His chest is on fire. An intense, excruciating kind of flame he's never felt before, radiating from the bullet embedded within his sternum. His lungs malfunction, deflated and useless, the blood seeping onto the hardwood beneath him, along with his consciousness, but no, no - his wife.
"Kate," he wheezes, his head rolling towards her. Her lashes are fluttering, black wings that kiss the paled skin of her cheeks, but her lips stretch into a smile, the knot of her fingers clutching his.
"Love," she murmurs, mouth hardly able to move, dropping the word with slurring speech, and Castle grits his teeth, uses whatever traces of the energy he may have left to inch towards her. Closer, he needs to be closer, has to- "Always."
"Yes," he rasps, but it – why does she sound like she was saying goodbye? It couldn't end like this. They had survived too much, freezers and funerals, kidnappings and burning cars on wedding days. It did not end bleeding out on a kitchen floor watching the lights go out in his wife's eyes. "Kate, Kate, please."
The blood has consumed the white of her shirt, drenched the fabric of her jacket, left her skin dull and papery, but he fell in love with a fighter, a warrior of a woman, and she can't give up now. He won't let her.
"Stay with me."
A gasp spills from her lips, the line of her brow creasing with pain, but she forces open the eyes that had previously fallen shut, clings to him with her watering gaze.
He needs his phone, a way to call for help, but his right side is paralyzed, his fingers flexing in spasms at his thigh. But if she was able to keep her weapon raised as a bullet pierced her chest, shoot the man they knew as Caleb Brown until he collapsed a few feet away even as another round penetrated her abdomen before finally staggering to the floor, he could damn well retrieve his phone from his pocket.
Castle bites back a cry of agony, the flame of his body roaring with protest, but he fishes the iPhone from his pocket, swipes his thumb over the screen and dials the digits without opening his eyes.
He can't lift the phone to his ear, doesn't even try, but he hears the greeting of Ryan's voice on the other line, loud and accompanied by the blare of music from the bar they'd mentioned heading to.
"Castle? Castle, is everything okay?" The cacophony of noises becomes muffled, Ryan's voice becoming louder, increasingly worried. "Castle? Are you there?"
"Send an ambulance," is all he can get out, but the message makes it to their friend, an immediate response echoing from the speaker of the phone and Castle drops the device, listens to it clatter to the floor beside him, and returns his attention to Kate.
Still with him, watching him with flickers of gold fighting to stay alight in her irises, hopeful.
"Just a little longer, Kate," he promises her, dragging his body closer, drawing their hands to the clean side of his chest, over the still beating hammer of his heart. "Please don't leave me."
"Never," she breathes out, close enough now to touch her forehead to his shoulder, peaceful. He can smell the scent of her shampoo above the stench of blood, feel the heat of her breath puffing out against his arm, the warmth of her hand embracing his.
It could be so peaceful to let go like this.
Her fingers begin to loosen within the clasp of his.
"Kate," he whispers, but the lids of his eyes are so heavy, the effort of keeping them open so great. The blackness leaking in so welcoming. "No, gotta stay…"
But Kate's hand has gone slack, the exhale of her breath slowing down, and he needs a burst of adrenaline, a spike of power to sit up, put pressure on her wounds, keep her alive, but… but he can't even manage to keep himself from drowning beside her.
When Rick wakes, it's to the beep of a heart monitor, the stench of antiseptic heavy in the air, and he knows without opening his eyes that he's in a hospital, that he's been out for a while, but something is wrong.
Concern for his wife like a fierce tug in his chest where the gunshot wound resides forces his eyes to peel back, assess the hospital room, vacant of his family, his friends, of everything except two men in black suits who stand by the door.
One of the men taps his finger to his ear, a device inside that Castle can't see, but it brings a knock to the closed door, a dark figure slipping inside. Fear ripples through his sternum, rattles his bones, but as the broad frame steps into the light, shows his face, Castle is no longer afraid.
But he certainly isn't comforted by the sight of his father.
"Wh-where's my - my wife?" he rasps out, his throat shredded raw, but he has to ask, has to know. She isn't dead, she can't be dead, he can still feel her alive, the connection to her like a second heartbeat more important than his own. And that link to her still crackles with life.
"Richard," Hunt begins, his expression solemn, his eyes dark. "You have to listen to me. It's been three days since a man who called himself Caleb Brown shot you."
What? Three days, he - no, he doesn't care. Doesn't care about that.
"Kate," he insists, wincing through a swallow, refraining from the groan of pain as the work of his throat triggers a splinter of agony through his chest, slicing his heart open. "Want. Kate."
"Caleb Brown and his employer, Mason Wood, are both dead," Hunt continues as if his son hasn't said a word. "And while I'd like to assume that is the end of LokSat, we can't be sure. And for you to be safe, for those you love to be safe, we have to be sure. Do you understand me?"
"Why - why won't you answer me?" Castle growls, his teeth rattling with the effort. "Where is she? Where-"
"Dead." Rick's damaged heart goes still, the agony in his chest halting for a split second, and Jackson Hunt releases a loud sigh. "Katherine Beckett never made it off the table."
"You - you're lying," Castle protests, but his heart monitor is picking up speed, beeping out a tumultuous rhythm. "Not dead - she's-"
"Son, you need to calm down," Hunt lectures, but Rick balls his fist against the words, the term of son. This man has never been a father to him, the woman who showed him that, who provided him with a beautiful reminder of what family truly is, his real family, isn't here.
"Kate is not-"
Castle's breath catches harshly in his throat when Hunt strides to his bedside, holds out a familiar wedding band.
"I thought you might want to keep this with you while you're in protection," Hunt murmurs, placing the ring in Rick's open hand when it unfurls.
"I'm sorry, Richard. Truly. You will have the time you need to grieve, but you will have to do it in solitude if you want to live."
That was the thing, though. If Kate was dead, what was the point?
Jim Beckett is the only one allowed to know of his survival, and because of it, Castle is allowed to retreat to her father's cabin to recover and for that, at least, he is grateful. Spending his days on the dock of the lake, his nights in Kate's childhood bedroom, where they would often stay in the times they drove up for a visit, fixed nothing, healed nothing, but to echo a choice she made so many years ago, healing in the solace of the woods in upstate New York, offered him the closest thing to peace he could attain.
Jim knew to offer him space, but his wife's father appeared every few days, gave Rick the company and understanding he needed without pushing.
"How's it feeling?" the older man asks, approaching Castle on the back porch and nodding towards his chest. It's only been a month since that final morning together, since Caleb had shot him in the chest, taken out Beckett next, only a few days short of that had he woken in the hospital to the news that his wife hadn't made it.
"Still hurts," he admits, but he's rarely fazed by the ache in his chest, the tender but angry flesh attempting to heal. His grief overcompensates for the physical pain, spreads through his body with an agony of a different kind.
The isolation from his daughter, his mother, and human contact in general isn't helping, continuing to live under the pretense of being dead. He feels hollowed out inside, gutted and empty, a ghost of a man haunting a cabin in the woods.
"I noticed we're out of groceries here," Jim comments, taking a seat beside Rick on the steps, gazing out towards the glimmer of sunlight rippling across the surface of the lake. "Think you could be up for a trip to the store?"
"Mr. Beckett," Castle sighs, earning that familiar look of silent reproach from the older man who always insisted that he call him by his first name. "I don't need anything, I just want-"
"I know what you want," Jim cuts him off with a nod, no judgment, no concern, just pure understanding. And he's glad that if only one person could know of his survival, keep him company through this hellish limbo between life and death, that it was the man who lost the love of his life in such a similar way. "But what you need is some actual food, nourishment, and… I try not to mention her for your sake, for my own, but Katie… she would kill me if she found out I let you live like this. She may not be here right now, Rick, but I need to do right by my daughter."
Shit, would the mention of her ever not clog his throat, sting his eyes? Was he damned to this eternal state of emotional fragility?
"Not to mention the fact that I've grown to love you like a son and I'm not too fond of you falling down the same spiral I did when I lost Johanna."
Rick digs his elbows into his knees, stares at the ground, the blades of grass that quiver in the wind, the sounds of the forest alive all around them. He was at no risk of falling to the bottom of a bottle, not at the moment, anyway, but Jim had a point. Kate wouldn't be proud of how poorly he's managed to care for himself over the last four weeks.
But Kate isn't here.
"How did you learn to breathe again?" Castle finally asks, and it must sound crazy, maybe even a little desperate, but since he had lost her, he's lost the ability to intake oxygen without disturbing the throbbing ache in the middle of his chest where his heart should be. He's lost the ability to function.
"It takes a while," Jim confesses, surprising Rick that the man had an answer at all. "And it's never the same, the pain never exactly goes away. But eventually, you become okay with living with it as a part of you."
"I think I heard her say that to a family member of a victim once," Rick recalls, the bullet wound clenching in time with his heart, and Jim's eyes flicker, a smile attempting to bloom.
"Sounds like her. She probably put it far more eloquently than I could, though," Jim murmurs, lips still quirked, and Castle fails to fathom how the man is able to smile. "The way we handled our grief was messy, it always is, but Katie was always better about making sense of it, always knew how to put it into words."
"You seem to have gotten the hang of it," Castle tries, attempting to force a grin for the other man, but it falls flat. They always fell flat.
He may never smile again and he was oddly okay with it; he doesn't think he'll ever want to.
"I'll head to the store on my own," Jim decides with a reassuring smile, patting Rick's shoulder with practiced caution, careful not to upset the delicate state of his frame. "And Rick, I… I know this has probably been the hardest month of your life-"
"But it's almost over."
Castle watches Jim rise with confusion, his brow in a deep furrow over the statement. Her father often had helpful words of wisdom to offer, but that? It's almost over?
Grief had no expiration date. And for Castle, it was never ending.
Rick is on the front porch swing, swaying to the gentle breeze whispering through the trees, breathing past the cracks in his chest and hoping to ease his mind, stop it from wandering towards the images of her.
He's acquired the habit of toying with the chain usually tucked away beneath his shirt, hooking his pinky through the circle of her wedding band. He lacked his, his father claiming the hospital had removed it for a test while he was unconscious, misplaced it, and he wants to sue. The day he was allowed to exist again, he swore the first thing he would do was sue the hospital for losing his wedding ring, one of the last connections to her he'd had left.
Castle glances up at the crunch of gravel, eases the ring back beneath the collar of his button up, and releases a slow breath as Jim pulls into the driveway. The sun was steadily sinking below the trees, sparkling at him through the branches and their leaves; her father had departed to the store while it was still high in the sky.
And there is someone in the passenger seat of Jim Beckett's car.