Once Upon a Time

The voice in her head is clear, familiar, comforting with every rise and fall in cadence. It makes her feel safe, secure. It makes her forget who she is now and remember who she was. The person she might have grown up to be.

“Once upon a time, there was a princess with long blonde hair, a cheery smile, and a good heart. She lived in a magical kingdom bordered by tall mountains, a deep forest, and a large ocean…” Kate closes the photo album, the memory fading away along with it. She swallows hard, running her thumb over its front. The year on the leather cover reads 1990, when she was nine. Her mother loved to read her fairytales even beyond her princess-years, and this one was their favorite. Johanna didn’t read it from a book, and Kate doesn’t know where it originally came from. She simply told it to her, each time changing the plot and the ending but always beginning the same, with those two lines, now irrevocably burned into Kate’s memory. It could be the tale of valiant fights with dragons or saving a beggar woman from a life of hunger. Sometimes it had a dashing young prince, sometimes not. But without exception, the princess always found in herself enough strength to overcome the obstacles, whatever they may be. It went along with her mother’s saying, “Life never delivers anything we can’t handle.”

When Kate turned thirteen, she declared herself too old for fairytales and delved instead into first fantasy novels, then comic books, and finally in her late teens mystery novels. She regrets that so much now. She regrets that she stopped listening to her mother’s stories. She wishes she would have kept going, not pushed to grow up so fast. As a child, that’s all she wanted to be. Grown up. Now, there’s nothing she wouldn’t give to be back there again.

Kate carefully places the album back in the box with the others. She doesn’t know why she opened it at all. She puts the lid back on the box and drapes a folded blanket over it, probably heavier an item than she’s supposed to be lifting. Castle’s banging pots and pans in the kitchen and her father’s out shopping. She doesn’t know what she’s supposed to be doing. Nothing, she guesses. She wishes they would give her something, a task, something to occupy her time. Since returning home seven hours ago, all she’s done is eat and rest.

Now she’s sitting cross-legged on the floor simply exploring the items in her living room. The TV and the books on her shelf hold no interest for her at this moment, and neither does she want to continue looking at photo albums. Yesterday she had been anxious to be released from the hospital. Today she realizes there’s little difference between here and there.

What had she been expecting? To arrive home and miraculously be fit for duty once again? The indignity of it all is crushing, exacerbated by Castle and her father’s presence. She can’t walk more than from one room to the next one over. Getting up from the couch is two-and-a-half minute process and her chest is constantly on fire. She knows she should’ve taken pain medicine an hour ago, but it’s in the kitchen and she can’t even get herself up off the carpet.

All she has to do is ask. One word from her and Castle will come running, help her up, get her whatever she needs. The same with her father. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t want to be dependent on them for anything, and she hates that she is. She can see the worry that creases her father’s forehead every time he looks at her, and the concern in Castle’s eyes makes her want to scream and hit something. Her every request for help, wince of pain, and sigh of tiredness tears down her reputation a little bit more, a reputation she’s been building for thirteen years. She’s supposed to be the strong one. She’s supposed to power through, even when others have given up. She’s supposed to be independent.

Ever since Johanna’s death, this is who she has molded herself into. She built her wall inside and shaped her appearance and actions so that she was the beacon of hope and fortitude for everyone else around. She set aside her own feelings, her own grief, to take care of her father. She buried them deep inside, behind that impenetrable wall. She pulled herself together for him, sharpened her mind and stoked her determination so that she could be whole once again. So that she could support him, he who was broken. She stuffed every feeling that didn’t align with her goal behind that wall, building it up and enforcing it with a steel willpower. She conditioned her mind to think that way and she let go of what let her be carefree and what let her believe in the magical or the impossible. There was no room for such frivolous nonsense. It wasn’t until she was made Detective that she realized the wall was truly impenetrable, just like she wanted—except it was impenetrable to her, too. She realized she had trapped herself inside with those feelings, her thoroughness leaving no possible escape.

And then Castle came along. When they had first met, he read her so easily… She had hated him then. But not just because he was a humongous jackass, because he found the cracks in her armor, cracks she didn’t even know existed. And he wasn’t just content to find them, he had to peek inside, burrow himself there, widen them and threaten to let the entire world in. She couldn’t have that. That wall was all she had to hold onto, the thing keeping her grounded. That wall was who she had become, and without it she was far too vulnerable. She scratched and clawed to keep it intact, but no matter what she did he slowly wormed his way inside.

So here he is now, wedged in the largest crack at all. He’s got a hand inside and is firmly planted there. Shoving him out completely is the easiest option, but she’s gotten addicted to him pushing her buttons. A small part of her longs for him to finally break it down, but the thought terrifies her. She doesn’t want to open herself up to hurt like what she has felt before.

For all of her tough act, inside it is truly fear that rules her. And she can’t ask for help because she fears he’ll see that. Like he saw her so clearly when they first met.

Castle frowns, listening intently. Nothing. He hasn’t heard so much as a peep from her since he started cooking, and it worries him. But as much as he wants to go out there and check on her, he thinks his babysitter-ness will be entirely unwelcome. Luckily, dinner is almost done anyway.

He finishes chopping the last tomato with a flourish and dumps the whole lot into the pot of angel hair pasta. Though the water has been strained out, steam rises in wisps from the mixture. After stirring it thoroughly, he serves it onto three plates and leaves the rest on the stove. Carrying the plates to the small dining table, he hears the front door close and a moment later Jim comes in with bags of groceries. The pasta, olive oil, and salt they had found in her cupboard and the tomatoes and garlic Castle had brought over were fine for one meal, but Kate didn’t keep much else around.

Jim nods in appreciation of the smell and the colorful look of the dish. “I’ll get Katie.” Castle agrees and systematically opens the drawers in search of forks. He’s yet to get used to the organizational structure of her sparse kitchen. He sets everything on the table and sits down. After another few seconds, Kate appears, treading slowly but determinedly to the table and sinking down into the chair next to him. He wishes she would just use the wheelchair, but nothing he or Jim has said will convince her to do that. Her father sits on her other side.

Reaching for his fork, Castle is stopped suddenly as Jim says grace and Kate says it softly with him. He sits silently until they finish, not knowing the prayer and a little unsure how to proceed. Martha had never raised him to pray before meals; religion didn’t play a big role in his life at all. He doesn’t assert the notion that there is not a God, but he doesn’t put faith into it either. It surprises him for some reason that Jim is religious, if only because that would mean Kate was raised that way as well. Even in the many instances in which they thought they were about to die, he has never seen her pray.

The three of them dig in, Kate complimenting the food and Jim making small talk. During a lull in the conversation, Jim sets his fork down. “Katie, there’s something I have to tell you.”

She looks at him, confused, setting hers down with a clink as well. “What is it, Dad?”

“I got a call while I was out. They want me back to work tomorrow, six a.m.” Kate masks her thoughts by looking down at her plate, and Castle’s happiness that they’ll be alone together is quickly replaced by apprehension. He’d been counting on Jim as a buffer for at least the first week, but now it will just be the two of them. A bit of a daunting prospect.

“That’s okay, Dad,” she says, giving him a small smile. “I’ll be fine here with Castle.”

Jim nods. “I’m sorry, Katie.”

After dinner Jim washes the dishes and Castle squares away the leftovers into the fridge—another meal’s worth, now that it’s just the two of them. Kate excuses herself for bed and kisses her father both goodnight and goodbye, leaving the two men in the kitchen together. “Leaving soon?” Castle asks as Jim dries his hands on the towel.

“In a little while,” Jim says, sitting back down at the table. “I don’t want to go just yet.” Castle nods and sits down across from him. “So, what are you going to do all this time while you’re staying here? It was very generous of you to offer.”

“I don’t really know,” Castle shrugs.

“She won’t like it if you hover,” Jim warns him, and Castle laughs.

“I know. On our third-or-so case together, she yelled at me for watching her do paperwork. Said it was creepy.”

Jim laughs. “Why were you watching her? She tells me you usually leave for the boring parts of her job.”

“My last Derrick Storm book, Storm Fall, was coming out that day.”

“So you were hiding.” Jim, Castle reflects, is as acute as Beckett had been on that day.

“Well…sort of.” Castle shifts in his seat.

“I read your latest book the other day—” Jim looks slightly amused.

“Oh, what’d you think?” Castle cuts in.

Jim continues in the same tone. “—Naked Heat.” He looks at Castle shrewdly.

“Oh.” Castle makes the connection and scrambles to explain himself. “Though…though my books are...are grounded in reality, a lot of uh, the aspects of them are actually just pure fantasy.” Jim narrows his eyes, and Castle backtracks. “Not my…not my personal fantasies. Just out of my imagination.” He squirms in his seat as Jim Beckett gives him a third look. “Not that I’m imagining that all the time! I’m…I just…I’m not doing a very good job of explaining myself.”

Jim’s mouth curves upward in the slightest hint of a smile, a twinkle in his eyes. “I think you’re doing fine, Rick. But seeing as I am leaving her incapacitated in your care, I would know your intentions.” Jim affixes him with a firm, unblinking gaze.

“Help her get better,” Castle answers readily. “Be a friend. Take care of her until she can do that herself.”

“And after that?”

Now Castle looks down. “After that, we’ll see what happens.”

Jim nods like this is an acceptable answer. “Be careful with her, Rick. No one was more surprised than I when she accepted your offer to stay here. It’s not like her, and even getting shot can’t change someone that much, that quickly. Even though she’s made a move to let you in, she’ll try to hide it from you. Her pain. Her misery.”

“Why?” Castle asks. He desperately wants to know the answer, to figure Kate out. If anyone can, it’s probably her father.

“Only she can answer that,” Jim nods gravely. “This is your chance, Rick. This is her chance. You’re the only one who can draw her out despite her kicking and clawing to stay hidden. So do it.” Castle’s brow creases as he takes in Jim’s words. “I should be going. I’ll be in touch.” Jim grabs his coat off the rack and opens the front door, Castle trailing him like a puppy. “Oh, and Rick?” He turns back, steely eyes reminiscent of Beckett’s in the interrogation room. “Break her heart, and Esposito and Ryan will have a new murder to solve before the next morning.”

“Duly noted,” Castle smiles. Jim Beckett shuts the door behind him with a click and Castle locks it. He arranges the pillows and blankets on the couch and gets ready for bed. No sounds come from Kate’s room, so she must already be asleep. He perches on the edge of the couch and withdraws his phone from his pocket.

“Hey Alexis,” he says.

“Hi, Dad!” She’s obviously excited—and maybe a little surprised—to receive his call. “How’s Detective Beckett? Did she get out of the hospital okay?”

“Yeah, she’s home now,” Castle smiles. “How was your day?”

He can imagine her grinning on the other end. “Well, any day that starts with smiley-face pancakes is bound to be a good one. Gram insisted I invite Ashley over and she vacated the loft for us. We spent the entire day watching movies from your zombie apocalypse shelf. And—” She pauses for dramatic emphasis. “—he doesn’t use me as a human shield against the zombies like you do.”

“Survival instincts are evolutionary,” Castle argues. “I can’t help that I’m more evolved than him.”

“Sure, Dad. Keep telling yourself that,” Alexis laughs.

“Okay, well, I’m glad you had fun,” Castle says. “I’ll let you get to sleep now. Wait. Are you ever going to tell me what happened during those few days you and Ashley weren’t speaking?”

“I’m sorry, Dad, but it’s a family matter. Ashley asked me not to tell anyone.” She sounds sincerely apologetic.

“Nah, it’s fine. Goodnight, sweetheart.”

“Night, Dad! Love you!” He places his phone back in his pocket and settles back onto the couch, pulling the blankets up over his body. For a couch, the sofa is surprisingly comfy. So he doesn’t know what it is that wakes him up in the middle of the night. But as he waits patiently for sleep to claim him again, he hears a faint sound in the darkness. He sits up, attuning his ears to it. Crying. Soft crying.

He slips off the couch and pads down the hallway, coming to a stop outside Kate’s bedroom door. It’s definitely coming from inside. He places his hand gently on the door handle.

Then he twists it and opens the door.

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