Kate was on her back in the green grass, watching the sky shiver blue. The trees dipped their branches overhead, in and out of view, and even with the shuffling breeze, the sunlight managed to keep them warm, held in the glow of afternoon contentment.
The baby on Kate's chest lifted her head and peeked at her mother, then laid back down, soft brown hair brushing Kate's face.
Her head lifted again, round brown eyes, baby cheeks.
"Hey, there. You're ready to eat, I know."
Her head went down on Kate's chest, heavy and warm, unable to stay up; Kate did the same, letting her head fall to the grass in relief, muscles shaking. She brushed her palms up and down the baby's back, closing her eyes.
"Daddy will be home soon."
She hoped very soon. And then again, she wished she could prolong this moment, never leave. Their time at the kremlin - their Russian castle - had come to an end; they were moving to Versailles, outside Paris. They'd picked out the place online; it'd already been paid for. All of this in a week.
Last weekend at the Black Sea, just their little family minus Alexis, someone had seemed to recognize him - some starlet or media maven - they didn't know who, hadn't seen the moment or the hesitant realization on some quasi-familiar face. But Alexis had called to warn them that New York City gossip magazines were picking up and running a story about Rick Castle being seen with a mystery woman and her baby.
The world thought Kate Beckett was dead, and they were perhaps a little too eager to see Richard Castle moving on. Or too ready to be vicious. Alexis wouldn't tell them which way the story slanted, and so far, Kate had managed to keep Rick away from the message boards.
The baby whimpered against her chest, nuzzling, a little first curling in Kate's shirt, mouth open.
"Sorry, sorry. We gotta stay right here for a little while, Reese. Mommy can't make it back up the hill yet."
Kate wrapped her arms around Reese and pressed the baby's head to her chest; she was heavy, and she made it harder to breathe, but Kate wouldn't move her off.
Even if she couldn't quite catch her breath.
She closed her eyes, let the sun on her face calm her overworked heart.
"You fell asleep," he murmured softly, brushing his hand over her cheek. Her eyes were drifting slowly open and she looked at him.
"I left you a note," she said back.
"I saw it," he laughed. She'd scrawled it across the chalkboard in the kitchen, then dragged the board into the front foyer and propped it up where he couldn't possibly miss it. Took Reese to the bridge; come find us.
"Can you take her?" she said suddenly, a flicker of something in her eyes. Regret or pain, probably both.
He was used to it, but it still made him feel guilty. His fault she couldn't breathe too well, his fault she-
"Castle," she hissed.
He grabbed the baby, scooping Reese off her mother's chest, cuddling her to his own as he watched Kate in the grass. She blinked, a hand at her ribs; it took a moment, but then her chest expanded with a deeper breath. He relaxed.
The baby rubbed her cheek against his shirt. "She's hungry."
"Yeah," Kate breathed out, eyes closing again.
He nodded even though she wasn't looking. After a minute, with Reese growing increasingly fussy against him (she seemed to sense that he was the pushover, the one who'd give in immediately to her restless and pathetic cries), Kate opened her eyes in the grass and lifted her hand to him.
He stood up, Reese cradled against him in a football carry, and then reached down to pull Kate to her feet. She swayed, frustration rolling off of her in waves, and then she took a step back slowly.
"I'm good," she said, preempting his question.
He followed her as she started back down the path, over the footbridge and up the hill, the baby growing still and distracted by the sway of light through the trees.
"You got stuck here," he said finally.
"I know. But I knew you'd be back soon."
He knew it wasn't as soon as she'd have liked. But he'd stopped in town for bread - she loved the rye bread they made at this one bakery, and he'd thought it would be a kind of last meal - and that put him back here later than he'd meant to get home.
"It's nearly six."
"Oh." She turned carefully, biting her lip as she looked at the baby. "She's got to be starving."
"Did you feed her before you left?"
"Then she'll survive," Castle said, shrugging. He was pretty sure the baby would be fine; she'd fallen asleep on top of Kate's chest as well, lulled by her mother's heartbeat, as usual, so she couldn't have been that uncomfortable. It was Reese's favorite napping position and they'd spoiled her.
Kate turned back to the path; he rubbed his fingers over the baby's head, kissed the swirl of dark hair at her crown.
Reese gave a little sigh; he echoed it; they headed for the house.
"Hey, Scout, you hungry?" He murmured nonsense to her as he fiddled with the bottle, keeping one eye on her in the bouncy seat. She fisted her hands and worked to get them in her mouth, but she didn't do a whole lot of bouncing.
Which was good, since Kate had put her up on the wide kitchen table. Of course, Kate was also sitting there, a hand over Reese's foot, but Castle was pretty sure that Kate couldn't save their daughter if the girl suddenly decided to bounce right off the table.
It'd be hard for Reese to do, positioned as she was in the middle, but Castle's sense of danger at every corner hadn't lessened with the baby's birth. It had only increased, exponentially.
Still. Nothing for it. That was his life.
He tested the bottle against his arm and came to the table with it. Kate shook her head when he offered it to her, so he fed Reese himself, sitting down at the table with them, arm propped up.
The baby sucked eagerly at the bottle, but she didn't seem famished. Castle made faces at Reese as she worked at it, managed to get what he considered a grin around the bottle.
He felt Kate lean against his shoulder, weariness in her every movement. He used his left hand to reach across his body and stroke through her hair, pressed a kiss to the top of her head. She smelled like Reese. Or Reese smelled like her.
"Don't be sorry."
"Did you get everything settled?"
"Yeah. Movers will come in after us and get everything we leave."
"I scoured the place today, but I want you to go behind me and check. Make sure I haven't left anything."
"I'm sure you've erased all traces of yourself." He grinned at the look she gave him. "Hey. The story will blow over. No one will know I've moved out of here; we've figured it all out."
"It won't hurt your reputation, will it?"
"I don't think so. Not in the long run."
"Next time we'll be more careful."
"Kate. It was a fluke. It might happen again, but I doubt it. I'm not well known in France."
"Your novels have been translated-"
"Yeah, but I don't tour there. In the UK some, but not in France. Plus, the culture is different."
"They have more paparazzi in Europe though. I don't know what we're going to-"
"Hide in plain sight. Your hair is so light now. . ." He trailed off, fingers touching the strands again. She had spent the past two years headed outside, always in the sunlight, walking the grounds as she tried to rebuild her strength. He knew it had something to do with the dreams she had about being confined, but now her hair was this golden brown with beautiful highlights streaking through it. "And short."
"You said you didn't mind-"
"I don't. I'm messing with you." He kissed her forehead, and she lifted up from his shoulder. "I'm sure you did fine. But I'll take a tour around the place and make sure there's no baby stuff."
"And no pictures, no feminine touches-"
"Hey now. Alexis stays here. And the people in town - Kate - honestly, they know you're here. They don't know who you are, but the guy who owns the bakery? He put in an extra loaf of rye when I picked up pastries this afternoon. He knows you're here, and he knows what you like."
She groaned and put her head in her hand, rotated to look at him. "I shouldn't have hired that woman to clean-"
"What else were we going to do?"
She chewed on her bottom lip. "Yeah. This place is huge, Castle."
"It is a huge castle."
She smirked at him for the lame humor, and he was glad to see it had done its job. She looked better already, not so pale, not so worn out. The worry was doing it to her, he knew that.
"Reese gets to learn French," she said suddenly, turning her head to look at the baby. "It will be good."
"You'll be able to get out, both of you. Shop, go to parks, eat at cafes. The beautiful life."
She shook her head at him, but her smile was soft. "Thank you."
"No need to thank me. Jeez. That's like thanking me for being selfish-"
"You bought everything under your old name, Mr. Rodgers." She smiled at him, but stroked Reese's fist. The girl's fingers splayed against the bottle in response. "It helps. Harder to track you down that way."
"Yeah, I'm just sorry it didn't occur to me earlier. But Kate, I'll come back here from time to time, just so no one will think to look for me in France. But you and Reese. . .It will be good."
She turned her eyes to him, soft and gentle, loving. "It was good, Castle. It was good here. I don't want you to think that I felt trapped or isolated-"
"But you were," he started restlessly. She shook her head at him.
"We had two good years here. I wasn't up for much. It was all recovery that first year, and then this little thing the second. I couldn't have gotten out, couldn't have made it through town. This place was exactly what I needed. My very own castle."
Maybe it was the way she looked at him, maybe it was the sound of the baby sucking on her bottle, maybe it was the words she used, but she reassured his heart. The burden of not being enough, not doing enough - it seemed to lighten and melt away.
"But it's time," she added quietly. "It's time to move on."
He realized she meant him - that he needed to move on, stop worrying over her, stop being so frantic when he couldn't immediately find her, stop hovering over their daughter like she'd disappear. He knew that. He really did.
"Paris will be good for us, Castle."
Suddenly, Reese popped her mouth off the bottle and burped at them. Kate laughed, showering that bright and beautiful sound around the room as she turned to their daughter.
"Someone's full, huh?"
Castle took the bottle away, his arm aching from the strange angle, and sat there just a moment more, watching Kate stand up, leaning in over the baby, hair falling forward, even as short as it was. Reese lifted both arms for her mother, fingers grasping, their eyes locked on each other.
Kate turned her mouth to the little palm, kissing it with an exaggerated smack, and then reached down to unbuckle her from the seat.
Castle stood as she lifted the girl out, gritting his teeth to keep from swooping in, to stop himself from asking if she could handle it, if she needed help.
Kate's eyes met his as she stood, the baby against her chest, and she raised an eyebrow, daring him.
He didn't do it; he put his hands behind his back and let her walk away with the baby, headed for the wide chair under the windows.
He followed, of course he did, but he let her do it alone.
Versailles would be different. It would be better, because she was better.
And Reese would flourish there.
Kate turned her head towards him, gestured for him to sit with them. He smiled at her and hurried to the chair, opened his arms for her. Kate sat close, the baby lifting her head to look at him, and Castle circled them in a loose embrace.
"You can do it," Kate murmured, pressing a gentle kiss to his cheek. "We both can."
Castle leaned in and kissed her back, mouth pushing deep with a promise. He wouldn't imprison her either, not any more. He would learn to let go.