Eight Count – Chapter 4

Waking up was strange, to say the least. At first, when her eyelids fluttered open as she arched her neck around, taking in her surroundings, Beckett was a little confused. It took her a moment, as the fog of sleep receded from her mind until she was able to fully recall the events of the previous day. A shiver ran up her spine as she recalled the gunshot, hearing that awful echo resound throughout the cemetery, her world tumbling, hitting the ground with him over her, and then feeling Castle going slack, the sick warmth of his blood soaking through her white dress gloves. A small startled gasp escaped her lips as it all came screaming back to her in a mad rush. Her heart immediately jumped in her throat as she remembered… remembered his words as he faded away. His confession. His declaration of love.

Kate, I love you. I love you, Kate.

His words echoed in her ears and everything after it came back to her: The ambulance ride, Castle nearly flatlining (not just once, but twice), Josh, her Dad, Alexis… her own confession, to Martha of all people! Beckett took a hard swallow and looked around the room. Alexis was still curled up on the couch, her red hair cascading down her pale face. Darting her eyes over to the other recliner, she noticed that Martha was gone. That's when she heard the drone of the shower over the soft incessant beeping from the heart monitor. Hearing those slow and steady beeps made Beckett want to see him, to make sure that he was still alive.

Stretching her neck, Beckett slowly pushed herself up to her feet. She grimaced; both her back and legs were a bit stiff from having slept in the recliner all last night, but she could push past that right now. Tugging the blanket tighter around her shoulders, Beckett quietly shuffled across to the bed. Without thinking, almost on pure instinct, she gripped his relaxed hand in hers and interlaced her fingers with his.

He was looking much better. Not great, but better. Some of the color had finally returned to his face, and his hand wasn't cold, like it had been last night. She glanced up and looked at the monitor, silently thankful for the beeping, even if it was slightly annoying and grating. Beckett didn't care. It was still music to her ears. Sighing with relief that he was alive and getting better, she raised her other hand to slowly caress the side of his face.

"Get better soon, Castle," she murmured softly. Glancing over her shoulder and peeking through the open door, checking to ensure that no one was watching her, Beckett then slowly bent forward and brushed a brief kiss against his cheek. As she backed up, she could have sworn that his lips had twitched ever so slightly upwards when her lips had touched his skin. There was no reason for it, but just the thought of him smiling after she had kiss him, even if it was more of a platonic chaste kiss on the cheek that anything else, made her heart flutter.

As if sensing an intrusion into her own little world, Beckett's eyes popped up just in time to see a nurse in pink scrubs came in. She was petite with bleached blonde hair, pulled back in a tight bun. Young, too. Probably just out of nursing school. The nurse gave her a polite smile as she picked up the chart at the end of the bed, skimming its contents as she checked the machines. Beckett took in a deep breath and shifted uncomfortably, hoping that the nurse had not noticed her blush.

Thankfully, it appeared the nurse seemed more interested in checking Castle's vitals, which Beckett was more than happy with. After adjusting one of the machines, and making a note of it on the clipboard, the nurse glanced up at Beckett again, but this time looking more closely. She watched as the young woman knitted her eyebrows together as if confused. After a moment she shook her head, then turned back to the clipboard.

Beckett released a breath she did not know she had been holding in. That's when the nurse looked up again, the realization slowly dawning across her face.

The young woman's eyes slowly shifted up from the clipboard and openly stared at her. "Sorry… but… um… aren't you Nikki Heat?" she asked, her voice a mixture between force politeness and curiosity.

Beckett felt every muscle in her body tense. She winced slightly, and then covered her discomfort by giving the woman a soft smile. "Actually, it's Kate Beckett. Inspiration… yes. Nikki Heat… no," she spoke, trying to remain calm, not to mention the fact that she could not believe she had just used her name, the word inspiration, and Nikki Heat in the same breath.

"Yes, yes," the nurse said bobbing her head. "I thought you looked familiar. You're that NYPD Detective Richard Castle follows around… the one that Nikki Heat is based on."

"Only slightly based on," Beckett squeezed in. "Everything else is just pure fiction."

"Really?" the young nurse looked utterly surprised.

"Yes, really," Beckett nodded.

"Then… you mean… you're not his girlfriend, then?" the nurse suddenly went pink with embarrassment. "I'm sorry… I didn't mean to pry."

Beckett, who was trying to hold in her own unease about the entire conversation, was also fighting off the blush that was rushing to her cheeks. That's when the monitors started to go crazy. The beeps grew more rapid, signaling a change in Castle's heart rate. The nurse jumped, startled and immediately dashed out of the room, calling for the doctor. Beckett's eyes grew wide and she fought the urge to panic. Suddenly Alexis was there. The teen grabbed Castle's other hand and held on to it.

"Dad?" she choked out through desperate tears.

The nurse came back in, this time followed by the doctor and several other nurses. Beckett took a deep breath and released the hand she was holding, going around the bed to stand with Alexis. The teen turned and latched on to her, needing the support. Beckett closed her eyes and tried to steady her own breathing, wanting to be strong for Alexis. They stepped back as the nurses and doctor examined Castle. The bathroom door opened and Martha, clad in a bathrobe and wet hair, came rushing out.

"Richard?" she called out.

"Grams!" wailed Alexis, who briefly detached herself from Beckett before latching back on with an even firmer grip. Before she knew it, Beckett was suddenly squeezed in between the younger Castle and the older one. She closed her eyes and clenched her jaw, asking the universe to take pity on her for once in her life and spare Castle.

The doctor said something, and a nurse produced a syringe. He tested it, flicking it with his fingers as he eyeballed the needle, before turning to the I.V. and introducing whatever solution was in it to the plastic bag. After a couple of minutes the beeping slowed to a more steady and reassuring pace. Sighing, the doctor gave a nod. Turning towards them, he looked directly at Beckett.

"I'm Dr. Alfred Hoover," he said, with a curt nod. "I'll be supervising Mr. Castle's recovery."

"How… how is he?" Martha choked out, the diva gazing worryingly over at her son.

"He'll be fine," Hoover assured her.

Beckett blinked and looked up at him, almost giving him an accusatory glare like he was some suspect in the interrogation room. "What did you give him?" she demanded.

"Just a mild sedative," the doctor said, shifting slightly as he eyed her up a bit. "You must be Detective Beckett. I was warned about you. You're the girlfriend, right?"

"Huh?" Beckett raised her eyebrows and frowned at the same time, looking for that blonde-haired nurse.

Before the doctor could answer, Alexis started to bombard him with questions. Beckett was startled and amazed at the depth of the teen's knowledge. And apparently so was Dr. Hoover. He answered each of Alexis's questions in a calm and even voice. "Mr. Castle had a rough surgery, but he pulled through," he said, stressing the last part. "Thanks to Dr. Davidson the internal bleeding was stopped. Right now, all my patient really needs is rest."

"When do you think he'll wake up?" Alexis asked, detaching herself from Beckett and her grandmother to grip her father's hand.

Hoover turned to face her. "He was about to wake up just now," he replied matter-of-factly.

"Then why did you sedate him?" Beckett nearly snapped, then checked herself and took a deep breath.

The doctor gave her a look that said he had been correct about his , then turned back to give the answer to Alexis, completely ignoring the detective. "His body is still in shock," Hoover said. "The trauma would have been more severe if he had woke until his body had had a little more time to recuperate from both the injury and the invasive surgery." The man put a comforting hand on Alexis's shoulder. "Just give him some time, young lady, and he'll get better."

"Promise?" Alexis squeaked.

"On my oath," Hoover gave a friendly grin and then was startled when Alexis jumped him with a hug.

"Thank you," the teen mewled, before turning back around to pull a chair over to sit by her father's side. Beckett watched as the teen reached up and grabbed Castle's hand while she rested her head beside his.

Martha sighed and thanked the doctor, before leaning over to kiss her son on the forehead and rub her granddaughter's back. The diva turned and looked back at Beckett.

"How are you doing, kiddo?" she inquired, giving Beckett a knowing look. It took her a moment, and then she remembered her confession last night… about being in love with Castle and afraid she had missed the opportunity to tell him.

She blinked and swallowed, still slightly on the lookout for that blonde-haired nurse, wanting to find out why the doctor thought she was Castle's girlfriend, not that she didn't mind the idea of it, but she didn't like having the label, especially when she was nothing more than a friend.

"I'm fine, Martha," she said with a sigh, returning her attention to the older woman. "I'm little stiff and a little tired, but fine."

Martha nodded, giving Beckett's arm a comforting squeeze. "If you need to talk, I'm always available," she said with a soft smile. "Now, I think I'll go finish freshening up. I want to look my best for when that handsome father of yours comes to visit."

"Grams," Alexis blanched from Castle's bedside.

Despite her worried mood, a broad smile spread onto Beckett's face, thinking she might have to give her father some advance warning. She hoped Martha was only joking, though, because she did not want to be in the awkward position of having going on a double date with Castle and their parents. That is, if she and Castle ever did get to go on a date. Beckett never knew with the Castles. They always seemed to be joking and teasing each other. It showed how comfortable the three were with each other, and she silently liked how they had included her in it, making her feel part of the family, especially during those weeks she had spent in the Castle Casa when she was looking for a new apartment after hers had blown up.

"I am only joking, kiddo," Martha smiled, bending down to kiss her granddaughter on the top of the head. "Still… he is rather handsome, though. And his shoulder was awfully nice to lean against last night. I wouldn't mind spending some more time in his company."

"Grams!" Alexis said, her face turning a decidedly embarrassed shade of pink.

"You're right," Martha nodded, winking. "I need to freshen up. He could pop in any second." She turned and gave them all a dramatic gesture. "Back in twenty minutes, darlings." And then she sauntered back over to the bathroom.

As soon as the door was closed, Beckett laughed out loud, clutching her middle as her body shook with mirth. Alexis straightened and looked over her shoulder, her brow furrowing in confusion. "What's so funny, Kate?"

Beckett sighed, catching her breath as her lips curled up in a smile. "You're grandmother certainly knows how to lighten the atmosphere," was her response. God, she didn't know the last time she had laughed like that.

"Um… Kate… I don't know how to say this, but… I don't think Grams was really joking that much," Alexis explained, looking a little unnerved. "She kept going on and on about your dad while you were in the shower last night."

Beckett stood dead still and did a double take, hardly believing what she was hearing. "Really?" she knitted her eyebrows together, rather startled. She didn't even know if her dad had ever tried dating again after her mother had been killed. Her death had affected him deeply, and she didn't even know if the grief ever really left him. It had never left her, so she assumed it was the same with her father.

Alexis gave an earnest nod. Beckett grimaced and shook her head, running her fingers through her hair. "I do not need that in my life right now, not after—" she stopped herself before she said anything in front of Alexis.

The teen looked up at her and gave a knowing smile. "Grams told me," Alexis confessed, blushing slightly, tightening her hold on her father's hand.

"Told you what?" Beckett questioned, folding her arms over her chest, ready to deny anything, even to Castle's own daughter.

Alexis gave her a look that was so very much a Castle look. "That you are in love with each other," the teen elaborated. "But that you both are too stubborn to admit it to one another."

"What?" Beckett knitted her eyebrows together as her eyes grew wide, not even remembering to try and deny it. "You… you knew? How?"

"I've known for years!" Alexis smiled brightly. "You know, he never really can shut up when he's talking about you." She frowned a bit. "It's actually quite annoying really."

Beckett was flabbergasted. She didn't know what to say. Was she supposed to feel flattered that he talked about her so much, or appalled that even a teenage girl had known what two grown adults had been fully incapable of seeing?

An awkward silence descended upon them. Clearing her throat, Beckett gazed down at Alexis. "I… I'll go to the cafeteria and get us some breakfast," she said.

"Okay," Alexis gave a nod, smiling brightly as she turned her attention back to her father, running a delicate hand through his disheveled hair.

Beckett let out a slow breath and turned back to the seating area, ridding herself of the blanket, feeling decidedly uncomfortable. Did everyone know except her? Putting on her shoes and checking her appearance in the mirror on the bedside table, Beckett gave Alexis brief nod before venturing out of Room 47 and heading towards the hospital cafeteria. Halfway there it occurred to her that this wouldn't be the first time she'd gotten breakfast from this cafeteria. She had sometimes come to this very hospital early in the morning to see Josh in-between surgeries. With Josh she had had to make the time. Castle had always been there, no matter what time of day or night. He had stood by her side through it all. And now… now he was paying the price for that, and she hadn't even told him how she felt.

She took a deep breath as she turned a corner and started towards the elevator. Reflecting back on her last trips to this hospital, Beckett realized that the meets at the cafeteria had always seemed a chore, something she had to force or talk herself into doing. Now, as she headed to the very same cafeteria, she felt different. This trip was not to have a few minutes or seconds with a man she really had no feelings for, but was to help the family of the man she had started to fall in love with since the moment he had quite literally fell in her lap.

A smile quirked up on her lips. Not even a restraining order would have kept Castle away from her.

XXX

As she had been heading to the cafeteria, Beckett ran into her father coming in with some coffee for her. She smiled and hugged him, telling him about what had happened. He hugged her back, and accompanied her into the cafeteria, helping her get breakfast for the others. On their way back to the room, Beckett warned him about Martha's… um… interest, and she was surprised when her father seemed more flattered than worried. She shook her head of the sudden mental image that popped in her head. A laugh tumbled from her lips, thinking that this was proof that she had been spending too much time with Castle if that was the first thing that came to her mind.

Martha was delighted to see Jim Beckett and the diva took him aside as Alexis and Beckett ate their breakfasts besides Castle's bedside, watching as the writer's eyes seemed to move under his lids.

"Still dreaming," Alexis declared with a nod, looking over at Beckett.

She nodded and gave the teen a smile. "Yes," she agreed.

After they had all finished with their meals, Alexis took her turn in the shower, and then called Ashley. Her boyfriend showed up thirty minutes later with some comfort food for her (as well as an iPod), and the two sat on the couch and talked and listened to music. The Becketts and Martha gave the two some space, and stayed around Castle's bedside.

"Oh, Katie, I almost forgot," he said, turning around to locate the brown paper bag he had come with. He picked it up and opened it, producing something that Beckett had thought she'd lost.

"Dad…," her breath caught in her throat as he handed over her mother's autographed copy of In A Hail Of Bullets. Beckett had cherished this book. It had been her connection to her mom, and the beginning of her love for Richard Castle's books, and in some extension, the man himself.

Martha gave a soft smile when she saw what it was. The book was obviously well loved, and had been, by both Johanna Beckett and her daughter. Beckett had thought she had lost it with her apartment, but apparently she had not.

"You left it behind when you spent the night, remember?" her father asked, gazing carefully at her.

Beckett swallowed hard and nodded, hugging the book tightly to her chest. She vividly remembered going home to spend time with her dad after the Coonan case. Castle had been taken hostage by gunpoint and she had been forced to shoot Dick Coonan, the bastard who had killed her mother. But it had been a hollow victory for Beckett, since Dick Coonan had only been a hired gun. So, after wrapping up things at the precinct, she went back to her place, packed an overnight bag, and then went home to be with her father. She had absently put the book in her bag, as an afterthought.

"Thanks, Dad," Beckett breathed out and hugged him, giving him a kiss on the check. "I really did this."

He smiled and reciprocated, giving her a kiss on the forehead, and brushing his hand through her hair like he had when she was a little girl. Beckett sighed and hugged the book closer, lost in her own little world and completely unaware of her father asking Martha if she'd like to have some coffee with him. When she heard it, she blinked and looked up startled, seeing Castle's mother wrap an arm around Jim Beckett's and giving her granddaughter a dramatic wave. As they left, her father looked over his shoulder at her and she gave him another grateful nod, clutching the book to her chest.

Turning around, she looked down at the author of the opus in her hands. It had been Castle's debut novel. Beckett could still remember her mom raving about it, telling her she just had to read it. But Beckett hadn't really been interested in mystery novels. She had been into the classics: Dickens, Hugo, Joyce, Dumas, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. It wasn't until her mother's death that she had picked up the well loved copy of In A Hail Of Bullets and was introduced to Richard Castle for the first time.

Out of all the books he'd written, this was probably the one that she had read the most, as the creases in the spine showed. Looking over at Alexis and Ashley, almost like a mother checking on her teenage daughter, Beckett pulled up a chair and sat down besides Castle. She leaned back and opened up the cover and smiled, seeing Richard Castle's autograph. Her mother had waited in line to get it, and Beckett had gone along with her. She smirked, remembering how when they had finally made it up front, and she saw the author for the first time, she had actually thought he was kind of hot. Little did she know that years later she would have fallen in love with him and want to be his everything.

Hooking an arm up over the side of the bed, she entwined her fingers with Castle's as she flipped open to the first chapter and started reading her favorite author's novel for the hundredth time, following the adventures of rookie NYPD detective David McAllister as he was called to a crime scene on the Upper West Side to a seemingly open and shut case.

XXX

Martha returned, minus Jim Beckett, when she was close to halfway through the book. She smiled. Even if she wasn't entirely comfortable with the prospect of their parents seeing each other, she was happy that her father might actually acquire a better social life, which he certainly would if he started spending time with Martha Rodgers. Beckett found a good stopping place and marked her place with the bookmark that was still in the pages. Standing up, she checked on Alexis and Ashley again, almost sensing the concerned fatherly vibe off of Castle even though he was unconscious.

"You're father's a good man, kiddo," Martha said, coming up along side her to check on her son.

Beckett grinned. "I know," she nodded. "He took mom's death hard."

"Anyone who loves as deeply as he did would," Martha replied.

Beckett could almost read between the lines, knowing that Martha was also referring to her son. Feeling uncomfortable, as she always did when emotions were involved, Beckett excused herself, going over to her duffle bag to get a change of clothes. Going to the bathroom, she took a quick shower, and changed into some more reasonable clothes, having been dressed in her sweats and hoodie for most of the day. After drying off, Beckett examined herself in the mirror. She smiled, pleased that the disheveled tired woman looked to be gone, though there were still faint hints of the previous day's exhaustion around her eyes.

All in all, she looked pretty damn good. Oh, she wasn't being vain for her own sake. She just wanted to look good for Castle, when he finally woke up. The thought struck her that she was thinking that. That she was actually thinking about trying to look nice for a man… and that that man was Castle. God, she had never really even thought about this when she had been dating Josh.

Beckett took a moment to wrap this latest development around her mind. Castle and her weren't even together and she was already worrying over how he thought she looked. The whole thing seemed ridiculous to her. She had never ever really cared about such things before. But she was now seeing all of Castle's suggestive jokes and innuendos that he had teased her with in a whole new light. In fact, she had grown her hair out longer mainly because Castle had made some comment one day about how nice he thought she'd look with longer hair. Without knowing it, Beckett had subconsciously started to do little things to please him. To please Castle. And all the while, she was clueless to the one thing that mattered the most.

After fiddling with her hair and letting it down, shaking out the locks to give it a nice bounce, Beckett went back out into the recovery room to find Alexis and Ashley gone.

"Hey there, kiddo," Martha gave her a wink. "I suggested to Ashley that he get Alexis out of here and take her somewhere with fresh air."

"That should do her some good," Beckett replied, glancing down at Castle. "Perhaps I should do so, as well. You know, check in at the precinct and see—"

"Why check in when the precinct can come to you?" came the distinctive voice of Javier Esposito.

She spun on her heels to see the Hispanic detective enter with an arm laced around Lanie's waist. "Any news?" Beckett immediately asked, going into hardcore detective mode.

"Whoa! Easy there, girl," the M.E. spoke with a soft smile. "It's still early, give it some more time, Kate."

Esposito gave a shake of his head as he gazed lovingly over at Lanie, before turning back to Beckett. "Ryan's hounding the techies as we speak," he informed the detective.

Beckett grinned, imagining the Irish detective pestering the lab techs to enhance that traffic photo quicker. Lanie detached from Esposito and wiggled over to Beckett, wrapping her arms around her tightly. "How you doing, girl?" she asked, her voice sympathetic and soothing.

"Better," she admitted to her friend. "The doctor says Castle's doing good, that all he really needs is rest."

"Your boy is sure looking better," Esposito commented standing by Castle's bedside.

"My boy?" Beckett arched an eyebrow, her voice holding the hint of a warning.

"Er… just a turn of phase," Esposito recovered, casting a look towards Lanie. Beckett smiled and shook her head, knowing that her friend had spilled the beans to her boyfriend about what Beckett had told her last night about Castle's confession and her own feelings.

Beckett sighed, resigning herself to the fact that telling Lanie about stuff was sometimes like plastering it all over the Internet for everyone to see. And if Esposito knew, then that meant Ryan knew as well. Turning around from Lanie, Beckett exchanged places with Esposito at Castle's bedside.

"He'll get better," she stated firmly. "He'll be back to annoying us all at the precinct in no time."

Martha smiled, watching as Beckett slipped her fingers around Castle's hand. "I know my Richard, and that's one thing he will never give up," the older woman said.

She gave Martha a grateful smile. Holding Castle's hand and sitting down in the chair that had been previously occupied by Martha, Beckett looked up at her friends. "So… seriously, any news from the precinct?"

Esposito furrowed his brow and looked like he was debating over whether of not to tell her something. She gave him a hard glare, one that made suspects crack easily. It worked just the same with junior grade detectives. "Chief of Detectives was in earlier," he said.

Beckett restrained a gasp. "What did Reynolds want?" she asked. The Chief of Detectives was never one to come down personally to the precinct to check in on things. He usually sent one of his subordinates.

"He was showing the new captain around," Esposito informed her with a grim look.

"Oh yeah, the new captain…," her voice trailed off. They'd met Bill Blye the day before Montgomery's funeral. He was obviously highly qualified and dedicated. He also understood that he was stepping into some pretty big shoes, and was fully aware that the previous captain of the 12th had been well loved and respected amongst his squad of detectives and uniformed officers, having handpicked many of them himself, like her and the boys. However, they had yet to narrow down what kind of commander Bill Blye would be.

"Apparently Blye and Reynolds go way back," Esposito remarked, bringing her back from her thoughts.

Beckett nodded, half listening. She'd deal with it when the time came. She was yet unsure how Captain Blye would react to Castle. The writer had been annoying at first, but he had warmed the hearts of everyone at the precinct and had become a valuable member of the team. Beckett had yet to take the time to talk to her new boss about it yet, her mind having been focused on Roy Montgomery's sacrifice and the revelations about his past involvement with Raglan and McCallister. Arching her neck to gaze back down at Castle, she gave his hand a squeeze and vowed that she'd do all that was in her power to keep him as her partner. Beckett was too wrapped up in the fact she was even willing to make such a vow that she missed Lanie's question.

"I'm sorry… what did you say?" she asked, knitting her eyebrows together and blushing.

Lanie gave a knowing smile. "I just asked if you'd like to have lunch with me and Javi?"

"Oh…," Beckett went blank, her eyes turning to look at Castle.

"Kate, go," Martha made the decision for her. "Just like it does Alexis good to get some fresh air, it would do you some good as well."

Beckett reluctantly agreed and turned back to look longingly at Castle. She squeezed his hand one more time before getting up and going over to the seating area to grab her jacket.

XXX

She returned from lunch a little later than she would have liked. Beckett had taken her phone and had made Martha swear to give her a call if Castle woke. Since she had received no call, she assumed that the writer was still unconscious. When she got back to the room, Beckett found that her assumptions were correct. Martha was still sitting by Castle's side, flipping through a Broadway review magazine.

The older woman was absorbed in the article she was reading and did not notice Beckett's return. As she turned to drop her jacket on the recliner that had been her bed the previous night, she was suddenly attacked by Alexis. The teen gave her a fierce hug. Then backed way, looking embarrassed. "Sorry, I'm just glad you've come back," Alexis said. "Gram's reading a review of one of her plays."

"This critic doesn't understand that craft, darlings," Martha called over to them. "He completely misses the point of my performance."

"I'm sure he does, mother," came an unmistakable voice.

All three women held their collective breaths for a second; all wondering if what they had heard was real or not. Alexis looked like a ghost with fierce pale blue eyes and fiery hair as she detached from Beckett and glided over to the bed.

"Richard," Martha stood up, looking down with watery eyes and a broad smile.

Beckett felt her throat tighten up as tears threatened. She felt a jumble of emotions, none of which she could properly name at the moment. Her legs felt heavy and she had to force herself to move them. She felt like she had lead feet as she walked around to the other side of the bed. Once at the foot of the bed, she could feel his gaze upon her. Beckett would always be able to tell when he was looking at her. He had spent hours simply watching her do paperwork. Others might have called it creepy, hell she'd even called it creepy at one point, but she loved the way he watched her, observing every one of her mannerisms.

Reaching the other side of the bed, Beckett took a deep breath and looked down, seeing his dark blue eyes gazing up at her with an intensity that left her speechless. Martha and Alexis stood on the other side of the bed, watching with rapt attention. Beckett blushed, feeling both embarrassed and ashamed that his focus was on her now instead of his family.

"Kate?" he murmured, his voice coarse and dry.

"Castle?" she responded, swallowing hard as the emotion grew thicker in her throat.

"I've been shot," he said, looking down at himself with a look that could almost be called amusement, before shifting his eyes back up at her.

"Yes, you have," she sniffled and gave a nod, holding back her tears of joy to finally see him awake and alert.

A funny lopsided smirk formed on his lips. "Hey cool," Castle grinned, giving her a mischievous wink. "I bet I'm going to have a wicked scar. Chicks dig scars, right?" He wiggled his eyebrows like he always did and chuckled, making light of the situation. Then he grimaced and groaned. "Oh god, it hurts to laugh."

"Then don't laugh," Beckett admonished him, sighing and running a hand up and down his arm, before interlacing her fingers with hers.

"Where's the fun in that?" he harrumphed. Castle grinned and she could tell that he hadn't missed the change in how she touched him. The old Beckett would never had held his hand in such a fashion. Castle sighed contently, before turning his head in the direction of Alexis. "Hey there, pumpkin," he said. "I hope daddy didn't scare you too much?"

"Oh Dad!" Alexis cried and wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him tight.

"Ugh… Alexis, sweetheart, you're hurting me," he choked.

"Oh, right! Sorry!" Alexis flushed in mortification as she quickly pulled back.

Castle smiled softly, then looked over to Martha and held out his hand. "Mother," he said, his eyes truly showing how much he loved his mother.

"Richard, darling," Martha replied, taking his hand and smiling. "It's about damn time you woke up." She chuckled, brightening the mood, and then they all laughed, including Castle, who groaned and coughed afterwards, but was none the worse for wear.

He sighed and leaned his head back in the pillow. Beckett was still gripping his hand tightly. Alexis began speed-talking about everything, and Beckett was a little worried the teen might reveal how distraught she had been, but then she felt his gaze on her. Swallowing, she blinked and looked at him. They locked eyes and she recognized the look that began to fill those dark blues as he stared up at her.

"Kate…," he began in a murmured voice, cutting his daughter off. Alexis stopped mid-sentence and huffed, but then noticed the eye-exchange going on between her father and the detective.

Martha put a hand on Alexis's shoulder. "Come on, sweetie, let's give them some privacy."

As Martha led her granddaughter away, Beckett heard the younger Castle protest. "But Grams… I wanna watch!"

She smiled at that, remembering Alexis saying the very same thing when Beckett had confronted Castle about the name of the character he had based on her.

"Kate?" his voice called her back to the present and Beckett was suddenly aware of how tightly she was gripping his hand.

"Um… yes, Castle?" she blinked, loosening her grip and blushing slightly.

He smiled up at her, flashing her his boyish grin. "You know, I have to say, if you're my nurse, I'm very much looking forward to getting my sponge bath."

"In your dreams, Castle," Beckett snorted and rolled her eyes. Awake for less than ten minutes and he's already back to the old Castle, this is going to be fun.

Castle laughed and then grimaced, remembering his condition. "God, I really do need to take it easy, don't I?" he groaned.

Beckett let out a breath and nodded. "Yes, Castle, you do."

He nodded and sighed, looking up at her. She watched as his expression turned serious. It was not something she saw often, and now seeing him turn serious, she could not help but remember that night a couple of days ago when they had fought and she had told him it was over. Afraid it was going to go there again, Beckett decided to jump in and say what she had wanted to say the moment after he had walked out of her apartment that night.

"We're not over, Castle," she said quickly, before she could change her mind. "You were right. I was wrong. And… and you almost died because of it."

Castle coughed slightly and grinned, his fingers squeezing her hand. "I'm still here, detective," he murmured. "It will take a lot more than a bullet to get rid of the school's funniest kid."

Beckett swallowed hard. "Look, Castle… I… I'm… I am—" she stammered, trying to find a way to apologize.

"I know," he nodded, knitting his eyebrows together. "I forgive you."

She shook her head and the left corner of her mouth turned up in a smirk. "All right," she said. "And I forgive you."

"Huh?" he furrowed his brow, looking utterly baffled. "Forgive me? For what?"

"For what?" she rolled her eyes. "For coming to my apartment that night and being a coward."

"What? Being a coward?" Castle looked completely lost. "Kate… what are you talking about?"

Oh God, Beckett thought, raising her eyebrows and creasing her brow. He doesn't remember. He doesn't remember what he said. She started to panic. Clenching her jaw shut, she averted her eyes and tried to come up with an excuse, something to hide the fact that she was hurt he did not remember his confession. God, how could she have even expected him to remember? You're so stupid, Kate, she admonished herself. He was bleeding out. He thought he was dying. Of course he was going to say that.

"Kate," she blinked and looked down at him, one eyebrow quirked up as she listened to him. "I know. I remember," he informed her, squeezing her hand and pulling it up, wincing slightly, but he did it anyway, ignoring the pain. And Beckett allowed him to do it. She watched as he pulled her hand to his lips. And then, ever so softly, he pressed a kiss to the back of her hand. "I love you, Kate. And I'm sorry for not saying it sooner. You're right… I was being a coward… I should have told you."

Her walls broke, her defenses caved, and she closed her eyes. She sniffled and tried to suppress the tears. "No, Castle… I'm the coward," Beckett objected. "I… I shouldn't have been so cold or unfeeling. I should have stopped denying to myself how I felt. It's my fault, not yours."

"But I hurt you, Kate," he murmured. "It is my fault. I abandoned you…," his voice choked up. "I saw you with Demming and I gave up. Then when I came back… you… you were with Josh, and I just surrendered. If I wasn't going to be able to have you… then the least I could do was make sure you were happy. I'm sorry. I… I should have fought harder for you. I know I should have."

"No…," Beckett shook her head, a tear escaping and running down her cheek. She brushed it away with a finger and sighed. "I was still in denial… even then. It wasn't your fault."

"I should have called," he remarked, his voice dark and regretful. "During the summer… I should have called. If… If I had, then maybe…"

"Shh," she surprised herself by putting a finger over his lips to silence him. "No… no more what ifs, could haves, or if onlys," she spoke softly. "What matters is now… here." Beckett leaned down over him, bringing her face closer to his. "Richard Castle… I should have done this a long time ago."

"Do what, Detective?"

"This."

Taking one last breath to calm her nerves and worries, sending them away and just living in the moment, Kate Beckett closed her eyes and kissed him… kissed Richard Castle.

THE END

RICHARD CASTLE and KATE BECKETT

will return

in

RUBBER MATCH