one year later

His pounding heart eases like a sigh of relief when he finds her. She's sitting on the beach mere inches from the water, wrapped in one of his button downs with the long strands of her hair whipping free from her braid with the ocean breeze. She came out here for solitude, he knows, but after over a year together, she should know he can only give her so much.

"There's no way I was this bad of a patient for you," Castle huffs, plopping down beside her in the sand. He's teasing her, trying to lighten the mood with the sarcasm she tends to embrace and throw right back at him.

She doesn't respond, though. He can't see her face, can't see directly into her eyes, but he can already envision the frustrated tears swimming through her gaze.

"Kate," he sighs, reaching tentatively for the hand at her side. She lets him have it, lets him have a glimpse of her worn features and pained expression. Pained, because of the physical trauma her body has endured, and because of the infliction of an entirely different kind of trauma. "I'm sorry, love."

"No," she rasps, swallowing hard before shifting closer to him. The cool line of her body shudders to a rest against his, her entire frame deflating bone by bone to settle into him. He feels his own rabbiting heart settle, eased by the reassuring weight of her, the welcome warmth of her presence. Sanctuary for them both. "I'm sorry, Rick. You've been so good to me and I've been... pretty horrible to put up with."

"I was kidding," he points out quickly, earning the soft shake of her head against his shoulder.

"I know, doesn't make it any less true," she murmurs, the gentle quirk of a smile easing the edge in her voice, easing every ragged piece inside of him. "Though, I wouldn't say you were the ideal patient either."

"Hey," he mutters, nudging his cheek against her temple. "I was the best patient you could have hoped for and you were my favorite nurse."

"I was your only nurse," she mutters, lighting up his insides with delight. He loves when she gets territorial, loves even more when she forgets for even a moment what's happened, why they're here.

"Yes, you were, sweetheart," he placates, chuckling at the dig of her nails into his palm. "I loved every second of it."

"Of course you did," she sighs, burying her face in his shoulder. He swears he can feel her grin through the fabric of his t-shirt.

"I did, because that's when I knew," he answers with relish.

"Knew what?" she mumbles, her response muffled but still intelligible.

Castle's lips spread. "That I was in love with you, that you were in love with me. The circumstances weren't the best, I'll admit that, but you already know I'd take a bullet again any day if it meant I ended up with you-"

"Don't say that," she hisses, lifting her head to glare at him with those tired eyes, still managing to ignite a fire in them.

"Sorry, sensitive subject, I know-"

"No, it's more than that," she presses. "This isn't a joke, Castle. This wasn't some random serial killer with a personal vendetta coming after us, it's not a run of the mill case gone wrong. It was a sniper at Montgomery's funeral," she reminds him through grit teeth, sobering his senses with the single sentence. "It was you trying to jump in front of me for the second damn time."

"Kate," he whispers, because she's crying now. Thick, slow tears trekking down her cheeks.

They've had this argument before, before the shooting at Montgomery's funeral last month, after the fact, and it's proven to be an argument that neither one of them will ever win. He's all too willing to die to keep her alive and she's absolutely unwilling to accept it, all while both of them know she would have done the exact same thing in both situations. She would have taken a bullet for him whether it was Scott Dunn or the man who murdered her mother pulling the trigger.

He lowers his forehead to rest against hers, feels the careful exhale of her breath fan out along his chin.

"I love you," he murmurs, brushing the fingers of his free hand to the line of her jaw, wiping away the trails of moisture he can catch. "I'm sorry."

She laughs, a soft, pitiful thing that breaks his heart, and slowly shakes her head. "No, Castle. Please don't ever be sorry for loving me."

His heart cinches, but Kate is drawing their twined hands up from the sand, dragging his knuckles to rest against the stitched up hole in the middle of her chest.

"Part of me will always regret the way it happened, how we got here," she confesses, the soft inhale of her breath nearly drowned out by the rush and fall of the ocean mere inches away from their feet. "But I don't regret the story it's given us. How it changed my life, gave me you."

"Aww, Beckett," he sighs, nuzzling her nose with his own. "Sounding more like the sappy romantic I've always known you to be."

She curses him under her breath, but he's already soothing the scowl along her lips with the tender sweep of his thumb to the corner of her mouth.

"There are parts I don't like very much either," he concedes, wiping away the last of the tear tracks on her skin. "I hate this part." He drops his gaze to the knot of their hands at her chest. "I hate seeing you hurt, from... from both the bullet and the case. I hated losing Montgomery, I hated our fight, I hated that day in the cemetery-"

The squeeze of her hand draws him back, back to the beach on his property in the Hamptons, away from her mother's case, from the shock of Roy Montgomery's involvement, from the ache of fighting with her because he became so afraid for her, for them. Back from the sheer agony of holding her body in the grass as her blood spilled hot and fast onto his hands.

She lived. After hours of surgery and over a week in the hospital, after days of consulting with Jordan Shaw from the FBI along with Ryan and Esposito, after ensuring that Jim Beckett was in possession of directions to his place in the Hamptons, they were able to escape to the haven of his home on the beach. It's only been a month, but she's already healing, regaining basic abilities that the hellish ordeal of being shot in the chest entails losing.

She's frustrated, she's hurt, but she's here, letting him take care of her like she took care of him a mere year ago.

"But as long as I get to keep you," he finishes, releasing a deep breath.

Kate's untethered hand rises to seal against his sternum, slim fingers draping over the slow throb of his heart.

While she remained stuck in the hospital, she would coerce him to climb into the hospital bed with her, gritting her teeth to make room for him and sighing relief against his neck once he would finally settle beside her.

"We match," she murmured once, placing her hand to the memorized spot of the scar on his chest. She was dazed with sleep and morphine, but the mournful smile still slid across her lips and shattered his heart with the devastating realization that she was right.

Kate lowers her head to rest her cheek to his shoulder, her body curling tentative and careful into the cove of his. She won't be able to remain like this, her gunshot wound's protest at the position inevitable, but while she does, he holds her close. While she does, it feels like home.

"Always," she murmurs, the single word and Kate Beckett at his side providing all the affirmation he needs. "Always, Castle."

A/N: I can't express how grateful I am to everyone who may have taken the time to read this story. It always has and always will be a true pleasure to write about these two characters and the greatest privilege to share my work with people who are gracious enough to read it. Thank you for your kindness, your faith, and your encouragement. It means everything.