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

Week Thirteen (part four)

The smell of coffee pulls Castle from his sleep, has him padding through the unfamiliar bedroom and closing the door slowly to ensure there's no telltale click of the knob to awaken Beckett. It's an impressively stealthy departure, especially since he's mentally kicking himself the whole time.

Casting an eye at the couch on which he was supposed to sleep last night, he doesn't break stride as he moves to the kitchen, where Jim Beckett's already sitting with a cup of coffee, unopened newspaper at the table beside him.

Still moving in silence, Castle collects one of the spare mugs that's been placed on the counter. Filling it, he turns to the kitchen table and takes a seat across from Kate's father.

"You're not the one I expected to lure out with the smell of coffee," Jim admits as he assesses Castle, his tone betraying nothing about his thoughts on these circumstances.

"Kate's exhausted," Castle confides quietly. "I'd planned to slip out here myself and make her some coffee. The smell made me realize that I should've gotten moving earlier."

"So, you were going to sneak out to make coffee," Jim repeats with a disbelieving voice, "not to slip into bed on the sofa?"

If Jim expected Castle to react with embarrassment or shame, he's surprised, though his face reveals nothing. But Castle's shaking his head even before he speaks.

"No," he admits with a smile. "I've got a daughter applying to college. I'm a little too old to go sneaking around. I was where I needed to be last night and I'm not ashamed about that." Pausing to take a sip of coffee, Castle levels his own look at Jim and returns to the topic. "I'm glad that Kate's still asleep. If there's anger to be faced for what happened last night, let's address it now so she has one less thing to worry about when she wakes."

"Since you mentioned your daughter, how would you feel if you found a houseguest in her room?" Jim asks, still aloof.

This is a hell of a way to start the day, Castle thinks to himself. A few measly ounces of coffee following an already-exhausting week is hardly enough to brace for this conversation. And while his own fatherly instincts lead him to appreciate Jim's efforts, Castle thinks he's laying it on a bit thick. Beckett's already confessed that her father knew her feelings even before she did, and her declaration of Castle's place in her life should've left Jim with little doubt about their feelings. But, this is Kate's dad, and if things are going to work between them, they'll be much easier if he's on board. Besides, it really would be for the best to have this resolved before Kate awakens and joins them.

"Our circumstances are a little different," Castle answers evenly. "In the situation you describe, I'd have Kate there in a heartbeat, festooned in the full regalia of her position, to put the fear of God into that boy," he answers seriously. "You'll have to do the honors yourself, I'm afraid," he continues, "and I have no illusions about your reaction."

"And yet you couldn't manage to keep yourself parked on the sofa for six hours, even knowing the likely consequences of your decision?"

"Kate needed me last night," Castle answers simply. "You couldn't have kept me on that sofa if you'd been sitting right there with your shotgun on your lap."

"The shotgun's at the cabin," Jim answers, still maddeningly reserved. "I'm not sure how useful it'd be here, to be honest. Doesn't seem like you need to be prodded to get married," he says with a perched brow. "It's remaining so that might require the weapon."

"I've been married – and divorced – twice," Castle confirms. "I've made a lot of mistakes over the years, though I like to think that I'm a better man now after spending time with your daughter," he says before drinking more coffee. "As a father," he adds, failing to hide his look of pride, "I can appreciate your concerns about me. I'll answer whatever questions you have about my marriages," he offers. "But not now."

This finally sparks a reaction from Jim, who looks both surprised at Castle's candor and confused by the curt end to the conversation despite his comment about resolving this before Kate awakens. "Why not now?"

"Because I haven't offered Kate the same opportunity," Castle answers easily.

"You're not what I expected," Jim offers in reply after it becomes apparent that Castle considers his simple statement sufficient. "I've had a hard time reconciling what I heard from Katie with what I knew from Jo's infatuation with you." In reply to Castle's look of shock, Jim finally cracks a smile. "You didn't know? My wife was quite a fan of yours."

"Really?" Castle asks, mind spinning as he thinks about hearing of Johanna's interest in his books from her husband.

"I'll confess to an occasional twinge of jealousy about the whole thing," Jim confesses, "since I had to hear all about you with every new release. I might've taken a little too much pleasure, then, when hearing about your embarrassing exploits and foibles." At this, Castle has the good sense to look down while he blushes. "So, you can appreciate my concern when I heard that you were following Katie at the precinct."

"Yes," Castle answers, forcing himself to look up and face Jim. "I can appreciate your concern. It was well placed."

"'Was?'" Jim asks. "Because from where I'm sitting, it seems to me that I should still be very concerned."

"I wasn't being flippant earlier," Castle replies, grasping for words in the face of Jim's inquisition. "I'm a much different man now than when I started shadowing Kate," he confesses, privately happy that he said 'different' rather than 'more mature,' since he's still happy to be a bit childish on (many) occasion(s). "My intentions for her now are… well, I haven't shared them with her yet, though she knows exactly how serious this is for me. I don't think you need to worry about my intentions."

"For a writer, you're not particularly eloquent," Jim notes with a perched brow. It's odd, seeing the look he knows so well from a male face, but now, finally, Castle knows where he stands. Jim's giving him the business just like his daughter loves to do.

"Give me a break," Castle grouses, finally getting a chuff of amusement from the older man. "It's still far too early to be awake, it's been an incredibly stressful week after a long several months, I've never done the 'impress the father' thing before, and I'm sitting here in my pajamas," Castle complains. "I thought I was articulating myself pretty well, all things considered."

"You did alright," Jim allows with a smile. "You didn't let me push you around much, which is a skill you'll certainly need with Katie," he chuckles, especially at Castle's fervent nod. "If it's any consolation, I've never done the 'grill the suitor' talk before, either. Did I do okay?"

"You did well," Castle admits, rubbing his sweaty palms on his thighs. "Probably too well. Can we relax now?"

"I suppose you've earned a little break," Jim allows, smiling again. At least until he hears Castle's next question.

"Are you okay? With the Bracken situation?"

Jim sighs and looks into his coffee, thinking about the horrible revelations his daughter shared last evening. Truth be told, he didn't mind Castle joining Katie. He'd been glad she had someone to support her, even if it made him feel Johanna's absence a little more acutely.

"I will be," he answers quietly.

The silence that stretches after his reply is fragile but not entirely uncomfortable. His words sounded more like a vow than a hope, so Castle lets the silence flow while sitting in quiet solidarity with Kate's father.

So it is that Jim actually breaks the quiet of the early morning. "Why don't you grab a refill and bring a cup to Katie?"

"You're a wise man," Castle nods in agreement. "That's one of the first things I learned at the precinct – life is much more pleasant when Beckett has caffeine."

"It's been true longer than you can imagine," Jim replies with a reminiscent smile. "I know my daughter well. She'll appreciate the caffeine, and the effort. She'll also appreciate a chance to talk, because I'll eat this mug if she hasn't heard every word we've spoken this morning."

Beckett's sitting up in bed, clad in one of Castle's undershirts, when he slips back into her bedroom moments later. Her eyes are alert and her movements energetic as she scoots aside and leans against the headboard to make room for him. And if those clues weren't sufficient to prove that her father's prediction was correct, the fading blush on her cheeks reveals her eavesdropping.

"Thanks for allowing me to think that I'd been sneaky this morning," he harrumphs as he delivers her coffee, standing beside the bed until she's inhaled the first whiff of the brew and taken a few sips to lower the level of hot liquid in her mug. Then, slipping into bed beside her, he pulls the covers over their legs before reclaiming his mug from the bedside table.

"Sorry, Rick," she replies quietly but with humor. "I had a feeling dad wanted some alone time with you, and I didn't want you to get worked up about it."

"Yeah, thanks for the heads up. Some partner you are," Castle whines. "'Hey, partner, go wander down that dark alley alone. Here, I'll hold your gun for you,'" he grumps in exaggeration.

Beckett laughs, enjoying his discomfort. "You did well, Castle. What you said was beautiful. Thank you," she breathes before leaning over to kiss him, finally starting their day properly. "But," she adds with a raised brow, "if you want me to hold your gun, we should probably wait until we get home."

Letting his head fall back to thump against the headboard, Castle closes his eyes and tries to fight his reaction to the imagery she created and emphasized with her sexy little eyebrow twitch. "Would taking a cold shower get me into more trouble with your father or less?" he complains.

"Depends," Beckett answers sassily. "Would I be joining you?"

"You do realize I have to leave this room sometime, and probably sometime soon?" he grouses with a chuckle. "Forget the shotgun, your father'll kill me with his bare hands."

"I'll protect you, Castle," she laughs, caffeinated, happy, and teasing. "But I'd prefer to avoid the situation, I guess. Just think of something else," she suggests while leaning her head down to look up at him while darting her tongue around the rim of her mug.

"So," Castle asks with a roll of his eyes, "how 'bout them Yankees?"

"Baseball?" she laughs. "Whatever works for you. Hey, did I know I've got a Yankees jersey? It's a little tight, but it looks pretty good if I just do the one button and tie the shirttails together…"

Her description is cut off by the sound of Castle's head thumping against the headboard again, which is barely audible over his low groan. "Not helping."

"I disagree," she replies seriously, looking down at the tenting sheets. "Looks to me like you're ready for an at bat." When he groans again and rubs his forehead, she takes the opportunity to turn her head and whisper into his ear. "I was very glad to hear that your intentions for me are honorable, Castle." Then, after some quick nibbles to his ear, she adds "But you'd better watch yourself. Some of my intentions for us are decidedly impure."

"I've gotta go," Castle says urgently, looking slightly panicked. He tosses the sheets aside in preparation to depart, but his progress is halted when Beckett's hand lands on his upper thigh.

"Not if you can be quiet," she whispers, letting her hand start to wander.

It's a toss-up as to who looks more surprised when Castle's hand lands atop hers, pinning it in place. "I can't believe I'm saying this," he says with a gulp, "but no."

"No?" whispers Beckett in a way that sure sounds like "Yes."

Castle keeps his hand in place, keeping Beckett's hand pinned. "No," he confirms. "Not here… not now," he struggles to articulate himself.

"Castle," Beckett huffs, turning her hand over to twine her fingers with his. "Dad knows we're together. I'm over 30 and in a committed relationship. I suspect he knows what that includes."

"I know," he sighs. "But it doesn't feel right. It's a dad thing, I guess. I was just introduced to him as someone important to you a day ago, and under dire circumstances. Then we come here and I presume upon his hospitality to sneak in here. It just feels…," he struggles, waving his free hand around to emphasize his trouble, "… disrespectful."

"And if I'd wanted to play last night?" she asks, not upset but curious.

"I would've – I will do anything to comfort you," he vows quietly. "And if I've misunderstood this," he explains while squeezing her hand, "and confused friskiness for a need for comfort, then you can have your wicked way with me. But if not, then let's just wait."

"I will never understand how it took me so long to really see you," Beckett says quietly, squeezing his hand and kissing his cheek. Then, worried she's getting sappy, so goes back to teasing. "You sure you can wait?" Beckett pushes, not trying to tempt but instead curious about how much he's thought about this. "I'm spending the day with my dad, and you've got your last night shift tonight."

"It won't be easy," he says with a rueful chuckle, "but we'll be in the Hamptons in two days. I can wait. I did it for years."

"You might not have to wait that long," she whispers leaning her head on his shoulder. "Dad and I are going back to the diner for lunch. I think I could use a nap afterwards, if that's okay?"

"Beckett, it will always be okay for you to crawl in bed with me," he assures her needlessly, lifting her hand to grace it with a chaste kiss.

"There's our word again, Castle," she answers happily. "I like this meaning a lot more than the one you suggested in LA."

"I like everything better than it was in LA," he grunts in response, still embarrassed by how that conversation went.

"I remember our time there fondly," she disagrees, nuzzling him. "That talk got us here, Castle. It might've been a little uncomfortable, but I think it worked out for the best."

"You talking about our conversation or your ride on my shoulder?"

"It was all part of the fun," she assures him. "Now, come on. If we're behaving ourselves this morning, let's go spend some time with dad. We need to get you more comfortable with each other," she suggests as she crawls out of bed and tugs his hand to help him rise, "so that next time we're here, or when we visit the cabin, we can start the evening in the same bed," she entices with a kiss to his cheek, "and then maybe linger there."

"You promised me firefighters," Lanie grumps, looking around the empty Haunt.

"It's not even 6:00 yet!" Beckett laughs, navigating around the caterers who flit about the tables, preparing for tonight's festivities. "Most of the guys are on shift, so they won't show until an hour or so afterward."

"You said the boys are stopping by, too?" Lanie asks with what Beckett suspects is false nonchalance. Whether this means Lanie's interested in Espo's arrival time or instead concerned about having her style cramped tonight isn't something she wants to risk her buoyant mood by exploring.

"After basketball," she confirms. "So, assuming no turned ankles or bad backs, they'll be here."

"Basketball?" Lanie laughs. "I hope they're playing PS138. Anyone older than middle school is going to tower over them."

"They're playing LT and Wilcox," Beckett answers with a smirk, watching her friend's eyes widening.

"Well, we can visit them in the ER after the party winds down," Lanie replies, still shaking her head at the testosterone-fueled lunacy that must've spurred the matchup in which Beckett's teammates cede a combined three or four feet and about 150 pounds to their opponents.

"Or in the morning," Beckett replies with an eyebrow waggle Lanie suspects she learned from her partner.

"With any luck," Lanie grouses again. "For me, anyway. We're not all dating sexy firefighters, police consultants, writers who immortalize us in bestsellers, or rich dudes. Must be nice," Lanie continues while looking around, "to be wealthy enough to close your own bar on a Friday night and throw yourself a party."

"Says the woman with a ticket to Puerto Vallarta," Beckett replies with a raised brow, pulling a slight blush from Lanie. "Besides, the party's more for his coworkers than it is for him," Beckett reminds her friend. "You know Castle – he's always looking to help his friends or throw a party. Tonight lets him do both."

"That sounds right," Lanie agrees with a nod. "And we don't even have to feel bad. They get a party, but we got vacations!"

"He's enjoyed his time at the firehouse," Beckett clarifies, "but there's no doubt where his real interest lies."

"Yeah – right in front of me, wearing sexy heels," Lanie answers with a laugh that drops into a look of shock when her friend just gives a naughty shrug rather than a denial.

Not long after, Castle bustles into the scene. He's been a whirlwind, full of energy following the days of sleep following his last (blessedly uneventful) night shift. He hustles about the bar, chatting up his staff and the caterers, leaving smiles and chuckles in his trail. A few of the ladies cast him inquiring glances, but there's no doubt where his interest lies, since he always makes his way back to Beckett.

"Hey beautiful," he says as he approaches the table at which Beckett and Lanie sit, chatting happily in anticipation of the party. Before Beckett can reply, Lanie cuts in.

"Ricky!" she coos, "don't call me that in front of Kate!"

Her teasing earns her a swat from her friend and the front row seat for a greeting kiss between Beckett and Castle that's barely within the definition of socially appropriate.

"This is gonna take some getting used to," Lanie complains after the other two finally break apart.

"Not really," her friend answers with a lifted brow. "Feels like the most natural thing in the world."

"You two really are disgusting," Lanie grumbles as she watches Castle nod. "Congratulations."

When Beckett looks at Castle to see how he's going to reply to Lanie's comment, she sees him looking a bit devilish. Grabbing her drink, she lifts it to her mouth to help hide her reaction to whatever mischief he's planning.

"So, Lanie," he asks, tone serious and focus complete. "What's the deal with you and Espo?"

"Uh, what?" Lanie stumbles, surprised to be the one who's put on the spot. "Whadya mean?" she asks while she buys time, cutting a look at Beckett while wondering if her friend is behind this.

"Am I introducing you to guys from the firehouse," Castle asks with some patience and some humor, "or is that going to get me into trouble with Espo?"

Lanie's about to answer when a muffled snort from her friend reveals exactly how much Beckett's enjoying Lanie's discomfiture. Naturally, she bridles in response.

"Oh, hush, you," she glares at Beckett before rounding on Castle. "Nothing wrong with meeting new people, right?"

An hour later, Castle's done exactly that. Lanie's met most of his close friends from the firehouse, excepting only those poor souls who drew tonight's shift. Some remember her from the carwash, where she made quite an impression. Others are anxious to meet Rick's friend about whom they'd heard stories. Castle refuses to reveal the nature of those stories, answering every question from her or Beckett with a light shrug and impish look.

If Lanie hasn't particularly gravitated toward any fireman in particular, she's happy to flit about and chat with her new friends. As for Beckett, though, there's little movement from Castle's side. They navigate the party together, moving smoothly from conversation to conversation. His colleagues from the firehouse are very interested in meeting her, and more than a few tease or thank her for revealing Castle's real identity, causing a blush every time. Privately, Castle thinks that's why they're doing it – Beckett's gorgeous on an average day, but with a slight blush? Heavenly.

As for Beckett, she's impressed anew by Castle. It's clear that he made friends at the firehouse. Gruff comradery can't mask the affection that they feel, and Beckett's keen observational skills pick up many of the tells that reveal the regret about Castle's departure. While tonight's a happy celebration, it still makes her melancholy as she compares it to his subdued departure from the precinct three months ago.

"It's okay," he whispers after her tightening grip belies her concerns. "We're here now. We made it."

By 8:30, the party's in full swing. The music is thumping and there's been enough drinking and chatting for people to feel comfortable dancing. Beckett and Castle are just making their way back to the table they've claimed when a loud chorus of boos announces the arrival of more officers. Preening and talking trash, Ryan and Esposito make their way over to the table. Ryan's obviously limping, while Esposito's eye looks like it was a temporary lodging point for LT's elbow. They both sit down slowly, showing either fatigue or the effects of some body-shots that'll be hurting even more in the morning.

"So, good game, then?" Beckett asks with a smirk as Castle waves to Carrie, one of the servers. While the boys spin tales about the game, Castle whispers to Carrie, who departs with a smile and a sway in her hips that has Beckett's brow wrinkling. Despite knowing that she has nothing to worry about and that Castle would never mess around with anyone, especially an employee, she still smiles as she realizes there's no need to be circumspect. With a happy smile, she presses herself into Castle's side. His arm is around her shoulders in a blink.

"Well, that's new," Ryan notes casually, his words lisping slightly due to a fat lip from the game. "Figure'd we'd hear something about this tonight, but you're not wasting any time."

"Speaking of time," Esposito says leadingly before Lanie's arrival temporarily distracts him. After she uses a finger to lift his jaw back into place, Esposito shakes his head to clear it and returns to his point. "Speaking of time, there are certain bets that can be settled tonight now that this," he says while waving a hand at Beckett and Castle, "is disgustingly public. Honeymilk?"

At his partner's prodding, Ryan pulls out his wallet and extracts a folded piece of paper. It's covered in scribbled notations, many of which are difficult to read for all the creases that have to be smoothed repeatedly on the tabletop. Peering at the document as if trying to read tea leaves, Ryan's brow wrinkles as he comes to an uncomfortable conclusion.

"So?" Esposito asks, anxious to find out who won the long-running bet about when Castle and Beckett would get together.

"No one here," Ryan says as he starts to refold the paper. Lanie's open palm lands flat upon the paper, halting his progress.

"Nuh-uh," she says, shaking her head. "We want to know who won."

"I don't think you do," Ryan mumbles, beseeching eyes trying in vain to appeal to Lanie. Oddly, everyone looks interested except Castle, who almost looks smug. Ryan can't really blame him after finally finding his way to Beckett, so he doesn't want to ruin his friend's mood.

Unfortunately, while he's been looking at Castle, Lanie's been on the move. Like a magician withdrawing a tablecloth, Lanie whips the paper out from beneath Ryan's hand. With a cackle, she leans back in her chair and tries to make sense of the notes. "And the winner is…," she says to buy some time as she works out the notes. Then, shooting a crestfallen look at Ryan and getting a sad nod in return, she announces the winner. "Demming."

Oh, God, Beckett thinks to herself. After everything they've been through, for that mistake to crop up now? Scanning the faces at the table, she notes that her team shares her sense of dismay. With trepidation, she slowly pivots to see how Castle's taking this news. She's more than a little surprised to see his wide smile.

"I believe you're mistaken," Castle says with a Cheshire grin. "Check the paper."

"I thought I did," Lanie replies, confused.

"Yeah, Castle," Ryan agrees. "It says right here," he says, pointing to the paper in Lanie's hand.

"I'm more interested in this entry," Castle replies, pointing to a different place on the document.

"'They won't?'" Lanie reads. "Castle, you bet against yourself?"

"Read the note," he suggests, turning to wink at Beckett.

"You crafty bastard," Lanie nods appreciatively after studying the paper again. "'Not while they're at the precinct.'"

"So, even if Demming had the timing right…," Esposito starts.

"Writer-boy called it because he wasn't in the precinct," Lanie finishes happily.

"Nice!" Esposito says, holding out a fist to bump, which starts a round of fist bumps around the table. In the general commotion, another guest sidles up to the table unannounced.

"So, you're all happy the rich guy won the pool?" says a familiar female voice.

"Fred!" Castle greets happily, scooting out of the table and welcoming his sister with an enormous hug. "You made it!"

Such is Castle's happiness at seeing his friend that he misses the reactions around the table. Lanie shoots Beckett an inquisitive glance, trying to gauge her friend's reaction to Castle's welcome hug to another woman. Ryan and Espo share an uncomfortable glance, remembering their last encounter with Castle's friend.

"Hey, little brother, of course I made it," Fred says while stepping out of the hug and tapping his cheek. "I've been worried about you getting burned up since I met you. Of course I'll help celebrate leaving for something safer."

"Chasing killers is safer?" Beckett asks with quirked lips.

"As long as you take care of him," she replies with a challenging look. Beckett gives a single, slow nod, accepting the responsibility. Castle, meanwhile, gives a Beckett-worthy eye roll.

"Rick, is there anyplace I can drop this?" she asks, nodding at the suitcase she brought straight from the airport.

"Of course," Castle says as he grabs the handle of the bag. "Espo, give me a hand."

Castle's request for help is a little odd since there's just the one bag, but the others at the table shrug it off and turn to introductions, since Lanie hasn't actually met Fred before. Meanwhile, Esposito follows Castle down to his office, where he stashes Fred's suitcase beside the sofa.

"Nice security," Esposito compliments, looking at Castle's set-up for the office. "Must be a rough neighborhood if you needed a bodyguard, too."

"How proud are you, Espo?" Castle asks, offering the detective a question in response to the subtle inquiry.

"Bro, I'm as almost as proud as I deserve to be," he answers, strutting slightly, though his efforts are marred by the injuries sustained at the basketball game.

Appreciating a little self-confidence, Castle chuckles before offering an explanation. "I owe you, Javier. Beckett and I have talked about a lot of things lately, including our history. She mentioned your comments to her back during the Demming time. It might've take a while, but that really helped us. So," he says while pointing to a box on the desk, "thanks."

Espo ambles over to the desk and opens the top of the box, looking instantly confused. "What the hell, Castle? You makin' me a junior firefighter or somethin'?"

"That," Castle says, pointing to the box again, "is an official FDNY uniform. What you do with it is up to you, but I'll just say that if you break that out when you're spending time with Lanie, you might actually need to put out a fire."

As he watches, Espo's look morphs from one of mild offense to intrigued anticipation. "Thanks, man," he manages to say, though it's clear his thoughts are still focused elsewhere. "I'll meet you back at the table – just gonna run this out to my car. Don't say anything to Lanie, right? Or Ryan?"

"That's why we're down here," Castle answers easily. "Have fun."

Wandering back upstairs after locking up, Castle takes the opportunity to check in with some of his closer friends who mill about the Haunt. Big John's been trying to chat up Carrie, who casts Castle a grateful look when he interrupts and allows her casual escape. From there, he moves on to Dave and his aptly-named wife Joy. Tonight's party is just the first stop on their date night, so he wishes them well before they depart. Sully sidles over as he's on his way back to the table, clearly looking for another introduction to Fred, and Castle's in too good a mood to disabuse him of any impossible dreams of romantic conquest.

Espo's beaten him back to the table before he and Sully arrive, so there's just one chair left. Castle's about to borrow one from another table when Sully emits a muttered curse and slips away. Turning to see what caused Sully's departure and the general decrease in noise in the festivities, Castle finds himself face to face with Sal Cassano, the Fire Commissioner, in full dress uniform.

Castle makes quick introductions and offers his seat to Sal, who demurs while pointing to a booth in the corner and asking for a word in private. The booth isn't empty, but Sal seems convinced that it will be as soon as he expresses an interest in sitting there. While Sal starts toward the booth, Castle turns to Beckett.

"Would you like to join us?" he asks, serious.

"Castle," she replies in exasperation, "he said he wanted a word in private."

"We both know he's going to make another push to stay at the firehouse, or elsewhere in the Department," he explains while she nods.

"And you need me for a shield?" she asks, surprised by his seeming lack of confidence in facing this challenge alone.

"No," he replies with a wink, "but it kind of seems like a family decision, right?"

Their friends around the table go silent at this, their shock making them forget that they were trying to eavesdrop unobtrusively. Beckett's quiet, too, until she stands, grabs Castle by the lapels, and yanks him into a searing kiss.

"I trust you to protect our interests, Rick," she whispers to him as she takes half a step away, using her hands to smooth his shirt and blazer back into shape. "Just be polite?"

That earns her a smirk and a small salute as Castle turns to amble over to the corner booth, from which the firefighters who had been sitting there couldn't flee fast enough at Sal's approach. Just as Castle's sliding into the booth, though, someone else pulls in beside him and asks him to "move his big ass over."

"Ben!" Castle notes happily as he slides aside, noticing at the same time that Sal doesn't look overly pleased by this development. "I didn't think you were going to make it."

"Monica made me," he explains tersely. "She heard you did some writing here and went all moony about it."

Sure enough, as he looks back toward Beckett, he sees that Monica's taken her place and is deep in conversation with Beckett, Lanie, Fred, and Carla, who must've joined the table at some point. From the looks of it, Fred's telling the story of how she learned that he wasn't actually an obituary writer.

"So, Rick," Sal interjects, breaking into the conversation, "I wanted to try one last time to see if we can't figure out a way to get you to stay with us. After all," he says officiously, "we've invested a lot in your training and don't have much to show for it yet."

"'Cept a carwash that earned more than the last ten combined and calendar preorders that're through the damn roof," Costa answers before Castle can speak. "For some damned reason," he adds, cutting a doubtful look at Castle and getting a smirk in reply.

"And you'll get your storyline," Castle adds, careful not to specify whether this will be a solo book or instead something that's weaved into Nikki Heat. He's got some ideas on this front, another example of where he's hoping that life will eventually imitate art, but he's holding that close right now.

Sal's demeanor, which had soured when Costa was speaking, turns up at this promise. "Good, good," he says, before pausing to think. "But you still shouldn't leave. Besides, if you're still there, it'll be easier to do the PR for the book, right?"

"Sal," Castle says, leaning forward to impart a feeling of confidence, "you see the gorgeous brunette I was sitting next to when you arrived? That's Kate Beckett, the inspiration for Nikki Heat. She's also the next and last woman I'll marry. Next week, I go back to working with her. Trust me, you have absolutely nothing that'll compare to that."

His declaration actually prompts a rare chuckle from Costa, who must appreciate seeing the Commissioner boxed in. Sal hasn't given up, though, if the look of concentration on his face is any indication. The look collapses, though, then he's asked to slide aside to make room for another addition to their group.

"Ben Costa," Castle says amicably, "this is Bob Weldon, an old friend of mine and the mayor of New York City. Looking for free booze or more votes tonight, Bob?" Castle asks his friend with a wink while studiously ignoring that their little assemblage seems to have rendered the rest of the bar quiet as partygoers gawk at the confab in the corner.

"Can't have one without the other," Bob shrugs as Carrie hustles over to take his order as an exclamation point to his comment. After ordering, Bob turns back to the group. "Sorry to crash the party, but I just wanted to stop by to congratulate you all," Weldon says expansively, catching Castle's eye again. "This quarter was fantastic exposure for the Fire Department, and news of your return to the NYPD is making rounds in the recruiting centers. Hannah Simmons from my office will be in touch next week to follow up on her project, Rick."

"I've heard she can spin straw into gold," he says to his friend, thinking back to the first Hannah project that Beckett shared with him.

"She's certainly had tougher challenges and performed well," Weldon agrees with a smirk. Then, with the inside references there to emphasize their connection (as well as Sal's lack of a connection in comparison), Weldon turns to Costa. "So, Captain, you looking forward to a little peace and quiet with this troublemaker out of your hair?"

"At least he's leaving while I still have some left," Costa grumbles, running his fingers through his hair. "His coworkers will miss him. They aren't too bright," Costa confides to Weldon, getting an annoyed look from Sal. "But I won't miss having media and ex-wives poking around my 'house."

"Ex-wives?" Weldon asks with delight.

"Don't start," Castle replies repressively. "Thanks a lot, Ben."

"So, you back at the Twelfth after the holiday weekend?" Weldon asks, letting his other line of inquiry drop away.

"Gonna take a few extra days on the beach to relax," Castle replies. It's killing him not to look over at Beckett, but all three of the other men at the table know exactly where his intentions and attention lie, as their smirks clearly demonstrate. "What?" Castle asks as if offended. "I've been pushed hard these last few weeks – fires, arsonists …"

"Unauthorized homicide investigations in distant jurisdictions," Weldon adds, not-so-helpfully.

"Yeah, that too," Castle answers with a laugh. "I'm looking forward to getting back to the chaos of the Homicide schedule, after I catch up on some sleep."

"Yeah," Costa grumbles, casting a look at Beckett, "good luck with that."

Castle's actually blushing when Sal makes one last attempt. "We could think about some joint events, right? There's already the charity football game between the FDNY and the cops, and a few other things like that. You've been in both camps, you could be the MC or a guest referee," he suggests, grasping at straws to maintain some kind of PR link between Castle and the FDNY.

"Yeah, I'm not sure he'll be seen as impartial with the big FDNY flame he's got tattooed on his arm," Costa points out.

"He's got another arm," Weldon says reasonably. "Time for more ink, Rick?" he says teasingly, enjoying the displeased look he's getting in return for his suggestion.

"If anyone's going to pick out a tattoo for Castle, it'll be me," Beckett offers, suddenly standing beside the table with Monica next to her. Neither of them look particularly pleased.

"Benjamin," Monica intones, "I thought this was a party, not a working group."

"Yeah, Richard," Beckett adds, struggling to keep a straight face while she adopts Monica's staged displeasure. "You owe me a dance. And Winnie, too, after she went through all the trouble to make it here."

"My apologies, ladies," Sal says formally, his tone not quite masking his annoyance. "We were finished here, anyway." As they all slide out of the booth, Sal makes his terse goodbyes before leaving the Haunt. Castle doesn't think it's his imagination that suggests the atmosphere suddenly refills the room after his departure.

"Well," Weldon says playfully while clapping his hands together and rubbing them gleefully, "my work here is done. Poker, week after next?" he asks Castle.

"Yep, at my place. You interested, Ben?" Castle asks casually.

"Might be," Costa allows before his wife sidles up next to him.

"Talking about gambling's worse than talking shop," she explains with a head shake. "He'll call you. For now, he's going to dance with his wife." With a kiss to Costa's cheek and a wink to Beckett, Monica drags her reluctant husband to the area where people are dancing, firefighters from his house clearing a path in disbelief.

"I'll leave you two before I force Detective Beckett to take drastic steps," Weldon says with a smile. "Kate, Rick," he adds meaningfully while turning to look at each of them, "I can't tell you how glad I am that this has all worked out."

Weldon accepts their beaming smiles as salutations and makes his way to the door, but much more slowly than Sal. Weldon stops to chat along the way, working the crowd like a professional. After he's passed through, people are laughing and smiling. It's a stark comparison to the feelings following the Commissioner's exit.

Had Beckett been watching Weldon's progress, she'd realize another similarity between Castle and his friend. But her attention is wholly on Castle, who returns her interest as they make their way over to dance.

"I'm so proud," Beckett says in a teasing voice as she leans into him. "After years and years, you finally learned how to call for backup."

"That obvious, huh?" Castle answers with a laugh, chastising himself for the ridiculous thought that Beckett wouldn't figure out his plan to have Weldon show up to cut off any late efforts by Sal.

"The great thing about loving someone," Beckett prefaces and Castle nearly bites his tongue at her boldness, "is that you can recognize the significance of events that look innocuous to others. Like calling for backup," she states her case.

"Or a book as a birthday present," he adds.

"Or a sweater," she replies, squeezing the arm she's using to lead him to the dance.

"Showing up at a wedding," he adds, still surprised by her bravery

"Showing up on the other side of the country for a case," she ripostes.

"Introducing me to your father," Castle plays his trump card.

"Welcoming me into your home," she finishes, wrapping her arms around him as they swing into position to dance. "I think we've skipped from innocuous events to obviously significant developments, as Lanie might say."

"Smart woman," Castle praises as he leans toward Beckett.

"Helped us get here," Beckett answers. "So, before we get lost in the dance, are you going to tell me when you placed your winning bet?" she asks, curious about when Castle predicted that they'd get together outside of the precinct. She suspects it was made long ago, perhaps shortly before he extended the first invitation to his beach house. But, it could've been more recent.

"That, Detective Beckett," she says wickedly as he leans forward to whisper into her ear, "is a confession that will require all of your considerable skills, at interrogation or otherwise," he coos, "to extract from me."

"All of my skills, eh?" Beckett replies as she whispers back. "I strongly suspect, Mister Castle, you'll willfully give me anything I want once I've used my skills."

"Try me," he replies challengingly, leaning toward her.

"I plan to," she agrees as she moves to meet him. "Repeatedly," she promises before she loses herself in the kiss, and the dance.

"You'd hardly know those two were so far apart just weeks ago," Lanie says quietly to Fred, nodding at the dancing couple.

"It's funny," Fred answers quietly, checking to see that Ryan and Espo are still in a good-natured argument with Sully and Kevin, keeping them distracted. "I should probably be warier of her, given how hurt Rick was when I met him. But he tried so hard to break away, to bury his feelings."

"Really," Lanie answers in a flat voice.

"Not like that," Fred replies with a roll of her eyes. "I've discussed this with Kate and you can get the details from her. He was honorable – ridiculously so. But he's also such a kid. He's got me thinking that this is true love, that only true love could be tested this way and remain strong. It's a damned fairy tale and I feel like a lovesick teen for believing in it," she complains self-consciously. "But I do," she confesses.

"Just don't tell them," Lanie advises sagely. "They're getting there, but this is still new. They've got some work ahead of them and the last thing we need is them thinking the work is done. I don't know about you, but I've had to double my gym time for all the breakfasts, brunches, lunches, dinners, and drinks where I've had to provide some consolation or encouragement. I need a break!"

Fred laughs, enjoying Lanie's exuberant personality. "See, that's your problem," Fred offers some wisdom of your own. "You needed to be a gay man. That way, you could've gone dancing with Kate and not worried about any of the overtones. I wore out two pairs of shoes and my best western boots with Rick," she says while smiling and lamenting the loss of some beloved footwear. "And I actually lost weight."

"And Kate calls me the brat," Lanie harrumphs, thinking that the beautiful woman next to her hardly needed help looking more attractive. "You two must've gotten some attention on the dancefloor," she suggests, consoling herself with some good gossip.

"It was unbelievable," Fred confesses with a laugh. "But it kind of backfired. Rick was using me as a shield from other women, and we'd hoped that we could find someone for me while we were dancing. But men hit on me like crazy, and most women who approached us, if not looking at him alone, were looking to join us both," she admits with a blush.

"I bet writer-boy just loved that," Lanie says with a roll of her eyes, imagining Castle's response after suffering a bruise to his sometimes inflated ego.

"You think I'd tell him?" Fred asks incredulously, before breaking down in giggles. "I might not date men," she confides, "but I still know how to handle them."

"Winnie, why in the hell are you moving to LA?" Lanie complains after she finishes hooting in laughter. "You and I need to spend more time together. And even if my tastes are well-defined and go in a different direction," she admits while looking around the room at the burly firefighters before coming back to Esposito, "I could do a much better job of setting you up than writer-boy managed."

"Please," says Castle from behind her, startling Lanie with his stealthy approach, "I'm a first-rate wing-man, right Fred?"

Still panting lightly from a vigorous dance, he pulls out a chair for Beckett and claims the seat between her and Fred. The commotion attracts the interest of Ryan and Esposito, who rejoin the conversation as Sully and Kevin drift off.

"You are," Fred confirms, glancing around the table to ensure that everyone is paying attention. "Even when you don't know it."

"What do you mean?" Castle asks curiously, thanking Carrie for the glasses of ice water that she's brought for the table.

"Well, I was going to talk to you about this in private, but I met someone while I was in LA," she admits, looking down while a lovely blush spills into her cheeks.

"Really?" Castle asks. "That's great!" he enthuses, offering a fist-bump that she bashfully accepts. He's so happy for her that he almost seems to be losing the thread of how this conversation started, so Beckett jumps in.

"How was Castle involved?" she asks, curious herself and noting the inquisitive looks from around the table.

"Well, it's someone you know," Fred offers shyly, looking down to play with the label of a beer bottle that she pulled from the table in her quest to fidget.

"Not Meredith," Castle begs. "Please tell me it's not Meredith."

"Rick," she answers seriously, looking up and staring directly at him. "I'd never do that." Then, after a pausing a beat and releasing a devilish look, she adds. "To Alexis."

Castle harrumphs while the others around the table laugh at his discomfort. Even Beckett can't stifle an uncharacteristic giggle, though she tries. This time, it's Lanie offering a fist-bump to Fred.

"No, this is someone else," Fred offers when the laughter calms down. "She's quiet, beautiful, and has a wicked sense of humor. She's just gone through something rough, but she's resilient."

While the rest of the table looks enraptured, this is becoming less fun for Beckett. The last thing she wants to hear about is another Castle ex. But she can't really leave without making a scene, and she doesn't really want to leave anyway. Reminding herself where they are now, she holds tight to Castle's hand and gets an affirming squeeze in return.

"She's coming out to visit, actually," Fred continues with a nonchalant shrug. "I told her we could all get together."

"Damn right," Castle answers quickly. "Speaking as your brother, I'll need to make sure she's worthy of you. We'll have her over to the loft for dinner, have the ladies get a look, too."

"Rick…," Fred whines, while the boys nod fervently in support of Castle's position and the ladies merely roll their eyes.

"What's her name, honey?" Lanie asks, trying to get the shy woman to open up.

Slowly, Fred turns to face Lanie. "Her name is Nat," she offers gently, before turning to look at Castle and Beckett. "Nat Rhodes."

Stunned silence follows this announcement. Castle, Beckett, the boys, and Lanie cast each other dismayed looks, each trying to spur someone else to say something. Finally, Castle breaks. "Maybe not the loft," he gulps. "We can have dinner somewhere else."

"What?" Fred asks, looking heartbroken. "Why not the loft?" When Castle struggles and no one else offers an explanation, she gets upset. "What, isn't she good enough to visit the loft? You got a thing against actresses, little brother?"

"What? No!" Castle reacts clumsily. "My own experience with one didn't go too well, and Mother's not exactly a poster-elder for stable relationships," he rambles, "but I'm sure there are good actresses out there. It's just…," he trails off again, trying to figure out how to make his point without further offending Fred.

"You know what I really don't get?" Fred asks rhetorically, sounding annoyed as she surveys everyone at the table. "How in the hell do you guys catch anybody if you're so gullible?" she asks before breaking into peals of laughter that ring through the Haunt, pulling more than a little attention their way.

"What?" Castle asks, stupefied. He's hardly alone as the boys cast each other surprised looks, chagrined at being suckered but happy that they're not on the receiving end of Fred's assault this time. Beckett, too, feels a mix of emotions, including appreciation for a good joke and relief that this little discussion didn't actually stray into troubled romantic history.

But Lanie's feelings are the most obvious as she looks at Castle's friend in appreciation. "You, Winnie, are a treasure. I'm not sure we're gonna let you move to LA."

A/N: That does it for the quarter – Castle's finished with his commitment to the FDNY and slated to return to the precinct after a restorative stop at the Hamptons. But there's one chapter left. Hoping to post that chapter next week.