Castle stands back and lets her do the dirty work. Not that he doesn't want to get his pants soaking wet or not that being elbow-deep in soap suds and washing down an elephant named Koni doesn't look completely awesome, but watching said elephant flirt with his wife is infinitely more entertaining.
Even Banni, their bus driver turned elephant driver and guide, thinks it's pretty amusing. But when Banni has to leave them there to check on the park's other guests, Castle gets to stay by the water pump and kinda - well - fall in love with his wife all over again.
Kate uses the soft brush to scrub down the thick, wrinkled hide, and the elephant lifts its trunk to lightly pat against her cheek, then lays it along her neck, tugging her closer. Kate laughs. She keeps laughing, soaked to the skin, the jungle trees murmuring with birds and her bare feet sliding through the grass. Her shoes dangle from his fingers, but he holds out his phone and takes another picture of her as she stretches to reach.
The elephant shifts a little, knocking Kate off-balance so that she falls into his side, her shirt plastered now.
"Ooh, smooth move, Koni," he calls out, nodding to the elephant.
Kate laughs and turns around, holding her arms out at her side, dripping wet. "He got me."
"He's had you," Castle grins.
"Why don't you come on over here?" she purrs, half-turning to the elephant and running the brush down its side, but looking at Castle over her shoulder. "You could help, you know."
"But you're doing such a thoroughly wet job of it," he grins back.
A saucy look for that, but she takes in a deep breath, lets out such a long, pouting sigh, and he can see exactly what she's doing, how her wet t-shirt clings, how she keeps checking to see if he's paying attention. He leans back against the railing around the pump, feigning nonchalance, and studies her under his brows, waiting for his moment.
"Come on, Castle," she teases, bending down to pick up the hose, her shorts riding high. "Don't you wanna help? Goes faster with two."
He knows what she's doing and yet he still finds himself straightening up, circling closer, drawn to her like moth to a flame. She sparks bright and grins at him, crooking her finger. It works too, reels him in, and he has the presence of mind to drop her shoes in the grass and lay his phone on top of them.
She's holding out the brush to him, an alluring half-smile on her face, her hip cocked towards him. "You could do the other side."
He knows what she's doing, knows it's a trick, but he still reaches out for the brush, fingers barely grazing the bristles, thinking maybe she won't, maybe she will and wouldn't that be fun too?
And then she sprays him in the face with the hose, peals of laughter raining down over him as the water drenches him to the skin.
He wipes one eye and cracks his lid to look at her. She's beaming.
Kate wraps her arms around him, wet body pressed to his, that grin so wide and her hair curling like Medusa and those eyes on him. Still laughing, helpless laughter, so pleased with herself, and he dips his head down to taste her mouth, her mirth, every wonderful sound from her lips, her throat, the wet and endless line of her body.
She gives that held-back moan, probably playing it up for him, but it works. Her arms tighten around his neck, drawing closer, her mouth pliant and deep, drawing him in until he realizes he's bumped her up against the elephant's broad side. She startles and laughs again, her chest arching into his; she sounds like she didn't plan that at all.
"Wet," she gasps. "And cold."
He rakes his gaze over her, lifting an eyebrow. "Look pretty hot to me."
She opens her mouth to shoot off some snarky remark, he has no doubt, but at just that moment, Koni's roving trunk winds it way between them, curling around Kate's chin and patting her cheek.
Castle grunts and she hums, letting go of him to cuddle with the elephant instead.
"Ah, someone's jealous," she murmurs.
"I am not," he huffs back. And it only makes her laugh all the more, the swell of her joy rising above the trees and blooming across the sky.
But she's looking at him while she does, it's his hand she reaches for and drags in closer, it's his mouth she places a delicate, thankful kiss against.
She's wearing a dove grey sundress that makes her eyes look like gold in the sunlight.
And cowboy boots.
Castle sinks down on the bed and stares after her as she sashays right out the door for her elephant.
"Wait. What are you wearing?" he laughs, jumping up again to follow after her.
The screen door is open and the air conditioning escaping into the morning, but Kate turns on the front porch and her dress flares around her knees, dizzying him. Her hair is pulled back into a messy bun at her nape, hiding the knot tied in the straps of her dress. She gestures for him to follow and he does, slipping his feet into brown sandals and waiting at the railing for their ride.
Koni approaches from around the corner, that slow and rolling gait that Castle's grown used to over the last week, come to enjoy in fact, and the beast raises its trunk to touch along the metal railing until he can curl it at Kate's foot.
All the animals are entranced with her and she with them. Even the residents are astonished at the magic Kate weaves around the place. He would say she's an entirely different person, but it's not that. She's just her most Kate here, her most free, and it shines for everyone.
For him most especially.
The elephant driver halts Koni at the landing with only the barest twitch of his leg; he waits for them to climb on, keeping the elephant from shifting around, his palm pressed to the top of Koni's flat head.
Kate steps out onto the wooden bench lashed to the elephant's back, sinks down to her seat gracefully while Castle clambers in after her. He leans into the armrest and glances at Kate once more, but he shouldn't have doubted her. Even in a dress, she makes it work.
"I've got leggings on," she laughs, rolling her eyes at him. Taking pity. "No one's getting a free show."
"But me," he amends. "Right?"
"Oh, yours isn't free, Rick Castle. Gonna make you work for it."
He grins - is his adoration showing all over his face? - and she leans in to press a quick kiss to his smile, hers matching.
Koni moves away from the landing, his walk leisurely, and Castle feels the dip and sway of the bench beneath him, while at his feet, under the embroidered blanket, is the elephant's strong back. The resort area falls behind them and soon they're out on the safari path.
But they're the only ones.
"Where are we going? I thought after the spa stuff today we were free until dinner."
"Banni invited us into the sanctuary," she says softly, lifting an eyebrow at him as if she can mask the complete and utter eagerness transforming her face. "He wants me to see something special."
"Oh yeah?" he murmurs, reaching out and cupping her cheek, fingers hooking that stray hair behind her ear. She kisses the heel of his palm and nods against him.
"It's a surprise. Koni's taking us out there to meet him."
"You impress people wherever you go, don't you?" he chuckles at her, thumb smudging the line of her lips before letting go. "Or animals, at least. All the beasts love you."
"I love them," she sighs, a reverent hum to her words that Castle would never have ascribed to her voice - never - if the past week hadn't already exposed him to it again and again.
When he used words like extraordinary to describe her, he couldn't have known just how apt it is, how very different Kate Beckett is from any other person - singular, unique. And how that difference has translated into a story he's never found an end to, won't ever find an end.
"They appealed to me, Castle. Before this trip. I mean, you know I kind of ended up collecting them after my mother's funeral, but it wasn't on purpose. She had that brass elephant planter and she'd just rooted this cutting she'd gotten from my grandmother. You know the one with the white flowers? I put in your study."
"Yeah, I know the one," he says.
"I took it with me because I couldn't stand to let it die, the work she'd put into it, coaxing it into life. I've never found out what kind of plant it is; my grandmother never knew. But that started it - the elephants."
He didn't know that. A thing of her mother's. "Did you collect the others, or did people start giving them to you?"
"Both," she shrugs. "But it was just a thing to do, I guess. They were cute in some ways. But Castle... here? These creatures are just magnificent. Royal. And playful at the same time. Koni's got his own personality and he likes to mess with me, but he's so smart and-"
She cuts off, narrowing her eyes at him, and he holds up both hands. "No, no. Go on. I think it's adorable."
"Shut up," she mutters, digging her elbow into his side.
"No, really. I love it. You're completely defenseless against them. Took me four years to do what they've done in a week."
She shrugs her bare shoulders, skin dappled with sunlight through the trees overhead, freckles kissed along her clavicles. He puts his mouth to one, a summer freckle that disappears every winter, and he tries to soften her again.
"You're kind of an elephant yourself," she huffs at him, but he hears a truth behind it.
"Lumbering and broad-shouldered?"
She does laugh then. "Yes. Exactly. Able to knock right through my wall."
"I could use a trunk like that though."
She flashes him a hot look, her hand skimming his inside thigh. "Oh, you've got one, Castle. Don't worry."
Laughter rips out of him, but arousal is hot in his blood as well, making him shift his hips and wrap his fingers around her hand, hold her still. "Why am I still so surprised when you get me like that?"
"I don't know. You'd think you'd have learned by now," she smirks, dislodging his grip to reach up and pat his cheek. "Leave a door open that wide; I'm gonna walk right through."
Castle glances down and sees Banni standing at the fence line, his hand on the railing, a hat pushed down low over his eyes.
"Yeah?" she calls back.
"Hold on tight. Koni's going to drop you off."
Koni is going to what?
There's a sudden lurch and then the elephant eases lightly, delicately to his front knees, drops his back to the grass so that they're only feet off the ground. The driver turns back to them with a grin and flicks his hand towards Banni who is waiting on them.
"I guess that's our cue," she murmurs, giving him a little laugh. She climbs off the bench and steps gingerly down on the elephant's folded leg, then she hops to the earth with a little puff of her dress and a grin tossed over her shoulder towards him.
Now it's his turn.
This better be worth the complete fool he's about to make of himself getting down from here.
Kate follows Banni deeper through the wide, crowded trees of the sanctuary's jungle. She hears Castle at her back, stomping around like an elephant himself, crashing through the underbrush and breaking twigs under his feet, and she throws him a look.
He's focused on his path and doesn't see her; she turns her head to the man who arranged for her to come out here. "Banni. Where are we going?"
"A surprise for you, Miss Kate." He gives her a smile under his wide-brimmed hat, his mud boots making less noise than Castle. "I know you will love it."
"I trust you," she says back, grinning at him. He flashes his teeth at her in a wider smile, moving towards a thinning in the trees.
Her second day here, Banni had explained to them that when Balinese parents name their children, they always attach a nickname to be used by only family and close friends. It's an honor to know a grown man's personal name; he told them it meant we are waiting to see what happens to this one. His parents had lost two previous infants at birth and were uncertain he'd make it, sickly as he was.
She likes that, for some reason. It's both unspeakable tragedy, but also hope, moving onward, never stopping. It appeals to Kate, to a woman who has been damaged by her own tragedy, because it's cautious and deliberate in its hope.
Banni. We are waiting to see what happens to this one.
"See, Miss Kate? Here we are."
The hanging vines in the lower branches disappear, and she steps around a log and into a clearing, realizing that what she's been hearing for a long time now are happy, joyful elephant noises. She sees first the massive, female elephant flapping her ears, and then twining around her legs is a baby.
An elephant no taller than her hip, skinny face and too-big ears and those long legs.
"Wow," Castle says from behind her.
Banni takes her by the elbow and leads her slowly closer. "Our herd lives back here, while the old bull elephants are your rides at the lodge. We're quite proud of this one. He's only a few weeks old."
"It lives out here? With the rest of the rescued elephants?"
"The babies live with their mothers and sisters, their aunts, in a matriarch's herd. After a while, the males become independent and join a loose band of bull elephants, or in our case, join the group at the lodge. Our herd is really a bunch of homeless females, but they've formed a tight-knit family."
"Is this one a boy or a girl?" she whispers.
"A boy. His name's... Banni."
"Banni," Kate breathes, barely able to believe it. She lifts her eyes to her guide, the man who brought her back here to see his namesake, and she realizes it means this female elephant has lost a baby before, that the whole park is holding its breath and waiting to see what happens.
She stares at the happy, noisy thing. The baby has a blanket on his back, one of the hand-crafted rugs that all the park elephants wear, and he keeps waving his trunk around as if testing out the air. His mother prods at him with a foot, then her own trunk, guiding him around, the physicality between them so human-like that it catches her breath.
Banni holds an arm out and sweeps it towards one of the other park workers who comes towards them now with a bag slung over his shoulder. He sets it down in the dirt at her feet and unzips what she realizes is an insulated bag; inside she can see what look like quarts of milk.
"You would like to feed him?" Banni asks her, reaching down and bringing out a bottle.
Kate turns her head to Castle, completely stunned, and he nods his head. "Go. I've got my camera."
"Did you already know?" she startles. She wouldn't put it past him; he's set up this whole thing, arranged everything just for her, and feeding the baby elephant calls to her so richly she wouldn't be surprised if he knew.
"No," he says softly, shaking his head on a grin. "But Banni warned me ahead of time that it would be good."
Kate turns back to the keeper. "Thank you so much. It's an honor."
Banni hands her the bottle with another one of his trademark silent smiles, and she takes the quart of milk in both hands, feels the warmth radiating from the sides. She follows Banni towards the elephants in the middle of the clearing and notices the fresh grass piled in a wooden bin, the array of mobile medical equipment. The man who set the bag at her feet takes up his position by a hose, starts packing things up.
"This is a serum," Banni explain. "A formula. For strength and health. A supplement. He likes it, so as soon as he catches sight of you, don't be afraid-"
And at that moment, Banni the elephant comes running happily, tripping over his mother's legs like tree trunks before him, stumbling to a stop a few feet from Kate. She holds the bottle awkwardly in two hands; it's heavy and she can't see how this is supposed to work.
Banni lifts his trunk and it wavers before her; Banni the man pushes her forward a little, and she tilts the bottle on an angle. The mother elephant is watching placidly from her spot, trunk nudging at Banni the baby in much the same way that the keeper is at Kate.
She casts a swift look at Castle over her shoulder, not sure if she's looking for confidence or inspiration, or maybe just confirmation that this is really happening. And then she feels the wet nose against her wrist, the curl of the elephant's strong trunk around her arm, and she turns her head to find Banni nuzzling up to the bottle.
She leans over towards him and the milk comes in a gush, making her hands sticky and warm; the work of the baby's mouth - so tensile and strong - against the nipple of the bottle catches at Kate's fingers, making her shiver. Banni's trunk is ever moving, almost like a baby's little hand, waving and seeking, laying along her arms, patting her, curling, happy.
"Castle," she calls back, but she can't take her eyes off the elephant suckling the bottle. He nips at her fingers with his lip, like a kiss, and she sucks in a breath. "Castle, God. You've got to come here."
"Here," he says then, right at her side, and she risks a glance at him, trembling with it.
"It's amazing," she says. "Here, help me hold it."
Castle moves slowly, like he doesn't want to spook Banni, but the baby doesn't shy away, doesn't even pause, just unwraps his trunk from Kate's wrist and curls it along Castle's broader forearm, now playing between the two of them, touching back and forth. She feels Banni's tongue lick her fingers and then the strong pull on the bottle. His ears flap and the keeper laughs.
"He likes you two. See the ears?"
Those liquid, intelligent brown eyes, so narrow in that skinny Sumatran face, gaze happily at Kate, rolling now and then to look at Castle, and she feels her husband's solid shoulder against hers, their hands tangling at the bottle to keep a grip on it as Banni tugs and sucks.
"This is crazy," Castle says under his breath. "Kate. We're bottle-feeding a baby elephant."
"I know," she laughs softly, turning her head to look at him for a second. He's as enraptured as she is, caught up, smitten by the baby.
Her fingers are slippery with milk and Banni is strong, his trunk curious and eager, and she's glad Castle is at her side, support and help in this, because she's not sure she'd have been able to stay on her feet.
"God," she breathes out again, shaking her head because she's standing in the jungle in Bali giving milk to a baby elephant and it's all too surreal. "Can we live here forever?"
"Yes," Castle says reverently, forcefully, the answer tumbling out of his mouth with such honesty that she's taken aback by how easy it is.
How they could just - live here. They could never go back.
And he would; he's proven it to her over and over again, how he'll stand at her side in this fight, no matter what or where. When it was the DC job and long hours and no time together, when it was struggling to get back on her feet once all that was through, didn't matter.
He's always been right here.
She tilts her head and rests her cheek against his shoulder. She doesn't answer his yes right now, doesn't have to. It's enough to have this moment, this day, the baby elephant feeding from the bottle at her fingers and the sun steaming through the trees, the ears flapping at them in joy.
And they are. Finally, she and Rick are at a place where this is possible, where it's serenity in the face of their trials. Wait and see what happens to this one. Just wait and see, Kate.
The answer will come.
For now, she and Castle stand side by side.