She barely has the time to blink, to acknowledge the stop and start of her heart when the bullet hits Dr. Blakely's skull, has him collapsing to the dock. The screech of tires from behind immediately steals her attention, her breath, and sends the car jerking forward, the impact causing Castle to shout her name a mere second before the sickening snap of a sound his neck makes silences him.
The car takes a nosedive into the Hudson, murky water licking at the windows, but Beckett jerks her attention back to Castle, his body limp and unconscious beside hers, and she yanks at her seatbelt, releases her death grip on the steering wheel. The water is already seeping in, pooling at their feet and climbing up their shins, but Beckett focuses on him, her fingers gingerly examining his neck, dusting over his chest.
He continues to breathe, but it's shallow, strained, and Kate attempts to swallow down her panic before the river can swallow them whole. She works Castle free of his seatbelt, slams her fist to the glass of a window, shoves at the handle of her door, but the frame of the vehicle has been warped by the crash. They're sealed in.
"Dammit, Castle, wake up," she murmurs, pleading as she withdraws her gun from her holster. If they make it out of the car, she'll have to swim with him to the surface, and managing that while he was pure dead weight would be a challenge she may not be successful in completing. "Please wake up."
The water is up to their knees now. They're sinking quicker.
"Rick," she begs, coaxing his head up from its reclined position against the seat, cradling his face in her hands and patting his cheek, but he doesn't respond, his entire body lifeless.
The water is freezing, the cold biting through her clothes, surrounding her waist, and Beckett takes a deep breath. There's not enough time, not enough air, no time for anything else but an escape before they sink even deeper than they have already.
Beckett hooks her arm around his waist, heaves him awkwardly into the backseat, attempting to support his neck the entire time. The sound – that sharp snap that had struck her with instant panic – lingers in her mind, replays like a broken record, and if he has a broken neck… god, they were doomed.
"Just stay with me through this," she whispers, the ice water lapping at her torso, numbing her legs. "Don't you dare die on me, Castle."
Kate inhales slowly and lifts the gun, the glass shatters after the fourth shot, and the water floods in.
She breaches the surface with a gasp, her legs kicking furiously to keep them both afloat as fire burns down her throat, the sun bright overhead, reflecting off of the water and burning her eyes.
Sinking, sinking, they're sinking again, and she can't-
Beckett grunts, fights against the threatening drag of the water at her throat, his chin, intent on pulling them both back into the dark embrace of the river beneath, fights against the weeping protest of her muscles slowly shutting down on her. She doesn't know how she's managing it, how she keeps Castle from sinking below the surface, drowning them both, but she swims with him to the ladder that hangs from the pier.
"Castle," she croaks, the two syllables of his name scraping the interior of her throat raw. He's so pale against her, so lifeless, and she's still so worried about his neck, the way his head hangs.
But she can't haul him up the ladder, can't do anything more than prop them both against it, clinging to the railing with her numb fingers and relying on the buoyancy of the water to keep them afloat. She's managed to make it this far on adrenaline and determination, following the shimmer of the sun and breaking the seal of the surface for the promise of oxygen before her lungs could burst, but her body was giving out on her now.
Blackness flickers at the edges of her vision, the icy kiss of water through her clothes dragging at her consciousness, and Beckett blinks, attempts to suck in a deep breath, but it burns.
"Castle." Her voice is cracking, shattered like shards of glass in her larynx. She tightens her arm around his torso, desperate to keep him above the water, but she can't feel her efforts, can't feel him in her grasp, and her vision is tunneling, going dark-
This can't be the end.
The weight of Castle against her suddenly disappears, drifts away from her and she panics, her body desperate to thrash, to save him, but all she can see is fading light, can't feel anything anymore.
Kate lets go of the ladder, starts to sink, hopes she meets him at the bottom.
Her body arches awake, jerks her back to life with a visceral burn through her chest, her lungs, her throat, and then her world is spinning, water rushing up to drain from her mouth. Each coughing sputter purges the dirty water from her lungs, rattles her brittle bones, and stings her eyes with hot tears. The fist slamming into her back, beating the water out of her, isn't helping.
"Castle?" she gasps, choking on his name
"He's in the ambulance," a voice from above informs her, the pounding between her shoulder blades finally going still as she sucks in ragged breath after breath, ignoring the fierce bite that accompanies each one like tiny razorblades along the wall of her chest, the pillar of her throat. "There's one for you too."
Beckett digs her nails into the wet wood of the dock beneath her, forces herself up with a trembling arm.
"Don't - don't need it," she rasps, but her body is already threatening to sag back against the cold pier that vibrates with the rumble of approaching footsteps, a paramedic's uniform filling her vision.
Her eyes are already shuddering closed again, consciousness fading before she can protest to the men lifting her onto a gurney.
Waking is unpleasant. His neck is stiff, a sharp ache lancing up from his chest to the base of his skull, and Castle attempts to take a deep breath, struggles through a swallow that has his eyes watering.
It takes a moment for the memories to come rushing in – watching Blakely being shot in the head feet away from the car where he and Beckett had sat frozen for a split second in shock, the sound of screeching tires, a glimpse of a black SUV charging towards them in the rearview mirror, but after that… it's black. Everything goes black.
Where did that leave Kate?
Castle winces through another swallow, listens to the noisy scrape of his breath fighting its way down his throat, and scans his eyes over the hospital room. He has no range of motion, his neck encased in some kind of foam collar, but once he drops his gaze, he finds what he's looking for.
Kate Beckett is at his bedside, her lower body in a chair, upper body folded over the edge of the hospital bed near his hip. Her name bubbles to his lips, but his voice evades him, a raspy breath of air slipping past instead, but he doesn't panic, not yet. Whatever's wrong with his neck is probably affecting his ability to speak, and eventually, a doctor or nurse will enter the room, explain everything, and he'll be fine.
For now, he touches his fingers to the wild strands of Kate's hair, dusts them along the cutting bone of her cheek, trailing down to the line of her neck. She's so pale, so limp and exhausted looking, and it forms knots of worry in his stomach.
What the hell had happened?
"Castle?" she whispers, the dark fringe of her lashes rising from her cheeks. His own concern is reflected back at him, her waking eyes roving over him with so much grief, it causes the bruised places in his chest to ache, and Castle brushes his thumb along the shell of her ear to soothe them both.
Kate sighs beneath his touch, her eyes slipping closed for a long moment, and he combs his fingers through the tangled kinks of her hair. Had they… had their car been driven into the river? The impact could have knocked him out before they hit the water and it would explain the state of her hair, the change of clothes he notices now, but how had they survived?
The slim digits of Kate's fingers coil around his wrist, her thumb fitting against the beat of his pulse, and his heart sputters. Must have been close for her to accept his touch, to seek it out, and his chest swells with longing for her, to repeat words he's said to her before, words that have been on the tip of his tongue ever since.
Castle opens his mouth, determined to set them free in this moment of solace with her, but the noise that escapes his throat is hoarse, raspy, silent. He can't speak.
Kate opens her eyes again and slowly sits up, rises from the chair to take a seat near his hip instead.
"It's probably the neck injury," she placates him, her fingers twitching at her side before she carefully lifts her hand, grazes her fingertips along the plane of his cheek. "I haven't heard your diagnosis from the doctor, but I have a feeling you have whiplash from the crash, minor bruising from the seatbelt, and internal trauma from the water since you were unconscious and had no way to hold your breath while we were under."
His brow furrows, deep and begging for her to explain, and Kate sighs, her fingers trickling down his jaw, past the foam around his neck to touch his shoulder.
"After you were knocked out, we went into the river," she begins to explain, confirming his theory and scraping the hand from his shoulder through her hair, wincing as her fingers catch in the knotted strands. "I was able to get us out before the car could sink completely, but making it back to the surface didn't go so well. CIA pulled us out before we drowned."
His eyes widen, the hand closest to her fluttering to life, skimming along her leg until Beckett acquiesces his searching, slips her fingers into his.
"I'm fine, Castle. I was just worried about you. When the people who killed Blakely hit us, your neck – I thought your neck had snapped and that there was no way I'd get us out in time."
Oh, he needs his voice. He needs to tell her how strong she is, how brave, and how eternally grateful he is to her for this, for everything. But all he can do is skate his hand up along her arm, squeeze at her bicep for emphasis, and draw a strangled laugh from her lips.
His next move is careful, but he migrates from the muscle of her arm to hover his fingers above the middle of her chest, where he knows the bullet scar he's never seen lies. He hasn't caught her wincing in quite awhile, hasn't noticed the habitual circling of her fingers over the healed wound since the sniper case, but would she really tell him if the gunshot wound was still bothering her or not?
"That's fine too," Kate murmurs, her hand rising to curl around his hovering fingers, surprising him when she draws them to rest against her sternum, allowing him to feel the reassuring thrum of her heart through the thin fabric of her NYPD t-shirt.
It's within that moment that his mother and daughter, accompanied by a man in a white lab coat that he doesn't recognize, rush through the door.
Kate abruptly drops his hand, but it doesn't go far, falling to her knee once more.
"Oh, darlings! Look at the two of you," Martha exclaims, casting her gaze between them in horror. "Thank heavens you're both still breathing."
Just barely, Castle wants to respond, his breath still coming in slim, frustrating inhales. His chest is sore, bruised, but he can't manage a deep breath no matter how hard, or how gently, he tries. And trying hurts.
"Mr. Castle," the doctor addresses, stepping around his mother with a murmur of 'excuse me' and coming around to the opposite side of the bed. Alexis follows the man, her eyes flickering to Kate and back with a glimmer of disapproval. "My name is Doctor Kieffer, I saw you upon arrival. How are you feeling?"
The doctor eyes him with expectancy, as if he already knows the answer, and Rick grits his teeth, sucks in one of his measly, shallow breaths, and-
"N..." The sound of the letter is all he manages of his intended not good. His vocal cords feel as if they're about to collapse, his larynx closing up, and he tips his head to the ceiling, subdues his panic with a steady breath through his nose that nearly chokes him up.
"What's wrong with him?" Alexis demands, her voice sharp with fear and concern, but the doctor only sighs.
"Aside from the whiplash induced by the crash, bruising to the sternum and internal trauma from the water…" Castle glances to Kate with an arched eyebrow, but she only shrugs, returns her gaze to the hand still curled at her knee. "Mr. Castle seems to be suffering from vocal cord paralysis. I'll have to run a few tests for a clear diagnosis and to learn the severity of the condition, but in a nutshell-"
"He's lost his voice?" Kate finishes, looking to Kieffer with a deep frown etched into her lips.
The doctor raises a hand in supplication. "For the time being, yes. The injury Mr. Castle suffered caused trauma to the nerves that serve his vocal cords and voice box, but from my brief look that I had upon his arrival, only one of Mr. Castle's vocal cords has been paralyzed, meaning the chance for recovery is better and the paralysis may simply be temporary."
"May be?" Alexis repeats, crossing her arms with reproach, and Castle thinks he sees the doctor flinch at his daughter's cold but demanding fury. "As in it could also be permanent?"
"There is a possibility," Kieffer concurs with reluctance. "But the possibility of his voice returning is just as strong at this point."
Castle liked to think of himself as an optimist, a glass half full kind of guy, so he would like to believe that the latter is true. But the state of his neck, the harsh swallow that he struggles to work through, the thin wisps of air that follow after it, leave him feeling utterly hopeless.
What if he's really lost his voice? Permanently?
"Castle," Kate calls, her voice gentle like the squeeze of the fingers twining with his on her knee. "Don't panic."
He blinks and lowers his gaze to the tangle of their hands, some of the emerging horror in his chest receding like a beast back into its cave, tamed by her.
"I am going to run a multitude of tests in the next few hours that should give us a much clearer picture. In the meantime, we're going to be keeping an eye on Mr. Castle's breathing and any intake of food or liquid to ensure the path of his throat is clear enough to ingest without issue," Kieffer informs them, the eyes behind his glasses scanning over the chart in his hands, marking the paper as he speaks. "The positive here is that he is in a stable condition and considering the circumstances, I consider that a success."
Doctor Kieffer turns to leave and Castle notices Alexis fist her hands in her lap to refrain from stalking after the man when he slips through the hospital room door. Seconds after the doctor has deserted them, the room is silent, by choice, until Castle catches sight of a hospital brand notepad on the nearby table, a pen sitting atop it.
Kate follows his line of sight and retrieves the pen and paper for him, opens her mouth to speak just as the familiar sound of a phone begins to buzz from the pocket of her jacket. Her hollow cheeks bloom with color as all eyes land on her and she quickly draws the phone he doesn't recognize from her pocket, sighs at the screen. Her phone had likely drowned with her Crown Vic, and the only way he can imagine her having a new one so fast is due to one person.
He writes his first word on the page and holds it up to her.
"No, I should - I want to stay here," she states, soft but adamant, only for him. And oh, he wants her to stay too, but his daughter is glaring at them, his mother watching with curious eyes, and there was so much on the line with this case, too much for her to ignore in favor of sitting at his bedside.
He presses the slim pad of paper to his thighs, attempts to transfer the words neatly to the page.
They won't solve it without you. Not even the CIA can live up to your standards, Beckett.
Her lips twist in distain once her eyes have scanned the second sentence, a strike of green blazing through her eyes, and she would never admit it, but he's seen it in the past and it's more evident now than ever. Kate Beckett is jealous.
And despite everything they've been through today, everything he's still going through, he takes secret pleasure in that.
"Fine," she breathes, rising from the bed and allowing his hand to slip from her knee, glancing over her shoulder to face his mother and daughter. "If anything changes, if anyone needs anything at all, please don't hesitate to call me or the precinct."
Alexis doesn't reply, but his mother – bless her – steps forward and engulfs Kate in her embrace, coos gratitude and words he can't distinguish into her ear, and pets the wild mess of her hair.
Kate looks towards the door, but pauses before she can make her departure, drifting in close to the edge of his hospital bed and leaning towards him, her fingers bracing at his shoulder while her lips touch his forehead.
"I'll be back," she murmurs and turns to go before he can expel a rasping breath of surprise.
Her hands are shaking as she enters his hospital room, inhaling a slow breath through her mouth, bracing for the judgment of his daughter, the crippling concern in the usually vibrant eyes of his mother, the sight of him in a hospital bed and unable to speak. Martha had been sending her updates over the last twenty-four hours, ensuring her of Castle's health, informing her that he was still stable, but there has been no progress on his missing voice.
She had wanted to return sooner, but she had been too wrapped up in the countdown of finding their linchpin, in working with Sophia, having a gun to her head courtesy of Sophia, and proceeding to save a little girl's life. All without him.
Her life has flashed before her eyes twice throughout this case and it has only made one thing all the more clear.
Castle is alone when she steps inside, his eyes closed, but they flutter open at the click of her heels to the linoleum, his lips curling upwards for her. But they quickly begin to fall as he assesses her in the afternoon light streaming through the open blinds of his single window, his eyes shimmering with concern, and he opens his mouth to speak, grunts at the lack of sound, the reminder.
His hand drops to his side, grazing the sheets of his bed until he has the pen and notepad in his grasp, but he doesn't begin to write while she approaches him, he's flipping pages. He taps his pen to one of three different sentences scrawled across the page in the large, blocky letters of his handwriting.
Are you okay?
Kate nods her head, but it's not true, not completely.
"No," she confesses, the breath continuing to tremble past her lips. "But I'm better now."
Her honesty increases the lines of worry etching into his features and Castle inches sideways on the bed, pats the empty space beside him.
"Castle, no, I don't-"
He huffs and then he pouts at her, pats the spot again as if the petulant pucker of his lips can sway her. She rolls her eyes at the fact that it does and drops her coat atop the chair closest to his bed, gingerly climbs onto the bed that is arranged half upright in a sitting position for the sake of his throat and settles down next to him with her shoulder pressing against his.
His pen taps to another sentence.
She doesn't know how to tell him that Sophia betrayed her country, betrayed him, doesn't know how to tell him the woman had a gun to her head a matter of hours ago and her last thought would have been how she hadn't had the chance to tell him goodbye, to tell him… to return words he had confessed to her while she bled out into the fresh grass of a cemetery nearly a year ago.
"Well, I went to meet with Sophia and her team after I left here yesterday."
All she can do is start from the beginning.
Beckett is asleep against his shoulder, her cheek smudged just below his collarbone, the heat of her body keeping him warm, keeping away the 'what if' scenarios that continue to swarm his brain, the image of her on her knees in a parking garage with his former muse shoving a gun to the back of her skull.
Castle inhales through his nose, exhales through his mouth to dispel the threat of bile rising to his throat. He wouldn't be able to handle vomiting right now and it doesn't even matter anymore. Kate is here, curled into his side in her sleep, her fingers ensnared in his hospital gown, and he has his arm around her back, his hand scaling the gently curved bow of her spine. She's alive, she practically saved the world from the sounds of it, and nothing else matters.
His thumb traces over the sentence on his notepad, sharing the page with Good night and Can I have some water? Words he will fight to reclaim his voice so he can finally say them to her.
I love you. I love you. I love you.