And I'd give up forever to touch you, 'cause I know that you'd feel me somehow

-Iris, The Goo Goo Dolls

-0-0-0-

In seven years, he's ridden in an ambulance with her three times.

All three were unspeakably miserable.

But out of all three, he must admit that this one is the most bearable. The first time, he was sitting there, unable to help, broken, dwelling on his confession and wishing, wishing, wishing that he'd said something sooner, while Lanie fought to keep Kate's heart beating. The second time, Lanie was not with them. He was the only one there for her, which was both more and less awful. Her injury was entirely different, but once again, he was forced to sit idly by and do nothing while doctors and paramedics swarmed around her, hooking her up to various machines and shouting out phrases that meant nothing to him.

This time is different, though. It's different because for the first time, there is not chaos. This time, her heartbeat is slow and steady, just as it's supposed to be. This time, to use a phrase he heard one of the paramedics using, she's stable.

But still, the burns and bruises and bloody slashes on her body stare up at him, screaming, forcing him to realize that although her life is not in immediate danger, all is not well. She's in awful shape, and surely if she were awake she'd be in terrible pain.

A part of him wishes she were awake. He wants to see her, to talk to her, to grasp her hand and feel her fingers tighten around his in response. He wants to validate that she's really alive, because the beeping of the heart rate monitor and the gentle fluctuations of her chest are not reassurance enough.

But he knows that he shouldn't be wishing this. Because he knows that her injuries, while not life-threatening, are terribly severe, and he would not be able to stand the anguish that would surely define her face if she could feel the pain of those burns. He doesn't want her to suffer. So he's glad she's resting peacefully in an easy, thankfully temporary sleep.

He reaches for her hand, but as his fingers brush hers, the roughness of her burnt skin reminds him that he ought not to touch her there. So he moves his hand to her unharmed face and carefully brushes the backs of his fingers against her cheek. And still, he can't help wishing for a response, but she is torturously unmoving.

"Sir?"

He glances up; his eyes land on a small paramedic with a rounded face and strawberry-blond hair.

"What's your relationship with the victim?" she asks.

"Kate," he tells her, ignoring the question. "Her name is Kate." He doesn't want to hear her referred to as 'the victim'. It sounds wrong. Like she's dead.

"Kate," the paramedic agrees. "What's your relationship with her?"

"I'm an old friend," he replies after a second's thought. "A partner."

"A romantic partner?"

"What? No, work. We worked together."

By the way one eyebrow disappears into her softly curled bangs, he can tell she saw him caressing Kate's face. "You seem pretty close for coworkers," she says.

"In her profession, that's how it works. Partnership is the closest bond you can have." Just look at Espo and Ryan.

"And what profession would that be?"

Questions. He doesn't really want to answer questions. He doesn't even want to think about questions. There are too many questions in the world. Why is this woman asking so many questions? Wait, that's a question. Damn. "She's a cop," he replies reluctantly. "A homicide detective."

"Oh. Then you are, too? A detective?"

"Huh? No. I'm a writer."

"Oh." She's completely lost – he can tell by the puzzled expression that crosses her face. Clearly she isn't a Nikki Heat fan. "Alright, then," she adds finally, and – thankfully – walks away.

The rest of the ride passes uneventfully. No one else tries to talk to him. Kate doesn't stir. Her condition stays exactly the same. They reach the hospital in minutes, and Kate is pulled out of the ambulance and down the hallway on her stretcher. Castle doesn't even bother running after her. He just collapses in a chair, defeated, while the doctors wheel her away to do whatever it is they do to help burn patients. Operate? Perhaps. Perhaps not, though. Other than possibly a few broken bones, all of her injuries are on the surface. Right?

This is why he's a writer, not a doctor.

Dr. Motorcycle Boy would probably know. If they were on speaking terms, Castle might ask him. But they aren't. So he won't.

Now he wishes he'd run after her. Now he feels – well, not as alone as he's ever felt, but pretty damn close. He wishes Esposito and Ryan would hurry up and get there, no matter how pissed off they are at him. He wishes Alexis would come and huddle close to him like she would when she was younger, but she has no way of knowing what's going on, so why would she? Most of all, he wishes he were with Kate, wherever she is. He wishes he could sit by her side and touch her face and maybe hold her hands – they aren't nearly as badly burnt as her arms, anyways. Because it doesn't matter how deep a sleep she's fallen into. If he were to touch her, at the very least, he'd feel her. The softness of her skin and the warmth of her body would reassure him, help him to be grounded, tether him to this world just as she always used to.

And maybe, just maybe, on the off chance that three years apart haven't spoiled the beautiful connection they used to have, haven't reduced it to nothing more than one-sided attraction, unrequited love between two people who have nothing in common and whose differences are now what's driving them apart rather than what's binding them together… maybe she'd feel him, too. And maybe she'd know that it's alright, that he's here, that he loves her. That he's not giving up on her.

Just like old times.

It takes about twenty minutes for Ryan and Esposito to arrive. But it feels like longer.

They're both speedwalking, but as soon as they turn the corner, Esposito's pace quickens further as he charges towards Castle. For a second, he's sure he's going to try to shove him or something – which doesn't make much sense, seeing as he's sitting down – but Espo seems to get control of himself and stops a few feet away. "Where is she?"

"I don't know," Castle replies honestly. "Last I heard, she's stable."

"What happened?"

"No idea." He shrugs despondently. "Something with a bus. I mean, it looks like an accident, but… I don't know. It doesn't… feel like one."

Esposito snorts. "Oh, so you're a cop again now?"

"Espo –" Ryan begins, stepping forward.

"Ryan, back off." Esposito holds out a hand, as though to physically stop his partner from advancing further, but his words are enough. "What are you doing here?" he asks harshly.

"Bro," Ryan interrupts. "I already asked him –"

"I want to hear it from him."

Castle couldn't blame the detective for putting him on the spot like this. Still, with both partners' eyes fixed on him, he really wasn't enjoying it. "I don't know," he murmurs. "I – I needed to come back. I couldn't leave it… the way I did."

"Really?" Another snort. "You didn't seem to have that problem last time."

"Javi –"

"Back off, Kevin!" At his partner's exclamation, Ryan does take a few steps back. "Look," Esposito began. "I don't care who you are. I don't care how many damn best-sellers you've written or how many cases you've helped crack. I don't care what you meant to her. You can't just waltz back in here and expect everything to be okay."

"Javi, please," Ryan pleads, stepping forward again, desperate to be the mediator. "Leave him alone. She wouldn't want –"

"Whose side are you on?" Esposito demands.

"Kate's!" Ryan cries without missing a beat. "I'm on Kate's side, Javi! She's like my sister. I love her like a sister and I know you feel the same way. So yeah, if some jerk comes along and hurts her, we're allowed to be pissed. But this isn't just some jerk, this isn't Josh or Sorenson, this is Castle. And if she wants him back anyways, who are we to judge?"

There's a pause, a minute of silence, during which Esposito's gaze flicks back and forth between Castle and Ryan. Finally, he speaks. "You broke her heart," he says, softer than anything he's said to Castle today so far. "You hear me? You broke her damn heart."

"I know," Castle whispers. "Trust me, I know. And believe me when I say I wish I could take it all back. More than anything."

"Regret isn't enough." Esposito's voice is quickly regaining strength and surety. "You have to make it up to her. You have to… to heal her."

"I know," he says again. "I know. And… I think that's why I'm here. To heal her. Or, at least, to try."

"You'd better try." There's a hint of a threat in Esposito's tone. "Because you know us, bro." He takes a step back to stand beside Ryan, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "And you mess with our sister, there's gonna be hell to pay."

Yes, definitely a threat. He deserves it, though. He knows he does. Esposito and Ryan have no reason to trust him, no reason to believe he'll do what he says he's going to do. Not after everything that he's already done. He's betrayed them, shattered their trust, and it could take a while to build it back up. But hopefully he'll be able to do it. Because they're his bros. And he needs them in his life. Not nearly as much as he needs her, but still.

Things can't ever be the same as they were before he left. He knows that. Hell, he made sure of that three years ago.

But maybe, with some work, things can be close.

With some work… and with her.