Disclaimer: I do not own Castle or the recognizable characters who appear in this story. Any other names, for characters or businesses, are fictional. Also, you'll recognize some dialog in this chapter. Just a few lines have been borrowed directly.

Week Twenty-Two

"Look at her go," Ryan mentions to his partner, nodding at Beckett through the breakroom glass, where he and Esposito are getting coffee. Beckett's a picture of ferocious efficiency, pounding keys and finishing reports with focus usually reserved for felonious suspects.

"She's actually taking a vacation, planned in advance and everything," Esposito marvels, still surprised about this turn of events. "And you know her – she'll take this just as seriously as anything else she does. She'll probably finish the next month's worth of paperwork just to make sure she's clear."

"You don't think…," Ryan trails off, nervous about voicing an untested theory.

"What, bro?" his partner reacts, his tone of voice making it clear that he's worried that 'Castle Junior' is going to pose a 3C theory to explain Beckett's diligence – clones, conspiracies, or CIA.

"You don't think the Captain's squeezing Beckett about Castle coming back, do you?" Ryan asks. When Esposito looks confused, he tries to explain. "Something's weird between them. Don't tell me you haven't noticed?"


"Just watch them," Ryan replies quickly. "Something's not right."

"So, you think it's about Castle?" Esposito asks, testing this theory. "But Cap said he wanted Castle back, right?"

"Yeah, but Castle and Beckett weren't together then," Ryan reasons. "And Castle hasn't been around much this summer."

"That's 'cause of Alexis," Esposito assures him. "They're visiting colleges all over the place. He'll be back full-time once they're done."

"I hope so," Ryan answers honestly, looking forward to having Castle back on the team. "But if it's not about him, then what's going on with Beckett and the boss?" he asks, watching Beckett rise and start walking toward Montgomery's office. She's almost there when she turns suddenly, pinning them with a look. With a curt gesture, she points to their desks and tells them both to get back to work.

"Maybe something's up with the boss," Esposito gripes as he heads toward the door, "but Beckett hasn't changed."

While on the phone, Montgomery gestures for Beckett to enter his office, making another hand gesture to encourage her to close the door upon entry. Clearly, his phone conversation is drawing out as he's looking impatient and not talking, just rolling his eyes and fidgeting. Finally, at what Beckett suspects was a marginal opportunity at best, Montgomery interjects that he's running late for an important meeting and needs to go.

Hanging up happily, he turns to Beckett. "All set for your time off?"

"Yes, sir," Beckett answers, tone stilted. It's been weeks since his return to the precinct and they still haven't managed to find a rhythm. Beckett accepts this as her fault, since her feelings about Montgomery shift and roil, leaving his placement on the spectrum from hero to villain a random walk. "Flying out tomorrow morning, back next week."

"Catching up with the college tour?" he asks, struggling himself to find a neutral topic on which they can engage.

"Tail end of this circuit," Beckett confirms, not wanting to mention her destination in particular lest it raise troubling issues. "And it's not just a college tour," she corrects with a small laugh. "Castle's a bit of a celebrity in firefighting circles now. While Alexis has been visiting campuses, he's made some stops at different firehouses along the way."

"What happened to equal time?" Montgomery grouses. "I don't remember him popping into other police precincts."

"After what happened in the spring," Beckett answers honestly, "the only precinct I want him to visit is ours."

"Good point," Montgomery accedes, casting a look around his office as if recalling how things had been then.

"Where did it happen?" Beckett asks, following his eyes. At his look of confusion, she clarifies. "The bomb. When Bracken tried to kill you."

Nodding, Montgomery spins in his desk chair. Beckett's never wanted to talk about those days, so he's more than a little surprised by the question. Still, he owes her far more than an explanation, so he obliges. "There," he says, pointing to where the blast box had sat during that fateful call. "I'd borrowed the box from the Bomb Squad, so it was all ready to go. Still," he says with an embarrassed shrug, "I was standing over there, as far away as I could get, before I answered."

"I should've know something was going on," Beckett ruminates, thinking back to those days. "I knew something was up, remember? I asked about retirement, about all your cleaning, but I didn't see past the issue with Turner."

"Have you listened to the recording?" Montgomery wonders, thinking about the evidence against Bracken that he'd given her.

"No," Beckett admits with a low tone. "It's locked away, safe in case I ever need or want it. But for now," she admits with an uncharacteristic show of vulnerability, "my nightmares don't need any narration."

"Bad?" Montgomery asks, knowing that he's pushing his luck. But after two months of awkward exchanges and silence on the tragic backstory they share, he's desperate to figure out if they can make their precinct life work again, so he willingly pushes the envelope. Thankfully, Castle isn't here to draw parallels to his riskier moves when playing poker.

Beckett doesn't speak for several long moments, leading Montgomery to sigh. At least she didn't storm out, which would've been within her rights and totally understandable. This way, they can perhaps try again sometime in the future.

"Bad and not," she confesses in a low voice, looking down. "I still have the same nightmares, which are horrible. But then they change as my mind remembers that he's gone, the man behind her death is gone. They'd probably be worse if I hadn't faced him down."

"You did what?" Montgomery asks in a harsh whisper of his own, sitting back heavily in his chair.

"Shortly before the end, I visited him," Beckett says proudly, raising her chin to look Montgomery in the eye. "I wanted to see him face-to-face. I wanted him to know which thread in his tapestry got pulled to unravel the whole thing. I wanted to see him before the end."

"I understand," Montgomery admits, and Beckett believes him. If there's anyone in this drama who might understand why she risked visiting Bracken, aside from her empathic partner, it's Montgomery. "The phone conversation we were talking about was the last time I spoke with him. It felt good, after all those years, to push back, to tell him that he was on his own and that the sharks were circling."

Beckett nods along with this, but remains quiet. As the silence draws out, Montgomery can't help but try to force it to a conclusion. "Beckett," he asks, "is this gonna work?"

The question, naked and lonely, doesn't break the silence immediately. But Beckett eventually sighs and begins to talk quietly, almost introspectively. "When things were at the worst with Castle, when I didn't think we could get farther apart, he told me 'we'd get there.' It took a long time to figure out where we were going and a little longer to get there, but I think we've finally made it."

Beckett goes quiet again, letting the lack of words speak for her. Montgomery thinks he knows where she's going with this, but he's not going to push. If he's wrong and this is a prelude to a declaration that the course of her life can change now that she's passed a critical milestone, he'll let her speak her mind.

"So," she finally says, "'we'll get there.' There are days I hate you, down to the core of my being," she admits, her harsh words at odds with their gentle delivery. "They're usually outnumbered by the days when I think of how this affected you, or how you brought it to an end. I think we're moving in the right direction, that the good days outweigh the bad. But I'll promise you this," she vows, "I'll always respect the position. I'm a Detective and you're my Captain."

"So, you're not thinking of leaving now that Bracken is gone?" Montgomery asks boldly.

"Shouldn't I be asking you the same question?" Beckett asks, a hint of her usual assertiveness returning.

"Ladies first," he replies, his efforts to conceal a small smile not entirely successful.

Beckett pauses to consider her answer, casting a look out the windows of Montgomery's office to her colleagues before turning back to her boss. "I became a cop to get justice for my mother. I don't think I achieved that, but at least she can rest in peace." Montgomery looks like he's going to interject, so she raises a hand to forestall his comments. "I'll never know how good an attorney I would've been, or if I would've gone on to do something different with my life had she not been killed. But I'm a damn fine cop. I like it, I'm good at it, and I don't want to stop. Helping others get closure is no less important, no less meaningful for me now than it was before Bracken died."

"I'm glad to hear that, Beckett," Montgomery admits. "Selfishly, I want you to stay. I have hopes that we'll be able to get back to something like the way things used to be. Back then, I could give you advice and I thought you might hear me," he says with a shrug. "So, I'm gonna take a flyer here in case we get to that point again: be careful. You're a hell of a cop, but one of the hardest things for a cop to do," he admits, pointing to himself, "is knowing when to get out. I don't want you to leave now," he clarifies, "but I don't want you to let any more of life pass you by, either. Just don't blink and find yourself in the same place ten years from now."

Beckett gives this some thought, wonders how she should feel about his unsolicited advice. It seems to have been meant with good intentions, so she recognizes it would be churlish to ignore his effort.

"I'm… working on finding a balance," she offers. "It's easier now. I have help," she offers, thinking not only of Castle but of his family that so readily adopted her.

"Good," Montgomery replies. "Let me tell you one last thing before you leave," he offers, and something in his tone catches Beckett's attention. "We've jumped through a lot of hoops this year because of the mayor and his election. But you know what?" he asks rhetorically. "This was never just about the mayor. I could have kicked Castle to the curb years ago, any time I wanted to. Only reason I kept him around this long is because I saw how good he was for you."

With pursed lips that try to hide her smile, Beckett offers her boss a slow nod. With that, she stands and makes her way toward his door, outside of which another woman is waiting to speak with him. Just as she's reaching for the doorknob, she turns back to Montgomery. "Thank you," she offers gratefully, chagrined that it took years to get where she is but happy nonetheless with her boss' foresight. The thought makes her that much more anxious to see Castle again tomorrow.

Montgomery nods, mindful himself that it wasn't long ago that he was thanking her. "Have a nice vacation," he offers, finally coaxing a smile from Beckett as she leaves the office, but not before holding the door for Montgomery's next appointment. As she closes the door, she hears only the beginning of his next conversation.

"Captain Montgomery, my name is Victoria Gates," his guest offers. "And I've got some questions for you..."

Putting this conversation out of mind, Beckett's anxious to get back to her desk, shut down her computer, and get home to pack for her trip. She's only a few steps towards her desk when she notices that someone's sitting in Castle's chair waiting for her. Her guest is attracting Esposito's interest, along with that of just about every other man in the bullpen.

"You must be Detective Renoux," Beckett offers as she rounds back to her desk, offering a hand to the rising detective. "Welcome to the Twelfth."

"Detective Beckett, it's a pleasure to finally meet you," Renoux replies happily, pumping Beckett's hand. "Please, call me Camille."

"It's Kate," Beckett offers, gesturing back to Castle's chair while she evaluates Renoux. It's a good thing Beckett hadn't met her back when Mendoza was pulling his nonsense – she's what Beckett used to consider a 'Castle special' – tall, blonde, and a little busty. When she and Castle were so far apart, knowing that he was spending time with her certainly would've enflamed her insecurities. Instead, she's pulled strings to get the woman reassigned here, freed from Mendoza's spiteful grasp.

"Is Rick here?" Renoux asks, her use of his given name forcing Beckett to realize that she's not quite as comfortable with this situation as she thought. Espo's head twitch at overhearing the question certainly doesn't help.

"No," she replies. "He's visiting colleges with his daughter. I'm going to catch up with them tomorrow, though, if there's message you'd like me to pass along?"

"No message," Renoux answers with a smile. "I was just going to thank you both at the same time if he was here. You don't know how happy I am to have a fresh start. I love my job," she offers, casting a quick look around the bullpen, "but I'd started to hate working at the Two Eight. My coworkers were great, don't get me wrong," she quickly clarifies. "It's just that…"

"I've met Mendoza," Beckett offers so that Renoux doesn't need to say anything about her former captain. "Over the phone at least. I think you'll find that things run a little differently around here."

"A lot differently," Renoux offers, already comparing her old and new workplaces. "I've heard you've got a really good captain."

"It's a good precinct and he's a good captain," Beckett confirms, willing to acknowledge his capabilities in his position. "And we've got great people. I don't know many folks down in White Collar, but I've heard great things."

"You and Rick are my first introduction to the people here," Renoux answers, taking the opportunity to look around again. "If others are half as good, this'll still be fantastic."

"Hi," comes a voice from beside them unexpectedly. Beckett smirks as Esposito moves into position to introduce himself to Renoux, noticing a look a forbearance from Ryan, who's still at his desk. "I'm…"

"Detective Esposito," Renoux completes smoothly with a perched brow. "Rick told me all about you, too."

Looking suddenly worried, Esposito goes a little blank as his mind furiously cycles through the things that Castle might've said about him. The possibilities prove a little more daunting than anticipated, so that Renoux and Beckett have a chance to exchange smiles while he's lost in thought.

"Good things, right?" Esposito finally replies, though he sounds more doubtful than he should if he's aiming for a tone of confident nonchalance.

"In some respects," Renoux answers with a subtle smile, prompting laughs from Beckett and Ryan. "Anyway, I've got to run – still getting oriented downstairs, but I used my break to come up and say thanks. Kate, will you call me when you're back from vacation? I'd like to take you out for drinks to show my appreciation."

"That sounds fun," Beckett replies with a warm smile, surprising herself again. Who knows? She might even invite Castle to join them. As for Espo, who looks like he's praying for an invitation, she'll let him dangle for a bit. "If we wait until Castle's back, we can go to his bar and drink for free."

Renoux's smiling, back on her feet, and pumping Beckett's hand again before turning toward the stairs. About to depart, she cocks her head as she remembers something and spins in place, approaching Ryan instead.

"You must be Kevin Ryan," she says warmly as she extends a hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, too." Then, she's off to the stairs, leaving a smug Ryan, a jealous Esposito, and a laughing Beckett in her wake.

"So, that's who Mendoza threw at Castle?" Esposito says to Beckett, as his eyes linger on the departing detective. "She's…," he trails off as Renoux moves out of sight, turning to face Beckett and backing off due to her expression, "okay-looking, I guess."

"Nice try, Espo," Beckett laughs in disbelief as she's unable to keep a straight face. Ryan, meanwhile, simply smirks and shakes his head.

"You're off to meet Castle, right?" Esposito asks, still distracted. "Get him to put in a good word for me, yeah?" he asks. At her incredulous look, he struggles for a way to sell his idea. "You know, with you and Castle together now, you want to make sure there's no distractions, right? Best to make sure Renoux's occupied. So, really I'm just doing you a favor, right, Beckett? Right?"

"So, I guess you're ready to go, then," Lanie says sarcastically as Beckett slides into the front seat of the car after tossing her rollerboard into the backseat even before the car came to a complete stop at the curb. "I thought I'd have to help you out of your apartment again," she teases, remembering how worked up Beckett had been the morning they went to visit him in the hospital.

"Things are different now," Beckett replies with a cheeky grin, bouncing in her seat as she fastens her seatbelt. "Come on, woman, drive! I've got a plane to catch!"

"Who's the bossy one now?" Lanie complains as she pulls into traffic and steers her car toward the tunnel. "You know, you used to go months, even years, without naked sexy times and you were perfectly pleasant. Now, with writer-boy gone for two weeks, you're all worked up."

"Please," Beckett answers with a roll of her eyes. "As if that's the reason I give you trouble. Besides," she says slyly from the passenger seat, "who said it was two weeks?"

"What?!" Lanie asks, casting her friend a quick look before turning to watch the traffic again. "He and Alexis have been visiting schools for two weeks, right? And I know you worked through last weekend."

"I didn't have time to go anywhere," Beckett agrees, looking smug. "But that doesn't mean I didn't get a visit from my favorite writer."

"When was this? And why didn't you tell me?" Lanie asks, annoyed both at being kept in the dark and because she hadn't already figured this out. One of the real pains about Beckett's increasing comfort in her relationship with Castle, she laments to herself, is that she's getting better and better at hiding the details from her friends.

"Saturday night," Beckett answers with a soft voice and softer smile.

Her friend looks so smitten that Lanie's not sure whether to offer a teary congratulations or drive them into a telephone pole. "He just popped in for the night?"

"He called when he arrived – didn't tell me in advance in case I convinced him to stay out there," she explains. "While the boys and I wrapped up our work for the day, he visited with Mrs. Tremaine and then made dinner for me."

"Awww, how sweet. The little man slaved in the kitchen to have dinner ready for you after work," Lanie teases. "Was he wearing a skimpy little apron when you got home from the office?"

"It was sweet," Beckett objects softly, still thinking fondly of her last evening with Castle.

Lanie feels a little bad about the way she characterized Castle's efforts, so she tries to tease her way back into a gentler conversation. "I'm sure it was," she agrees to mollify Beckett. "And I'm sure you showed him exactly how much you appreciated his efforts."

"Actually," Beckett replies, looking a bit embarrassed and irritated, "it wasn't a great time for him to visit. Had he called me before flying out, I would've explained the unfortunate timing."

"Oh, Kate," Lanie laments, cursing her friend's rotten luck. "I'm sorry. So much for a romantic dinner."

Beckett gets a funny look on her face as she turns in her seat to face her friend. Lanie notices the movement out of the corner of her eye and casts a quick glimpse at her friend, identifying the issue immediately. "Tell me," she requests after seeing Beckett wrestle with the decision about whether to confide in her friend. "Whatever he did, it can't be that bad if you're still so excited to go see him."

"This is really embarrassing," Beckett objects, her flushed cheeks proving her discomfort.

"Hey, whatever, it's fine," Lanie assures her. "Some women are perfectly fine having fun then. Medically speaking, it can actually provide comfort, even if it's ..."

"No," Beckett objects quickly, "that's not what happened. What's embarrassing," she admits, probably to disabuse her friend of any other notion, "is that he knew the timing was bad and he still came to visit. He cooked me a comfort food dinner, baked me a fudgy brownie the size of a coffee-table book, then had me lay down in bed with a heating pad on my stomach while he gave me a massage. I went from feeling so bad to feeling so good that I fell asleep right during his massage."

"Liar," Lanie charges immediately, annoyed that her friend is trying to spin a tale on their drive to the airport. When she turns her head for a quick look, though, she knows her accusation is off the mark. "Really?" she asks instead.

Beckett confirms her explanation with a low, throaty, "Oh, yeah."

"*Damn,*" Lanie offers in wonder.

"I know, right?" Beckett replies with a self-conscious laugh. "He'd been in the air for three hours before I woke up from the best night's sleep I've had in a long time."

"Wait," Lanie interjects. "Are you telling me you haven't seen him since the massage, that he just flew across the country to make you feel better and then ran back to his daughter?"

"Yeah," Beckett replies while shaking her head and blushing again. "Now you know one of the reasons I'm so anxious to see him again."

"Don't hurt that boy," Lanie advises sagely. "As a doctor, I can tell you that the human pelvis can only withstand so much…"

"Lanie," Beckett cuts her off. "Don't make me regret confiding in you."

"Just sayin'," Lanie defends herself with a shrug. "Your man earned himself some serious lovin' with that little maneuver."

"He sure did," Beckett confirms, sounding even more anxious to see him. "But mostly because that's not why he did it. He knew I could use some comfort, so he was just looking out for me."

"Reach into the glove compartment, will you?" Lanie requests while pointing vaguely at the dash. "There's some insulin in there and I think I'm about to go into shock from all the cloying sweetness in this car."

"Green's not a good color for you, Lanes," Beckett teases with a laugh, exhilarating in the role reversal and laughing at her friend's reply growl.

"I think I'm justified in a little jealousy right now," Lanie harrumphs.

"I only got this far because of you," Beckett replies. "You know that, right?"

"You just needed to get out of your own way," Lanie replies, though her eyes look suspiciously misty as she reaches out to clasp hands with her friend. "I'm glad I could help."

"You did," Beckett confirms again. She squeezes her friend's hand to emphasize the point, then releases it to avoid contributing to a traffic accident. "I'm gonna miss you, Lanes."

"Oh, please," Lanie rejects, trying to inconspicuously wipe a tear from her cheek. "You won't even be gone for a week, and if you think of me while you're with Castle, then he's definitely doing something wrong."

As the hollow thud that accompanies the lowering of landing gear shakes her seat, Beckett takes a chance to compare the differences between this and her last flight to LAX. This time, she's in first class, having taken the opportunity to stretch out and sleep for most of the flight in hopes of landing well-rested enough to avoid any jet-lag issues. She didn't call Castle this time, either, but out of consideration – a call at 3:00 AM his time would've been a rough way for him to start his day in Palo Alto. But by now he's awoken to an uncharacteristically sappy text message from her. And even though she's embarrassed by her note, she's still anxious to read his reply as soon as she lands.

And that's obviously the biggest difference between this trip to LA and her last one – this time, she and Castle are on the same page. Their last trip here had been a critical catalyst for them, but it wasn't a comfortable trip. This time, they can enjoy each other and indulge in the fantasies that the circumstances of their earlier visit prevented.

Recalling those fantasies, and the steps she's taken to reenact them, distracts her enough that the plane's touchdown surprises her. Suddenly, she needs to scurry to gather her things and disembark, her place at the front of the line another perk of the first class ticket. Her phone is already trying to connect to local networks as she disembarks, making her way up the jetway and eager to see Castle and Alexis waiting for her.

Except they aren't there. Wondering if they landed at a different concourse and need to meet her on the other side of the security checkpoint, Beckett starts wheeling her bag towards the exit while pulling out her phone, which has two text messages awaiting her.

The first is from Castle. When she imagined the reply to her text, this isn't what she had in mind.

Gremlins, Beckett! But the airline insists on calling them "mechanical difficulties." We're returning to the gate. Probably gonna be late – meet you at the hotel? We'll have a wonderful dinner to thank you for this morning's text (which I'm going to frame, by the way).

Drat. There's no other text from him and his phone rolls over to voicemail when she tries to call. So, best-case scenario, he's in the air now, on his way to LA after he and Alexis visited Stanford and Berkeley. Worst case, he's still stuck in SFO. Maybe she'll have a seat and see how much it would cost to get a ticket to meet him there. Still, there's another text to check, this one from an unrecognized number.

Rick's running late. Up for lunch? I'll meet you outside security. WK.

It takes her about 20 yards to work out who WK is, and she's got mixed emotions when she does. Firing off a quick reply (Sounds great, just walking from my gate, be there in a few minutes. KHB), Beckett tries to assemble a game face for a lunch with Winnie. She'd planned for fun in the sun with Castle, not another inquisition with his sister.

Beckett's first surprise, after seeing Fred in the crowd just beyond the security gate, is the warm hug into which she's enfolded.

"It's good to see you," Fred offers after releasing Beckett. "Any other luggage?"

"Nope, traveling light," Beckett offers, managing not to blush when she thinks about how little space some of her items require. The minimalist packing was also something intended to throw Castle off the scent, since she knew he'd notice (and has no idea that she shipped a box to their hotel).

"Oh, here," Fred says as she leans down to her side and picks up a cup that she extends to Beckett. "Rick's mentioned your love of coffee. Since he can't be here to provide, I stepped in as a temporary replacement."

"Thanks, Winnie," Beckett says gratefully, though she's also a little confused. She tries to mask her questions about Winnie's motives behind the act of taking a long drink of her perfectly-made coffee. She suspects, strongly, that Castle and his friend had a conversation about this earlier today.

"So, wondering why I'm not working you over like last time?" Fred asks with a perched brow and teasing look, apparently in a very good mood. "Let's find a place to eat and I'll explain. We've got an hour before Rick and Alexis land."

Instead of addressing the main topic on Fred's agenda, the ladies exchange small talk on the way to the few restaurant options on this side of the security checkpoints. Beckett assures Fred the flight was fine, restful even. Fred chats about the local attractions Beckett should see during her visit. It's inane chatter but effective at calming them both and building a bridge for a meaningful talk over lunch.

Feeling virtuous, Beckett decides on an organic lunch stand that would earn an immediate scowl from Esposito or Ryan. Smirking to herself while she orders a hummus and beansprout sandwich (on wheat seed bread, of course), she kind of wants to send them a picture. The ladies collect her sandwich, and Fred's salad, before claiming a corner table in which they're mostly sheltered from the flow of pedestrian traffic.

"Rick and Alexis are in the air," Fred confirms after chomping on a radish, several long minutes into their lunch. "He tried to call but your flight had already taken off."

Beckett nods around a petite bite of her sandwich, noting that this explanation comports with her suspicions. "You're here looking for a place?"

"Kind of," Fred confirms. "We've winnowed the location choices down to three, so we're in the final stages of picking a lease for a Southern California office for Aegis. Once that's locked down, I'll figure out where to live."

"I'm sorry to interfere," Beckett offers politely. "It was kind of you to meet me for lunch."

"Rick suggested it," Fred replies, "and I thought it was a good idea. I'm hoping that I can have all three of you over to my folks' place in Malibu while you're here, but not right away. I think maybe you and little brother need some time alone before then," she adds with a smirk.

Beckett blushes slightly, again wondering exactly how much Castle has confided to his adopted sister. Recollections of their first meeting dance in her head, so she decides that dissembling or avoiding the topic would be a bad idea. But, she doesn't have to over-share, either. Kind of like dealing with Lanie's curiosity. "I've missed him," she offers as a simple truth.

Fred nods, wearing a small smile. "I'd say the feeling's mutual, based on his moping during our call. Sounds like things are going well."

"Winnie…," Beckett trails off, looking down at her sandwich. "I think things are going very well."

Beckett's surprised when Fred's hand lands atop of hers on the tabletop.

"I'm having some trouble," Fred confides. "I'm new to this big sister thing. Everything was crystal clear the first time we met – I needed to check you out, give you the business, make sure your interest was genuine, the whole bit," she chuckles as they both recall their first meeting in the Hamptons. "And I needed to make it clear that I'm here to support Rick."

"Message received," Beckett replies with a smirk as she looks back at Fred.

"Yep, that seemed to go pretty well," Fred agrees with a laugh while reclaiming her hand to focus again on her salad, "at least from my side. But now things are a little different. You and Rick are together and everything I hear makes me think that things are going very well for the two of you. It's a little sickening, to be honest," she confides. "And that's not just jealousy talking."

"So, what's the problem?" Beckett asks, going back to Fred's initial segue into this topic as a way to avoid her latter comments.

"Well, you know I want what's best for Rick, right?" she asks rhetorically. "When we first met, I wasn't sure that was you. But now…," she says leadingly, making sure she's got Beckett's attention, "now it looks like that might be you. So, here's my problem: I need to get a little more comfortable with you, be a little more open and accepting. Not entirely," she says quickly while reaching out to tap on Beckett's unadorned ring finger, "but closer. And I didn't leave myself much room to pivot after our first meeting. So, I'm trying here. If that's okay with you?"

"I'd like that," Beckett confesses. Castle's made it clear that Fred's a close friend with whom he intends to remain in contact, regardless of where she moves. So, life will be a little more pleasant if they can all get along. After all, Alexis likes her, and she's a pretty good judge of character. Plus, anyone who terrifies Ryan and Esposito can't be all bad.

"Excellent," Fred replies with true satisfaction. "Now I just need to coordinate with your friend Lanie and we'll have both coasts covered," Fred answers mischievously, laughing at the look of mild horror on Beckett's face. One of the advantages of Fred's move to LA was plenty of miles between her and Lanie, since it was obvious at Castle's departure party that the two of them could reach unsurpassed levels of mischief and bother if combining their efforts.

"You wanted me to be direct, right?" Beckett asks Fred. Having just taken a bite, the woman nods in affirmation. "Okay, I think that would be a terrible idea," Beckett replies, shaking her head.

Fred manages to swallow through her laughter, still chuckling after taking a drink of water. "Don't worry," she assures Beckett. "I know I've been a little rough with you. I've got a thank-you present. We just need to wait for Rick to arrive."

Fred's promise hardly allays Beckett's concerns, given her troublemaking proclivities. Still, Fred's mute on the subject as they finish their lunch and drift over to the arrivals board. Regardless of how subtle she approaches, Beckett can't seem to extract any information from Castle's friend. That alone is vexing, but she's also increasingly concerned that whatever Winnie is planning will interfere with her own surprise for this evening.

A ping from her pocket catches her attention. While she's extracting her phone, she hears a similar tone from next to her. Looking at her phone, she can't help but smile.

Just landed. See you in a few minutes, Beautiful. (PS, we now have a pet gremlin. Don't let me feed it after midnight.)

Chuckling to herself, she's recalled to their circumstances by Fred. "Alexis said they just landed and that they'll be here in a few minutes."

Knowing she should be embarrassed by her excitement, Beckett decides she doesn't care as she hops on the balls of her feet as she awaits their arrival. In a few minutes that seem far longer, she finally notices Castle over the tops of several travelers. He's already seen her, judging by the enormous smile that lights his entire face.

"Kate," he sighs as he drops his bag at her feet and lifts Beckett into the air, twirling her in place and nearly sending several nearby tourists skittering through LAX. Caught off-guard by the exuberant greeting, Beckett laughs freely as she twirls, forgetting to admonish Castle for being such a goof. Once she's back on the ground and has delivered a welcome kiss, she turns to embrace Alexis, who's already managed to greet Fred.

"We need to swing by luggage claim," Castle says as the four of them start moving. At Beckett's rolled eyes, he defends himself. "Hey! We've been traveling for two weeks!"

"Actually," Fred interjects while shooting a quick wink at Beckett, "I think this is where Alexis and I will take our leave. You two could use some time to reconnect, and I've been dying to meet Meredith."

"Fred, you don't have to do that," Castle objects.

"Dad," Alexis jumps in, making it clear that this was a scheme cooked up by the pair of them, "do you really want to start your vacation with Kate by visiting mom? You know that wouldn't go well. You two go have fun. I've got what I need in my carry-on, and I can catch up with you in two days."

"Are you sure?" Castle asks doubtfully, though this sounds like a fantastic idea to Beckett. "We've got a suite with a room for you, so you're welcome whenever you need a break, even if only for a little while."

"Go," Alexis says while Fred makes a shooing gesture. "Have fun."

"Okay?" Castle asks, checking in with Beckett, who answers with a vigorous nod. "Okay," he confirms as he turns back to the other ladies. Since Fred's standing right there, he wraps her in a hug.

"He's missed you," Alexis whispers to Beckett as they share their own departure hug. "Even with his surprise visit."

"He's a very sweet man," Beckett whispers in reply. "And I've missed him, too."

Alexis is still smiling when the pairs switch, allowing her to bid farewell to her father. Meanwhile Beckett's surprised by another hug from Castle's friend, who whispers "Have fun" to her.

"Thank you, Winnie," Beckett whispers, thrilled that she and Castle can get right to their vacation and skip the meeting with Meredith.

"Actually, Kate," Castle's friend replies, "why don't you call me Fred?"

"Mr. Castle? Miss Beckett?" a liveried attendant says as he approaches them on the way to baggage claim. "If you'd prefer to wait in the car, my associate will lead you there while we collect your luggage."

"That sounds excellent," Castle replies immediately, taking this offer in stride. "Don't forget…"

"Miss Alexis' luggage as well," the man interjects knowingly.

While Beckett's radar is twitching about strangers apparently knowing their itinerary and plan, Castle offers a one-word answer that resolves her tension. "Maurice."

Of course, Beckett thinks to herself. As they follow their driver out to the car, she finds herself wondering exactly how resourceful their hotelier friend might be, and how wealthy. He's certainly in position to provide many services, as he's proven already. Her meanderings trail off, however, as the bright sunlight outside has her looking up, reveling in the warm temperature and adoration of her companion.

Their driver offers a discreet knock on the privacy partition as they pull up to their hotel nearly an hour later, allowing almost enough time to make themselves presentable again. Such is the training of the staff here that no one blinks an eye at smudged makeup or an untucked shirttail. And if the staff is well trained, their leader is a consummate professional.

"Welcome back, Miss Beckett, Mister Castle," Maurice greets them cordially, meeting them at the door and escorting them directly to the elevator, leaving attendants to trail with the luggage. "I've made up a suite for you. I understand that your daughter will be joining you during your stay?"

"In a few days," Castle replies amiably, "maybe earlier. Depends on how much fun she's having with her mother."

"I'll enjoy the chance to meet her," Maurice replies. "Her room is made up as well," Maurice offers while casting Beckett a quick look. "It's quite nice," he assures them as he opens the door to the suite and proceeds to the doors to the master bedroom, "though she has only roses, not champagne," he offers with an airy gesture toward the explosion of flowers in the massive bedroom and the large, canopy bed that offers chilling bucket on each bedside table.

"Maurice, this is gorgeous," Beckett enthuses, releasing Castle's hand to wander over to the coffee table where she bends down to smell the flowers. She'd assumed, when talking to him, that he'd set them up in the same suite they had during their last visit. Clearly, however, Maurice is (as usual) going above and beyond the call.

"Might I suggest a couple's massage at 8:00 tomorrow morning?" Maurice inquires as he backs out of the room, each hand grabbing a knob to close the doors as he departs. "Perhaps a relaxing start to the day?"

"It sounds perfect, Maurice," Beckett answers before Castle can utter a word, causing him to look at her in surprised appreciation. "But better make it 10:00."

"Of course," Maurice replies as he draws the doors closed and exits their room. "Please, enjoy your stay."

"We will," Beckett whispers as she walks back to Castle and starts undoing the buttons on his shirt. "We certainly will."

"That was…," Castle trails off, still panting and trying to catch his breath.

"Aerobic?" Beckett suggests, a bit winded herself.

"Inspired," Castle replies, using the arm not pinned beneath Beckett to swipe ineffectually toward the ice bucket on his side of the bed.

"You're not the only one who's invested a fair amount of thought into what we can do together," Beckett promises, distracting Castle with a full-body stretch that still leaves no part of her dangling over the massive mattress.

Finally managing to grasp the neck of the deep green bottle despite obvious distractions, Castle utters a low moan when he realizes it's empty.

"We finished that one a while ago," Beckett offers as she rolls over to throw a leg and an arm over Castle. "Even before we finished mine."

"Huh," he remarks, pulling his hand back and using it to play with her leg. "Don't remember drinking that much. 'Course, we might've spilled a little."

"Says the man who suggested that with bodies available, we didn't need to use glasses," she hums with eyebrow perched.

"Was I wrong?" he defends himself. "Seems to me that worked pretty well. But maybe I'm misrecollecting. I'll admit my mental and nervous systems are still a little overwhelmed by that filthy little trick of yours."

"Awww, you didn't like it?" Beckett pouts and starts to withdraw her leg, causing as much of a panicked grab as Castle's lassitude permits.

"I loved it," he assures her, resuming his stroking. "If that's a reward for last week's impromptu visit, I'm going to start scheduling trips away just so I can sneak back!"

Beckett laughs and gives his chest a playful swat. "That was no reward – that was just a chance for us to reconnect. I missed you," she admits shyly, this form of intimacy newer and still a little more challenging for her than the joyous romp they just shared.

"Glad to hear it," he rumbles in reply. "I was afraid you'd realize how much more smoothly things ran without me underfoot and get used to it."

"Don't even joke about that," Beckett replies seriously. "We tried that experiment and it was horrible. You came back after your stint as a fireman and you're coming back after this college trip if I have to drag you back to the precinct with me."

"I'm looking forward to coming back again almost as much as Alexis is looking forward to getting rid of me," he laughs, squirming a little as Beckett's hand explores his chest. "These two weeks have been great, but baby bird is anxious to fly the nest," he says with false cheer. "Even with my visits to firehouses, she still got a little tired of dad time. Must've, if she was anxious to see Meredith."

"Hey," Beckett says seriously, taking a moment to untangle herself from Castle and the mussed linens. "There can't be a single doubt in your mind about how much that girl loves you," Beckett says seriously, more concerned about his thoughts than on the notion that this might dampen their vacation. "You remember what it was like, though, right? She's anxious to spread her wings a bit. We were, too. She'll fly back."

"I hope so," he replies seriously.

"I obviously don't know this as a parent, but I overheard one of my parents' friends talking about this once," Beckett offers, still trying to cheer him. "She said that, at best, you get eighteen years to raise your kid right. Then you lose them to school, or work, or the military. If you did your job well, they come back. You know she's coming back. So, don't go packing up the lightsabers or laser tag guns just yet."

Castle's demeanor seems to lighten, but there's an odd look on his face that Beckett can't quite place. The longer she looks, the more she suspects he's holding something back.

"Hey," she says seriously, poking him in the chest as she sits beside his prone position on the bed. "How did we finally get here?"

"In the back of a steamy limo," he starts to answer before he gets another poke on the chest.

"I mean here," she says, waving a hand at them both. "Twelve weeks ago…," she starts to say before she cuts herself off with a wry grin. "Sorry: one quarter ago, you and I had quite a throwdown in this very hotel. The chances of us ending up together and naked in a bed the size of my apartment seemed remote. But we finally talked, Rick. To each other, directly and without subtext. So, tell me – what were you thinking about saying just now?"

Noting the seriousness of her conversation, he sits up in the bed, too, so they're on equal footing. Slowly, he reaches for her hands, holding them lightly in his before finally looking into her eyes.

"I was thinking about how good you've been with Alexis," he admits, "even before we found our way back to each other. And how good it is to hear advice from you about her. That got me thinking about other things," he says vaguely, thought the flush in Beckett's cheeks makes it apparent that she's following his line of thought. "And after your little reminder," he says, freeing a hand long enough to mimic a poke to her chest, though he's very gentle and careful to pick a location that's not provocative before lowering his hand again, "I'll confess that I'm very glad we're here and that we've managed to communicate."

"But…?" Beckett interjects, knowing something's still not quite right.

"But even if we're speaking directly, the words still have to be spoken at the right time. You make it so easy, Kate," he sighs, "to want to race ahead. But I don't want to scare you off. There are direct conversations we'll have in the future, conversations to which I'm very much looking forward," he admits, lifting her hand to place a gentle kiss atop it.

"Soon, yeah?" Beckett mumbles in reply, longing and desire and fear stealing the smoothness from her voice and leaving it rough and low. "I don't want to scare you, either, Rick," she confesses, "but there are things I want for us, too."

"Yeah?" he asks, curious if she's also thinking about kids and marriage and rocking chairs and…

"Yeah," she says in a rough voice that sounds more akin to a low growl. "Including a little trip inspired by your visit last week," she says as she rises from the bed, not bothering to reach for a robe or even the bedsheet. "The car will be here to pick us up in 45 minutes – go jump in the shower and get cleaned up."

"Alone?" Castle whines, flopping back onto the bed.

"It's part of the surprise," Beckett promises with a sultry look. "I'm going to use the bathroom in Alexis' room," she says while grasping the handle of her still-packed rollerboard. "No, go on, get moving. Once you're actually in the shower, I'll lay your clothes on the b… on the sofa," she adjusts her comments, shaking her head at the colossal mess they've made of the bed. "No peeking," she says seriously, watching Castle's gleeful look sink to a pout.

"I didn't pack my FDNY gear," Castle warns her as he rises from the bed and engages in a languorous stretch that almost has Beckett reconsidering her separate-showers edict.

With a shake to clear her head, Beckett clarifies the clothing situation. "I packed what I want you to wear," she informs him with an eyebrow waggle. Just as he's looking excited again, she drops the boom. "Don't worry, Martha helped."

Expression souring as it he'd bitten a lemon, Castle sputters himself over to the bathroom door. "I'm not sure I even want to speculate now," he whines. He's about to duck into the bathroom when he fakes a full-body shiver. "Thanks, Beckett. Mood ruined. Although," he reverses himself, "I'll leave the door open in case you change your mind."

Seeming to take him up on his invitation, Beckett saunters over to him, walking slowly and letting him enjoy the show. Upon reaching him, she leans forward to whisper in his ear, enjoying his visible gulp at her approach. Given his distraction, he's completely surprised by the loud spank that shortly precedes a nip to his ear. "Get moving, lover. I promise you'll be happy you did," she says provocatively as she sways away from on her way to the other bedroom.

Once she's beyond the door, Beckett hustles to the closet in Alexis' room, anxious to open the box she shipped and get this evening started. Bless Maurice, she thinks, as she sees the clothes already hanging in the closet (and probably freshly pressed, too). Taking Castle's clothes, she darts back to the bedroom and ensures that he's actually in the shower (and not standing behind the door with the water running) before she places his outfit on the sofa. Feeling like she should get some credit for not holding the clothes back and forcing him to parade around naked, Beckett darts back into the other bedroom and locks the door behind her.

Moving as quickly as possible, Beckett goes through her whole routine – shower, makeup, and even blow-drying her hair. She knows she's risking disaster by leaving a curious Castle to his own devices, but there's a lot to do, even with Maurice's help. More than once she sees the doorknob turning, but Castle either behaves himself or is unable to pick this lock.

With just minutes to spare, she's back in front of the closet and slipping into her own outfit. With one last stop at the mirror to check her jewelry, Beckett gives herself a quick once-over and decides she's ready. Walking to the door, she's about to pull it open when she instead stops and withdraws her cellphone. Dialing his number, she's unsurprised to hear it ringing just behind the door. Castle, on the other hand, was obviously surprised at having his cellphone ring when he had his ear pressed against her door, as the dull thud of his quickly-turning head made it sound like he was knocking.

Her grand entrance assured, Beckett steps forward and opens the door dramatically, revealing Castle in all his tuxedoed glory, gorgeous even as he rubs his forehead. His pouting look falls immediately from his face as he goggles at her. His obvious regard makes her blush.

"Magnificent," he whispers in awe as he steps forward and extends both hands to her.

"I don't know, Castle," she whispers in reply, her attempt at a serious reply defeated by her wide smile and happy laugh, "you've seen me in this before."

"And you're even more beautiful now than you were then," he vows.

"I'm glad you think so," she admits shyly. "Martha wanted to loan me her necklace again, but I didn't feel comfortable traveling with it. So, I had to make do," she apologizes, nodding down toward her necklace.

"It's beautiful," he assures her before he dips his head to place a gentle kiss atop the pendant laying against her sternum.

"Rick," she sighs, "the car's downstairs and we're not going to make it if you keep that up."

Shockingly, Castle decides to behave, recognizing that Beckett's gone to some effort to plan their outing and to indulge his fantasy of seeing her in the MADT dress again. Stepping to her side, he offers an elbow to escort her from their suite.

"What do you have planned for us?" he asks ask they ride the elevator down to the ground floor, where they're unsurprised to see Maurice ready to escort them to the waiting car. "A night of dancing and romance?"

"Just a night, Castle?" Beckett asks as they approach the car, stopping to face him before sliding inside. "Why not a lifetime?"

Castle's still standing there in delighted shock moments later when her hand reaches out, grabs his coat, and tugs him into the car.


Congratulations, you made it to the end! It was a long journey marked with long chapters, but I hope you enjoyed the ride. My apologies for the taking a little longer with this last chapter, but I was compelled to put my laptop away during vacation last week. Now that I've posted this, I can get back to stories and reviews.

Since this tale is told, a few final notes:

The motivation for this story came from my interest in exploring a situation in which Castle had to leave the precinct. I've wondered about his steadfast presence at the precinct. As much as his constancy provided Beckett with an anchor, I've also wondered if it didn't also encourage some of her riskier behavior. At the least, it's difficult to imagine her being so willing to leave in S8 if she wasn't sure he'd be there waiting for her return.

This story also provided an opportunity to have some fun pushing on other threads, like a different end for Bracken, a more engaged Montgomery, and a return of Maddie Queller. But the real pleasure came from providing Castle with an advocate in Fred Keates and from providing opportunities for Beckett and Castle to be on the same side of a fun situation (like a beach wedding or a photo shoot).

In writing this story, I was hoping to achieve a sense of balance. Both Castle and Beckett made some mistakes in their early time together and they share responsibility for their near misses. I don't blame Caste for his attempts at reconciliation with Gina, nor do I fault Beckett for not dropping Josh upon learning of Castle's interest. Timing problems, unfortunate exes, and bad decisions are all part of life. Obviously, not everyone agrees. But I really appreciated the reviews that commented on how each of them had valid points during their tense conversations.

I owe thanks to a lot of people for this story, including:

* Everyone who finished the story and didn't get frustrated by the long reveal of Castle's other job;

* CaskettFan5 for reading the early chapters of this story and helping me get it off the ground;

* GeekMom for a review of the first chapter, sharing her Fic Stream Con time with me, and somehow getting me to produce a Fireman Rick story that I didn't realize I was writing for her benefit;

* CWT for having the courage to sign his name to challenging reviews;

* Griever11 for organizing and running the Fic Stream Con;

* Old and new friends who provided reviews, comments, and encouragement along the way; and

* Friends whose names I might've used in vain (sorry!).

What's next? I'm not sure. I've got rough outlines for multi-chapter stories in S4, S8, or entirely AU. Right away, I'll start with a short bit set in S3 that I'd hoped to have written by now. If you have any preferences, let me know.

Final request: I'll make my usual request at the end of a story – if you got a kick out of the story, I'd appreciate a constructive comment on what worked for you or didn't. Please keep it constructive (though I'll happily accept positive comments, too!).