Epilogue 2 of 2

January 1 - Don't Let Me Into This Year With An Empty Heart

His mouth is dry; his body indistinguishable from the bed, the warmth, the heaviness, the skin.

The skin?

Something stirs. Memory or warning. His eyes flicker open, at once overcome and squinting against sunlight. He's pretty sure he closed the curtains last night, and that isn't his skin-

"Kate," he groans, wincing.

She chuckles or hums, her shadow falling across his face as she moves, and then his eyes flare open when the bedcovers are pulled away.

She's getting in with him. "Kate?"

"It's only seven," she murmurs, and her toes are cold against his shin, his calf. He twists so that he's lying on his side, blinking at her. The sun forms a nimbus around her body, an aura of golden light against the chestnut fall of her hair, the rich pelt of her eyes.

"Only seven," he repeats, trying to find reason or sense in any of this.

Kate slid into bed with him.

"Happy New Year," she says.

That doesn't explain anything, but his brain is giving up on him. He slides his arm around her back and pulls her in, unthinkingly, nestles her against him, warm and sleepy as he is, draping over her.

He figures it out after a moment: she's not resisting, not really, but her body doesn't melt down into the mattress either, doesn't conform to his. And he realizes parts of him are more awake than others, and he laughs, feels the laughter rumbling in his chest, her huff of not-all-that-amused air at his ear.

"Too early for anything but sleep, Kate," he mutters, dropping a sloppy kiss on her cheek but not letting go of her. She was the one who wanted to slip into his room and wake him at seven o'clock on the first day of 2012, she was the one who then got in his bed; he's not letting go. "Happy New Year."

"You're falling back to sleep," she grouses, and he has just enough awareness left to realize she sounds amused as well.

"You're talking too much," he grumbles and fumbles his hand up between them, snags his fingers over her lips, pats her cheek.

Feels good, her warm body half under him, her hair brushing his neck and cheek. Her hand at his shoulder, a leg between his.

He's drifting off again, sinking down into the tumble of thoughtless images when he feels her squirming, adjusting. She's moved away, her knees drawn up between them, a hand curled at his neck, her head on the pillow next to him, and he knows she's watching him, not sleeping, but that's okay. That's good too.

There's a table of books; his sharpie has a tinge of musk and perfume to it rather than the sharp bite of solvent and marker. He lifts it to his nose, confused, and the line of fans disappears, melts into an arm black against the light, a body, a woman-


He lifts his head from the pillow and finds he's been sleeping on his stomach, his ribs aching from it, but Kate is sitting up in bed next to him, playing with her phone.

She turns to him, a hand travels to his head, musses his hair, and he swears he'd fall out of bed in shock if he weren't firmly in the center of the mattress.

"Morning. Again."

"Uh. What. What time is it?" She's in his bed. Oh. There was something about cuddling. "I thought I dreamed that. You really did crawl into bed with me this morning?"

She lifts an eyebrow. "Crawl?"

"Poor word choice. Slip?"

"Mm, something like that."

He's not going to push for more because part of what he loves about her is that enigmatic smile, that Mona Lisa poise.



"Respectable. How long have you been awake?"

"Since six."

"You're gonna have to learn how to sleep in," he says gravely, frowning up at her.

She takes and gives it right back. "Or you're gonna have to start getting up early with me."

He turns over to lay on his back, slides his hand up the line of her shin to her knee. She's got both knees up, her back curled against the headboard, her phone cradled in her lap. "What're you doing?"

"Playing Angry Birds on your phone."

"My phone?"

"I took it off mine. Big waste of time."

He laughs and tugs on her knee; she rolls with it, lying down on her side next to him, a grin on her face. The hand around his phone comes up and she uses her finger to tap his forehead, trace down to his nose.

"What're you doing, Kate?"

"Watching you sleep. Beating your high scores. Getting hungry."

He catches her hand, pulls his phone out of her grip, leaves it on the other side of him. She watches him, waiting for his next move maybe, and he drags up some courage and cups her cheek, brushing his thumb over the severe lines of her bone structure.

"Beautiful in the morning," he says, still unable to form coherent thoughts. Or maybe it's just her, just the warmth in her face as she looks at him in his bed, the feeling of her fingers circling around his wrist as if to hold him there.

"Thank you," she says softly, something in her eyes that goes in and out, like a break in the clouds during an overcast day, the sun struggling through. "Can we have breakfast now?"

Castle grins back at her, has to fight the urge to curl around her and take her into himself, deep and forever, planted there, never to leave. She strokes her thumb along the inside of his wrist, raises both eyebrows, clearly looking for an answer.

"Course. Thanks for waiting for me."

"Least I could do," she murmurs. "You waited for me."

You waited for me.

He moves forward and presses his lips to her the corner of her mouth, unwilling to let that go without something, some acknowledgement. His voice, when he finally finds it, sounds rough.

"Wait's over, Kate."

When Kate woke on Christmas morning, feeling drugged from staying up late (panicking over what she was going to give Castle for Christmas), she ignored the Advent calendar. For the first time in twenty-four days, she didn't open that window.

She didn't want it to be over, and she also didn't want that last item to affect her, either way. She didn't know what it might be, didn't want to know, and didn't want it to change her before she got a chance to explain to Castle - everything.

She didn't listen to the song either, just in case. She looked up the lyrics online, to check, and even though it was a Christmas song, and Weezer, and really, what harm could there be? - she still didn't listen to it.

She saved it for later.

She had a plan for that evening with him, how it would go, how she would get off work as soon as she could and go over to his apartment and tell him. She wanted to be able to tell him, honestly, without whatever last-ditch effort he made on the 25th to sway her to his side. She wanted to say it to him and then be able to say she'd done it on her own, without needing the shove from Day 25, without needing to be persuaded.

She wanted it to be her own decision - not a reaction to 25 days worth of Castle's. . .courtship.

It didn't go like she planned.

When Kate got home late on Christmas Day - night by that time - she had almost forgotten that she hadn't opened the last window. He hadn't asked about it, and she'd spent so much time trying to make sure she hadn't damaged whatever fragile beginning they'd made that she hadn't given it another thought.

So Kate opened the last Advent window at one in the morning on the twenty-sixth. She found the gift, and the note, and she was glad she hadn't seen it before.

But she knew she wouldn't keep it.

She plans to give it back to him today.

Kate is holding his hand. Castle likes it - the feel of her sharp bones against his long, thick fingers, the way she squeezes when she wants him to follow her to avoid pedestrians, the bump of her hip when she comes even closer.

They eat breakfast at a place on La Brea; she orders scrambled eggs, wheat toast, and water, and he gets pancakes topped with sliced strawberries. She steals his strawberries, one by one, with her fingers, popping each piece into her mouth quickly before it slips, her tongue pink and darting out to catch the fruit.

He could get used to watching her eat like this. He doesn't even mind that all his strawberries are gone - he just asks the waitress for more while Kate bites her lower lip, evidently just realizing she's eaten them all.

When he gets a huge bowl of them set beside his plate, Castle dumps half of them onto hers, the rest over his pancakes. Mixed with the syrup now, he's fairly certain she won't steal them, but just in case-

"These are mine, those are yours," he says, lifting an eyebrow and pointing with his fork. "Because I love you and you're exceptionally sexy when you slide those into your mouth, I'm willing to let it go. But don't eat my food."

She laughs, presses her lips back together to smother the sound, the grin, tries to look serious or threatening or seductive. He's not sure what look she's going for there. More stern Beckett probably.

"Oh really?"

"Can't mess with a man's food, Beckett. You work with cops; you should know that already."

"I don't want Esposito's food. I want yours," she purrs.

Yeah, purrs. That's all that his brain can label that noise as. Whatever it is coming out of her throat - a bedroom voice so incredible that he reaches under the table and squeezes her knee, a real warning this time, not just messing with her about eating his strawberries.

She smirks.

Fine. She wants to play this game? You're on.

She hasn't done anything to deserve this, she thinks, feeling her stomach quiver as his hand travels.

Oh goodness. She's in trouble. After breakfast, they wandered along La Brea window shopping, but the moment he saw the book store, he was leading her over. She wasn't protesting of course, because it's a book store - a used book store - and of course she wants to go inside, but she forgot the unspoken challenge in his eyes during breakfast.

She forgot until he crowded behind her in the poetry section, a cramped alcove at the back, and reached around her for a thick volume. Pretending to read, his jaw against her temple, his other arm around her while he holds up the book.

His left hand is splayed at her waist, a finger hooked in the waistband of her jeans, the others riding up her shirt, their hips not touching but so so close. She can't help but think, He picked this pair out. And he's going to find out which one of the two it is she's wearing.

He's murmuring lines into her ear (the gentle breath of her sighs, she still slays me, how she speaks and how she shines). Kate doesn't even know what but it sounds like a reworded Shakespeare, a poet with that strange and ancient diction to their lines. Even though these words don't rhyme, they have the cadence of courtly love.

Castle chuckles against her ear and reads again, "'Now I begin to awaken, and I see it was for the best that she resisted my desire and tempered the burning youthful lusts with a face both sweet and angry.'"

Kate laughs on a breath and shakes her head, stepping back into him to dislodge his hand, break the spell. For a brief moment, she grazes his thigh, feels him tense with restraint. "What in the world are you reading?"

"Yeah, there's the sweet and angry face right there," he laughs and tilts the book so she can see. "Petrarch. Translated into English prose."

"Strange. And - beautiful. Petrarch's muse - she died, didn't she? Too soon."

His face changes; she wishes she had left it alone.

"She did. Laura. She never accepted him-"

"Not true," Kate says quickly. "She was married; she couldn't. And then she died, and-"

"He loved her," Castle says simply, putting the book back on the shelf. "He loved her despite his love being unrequited, forever unreachable-"

"But it made him who he is. It put words to paper," Kate continues, not sure why she's arguing with him over this. "He's the father of the sonnet - he and Shakespeare. She inspired him, that love inspired him."

"Kate," he says, and it's gentle, too gentle, but she doesn't look at him; she stares at the book of verses back on the shelf. Thick. All those words, the hundreds of 'scattered rhymes' Petrarch wrote to Laura, the woman he saw once in a church, hopelessly out of his reach.

"That's not us," she decides, and finally turns, wrapping her arms around him, her cheek to his, convincing him.

"I know."

She steps back, regarding him. "Don't forget it."

His lips twitch. "You either."

At the hotel, Kate tells him to wait, pushes the door to her bedroom closed. He still hasn't seen her dress.

Castle changes into his suit easily enough, an expensive suit with a shiny charcoal shirt - pinstriped - nothing she hasn't seen him in before. He forgoes a tie to leave it unbuttoned; his neck is too thick for a tie to be comfortable all night and it always looks like he's being strangled.

He waits in the sitting room on the couch, nervous again, and tries to settle down. He clasps his hands together, adjusts his jacket to keep from wrinkling it, pulls out his phone to check the notes his publicist sent over a few hours ago - talking points.

The door behind him clicks open, and he jumps up, turning to look at her.

He can't get much past black dress, deep v, short skirt before the sight of all that skin, the pale pink of her lips, the flush between her breasts captivates his attention.

"I need you to zip me up," she says and turns around.

He hears his phone thump to the floor but doesn't stop to pick it up; instead, he goes straight to her side, the tumble of curling hair down her back, watches her hands gather it together and pull it all over one shoulder.

Thankfully, the dress covers her back, little scalloped sleeves, the ragged edges where the zipper hasn't come together. He can't help put press a kiss to the top of her spine, his hands at her waist, that tight circling material that emphasizes just how narrow her ribs are.

She shivers. "Castle."

Right. Zipper. He grasps the tab and eases it up, a thumb at the base of her spine for leverage. He even remembers to do the little hook at the top, brushes his hand across her neck to let her know it's done.

Kate lets go of her hair as she turns back around; her hand strays to his chest, her eyes seeking his.

"Black," he grits out, hates himself for *that* being the word that finally emerges, shakes his head even though he can see her smirking. "It's shiny."

She laughs, brushes her hand over his collar. "Your shirt is too. We match. Look at that."

He blinks at the dominant and powerful look in her eyes, tries to swallow. "I meant. You look good. Gorgeous, really. Alluring."

"Alluring? Nice word," she murmurs, and he sees she's watching his mouth.

He leans in and brushes his lips over hers, but she pushes on him. "Let me finish getting ready."

But now that he's seen it, he just wants to get her out of it.

Still, she disappears back into her room.

Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard is everything she expected, and also, somehow less. The red carpet unfurls, but they don't get to walk a straight shot from the car service to the street. Instead they wind around, made to stop every few inches for a photograph or an interview, Castle's hand at her back for most of it, people calling for them to turn or smile or try it again.

There's no love here, only commands. Castle has it down to a science, apparently, and she follows his lead, tries to find her center, let it flow out from there - peace and ease and natural grace.

It seems that they're mistaken for celebrities because everyone else around them is somehow famous or almost famous (well, Castle is famous, isn't he?). So just in case, they want her too, call out compliments and teasing lines, ask her to move just to the left, grab his arm, turn around.

It's exhausting.

"You're doing great," he says in her ear at one point, and it jolts her to her toes, the curling rasp of his voice, sincere and real; it gives her an extra edge as she's asked to parade through the confusion of press and people.

She can't help glancing down from time to time, reading the names of legendary movie stars set into concrete blocks, the footprints and handprints of actresses and actors who are mostly long gone. Myrna Loy's message to Sid Grauman, John Wayne's fist, Roy Rogers's gun, hoofprints even, side profiles, legs -

"Look at me, doll; look up, over here."

She jerks her head up, eyebrow raised, but it's more photographers, Castle hustling her down the line, and she realizes this isn't the time to be gawking like a tourist.

A few stations later, she's pulled aside for questions, most of them inane and ridiculous, variations on 'Are you excited about tonight?' that she doesn't try to answer appealingly. Castle is pulled further away from her as he's handed from one magazine reporter to the other, entertainment news interviewers as well.

However, one much older man asks her how she thinks Castle's series will be on the big screen, since most movies lately are remakes from the 80s or a superhero plucked from the pages of a comic book. The reporter looks both bored and entirely too articulate to be covering a press junket.

So to this question, Kate does actually try to answer, giving it a moment's thought and slowly formulating a response. The older man starts paying attention, looking interested again. She doesn't know what all she says, but she finds herself talking about the nature of good and evil at one point and realizes she should close it out, let the man go.

When she turns, Castle is watching her, a look on his face she's seen infrequently but knows anyway. Surprised, proud, a little thrilled - his eyes crinkle and he holds out his elbow for her to tuck her hand under his arm.

"Interesting," he murmurs to her, still smiling. "Nikki Heat as the modern woman's superhero. Who knew you were such a geek?"

"Hm, I thought you already knew," she smirks. "I have managed to read most of your comic book collection."

"Be still my heart," he grins. "Still. You had that reporter eating out of your hand."

"Oh yeah?" She doubts it. But she was focused, at the time, on an interesting weave of complex cultural issues - the lack of diversity in today's entertainment, the flux of a public opinion that seems to always crave homogenous states, and the way those two connect, perhaps, to the decline of society - economically or morally or however one chooses to look at it.

"You're entirely too intelligent for this place," he murmurs, and pauses them in front of another station. She's almost used to the halting walk, the posing, the unnatural feel of holding her smile and changing the angle of her head and presenting herself to the light.

"If I am, then so are you," she says back, under her breath, unable to help darting her eyes to look at him, his smile so open and relaxed. How easy this is for him, how he takes to it naturally. She hopes she looks half as good.

And strangely, she wonders if he's ever had someone real at his side before - to do this with - or if it was more of the likes of Meredith and Parisian models. She can see now, how lonely he must have been, and she raises a hand to his cheek, curling her thumb at his mouth.

It's captured by a dozen more flashes, and she can't seem to care.

Let them all see, let them all know.

Castle winces when he hears Meredith's voice echo in the lobby, but Kate hasn't lost her pressed lip, welcoming smile - even though he knows from the previous two hours' walk of the red carpet that it's not connected to any true emotion other than, perhaps, irritation or maybe long-suffering.

Meredith doesn't even pause at the sight of Kate, heads straight to Castle for a fearsome and entirely too familiar embrace. Alexis is hugging Kate though, his daughter look regal in navy blue with her hair piled up on her head, her skirt soft around her knees. He's grateful for that, at least; Meredith didn't insist on something inappropriate. Or at least, Alexis won that argument. However it went down.

"Meredith, you remember Kate Beckett," he says, withdrawing from his ex-wife's embrace and touching Kate's back in relief.

She's already extending a hand to Meredith, shaking the other woman's with a grace that looks effortless and completely without cattiness. Honestly, he's so relieved that it's like a weight lifting from his chest; he can breathe again.

Meredith, on the other hand, apparently wants to go for catty. She makes a little pouting face at Castle and says, "Richard." Her body turns toward his, blocking Kate.

"Meredith." A warning and a prayer at the same time. Kate can handle herself; it's Alexis he's worried about.

Thankfully, he sees Kate drawing his daughter ahead of them, walking into the theatre with her, distracting her. God, she's good. She's seriously amazing.

Meredith slides her hand up his chest and grins winningly. "After this, you want to-"

"No. That's done you know. Kate is-"

"Oh, darn. Really? Alexis said something like that. But it's an exclusive thing? Because a quick-"

"Meredith," he sighs. He can't even be mad at her because she doesn't have a deceitful or conniving bone in her body. She's just fluff. Pretty and a little vacant, but with lots of bubbly happiness, and very little responsibility. "It's just me and Kate. All right?"

"Oh, all right," she sighs and separates from him, following Alexis and Kate towards the theatre. "Your sense of decency has always ruined my fun, Richard."

He has to laugh at that - really, *he* was the moral compass in their relationship? - and he walks inside to find Kate standing stunned at the back with Alexis at her side, both of them absorbing the inside of the theatre - it's majestic expanse of gold and red - with much the same look of fascination and close observation.

They are strangely so much alike.

She turns when he approaches, slides her hand into his, their fingers lacing together. "You good?" she murmurs, lifting an eyebrow.

He keeps his voice low as Meredith curls an arm around his daughter. "No problem. Alexis?"

She nods, turns back to the theatre. "So. Where are we all sitting?"

"Mere - uh, Mom - and I are sitting upstairs," Alexis says on a laugh. "We might not see you later either-"

"I'm taking Alexis out to a few places I know," Meredith says with a laugh, sparkling and light. Castle frowns but Alexis gives him a hard look; he keeps his mouth shut.

"Sorry to miss you, Dad," she says, leaning forward to hook her arm around his neck and hug him. He embraces her back, kisses her forehead.

"You look beautiful, Alexis," he murmurs, a little overcome by the way she beams, bright and blossoming, so happy with just a few words from him. Daddy's girl. It makes his chest tight. "And seriously Alexis, don't fall on your sword just for us."

Meredith doesn't seem to get it, but Kate must, because she frowns. "Alexis-"

"I'm not. I'm fine. Seriously. We've got better things to do - and so do you," Alexis grins, but Castle sees the plan hatching in her eyes. She's keeping Meredith away, which is sweet and silly and brave of her, but he wishes she didn't feel the need to do that.

Meredith is already heading for the grand staircase, calling for Alexis over her shoulder even as she flirts with an older man that looks faintly familiar - fellow thespian or director, someone she can work for connections - and Kate nudges him with their joined hands.

"She knows what she's doing. And she'll call if they get into trouble," Kate says.

He sighs and looks over at her. "You sure you still wanna up for this?" It's not really a question; he's being facetious, but she's not laughing.

"I'm sure. This is nothing."

Castle watches Kate more than the movie.

They had a moment of strange reunion with Natalie Rhodes, who acted like she didn't know them and also like she ought to, and then her handler pulled them aside and explained she was deep in research for a new role. Which didn't quite explain the vacant look in her eyes, but Castle did remember something about drug rehab last spring.

They have good seats, excellent seats, and the theatre isn't as quiet as he expected even though the movie is playing. People chat all around them, phones are out, and it's easy to drop his hand over on Kate's knee and work his way up. Slowly.

She has her eyes resolutely on the screen even as he trails a finger to the impossibly short skirt of her dress, curling under the hem. He slides his finger back and forth under the edge of the material, moving her skirt inexorably higher and higher on her upper thigh.

Her mouth twitches; it's the only clue he gets before she's crushing his hand into her thigh to stop him, his fingers mangled by the strength of her grip. He grins because she's basically pressing him into her, and his pinky is free to move, to slide, to graze ever nearer.

She laces their fingers together deftly, drops her other hand on top of his as if trapping a wild thing in her lap. He vaguely registers the Nikki onscreen as she fights off the man in her apartment, but he feels the heaviness of Kate's hands encapsulating his, the heat of her thighs radiating through the soft satin of her dress.

After awhile, her grip eases, and he feathers his fingers out, ready to try again. But Kate slips a hand towards him, behind the armrest (how? how did she thread her arm through there?) and suddenly her hand is on his thigh, hot and restless.

Oh, he's in trouble.

She's making little circles with her thumb, her fingers curving over his thigh. His whole body quivers, quads clenching.

"Oh, you can dish it out, but you can't take it," she murmurs, just at his ear.

He turns slowly, finds her mouth parted invitingly near his, takes the offer.

Even as he tries to distract her with a kiss, her hand squeezes, starts moving, and he abandons the skin of her knee to trap her hand before it's all over.

Castle pulls back, meets her eyes, accepts the truce in them.

They walk back to the hotel hand in hand, abandoning the car service and escaping from the crushing throng of photographers and movie people, slipping away from the symbiotic, parasitic relationship being played out behind them.

Kate is waiting for some ideal moment, but she knows it won't come. It will be this or nothing.

She waits until he's distracted by the lights of the Kodak Theatre, releases his hand to open her clutch. She pulls out the gift he left for her behind the window on Christmas day, the little misshapen lump of silver and brass.

Balanced steel-core, tungsten alloy probably. At a guess. She took it to a jeweler's and had it put on a thin black cord.

Her stomach is churning, but there is no right time, no good time for this.


His head turns to her; he stops on the sidewalk, but she doesn't want to do it here either. Her eyes dart around, seeking help-

"Let's get coffee." The suggestion tumbles out of her mouth before she can stop it, but he grins and nods, moves to take her hand but it's in a fist around the gift.

He gives her a confused look. "Kate?"

She heads for the coffee shop ahead of him, puts her clutch under her arm and opens the door - he catches it, holds it for her, following her in. Kate bites her bottom lip and half-turns back to him. "I'll get us a seats."

She'll let him do his job, getting the coffee.

She slips between tables and chairs in the mostly empty coffee house, tries to breathe past the ice clenching around her heart. Finding a worn, soft couch near a window, Kate sits down, hoping he'll sit beside her, but at least there's a chair close by if he-

He sits down beside her. She gives him a smile and drops her clutch, takes the coffee he holds out. Her right hand is still in a fist. "That was fast."

"They're not exactly slammed in here," he says, trying on a smile.

She nods, swallows past the tightening in her throat, trying to get up the courage.

From her peripheral vision, she sees him place his coffee cup on the table in front of them, sit back from her a little. "Hey, just say it. Whatever it is, Kate, it can't be as bad as my overactive imagination-"

"God," she gasps, lifting her eyes to his. "I'm not - it's not - I had a good time tonight."


"No but," she smiles, tries to ease whatever hell she must have just put him through. "I have something for you."

"Oh?" He quirks an eyebrow, apparently going for leering but it falls a little flat. Her fault. She's nervous, and this is important, and he's picking up on it, getting nervous himself.

She lifts her hand, unfurls her fingers to reveal the thing she found behind the window:

the bullet that shot her.

He's silent, staring down at her hand.

She was much the same when she found it. She remembers, all too clearly, the smashed, misshapen thing, the bullet that rattled around in her chest and damaged her heart, remembers the thin slip of paper he'd wrapped around it:

I promise. This will never happen again.

"That's for you, Kate." He tries to close her hand back around the metal, but she pulls away.

"No, Castle." She takes it by the black leather string, holds it up. "I'm giving it back to you."

"I thought it would help," he says quietly. "To have it. Like when Esposito showed you the rifle. I thought having it-" He shrugs and stares at the bullet.

"No, Castle." She cups the back of his neck, tugs him closer so she can drop it over his head; the bullet hangs low and she tucks it down his shirt, out of sight. "That's not why. Castle, listen to me. This will be the only bullet you take for me."

His eyes fly back to hers.

"Do you understand?"

"But, Kate-"

"You have to promise me. This is the last bullet you take for me."

He stares at her. "I can't."

"Castle." She grips his neck and leans forward, pressing her mouth to his cheek. "Please."

"If you put yourself in danger, Kate, I'm going to do everything I can-"

"I won't, remember? The murder board stays off. Not now. Not on purpose. Okay? Neither one of us."

His hand comes to curl around her cheek, his fingers brushing her ear, sliding into her hair. She reaches out and presses her palm to his chest, feels between their skin that bullet.

"And in the future, when you take it back up again. You'll listen to me?" he asks, something brittle and yet so hopeful in his voice. "When I come to you and warn you that everyone around this case is dead, they're all dying, you'll stop?"

"When that day comes, I'll stop."

"Then I'll never have to take another bullet," he whispers back, and his lips brush across hers, a promise and a warning.

The walk back to the hotel is mostly silent, but he's not worried. It's a good silence, easy, ripe with meaning. Things are being said with the curl of her hand in his, the sway of her hips, the press of his shoulder against hers.

It's a warm night and the hotel's doorman gestures them through the portal, giving a little inclination of his head. Kate's hand is loose in his as she presses the call button for the elevator, just their fingers laced together.

In the lift, he can't help wrapping his arms around her and holding her against him, breathing her in - that musk he remembers from the Christmas party at his place, the wild tang of cherry blossoms, and the rich scent of coffee. He finds his hand is buried in her hair, holding her close.

Kate angles her head down and opens her mouth against his jaw, touches her tongue to his skin. He shivers and finds that clever, inviting mouth, stroking her tongue with his, losing his good intentions until the elevator doors open.

She leads him down the hall to their suite, her body wrapped in black satin, skirt entirely too short, long legs so very appealing. He keeps a hand at her lower back as she releases his fingers to unlock the door, swiping the key card.

Once inside, he can't help crowding into her, arms around her waist, leaning towards her mouth even as the door slams behind them.

She presses her hand to his chest, stopping him, cupping the bullet. "You don't have to wear it every day. It's just. . .a promise, Castle."

He grins back at her, knowing she's delaying the inevitable. "I'm fine, Kate. I understand."

She nods. "I just don't want you to think we have to match. I've got issues but you don't need to carry them-"

"Kate." He grins, slides his hand up her back to her neck, fiddling with the hook at the top of her dress. "It's a new year."

She shivers and her eyes dilate, the hand at his waist curling. He releases the hook, thumbs the zipper, waiting on her. She slides her hand down his chest.

"Need some help getting out of this dress?" he prompts.

She stares at him; he loves the curl of her hair, natural and wild, half-pulled back, half trailing down her neck, over her shoulders. Castle reaches out and touches a lock that tumbles in front of her ear, pushes it back, kisses the beauty mark on her cheek at its sharp angle, then down to her jaw.

Sometimes he catches her watching him in the bullpen and she has that sly, smiling look on her face which she quickly subsumes, wipes away (the look he now knows is her I love you look) . And it's the same look he sees now when he pulls away from her cheek, and she doesn't bother to hide it.

"Unzip me, Castle."


He breathes out, moves around behind her, slides the zipper down slowly, letting his mouth follow, sucking at the ridges of her vertebrae, nibbling. When his hand gets to the bottom of the zipper, he lets his thumb brush across the top of her black panties, sucks in a breath as she arches.

The deep curve of her back is too much; he crowds closer, slides both hands inside her open dress, around the flat plane of her stomach, fingers along her smooth skin. He skims her ribs, sliding up.

"Castle," she breathes, and he wants to see her face, those eyes, when she says his name like that again.

At the same time, he doesn't want to move from this warm, delicious spot. He kisses her shoulder blade, the tendon at her shoulder, her neck, sliding his hands around her waist and up her back. He buries one hand at her neck under her hair, moves around to look at her, trailing the back of his hand down her sternum, feeling the rise and fall of her chest.

Kate has her eyes closed, lashes dark against the curve of her cheek, mouth parted. Castle moves in to nibble her lips, feels the startled breath as she lifts to meet him, her chest pressing against his.

Her hair so soft against the back of his hand, at the sides of his face, her mouth like hot velvet, her breasts firm against his chest-

Forgetting, he slides his hand down her back, encounters only soft, sweet skin and the curve of her spine, skimming the band of her bra, the flare of her waist, the sudden scratch of lace.

"Castle," she says against his mouth, breaks away to look at him, her eyes so rich and dark and deep that he's lost.

He leans in towards her, his forehead against hers, tries to breathe. "Kate." He has to either get control of himself or-

"Don't stop."

He swallows, cups her jaw with his hands, taking another sip of her mouth, feels her fingers at his shirt, tugging it out of his pants, moving to his belt.

"Kate." It's not a warning, but maybe a plea. He needs that dress off. He needs her skin under his fingers again. He presses a hand to her lower back, pulls her hips flush with his, slips his fingers under the waistband of her lace panties.

"I love you," she says on a moan. "God, I love you. Don't stop."

His knees go weak; he stumbles and her arms go around him, as if to catch him. He can feel her laugh at his throat she nibbles at his skin. He's lost track of where he was, no longer suave, can only grab her by the neck and press his mouth to hers, hard and hot.

Her tongue battles with his, her hips arch into him, her fingers around his ears to hold him there. Castle breaks once, kisses her again, breaks it off again to breathe, ragged and rough, feels her shimmying against him, through half-slitted eyes sees the black dress falling to the floor.

"Kate." He breathes, mouth close to hers, cradles the back of her neck with a hand, lifts the other between them to place his fingertips at her scar, holding it all in. "I love you. I love you, Kate."

She must see the ghost of that day echo in his eyes, because her hand curls around the bullet at his chest, fingers warm at his skin, alive. "This year will be better, Castle. This year - we'll be more."

Kate steps in closer, her legs parting around his thigh, her hand sliding up his chest, her lips dangerous against his ear.

"Now take me to bed."