The room was too bright. His eyes screw shut, can't handle the light.
The pain in his chest spikes, spreads like a brutal shock through his sternum, electrocuting his bones, his muscles seizing and his blood running dry. Choking him, he can't breathe past it.
On her knees, he can hear the caps of bone crack against the hardwood, the thud of her body hitting the floor. The smell of copper in the air, propane, a gunshot ringing through his ears.
Dying. Kate's dying. Bleeding out beside him, her fingers cold in his grasp, her eyes black and unseeing.
He's always too late.
The silence of his dying wife is broken by the insistent call of his name, ripping him from a dream that was once their reality, reeling him back to the surface where she hovers above him, her hands cradling his face and wiping at the tears.
"Open your eyes for me, Castle." He tears from the grips of the nightmare to see her face inches from his, the worry in her eyes illuminated by sunlight that is still gentle with only the beginnings of daybreak.
Alive. Still alive.
"Kate," he chokes, ragged with it and lifting clumsy hands to her bowed spine, fisting his trembling fingers in the t-shirt draped over her back until he can breathe through the tears in his throat.
"You're okay, it's okay, Castle," Kate whispers, her fingers feathering at his cheeks, drifting down to his chest. Her body is curved above his, her knees bracketing his hips, holding him down. "Hey, love, you with me?" she breathes, stealing an endearment he saves for her alone, touching her lips to the damp skin beneath his eye as he shakes out a nod of his head.
His chest is still heaving, violent shudders that repress the sobs in his throat before they can surge free, but the weight of his wife anchors him, drags him back into reality.
Kate had lived, is living, breathing above him.
Her lashes dust his cheek, butterfly kisses that infuse him with a sense of calm, remind him to gulp down the air he needs.
"Yeah," he rasps, remembering to loosen his hold on her shirt, flatten his palms at the backs of her ribs and migrate upwards to cradle the drawn in wings of her shoulder blades. "Lost you."
"No," she murmurs, her lips brushing the bridge of his nose, traveling higher to press between his brows. "Never. I'm right here, Rick. Promise."
He lets her words console him, convince him of the truth, and quiet the restless fear that he would wake up one day back in the cabin, alone and overwhelmed with grief, that he'd be widowed and without her, that she'll really be gone.
Rick's eyes flutter shut for a long moment, the scent of her shampoo encompassing him, washing out the smell of blood, her fingers stroking at his ears coaxing his breathing into an easy rhythm that matches the rise and fall of the waves he can hear outside their bedroom windows.
They both know why his nightmares had returned with such ferocity over the last few weeks, why hers sometimes drew her from their bed in the middle of the night, into the adjoining bathroom until he woke alone to find her curled against the Jacuzzi tub with silent tears staining her skin. Coming to the Hamptons after two months of recovery at Jim Beckett's cabin had been a good plan, a healthy plan, but before they had journeyed from the woods to the beach, they had taken a detour to the loft.
The trauma he had felt upon entering his own home had shaken him, shaken them both, and bile had risen in his throat at the sight of the kitchen. Alexis had been staying in the loft throughout the entirety of their time away, his mother too, both of them going so far as to remodel portions of the kitchen – replacing the bloodstained floorboards, the cabinets Caleb Brown had collapsed against, even the stove – eradicating any blatant triggers of the event.
Castle had still flinched at the sight of the room.
"We'll redecorate when we move back," Kate had whispered, her hand squeezing hard within his, tugging him along to their bedroom. They had only stopped by to pack, to load their suitcases with summer clothes and pieces of home they had been without. "We'll make it home again."
It had been three weeks; he still didn't know if he wanted to go back.
"Sorry I woke you," he finally manages, opening his eyes as Kate lifts her head, the waves of her hair a riot of gold falling around her face, tickling his jaw. "Both of you."
Beckett shakes her head. "Didn't wake me. Noticed you getting restless when I woke up to use the bathroom. Definitely didn't wake her."
A smile twitches at the corner of his mouth as she eases onto her side, her body still half draped atop him, and Castle brushes his knuckles along the swell of her stomach. Their baby had just started moving around for the first time a few days ago, and Kate had quickly learned that their daughter enjoyed the activity, most consistently throughout the night.
Their daughter. Still not confirmed, still just a theory, but one he believed would be proven true.
Castle shifts to face her, hand rising to comb through her hair, tangle in the locks. They had been in the Hamptons for nearly a month and already, Kate's skin had that sun kissed glow she so easily acquired, streaks of gold highlighting her hair, freckles peppering her flesh. And she just looked so healthy, he could almost forget about the puckered flesh just below her collarbone, the matching scar still high on her abdomen, overshadowed by the development of her pregnancy.
"Wanna go for a walk on the beach?"
Rick arches an eyebrow at her for the suggestion, but she's grinning back at him.
"It's six in the morning," he points out, but Kate merely shrugs in response.
"I crave the crisp, morning air," she murmurs, already sliding from beneath his touch, maneuvering to the edge of the mattress and swinging her legs over the side.
He watches her for a moment, her palm curved over her belly as she crosses the room to enter the closet, instinctual and protective. It strikes a match of heat through his veins, the fierce but tender side to her he's seen emerge and overcome, the woman already prepared to fight for her child. Their child.
Pregnancy had accentuated Kate's strength, her passion, and it still strikes him sometimes, bathes him in awe, that he's going to have a baby with her.
"Castle, come on," she calls, stepping out of the closet still in his t-shirt, but with the addition of the boyfriend jeans she often favored these days, the waistband elastic and the legs of the pants rolled up to her ankles, her preference for strolling through the sand.
Rick rises from the bed, catching her hip before he can stroll past her to snag a pair of his own pants, another t-shirt, to lean in, dust a kiss to her mouth. But Kate curls her fingers at his elbows, arches on her toes and laces her arms around his neck with a smile blooming on her lips, still so proud that she can move with freedom again, no longer restricted by the limits of two bullet wounds.
She kisses him softly, thoroughly, leaves him breathless and trembling by the time she descends back to her feet.
"I love you," he gets out.
"I know," she whispers, her hands skimming his sides, steadying him. It had always been the other way around throughout their recovery, Castle healing quicker, offering her the balance of his hands, the support of his body when she needed it. Now, they were even again. "I love you too. Now, put some pants on."
They walk barefoot through the sand, still cool with the remnants of the night, moonlight and stardust still embedded within the grains, and Kate relishes in the sensation of it beneath her feet. The sunlight has barely crested the horizon, the waking rays of light brightening the word around them, abolishing the darkness that had claimed her husband's eyes, infiltrated the lines of his face.
The nightmares were becoming less frequent, for both of them, but it still cracked her open, wide and raw, to witness him strangled with imaginary grief, choking on memories that still haunt them both.
"It was worth it."
Kate tears her eyes from the ripple of the nearby ocean, their linked fingers, connected arms, stretching when she slows beside him at the water's edge, stares up at him in question.
"How we got here. It was difficult sometimes, painful, but even now… I still wouldn't change it," Castle states, his lips curled upwards, tender and fond, reminiscent.
She squeezes his hand, lists into his side as they continue onwards. "Me neither. I would have before, would have skipped over certain parts, chapters, but not anymore. Like you said, that time at prom-"
He releases a soft huff of laughter at the memory, nearly three years old, but apparently still fresh enough for him to recall with ease.
"Everything we've done, every choice we've made, every terrible, wonderful thing that has ever happened to us," she muses, echoes. "It's all led us right here, to this moment. And I would never compromise that, trade this, for anything."
Rick sways sideways to smear a kiss to her temple, but Kate stops them altogether.
"What?" he murmurs, all traces of the midnight horror gone from the pools of his irises, the brilliant shade of cerulean shining back at her instead, joy spilling into every contour and crevice of his features, and it fills her up, steals her breath that she did this, made him happy.
Kate shakes her head, stares up at him in the sunlight.
"Nothing, I'm just… grateful. Grateful that we made it."
Lily, a name that had been a reoccurring theme in her mind, an option she had yet to share with him that just kept popping up every time the baby moved, shifted, like she was wiggling just below the surface of Kate's skin.
"Hey, calm down in there," she chuckles, directing her gaze to the small bump of her stomach between them, rubbing her palm to the spot the baby was nudging against.
Castle's gaze follows, his hand too, slipping beneath his stolen t-shirt to splay over her bare skin.
"She's feisty," he grins, but the activity calms at the warm weight of his hand. She's not even surprised, doesn't blame the kid – Castle's touch does a fine job of calming her too.
"And she's only just started. The next few months are going to be fun," Kate sighs, her smile wry, but Castle's eyes only sparkle brighter.
"You be good in there, sweet girl," he murmurs, his thumb circling along her skin, soothing their daughter back into stillness.
"Lily," Kate whispers, lifting her eyes to him, watching his expression change through the fringe of her lashes. "Sometimes I - I've been calling her Lily."
"Lily," he echoes, a beautiful combination of blues and gold rippling through his gaze like the sunlight shimmering across the water at their backs. "Lily Castle. That's actually… I love that. But why Lily?"
She shrugs beneath the intensity of his curiosity, the yearning to know. "You always brought me lilies, before we were even together, and the bouquet you had delivered last week… it just made the name pop into my head, been stuck there ever since."
"Did we just pick a name for our baby?" he whispers, that lopsided, little boy smile claiming his lips before she can.
"I think so," Kate grins, canting forward at the drape of Castle's hands to her waist, a burst of giddiness spreading through her chest, trickling through her bloodstream.
"Do you think… Lily Johanna, would you like that? Is it too-"
His smile has faded, the look on his face so earnest, thoughtful, as if he's been contemplating the idea for quite a while now, and her repaired heart skips a beat or two. He's just… such a good husband, an extraordinary man. And she loves him, so deep and devastating, tragic and beautiful, endless.
"No, it's perfect," she whispers, cupping his cheeks in her hands and drawing his mouth down to hers for a kiss, chaste but reverent, letting him taste how she loved him in the soft caress of her tongue, feel the way he made her come alive with joy, made her feel extraordinary.
Castle was right. Unquestionably right.
It was worth it.