A melodramatic gasp from the hallway startles Kate awake, forcing her to remember where she is, what day it is. Kate shifts away from the glow of sunlight spilling through the master bedroom's windows, buries her face in Castle's shoulder.
"Alexis," she hears Lily call from the open bedroom door. Castle grunts into his pillow at the sudden assault of noise, unwillingly begins to wake.
He's lying on his stomach, half of his face mashed into the pillow, his arms up and hugging the cushiony goose down. He turns his head from the opposite direction, towards her, and peels his eyes open. They shine cerulean in the morning sunlight, half-lidded and hazy with sleep, but bright as they land on her.
"Alexis, they broke the rules!"
"Oh no," he mumbles and she smirks against the muscle of his bicep, hides her drowsy amusement in the crook of his elbow. "You didn't sneak back to your room last night, Beckett."
She huffs and presses one of her knees to his thigh beneath the sheets. "I fell asleep," she defends on a rasp, sighing out against his arm. "It's your fault too, you should have woken me up."
He scoffs, but cranes his neck to brush a kiss to her mouth, grinning as Lily groans in protest from the door.
"Just be glad I reminded us to get dressed afterwards," he murmurs before Lily can approach, climb onto the bed. Kate chuckles as the mattress shakes with their daughter's upwards journey.
"You guys," she huffs, exasperated and crawling over Castle's back, around to his side of the bed. "You had one rule and you broke it and now you're ruining tradition!"
"I never agreed to the tradition," Castle mutters into his pillow. "You and your sister imposed it on me."
"Yes, but you didn't argue, therefore, you agreed to the terms," Alexis states from the doorway, still in her fluffy blue robe with her hair in a messy bun that makes her look so much younger. Such a juxtaposition to the sight of her with her arms crossed and one of her eyebrows raised, staring back at them like a reproving parent. "Seriously, you two, it was one night."
"I don't sleep well alone," Castle whines. Alexis rolls her eyes, even though they all know it isn't exactly a lie.
But it hadn't been Castle who sneaked out of his bedroom in the middle of the night. Kate tried to fall asleep in the downstairs guest bedroom, the mantra of those same words, it's just one night, playing on a loop in her head. But that failed to stop her self-sabotaging mind from drifting back in time, to the hours before their last attempted wedding day.
It's different this time - they drove up to the Hamptons together a couple of days ago, the people who ruined their last wedding day are no longer a threat, have been dead for two years now, and Castle isn't going anywhere this time.
None of that logic stopped her from slipping out of the guest bed at one a.m. and climbing the stairs on tiptoes. She checked on Lily, making sure she was sleeping soundly, before easing into Castle's room, sliding into his bed, and waking him up with her own form of reassurance.
"I'm going to tell Aunt Lanie," Lily says, leaning over Castle's back with her hands braced on his shoulder, her hair falling in a curtain around her face as she hovers above him. "Daddy, you need to get up before people start to get here."
"What time is it?" Kate inquires, rolling onto her back and scrubbing a hand over her face, expelling a final yawn.
"Almost eight," Alexis replies, nodding to Lily in indication of why they are all up so early, and smothering her smile when Castle groans in displeasure.
"The wedding is in the afternoon and we only invited family. Let me sleep in, children," he grumbles.
Lily untangles one of his arms from around his pillow and tugs.
"Daddy, it's your wedding day, the best day of the year," she sing-songs the reminder, because Lily has anticipated this day more than anyone. "And we made you and Momma a special breakfast to celebrate. So get up and you can eat and then start getting ready, because you take forever."
"She has a point," Kate murmurs. Lily pulls him into a sitting position with a crow of triumph as Castle gasps.
"I'm reconsidering this marriage."
Kate grins and pushes up on her elbows to press a kiss to his cheek. "Too late."
"Come on, Momma, you too," Lily chirps, apparently satisfied that Castle has no intention of going back to sleep. She hops over the edge of the mattress. "Alexis showed me how to make coffee the way you like."
"That sounds perfect, Peanut. I'll be right there," Kate promises, shooting Alexis a grateful look and easing the comforter from her lap as Lily skips out of the room, her older sister turning to follow.
"Just in case you couldn't see through my ruse," Castle adds, mimicking her and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "I can't wait to marry you today."
Kate circles the bed to him with her chest feeling light, her body giddy and alive with butterflies. They flitter along her sternum, her heart, and force her to suppress the ridiculous urge to giggle as she comes to stand in front of him.
"It's mutual," she murmurs, cupping his face in her hands, her engagement ring, the new one he presented her with last year, catching in the sunlight. "Always has been."
Castle's hands on her waist draw her to stand between his knees and she seals a kiss to his mouth, gentle and chaste and eliciting a smile beneath hers. He sighs, a sound so content and lovely, and winds his arms around her, pulling her into a hug that presses their chests flush and steals her breath.
"Lily's right," he murmurs into her shoulder. "This is going to be the best day."
Rick's heart is a bird fluttering in his chest, wings feathering against the cage of his ribs, beak pecking along his sternum.
He stands on the tasteful white platform beneath an archway, beautiful blends of flowers threaded through the lattice, all of which he knows his mother and daughter worked hard to put together. Along with a handful of tables draped in simple white cloth, the accompanying chairs, it's one of the few forms of decoration in the backyard of his Hamptons home.
Kate kept saying she didn't want anything extravagant and honestly, neither does he. Their last wedding was fun - albeit a bit stressful - to plan, but if its demise has taught him anything, it's that floral arrangements and placement settings aren't what matters. He doesn't care about the venue or the number of guests on the invite list; he has everyone he needs here.
He has his mother, sober for over eighteen months now, standing beside him in a gown that is simple in design, but vibrant in its array of colorful fabric billowing in the breeze. She looks radiant, healthy, her eyes bright like sapphires and her smile back in place. He has Alexis, his grown up little girl in a dress that is pink, pretty, but sophisticated, suitable for a woman of nearly thirty. The fiery waves of her hair are longer now, caressing her shoulders, her cheeks rosy and red from smiling, causing her to look so much younger despite her maturity.
He has his friends, Esposito and Ryan in their tuxes, Jenny and their two children, Sarah Grace and Nicholas, rounding out the guest list. They all sit in the short row of seats with Alexis's longtime boyfriend, Michael, whom he's finally deemed as acceptable, and the single empty chair placed at the edge of the aisle of grass for Johanna Beckett.
And most importantly, he has the promise of an eight year old flower girl in a sparkling white dress and curls in her hair following Lanie down the aisle, spreading petals across the path of lawn and smiling shyly when she catches her father's eye. He has the promise of Kate Beckett appearing at the other end of the aisle, holding to her father's arm and wearing that same bashful smile as Lily. The entire scene robs him of breath, causing the flutters in his chest to cease, making everything come to a standstill in the most wonderful way.
It's surreal. After eight years, to finally be living this moment, to have made it to the altar when their happily ever after felt cursed for so long. A piece of him feared that she may never want to risk marrying him because of it, and he wouldn't blame her, but on the night he presented her with the engagement ring, Kate didn't hesitate.
He held onto the band of white gold for a long while, the subtle diamonds, similar to the last one he'd given her. But this one is different, a word of promise engraved inside. Always. Because it's definitely proven to come through for them without fail.
He agonized over the right time, the right place, the right words, for months, but it was on an unplanned night in November, days before her birthday, that he lost the ability to wait any longer. Lying beside her in bed, her body draped in sheets and moonlight, he retrieved the tiny velvet box from deep within the confines of his nightstand.
"I was wondering when you were going to ask," she whispered, a grin on her lips while his parted in surprise. Her eyes were soft and starlit as she stared down at the ring between them and he almost wanted to apologize for making her wait. But then she leaned in to kiss him, her smile causing any ideas of an apology to fall apart within seconds. "It's always been yes, Castle."
Now she's walking towards him in a gorgeous white pant suit and the ridiculously high heels that match, looking at him like she's seeing him for the first time, like the sight of him standing there is all that matters. And today, it is, because he's here. He made it to the altar, to her. No longer is it a far off dream that kept him warm on a cold cell after hours of torture, it's real, and the gratitude he feels for that reflects bright and wondrous in her eyes.
It spreads through her features, lights up her face, and she's just - she's the most beautiful thing he's ever seen.
Lanie shoots Castle a wink as she steps to the side to take her seat beside Esposito. Lily mounts the platform of the gazebo alone, standing in front of Alexis with her empty basket, flower petals decorating the lawn in her wake.
And then Jim is guiding Kate through the last few steps it takes to reach their little family on the white dais.
She hugs her father, accepts the kiss he presses to her cheek, before he takes his place on the opposite side of the platform. And then Kate Beckett is finally standing in front of him, ready to marry him.
"Hi," she breathes, and he can already feel the smile stretching his lips, aching in his cheeks.
"Hi, you look breathtaking," he murmurs, watching the blush color her skin.
"Whenever you're ready," the officiant says. Castle almost forgot the poor man was there.
Kate leans past him to hand Alexis her bouquet, to withdraw the ring from the slim pocket at her waist.
When the band encircles his finger, he's encompassed in an overwhelming sense of right, of finally, and he almost draws her in for a kiss before she can get her vows out. He suppresses the urge, lets her speak, and then she's moving him to tears with her carefully written words, leaving him nearly forgetting his own.
But as usual, the words always flood him when he's talking about Kate and his vows to her are no different.
"I love you, Katherine Beckett," he says, pushing the wedding band on her finger to join the engagement ring. He's proud of his voice for remaining steady even as his heart soars and he's left breathless staring back at her. "I've always loved you, I always will, and the mystery of you is the one I want to spend the rest of my life exploring. I promise to be your friend and your partner in crime, life, and parenting." He watches her gaze fall to Lily at his side, her tremulous smile only managing to grow and the hand still encased in his squeezing lightly. "I would say until death do us part, but I don't think even that could keep me away from you."
"For the time of our lives then," she whispers, caressing the back of his hand with the sweep of her thumb, and all he can do is nod, can't produce another word past the lump in his throat.
"By the power vested in me by the state of New York," the officiant announces. "I now pronounce you husband and wife."
Kate's soft breath of laughter - the pure sound of joy on her lips as she cradles his face in her hands and surges into the draw of his palms at her waist, is melodious to his ears. It's made even better by Lily's cheering, the applause once he's finally able to kiss his wife.
The boys whistle from their seats and Kate grins into their kiss, rests her forehead against his even as they break apart. His mother joins in on Lily's clapping and their small audience rises to their feet while Kate nudges her nose to his cheek.
"Worth the wait?" she murmurs and he chuckles, dusts one more kiss to her mouth before he pulls back to see her. He doesn't think she's ever looked so happy.
Castle strokes a stray curl falling from the simple updo behind her ear, lingers to graze his knuckles along her jaw.
Once some of the excitement has died down, they have a moment to themselves on the dais, Kate's arm curled through his, her chin on his shoulder and her body pressed warm and flush against his side.
Lily is running through the grass with Nicholas and Sarah Grace, their shouts and giggles filling the air, Alexis is sharing a glass of champagne with Michael. Jim and Martha chat at one of the tables, while their immediate family of friends have created a small cluster near the buffet table set up near the house.
"Rick," she murmurs, her voice a hum in his ear, and Castle tilts his head towards her, their cheeks meeting in a chaste kiss.
"Yes, Mrs. Castle?"
Kate hums and dances her fingers along the inside of his elbow. "I've noticed something over the last couple of weeks, wanted to be sure before I mentioned anything."
"Yeah?" he inquires, his interest piqued even as he watches Lily's dress glitter in the dying sunlight.
"Castle, I'm late."
He turns his head, finds her watching him with her chin still on his shoulder and her bottom lip between her teeth.
"Late? You're - oh, that means… again?" he whispers.
She huffs, buries her face in his shoulder.
"I didn't plan it this way, I swear," she sighs.
But Castle is shifting to face her, his heart pitter-pattering at the implication.
"To be clear, you're-"
"Pregnant," she confirms. "At least, I'm pretty sure."
The wings of his heart beat hard, a bird set free in his chest, and he catches her hand. Her fingers curl through his, squeeze and remind him to breathe.
She bites her lip, sucks in a shallow breath of her own. "Is… are you okay with this? Is it something you'd want or-"
"What? Yes, of course. More than okay, definitely want," he rushes out, dropping her hand to cup her face in both of his. He seals a kiss to her mouth, feels the gentle hum of laughter against his lips.
She sighs when he lets her go, any doubts she may have harbored prior to telling him vanished.
"It'll be a lot, but I think we could handle another baby. Lily will definitely be excited to be a big sister."
Oh, his breath catches at that. Lily's going to be a big sister and they're going to have another child and… and he'll actually have the chance to be around for all of it this time. The pregnancy, the birth, toddlerhood. It doesn't suture the hollow spot that will always exist from missing so much of Lily's early life, all of her firsts, but it fills him with affirmation, determination to be there for his younger daughter tenfold, to show this baby, his wife, the same devotion.
Castle steps in to brush his knuckles along her stomach, the non-existent bump, and does his best to blink away the mist in his eyes, clear his throat.
"This makes my gift for you seem completely insignificant," he murmurs, easing his hand away from her abdomen to settle at the bone of her hip, but Kate merely tilts her head at him in question.
"Well, I was going to present you with the physical copy tonight," he sighs, watching her eyes flicker with knowledge before he can even finish his reveal. "I'm finally done with the book, wanted you to be the first to read it."
"Castle," she grins, swaying in to brush an eager kiss to his lips, resting her hands against his chest. "I didn't even realize you were already done writing it. I'm so proud of you."
"Don't say that until you've read it," he warns, but Kate shakes her head. She hooks her fingers at his lapels, fisting her them in the fabric and dragging him closer, eradicating his doubts with the distance.
"I'd be proud of you no matter what, but a book by you could never disappoint," she assures him and he's certain that his cheeks are going to be sore by the end of the night, aching from beaming back at her like a lovestruck idiot for the past few hours.
"For a beautiful sentiment as that, may I have this dance?" he inquires, holding out his hand in invitation even as she smiles back at him quizzically.
"There's no… music," she says, as if he's not aware.
He pulls out his phone with the hand not extended to her, taps the screen for the song already loaded onto the device, and slips it back into his suit pocket as it begins to play.
"Our song," she breathes, staring at the source of the sound for a heartbeat before returning her gaze to him. The smile blossoms across her lips and she steps into the cove of his body, curling her fingers around his palm. Her cheek falls to rest against his, her lashes brushing kisses to his jaw, and Castle laces an arm around her waist to draw her closer. "You remembered."
His lips quirk and he brushes his thumb over the wedding band on her finger, savors this perfect moment with his wife.
"I could never forget."
A/N: I owe so many thanks to so many people where this story is concerned. To Nadia for using her talent to create such beautiful cover art, to Alex and Evan for coming on yet another journey with me and offering endless amounts of support and excitement throughout the writing process of this story, and to Laura, who graciously read over each chapter at the last minute and taught me so much along the way.
And, of course, to all of you who took the time to read and leave me feedback in the form of reviews, messages, and tweets - my gratitude is infinite. Thank you for granting me the privilege to share my work and for showing me and my stories so much kindness. It means more than you know.