The call clearing her for active duty came from Montgomery, at four in the afternoon, one month after Lanie called her about a body on her day off.
She'd gotten the green light from her physician the week before and from Dr. Sehl earlier that morning. By noon, Castle had noticed her glancing at her phone with increasing frequency. By two, she'd ironed a button-down and slacks each three times. By three, she'd begun sending interrogative texts to Ryan and Esposito. He'd tried to start conversations with her at least a dozen times, but her preoccupied, monosyllabic answers finally had him so discouraged that he retreated to his office for some quality time alone with Nikki Heat. He wasn't sure who was the more relieved when Montgomery finally called with the last, most important clearance.
It was another step, he thought, in her collection of the pieces of her life. The day before, she'd finally signed a lease on a new apartment, a bright, spacious studio in a secure building in Alphabet City. He hadn't thought she'd been planning on moving from her sublet, not until she'd mentioned it to his daughter, several days before.
He awoke with his heart hammering against his ribs. He wasn't sure why until he caught the fragile edge of the dream, the dream he always had: bolting down the dark stairs to the basement, alone, this time, hurtling blindly towards a closed door. He'd woken up before he saw her body, lying peacefully next to a green and white rope.
He never woke before he saw her body.
He shifted, and there was Beckett, watching him muzzily, early-morning sunlight streaked across her cheeks, her calf pressed against his, her arm curled atop his chest. The remnants of suffocating panic sheared away at the press of her body, warm and boneless with sleep, against him.
"You had a nightmare," she murmured, running her hand over his bare chest. He shivered.
"It's better," he said, "it's better when you're here."
"I bet." She smiled, leaned over so that her blonde hair (he was almost used to seeing it, almost didn't double-take every time he looked at her) brushed against his cheeks, and then her lips were lazily sliding over his, and the dream was gone, his world constricting to the soft skin of her fingers, running up his neck, the smooth heat of her mouth, opening against his.
And then there was the sharp sound of knocking at his door, and she was abruptly jerking away to the edge of the bed. "Sorry, Dad, I know it's early, but I'm meeting Ash little earlier to go skating so the lines won't be awful, and I wanted to make sure we had a chance to make the waffles you keep talking about so I thought maybe –" She'd been talking as she opened the door, but the second her eyes focused on the bed, on Kate, she stopped suddenly.
He hadn't intended to keep secrets from his daughter, not exactly, but this was only the second night Beckett had spent in his room, and with all the chaos that had happened, he'd wanted to give it a little time, to let it settle, before he started hearing the inevitable questions about relationships that he would be incapable of fielding (if it were up to him, Beckett would have a ring on her finger already, but he had a feeling she wouldn't take to kindly to that).
"Ohmygod I'm sorry," Alexis said, looking hugely mortified, stumbling backwards out the open door.
"No, wait," Beckett said, tilting forward. "Alexis, it's okay, it's not your fault."
Alexis took two small, hesitant steps forward, and the embarrassment on her face slowly faded into a smile.
"Well, Alexis," he said absurdly, "I think it's time you know that Bec – Kate and I have, um –"
"I think it's great!" she blurted. "Are you – does this mean you're staying for a while longer?"
"Oh," Beckett said, and he could see her holding back the reflexive 'hell, no' that she would have given to him. "No. When a – " she swallowed convulsively – "relationship is still so new, it's just a lot better if…" She trailed off, but Alexis remained watching her impassively from the doorway, and this was one jam Castle refused to help her out of. "I'm going to look for a new place, though, and maybe it'll wind up being a little closer," she said, almost as an afterthought, almost as if those words wouldn't diffuse another knot of tension that had lodged somewhere deep beneath his ribcage.
Alexis' grin spread. "Gram and I were just talking about this!"
"Sorry?" Beckett asked, blinking.
"She has a friend who has a studio not far from here that needs to get rented out, and she was telling me how wonderful it would be for you and really, it sounds like it's absolutely gorgeous." She paused. Beckett gaped at her. "I'll go get Gram right now and then you two can come help me make waffles and we can look at the pictures." She paused, considering them. "Unless…"
Beckett flushed. "We'll be downstairs in five."
Alexis departed swiftly, shutting the door behind her, and Beckett leaned over, prodding Castle in the center of his sternum with her good hand.
"Hey! Ouch! How is your index finger so strong?"
"You put her up to this," Beckett growled, her eyes flashing.
"You know, Alexis and Martha don't need my help to worry about you."
She glanced down, exhaled for a beat too long. "Well," she said, capitulation and a hint of affection scrawled across her face. "It won't hurt to go see it."
Martha had dragged them to the beautiful, shockingly affordable studio that afternoon. Beckett had been openly skeptical of the sudden availability and the too-good-to-be-true price, but Martha had only smiled and said something airy about actors and connections and fate when Beckett questioned her, and while Beckett was a master interrogator, there was only so far she would push Martha.
He was vaguely unsettled about the impending move – the new studio was safe, gorgeous, and perfect for her, but their relationship had only existed within the narrow confines of his apartment, and it was too easy for his over-active writer's imagination to construct a scenario in which she drifted slowly away from him. The unease caused him to roam the house searching for her, until he walked through her half-open bathroom door and found her, sitting hunched over on a closed toilet seat.
"Sorry," he said. "Didn't mean to… are you okay?" At second glance, he could see a box clutched in her right hand. A wave of understanding washed over him. Three days ago, he'd spent too long staring at colors of hair dye in CVS before he'd finally settled on Chocolate Copper. She hadn't mentioned dying it since the failed attempt that Alexis had told him about, and the one time he'd alluded to bringing a stylist over, she'd shut him down so quickly that he'd decided to leave well enough alone. He'd put the box of dye on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet of Beckett's bathroom, a little too high to be convenient, and didn't mention it.
"I was thinking it was time," she said, staring down at the box. She clenched and unclenched the fingers of her right hand as she spoke. She'd been allowed to start taking her brace off for short periods of inactivity, but her motions were sometimes still stiff and pained.
"I think that's a good idea." He tried to keep his tone even.
She must have heard something in his voice she didn't like: she raised her eyes abruptly from the dye to look at him. "I'm not going to leave you, you know," she said bluntly, catching him so off-guard that he sucked in a mouthful of air too hard and wound up quietly choking.
"What?" he asked, after he finally regained control of his breath.
"Because I'm moving. Because I'm going back to work."
He felt their gazes locking as an almost-physical force. His heart stuttered painfully against his sternum – he'd always thought, back when they'd had nothing except long, intense moments of staring at one another, that his palpitations would be less severe after they'd finally slept together, but, if anything, sex with Beckett had intensified every glance, every touch.
Her eyes were turning too solemn, the clench of her jaw a little too serious. "What about when you start rocking your sexy brunette look again?"
Her lips quirked up. "Well. Maybe then."
"Let me – " he started, paused, rephrased, "Can I help?"
He watched her hold air in her lungs for half a second too long. "I don't…" she trailed off.
He took a gamble, pressed past the clench in his chest. "I left my nylon rope downstairs."
She huffed a soft laugh. "In that case." She tore open the box of dye, flexed the fingers of her right hand again.
He gently pulled the dye from her hands, saying, "I can probably figure it out." The overlarge paper of directions in tiny print indicated that maybe he couldn't. "We need to do an allergy test. And a strand test. It says I need to get scissors. And tape. And a plastic bowl and a clock."
She snatched the directions from him, stabbed with her index finger at the part that read Color Application. "Start here."
"But it says that to help minimize risk it's important to perform the skin allergy test forty-eight hours…" He paused at her glare, the one that informed him she was between three and five seconds away from kicking him out or inflicting some kind of bodily harm. "You know what, that's probably not that important. How about we start at Color Application."
Through some outstanding fortune, the box of Chocolate Copper required nothing more from him than to snap on gloves and twist off the cap. He started to ask her if she was comfortable on the toilet, if she wanted him to get a chair or to move somewhere else or if maybe he could call a stylist, preferably a petite female stylist who could keep up a constant, cheery chatter, but he swallowed his questions – he was certain that she wanted, more than anything, for it all just to be over.
He moved the tip of the bottle along her scalp, then carefully, gently, worked his plastic-covered fingers through her hair. He felt her tense, the ridges of her shoulders drawing up and in to him. "You okay?" he asked.
"Just great," she said, her voice half a note too low, her words too hoarse.
He massaged his fingers around to the front of her scalp and stepped into her, moving his thighs and stomach into the rigid line of her back, even though it made his arms tilt at an awkward angle, even though he could feel some of her dye-soaked strands of hair fall back against his chest. He kept his fingers moving smoothly through her hair, careful not to tangle or pull. "Be done soon," he murmured.
"This has got to be ruining your shirt." She moved away halfheartedly.
"You can make up for it later."
"It's hard to help myself," he said, looping strands around his fingers, working his way out to the tips of her hair. She didn't respond, but a hint of the tension drained out of her muscles, her back becoming a little less inflexible against him. He busied himself in the feel of the thin gloves shifting against the pads of his fingers as they moved along her head, in the acrid, cleansing scent of the dye, in the slow spread of deep brown through her hair. Even after his fingers had worked through every inch of her curls, he went back over her scalp once, twice (he never wanted to look at her and see a trace of blond again).
On his third pass, she finally shifted. "You've got to be done," she murmured.
"Okay, yeah," he said, stripping off the gloves and setting the timer on his watch for twenty minutes. "I think I may have found a new career. It's oddly soothing."
She glanced at her knees. "For some, maybe."
He mentally kicked himself. "Only twenty minutes and a thorough rinse and then we're done," he said inanely. They wouldn't be done after the twenty minutes it took the dye to set, or after she had rinsed it, or after the deep bruising finally faded away and her wrist stopped aching, or after the only physical marks left on her were the white, faint ridges of a couple scars on her back. God only knew, he'd be carrying it forever (the clench in his stomach, the horrifying panic beating around his chest during her abduction, was inscribed onto him, would be a part of him for the rest of his life).
He saw her shudder, a ripple of tension racing along her muscles, and he dropped to a squat in front of her, lightly grabbing her hands in his, drawing her wrist to his mouth and pressing his lips to the pulse-point there. The blood was thudding through her radial artery too fast. "Castle," she sighed.
"It's okay. I'm here." He didn't want to know the particular memories flashing through her mind that made her pulse pound so rapidly.
She shifted, clearly uncomfortable with his sudden, focused attention. "Don't you have something else you want to be doing?"
He titled forward, pressed his lips chastely against hers, cool and dry, her breath puffing in short bursts over his mouth. "No," he said, out of words, out of thoughts, out of everything but the sheer sense of comfort from the heat of her body so close to his and the thrumming need to make sure she felt that same comfort.
They waited silently: she, hunched forward on the toilet, he, squatting in front of her, his hands still loosely holding her hands, his knees and ankles starting to protest faintly and then fiercely, but he wouldn't move from this spot, wouldn't shift from his position crouched silently in front of her.
The chirrup of his watch startled them both; he tipped up and forward onto the balls of his feet; she lurched half off the toilet seat. Their foreheads connected with a dramatic crack.
"Christ, Castle, ouch," Beckett said, standing the rest of the way up. Castle had toppled back and was sitting splayed on the ground, rubbing his forehead, his legs twisted out in front of him awkwardly.
"Your head is so hard," he moaned.
"Come on," said Beckett, pulling off her dye-stained shirt and twisting on the spray of the shower. She reached down with her good arm and wrapped her hand around his wrist, pulling him up to his feet. "I'll make it worth your while if you help me get this dye out of my hair."
Beckett's phone trilled him awake. It was early. Somehow they'd twisted over each other in the night, so he was on her side of the bed and she was sprawled on his. A tendril of brown hair lay across his chest (hours ago, when they'd stumbled into bed, shedding clothing every step, he'd been unable to keep his hands off it – he'd never made love to her before with brown hair, and he felt some of his own gaping trauma quietly stitch together). The screen said it was Dispatch.
He reached for it, but she'd lurched awkwardly across his torso and grabbed the phone. "Beckett," she snapped into the receiver. His breath caught, and it took him a second to understand why – it had been too long since he'd heard her spit her name out with such purpose.
"Yeah… Okay…. No, I'm good. Be there in thirty."
She snapped the phone closed, stared down at it for a beat. He caught the slight slide of her teeth over her lower lip before she breathed deeply, ran a hand through her hair. He trailed a finger over her arm. The hesitation in her posture ebbed away, solidified into steel. Crackling with currents of purpose, her eyes locked with his. She tilted toward him. Her voice laced with determination and a dozen different wells of meaning, she asked him: "Are you ready?"
Well, my darling elflets, it's been a wild, crazy, multi-seasonal ride. I so want to say that there will be a sequel, but I say that after, like, 90% of the things I write because I always flail around pathetically, thinking, "O, woe to me, woe to the readers, woe to the entire universe, how can it possibly be over?" But 100% this was the hardest story to end, not necessarily because of the story itself (Muse and I are in SUCH a fight), but because I will miss my singing elf reviews so horribly and, I don't know, everything I hear from y'all just brings me such a smile.
So, so, so many thanks to my betas, to everyone who's read this, and, most importantly, to my pitchfork-carrying, Christmas-song-crooning, ever-so-encouraging singing elf reviews.