Title: One Quarter

Rating: T

Timeline: Follows Setup/Countdown but goes AU from there.

Summary: Pulling all the wires might have stopped the bomb, but life at the 12th still explodes. An AU story set immediately following Countdown. #CastleFicathon Summer 2016.

Disclaimer: I do not own Castle or the recognizable characters who appear in this story. Any other names, for characters or businesses, are fictional.

A/N: Another story that takes a left turn after an episode in the series, but one that stays true to the conventional aspects of the show, nothing outlandish like some of my other stories. This tale isn't offered from different perspectives; instead, the camera will shift to follow whoever is involved in a scene. I'm hoping to make this dialog-heavy, but we'll see how that works out. Unless used for emphasis, bold text indicates text messages.

Finally, this story starts with a bit of a rough situation that will shake things up a bit. Trust that there are different roads that lead to the same place.

Can you talk?

Not now, Castle. I just need some time to process what happened.

It won't take long, then I'll leave you alone.

I need some time to myself to get past what happened.
Just give me until Tuesday.

We need to talk before then.
It'll be quick.

I said no, Castle. We can talk at work.

It's about work.

Then it can definitely wait 'til Tuesday.

Week One

"Detectives, my office," Montgomery calls from the doorway, beckoning Beckett, Ryan, and Esposito. It's early on a murder-free Tuesday morning, their first day back in the office since an incredible week that included a freezer car and a dirty bomb. Whoever said the NYPD didn't appreciate its workers – save 8 million people from exposure to nuclear radiation and you get a few extra days off and a quiet weekend. Who could ask for more?

Beckett's still feeling unsettled, even with the extra time. Shutting out everyone in her life this weekend didn't seem to help her find any clarity or wrestle with the concerns that built to a crescendo during their freezing incarceration, frantic search for the bomb, and climactic defusing. Her teammates seem to be acting like normal, though, already arguing good-naturedly about whether they're being called on the carpet for something or tasked with another, even more unbelievable case.

"Take a seat," Montgomery says from behind his desk, gesturing to the empty chairs. None of the detectives miss the fact that there are three guest chairs here instead of the usual two – this meeting was set up in advance, which means sometime before today. Nor do they miss the absence of a fourth chair. They haven't called Castle about a body drop, but he sometimes wanders in on his own. Clearly, he was going to be excluded from this meeting even if he had shown up this morning. The sum of these planning steps guarantees that each detective is keenly interested in the reason Montgomery called them in.

"I hope you enjoyed your time away?" he asks with a smile but doesn't wait for answers. "I don't often get the opportunity to do this," Montgomery starts with a little smile that blooms as he talks, "but the work you did last week went well above and beyond the call of what the NYPD or any federal agency could expect or hope for," he says while beaming at them. "And while we can't officially recognize what happened due to confidentiality concerns, there are some things we can do."

With that, he stands and turns to the shelf behind his desk. Turning around, the detectives can't help but notice the walnut plaques cradled in his arm. "These are just something you can hang on your wall or prop on your desk, a special recognition of the services you provided to the city. Your personnel files will also reflect the commendations received from both the NYPD and DHS. Congratulations," Montgomery says with deep emotion, "and thank you."

While Esposito and Ryan give each other high fives and flash each other poses with their plaques, Beckett leaves her plaque in her lap, focusing on it with an out-of-place intensity.

"Beckett?" Montgomery asks quietly, not breaking Esposito or Ryan from their antics. "Something wrong?"

"Why just three?" she asks in a clear voice, catching the attention of her teammates. "None of us disarmed the bomb. What about Castle?"

"Castle got his plaque on Saturday," Montgomery answers, looking surprised that Beckett didn't already know about this.

"But why not with us?" Beckett presses. Ryan nods along, his curiosity piqued. "He's part of the team; he should be here, too."

"You two didn't talk this weekend?" Montgomery asks, running a hand over his head. "You don't know?"

Three days earlier

"Come in, come in," Castle invites his friend the mayor into the loft. "Sorry for the trouble downstairs. You're on the pre-cleared list, even after cleaning me out last poker night, but the temp guy had some trouble finding you. 'Cause you know, your name's not very familiar in this city," he says with a teasing shake of his head.

"No worries, Rick," Bob offers with a laugh. "What's with the fashion statement?" he asks, gesturing at the comforter in which Castle's wrapped himself.

"Reliving my toga days again," Castle says with a smirk, pulling a chuckle from Bob.

"I don't recall you being dressed under your toga," Weldon says with a laugh, "or you being sober while wearing it. Getting old?"

"No, just cold," Castle answers with a sigh as he shuffles over to his seat in front of the fire, "and working on the sober part. Offer you a drink?" he asks as he gestures to the bottle of whiskey next to the nest he'd built for himself.

"Warming the inside as well as the outside? Sure, I'll have one," Weldon replies, pulling a chair over to join Castle by the fire. "We need to talk, and a drink will help."

"It's been a while since I've heard the 'we need to talk' line," Castle says grimly while he plinks some ice into a tumbler for his friend. "You breaking up with me?"

Smirking, Weldon holds out his hand to receive the drink, twirling the amber liquid a few revolutions while collecting his words.

"I hope not," Weldon says with more gravity than Castle expected. "I need to ask you something that'll strain our friendship," he admits. "But before we get started, I have a gift to soften the blow." With the hand not clutching a drink, Weldon reaches into the pocket of his blazer and hands Castle a small, wooden plaque.

"For services rendered to the City of New York and the United States of America," Castle reads aloud, "You are commended for the bravery shown during a time of great peril. A grateful city and nation recognize your heroism and commitment to protecting our citizens." He huffs as he flips the plaque over, wondering if there is anything more to the inscription. "What, not even an inspirational quote?"

"Copyright issues," Weldon mugs it up. "Seriously though, Rick, that's a big deal," he says while pointing at the plaque. "You saved my city. I know it, the NYPD knows it, and DHS knows it."

"Stop handling me, Bob," Castle teases. "You don't need to butter me up. Mother and Alexis are still out, so it's just the two of us. What's got you worried?"

"You have to keep the circumstances for that award confidential," Weldon answers. "No one can know how close this city came to another horrible disaster. Only a few of us know what happened," he repeats himself, "so your contributions will go unrecognized. Which is too bad, since it might get us out of this mess."

"What mess?" Castle asks, suspecting that they're closing in on the reason for Weldon's discomfort. "I've been behaving myself!"

"That you have," Weldon agrees with a laugh, "surprisingly. It's actually my mess, not yours," he offers before taking a generous swallow of whiskey. "I'm looking at a tough reelection campaign," he explains, "and a tough opponent."

"Not that jackass from last time around?" Castle says with a shake of his head. "I'm surprised that guy could find his way out of the polling booth, much less onto the ticket," he says in dismay. "Besides, I thought you were looking to move up in the world?"

"Soon, I hope," Weldon confesses, happy that he can speak freely with his friend. "One more solid term as mayor and I should have a fantastic runway for Governor or Representative," he says, probably not realizing the tone of awe that's crept into his voice.

"You've already got a great speechwriter," Castle compliments, getting a nod in return, "so what can I do to help?"

"I need you to leave the Twelfth," Weldon answers somberly.

"What?" Castle replies, cocking his head and using a pinky finger to pretend to clean out his ear. "I don't think I heard you right. Why would you need me to leave the Twelfth?"

"The DA is positioning himself to challenge me. Have you met him?" Weldon asks.

"DA Turner? Sure, I've met him a few times," Castle answers, eyes looking into the distance as he tries to recall his previous interactions with the DA. "Fundraisers and openings, those kind of things. Never in my work at the precinct, though. What'd I do to tick him off?"

"It's not about you," Weldon admits. "He's gearing up to campaign against me. He's planning to portray me as an old-time political operator, someone who loads my administration and appointed positions with unqualified cronies and opportunistic donors. You're on the list as one of the highest-profile examples."

With a sigh and a swallow of his drink, Castle thinks about the position his friend's found himself in, and how he can help. Leaving the precinct is unimaginable. But then he'd never have gotten in without Weldon's help in the first place. And he's painfully aware that Weldon could force him out.

After pondering different scenarios, each less palatable than the last, he turns to his friend. "You'd be in trouble regardless of why I stayed, wouldn't you?" Castle asks rhetorically. "Even if Montgomery or the Commissioner invited me to remain it'd still look like I was there through your patronage, or that they were trying to curry favor by humoring your friend." Seeing Weldon's slow nod, Castle sighs again. "How'd you find out?"

"I've got some friends in the DA's office," Weldon says with a small, mischievous smile. "So do you, as it turns out."

"Not that it matters," Castle grumps.

"It matters a lot," Weldon disagrees. "We know what Turner's planning. If you leave now, quietly and without fanfare, his most recognizable example evaporates before he knows it," he explains while making an exploding gesture with his free hand. "Who's he going to point at instead? The public doesn't care about the Director of Public Works or the Vice Chair of the Housing and Healthcare Committee. Turner'll either ostracize himself by jumping up and down about something that looks silly or he'll have to come up with a new strategy. Either way, we're in control. You could be back at the precinct in a few months."

Castle's looking at his drink again, rocking the glass to make the liquid swirl around as much as his thoughts. Weldon gives him space to think, sitting quietly and sipping his own drink. They both know what the answer has to be, so there's no reason to push.

"You'd damn well better win," Castle says to break the silence, trying and failing to hit a joking tone.

"That's the plan," Weldon agrees, looking at Castle to see if he's reading the comment the right way.

"I'll step away," Castle says to make his capitulation clear. "As much as it hurts, I'll step away."

"I'm really sorry about this, Rick, especially the timing. You saved us all and your reward is a kick in the teeth," Weldon admits.

"Politics got me in," Castle answers, "so I shouldn't be surprised that politics knocked me out. I do appreciate the way you've handled this, though," he says, obviously surprising his friend. "You could have ordered me out. You could've ordered Montgomery to toss me. You could've reminded me I only got in with your help. Instead, you just asked a friend for a favor."

"Just as you did a few years ago," Weldon answers, reminding them of how Castle's tenure at the Twelfth began. "Listen, I don't know Turner's timing, but he's probably not ready to roll, yet. You could probably go in for a few more days."

"No," Castle disagrees. "A clean break is probably best. Does anyone at the precinct know?" When Weldon shakes his head, Castle gives a grateful nod. "I'll talk to Beckett and Montgomery. I don't have much there, but I'll go in tomorrow and grab whatever I left, say goodbye to the place while the team's still out."

"Just temporarily," Weldon says to rally his friend's spirits. "We'll get you back as soon as we can."

"Perhaps," Castle mumbles, still depressed and lost in thought.

"Any idea what you might do until this gets sorted out?" Weldon asks to try to cheer his friend. "Maybe head to the Hamptons? Or, I know – a book tour. Talk your agent into scheduling something through the Mediterranean. A few well-placed signatures, rum drinks, and sandy beaches might improve your outlook a bit."

"Actually, I've got something else in mind," Castle says, and Weldon winces at the tone, hearing that trouble is on the way. "Sal's been after me again, and I've been thinking about the possibilities."

"In real life or for a character?" Weldon asks, cringing.

"Both, now," Castle confesses with a grin. "I've already done some prep. Would that blow back on you? Pursuing that option wouldn't do any good if Turner could still give you trouble."

"Lord knows I can't control Sal," Weldon says in some exasperation. "And his disdain for me is well publicized. So, it's safe from my perspective, but not from yours," Weldon answers grimly. "That's not the kind of thing you can just walk into, though."

"I know," Castle confesses. "I've already taken care of the formalities," he says, shocking his friend. "I just need to decide if I'm willing to jump."

"Convenient timing, eh?" Weldon asks with a cagey look and another drink.

"Serendipity," Castle replies with a raised glass and raised brow.

"You sure about this? It might make your return to the NYPD a little tricky," Weldon warns. "And what about Alexis – have you talked to her about this?"

"She'll be fine," Castle says dismissively while Weldon shoots him a dubious look.

"Well, I've leave you to fight that battle on your own," Weldon says with a chuckle. "In recognition of tonight's bad news, I'll also let the timing of your prep with Sal slide for now," Weldon says magnanimously. "But you and I are going to have some drinks after the next poker night. We'd better practice – pour me another and then tell me what you've got in mind."

"So he's gone?" Beckett demands of Montgomery. "That's it? His friend asks him to leave and Castle just walks away?"

"What choice did he have?" Montgomery asks, surprised that he finds himself between Beckett and Castle. "Say he refused to leave – then what? He's at odds with his friend – the mayor – who could sink us all with a single call to 1PP. Castle'd still get booted and we'd all be on the shit list. And don't forget the DA – anything Castle does to antagonize him would put us on the outs with his whole office. Want to guess how well that'd work out for us? No," Montgomery says with a sad shake of his head, "stepping away now is his only option, especially if he wants to protect us and preserve the possibility of ever coming back."

Beckett listens and doesn't challenge Montgomery's retort, but her anger and frustration are obvious to everyone in the room.

"It's gonna feel weird without him around," Ryan offers, trying to move the discussion onto less fraught ground.

"I can't believe he left without a party!" Esposito grouses. "Cheapskate. I mean, come on! He owns a bar now!"

"Don't worry, detective," Montgomery answers with a tone that suggests some disappointment, though it's not clear if it's aimed at the situation he described or Esposito himself. "No party this year, but he wanted me to pass along some going away gifts," he says as he opens his desk drawer. "Tokens of appreciation he called 'em," Montgomery says as he passes a labeled envelope to each of them. "Gentlemen," he says as both Esposito and Ryan have already torn into the envelopes, "Castle told me about what's in there – let me know when you'd like to plan your trip."

"No freaking way," Esposito says in awe as he stares at the voucher for plane travel. "Vegas?"

"Not just Vegas," Ryan interjects, having skipped past the voucher to reach the pamphlets. "Two days driving high-performance cars while we're there? Forget the Ferrari," he says with a voice of longing, "I've always wanted to race a Stingray."

"A day of stunt driving followed by a day of racing, I hear," Montgomery nods. "Try not to kill yourselves."

"You, too?" Ryan asks Montgomery before casting a look at Beckett.

"No," Montgomery answers with a laugh. "My wife and I are going on a romantic getaway, without the kids."

Smiling and nodding, the boys turn to Beckett to hear about her gift but are surprised that she's not moved to open her card.

"Sir," Beckett interjects, sounding grim and clutching her unopened card in her hand. "Can I take an hour of personal time? There's something I need to do."

"Go," the Captain nods, closing the meeting for all of them. "Your team'll call you in if anything drops. Say goodbye for us, too."

Feeling only slightly guilty for blowing by Eduardo at the security desk, Beckett uses the time in the elevator to figure out what to say to Castle. When the bell chimes to signal her arrival on the top floor, she's still grasping for how to approach this conversation, knowing that her anger is misplaced but struggling to find anything else to guide her discussion. Hoping that seeing him will provide some guidance and provide some focus, she strides down the hallway, preparing to knock on his door until he answers. With no possibility of getting called into the precinct, he's probably still asleep.

Taking one long, deep breath to center herself, Beckett raps crisply on the door before stepping back in surprise when it opens immediately.

"Oh, Beckett, hey," Castle says as he stands there with one shoe on and the other in hand, clearly preparing to leave the loft. "You stop by for coffee?" he asks with a playful grin, "I can't deliver them anymore, but I've got a few minutes if you need me to whip up a divine latte."

This unexpected reception makes her feel even more off balance, so Beckett just looks at him oddly for a moment until the object in her hand brings her back into focus.

"What is this?" she asks harshly as she thrusts her hand out, producing her crumpled envelop like a damning piece of evidence.

"A card?" Castle answers in confusion as he steps back to let her enter. "I was going to give you a call to go out for coffee this afternoon, but after leaving cards for the guys and Lanie, it didn't feel right to hold yours back. Don't you like it? I can get you something else."

"That's not the point!" Beckett nearly yells back at him. "You're leaving and all I get is this damned card? I knew from the start that you'd leave, but I thought you'd at least have the decency to say goodbye."

"Hold on," Castle objects with a look shifting from confused to angry, "what do you mean, you knew I'd leave? This wasn't a choice, Beckett – I could step aside gracefully and preserve the option to come back, or get kicked out after causing you a lot of trouble."

"How is it that you haven't listened to a word I've said for two years, but when your friend Bob comes calling, you drop everything?" she asks, using anger to mask her hurt feelings.

"I've listened to every single word you've said," Castle promises solemnly, "and many that you've not said. I've also tried to make sure that nothing I did jeopardized your job, which is what I'd be doing if I stayed, for both your team and the mayor. What am I supposed to do here, Beckett?" he asks in frustration. "What's the better solution?"

Pacing and frustrated with her inability to offer a better option, Beckett tries to figure a way out of this dilemma. "What if," she says with a pause and a speculative look, "what if we worked with you unofficially? You couldn't come into the precinct, but we could still call you, could still work together in the field and after hours."

"You know that wouldn't work," Castle offers sadly. "There're too many people who'd still know, including people who work with the DA's office. Perlmutter would nark me out like that," he says with a snap of his fingers while Beckett gives a grim nod of agreement.

"Come on, Beckett, cheer up!" he rallies. "You've looked forward to my departure since the day you arrested me. I thought you'd be happy about this. Or are you just so used to fighting with me that you can't help yourself anymore?" he teases.

"How can you say that?" she answers with a heartbroken question, losing her anger and instead looking hurt. "Why would I be happy about this? I already told you, Castle – I've gotten used to you pulling my pigtails."

If she'd hoped that the reference to their similar bygone discussion would lighten the mood, Beckett's mistaken. Instead, it's Castle who grows pensive, clearly struggling with whether to say what's on his mind. Beckett recognizes the expression and encourages him to speak with a raised brow and expectant look.

"That's the other reason we can't do this unofficially," Castle admits. "Why do boys tease girls? Why have I reveled in our sparring?" he asks with a long sigh. "I need a break, Kate. It's hard to get over you when I'm sitting three feet away."

"So, this is about Josh," she replies flatly. "So much for the always you promised me."

"You told me, just a few days ago, that you wanted to make things work with him," Castle says, using the opportunity to put on his other shoe and do up the laces as a way to avoid looking at her. "You can't do that with the way things are. It's not fair to me and it's not fair to Josh."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Beckett asks, knowing that she's changing moods again, returning to anger.

"It means that we both deserve more," Castle replies, getting angry himself. "You're a detective, for crying out loud. You know perfectly well how I feel about you. You're a beautiful woman, Kate, and you know it – you don't need me fawning after you to boost your self-esteem. And even if it feels good, I deserve more than that. Honesty about my chances, at least."

"That's not…," Beckett tries to interject, but Castle keeps talking.

"And Josh deserves more, too. Have you ever confided in him, talked to him about the things that you and I discuss all the time? Your mother, your father, your hopes for the future – does he know any of that?" Castle asks, finally looking up to see a stunned Beckett. "You've got two partial relationships right now, Beckett – I provide some emotional support and Josh provides some physical comfort. But that means that each of us provides a way for you to hide from the other. That can't work. Trust me," Castle says with a tone of long suffering, "I know that can't work."

"So I have to choose," Beckett finally says after thinking about Castle's words for several moments. "This stuff with the mayor is all a smokescreen to make me choose," she accuses, suspecting that she's being extreme.

"Beckett," Castle says in sad frustration while shaking his head, "you already made your choice. Twice."

Castle pauses, leaving some opportunity for Beckett to correct him, but instead she stares at him while looking skittish and confused.

"You've seen me at the precinct," Castle explains, "and you've seen me at home," he says, pointing towards the room in which she stayed after losing her apartment to a madman's bomb. "I don't get better than that, Kate," he confesses with a pause, while Beckett recalls how off-balance she felt after learning what he was like at home. "And you hooked up with Demming not two weeks after seeing me here," he says in demoralized resignation. "But still, I let my imagination run free, let myself hope."

"You said you didn't want me," Beckett answers in a small voice, shocking Castle. "That's what Tom said – that he asked and you said there was nothing between us."

Scrubbing his hair and looking at his watch, Castle groans in frustration. "If that's what he said, then he had some fun with the truth," he sighs, "not that I can blame him. He asked if the way was clear. As much as I wished the answer were different, I knew I had no claim on you. Plus," he says in an attempt to lighten the mood, "I think we both know what you would've done to me if you found out I chased off a potential suitor."

"But you did," Beckett contradicts, not out of anger but instead confusion. "You still invited me to the Hamptons, even before I broke it off with Tom."

"It turns out that I can't always contain my selfishness," Castle admits. "Even now. You'd just told me that you wanted to make things work with Josh and I was this far," he says, holding his finger and thumb up with virtually no distance between them, "from telling you… well, it's probably best that Josh showed up when he did," he demurs, skittering away from the topic again.

"Telling me what?" Beckett pushes.

"Always looking to secure the confession, eh, Detective?" Castle dodges, pulling out and shrugging into a black leather jacket to drive home his need to end this conversation. "Well, not this time. I think I've already said more than enough, more than I should have," he adds with a grimace. "I just want you to be happy, Kate. God knows you deserve it."

Beckett's quiet for a while, standing in place and thinking about Castle's unusual candor. "Things with Josh might not work out," Beckett says in a small voice while looking at her feet. When her comment is met only with silence, she raises her head to see Castle looking angrier than he has at any point in this discussion.

"What am I, Beckett?" he nearly growls.

"Frustrating?" she answers, trying her hand at defusing the situation with humor but succeeding only in making him look more upset. "What do you want me to say? You're a writer?"

"I'm a writer," Castle confirms with a nod. "And a father. And a man. I am not," he says fiercely, "a back-up plan or a safety net."

"I thought," Beckett returns the barb with some heat of her own, "you were a friend."

"I am," Castle confirms. "I'll be a better friend after I take some time to get over you."

"But I don't want you to leave," Beckett confesses in a low tone, staring at him with wide eyes. When he says nothing, she tries for a prompt. "How long until you can come back?"

Looking at his watch again, Castle shrugs. While Beckett's shifting moods has made this a difficult conversation, he suspects his next comments will make that worse. "Who knows how long it'll take Bob to sort out the situation with the DA?" he asks rhetorically. "My new employer's going to push me to commit for at least six months, but I'm planning to hold the line at three, so I can still spend the summer with Alexis. Assuming I don't get fired for being late to my first meeting."

"What?!" Beckett nearly shouts. "Six months? You've got a job? And you're dressed like that for a meeting?"

Chuckling at his innate ability to aggravate and surprise Beckett so easily, Castle provides an explanation before she gets more upset. "Yeah, I've got a job. I think you and I both know what kind of trouble I'd get into with too much idle time on my hands," he says with a wry look and a mischievous smile, hoping a reference to his more impish tendencies will lighten the mood. But Beckett doesn't look mollified.

"I've been thinking about a character – not sure if it's someone in Nikki's universe or not, but the experience will help me figure that out. You wouldn't believe the paperwork for this one, but it's done. I still need to meet with the guy who'll be my boss. It's an informal meeting," he says while gesturing to his outfit of a leather jacket, white shirt, jeans, and black Chucks, "and I'm trying to avoid putting on airs. He's already not a fan of this setup and he's the one with whom I've got to hammer out an agreement on how long I'll stay."

Rather than cheer her, though, his explanation makes her look hurt and angry again. "Didn't take you long to move on, did it?" Beckett asks. "New job and new character. Why bother worrying about coming back?"

"I never wanted to leave, Kate," Castle replies, using quiet honesty to counter Beckett's anger. "But maybe it's for the best I've been knocked out of your orbit. I don't think I would've been strong enough to leave on my own," he confesses, "or to avoid interfering in your relationship. This way, you'll have time to move forward without distraction and I'll have time to figure out where I go from here."

"Back to the precinct," Beckett says, voicing her support for his eventual return.

"Perhaps," Castle allows. "If that's what we all want. I'm not going to ask Bob to force the way again."

"So, what's the new job – teaching?" she asks. "I've always thought you'd be an amazing teacher," she confesses with a blush, looking down.

"Not teaching," Castle answers, wondering why he's surprised that she knows him so well, "not yet, anyway. This is something different. I'm keeping it under wraps for now. Please don't look into it. We both know you could figure it out immediately, but just give me some time. Please."

Beckett nods slowly in response to his question and mumbles something that sounds affirmative, looking less upset. Without anger to organize her thoughts, though, she seems to be at a loss about how to proceed, so Castle makes a suggestion.

"Look, Kate, if you ever need help, you can call me day or night. But, otherwise, just give me some time. It's the first week of March. Let's set a time right now when we'll sit down and talk about all this. Lunch at Remy's," he suggests as if inspired, "just like old times. A familiar setting, a meeting in the middle of the day, no worries about connotations, expectations, or breaking dinner plans."

"Yeah, okay," Beckett says slowly. "Your birthday?"

"Are you kidding?" Castle asks with a smile. "How could I possibly move on by then? How about the last Friday in April? Noon at Remy's."

"It's a date," Beckett answers, sounding sadder than Castle would've expected.

"So, you're the hotshot writer," the dark-haired man in the diner's booth says to Castle as he pointedly refuses to stand. While he likes to flatter himself with it, Castle thinks that this guy also fits the 'ruggedly handsome' description. Older but remarkably fit, comfortably dressed in slacks, a white button-down, and a blazer. And dark brown eyes that look like they don't miss much. "You don't look like much to me."

Castle hides his smile at the opening salvo, privately content that he dressed right for the occasion. Better to take a shot like that than to prompt a sneering reaction or, worse, an unfortunate nickname that might haunt him before he starts. Taking a seat across the table, Castle extends a hand. "Rick Castle. Though I'll be going by my original name of Rick Rodgers while I'm around," he explains, withdrawing the hand he suspected wouldn't be accepted.

"The guys ain't stupid, Rick," the man says while knocking a hand on the table to emphasize his point. "They might not be big on reading, but they ain't dumb. And it's not like you haven't made a spectacle of yourself in other ways."

"True," Castle answers with a small grin, knowing it's wasted on his companion but letting it loose anyway just for his own benefit. "We thought using my original name would be best, but we're not hiding who I am. It'll come out eventually, and we'll deal with it when it does."

His companion harrumphs into his coffee mug and eyes Castle critically for a few moments before finally extending a hand. "Name's Costa. Ben Costa." After shaking hands, he fixes Castle with another glare. "We tellin' em you'll only be around for six months, or we lettin' that slide, too?"

"Three months," Castle corrects, raising a hand to catch the waitress's attention and pointing to Costa's coffee cup to show his desire for the same.

"How in the hell does this dumb-ass plan make sense if you're only around for three months?" Costa grouses. "Unless you're naturally gifted, it'll take me that long to teach you how to scratch your ass the right way, never mind actually do something useful."

"Sounds like that says more about your teaching than my learning," Castle replies, shocking Costa. "I'm a quick study. And if I'm not," he continues reasonably, "then I'll be gone before it matters. What'd be more distracting," he asks, noting Costa's reddening face and neck, "having me underfoot for three months or six? Plus, the longer I'm around, the more likely people are to figure out who I am."

"Yeah, but the whole reason Sal's forcing this on us is for the publicity. I get nothing but hassle if you come and go without notice, plus then Sal would be pissed," Costa complains again, prompting Castle to understand that he'll need to learn how to read the different degrees of Costa's complaining, since that appears to be his main form of communication.

"In the unlikely event that we make it three months without this going public," Castle says with a smile for the waitress who delivers his coffee, watching her walk away with an extra sway in her hips, "then we'll do something big. An event or something," he suggests, imagining the possibilities.

"Maybe," Costa allows, dismissing the topic. "Look, I don't want you. I know you're square with Sal, you've met the requirements, and Will signed off on everything, but it's going to be a real pain in the ass to have you around, and that's if you shut up and listen, which doesn't seem like your strength."

Castle tilts his head to accept the insight as accurate, but remains uncharacteristically quiet for now.

"But it's not my call. So, here's how things are going to work: you're one of the guys. You pull the same shifts, do the same work, and act the same way. You know what that means?" Costa asks in obvious challenge. "You've got some long nights in your future. Everyone pulls a night shift, but the new guys usually partner up with an older guy, so they can double-up on shifts and downtime. That means a full day – a full 24 hours. Think you can handle that?"

"I'll be fine," Castle assures him. "I've done worse."

"Bullshit," Costa says roughly. "You never done nothing like this," he says, smirking at Castle's flinch at the bad grammar. "And you're not up for it, with that belly and those scrawny arms." Now Castle looks a little put out: he'd been preparing for this possibility and thought he was making great strides at getting into shape. He catches a glint in Costa's eye that he hopes means the insult was exaggerated, but he'll still need to up his gym time again, he realizes with a sigh.

"But some things will be different, too," Costa continues. "Your colleagues get paid, but you don't. Your payment is the experience," he says while pursing his lips and rolling his eyes. "And no vacation time, either. New guys don't get to beg off for a while anyway, but I'm just telling you now so you don't get any ideas. If there's something you wanna do, better take care of it on your off days or convince someone to switch shifts with you."

Castle nods along, already having hammered most of these details out with others. The key to this meeting is to introduce himself to Costa and to nail down the timing.

"That's fine," Castle says easily. "I can start as soon as we agree on the duration. Three months is all I've got to give. One quarter of the year. Can we make that work?"

Staring at Castle for several long moments, Costa finally lowers his coffee cup and stretches out a hand again. "Fine," he says, shaking Castle's hand. "One quarter. Now get moving – you start tonight at 6:00."

A/N2: As agreed between Castle and Costa, this story will cover a quarter of the year, starting after Countdown. Each chapter will cover a week of the quarter. So, the plan is to have 13 chapters, with maybe one or two extra at the end. Following the air date from Countdown, that means we're talking about roughly March-May 2011. As for what Castle is doing with Costa, that'll be discussed in later chapters. It's based on research, not first-hand knowledge, and there's some ambiguity about changes since 2011, so there's one aspect of his situation that I might have to fudge, but we'll address that later.

Before signing off on this chapter, I wanted to says thanks (again!) to Castkettfan5 and GeekMom for giving this chapter a look (and for tutoring me on the Ficathon details).