… … …
He lets himself in. She should be expecting him anyway, and he doesn't want her to have to get up. When she isn't on the sofa, he calls out to her so she'll know it is him, then he takes the bag of groceries he has brought into the kitchen. He puts the milk in the refrigerator, but leaves the rest until later, grabbing only one more item from the top of the bag.
He moves through her apartment to her bedroom door, and knocks, softly. Receiving permission to enter, he pushes open the door. He isn't shy about being in her bedroom any more - he's used to it now, though he can't wait for the days when she doesn't require so much rest.
She's sitting up on the bed, but she's obviously not feeling strong enough to get up, otherwise she'd have met him at the door. It took a couple of weeks for her to accept that she didn't have to be strong around him all the time, and it warms his heart each time now that she trusts him enough to show how she's truly feeling… At least physically.
Other 'feelings' are the reason for the item he has concealed behind his back.
He crosses the room, and she offers him a small smile as he perches on the edge of the bed, beside her.
"Tired?" he asks, sympathetically.
She nods. "Lanie had me do a couple of laps of the apartment. I feel like I've been walking non-stop for a week."
He smiles when she does, glad to see her spirits up. It's been two months since Captain Montgomery's death; one month since Kate was released from the hospital - out of danger, but far from recovered. He offered her a bed in his apartment so he could take care of her, but she stubbornly declined. When she asked would he mind helping her to take care of herself at her own apartment, he'd answered before she had even finished the question. It didn't occur to him to even ask about Josh until two days later. Even then, he didn't pose the question: It was painstakingly clear that Josh was no longer around.
"What do you have behind your back?" she asks him, leaning to her left a little to try to see past him.
"I brought you a present," he replies, keeping it hidden.
"Castle, you shouldn't have. You've done more than enough -"
"You're recuperating. Recuperating people get presents… And accept them gracefully," he smirks.
Now her eyebrows furrow, warily, and she eyes him with suspicion. "Will I want to be less than graceful?"
"You may wish you hadn't been walking non-stop for a week."
Thinking it best to get to his point before he winds her up too much and it all goes even more pear-shaped than he already expects it to, he produces the gift from behind his back and places it in front of her on her outstretched legs.
She looks at it with a small frown; takes it in her hands and gently squeezes it. "You got me an elephant?"
He shrugs, though he suspects she knows there's more going on than his next words reveal. "His name's Elf. I thought it was cute."
She looks at it again, and a small smile quirks her lips. "It is… But why?"
He knows his expression has turned serious and sees momentary panic in her eyes when she returns her gaze to him.
"I figured we have enough elephants in the room with us, one might as well be cute."
He's given her time. He's given her space. They've mourned Roy. He's acted as if everything between them is exactly the same as it has always been. But he doesn't want to do that anymore. He won't let his admission be one more thing that they just don't talk about.
He knows she'd be up and away from his intense gaze if she wasn't so exhausted. Maybe it's cruel of him to bring this up when she's completely at his mercy. But everyone kept telling him he's the only one who can get through to her. He supposes he should do that any way he can.
"Kate, I love you…"
Her surprise at his directness is clear in her widened eyes and parted lips. He continues before she can comment.
"… It wasn't just something I said because I was terrified of losing you. I've wanted to tell you for longer than I can remember now. I've always let our work stop me… But, I - " Just the thought of how close she came to dying always brings the sting of tears to his eyes, and he swallows past the now familiar lump in his throat. "If you'd died, Kate…"
She utters his name again, and he notices her blinking back her own tears. "We -"
He inches nearer to her, needing her to hear him. "I can't let it be something else that we ignore. I love you. And I'm not willing to hide it anymore."
"Rick, it's been an emotional couple of months, we've had a lot to deal with -"
"Yes we have. It's been an emotional year, Kate. We kissed; we nearly died; you nearly died again... And I'm still in love with you. And I want you to know that. I want you to believe that..." He shifts even closer, holding her watery gaze with his own, ensuring she can see his sincerity in his eyes. "You are allowed to be happy, Kate..."
She rolls her eyes, ostensibly to reprimand his patronising, but he watches her force her tears away. "I'm not stopping myself from being happy. I -"
"Were you happy? Before all of this. Were you happy?"
She hesitates. "There were moments."
She pauses for another moment before answering, "No."
He quickly pulls his responding smile back under control, but he can tell from the amused sparkle that lights her eyes that she saw his reaction.
She ducks her head as she tells him, quietly, "Roy said I never had any fun until you came along."
He hadn't expected that, much like he didn't expect the visit from her dad. It had never occurred to him that she would converse about him with her father, nor her boss. A tremble of sadness resonates within him, as with each mention, or thought, of their lost leader. He shares her wistful smile, good memories able to push aside bad if only for a moment.
"I suspect that's true," he remarks.
Her eyes dart back to him at his confident quip. He simply grins back at her, trying to put her at ease. He watches her try to fight her own grin but is pleased to see she fails. He's glad that she seems to be relaxing a little; thrilled to see it's not gone pear-shaped after all.
Very intentionally, he passes his hand over her, resting it beside her on the bed, leaning even closer.
"Let me make you happy," he whispers to her.
She holds his gaze, silent for what seems like an eternity, and he wishes he could read her thoughts; know what she sees; what she's telling herself. Then her eyes flicker to lips - and that's a big clue. His heart skips in response and he feels as if she's stolen his breath with just that look.
Her eyes return to his and she speaks as quietly as he did. "It's good you don't put such soppiness in your books. Nikki Heat wouldn't go for it."
God, he loves her! "Oh really? Well you're always insisting you're not her. Would you go for it?"
"Shouldn't you have considered that before saying it?" she smirks, but he knows she's trying to cover nerves. He also knows that she's the bravest person he's ever met - she'll overcome it.
He lifts the hand that rests beside her, and lets his fingers brush against her thigh. He smirks himself when her gaze glances in that direction.
"Ninety-nine percent of my mind," he explains softly, "is occupied with thinking about kissing you - last time, next time… There's very little left for logic."
"So, logically, this might not be a good idea," she states, uncertainly.
"I'm relying on your logic there."
She swallows, hesitating for a second before admitting, "Then we might have a problem."
He has never felt his heart drop so quickly; such a sudden shift from hope to absolute disappointment. He attempts a response, but his mouth merely opens and closes. He feels positively dizzy when she speaks instead.
"… Because ninety-nine percent of my mind is occupied thinking about kissing you," she admits, tentatively.
When they told him that Kate was going to live; that they had managed to stop the internal bleeding, he had practically exploded with relief. What he feels now doesn't even compare!
His lips shake as his grin forms. "A kiss would probably clear our minds then," he suggests.
She fixes her eyes on his, solidly, seriously asking him, "Are you sure?"
Understanding that she means so much more than whether he is sure about kissing her, he slides his hand to her waist, gently stroking with his thumb, as he assures her, "Absolutely… But if you're not..."
She stops him with shake of her head. "This is new to me. I can't be sure... But I trust you, so..."
He can't help but feel that he doesn't yet know the full extent of how deeply he will love this woman. With a smile filled with utter adoration, he proposes, "Let's clear our minds then."
He waits before moving in, to give her chance to stop it, and when her lips curve into a smile, he decides that's long enough.
It's slower than their previous kisses - none of the urgency of trying to convince someone that they're a completely innocent, drunken, couple in love. Her lips move against his with the beautiful softness that's taunted him for months. With the memories, the age of distance and the sheer relief that she is okay, he's surprised that he manages to keep it gentle. But he does, just conveying to her the truth of his admission, and savouring each second.
When they part, naturally, he slowly opens his eyes, taking in the flush on her cheeks. He wants to grin, to scream, to shout about the fact that he was finally allowed to do that again. But there's a time and a place for that, so, instead, he calmly enquires, "Clear?"
She bites her lip, her eyes smiling shyly. "Not exactly."
Definitely an invitation. He barely hears his own response over the pounding of his heart.
"Better try again then."
At some point they'll talk about Josh - because Castle's masculine curiosity will need to know at what point she ended it. And he'll admit how often ninety-nine percent of his mind has been occupied thinking about kissing her since he's known how it feels.
They'll talk about the freezer; the shooting; the hotel in LA, and every other significant moment they've pretended didn't happen…
And, from this day forward, the only elephant in the room with them will be a cute one, named Elf.