Author's Note: So, the finale was ages ago, but I've been bouncing this around since trying to get it right. I know this has been done a thousand times already, but hopefully you enjoy all the same.
Disclaimer: I do not own Castle, or any affiliated characters, etc..., as fun as that would be. That privilege belongs to Mr. Andrew Marlowe & Co.
The Breath That Comes Between
In. Pause. Out. In. Pause. Out. In. Pause. Out. In. Pause. Out.
The rhythm was incessant, unrelenting. He felt the blood in his fingertips pumping to the same beat, keeping time with every forced breath she took.
In. Pause. Out. In. Pause. Out.
For days, his battered emotions had waged war against the rhythm of the ventilator. Every time her body inhaled, in that instant of suspension between each breath, his fear became too much to hold in check. He became sure this breath would be her last, and he would never have the chance to tell her all the things he should have before now.
In. Pause. Out.
The fever pitch rose with every pause, a tightness deep in his gut. But then her body exhaled and the tension ebbed away, at least for a moment. He knew in the rational part of his mind that she had no choice but to breathe, that the machine kept her alive even as it kept her prisoner inside her own body.
The medically induced coma had been necessary, all the doctors agreed. Her body had simply endured too much trauma to cope with the stress of maintaining higher brain function. A coma would allow her body to heal. Let it repair the tissue and bone that had been ripped apart by the single high-powered round the surgeons had skillfully retrieved less than three millimeters from her heart.
Three millimeters. Bile rose in his throat at the thought. Three infinitesimal scales of measurement between life and death, between living and-
What? He didn't know. He couldn't stand to think of it. The universe was chastising him, reminding him that his world could be ripped from him as easily as paper.
He knew he wasn't perfect, knew he'd done things in his life worth regretting. But he was sure there was no crime fitting for this punishment- being forced to watch her slip away, sinking into a shell of the glory that had been Kate Beckett. Suffering for the mistakes he had made.
He couldn't forget the look on her father's face when the doctors asked for consent, as her only living kin. Inducing a coma wasn't without risk, they said. There was always a chance she would never come out of it again. But it was the best chance she had.
'I don't-' he'd started to say. 'I can't-'
Jim Beckett had looked across the cramped waiting room at him, and Castle remembered thinking that he looked like a man drowning in clear water. Like he could see the surface, but had no idea how to get there. Castle had understood completely.
The older man had stepped towards him, holding out the clip board with its contemptible documents unsigned.
'I can't let her go,' he'd said pleadingly. 'Not after- not like this. I know she belongs to you now as much as she does me. Probably more. Please, Rick. I trust you. Katie trusts you.'
Jim pushed the clipboard into his hands. 'Please help her. Please do what I can't.'
Everyone in the room had stopped, holding a collective breath. He'd noticed that Alexis, Lanie and his mother were all weeping silently. Even Esposito and Ryan seemed on the verge of breaking down.
The burly doctor had jumped in quickly. 'Mr. Beckett, Mr. Castle technically doesn't have any authority to-'
'I'll sign whatever papers you need me to sign,' said Jim, cutting the man off abruptly. 'Mr. Castle is as much her family as I am.'
Even now, in the dim stillness of her hospital room, Castle felt tears spring to his eyes as he thought of the older man's words. Her family. More than anything, he wished for the chance to make it come true.
He'd signed the papers on the spot. His signature would become her salvation or her damnation. Either way, it was a choice he would have to live with for the rest of his life. But the prospect of hope was better than the prospect of none at all.
That had been nine days ago. Nine days without any change, without any sign of returning brain activity. The respirator kept her alive, but every day that passed without a spark of life lowered her chances of recovering.
He knew the odds. He'd done enough research over the years, penned more than a few teary-eyed bedside vigils. In his books, the victim always had a rosy pallor and perfect hair. Their eyes would flutter open after a chapter or two, they would smile, and fall into the embrace of their loved one like nothing had happened.
The reality was far less romantic. If he were the author of this scene, her skin wouldn't be pale and bloodless. Her striking eyes wouldn't be kept shut with surgical tape. Her lungs wouldn't be pumping stale, mechanical air.
If he could write it, a kiss would be enough to bring her back to life.
He'd re-written the scene in his mind a thousand times- if he'd been fast enough, or smart enough, she wouldn't be here. But every attempt to do so led him back to this same desperate place. He'd kissed her exactly once, the most exhilarating, heart-stopping kiss he'd ever experienced, and he might never get the chance to do it again.
He sighed, glancing at the clock hung above the doorway. 11:52pm.
They would tell him to leave soon. The nightshift nurse started her rounds at midnight, checking blood pressures and readings before settling in for the long shift ahead.
He'd fought them at first, stating that he had no intention of leaving her alone, ever. He'd sleep on the floor if he had to. He wouldn't sleep at all, he didn't care. The nurses, used to such exclamations, had told him that visiting hours existed for a reason. The patients needed undisturbed rest, as did their family members.
Finally, after three nights of fitful sleep in the chair beside her bed, a young nurse named Evelyn had forced him to see reason.
'The last thing she'll want to see when she wakes up is you, exhausted and broken, knowing it's on her account,' she said. 'You can stay till the nightshift starts at midnight. That's three hours longer than visiting hours, and you can come back again at 7.'
He couldn't argue with her. But still fear gnawed at him, and eventually he'd voiced the thing he was afraid of almost more than anything.
'But what if she wakes up and I'm not there?' he whispered. 'What if she wakes up and she's alone?'
The look on his face had broken the young nurse's heart. She had seen her share of grief inside these walls, but she'd never seen anyone as lost as this man was. He was one part of an incomplete whole.
'I promise you, Mr. Castle, if there's any change in her brain activity, I will call you myself. The monitors will read activity long before she wakes up, it will take time for her to actually regain consciousness. Kind of like a breath between the sleeping and the waking, if you know what I mean.'
Castle had nodded mutely. Then, he'd kissed Kate softly on the cheek, and closed the door to her room quietly behind him. It hadn't been until he was alone, driving himself back to his loft that the tears had finally come, bitter and welcome at the same time.
He hadn't slept that first night away from her. The next day, Evelyn had been in Kate's room, waiting right where he left her to wish him good morning. It had quickly become routine. Some nights Jim would stay with him, other nights he had her all to himself. He left when they told him, but was back again as soon as morning came.
He watched the clock anxiously. 12:18 am. Evelyn must be on duty tonight. She always left Kate's room for last, knowing what the extra minutes meant to him.
Castle placed his large hand over her tiny one, brushing his thumb over her skin. He hated how cold it felt, how unnatural. His Kate was somewhere far away from this bleak room, and no amount of heat from his body could fill the empty space in hers.
He leaned over the metal railing of the bed, bringing himself as close to her as he could.
'Kate, I have to leave soon. The nurse will be here in a few minutes, but I'll be back again in the morning.'
The doctors had told them to speak to her as much as possible, hoping it would stimulate some recognition. His thumb was still moving absently over her skin, voicing his need to stay tethered to her for as long as possible.
Outside, the moon hung high in a matte velvet sky, casting pale light across her porcelain features. It was almost peaceful, as if she might only be sleeping. Like she was one of Alexis' fairy tales, locked in some deep, deadly spell.
It wasn't the story she deserved. She deserved life, and real happiness, and he would give anything to give it to her. He'd do anything to keep being a part of her story.
He spoke softly at first, finding comfort in the familiar feel of words. They seemed to shut out the heavy weight of her absence. 'Once, there was a girl named Kate, and she was- extraordinary.'
He smiled as he thought of the first time he'd used that word to describe her. 'She was strong and beautiful, but she was also sad. She lost someone important to her in a terrible way, and things became much harder after that.'
'The world became a lonely place, but Kate was never one for pity. She didn't want it, not from others and not from herself. So she locked herself away, knowing that it was easier to feel nothing that to feel everything at once. And for a long time her plan worked- she earned the respect she wanted, and learned to find a way to live with her grief. But it never went away.'
The words flowed from his lips, as they often did when he was upset, earnest and demanding to be heard.
'And then one day, a stranger- a very handsome stranger- stumbled into her life, and it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He watched her do amazing things, but she couldn't hide the sadness from him. And he decided that what he wanted, more than anything else, was to see her smile. To hear her laugh. To know that, if he tried hard enough, maybe he could open up her world just a little.'
His fingers slipped through her dark hair, over and over, seeking her warmth.
'She fought him, of course. Pretended she didn't need anyone, but that just made him try harder. And then she'd smile when she thought he wasn't looking, or hide her laugh behind her hand. It made him feel like he'd done something incredible, because everything was better when she smiled. He was better. She made him a better man.'
He held her cheek in his hand, his face just inches from hers. Tears pricked at his eyes, spilling one by one onto her skin. He felt his fragile hold on reality finally disintegrate.
He pleaded with her silent form. 'Beckett. Kate, please- please don't die. Please don't make me do this without you.'
There was a small cough. The spell shattered instantly, recalling the steady hum and beeps of the machines keeping her alive, forcing his eyes away from her.
Evelyn was standing awkwardly by the door, his own tears reflected in her eyes. He hadn't even noticed her enter the room.
'Mr. Castle,' she started, her cheeks flushed. 'I'm terribly sorry to interrupt, but I- I need to check Ms. Beckett's-'
She didn't finish, and Castle could tell she was horrified to have walked in on his outburst. He retreated from Kate's side quickly, brushing the wetness off his face with a swipe.
'Of course, Evelyn,' he said, his voice still strained with tears. 'Please, do whatever you need to.'
The nurse walked quietly to the bedside, studiously avoiding his eye as she took Kate's blood pressure and checked the bank of monitors for anything unusual. Castle watched her without comment, physically and emotionally spent.
It didn't take Evelyn long to finish. 'I'll go then,' Castle said quietly, gathering his jacket and kissing Kate lightly before brushing past the nurse towards the door.
Castle turned around out of politeness, but the last thing he wanted was to see the pity he was sure was in her eyes.
She looked at him a little nervously. But her face was full of compassion, and something almost akin to yearning.
'Evelyn, please call me Rick,' he said kindly.
'Rick. Mr. Castle, you could- you could stay if you wanted.'
He blinked, once, twice, questioning her with his eyes.
She played with the ring on her finger as she spoke, looking a little embarrassed. 'It's just, I don't think that, when two people are that, you know-'
He nodded his understanding, and she let out a breath, smiling at him.
'It just doesn't seem right to separate you, that's all. Everyone should be so lucky.'
Castle bowed his head for just a moment, not wanting her to see the tears forming again in his eyes. He took a deep breath, trying to calm his trembling hands.
'Thank you, Evelyn,' he said finally, unable to hide his gratefulness.
She smiled softly, like it was no problem at all, like she hadn't done anything special.
'You get comfortable, and I'll go find you a better chair to sleep in,' she said, turning on her heel towards the door.
She stopped, looking back at him. 'Yes?'
'Can I ask something?'
'Of course,' she answered.
He sighed, running his fingers through his hair, afraid to ask the question. 'Have you ever seen anyone come back from- from as far away as she is?'
She tried not to let the sadness show on her face, but Castle caught it all the same. His face fell. He thought he'd known what her answer would be. But before despair could fully take hold of him she spoke again, her voice thoughtful, a quiet assurance radiating from her.
'I've seen people overcome things, come back from places so dark you wouldn't believe it's even possible,' she began, careful to keep her words tempered, her tone neutral. 'And I've seen people give up on things that aren't nearly as bad, just because they couldn't take it anymore.'
Her words weren't exactly helping to relieve his dread. Instead, they sent his stomach roiling in a swirling pit of fear, making it hard for him to breathe.
She didn't fail to notice. 'In my experience, Mr. Castle, the difference almost always comes down to the people, like you, waiting on the other side. It helps when there's something to live for. When there's someone to live for.'
Castle shuddered, drawing air into his lungs, forcing himself to exhale.
'So there's a chance then,' he said. He couldn't stop believing that.
'A ghost of a chance, maybe.' She smiled wistfully.
'That's enough,' he whispered. Whatever hope she could give him, however small, was all he had. And he knew if she could, Kate would come back to them.
He looked at the young woman, for once in his life unable to find the words.
He settled, again, on gratitude. 'Thank you, Evelyn. For everything.'
She nodded knowingly. 'Keep writing your story, Mr. Castle. She'll want to hear it, whether she wakes up or not.'
The young nurse left to find him a chair, shutting the door softly behind her.
Castle picked up Kate's hand, holding it between both of his own. He would write their story. And someday he would tell it to her himself.