Open Our Hearts
She's a ghost in a hospital bed, her skin pale, her lips white, her body tiny and fragile under layers of blankets and loops of wires and tubes connected to every plane of skin they can find. But her eyes are bright, alight with life and appreciation for it, the corners of her mouth curled upwards as he steps into the room and her boyfriend vacates his spot at her side.
She's beautiful, so much so he stares. Gorgeous in her livelihood, the beating of her heart steady and strong and making her glow under his gaze.
He sets the flowers he brought her with all the others that compose her growing collection, follows her silent orders to take a seat in the chair by her bed. Her smile never fades, following his movements like his gaze follows every quirk of her lips, every flicker of light and pain in her eyes.
His heart races in his chest, beating itself against his ribs in loud, painful anticipation of what she'll stay, of what she knows.
But she knows nothing, her brows furrowing as she asks him for clarification, for details that are hazy in her memory but painfully clear in his.
"You don't remember…the gunshot?" he breathes, his heart sinking, still racing.
"No," she answers, instant, but shaky, her voice wavering under his gaze and he draws it away. "They say there are some things that are better not being remembered."
It breaks his heart, the fear in her eyes, the agony in her voice, in those words and those that follow, that drag their fight back to the forefront of his mind.
The image of her fighting him, sobbing into the palm of his hand as he wiped her hair from her face.
The image of her bleeding out on the ground, her eyes locked on his as he begged her to stay only to watch her go.
"Castle," she breathes, and he blinks up at her, keeps his mouth shut and the words swallowed back, "I'm really tired right now."
It sounds like an excuse, but her eyelids are drooping, her voice falling along with her smile as the pain replaces the light in her eyes.
Except she's still beautiful, even beneath it all, because her heart is still beating, and that's all that matters to him.
"Of course," he says, forcing a smile, standing to leave. To give her time. To give her space. "We'll talk tomorrow?"
She smiles despite it all, joy shining under the mask of pain spread across her features. "Of course," she echoes.
And that matters, too.
He shows up every day until they discharge her, the walk through white halls worth it when he sees the gradual return of color to her face, the return of the enticing pink of her lips. The return of her strength that has her fingers clenching around his when she's happy.
Has her shaking, thrashing, tearing wires from her skin in the middle of the afternoon, sleep losing the peace it's supposed to have in engage for images that seem to haunt her.
He's only seen them a few times. It's the only times she pushes him away, refuses to let her him see her. Like she's scared it will change the way his heart floods with love at the mere sight of her. Like she's scared it will tear him apart the way it's doing so to her.
A few days before her planned discharge, he walks in on another one, the kind she claims are caused by the meds, but seem to follow her no matter what.
The nurses try to calm her down, or wake her. He doesn't know, doesn't care as he slips into the room despite the orders to stay out.
His fingers comb through her hair, just like they did that day outside the hangar. She struggles the same way, too, making his heart clench in recollection as he leans down so his lips brush to her ear.
"Kate, stay with me," he whispers. "Stay with me, Kate."
It spills from his lips like a mantra, echoing off the walls over the sound of her screams, the desperation to be saved that laces every one of her unintelligible groans of agony, of fear.
And he repeats it, over and over again, until her muscles go weak and limber, her eyes fluttering open so he's looking into the stare of a broken woman, the woman he loves.
"Hi," he whispers, watching as she blinks against the bright lights of her hospital room and the sleep that clouds her eyes. "You okay?"
He's not sure if it's the drugs or the fatigue, has the truth spilling from her lips, that keeps her from holding back the reality that shines in her eyes.
He helps her back her things, folding every article of clothing and page of doctor's orders like he's putting away the memories of the last few weeks. Of seeing her every day. Of her letting him in. Of the sensation of her hand in his in the face of good news and bad, of the realm of nightmares and a reality just as haunting.
He got to see the pain in her eyes every time the boys informed them of a dead end in finding her shooter. And the flicker of hope in them when she told him about her father's cabin. The apprehension in them when she told him she broke up with Josh.
His heart still stutters at the memory, his mind racing with the question of whether or not he imagined the subtext hidden behind the simplicity of her words.
But now she's staring at him from her hospital bed, layers of bandages taped to her chest and side, hidden under loose layers of fabric. Her eyes are less pained, still bright with the life that was almost taken from her.
That drained from her chest and returned.
"I'll see you soon?" he whispers, drawing the zipper of her bag up as she stares at him from her place in her hospital bed.
She offers nothing but a nod, her gaze flicking away as doubt wells in his chest. Doubt that she'll come back, that she'll let him see her, let him continue this journey to recovery with her.
But she does, and his love for her only grows, fills him with warmth as he waits in the hospital waiting room for her, taking her father's place as her support system, her ride.
She steps out of the room, hesitant and slow, weakened. Dark rings encircle her eyes, fatigue tugging at her features, drawing the corners of her mouth into a frown.
He stands for her, steps towards her and meets her in the middle, catches the faint light in her eyes and wishes for it to shine bright once again.
She nods, taking the last step between them. "Heart's healing fine," she whispers, her words shaky, broken, holding the truth she refuses to speak.
"And the rest of you?"
She doesn't answer, swallows back the truth, her head dipping to hide the wash of emotions across her features. Without a word, she reaches for him, curling her hand around his elbow, for stability or for strength, or both. He gives her what she needs, what little she asks for, without a question, no matter how many are racing through his mind and whispered in the beating of his heart.
"I'm fine," she murmurs. "Can we go?"
His silence is answer enough. His unwavering willingness to give her anything she needs, no matter what she asks for, has him to lead her to the elevator.
And despite her slow pace, he falls into step with her, like he always does.
He doesn't see her for a week, and when he does, the improvement he had wished for, prayed for, is non-existent. Her eyes are as dark as before, her eyelids drooping, fighting the bright lights of the hospital hallways. And despite the act that her steps are quicker, and her heart still on track, he feels the weakness in her grasp on his arm.
So he leads her to the elevator, and lets her rest her head on his shoulder on the way to the parking garage. And he holds her pace on the way to the car.
He helps her settle into the passenger seat, and his heart breaks at the sight, memories of her forcing him into this exact place shattering, replaced by this image of a weak version of the strongest person he's ever known.
She's still the strongest person he's ever known.
He slides into the driver's seat, and turns to find her staring back at him, exhaustion dark in her stare, twisting her lips into a frown.
"Anywhere specific you want to go?"
She shakes her head, weak and leaning against the headrest. "Your choice," she whispers.
So he drives to his destination, stops in front of his building and ignores the confusion in her stare, the silent questions in her eyes getting equally loud answers.
"I have a king sized bed. It's extremely comfortable. You'll have it all to yourself, and you're going to sleep," he tells her. "You need sleep."
And he draws the key from his pocket, hands it to her and she shoves it into hers, her hand shaking, making the keys jingle. The single word she speaks comes out as a breath, desperate and sad and begging for something he can't give her.
But he reaches over the center console anyway, takes her hand in his like he hasn't since the day she was discharged from the hospital, feels the warmth of her life against the palm of his hand.
"And if the nightmares come, I'll be there, okay?"
And he is, when they do. Which leads to his heart pounding, racing, as she drags him into bed beside her and begs him to make the nightmares go away.
He can't. But he tries.
Her father's cabin is smaller than he expected, more rustic, and anticipation of seeing her has his pulse spiking, his breathing coming quick. He parks the car, and steps into the driveway, drawing his bag with him.
His feet hit the ground just as she opens the door and slips onto the front porch, her hands folded in front of her. Her eyes are wide, but the dark circles under them have faded, her nightmares becoming fewer and further apart as the weeks between now and her shooting pass. And her steps are stronger, more stable, more sure.
In a couple weeks, she has a ton of tests to decide whether or not she'll be able to return to the precinct. And he's not sure if the pounding in his chest is out of relief that she's getting better, or out of fear that something will happen to her.
She grabs his bag, her fingers brushing across his knuckles as she drops it onto the porch.
And then her arms are around his waist, his fingertips trailing down the length of her spine, brushing through tendrils of her hair. Her forehead presses against his chest, his lips pressing to the top of her head.
It's nothing they've ever done before, touching like this, hugs and kisses, comfort and promises laced in the way her arms tighten around his middle.
"Thank you for coming," she whispers.
He smiles against the crown of her head. "Always."
Her father isn't here anymore, her independence restored. She makes him lunch, stepping around her kitchen with a smile on her face, even though the place still reeks of sterility, of the slow steps of recovery. Of the sweat that coats her skin when nightmares take hold and leave her powerless and broken.
But today she smiles, and laughs, her hands drifting across his shoulders, and the image of her broken and weak and dying fades from his mind. Is replaced with this woman with eyes brighter than he's ever seen them and her strength almost restored.
And when she drops onto the couch next to him, so close her thigh is brushing his, he can't help the hitch of his chest, and the stutter of his pulse that makes the flecks of gold in her eyes dance.
She takes him for a walk, lets him see the evidence of her recovery, the fact that her steps have returned to normal, that her shoulders only tense when his fingers reach out to dance across the base of her spine.
"I don't need help," she whispers. "Not anymore."
It warms his chest, spreading across his body until the tips of his fingers and toes tingle with it. With love for her, awe of her strength and appreciation for the golden shine of sunlight on her face. The pink tinge to her cheeks that tells him how much stronger her heart is, that she's okay.
"I know," he says. But his hand doesn't move, her touch so very enticing. And she doesn't make him, lets herself sink against his hand, lets him lead her through the trails until her own arm snakes behind his back and her fingers encircle his, her palm kissing his in the space between their thighs.
She brings him to a lake where the waves ripple and green swirls beneath the surface of the water. There's a blanket laid out on the ground, covering the bumps and valleys of the grassy planes. Without saying a word, the silence broken only by the whistle of the wind and the waves lapping at the shore, she drops to her knees. Her hand stays locked in his, fingers holding him close, holding him tight, drawing him to the place next to her.
And her head lands on his shoulder, her hand tracing the line of his sternum, the very bone that was shattered within her chest as the bullet passed through.
"I never expected you to come," she whispers. "That day, at the hospital, I was planning to send you away and not see you again until I was better, but I couldn't."
His heart thrums, skips a beat as he draws her even closer, lets his cheek fall to rest against her crown. "Why didn't you?" he whispers.
Her grip on him tightens, her face pressing harder against the planes of his chest. "Because I heard what you said…that day in the cemetery," she breathes. "And at first I thought…a lot of things. But when you came to visit me, I knew it wasn't something you said in the heat of the moment or just because I was dying. And I knew…I knew I was feeling the same thing…for you."
His breath escapes him this time, leaving him gasping in surprise and his heart beating along with the burn of hope in his chest.
But she pulls away, her hand trailing across his chest as her eyes meet his, her lips parting and falling together again, words trapped in the cage of her chest, the visible racing of her mind until she finally manages to set them free.
"I'm not in a good place right now," she says. "Not for…starting something new. Not yet." She flicks her eyes down, and out to the ripple of waves on the surface of the lake before her gaze drifts back to him. Shy, hopeful. "But if you'll wait for me?"
And two weeks ago he thought he'd have to wait a month, or longer, to see her again, but now his thumbs are dancing over the ridges of her cheekbones. His lips curl into a smile as his insides warm and the burn of hope spreads like wildfire.
And he dusts a kiss to her forehead, as gentle as can be.
"What happens when people open their hearts?"
"They get better."
- Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood