Title: With Intent

Rating: T

Timeline: Late Season 3

Summary: "Why don't you flirt with me anymore?"

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

A/N: I seem to be stuck on Season 3 lately. This will be the last of an unplanned trilogy addressing the partnership back then. This is AU sometime after Knockdown, playing with what might've happened if Castle reacted differently to Beckett's comments in that episode.

"Why don't you flirt with me anymore?"

Castle, who'd been listlessly playing with his cell phone while Beckett attended to paperwork, feels his insides freeze at her question. Looking up in a panic, he swivels his head to see if anyone else in the bullpen heard her question before looking nervously at his partner. She's looking down at the form she's filling out, but there's no doubt in his mind that she's focused on him and awaiting an answer. Better make it a good one, he thinks to himself.

"Uh, what?" he manages, cringing.

His ineloquent fumbling causes her pen to still in her hand, but she keeps looking at the form.

"Flirting," she repeats quietly. "You know, how you've communicated with me for the past couple years. But you don't anymore."

"I flirt with you, Beckett," he tries to bluff, shutting down his phone to ensure that he's not distracted. "I flirt with all beautiful women."

"I agree with the latter, and wouldn't limit it to 'beautiful women,'" she sighs, dropping the pen and sitting back in her chair to look at him. "But the former isn't true, not anymore."

"Of course it…"

"No, Castle, it's not," Beckett interjects. "I'm a detective. I notice things. So, tell me what's going on. Are you seeing someone?"

"What? No," he answers quickly, again craning his neck to see if anyone's listening to their conversation.

"That's a fail, Castle," Beckett says, lips upturned. "Seriously, how many interrogations have you watched and you still fell for that trick? If I'd asked you the same question last year, you would've flirted with me to prove me wrong. Hell," she adds with a little chuff of laughter, "you would've taken it as a challenge. Now you just look scared."

"I am not scared," Castle defends himself with a scoff, indignant. At Beckett's incredulous look, he grudgingly offers up a different explanation. "I just don't wanna talk about this here," he says, casting another look around the bullpen.

"Okay," Beckett says questioningly, wondering at his sudden reticence given the wealth of inappropriate topics he's raised, loudly, while sitting in that chair. "It's nearly quitting time. Why don't we talk over burgers and milkshakes?"

"I don't think that'd be a good idea," Castle sidesteps, watching Beckett's eyebrows climb her forehead in disbelief.

"The Haunt, then," Beckett probes, growing increasingly curious about her partner's aversion to this discussion. "We can talk over drinks."

"That definitely wouldn't be a good idea," he replies, looking increasingly agitated. "I take it back," he says, probably to foreclose any additional suggestions. "Let's talk here. Just…," he trails off, looking nervously toward Ryan and Esposito, "later."

Beckett acquiesces, but her concentration is shot. Rather than focus on her paperwork, she finds herself dwelling on her partner's odd behavior. True, they don't tend to talk about things like this directly, but she didn't see the harm in it. In fact, she was ready for Castle to disprove her theory. She's felt a bit ridiculous since it popped into her head while she watched him tell a story in the breakroom a few days ago. He was his usual happy, exuberant self, bantering with the guys and flirting with the ladies. It made her nostalgic, which started this line of thinking. She'd thought a direct question might be a quick way to dismiss a baseless insecurity. Instead, it clearly identified something much more significant than she expected.

"Wrap it up, detectives," Montgomery calls out from his office about ten minutes later, startling Beckett. "We don't have the budget for overtime and you're not on an active case. Time to head out."

"Sweet," Esposito sighs from his chair, pausing long enough for a wide stretch before popping up and grabbing his jacket. "Don't have to tell me twice. Later," he calls out, leaving his partner and everyone else in the dust as he bolts for the elevator.

"Big date?" Beckett asks Ryan, surprised by Esposito's quick departure.

"I'd say no," Ryan replies with a smile as he stands and shrugs into his own coat, "but I'm not sure that's right. He's gaming online, but he always seems to pair up with the same player, so it might be more about the chatting than the playing."

"How could an anonymous, internet-based relationship go wrong?" Beckett says with a laugh, watching Ryan reply with an exaggerated shrug. "Have a good night, Ryan."

"You, too, Beckett," he says with a smile. "Night, Castle."

"Until tomorrow, Kev," Castle smiles and waves, sighing heavily with the departure of his last excuse to avoid Beckett's inquiry.

"So," she says, turning to him. "Coffee?" she asks while tilting her head toward the break room.

"Sure," he replies gamely, escorting her to the room and holding the door open for her before hustling ahead to work the machine.

"When we stopped talking earlier," Beckett says while leaning against the counter, watching him with arms crossed, "you were about to tell me why you don't flirt with me anymore."

"That's not exactly how I remember it," Castle replies, looking cocky while working the machine without looking.

"I was trying to save us time," his partner replies with a signature eye roll. "Do we really need to go through the whole bogus denial, argument, and compromise, or can we just skip to the discussion?"

With a sigh, Castle turns back to face the espresso machine while he works on their drinks. "It's not appropriate," he answers quietly.

"What do you mean, 'not appropriate?'" she asks, irritated. "After all the trouble you've given me, all the inappropriate comments and lewd suggestions, you think I'm gonna let you dodge my question because it's not appropriate?"

Castle shakes his head slowly, still focused on the making their drinks. "It's not an excuse," he explains. "It's your answer," he confesses with a shrug, still facing away from her.

Knitting her brows, Beckett tries to understand what he's saying. "It's not appropriate to flirt?" she asks, bewildered. "Why not?"

"Seriously?" he asks in reply, sounding surprised and a little annoyed. "You're in a serious relationship. One you told me you wanted to work."

"Castle, you flirt with everything that moves," she objects, growing annoyed herself at his continuing evasions. "Take Hastings – I don't know what you said to her the other day, but she was still blushing two hours later. And Andrews – you flirt with her all the time and she just had her second kid!"

Beckett knows that something's seriously amiss when Castle doesn't tease her about being jealous, about noticing his interactions with other women in the precinct.

"Now you're being deliberately obtuse," he complains, finishing their drinks and lifting the milk carafe. "I don't have to explain flirting to you, Beckett, you're a master. You know damned well the difference between flirting for fun and flirting with intent. And even if you didn't, you're a cop. You know it's all about intent."

"You're not making any sense," she objects, though the root of his discomfort is becoming clear and she's starting to regret starting this conversation.

"You told me you wanted things to work with Josh," he answers as he turns and extends a mug to her, the smiley face floating on the surface mocking their current tension. "So, no, Beckett, I don't flirt with you anymore. I won't. It wouldn't be right."

"But…," she trails off, thinking about his demeanor more than his position. Castle's rarely intransigent in a discussion, at least not obviously. He'll joke and kid around, embracing an opposite position as often as his own for the sake of a good discussion or pure chaos. She can't remember the last time he made his opinion clear at the start of a discussion and refused to brook argument.

Making a leap that really isn't so unusual given her job and the people she's hunted, she turns to Castle. "Meredith or Gina?" she asks quietly.

Castle says nothing for a few long moments, staring instead into the mug in his hand. Finally, with a sigh, he turns and dumps the mug into the sink before running a sponge around the inside, rinsing it, and putting it in the drying rack.

"Thanks for the coffee," he answers in a voice of false cheer. "I need to get home and get dinner started. For Alexis. She's a little moody when she's hungry. Until tomorrow, detective," Castle says while lifting a hand to tilt the hat he's not wearing. And then he's gone.

A/N: Sorry, I'd hoped this would be another all-at-once posting, but last week got on top of me and I didn't get to write as much as I would've preferred. Chapter two is about done and chapter three's almost there, too, so this one will be finished quickly. By next Monday at the latest, but probably sooner.