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.

The waitress' arrival with the dessert menus brings Castle back to earth from his daydreaming and helps him focus.

"Clock's ticking, Castle," Beckett teases.

"Will you order for me?" he asks, trying desperately to free his mind to win the bet. "You picked an incredible dinner and I need time to think."

"Two coffees and one Charlotte russe, please," Beckett says sweetly, ordering quickly and handing the menus back without opening them to put the time pressure on Castle, who gives her an exasperated look in recognition of her ploy. "Give up yet?"

"Beckett, I didn't give up for three years," he answers. "Why start now? But hush, I need to think."

"So, is it my turn to play Angry Birds, stare creepily at you, and pontificate on the possible etymological origins of law enforcement terms?" she asks innocently, enjoying herself with this bit of role-reversal.

"'Etymological origins' is redundant," Castle grouses, wondering if his interruptions are really this irritating.

"I know," she smirks in reply.

Shaking his head and giving a grudging chuckle, he returns to his thoughts in an effort to meet his deadline. "Not the ferry, though that would've been a good one."

"The ferry?" she asks, surprised by a location she hadn't considered.

"Remember?" he prompts. "Strangers on a boat? Where Cosway and Marx met to plan their criss-crossed homicides?"

"How romantic," Beckett chuckles, though they both know that the homicide theme traces through all of today's locations.

"It was, in a way," Castle points out. "It was the first case where we were back on the same page after you let me come back to the precinct. And even though Ryan and Espo never admitted it, we totally won that bet."

"Damn right we did." Beckett had nearly forgotten about that case, about two strangers meeting on their commute and somehow hatching a plan that nearly frustrated their investigation. And Castle's right – the ferry might've been a good location. But that hadn't been the plan, so her smile widens as Castle's time grows shorter and shorter.

"Not the place where we had the Heat Wave launch party. That was indoors and…," he trails off, knowing he's already said too much.

"And?" she follows up, as he knew she would.

"And the party was a fiasco," he confesses. "You might think I only remember that dress you wore, but I remember our discussion. Thinking about it later, I realized I kind of ruined the mood by talking about work when you were talking about something else."

"There was a murderer on the loose," she answers with a shrug, still a little stung by how quickly that conversation went off the rails, due to both of their contributions. "Catching them is what we do."

"True, but with all the clues we consider, you'd have thought I caught a few myself," he replies in a self-deprecating huff. "We've gotten better at talking to each other since then, but I don't think that's a place we should've revisited today."

"I agree," she offers kindly, again reaching out to rub his arm, "but those memories aren't all bad. You stayed," she reminds him. "Just like you promised my dad you would, back at your diner confessional. After fighting your way back into the precinct you had a legitimate reason to leave – a professionally enviable and lucrative reason to leave. But you stayed. It was the start of something I've come to rely on."

"You're right, it was just the start," he promises. "I'm not going anywhere." At her quick nod in reply, he cranes his neck around to make sure the waitress isn't about to arrive with their desserts. He's working on his timing now, looking to make this perfect.

"Unless you had prank – sorry, I mean curse materials as well as food in the cooler," he continues primly, "the New York History Museum wasn't the destination, either." Huffing at his partner's smirk, he thinks of another avoided location, being careful to skip over anything related to her time with Demming or his decision to try again with Gina. He doesn't articulate any of this, but Beckett must see him tensing up, offering a gentle hand squeeze to help keep him grounded.

"Not the Haunt," Castle continues, relaxing at her touch. "You would've wrapped Bill around your finger to have things set up without the need for the cooler."

Beckett nods, though she refrains from exploring this possibility. Involving Bill would've been an unnecessary distraction, and if she didn't involve friends like Lanie in today's fun, she wasn't going to pull in Bill. She'll already be in trouble, she knows, if Lanie realizes that Maddie got pulled in while the ME remained blissfully unaware of what will hopefully be a big day for the partners.

"Time's up, Castle," she says slyly, looking toward the door where their waitress has emerged bearing a tray with coffee and their shared dessert.

"Thank goodness," he sighs in relief, "now I can finally stop stalling."

"Oh? So you've known all along where we were going?" she utters in complete disbelief. "Go ahead, then – last guess."

"It's not a guess," he answers with maddening certainty. "We were going to eat on the benches at First Avenue and 47th Street."

Beckett actually feels her jaw drop. She's sure it looks unattractive to the waitress, who bustles around to deliver their drinks and dessert, but she can't help it. How in the hell…?

The waitress has already departed by the time Beckett manages to turn to her partner, who is again uncharacteristically quiet. He's smiling proudly, of course, but not crowing. From his look, he knows he's right.

"How did you know?" she finally manages to ask.

"Had to be, right?" he answers with a shrug. "You trusted me then, Beckett. Trusted me to deliver the Candela's ransom by myself. It meant a lot," he confesses, looking down at the surface of his coffee before continuing. "I felt like I was actually contributing, becoming something more like a partner."

"That was an important case for us," Beckett whispers in reply. "It was the first time I thought that something real between us might actually work. It was another place," she confesses, "where my past intersected with a possible future." She's tempted to tell him about what Will said, harkening back to the time she stood in line to have Castle sign a book for her, but she'll save that admission for another day.

"We can still go," Castle offers quickly, reaching out to stroke the hand that's clasping a dessert fork.

"Not tonight," she replies, reengaging fully in the conversation. "I have other plans for tonight. And a bet to pay off."

"Check ple…," Castle starts to exclaim before her hand covers his mouth.

"We've got plenty of time, Rick," she assures him, smiling at his antics. "Besides, you need to try this dessert, it's divine," she entices sinfully as she removes her hand from his mouth and uses it instead to lift a bite of the cake to his mouth.

What follows is a ridiculous seduction, nibbling on a rich confection an excuse to touch, rub, feed, and flirt with each other. Their world shrinks to encompass only the small bubble of their table, all other thoughts about cases, exes, and even families falling away while the two partners revel in each other's company.

Castle's surprised when Beckett stands and offers her hand to him. "Let's go home, Rick," she offers in a low tone, her posture open in invitation.

Reaching for his wallet, Castle frowns as Beckett shakes her head and tugs on his arm. "I already took care of it. Didn't need a repeat of the diner incident," she explains with a crafty smile. "And no complaints – this was my date, remember?"

Grumbling good-naturedly at being outflanked, Castle rises and offers his arm to his partner. The hostess drifts over and thanks them for their visit and quietly but effusively wishes them a good night. As another treat for her partner, Beckett thanks her in Russian, smiling as Castle pats her hand. Then, after tossing out "dasvedaniya" himself, Castle leads Beckett toward the car.

"You surprised me again today, partner," she confesses as they saunter down the street together. "I had so much fun planning our day. But you know what I'll remember most? I'll remember someone who didn't brag about seeing through the fake clue this morning, who instead took the time to attend to his partner and clean up her mess. I'll remember someone who kindly fended off my friend's advances while remaining focused on me."

Castle remains quiet, reveling in Beckett's admissions but committing each one to memory.

"I'll remember someone who spoke so eloquently about his apology, about his desperation to come back to the precinct, back to me," she continues, squeezing his arm before releasing it and tugging on his hand to encourage him to wrap it around her. "I'll remember someone who accepted my efforts today without joking, someone who listened and made it easy to share my stories." Leaning into him and slightly regretting their arrival at the parking area, she stops them beside the car before turning to him and whispering "Thank you" as her lips met his.

Several long minutes later, they finally realize that there's no need to stand in a parking lot when they have homes awaiting their arrival if they can just manage to get into the car. With a rueful chuckle, Beckett breaks away and gives her partner a playful nudge toward the passenger door of her cruiser.

Beckett swerves in her lane minutes later when Castle's hand casually lands on her thigh. Saying nothing but offering him a quick look with a raised brow, she laughs at his playful shrug. His hand doesn't wander, but it doesn't retreat, either. The warm weight of his hand is a promise of things to come, and Beckett finds herself squirming even though he's behaving himself surprisingly well.

Trying to think of something to keep her mind focused on the road rather than their destination, Beckett thinks about their conversation over dinner. This proves to be a mistake as she recalls the loving words they exchanged, until a thought suddenly occurs to her.

"The third reason," she says aloud, startling both Castle and herself. "When you were summarizing the conclusions you held back when solving today's case, you mentioned three things. But we only talked about two – Lanie and the picnic. What was the third?"

"Maybe that should be your mystery for the day," he replies mischievously, hand still in place.

"Do you really want me distracted tonight," she answers back in a sinful growl, "letting my mind wander over our case rather than focusing on the matter at hand?" she asks while letting her hand fall atop his while tugging it slightly higher.

So much for calming down, she thinks ruefully. But she doesn't move her hand.

"Good point," Cast rumbles next to her, flexing his fingers playfully. "I'll answer with a question," he offers, prompting a long-suffering sigh from Beckett, who just knew he was going to draw this out. "In all our time together, all the cases we've pursued, even in my writing," he adds before pausing with a chuckle, "maybe even for today's date, how do we always start?"

'With a dead body' is the first thought that comes to her mind, but that can't be right. She's only started to ponder the question when the answers becomes blindingly, embarrassingly, and immediately obvious. Lifting her hand from its position atop Castle's, Beckett uses it to slap her forehead. "With a murderboard," she groans. "I can't believe I overlooked that."

"You didn't even show me a 'picture from Espo,'" he laughs, thinking back to the poker chips and Russian symbols.

"Maybe you should be the criminal mastermind of our duo after all," she reverses herself, still chagrined at her oversight.

"Partners in life and crime?" he asks impishly.

"Something like that," she chuckles, letting her hand fall back atop his.

Castle's apparently done behaving himself, though. Even with their fingers twined, he manages to draw little patterns and swirls that have her shifting in her seat. The closer they get to her apartment, the bolder his explorations, until Beckett careens into a parking spot near hear apartment. Flushed, short of breath, and certainly distracted, she credits her excellent driving skills for getting the car mostly within the markers.

She's barely out of the car before Castle's beside her, casting her a look that already has her toes curling, which is especially impressive considering the high-heeled torture devices in which she's clad her feet. Intending to fend him off with a quick kiss, she shakes her head several minutes later, shocked to find herself perched on the cruiser's hood with her dress hiked distressingly high.

"Cooler," she mumble, pushing the key fob to release the trunk latch.

"You hungry, Beckett?" Castle asks with a voice that ought to be barred from use around minors.

"You have no idea," she pants in reply, though, clearly, he does. "If I don't do something to occupy your hands, there's no way we'll make it to my apartment," she confesses, beyond blushing.

Trying to get himself under control, Castle helps her slide off the car's hood before stepping back to avoid temptation. Walking around to the back of the car, he stacks their bags atop the cooler before lifting it up. He turns to allow Beckett to close the trunk and lead him into her building.

Once in the elevator, Castle sets his burden on the floor. He's still straightening up when Beckett takes sidesteps away and raises her finger. "No," she says fiercely, both to him and herself. "Once we start, Castle, we're not gonna be able to stop. Maybe we can explore the elevator some other time," she whispers, watching his eyes glaze over, "either here, or at your place, or the precinct," she says with a wink to his gurgle, "but the first time? We're gonna do it right."

"If it's the two of us," he rumbles in reply, "then it's right, regardless. But I can wait. For another few seconds, anyway." As if to keep himself from temptation, he lifts the cooler again, even though they're not yet on her floor.

Minutes later, they're finally approaching Beckett's door. Castle's added distance to his physical burden, walking a few steps behind Beckett to avoid the temptation to ravish her here in the hallway. It's not all bad, he consoles himself, as the view of her swaying ahead of him in that dress is nearly as intoxicating as getting Beckett on the hood of her car. Still, he's not sure he's ever heard a sound as welcome as her door creaking open.

Neither of them is quite sure what happened after that. There was the bang of a cooler hitting the floor, the slamming of the door, some grunts, a squeal, and, appropriately for them, laughter. Somehow, miraculously, most of their clothes end up on Beckett's sofa, not exactly put away neatly but not heaped on the floor or hanging from the light fixtures.

With another squeal, Beckett finds herself hoisted into the air. Castle's cradling her in a bridal carry, carefully navigating down the short hallway toward her bed. Wary of ending this fantasy by knocking his partner's head on the doorframe, he turns sideways to enter her bedroom. He stops several steps short of the bed, pausing again to ensure that he's actually here, that this isn't some kind of fever dream.

Sliding slowly and deliciously down Castle's front, Beckett lands lightly on her feet and pads to the bedside table, where she lifts a pack of matches. "Will you light the candles, please? I need to grab something," she explains. And while she meant her comment innocently, she can't help but look down at something else she looks forward to grabbing.

Leaving him quickly with a peck on the cheek, Beckett wanders back into her living room to retrieve her purse and the item that resides within. Castle, meanwhile, stands in awe of the array of candles and flowers in Beckett's bedroom. The candles are new, the flowers resplendent, but best of all is the evidence that this, too, was part of her plan for the day. The thought that his partner – his beautiful, fierce, extraordinary partner – spent so much time devising a way to launch their time together nearly undoes him. In quiet wonder, he sets about preparing the room for their beginning together.

Beckett, meanwhile, is somewhat vexed by her inability to find the small purse she used for their dinner outing. Bending over to see if it's beneath Castle's discarded undershirt, she twitches the garment aside. The movement reveals not her errant purse but an envelope with her name scrawled across the front in the sloppy writing of a stereotypical doctor.

Josh. Damn him, she won't let him infect tonight, not after she's worked so hard to make sure that no shadow of his presence haunted them today. At least her eye roll after reading the envelope helped her spy her purse. Grabbing it quickly, she turns to deposit Josh's letter in the trash only to find Castle standing in the hallway, gloriously naked but looking uncertain as his eyes alight on the envelope in her hand.

"Beckett?" he asks, sounding distressingly uncertain.

"Still have those matches, partner?" she asks as she sways over to him, not stopping until she's pressed against his front and leaning up to kiss his chin.

"Uh, yeah," he stammers as her kiss seems to free him from his uncertainty. He steps back into her room and returns quickly, extending the box of matches to her. Rather than take them, though, she tugs on his hand and leads him to the kitchen. Silently, she places her purse in his hand in exchange for the matches. Noting his brows are knit in confusion, she reaches a hand to the back of his head and pulls gently so she can kiss the creases away.

Once he's looking less worried, she turns to the sink. Striking a match, she sets Josh's letter alight.

"Kate, no…," Castle starts, but she quiets him with a gentle smile and shake of her head.

She holds the letter as long as she can, until the flames lick at the corner that she's pinched between thumb and index finger. She holds on just a little too long, intent on proving her point. She flings the remnant into the sink as the flames kiss her fingers, shaking her hand to slough off the sting.

Castle surprises her again, gently catching her wrist and lifting her hand to his mouth. Without breaking eye contact, he draws the tip of her finger into his mouth, his tongue swirling over the hardly-singed digit. By the time he lavishes the same attention on her thumb, her eyes are dilated, her breathing ragged, and the letter forgotten.

Starting anew, Castle releases her hand and instead moving to greet her in a proper kiss. As things grow heated, he tosses her purse onto the counter and again lifts her up anxious to get them back to her bedroom.

"Wait!" she yelps before they've left the kitchen, finally remembering why she left the bedroom in the first place. Following her pointed finger, Castle steps back to the counter, hands the purse to Beckett and starts for her bedroom.

"I can't wait to see what you've got in there that's so vital, Beckett," he says leadingly, hoping for a clue. But this is one mystery she won't spoil, one surprise left for a day full of them.

"Stop talking, Castle," she chides before finding an especially delicious spot on his neck. "And take me to bed."

If they managed two hours of sleep in total before Dispatch calls early the next morning, it's only by a small margin. Despite an early dinner and early return to Beckett's apartment, they hardly slept, far too interested in finally starting their time together to pay attention to clocks, duty, or on-call rosters.

The early wake-up call was probably a boon, though. Fully rested, they'd both be chirping and beaming, certain to telegraph clearly what had changed between them. But the fatigue mitigates that appearance, so when they show up at the crime scene, neither the boys nor Lanie notice anything particularly unusual.

It's not until they're back at the precinct when things start to unravel. Castle can't help his smirk when Beckett stands to start building the timeline on the murderboard, and she chuckles to herself for yesterday's oversight. She can't help but catch Castle's eyes, and he can't help but to smile at the reminder. Trying to hide his reaction, he stands and asks for coffee orders, retreating to the break room to recapture his composure.

Leaving was a mistake, though, as both Ryan and Esposito note the hitch in his gait.

"What happened to him?" Espo asks, watching Castle mask his limp as he enters the break room.

"No idea," Beckett answers casually, turning back to the whiteboard where no one can see her smile.

Sensing something's amiss, Espo heads to the breakroom, following Castle. Ryan remains in his chair, though he's scrutinizing Beckett, not the murderboard.

"Son of a bitch," he says in a quiet voice, looking quickly from Beckett to the break room and back again. "Finally," he whispers, looking pleased.

Beckett, alternatively, looks mortified since she has no idea how Ryan tumbled onto them so quickly. "Ryan, it's not…"

"Hush," he replies easily. "Your secret's safe with me. Not from Javi," he says, gesturing to the break room with a thumb. "If I figured it out, then he will, too. But we'll keep it quiet."

She really shouldn't do this, especially not before talking to Lanie. But she's just so damn happy, and so pleased that someone's rooting for them, that she drops her guard. "Thank you, Kevin," she says warmly.

"So, is he hurt?" Ryan replies, gesturing again to the breakroom and wearing an expression that would look more at home on Castle's face. "Or is he just worn out?"

Pursing her lips and shaking her head, Beckett chastises herself for falling into these circumstances already. But now that Ryan, and probably Espo, suspect what's going on, Castle's limp will just provoke more questions until they can be shut down. So, with a smile that grows larger than she expected, Beckett tries to minimize the speculation on this front. "It's, ah, an injury. He just sat on something," she says while recalling Castle's unfortunate roll on her bed, when Dispatch called, and the yelp that followed when he found her joke prop with his derriere. "He'll be fine in no time."

Ryan looks skeptical of this explanation and is about to follow up when Espo sticks his head out of the break room and shouts out to her across the length of the bullpen. "Yo, Beckett," he calls, indifferent to the attention his loud interjection attracts. "What in the hell is a 'threek?'"

A/N: And, done! For real, this time. Hope you enjoyed the ride, which went a little longer than expected. Next stop, early season 4 for a new story. Apologies for missing out on the Halloween Bash, but I'll bank the story I would've written for somewhere down the road.