A/N: No idea where this one came from. I heard the words, "Don't look," in my head and this popped out yesterday. Seems I'm keen to clean house where Josh Davidson is concerned. No idea why. Anyway...

A Labor of Love

"Don't look!"

Just to hiss out these words, the effort left her breathless and rigid with pain.

Castle eased the door shut behind him as quietly as he could. The soles of his shoes squeaked on the shiny floor and he cringed at the screech of sound.

"Mean it…Castle. Don't dare," breathless, Kate threatened, though her usual power was weakened as she sank to the bed, clutching the sides of her gown across her bandaged chest, her free hand clawed on the edge of the mattress.

She was alone, completely alone for the first time in days. No nurse and no doctors. No boyfriend or father or any of their friends or his family to clutter up the hospital room and make him feel like a spare part.

Useless and inadequate. Because that was how he'd been feeling ever since…

When things were normal – dull normality, God, how he craved that right now, piles of paperwork and filing would feel like a dream – when they were just living their lives and he was helping her to do her job, then he had a place. He had a kind of semi-official position with rules he often ignored and a disclaimer he had signed absolving The City of the any responsibility should he get himself injured or die on a job that he wasn't even paid to do. Then he knew his place.

That job, that role as her partner, turned out it was a labor of love. Literally. And he'd only just figured that out.

But now…what? What was there now? For him? For her? Was the future broken? Had he broken their future? What did they have left between them now and when the dust settled?

Who was he to her when officialdom of a different kind stepped in? In a hospital setting, who was he then? He had no right to be by her bedside, much as he longed to be there every second of the day watching over her. That was the job of her father or her boyfriend, the surgeon who had saved her life. Saved her life, something he had failed to do for all his promises and posturing. So what was he for anymore? What good was he to her if he couldn't even have her back at a funeral, much less out on the street? He had been kidding himself these last few years and she had let him. They all had.

"I should go," he muttered, already bowing out of her room, eyes averted to the floor, obscenely cheerful flowers still clutched to his chest as his own voice clamored in his head, casting insults.

"I said don't look not— Is there something wrong with your hearing?" she sniped, curling in on herself. "Please don't go."

That stopped him mid-retreat: her snark, the sharpness of her tone. Hallelujah! That was normal. That was hope right there. Absurdly, he thought to laugh.

"Do—" He swallowed, caught between this world and the next, between his head full of rocks and his heart over-brimming with desperate love. "You want me to stay?"

"I need help with this tie thing," she admitted through teeth that sounded gritted by stubbornness and a chronic reluctance to ask for help that he suspected might actually be genetic. She sucked air in through her teeth when she half raised her arm to point toward the back of her gown and her strength failed her, her body rebelling the movement.

The hissing was painful to listen to, and so he moved into action, quickly laying the flowers on the rolling table at the bottom of the bed and gingerly moving closer.

"Don't you have people for this?"

The question shot out of his mouth before he had time to stop it, and he knew, right then, that it was possibly the dumbest and most insensitive thing he'd ever said. Oh, except for that one time when he had called Gina by Kate's name during a miserable summer at the Hamptons and his ex-wife had shoved him off and made him sleep on the sofa all night. That was bad. But this was possibly worse. It sounded so uncaring and standoffish, and that's not what he meant at all. He felt like a screw up in all the ways that mattered. Could he get nothing right for her? Could he not perform even the simplest task without adding some stupid comment?

"People?" Kate muttered, cross as an old farmer whose last cow had just died, but also confused.

"The nurses. Your…Josh? Or your dad, maybe."

"It's the scar, isn't it?" she said then, her voice sounding as cracked as her sternum had been when they'd had to pry her ribs apart to save her heart.

"What? No!" He hoped he sounded as horrified as he genuinely was by this suggestion. Did she really think he was that shallow?

Evidently she did, or these were her own fearful preoccupations spilling out across the floor.

"Then…I look terrible. And don't lie to me, Castle. I can always tell when you're lying."

"Yeah, you always could," he admitted freely, since it offered some connection to a past they had shared, even if that past was now so shattered that it felt lost, unclaimable.

But it broke the tension. Always. This brittle humor. They still…would always have always. His head hurt. He was trying too hard. Words swam around in the murky darkness of his brain.

"Where is the nurse anyway?" he asked, looking back to the door when Kate sat in silence, rocking slightly.

"I sent them all away."


"Getting on my nerves," she explained, her body racked with pain that stiffened her. She blew air out through dry lips and counted aloud.

Well, that's a first, Castle thought. Everyone else got on her nerves and she wants me here? He always assumed he'd be number one on the banned list. He considered how to say this, how to turn it into a joke that might lighten the atmosphere a little, maybe even raise a smile. But what came out was not that. It was too honest and too raw. He felt as if he was damaged, too. Like they should have matching beds, set up side-by-side. Your pain is my pain. He loved her that much.

"I don't want to hurt you or make you feel uncomfortable," he said, finally arriving in front of her as requested.

Her feet and legs were bare, her toenails painted a bright, hypnotic blue. The color seemed absurd on her otherwise colorless body.

"You could never hurt me." She looked right at him as she said this, and in that moment he saw his biggest question answered. The question that had kept him up all hours since the day she'd been shot.

Yes. He had his answer. She knew.

"I didn't mean it like that. And no, I would never hurt you. Not intentionally," he tacked on, still feeling like a failure for not saving her. But that was a guilt that would never go away.

"Nothing you've ever done was meant to hurt me." She looked right at him again as she said, "I see that now."

Her pale, drawn face haunted him. "But I keep screwing up."

"Get over here," she rasped, vaguely curling her fingers on her thigh to beckon him, the gesture useless, exhausted.

"What can I...?"

"There's a draught, Castle. Fix it," she hissed in pain again as she leaned forward to give him access.

"Sit still. Don't move. I can reach it from here."

He loomed over her, his shoes carefully placed either side of her bare feet. The top of her back was partially bare where the gown had come untied, and he could see down the undulations of her spine to the top of her hospital underwear, pale skin and a little bruising. He had to channel dad-Castle to stop himself from letting his fingers linger on her neck or shoulders in a manner that would have been entirely inappropriate for any long list of reasons.

"Thank you," she said, quietly, once the tapes were re-tied.

He helped her back into bed. The touching required - with a hospital gown as her only cover up and bedding to fold back and tuck in – it all seemed too intimate with the threat that her doctor boyfriend might show up at any moment. He felt as if he was taking advantage of the situation even though he wasn't. The thought appalled him, but he couldn't completely squelch the need.

He caught her looking at him again, curiously, and he couldn't help himself. They were still alone. He didn't know how much longer that would last. Her guard was down, lowered by drugs or pain or the new knowledge of her own mortality, he wasn't sure. He had no defences anymore when it came to her, of that he was certain. He'd said the worst most honest thing he could ever say and she wasn't screaming at him to get out, so he took another risk. Fortune favoring the brave, and all that.

"You heard me, didn't you?" he said, inwardly bracing for the crushing disappointment of a denial or some other dismissal, quite possibly for good this time. She had a boyfriend. He had overstepped by miles, but then he had needed her to know this one thing: that she was loved. Loved by him. Words had magical powers. He was proof of that. Anything that would have kept her alive in that moment, he'd have said it or done it. Anything.

"Yes," she answered, faintly. Her cheeks took on a little more color, like the faintest hint of blush on the rice-white skin of a Japanese geisha.

Castle looked down at his shoes and clasped his shaking hands. "I'm sorry if I made things awkward. That wasn't my intent."

"Awkward?" She raised her eyes. "Castle, you said you loved me."

He grunted a noise of discomfort and self-reproach. He wanted to flee. There was a mass of irony in that, he could see. But, yes, he'd said it and she had heard him. The cards would fall where they may from this point forward. There was nothing he could do to stop it but try for a repair.

"I was— That was inappropriate, I know. I'm sorry."

"You're sorry? I was dying."

"I thought…" He closed his eyes, horrific images swirling, so he opened them again and said, "…no, I feared so."

"No, I was dying. I'm certain of it." After a beat she said, "You saved me."

Her last words were spoken so faintly that he feared he'd dreamed them up. He stared at her, watching with rapt fascination as her eyes filled up with tears and then those tears spilled down her bloodless cheeks. For once he didn't know what to do or say, so he fished for his handkerchief and pressed it into her palm.

When she dabbed it across her cheeks to catch the tears, the hankie was still pocket-warm where it had been snuggled against his thigh. He thought he caught a flicker of a smile and imagined her leaning into the small cotton square, seeking out the lingering warmth of his body heat.

"I need you," she sobbed all of a sudden, quite broken, and her face crumpled. Frustration and embarrassment twisted her features. "Castle, I need you and I hate that I need you."

This shocked the hell out of him, but finally, it was as if she'd said the secret password or uttered some special code. He found himself revived in the face of her need. Because that's when Rick Castle was at his best: when he was needed by the people he loved.

When he spoke, it was as if to a child, soft and coaxing. "Hey, hey, now," he murmured, daring to perch on the bed by her hip.

He eased the hankie from her grip and took over the job of blotting her tears.

"Beckett, you know how I like to be needed," he reminded her, teasing. "Partners, right? That's what I'm here for."

"I'm such a mess," she choked out, more tears running down her face.

"Hey, you're beautiful to me." He let the truth slip out. He'd ask forgiveness later from whomever. He brushed the hair back from her face and caught her tears before they could fall.

Suddenly, the door opened and Jim Beckett walked in. They were holding hands, and when that had happened, Castle couldn't say. What he could say was that when Kate's father saw them, his own weary, worried expression vanished and his face broke into a smile.

"About time," he nodded, coming close enough to shake Castle's hand when the writer sprung up off the bed as if he'd been caught in some far more racy act than drying his daughter's tears.

Castle glanced at Kate, who wore a coy but exhausted look on her face, and then back at Jim.

"No, sir, I—"

Jim ignored the writer's bumbling disclaimer, raising his voice to casually announce to the room, "I just spoke to that lovely nurse at the desk. Seems Dr. Davidson left for Haiti last night."

Kate's eyes were trained on the edge of the blanket that she was running through her fingers. "Oh?" she murmured, her face a serene mask of no concern.

"Wait," Castle frowned. "Josh left? Now?"

"You didn't know?" Jim asked, giving his daughter a reproachful look.

"I asked him to," Kate admitted to Castle.

"You never said."

"I told you: I sent them all away."

"Not quite clear enough," Castle replied, his eyes never wavering from her face.

Kate looked mischievous. "I'm sorry. I'll be clearer next time I get shot in the chest and dump my boyfriend all in the same week."

"Beckett!" "Katie!" both fathers exclaimed together, appalled.

"Would you two lighten up?" she asked, coming as close to laughter as she had since before Roy was killed.

Jim clapped Castle on the shoulder and the writer jumped. "Easy, son," he said, patting the younger man's back. "Now that I know Katie's in good hands, I'm gonna go get some coffee. Seems you two have a lot to talk about," he added pointedly, mostly for Kate's benefit. "Can I bring you anything?"

"Latte for me, dad. With an extra shot," Kate piped up, sharing a joke with her father.

"Hot milk for Katie then, and Rick? Get you something?" Jim asked.

"Uh…yeah, cup of coffee would be great."

Kate was amused by Castle's discombobulation, his brain still catching up with current events. "Then I'll sniff what he's having," she grinned, wincing when both men laughed and her wound pulled on itself.

"Good to see you looking happier," her dad said, before he smiled and made to leave the room. "Rick," he nodded out of sincere gratitude and respect as he closed the door behind him.

Once they were alone again, the air seemed to thicken to a soup of problems that they had conspired to brew between them.

Kate broke first. "Did you mean it?" she asked, glancing at the door before seeking out his face.

"That I love you?"

She nodded, looking shy and desperately beautiful.

"Of course." Castle was shaking.

She toyed with the covers. "So it wasn't just some...spur of the moment…"

"I wish I'd had the courage to tell you sooner. I wish that hadn't been the time or the place…for both our sakes."

"But it worked," she pointed out.

"I was pleading for me as much as you. It seems selfish now."

"Telling someone how you feel about them is never selfish. Not if you mean it. Anyway, you're the least selfish person I know."

"So…you're okay with it?" Castle still seemed surprised.

"Okay is…" She swallowed and then took a shallow breath, conserving her energy so she could hold off on the pain meds for as long as possible. "It was like a gift I wasn't expecting and didn't know I even wanted until it was offered to me."

Castle's eyes widened. "And they say I'm the writer?"

Kate glowed with quiet pride.

"And now? Don't tell me you put that gift on eBay," he joked, satisfied when she chuckled just a little and didn't wince.

"Now I see that…yes," she smiled more broadly, her eyes filled to the brim again. "We could definitely work. I think."

"But do you…"

"Castle, let me get well enough to get out of here, back on my feet, and…yes," she nodded, reaching for his hand, fingers wiggling. "That's why I need you. I know I'm broken but I still need you…my partner."

"You're having to fight for this, aren't you?" He could read her so well. He understood how hard it was for her to ask for help, to show this weak and vulnerable side to him. He loved her even more for choosing him and for fighting so hard.

She nodded, smiling weakly, embarrassed. "It's exhausting. If I'm honest."

He approached the bed, leaned down and kissed her forehead, fingers caressing the nape of her neck as he'd wanted to do just moments before. She leaned into his chest and he held her gently. "Then don't fight it anymore. You've told me what you want. I'll take it from here. Just…don't put me on your banned list with that nurse out front and I'll be here. I'll keep showing up."

"Like you do," she whispered back, sagging against the pillows.

He took her hand and sat down beside her. "Like I do. Long as it takes."

Okay, thanks for reading. Glad I got that off my chest. No idea what's going on in my sappy brain right now. :)