Post-ep for 6x02, "Dreamworld."

She has to steel herself before she goes back in. Has to close her eyes, take a deep breath - try to force some oxygen past the thick lump in her throat that seems to have taken up permanent residence there, choking her over and over, choking her still.

Kate pushes open the wide, heavy door and quietly slips through the gap, tiptoeing back into his room. Eyes focused on his bed she finds that he's still asleep, his torso raised up by the incline of the hospital bed, chin slumped down to his chest. It's silent, the hum of the AC and his labored breathing the only sounds that echo off the stark, empty walls.

She can't help the relief that trickles through her at finding his room empty, his family (their family now?) in the cafeteria for a much-needed meal. She needs some time with him, aches for the silent reassurance of his presence, desperately needs the visceral sensations to comprehend that he's still here, that he survived, didn't leave her behind. She needs to touch him, feel the warmth of his skin beneath her fingertips and the texture of his breath, warm and damp and still there, ceaselessly flowing in and out, in and out.

Once at his bedside she leans over him, runs her fingers through his hair, sweaty and matted to his forehead, ruffling the thick strands until it almost resembles his trademark, rugged style again. Her fingertips linger on his forehead, his skin clammy to the touch as she traces the ridges of his brows, his temples, the curve of his ear and then inward along the wide slant of his cheekbones. She caresses the thin skin underneath his eyes, her thumbs smudged to the dark, sunken shadows. All of him so pale, tinted in ghostly blue and it makes her heart ache in this dark, visceral way, the strong muscle and tender flesh squeezed by a giant fist, leaving her drained and swaying on the spot.

So close, it's been so close, too close; his body crumpled and lifeless in the too-green grass an image she'll never forget, his breathing flat, pulse thready, his skin clammy and chilled.

His chin is scruffy against her palm and she finds solace in that, in this most basic evidence how his life keeps on going, his stubble growing without pause, as if nothing has happened, as if he hadn't almost died. She presses her mouth to his, lingers in a too-soft, too one-sided kiss, his lips chapped and waxy beneath hers and she chokes on a sob, can't hold back the ragged sound as it tears from her throat.

The past twelve hours felt simultaneously like the longest moments of her life and yet they raced by at lightning speed, too fast for her to hold on; not enough time to save him, to cling to him with everything she had, to just hold him close and soak him in, every part and particle, every texture and essence and resonance so that she wouldn't forget, wouldn't ever forget if-

Kate clamps a hand around the rail of the hospital bed, clinging to it before she topples over as vertigo claims her head, too close too close too close, like a heartbeat that pulsates off the utilitarian walls, closing in on her, pushing against her eardrums and her solar plexus. Panic, this abject helplessness and utter sense of terror she had to suppress from the moment she was told of the threat to his life is claiming her; now that the pressure is gone, it threatens to tear her apart from the inside out. She tries to breathe through it, tries to tell herself it's over now, it's okay, he's okay, he's alive but it seems too hard to believe, too good to be true.

Castle coughs, groans in his sleep, fluid rattling in his lungs and it's enough to throw her off the runaway train of her thoughts, her senses honing in on him instead, drawing her sole focus. His fingers twitch against the covers so she reaches for his hand, cradles it with hers. Her touch settles him instantly, a sigh floating up from within as he seems to sink deeper into the mattress.

His familiar warmth is like a balm that soaks through her skin and into her blood, soothing her frazzled nerves.

This is what she needs; he is all she needs, warm and broad and alive, alive.

She toes off her shoes, lowers the bedrail with a quiet click and climbs onto the edge of the bed. She aches, hurts with it; can't handle one more minute without feeling him closer, safe and breathing in her arms.

She crawls to his side, drapes the whole length of her against him, as close as possible, and then she draws closer still, slides her leg over his thigh while wrapping an arm around his torso, curling up on his chest.

He's warm and solid beneath her, the rhythm of his breathing holding steady so carefully, mindful not to cause him further pain, she lays her head on his chest, her ear resting right above his heart. It beats strongly, a regular, pounding rhythm that seems synchronized to hers, a reassuring tandem that binds them together, irrevocable and infinite.

She sucks in a breath, feels like drowning, her shoulders heavy with a weight that seems to press down on her, sinking her into the dark, murky waters of fear and regret.

Too close. It's been too close.

They'd made promises of 'always', naively worked toward their 'forever' and they'd almost lost it before they ever really got started.

Her arm tightens around his torso, her whole body clasping him, clinging to him as if she can protect him by the mere strength of her embrace. His breathing sounds labored and she hopes he isn't in any pain. Like recovering from pneumonia, so they've been told, the remnants of his poisoning mimicking its symptoms; a few more days of low-grade fevers and lingering fatigue, coughing, shortness of breath or rapid breathing to be expected.

But he's okay. He'll be fine.

He's still here.

Her stomach churns. She swallows hard, tries to keep the rolling nausea at bay, buries her nose into his chest, seeking his familiar scent beneath the stench of antiseptic and the smell of generic detergent that clings to the hospital gown.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. If there was one positive aspect about Castle no longer being her partner at work, it was that she could cling to the belief that he'd be safe, that she'd no longer drag him with her into life-endangering situations he wasn't trained for.

Yet here they are. Another barely-survived, too-close call. How often could they expect to beat the odds before their luck runs out, before one of them won't make it home? The what-if's are malignant; cancerous growths that eat away at her, leaving behind a hollowed-out, drained shell of herself. She can't lose him; her fingers clench subconsciously, dig into his ribcage, oh god, all this time she'd had to suppress that gut-wrenching panic that she would lose him, that he'd die on her, just like that and she's not sure how she'd ever go on if...

Suddenly Castle fidgets in her arms, murmurs a few incomprehensible sounds and Kate stills, alert to his ragged breaths. Yet he doesn't wake; instead he draws his arm around her, tucking her further into his embrace. The movement is sluggish yet achingly familiar, well practiced from the many nights spent in each other's arm, when he'd reach for her in the middle of the night, seeking her presence, needing her closer. Needing her.

His fingers clasp the side of her waist while he burrows his nose into her hair, and then the tears start leaking from the corners of her eyes. They spill down her cheeks, drip into the corner of her mouth and the curve of her nose, soaking dark patches into the blue fabric of his gown. It's a quiet deluge, no sobs wrecking her chest; unstoppable rivulets of sorrow.

She'd done what she could, what she was best at. She'd protected him in the only way she knew, fighting until the last possible second and never ever giving up because there was no conceivable way she'd ever give up on him, not without one hell of a fight - but she can't stop wondering whether she'd done enough, had been all that he needed.

She had to suppress all her urges throughout the hours of the ordeal, had to focus, center herself and hone in on this single, vital goal when all she'd wanted was to scream. To stomp her foot and throw a fit and yell how unfair it all was. When she'd wanted to curl up into a tight ball under a thick, suffocating blanket and cry. Wanted to claw her nails into his chest and rip out the festering poison with her bare hands.

Most of all, she wanted to cling to him, draw her arms and legs around his body, hang on as if she could keep him alive by the mere force of her embrace. She wanted to hug him, infuse him with strength, give him hope when his spirits faltered, share his sorrow and fears.

She wanted to kiss him. Oh how she had wanted to kiss him. Over and over. Long and thorough, tender, aching, breathless and eternal. Soak him inside herself and give him everything she was, all of herself.

She should've kissed him. She should've wrapped herself around him, should've kissed him any chance she got, every possible moment so he'd know, would never have to doubt, would feel it in his skin, his blood, his heart.

How much she loves him.

How nothing would ever be right without him.

She fears that if she had, she would've lost it. It took all her strength to keep focused, stay alert and fight her way through the mounting panic because he needed her to fight for him, he needed her to win for him. With a certainty that sits bone-deep she knows that he doesn't fault her for anything, doesn't see the same shortcomings. But she wants to be all he needs, his indomitable warrior and the soft, supportive, protective woman who will draw him into her arms; with whom he can share his sorrow and pain, insecurities and heartache and fear.

Because he deserves it. He deserves everything.

She wants to be his wife, his partner in every sense. She wants to have his back. And she's so desperately afraid that she's not getting it right, that she might not be enough.

"Kate," he rumbles, dredged up from sleep, slow and sluggish but seeking her. She lifts her head, watches him closely as he edges into awareness. Their eyes meet, hold, and the sorrow she finds tinted to his pupils mirrors the aching sadness in her chest.

He lifts a hand, cradles the side of her face. She tilts her cheek into his warm, wide palm, her eyes fluttering closed at his tender caress. His thumbs swipe at the trails of tears that delineate her skin, collecting her heartache at his fingertips, sharing it, taking it.

She can't quite suppress a wince as his fingers graze her bruised cheekbone. "What happened?"

"Minor altercation," she shrugs. "You should see the other guy."

He grins at that, pride for her shining in his eyes, vivid and unmistakable before his face turns sober once more. Castle palms her skull, drawing her closer, his lips against her forehead as he speaks. "You okay?"

Kate lifts higher, dragging her body up against his, a slow, careful slide until she can brush her mouth across his, her tongue curling at the seam of his lips. She kisses him, sighs into his mouth as she tastes him, his lips no longer waxy but alive, warm and giving beneath hers. Warmth fills her, viscous like honey as it slides through her limbs, calming her heart, at last quieting her thoughts. She takes her time, savors his flavor, the symmetry of his lips, the rasp of his tongue and the contours of his mouth.

All the kisses she'd wanted to give him swirled into one.

When she pulls away it's almost imperceptible, her lips still whispering against his as she speaks.

"I am now."

She didn't expect it to be this hard but, with the same certainty she felt when she accepted his ring, his promise of 'always', she knows it's worth it.

It's all worth it.