She wakes to a hazy world, her thoughts blurred at the edges, her vision distorted and darkened with spots of black, the beeping sound that reaches her ears as distant as the voices she thinks are talking to her. A light is bright in her eyes, painfully so, and she follows it with her gaze as her fingers, tense and numb at the same time, curl around the fabric draped over her body.
"Good evening, Mrs. Castle," says a voice she doesn't recognize, one that her fuzzy mind can't identify, can't catch or focus.
Not until the pieces of the puzzle of where she is and why she's here and sliding into place, forming an image that makes her heart clench and her stomach drop and her eyes fly open.
She grasps at his wrist, the man she doesn't know who's pressing something cold against her chest.
It's a choke even she doesn't recognize, a breath in a voice that she doesn't recognize.
But the man—the doctor, judging by his coat—smiles at her, offers her comfort as he shifts his hand in hers to hold her fingers. It has her breath slowing, the ache in her chest fading to a dull, pounding relief.
"Your husband got out of surgery about an hour ago," says the doctor. "So far, his prognosis is good."
Her hand goes limp in his, her eyes falling closed against the well of emotion in her muddled mind, filling her chest with warmth and alleviating some of the numbness in her fingertips. It breathes some semblance of life back into her weak body, past the burn in her stomach, the pain she knows will come.
"And both you and your baby are doing well, but we're monitoring your pregnancy closely."
And her eyes fly open, her breath catching with a sharp stab between her ribs, only to leave her on a broken word, her voice cracking on the only thing that sticks, that escapes her throat, her chest, despite the pain that comes with it.
They end up sharing a room, after Castle promises to make a generous donation to the hospital. The dull beeps of their heart monitors fill the small space, the peaks and valleys of his heart rate drawing her attention whenever sleep draws him under.
A gunshot wound to the chest. The feeling lingers, a phantom, memory-induced as she watches him suffer, the pained pinches of his features as he sleeps and the focus he puts on breathing when he's awake. It makes her chest ache, the scar at her sternum pull, her heart grow heavy.
They've shared a room for two days, which she's spent drifting in and out of consciousness and watching him do the same, and he still doesn't know about the baby.
Because she remembers the agony of that recovery, is still haunted by memories of how hard it was to just keep breathing and fight against the burning ache of a healing gunshot wound and surgical scar. Her mind still drifts back to the day she pushed him away and opted to escape to recover, unable to handle anything as life altering, as powerful, as his love for her.
So the news of her pregnancy stays trapped, a haunting thought in her mind that curls at the tip of her tongue every time he whispers of how glad he is that they're both okay.
That is, until his eyes are locked on hers and his chest is heaving for every breath, but he's refusing pain medication because he wants a moment with her. And his love for her is as earth-shattering, as unbelievably powerful as it was that day four years ago, when she was recovering from a wound so very similar to his own.
And it tears the words from her chest, makes them fill the small hospital room with deafening meaning and a quiver of fear that's audible even to her own ears.
His eyes go as wide as she imagines hers did, his lips parting on a gasp that makes him wince, steals the joy from the moment, and makes her heart clench.
But he catches his breath, his eyes sliding back to hers, happiness shining bright, a question silent between them until his voice, cracked and harsh from lack of use.
"You are pregnant?"
She cries. It burns at her eyes and rolls down her cheeks as she nods, her hand clenching around the sheets to keep it from drifting to her belly, where the wounds are still healing, burning and painful.
"I am," she whispers, so soft she's not sure he can hear it across the gap between them. "Our baby survived, Rick."
He cries with her, with stuttering breaths that sound terrible to her ears. She watches him struggle, watches him shift on his bed so he's sitting at the edge closest to her. And his left arm, not held still by the healing bullet wound, reaches out for her even as his face creases with pain at the movement.
She manages to do the same, pressing herself against the edge of her bed so she can reach over and let her fingertips drift over his, feel the warmth of his touch, the love that radiates from his gaze, far brighter than the gleam of pain could ever be.
And she knows what it is, hears the promise in the silence. The dance of their fingers, the barely-there touch…it's the kiss he would be pressing to her lips, her nose, her cheeks, her stomach…if only this moment was under better circumstances.
The doctors tell her to take it easy, heightening the worries swirling in her mind as they remind her that her pregnancy will be considered high risk until they're sure her body has recovered from the effects of the gunshot wound. And then a physical therapist rolls her out of the room with promises to get her back on her feet as soon as possible.
And despite it all, the agony that rips through her midsection with every step, the weakness that makes her hands shake, her knees quiver under her weight, it's not her physical therapy that has a lump forming in her throat and tears welling in her eyes.
Because she remembers that feeling, the seemingly unbearable pain that would tighten in her chest, hold her back no matter how hard she wanted to push herself. It's a ghost of a sensation now, a memory covered by years of love and laughter and promises for a future that goes so far beyond the pain of those first few weeks, and the long months that followed.
But she sees it in him. The disappointment that tugs at his features, makes his shoulders sag. She sees it darken his eyes as much as the pain makes them gleam with tears he refuses to shed. And still limited to her own hospital bed more often than not, she can't go over to him, trace the lines of his shoulder with her palms and promise him that he's doing well, that he'll get there.
She can't make promises of her love with the brush of her lips over his, the whisper of her hands over his skin, the reminder that she did and she survived and recovered and he will too.
That is, until his physiotherapy is right after hers, and she all but begs the nurse to let her stay, without bothering to try and hide the desperation that seeps into her words, that must shine bright in her eyes.
She's wheeled back into the physiotherapy room, and watches Castle's eyes go wide when he sees her.
It's strangled, cracked, an unspoken request for her to leave. But she doesn't even as the nurse walks out the door. She manages to push her wheelchair to the end of the track she knows he must walk back and forth on. She did it herself, back when the short distance would steal her breath and her strength within minutes.
He's holding onto a railing, hunched over it as his back and chest heave for every breath and her heart breaks for him, clenches with the need to help him.
"I know it's hard," she says. "It feels unbearable now. I know. I did it, too."
He turns to face her, his eyes flashing with the memory, the emotions from her summer of recovery flaring bright in the blue that she loves so much.
Carefully, she pulls herself to stand, her one hand on the railing, the other reaching out for him even though she doesn't step towards him. She wants him to see how strong he is.
"It feels impossible and dangerous, like you can't breathe and your heart can't take it. You probably feel like you can't even hold up your own weight right now, and that makes you feel weak," she tells him. "But babe, you survived a gunshot wound to the chest. You're so strong."
He sucks in a deep breath, and she feels the stutter of it catch on her ribs, lets it be echoed by her own inhale.
"How did you get through it?" he breathes.
She lets the smile tug the corners of her mouth upwards, finds herself shifting her hand so he can see the wedding ring gleaming on her finger. And her hand comes up, settles on the scar between her breasts, that she knows he considers evidence of her strength, a reminder of everything they've been through to get to where they are.
And even as her knees quake beneath her and the wounds on her abdomen start to ache in protest against her upright position, she refuses to sit, refuses to waver as she watches recognition flash in his eyes before the words tumble from her mouth.
"I had something—someone—to fight for."
He smiles, slight and pained but there all the same and it makes the anxiety coiled tightly in her chest start to release, makes the next words flow on an easy breath.
"And so do you, Rick."
She could mean herself, for the future that lies ahead of them, even more sure and promising than it was back then. Part of her does, and her fingers press together so she can feel the cool metal of her wedding ring, as her mind swirls with images of everything they've done because she survived and everything they have left to do once they recover from this.
She could mean herself, but she doesn't, makes that much apparent as her hand drifts down her side, the side not sliced through by a bullet and then a scalpel, and lets her fingers drift over her abdomen. Her heart skips a beat at the flicker of determination in his eyes.
The first step makes pride well in her chest. The second, when he releases the rail and forces his breathing to steady, makes tears spring to her eyes.
And he reaches her with wobbly legs and stuttering breaths that make her wish it was all over, it was as simple as that, even as his eyes stay bright with the will to fight all this. She reaches for him first, her hand curling around his neck just as his curls around her jaw. He draws her towards him as she lifts onto her toes to feel the press of his lips against hers.
They've barely kissed since the shooting, and she clings to it until she can't, until breathing becomes more necessary than the touch of their lips.
Tears of pride are gleaming in her eyes when she pulls back, distorting her vision as she reaches for his hand. And his touch is gentle, feather light, when, for the first time since he found out about their little survivor, he gets to caress the skin of her belly, right over where their baby grows.
She's released first, on a bittersweet day that has her heart clenching, breaking, because he's still stuck here. But he watches her, love and pride shining in his eyes, a reminder that he wishes he could take her home falling from his lips as the doctor repeats the instructions for her to take it easy.
But even after the papers are signed and she's free to go, she stays. Walks the two steps from what was her bed to the chair next to his and lets her hand drift down the path of IV tubes until her fingers can entwine with his.
"I'm not going anywhere," she promises him. "I'm here for every step of the way."
Her words result in him getting a private room, with just his bed and enough room for a cot. The doctors know she means it, the nurses do too. She has no intention of leaving his side unless absolutely necessary, would go so far as to sleep in the uncomfortable hospital chairs.
It doesn't come to that. She spends her nights curled up on her good side, fresh bandages covering her wounds. One hand lingers on her belly, low, where the doctors have informed her that the baby is thriving, despite the bullet that ripped through her abdomen just a little higher. And her eyes stay locked on him, the rise and fall of his chest, the assurance that he's alive.
She clings to wakefulness for that very reason. Because in her dreams, her nightmares, he isn't.
Their friends are in and out of the hospital during the day, his mother coming to wait on her since Castle still can't. She sees the disappointment in himself crease his features, hears the promises he murmurs under his breath, the assurances that, as soon as he can, he'll be waiting on her just like he always said he would.
Alexis' bright blue eyes shine with worry every time she walks through the door, and the anxiety fades gradually over the course of her visits, at updates on Castle's improving condition, updates on the pregnancy that took everyone by surprise.
She never thought she would see her step-daughter so worried about her sibling before the baby was even born. But she also never thought she would find out she was pregnant right after getting shot in the abdomen, either.
And she can't complain, can only hope that her smile and endless whispers of thank you are enough to voice her appreciation for the love, the help, the family she never thought she needed until she had them.
So instead, she sits in the chair by her husband's bedside, lets him feel her wedding ring against his hand almost all day, presses kisses to his forehead, cheeks and lips whenever the urge bubbles up within her, overwhelming in its urgency, in the love that drives it.
She accompanies him to physical therapy, watches him readjust, watches his body and heart grow stronger as his recovery continues. Her heart swells with love at the pride that shines in his eyes at every small victory. The kind of swell that has her lunging for him, congratulating him with a kiss and whispered assurances of her love meant for his ears only, with a drift of his hand over her belly, a promise of the future they'll have.
And her nights are spent watching him sleep, except on the night when his eyes crack open, words falling from his lips when he catches her staring.
"I'm okay, Kate," he says. "We're all okay."
Her eyes fall closed, but a smile tugs at her cheeks. Because she's known for weeks that they were all okay, heard the doctors say it time and time again.
But hearing him say it, his voice laced with love and sincerity powerful enough to knock down any insecurity or lingering flicker of doubt…it makes it real.
It makes her reach for him, curl her hand around his wrist so she can feel the flutter of his pulse under her fingertips.
Her eyes open into his, to see the shining blue of his irises, bright with the honesty of his words. The hope that burns, a light in the darkness of the room, makes her lips curl into a smile, her heart lift and the tension leave her shoulders for the first time in weeks.
And the words that escape her, almost inaudible on her next breath, draw a mirroring smile to his face, one that steals her breath, replaces it with love and certainty that stays strong in her chest for the days and weeks and months to come.
The day he's released starts with an echocardiogram that has him hidden behind closed doors and as she sits and waits, her knees bouncing with a strange mixture of hope and anxiety. Her hand lingers on her stomach, the wound there healing, still covered by a bandage as the scar forms to match the others that stain her skin with evidence of all she's overcome.
When he comes out with a smile on his face, and the cardiologist offers her a slight nod of reassurance, she bounces from her seat and follows them to a room down the hall.
They're informed that Castle's heart looks good, that the internal damage seems to have healed well and there are no signs of surgical complications and she almost jumps to give the doctor a hug, to thank him for saving her husband. Instead, she presses her lips to Castle's shoulder, and against to his neck, to his cheek until he turns to face her and steals a kiss from her lips, his joy silent, but evident in his touch.
The stress test that comes later that day is harder. She sits and watches, feels her heart clench as she watches him walk until his breathing grows loud and he's muttering about how his chest hurts and the cardiologist helps him off the treadmill, to a chair nearby.
She goes to sit next to him, her hand drifting across his back until his breathing evens out and her own heart loosens with relief, the tears that had been brimming her eyes being blinked away as he turns to face her, offer her smile.
"You think I did well enough?" he asks, but doesn't give her a chance to answer before he's reaching for her, his hand drifting across her abdomen as his lips smudge a kiss to his cheek. "I hope so. I want to go home, start our future together, take care of my pregnant wife and getting ready for Cosmo."
It draws a smile to her face, has her bumping her forehead against his temple as her fingers curl into the gaps between his. "I'm not letting you take care of me," she tells him, because it's the only point worth arguing, the only words that fail to draw a giddy smile to her face, fail to make her heart skip a beat in a moment of joy that drifts over her shoulders, fills her chest and leaks into the kiss she presses to his nose.
That's when the doctor walks in, with a smile that floods her with reassurance before he even says a word. But those that fill the room have her squeezing her husband's hand, her mind flashing with images of the future they'll get to start once they finally get to go home, no matter how strenuous recovery will continue to be.
"Your results look good, Mr. Castle. I'm comfortable releasing you from the hospital today."
It has Castle reaching for her, drawing her in until her head is pressed against his shoulder and his lips are dusking kisses to her head, to her hair, to her lips, stealing the giddy laughter that escapes her chest with every breath.
Until she's pulling away and smoothing her hand down his cheeks, over the sharp angles of his jaw and the column of his neck, holding him still so her gaze can lock on his and her words can reach him as steady and sure as possible.
"I love you," she says. "So much, Rick. I love you, so much."
He kisses her again, breathes his response past her parted lips.
"I love you, too."
They're back at the hospital a few days later, and while the building makes her heart grow heavy, he catches her hand in his, dusks kisses to her knuckles until she's smiling up at him and the elevator draws to a stop in diagnostic imaging. He leads her off the lift, his steps with slow, slightly wobbly, a little weak, but strong enough to make her follow, to have her guided by the strength of his grasp on her hand.
They sit side by side in the waiting room, the chairs and decor too similar to the one in which she waited while he had his echo, while she waited to find out if they could go home. His thumb traces the line of hers, the bumps of her knuckles, keep her from shaking, quivering with fear.
And he stays by her side when the nurse calls her name, whisks her into a dark room, buzzing with computers and machines and technicians walking from curtain to curtain, sweeping one closed as another is tugged open. She finds herself lying on a cot, her shirt tugged up over her stomach, revealing the white bandages that cover her skin and the curtain of her ribs.
They're pulled back with ease and a promise to cover the scars with new ones, with a quiet apology for any pain the ultrasound might cause.
She doesn't care. She lets her eyes trace the images even though she doesn't know what they mean. The technician checks her stomach and her liver and her kidneys for any evidence of unknown damage, the wand drifting across her abdomen as her hand clenches around Castle's at every burn and ache it sends ripping across the surface of her skin.
And then the technician is turning to her, a friendly smile on her face as she ensures that the necessary prep for the second part of the ultrasound was complete.
It was. She wouldn't have done anything to risk this moment.
Not when the wand is drifting lower until it's tracing the space between her hipbones, the screen showing images that steal her breath, make tears spring to her eyes and have Castle stuttering sighs against the shell of her ear, pressing kisses to her temple in a moment of overwhelming…everything.
"There's our baby, Kate," he whispers.
Her hand clenches around his, a whimper filling the room. "I can't believe…our baby survived the shooting, Rick, and everything afterwards."
He kisses her again, his lips warm against his skin, as is his breath when he speaks. "That's 'cause he or she takes after Mommy."
She turns to him, catches his lips with hers, tears away from him when she shakes her head. "And Daddy," she insists. "The baby takes after you, too."
The technician laughs, a happy sound that indicates this probably isn't what she sees every day. Her eyes are bright as she shifts the ultrasound, hits a button to lock the image of their tiny baby on the screen.
"Well, either way, it looks like your baby came out of this strong, just like you two."
And the thumping sound of a beating heart fills the room, fast and strong. It makes her cry, relief curling around the ladder of her ribs, around the heart that broke on the kitchen floor and has since been mended by Castle, by the tiny baby that has already amazed her more than anyone else.
Her overwhelming love trips from her lips with stuttering breaths and words that make no sense, and he silences them with a kiss, a promise filling her with warmth as she clutches at him, at this moment, burning it into her mind so she'll never forget.
He pulls away with a chuckle, a laugh that she echoes, watery with her tears but beautiful in the moment as the beating of their baby's heart mixes with the sound, fills the room and the moment with a joyful harmony more beautiful than any song.
"You're extraordinary," he whispers, his lips drifting over her cheek, catching the stray tears that have fallen.
She shakes her head, though, squeezes his hand so he'll look at her, see the glint of sincerity and the glow of love in her eyes as she speaks. "We're extraordinary."
And his smile blooms bright, contagious in its beauty, drawing the corners of her mouth upwards, making the tears fade from her eyes.
He kisses her one more time, just soft enough to make her heart flutter and his words send her spiralling, lost in the power of his love for her, of her love for him.
Of the love that bonds them, saved them, and drives them to fight, to grow. That created the miracle baby growing within her and she'll cherish this moment as much as the day she showed up at his door and told him she only wanted him.
So, for the sake of this story, let's collectively pretend there was no second shot to Kate's shoulder. Okay? Okay. As always, huge thank you goes out to Lindsey for beta'in this for me. And I hope you all enjoyed the finale!