Summary: He's had to scratch and claw for every inch. Post-Watershed.
Author's Note: Allow me to preface this by saying that this is absolutely NOT what I want to happen. And it's a bit different. But the idea popped into my head, so I challenged myself to write it.
Disclaimer: Not even a little bit.
Inch By Inch
She took the job.
He told her it didn't matter. That he'd go with her.
She told him she loved him, but that she couldn't ask him to leave behind his life, his family, on her behalf.
He begged and pleaded. They yelled and screamed and cried, eventually collapsing in a shattered, exhausted tangle on his sofa, one last time curled up in each other's arms, though the memory would be forever tarnished by the tears that soaked through the fabric of their clothing and the emptiness that filled their hearts with each passing moment.
She wasn't leaving for a week still, but he didn't want a lingering farewell. So he hugged her tightly, and she kissed him with tears in her eyes. He pressed the ring into her palm, a silent "it's yours," and "I love you," and "goodbye," all wrapped into one gesture.
And she left, walking out of the loft for the very last time, the future he'd always imagined for them vanishing right along with her.
He shut the door forcefully, sank down to the floor with his back against the cold metal and tears stinging his eyes. He was angry, heart-broken, so upset with her. He wanted to hate her. He wanted to remove her from his life completely, erase her from his memory. But he couldn't, because no matter how much he thought he wanted to forget, the memories were far too special to throw away. He'd remember. He'd always remember. And he'd always love her.
She regretted it.
Every single second since she'd walked out of the loft for the last time, she'd fiercely regretted her decision.
The job in DC should have been everything she'd ever wanted. A fantastic opportunity, incredible resources, the chance to make a difference on a national scale. It was challenging, and the hours were long, the work often grueling or tedious, but ultimately rewarding. A few years ago, it would have been exactly what she wanted in her life. The chance to fight for justice wholeheartedly, devoting her entire life to the cause.
Everything she'd ever dreamed of when she first joined the Academy.
But that wasn't the dream she should have followed. Wasn't the vision she should have allowed to guide her decision.
She was excelling in her new position, or so they said. Catching on quickly, already thinking outside of the box in assisting with the investigations. They saw big things for her, a chance to move up the ranks not too far into the future. She should be thrilled.
She was miserable.
Because every day, she sat at a desk with no old, ratty chair beside it. Elephants no longer lined the edge, and the nesting dolls no longer adorned the corner. She had no one specific partner, working instead with whomever most closely met the needs of each given task and investigation. They were nice enough, took a moderate interest in her life, in the small parts of it she was willing to share. But none of them ever took the time to make her smile and laugh and calm her down when the going got rough. When she was lost in her thoughts or stumped by the evidence, there was no one there who knew exactly what to say to help her see things in a different light. When they built theory, it lacked zest, no rapid back-and-forth, but instead calculated suggestions, well-thought out and never the least bit unreasonable.
When she wanted coffee, she had to make it herself.
The first week was the worst. Alexis was in Costa Rica, his mother busy preparing for the opening of her newest production, leaving Castle alone in the suffocating silence of the loft. It was so empty without her there, and though only a moderate amount of her belongings had been there to begin with, the space they left behind was vast and all-encompassing. Everywhere he looked, there were memories, so crystal clear and embedded so deeply that he couldn't suppress them.
Now that they were all he had left, he didn't want to. Instead, he clung to them like a lifeline, the ups and downs, the happiness, the smiles and laughs and love that suffused his every thought.
She was gone, but she was everywhere, the mark she'd left on his life and in his heart inimitable and irreplaceable.
He hardly slept that first night, tossing and turning for hours, giving in to slumber only when he could no longer stop it from pulling him under. He woke an hour later with the ghost of her touch on his skin and her taste on his tongue, the breathy pant of her moaning his name playing on an endless loop in his mind. Her scent lingered on his sheets, infusing his mind and body with the memories of the countless nights they shared.
He slept upstairs in the guest room for the next month.
When he finally dragged himself to the shower somewhere around day four, he used the upstairs bathroom as well, because using his own required him to walk through his bedroom, and because he was fairly certain he wouldn't be able to stand in the stall without picturing the way it felt when he'd press her against the wall, her long legs wrapped around his waist, hot water sluicing over her skin as he pounded into her again and again.
He existed on take-out, unable to open the refrigerator without seeing the food that lined the shelves, because they weren't officially living together, but the last time she'd gone shopping, it was to restock his fridge, not her own.
Somewhere around the end of the first week, though, the call for real food finally won out, and he forced himself to dress, shave, step back out into the world.
He made it as far as the foyer, eyes catching sight of the shiny silver object sitting on the table by the front door.
Her key to the loft.
He crawled back into bed fully clothed, tears in his eyes and his heart breaking apart in his chest.
She worked late most nights, no desire to head home to her empty apartment. It was a nice place, clean and quaint, and normally she enjoyed decorating her space, took pride in her home. But this wasn't home. She'd been practically living with Castle for so long that here, by herself, with no one to come home to and no masculine touches dashed across random shelves, would never be home.
The spread of furniture was basic, and half of her belongings were still in boxes in the corner of the living room. Castle's books were nearly the only ones on the bookshelf, the poster from Temptation Lane the sole thing decorating the wall of her bedroom. His picture was the background on her phone, and a shot of them that he'd randomly snapped one evening sat on her nightstand, simultaneously making her smile and bringing tears to her eyes.
The bracelet he gave her was now a permanent fixture on her body.
So was the ring.
She'd slid it onto her finger the night she arrived in DC, hadn't taken it off since, the diamonds a shimmering reminder of him, of the way he loved her. She missed him with every breath, and the ring was the one things she'd found that made her feel closer to him again. But it was also a brutal reminder all she left behind. At times it was too painful, too overwhelming, and she very nearly took it off more than once, hid it away. But she couldn't, because he'd wanted her to have it. The decision not to accept it at face value was hers, and now it was her pain to bear.
She still cried herself to sleep with her hands clutched to her chest, the token of his love the only thing holding her shattered heart together.
It took a call from Alexis to snap him out of his funk. His daughter was loving Costa Rica, learning so much and regaining the confidence that was so deeply shattered after Paris. She smiled and laughed, shared stories of her adventures, and when they finally disconnected, he realized he was smiling for the first time in two weeks.
He leaned back against his desk chair, reached out to minimize the Skype window, and that was when it caught his eye. The little desktop icon glaring out at him from the screen, taunting him, a miniature reminder of Kate, of everything that brought them together in the first place.
It was their story. The chapters that were due next week. The ones he hadn't so much as thought about since the night he found the boarding pass in her coat pocket and stormed angrily from her apartment.
Castle shook his head, forced the thoughts away. His daughter was doing well. His mother had stopped by last night, raving about things at the acting studio, how well it was going. He had his family, and they were reason enough to extract himself from the pit of grief and begin living again. It wouldn't be immediate, and there would always be a part of him that loved Kate Beckett.
But she left. And maybe it was time for him to start letting her go.
The first thing to go were the words, all the ones he should have said, all the ones he wishes he hadn't. He opened a new document on his laptop, and suddenly his fingers were flying across the keys, the words spilling out almost faster than he could type. Not Nikki Heat, though. No, this was his broken heart spread across the page, first anger, then pain, then deep-seated heartbreak.
But when he finished, he felt better. Lighter. Purged of all that he'd been holding in for the last two weeks.
Like he could live again.
The next thing to go was the food in the fridge, most of it long since spoiled anyway.
Then came the little things of hers that hadn't made it into the box of belongings that she carried from his loft three weeks ago. A half-empty bottle of shampoo in the shower, a lone sock in the corner of the closet, a hand-written to-do list on the bar. Various other items turned up throughout the first few weeks, always catching him off-guard, often reducing him almost to tears. Some he shoved to the floor in anger, others he clutched to his chest as memories came flooding back.
But all eventually found their way into the garbage.
Even after weeks of sleeping upstairs, her scent still lingered on his sheets, in the blankets and pillows, and it took multiple washes before the last traces of her were gone, but when he finally climbed back into his own bed, it smelled only of fabric softener.
The photos of her on his phone were eventually gobbled up by the erase button, her number following not long after, though he still knew it by heart. He'd probably never forget it.
Weeks turned to months, and though Kate gradually grew closer with a few of her colleagues, slowly began to miss New York less and less, she still clung to every vestige of Castle she possessed. She re-read his entire collection of books, spent long minutes gazing at photos of them before falling into a restless fit of sleep, dreams of him, of them, filling her mind.
More than once, she considered quitting, packing up her meager apartment and moving back to New York. She knew her dad would let her stay while she got back on her feet, and the NYPD would probably take her back, at least at some capacity. But she wouldn't be with her old team, and even if she were, she didn't imagine they'd be all that welcoming.
But mostly, she wouldn't have Castle. Because though every part of her wanted to call him, wanted to show up on his doorstep and beg and scream and cry, just like he'd done when she'd left, she knew she didn't deserve it. She chose to walk away. She was the one to break his heart.
And she didn't deserve to be given another chance.
So she stayed.
When Alexis returned, they spent the rest of the summer exploring the city, reinstating old traditions and making new ones. They started with more neutral territory, gradually spreading into places he'd gone with Kate, new memories to cover up the old. They even made it up to the Hamptons in August, and though the house was laced with memories of her, of them, having his mother and daughter there kept the recollections at bay.
Summer turned to fall and though he'd managed to rejoin the ranks of society, the deadline for his book had long since passed, not a sentence written in months. Gina had gone easy at first, but now the emails and calls were endless. He'd had four months to come to grips with it, to regain his footing. Now it was time.
He wrote late into the night for weeks, falling asleep at his desk more than once. But he wrote it all out on the page, everything they were, everything he'd hoped they could be.
If they couldn't have their happy ending, at least Nikki and Rook and his readers could have theirs.
By the time he was wrapping up the final chapter, the heart-wrenching pain and anger were gone, replaced instead by a dull ache. It came and went, some days worse than others, but he was doing it. Slowly but surely, he was moving on.
It wasn't easy, and he still missed her. Still occasionally woke in the middle of the night gasping her name as vivid images floated through his sleep-addled mind, so real, so intense. Five years of memories, of friendship and love, would take time to erase. The reminiscences filled every corner of his mind, brought to the surface often by the most mundane of things.
But those too faded with the passage of time, until the words on the pages of the final Nikki Heat novel were sharper than his hazy recollections.
His final message to her was the dedication, and despite it all, there was no doubt in his mind as to what it would be. He was letting her go, moving on to the next chapter. Everything he'd wanted for them to be was played out instead by Nikki and Rook, and it wasn't even close to the same, but it was the best he could do. And yet, no words could ever fully capture the woman he'd loved. And nothing would ever fill the space she'd had in his life and in his heart. That was hers, and hers alone.
He'd made her a promise. And regardless of what happened between them, he intended to keep it.
She went out and bought the book the night it went on sale, clinging to it like a lifeline on the way home, what were most certainly the last adventures of her alter-ego. And it should have been a comfort, because they were his words, and they'd always been what she'd turned to in times of sadness and pain. But this time, they only served as a reminder of all she destroyed.
She'd seen the news, knew he was seeing someone now. It had only been a couple months, and from the looks of it, it wasn't all that serious. Nevertheless, she dreaded the moment she finally sat down to read Lasting Heat, fearing what she would find amongst its pages.
And what she wouldn't.
She laid curled up in bed for nearly half an hour, the novel clutched in her grip, agonizing over the dedication, whether she should even bother to read it. She didn't deserve his words, and it hurt to know that another person's initials would be staring up at her from the inside cover. She should just flip right past it.
But she had to know.
With tears in her eyes, she finally cracked the binding, and when her eyes fell upon the page, her heart nearly stopped in her chest. Because those words...his words...were for her.
She didn't deserve them. She never would. But they were there, inked onto the page, and she traced them on a never-ending loop with her fingertip, tears spilling from her eyes, a single droplet landing on the page. The water spread out, dried, staining the paper, but she didn't bother to wipe it clean. Because in that moment, it was all so clear.
He'd moved on, from Nikki and from her. But somewhere, deep down inside, she now knew that despite her mistakes, despite the fact that she'd broken his heart, some part of him still loved her as much as she loved him.
He'd never stop.
To Kate. Always.