Happy weekend, everyone. Here's a little exploration of another way that Beckett's shooting at the end of S3 could have gone. I hope you enjoy it.

"And if you're very lucky," Beckett says, "you find someone willing to stand with you."

Castle's chest clenches at the words, and even harder at the look she gives him when she turns, making eye contact for a brief moment before she resumes her speech.

Maybe he's imagining things, but he doesn't think so. After this funeral is over, maybe... maybe they should talk. Really talk, not just dance around things like they usually do.

"Our captain would want us to carry on the fight," Beckett continues, and Castle wrenches his mind back to the here and now.

Montgomery's funeral. The sun is bright, the sky blue, the air pleasant: the weather in stark contrast to the black of mourning, the soft sound of Evelyn weeping, the solemnity of Beckett's words.

The sun glints off people's eyeglasses, jewelry, cars in the distance... and...

Castle frowns slightly, trying to focus his sun-dazzled eyes on the incongruous flash of reflected light from halfway across the cemetery. He should have worn sunglasses, he thinks idly, even as he's scanning the terrain, trying to pinpoint what he thought he saw.

There. He sees it again, and his body reacts before his brain has caught up. His mind is dazedly thinking, sniper?, even as his legs are pushing him sideways, diving toward Beckett.

"Kate!" he hears himself yell, ice flooding his veins as he already knows he's too late, too late. In slow-motion he sees Beckett falter, her eyes going wide, her whole body jerking backward, beginning to crumple already by the time he slams into her, knocking her to the ground.

The screams and shouts of the funeral attendees fade out of Castle's awareness as he crouches over Beckett, his hands frantically fumbling at her, struggling with the material of her uniform jacket. He's babbling the whole time: "Kate, stay with me, god, I love you, Kate, oh god, stay with me, I love you-"

But her own voice cuts through his panic, gets his attention: a hoarse rasp, an urgent whisper: "Castle! Don't move."

His eyes snap to her face, find her own eyes clear and oddly calm, telegraphing a message to him that he isn't getting.

"Stay down," she whispers urgently. "Don't move - stay right here and pretend you're trying to stop the bleeding."

"The bl-" He looks down again and belatedly registers the information his fingertips have been trying to send him: something firm and unyielding beneath Beckett's jacket, where soft vulnerable skin should be. "Kevlar," he murmurs, keeping his voice low, instinctively catching Beckett's urgency even though his muddled brain is obviously still several steps behind. "You're wearing your bulletproof vest."

Beckett's breathing is labored, her forehead crinkled in pain; but her fingers have an iron grip on his forearm, and there's no blood. No blood.

"The ambulance will be here in a minute," she gets out. "Stay down."

"The ambulance?" he repeats stupidly. He presses his hands to Beckett's chest, where he imagines the bullet was aimed. Oh god, the bullet. A sniper. "Holy shit, Beckett, a sniper," he hisses.

"I know." Her eyes are fierce, and somehow regretful. "I'm sorry, Castle. I'm so sorry."


Behind him, he hears his daughter screaming shrilly, "Dad! Dad!" and the terror in her voice brings his head up, twisting around to find Alexis in the crowd. A pair of uniformed officers are trying to corral her, along with Martha and some of the other mourners, toward the exit.

Castle manages to make eye contact with Alexis and mouths the words I'm okay. Go. His daughter looks shocked, but she stops fighting, lets the cops pull her away.

By the time he turns back around, the paramedics are there: two businesslike men in scrubs bundle Beckett onto a stretcher and whisk her into the ambulance in double-quick time. She keeps her hand clenched around Castle's arm the whole time, so he ends up in the back of the bus with her, sitting beside her as the doors slam shut and the vehicle jolts into motion. The siren bloops a few times above their heads, then settles into a steady, urgent rhythm.

"I told you we needed to tell him," Beckett snaps as soon as they're moving. Castle blinks at the apparent non sequitur, but the medic on her other side, in the process of unfastening Beckett's uniform jacket, shakes his head with a scowl.

"Too risky to involve a civilian. We told you that, Detective."

"He almost got killed!" she yells, real anger in her voice that makes Castle flinch backward, astonished. Her tone has a similar effect on... the man who Castle is slowly realizing is not a paramedic at all. But the guy rallies and directs his glare toward Castle.

"How were we supposed to know he'd throw himself in front of a bullet?" he asks, and although he doesn't actually say idiot, it's clearly implied.

Beckett shudders, letting go of Castle's arm. The expression of anguish that crosses her face draws him forward again, toward her, his hands coming out in concern.

"Beckett? Are you okay?"

She doesn't answer for a moment, sitting up on the stretcher to peel off the jacket and unbuckle her bulletproof vest. The not-really-a-paramedic takes it from her, begins working to pry the bullet free from the Kevlar. Castle's stomach lurches again at the lurid mental image of what that little piece of metal would have done if-

"Castle," she says, quieter now, but still with that pained look on her face, "I'm sorry. I should have told you, even though they said not to. They made me swear." She glares at the other man.

"Who? Who are they?" Castle asks. The other man sighs, glances briefly at the ceiling before reaching across Beckett to offer Castle his hand.

"Agent Grimes, FBI."

Castle takes the proffered hand, frowning. "FBI?" he repeats. But before Grimes can reply, a soft chirp comes from his pocket. He pulls out his phone, gives Castle and Beckett an apologetic glance, and turns away, muttering his name into the phone.

"The feds found out about the kidnapping ring somehow," Beckett explains, keeping her voice low. "I don't know what evidence they have, but they know about Montgomery and Raglan and McAllister. They came to me yesterday, told me to wear the Kevlar." She grimaces, reaching out a hand again, gripping the material of Castle's sleeve. "I wanted to tell you, Castle, I swear. They made me promise not to. I'm so sorry. I didn't really think anything would happen," she says in a rush, her eyes pleading with him to believe.

"It's okay," he says automatically, his mind whirling. "But they - how did they-"

"We're here," Grimes announces brusquely. The federal agent pockets his phone and turns back to them. "They got him, but we're gonna have to finish playing this out. Detective," he urges, nodding toward the stretcher. Beckett makes a face at him but complies, lying back down and allowing Grimes to pull a blanket up over her body, strap an oxygen mask to her face.

"Wait," Castle says, frowning. "They got him? What does that mean? What are you-"

"Not now," Grimes barks, and then the ambulance jerks to a stop, the doors pop open, and many hands are there to help Grimes unload the stretcher and wheel Beckett in through the ER doors.

Castle follows right behind, but as they zoom her through a set of double doors into the operating theater, a nurse puts a hand to his chest, stopping him.

"You can't go in there, sir. You'll have to wait out here."

"But I-" He stands blinking, confounded, watching Beckett disappear behind a drawn curtain as the nurse hovers, waiting to be sure he's going to comply.

He isn't. He sees Grimes in the midst of the chaos and yells the man's name, a sudden bite of anger in Castle's tone that has the agent hustling over, shushing him, giving the nurse a nod. Somehow it satisfies her and she bustles off.

"You have to stay out here, Mr. Castle," Grimes says. "It has to look authentic."

"Like hell I will," Castle snaps. His brain has finally kicked back into gear and he can't believe the nerve of this guy. Beckett might feel an obligation to comply, but not him. "You made this mess," he tells Grimes fiercely, "and a minute from now her father is going to come in here, her friends, coworkers, and you want to leave me out here to lie to their faces? Like hell." His hand is around Grimes's bicep, his grip hard. "Look her father in the eye and lie to him, when he just watched her get shot? No way. I won't do it."

To his credit, Grimes flinches and goes a little pale - whether from Castle's vehemence or the thought of Jim Beckett, it doesn't matter - and after a moment he sighs, nodding reluctantly. "Okay," he says with grit in his tone. "Okay, fine, but come back this way."

He leads Castle around a corner, down a side corridor, and through an unremarkable door that lets them into the room where Beckett was taken.

Just as Castle steps through the door, it hits him - in all the chaos he had entirely forgotten - what he said to Beckett out there, lying on the ground when he thought she had been shot. I love you, Kate.

Oh shit.

His knees lock up and he stops short, halfway through the door. Grimes, just ahead of him, throws a look back over his shoulder, a mix of puzzlement and irritation.

Castle forces his feet to finish bringing him into the room, his eyes immediately homing in on Beckett. She's sitting on the same gurney, stripped down to her camisole, a nurse standing behind her holding an ice pack to the back of her head. Beckett has a second ice pack in her hand, pressed awkwardly to her chest.

Castle is almost afraid to meet her eyes, his own words ringing through his brain - I love you, Kate, I love you - but she lifts her head and their gazes lock, and a strange calm begins to seep through his veins.

Wasn't he just thinking that it was time for them to talk, really talk about how they feel, what they are to each other? Okay, maybe this isn't anything remotely close to what he had in mind, but... you take what you get.

"Hey, Castle," she says softly, and he moves again, taking a few steps closer. Grimes has melted away, and the nurse withdraws now too, taking the ice pack with her.

"Hey," he responds, raspy through a dry throat. "How, uh, how are you feeling?" He nods toward the ice pack still clutched against her chest. "That's gotta hurt, even with the Kevlar."

"Yeah." She adjusts her grip on the ice pack, but doesn't look away, still watching him, like she's waiting. Waiting for him to say something, to show her where this conversation is going to go.

"Listen, Beckett," he starts, taking a few steps forward. His mind is still whirling, and he forces himself to focus. Where to begin?

He knows the answer immediately, as soon as he asks himself the question. It has to begin with the fight they had the day before Montgomery died. They haven't talked about it, just like they don't talk about anything.

I got no clue what we are.
You're afraid to find out who you are without it.
You deserve to be happy, but you're afraid.

His own words have rung through his skull far too many times in the past few days, leaving behind the bitter taste of regret and self-recrimination. Sure, he meant all those things - they're all still true - but he hates that he said them so hurtfully, weaponized his words against her. He needs to make it right.

He meets her eyes again. "I'm sorry for what I said," he begins. "I shouldn't have. I had no right. I was-"

He just gets a heartbeat of a chance to see her eyes drop, disappointment clouding over the hope that had been written across her face, and his heart sinks with it too - he doesn't understand why she looks like he just kicked her in the stomach - but before he can ask, the damn door opens and her damn boyfriend comes swooping in like a damn white knight. All he's missing is the white horse.

"Kate!" Josh gasps, rushing across the room. "They told me it was faked, but I had to be sure."

He stops just in front of her, pausing with his hands out. Of course, Castle thinks irritatedly, the man is a doctor; he knows better than to simply grab her shoulders, though he clearly wants to. Instead, he gently touches the back of Kate's free hand, which is resting on the bed beside her.

"Are you all right?" he asks softly.

"I'm fine," she says, offering him a smile that seems genuine, if reserved. Her eyes slide back over to Castle.

"Castle, could you give us a minute?" she asks, and he sees that the smile she gives him, Rick Castle, is very different from the one for her boyfriend. Her smile for Castle is apologetic, with something tender and regretful behind it. He doesn't even remotely understand all the things lurking behind that smile.

"Of course," he forces himself to say, and withdraws.

Grimes meets him in the hallway as he emerges from the room. "They're all here," the agent says, nodding toward the waiting room at the other end of the corridor. "The family, the other detectives. You might want to... not go down there. Not just yet."

Castle hesitates, his gut clenching as he thinks of his mother and daughter, not to mention Jim Beckett; how scared and worried they all must be. "I thought you said you caught him," he accuses, scowling at Grimes. "Why are we still pretending?"

"Just a few more minutes," the man says, clearly striving for a tone more apologetic than annoyed. He doesn't quite get there, but Castle lets it go. "We need to make absolutely sure everything is in order, Mr. Castle, surely you understand. We want this locked down, hard."

It takes Castle a moment to get what Grimes is saying. But then it clicks - this isn't about the guy at all, the shooter. It's a lot bigger than that.

"The Dragon," he murmurs, staring at Grimes's impassive face. "You know who he is, don't you?"

Grimes folds his arms over his chest and glares, but doesn't deny it. "Classified," is all he'll say.

"Did you at least tell her?" Castle demands. "Beckett. She deserves to know, for god's sake. The Dragon killed her mother, sent this guy today to kill her-"

"We'll tell her," Grimes says. "As soon as it's all lined up, she'll know. She'll come along and look him in the eye when we arrest him, if she wants to."

Castle scoffs, tilting his head back to stare at the ceiling. If she wants to? Does this guy even have a clue?

Josh Davidson comes barrelling out of the room then, his face like a storm cloud. He barely pauses to give Castle a look, scowling and shaking his head.

"Hope it's worth it," he mutters, and strides away.

Castle is staring after Josh, wondering what that's about, as Grimes takes out his phone and reads a couple of texts off the screen. The agent looks up, catching Castle's eye.

"I'll go explain to the family," he says, his expression blank again. He nods toward the doorway. "Tell her I'll try to smooth it over, okay?"

"Yeah. Okay."

Grimes walks away, and Castle turns back to the door, drawing in a long, slow breath.

"Okay. Where were we?" he mutters. It's a rhetorical question, even if he weren't talking to himself; he knows, of course, exactly where they were before Josh interrupted.

He, Castle, was trying to apologize to Beckett, and he's going to finish that, damn it, even if he still can't understand why her face fell when he got started, why she looked so hurt.

He pushes the door open and goes in.

Beckett is standing there, her head down, her fingers working at the buttons on her uniform shirt. She looks up when Castle enters, and he sees that same odd emotion flash through her eyes again before she carefully blanks them.

"Hey," she says.

"Hey, uh..." He gestures toward the door. "Josh sure left in a hurry, huh?"

"Yeah, well." Beckett finishes buttoning her shirt and reaches up - with just a slight wince - to pull her hair free from the collar. "I just dumped him."

Castle's whole body goes cold for a moment, frozen, and then flushes hot. "Really?" he croaks, trying to seek out her eyes, to see what it means. But she keeps her face turned away, her gaze averted. She won't meet his eyes.

"Yeah." She sighs. "I really liked him. But it wasn't enough."

Castle still doesn't understand why she's closing down, but the knowledge that Josh isn't in the way any more steadies him, bolsters his confidence. He reaches out and wraps his hand around her bicep, turning her toward him. "Beckett." She still won't look at him. "Kate, I didn't get to finish what I was saying. I-"

"You did. You said enough," she tells him, her words tumbling out hastily. She tugs her arm out of his grip, retreating. "You've done enough."

"What does that mean?" he asks, honestly confused. "What did I do?"

"You threw yourself in front of a bullet!" she snaps. Anger surges up suddenly and she whirls back around, makes eye contact at last, fire flashing in her glare. "You can't do that, Castle. You just can't."

He blinks, startled by her vehemence. "What was I supposed to do, just stand there?" He takes a step closer, shaking his head at her, determined. "I'm your partner, Kate. You said it yourself - someone willing to stand with you. That's me."

To his surprise, her eyes are shiny with unshed tears, and her voice trembles when she speaks again. "You can't," she repeats, quieter now. "I can't let you put yourself at risk. Not for me. I'm not worth it."

"Don't say that. That's crazy," Castle says softly. "Of course you're worth it."

He lifts his hand to cup her cheek. This isn't something they do - they don't touch each other, certainly not so intimately - but he can't hold back. He swipes his thumb gently under her eye, wiping away the moisture.

"I love you, Kate," he murmurs. Amazing how easily the words slip off his tongue, now that the dam has been breached.

She stares up at him, a slight frown creasing her forehead. "What?" she asks unsteadily. "You said you didn't mean it."

"I what?" He pauses, mirroring her look of confusion with his own. "No I didn't."

"Just before Josh came in," Beckett mutters. She pulls away from him, wrapping her arms around herself in a defensive gesture. "You said you were sorry for saying it, shouldn't have said it."

Castle's brows pull downward as he mentally replays the conversation, and suddenly it hits him. "Oh god. No, I didn't mean that," he exclaims. "Beckett. You thought I was apologizing for saying I love you? No. Hell no." He takes hold of her elbows, makes her uncross her arms so he can take her unresisting hands in his. "Kate. That's not what I meant."

He waits for her to look at him again, which she does after a long moment. She's wary, her posture still closed off, but she doesn't pull her hands out of his grip. "Then what?" she asks reluctantly.

"I was trying to say sorry for the things I said the other day," Castle tells her. "When we fought, the day before Montgomery died. At your apartment."

"Oh. Oh," she says, surprised. Her eyebrows go up, her body language softening. "Really?"

"Yes, really," he almost laughs with the relief of it, squeezing her hands until he realizes he's squeezing a little too hard. He eases off his grip and catches her eyes again. "All that stuff about you hiding in your mom's case, using it as a way to avoid relationships-"

"All true," she interjects, averting her eyes again, a blush coloring her cheeks.

Castle dismisses that with a quick shake of his head. "Not the point. I shouldn't have said it, not like that, in anger. I'm really sorry."

He takes a step closer again, still clasping both of her hands in his. "And I'm sorry I was too much of a coward to give you a real answer when you asked me what we are."

Beckett brings her eyes up to his face again, hope blooming beautifully green in her irises. "Partners," she says. "Friends."

"Yeah." He nods slowly. "And more. A lot more."

"A lot more," she echoes. And she, not he, is the one who takes the next step forward, bringing their bodies even closer; she is the one who lets go of his hands and reaches up to pull his head down, bringing his face within a breath of hers. And after a moment's hesitation, just long enough for them both to feel his pulse pounding frantically in his chest, she presses her mouth to his.

Castle feels a sigh go out of him, relief and delight flooding his veins as he wraps his arms around Beckett and kisses her for all he's worth. He tries to handle her gently, mindful of her injuries, but she isn't holding back; she presses the length of her body against his and responds with a passion equal to his own. The touch and taste and heat of her mouth feels like everything he has ever wanted.

"I'm sorry too," she gasps, when they finally part for air, "for the things I said. Calling you the class clown."

"I've been called worse," he shrugs, offering a small grin. She returns the smile, but tentatively, and she's pulling back slightly, disengaging their bodies, though she leaves her hands resting on his chest. Her eyes are still on him, hooded with uncertainty, a small frown between her eyebrows.

"Castle... I just… I don't..."

"Hey, listen," he says softly. "You just got shot, Kate, and everything - so much going on - you must be exhausted. It's okay. I'm not asking for anything."

She bites her lower lip, studying him. "Really?"

"Well... just one thing." He catches one of her hands in his again, presses it to his lips. "Just don't shut me out, okay? Don't disappear on me. Let me have your back, whatever comes next."

A real smile breaks free at that, and she nods. "Okay."

"Okay. Great." He feels the answering smile crack his cheeks, and he has to sneak a glance at the floor to make sure his feet are still planted on it. He feels almost ready to float away, hope and anticipation bubbling through his whole body.

But then reality floods back in; he remembers everything still unresolved, everything they have to do. "Oh crap," he says, "I forgot, Grimes said to tell you that he was going to try to explain to everyone, smooth things over."

Beckett's eyes go wide. "Oh no. My dad."

"Yeah." Castle grimaces. "I'm guessing he really wants to see you right now, make sure you're okay."

"And your family too," she exclaims. "They must be worried sick." She takes a quick step away from him, turning to scan the room. She spots her uniform jacket tossed on a chair and strides over to pick it up.

"Right," Castle says, watching her. "Don't forget the ice pack."

"Oh. No, I don't need that," Beckett answers. She puts a hand to her chest and presses gently, testing, and then shakes her head. "I'm fine." She lifts her eyes to his again, her face alight, jaw set. "They know who the Dragon is, Castle."

"Yeah." He nods, catching her excitement. "Grimes said when they're ready to arrest him, they'll bring you along."

"And you." She comes quickly across the room to him again, her jacket over her arm, eyes intent. "You'll be there too, right? Like you said. You'll have my back."

"Of course. Always." He can't help smiling at the thought. Watching Beckett finally get justice for her mother is going to be amazing, he already knows that for sure.

"Great." She hesitates, her gaze lingering on his lips, and his breath catches in his throat. He can't help being captivated by her mouth in return, his body tilting toward hers of its own volition, his pulse speeding up anew...

But the moment passes, and instead Beckett reaches down to take his hand again, twining her fingers through his. "Come on, Castle. Let's go dive into it."