A/N: So here we are with all these lovely post-Always/After the Storm fics, and then I write...this? Yeah, there's something wrong with me.

No real spoilers here, unless you haven't watched "Always" yet, in which case, what the heck are you doing reading this before watching that? Go. Shoo. Watch. And then come back and be glad I'm not your showrunner.

Also, just...read through to the end. Please. Thanks.


Disclaimer: Between finishing schooling and being officially unemployed, I still have not acquired the rights to Castle and all affiliated people, places, and things. Like you would really want me in charge anyway, considering what I just wrote. Instead, we all get to thank Andrew Marlowe and ABC studios for killing us with the recent slew of promos, bloopers, promo poster, etc. Awesome.


All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream

- Edgar Allen Poe, "A Dream Within a Dream"


"You'll be here in the morning?"

She hears the hesitant hopefulness laced with traces of irrepressible doubt and she's so very sorry that she's made him so unsure of her—of them. She knows she can't do anything about it other than to prove through her actions that she's not running anymore, that she's really and truly committed to them.

She snuggles deeper into the circle of his embrace, the warmth of his sweat-slicked skin pressing wondrously against her naked body. His arms are delicious weights around her torso and she just wishes that this moment could go on for forever.

There's still so much to talk about, so much hurt that they've needlessly inflicted on each other this past year, but in this moment, everything is exactly as it should be.

She presses a kiss on the underside of his jaw and settles back with her head against his shoulder.

Her response is an assurance and a promise both.

"I'll be here."

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;

Kate Beckett startles awake with a blink.

She isn't a slow riser; when she wakes up, she's always aware of where she is and what she's done.

Not this time.

It's the first indication that all is not right.

She doesn't know where she is.

Well, no. That's not exactly true. She knows where she is.

She just doesn't know why she is where she is.

Because the heart monitor spiking and falling to the steady cadence of her pulse and the tubes and wires attached to her body tell her that she's in the hospital.

And she doesn't understand how she's in the hospital because she'd fallen asleep wrapped up in Castle's arms and though she'd quit her job and made a general mess of things, she'd had Castle on her side, and she'd never been more hopeful for the future.

So why is she in the hospital? What happened?

It takes an almost physical effort to get her brain going, and it feels like her mind is trudging through deep marshes.

If she's in the hospital, what happened to Castle?

Oh god, what if it was Maddox? What if Maddox had come after her in Castle's loft?

"Castle," she exhales.

She tries to sit up, but oh!

White flashes of searing pain lances through her nerves and she falls back on her pillow with a ragged gasp. It hurts, oh god, it hurts so much.

Why does it hurt so much?

She hasn't experienced this kind of agony ever since—

Horror fills her even as pain renders her speechless.

Ever since she'd been shot last year. That was the last time she'd been assaulted with this barrage of burning nerves and spasming muscles.

Had she been shot again?

Her thoughts trip back to Castle. If she'd been shot, what happened to Castle?

"Castle," she rasps again, desperation giving her strength to try sitting up again, but hot flashes of debilitating pain rendering her impotent. "Castle!"

Then there are hands on her. Strong hands pressing down on her shoulders and a voice. It's a deep voice—a familiar one that she should recognize—murmuring reassurances and begging her to calm down.

She can't calm down. Not when she doesn't know what's happened to Castle.

She struggles against the restraining pressure, but the pain is too much and she slumps back in frustration.

"Kate, please. You gotta calm down, babe. You're hurting yourself."

Babe? Nobody calls her babe. Nobody since Josh anyway.

Her vision focuses and she's so confused. So very confused.

Because the concerned eyes staring back at her are not Castle's.

They're Josh's.

"Josh? What are you doing here?"

"Kate, you were shot. Do you remember?"

"Shot? No. I don't remember. The last thing I remember is being at Castle's loft. Where is he?"

Josh's jaw clenches and she's surprised to see the hurt flash through his eyes. They'd parted amiably enough last summer, and she knows that he knows that he never really had a chance. Frankly, she thought that Josh would have moved on by now.

But all thoughts about her ex's latent jealousy issues wipe from her mind at his next words.

"You weren't at Castle's loft, Kate. You were at Captain Montgomery's funeral. That's where you were shot."

Captain Montgomery's funeral? That's impossible. That was a year ago.

"What are you talking about, Josh?"

"Kate, you were shot by a sniper at the funeral. We barely managed to keep you alive, but you've been in a coma for three weeks."

Oh god. This can't be real.

Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?

Her hospital room plays host to a steady stream of visitors. Her dad, Lanie, Ryan and Esposito, Josh... But there is one face conspicuously missing.

Castle's.

Nobody will tell her what happened to him, and it terrifies her. She can't rid herself of the sinking feeling that something awful has happened and that they're trying to protect her by delaying the inevitable.

She still can't quite grasp the fact (is it really or is this just a bad dream?) that everything that's happened in the past year has been nothing but a figment of her coma-induced imagination. How is it even possible that a year had passed in a matter of three weeks?

Castle is the one with the crazy imagination. She needs him to make sense of the mess that is her psyche.

She just needs him.

It's incredibly frightening how much a body can atrophy in just three weeks of disuse.

Movements that had been second nature to her are now herculean labors. She can't even sit up in bed without having to rely on the mechanic lever built into the hospital bed. Trips to the bathroom are a test in endurance equal to running a marathon, and it's like her body has forgotten how to stay up for longer than an hour at a time.

She hates feeling so weak, but even more than that, she hates that she cannot trust her own mind.

It's been three days and she still can't make out whether the reality she's living in now is the true reality or whether she's stuck in some sort of weird post-coital dream brought on by one too many Castle-theories. Oh god, she hopes that's the case.

Because no one has yet to tell her what happened to Castle, and the longer they avoid the elephant in the room, the more terrified she gets.

Josh is by her side every moment that he can, and she thinks the universe is playing a cosmic joke on her because the last thing she wants now is for him to be around when just weeks earlier (weeks or a year? She still can't get her timeline straight) she would have been cautiously optimistic about his staying for her.

Instead, every time she sees him she's hit with another wave of how wrong it all is.

Josh isn't the one who's supposed to be by her side. Castle is.

It drives her crazy and one day when the boys are visiting her she finally explodes.

"What the hell happened to Castle? I need to know!"

Ruan and Esposito exchange loaded glances and the sick feeling in her stomach grows until she's enveloped in the gaping maw of dread.

Finally, Esposito is the one to answer her. "Beckett, Castle went missing a week after you'd been shot."

Her head spins. "Missing? What do you mean missing?"

"He was working the case with us, ever since the doctors told us you were out of the critical stage. I think he wanted to stay with you, to be here when you woke up, but he also knew that that wasn't his place."

It is his place! It's only his place.

She bites her tongue so the words don't come spilling out. In this life…in this messed up version of reality, Josh is still her boyfriend.

Ryan picks up the thread from where Esposito left off. "Castle threw himself into investigating your case. We'd gotten nowhere with the forensics, but Castle came up with the idea to check the financials of Captain Montgomery, Raglan, and McAlister. He'd found the bank they used, but it'd closed down. We would have followed up on it, but then the new captain, Victoria 'Iron' Gates, shut down the investigation and kicked Castle out of the precinct."

She knows this. She knows all of this already. This is what happened in her reality. What she needs to know is what the hell changed?

"We gave the files to Castle so that Gates couldn't get to them, but instead of just holding it for us until we could reopen the case, Castle kept on investigating himself. Castle called us to tell us that he'd found the warehouse in Union City where the bank's files had been moved and that he was going to check it out. That was the last we heard from him."

Esposito's hands clench into white-knuckled fists. "Goddamn it! We shoulda known better than to think that he would stop investigating. We shoulda known."

His brown eyes are filled with anguish and another look that shatters her heart.

Apology. Apology because he didn't keep Castle safe on her behalf. Apology because he failed both Castle and her.

Oh God, Espo.

It hurts so much to dredge up a comforting smile for him, but she does it because Esposito is her teammate, her friend, her brother. "There's not a thing you could have done to stop him, even if you'd known, Javi."

They hold each other's gazes for a while, apology and forgiveness and gratitude and support swirling between them in a maelstrom of emotions that make them both glance away. Neither of them is particularly good with expressing the softer emotions, and it's enough to know that they are still who they've always been.

She takes a shuddering breath and exhales it slowly. "And there've been no leads? Nothing at all?"

Ryan shakes a weary head. "He didn't mention the name or write down the location of warehouse, only that it's in Union City. He didn't drive any of his cars, didn't call his car service, so he most likely called a cab, but we haven't found anything on the street cams around his place to see the plate number of the cab he used. His phone is missing, so it's a good bet that he brought it with him, but the GPS is turned off. Martha and Alexis have no ideas either. It's like every goddamn corner we turn, we hit a dead end!" Ryan finishes on a frustrated bellow.

Her head spins, the world a wildly rolling plane of turbulent waves.

It's been two weeks. Two weeks since Castle's gone missing when the chances of finding someone alive after the first forty-eight hours is drastically reduced.

Two weeks and they have nothing.

No. Kate refuses to believe in percentages.

Together, she and Castle have defied just about every possibility there is. She refuses that they'll be victim to mere numbers this time.

All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

"Good morning, beautiful."

His voice is a deliciously husky murmur against the shell of her ear, and a smile slips onto her face before she's even fully awake.

They're three months into their newly formed relationship, but every morning she still gets a thrill in her blood and a wild joy in her veins when she wakes up to the warmth of his large body cradling hers. She never would have thought it of herself, but she relishes the delicious weight of him over her, of the muscular heft of his arm around her.

She's always been self-reliant to a fault, but when she wakes up all wrapped up in him, she doesn't feel smothered. Instead, she just feels…secure. Safe. Loved and treasured.

Reminded that she has a right to happiness, no matter how hard the world works to throw her into despair.

She has him and her friends and her dad, and really, she has so much that she's taken for granted before.

Never again.

She thinks…her mother would never be prouder than she would be of these mornings when Kate wakes up delirious with joy and satisfaction.

This…is life. And she's finally learned to live it.

It surprises her to find that most mornings he wakes up before she does, even if he does just end up going back to sleep sometimes once she's left for work. When there's no dropped body, he comes in later in the morning to join her at the precinct.

He claims that it's because he relishes the opportunity to study how the soft morning light casts a radiant glow on her skin, but she knows that's only part of the reason.

The truth—whether he's acknowledged it to himself or not—is that he subconsciously forces his body to wake up before she does because he's still afraid that one morning, he'll come awake only to find that the past months have been nothing but a torturously sweet dream.

When she realized what insecurities and fears he hid beneath the fervent love he loves to show, it had bothered her at first. She wanted to do something—needed to do something to prove to him that this was it for her. That she was going all in and praying—knowing—that he would catch her.

But then she slowly realized that his mistrust is not because of her so much as he simply doesn't trust the world.

She resolves every morning anew that this beautiful dream of theirs will always be their reality.

She blinks open her eyes slowly and reaches over to brush the wayward locks of hair out of his face. So much tenderness there, she can scarcely take how it makes her heart swell to the point of bursting.

She leans in to plant a lingering kiss on his lips, morning breath be damned, and she feels the latent fear drain out his body even as a tension of a whole different sort takes over them both. She knocks him to his back—a satisfied grin spreading her lips wide when he lets out a desperate groan. She rises up above him, their hips aligned in that perfect symmetry, captures the half-spoken plea ("Kate, please") on his lips, and oh, she loves him.

She loves him so very much.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!

Her world is ended.

There's a flurry of movement all around her, voices yelling and machines blaring, but she stands enveloped in a bubble of blissful, tormenting silence.

The people behind her mother's murder have succeeded in breaking her at last, though the bullet that crushes her is not the one that pierced her own chest.

Her destruction is final the moment a chunk of lead fashioned by the hands of man to be a tool and used as a devil's instrument became the weapon that would snuff out his precious life.

Castle is dead, and now, so is she.

There is a certain poetry in her slow demise.

Time is a merciless entity that taunts her with each slow, ticking second, a hated reminder that life moves on even after her soul's been crushed. The earth does not stop its revolution around the sun and neither do the tides fail to maintain their perpetual push and pull according to the orbit of the moon.

Time doesn't care that everything is wrong, just so damn wrong. It doesn't care that she woke up from the most beautiful dream she could barely believe she'd imagined only to find herself living the nightmare she'd feared most.

It doesn't care.

So she learns from the world.

She learns that apathy is good.

Apathy will protect her.

Apathy will separate her from this world of deceit and false dreams.

Apathy will guard her heart from the sick truth that Castle is gone gone gone.

Apathy will shelter her within its cold, icy wings even as her shattered heart splinters and infects every piece of herself with bleak poison.

(Apathy does not help when she's alone in her bed in an isolated cabin in the woods and all she sees are the tears of joy that had leaked from his eyes the first time they'd joined together in that phantom reality that she wishes—oh she wishes—that she'd never woken up from. Never had to hear from the lips of her teammates, her family, that her heart is dead. Shot through the head execution-style and no one, not even he, can rewrite that ending.)

She builds a fortress around her heart, knowing all the while that it's pointless.

What good can there be of protecting a void in her soul?

Maddox did well. He effectively killed two people with one bullet.

His master would be proud.

O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?

He comes for her in broad daylight.

She refused police protection from the moment she checked out of the hospital, and she thinks that she subconsciously chose to recuperate in her dad's cabin for this very reason.

She's ready for death.

Ready to face it in isolation from all the people who she knows cares and worries for her.

So when Cole Maddox (or the man her other-self discovers to be Maddox) comes for her with gun in hand, she's ready for him.

"You killed Castle," she says.

"I did," he confirms. If he's surprised by the steadiness of her gaze or the burning nothing behind her eyes, he makes no sign of it.

"And you're here to kill me too."

He shrugs. "You're too persistent. You and the writer both. It's nothing personal."

"Of course not."

"You seem like a logical person. Will you struggle needlessly and make this more painful for yourself?"

"Struggle needlessly?" She shakes her head slowly. "No, not needlessly."

"For what it's worth, his death was quick and painless."

"I suppose I should thank you for that."

He aligns the barrel of his gun to her head and pulls the hammer back.

"Goodbye, Detective Beck—"

Bang!

Birds scatter, a sudden flurry of wings and animals screeching that rend through the calm mountain air.

Bang! Bang, bang!

Seconds turn to minutes as the unnatural stillness of prey and predators alike cower in silence, waiting on the thin edge of their instinctive fight or flight response to see if they are the next to be hunted.

Slowly, eventually, motion returns to the woods, the fear that held them captive for long, terrifying moments already wiped from the short memories of beasts.

Yet, in the midst of life returning, two bodies remain unmoving.

One whose expression is painted with shock and disbelief.

And one…one whose serene smile belies the pool of crimson blood pooling beneath her body.

She embraces the death that should have been hers from the start.

She rejoices in the knowledge that she took Death down with her.

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

She wakes up to the ticklish sensation of Castle's morning scruff chaffing against the sensitive skin of her neck.

She sucks in a breath, almost like a gasp of life returning, and the sharp sound startles him into immediate concern. She doesn't have nightmares often, not anymore, but there are still mornings when she wakes and feels the phantom bullet rattling in her chest.

"What's wrong?" he murmurs softly, a soothing hand brushing against the bare skin of her stomach.

She turns over to face him, lifting a hand to brush against his cheek. He's so very beautiful, this man. Years, she's had with him, and still, every day she's amazed that he's hers.

She smiles when she sees the contrast of the cool platinum of her wedding ring pressing against the dark stubbles of his morning scruff. His love for her astounds her, and she can't imagine a world without him.

"Nothing." She leans forward to feather a kiss across his lips. "Nothing but a dream."


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A/N: So which is the dream and which is reality? That's for you to decide. I have my own opinions and from an artistic perspective, there's only one fitting reality, but you, the reader, of course have the freedom to choose otherwise. ;)

Please let me know what you thought. Thanks!