The Last Battle: The Great Story
"[W]e can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story... which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."
-CS Lewis, The Last Battle
I. Only the Beginning
Kate Beckett opens her fist and releases the flowers, watches them drop to her mother's grave. She can't bend down to place them, and neither can he, so this will have to do: a snowfall of lilies along the still-green grass. They're lily of the valley, the flowers like little bells, the lawn glistening with dew.
It's been warm for autumn in New York, as if the universe has been treating them tenderly, shedding mercy over their recovery. The leaves are murmuring gold and green together, while her mother's headstone rises in dark lines in the early morning light. A shadow that falls across Kate's running shoes.
She has not been doing any running. Walking is a production these days, and she probably should not have insisted on this, going so far out, when they are both so easily capsized by exhaustion and ache.
His hand comes to her elbow; she doesn't know if he's stabilizing her or his own wobbling balance.
He's not healing much faster than she is, and she expected to be so woefully far behind him on this. It weighs her down. She's not good at recovery; she's worse when he's as bad off as she is. When they're both struggling to merely live.
Kate lets out a slow breath and eases her body in a half turn to look at him. He's wincing. It's a permanent thing with him now. The gaunt cast of his face and the bruises under his eyes belie the smile he offers. He's not getting enough sleep; the recovery process would go smoother for him if he could only sleep at night.
Pot, kettle, of course. She's not sleeping much either.
"Where to now?" he says, his eyes kind despite how tired he must feel.
"Hom-" Kate breaks off, tears rising too hot and too fast, burning her eyes and tightening her throat. Home. She doesn't know where that is any longer, but here, here, his fingers at her elbow and her body listing towards his. This is what she knows, this man, and what they're desperate to recapture.
Dreams die hard.
"Home," he echoes, a hollow ring to the long o.
She meets his taut grimace and he looks so tired that the tears spill out of her eyes and down her cheeks.
Castle draws an arm slowly around her waist, low, and he takes one stumbling step into her, their bodies bumping ungracefully. "We'll get there, Kate. I promise."
"I know," she says roughly, smearing tears away with his shoulder. The material of his shirt soaks them up, and she's glad she couldn't bring herself to lift her arms to apply make-up this morning. No mascara stains this time. She cries a lot. "I know we'll get there, but what do we do in the meantime? We're not... healing, Rick."
He breathes hotly against her neck; she can feel him struggling. They ought to go back to the car where her father waits for them. But she doesn't want to go back there, haunt the loft like mute ghosts for another insomniac night.
"I have nightmares," Castle confesses, his lashes dragging at her temple where his head is bowed. "And I wake up but the dream doesn't end. I keep having to check-"
"I know," she promises back. "I know. Me too." She shivers with the sudden wind, and the shudder makes her hunch, rounding her shoulders forward with pain.
"Ouch," he says sympathetically, their old joke. Tired out joke. Not a joke at all. It hurts.
"Ouch," she admits, her forehead knocking into his and resting there. Her mother's grave at her back, the lilies spread like a piecework quilt not yet stitched together. She can smell their sharp scent in the cool air.
"I love you." His hand finds a path under her shirt, presses warm fingers at her spine as if he can brace her. "We'll figure it out. We're alive, we're together."
Kate takes in a deeper breath despite the way it awakens all of her old aches. The expansion of her lungs pushes on her diaphragm so that it feels tender, weak even. "I love you," she promises. She doesn't know about the rest, how they'll figure it out, but she's grateful for him. He never loses hope.
For a long moment, they stand together, leaning against each other for strength and balance. The sun has crept higher, beginning to burn off the early morning haze. His fingers stroke along her spine. "You know lily-of-the-valley are poisonous, right?"
She grunts, lifts her chin to look at him.
His lips curl, twist into a knowing smile. "Highly poisonous."
"Castle," she whines. "You could have told me before I scattered them out here. Wild animals can get to them and I can't bend down to pick them up."
He laughs then, quiet as it is, dampened to keep the mirth from vibrating the bones of his shoulder. She knows because she's done the same, moderated her every expression to keep from falling apart.
"Watch," he says, and touches a kiss to the corner of her eye.
And then he sinks slowly to the green earth, gripping her calves for balance. She can't even reach to catch him, but he seems to be making it. For a second, he leans his forehead against her knees, resting there, and then he slowly gathers each and every stem of poisonous white flower, so innocent and bell-like, so apparently dangerous to wildlife.
When he leans back, he lifts his eyes to hers and she's struck all of the sudden by just how much adoration is caught up in her love for him. Longing swamps her, so thick, so deep, that her eyes blur.
"Get off your knees. You'll hurt yourself," she husks, tears spilling over. "Stupid pain pills are making me weepy."
"Mm, only the pain pills, huh," he says, carefully getting a foot under him, pushing off against his knee. She catches him, what she can, but it's not like she can do anything to pull him up; she has no strength for it.
When he rises once more, he presents her with his collected bundle, the white bells nodding in the breeze. Her hair catches in her eyelashes and she scrapes it away, watching him. She bites her bottom lip, taking the flowers against her aching torso.
"Why did you buy me poisonous flowers," she mutters. They've been surrounded with flowers since they woke in the hospital. His fans, for the most part, but some are her fans too. Nikki Heat, Captain Beckett both.
His fingers at her elbow. "Who says I bought them?"
"I know you."
His crooked smile makes her heart flutter. "They're the only ones you saved in the hospital."
"Only because your mom brought them," she whispers, chewing hard on the inside of her cheek to keep from crying.
It's true the pain pills tug her emotions to the surface, but it does the same for him; they often wind up tearful and smiling or furious and silent, depending on when physical therapy has come around. But today is their anniversary, and they're alive, and she wants to push past this and move beyond.
Today is freedom, and he bought her lilies of the valley and presented them to her in the car, and she doesn't know why she made him come to her mother's grave after all of this, why she needed to do this. Closure? Nothing feels resolved; there is no closure. And coming here hasn't given her any of the answers she's been seeking.
"My mother brought them in?" he muses. "I didn't realize. I woke from a nap after physical therapy - you know that man's hands were like meat grinders - I still feel pulverized - and it was the first smile I saw on your face. Those flowers between us on the side table. Made it all worth it."
"Stop being romantic," she sighs. She wishes the sun were out so she would have a good excuse to slide on sunglasses and hide her eyes. She dashes away tears with a thumb. "You've been shot."
"So have you. Twice." He cups a bell-flower in two fingers, smiles sadly. "Besides, it's not romantic if they're poisonous."
She laughs then, the soft exhalation of sound that passes for her laughter these days, and she tilts her head forward until her cheek brushes his jaw. "Thank you."
"Didn't realize you were going to scatter them to the four winds, or I might have stopped you," he hums. "But I think your mother will understand."
"She doesn't need them, because she isn't here," she promises him. A hand fisting in his shirt to keep her balance. "She's not in a place; she's wherever we are, those of us who remember her. Just like home. It's not a place." She lifts her chin and meets his eyes, and she can see him swallow hard. She smooths her hand against his shirt, takes a breath. "We're going to move out of the loft, Castle."
Astonishment crosses his face.
She slowly reaches down to catch his hand, tangling her fingers with his as the wind licks across them. Castle's hair is ruffled, and hanging in his eyes, but his surprise has begun to clear into determination. She's glad of that. She needs him on this. And if he can lower himself to his knees before her, she can do something equally as hard and make this decision.
"We're not sleeping," she starts, her voice raw. "We can't settle in. We're trying to-" She swallows and shakes her head, blowing out a breath, trying not to cry again. "Nothing's working. It's not working."
"Hey." His fingers hook with hers, squeeze. His face is set. "Your dad is waiting in the car for us. So let's go find out where home is now, shall we?"
She nods fast, shaky with how much she needed to say that, get it out there.
He takes the lead out of the cemetery, their fingers laced together, the flowers in the crook of her arm and smelling like honey and sunlight.