Kate is slumped on a hard plastic chair, her head bowed over her knees. Her elbows are pressing into her thighs, hard enough to leave indentations. In this position, her hair has fallen forward, screening her face from view. When Alexis slips into the room and hears her sniff, the girl's first thought is to silently slip back out, to give Kate some privacy, maybe take a walk. But as she pauses with her hand on the doorknob, listening to the detective's uncharacteristic sounds of distress, something inside of her softens.
"Kate?" she whispers, summoning the courage to edge further into the hospital room and close the door behind her.
At the sound of her name, Kate startles. She raises her head and pulls her feet together, rubbing her hands up and down her thighs. Her eyes are red-rimmed, her cheeks damp, and there's no way to hide it. She also looks guilty. Alexis takes a couple of steps towards her. Quickly, Kate dries her face with the back of her thumb and the cuff of her shirt, laughing with a kind of weak embarrassment.
"Dad's going to be okay," Alexis says, softly. She glances out towards the hallway, gesturing down the corridor in the direction he was wheeled away. "They said the scan is just a precaution. He'll need a few stitches in his tongue…maybe some dental work…"
When Kate's face crumples from the fragile smile and she has to stifle a choked sound, Alexis sinks to her knees in front of her. She takes Kate's hands, helpless to know what else to do. Kate Beckett doesn't scare easily, so her reaction is more than a little unsettling. Alexis was trying hard not to freak out after seeing her dad covered in blood, his eye puffy, his tongue swollen. She's used to Kate being the grown-up, the stoic, so she feels at a loss.
Neither of them says anything for a moment or two. When Kate finally speaks, Alexis wonders if the voice is coming from inside her own head. But Kate's fingers twitch in her small, pale hands and she realizes that it is the detective's voice she's hearing.
Kate closes her eyes and frowns, knitting her brow tightly. When she opens them again, she says, "Now I know how it feels." She shakes her head in disbelief. "How your dad must have felt." She chews her lip then presses them together into a tight line as a tear rolls down her face. She bats it away and sniffs. "When he saw me, down…bleeding, and⏤" She chokes and hiccups. Alexis squeezes her fingers tighter before giving up and pulling her into a hug.
"He could have died," Kate hisses into Alexis' hair, her voice breaking. "He could have died today."
Castle's daughter pulls back to look at her. She shakes her head. Her face is paler than usual. "He's okay. It's not that bad," she insists as much to reassure herself as for Kate's benefit.
"But it could have been." Kate's voice rises as she relives the panic she felt the moment they realized that the attacker had escaped the brownstone into the alley, the white-hot horror of that moment and what it might mean. "That perp had a gun and⏤"
Alexis' eyes grow so wide they look like turquoise fishing holes cut into a frozen lake. She recoils. "He had a gun? No one told me that."
Kate looks even guiltier now. She's telling the girl things her own father probably wouldn't want her to know. But she's in shock and Alexis is the only one here, and so she finds herself offloading, unfairly, onto the teen.
"I'm so sorry, Alexis, for putting your dad in harm's way. That's…it's on me. I told him to go into that alley because I thought it was the safest place for him." She rakes a hand through her hair and carries on as if talking to herself. "But what was I thinking? If the guy ran that Rick would just tackle him for us? Hold him down until some armed cops could come? So stupid," she spits.
Alexis listens as Kate berates herself. She agrees with everything the older woman is saying. This is precisely how she reacted after Kate's shooting, after seeing her father throw himself in front of her, thanking God that her hero of a dad was still just a writer and not actually faster than a speeding bullet. It made her angry; it made her afraid; it made her lash out. But she knows that the root of that anger was fear, and she understands enough about love to know that her father would do the same thing again and again.
For both of them.
Her dad grew up without a father, without a male role model, he still knows nothing of the man whose genes make up half of him. And while Martha could be wonderful, amusing, and fun, she wasn't able to give her son much of a settled home life growing up. Kate, by contrast, had the most stable, loving upbringing a child could wish for. When she lost her mother, she retreated from the world, avoiding forming emotional bonds with anyone, fearing they might be torn away. Alexis' dad overcame his shaky start. He embraced life and the people around him with more joy, optimism, and generosity than most people ever hope to manage. Alexis has watched Kate trying to be more like her dad: more open, hopeful, loving, and happy. And she's seen her father blossom in the light of Kate's love. She doesn't want to do anything that might jeopardize that for either of them. So she decides to help nurture it instead.
Alexis takes Kate's hands again, gripping them firmly and giving them a little shake to get her attention, to pull her out of her own head. "Kate, please look at me. You got a fright today. We all did. But it's okay. Dad's going to be okay. They might even fix his crooked smile."
Kate nods and swallows noisily. She even manages to raise a smile of her own. "I love his crooked smile," she says. "I don't want them to fix it."
"Me, too," Alexis says, hugging her. "But he's tougher than you think…way tougher. In fact, he's the strongest man I know. Don't make the same mistake he made after you were shot. Don't blame yourself and turn away. Focus on him. Help him heal. You guys were doing great. So great. He's happier than he's been my entire life…because he's with you."
Kate listens, surprised and touched, as Alexis imparts such grown-up advice.
"What is it they say? Nobody's tomorrow is promised?" Alexis squeezes her fingers. "Don't waste any more tomorrows, Kate. You have my blessing…not that you needed it." She laughs and her cheeks flame. "I just mean…make my dad happy. Make each other happy. Do whatever it takes to make that happen. You've both waited long enough."
Kate is dozing in a large vinyl armchair next to the empty bed when Castle is delivered back to the room in a wheelchair this time. She wakes suddenly with her heart hammering when the orderly crashes one wheel into the door with a boom not unlike a gunshot.
Castle's poor face is bruised and battered, distorted by the swelling. His eye is purple and swollen almost shut. But he smiles the second he sees Kate, his expression still one of joy no matter the wince of pain that follows immediately after. She thinks she's never seen him look at her with such love.
Kate holds his hand while a young doctor numbs Castle's tongue in preparation for repairing the laceration with dissolvable stitches. His mouth will take up to three weeks to heal, the doctor tells them. While the man's back is turned, Castle manages to crack a dirty joke about cunnilingus through an act of mime alone. Kate finds herself laughing despite her guilt over the day's trauma, and as she strokes her partner's fingers and he grips her hand tightly to distract from the injection, her decision solidifies.
The CT scan is clear; there's no sign of a concussion. Castle is discharged an hour later with a bag of painkillers, a course of antibiotics, and a sheet of instructions to help with healing.
When they get out of the cab on Broome Street, it is the best feeling. They've only been gone since this morning, but unlocking the front door and walking inside together hand in hand is like returning from a long trip away. Kate can't believe how quickly the loft has come to signify home to her, to feel like home. She thinks it might have a lot to do with the man she's currently helping into bed.
Castle can't speak properly and so she props him up on a stack of pillows to help him breathe and swallow.
"I ordered chicken noodle soup from Sal's. How about I bring us a couple of trays in here? We can let our soup cool then slurp it together."
He nods, adding an indistinct mooing sound that approximates a yes.
Kate pauses by the bedroom door, her hand on the doorframe. "And Castle, I also think we should talk."
When she returns with Castle's tray, balancing the cooling soup, a cup of ice chips, and a quart of ice cream with two spoons, he sitting up in bed where she left him, but he's scribbling furiously on a notepad. He looks pale, beat up, and exhausted, and Kate's heart twinges with pain at the sight of him.
Gently, she places the tray onto the solid mattress by his side. Before she can do anything else he hands her the notepad. She reads his untidy scrawl in silence.
I promise I'll do better. Please don't bench me. I'll even stay in the car next time.
Kate finishes reading and puts the notepad down on the nightstand then she crawls onto the bed to sit down beside him.
"Rick," she says quietly, taking his hand.
Castle is staring down at the bowl of soup. He looks as if he is pouting, though this might simply be a feature of his swollen mouth. Kate moves closer until she can stroke his bruised face with the back of her hand.
He turns to look at her with such terrible sadness in his eyes.
"Why so sad? Do you need more pain meds?" she asks.
He shakes his head and mumbles something like "peese jus say it." Then he dabs at his mouth with a tissue.
Kate watches him for a long moment, taking time to study his face: every line, every hollow. She knows him so well and yet she forces herself to look at him with fresh eyes; taking in the glacial changes that have crept up on them over the last four years while she was looking but not really seeing.
She lowers her eyes and when she raises them again, they're glistening. Her throat is tight when she swallows and she has to clear it so that she can speak.
"I owe you an apology, Rick."
She watches him frown immediately and begin to open his mouth to refute her claim. She stops him with a gentle shake of her head.
"Please. Just listen, okay?" He nods. She squeezes his fingers in gratitude. "When you came to see me at the hospital after I was shot…"
Castle's face stiffens when he hears her opening salvo. She strokes the back of his hand and carries on.
"I...I was in no position to think about what you had been through that day…what you were still going through. Forget the whole mess with Josh… My relationship with him never touched us. Never. It was always going to be about us once we figured out how to get past the...complication of being partners first."
She lets this fact sink in before she picks up again.
"When you visited me that day, I was too damaged, too fragile to even begin to imagine how you must have been feeling. It hurt to breathe, Rick, I couldn't go to the bathroom by myself. I didn't know if I'd ever get my life back. So…I wasn't able to think about your side, about what you must have gone through when everything happened...and after. I know it sounds selfish, but I didn't have it in me."
Kate frowns to herself as these memories subside and she rubs her forehead with the heel of her hand. When she raises her head and looks him right in the eye, hers are shining with tears while his eyes are soft with sympathy.
"But I know now," she says, her voice vibrating with emotion, her chin trembling.
She clears her throat a second time but her voice is still thin as a whisper when she carries on. "I understand now...a little of what you went through in that cemetery. When I saw you in the alley today, blood running down your face…" She bites her lip, trying to hold the worst of it in. "Rick, I'm so sorry," she whispers hoarsely. "I'm so sorry that I shut you out, that I left you to deal with everything by yourself. I loved you, too. I loved you, and I should never have run away. Not without you."
She shakes her head and stares at her lap in shame. Rabid hunger and the smell of cooling soup are making her feel queasy. "Some partner I turned out to be," she says bitterly.
She feels Castle touch her arm. When she looks up, he is watching her. His expression is so serious, so fearful that she realizes he doesn't understand what any of this means for them now. Coping with her mother's death, being the best she could be on the job…she thought those things required isolation and strict self-reliance. But living, and it's living a life she's interested in now, that takes openness, love, courage, and collaboration. She takes his hand.
"What I'm trying to say is…actually, Alexis said it best." This gets Castle's attention. "Nobody's tomorrow is promised. That's what she told me at the hospital, and she's right. She's so right." She wets her lips. "I want us to grab our tomorrow today, Rick." When Castle's eyebrows furrow in confusion, Kate releases a watery laugh that sounds wonderfully crazed. "I want us to get married. As soon as possible, Castle. Forget a long engagement, or…or the perfect venue, a massive guest list. Let's just do it, please? Forget about everything else. I just want to be your wife."
A/N: Slow Burn was definitely the right title for this one, emphasis on the slow. I'd be delighted if you'd leave a review. Thank you, Liv