A/N - Ladies and Gentlemen, Nik47 is the sweetiest beta out there. *hands off, she's mine!*


RULES OF ENGAGEMENT


Chapter 2


There's commotion in the apartment now, sounds of scuffling feet, then all hell breaks loose. Shouts ring out, and panicked residents slam their doors shut behind themselves as they dash for safety. Ryan is shouting at her now, along with Esposito, but she can't hear them, can't distinguish the words, can't comprehend what they're trying to tell her. The only thing she's focused on is Castle's unmoving body on the ground, mere feet in front of her, just out of reach. She can't breathe, can't shift, can't peel her eyes from the horrific sight before her, even as Esposito hurls himself to his feet and runs into the still-open apartment, chasing after the shooter. Ryan's already calling for backup and an ambulance – "Send one immediately, we've got an officer down!"His gun's drawn, his eyes closely scanning the corridor, securing it visually before making any sort of move from his position.

Finally, Kate's instincts propel her into action, too, help her to unglue her feet, unfolding her suddenly leaden body from the ground. She can't stand, can't bring her legs to obey the command relays from her brain to rise and lock upright – Oh God, Castle. Castle, Castle, Castle… – and she falls almost immediately back down to all fours, panic forcing her forward, her hands and knees moving almost independently of her thoughts as she crawls across the remaining space separating her from Castle's still body.

Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.

Her hands shake terribly as she lowers her gun to the ground next to his side, her eyes huge at the sight of a double set of still-smoking holes gaping in the fabric covering his chest, along with another one in the area of his stomach. Her heart is pounding beneath her ribcage, her lungs burning with a severe lack of oxygen, and she's hiccupping as she tries to breathe, but she still can't, she can't, and oh God, Castle. She can't breathe.

Only then does her brain catch up, and she realizes – Thank you, thank you, God – he's wearing the vest. His Writer vest – his sweet, beloved, wonderful, life-saving Writer vest. It doesn't completely ease her mind, not even close, but it takes off the very edge of her panic and inner anguish, because he's been shot – God, he's been shot – three times in the chest at nearly point blank range. He's still out cold and there's no way of knowing for sure whether he'll be alright or not, but he was wearing his vest and if it worked, if it stopped those bullets, then it probably just saved his life.

She sinks to her knees at his side, bending over his unnaturally still, crumpled body.

Please, be alright, please, Rick, just be okay.

He still hasn't moved, and even as her trembling hands skim his sides, a feather-light touch, her stomach is nauseated at the sight and feel of his lifeless form beneath her fingertips, the sharp smell of burnt Kevlar adding to her queasiness.

"Castle," she calls, croaks really, her voice feeble, eyes already filled with tears. "Castle," she rasps again, barely above a whisper as her lungs constrict, panic and fear gripping her, stalling the empty air in her lungs.

She throws a desperate, pleading look at Ryan over her shoulder as she cradles Castles limp body to her own, his head lolling from side to side in her lap. Help me, please, somebody help me, her look beseeches. Find a way to help me, help him. But all she can see reflected in her colleague's eyes is her own helpless despair. Her hand comes to rest against the side of Rick's face, a tear sliding down her cheek. She's not Beckett right now, she's Kate, and she has no idea what to do, no idea what happens next, what words or actions are required. She's terrified, frozen in fear, unable to do anything but kneel on the ground at his side, her fingers caressing his cheeks and combing through his hair over and over and over again. This is Castle, her Castle, and he's just been shot.

It takes a couple of agonizingly long minutes – or maybe it's just seconds? – before there's finally a cough, a groan, a stilted inhalation, and then Castle begins to stir.

Oh thank God, thank God, thank God.

"Rick," she calls his name in a whisper, tries not to jostle him too much, even as her shaky hands firmly grasp his face. She can breathe again, Kate suddenly realizes, she can breathe again. Her lungs finally expand, taking in huge amounts of air, her heart hammering painfully away in her chest as she waits for him to respond, to finally open his eyes.

And he does. His lashes flutter open to reveal the impossible blue of his irises, an ocean filled with pain and confusion, but at least he's alive, alive and conscious. It's enough for now. It's so much more than enough for now.

His eyes narrow, his vision blurring in and out of focus before his gaze finally sharpens in on her, and she sees it, recognizes the shift and gives him a tremulous smile, open and wide even through her tears.

"Hey, Castle," she whispers, her voice gentle.

He takes a moment, regarding her steadily for a beat before a loud groan escapes his lips, his eyes falling shut.

"Ooooooooouch!" he moans, the tiniest pout gracing his lips.

She barks out a laugh, can't help herself. The contraction of her muscles jostles his body, obviously causing him pain, and she stops before she even really starts, but her reaction is involuntary, more hysterical than humorous – an automatic response to his voice, his presence, his life. He's still with her.

"Lie still," she instructs, infusing her voice with as soothing a murmur as she can manage as her hands skim across his sides and chest, fingers gliding over the vest. "The ambulance is already on its way."

He blinks at her, in either agreement or confusion, she can't be sure, then tries to send her a small, reassuring smile. He fails miserably, his face contorting in pain, another agonized moan escaping his lips.

She goes as still as possible, freezing her position, not wanting to add any further to his discomfort. His head is resting across her thighs, one of her hands cradling it in support and the other resting lightly over his heart, the gesture both reassuring and familiar at the same time. She can't feel his heart, though, can't feel its beat, and she tries not to panic at that, understanding rationally that it's just due to the thickness of the vest. Still, she can't help but wish that she could feel it, feel the steady thrum of it beneath her fingers, the warm cadence keeping time with her own.

"Don't move, Castle," she urges in warning, feeling him squirm under her palm as he tries to get some leverage. He's obviously still confused, still slightly out of it. The overwhelming force of the impact must have really done a number on him, shocking and short-circuiting his system, his ability to actually process what's happening.

"What hurts?" she inquires as her fingers unsuccessfully attempt to gently probe his torso through the vest before returning back to his face, beaten by the inability to do any kind of assessment through the thick material. But at least she can stroke his cheek, maintaining some sort physical contact. She's surprised at the apparent calmness in her voice. Inside she's trembling, shaking with adrenaline at seeing him shot right before her eyes, and it's almost impossible to concentrating her jittery mind on anything but the vision of Castle's limp body sliding down the wall, along with the sound of her own hammering heart as she watched it happen.

He doesn't answer her question immediately, obviously mulling it over, taking stock of his injuries as he tries to squirm again beneath her firm grip.

"Everything," he wheezes out at last, eyes squeezed shut, his head still lolling in her lap. "Chest and stomach, mostly," he manages to rasp through tightly compressed lips, his focus narrowing down to those parts of his body that thrum with the most intensive pain. He's slowly growing more alert, and Kate can feel his agitation increasing as well.

"I know, I know," she murmurs soothingly, trying to calm him with the tone of her voice as well as her proximity, her own shaky fingers combing through the softness of his hair over and over again. "Just lie still and try to relax, okay? I've got you. Help will be here soon."

She turns to Ryan, raising her eyebrows at him in question, demanding a positive affirmation of her statement. He's on the phone, but nods at her, mouthing 'five minutes' before speaking aloud to the person on the other end of the line. She turns her head back to Castle, her eyes roaming over his frame, wishing there was a way for her to see his injuries for herself, make sure somehow that he'll really be alright.

"What the hell-" Castle starts, taking in a gasp of air before he can continue, wincing in pain as he does, "-happened?" She doesn't like the way he wheezes when he breathes, the way he's unable to inhale properly, his face clammy and bloodless.

"You were shot," she tells him evenly, forcing his body down again as he jerks up in surprise. "Shhh," she soothes. "Just lie still and don't move. It won't be much longer and help will be here, but you have to relax," she urges him in a gentle yet stern command.

He's becoming more and more restless, frustration increasing along with his state of awareness, slight traces of panic beginning to infuse his features. It's a look Kate doesn't like. He's already having trouble breathing, and she doesn't want him to add fear to the mix as well. Her attempts to calm him down are unsuccessful, though. He continues to writhe in her arms, agonized groans escaping his lips as pain visibly racks his limp frame.

"Can't…can't…" he rasps, gasping for air. His face is growing considerably paler and sweatier by the minute and Kate's chest constricts in alarm and dismay.

"Can't…breathe…well," he manages at last.

Dread grips her insides again, blood roaring in her ears, deafening her to anything else but his needy gasps. He must see it, in her eyes, the panic, for he somehow manages to seek out her hand, squeezing it tightly to get her attention. The surprising contact does it, anchors them both. Noticing her anxiety seems to make him want to quell down his own fear somehow.

"Can you...can you pull it…off of me?" he pleads. "Just get it off. Please. Can't breathe..."

Pull it off? Oh, the vest.

Its weight must feel crushing on his tender ribs, his aching chest and abused lungs. She hesitates, takes a split second to consider whether she's even allowed to do it herself or whether she should wait for the EMTs.

"Please, Kate. Just…just get it off of me."

She does. God help her, but she can't not do anything when he's pleading with her like that, helpless and teary and hurt. She just hopes she's not doing more harm than good through her actions, a thought which nearly terrifies her into immobility, even as her jittery fingers tear at the Velcro straps on both sides of his waist. She makes sure they're completely loose before carefully slipping her hands between his shirt and the underside of the vest, gently tugging and pulling it up, up and over his head.

And it's smooth right up until the last moment, when there's a slight resistance at the bottom of the vest, near his naval, causing his hips to jerk sharply, his torso following the upward pull of her hands as his upper body curls in on itself. A scream of pain rips from his throat, the agonizing sound filling the corridor. She nearly drops the vest back down on his chest, her eyes blurring with tears, but the resistance, whatever it was, has finally disappeared, so she quickly pulls the remaining length of vest up and finally over his head, letting it drop to the ground behind him with a heavy thud, the back side of the Kevlar still trapped between his shoulders and the ground.

Her eyes quickly seek out his face again through the tears – his lids are squeezed tightly shut in pain, his teeth gritting as he tries to breathe through it – then trace lower over his body, to his injured chest, her unsteady fingers following along in the wake of her gaze, intently studying the dark blue fabric of his shirt.

There don't seem to be any injuries to his chest, no apparent ones anyway, and there aren't any visible tears in the soft material. But then her eyes fall lower, to his stomach, and she gasps. There's a hole in the shirt, high up on his abdomen, and there's blood. Oh God, there's blood. Not too much, but enough to let her know the Kevlar didn't hold against the force of the last bullet.

"God, you're shot," she breathes out, the sheer shock of it somewhat dampening the surge of horror she knows she should be feeling right now. She's thrown off even further when he seems to find this amusing, choking out a bark of laughter that quickly transforms into a fit of painful coughing.

"Thought…thought we'd already established that," he chokes out in a hoarse, feeble voice, smirking despite the pain and his obvious discomfort.

"Stop it!" she growls, her tone harsh and unforgiving, even as her voice wavers slightly. "It's not funny, Castle."

"Well," he rasps, "it's a little…funny."

She shakes her head wordlessly, biting her lip furiously to hold back a new wave of tears. She's finally cracking, opening up at the seams, her emotions spilling through, flooding over her tough exterior. Because for Christ's sake, her boyfriend's just been shot, right in front of her eyes, and she can't find a single fucking thing amusing about it. She wants to cry, she wants to shout, wants to hit something hard, inflict pain, she wants to crawl all over him and hide in the crook of his neck, pretend this never happened, but she can't do any of those things and it's tearing her apart.

He must see it, too, the despair in her eyes, the suppressed fury, because he grows more somber at once. "Hey," he calls to her softly. "Hey, Kate, I'm fine. I'm…I'm okay. Just gimme a minute or two and…I'll be just fine. I'm fine," he keeps reassuring her, over and over again, but his eyes are slipping shut more often than not, and that awful wheezing sound escaping his chest grows harsher with each new labored breath he takes.

He's not fine. Not even close. There's a gaping hole in his stomach, fresh blood staining the fabric of his shirt dark crimson even as they speak. Another tear slips down her cheek, her fingers momentarily leaving his jaw to quickly wipe at her face.

"Just hold on," she urges, pressing a soft kiss to his forehead.

Please, let him be alright.

Suddenly there's a commotion behind her in the corridor, and she hears Ryan calling out then talking to someone, giving a rapid-fire explanation of what happened –paramedics, finally! – but she can't tear her eyes away from Castle, her hand squeezing his, hard, never letting go.

'I love you' he mouths silently, and she shakes her head at him sharply, hurt and furious at him for the gesture, refusing the sentiment, because it smacks of some sort of finality, some sort of goodbye. 'Later' she mouths back, her eyes flashing with anger even as fresh tears slip past her eyelids and down her cheeks.

"Ma'am, we'll need you to step away," a professional voice commands from behind her.

She doesn't budge at first, doesn't want to let go of him. But then Ryan is there, his hand on her shoulder, reassuring her, asking her silently to let the paramedics do their job, and finally she does let go, stepping away to make room for the sudden flood of medical personnel which surrounds Castle, blocking him completely from her sight.