A/N: So this is it, the last chapter. It's a rather lenghty one and I hope you'll find it satisfactory.:) Thank you so much for all your alerts, faves and comments, they really keep me going, turning the writing into an even bigger pleasure.

A huge thanks goes, as always to my beta Nik47, the best beta out there. Girl, you really rock!


RULES OF ENGAGEMENT


Chapter 9


She stands in the corridor in front of his familiar door, undecided and nervous. Her hands rest on either side of the frame, supporting her, fingers curled into loose fists. She doesn't knock or ring the buzzer, just stands there, attempting to brace herself for the uncomfortable conversation about to occur.

It's been over three weeks since the shooting, three weeks since he was released from the hospital, and she's been over at his place nearly every night since, spending more time at the loft than the previous four years combined.

And it's been a good month, filled with lively conversation and laughter, late-night dinners and stolen kisses, often followed by amused, pointed looks from either his mother or his daughter whenever they got caught, slightly embarrassed but never too sorry. It's been really good. They've been good, her and Castle.

He's spent the majority of his time alternating between healing, resting, making it to doctors' appointments and writing his new book, but he'd quickly grown bored with being cooped up at home. He often texted or called her at work, consulted on the cases with her while simultaneously whining about the monotony of his day, or complaining about missing out on all the action. But she'd been strict about the doctor's orders: no 'active duty' for him just yet. And some of his texts weren't even work-related at all, not at all, making her blush deep down to her very toes and silently curse Castle when she caught those knowing smirks from either Ryan or Esposito.

And she's missed having him around; she won't even try to deny that. But it's the eve of his return to the precinct now, and although Castle himself can't wait until tomorrow, when he's finally allowed to officially rejoin her, the very same thought fills Kate with nothing but dread.

Which is why she did what she did today, something she should have done months ago. And even though she knows with absolute certainly how very upset and angry he'll be with her for going behind his back, she's done it anyway. Not that she likes it, damn it, not that she's looking forward to it herself. No, she certainly wouldn't be doing this if she didn't hate the alternative even more.

Yet she's taken the choice from him because she needs him alive, would rather have him safe and pissed off at her than happy and dead.

Standing in front of his door now, Kate knows this will come down to a fight, and she's not looking forward to it, but she won't compromise here, not even when she knows Castle's anger will be justified. She likes where they've been heading the past couple of months and she won't threaten that, won't give it up.

She's made the choice, for both of them, and he'll have to learn to live with that. And if he can't…

Her mind shuts down immediately, unable to even complete that thought as her hand forms a fist and drums resolutely against his door. It's time to just do this. It's what needs to happen, and it's for the best.


"Maybe it's for the best." Her voice is compassionate but determined, not leaving much room for argument. She's not sorry, she's not. It's hard though, hard because the consequence of her actions is standing irritated and incensed right in front of her, and it's not a pretty sight.

"For the…for the best? Best for whom, Kate? Oh sorry, stupid question – apparently it's 'for the best' when it's not affecting you."

She understands his anger, she really does, but the words still sting. Does he seriously think that little of her? Still, she doesn't reply, doesn't defend herself. She's probably responding too passively to his outburst, too passively by her own standards anyway, but she really feels for him here. After all, he's the one who's going to be the most affected by the repercussions of this. So instead of standing up for herself, she says, "It's gonna be okay, Castle."

Which turns out to be the worst thing possible.

"Easy for you to say!" he scoffs furiously. "You'll still be waking up in the morning and doing your job! She's only banning me from the precinct-"

"No, no, she isn't!" Kate interjects quickly, still going for calm. "I made sure that's not what she meant."

Judging by the look he's giving her now, this also wasn't the right thing to say. Damn.

They're standing in his study, the heavy mahogany desk between them forming a physical barrier, mirroring exactly the mental one which he'd immediately drawn when she confessed what she'd done. He's leaning away from her, his shoulders hunched in a subconscious – almost defensive – way, and she hates it, hates the way he's protecting himself from her now, from what she came here to say, no doubt wondering what it means for the two of them, how it will affect them. How it will change them. But it won't, it won't.

"Not what she meant? Didn't you just tell me that your boss," he spits the word like it's a personal insult, "Captain Victoria Iron Gates told you that after what happened last month, she wasn't going to let me work with you guys anymore? Or did I get that all wrong?" His voice is dripping with sarcasm, and it hurts, burns, because he has every right to be cynical about this, and he's blasting gaping holes in her fairly flimsy defense. Kate squirms in place, her eyes shying away from his.

"Well," she stammers – she actually stammers – "she said that she'd already considered before – many times in fact – how if something happened to you, it might reflect badly on the department. And then, after it got out that you were not only directly involved but also injured in an actual shooting last month, she said she'd be a fool to allow you back in the field with us again."

"Oh, here we go," he growls, rolling his eyes exasperatedly as he throws his hands up in frustration, obviously preparing to launch right back into the argument. And then he pauses, his eyes whipping suddenly to hers, suspiciousness clouding them when he catches the slight tremor of her gaze before it drops to the floor. Her unusual quietness, the timidity in her posture…this is nothing like her, not at all. No, Kate Beckett fights her fights, strong and unyielding and fierce. So why is she suddenly so passive about this? Why isn't she opposing Gates, opposing the decision? Defending him and his work with the force?

And then it hits him.

"You agree with her," he accuses, his voice low, disbelieving. Her answering silence speaks loud and clear and he feels nauseated.

"What did you do, Kate?" he moans, the sense of foreboding gripping him. There's more, he just knows there's more. He's already dreading her next words, but he needs to hear them anyway.

She doesn't even possess the courage to look him in the eye when she says it.

"I told her about us."

"You did what?" he groans, his head falling backwards in a gesture of despair, his eyes momentarily gazing at the ceiling as he tries to come in terms with what she just said.

"I'm sorry, Castle, okay? I'm sorry," she urges, all the while trying to defend herself. "But I had to."

"Oh really! You had to? Or you wanted to? Because see, this whole time, I'm here thinking we're in this together." He's openly hostile now, anger and sarcasm dripping from each word, and the change is unsettling.

"Castle-" she starts, but he'll have none of it. Visibly irate, his fury's bubbling right beneath the surface, frighteningly close to spilling over.

"It was our secret, Kate!" he shouts, and the razor-sharp strength of his voice, the betrayal, makes her wince in surprise.

"Ours," he adds for emphasis. "How could you just go to Gates and rat us out like that? Without me? Without talking to me first?"

"She's my boss, Castle. It was my decision." Her eyes find his. "And it was a stupid secret anyway," she adds defiantly. She means it, means every word. It was one of the stupidest, most selfish things she's ever come up with.

"What?" he squeaks, the surprise making his voice high, girly even. "Kate, it was your idea in the first place!"

"I know, and it was stupid, okay? It was dumb and selfish. And irresponsible." She chews at her bottom lip.

He falls silent at that, takes a second to calm down, sucking in a few rattling breaths. Sometimes when he gets too winded now, wheezing sounds escape his lips, a clear indicator that his lungs are still having problems expanding properly. She gives him a minute, waits him out until he has it all under control again. When he speaks a couple moments later, his voice is quiet again, but his anger's still there, merely frosted over by the layer of ice covering his words.

"Irresponsible how?"

She inhales shakily, her fingers fidgeting nervously with the bottom hem of her jacket as her eyes avoid his. "Being with you…us…" She finally looks at him. "It changes the way I work, Castle."

He sighs, turns away briefly before facing her again. "Okay," he acknowledges, weariness and defeat weighing his shoulders down heavily. "Okay, how…how exactly does us being together change anything about the way you – we – work?"

"It…it just does, okay? Castle, it does. You know it does," Kate says stepping closer to the desk, narrowing the gap between them, urging him to see her point.

"No," he replies bluntly. "No, I really don't." He leans back, settling onto the table against the wall as he contemplates her words, his face only growing more confused. And more disappointed. There's blatant disappointment there, and Kate just wants to go to him, bypass the desk which separates them and hug him, comfort him, take the pain away and make him all better. But that's not why she came here, and that's not what she's trying to accomplish tonight, no matter how hard it is for her to see him like this.

"Kate, I've been in love with you for the better part of the past two years. But I've never, never let it compromise me. Or you, for that matter, or the work we do together. And it's good work, important work, and I always thought we were pretty great at it." He gives her a small, sad smile which shatters her heart. "So what's changed?" His voice drops, that last question housing so many other questions within it, and she can see it, can see his incomprehension, the sudden insecurity.

But it's so simple. Why can't he understand? Things have changed; they've changed so much at scares her.

"Castle, you got shot," she moans, her eyes momentarily closing.

"Yes, I know, Kate. I was there, remember?" he throws back, impatience and frustration lacing his words, his posture. He's done being reasonable. "I just don't see how that affects the way we work together. Or how it somehow gave you the crazy urge to go to Gates of all people and tell her everything about us."

He's wounded. Angry. Betrayed. She knew it would happen, all of it, but it's still so hard, still so ridiculously difficult to do in person. She doesn't even respond, doesn't know how to.

"What is this really about?" Castle hates how his voice quivers when he says the words, but a sudden, cold fear has just gripped his heart and he cannot shake the feeling that this isn't even about the shooting anymore, was never about the shooting in the first place. No, it's about them.

She doesn't answer, says nothing for a long while, and it sets him yet further on edge, insecurity creeping throughout every one of his senses. The feeling of having done something bad, something irreparable he isn't even aware of yet possesses him. They've been so good together, so perfect. But what if that's not the way she's looking at it? At them? What if this is just her way of letting him go, of ending everything?

"Just tell me what I did wrong, Kate," he pleads, voice suddenly desperate. "Just tell me and I swear I'll make it up to you." No, he's not above begging, not where Kate Beckett is concerned.

Her eyes snap up to his then, features etched in surprise and incomprehension before it dawns on her. She shakes her head. Violently.

"Nothing!" She assures him, the intensity and conviction in that one single word indisputable. "You did absolutely nothing wrong, Castle." She sighs, her eyes growing tender, compassionate. They entreat him to understand her point of view, whatever that point is, but he doesn't understand, he just doesn't get it, and Castle can feel his aggravation growing once more.

"Then why are you punishing me?" he bursts out, anger once again leaking past his words.

"It's not a punishment!" she cries out, the intensity of her tone matching his.

"Really?" he snaps defiantly. "Because it sure as hell feels like one."

Her temper rises, rivaling his own now. This is absurd, and she's sure as hell going to tell him so.

"Stop being so damn ridiculous, Castle! It's for your own protection."

"Oh, really? My protection? Then why now? Why the sudden need to protect me now? Why not last year, or the year before that, or the year before that?" He pushes himself up off the table to loom over his desk, staring daggers in her direction. "Besides," he spits stubbornly, "I thought the whole point of keeping us a secret in the first place was so that we could continueworking together. And now here you are, tearing us apart over the first little bump in the road!"

"Don't be so melodramatic, Rick," she responds coldly, annoyed at his childishness. "No one is tearing anyone apart. But it was not just 'a little bump in the road', so stop trying to play it down." She glares at him, takes a step forward, holding his gaze. "You were shot, for Christ's sake! Gunned down by a lowlife druggie, right in front of my eyes." She doesn't even notice when or how her control slips, only that all of a sudden, her voice is trembling, eyes abruptly filling with unshed tears.

"Okay, okay," he backpedals immediately, his anger ebbing at the sight of her distress, the sudden recall of what had happened to him obviously shaking her. He tries a different approach instead.

"But these things happen, Kate. It's part of the job. And these things have already happened – to me, to you – before. I knowthe risks, I've always known them. That's why I signed that God-damned release waiver all those years back!"

"Yes, you signed a waiver, fine. That doesn't make you invincible." He draws a harsh breath to interrupt her, but she doesn't give him the chance. "It's not your job, Castle. It's mine, but not yours. I'm a cop by choice, I was taught and trained to handle this line of work, but you're just a civilian. A civilian consultant-"

"So what if I am? What's that even supposed to mean? That I'm suddenly not good enough to run around with you guys anymore?" he cries indignantly.

"No! That's not what I'm saying at all!" She takes a step back, frustrated and aggravated, a caged animal. She can't seem to get through to him, not one bit, and at this very moment, she hateshis stubbornness, his thick-headed, childish nature which absolutely refuses to see reason.

"Then what are you saying, Kate? That a cop could have handled it better?" He sounds tired, bitter. But he's also daring her somehow, baiting her to say something. "Tell me, explain to me: what was there that I could have done differently? Enlighten me on this, Kate, please. If it were you, or Ryan, or Esposito, how would that have made a difference when that door opened? With your guns still strapped in your holsters? How could it have gone any differently?"

"It couldn't have," she agrees quietly.

"So why do I have to take the heat? Why are you pushing me away, banning me from the precinct? Just because that damn door happened to open up on me? If it were Kevin or Javier, would you act on the same principle? And don't give me that crap about me being just a civilian consultant. It's deeply insulting when we both know very well that I've proven myself time and time again over the years, with or without a gun, and without going through any kind of professional training."

She stays silent.

"I don't get it, Kate," he continues on a disappointed sigh, his eyes searching hers almost hopelessly. "Why the double standard? How am I any different from the guys?"

His words seem to snap something inside of her, anguish and pain flashing quickly in the dark hazel of her eyes before she quickly and oh so expertly disguises them completely. His words must have hit a nerve, hurt her, but they also seem to have ignited a spark of anger, defiant anger. She takes a deep breath, closing her eyes briefly before fixing him with a fierce, somber gaze.

Her voice trembles slightly when she speaks, but the words themselves are razor sharp. "The situation is different because I love the guys, but I'm in love with you, you moron!"

Oh, she's furious alright, but it's the sheer edge of despair which varnishes her declaration that catches his attention, almost as much as the actual words themselves. He's struck speechless, gaping at her with wide eyes, but she shies away from his stare, plopping down unceremoniously onto the couch instead. She looks tired and defeated, her hands nervously twisting in her lap while her hair falls across her face, effectively shielding her from his sight. She didn't expect those words to come out quite like that, not for the very first time, and certainly not in the middle of a fight.

"Castle," she starts anew, her voice raspy and barely a whisper now as she contemplates her fidgeting fingers, never looking up at him, "you were shot. Three rounds, directly into your chest, so close to your heart, right in front of my eyes. Three damned smoking holes in your Kevlar and you..." her voice trembles, "the sight of you…just lying there, unconscious and barely breathing…it shook me, alright?" Her eye rise to his then, shimmery and shiny, lips tightly pursed as she contemplates him silently, willing him to understand.

And he does, he really does, but…

"I know, Kate." He takes a tentative step in her direction. "I know you were scared, okay? I was scared, too, but-"

"No Castle, you don't know, alright? It didn't just scare me, dammit!" A single, angry tear falls, but she furiously wipes it away, breathing hard. "I was crouching there, trying to keep you alive while waiting for that damn ambulance, and all I could think was 'please don't let him die, please don't let him die, not him too. Because if he dies, that's it for me, there's nothing else left.' And you're right, Castle, that scared the shit out of me. That's what's really changed. I…" She drops her gaze momentarily, but suddenly she's looking back at him, steel in her eyes, voice resolute. "I just can't deal with it again, with losing you like that. I can't be scared for your life while I'm on the job, every time we're anywhere even remotely unsafe. It wouldn't be fair or reasonable, and it definitely wouldn't be smart. It could get us bothkilled, or even put others in harm's way if I chose to prioritize your safety above anyone else's."

He shakes his head gently, attempting to disguise his own misgivings with an encouraging smile which doesn't quite reach his eyes. "But you don't have to do that, Kate. You don't."

"But I already do!" she exclaims. "I do that all the time. Just the mere idea of taking you back into the field again makes my stomach churn!"

He sees it then, the trauma, the fear, even the shame. The belief that she's weak for having these emotions, nothing but weak and small and frightened. It's rooted deep, not something he can wave off with casual dismissal or simple reassurances. This is bigger than that, way bigger.

"Okay," he says slowly, calmly, acknowledging her words while trying to process them, make sense of them. "I get it, I do." He steps lightly around the desk, coming to stand right in front of her. "But I still don't get why now." He leans down, knees bending reflexively, wanting to see her, talk to her eye-to-eye, but then he catches the caution in her features, the nearly imperceptible hunch of her shoulders as they tighten with tension, and he stops immediately, rising back to his feet in one smooth motion, maintaining that small distance between them, not wanting to push.

He continues, voice softer now that he's in closer proximity. "We've been here before, Kate, have feared for each others' lives a hundred times over. And I loved you – even then – you know that, through those times."

She closes her eyes against his gentle stare, her chin falling to her chest as she thinks back to those times, to that horrible summer when she never so much as picked up the phone. But he doesn't need her pity or an apology right now, he just wants to understand.

She takes a deep breath, tries to pull her scattered thoughts into coherent sentences.

"Maybe this time it was simply one too many for me, was too close of a call," she tells him, tentatively looking back up into his eyes. She takes one of his hands into hers, her heart leaping when she feels his grip tighten, unwavering yet gentle as his fingers glide over her skin.

With her other hand, Kate motions between the two of them, a soft, serene smile dancing over her lips. "This right between us, it's come to mean so much to me, Castle. It…it's solidified over the course of the last few months. It's not just some possibility anymore, some maybe in the far distant future; it's something we're consciously heading towards. And I can't have it jeopardized. I can't. The stakes are just too high for me now."

Her eyes are tender and warm and so open, God, so open, as he gazes into them, as she finally lets him see all the things she hasn't dared to voice. It makes his heart beat twice as fast, thrash wildly about in his chest because holy shit, Kate Beckett just admitted that she might be seriously, completely, nothing-could-ever-split-us-apart in love with him.

She doesn't hold the look for long, eyes dropping self-consciously, embarrassment tingeing her cheeks crimson, but there's a comfortable silence in the room. He doesn't know how to respond to what she's just said; how are you even supposed to respond to something as huge, as amazing as that?

So Castle does the only thing he can think of, hoping he's not ruining it. He finally allows himself to crouch in front of her, their eyes at last on the same level, and he does what he knows best. He makes a joke.

"You know," he starts in a low hum, watching her carefully for her reaction, "you just openly admitted to being crazily in love with me. And that you kinda wanna keep me around for, like, forever."

She blushes fully at his words, but her eyes still roll, and he knows he did well when that familiar, hazel twinkle appears, a sure sign that she's accepting his challenge.

"What's the matter, Castle?" she quips, smiling back slightly with one eyebrow playfully arched. "Getting cold feet?"

He manages to bite back an automatically sarcastic retort and contemplates her for a moment instead, wondering what answer to give her, wondering how she could even ask such a thing when she knows how ridiculously in love with her he is. In the end, he decides to forego the customary wit and humor in exchange for a more uncomfortable truth. Tit for tat, right?

"Actually, I'm a little elated," he admits, a huge sigh escaping his lungs. "Well, okay, a lot elated. And reassured," he adds timidly, both an unknown shyness and a sheepish seriousness which Kate has never seen before settling over his countenance.

"Elated?" she repeats, her tone light and amused. "Reassured? What would you need reassurance about?" she asks, her eyes twinkling merrily at him.

It's his turn to feel embarrassed. He clears his throat, locking his gaze upon their intertwined fingers. "When you came in here earlier and said we couldn't work together anymore, and then that you told Gates about us, it kinda sounded like…" His voice trails off.

"Sounded like what?" she nudges gently.

"Like you wanted to get rid of me," he murmurs.

What? Surely he's not serious!

She's taken completely aback, both disbelief and distress flashing across her face simultaneously, but he doesn't see that, of course, because he's still not looking at her, and screw that! She grabs his face between both hands and presses a long, hard, unapologetic kiss against his lips, smirking in satisfaction at the dazed look emblazoned across his features when she finally leans back.

"You idiot," she mutters, still grinning at him. "If I wanted to get rid of you, I'd send you straight into the action. With my luck and your quick mouth, you'd be dead by morning."

He lets loose a small, appreciative laugh. "And we wouldn't want that, now would we? It would really be a shame, and such a loss for mankind – my ruggedly handsome looks," he jests, that trademark Castle twinkle in his eye as he wiggles his brows suggestively at her.

She shakes her head at him, pursing her lips in a vain attempt to conceal her smile, her fingers, which have been playing with his ears this whole time, gently tugging at one of his lobes.

"No, we definitely wouldn't want that," she agrees, pulling his face in for another heated kiss.

"Well, let's make sure it doesn't come to that then," he decides with a grin. "And Kate?" he adds, waiting until her eyes return to his. "I love you, too."

She smiles back at him, her heart bursting with emotion at his words, those ridiculously simple words which mean so damn much. She leans in and kisses him again ever so lightly, both of them savoring the moment in silence.

"So you're okay with this?" she finally murmurs, her eyes growing serious again. "With staying out of the action, out of the line of fire?"

He sighs deeply. "Okay?" He shakes his head. "No. Not at all. But," he adds, raising a finger when he sees she's about to object, "I understand your reasons." He leans forward slightly, resting his forehead against hers. "And I accept them."

She can't help smiling then, her whole face radiating gratitude as her nose brushes gently against his. "I'll make it up to you, okay?" she promises, her voice dropping suggestively as she pulls away just far enough to meet his gaze.

"You think my wounded ego needs comforting, Beckett?" he teases, watching as her lips purse yet again, her eyes narrowing as she contemplates him, before another smile breaks loose. She kisses him for the fourth time, and he makes sure it lasts longer than the other three combined.

When they finally disentangle, there's seriousness in her eyes again. "You know this doesn't mean in any way that you're off the team, or out of the precinct, or away from the boys or the cases, right?" she asks. 'Or from me', which is what she really wants to say, but doesn't. "You can still come with me to crime scenes, still come to the precinct in the morning, bring me coffee." He smiles at that, squeezing her hand gently as she continues. "We'll still camp out in front of the murder board, breaking our heads over cases, still eat Chinese take-out when we get held up late, and crack jokes in the break room and play pranks on the boys. Just not… not the field anymore, okay? No more dangerous situations." She studies his face, searching his eyes. "You…you do understand, don't you?" she asks tentatively.

"I do." He says, eyes tender, accepting, if a little apprehensive. There are obviously still things to discuss, things on his mind, things he won't say, but Kate thinks that maybe it's better this way, to leave the other questions for later, even if that makes her a bit of a coward.

Because right now he's grinning at her, telling her that it's alright, that whatever else needs to be talked about, he won't press it tonight. And she grins back, small at first, but then her lips are stretching into a full-blown smile, her fingers stroking the side of his face in a wonderfully familiar gesture. Silent happiness blooms inside her chest, her love for this amazingly considerate and generous man setting her heart both, at peace and aflame at the same time.

She wouldn't have it any other way.


END


So this is this end. I would love to hear your thoughts. Thank you for staying with me and the story.