It was an ambush – there could be no other word for it. He left the Old Haunt just after one-thirty in the morning and strolled down to the corner to catch a taxi. A man sat on a stoop in the shadows nearby, older and grizzled, smelling of alcohol, and asked him if he could spare a buck. Castle could, in fact; he drew a twenty from his pocket and stepped toward the man, his hand outstretched. Then another hand shot from the shadows, gripped his wrist, and snatched him into the darkness.
When he came to, he recognized his location almost immediately; he was bound to a chair in the middle of Kate Beckett's living room. He was facing her front door, and for a long, crazy moment, he made eye contact with the Tibetan Buddha statue that reigned supreme in the entrance. Then his view was blocked by the figure that stepped in front of him.
The man was dressed in unrelieved black from head to toe; the only part of him that was visible was his eyes, glittering coldly through the holes in the ski mask. "Mr. Castle," the man greeted him in a calm, almost cultured voice. "I'm afraid your evening is about to become very unpleasant. This is unfortunate – for you – but necessary, I'm sorry to say. I need you to carry a message to your... muse. A very blunt, very specific message."
"All right," Castle replied gamely. "What's the message? I'll make sure she gets it."
The man crouched, looking Castle dead in the face. "It's very simple. I simply need you to remind her that her mother has been dead for a very long time, and she still has a lot of people she can lose."
Castle nodded. "I'll let her know. Word for word. Promise."
The man stood again. "Word for word won't be necessary," he replied. "She's a smart girl. I'm sure she'll get the point fairly quickly."
The first blow was to his face; it snapped his head back and made him see stars. The second was to his solar plexus. The third was to the right side of his rib cage, and it was hard enough that he was fairly certain he heard a 'pop' with the impact. After the fourth, he stopped counting.
Blow for blow he felt himself start to slip away. Something plowed into his gut with enough force that he started choking on his own blood while trying to breathe. His vision swam and Kate's apartment faded in and out as the pain threatened to swallow him whole. Castle was slow to come back to his senses, hearing bits and pieces of the man's monologue around the insistent buzzing in his skull. It wasn't until he heard her name that his head jerked up with enough speed to leave him disoriented, but hearing the word Kate brought him halfway back to cognizance.
"She's coming," said a voice – not that of the man in black. An accomplice. The man delivered one final blow, and then he was gone. Through the buzzing, Rick heard a nearby window squeak closed, and the distant sound of feet on the fire escape. And then he heard a key scrape in the lock, and the door swung open to admit Kate. She entered the darkened room without looking, her focus on Josh, who came in behind her, pushing the door shut. He reached to take her in his arms. Castle let his head drop, staring at his knees, and he let the buzzing overtake him when he heard Josh's startled exclamation and Kate's voice, full of stunned disbelief, saying, "Castle?"
Rick inhaled deeply, grimacing at the pain that raced through his body, before he raised his head to see his partner and her boyfriend in the darkness. He managed to plaster a half smile on his bruised and bleeding face for her benefit more than his own. "Sorry for intruding, Detective," he replied with a raspy voice that wasn't really his own, even with the slightly familiar tones of teasing underneath the discomfort.
Josh reached out in search of something and the darkness disappeared with the flip of a switch. Castle flinched at the sudden light, lowering his head when the buzzing became too much to bear.
Kate went to her knees beside him immediately, heedless of the blood on the floor, which was transferred immediately to the knees of her jeans, or the blood on him, which was transferred to her hands. "Oh, my God," she was whispering. "Who did this to you?"
Josh came from the kitchen with a knife, which he used to cut the ropes binding Castle's hands, and the writer's arms fell forward uselessly, numb from being tied back. "Don't know," Castle mumbled, the words feeling mushy in his battered mouth. "Din' see 'is face. Said to give you a message." He raised his head again, peering at her through rapidly-swelling eyes. "Said your mom's not th' only person you got to lose."
Kate's face tightened at about the same time Rick's vision blurred for the second time. He was only barely holding himself up in the chair as it was; when the disoriented feeling came back in a rush that left him dizzy and weightless, he started to slip out of it. Someone, Kate he thought when he caught the scent of cherries, managed to lower his battered body to the ground while Josh made the call for an ambulance. His eyes closed of their own accord, partly from swelling and partly from exhaustion, and he leaned back against the chair legs he had been propped up against.
"Castle, stay with me, okay?" she managed to get out around the lump forming in her throat at the sight of a bloody Richard Castle. It didn't help that he had mentioned her mother a few moments ago either. Thinking of Johanna was a sure fire way to break down her walls.
"Tired," he replied, his voice sinking. "Hurts."
"I know," she replied, her voice soothing, her hands gentle on his face. "But you have to stay awake for me, okay? You might have a concussion." She brushed his hair back as Josh went downstairs to meet the ambulance. "The paramedics are here," she told him. Then she swallowed hard. "Castle... Rick... tell me what they said again."
He opened his eyes as far as he was able, looking into hers. He spoke carefully to ensure that she understood him. "He said your mom's been dead for a long time, but you still have other people you can lose."
"They're here," Josh interrupted as he stepped back into the apartment with the paramedics on his heels. Kate started to get up on instinct, ready to let them take care of her partner but Castle was faster. He reached out and grabbed her wrist, holding tight.
"Castle, you have to let me go – the paramedics need to get to you."
"Kate," he said again, pulling at her. "Find Alexis."
"Isn't she at home?"
He shook his head slightly, wincing at the pain. "She… friend's house. Sleepover. Find her. Keep her safe."
"I'll find her," she promised. "Which friend?"
There was a long pause. "Paige."
"Does she have her cell phone?"
"Should." He released her and she stood, stepping out of the way of the paramedics and pulling out her own cell phone. It was two in the morning, but she suspected Alexis wouldn't care. She flipped through the contacts list until she found the one labeled "Castle 2.0" and dialed.
Castle let his eyes stray away from Kate as the paramedics went to work. Josh was standing off to the side, watching Kate out of corner of his eye but his real focus was on the writer and the work being done to him. He only looked away when he heard Kate utter a soft greeting into the phone.
"Detective Beckett...?" Alexis had been on the edge of sleep when her phone went off and it showed in her voice. It was rare that the Detective called and the hour at which the call came had the teenager on edge. "Is everything okay?"
"Not exactly, but don't panic, because everything is going to be fine." She emphasized the verb, speaking firmly.
Alexis's voice was shaky when she replied. "Is it my dad?"
"It is, but not what you think. He's been roughed up pretty badly, but he's going to be fine. The paramedics are taking care of him as we speak. I need to know where you are; I'm going to send Ryan and Esposito to come pick you up."
Alexis gave her the address; Kate could hear her moving around, gathering her things. "I'll wait outside so everyone doesn't get woken up."
"No." Kate's denial was firm. "I don't want you within sight of a door or a window. Do you understand? You stay inside. I'll have one of them call your phone rather than buzzing, but you stay in the apartment. Is that clear?"
There was a long pause, and then Alexis spoke again, her voice unnaturally calm. "This is big, isn't it, Detective?"
"Bigger than you know," Kate replied. "I'll try to explain when I see you."
"All right." Alexis's voice remained even. "I'll be ready when they get here." She hung up, and Kate dialed Esposito.
"Hey boss. You're up lat-"
"Now's not the time, Esposito. I need you to call Ryan. I want both of you to pick up Alexis from this address and don't let her out of your sight." Kate's voice was firm as she turned to look at the paramedics while they tried to coerce Castle onto a stretcher.
"On it, Boss." Esposito ended the call without another word and once again Kate was proud of how quickly her team went to work.
She moved to Castle's side. "Stop fighting them, Castle. Get on the stretcher." He obeyed instantly, his hand groping for hers, and she realized why he'd been fighting. "I just got off the phone with Esposito," she assured him, her thumb rubbing the back of his hand absently. "He and Ryan are on their way to get Alexis. They'll meet us at the hospital."
Kate nodded. "She's safe. I promise, I will keep her safe."
"Thank you," he whispered."
She let him go again so that the paramedics could take him, then turned to Josh. "Will you – ?"
He nodded. "Of course, Kate." He started to follow the paramedics, then stopped, reaching up to touch her cheek. "I know he's your friend. I know he's… important to you. I'll take care of him."
She smiled slightly, feeling her eyes grow damp. "Thank you for understanding."
He leaned down and pressed a gentle peck to her lips. "Change your clothes and meet us at the hospital." Then he was gone, and Kate was alone with Castle's blood on her hands and her clothes and her floor.
By the time Kate had managed to change and make it to the hospital Ryan and Esposito were already there with an anxious Alexis. The teenager was sitting between the two detectives as she talked in quiet tones to her grandmother on the phone. Ryan stayed in his chair while Esposito got up and met the brunette halfway.
"Josh said they took him back for scans to determine if he needed surgery. Alexis is on the phone with Martha."
Kate nodded. She waved Ryan over, waiting until he had joined them before taking a deep breath. "This has something to do with me," she began, and explained about the message Rick had been told to pass along. "Whoever did this, it's about my mom's case. And they're telling me that they're not going to stop unless I do. They're trying to intimidate me into stopping by going after the people around me."
"Then we need to be taking steps to keep those people safe," Ryan said firmly. "Alexis says Martha's on her way here. Where's your dad?"
Esposito was quick to scribble down the address Kate recited from memory before leaving the ER with Ryan at his side. She took a moment to gather herself before moving to take a seat beside the red headed teen.
"You okay?" Kate asked quietly, aware that Alexis was probably somewhat shaken up after the cryptic two am phone call. To her credit, Alexis was pretty calm after talking to her Gram on the phone.
"You said you'd tell me what was going on."
"I did." Kate sat down and took a deep breath, searching for a starting point.
Alexis laid a hand on her arm. "Just give it to me, Kate. Don't hold anything back out of fear of my delicate ears or anything, okay? Whatever it is, I can take it."
Kate studied the girl – young woman – for a long moment before nodding. "You know, I actually think you can." She took another deep breath and started at the beginning, in a low voice, and told Alexis everything.
When she was done, Alexis sat back, her face pale and her eyes wide as she processed what she'd just heard. "Okay," she said a couple of times, and then she nodded. "Okay. So if they're after us now, it's because they want to make you shut up. But why not just go after you? If they want you to stop so badly that they'd beat up my dad like that, why not just beat you up?" She paused, realizing what that may have sounded like. "I mean – don't get me wrong, I don't want you to get hurt, really, I don't. I just don't understand why they would take this roundabout method. Why not come at you directly?"
Kate opened her mouth to answer, but stopped when she realized that she didn't actually have an answer. "I don't know," she admitted.
"Kate," the voice drifted from the direction of the double doors and she looked up to see Josh coming toward her and Alexis. She stood, taking the teenager's hand when she did the same. The smile her boyfriend offered did little to relieve the worry that Kate felt concerning Castle. The writer was tougher than he seemed on a daily basis but there had been a lot of blood on her apartment floor.
Alexis was the first to step forward, still holding Kate's hand. She recognized the man as the doctor who came out earlier and informed Detective Esposito of her father's condition when they first arrived. "How is my Dad?" she asked in the calmest voice that she could manage at the moment, remembering that Kate promised that her father would be okay.
Josh looked from his girlfriend to Alexis before he answered. "Your Dad will be fine. He had a mild concussion and a few cracked ribs, which were the biggest concerns. He has some stitches and a lot of bruising, but he's alright." The smile on Kate's face was full of relief but not nearly as bright as the one he got from Castle's offspring. "He's asking for you." At this he turned to look from Alexis to Kate and the expression on his face changed somewhat. "Both of you."
Kate nodded, giving Alexis's shoulder a little push. "You go first," she said. "I'll be there in a second."
Alexis gave her an odd look, but then she turned back to Josh, who pointed through the doors. "Third door on the left," he said. "Go on in. It's fine." He waited until she'd gone before turning back to Kate. He held up a hand when she started to speak, and chose his words carefully. "Kate," he said, his voice gentle, "I already know. Okay? I knew when we first started dating."
She felt the air go out of her in a rush. "You – what?"
He smiled slightly. "You think I didn't see you on the cover of that magazine? You think I didn't see the articles in the paper? Big-time writer starts following hot cop around? You've been the talk of the town for years, Kate. And when we met… when we started dating… I knew the rumors weren't true, because I knew right off that you weren't the kind of girl who cheated or slept around." He gave her a slight smile, reaching out to take both her hands. "But you care about him. You care about him a lot. And I'm not going to be that guy who gets in the way of something like that." He squeezed her hands. "Go be with him, Kate. He's what you need."
"I- Josh… thank you," she whispered softly as she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. Josh let go of her hands and allowed her to move around him and toward the third door on the left.
Castle was sitting up in his bed, arms wrapped tightly around Alexis as he whispered quietly into her ear. He didn't even have to look up to know that it was Kate who entered the room and his body language eased because of her presence. "Detective," he greeted quietly as he gave her one of his genuine smiles.
"Castle," she greeted in return, her lips twitching. "Was it really necessary to go to these lengths just to get my attention?"
"I just couldn't think what else to do," he replied, grinning and playing along. "But I figured, hey, once you get blood all over a girl's living room, she's gotta like you after that."
Kate actually laughed at that, moving to sit on the bed with him when he patted his vacant side. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I had the shit beat out of me," he said frankly.
She nodded. "That's kind of how you look, too."
"I figured." He started to take a deep breath and winced against the bandages wrapped tightly around his chest. He squeezed Alexis's shoulders and looked over at Kate. "They snatched me off the street, Kate," he said softly. "From right out in front of the Old Haunt."
Her lips compressed against each other. "And they left you in my living room as a message." She swallowed hard. "Castle," she said, "I think we need to get out of the city."
His brow furrowed in confusion for only a moment before he was nodding. "I have the money to hide us. All of us." he paused for a moment and raised his eyes to meet hers. "Even your Dad."
The offer was not one made lightly, but Castle really didn't have to think it over either. He would do anything for Kate and he had the actual power to follow through with this offer. His mind was already thinking of places for them to go. Alexis wouldn't be too happy to leave, as she still had some school left, but he would find a way to make it work.
Kate bit her lip. "We have to be untraceable," she said. "We don't know what kind of reach this guy has."
Rick nodded slowly, considering. "I think we can manage that," he said. "But how will we ever solve this if we take off?"
"We'll take it with us," she replied. "We'll pack every bit of it up and we'll take it with us. We can go through old cases and files somewhere else just as well as we can here. If we need things out of the archives, Ryan and Esposito can get them and send them to us."
"They won't go with us?"
"We need someone here as well, Castle. Ryan and Esposito are big boys. They can take care of themselves," she explained with ease. It would make sense to have them stay and work the case and Kate already knew they would agree to being left in the city. If anything the boys would probably prefer to be left behind. She would have to talk to the Captain but she was sure that he would understand and probably even encourage the leave. He had been trying to push her to take a vacation anyway.
"It makes sense, I guess. I'll have to pull Alexis out of school-"
"Dad, it's finals time-"
"I know, sweetheart. I'll find a way to fix it. I promise," he assured Alexis with another tight squeeze, kissing the top of her head.
"You can probably take your finals early or online," Kate pointed out to Alexis. "As high as your grades are, I'm sure they'll work with you."
"Good point," Alexis agreed. Then she cocked her head. "How long will we be gone?"
"I don't know," Kate admitted. "As long as it takes."
The girl bit her lip. "And… I guess I can't tell anyone where we're going."
"No, sweetheart, you can't." Rick leaned over and pressed a kiss to her temple. "I know it's going to be hard on you, leaving your friends and Ashley and everyone. But it keeps them safe. What they don't know, they can't tell."
"Exactly," Kate agreed. "If they have no idea where you've gone – in fact, if they had no idea you were even leaving – it keeps all of them safe. If your entire group of friends is completely bewildered because Alexis just vanished off the face of the earth, then no one kidnaps, say, Ashley and tortures him to get him to say what he knows about where you are."
Alexis blanched. "I hadn't thought of that," she admitted in a small voice.
"I know." Kate reached over and took her hand. "And I'm sorry I had to put it that bluntly. But you need to understand that it isn't just us we're protecting – it's everyone around us, everyone who cares about us, everyone who could be a target because they might know something about where we can be found."
"Is that why we're bringing your dad? And Gram, too?" When Kate nodded, Alexis said, "What about Mom?"
Rick shook his head. "Anyone who knows anything about us – and I'm sure at this point that they know a lot about us – knows that your mom isn't really involved in our lives. She's safer not knowing anything, just like Ashley."
Alexis nodded her head in agreement, finally pulling away from her father and sliding off the bed. "I'm going to go check to see if Gram is here yet," she mentioned on her way out of the door, leaving the detective and the writer in the room by themselves.
Castle only waited a few beats for the silence to settle in before he broke it without remorse. "I'm sorry."
His words caught Kate off guard and she shifted on the side of his bed, turning so that she could better face him. She knew what he was feeling, just like she had the night that the Triple Killer got away. Reaching out, she took his hand and gave it a light squeeze as her eyes met his. "It's not your fault, Castle. You have nothing to apologize for. Understood?" The writer looked away and opened his mouth to protest, but Kate tugged on his hand a little harder to force his attention back to her. "I said it's not your fault, okay? It's not."
"I feel like it is," he admitted. "If I hadn't gone against your wishes and reopened your mom's case – "
"Then we never would have gotten as close as we are to actually solving it," she interrupted him. She held his eyes. "Whatever happens, Castle… Rick… I want you to understand that I have no regrets. Okay?"
He studied her for a long moment, and finally nodded. "Okay." He reached into his pocket then and pulled out his phone. "All right. Let's make a list of everything we're going to need to do in the next… six hours."
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