Epilogue

Six months later

SoHo, NYC

Not bad, Beckett thought as she stepped in front of the full-length mirror, pleased with the image that stared back.

It felt like a lifetime ago since she'd worn this dress to the Heat Wave launch party because so much had happened since then.

Starting with Castle getting kidnapped and shot.

Since leaving the hospital, he'd put in the long, painful hours with his physiotherapist to get back into shape and regain full mobility in his shoulder. And then he'd taken it a few steps further still, by deciding to get into better shape than he ever was before. Yoga and Pilates at first, and then the last two months, he'd started weights and martial arts.

"Come on, Beckett. Admit it, a six-pack would be sexy."

She'd scrunched her nose. "I guess, I do like a good beer."

"Funny."

Truth be told, jocks and gyms buffs had never really been her type and she'd never thought he was out of shape. She'd always enjoyed his size – in every sense of the word – and the brute strength that lurked underneath it. But Beckett suspected the ordeal with Ojeda had made Castle feel powerless and this was his way of clawing some of that power back. It was a feeling she knew all too well, so she supported him every step of the way. Even went so far as to hit the gym more often herself, in case he needed a sparring partner soon.

Part of her suspected he also did it because he wanted to be able to protect her if need be. Because Maddox was still out there and sometimes the dreams she had of him standing on a rooftop, pointing a sniper rifle at her while she walked down the streets of Manhattan, woke her up, shaking and gasping for air, in the middle of the night. She knew the dreams took as much of a toll on him as they did on her, and the fact that he never let her see it was just one more reminder of his quiet strength.

It gave her some comfort to know that Smith was still out there too, and if he really was telling the truth, then it meant that he did make a pact with Montgomery to keep her alive as long as she wasn't pursuing her mother's murder. Some days it took all her willpower not to go there, but she did it. She'd let it go until they had real leads, solid ones that would take them somewhere, instead of chasing after shadows and risking her life in mismatched rooftop fights.

In other words, she was learning to be patient.

Occasionally, Castle woke up with nightmares too. One night she'd joked that being together had made them far too alike. They even had matching bullet scars.

Sometimes they'd get up to watch a movie after a nightmare. Other times they had sex or talked with a mug of herbal tea cupped in their hands. None of them was a cure, but they were durable band-aids and most nights it was enough. Better than vodka, she thought.

Heat Wave was a roaring success and Castle got the go-ahead to write two more Nikki Heat novels. When Beckett found out that he'd started writing Naked Heat while he was held captive by Ojeda, she'd almost forgiven him for the title. Because Heat Wave was such a hit, it also meant that she'd grudgingly tolerated her own fifteen minutes of fame.

Kate did a handful of interviews in magazines and even made an appearance on a couple of morning talk shows because everyone wanted to see the real-life inspiration behind Detective Heat.

It doesn't hurt that the camera loves you, Castle, her personal assistant and showbiz expert, had reminded her. He'd been so damn proud every time she stepped into the limelight that it made it easier to endure. She still didn't care for fame, but she'd learned to embrace it, because she was proud too, proud to be his inspiration.

The best part was that, in an age when good NYPD publicity was hard to come by, it had painted the 12th in such a positive light that Gates was smart enough to realize that Castle really was an asset to the precinct. He'd asked if he could continue to occasionally shadow Beckett and the boys while he wrote his next novels and this time he hadn't gone over her head. He'd asked Gates personally and she'd agreed without much ado. In turn, Castle had been instrumental in helping them solve three major cases in the last five months.

Salvador Ojeda's trial would start in two weeks and Beckett dreaded it. Dreaded that it might end up with Castle on the stand and bring back memories that he was still trying to put behind him. But she'd cross that bridge when they came to it, and she'd make sure they got through it together. Although Ojeda had pleaded guilty to the kidnapping charges, his lawyers were arguing for a reduced sentence now that the shrinks had gotten their hands on him and diagnosed him with a slew of psychological disorders. None of which the prosecution accepted as sufficiently severe to suggest he wasn't fully aware of his intentions and their consequences.

Although she wanted Ojeda locked up for the rest of his life, more than that, she wanted to protect Castle from the circus that she knew a trial like this could become. But she couldn't protect him from facing his demons any more than he could protect her from hers. All she could do was stand by his side and make sure he didn't fall too far down the abyss.

But not even those nagging dark clouds hadn't dampened the many wonderful moments of the last six months.

There were so many firsts, because Castle took this dating thing Very Seriously. He'd even made good on his threats of embarrassing displays of public affection. Numerous times.

Their first Manhattan dinner in public as a couple. The first time he'd brought her flowers. The first time she'd taken him for a spin on her old Harley (and consequently also the first time she'd made him squeal like a little girl). Their first dinner with his mother and her father. Their first Thanksgiving together, highlighted by one very misguided attempt at deep-frying a turkey. Their first weekend bike ride – the one where they'd biked over the Brooklyn Bridge and Castle stopped in the middle and asked two Japanese tourists to take pictures, just before he kissed her. It was now her absolute favourite photo. So much so that it was the background on her cellphone. The two of them, kissing each other like lovestruck tourists on the Brooklyn Bridge.

By mid-December she'd even let Castle suck her into his boundless enthusiasm for Christmas.

Because her mother's death had occurred to close to Christmas, neither Kate nor her father had celebrated it since. Her Dad had always taken off for his cabin upstate and she'd always worked double shifts at the 12th. Every Christmas, no exceptions.

If she couldn't bring her mother justice, at least she could do her best to make sure someone else's family was safe. It was the one tradition Beckett wasn't sure she could part with. Not yet.

She knew how much it meant to Castle to have her spend their first Christmas together with his family, but he'd wanted it to be her choice too.

"If this tradition means a lot to you, you should continue it. We have half a dozen other holidays we can spend together."

It felt like no matter what she did, she'd end up letting someone down. Either her mother, or Castle. "It's not that I don't want to…"

"Kate…" They'd gone for a brisk evening walk through Washington Square Park that night, awed by the giant Christmas tree next to the arch that dwarfed it. Holiday sights she'd normally avoided like the plague and now couldn't help but enjoy. "You don't owe me an explanation."

"I do…"

"No," he'd insisted while reaching over to steal a sip of her hot chocolate since he'd already finished his. "You don't. It's Christmas…if this is what feels right in your heart, then do it. It's exactly what this day is about. And when you come home, we'll still be there. I might even save you a couple of presents and some mulled wine."

So she'd compromised. She'd taken on the day shift, 7am to 7pm, but didn't sign on for a double, so that she could have Christmas dinner with him. And in turn, he'd agreed to have it later than usual.

So for the first time since she was a teenager, she celebrated Christmas again. Unwrapped gifts with Martha and Alexis, ate turkey with stuffing and homemade cranberry sauce, listened to carols, added new decorations to a stunning tree that towered over all of them, and by the time she finished her second glass of mulled wine she could hear her mother's voice.

"Oh Katie…I don't why you waited to so long to this but I'm so glad you finally did. It makes me so happy."

All of it was overwhelming. So much so that she'd found herself wiping away tears. In response Castle had pulled her underneath a mistletoe and kissed her tenderly. Of all the men she'd dated, he was still the only one who'd never been afraid to love all of her. Even the messy parts.

"I'm so glad you're here," he'd told her, a single hand resting on the small of her back. "But if it's too much, we'll head out. We can go for a walk in an orthodox neighbourhood, where we won't see a Christmas decoration anywhere."

"Idiot." She'd whacked his chest. "It's just been a really long time since I've done this…and until tonight I didn't even realize how much I'd missed it. And don't laugh, 'cause you know I don't believe in this stuff…but I could feel my mom's presence tonight."

"I believe it."

She'd wiped away another persistent tear drop. "Of course you do."

Beckett had a feeling that her days of working the Christmas shift were over.

Then in mid-January, right in the heart of a cold, snowy New York winter, Castle had whined and pestered and nagged her to take a week off so they could escape somewhere warm.

Their first vacation.

"Where?" she'd questioned.

"Let me surprise you."

"I dunno if I like the sound of that…"

"I figured you wouldn't, being the control freak that you are."

"Have you been talking to Espo again?"

"C'mon Beckett, you don't give me too many chances to surprise you. Indulge me."

So she had.

She'd expected a swank resort in Los Cabos or St. Kitt's, and she'd decided to go along with it, indulge him as he said, because a winter escape from the mud-coloured slush all over the Manhattan streets did sound heavenly even if fruity cocktails and bikinis weren't really her thing.

But instead, he'd truly surprised her.

Flown her to a five-star eco-lodge in Costa Rica, nestled between a dense rainforest and a pristine beach. It had private wooden cabins with their own infinity pools that blended right into the low-lying clouds of the hills around them. That's where they skinny-dipped after the sun went down, illuminated only by the moon and an impossibly brilliant star-filled sky. During the day they rode horses and picnicked along the beach, walked along flimsy rope-tied canopies that connected the crowns of ancient trees, and went canyoning down wild rivers. There was even a night hike filled with soaring bats, sleeping tropical birds, and red-eyed frogs that crawled right into the palm of her hand.

It was magical.

"You didn't think I'd just make you sit on a beach chair at an all-inclusive for a week, did you? I know my bikini-hating, motorcycle-riding, adrenaline-junkie better than that."

And sandwiched between those big, those momentous occasions, there'd been countless ordinary, everyday moments. Cooking dinner together. Silly arguments that neither of their alpha bullheadedness would concede. The kind of thing that might have become heated and sent her running in the past but now led to the sort of sex that made her forget what they argued about in the first place. There were sci-fi movie marathons, quiet morning rides to crime scenes, Netflix binges and lazy Sunday afternoons, with her head in his lap while he read The New York Times. Sweet, milky lattes that dulled the horror of gruesome crime scenes, and lightbulb moments when they simultaneously connected the dots while staring at a murder board and ended up finishing each other's sentences.

All of it, the mundane and the extraordinary, morphed the fierce love she already had for him into something even deeper. Something calm and strong. And lasting.

"Holy cow…"

Beckett whipped her head around to see that Castle had entered the bedroom. Staring at her in his tailor-made suit with those silver and blue cufflinks that matched the colour of his eyes. He was so damn handsome and the way he looked at her, it was sending all sorts of sudden heat through her body. Nearly a year later and that constant physical longing for him still hadn't dulled. She doubted that it ever would. "Oh hi…"

"You are…" It wasn't often that she left him speechless. "Just…wow, Kate."

"Remember you said you wanted to see this dress? Well, it's warm enough now." It was an unseasonably warm mid-April evening and they were finally getting around to going out to celebrate his birthday. It felt like the perfect time to give the dress she'd worn at the launch party another go.

"Happy birthday to me." Castle loosened his tie and walked towards her. Ran his fingers along her bare back, sending shivers up her spine. "You're right. It definitely feels warm in here."

Her skin was electric now. "You like?"

He stood behind her, one hand resting on her hip, thumb sliding underneath the flimsy fabric. "No…" He was staring into the mirror, eyeing them both. "Not sure that 'like' is an adequate word for the things I'm feeling at the moment." She could feel the pounding of his heart next to her and if she hadn't put quite so much effort into the hair and make-up to go with the dress, she'd have asked him to take if off. Would have insisted on a quickie to tamp her desires. As it was, it would be hard to focus on dinner when it was him that she wanted so badly now.

But maybe all that pent-up longing would only make it better afterwards.

"Had I known you were gonna come to the launch party in this I'd have thrown my father's note in the garbage."

She slipped into her heels and stood locked her eyes with his on equal footing. "Let's go to your fancy restaurant. We'll celebrate you and turn some heads."

Castle didn't move. He was mesmerized. "Marry me."

Kate raised her brows, not sure if he was joking or not. But she went along with it. Knowing her answer would be the same either way. Amusement lifted her lips and there was no hesitation. "Sure, why not?"

If she didn't know him as well as she did, she'd have missed the shock on his face, because it was so fleeting. Because he was the one who now wondered if she was joking.

But it quickly became clear to him that she wasn't.

Castle stared back at her, her wordsmith at a loss for words for the second time in less than a minute.

She smirked. "Not the answer you were expecting?"

"I, uh…" Her was thoroughly flustered. "I didn't expect to ask…I mean, yes, yes, I did. I think about asking you every day but it was gonna be…grand. Not like this. We were gonna be a in a helicopter watching a plane write the question into a blue sky. But, damn it, Kate, I'm supposed to go out into the city with you showing that much skin and not let world know you're mine?"

"That's not a very caveman sentiment at all."

"Christ, you're making me all sorts of discombobulated." He was suddenly handsy and nervous and it was adorable. "Did you mean it? You weren't messing with me, because I do know how much you like to do that."

"You're right. I do." She grinned. "You are fun to mess with." He was so cute in his nervousness that she wanted to kiss him when her eyes met his again. She was serious now and letting him know it. "I'm not sure how me saying yes will show the world that I'm yours, but yes, I mean it."

He swallowed hard. "You really, really mean it?"

"I really, really mean it."

"Hang on." He dashed out of the room.

"Rick, where are you going? Our dinner reservation is in thirty minutes, we don't have time for you to tattoo "property of Richard Castle" into my forehead…"

He came back in less than a minute, grinning. "Let it be known that this is not the spectacular airborne proposal I had in mind, but I'm not about to let an opportunity like this slip away, so let me at least do one thing right."

Castle got down on one knee in front of her, and in spite of the fact that she'd never been more certain of anything, goosebumps suddenly ran along her bare arms.

"Katherine Houghton Beckett, will you give me the best birthday gift ever and marry me?" He was holding a small jewelry box in the palm of one hand and he opened it for her with the other. It was the ring that that Alexis had shown her more than six months ago. The three diamonds inside the solid platinum band.

Kate was the one who was speechless now. Nodding and barely able to croak out a 'yes' as he slipped the ring onto her finger. A perfect fit.

"Now the world knows you're mine." His grin was even bigger when he kissed the top of her hand. "Looks good on you."

It was a stunning piece of jewelry. Solid and elegant, timeless and exquisite "It's the ring…the ring." She was babbling now. Hadn't expected to feel this well of emotion that was rising up inside of her. "It's the same one Alexis showed me! But she said you never ended up getting it!"

"I might not have been entirely honest when I told her that." Castle was still grinning. "Because I might not have wanted her to know just how foolishly optimistic I still was at that point."

"Is that right?" Kate shook her head in amazed disbelief before she pulled him in for a kiss. "Promise me something? Don't ever lose that optimism."

"You make it easy."

He was making her feel all sorts of things right now. Mostly joy. But stunned disbelief too, that all this time, he'd kept the ring. Knew that it was only a matter of time and that he was ready to wait. Her big impatient kid who somehow always found all the patience in the world for her.

"Come on, Mr. Beckett," she slid her arm around him, the new ring on her finger sparkling when it caught a ray of light from the bedside lamp. Having him on her arm had already felt natural for a while, but wearing this stunning ring would take some time to get used to.

"Now that the world knows I'm yours, and we have more than one reason to celebrate, let me take you out for dinner and then…" She reached for his hand and wove her fingers through his with a smile. "We'll come home and work it off."

The End

A/N: Confession...I started writing this story well over a year ago but back then it was just a vague idea I toyed with that I never really thought I'd end up posting. Or even finishing. But then came March, 2020 and it seemed like the world ground to a halt. Suddenly I had a lot of unexpected (and unwanted) free time and nowhere to go. So now I had lots of time to write and I figured this might be a way to give back, to provide someone caught in the same situation with a bit of romance and escapism. If it succeeded in doing that, even if only for one reader, then it's a success in my books.

And last, but definitely not least, a big thank you to my proof-reader and pandemic-buddy-in-more-ways-than-one, WRTRD. You are one of the absolute bright spots in what's been a crapshoot of a year and I'm grateful every day to call you a friend.