Epilogue has arrived. Title is a song of the same name by Kelly Clarkson. Thanks to my betas for sticking with me for the ride. Couldn't have done it without you. Special thanks to all of you who have reviewed – you've been utterly fabulous. Enjoy the weekend, and the finale on Monday. It's been a pleasure :)
It's the first night in a long while that Kate can't seem to fall asleep. She's been staring at the ceiling above her bed for a while. She's not restless or frustrated; she's comfortable in her bed, with Rick's arm hanging limply over her waist. The slow inhale exhale of his breathing fills what should be the silence of two in the morning, except she lives in New York so there's sirens and people and city clamor. Somewhere outside a radio is playing the dull beats of a rap song. The noise is comfortable, familiar, and Rick's breathing makes her feel safe. At home. For the first time in a long time, Kate lets herself acknowledge that she is exactly where she belongs.
It's been a struggle, that acknowledgment. Not so much that she belongs, but that she deserves to belong. The struggle, really, was in forgiving herself. In stifling the urge to punish herself, and instead hanging on to the chance to be happy that she's somehow found at the end of the most horrific experience of her life.
It's been three months since she lay in the hospital gasping in pain and wishing she hadn't woken up. Three long months of slowly finding herself again.
She knows she couldn't have done that without Rick, wouldn't have found the path back to herself without Rick. I want you to do what you need to do. That's what he'd told her. That he wanted her to be happy, even if it wasn't with him. And it was when he'd selflessly let her go, when he'd put her healing before his feelings, that she realized he really did love her. And she loved him too. She hadn't been able to answer him because she was trying to wrap her brain and her heart around it. Without him, she wasn't happy. She needed to stop running. What she needed was plain, simple, and so suddenly obvious that it hurt.
She needed Rick Castle.
He took her back. He loved her, and he'd known all along she loved him too. The morning after she'd returned from California, she'd woken up in her bed to find him watching her. Let me do this with you, he'd whispered.
She hadn't said anything. What could she say to a request that was so unassuming, so heartfelt? She kissed him instead, made love to him, and when she whispered I need you just before he took her, they both knew what she was really talking about.
After a few days of being holed up with Rick and Alexis, Kate made an appointment with the department shrink. Her life for the next nine weeks was simpler than it had been in years: therapy three days a week, visit her dad, work out. When she wasn't doing that, she was with Rick and his daughter. Sometimes Lanie, but usually Rick. She didn't know how he'd mastered it, the skill of being there when she wanted him and leaving her alone when she wanted space, but he had. She never had to tell him; he just seemed to know.
It was the shrink who pointed out that Rick seemed to know her better than anyone, sometimes even better than she knew herself. The fact that she'd been able to get over the instinctive need to push him away again made Kate realize that she had, in fact, given him the distinction of her one and done. Even that realization hadn't made her head for the hills. She was playing for keeps.
She'd been cleared for active duty after nine weeks of therapy, with the recommendation that she take a vacation, get away from the city one last time before she immersed herself in being a cop and all it entailed. Rick was happy to oblige, because the Virgin Islands had been waiting for them since she'd almost died. For ten days Kate got a mansion with two pools, a private beach, and Rick Castle all to herself. She came back tan, smiling, and ready to be Detective Beckett again.
And here she is. The night before her first day back she's staring up at the ceiling and wondering what it will be like. Will she sink back into everything seamlessly, like she'd never been away? Will she be jumpy, gun shy? Will it feel weird?
She sighs and looks over at Rick, whose face is close to hers. He fell asleep holding her, but she'd rolled onto her back when she realized she couldn't sleep. His cheek is smooshed against the pillow, his mouth open slightly, and Kate smiles despite herself because he's just so goddamn adorable when he sleeps. His hair is sticking out at odd angles and it makes him look like the giant kid he is, except the giant kid sleeping next to her is a man, a good man, and she is totally, completely gone for him. Gone the way her mother always promised her she would be over a man someday.
Kate's positive that her mother would've loved Rick, Alexis too, and she wonders what her mother would say if she was here now. If she would give her advice, or just sit with her. The familiar urge hits Kate suddenly, right between the eyes, and she slips quietly out of Rick's embrace and out of the bed, because she can't resist it. She lingers at her dresser for a moment, runs her fingers over the box and stares down at the picture, and then she lifts the lid.
Dad's watch. Mom's ring on its silver chain. Her badge is there too, and she slides the drawer of the box open to look at her gun. It's the first night her gun and badge have been there in a long time. Montgomery dropped them off this morning, saying something about how he couldn't have his detective showing up to work without her gun and badge.
She lifts her badge out of the box and stares at it for a while, trailing her gaze over the numbers. 41319. Her numbers. Her badge. She puts the badge back in the box, runs her fingers over her Sig, then closes the drawer and the lid. She can still feel the need pulsing through her veins, so she pads out of her bedroom and toward the living room.
Third shelf, big black book. It's a photo album, one of many. Kate pulls it from the shelf and then heads toward her couch, curling her feet underneath her. It's dark in the apartment but there's enough light and her eyes are adjusted well enough that she can see, so she opens the album and doesn't even try to stop the smile.
Pictures of her mother. Her father. Her. Family vacations, school functions, portraits, the works. She has every page memorized, knows what comes next before she even turns the page, but it never gets old. She does this a lot; looks at pictures of her family in the middle of the night when she can't sleep. For the longest time it was just so that she wouldn't forget her mother's face, her smile, the way her eyes dance even in a still photograph. Now she looks for her dad too, and her favorite pictures are the ones of her parents together. She knows she was lucky, because most of her friends were products of divorce, but looking at these pictures Kate knows that she was never even close to that. She can read it in their smiles.
A noise startles Kate out of her thoughts and she jumps, looks up, and sees Rick standing in the corner of the room rubbing his eyes. She smiles, because he's cute in his Flubber boxers and she knows without looking that his toes are curled against the cold of her floor. She won't let him wear socks in bed because once she caught him wearing the same socks for three days straight. The way he complains about his toes being cold drives her so crazy that sometimes she second guesses herself.
"What're you doin'?" he mumbles.
"I couldn't sleep."
He shuffles toward her, suddenly concerned, his forehead wrinkling beneath his mussed hair. "You have a nightmare?"
"No. Just…couldn't sleep."
He lowers himself onto the couch and Kate positions her body so she's folded comfortably into his side. He puts his arm around her and kisses her temple once, twice.
"Thinking about tomorrow?"
Kate nods. Rick realizes that she's got something in her lap and he looks down at it. "What's this?"
She shrugs. "Pictures."
"I've never seen these before."
"That's because you're usually sleeping when I look at them."
He's starting to wake up, and he looks up at her questioningly.
"I look at this album when I can't sleep," she explains.
"You have albums reserved for certain times?"
Kate nods, trying to decide if she's embarrassed, but Rick's kissing her temple again and murmuring that he loves her before she can even think about retreating into her shell. It's dark and quiet and he's somehow made her feel pleasantly small in his embrace, so she looks down at the pictures and lets him in further.
"I used to be afraid that I'd forget what she looked like. So when I couldn't sleep, I'd look at pictures. This album's my favorite because there are a lot of pictures of her and my dad together."
Rick points at the picture she's looking at. "I like this one. She's laughing."
Kate smiles. "Me too. She had the best laugh…my dad used to say that someday a standup comedian was going to discover her and pay her millions just to be in the audience of his shows, because her laugh was so infectious. You couldn't be around it and not want to laugh yourself."
"You have her laugh, then."
Kate won't look at him because she's terrible at taking compliments and part of her is afraid she might get emotional. She turns the page of the album and immediately smiles.
"Disney World," Rick murmurs. She can hear the smile in his voice. "I think Mickey had a crush on you."
"My mom got this award one year, this teaching award. It came with a cash prize, and they told me we could go anywhere I wanted."
"So of course you picked Disney World."
Kate turns the page again.
"You're smiling in all of these," Rick observes.
"I was happy."
There's a beat of silence, and then, "Are you happy now?"
She looks up at him, her heart skips a beat, and she nods without hesitation. "Yes."
He smiles. "Me too."
Kate smiles too, bites her lip, and looks down at the photo album again. She turns the page, and sees a picture of her and Tyler and her parents. She wonders for a second if she should feel awkward or uncomfortable, but she doesn't. Instead she looks up at Rick and focuses every bit of energy in her body on telling him exactly how she feels with just her eyes.
The radio is still going outside but it's an R&B song now, some tenor voice crooning about his long lost love. It fills the apartment as Kate stares at Rick, unwilling to think about anything beyond this moment, the feel of his arm around her, the way he's got a tuft of hair sticking straight forward just above his forehead. She wonders what it would be like if they just stayed here for the rest of their lives. If they didn't have to worry about food or work or anyone else and it was just the two of them forever. She'd thought it down in the Virgin Islands too, after making love to him on a blanket in the sand beneath the stars.
She leans forward and kisses him softly, and when she pulls away she rests her forehead against his.
"You should get some sleep," Rick says quietly. She knows he's right.
She gets up and is sliding the photo album onto the shelf when she feels him behind her. His hands start on her shoulders and trail down, and then he links one of his pinky fingers with hers. He turns her slowly, and when she's facing him she leans forward to rest her forehead on his shoulder. He puts one of her arms around his neck, and slides his hand along her lower back. Kate's got her eyes closed, and it's not until he starts to sway slowly that she realizes he's actually dancing with her.
She smiles into his shoulder but doesn't say anything, because even though it's the sappiest thing he could choose to do, with the music pouring into her apartment and both of them in their pajamas, she loves it. Once she'd caught her parents dancing in the kitchen. There's no one to catch them, but Kate can't ignore the connection. She leans closer to him, kisses his bare shoulder, and lets him dance with her.
When Kate gets on the precinct elevator the next morning, her heart is racing. Rick is next to her, chattering aimlessly, but she's not listening. She knows he doesn't mind. He's only babbling because he's just as nervous as she is, and because every once in a while he says something funny and she smiles.
When the doors slide open Kate steps off, clutching her coffee, and looks around. Uniforms and detectives are standing in huddles or hurrying off to find suspects. Phones are ringing, papers are rustling, doors are opening and closing. Not a single thing has changed, and Kate can't even begin to process why she's so thrilled that it's all the same.
"Morning, Beckett," Karpowski greets offhandedly, walking by with a folder in one hand and a mug in the other.
"Morning," Kate says in return. It's the same greeting they would've exchanged if Kate hadn't been missing from the precinct for three months, if she hadn't almost resigned, if she wasn't now officially dating Rick Castle.
"Got to be kidding me," Montgomery's voice mutters, and Kate looks to her right to see him walking toward her. "You better go corral those idiots, Detective," Montgomery says on the way to his office, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder. "They're on my last nerve and it's only nine. Drive me to drink…"
Kate looks over his shoulder and sees Esposito chasing Ryan through the bullpen, and she raises her eyebrows when they skid to a stop in front of her.
"Esposito ate your stash of Skittles," Ryan pants, and then dodges a grab attempt by Esposito by lunging behind Rick.
"Traitor," Esposito growls. He looks at Kate, then down at his shoes. "Ryan did it too."
"Did not," Ryan argues from behind Rick.
"It was your idea."
"You were the one whining you were hungry."
"Boys," Kate says, but they're not listening.
"I said pizza."
"You wanted me to buy!"
"You don't have the rent payment I do!"
"You don't have a girlfriend!"
"Boys!" Kate practically shouts, and they both stop. She looks from one to the other sternly, and she can see Rick grinning uncontrollably out of the corner of her eye. The tension laden silence hits its peak, and then Kate shakes her head.
"You could've just refilled the bowl with a bag from the vending machine and I wouldn't have even known."
She heads to her desk as Ryan and Esposito stare at each other stupidly, and then Rick falls into step next to her. He leans in toward her, still grinning.
"Welcome back, Detective."