Come Home Again


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The sling itches.

He can't use his phone to pass the time. He has the burner, but he can't download his profile or his apps. He could create a new apple ID and buy the same shit all over again, but then he's got to connect it to a credit card, and then that's a dead giveaway.

He's trying.

He's at least thinking it through, working at the problem from a new angle every night when it gets like this.

He can't sleep.

The sling itches and there's something about the view of the next building from this tiny window that makes him nervous. He asked for binoculars but the boys won't bring them. He asked for magazines and was collected 'Field & Stream' and 'AARP' from the family room two halls over.

She's mostly sleeping off PT or pain pills these days. They have a mini-fridge filled with chocolate kisses and Tropicana orange juice, and their door stays closed no matter the time of day.

One bedroom, industrial-grade fluorescents overhead, and a television big enough for a geriatric Korean War vet to see from the cream-colored couch. A Korean War vet who died three months ago, giving Castle and Kate a convenient hiding place in the heart of the city - Brookdale Assisted Living. They're blocks from Battery Park and the place where Kate was shot.

A 93 year old man down the hall keeps shuffling to their door and knocking, calling loudly for Barry to come to dinner in the cafeteria; he's going to miss the Mississippi mud cake for dessert. At four thirty in the afternoon. Kate wakes every time, usually violently, so that Castle has taken to sleeping on the couch when the urge for a nap brings him down like a tranq dart.

The sling itches. Chafes his neck, material rubs his forearm too.

He's not on the couch. Not tonight. He tries to be close just in case, because when she can't find him, it's worse.

He tempts fate and takes the sling off, risking her ire if she wake and finds him bucking the PT's rules. He keeps his arm drawn up to his chest and rolls to his other shoulder, watching her sleep in the close quarters of Barry's bed.

Poor Barry. Poor 93 year old man down the hall who's lonely for his friend.

Poor Castle, who can't quite make his wife understand that this is where he wants to be. Here. In a too-small bed with the moonlight across her face and their future uncertain, up-ended, halted. He ran away with her once before, her blood smeared down a motel hallway, and when she regained consciousness, she directed them right back. So this time he set up their safe house inside the city, knowing she wanted to be here, take them all on, continue running point on the investigation.

When she can, anyway, when she's not laid low by headaches or PT or the pain pills.

Alexis and his mother decamped at Thanksgiving, heading for Paris and then Prague after that where a house was made available. He's pretty sure it's from his no-good father, but he'll take what he can get. Alexis was forced to drop two classes, took an incomplete in Psychology, and is doing the other two online.

He's not happy with that, Kate's seriously not happy with it, but Alexis tells him she'd rather be a PI anyway, and who needs college for that? He thinks she's joking. He's not entirely sure. Christmas is a week away and for the first time since he can remember, he's not sure his daughter will be with him for the holiday.

"Stop staring at me while I sleep," she mumbles.

"You're crying again," he whispers back. Reaches out and smooths his thumb at her cheek and down to her ear where the tears have tracked.

"Just the stupid pain pills."

"I know."

"And life," she sighs, turning her head slowly to look at him. The pale skin of her scalp is still so bright in the moonlight - where they shaved her head to stitch the ragged gap of the bullet's trajectory. It will scar, they said, despite the plastic surgeons, two of them, who consulted. It will scar right along the natural part of her hair, which is lucky - that's the word the surgeons used. She's lucky.

She is lucky.

"Life," he says, quirking his lips at her.

"I wanted a baby with you," she says suddenly, her mouth twisting and her hand coming up to cover her eyes.

Castle lifts onto an elbow and carefully kisses the crook of her arm. He tries very hard not to laugh. "That's not off the table, honey."

"How can we have kids in the middle of all of this?"

"Just because you're sidelined doesn't mean this won't be resolved some day. Some day soon, Kate. With the help we have-"

"Your dad and step-mother," she mutters, but she drops her hand. "I don't know that AG's office is going to be able to find him either."

"He can't have gone far." He runs two fingers over the short hairs at her forehead. She looks like a punk rocker; chose not to shave her whole head but to leave her hair long on one side and buzzed on the other, and it is wrong how it turns him on.

Is it wrong? His wife is amazing, and he's furious with her half the time and desperately in love with her the rest. Even furious, he's in love with her.

He's definitely furious.

She growls and slaps his hand away. "This is not how I investigate a case." She gestures to the room with a hand and he knows it hurts her, everything hurts her. "Hiding out in an old folks' home."

"No, how you investigate a case is by keeping everyone you love in the dark and getting yourself shot."

She huffs. "Not - at first. I was doing alright. I was doing it right."

"Getting yourself shot. In the head. Alone."

"I had Vikram-"

"Vikram who played you."

She closes her mouth, crying again, and he doesn't feel bad one bit. Let her cry. If she stops and thinks about it next time, then let her cry. He won't feel bad about it.

"You took Vikram because he was safe to lose. I get it. I understand your priorities. I just don't like your methods."

"We're never going to agree on that. You're not a cop, no matter how much you play at one."

"So sign me up."

"Yeah?" she garbles, angry but still - tears rolling down her face. "You want to get some actual training? That might be a good idea considering."

"If I have Academy training, does that make me magically worthy again? Or will you hide other things from me because it's above my pay grade?"

She just cries. Mouth closed, lips pressed furiously together, crying when she hates to cry, when it makes her feel like shit, crying because of some damn pain pills she has to have because her headaches actually bring her to her knees.

Headaches from a bullet wound.

"You did this without me, Kate," he growls, stomach rolling as she cries. "You and me. And you broke it."

"To keep this from happening," she gets out, choked up as she tries to talk around the tears. "To keep us safe. You and me. Need you alive for us."

"Us. Us did this before, if you remember, and quite successfully. You and me. Together. We got Bracken, didn't we?"

"But this is so much bigger. This nearly had us running - your step-mother wanted us to disappear. That was the solution. I couldn't do it. I couldn't just never see you again, tell you nothing - you did that to me and I wasn't going to do it to you-"

"So you left me anyway? Telling me to my face half-truths was better?" He growls and scrapes a hand down his face. He's said all this. All has already been said.

"My entire team from the AG's office, Castle. Killed because I put in a query. Because I had to get it done. My fault."

"Not your fault; you didn't pull the trigger. Your responsibility, okay, yes. I get that. I do. But when you take this on alone, Kate, you have the tendency to forget that people love you, that they hurt-"

"I was careful," she cries. "I did everything like we did. All those precautions you put up last time, all the checks and - everything." She's crying hard, now, and his chest feels like every breath is through knives, and he knows the more she cries the worse her head feels, but-

"But you didn't do it with me. All those precautions mean nothing without someone to hold you accountable."

"I'm not a child."

"No," he mourns. If she were, she wouldn't have been shot. If he could scold her and send her to her room, coal in her stocking-

"This is my life. This is who I am-"

"It's who I love. And I want to keep - God, I want to keep you here for things like kids and the whole rest of our lives. That's all. I'm not saying no. I'm saying do it smarter."

"I was trying to," she fights back. "I was doing everything we always did. But just - you got shot following me anyway. I didn't want you following me."

"Following you or getting shot?" She closes her eyes against him. "Stop equating the two. They don't equate. You ever think I didn't want you getting shot, either? That's why all this. That's why we investigate from the old folks' home." He reaches out again and brushes at the tear track, sticks his wet finger in her ear to make her laugh. She grunts and swipes at him again, and he curls in closer even though the room is stuffy.

"My head is killing me," she whispers.

"Need a pillow?"

"Please." Small and broken, her voice in the dark. He carefully slides his arm under her neck, so careful, so careful, and then arranges her against his side. The extra support tilts her head and eases the throbbing of her sinuses after the tears. That he knows this makes his heart hurt.

"How's that?" he whispers.

"Better," she sighs. "Tired. Better in the morning."

"Yeah," he promises softly. "Until tomorrow, Kate."

She makes a sad noise in her throat, because they both know tomorrow won't be better. It will only be another day of this, migraines that have her vomiting and bedridden, physical therapy for her leg after two infections in the muscle that tore, a recovery so obstacle-ridden and daunting that only Kate Beckett could come back from it.

"At least you can write," she murmurs against his shirt. "At least I didn't hurt you."

"You did hurt me," he sighs. "Every day I woke up alone. I'd write one-handed if I had to. Lose the whole damn arm. Can't lose you. Can't lose you, Kate. Wish you'd believe that."

She struggles back again. "You're not willing to see me hurt and I'm not willing to see you hurt either, Castle. That's what this is, love, and it's stupid and unfair and it hurts."

"You couldn't be more wrong."

"Oh, yeah?" she says bitterly. Her cheek is mashed against his arm. Her voice is nearly a whine and he knows her head is killing her, and that fighting with him makes it worse, but just that she's here to fight. "How am I wrong? Look where we are. What we did. Are doing."

"Fighting."

"About the same things," she mutters. "About not wanting the other person hurt. It's dumb. It makes us weak."

"It makes us strong."

She doesn't answer. Of course not. She has no answer, not the woman lying on his arm even though it will go numb in a few minutes just because it makes her head feel slightly better. She can't answer to that love because she's in it right now.

She is his achilles heel and he is hers, but they are so strong, so much stronger together.

"I just wanted to do this and come home again."

"This isn't home?" he says, flippant.

"Home is the loft. You know what I meant. Get it done, over, and be - home. For good."

"Home is where the heart is. You're here." He resists the urge to touch her. "I'm feeling at home."

"Lame," she mutters, but her lashes blink in the moonlight. Of course, they don't talk about Alexis and Martha; neither of them bring it up.

But he thinks the tears have stopped. Can't help watching her. All those nights she wasn't beside him to watch, and yeah. Here's home.

"I'm so tired," she whispers. Her eyes close. "But my head hurts."

He lifts his free hand and very lightly skims two fingers down the side of her face, back along the fuzzy part, reading the bumps in her skull - and the scar. She's trying not to cry again. Blinking fast.

"Will you read to me?" she whispers.

"Which one tonight? Harry Potter or-"

"Nikki," she sighs, melancholy in the name.

He shifts as incrementally and as slowly as he can, fumbles at the bedside table for his kindle. He powers it on and props it on his chest, angling the screen away from her face so the light doesn't catch her eyes. She has them closed but it would hurt her anyway.

Migraines are worse after a sleepless night, so he hopes this does the trick.

He resumes from where they left off, at the digital bookmark, and he begins to read.

"Discord has a sound: a tense whispering. Captain Heat could hear it the moment she stepped into the Homicide Squad Room back at her precinct..."

He's drone for a few pages when Kate rouses, as if she was halfway under his spell and something kissed her awake. "She's a bitch, isn't she?" Kate murmurs. Her arm is slung low at his waist and he's using it to prop up the kindle. "Nikki is a bitch."

"Rook is an asshole," he offers.

"Do we do that?"

"Only sometimes," he promises.

"I don't want to do that to you."

"It's a caricature, Kate. It's what makes them likable and root-for-able. I don't think that's really a word, but you know what I mean."

"You're an author - a best-selling and famous author. I think you get to make them up now," she whines. Her headache makes her earnest in her misery. "Don't you have a license for that?"

He chuckles, liking her again. Always love her, hard to like right now. "Sure. You're exactly right."

"He's not always an asshole," she whispers.

"She's not always a bitch. She's strong. And she knows right from wrong, and sometimes he needs a little push to be reminded that the right matters - no matter what world he's from."

"I think you're talking about you and me now," she mumbles. She sounds hazy. "I wasn't talking about you and me."

"Yeah, you were," he says quietly, reaching up to stroke at her scalp once more. She hates it when he touches it so much, but the sensation of those short, soft hairs and the scar, the knobby bumps of her skull - alive. She's alive. "You were, and I love you, Kate, even when it hurts and it's stupid and unfair. Even if we go places far from home."

"I love you too," she sighs, and he feels her fade into sleep.

X

He's midway through his afternoon nap when the rap comes on the front door leading to the communal hallway. It takes him some time to orient, the tenor and pace of the old folks' home has leached into him, and he struggles with the sling around his neck as he makes his way to the door.

He can see Kate sitting at the chess table that passes for a kitchen table and office desk. She's slumped against the wall, out like a light. Again. The case information is spread before her, cramped by the lack of space.

He makes a little noise as he goes, for whomever is behind the knock, but also for Kate, to wake her without drawing attention to the fact that he saw her passed out over the case again. Trying to get them back home.

He opens the door and can't fathom their visitor.

"Uncle Barry!" Arms are thrown around his neck, and a squalling upset baby girl who is almost two pitches forward into his chest. "Oh, sorry, sorry, Sarah Grace, sweetie, don't strangle him. He's only got one arm."

"He can manage with one, or so he tells me," Kate says from behind him. She's struggled up to stand in the half-kitchen, leaning heavily on her cane, but smiling for Jenny Ryan. "Come on in. Quickly." That last word is said to him, and he nods, holding Sarah Grace against his chest with one arm and nudging the door shut with his injured elbow in its sling. Bullet only grazed him; the sling is really to keep the joint immobile, not to keep him from using his arm.

Which itches like crazy in the damn sling, but it's hard to be conscious of that when his arms are filled with a twenty-three month old who thinks he's big and adorable like a teddy bear.

"Hey, Sarah Grace," he whispers, nuzzling her nose with his. She giggles and claps her hands to his face, eyes squinting and blonde hair bobbing in her pig tails. Little curls at the end, bright purple bows. She squeals her hello even as Jenny is hovering at Kate's side - Jenny who's four months pregnant and showing just enough to glow.

Kate has this far away look in her eyes, lips pressed together.

He gets a little fist in his nose and catches her arm. "Hey, now, no clobbering your Uncle Rick. How are you doing, pipsqueak?"

Sarah Grace gives him her best smile, beaming and wriggling as he heads for Kate's side.

"Not that we don't love it," Kate is saying as she attempts to ease gracefully into the worn brown recliner. "But what are you doing here?"

"Visiting our uncle Barry. Right, Uncle Barry?"

"Uncle Barry!" Sarah Grace says, hamming it up with her big grin and dimples. "Hi, hi!"

"She's devastating," Rick sighs, coming forward just in time to catch Kate's elbow. It means carrying Sarah Grace with his injured arm, but it beats watching his wife struggle and hem and haw trying to figure out how to sit."You do know you're adorable, Sarah Grace, don't you?"

She throws up both arms. "I do!" And they all chuckle at her antics, the things she repeats at the best - and worst - times.

Castle ignores the look Kate shoots him and sits down on the couch beside Jenny. "All kidding aside. This is a little dangerous, Jenny."

"Kevin called me, asked me to make my way here during my errands. You do know that Uncle Barry is real, right?"

Horror trickles through him. "He's - was your uncle?"

She waves a hand. "Somewhere in there. Big Catholic family. Everyone's our uncle. In fact, I have two cousins and a great aunt in here too, and we'll make our rounds. Sarah Grace is always a hit."

"Oh my God," Kate murmurs, her eyes catching his.

He didn't quite know that part of things. Looks like the boys kept them in the dark just as Kate did. Runs in her precinct family.

"Kevin says to tell you they've found Vikram. And, oh!" Jenny leans forward, oblivious to their stunned disbelief, lifts two canvas shopping bags. "And I brought you these. Groceries and some things Kate put on a list."

Kate takes the bags hurriedly, her face an interesting mix of things he can't decipher but for the pain. Her head hurts from looking over the case - and that's easy to see.

"Back to Vikram," Castle interrupts. "Where did they-?"

"Oh, I mean, he's dead. Did I not say that? They found his body."

"Dead?" Sarah Grace parrots.

"That's right, sweetie," Jenny coos. Completely unconcerned about her almost-two year repeating morbid words. "Good job. Dead. Vikram, that's his name, right? Kevin wouldn't let me write it down. But they're working on it, he says, and to tell you so you'd know it's almost over."

Almost over.

Just like that. Kate, who doesn't want to be convinced Vikram was behind it all along, shifts in her chair and says his name.

"Yeah," he says back quietly. But answering what?

Vikram is dead. The boys are on it. And they're both stuck here with questions no one can answer.

X

He has a physical therapy appointment he wants to cut, but Kate has fallen asleep again and his shoulder is stiff. Jenny and her energy are long gone, and only questions remain. It doesn't feel like it's over, and if he skips PT, so will Kate. So he spends an hour grunting through exercises the staff PT gives him, and then he lies on the padded table, dozing through the ultrasound.

He wakes alone, the room empty, the steep slant of afternoon light hinting that it's Uncle Barry's dinner time. His own stomach growls, and he wonders if there were steaks in those groceries Jenny Ryan brought with her this morning.

Probably not. And how would he cook them? They have a hot plate and a mini-fridge.

No, it'll be dinner from the cafeteria again. Mushy salisbury steak and mashed potatoes.

Castle finally sits up, swaying a little as the blood rushes out of his head. He slides his feet to the linoleum floor and stands, stretching as best he can with his weary arms. His shoulder already feels better than it did this morning.

He shambles out of the room and down the corridor, bypassing the commons with its HD television and the lobby filled with wheelchair-bound elderly folks. He wonders if he and Kate will make it to a place like this some day, or if he'll spend his nineties alone, still here, getting up to his usual antics but breaking his hip in the process.

And where is Kate in that picture? Shot dead somewhere. Retired from the NYPD. Or back in some other room, napping.

Well, today, she's in their room, and he shuffles to their door, using the key to unlock it. His head is down to watch his steps, feeling older than he meant to let himself today, trying to be sure that this isn't the day he breaks that hip, and at first the darkness doesn't catch his attention.

And then it does.

His head comes up, and his vision is filled with little twinkling lights, white lights, tiny lights strung across the false mantle and along the back of the couch. Four tiny green-knit stockings. The chess table is cleared of papers and on top stands a little evergreen tree, winking with lights. A real tree.

It smells like cinnamon and pine and Kate, and she's leaning against the bedroom door, waiting on him, her heart in her eyes.

"Kate," he husks.

"Hi," she says. Her hands flutter. "You said it was home. But it's Christmas, and you never..."

His heart is fluttering.

She shifts and he sees she's left the cane behind somewhere. Her hands clench in fists, but she keeps coming for him. The door swings shut behind him and the lights, the bare little tree, the smell of Christmas-

"Now you're crying," she whispers, stepping into him.

His arms go around her automatically, his eyes filled with the soft magic in the room.

"Now we're home," he admits, head bobbing.

She turns and kisses his neck, and then sighs and lays her head against his shoulder, letting him take the weight she can't carry.

Finally home.

X