Physical therapy is hell. Standing up is hell. She had been fighting the wheelchair idea on the way to her session, but now she’s not complaining anymore. Far from it.
Even with a bar to haul herself up on, more than ten seconds on her feet caused her head to grow dizzy and that wasn’t even trying to walk yet. Never in her life has she been so tired and so weak. Her mental and physical discipline is gone; she’s back to dwelling on the fact that Castle’s not here to take her hand and tell her she’s still beautiful. Tremors run up her hands and her legs won’t stop shaking. The nurse helps her back into bed, and she can’t even tell Jim how it went before she’s asleep. The doctor had been right. Her body wasn’t ready to take that much strain. Not by a long shot.
Castle walks out of the elevator to find himself face to face with everyday life. He doesn’t know what he expected at the precinct—just something that recognized Beckett’s absence a little more. Everywhere there is a bustle of activity. As he approaches her desk, he sees that it’s been cleared and cleaned. The only thing left of her is her lonely name plaque. At least there’s not another detective sitting at her desk, he thinks.
“Hey, bro,” someone says from behind. Castle turns to greet Esposito with Ryan following close behind. “Where you been?”
“Writing,” Castle lies with a smile. His go-to answer.
Ryan’s expression changes to one of panic as he looks over Castle’s shoulder. “Quick, get over here before Gates sees you.” He tugs Castle over to their desks, pulling up a chair for him. Castle spots a newspaper sitting open on Ryan’s and picks it up. “Nice article, by the way,” Ryan eyes him.
Esposito snatches up the paper to read it for himself and then whistles. “You and Josh lit on each other?”
“Yeah…” Castle says in a mock-apologetic voice. He regrets nothing regarding hitting Josh. “Listen, don’t tell Beckett.”
“Well, I dunno…” Ryan ponders, taking the paper from his partner and neatly folding it up. “It kinda seems like something she should know about.”
Esposito’s eyes narrow. “Ferrari for a week.”
Ryan dumps a couple of manila case files on top of the newspaper, settling the matter. “So, we got a lead on the sniper—”
“What is going on here?” A short, dark-skinned woman with glasses and a no-nonsense attitude is striding toward them, exuding her displeasure and blatant disapproval with every step. “Detective Ryan, are you about to leak information about an ongoing investigation to a civilian?”
Esposito swears under his breath. “Captain Gates, this is Richard Castle. He was Detective Beckett’s partner.”
Gates appraises Castle for a millisecond with hawk eyes and then asks, “Detective Beckett is currently on medical leave. What is he doing here?”
“I wanted to help with the case,” Castle interjects. Ryan shakes his head aggressively behind Gates’s back.
“I don’t know what kind of shop Roy Montgomery was running here, Mr. Castle, but there is no room for untrained writers on the side. You need to leave. Detectives Ryan and Esposito, get back to work. One of our own has been shot, and no one gets away with shooting a police officer. Do you understand me?”
“With all due respect sir,” Ryan begins, “Castle has worked with the NYPD for three years; he can handle himself. He’s actually helped solve a lot of murders already—we could use the extra eyes for this.”
“You will have all the resources of the NYPD at your disposal, but I will not allow a civilian to be caught in the crosshairs. Go home, Mr. Castle.”
“We won’t let him get hurt, Captain,” Esposito says.
“I’ve already signed my life away in a waiver from three years ago,” Castle adds helpfully.
“The homicide division is a community, a family,” Ryan continues in his most persuasive voice. “Castle’s been part of this community for three years. He’s one of us.”
Castle raises his right palm. “I promise I’ll stay out of your way. You won’t even know I’m here.”
“Uh huh,” Gates says slowly, glaring at Castle from over the rims of her glasses. “All right, but for this one case only.”
“Quiet as a mouse.” Gates gives him another unfriendly stare before stalking away. Castle turns to Ryan and Esposito. “So, you were saying about leads?”
Ryan waits until Gates is back in her office before answering. “Seeing as we can’t investigate McCallister, Raglan, and Montgomery in the precinct without Gates opening up a full investigation, not much. We recovered the sniper rifle from the crime scene, but, unfortunately, no prints. Lab ran a trace for DNA and came up with nothing, but we’ve asked them to run it again.”
“Why? Did they miss something?”
“No, not that we know of. But we just want to be sure,” Esposito answers. “As for the gun itself, according to the DOD the serial number matches a weapon that was issued to one Martin Holst, a Navy Seal that was killed in action seven years ago. His body was recovered in a subsequent mission but the weapon was not.”
“What about the shooter? The cemetery was a sea of cops; how did he go unnoticed?” Castle has so many questions spinning through his brain that he thinks it might burst.
“Dogs picked up a scent and traced it to the west side of the cemetery, but they lost it there.” Ryan looks decidedly unhappy. “He may not have gone unnoticed at all; half the guys we talked to remembered seeing a groundskeeper taking cover from the shooter behind a tree. But according to the grounds staff, none of them were there.”
“He blended in during the chaos and then disappeared,” Esposito agrees. “Right now we’re pretty much stuck; we’ve got no more—”
Castle’s cell phone rings and the author makes a dive in his pocket for it, scrambling to accept her call before it goes to voicemail. But it’s not Kate. It’s a blocked number. “Castle.”
“We need to talk, so listen carefully,” says the voice on the other end. It is deep and gravelly, and unmistakably male.
“Who is this?” Castle cuts in.
“It doesn’t matter who I am. All you need to know is that to keep Detective Beckett safe, you must to prevent her from investigating any more of her mother’s case.”
“What? How do you know about that? How do you know about any of this?”
“I was a friend of Montgomery’s back in the day. I owe him my life, and in return, I’ll do this favor for him. Before he died, Montgomery sent me some files that, if released to the public, will hurt some very powerful people. He was using them as a threat to keep his family and Detective Beckett safe.”
“Then why was she shot?”
“Unfortunately, he underestimated the interlude between his death and the day I received the package. I assure you that Detective Beckett will not be harmed now, on one condition: she must not go near the case. Otherwise I cannot guarantee her safety.”
“How do I know I can trust you?”
“Do you have a choice?” The man lets those words hang there for a second, then continues. “I will tell you this: even you, with all your contacts and resources, could not stand up to these people. This file is the only way she will ever know peace again.”
“Okay,” Castle says finally. “I understand. How do I get in contact with you, if I need your help?”
“You don’t.” There’s a click and the man is gone, like he never even existed. Except for the fact that Ryan and Esposito are staring at him with identical bemused expressions on their faces.
“Dude, are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Ryan tells him.
“Bathroom. Now,” Castle takes them by their sleeves and pulls them towards it.
“Bro, what are you doing?” Esposito protests. Once the door is closed, Castle checks underneath each of the stalls for occupants. “Why are you dragging us in here? Only teenage girls go to the bathroom in packs.”
“What I’m about to tell you, you have to swear not to tell Beckett.” The gravity of his expression deters more complaining and Ferrari-bargaining.
“Dude, what’s going on?”
“Promise.” He stares the down as they look at him uncertainly. “Come on, guys. I need you in on this. Do you trust me?”
“Yeah,” says Esposito after a moment, and Ryan nods.
“That call was from a friend of Montgomery’s. He said he had received a package from Montgomery himself containing files that would keep Beckett and Montgomery’s family safe. However, the deal he has with the men after her only remains in effect if she stays away from the case.”
“Then we can’t let her get anywhere near this case,” Ryan states immediately. The quickness of his words and finality of his tone more than anything portray his care for Beckett, not often expressed so boldly.
“But bro, the first thing she’ll want to do when she gets back here is take a run at it!” Esposito sighs. “Even Montgomery recognized that he couldn’t keep her the hell away from her mother’s case, which is why he let her look into it in the first place!”
“We have plenty of time to figure this out before she gets back,” says Castle. They both look at him. “What?”
“It’s gonna be up to you, dude,” Esposito says flatly. “You’re the only one with enough pull to stop her.” The unspoken message is just as clear: she loves you, so you’ll have the best chance at getting her to listen. They don’t know what happened the day before the shooting.
“I tried, before Montgomery was killed; she didn’t listen,” Castle tells them hollowly. “I held her down with my hand cupped over her mouth as Montgomery was shot to death. After what happened last time…I’m not sure I can hold her back again.”
“What happened last time is you saved her life,” Esposito tells him firmly.
“She…cares about you a lot, Castle,” Ryan reminds him. Both of them are surreptitiously avoiding the word ‘love.’ “I think she’ll listen.”
“I think you’re wrong,” Castle warns them. They’ve underestimated her drive. But then again, they haven’t seen the fire in her eyes when she works on her mother’s case. They haven’t seen her true fervor, sometimes bordering on insanity. They don’t know about the consecutive all-nighters she pulls, just sitting with her legs tucked up to her chest in front of her own personal murder board set up in her window. Castle is the only one who has seen her like this.
“Wait a second, guys,” Ryan interrupts Castle’s morbid train of thought. “If she has to stay away from the case, does that mean we do too?”
“I’m not about to let it go,” Castle answers him. “But we can’t do it like this. The precinct isn’t covert enough; they’d see us coming from a mile away. The man on the phone is using files to bargain for her life, which means the answers she’s searching for do exist—in those files. We have to work quietly, behind the scenes, to uncover the truth behind her mother’s murder and her shooting.”
“How do we halt the investigation here?” Ryan asks. “Even if we go to Gates and tell her we’ve got squat—which we pretty much do—you’ll be kicked out of the precinct.”
“Until Beckett gets back.”
“And then we’ll have to do this behind her back as well.”
“I don’t like this…” Ryan murmurs. “It feels wrong to keep such a big, important secret from her.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Castle replies. “If it keeps her safe, I’m willing to do whatever it takes. If we tell her about the deal, she’ll only take off chasing the man on the phone. So we don’t.”
When Castle arrives home after working with Ryan and Esposito all day and sneaking a box of evidence and case files out of the precinct, he finds the bottom floor empty. He sets the box down in the office and closes the door to prevent anyone from snooping on his planned late-night activity. Then he heads up the stairs, calling, “Alexis? Mother?”
Though no one answers, light peeks out from underneath Alexis’s door. Castle opens it softly to find his daughter curled up on top of her bed, calculus book at the foot of it and phone clenched tightly in her fist. Her eyes are squeezed shut and her makeup smeared. He brushes a hand over her shoulder. “Alexis.”
She stirs, pulling herself into a sitting position. “Dad…I didn’t realize you got home.”
He sits on the edge of her bed and she scooches over to make room. “Sweetie, what’s wrong?”
She hesitates before letting it all burst out in one confused jumble. “It’s Ashley. I keep calling him but every time he either answers and says he has to go or doesn’t pick up at all. I think he’s avoiding me at school because I never see him anymore. It’s just, things were going so great a few days ago, and now I’m wondering if there were signs that I didn’t see because I was too worried about Detective Beckett and you and finals and all the crazy stuff going on right now. Ashley never ignores my calls, Dad, ever!”
“I’m sorry, Alexis—”
“And I just confirmed my going to Stanford after next semester on early admission but I only did it for him and if we’re not together I don’t know what I’m going to do!” She’s breathless with tears leaking out of her eyes, while Castle’s mind is still trying to catch up. “Dad, I don’t want to go alone!”
“Alexis…sometimes these things happen,” he says. As an adult having gone through it all, he knows the relative futility of high school relationships, but how does one explain that to a distraught, heartbroken seventeen-year-old daughter? “And they suck. I know.” He envelops her in a hug, cradling her against his chest.
“What did I do wrong, Dad?” she whispers. He shakes his head and holds her tighter, heart breaking in his chest for the second time in two days.
“Yo, Beckett,” Esposito says. He doesn't seem to see—or doesn't comment on—the weariness in her bearing and the haunted look in her eyes. “Guess who showed up at the precinct yesterday? Castle.”
“Did he get his writing done?” she asks, covering her own surprise and confusion in the guise of an innocent question. Why had Castle shown up at the precinct? She sent him away, so what is he still doing around? Doesn’t he get it? It’s over.
“Yeah, he said he’s finally got Gina off his back so he’s all ours for the next couple weeks. He’s spending every spare minute at the precinct helping us hunt for your shooter.” She tenses momentarily and his eyes narrow at it. Again, he doesn't comment, and she’s grateful. She doesn’t want to be smothered in their worry and concern.
She considers for a moment, then takes the plunge. “Espo? Tell him thanks for me.”
Esposito nods. “Will do.” Espo must be aware, at least on some level, of what neither of them has told him, to not question her request. Which means he must understand her situation, sympathize with it. He must be on her side.
Kate doesn’t think she’s ever felt closer to Espo in her life.