My Sunny Valentine
Castle spent the day in listless motion, wishing he had ten dollars for every time he sneaked another glance at the clock. He surfed Zagat's list of '10 Hottest NYC Bars' trawling for the perfect venue: some romantic little place that had slipped his mind or better still, somewhere neither of them had ever been before; that 'neutral' ground of Kate's instruction.
After forty minutes, he came up for air, empty-handed and slightly panicked.
When the loft felt too confining for his boundless, nervous energy, he headed out to his barber for a trim, a hot shave and a shoeshine. In the past, Tony Carafiello's tiny NoLita shop had offered a refuge when words escaped him and he needed the company of working men and their random, idle chatter to calm the panicked voice inside his head telling him that he'd never write another successful sentence. Today felt a lot like that, with so much riding on selecting a meeting place for his heart-to-heart with Kate. Because that was what he had determined it would be. He would be honest and in turn he would ask the same of her. They'd both declared themselves single, but he needed to hear more than that. Josh appeared to be gone, and if he was gone for good, as Kate insisted, then they needed a plan, some mark of intention on both sides for the day not too far off when the dust of her dead relationship had settled and they might begin something new.
He came home and made a sandwich, a thoughtless effort concocted from trimmings he found in the fridge. He ate half while he surfed Grub Street, New York Magazine's food and restaurant blog, looking for inspiration. If things went well, he'd take her out to dinner. If things went well, his life was about to change. The import of that thought wasn't lost on him. His stomach refused the rest of his sandwich on account of his growing anxiety.
Finally, a list entitled 'The Absolute Best Downtown Date Bar' threw up Slowly Shirley, a dark little basement spot on the edge of the West Village. Castle had never been before, but the photos looked perfect and the relative proximity to the precinct meant it wouldn't take Kate long to get there after work. If she asked him how he found it, he'd just have to come up with a convincing story that didn't involve trawling lists of romantic date locations online.
Around three, he showered, but then he decided against different clothes, deeming it unfair to Kate since she'd be coming straight from the precinct and wouldn't have a chance to change.
He texted her at around five. After several failed attempts at the right tone or wording for his message he went with simple – strictly no kisses and no emojis.
Text me when you're ready to leave and I'll meet you at Slowly Shirley, 121 W10th at Greenwich Av. Rick.
He signed off with his first name after ten minutes of intense debate. He hoped it set the tone he was looking to achieve – off-duty, personal, nothing to do with work anymore beyond how they met. Just a guy and a girl who were no longer single but hadn't yet nudged things over the line meeting up to figure out how to do just that.
He so badly wanted to do that, but every time he pictured kissing her he'd see Josh's face in the men's room when he said, "Would you jump in my grave so fast?" and the whole thing felt sullied, like they were actually cheating on someone.
He was combing his hair when her text pinged back and he nearly dropped his phone in the sink trying to get to it.
Ah, Slowly, slowly catchy monkey. ;) Can be there just after six. Looking forward to it. K
He read and reread her playful message, parsing the text for meaning. Did the "Ah" indicate that she'd been to Slowly Shirley before? If she had, hopefully it wasn't with Josh. That would kill the mood completely. Eventually, Castle growled at himself and threw the phone on the bed, sick of being trapped inside his own head for so long, worrying the whole business to death.
By five-thirty, feeling chronically cooped up, he locked his front door and headed out to take a deliberately slow walk to the bar. He headed up Crosby Street for a block and then cut left onto Spring, where he carried on until it intersected with 6th Avenue. If he stuck to Sixth it would eventually lead him almost right to the door of the basement bar. He could switch his brain off, let the relentless hum of one-way traffic be his accompanying soundtrack as he stared into the windows of all the restaurants, nail salons, dry cleaners, chain stores and bars he'd pass on his way uptown.
He reached Slowly Shirley just before six and quickly hurried inside. The basement bar had a rich, secretive feel about it mostly created by the authentic art deco interior. It was a throwback to a more romantic time, moodily dark and with oxblood leather banquettes that felt sinful and luxurious. He congratulated himself on choosing well. Though he'd have felt quite comfortable sitting at the bar on any normal day, he guessed a booth would make for a better space in which to talk. But he was only halfway through ordering a gin and tonic from the bartender when the door opened and Kate walked in. From the smirk on her face, he was pretty sure that his jaw had actually dropped this time.
"Hey," she smiled broadly and easily, walking up to him and greeting him with a surprise kiss on the cheek that struck him dumb. She leaned in close and squeezed his arm, peering at the drink the barman was just sliding towards him. He could smell her perfume. It was all a little overwhelming.
"What are you having?" she asked, oblivious to his temporary inability to form words.
She seemed so natural, so at ease that it threw him even further. That quiet moment over a G&T that he had planned to take the edge off his nerves and get his head together had just evaporated. He fought his bedazzlement. "You're…early."
"Ma'am, what can I get you?" asked the bartender, helpfully smothering Castle's blundering decent into incoherence with a muted display of natural charm.
"Uh…" She scanned the shelves of attractively backlit liquor bottles lined up behind the bar. "Actually, a glass of Riesling would be good," she told the barman as she took off her leather jacket and claimed the stool opposite Castle.
"You don't want a booth?" he asked, further disconcerted by the fact that she wanted to sit up here with him at the bar in full view of the rest of the patrons. That wasn't in his plan.
"No. This is good. Are you okay?" she frowned a little, tilting her head to one side.
His gaze flickered over her body. "You changed."
Kate looked down at her purple silk shirt and black jeans. "Top marks for observation."
Castle frowned. "So…you had time to go home?"
"No. I finished early. Paperwork's all gone over to Centre Street." She nodded. "But I had a change of clothes in my locker…so…no need."
"I thought you kept some sweats and a pair of old sneakers in your locker."
"How big is your locker?"
Kate laughed at her partner's sudden strange preoccupation with precinct storage. "Castle, are you sure you're okay? You seem…jumpy. How much coffee did you have today?"
He downed half of his gin and nodded to the barman to set him up with another one. "No, not enough of this."
"You look like you're here to be handed down a life sentence."
If only, he thought to himself. Sentenced to a lifetime with Kate Beckett: his idea of nirvana. "Don't be silly," he said instead, his play off utterly unconvincing.
"Honestly, I can't get a read on you these days," Kate sighed, thanking the bartender as he placed her glass of wine on a napkin and told her to enjoy before moving away to a discreet distance, well out of earshot.
They clinked glasses, smiling shyly at one another as, all of a sudden, the atmosphere and the dimly lit interior of the dark bar reminded them why they were there. Other couples began to arrive, mostly men and women in suits meeting up for a post-work drink with a partner or a spouse. That this was a date venue for romantically involved couples could not have been made clearer when one amorous duo took up residence in a corner booth and began kissing and touching one another in a way that seemed far from decent at this early hour and when still this sober.
Kate caught Castle staring and she lightly kicked his foot with the toe of her high-heeled boot. "Don't be a prude," she whispered, flashing her eyes at him flirtatiously.
Castle coughed on a throat full of fizzy tonic. "Me? A prude? First time I've ever been called that."
"You were judging them."
"No, I was—" He stopped and smiled guiltily. She had caught him.
"Judging," Kate mouthed, her eyes still dancing with glorious humor.
"This place is gorgeous. Have you been here before?" she asked, admiring the intricate, monochrome pattern on the tiled floor and the 1920's sconce lights lining the walls.
"Nope. First time."
"How'd you find it?" Kate asked, the question he'd had no time to prepare a fudge of the truth for.
"Um…online," he answered, which wasn't a lie.
"Hmm. I sense a story. Spill," she said, smiling mischievously as she swirled her wine around the voluptuous curves of the glass.
Castle made a dismissive sound and zeroed in on his second G&T, hoping in vain that the crack of ice cubes would distract her.
"Come on. Don't be evasive. I've been stuck with paperwork all day. Share some real life adventure with me," she begged him with a playfulness that was rare for Kate Beckett.
The jazz playing in the background should have been soothing but it seemed to fall in step with Castle's heartbeat and make him feel a little tachycardic.
"Kate, come on. I sat at my desk and surfed a few websites. There wasn't much more to it."
"Oh, but there must have been. I can tell when you're lying."
He looked down at his lap, his expression a little sheepish. "Okay, look, I found it on a list of date bars," he admitted in a quieter than normal voice.
Kate cupped her hand to her ear. "Sorry, what was that? You spent the day surfing date venues?"
Castle blustered, "I did not spend my day—"
But then he heard her laughing and he waved the rest of his denial away.
"You're choosing next time," he told her. "See how you like the responsibility."
"Challenge accepted," she answered boldly.
And just like that they had fallen into flirting, all too easily, and they hadn't even talked yet. Nothing had been set straight or laid out. Castle needed to find a way to get things back on track before he got too drunk to hold onto a thought or his nerves and his deep enjoyment of her company made him let the topic go altogether. He wanted more than anything to clear the air so they could move forward.
He put his highball glass down on the bar and cleared his throat. "So…I guess we should get down to business."
Did I really just say that, he mentally yelled at himself before the words were even halfway out of his mouth.
Kate's eyebrows shot up as she swallowed a mouthful of wine. "Business? Wow…that's…and you picked such a romantic spot too."
Castle visibly cringed. "I…I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…"
He'd confused her by being so adult about all of this. She thought he'd be crowing now that Josh was gone; she thought he'd be beating a path to her door, he imagined. That he wasn't had surprised her. Turned out she wasn't the only one with hidden depths. She wasn't the only onion left to peel. He could see all of this in the look on her face – the disappointment, confusion and some hurt. So he wasn't surprised when Kate began to complain about the mixed signals she'd been getting.
"I thought you wanted this?" she said, getting down to the heart of things far more abruptly and adroitly, let's be honest, than Castle had managed.
At a stroke, the gloves were off.
"Then why did you keep seeing someone else?" he asked, landing a punch just as cleanly as she had.
Kate bit her lip.
"What was it? You knew, except you weren't interested until you got dumped. Is that it?"
He realized that sounded harsh but he had to understand what was going on inside her head. A boyfriend one minute, and then he was gone like a bad dream and Castle was being pursued in the next.
"I was the one who did the dumping if we're going to be accurate. But since you were listening out in the hallway you'd know that already."
The playfulness was gone. He wanted it back, but they'd have to fight for it first.
"I guess I'm questioning what I've seen and what I'm hearing now."
She looked unsettled by his ability to hold back and doubt her motives instead, when she was essentially offering him what he had long wanted. It wasn't like him to be so bold with her or to stand up for himself like this. Self-control wasn't exactly the first trait that came to mind when you thought of Richard Castle. Impulsive often took the top spot. She had seen a whole new side to him these last couple of days; a maturity and restraint that was becoming quite a turn on.
"I don't understand what it is with you," she said, deflecting from the detail for a moment.
"And I don't understand why you can't see my side? You're happy to date Josh when you know it's wrong for you, and yet you did nothing about it. Anyone could see that he wasn't there for you, Kate. So don't tell me you didn't know what was going on there. And the timing…"
Finally, she looked him in the eye. "Is that what you're so afraid of? That this is some rebound thing? You think you're a placeholder, hmm? A bed-warmer? Castle, I've been single plenty of times since we've been working together. I never needed you to fill a hole for me before."
He hears the unconscious dirty joke in her last statement but manages to ignore it for the call of something bigger. "But now you do?"
"No." She was emphatic.
"Then what, Kate?"
Her eyes slid to the left, taking in the rest of the bar, and then back to his face. "We should get out of here. People are staring."
"What people? Let them look," he said, dismissively, without even checking for himself.
"Castle," she warned.
He made an attempt to placate. "Look, it's freezing outside. Let's just…lower our voices. Come on. We can be civilized about this. We might even get somewhere for once."
He watched her watching him for a quiet moment and then she rolled her eyes. He relaxed. She was giving in. He knew all of her tells. "Fine. You wanna know why I stuck with Josh?"
She forced out a long, slow breath and then she straightened up, shook her hair out over her shoulders, took a slow sip of wine and looked somewhere over Castle's right ear to begin.
"This doesn't put me in the best light," she preempted, smoothing her hands down over her jeans.
"Beckett, I think we're past that."
Out of excuses, she started to explain. "Okay, okay. I don't know, I guess Josh was…undemanding and…uncomplicated. I mean I liked him. But we just…we coasted along. He never asked too much of me." She paused and frowned, like she was thinking hard, reaching for a thought. "It…it was like…like having a gun but always keeping the safety on. That's the best analogy I can come up with. Nothing transformative ever happened."
"Sounds romantic," Castle muttered.
"What I mean is...I didn't have to make life-changing decisions with him around. He required no accommodation at all in fact. Except for his dislike of my relationship with you, life carried on as before."
Kate paused and took a sip of her wine. Castle felt his impatience grow from seed to sapling.
"And…" he coached her to continue.
Now she looked slightly uncomfortable, but she braved her own embarrassment to tell him the truth. "And I've always known that…that things would be different with you. There's a lot you wouldn't let me get away with."
She risked a look at his face but got nothing but blank patience to work off. She cleared her throat, suddenly nervous.
"The way you live your life…it's…you live all of it, every part…work, family, relationships…you embrace life, Castle. You squeeze every ounce out of it, and that— It scares me." She looked down at her lap, at her twisted fingers and then back up at his face, inwardly wincing at the anguish she now saw in his eyes. "So I kept you at arm's length. I wasn't ready to go all in."
"And now you think you…what?" His self-control was astonishing.
"And now you and I are sitting in a bar arguing about why I want us to move forward and why you're now the one holding back. For us, I'd say that's progress."
Her voice ended on a lighter note, but Castle's remained serious. "I've been hurt before."
He nodded. "It's no secret. So I'm a little gun shy when…when there's someone in my life who really matters."
"This isn't a rebound thing," she insisted again, trying to pour what it would mean to her into her eyes, the way they softened on his face, how close they were to getting what they both knew they wanted.
"I'm hearing that. But for me, Kate, it…it feels like everything. And if that scares you or you need time then…"
"It does." Castle's head shot up but Kate held up her hand to indicate that there was more, she wasn't finished. "It does scare me but then it should. Everything? That's a big idea to live up to. Besides, your mom and Alexis would hunt me down if I hurt you. And I might have a gun but both of them scare me."
Castle didn't smile. He remained quiet, retracing the path of everything she'd just said. She seemed more certain of her own mind and more open with him than he thought he'd ever heard her be before. But still some doubt or his own fears nagged at the back of his brain.
Kate drained the last of her wine and pushed the empty glass across the bar.
"Do you want another drink?" Castle asked, wondering whether she'd had enough of open hearts and confessions for one day or if there was anymore left to say.
She leaned towards him, her expression earnest. "I want to fix this. We both want the same thing, right?"
When he didn't reply she leaned in closer still. "Castle, do you want to start a relationship with me? Is that what you need me to ask? Because I'm tired of pretending that I'm okay with us just being friends. If you think this is because of Josh then you're wrong."
"But the timing—"
She gripped his elbow. "Forget the timing."
"It hasn't even been two days."
"And yet nearly three years for us."
"Not exactly how it looks. Or how it's felt for me."
Kate closed her eyes and made a noise of exasperation in the back of her throat. But then she opened her eyes again and her face had cleared. "Do you think I haven't been hurt, seeing you with other people?"
Finally the fight seemed to drain out of the writer and a new spark of curiosity lit in his eyes. This wasn't as new for her as he'd assumed, wanting them to begin something lasting.
"But that's in the past. I'm letting it go. Castle, I finally did what I needed to do. I cleared the path. You and I are long overdue. Now I know that's on me. I should have broken up with Josh a long time ago. You're right. I shouldn't have stayed with him when I knew I had feelings for you."
These words he was hearing her say should have made him cry with joy and relief, instead he found himself arguing back, his own hurt still so fresh, unable to let it go.
"So what took you so long?"
"Rick, I'm not proud of what I've done, but I've tried to explain why I did it."
"Because you were scared?"
Kate nodded, letting her shoulders drop because at last he seemed to be getting it. "You're not my backup plan. And I'm still scared that I'll disappoint you, but I seem to be hurting you more by holding back. You've seen what you get with me. You actually know me better than anyone ever has. So you know what a mess my head can be, the mistakes I make, and if you still want to get involved then…who am I to tell you that you shouldn't. You have your family for that."
She waited patiently for some reaction or an answer, even.
Eventually, he spoke, his voice calm and measured. "I want to say give me some time. That seems like the right thing to do."
"But?" She held her breath.
"But I've waited so long to get here, to be in this moment. Both of us single and clear-eyed enough to agree what's right in front of us…"
Kate leaned in and slipped her hand over his, her fingers insinuating themselves into the warmth of his palm. She squeezed gently. "Let me take you to dinner? We don't have to go from zero to sixty in two days, you're right."
Castle chuckled and his gaze flitted from the floor to their hands to her face. "I don't think there was ever a time you and I would have rated zero on any scale."
She smiled then, and it felt like the sun had just come out in that basement bar; it felt like a modern day miracle. "Still cocky, I like it."
Castle let go a bubble of laughter and his filter slipped. "Oh, you will," he grinned, and a blush colored his cheeks at his own boldness.
Kate's eyes widened. "Now there's the Castle I know," she paused, "…and love," she admitted, clasping his hand even tighter.
"You…?" he stammered, eyes boring into hers looking for the truth, searching for any hidden meaning. "Me?" he whispered, tapping a finger against his chest.
Kate nodded calmly, though her heart was hammering, and something she saw in his face, some childlike insecurity commingled with his wondrous awe of her, made her eyes fill with tears. "Didn't you know?"
He shook his head, unable to form words lest an unmanly sound choke its way out.
"I knew," she admitted, stroking the back of his knuckles with her thumb. "I knew you loved me. It's true, isn't it?" she asked, though her question was redundant.
Castle let go a whoosh of air and then he turned to the bar to down the rest of his gin in one. Melted ice ran down his chin and skittered over the front of his shirt in droplets that glittered like diamonds until he shook them off.
"Dinner," Kate said quietly, giving him time to process. She slid down off her own stool, donning her leather jacket as she went before grabbing her partner's blazer and holding it out for him to slip into. The role reversals just kept on coming tonight.
Castle paid the barman and tipped him generously for his discretion.
"Can this be our place?" he asked, as they turned for the door that led to the stairs.
Kate paused, looking back to survey the art deco treasure he had found for them, and then she reached for his hand as she nodded. "Slowly Shirley." She tried out the name. "It does have a ring to it."
"Like a secret code." His eyes twinkled. Finally.
Kate smiled. "Yeah, this can be our place. I'd like that."
As they climbed the steps to the street, Castle took a deep breath and then he slipped his arm around his partner's shoulders. He'd have to let his old hurt go to move forward, and after tonight he understood that Kate was having to do the same. If she was no longer prepared for them to hold her back, neither could he. She was right: he loved her more than that.
He tucked her into his side, and when she let her head fall to his shoulder he kissed her hair and the ache in his chest began to ease.
"Let's go to Remy's," she said, "my treat."
"But the guys…"
"Will get over it," she promised, wrapping her arm around his waist. "Let's not waste any more time, Castle. I'm done waiting for my life to start."
And with another smile and those few words, she chased the winter night away. It felt like summer in February as they walked to Waverley Place and hailed a cab.
As the cab turned into Sixth Avenue, a lone, foil balloon affixed by a silver string bobbed from the spike of a metal railing. The shiny red heart, left over from Valentine's Day, seemed to nod in approval as they passed. Castle smiled out of the window at this welcome omen and then he closed his eyes as he felt Kate reach for his hand. He was still smiling when they entered Remy's and Ryan yelled at them from a booth in the corner.
"You ready for this?" Kate asked, her hand firmly gripping her partner's.
"Zero to hero, right?" Castle murmured in her ear.
"Now you're talking," she laughed, raising her free hand to wave to the boys and a wide-eyed Lanie, all busily squashing up in the booth the make room for them even as Castle turned back to face his partner.
"You were right before, can I just say, before they slaughter us?"
Kate, still smiling, frowned. "Right about what?"
"That I'm in love with you. I'm sorry I've put you through it the last couple of days."
"Hey," she said, softly, reaching up to caress his jaw with the tips of her fingers. "You wanted to be sure. It's okay. I understand."
"No, Kate, I was always sure. I wanted everything that's gone before never to have happened. But that's stupid and immature. We both have past lives, me especially. I shouldn't have punished you for that. I'm sorry. I'll make it up to you, I promise."
Kate tugged on his hand to draw him back behind the pillar near the entrance to the diner, giving them a little privacy. An elderly couple paying their check partially shielded them from the crowd. "Kiss me," she said urgently, gripping his lapels. "Kiss me now and all's forgiven."
Castle looked startled. "But what about…?" he asked, jerking his head towards their friends in the corner table.
"You think they don't know?" she laughed, amused by his belief that they could hide what they already were and what they were becoming from a group of detectives and one nosey-assed girlfriend.
Her eyes sparkled. "So…are you going to kiss me or do I have to—"
Her last words were lost when his mouth claimed hers, roughly at first and then very quickly the kiss turned soft, slow and sweet as honey. They broke apart grinning and blushing to the sound of wolf whistles and catcalls bouncing around the diner as their own friends and even cops on other tables got in on the act.
"I thought you didn't like big gestures," Castle whispered, as he nuzzled his nose against hers and then finally kissed her cheek.
"I'm getting used to big. I get a feeling that's what's coming and I've decided not to fight it," she said as she let her hand fall to his ass and she gave it a squeeze. When she gave his body a suggestive once over and threw in a wink for good measure, another round of whistling finally broke their moment apart.
"Kate Beckett!" Castle exclaimed, in mock shock, though what he really felt was pride and delight.
The smile she gave him ruled them all.
"Come on, Castle," she grinned, dragging him out into the heart of the restaurant so that they could join their friends for dinner. "Let's go face the music and then we can talk about how slow you want things to go."
His face ached all the way through dinner. He took Esposito's ribbing on the chin. He thanked Ryan for his warm congratulations, and with Kate pressed against his side and her hand on his thigh he even weathered Lanie's threats of torture if he ever hurt 'her girl.'
"I don't think I've ever seen you smile so much," Kate told him once they were alone on the street again in the chilly February air.
"Well, I hope you like it because I think there's a whole lot more smiling coming your way."
"Oh? Sounds promising."
Castle drew her to a stop once the restaurant was at least a block away.
"Kate, I don't want to force this and I don't want to look back anymore. Let's just put the past behind us and take things as they come, okay? No artificial timescales…just…I want to kiss you and see you smile, too. Does that sound okay?" he asked, tugging her to him by the front of her leather jacket to slow-kiss her as if they were dancing beneath the awning of a corner bodega with a thousand colorful flower heads all nodding in time on the breeze.
"Sounds perfect," she whispered, as her arms tightened around him. Her lips parted once more and her eyes slipped closed when his body pressed hard against her own and the past finally slipped free.
I have become addicted
to the sound you make
before you smile.
I ache for it
of every single
- Tyler Knott Gregson -
A/N: I wanted to end with this poem because as soon as I read it it reminded me of Castle and Beckett. If you're not familiar with Tyler's short poems and haikus I highly recommend them on Instagram. I hope you enjoyed this final chapter. I know it turned into something of a sap fest. My apologies. :) Thank you for reading and sharing your kind notes with me, for your company and your gratitude. Liv xx