Seven Years

A journey to 'Seven Years Later.'

Year Zero (2016): Survival

Everyone keeps telling her the only goal is survival.

Two days ago, she had been consumed with thoughts of winning, of defeating a man whose hand had been in nearly everything she'd worried about for the last year – longer, if she's truly honest with herself – and going back to living her insane little life with her husband. Now, she's just tasked with making it through the next few days without issue.

Apparently, getting shot twice in the gut is a perilous event.

Even more perilous is getting shot twice in the gut while pregnant.

She hadn't known – thankfully, Rick believes her that she hadn't known – but that hasn't stopped the doctors and nurses from scolding her about the choices she'd made over the last few days, weeks. Hell, the last few months, even before she'd conceived.

She can't help but think they're right; if she had paid more attention, if she hadn't been so focused on catching and shutting down LokSat, if she hadn't trusted Caleb Brown, if she hadn't blown holes through her marriage that are going to take months, if not longer, to repair…

Maybe finding out that she's going to have a baby wouldn't be tinged with despair, maybe it wouldn't also come at such risk. Maybe she wouldn't be laid up in bed, fighting off infection, fighting her own guilt.

Shouldering the blame for it all.

Rick doesn't seem to agree, though. He just sits perched in his wheelchair beside her bed, one hand tucked against his chest to shield his own wounds from harm while he grips her hand with the other. He hasn't been discharged yet, and he doesn't have the bed beside hers yet, but that hasn't stopped him from convincing his nurses (who seem to like him a lot better than they like her) to bring him to her side where he remains until he's forced back to his own bed.

"You're hurting," she murmurs when he winces for the fifth or sixth time. "When was the last time you had meds?"

"I'm okay," he promises, lifting her fingers to his lips. "Due for more in a little while, but I'm okay for now."

He isn't, but if he's on schedule then there's likely not much she can do, short of doing some badgering of her own.

"What about you?" Rick asks, sliding his hand over her wrist and along her forearm. "Can I get you anything? Water? More meds?"

"A time machine?" she quips.

"Those are a little hard to come by," he says as if it's obvious. "But I can see about finding the remote to help you sit up more if you want."

Kate sighs, giving him a little nod. Her first attempts to move around in her bed resulted in tears and chastising, so anything would be better than hearing about doing too much too soon again.

She just wants to go home, really. But she can't, not yet.

But she will. Because her goal is survival.

For all three of them.

Year One (2017): The Lights of Life

He's been quiet all day.

Even if she weren't aware of the date, that fact alone would clue her in that something is amiss. Her husband is nothing if not a chatterbox. Not today, though.

He'd spent the morning watching her with shining eyes and quiet contemplation. He'd spent nearly an hour cuddling Lily and dropping kisses all over the baby's face when their little girl started to giggle.

And now he's cradling Kate's hand as they stroll down cobblestone streets like a man who thinks this is his last chance to hold her.

"What's going on, Rick?" she asks finally, using her free hand to brush Lily's hair away from her forehead. The baby sleeps in her carrier, snug against Castle's chest.

She had offered to wear the sling today, but Castle had insisted.

"Nothing," he says, entirely too quickly to be the truth. "Nothing."

She waits, cocking her head. Sure enough, he exhales a moment or two later, dipping his head. She watches him kiss Lily's hair.

"I just… woke up remembering."

Her hand tightens around his. She had, too. She'd woken with her heart in her throat and the phantom pain of two bullets in her belly.

"It's been a year."

A slow breath slips from her lips. "I know. It's hard… I know."

He draws her closer, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

"But this has been good for us, don't you think?" she asks, glancing up at him. Her lips connect with his chin, curving upward at the scrape of his stubble. "Getting away from New York, exploring somewhere new like we'd talked about. Having Lily along for the ride."

He nods. "Of course it has. That's never been in doubt, Beckett."

Like her, he hadn't been able to stomach going back home to the loft for very long after they were released from the hospital. They had retreated to the Hamptons for a while, using the time spent convalescing to plan their getaway to Europe. They left the country as soon as they both were cleared to travel and have been making their way from place to place ever since, save for quick return trips to her doctor and to check in on Alexis, Martha, and Kate's father.

They had intended to fly home to deliver Lily, but their girl had had other plans, and instead, Castle got Kate's doctor on a plane and together with the team at the local hospital in Germany, she had talked both of them through the worries of childbirth.

It's indulgent and entirely too much, and the old version of Kate Beckett would never have agreed to any of it. But the woman she's become since waking up in a hospital bed knows enough to not take any opportunity for granted. And if that means galivanting around Europe with her husband and her baby, then that's exactly what she's going to do.

Of course, she can understand why they're both preoccupied today. She's been distracted by both her thoughts and phantom pains since she woke up; she imagines he's feeling much the same.

"Come on," she says, curling her hand in his elbow and giving him a gentle tug toward a café they've frequented ever since they decided to spend a little longer in this town. "Buy me a coffee, Mr. Castle."

Her husband smiles, pressing his lips to Lily's head once more. "Of course, Mrs. Castle."

Once they've settled in their chairs in the shade, she takes a moment to savor the coffee, lifting the steaming mug to her lips and closing her eyes.

"Do you think we should talk to someone?" he asks. Kate's eyes pop open to find him watching her, a small smile on his lips at her obvious delight in her beverage.

She considers the question, debating how to respond. They should've talked to someone a year ago, instead of – well, maybe in addition to – jetting away from New York. But they hadn't been ready to talk, then; they had been reeling, they had been focused on just getting through each day and not losing everything in the process.

"Yeah," she agrees finally, "we should. Whether we do it here or when we get home, we should."

Castle nods, lifting his own coffee to his lips. He's careful not to get it too close to the baby, lest the girl choose this moment to squirm in his arms.

"But," Kate murmurs, holding out her hand, palm up, "maybe we can get a leg up on it by talking to each other about it? The shooting. Our shooting," she amends, putting it out there. Rarely do they say the 's-word' aloud, but maybe it's time they start.

He nods again. His hand covers hers, fingers curling around the meat of her palm. "Okay, yeah, yes. Let's talk about it, Kate."

Her throat tightens a little bit, but she breathes through it, swallowing hard. "So, a year ago today, we were shot in our home."

Year Two (2018): Coming Home

Castle grunts as he sets the last of the boxes down in the middle of the living room. He tries to be subtle in rubbing at his chest just underneath his collarbone, but she catches it anyway and lifts an eyebrow.

"Movers, Rick. We should've hired movers."

He waves her off, rolling his shoulder once before pointing to the boxes he'd just brought in. "This is the last of it, I think. We had movers bring in all the big stuff already; I can – and did – handle the smaller stuff."

Giving the room a quick once-over, she lets her gaze land on the pack and play in the corner by the bookshelves. Thankfully, Lily has slept through most of the noise, the bumping around and occasional cursing. Their plan to keep her up as long as possible on the plane seems to have worked. Or maybe she's just still on Austrian time.

"And you may have managed to handle your way into an achy arm," she chides.

Kate closes the distance between them, lifting a hand to rub firmly at his chest, hoping to provide a little bit of relief to his sore muscle. Castle rumbles a low noise, halfway between a groan and a hum of contentment, and she dips her head to press a kiss to his collarbone as well.

"I think I'll make it; I've got a good physical and massage therapist," he quips, lifting his hands to frame her hips and keep her close.

"Don't be dirty," she mutters, swatting at him once before leaning into his chest and releasing a sigh. "How does it feel?"

"My arm?" Rick asks. He lifts his shoulder a couple of times and nods. "It's good. I'll rest it later, assuming the sprout doesn't want to try to use me as a home gym."

"Even more reason to rest it. But no, I mean… being back for good two years later. How does it feel?"

Rick exhales. His hands slide from her hips to lock around her back, pressing her to his chest with a firmness that surprises her.

"It's… interesting," he admits. "Logically I know it's home and it's safe, and that it's been cleaned and everything we wanted to replace has been repaired and replaced…"

Nodding, Kate glances around his arm toward the kitchen, the place where he'd been shot in the process of making their breakfast. It's been almost completely redone in their absence, new appliances, new floors, new cabinets, and countertops. The only thing that remains the same is the layout, but even that feels different now. Somewhat.

"But when I put the first box down in there, I had to really tell myself that it would be okay."

"Yeah," she agrees, resting her forehead against his chin. "I know what you mean. I spent a few minutes in our bedroom putting things away, but for the most part I've been standing here staring at Lily, avoiding the kitchen like it's the plague."

Castle's expected quip about how she does that most of the time anyway doesn't come, but she does feel his cheek twitch with the effort to contain it.

"Shut up. I cook."

"You do," he agrees in his most placid voice, though his amusement more than shines through. "And it's always delicious."

"Yeah, so watch it, pal."

He chuckles, tightening his arms around her. "Watching it."

They stand together in silence for a moment, listening to the muted sounds of the traffic, the rush of cars and honking of horns that feels so uniquely New York, on the street below, listening to the hum of the fridge in the kitchen, and the gentle puffs of Lily's breath from her playpen. Old and new comforts blend together.

The investigation into their shooting had turned the house inside out, but Alexis, Martha, and Lanie had done their best to put it all back together even though they had barely set foot in the loft since that day. In some ways, it's the same as it was, but in others it feels like a better version.

Just like the two of them.

"What do you want to do first?" Rick asks a few minutes later. "I think we're on our own until later – maybe even tomorrow – so…"

"Lily's room," she decides. "Let's finish getting her room set up and ready for her-"

"Even though she'll probably sleep in ours," he drawls.

Kate huffs a laugh. Oh, Lily will absolutely sleep in their room for the first day or two, she knows, and that'll be fine; all the places they've lived and stayed in over the last year and a half have been far smaller than the loft and the idea of the girl being a whole floor away is hard for her to fathom right now.

"Uh huh. But it'll be good to do it." She exhales. "Instead of standing here thinking about what it was before, let's make something entirely new."

Castle's lips touch her forehead, sliding over her temple and down her cheek before his mouth touches hers. She hums in contentment, leaning into his kiss, tasting the chocolate bar they'd shared after getting off the plane and the promises that he's making to her; everything will be fine; they'll make it through this strangeness; they'll be okay.

"Welcome home, Beckett," he murmurs against her mouth, smiling when she echoes the sentiment right back to him.

Year Three (2019): Good News

Her phone is ringing from her back pocket, but between the toddler on her hip and the bags of groceries dangling from her arm, there's no retrieving it yet. Not that she needs to answer to know who it is; Rick's been antsy since last night, moving through the loft like a madman on a mission to make the place spotless.

Suffice to say, she'd been happy to take their daughter out for a little while, even if it meant doing the shopping.

"There you are!" Rick exhales when she shoulders her way through their front door. His phone is still at his ear, but he ends the call and tosses it to the counter.

"Here I am," she drawls, hefting her daughter and smacking a kiss on the girl's cheek at her cheery giggles. "I couldn't get to my phone for obvious reasons," she adds.

The groceries clatter on the counter, a couple of cans rolling out of the open side. Rick's hand shoots out to catch it before it can make it to the edge and go clattering to the floor.

"But I did get everything on the list. Plus a couple of extra things."

Her husband grins, leaning over to kiss Lily's head, then Kate's lips. "Extra things like…"

She nods, resting her forehead against his. They'd needed these last few things for dinner, of course, but her goal had been a little bit different. She hadn't been sure she wanted to pick anything up just yet, but Rick had reminded her that they were having guests over and maybe it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to know and potentially share.

"I'll take care of this stuff," Castle says quickly. "And this lovely lady," he adds, reaching for Lily too.

Kate hands the girl over with a laugh. "Show Daddy what else we bought, baby," she says, keeping her voice light. "Mommy will be back in a few minutes."

She pulls the pregnancy tests out of the bag as Lily chatters happily to her father, her words half-intelligible. Rick nods along anyway, getting the gist or at least pretending to. At almost two and a half, Lily's vocabulary is growing every day, but they're still working on her pronunciation.

Kate takes a moment to watch them from the doorway. Castle grins, looking undeniably content; he really is a great dad. Not because he's a big kid himself (though it does help), but because he's so patient, so kind, and so unbelievably loving to their little girl.

She hopes beyond reason that this time, the test will come up positive.

Fifteen minutes later, her hands shake as she turns off the phone alarm and reaches for the test on the bathroom counter. She knows Castle is out there with Lily waiting with as much patience as he can muster, but she hesitates for a moment anyway.

It's not the first time she's thought she was pregnant in the last year. There had been a false alarm soon after they moved back for good, brought on by the stress of bringing the three of them home to New York and dealing with the nerves of returning to the place where their lives had been turned upside down.

Then, in mid-August, she had been pregnant, but to their heartache and dismay, she had miscarried a few weeks after they'd found out.

Now, after putting the idea of it out of their minds and focusing on writing and work, and the way Lily has thrived and grown, here she is again. She had ignored the signs at first, afraid that putting it out there would jinx it, but there's no denying what she wants. It's a good time; Lily's old enough to understand the concept of being a big sister, Rick has settled into his next contract with ease, and she's in a good place at work – rarely out in the field and happy to stay chained to her desk if she needs to in order to keep anything from going wrong this time (not that it had been her fault the last time, her doctor had insisted, but she still feels a sense of responsibility; to her, it had been her sheer force of will which kept Lily with them after she was shot, surely she could've done the same last year).

"Just check it," she mutters to the empty room, opening her eyes and dropping her head to stare down at the test.



Tears prick her eyes and emotion clogs her throat. Three years ago to the day, she'd been shot in her home, and she found out after a marathon surgery that she was going to have her daughter. Now, she gets to be the one to tell her husband. She gets to be the one to share the good news and wrap him in her arms without any onlookers, any IV lines, or any aching wounds for either of them.

Only joy.

"Hey, Babe?" she calls after a moment, clearing her throat and forcing herself to breathe normally. "Wanna come here a sec? You can bring Lily if you need to."

He appears in the doorway in seconds, looking a little wild-eyed, but oh, so very hopeful. Lily giggles behind him, squishing between his legs and the doorframe to crash into Kate with a squeal of her name.

Kate brushes her hand over Lily's hair, holding out the test to her husband without a word.

He barely looks at it before he places it on the bathroom counter and cups her cheeks in his hands, bringing her close enough that she feels his breath whisper against her mouth as he murmurs,

"I knew it."

Year Four (2020): Guilt

"You're up early."

Castle's lips brush the top of her head, his hand slipping around to the back of her neck to give it a gentle squeeze. He doesn't apologize for sneaking up on her – he hadn't, after all – and he doesn't ask why she's awake when the sun is barely a blip on the horizon and everyone else in their house is still snug in their beds.

Truthfully, she doesn't know why she hadn't gone back to bed after nursing the boys and rocking them back to sleep. She's exhausted, but her mind wouldn't quiet, and she hadn't been willing to wake her husband. Not when he spends so much time during the day being a preschool teacher and a cheerleader, keeping everyone upbeat even when the world feels like it's falling apart outside their doors.

She sighs, dropping her head back and lifting her eyes to his. "Yeah. I… couldn't go back to sleep after I put Reece and Jake back in their cribs. I just… kept thinking."

Rick's hand leaves her neck, moving to brush her hair away from her eyes. She half expects him to try to coax her back to their room and away from the window, but he just thumbs her cheek and murmurs, "Make you some coffee?"

"Babe, you should go back to bed."

He shakes his head. He'll no doubt hide a yawn in his arm as soon as he turns to head into the kitchen, but he's putting on a good front for her sake. "You're up, 'm up. I'm just sorry you got up with the boys on your own."

A faint smile lifts her lips. She doesn't have many mom friends – Jenny Ryan and maybe one or two of Lily's preschool classmates' moms being the exception – but she's more than aware that Rick Castle is a step above the rest, almost too damn good to be true. He's done his best to be with her every step of the way since the day their sons arrived nearly a month early, taking on diaper changes and walking the floor with the twins as they cry, bringing them to her when they need to nurse. All the while making sure Lily doesn't feel left out, forgotten, or unloved.

All the while making sure they're all staying safe, healthy, and happy, even as everything else outside their sanctuary is uncertain and steeped in fear.

"Hey, Rick?" she calls, drawing her knees closer to her chest. He stops, turning to face her again. "I love you."

His face melts from tired curiosity into a blissful smile. "I love you, too. Now, I'm going to make our coffee, so be prepared to scootch over on that bench."

He returns a few minutes later with steaming mugs of what he says is the primo decaf he'd bought while she was pregnant. She sips at it idly, appreciating the warmth more than the taste, and leans against him when he settles in beside her.

"What's on your mind, Kate?" he asks. They've been sitting in silence long enough for the sky to begin to brighten, turning gray before it begins to pinken. She chances a glance down at the street, hoping she won't see more ambulances, hoping she won't hear the telltale sign of more heartache and death.

"Am I letting my team down?" she murmurs, slipping her arm through his and leaning on his shoulder. "I… we left for so long after we were shot, and then a couple years later, I'm on maternity leave, and now there's… this pandemic. And I mean, Ryan has kids, too, but he's still at the precinct. Javi's still at the precinct, even though he's scared as hell for his mother and his aunts. Lanie's doing autopsies still. They're all – they're all at so much risk, and here I am, sitting at home with you and your mom and our kids, having tea parties and going up to the roof to bang pots and pans at twilight and blow bubbles when we can't stand to be inside anymore."

His lips touch her hair.

"You feel guilty," he summarizes, and if it weren't for the fact that it's just barely dawn, she would make fun of him for stating the obvious.

"Shouldn't I?"

He exhales. He untangles their arms before sliding his hand around her shoulders and pulling her into his chest.

"I can't tell you how to feel, Kate. I understand wanting to be there with Esposito and Ryan and everyone at the Twelfth, but I… we need you here more. Lily needs you here, Jake and Reece need you here. God knows I would lose my mind if you were out there, exposed to who knows what, having to sleep in your office or create some kind of clean zone just to come in the door."

She sniffs. "It doesn't feel fair that I get to be here when the others aren't able to do the same."

It's not rational, she knows. She'd still been on maternity leave when the shelter-in-place orders came down, and the department had issued a directive for everyone nonessential or on medical leave to stay put, too. Nobody will blame her for not being at the precinct each day. Nobody but herself.

Rick kisses her hair. "I know, honey. I know. I wish I had a definitive answer for you, other than to say it isn't fair, but…right now, this is how it is. And I... I can't say I'm unhappy to know you're home with us instead of any alternative."

Swiping at her eyes, she nods. "I know."

"And not just because you're keeping me from going insane with Mother back in the house."

Kate huffs a wet chuckle. Now he's doing the part where he makes her laugh so she'll forget her troubles. Because as much as he pretends to be put out that the population of their home increased by two when New York told everyone to stay at home, they both know he would be a basket case if Alexis and Martha were anywhere else.

He squeezes her. "Kate, do you know what today is?"


This time, he's the one who laughs. "Yeah, but also… four years."

Her eyes slide shut. Damn, it has been that long. "Four years, jeez."

He nods. "Four years ago, we made it. And we'll make it through all of this, too. You'll go back to the precinct and my mother will go back to her place and her shows, and Alexis will continue to live here because she can work from home, and it'll be great."

Kate grins. "Until she brings home another boyfriend, wants to marry him, and they both try to move in for good."

"Bite your tongue."

She grins, letting the lightness of the conversation wash over her. He's good at distracting her. Soon enough, though, she sinks into his embrace and blows a soft breath from between her lips.

"They're going to be okay, right?"

Her husband nods. "Just like we were. Just like we will, they'll make it through this."

Year Five (2021): Getting Things Right

Lily sticks close to their sides as they move down the sidewalk toward the park.

Kate doesn't blame her, there are a lot of people around – more than she's interacted with in months – and everyone seems to be on a mission. Combine their purposeful strides with the emotionless masks they all wear, and it's understandable that a four-year-old would be intimidated. Hell, she's a little intimidated, too, and she's been a cop for most of her adult life.

"It's okay, Little Flower," Kate says, leaning over so she can be sure the girl can hear her through the noise of the street and her own mask. "I know everybody looks a little scary, but they're just trying to make sure we all stay safe."

Lily nods, her eyes wide and bright. Her mask slides down her face a little bit, but Kate refrains from fixing it for her. It's still covering all the parts that need to be covered, so she won't mess with it for now.

Her heart aches at how infrequent their outings have been over the last year. She had gone back to work toward the end of the summer, and though Lily's preschool had opened for in-person learning in the fall as well, they had kept her home until just a few months ago, after the boys' first birthday and both Kate and Rick's, by virtue of his consultant status with the NYPD (though they'd both wondered if it was an abuse of the system for him to get his shot at the same time she got hers, Gates herself had insisted) first vaccine doses. Suffice it to say, they've been ready to just get out and go places for a while, but they're still taking it easy.

"Do you want me to carry you?" she asks. Ever the independent one, Lily shakes her head. She'll probably accept the ride on the way home, but right now she's going to get to the park on her own power.

"Okay," Kate agrees. She makes sure to smile hard enough for her eyes to crinkle, so Lily knows she's doing it.

"Mommy?" Lily asks as they continue down the sidewalk.


"Are my brother's going to pway too?"

Kate laughs, looking at the stroller her husband's been pushing lazily. Reece and Jake have been asleep since before they left the loft, and she's honestly impressed with how they've managed to stay asleep with all the noise and bumps along the way.

"Once they wake up, I bet they will."

Lily nods, accepting that. No doubt she'll ask again once they're settled in the park, and again a couple of times as she stretches her legs on the playground. The boys have gotten more mobile in the last month or so, but they're not quite up to the challenge of keeping up with Lily Castle when she's in top form. Not yet anyway.

They turn Lily loose once they're in the park, watching her scramble over to the playground equipment with a whoop of joy.

Kate laughs, shedding her mask since they're far enough away from anyone else and sinking onto the blanket beside her husband and reaching out to rub Jake's belly. He sleeps on, blissful despite the noisy squeals of childish delight coming from just a few yards away.

"This was a good idea," Castle murmurs, adjusting his hold on Reece. The boy had started to fuss when he took him out of the stroller, so they're cuddling to see if Reece is going to wake up or drift off again. "Bringing them out here. Getting some air. Letting Lily play with kids close to her own age a little more."

She nods, leaning her cheek on his shoulder. She's careful not to take her eyes off Lily, watching her little girl dart all around the playground, weaving through a small group of other children.

"Sowwy!" Lily calls over her shoulder when she, apparently, decides that she got a little too close to them. The children don't seem bothered; Kate watches as they giggle and follow Lily toward the slide, some sort of game coming out of the encounter.

Kate smiles. Her sweet girl. She had been okay at home with just them, her Gram, her big sister, and her brothers, but it's good to see her coming back out of her shell with kids closer in age, kids who are more her peers than her nearly twenty-seven-year-old sister and her barely-toddler brothers.

"Uh huh," she answers finally, coming back to the conversation he'd started. "I told you it would be."

Castle chuckles, nodding. "You were right."

"Oh, my three favorite words," she crows, resting her cheek on his shoulder quickly before lifting her head and pressing her lips to his. "You would think they would be 'I love you'-"

"Aww, Beckett, I love you, too," he quips, grinning when she rolls her eyes.

"-But no. I just don't hear these three that often, which is insane, because I should hear them every day."

Rick snorts. "Yeah, yeah. And you also don't gloat at all when you do get things right."

"Oh no, never."

They stare at one another, smirking, before they dissolve into full-belly laughter. Oh, this feels good, this lightness, this joy. It helps wash away the heartache of the last year and the stain of the memory that this day holds.

She exhales after their giggles die away, looping her arm through his and holding on.

"Five years, Rick."

His head dips, his mouth brushing her hair. "Five years," he whispers. "I love you."

She swallows, thumbs his bicep. "I love you, too."

Year Six (2022): Acknowledge It

Maybe it's melodramatic, but as soon as they're settled in their seats, she lets out a low groan.

"I feel bad, Rick."

Her husband, who's been ready for this trip from the moment they booked their hotel and arranged to have their small army of friends and family watch the kids, looks over at her, confused.

"What? Why?"

"We're just leaving? Just like that?"

He looks over at her from the driver's seat, brow furrowing. "Yes?"

"We just packed up and left the kids with your mom and my dad, and Alexis when she gets off work and doesn't have plans with Tai. Are we awful?"

Again, her husband looks at her as if she's lost her mind. "Kate, we talked about this. It's our… well, one of our anniversaries."

Her chin drops in acknowledgement. Their shooting doesn't control their lives the way it did in the beginning, but they make a point to acknowledge it each year, celebrating the chances their survival granted them. Going away for a few days is this year's way of commemorating the day.

"Besides, we haven't had a vacation, just the two of us, since Lily was two. Hell, it feels like we've barely been anywhere since we got back from Europe – four years ago. We just spent two years nonstop with Lily, Reece, and Jake – not to mention my mother and Alexis, who I love, of course, for most of that, too. We deserve five whole days away. No kids, no parents. No work."

His hand catches hers, fingers slotting into the space between her knuckles, grounding her in a way she hadn't realized she needed. "We're not leaving them to fend for themselves. They're safe and happy, and they'll get to do all the things we won't let them do when we're home. It's a win for them, a win for us, and a win for the grandparents who've wanted more time with them lately."

The logic in his words washes over her. He's right; everything he's said is spot-on. Once they returned from their time away, they've only spent a handful of days anywhere but home, and in the last two years especially, they've stuck close to the loft. It's time for them to take some time for themselves, the two of them, without their kids and without the responsibilities of their jobs.

She exhales, giving his hand a squeeze. "I know. I know. It's just hard to leave them. Especially while they're at school. Knowing someone else will pick them up and hear about their days… what if they're sad we're not there?"

"Then Gram or Grandpa will call us and put them on the phone and let them tell us everything over again," Castle says. His voice is soothing but thankfully not patronizing. "I know it's hard, Kate. But it's nice getting to sit in this car with you and not have a Disney soundtrack on."

Kate laughs. "Rick, you say that like I didn't catch you belting out the greatest hits last week – without any kids involved."

He side-eyes her. "Maybe so. But you know what I mean."

Relaxing back into the seat, she pulls his hand closer to her chest. They're not moving very fast right now; he'll be fine without having both hands on the steering wheel. "I do."

"Trust me. This will be fun."

A wry smile touches her lips. "Why do I feel like every time you say that we end up involved in a murder investigation?"

Rick laughs, the timbre of his chuckle spreading warmth through her belly. "That was one time – twice, maybe."

"The minimum and maximum number of times we end up involved in murder investigations that aren't for work should be the same, Rick," she drawls. "And that number should be zero."

He laughs again, waiting until the car in front of them has stopped to lean over and steal a kiss from her mouth.

"You loved it, Beckett. Don't lie."

"Hush." She indulges his kiss for a moment before pushing his face away. "And drive. The sooner we get there, the better off I'll be."

He grins, pressing a button on the steering wheel to turn up the music – not a children's soundtrack, thankfully – and let it wash over them. Her eyes slip shut for a second before she blinks and curls her body toward him.

"Did you think it would be like this?" she asks, watching his profile as he maneuvers the car out of the worst of the traffic and onto the interstate. "That day in the hospital when you were reassuring me. At least, I think I remember you reassuring me."

A soft smile lifts his lips. "Yeah, I did. Reassure you and think it would be like this. I mean, not all of it, obviously. And there are some things I think we all would've been happy to avoid, but the gist of it? Absolutely."

She squeezes his hand. "My eternal optimist."

He chuckles. "I just think it's important to find every silver lining."

"You've certainly found a few over the years."

He preens a little bit. "Then my work is done. Or at least a successful work in progress."

Her lips lift. "I like that."

Rick looks pleased with himself again. "Yeah, it is pretty good, isn't it?"

It is, but she's content to let the words rest between them as they drive instead of providing more ammunition to feed his ego.

Year Seven (2023): What's Around the Corner

Breakfast is a noisy, messy affair and she wouldn't have it any other way.

At three, Reece and Jake have truly begun finding their voices to go along with their personalities, and they're more than happy to let everyone in the house hear them. Even when they're supposed to be eating their eggs and toast. Even when they're guzzling the juice in their sippy cups, doing their best to beat the other by finishing first.

In between bites of muffin, Lily talks over her brothers' antics, telling them all about the book she'd stayed up late the night before to finish. Kate hides a smile behind her coffee mug, squeezing her husband's hand; one day their daughter won't be six years old and guileless enough to announce her late-night activities, but she hopes she'll never stop sneaking books by flashlight under the covers.

"I can't wait to tell Maia," Lily adds after finishing her summary.

Kate tilts her head. "Has Maia read the book, too?"

"Uh huh! She liked it first."

"Well, you know what you need to do then, Sprout?" Rick says, offering the bowl of fruit to Kate. She takes it, spooning another helping onto her plate.

"What Daddy?"

"You should tell Maia about a book that you really liked and ask her to tell you what she thinks when she reads it."

Lily brightens, nodding eagerly. "Uh huh! I'm gonna tell her 'bout Mommy's books."

Kate's eyes widen. Well, that's sweet, but–

"That's a good thought, Little Flower," she starts, taking a long sip of her water before putting the glass aside, "but I think maybe…well, the books Daddy wrote for Mommy are a little bit old for you and friends. That might be one to save for a few, a few years from now."

Lily pouts a bit. "Why?"

Licking her lips, Kate turns to her husband. "Wanna take this one, Ricky?"

"Is it bad words?" Lily interrupts just as Rick opens his mouth. "And yucky grown-up stuff? Like-" Her nose wrinkles a little, "-kissing?"

"Ewww," Reece and Jake chime in, their voices in a unison that will no doubt drive them crazy when they get older. "S'yucky!"

Castle laughs, catching Kate's hand again. "It's not yucky."

He makes a show of leaning over and smacking a kiss on her mouth, noisy and exaggerated. It's enough to get a rise out of the kids. They squirm in their seats, squealing in disgust.

"See? Nothing yucky there," he insists, winking as they continue to argue. "But yes, the books do have some bad words, and some grown-up stuff. So, I think it'd be a good idea to wait until you're older for those. Maybe when you're one hundred."

Lily giggles. "Daddy! You're so silly. That's way too old."

He pretends to think. "Hmm, okay, maybe when you're ninety-nine."

Kate laughs at her daughter's indignance, at the girl's insistence for Rick to 'be reasonbible.'

Castle heaves a sigh. "Fine. I'll settle for the very reasonable age of seventy-three."

Lily cackles at the offer. For some reason, the number sends the boys into hysterics, too. It's too much, and Beckett dissolves into helpless laughter as well.

Once they come back to themselves and she's able to breathe again, Kate reaches over to pat the girl's hand.

"Why don't we revisit this when you're thirteen, how's that?"

Lily tilts her head, her body still shaking with the remnants of her laughter (and what might be the start of hiccups, Kate thinks). She thinks for a minute before nodding.

"Kay, Mommy."

"And me?" Jake asks. Reece echoes the question.

Rick clears his throat. "If you want… sure. When you're thirteen."

They cheer, clinking their cups together like they've scored a true victory.

"We'll work on getting you two to read first," Kate murmurs, reaching across the table to swipe a napkin over Jake's cheek. He grins beneath her ministrations.

"Ya, Mommy! I can wead free books. 'Cause 'm free!"

"You are three," she agrees, settling back in her seat and brushing a hand over her sweater. After Lily and the twins, she'd expected to start to show a lot sooner and seem a lot bigger than she is, but so far this baby is proving all the expectations wrong. "My big, smart, strong three-year-olds."

Her boys beam before going back to their breakfast and their silly chatter.

"So hey," Kate starts as everyone settles down, glancing over at Rick to see if he's on the same page. He gives her a nod, his smile soft and encouraging, eager. They'd talked about when to tell the kids this time; she's in good health and everything has gone well so far, but the risks are higher this time around.

Today, seven years after all of this could've been lost, this is the perfect time.

"Daddy and I want to tell you guys something. All three of you."

Lily looks up from her muffin. "S'it about the baby in your tummy?"

Kate's mouth drops open. Beside her, Rick sputters. "Lily… how did-how did you know?"

Their girl shrugs, looking entirely too nonchalant. "You're wearin' lotsa Daddy's shirts an' your tummy's bigger when we snuggle. Maia said maybe s'a baby like her mommy had."

After a second, she grins. "m'I right?"

Kate laughs, covering her mouth and nodding. This kid is too smart for her own good. "You are right, Little Flower. I'm going to have a baby. And you, my sweet boys, are going to be big brothers. How does that sound?"

Rick's hand covers hers again as the boys start peppering them with questions, talking over one another in their eagerness to just know. Lily joins in as well, once she's done basking in her victory, of course.

Kate tries to answer what she can and Castle jumps in to field the rest. She gives his fingers a squeeze in thanks, dipping her head to kiss his knuckles when the kids give them a second to breathe.

"Seven years," she whispers around a lump in her throat. "We made it, Rick."

Castle brushes his thumb over the back of her hand. "Always."


Thank you for reading. This was intended to be a much shorter oneshot, but just as in life, sometimes the years got away from me.

Until next time.