A/N: Castle belongs to ABC. They own everything. I own nothing.
I'm expecting this to run three chapters, possibly four, although this will likely be the longest chapter.
ETA: This has obviously turned into a much, much longer story than I originally anticipated. The final tally is thirteen chapters.
The hospital room is bright and clean. It's what you'd expect in a good facility, but it makes Kate Beckett feel completely out of place. Even though her surroundings are neat and sterile, her clothing is covered with dust and smears of blood. They offered her some scrubs to change into, but it seemed like too much effort. She rubs idly at a dried red stain on her sleeve and wonders if it's her blood or his.
The ringing in her ears has faded enough so that she can make out the sound of footsteps in the hall outside her room—click click click—click click click. The cadence reinforces the words that have been repeating themselves in her head all morning—means, motive, opportunity—means, motive, opportunity. She's no closer to an answer now than she was when it all first began.
A moment later, the doctor walks in, carrying her chart. She listens with one ear—nodding in the appropriate places, accepting the sling and the bottle of pain pills, and interrupting the doctor only once to ask when she can expect to be restored to full active-duty status. The advice is not what she hoped to hear, but it doesn't really matter since she has no intention of following it.
Ryan is already hard at work, making phone calls and getting warrants for surveillance footage, but Esposito's waiting for her when she walks out.
"They're cutting you loose?" he asks.
"Good. The captain wants me to take you to the station, get your official statement, and then get you home as quickly as possible."
"What's the word from the 15th precinct? Are they cooperating?" she asks.
Esposito shrugs. "As well as can be expected. It's their turf, but when the mayor talked to them about a joint investigation, it wasn't exactly a request."
The paparazzi close in on them as soon as they leave the hospital, but Esposito grabs a patrolman for backup, and between the two of them, they manage to hustle her into a squad car. By the time they make it to the precinct, it's almost 6 a.m., and the mood here now is particularly quiet and somber. The phone conversations, case discussions and idle chatter that normally fill the bullpen are gone, and left in their place are only solemn gazes and hushed whispers as Esposito walks her to her desk. She expected more people to be in already, but as she looks around at the piles of notes and half-drunk cups of coffee scattered on the desks around her, she realizes that they must already be out at the scene, knocking on doors, questioning witnesses, even helping with crowd control.
She stops at her desk and sinks gratefully into her chair.
Ryan notices their arrival and approaches them hesitantly. "You okay?" he asks her.
"Yeah." She moves her arm awkwardly in its sling. "The doctor said it's nothing serious. Should be fine in a week or so." She knows that's not really what he meant, but she can't come up with a better answer.
A frown and a virtually imperceptible head shake from Esposito keep Ryan from trying again. "Here." He holds out black armbands to both of them. He's already wearing one of his own.
She wishes Castle were there to go off on one of those rambling tangents of his. In fact, she knows exactly what he would say.
You know, this tradition started in medieval times. Ladies of the court would tie a scarf around the arm of their favorite knight, who proudly wore it to signify that he returned the lady's affection. That's where the phrase "wearing your heart on your sleeve" comes from. Wonder when it changed from being all about love to being about grief? Never mind. Now that I think about my ex-wives, it's painfully obvious.
She takes the armband from Ryan and pulls the cloth through her fingers, wincing as the strap's velcro closure catches on the cuts and scrapes on her hands. They weren't deep enough to require stitches or dressings, but they're still tender. "He wasn't really a cop."
"Still feels like we lost one of our own," Ryan says softly.
"He was—unique," Esposito adds as he fastens the cloth around his upper arm.
Ryan pulls his chair over to her desk and pulls out his notepad. "Come on—let's get your statement."
They already know most of it—at least the part she's willing to tell—but she forces herself to go over it again.
"He wanted the Manzetti case file—the double homicide we wrapped up a few weeks ago. He said he needed a few extra details for his next Nikki Heat novel. I took it over to his apartment. I arrived around 9:00 p.m."
She waits for the men to finish writing.
"His mother and daughter were away visiting Alexis's mother, so he talked me into staying for dinner."
She laughed as he pulled the enormous pan of lasagna from the oven. "How exactly were you planning on eating all of that by yourself?"
"It's the only way I know how to make it," he confessed. "Every time I try to cut the recipe down, it doesn't turn out right. Do me a favor and help me put a dent in it?"
He looked at her hopefully and she caved.
"Okay, but I can only stay for a little while."
"After dinner, we reviewed the case file. He had a lot of questions about wiretapping laws and search and seizure, and we also spent a good deal of time on money laundering."
He opened a bottle of Chianti to go along with their meal. She limited herself to a single glass with dinner, but accepted another while sprawled on the black couch in the living room as they looked through the file. Somewhere along the way, he poured them both glasses of a rich, smooth port. Whenever she made an effort to leave, he came up with another question or another bizarre hypothesis, and she lost track of the number of times that she said, "Last question."
The pictures and notes were scattered all over the surface of the coffee table. They reached for the same one simultaneously, and their fingers twined together. He didn't let go, and neither did she. When she looked into his face, she saw—something. Yes, he really was ruggedly handsome, damn him, but it was more than just that. He looked at her expectantly, as though waiting for her to finally arrive at what should have been a foregone conclusion.
Whatever it was, it wore down her defenses, at least those few that the alcohol had left intact. She leaned toward him and brushed her lips hesitantly against his. His mouth was warm and softer than she expected. She kissed him again, more firmly this time, and noticed that he tasted sweet, like the port they had just drunk. He kissed her back gently at first, before cupping his palm around her face and tilting her head up to meet him. Her lips opened beneath his and then—
There was a shrill ring and the moment shattered as they jumped apart. He picked up the phone, mouthed "Alexis" and said, "Hi, sweetheart!"
Ryan looks at her expectantly, and she shakes herself out of her reverie. "At about 1:30 a.m., he received a call from Alexis. While he chatted with her, I realized how late it was getting, so I started putting the file back together."
She heard only one side of the conversation, but it wasn't too hard to figure out what was being said.
"Yes, I ate real food for dinner. Vegetables, even. No, you didn't wake me. Yes, I know it's late, and I'm heading to bed right now. Great. Tell your mother and grandmother that I said 'hello'. Fine, you can tell Dustin too. Have a good time. Love you too."
She had gotten the file together, retrieved her bag, and had almost made it to the door when he stepped in front of her, blocking her exit with his body. She wanted to push him aside, but that would have meant putting her hands on his chest, and she didn't trust herself enough to risk the possible consequences of that particular action.
His voice was low and gentle. "Don't you think we should talk about this?"
She looked over at the door, at her feet, over his shoulder, anywhere but into his eyes. "Look, there's nothing to talk about. I didn't mean for it to happen."
"Neither did I." He leaned toward her, and she shivered as she felt his breath hot against her cheek. "I'm not going to apologize, though, because I'm not sorry that it did. Are you?"
The answer to his question should have been easy. It wasn't. "Castle, please..."
He laughed softly and she looked up to see the all-too-familiar half-smirk on his face.
"Please let you go? Or please kiss you again?"
He leaned in even closer, and his mouth was only millimeters away from hers now. She parted her lips in anticipation, but he backed away instead, and she missed his closeness immediately.
"It's okay." His smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "I'd rather have no answer at all than one I don't want to hear."
He placed a hand in the small of her back and let it linger there, caressing her with small, even strokes of his thumb as he stepped aside, opened the door, and guided her through it and into the hallway. "I'll call downstairs and make sure they have a cab waiting for you."
"Castle," she argued, "I only had three glasses of wine over a four-hour period, and that was on top of a heavy, if delightful, meal. I can drive."
"Fine," he grinned, "I just thought you might like an excuse for your behavior tonight. The moon's not full, so that one's out."
"Who says I need an excuse?" she shot back.
His smile grew even wider. "My mistake. Until tomorrow, then."
She turned abruptly before he could see her smile. He might have won the round, but there was still plenty of fight left in her. She walked down the hall toward the elevator, and the shockwave tossed her to the floor before she even heard the detonation.
"I left his place at about 1:45a.m. I was about halfway down the hall to the elevator, when it happened. I was knocked down, but I wasn't unconscious. The door to his apartment was twisted in the frame, but I managed to force it open." She looks at her hands. Three fingernails are snapped off, but she doesn't remember how it happened. "I found him. I called emergency services in case people in other apartments could be helped. I also called Dr. Parish to take care of him. I secured the crime scene as best I could while I waited for the forensic team to show."
The guys finish writing and close their notebooks.
"That's enough," Esposito says. "We'll type it up and get you to sign it later. You know, I'm surprised the captain is still letting you work this case, but we just want you to know that we've got your back."
Ryan nods. "You got that right."
"What about the fan mail?" she asks. "Has anyone picked that up from his publisher yet?"
"A guy from the 15th is bringing it by. The captain said to take it to your apartment as soon as we get it."
"He was only willing to let me in on this case if I promised not to over do it, so I guess he figures I can do a little work from home," she explains.
"Speaking of home," Esposito gets to his feet, "I'll take you there now so you can get some rest, and we'll do everything we can to find the son of a bitch who's responsible. We know how you felt about him."
The hell they do. She doesn't even know how she felt. All she knows is that the roar of the explosion in Castle's apartment was one of the worst things she's ever heard in her life. In fact, it ranks right on up there with, "I'm sorry to inform you that your mother was the victim of a homicide."
She offers Esposito her good arm and hands him the black armband. He takes it from her and fastens it securely around her bicep, and she shakes her head and takes a deep breath. "Kevin?"
He perks up, instantly eager to help. There's one thing that remains to be done, and she'll be damned if she's going to be the one to do it. "Would you set up the murder board for me?"
"Sure thing, boss. See you later?"
She nods, and he gets to work. Esposito carries her things to his car and drives her home. She's tired and the motion of the car makes her sleepy, but every time she closes her eyes, she sees the ruined apartment again. She feels the pain of digging through the debris for him until her hands bleed. She remembers how she finally found him-lying half-under a couch cushion, his shirt soaked scarlet.
Javier insists on walking her all the way to her door, and she doesn't bother arguing. She knows when she's beaten. When she fumbles awkwardly trying to insert the keys with her left hand, he simply takes them from her, unlocks the door, and presses them back into her hand.
"You need anything, you call, right?" he asks intently.
"I will," she answers, "and I expect to hear from you the second you find anything."
She locks the door behind him and leans back against it for a moment. Her arm aches and her back itches. She wants nothing more than a long, hot bath, but she has a case to solve, and a quick dip will have to do. She puts her sidearm and cuffs on the kitchen table and eases her arm out of the sling. It takes her three tries, but she finally manages to strip the damn armband off. She kicks her shoes off in the living room and pads into her bedroom, awkwardly pulling her top over her head with her good arm.
"Whoa, it looks like I really made it to heaven in spite of all the advice I've gotten to the contrary."
She frees herself from the restraining material and spots a very familiar form reclined on her bed.
End of Chapter 1