Disclaimer: I do not own Castle or the recognizable characters used in this story. But my thanks to those who created them and let us play.

A/N: A reminder for the AU setup: "Beckett" refers to the character we all know, while "Kate" is how her AU twin is referenced. Like the show, Beckett usually thinks of her husband as Castle, while Kate thinks of him as Rick.


Standing in front of the window, Castle ignores the undone tie draped around his neck and the glass of whiskey in his hand. Instead, he's staring forward, looking past his reflection in the glass to focus on the churning, slate-grey sea beyond. For an author, it's a metaphor that's a little too obvious.

Taking a sip of his drink, he's surprised only that his melancholy took so long to arrive. He'd known that today would be difficult, that he'd need some time to himself. Today is about rising from the ashes, about looking forward. But he can't define the future without looking at the past. He's tried that before and it's ended in failure every time. So, as much as it hurts, he's going to do this right, which means thinking about everything that happened from the day he lost Beckett.

It's a gentle place to start, since he can remember so little of that day – just a gray fog of despondency and disbelief. He can almost make out vague scenes of Kate caring for him, but he doubts these memories are genuine. It's too likely that his guilt, shock, and inherent desire to reclaim the past created these false recollections to calm his troubled soul. Goodness knows he needed some peace, some promise of relief after what happened in the alternate reality. But he knows himself well enough to know that he was probably no better than an inert zombie for days.

And even if the scenes in his mind are suspect, he's still certain that Kate did care for him in those first, terrible days. In fact, that first day almost broke them and might've saved them. Unwilling to leave him alone, Kate sacrificed the opportunity to return to her reality until many hours later, after he finally collapsed in pharmaceutical-induced sleep. By then, Beckett's body had already been found and as far as all in that reality were concerned, Captain Beckett of the 12th precinct was dead. Kate returned long enough to call the Alexis in that reality and to collect some precious keepsakes from her apartment, which had already been searched by investigators. Since then, they've talked often about what happened on that terrible day and Kate assured him every time that she would've stayed in his reality regardless. Castle's pretty sure he believes her now.

In disguise, they returned to her reality a week later for what is easily the lowest point of his life. Security was tight in general, considering that the captain was murdered, and they in particular had reason to hide. There was still a chance that Castle would be recognized, but Kate would certainly stand out. Although not to her father, who'd been missing from before Jackson grabbed Bracken. Alexis received a place of honor at the funeral as a friend of the departed, and the transmitter she wore allowed Kate and Castle to listen to the ceremony from the other side of the cemetery. If anyone noticed them, a couple dressed in black and shedding fat, ugly tears hardly seemed out of place. After the service, Alexis had sought them out, encouraged them to get back to where they were safe. They'd laughed at that, thinking that either reality was perilous for them.

But that's what held them together in those first, tortured days – the gentle investment in their wellbeing by Castle's daughter from the other reality. After the funeral, they'd given the lone, surviving artifact to Alexis and encouraged her to visit, going so far as to set a regular night for her appearances. Having lived a year without her father seemed to have instilled in the young woman a joy at the idea that she could be a part of his life again, even help him. Having missed the growing pains of Castle's relationship with Beckett, this version of Alexis was happy to see her father and Kate spending time together, both because she considered Kate a friend and because she'd witnessed the series of flings her father's despondency had encouraged and considered Kate far superior to the previous women in his life, including Meredith and Gina.

Beckett's text was the other thing that helped keep them together at the start. It would've been easy for Castle to resent Kate's survival, to question her motives or her story that Beckett had made her promise to get her husband and her cell phone to safety if anything happened. But the text sounded like Beckett, and her dying blessing when telling Castle "take his wife and be happy," made her terrible plan obvious in retrospect. True to her character, Beckett had made her own choice. It wasn't the first time Castle was frustrated with one of Beckett's decisions, but knowing that she'd chosen her path helped hold back the guilt, for a while.

After the funeral, Castle and Kate had become almost reclusive. Castle returned to the precinct to work cases and Beckett ran the precinct, but there was a noticeable change in their behaviors. Both clocked off at quitting time, even if it meant Castle left Ryan and Esposito at a crime scene. Kate was still the captain of a busy police precinct, so they often continued working at home. Leaving the precinct allowed them to avoid the prying eyes and let them focus on trying to find a way forward in peace. While it had the added benefit of helping Kate get up to speed on how things differed in this reality, it also helped them establish a routine in which they spent quiet time together, where working on even the administrative nonsense from the precinct helped them build a rapport and a fledgling friendship.

Their friends and colleagues noted the change. Most were mollified by quiet words that they were together again and taking time to rebuild their relationship. For most, this was welcome news, even if it was treated with only cautious optimism. But the free pass wasn't complete. Vikram disappeared two weeks after they returned the precinct and Kate ignored his requests for meetings in favor of spending time with Castle. And Esposito and Ryan grew exceptionally curious when they tried to report this news to Kate, who had no idea what the "Livingston case" was about, though she covered well once it became apparent they were talking about Vikram. The boys seemed to excuse her lapse in light of the other changes in her life, but when out in the field, Castle had the feeling that questions and comments from the boys were designed to elicit more information than he was willing to share.

Life at the loft had changed, too. While the Alexis from the alternate reality visited regularly, the Alexis that Castle had raised rarely turned up, still hurt by the way her father had been treated and by his unwillingness to listen to her advice. Averse to be completely excluded from his life, she'd taken to seeking him out for lunch or dinner where the two of them could reconnect. That wasn't a great solution, but it bought Castle and Kate time and helped avoid awkward questions about why Kate was staying in the guest room. In fact, aside from Alexis' absence, the living arrangement had reminded Castle of when Beckett had stayed at the loft after Dunn destroyed her apartment. The similarity contributed to his feelings of guilt, but it had helped, too.

"I asked her about that," Kate had offered quietly over dinner one night when Castle confessed to his confused feelings and recollections, "asked her if that's when the two of you got together."

Castle, who still remembers that he'd been torn between curiosity at Beckett's response and concern that an answer would make him feel worse about having Kate in the loft, hadn't been able to manage a reply at the time. But Kate provided one anyway, perhaps in an effort to help drive them toward some resolution of the limbo that the loft was starting to represent.

"She said it wasn't," Kate said as she ducked her head to catch Castle's eyes, "but that it should've been. She wouldn't explain why, though."

Castle had chuckled about the comments, even then. "I'm not surprised," he'd said with a fond smile on his face. "We both missed opportunities before we finally connected, and even talking about them later wasn't very comfortable."

"But you have a story," Kate had said, knowing him well enough to know that Castle would've explored this idea, even if he and Beckett hadn't discussed it.

"I think," Castle speculated, "it was about fighting expectations, retaining control. We had a spark of attraction right from the start," Castle said, which had prompted a blush in both Kate and himself. "Others saw it, assumed we'd act on it. I had a reputation as a playboy, and Beckett had been a bit of a wild child back in the day, even if she was buttoned down at work. So, it just seemed like something that should happen. Especially after she moved in here. And instead of seeming like fate, it seemed like a loss of control – everything was pointing in one direction and she started to resent what felt like a loss of choice. So," he'd said with a sad shrug, "she fought it. Found a way to show that she was in control, still had options."

That conversation, which had started so innocently, soured as the days went on as the lack of control that Castle mentioned seemed to be occurring again, infecting the interactions between he and Kate. He still frequently saw Beckett, not Kate, when he turned to her. Worse, he was wracked with guilt when he recognized her as Kate, concerned that he was dishonoring Beckett's memory. Kate experienced her own turmoil as she struggled to understand whether her feelings for Castle, which had started as a deep attraction, were motivated by love, respect, or guilt. And while she was overjoyed at having a father again, her pleasure sharpened the guilt she felt for her father's disappearance in her old reality. Surrounded by these oppressive emotions and cloistered in their quiet life at the loft, Kate and Castle found it increasingly difficult to get perspective on whether they were fated, or cursed, to be together.

Things came to a head when Beckett needed to see a doctor to complete a routine annual physical. She and Castle realized that she couldn't see any of the physicians who'd treated Beckett – the sudden absence of the trauma suffered from a sniper's bullet would prove too difficult to explain. So, they'd worked to collect all of Beckett's medical files so that they could be edited and adjusted before Kate sought new physicians. It was Kate who'd gasped at reading the cardiologist's file. After suggesting to Castle that he leave it alone, she reluctantly handed over the folder, unsure about whether it was wiser to stay and offer support or to afford him some privacy. He made the decision moot, turning immediately to the documents that described, in clinical detail, the complications due to her operations and the likely difficulty Beckett would've faced in trying to have children. The doctor's concerns were not limited to delivery, as even carrying a baby was considered high-risk.

This sudden insight into what Beckett might've meant when she wrote 'She hasn't been hurt the way I have, she can give you the family I feared I couldn't' hit Castle like a hammer. At first, Kate thought he was furious that his wife had withheld the information from him. But as she carefully cajoled some reaction out of him, she learned otherwise. "Families come in all shapes and sizes," he'd finally groaned, head in hands.

The thought that his hopes or expectations might've contributed to Beckett making her extreme decision finally broke Castle. He withdrew into himself, a haunted look clinging to him despite the attentions or efforts of either the visiting Alexis or Kate. Even Alexis from his reality dared to visit the loft when her father stopped returning phone calls.

Kate left them alone, hoping that a father-daughter conversation might help rouse Castle. Her hope was misplaced, at least initially. Alexis emerged from the office looking no happier. She was so upset, in fact, that she spoke with Kate. To this day, neither Kate nor Castle knows what tipped her off, but Alexis saved them that day.

"Beckett saw a therapist," she'd said to a surprised Kate. "She took dad when his nightmares got bad. I think," she'd said while looking intensely at Kate, "maybe both of you should talk with him." With that bomb dropped, she'd walked to the door and was halfway out before she turned back. "Good luck, Kate."

And so it was that Dr. Burke was surprised to find a three-hour block of an afternoon reserved for an inaugural session with Kate Beckett and Rick Castle. Alarmed by the sudden return of his former patient (whom he'd privately thought would've benefited from more regular sessions), Dr. Burke's wildest imaginings proved a poor guess at what that visit entailed. With Castle still despondent, Kate took the lead in planning their session, which included borrowing a certain item from the other Alexis.

The therapy session had started as normal: reintroductions and pleasant, forced chatter. But Kate had seized control in the opening minutes, explaining to Dr. Burke that she and Castle had issues that really couldn't be addressed without some radical therapy. So flabbergasted was Dr. Burke that his normally reticent patient had suggested something intense, he had just nodded and followed Kate's lead, even as she asked him to stand and extend a hand. Then, after linking her other hand with Castle, Kate clasped her therapist's hand before all went white.

Dr. Burke found his instantaneous appearance in a cemetery fairly disconcerting. And just as he'd blinked his eyes clear and restored some of his composure, his eyes alit on Beckett's gravestone, there beside Johanna's. There was space for a third marker, but this Jim had not yet been found and Kate had been resolute in refusing to believe the worst.

On a bench in a dreary cemetery, Kate had explained the whole story, without embellishment or omission. She described the desperation that had led her to find Rick, her fear of rejection that motivated her disingenuous approach. She told him how Castle had seen through her charade and still helped her, stopping short of leaving with her. In halting, guilt-laden words, she confessed to stealing him away, dragging him here in an effort to secure his help and his affections.

Her faltering had seemed to rouse Castle, who described in dispassionate detail what he'd done in this reality. Dr. Burke smiled at the description of his meeting with his daughter, but that smile curdled when Castle shifted to describe meeting his father. That admission led seamlessly to confessing the kidnapping, torture, and murder of a US senator. Dr. Burke had still been obviously trying to figure out his reporting requirements for the attack on a man who'd already been condemned and murdered in his own reality when Castle moved to the next part of the story, which included hit squads, more violence from Castle's father, and Beckett's greatest sacrifice. At this point, Castle had withdrawn again, unable to continue. Rather than speak, he'd reached into his pocket and retrieved his phone, showing Dr. Burke the last text message he'd received from Beckett.

It was a credit to Dr. Burke that he agreed to continue their meeting. He'd clearly been deeply disturbed by the notion of an alternate reality, much less frank descriptions of kidnapping, assault, murder, and domestic kill-teams. Ultimately, though, he seemed to adopt an attitude that the alternate reality was a type of reverse-Jungian archetypal construct, a psychological phantom zone in which harsh realities could be deconstructed and explored in a hypothetical plane. "Like Vegas," Castle recalls joking. Burke hadn't appreciated the humor, but he remembers Kate's joy at hearing his first joke since learning of Beckett's health news.

Despite his efforts to appreciate some kind of academic acceptance of the alternate reality, Dr. Burke's joy at returning "home" to his office had been palpable. Still, despite his trauma, Dr. Burke confessed that the "field trip" had been a justified if terrifying excursion, for without it he certainly would've diagnosed a particularly vivid form of shared delusion. Instead, he accepted their story enough to fashion a treatment plan for a pair of adults suffering a lifetime's worth of internal and external wounds. As he moved past the fantastical premise and cemetery visit, Dr. Burke had embraced the challenge Kate and Castle represented, though he was typically frank – he was not convinced that they should be together, either in therapy or in general. But he agreed to help them.

Thus began several long, trying months where Kate and Castle coexisted while trying to build a stable friendship. But while they'd been idle, the world kept moving.

The first surprise was a visit from Castle's father and his wife, who had brazenly knocked at the door to the loft one night without warning or announcement. His father smirked when Castle asked if the doorman to his building was unharmed, which did not instill confidence. But Rita chastened Jackson with a look before turning to address Kate. "It's over – your Locksat case is over," she'd said. Then, after a shrewd look, she'd added "But you know that already, don't you?"

Kate's simple nod was sufficient communication for the ladies, but for Jackson it prompted a whoop and an overly vigorous slap to Castle's back. "I'm impressed," he'd said proudly while looking at his son and Kate. "I didn't think you had it in you. But you did it exactly the right way – just like I would've done it."

Neither Castle nor Kate had confessed anything about alternate realities or how the plan they'd implemented upon return from Beckett's funeral was one that the alternate version of Jackson had concocted. Instead, they'd asked enough questions to learn about a gruesome "accident" that had claimed the life of a CIA Director and his team, a freak vehicle malfunction that had plunged the group – which was traveling together for a reason no one seemed to know – into a ravine. And if some of the injuries on the charred, recovered bodies seemed inconsistent with the occurrence or timing of the accident, not many questions were asked.

"Was Vikram included in the group?" Kate had asked hesitantly of Rita, receiving a head shake in reply.

"Perhaps. Probably," she'd amended. "Not all of the bodies were recognizable. If your pathologist has prints, DNA, or dental records, we could try to determine if he's among the unidentified."

Kate had promised to check and forward information along, but the conversation wound down after that. Neither Kate nor Castle felt entirely comfortable in the company of Jackson and Rita, the memory of their encounter in the alternate reality still too fresh. Castle was also wary of an unexpected visit from his mother, which might cause some interesting drama.

Still, their visit was better than the next unexpected arrival at the loft. Castle's second wife'd had her fill of waiting for him to get over whatever block had made him unwilling to write another Nikki Heat novel. She'd arrived in a towering fury, which grew even blacker when she realized that Castle was not in the loft alone.

"I thought you left him," she'd said bluntly to a Kate who looked momentarily taken aback before shifting gears quickly.

"I would never be so stupid," Kate replied with equal frankness, happily staring Gina down. "I did what was necessary to protect him. I will always do what's necessary to protect him. And right now, that includes showing you out."

Shocked by Kate's assertive response, Gina had actually wavered in place, which was the end of her visit. Kate had approached calmly and taken Gina's arm to escort her to the door. She explained, along the way, that Castle was not under contract and was in fact exploring new ideas, with her blessing and support. She did not share, because Gina didn't need to know, that Castle's writing was now more of a therapeutic device discussed with Dr. Burke to help address his feelings of guilt. Even though much of Castle's previous work contained hints of his actual life, his current character – a guilty man whose court case fell apart on a technicality and who'd been seeking redemption ever since – was simply too nakedly a literary version of Castle. Perhaps it would later inspire a novel, but it was motivated by a different purpose. A purpose that Gina would neither appreciate nor honor if it meant the possibility of a new Richard Castle series.

But while Castle had been idle on the writing front in his reality, Naked Heat was selling surprisingly well for his daughter in the alternate reality. In fact, the book had spurred an interest in determining who 'the real Nikki Heat' might be, given the seeming authenticity of the tale. Those who knew of Castle's first foray to the alternate reality thought they knew, even though Alexis had respected her father's request to remove the dedication. The phoenix carved on Beckett's gravestone seemed to support their suspicions.

The discussion of Nikki Heat's success in the reality from which she arrived had prompted Kate to finally ask Castle what happened the night he returned from her reality the first time. Looking back on it now, he recognizes it as one of the major turning points in his life, though it hardly seemed so significant at the time.

"What happened, Rick?" Kate had asked carefully, but with genuine interest. "When you left me, you were so fearful, worried that you wouldn't make it back or that she wouldn't take you back if you did. Instead, you married later that day. How?"

Castle remembers thinking about how to answer, before offering a response as simple then as it was the first time with Beckett. "We just did. We realized we were waiting without really knowing why. So, we just stopped waiting."

Kate had pondered that answer for several long moments, turning it over in her head and examining it. Just when he'd expected her to retreat from the emotional topic she'd never breached before, she'd surprised him. She pinned him with a look a handful of simple words. "Do you think you could do it again?"

So, without fanfare, another near-death experience, intervention by friends or foes, or a raging thunderstorm, their relationship changed direction that day, turning like a small creek that finds an easier path to the river. Kate and Castle began a fragile, chaste courtship. It had built slowly, by necessity, with halting steps forward and temporary setbacks. But the relationship they built was stronger for the care that'd gone into the foundation.

A knock on the door captures Castle's attention. "Come in," he calls out, still looking out at the sea and still holding a glass of whiskey. "Hey Pumpkin," he says as he hears the door open. "I'll be ready soon. Just lost track of time."

"Not sure any of your women would like to hear you calling me Pumpkin," Serena Kaye says from the doorway, leaning on the doorframe with her arms crossed and smirk in place. She looks lovely in her evening gown, as if ready for a lavish event.

"Serena?" Castle asks in surprise. "Sorry," he covers, realizing that his mother would be appalled by his manners. Setting his drink down, he approaches his guest. "I just didn't expect to see you."

"Alexis invited me," she explains as she walks into the room to meet Castle. He's wary about the hands that reach toward him, until they grab the ends of his undone necktie, about which he'd completely forgotten. "Your Alexis, I mean," she clarifies as she lifts his collar up before returning to his tie, "not the 'half-sister' she's hanging around with downstairs. No," she continues with a smile at Castle's look of surprise, "your daughter invited me. We've kept in touch. I made her promise that I'd get to see how the story ended."

"Serena…," Castle groans, not ready for unexpected surprises today. He reaches out to take control of his own tie, but gets his hand slapped gently for his effort. "Believe it or not, I've actually managed my own tie in the past. And look," he says while lifting and waggling a foot, "I can tie my own shoes, too."

"Relax," Serena laughs. "I'm not here to cause trouble for you."

"Still," Castle replies, trying again to regain control of his tie and getting his other hand smacked, "I'm not sure my wife would appreciate seeing you here."

"Your 'wife' doesn't even know me," Serena laughs in response, looping another end of his tie and causing Castle to wonder what kind of mischief she's managing with his neckwear. "She met me for all of about two minutes. Granted," she admits with pursed lips and a small nod, "she did manage to threaten my life in that brief moment, but I don't hold it against her."

"What do you mean?" Castle asks to buy a little time, unable to turn around with Serena holding his tie like reins. "You met Beckett years ago."

"I did," she agrees, looking up from his tie to see into his eyes, "but I thought we were talking about Kate."

With Castle shocked to stillness, Serena continues. "I notice things, Rick, even more now than I did when we first met. Artwork, artifacts, jewelry, I notice it all. Occupational hazard," she laughs, then undoes the knot at his neck either in dissatisfaction or to buy more time for their conversation.

"Her watch…," Castle mentions in a low voice, making the connection.

"I'd always noticed it. She's a beautiful woman, and the man's watch on her wrist was a unique look," Serena compliments. "I'd noticed it when we first met, and again when she was working with Alexis and I to try to bring you back," she says, looping the tie in a different direction this time. "So, I noticed its absence when I took the artifact, and again when she was aiming her gun at me to get it back."

"She died to save us," Castle confesses in a low tone. It's the first time he's confided in anyone outside his small family, not that even all of their family know. It feels odd, but liberating, too. Especially today.

"I know," Serena says gently, releasing his tie and smoothing her hands on his shoulders. "We figured it out. I'm a bit annoyed that you never gave me a call," she says with a tug on his lapels, "but Alexis and I pieced together what must've happened. It's one of the reasons she tried to give you a little space."

"Thank you," Castle says emotionally as he bends to drop a gentle kiss on Serena's cheek. "Does anyone else know?"

"Not from us," Serena says with a sly smile, "but for the son of a spy and a police captain, you two aren't exactly good at being covert. I think others suspect, but don't know."

"Like who?" Castle asks, curiosity warring with alarm.

"Like your partners from the precinct, you big dope," she says, swatting his shoulder. "And her friend from the morgue. I mean, come on? Today's event? Dead giveaway."

"Lots of couples renew their vows," Castle shrugs defensively.

"Sure," Serena agrees. "And some of them use the chance to do it right. By doing things like, let's see – actually planning in advance, inviting their friends and family to attend, using a chapel, hosting a dance. All good things to do if you missed out the first time," she says with a nod before quirking an eyebrow. "Or if you weren't there the first time."

Blushing, Castle looks down to inspect the shoes about which he'd bragged earlier. "She deserves a proper wedding," he mumbles.

"Hey," Serena says, lifting his chin with a finger to recapture his attention. "So do you. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. In fact, I think it's wonderful that you've found a way forward. We were worried," she confesses, her own eyes a little glassy.

"So was I," he admits with a huff, pulling a laugh out of Serena, too. "I'm not trying to replace Beckett," he says quietly, feeling like he needs to explain. "It took me a long time to see Kate as someone different. Similar, sure, but different. She has to be Kate Beckett to everyone else, everyone who knew Beckett here. But to me, she's Kate," he says with quiet power. "My Kate."

"Your Kate," Serena agrees, patting him on the cheek before stepping away. "Who's waiting at the chapel. Which is another total giveaway, by the way," she snarks. "So, come on – check your tie, then get moving. The Alexi and I are your ride."

After checking himself in the window's reflection and giving her an impressed nod of approval, Castle returns to Serena's side and offers an elbow to escort her down to his waiting daughters. "Thank you," he says again, patting the arm that's looped around his. They both know the gratitude is more about her listening than her deft hand with a Shelby knot.

"You know, Rick," she answers in a bracing tone, clearly unwilling to be drawn into another emotional discussion, "I was a damn good thief. But I'm not in your league," she praises, pulling a startled look from the man beside her. "With danger, corruption, murderers, betrayal, you managed to steal a little peace, happiness, and love. Now, you know the old saying, right?" she asks pointedly as they approach his daughters, who look like they've teamed up to admonish him about running late.

"The one about doing the same thing but expecting a different outcome?" Castle asks with a quirked brow, wondering if she's going to tease him after all.

"No," Serena scolds with a look, "we just got done talking about what you're doing differently. No, I was talking about the saying in my old trade – there are no good, old thieves. You know why?" she asks. "Because if they're good, they know when to take their winnings and give up the trade. It's time, Rick," she says gently as she disengages from his side. "You're too good to keep going. Take what you have and live. It's what she would've wanted," she finishes by stepping away.

"It's what I want, too," Castle admits with a smile as his daughters flank him, each taking an arm to lead him to the car, where he'll start the next chapter of his life. "It's what I've always wanted."

AN: Another story completed. I hope you enjoyed the ride, though it might've been a bit jarring at times. If so, please drop me a note. I always enjoy hearing what people found most interesting. For me, I think I actually got the most out of writing the scene where Castle meets with Alexis from the other reality for the first time. Second chances, I guess.

Also, should you find any mistakes or typos in what you read (here or in other stories of mine), I'll fix them if you drop me a note. Just don't try any funny business – I did not misspell "Beckett" as "Kate" at the end of chapter nine.

Next up, One Quarter. The first several chapters are ready, but I want to write a few more before I start to post. I promise, no flitting between alternate realities or developing unusual abilities in that story.

And, finally, Happy Mother's Day! Time to put this down and go cook brunch.