Disclaimer: I do not own Castle or the characters used in this story.

N/A: Down below.


"What do you mean?" Beckett asks. "You were broadcasting, not recording?"

"Better," Brown says with a devilish smile. "With Paula's help, we broadcasted the whole thing to the press conference that Bracken set up. So, not only do we have all of our original content, but we've got the reactions of those who attended the press conference. They saw you, Detective, ask Bracken why he was running away. They saw you, Federal Officer," she says with a raised brow at Castle "try to detain Bracken for questions about racketeering. They saw Bracken refuse your instruction, and the arrival of the gunmen. They saw Castle get shot. And then," she says, drawing out the story, "they saw Bracken run, until he was stopped before he could leave the airfield by the FBI agents who arrived with a warrant in hand."

Rural airport, New Jersey, Wednesday, ~9:30 PM

"Easy there," Beckett admonishes as the EMTs ram the gurney into the ambulance's bumper in an effort to get the legs to retract. As he's done for most of his recent injuries, Castle remains quiet, but Beckett's getting better at reading him. She sees the pain that he tries to hide – it's only fair, since he's seen hers for years.

Waiting only long enough for the EMT to clamber into the vehicle, Beckett gets on board before the other EMT closes the door and moves toward the driver's seat. Sitting on the other side of him from the technician, Beckett takes Castle's hand and his attention.

"Hey, Beckett?" Castle asks as the EMT goes about his ministrations. "Where's my vest?"

"Don't worry, Castle," Beckett answers, knowing why he asked. "I left it with Avery – he said that he'd get it back to the precinct. But I kept this for you," she says with a smile while holding up the slug that would've pierced him if not for the armor he wore. Knowing Castle, he'll want it as a grim keepsake, a reminder of how "cool" it was to be shot.

With an embarrassed smile, Castle relaxes a bit on the gurney. "You know me too well, Kate," he says.

"Not yet," Beckett says with her own smile, "but it's good to have goals. I look forward to unraveling the mystery of the mystery writer," she says as she stows the deformed bullet and takes his hand in both of hers.

"Kate?" Castle asks, and this time Beckett doesn't know what his question will be. Raising her eyebrows, Beckett prompts him to continue. "You don't have another nemesis do you? If you do, can we wait a few days before going after him? I need a little break."

"Wimp," Beckett chuckles, prompting an odd look from the EMT who's treating a thoroughly bruised patient for his second gunshot injury. "I suppose we could laze about for a few days, but we'll have to make up for it later."

"Just one night in my own bed," Cast says wistfully, "that's all I need."

"Not tonight, though," Beckett replies. Noting that Castle's about to object, Beckett takes an unusual approach. "Please, Rick? You've pushed yourself so hard. I'm worried about you."

Castle's surprised by her direct request, and he unveils a surprise of his own. "As you wish," he says with a smile and a deep sigh. She knows it's her imagination, but it seems to Beckett that Castle actually sinks further into the gurney as he closes his eyes. As Castle drifts into an exhausted sleep, Beckett realizes that he hasn't even gotten his painkillers yet.

St. Luke's Hospital, New Jersey, Thursday, ~8:40 AM

"Good morning, sunshine," Beckett says as she strolls through the door to his hospital room.

"Kate Beckett, you beautiful angel," Castle welcomes from where he's propped up in bed. Beckett returns his beaming smile, convinced that his welcome isn't solely motivated by the tall cup of coffee that she's got for him.

"How're you feeling?" she asks as she hands him the coffee, kisses his check, then perches on the side of his bed.

"Better, now," he says with an unabashed look at her.

"Sorry I was late," Beckett replies, knowing that she could've been here at 8:00 this morning. After all, he'd actually been able to sneak in early to visit her when their roles were reversed less than a week ago. "I just wanted to see Bracken behind bars with my own eyes," she says with some lingering embarrassment.

"I don't blame you. I hope he looked like hell," Castle says with some heat to his voice.

"I'm sure he's used to nicer accommodations," Beckett replies, but Castle notes the odd tone in her voice, which prompts her to explain. "He said that he was waiting for my visit, was looking forward to us having a little chat."

"Did he threaten you?" Castle asks, guessing the reason for her anxiety.

"Yeah, he did," she acknowledges. "He's no dummy – he's well aware that he was being recorded, so it was all hypothetical. He said 'You've misjudged me, made me into a character from one of your boyfriend's books. The world just doesn't work that way. After all, the kind of monster you've imagined wouldn't be stopped by being in jail, would have friends outside who would be willing to continue the work,' something like that."

"Here's the thing," Castle says, giving Beckett a look that she doesn't quite recognize. "I can tell that you're unsettled by the conversation, and we'll figure out how to defend against whatever last spasms of vengeance Bracken thinks he can muster. But the kick-ass detective that I know wouldn't have let Bracken see any of that. So tell me, how did you reply?"

Beckett's pleased that Castle knows her this well and is amazed that she doesn't feel exposed by his insight. Unable to hide her smile, Beckett nudges him and explains. "I might've played the hypothetical game with him, might've let him know that cops and prison guards have been known to coordinate in the attentions paid to prisoners who need specialized care," she says around a sip of coffee. "And I might've mentioned that we have friends, too."

"Damn right we do," Castle nods, clasping her hand. "Good ones. Look, I don't want to ignore that he still poses a threat, but I don't want him to be a shadow over us, either. We'll figure something out, but I'm a writer – I'm looking forward to our next chapter. Besides," he says with an evil look, "I think the good soon-to-be-ex-senator might find that even if he has friends on the outside, it's the people who will want to be his 'friends' on the inside who should command his attention."

"Maybe," Beckett replies. "But, about defending against anything that he has in mind, I kind of made a deal," Beckett admits, prompting a raised brow from Castle.

"It's easier than you'd think, isn't it?" Castle asks, and Beckett's glad that this is his only reference to the deal that he'd made with Smith. "So, what deal did you make?"

"Maybe it's more of a threat than a deal," Beckett backtracks. "We've got a strong case against him with the racketeering charges, that's what led to the warrant. Then, there'll be the tax charges that follow from his evasion related to his criminal income and assets. The feds are also looking at domestic terrorism charges, and those can be really nasty. With all those charges, I've decided not to pursue a murder charge for mom."

Beckett pauses to look at Castle, who recognizes that she's laying out a story to convince herself as well as him. So, counter to his usual behavior, he just nods to encourage her to continue.

"There's no statute of limitations on homicide," Beckett explains. "I like the idea of having an ace in hand in case he somehow gets around all the charges that are already pending. And only a small number of us know about his connection to my mother. If we don't file those charges, then he can't claim that the case against him is rigged by a misguided cop looking for revenge. It'll constrain his trial strategy, unless he wants to raise the issue, which would be a pretty unbelievable defense tactic."

"You'd be okay with that – with your mom not ever receiving official vindication?" Casket asks quietly.

"I'm getting there," Beckett admits, still not entirely comfortable with the decision. "But, as much as I want justice for her, I also like the idea of her protecting us. I made it clear that should anything happen to me or those important to me, even more information goes public," Beckett says with a hard look. "And I might have suggested that some of the information in Montgomery's file has been held back as insurance."

"You are brilliant," Castle says proudly. "And I think you're right. I never had the honor of meeting your mother, but I'll tell you this as a parent: if I could do anything to protect Alexis after I'm gone, I would take that in a heartbeat over any kind of remembrance or ceremony. Burn my books, erase everything else – if I could make her one bit safer, I would jump at the chance. So, I think the idea of Johanna protecting … us," he says in a questioning voice while looking at Beckett and getting an indulgent nod, "… would make her very, very happy."

Beckett can't stand to be apart from him any longer, especially not after that, so she carefully curls into his side for as much as a hug as they can manage while Castle's still in his hospital bed.

"I hope my dad agrees," Beckett says quietly. "I think he will, but we'll need to talk about it, get him comfortable with the idea. I don't want him surprised again the way he was with the Access New York event.

"How's he doing?" Castle asks. "We haven't talked much about him with everything that's happened since we got the file."

"He's okay. I asked Alexis to put him on the phone last night, after you passed out while talking to her," Beckett mentions, remembering the call that she insisted upon once Castle was settled into a room last night. "He's glad Bracken's in custody, but he's still worried. I think he's nervous about holding himself together while the case against Bracken goes forward."

"That's understandable," Castle sympathizes, giving Beckett an extra squeeze. "But he'll have more support this time around. You're an adult now, not a young college student stuck on the other side of the country. And I'll be there to help you both, along with mother. But, we might all be unnecessary. It sounds like Alexis might've adopted your father, in which case he doesn't stand a chance," he finishes with a chuckle.

"She does seem to be taking care of him," Beckett replies, recalling how Alexis anchored her father to the couch on the night of the Access New York interview.

"Trust me – if my daughter raises Jim half as well as his daughter raised me, everything will be alright," Castle says with a sweet, small smile. Humming into his side as she holds him, Beckett's willing to believe in Castle's view of the future.

"You know, Castle, I'm very impressed," Beckett says. "You addressed my conversation with Bracken, pointed us toward a brighter future …"

"Rather than focus on the fact that he called me your 'boyfriend?'" Castle interrupts with glee.

"Okay, maybe not so impressed," Beckett says flatly, but Castle's smile remains undented.

St. Luke's Hospital, New Jersey, Thursday, ~11:40 AM

A commotion in the hallway captures their attention, Castle looking toward the door from his bed while Beckett starts to rise from her chair. Both were hoping for the arrival of the doctor for Castle's final check before release, but that wouldn't explain the noise.

"Rick," Paula's voice calls from the hallway, "will you control your watchdogs?"

Rolling her eyes as she moves to the door, Beckett pulls it open and waves her through, receiving grateful looks from the guards outside.

"Ricky, you look like shit," Paula greets as she walks up to his hospital bed and tries to find an unbruised area on his face for a greeting kiss. Giving up, she bends close to him, gives a loud air kiss, then stands again,

"But, you do have a flair for the dramatic. Good lord, do you know how to make a scene!" Paula says with appreciation. "The footage of you getting shot is everywhere – it's got more You-Tube hits than anything we've put together for you. Gives me some ideas for your next tour…," she trails off, earning a scowl from Beckett.

"I know you're not into flowers, so here's your get well gift," Paula says as she tosses a white paper bag at Castle. Still unused to his current physical state, Castle moves to catch the bag with both hands and then winces as his shoulder sends a fiery note of disapproval through his system. His arms drop before the bag arrives, so it thwaps against him where his jacket stopped yesterday's bullet, causing another grimace.

Beckett catches the bag as it's about to roll down Castle and onto the floor. Setting it gently on the bed beside him and checking on Castle to make sure he's alright, Beckett's unsurprised to see that Paula's taken her chair during all of the commotion. Meanwhile, Castle's managed to open the bag and the contents have sparked a remarkable smile.

"Cheeseburgers," he moans in delight as he pulls one from the bag. He pauses before tearing in, then extends the wrapped burger to Beckett. This must be serious, Beckett thinks, if he's offering me first pick of his cheeseburger bounty. That thought prompts a chuckle that catches Castle's attention. "Tell you later," she says softly as she accepts the burger and perches on the side of his bed.

"Did you release a statement?" Castle asks around a mouthful of bliss.

Rolling her eyes at his manners and his ridiculous question, Paula's happy enough to wade in without chastising him. "Of course I did. It was superb, too – mentioned the case development, your participation, that this was your second gunshot wound this week. Forget being an author – I expect to start fielding calls from Hollywood looking for action hero roles."

"Don't even think about it, Rick," Beckett says from her seat next to him, prompting a chuckle from her partner and a pointed look from his agent. "Your book sales are up nearly twenty percent, led by the Heat titles and your earliest work – somehow your recent shenanigans aren't propping Storm up as well," Paula says, looking vexed.

"Has Gina spilled the news about my pen name yet?" Castle asks, surprising Beckett. Turning to her, he explains. "Gina was never going to keep quiet about my novel," Castle says, and Beckett is further surprised that he doesn't sound upset about it. "As soon as it was clear that the novel wasn't a stinker, revealing the news became a matter of when, not if. That's her job – to maximize sales of my Black Pawn books. With luck, she'll coordinate with Tom so that the publicity helps both of them."

"'Luck' – is that what you're calling me now?" Paula asks acerbically. "I'll steer Paula and Tom straight on this, as I always do," she says, making it sound like the editors couldn't do anything without her oversight. "Maybe a week," Paula speculates. "I'd be surprised if it doesn't go public before next weekend. Too much press attention on the whole 'Gangster Senator' thing."

"Is that what they're calling him?" Beckett asks with a smile.

"Among other things. That's the one that sticks and gets past the network censors," Paula says. "I had much better suggestions, but the prudes at the major networks couldn't unclench long enough to extract their heads and think about them," she grumbles.

"But," Paula says, brightening quickly, "your Fed friend sure did us right with that press conference, didn't she?"

"What press conference?" both Beckett and Castle ask at the same time.

Looking absolutely disgusted, Paula points to the TV mounted in the corner of Castle's hospital room. "You got into a shootout with the pet mobster of an elected official who was trying to skip the country and you didn't bother to watch TV the next morning? What kind of idiots …," she trails off, eyeing the two of them speculatively and then checking out Castle's hospital bed and imagining the possibilities.

"Okay, maybe you had your heads elsewhere," Paula allows with a begrudgingly impressed look. "Well, your cute Fed friend held a press conference this morning to explain the footage that Karen Brown's bosses sold to the networks. And this wasn't like the Cartwright thing either – you were 'central to the investigation,' were 'responsible for obtaining key evidence against the senator, including the information that allowed agents to secure the warrant,' and 'acted in the name of justice despite great personal risk,'" Paula crows. "I especially liked that last bit. She also confirmed that you're a Federal Investigator, having completed your training at Quantico and passed your assessments, including key contributions to national cases with the FBI."

Looking at each other, Beckett and Castle keep their comments to themselves, letting raised brows and small smiles confirm their pleasant surprise to each other.

"But the best part," Paula cackles, "the absolute best part? She called you 'Rick' at one point." Castle groans immediately, knowing what's coming next. "So, now the media is speculating about what's going on there and whether your current muse is going to object to a new woman on the scene, especially if you've gone federal. It's fantastic – this'll keep you in the papers for weeks, at least."

Now Beckett's groaning, too, catching up with Castle on the implications of Shaw's slip of the tongue. Before she can get properly worked up about it, though, Castle speaks clearly and concisely.

"Shut it down, Paula," he says sternly.

"I knew you were going to get all soft about this," Paula laments. "You're absolutely sure?"

"Completely. She has a young daughter and has done nothing to warrant this kind of attention," Castle nearly growls. "It's just as well that this happened now, because I wanted to have this talk with you anyway, but it got lost with all of the Bracken activity. It's time to change the tenor of my public persona," Castle says earnestly. "I'm done with the playboy. Don't complain," he says quickly, cutting off Paula's objections to what is a much more serious change than she expected.

"I've given you a mature novel to use as the pivot point. My writing intentions haven't changed – I'm not going to stop writing Nikki, and I might even play around with Storm again. But my personal intentions are more grounded and mature now. You've seen the change in the last few years," Castle continues, touching on an issue that makes Beckett proud and Paula annoyed. "My daughter is a grown woman, and it's time for me to act more like a grown man. Shutting down the speculation about Jordan is going to start a trend of my romantic developments remaining out of the press."

"That'll kill your book sales," Paula says flatly, annoyed both by his plan and what she knows his response will be.

"Perhaps," Castle says easily. "I'll get by, if so."

"So, you're whipped already?" Paula says with some derision, looking at Beckett.

"Kate hasn't asked me to address any of this," Castle says again, retaining his calm. "The point is that she shouldn't need to."

Turning to Beckett, Castle continues. "Don't freak out on me here, Beckett. I'm not signing us up for anything or making any assumptions. But, I think we might benefit from some privacy, some time and space to explore."

"Thank you," Beckett says simply, grasping Castle's hand.

"Well, you two are just disgusting," Paula says with a roll of her eyes. "I'll kill the NYPD-FBI love triangle thing, as much as it's the dumbest thing you've probably ever had me do," she says, "and that says a lot." Standing and heading toward the door, Paula adjusts her course and stops at the side of Castle's bed. Beckett's hackles rise as Paula reaches for Castle's cheek, expecting him to receive yet another caress from yet another woman. But she's surprised when Paula delivers a sharp slap rather than a caress. "I'm glad you're okay, you jackass. Don't scare me like that again."

Then, before either of them can react, Paula struts out the door.

St. Luke's Hospital, New Jersey, Thursday, ~1:00 PM

"So, you ready to get out of here?" Beckett asks as she re-enters Castle's room and sees him trying to pull an FBI sweatshirt over his head. Between the bruises and his bad shoulder, he's making a hash of the job. Stilling his efforts with a hand to his chest, Beckett asks gently "May I help?"

"Only if you agree to help me take it off later," Castle says, reaching for his old friends innuendo and deflection. Ignoring both, Beckett helps him into the sweatshirt before delivering a gentle kiss. "Cheer up, babe. You're healing already and will be back to full strength soon."

Castle lets out a hearty sigh be his answer as he moves about the room to pack up his small set of belongings and get-well gifts. "So, what's the word from the precinct?"

"We have separate meetings tomorrow," Beckett replies. "I've got to face a review board resulting from the Simmons shooting, while you've got something with Gates and the Commissioner."

"They're not going to give you trouble, are they?" Castle asks, ignoring the news about his own meeting.

"No, I should be fine. It's standard after an officer-involved shooting. The only wrinkle is that it follows so closely on the heels of the shooting at Alexis' graduation. But, the film footage from the hangar should make the review board a formality."

"Good," Castle replies as he wraps her in an embrace, happy to just hold on while standing in place for a bit.

"How're we getting home?" Castle asks when he finally lets go.

"The feds have a car downstairs," Beckett replies. "We'll slip out the back, as there are some media waiting outside. But, Jordan wants a protective detail on us, so we get the red-carpet treatment."

"Do me a favor?" Castle asks, and Beckett can tell from the tone of his voice that it's a big ask he's about to reveal.

"I don't know, Rick," she says slyly as she leans in for another kiss. "You might have to convince me."

Moments later, after nearly forgetting his name as well as his request, Castle collects enough of his wits to get back on point. "Stay with me tonight?" he asks shyly.

"Oh, Rick, I want to, but I don't know if that's a good idea," Beckett frets, torn between interfering with his home life and staying with him. "You need to spend time with Alexis."

"I think we all need to spend time together," Castle replies. "She needs to see you, too. She's worried – don't forget that she knows the details of what we were doing. Besides," he says quietly, "I'm not sure that I could sleep without worrying about whether you were okay."

"I'm not the one who's been shot twice or bounced around in a car trunk," Beckett teases. "I might sleep better knowing that you're okay and where you're supposed to be."

"Here's the part where I really overstep," Castle warns. "Your dad would be welcome to stay at the loft if he's interested or if you want him close. If he's in the guest room, though, there won't be any mystery about where you're staying."

"I'll come over," Beckett promises, "but let me think about dad. I might …," she trails off, until Castle prompts her to continue. "I might ask Alexis for her opinion."

"I can behave like a gentleman if I need to," Castle promises before looking put out at Beckett's guffaw.

"Rick, you have a bullet hole in one shoulder and bruised ribs from another gunshot. Your face and body are a rainbow of bruises, and I'm still healing from the beating I took on the rooftop. I'm entertaining the thought of having dad join us mostly because it would be obvious that we wouldn't be getting up to anything."

"Kate," Castle objects. "I've worshipped you for years, and finally being able to touch you is the answer to many, many prayers. I'd have to be in a coma before I'd lack the energy to be with you."

"Here's my offer," Beckett says, harkening back to their bartering during her recent hospital stay. "We just cuddle tonight, and in return you get to open this," she says as she pulls out a small, teal paper bag festooned with ribbons and tissue paper.

"What's that?" Castle looks on skeptically, offended both by the notion of just cuddling and by the color of the bag.

"It's a Bag of Indulgence, of course," Beckett says while extending the bag to him. "As soon as we can get free at the precinct, I was thinking we should head back to the Hamptons for some recuperation and rehab. Here's the outfit I plan to wear."

Suddenly a much bigger fan of this plan, Castle happily plucks the bag out of Beckett's hand. Setting it on the bed so that he can open it, he frowns as he digs through the tissue paper and says "It's empty – there's nothing."

"Exactly," Beckett says with a Cheshire grin. In response, Castle looks much happier about his upcoming rehabilitation efforts.

12th Precinct, Friday ~12:15 PM

"Hey, Jordan," Beckett greets the FBI agent as she walks into the Homicide bullpen. "You look all packed up – are you pulling up stakes?"

"Yes, finally," Shaw says with a happy sigh. "Whatever I need to do can be accomplished from Chicago, and I'm anxious to see my daughter again. Sampson and his crew can shepherd the local effort."

"Jordan, I just want to say thank you, again," Beckett says earnestly. "I'm still in a state of shock that Bracken's actually locked up. After years and years, we're finally here, and that's thanks in large part to you."

"You're welcome, Kate," Shaw says with a smile. "But you know who really pushed this along, right? Two people got us here – you and your partner. As your boss might say, I was just along for the ride."

"Hardly," Beckett chuffs, but she appreciates the sentiment and the humor. "Trust me, I know exactly why we're here, and exactly how much Castle did to bring us to this point. I may have been guilty of not recognizing his contributions in the past, but that's not an issue now."

"That sounds great, Kate," Shaw says with a raised brow. "Just keep my name out of that part of things, right? The story of the cop and the writer is a good one, but it doesn't need any embellishment. I'm not too keen on my first foray into the tabloids."

"Yeah, I heard about that," Beckett grimaces. "Sorry."

"The damage was minimal," Shaw replied with a wink, "but my daughter doesn't need to read that – she has enough fodder for future therapy and teenage rebellion just based on things I've actually done. I do appreciate how quickly Paula seems to have been able to squelch that speculation, though."

"Glad she's on our side," Beckett agrees.

"Well," Shaw segues bluntly by looking at her watch, "speaking of my daughter, I should probably be shoving off."

"Do you have to leave right now? I know Castle also wants to pass along his thanks and say goodbye," Beckett says.

"Where is he?" Shaw asks, looking around the bullpen.

"In there," Beckett motions with a nod toward the conference room. "He should've been out already, but it looks like they're still going strong. At least they aren't shouting anymore."

"Shouting?" Shaw asks. "I've got to say, that doesn't sound like Castle's style."

"No, shouting isn't his style," Beckett agrees, "but frustrating people to the point where they shout is right up his alley." Noticing Shaw's interest, Beckett clarifies. "He's in there with my Captain, the Commissioner, and an attorney from 1PP. I suspect he's caused some vexation," she finishes with a smirk.

"Then I'm definitely going to catch my flight," Shaw says while gathering herself to depart. "Have him give me a call, and we'll see each other again soon enough. Pass along my regards and good luck holding things together when he's finished with whatever mischief he's causing in there."

Laughing, Beckett gives Shaw a quick hug and walks her to the elevator. After parting, she takes the opportunity to check in with Esposito and Ryan, both of whom still feel a little put out for having missed the hangar confrontation with Bracken. She's trying to raise their spirits when the conference room door opens. By the looks on the faces of the meeting attendees as they emerge, no one would suspect that the meeting had been heated or confrontational. It's all smiles and back-slapping, hand-shakes and promises of 'doing lunch' sometime down the road. The smell of fakery is nearly overpowering.

Wandering over to his team after parting with the Commissioner and the attorney at the elevator, Castle mumbles "Can we go out for lunch? I've got to get out of here for a little while."

"Are we invited?" Esposito asks gruffly, but Castle's mood prevents him from a playful reply. "Sure, let's just go."

Opting for Chinese today, the team commandeers a corner booth at a place near the precinct, nodding hello to two other groups of cops as they walk through the restaurant. Familiarity allows them to place their order while they're still sitting down, without need to look at a menu.

"So, how'd the review board go?" Castle asks Beckett. Though the team is more interested to hear what the Commissioner had to say, they go along with Castle's efforts to address Beckett's situation first.

"It was weird, actually," Beckett admits. "It wasn't really a hearing – they described what happened as I would have, then just asked me if I agreed. They cleared the shooting in minutes. The rest of the time was almost a performance review. They were very interested in my feelings about the 12th, about how it's been with Gates as Captain, how we've been able to work with a 'non-NYPD' member on the team."

"That's an interesting way to refer to Castle," Ryan notes.

"That's what I was thinking – they were careful to not say 'civilian,'" Beckett explains.

Castle grins at this exchange before wading in himself. "Did they offer you anything – another team member, better resources?"

"Nothing directly," Beckett muses, "but there were many questions about our resources and some speculation about improvements. Why? What's going on?"

"They're afraid that you're going to leave," Castle explains. "Jordan said that you mentioned taking some heat for the less official aspects of the Bracken investigation?" At her nod, Castle continues. "She let it be known that she'd be happy to add you to her team. The folks at 1PP don't want you to go anywhere."

Beckett looks pensive while Esposito and Ryan lean back in the booth, uncomfortable with this development.

"Did this come up in your meeting, too?" Beckett inquires, wondering if Castle knows his comments to be true or if he's speculating.

Nodding, Castle explains. "There were three parts of my meeting, and this was the first. The Commissioner is very interested in keeping the four of us together as a group. But we've got 'opportunities,'" Castle smirks, bringing back that loaded word that made the rounds after the Cartwright case.

"Oh yeah?" Beckett asks. "What are they, Mr. Investigator?"

"That's the first one," Castle smirks. "I retain my FBI affiliation and work as an embedded member at the NYPD, under the structure of the Joint Task Force. Or, I could drop the Investigator title and we can go back to the way things have been for the past few years. I'd lose my credentials, but I'd also be back to being an unconstrained loose cannon, which is appealing solely for the aggravation it would cause Gates," he says with a mischievous glint in his eye, and Beckett suspects she now knows one of the topics that caused the Captain to raise her voice.

"Or," Castle continues, "you can join me in federal employ, in which we can both remain here under the JTF or formally join Jordan's group, working either from here or from Chicago."

Ryan and Esposito are looking glum, but neither of them speak, saved from responding by the arrival of their lunch order. Beckett's not so reticent. "What do you think we should do?" she asks Castle, who seems immensely pleased with how she posed the question.

"I think we should take some time to think about our options," Castle responds promptly. "I don't know about you, but I'm feeling a little adrift right now, still high from how things went down at the hangar, but not sure what happens next."

"Exactly," Beckett smiles, happy that she's not alone in this feeling. After all, she's hardly allowed herself to think about options unrelated to the need to seek her mother's killer. A year ago she might've jumped at a federal offer as a way to get access to more and better ways of pursuing her case. But, now she can make a decision based on what she wants to do, not what she needs to do. And, though their relationship is still relatively young, she can also factor Castle into her plans for the future. Some time to think about what happens next, personally and professionally, sounds perfect. "Let's take some time to think about what we want for the future," she says with a small smile.

"In case you were wondering," Esposito busts in, "I'd vote for you both to stay around, even though this whole dating thing gets a little revolting." Ryan remains quiet, but his fist-bump with his partner clearly declares his thoughts on the matter.

Chuckling at Esposito, and then at herself as she realizes that she's laughing about being teased about her relationship with Castle, something that would've seemed impossible a year ago, Beckett turns back to Castle after taking a quick bite of lunch. "So, what else did you talk about?"

Looking around briefly to ensure that there aren't any eavesdroppers, Castle answers with "My old friend, and what happens to him."

That sobers the team quickly. Looking at him, Beckett prompts Castle to explain. "I made another pitch to get him some help, but I got shut down immediately."

"They're going to prosecute? There's been a curious silence in the media about this, other than 'a sudden illness,'" Ryan notes. Of the three detectives, he seems least offended by Weldon's actions, but Beckett thinks this is because he was unconscious or groggy for much of what transpired in the cabin.

"They've lost him," Castle explains, then rushes in to correct this misimpression he created. "They know where he is, but the feds have him," he clarifies. "I think they're working on something, some kind of deal. Even back when everything went down, Jordan seemed a little cagey about what might happen to him. But I haven't been able to wheedle information out of anyone," Castle vents his frustration.

"Hey," Beckett says, catching his attention. "He's alive, and they might be giving him the opportunity to make some amends," she says optimistically. "Count your blessings for now, and we'll see if we can't figure out some details."

Giving her a thankful nod, Castle takes a bite before forging ahead. "Thanks, Kate. You're right, of course, I'm just worried about him. But," he says, his voice changing to sound more optimistic. "The last part of our conversation went much better."

"Since there was a considerable amount of yelling going on and neither our future nor your friend's situation seems to have caused it, I'm guessing that this is where my Puck had his fun," Beckett says with a grin.

"Your what?" Esposito immediately cuts in. "There's a limit to what I can take, and if you two are going to start talking like that, you need to take it to Chicago."

"Puck, idiot, P-u-c-k," Beckett says with an eye roll. "A mischievous forest sprite in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"Oh," Esposito says in embarrassment while Ryan tries to avoid spewing out his water as he laughs at his partner. "So, what'd you do?" he asks quickly to shift attention back to Castle.

"We had a discussion about Montgomery, and Evelyn's benefits," Castle says smugly. "That's why the attorney was there. It took a few rounds to make sure that she retains her benefits," he finishes with a shrug.

"What did you do?" Beckett asks pointedly. "Going a few rounds doesn't explain the volume level, or the passion. Singe any bridges in there?"

"I don't think so," Castle replies with a sly smile. "Let's just say that they'd have walked out naked if we'd have been playing poker. They're terrible at bluffing, or calling a bluff." Castle takes another quick bite while the detectives look annoyed at the pause.

"They want Rutherford – Smith – to testify in Bracken's trial. But they don't know how to find him. They want me testify, help build the case, tell a story to the jury. They want … many things," Castle says. "Can you imagine any scenario where I wouldn't fully cooperate in Bracken's prosecution after everything we've been through to get here?" he chuckles. "But, still – I dragged my feet and acted reticent until Evelyn's benefits were secured. We got there in the end, but it was messy."

"So, who was yelling – Gates or the Commissioner?" Ryan asks, face alight while imagining the moxie to taunt either of them, much less both.

"It went back and forth," Castle shrugs. "Mostly the Commissioner, ranting about what kind of precedent we'd set by protecting the benefits of a dirty cop." Seeing that the detectives were uncomfortable with the description, Castle hastens his story. "Which is why I explained that the narrative arc of a redeemed cop is a much better way to go. And, of course, you can't sell the redemption story at the same time you're cutting off his widow and children."

"I take it the Commissioner didn't enjoy being hemmed in this way?" Beckett asks with a smirk.

"No, no he didn't. Not at all," Castle says with some grim satisfaction. "Which made it that much more fun. You know me – I'm much more about forgiveness than retribution, but I will confess that I got a bit of a thrill out of jamming him up after his participation in the Cartwright press conference."

"But you're all friends now?" Ryan asks with a raised brow. "It looked like a political convention with all the smiley handshakes when you were done."

"Sure, we're all friends," Castle says. "We have a better appreciation of each other now. We'll disagree again, I don't doubt, but we're on the same page for now. We'll present a unified front for the Bracken prosecution."

"What was Gates' take on all this?" Beckett asks, truly wondering about the woman who has seemed like a cypher for so much of their recent activities. Riding them hard one moment, pulling Beckett aside during another, Beckett's having a hard time pinning down her Captain's motivations.

"She a complex one," Castle says with a tone of grudging admiration. "I think she's trying to walk a fine line between being upset with the way things happened while at the same time admitting that there might not have been another way. She's embarrassed that there was a mole in the precinct, which she takes as a slight to her IA credentials. But most of all, I think she's looking to protect the precinct, to use this as proof of how good we are."

"I can see some of that," Esposito says, looking for details, "but where's the yelling?"

"You'll be shocked to learn that only some of the shouting was directed at me," Castle says happily. "Some early frustration about Montgomery. But she appreciates where I'm coming from on my friend after our talk in the car," he says with a look at Beckett, "and she values a strong precinct more than punishing the memory of a multifaceted former Captain. So, more of her shouting was aimed at getting the Commissioner on board."

"Wait a minute," Esposito interjects, "just wait a minute. You're telling me that Gates – our boss – was shouting at the Commissioner?"

"No way," Ryan adds, disputing Castle's nod.

"And I'll tell you what," Castle adds, looking around again to ensure that his words won't go any further than this table, "I think we've underestimated Gates. Who else comes out of this looking better? She runs the precinct that brought down Bracken. She's on the paperwork as the architect of the Joint Task Force with the FBI. She's the one who, with a wink and a nod, can convert all the negative attention from her comments at the Cartwright press conference into positive attention about her ability to play the long game. I think her challenge to the Commissioner is a warning – if I were him, I'd watch my back."

The Hamptons, Saturday ~8:30 AM

"Again," Beckett demands of an exhausted Castle.

"You're kidding, right?" Castle groans while catching his breath. "At this rate, my rehab will kill me."

"Just one more time and we'll get cleaned up for breakfast," Beckett tempts, until they're both distracted by the ringing of Castle's cell phone.

"That's Alexis," Castle says to Beckett's nod, reaching for the phone. While Castle starts to talk to his daughter, Beckett takes the opportunity to taunt him, engaging in some of her most suggestive yoga poses while he struggles to form coherent words for his conversation with his daughter.

"All set," Castle declares as he quickly tosses his phone aside, eyes still firmly attached to Beckett. "That was my daughter being prudent, giving us a one-hour warning before she arrives with my mother and your father."

"Whatever could we do while we wait?" Beckett asks, continuing her yoga routine while wearing only what she'd included in her Bag of Indulgence for Castle.

"Oh, I know what I want to do," Castle growls in response.

"I thought you were worn out," Beckett says breathily as she stands and slinks towards the bed. "Which doesn't make sense, since I'm the one doing all the work…"

"Oh, Beckett," Castle says with a rough, low voice, "you need to have more faith in me. As soon as I'm healed, I'll be able to love you properly."

"Castle," Beckett says earnestly as she begins to crawl across the bed to him, "you've been loving me properly for years."

The Hamptons, Saturday ~1:30 PM

"So, how's your dad?" Castle asks as Beckett approaches where he's been sitting on the beach, watching the water and thinking for the past half hour.

Rather than take a seat next to him, Beckett holds out her hands to help him stand. Frowning at his lack of a sling, she refrains from saying anything, but he knows what she's thinking. "Tan lines, Beckett. No slings on the beach. Besides, the therapeutic virtue of surf and salt air more than compensate."

"Is that your medical opinion, Dr. Castle, or have your spirit crystals identified this beach as a source of convergent chi fields?" Beckett smirks as Castle dusts the sand off himself.

"You know, Beckett, I'm not sure which of those would be more cool," he says with a laugh, watching her face to see if he can coax out a smile. Beckett can see that he realizes her smile doesn't reach her eyes. Before she can say anything, he holds out his right hand and says "Walk with me?"

"I've got to, right?" she replies, trying to lighten her mood. "It's one of our things."

Castle wears his own soft smile as they start to walk, but he remains quiet, allowing Beckett to frame her thoughts. She can't help but to steal looks at him, though. She still can't believe that they're here, that she's reached a place in her life where she can walk unencumbered on a beautiful beach, holding hands with a beautiful man, her future wide open before her.

"Dad's okay," she says, breaking her silence. They continue walking collecting thoughts as well as shells.

"My idea about holding off on charges from mom's case caught him off guard," she says quietly, forcing Castle to strain to hear over the sound of the waves, "but he likes the idea better than I do. I'm … not confident that he would make it through the trial without doing something drastic if we were talking about mom."

They walk a few more steps before Castle speaks. He's careful to keep his eyes on the horizon, trying to give her emotional distance, though he's not willing to leave her side.

"What happened?" he asks quietly, knowing from her tone that something has Beckett troubled.

"We spoke in the library," she answers, thinking of the peaceful room in his house that only an author could design as such a welcoming haven, even set on the paradise of the beach. "There was a moment when we first started talking about my plan when his eyes darted to the cabinet where you keep your scotch …"

"Oh, Beckett, I'm so sorry. I didn't even think," Castle says, disgusted with himself. "We can dump it all as soon as we get back."

"No, Rick, no," Beckett soothes, dropping his hand and clasping his elbow instead, letting her head fall sideways against his upper arm even as they continue their walk. "I know it's a daily struggle, and I know that he'll have to fight temptation every day of his life." She goes quiet as they continue walking, but both of them know that there's something more fundamental on her mind.

After a few minutes, she takes a deep breath and hazards more words. "I'd just let myself hope for this as the happy ending that erases all of our problems. But it's not. Habits we developed over years aren't going to just disappear because Bracken has to face a trial. I've never really thought about what we do now, how we deal with the damage, how we find new goals."

"One day at a time," Castle says softly, "with the people we love."

His quick response strikes a chord and encourages Beckett to tug on his arm so that the plop down on the beach, looking out over the water. Leaning heavily against him, Beckett enjoys the serenity of the moment and the beauty of their surroundings before continuing.

"Thank you, Rick," she says while giving him a squeeze. "We'll find our way, we always have. I'm just going to apologize now for some of the hand-wringing that might follow."

"Kate," Castle says while taking her hand. He seems to be struggling with something, but Beckett gives him the same patient silence that he gave her. "I think I've made my intentions for us clear, maybe frighteningly so. This is it for me, has been it for me for a while now. I will do anything to fight for our future together." He pauses, clearly on the cusp of whatever it is that has him concerned. "Anything," he repeats quietly, "including letting you go, if that's what you need."

"Oh, Rick," Beckett sighs and leans even more into him. "Not that. Never that."

"I know you're a private person, Kate," Castle continues, fighting himself to release the words. "And if you need to work this out on your own, I'll be here. I'll always be here."

"I know that, Castle," Beckett speaks with conviction through the tears that have started to gather, "I know that. It's my bedrock, my touchstone, that faith I have in your presence and support. Please hear this, Rick: we're here now, together and safer than we've ever been, because of you, because you've always been there." Placing her head on his good shoulder, Beckett wants desperately for him to believe, but he's still tense.

"I'm not the tainted gift?" Castle asks quietly, and Beckett is once again taken by the difference between the brash bravado of his public reputation and the emotional vulnerability of his true personality.

"No, Rick," she says with a sigh. "I know what you're talking about, and I've thought it through. I don't know what Montgomery's motivations were toward me, whether the times he seemed to be helpful were genuine or were designed to steer me away from advancing my mom's case. So, I don't know whether his encouraging your efforts at the precinct, his encouraging me to let you in, were made with good intentions or not. But it doesn't matter. 'You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good,'" Beckett concludes, pulling a quote from the recesses of her memory.

This catches Castle's attention, causes him to first look at her and then rest his head against hers.

"What did you say about our near misses, our 'near-tragic romance story'?" Beckett asks. "It all brought us to this point. I don't care how we got here. We're here, together, in love," she says with a squeeze, "with our enemy vanquished, or at least torn down."

Castle remains quiet, but she feels him relax as he delivers a sweet kiss to the crown of her head.

"So," he says with a brighter tone, "we look forward?"

"'Onward!' As someone I love once said," she replies with a smirk.

"We've got a blank canvas, Kate. We've got options. Maybe we can build some theory this weekend, trace out what we want to do for Act Three?" Castle suggests.

"Let's do it, Rick," she says as she stands and again helps him up. "For now, let's go enjoy some time with our family. We don't need to make any decisions today."

"Agreed," Castle says with satisfaction. "NYPD or FBI, New York or Chicago, or something entirely new and different. We're young," he says, provoking a raised brow, "relatively," he appends with feigned annoyance, "talented, and rich. The world is our playground."

Humming in satisfaction, Beckett holds onto Castle's right arm as they start the walk back toward the beach house. They're not alone on the sand, occasionally passing others, but paying them no mind. Beckett's enjoying the sun and surf until she feels Castle tense beside her.

"Looks like one more round," he mumbles as a jogger approaches them. With nearly silver blond hair in a ponytail, expensive workout clothes, and dark sunglasses, she looks like an aggrieved trophy wife making a break for it.

"Am I still not supposed to say your name?" Castle asks as the woman approaches, provoking an annoyed huff in response.

"What gave me away?" Danielle Britton asks as she bends to pretend to attend to the laces on her running shoes.

"The way you move," Castle replies affably. "You look much different, but you move the same way."

"Nice to know that you were looking," Britton says with a smile, testing Beckett's patience for this meeting. Before she can enter the discussion, Castle pipes up.

"You still okay? I've got some resources out here if you need help," he offers.

"You are a nurturer, I'll give you that," Britton replies cheekily. "But I'm good. In fact, I'm great now. I'm legit – new employer, clean record, and a world of opportunity."

"That's … great," Beckett manages, wondering how Britton skirted the consequences of her previous loyalties.

"Thanks," Britton says with seeming sincerity as she stands up. Things might not have worked out as Britton had hoped, but she recognizes the effort that Beckett is making at being cordial.

"I left you a present," Britton says, turning to Castle. "Don't worry, it's not ticking or anything," she says with a laugh. "I didn't want to disturb your family, so it's in the trunk of your car."

"Should I thank you or head in the opposite direction?" Castle asks with a raised brow.

"Don't be a pansy now," Britton chides. "You've done so well so far. But heal up and keep up the gym routine," Britton says, and as fast as a blink she punches Castle's good shoulder before he can move. Shaking her head at his pathetic lack of reaction, Britton says "and keep sparring. We might need your help soon," she says as she stretches and prepares to resume her run.

"We?" Castle and Beckett ask in unison.

"Your dad's a good boss, Castle," Britton says, smiling at the sudden inhalations from both partners. "You've never been as alone as you might've thought." Seeing both of them momentarily at a loss for words, Britton sizes them up and prepares to leave. As happened in the premises of the old magic shop, though, she can't force herself to go without a final parting comment.

"'Be excellent to each other,'" she quotes wistfully, then resumes her jog down the beach.

The Hamptons, Saturday ~2:30 PM

Britton's nearly lost to sight by the time Castle shakes off his shock. Beckett roused earlier, but gave him the time he needed to come back to himself. Blinking owlishly, he turns to Beckett with a look of confusion.

"My dad?" he asks rhetorically. Beckett can only shrug, then take his arm and point them back towards the beach house.

"What are we, fate's whoopee cushion?" Castle asks as they walk. "More than a decade seeking justice for your mom, and as soon as that looks like it might be resolved, my dad appears after 40 years? Ridiculous."

"It looks like maybe we have one more option for our future than we thought," Beckett replies, trying to remain positive and optimistic. At Castle's quick look to her, she follows up. "Come on, Castle, this can't be a surprise. You've been at my side for years working to finish my mom's story. Of course I'll be at your side for your dad's."

"Extraordinary," Castle replies, tightening his hold on his partner. "Don't worry, by the way," he says after a few steps. "I'm not going to jump in impulsively. I've built a fantastic life without him, and I'm not going to jeopardize anything," he says while looking at her intently, "to know him. Especially if I have to be in good physical and fighting shape – that seemed a little odd."

"I know, right?" Beckett says with tongue in cheek, adopting one of Castle's sayings. As Castle chuckles in recognition, Beckett follows up: "It was odd, but also a little intriguing, right?"

"Maybe," Castle drawls in response, but his mischievous look gives away his interest, and Beckett laughs in response.

"Come on, Castle," she says, tugging on his arm to lead him up to the house. "Let's go see what's in your present."

Their joviality fades a bit as they enter the dark garage and face Castle's car. Opting to leave the garage closed, Castle pauses a moment before walking around to open the driver's door, reaching down to press the trunk release. The soft mechanic clang of the release echoes in the enclosed garage as the trunk lid rises halfway under its own power.

Walking around to the back of the car, Castle nudges the trunk lid to open it all the way. From her spot on the side of the car, Beckett can't see in the trunk but she does see Castle relax as he laughs.

"If it is a bomb," Castle says as he reaches into the trunk to extract the package, "at least I'll go out in style," he says as he closes the trunk and puts the package on top.

"Is that Bill and Ted wrapping paper?" Beckett asks incredulously.

"It is," Castle says with a chuckle. "'Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.'"

"Don't tell Alexis that I haven't seen this one, either," Beckett asks. "My required viewing list is already pretty long."

"It's one of my favorites," Castle acknowledges. "I'll look forward to introducing you next time we're in a mood for something a little light. Shall we?" he asks, nodding at the package.

"Let's get it on, Castle," she replies with a wink.

After a deep breath, Castle tears into the package like a young child who awoke early on Christmas morning. Wrapping paper discarded, Castle pulls the lid of a box free as Beckett moves to his side.

At first glance, the box contains two items, and Beckett sighs in delight at the sight of the first. There, sitting atop a book, is her personal sidearm, the one that Britton took after the confrontation in the old magic shop. Cradling it like a young girl might clutch a beloved stuffed animal, Beckett recognizes that while it might seem ridiculous, she loves this weapon, has depended on it, and felt oddly exposed with its loss. Her appreciation of and tolerance for Britton raises a bit as Beckett realizes that the ex-FBI agent understands what this means.

Looking up, she expects to see Castle ready to tease her about the heart-felt reunion scene. Instead, she sees a look of far-away introspection on his face as his fingers gently stroke the cover of Casino Royale. Recognizing that there's a significance to this scene, Beckett stands beside Castle with an arm around him, anchoring him while he floats on whatever memories cascade around him.

"When I was young," he says, "a man gave me this book. It was my first inspiration," he says quietly. "I haven't talked about it. If he knew … Kate, I think I met my father, long, long ago."

Castle trails off into silence again, the best indication that he's truly shaken. Slowly, reverently, he lifts the book from the box. Gently opening the cover produces three more surprises.

The first: $2,000 in cash. Apparently Britton was intent on returning everything she borrowed during or after their meeting.

The second: an index card with two small chips taped to it, copies of the ones Castle had found that night in the Old Haunt, which they'd assumed had been planted by the FBI, maybe by Britton herself. Scrawled on the card is a short note: 'It's easier to keep an eye on you if I know where to look.'

The third: a business card bearing nothing but a phone number and another scrawled note: 'Call me.'

"Come on, Castle," Beckett says as she tugs his arm after their inventory is complete. "Let's get back into the light. I want to spend some time with the people we love, and then we'll decide what we'll do next."

"Together?" he asks as he closes the book and extends his elbow to her.

"Together," she confirms as she hooks her arm through his. "Always."

A/N: For those of you have made it to the end, many, many thanks. It was a much longer journey than I planned, but it's been a blast. In wrapping this up, there are three points I'd like to make:

An Appreciation. It may be ridiculous, but those email notifications alerting me to new reviews, PMs, followers, or favorites sure lifted my spirits along the way. I want to thank everyone who took the time to read Breaking Away or send reviews or PMs. I especially want to thank CaskettFan5, who provided excellent feedback and advice, and who was kind enough to communicate through PM after showing an uncanny ability to predict where this story was going.

A Confession. Now that it's done, I can admit that this story went places I never intended it to go. As initially charted out, it was supposed to have been around 12 chapters, the same general length as Just Along for the Ride, which set up this story. But my goal with Breaking Away was to show that the characters we enjoy could engage on meaningful levels, could build viable emotional relationships without sacrificing the humor, tension, and mystery of the show. Whether successful or not, laying the groundwork for that goal took more words than I expected, but was also great fun.

A Request. If you made it this far, I'm hoping that I can coax you just a little bit further. As I try to figure out this creative writing thing, it would really help to know where I did something well or where something just didn't work. If you could drop me a line (review or PM, whatever) to let me know one thing that you liked or hated, found interesting or distracting, or even dialog that worked or didn't, I'd greatly appreciate it. I've got four potential stories that I could explore, all of which will be a bit different from this one (ranging from angsty pre-Caskett to bizarrely AU to an alternate meeting AU), but I think I'll start by adding a chapter to Coming Clean. Any effort will be improved by constructive feedback.

As for Breaking Away: The End. (At least for now.)