Author's Note: Apologies for not posting this on schedule last week but I was still tweaking it to try to get it right. Enjoy.
Kate had not been back here in a year.
But she remembered, remembered everything about the place, the day, the kaleidoscope of images and sounds flashing through her mind. Remembered the exact shade of the blue sky above her that day, the heat of the sun beating down, the quiet rustles and murmurs of the assembled mourners, the light glinting off badges and guns and reflecting off the shiny surface of the casket. And she remembered the burning pain in her chest, remembered falling to the ground. Remembered the terror, the certainty that this was the end.
She had almost died.
But she hadn't, she reminded herself forcefully. She was alive and well and it was over, really and truly over. Bracken had been found guilty of all his crimes and was in maximum security federal prison, sentenced to three consecutive life sentences, without parole. And Bracken had also given up the man who'd shot her in an attempt to have his sentence reduced, proving, as if there'd been any doubt, that Bracken's only loyalty was to himself. The shooter, a Cole Maddox, had been in the wind for months but he too had finally been caught and imprisoned only last month. The long conspiracy that had begun 20 years ago with Raglan and McAllister's kidnapping scheme really was over now.
It was done. And now, finally, a year and one day after Captain Montgomery's death, she was back to visit Captain Montgomery's grave for the first time.
She hadn't been avoiding visiting Montgomery's grave, not exactly. She'd been busy, adjusting to the new Captain Gates, adjusting to working with Castle again and living with him too. Yes, she'd been busy, busy and distracted and happy too. Too happy to want to dwell on the poignant, painful memories of Captain Montgomery. And so she hadn't.
Until Castle had mentioned a couple weeks ago that he was thinking of calling Evelyn Montgomery and inviting her and her kids to dinner to see how they were doing almost a year after the Captain's death. She knew Alexis had continued to stay in sporadic touch with Montgomery's daughters—as kind-hearted as she was—and she knew how seriously Castle took the request Montgomery had made in his last letter to Castle to look out for his kids.
Evelyn and the girls had come over to the loft for dinner—Rob Montgomery was away in college—and the evening had been a pleasant one. Evelyn and the girls had survived and were moving on with all the resilience Kate would have expected in a woman who'd been married to a police officer for 30 years. Kate had almost forgotten, or not allowed herself to remember, how much she'd always liked Evelyn in her own right, aside from the identity of her husband.
But the whole evening had also been a sharp reminder of the Captain, of how much she owed him, how much she missed him and mourned him. A reminder too that she had still not returned to visit his grave, perhaps understandably, but also a sign of weakness. She owed Captain Montgomery more than that.
And as she'd read somewhere, in order to truly move on from a trauma, it was a necessary step to go back to the place where you were defeated. She had put in the work to move on after what had happened to her—no, she corrected herself, no more euphemisms—after her shooting. She had faced her enemies in Bracken and in Cole Maddox too. She had stared down her memories and her nightmares until they mostly lost their power over her. But for all the work she'd put in, she had not returned here, to this place where she'd come so close to dying, this place that she'd seen in her nightmares so many times and still haunted her at times.
She had talked about it with Dr. Burke, her psychiatrist, and he had agreed that returning to Montgomery's grave would be a step forward to truly coming to terms with everything that had happened last May from the revelation of Captain Montgomery's past, his death, and her own brush with death.
It was time to lay the final ghost of her shooting to rest.
She had not come here yesterday, the actual anniversary of the Captain's death, because she had not wanted to disturb the privacy of Evelyn and the girls, who would, she was sure, be visiting the police cemetery on the first anniversary. So she had waited the additional day and now, here she was. Hesitating.
Her eyes found the new headstone, something that had not been here a year ago, and then moved on across the stretch of grass beside it. She could guess where the chairs for the mourners had been set up, where the podium had been.
Her steps faltered, her pulse leaping, her breathing becoming shallow and uneven. Her hand automatically came up to her chest, her palm covering the scar, the lingering visible sign of what had happened here—of her shooting. She froze, momentarily reeling under the impact of her memories, hearing in her mind the sound of phantom sirens and screams.
But then, paradoxically, memory came to her rescue too because of the differences. That day had been bright and sunny; today was more overcast. There had been other people around, the crowd of mourners, the honor guard, and all the trappings of the funeral, the flap of the flag in the wind, the casket beside the open grave; today, she was alone.
Her breathing slowed and she was able to take a step forward and then another and another until she was standing in front of the headstone, her eyes finding the name, Roy Montgomery, the relevant dates, and the words Beloved Husband and Father. His rank and years of service in the NYPD were at the bottom of the stone in smaller letters.
"It's over, Captain. The information you sent to Agent Shaw, the evidence you gave to my mother, we used it to bring Bracken down and it's all over and… your secret is safe." She let out a breath, thinking about the Captain, all he'd taught her, what a mentor he had been. A mentor and a friend because he had been that too. She and Captain Gates had achieved a certain amount of balance in their working relationship, one of mutual respect, but it wasn't the same. The level of trust wasn't the same, the level of support wasn't the same.
And of course, it didn't help that Captain Gates had still not warmed to Castle's presence in the precinct or his place as Kate's partner. Which reminded her of Montgomery's opinion of Castle, the letter he had left for Castle, which Castle had allowed her to read.
"And I wanted you to know that you were right about Castle," she paused, realizing that she was actually smiling, her spirits lifting in that way that still happened at the thought of Castle. "He is good for me; he's been great. He just… makes me happy and I'm not sure what I'd do without him," she admitted, with a candor she would not have shown to Montgomery during his life. True as the words were, she still was not able to be so openly vulnerable with just about anyone outside of her dad and, more usually, Castle himself. The thought of the two years she and Castle had spent apart after he'd looked into her mom's case seemed like a distant, bad dream now. How desolate, how lonely, her life had been without him. And now, she never wanted a day to go by without his smiles and his tenderness and his strength and, yes, his coffee.
Castle would, no doubt, be meeting her at the precinct later this morning with her coffee, as usual. She and Castle went to the precinct together most mornings and shared their first coffees in the loft, part of their morning ritual which she loved. But a small part of her also rather liked the mornings when she and Castle did not go into the precinct together, the mornings when she left early for a morning run or a workout in the precinct gym, because on those mornings, Castle always arrived in the precinct bearing two to-go cups of coffee, just as he had when they'd first started to work together three years ago, and sometimes a bear claw too.
Yes, Castle really was what she'd needed in her life and Captain Montgomery had recognized that from the beginning and done what he could to try to bring them together again, looking out for her through the end.
"And I wanted to thank you, for everything, Captain, but mostly for caring, for trying to bring Castle back."
Kate lifted her head, blinking at the sudden prick of tears, and turned to look at the place where she remembered standing at the podium. The place where she'd fallen. She set her chin; she could do this.
She moved the few steps until she was again where she'd stood on that fateful day. And for the first time, she deliberately called to mind her memories of the funeral, of giving her eulogy for the Captain.
If you're very lucky, you find someone willing to stand with you…
That was what she'd said and—she abruptly remembered—she'd been talking about Castle. She had… forgotten that, or something, because she'd deliberately tried not to remember any of Montgomery's funeral even before her shooting. Now, here, all the memories returned. And she realized, too, that the memories were not all bad or painful after all because thinking about that day now, what came to mind was Castle. A spark of comfort, even happiness, on that terrible day, reminding her of the possibility for joy her mom had always believed in.
Castle had been there for all of it, the service in the cathedral, the last salute outside the cathedral, had been there to lend her his strength and his support. And during the eulogy, she had thought even then, a year ago, before they were even really together, that Castle was her someone, the one who would stand with her, not just at work but in life.
She bent down, flattened her hand against the grass where she'd bled out, focusing on her breathing, in and out. And she remembered Castle above her, holding her, his tears wetting her face. His face had been the last thing she'd seen before her world had gone black and her last thought had been that she didn't want to leave him. All she'd wanted was more time, with him…
She pushed herself to her feet, suddenly eager to go to the precinct, eager to see Castle again. Her eyes swept over the cemetery again, conscious now of the sound of birds, the breeze ruffling the floral tributes on the graves and the leaves on the trees. As the line went, after life's fitful fever, they slept well. It was a peaceful place.
And she had a life to live.
Kate turned away to walk back to where she'd left her car. Her steps checked for a fleeting moment as her eyes fell on the familiar figure of the man standing beside her car, waiting for her. And felt the now-familiar little lift of her heart as if a missing piece had been fitted back into place.
"You found me," she greeted Castle lightly, wondering why she wasn't more surprised. She hadn't specifically told him where she was going but here he was.
"I'll always find you," he returned with a faint smirk. "Besides, I realized that today is our anniversary and I wanted to spend as much of it with you as possible."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Today is not our anniversary. You were the one who said our anniversary is next week." They had something of an ongoing disagreement over the actual date of their anniversary, Castle dating the start of their relationship from their first kiss the night before Montgomery's funeral. But to her, the real start of their relationship had been their fight in the hospital when she'd tried to kick him out and he'd refused to leave because that was when she'd really started to believe in their relationship.
"As it happens, I decided we were both wrong," he returned airily. "Because today is our real anniversary."
Sometimes, he really was incomprehensible. "It is not. Nothing really happened between us a year ago today. All that happened was you came back to the precinct but we didn't get together then." As precious as the memory of his coming back to the precinct was, as happy as she had been to see him again, their relationship had not started that day.
"Ah, but that's where you're wrong," he pontificated. "It's all in the way you look at it. You let me back into your life a year ago and the moment you forgave me and let me back in was the real start of our relationship because from that moment, it was inevitable that we would end up together."
"Inevitable, is that what you think?"
"I was still in love with you so I was never going to leave you again so yes, we were always meant to end up together."
She sternly suppressed a smile but oh, the impossible man did make it hard to be irritated with him. "And I suppose I had no say in this?"
"Well, you do find me kind of irresistible so I think you were always going to fall for me," he drawled, giving her one of his looks from beneath his lashes that never failed to send a wave of heat rippling through her—and he knew it too, damn him.
"I think it's you who find me irresistible," she tried to rally.
"Oh, I definitely do," he agreed, the lightness of his tone somewhat belied by the intent and the desire darkening his eyes, as he reached out to slide his hands around her waist, tugging her closer to him.
She went willingly into his embrace, looping her own arms around his waist.
He gave her one of his tender smiles, a smile that had her face flushing, her heart fluttering. A smile that barely touched his lips but was apparent mostly in the way it softened his entire expression, in the light of his eyes. Her smile, as she'd privately labeled it, because it was one he reserved for her, similar but still subtly, recognizably different from the soft smiles he directed at Alexis. "I missed you this morning," he murmured quietly. She woke up before Castle did most mornings, allowing her to shower first and then make coffee while he showered but this morning, she had left the loft while he was taking his shower and had not stayed for their usual morning ritual of drinking coffee together.
"I told you I had an errand to run before going into the precinct."
"You did, but you leaving early meant I didn't have a chance to do this," he bent and kissed her slowly, lingeringly, before lifting his head, "and I don't like mornings when I don't get to kiss you. A morning without kissing you is like a morning without coffee."
"A morning without coffee is an abomination."
"My point exactly."
"I wouldn't want you to suffer on my account," she drawled and gave him a quick, teasing kiss—or at least, she meant for the kiss to be quick but he had other ideas, chasing her lips with his, not that she tried very hard (or at all) to resist. His tongue slid over the seam of her lips and she opened for him willingly, his tongue curling around hers, his teeth nipping lightly at her lower lip and her small moan was swallowed by his mouth. Her head spun as she sank into him and oh, yeah, he was right that a morning should never go by without his mouth working over hers like this.
He finally, reluctantly, drew back and she sagged against him, his breath coming as rapidly as hers. She rested her head against his shoulder and thought rather fuzzily that he might be right about their inevitably ending up together. She couldn't imagine spending any amount of time with him and not falling in love with him. Maybe today really was their anniversary after all…
"Have I told you lately that I really love kissing you?"
She huffed a soft laugh. "The feeling's mutual."
He smiled and turned his head to brush his lips against her forehead.
She relaxed against him. At some point, they would need to leave to go into the precinct but she figured they still had a few minutes and once they were at the precinct, they would have to keep a professional distance.
"It must have been tough, coming back here," he murmured after a moment. "I would have come with you, you know."
She lifted her head enough to meet his eyes. "I know, Castle, but I wanted to do this on my own. I feel like I owed it to Captain Montgomery; he was my mentor, my friend, and more than that, I wanted to come back alone to prove to myself that I could, that I'm not still broken."
His lips twisted a little ruefully. "I can understand that." He studied her. "And you're okay?"
"I really am," she gave him a soft smile. "It wasn't easy but I did it."
"You faced down the ghosts of what might have been," he supplied quietly.
Trust him as a writer to come up with a phrase like that. "I was thinking about the funeral, not just, well, what happened at the end, but the whole morning. I remember what I said in the eulogy."
His expression softened. "That we're more than our mistakes?"
"Yes, but not just that, that if we're lucky…"
"...we find someone willing to stand with us," his echo of her own words overlapped with hers in messy unison.
"Yes. And Castle, I was talking about you, even then."
"I'll always stand with you."
"I know you will, just as I'll stand with you."
His eyes crinkled a little at the corners. "Will you hold my hand and keep me from crying too much at Alexis's graduation?"
She smiled faintly. "I promise. And I'll bring plenty of tissues, just in case."
He was such a good dad and in spite of his jokes about crying at Alexis's graduation, he was close to bursting with pride in Alexis for graduating as a valedictorian and he looked so happy today and so… good… with his eyes so bright and so blue, the small smile curving his lips. Her heart seemed to swell inside her chest. She loved seeing him look so happy.
"I love you." She didn't say the words often even now but they were getting easier to say and she was always amply rewarded by his expression when she did say the words.
His smile deepened slightly. "I know. I love you too."
She met his eyes and for a fleeting instant, had a flash of memory of seeing his eyes above her in this very cemetery last year, the stark terror and the tears in his eyes. Everything was so different today—and perhaps not so very different. He had still loved her last year, just as she had loved him (even if she hadn't been able to admit it just yet). And although she hadn't planned it or consciously realized she was thinking about it, she found the words coming to her lips with surprising ease and certainty. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?"
His eyes flared with surprise and she felt him stiffen, his arms tensing around her waist. "Kate, I… Yes, of course, yes." A smile, wider than anything she could remember seeing before, and then a laugh of sheer jubilation escaped him and he caught her up in his arms, lifting her clear off her feet.
She laughed too, not able to help it, and clung to him, her blood rushing through her, her head feeling rather as if it might fly off. Oh, oh god, she had actually proposed to him, she had proposed to Richard Castle! It was the most absurd, ridiculous thing but she'd done it and he'd said yes and they were getting married. So absurd and so utterly right too.
He had started to spin with her still in his arms but her car got in the way and she laughed again as he set her down, although he kept his arms around her.
He beamed at her, his face flushed from sheer happiness. "You just proposed to me. You'll never stop surprising me, will you?"
"I sort of surprised me too."
He laughed and then his laugh abruptly broke off, his eyes widening. "Oh, but I do have a ring for you! It's in the safe at home."
She blinked, ridiculously feeling herself flush at the realization that he already had a ring for her. "You bought a ring? Already?"
"I bought the ring back when I bought your Valentine's Day gift."
"You did? But then why didn't you ask before now?"
"I was trying to come up with a plan for how to propose. I wanted it to be perfect, something big and romantic but still intimate."
Oh, Castle, of course he would have wanted to plan some elaborate proposal, silly, wonderful man that he was. "I guess I beat you to it. Sorry for stealing your thunder." She tried but she couldn't for the life of her inject any actual regret into her tone.
He laughed again, his eyes dancing. "Are you kidding? Don't apologize, this was perfect. Besides," he added, a smirk tugging on his lips, "it's proof that you really do find me irresistible."
Oh, he was going to be preening about her having been the one to propose to him for a good long while, wasn't he, but she couldn't summon up any irritation at the thought. "Keep it up and I just might change my mind," she warned tartly—tried to warn, although she knew the words were entirely belied by the smile she couldn't quite suppress.
"You like having me around, you just said so."
She heaved an exaggerated sigh. "What have I gotten myself into?"
"Oh, just spending the rest of your life with me," he answered lightly but the impact of the words—the rest of her life with him—had them both sobering. Their eyes met and held and then he was kissing her or she was kissing him, her fiancé, his tongue sweeping through her mouth, until she was almost dizzy with it, dizzy from his kiss and from so much love and happiness she almost wondered how it was possible for her chest to contain it all. And it really was perfect.
She could have kissed him forever but all too soon, they broke apart in order to catch their breaths and grin foolishly into each other's eyes.
"We're getting married," he blurted out.
"We are." Oh lord, she was going to marry Richard Castle. "I guess it is our anniversary today after all."
"Told you so," he said smugly and he was so cute in his smugness and she was too happy to even think about feeling irritated with him at the words.
Married. They were getting married. (She wondered if the ridiculous little thrill at the thought would ever go away.) Like Ryan and Jenny, memories of Ryan's wedding, of dancing with Castle at the reception afterwards, flickered through her mind.
Oh wait. She made a face, abruptly remembering something. She hadn't planned this right, not that she'd planned this at all. "But in the meantime, we still have to go into the precinct. Today's a workday."
The reminder made him blink, his smile momentarily slipping. "Oh, damn. Do we have to?"
"We really do. You know what Gates is like."
It was his turn to make a face. "Anything for you, Kate."
She kissed him for that. "Think of it this way, we still get to spend the day together. And I'll call my dad and have him come over for dinner, if you'll check with Martha and Alexis, and we can tell our family the news together."
Our family—because they really were a family. Her dad came to the loft for dinner at least once a month and he would be coming to Alexis's graduation and she knew he and Alexis were talking about Alexis helping out part-time in his office over the summer. Yes, they were a family and now, it would be official.
"You are amazing and brilliant, you know that."
She laughed and kissed him again, before (reluctantly) stepping back, moving around to the driver's seat and throwing him a teasing smile over the roof of her car. "You coming, Castle?"
She started her car and he reached out to grasp her hand in his and, for once, she kept her hand in his as she drove. They were together and they had the rest of their lives. She couldn't wait.
A/N 2: I hope this epilogue satisfied. Thank you to all who have stuck with this story for so long, especially those of you who have taken the time to review. You are all much appreciated. Until next time and the next story!