest, and rarest things in this present age. And that observation had latched onto him, anchoring itself to bone and impressing upon him the necessity and consuming desire to be that for and give that to Alexis.

To help grow her into the loveliest, strongest, rarest version of her remarkable self.

"And that makes me happy, pumpkin," his mouth quirked in a half-smile, "but other people see me differently. And that's okay, so long as you never feel like I—you know, like I let you down."

Copper head tipping to one side, she fell silent and watched his movements intently as he shook the grounds into a filter, poured the carafe of water into the reservoir, and replacing it, watched as a steady, russet strand coursed back into the glass kettle. "But regardless of what she thinks of me," he conceded thoughtfully, turning to look at Alexis again, bracing his hands against the cool lip of the countertop, "I'm gonna show up today, meet this incredible, interesting, strong woman, and allow everything to naturally—" he held his hands out, fingers splayed, and shrugged deeply, "unfold."

After a beat, she beamed at him, sunshine and savvy both, and vaulted across a hurdle of extravagant throw pillows, making her way to the dim recesses of his bedroom. "Then we need to get you ready, 'cause you only get one chance to make a first impression, you know, and right now you look kind of like the those weird guys that feed pigeons in the park all day and if she thinks that when she sees you, good luck getting her to stay for a piece of pie."

And help him, she had.

With intent alacrity and a shrewdness beyond her years, owing—no doubt—to her grandmother's seasoned experience with wardrobe and costumery and her mother's obsession with all things in vogue, she'd helped him select a button down and crisp, black jeans. "It makes your eyes look sparkly," she'd reassured him pertly, imperiously gesticulating toward the powder blue shirt when he'd questioned her selection, "and your arms look stronger." Which for her—and for him, too, if he allowed himself to scrutinize his decision—was the most influential determinant in the matter.

And now, obstinate hand of hair threatening to spill over his forehead, jaw clean-shaven and clothing cleanly, meticulously pressed—nervous sweat collecting beneath his arms, over his lumbar spine, jeopardizing the uninterrupted lines and planes of his clothing—he stood on the street corner opposite Remy's, trying to breathe past everything unnamed and looming and thrilling. Assuming promises kept and schedules maintained, she was nestled on a pew of clinging red vinyl, waiting for him.

The thought osmosed the moisture from his mouth and spurred his pulse, heart galloping quick as a foam-flecked horse.

Jesus Christ, pull yourself together, he grimaced at his sophomoric response—a lovesick kid, all prepubescent yodeling and involuntary blushes and mooning eyes—before swallowing, disregarding the rasp of dry tissue against dry tissue, and releasing a long breath. Summoning the vestiges of a courage he'd believed pigeon-holed somewhere in the loft, his feet moved of their own accord, propelling him over the white dashes of the crosswalk and past the diner's threshold, ducking his head gratefully, absently at the owner of the hands that held the door for him.

It only took a moment, his avid gaze sweeping, hunting for her, and oh, oh, there she was.

Only her back was visible to him, and only a slight, finely curving portion over the bench seat, but he drank it in, greedy for substance, for physicality and the fine points of her being. The light was glancing off of her glossy curls, illuminating shades of copper and chestnut and cocoa. Her head listed to one side, and from his vantage point, the soft curve of her profile was partially visible, the slope of her cheek resting in the palm of her hand as she gazed out the window—a black crescent sweep of lashes, the strong, narrow lines of her nose, the feathered taper of one dark brow. Beautiful linear symmetry, delicate and dynamic. Beside her, a precariously full mug of coffee—black, he noted—gave off steam, silvery tendrils soaking up the buttery sun as they streamed skyward.

And as he stared at the barest edge of this lovely creature, somehow foreign and familiar all at once, his case of nerves grew, dimensions expanding to something vast and a little terrifying. It swamped him, seized his senses, and he wiped clammy palms against his jeans in favor of other, less appropriate outlets—like trembling or hyperventilating or simply leaving. His first time fumbling in the backseat of a Sentra, all enthusiasm and shaking hands; the morning of his wedding to Meredith, uncertainty and tequila a churning maelstrom in his gut; the night Alexis was born, gingerly supporting her delicate body, all bubblegum skin and blown-glass bones; signing away his life and beloved novels to Black Pawn—this moment somehow superseded them all in terms of sheer adrenaline and knife's-edge anticipation. This moment, both feet planted on the sticky checkerboard tile of Remy's, heart knocking furiously against his ribs, woman of his dreams still sight unseen, he had the bewildering suspicion that these few, quiet moments were a precipice. A tipping point. And that with their introduction, with those first faltering words, everything would fall exquisitely, astonishingly, irrevocably into place. Or maybe he was a delusional idealist, a writer with the gooey heart of a romantic. Which was the likelier scenario, truth be told.

Whatever he was, whatever he would be following this impending conversation, he was ready. So he took a steadying breath through his nose, let the oxygen and clarity flood his brain, and then dove. Plunged.


The lustrous head swiveled, and her eyes—the first devastating feature he processed— hit him like the knuckling jab of a sucker punch. Dark and unfathomable, a little damaged, glittering in the mingling light from the overheads and the windows, and utterly, hauntingly familiar.

Oh, god.

She was scrutinizing him with near comical bafflement, and horrified, he fought to stifle a poorly timed laugh of shock—at her expression, at the way this moment was transpiring, at their slack-jawed deadlock. Because it was her.

Of course.

It had to be her. Red dress, soggy trench. Runway model or underfed waif—he'd discerned it even then, subconsciously. Felt it in his bones, in the marrow of his intuition. And yeah, there it was, that sensation unknown and yet, somehow, awaited—jagged pieces shifting, settling, fitting. If he had to put a name to it, rightness.

"Richard Castle." It wasn't a question so much as a searching statement, confusion and question and well-concealed shock.

And now, an uncontrolled Geronimo.

Tipping himself nose down, plummeting earthward, controls jammed and heart knocking behind his molars and hopeful for all the right conditions to conspire and allow for recovery, allow him to pull up, up, up and not raze himself, not dismantle this finally real thing, he spoke. "Less commonly known as Richard Alexander Rodgers."

The telling was quick, bandaid gone now, his breath suspended. And he watched, waited as that charged beat of incomprehension suddenly gave way to understanding. As awareness and disbelief tightened her features, cinched up her shoulders, elicited an involuntary gasp.


"Alex," he finished for her, level expression betraying none of the panic seeping through him at the bloom of anger on her lovely face, "yeah."


Hello, friends.

If you're looking for the alternativelonger, darker, more depressingversion of Chapter 14, I ended up consolidating per the suggestion of my real world editor, whose advice is my bellwether for more than literary direction. Some of you liked the previous version, some didn't, and I respect both positions as well as everything in between. However, after some reflection I felt like this revision flowed more smoothly and that a lot of the material contained in the initial update was extraneous. Hence, its replacement. I do have the original chapter saved, however, and if for any reason you'd like to read over it, feel free to contact me. I'd be happy to forward a copy.

Which is why, all that being said, it took me longer than projected to post the update! It's finally, finally here, thoughmy apologies for it taking infinitely longer than anticipated and I sincerely hope it lives up to your expectations!

I'm interested to hear your thoughtson the reworked chapter and on the long overdue first look and initial words.

Thanks, as always, for reading and supporting this little story! I love sharing in the journey with you all.