I know your lungs are burning. I can feel the panic in your soul.
-In The Belly of the Beast, 6x17
Even the woods are terrified.
Elena slips away into darkness and Beckett is left on her knees in the preternatural stillness of nowhere.
She slumps towards the damp earth, the smell of rotting detritus crowding her nose. Her forehead hits the ground and the pain isn't enough to make her move.
She needs a moment. A moment.
Just a moment.
Her heartbeat shakes her whole body, returning agony to all those numb places. She groans into the rotting leaves and struggles to straighten up, to get moving, get this over with. Her hands are frozen stiff, tied tightly behind her, her ankles bound on a short leash.
Just in front of her, Harden has bled out terrifically into the woods he loved as a boy, his eyes sightless and shaded by the dark. She shuffles her knees towards his steaming body and rakes her eyes over his form.
A switchblade on his belt; he used it to cut the rope and mess with her head in the back of the van before he tied her up. She should use it now to cut herself free; she should...
She's drained. She's got nothing left. She wants to close her eyes and sleep.
But with her eyes closed, she can see Castle in the loft with the sunlight showing her all the places where his hair is sticking up and that goofy indignation on his face and heaven.
So she opens her eyes. She torques her body next to Harden's, her pants soaked through with his blood on the forest floor, leaves and mud. She rests on one elbow and reaches with her tied hands for the knife, can smell the putrid release of death all over him.
Your momma paid for it with her life. So will you.
Her chin quivers and her mouth turns down.
No, not here. Not now. Not ever.
Beckett straightens up with the knife and releases the switchblade, hissing when she feels the burn along her skin. The blood is hers now, and warm trickling down her fingers, drawing her back to the winter woods, to the too-late night, to the scent of dying things all around her.
She narrows her focus and ignores the strain in her shoulders and the numbness in her fingers, and she concentrates on the slow maneuvering of the blade against the rope. A quick sawing motion, all she needs, just a little more pressure.
Her wrists pop free with a suddenness that has her pitching to one side, the blade stabbing the wet earth and wrenching her shoulder. She groans and rolls off of the knife, brings her arms slowly in front of her, her hands shaking as she scrabbles at the rope.
When her wrists are free and the rope in loose coils in the leaves, she draws her knees up and finds the knife again, pries at the knots around her ankles with the blade.
She's still trembling when the ropes finally drop, dull and lifeless to the ground. She puts a hand to the earth and gets a knee under her, closes her eyes when the world sways. Breathing in short, rattling wheezes, Beckett shuffles through the leaves to find her feet, lurches up.
She immediately tips over, elbows on her knees, gagging in the back of her throat, choking on air and something cold, something dark she's been ignoring. She crushes it down, packs it away; she has no room, no energy left for a panic attack.
Beckett stands up, precariously in the dark woods.
Her eyes drift shut, and she can feel the heat from his body nearly touching her, the smile on his mouth as he turns his head into her cheek and drags his lip across her jaw.
She opens her eyes.
She finds Harden's gun, sticky with his blood, and wipes it off with the hem of her turtleneck. She ejects the magazine and checks the rounds, slams it back into place. She tucks it into the waistband of her pants with a feeling of sick deja vu.
She is getting out of here alive.
Beckett rifles through Harden's pockets and come up with the car keys, but no phone. Her fingers are burning now as the blood comes back and feeling returns, but she keeps fighting off the black spots that crawl into her vision, her breathing shallow and pained.
She wants to lie down.
But she won't.
With the keys in her hand, Beckett climbs back up the rise to the treeline and heads for Harden's van.
She finds his cell phone in the cupholder of the van and she sinks down into the driver's seat, locks the doors after her, cranks the heater up. Her fingers are trembling as she dials the precinct.
"This is Esposito."
"Javi." Her voice cracks.
"Beckett! Hey, guys, it's her. Beckett, where are you?"
"Mm, not sure." The tinny sound of her voice being put on speaker. "Trace the call. Woods-"
She goes still, stopped by the way Castle calls her name, and finally the relief pours through her, washing her clean, emptying her out. "Castle."
"Hey, it's good to hear your voice." She can hear it in him too and she closes her eyes. "Are you okay?"
"I'm okay. It's clear." She takes a breath. "I'm parked in a van in the woods. I need - Espo - we have to send a team to 52 Old Timber Trail - I don't know what city. That's where they took me to meet the boss."
"Got it. Looks like Boonton Township, New Jersey. About an hour out from the city."
"Sounds right," she says faintly.
"Can you tell me what's there? Online photos list it as an estate."
"Yeah," she rasps. "A mansion compound, basement is a money-counting room. Millions. Vulcan - Vulcan Simmons was there."
"Kate." Her name on Castle's lips is too knowing.
He's sweet on you.
She closes her eyes and feels the heat blasting across her neck but the ice water in her lungs seems permanent. "I'm okay. I'll explain more when you get here."
She meant the NYPD, but she also meant him. She hopes he hears that too.
The blue lights startle her to consciousness, the sirens only hitting her senses a second later. She jerks awake behind the wheel of the van and blinks, cracks open the door with her hands showing.
The dawn is just beginning, licks of light along the eastern sky, like cracks in the ice.
She had a longer conversation with her Captain and then operational stuff with Ryan, but the last ten or twenty minutes were solitary and quiet. With the lights and sirens, it feels too fragile. She slides down off the running board and keeps her hands in view until the New Jersey deputies see she's alone and they cautiously come closer.
"Detective Beckett," she croaks out. "NYPD. Badge 41319."
"Deputy Clark, ma'am, of the New Jersey State Troopers. Your people are twenty minutes behind us." Clark radios in their location and she nods, keeps her mouth shut so that she can keep standing. If she talks too much, she'll break something.
"Can you point us towards the body?"
She nods. "I'll take you."
Another NJ State Trooper comes up with an extra coat and hands it to her, an apologetic look on his face. She shrugs into it, smelling chewing tobacco and car grease, and the sleeves dip past her fingers. It won't do to look like the child she feels, and so she rolls the sleeves up, and she starts out into the woods.
After a few cautious turns, a frozen woman leading a phalanx of New Jersey deputies, she finds the sloping hill where Harden tripped her, points into the gully. "Down there. A contract killer got him. It was fast."
The CSU people flood down the embankment, shifting around her like a boulder in their riverbed, and she watches, curiously detached. The collecting of evidence, photographing of the body all happens while the sun breaks cautiously into the woods, light creeping through the thin, dark branches.
And then she hears the screaming of police vehicles and feels their arrival in her bones, waking her again. Her breath catches in her lungs and she turns around, flinching when Deputy Clark reaches out to catch her. She pulls her elbow away from his grasping fingers and starts back up the nonexistent trail, homing in on the bevy of NYPD cruisers.
When she comes out of the trees, it's Castle she sees first.
He breaks for her; she gives it up and runs for him, colliding against the solid wall of his body and burying her face in his neck. His arms wrap around her, fingers tangling in her ratty hair, and his first kiss is exactly where she imagined it - ghosting her jaw and up to her ear.
"Kate," he breathes. "I thought I'd lost you."
She cracks open with it. "No. Never, never."
In the backseat of Espo's cruiser, Castle's hands warm hers up.
She gave back the coat to the State Trooper. Her boys brought her the warm Coast Guard fleece she's had hanging in the break room ever since her car got dumped in the river, and she hunches her shoulders inside it, feels the softness of it against her ears.
It smells like second chances, like rescue.
Castle massages her fingers between his own, rubs into the meat of her thumb, avoiding the skin where the switchblade caught her. He lightly traces the drop of dried blood at the tip of her finger, their two digits pressed together. He's stopped asking questions; she's stopped being able to respond.
He places her hand between his thighs to keep it warm, Beckett, and he starts on her other hand, not bothering to be gentle. She has to turn her body to let him have it, and she can't help but study the lines of his face, the deep pockets, the cracked places he hasn't been able to smooth over yet.
And still, still she can't. Not yet. A whole day's worth of debrief and lead-following and catching up awaits her; she'll spend her morning struggling enough as it is. She can't break yet.
"It's okay," he says into the quiet.
The car jolts over a pothole and she feels it in her cheekbone and circling around her eye socket.
"It's okay," she echoes.
It's six o'clock before he opens the door on the loft and nudges her inside. She stands in the foyer and feels the gears turning in her head and no way to shut them down.
Someone bigger than Vulcan Simmons.
She shies away from Castle's hand before she realizes it's only him. He sighs, cups the back of her neck, and he pulls her into his body slowly, giving her time to know.
"You still cold?"
Your lungs are burning. I can feel the panic in your soul.
She startles and her forehead knocks into his chin painfully; he grunts something but doesn't let her go, merely rubs his hands up and down her back briskly.
"I'm cold," she says. Too late.
"Let me find you blankets and - there's still dinner," he finishes weakly, but she knows he's trying to be supportive without giving in to irrational paranoia. Was this how she sounded to him when he was certain that The Triple Killer was alive?
"Dinner would be heavenly," she sighs. "And wine."
"Definitely wine." He steps back, his hands on her shoulders now as if to gauge her ability to stand on her own. "Let's get you something warmer."
She shrugs to slide off the Coast Guard fleece and he takes it from her, suddenly replaces it with something heavy and redolent of citrus and flowers. She blinks and raises her arm to look, laughs crookedly.
"Is this Martha's fur coat?"
"Yes. She rarely wears it. But it's sinfully warm."
Trust Castle to rescue her with furs. "And you know that how?"
He pulls a face, faux innocence, and she laughs a little brighter, taking a deeper breath for the first time all day.
He leaves the entry and heads for the kitchen, but his voice calls back to her. "Maybe wine after dinner, huh? Need something in your stomach first."
She drifts to the couch and curls into it, lays her head against the back, blinks.
"Yeah. You're right."
"Go change into pajamas. We'll finish off the day we were supposed to have."
She doesn't want to move, but she does anyway, heading back for their bedroom.
She thought at the beginning she'd have to fight for every inch with him. She thought her independence would be threatened and her sense of self subsumed. She thought it was impossible to have her own identity if she were Castle's next conquest.
She could use a little subsuming right now.
He's not demonstrative in the way she is. He's grand gestures but he's theatre and drama where she's meaningful moments and carefully-worded subtext. He's furs and expensive necklaces with beautiful, flowery notes, and she's an empty drawer and sliding a ring around a chain and wearing it until her mother's killer comes to justice.
But his hand offered to hers is all of those and more.
When she takes it and smiles up at him, his relief makes her want to cry.
Instead, she stands and closes the laptop on the afternoon's press conference and she leads him back to his bedroom, still wrapped in his mother's fur coat. He hands her his own glass of wine when they reach the bedroom and she sips it slowly, treasuring it, letting it weather her rough edges.
He's turning down the sheets and off the lights and coming back for her and the wine. He takes it from her fingers and sips it, leaves a little in the bottom for her, offering it back.
She slides the fur coat from her shoulders first, feeling strangely untethered without its weight. Castle pulls it from her fingers and lays it over the chair. She watches him move, bewitched by the strength and sleeping-power inherent in his body.
She takes the glass from him and the last mouthful, closes her eyes a moment to feel it burn down, breathes in the pungency to break up the last of the ice in her lungs.
She feels like she should be saying something but she doesn't know what.
She sets the glass down on the dresser and follows him into bed.
I know your lungs are burning. I can feel the panic in your soul.
Kate jolts awake with a sound burning in her chest, resists his arm dragging her into his side.
"It's okay. You're awake. Just a dream."
Only it wasn't a dream and Vulcan Simmons's voice rumbles along inside her head.
"Kate," he insists. "Kate, breathe."
She wheezes hard and draws in air, feels her own heart clamoring in her chest, feels Castle's cool fingers on the back of her neck and pulling her hair off her nape.
She buries her face in her drawn-up knees and he's silent and waiting and she just breathes.
His thumb works into the muscles in her neck and then it's too much and she's got to get up, move; she has to be moving. She crawls out and paces the floor, a hand pressed to her chest, and something about the rigid line of her body draws Castle out of bed as well.
He just stands there, doesn't try to stop her.
Now the words come.
"I wrote you a letter," she admits.
"You did?" He holds out a palm as if he's the one offering something. "A letter."
"They'll find it when CSU goes through that place top to bottom," she says. "I don't know if they'll let me have it."
He gives her a strange look. "You wrote me a letter that... oh." It's clear now. He glances to the floor, rubs a hand down his face.
"I want to tell you what it says."
He gaze comes back to hers, his eyes dark in the lonely nightlight burning blue from the bathroom. He steps in to meet her as she paces and stops her still, a light hand lying on her lower back. "I'm listening, Kate."
"Get in bed," she breathes.
"You wrote me get in bed when you knew Espo and Ryan would see it?" he chuffs.
Kate cracks a smile, nudges on his hips to get him moving. But he doesn't; his hands frame her face. She stupidly wishes she'd taken a shower here instead of in the locker room at the precinct, wishes she smelled her own soap mingling with his.
His thumb traces the bone of her eye socket and up along her eyebrow, just below the abrasion on her forehead. "I'm glad I'll never see it."
"I promised myself I'd tell you in person," she offers. She can hear her own breath in her lungs, how ragged it is.
"Get in bed," he tells her quietly.
Kate turns and leads him there, crawls under the covers with Castle right behind her, body warm and close. She lies on her side and watches his face as he studies her back, and his hand follows the shape of her ribs and weighs her down like the furs did.
"This isn't what I thought it would be," she starts. His fingers rub against her pajama top and ribbons of heat bloom under her skin.
"Bracken threw me for a loop too. So many things I don't understand," he says quietly. "So many plot holes in this one. My editor would have stopped me long ago."
She lifts her fingers and touches his lips, closing his mouth. "Not that."
An eyebrow and the brush of a kiss against her fingertips is all the response he makes.
"Us." She closes her eyes and recites - words that came easily and panicky straight from the deepest part of her. "Our partnership - our relationship - is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me."
She opens her eyes because it's not fair to not be looking at him, now that she can, now that she's here. "I mean it. I kept it with me, kept you with me, that whole time. You got me back up on my feet out there. Because I wanted to be able to tell you this."
"You've told me," he rasps, moving in close now and kissing her mouth as if to stop her. "You're here."
"They're my wedding vows," she says into his kiss. "Were."
"You didn't - you said that in the letter?"
"No," she whispers. "I didn't think that would be very nice to hear."
He groans on something like a laugh but she knows it's both their coping mechanism kicking in hard. "Right. I - I'm not sure how I would have taken that. In a posthumous letter."
"There's more. About you," she clarifies. "About how you're an amazing man and I love you with all of my heart. That's still going in my vows."
"Kate," he whispers.
"I do," she insists. Promises.
He's silent for so long that her lungs start to close up, but then he's rolling over on top of her and kissing her hard, fingers tangled in her hair.
When his kiss trails back along her jaw and to her ear, shivers burst across her skin. But he only whispers love.
She threads her arms around him and uses his body to keep her warm, steady to the earth again.