The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Kate stands shakily, half of her weight on her feet and half of it leaning on the metal bar provided for her. Her wheelchair is at the edge of the mat a few feet away. With great effort, she lifts her foot a centimeter off the floor and forward slightly, just enough for it to count as a step. She leans on it heavily, dragging her left foot forward to meet it before standing still, practically panting with exertion.

“Good,” her therapist says delightedly. “Remember, we stop as soon as you start feeling a burning sensation in your legs.” Her legs have passed “burning” a long while ago, but Kate is determined to press on. Five steps yesterday, six this morning, and she’s going for eight now. Her legs protest in a hot fire followed by a cold chill as she takes another tiny step, teeth clenched together and knuckles white with suppressed pain. She can do this. She will do this.

“Three,” she pants. She’s still exhausted by this morning’s exertions, coupled by the stretches and strength exercises she completed before this. A sheen of perspiration coats her forehead. Another tiny step forward, four.

She drops to her knees at seven, tears of pain and frustration wetting her lashes. She simply can’t go on and berates herself for it as the therapist helps her back into the wheelchair. The therapist—Dr. Sven—forces her to rest for ten minutes before moving on to the last part of her session. She brings her a cup of water that Kate only takes a sip of before handing back. The water upsets her stomach right before exercises, during which it is so clenched that it’s sore afterward.

When she’s ready, Dr. Sven helps her onto the mat where she performs several stretches, although nothing that goes anywhere near her chest area. Dr. Sven calls it a form of yoga, but Kate doesn’t remember yoga hurting this much.

As instructed, Kate leans forward as far she dares to wrap her fingers around her feet in a Sitting Forward Bend pose. Her flexibility after being trapped immobile in a bed for days is at an all-time low, but it’s still impressive. It’s just about the only part of her physical condition that remains adequate, but still it’s not up to her standards. She knows she can—she should be able to—do better.

After a few moments she relaxes and repeats the pose, ignoring the strain in her muscles. She moves on to Pigeon Pose with one leg tucked underneath her and the other splayed out behind her like a partial splits.

“Remember to breathe,” says the therapist, and Kate sucks in a deep breath. Her chest revolts in agony.

At the end of the stretches, all of her muscles and joints feel looser and more fluid, but she knows they’ll seize up again in the interlude before her next session. Her therapist has her lie on her back on the mat for Corpse Pose—which has a little too much morbid humor to it for Kate’s taste—and she is unable to relax at all in this position. It reminds her too much of the shooting, of lying on her back in the grass with Castle over her. She sees him in her mind, whispering her name, telling her he loves her. She remembers the life bleeding out of her, the world fading away… She sits up faster than she ought, an uncomfortable twang in her chest. Dr. Sven admonishes her for it, but Kate doesn’t care. Corpse Pose is not for somebody who has actually been a corpse for over half a minute. And remembers it.

“That’s all for today,” the therapist says cheerfully. She rolls the wheelchair up next to Kate and helps her up. Kate’s leaning heavily on Dr. Sven, breaths coming in short gasps. The world seems to be spinning as Dr. Sven wheels her back to her hospital room. Standing up from the floor by far is the hardest thing to do with her wound—even more difficult than walking.

Dr. Sven leaves after situating Kate in the bed. The doctor returns soon after that, inquiring on how she’s feeling. She lies through her teeth and tells him the pain’s not too bad, but she accepts the medication without complaint. Blessed relief begins to flow through her veins, calming and placating her fatigued muscles and pained nerves. To make his visit even sweeter, the doctor tells her that she can be released as soon as she can walk the length of a house by herself—if she has someone to take care of her the next few months. In light of this, he shows her how to change the bandages on her ribcage, her chest, and lastly the bullet wound itself. The first is relatively easy, just a simple bandage over a long cut that has stitches lined up neatly along it like a picket fence. The second and third however, are much messier, with tiny strings of thread criss-crossing each other in a tangled web of suture. She has to be very delicate with these because any tugging at all on the stitches will damage the wound and set her back to square one, when she had first woken up in the hospital.

This entire time, Jim has sat on the chair beside her, watching but not speaking. He now knows how to change the bandages, but she will not let him. When she gets out, this will be something she does herself. A ritualistic act of something she still has control over, even when her body movements, fluid and food intake, and exercise are carefully manipulated and monitored.

The doctor leaves the two of them alone, and Jim asks if she wants to sleep.

“No,” she says. “I would never sleep ever again if I didn’t have to.”

He laughs. “When you get back to the precinct, that’s all going to change. Looking forward to going back home?”

“You would not believe how much.”

“Listen, Katie, I’ve only got the next two weeks off from work,” her father says. “The company won’t be happy about it, but I can take more off if you need me around. That is to say, if you decide not to ask him.” This is Josh all over again. Kate knows how hard her father’s worked to get this job, where he’s finally making decent pay and even has some saved up. She also knows how inflexible the schedule is. In the midst of her troubles, she hadn’t even thought about how he managed to get off three weeks in the first place. Trying to take more off now…it could cost him the job altogether. She can’t let him do that for her, not with the amount of work he’s put into getting there. The job was the final step to his recovery from alcoholism, the final thing that kept him sober and focused after so many relapses.

“No, it’s okay, Dad,” she replies. “We can figure it out. You don’t have to do that.” But deep inside, she wonders how she will manage. Based on her recovery so far, even in two weeks time she won’t be well enough to go to the store for groceries or supplies. She’ll be lucky if she can walk around her apartment without too much pain. Ryan, Espo, and Lanie would do anything for her, she knows, but they all work long hours and can’t afford to babysit her either.

She hates that word. Babysit. She doesn’t want to be babysat. She doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone, ask them for anything. Unfortunately, like so many other things in her life right now, it’s out of her control.

That just leaves him. The one she doesn’t want to ask, because she’s not sure of the answer. And even if it’s yes, she’s not sure of the motive behind the answer. She knows him so well, and yet…in this, she feels she doesn’t know him at all. But he’s the only one she can ask.

Her fingertips tingle with icy anticipation and her heartbeat quickens. I’ll just talk to him, she promises herself. She won’t plan to ask. But she needs to bring him back. It’s unfair, what she’s doing to him right now, when he hasn’t done anything wrong. The only things he’s done wrong are in the imaginary scenarios she plays out in her head. He doesn’t deserve to be punished for something he didn’t do. Especially when he is doing so much more than she asked of him. Not only is he keeping his distance and respecting her wishes, he’s trying to find her shooter.

She resolves to call him, soon. Tomorrow. She’ll call him, ask him to come by the hospital if he has time. If he says yes, they’ll talk, and she’ll see how it goes.

The tiniest bubble of hope forms inside her heart, floating atop a sea of cold dread.

Once Alexis falls asleep, he tucks her into bed and turns out the light. For a moment he stands there, watching her chest rise and fall in the semi-darkness. He loves her, so much. It never ceases to amaze him that he and Meredith—one of the world’s most dysfunctional couples—could create a being so perfect. Then he closes the door and retreats downstairs into his room.

He dresses into his pajamas and lies on his back in the king-sized bed, just thinking. About Alexis. About Ashley. About Kate. He loves Alexis. He hates Ashley for not calling. Kate’s a mixture of both of them. He wishes she would call—he could never hate her, no matter what she did—but he loves her as well.

Why doesn’t he call? He rolls over onto his side so that he’s facing the wall. Why doesn’t she call? He flips over to his other side, as if someone else was there with him. He can imagine her slight smile as they fall asleep together. He can feel the softness of her hair brushing against his arm as she snuggles closer to him. He can almost pretend that she’s there with him. Where they can comfort and protect each other from their nightmares together. Where he can stop visiting the hangar, trying in vain to save Montgomery, and she can stop…dying? He doesn’t really know what she dreams about.

Either way, her pretend presence is comforting. Imagining her in his arms, Castle finally falls asleep.

The next day passes quickly, and Castle feels like a squirrel running from the precinct back to the loft and back to the precinct again. He’s still working on the case with Ryan and Esposito—much to Gates’s displeasure—but they’re making preparations for the day they will tell the Captain they’ve got nothing and she will reassign them to the mountain of other ordinary homicides that has slowly been building in their absence. Castle can only manage to sneak a file or two at a time out of the Twelfth, so it takes him more than ten trips throughout the day to bring all the files home and digitize them. He goes to bed near one o’clock, tired but happy. He’s doing it. He’s helping solve her case. He wonders if word of this has gotten back to her yet. He wonders if this will help her see that despite her kicking him out, he still cares for her.

His question is answered by a phone call the next morning. “Castle.”

“Hey.” It’s her. It’s her.

“Beckett,” he greets her, barely able to contain his joy. “What’s going on?”

“If…if you have time, can you come by the hospital later this morning? We need to—I want to talk.” Her voice is halting, unsteady, but it’s her voice. She doesn’t sound angry or sad. Just…nervous? Anxious? He can’t quite identify it.

“Yeah, of course,” he responds immediately. He launches himself out of bed, tugging on a pair of pants at random. “I’ll be right over.”

“See you,” she ends the call. Their twenty-three second conversation has him elated, and he practically bounces out of his room and scribbles a note to Martha and Alexis explaining his sudden disappearance. He hails a cab to take him to the hospital, all the while planning what he will say to her first. On second thought, he has the driver make a brief stop at his usual coffee joint. These words have to special. But as he thinks about it, the more discontented he grows. Why did she cut him out of her life? Did she even think, at all, about how much that would hurt him?

He enters the hospital and his feet automatically carry him to her room, as if they had memorized the path in anticipation of his return. Castle nods to the two officers outside her door and they nod back. He peers inside, wondering if Jim’s still around. She’s alone, reading a book. Not one of his, it’s much too thick.

He forces himself to act civilly to her as he walks in. He can’t be angry, or he’ll scare her away from whatever she wants to say. He needs her to see that he’s putting her first, above his own feelings of hurt. He knocks softly and she looks up, an alarmed look in his eyes at his presence before she can mask it. She smiles slightly—forced or no, he can’t tell—and gives a tiny wave to invite him in.

Castle steps into her room looking calm and relaxed, but the way his eyes are darting around she knows it’s just for show. Upon seeing him, a tumult of feelings arises within her, the least of which is the throbbing of her bullet wound. He speaks first. “Hey, Beckett. I brought you coffee.”

“Sorry, Castle, I’m not allowed to have coffee,” she says regretfully. “Caffeine.”

He smiles. “It’s decaf.”

“Sludge water. Thanks, Castle.” She says it in the usual mocking tone she uses when she teases him. But he knows how much she appreciates it by the genuine smile she gives him, the slight sparkle in her eyes. It was sweet of him to bring it, even if she only takes a sip and sets it on the side table. So many things upset her stomach these days; she doesn’t want coffee to be one of them.

Castle sits down next to her, keeping his hands in his lap and making no attempt to casually touch her like last time. He looks at her expectantly, waiting for her to speak. Right, she called him here. “I’m sorry I sent you away, Castle,” she says. He’s silent, still waiting. He wants an explanation. “I just…needed some time and space.”

“I understand,” he replies in a neutral tone. “How are you?”

“I’m…I’m on the mend,” she says. “You?”

“Better, now that I’ve seen you,” he says. Something similar to adoration flares in his eyes as he gazes at her. She knows she’s forgiven.

“It’s really good seeing you, too.” Another smile. “I’ve started physical therapy. They say I can be released in about a week if I keep making good progress.” She allows herself another sip of coffee.

“How’s physical therapy?”

Her face clouds. “It’s hard. A lot harder than I thought. I come back from every session sore and exhausted, but it is making me stronger.”

“It’s difficult to coax life back into your limbs after this long. What about other things? Are they still cutting you back on pain medication?”

“It’s stabilized out. I need it after therapy.” He nods affectionately, as if to reassure her that this last statement didn’t make her weaker in his eyes. It’s just what she had been thinking. “The nightmares are still there though.”

“What do you dream about?” He seems genuinely curious, but the question catches her unawares. Montgomery’s shooting. Her own. Death. Her mom. Raglan. The dead she sees her dreams are almost an endless number. But she can’t tell him that, because she lied to him last time, said she didn’t remember the shooting.

“My mom,” she says carefully. “Montgomery. The ER.” That’s the closest she can get to “being shot and dying” but she thinks he understands. A new thought occurs to her. “Do you have them? The dreams?”

“Yeah,” Castle sighs and looks down. “Sometimes you’re there, sometimes I’m alone—searching for Montgomery in that hangar, trying to find him before he’s killed. It…it never ends well.”

She nods thoughtfully. She hadn’t considered how the traumatic events of the past week might have affected him. She wonders if she should be glad or hurt that he doesn’t dream about her shooting. “I broke up with Josh.” He raises his eyebrows. “Last time you were here. I should’ve told you, but it was still too fresh. I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing.”

“Are you sure now?”

The question catches her off-guard, but she finds she has an answer for it. “Yeah. Yeah, I am. I really liked him, but he wasn’t the one. In the end, he won’t make me happy.” But you might, she adds on silently.

“Miss Beckett?” Dr. Sven interrupts them. “It’s time for your therapy session.” She wheels the wheelchair inside.

Kate looks at Castle, hope written all over her face. “Same time tomorrow?”

He gives her hand a soft, innocent squeeze. “Tomorrow.”

She doesn’t realize until he leaves just how happy simply talking with him has made her.

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