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.

"Gates would go apoplectic," he muses while thinking about his fake confession, ignoring Beckett's recoil and vigorous head-shaking, "but I could be the lightning rod. If I really sold it," he continues with a grim smile, taking some macabre pleasure in tracing out this thought experiment, "you know, play up the whole desire to record a day-in-the-life for my books, she might ignore everyone else to go after me."

"*No*," Beckett replies with such a fierce growl that he can't help an involuntary sidestep away from her. "Weren't you listening?! I need you to stop stepping in front of bullets for me," she nearly howls in frustration at this fresh example of his misplaced chivalry. "This isn't your mess to clean up."

"It not yours, either," Castle replies equably, making his own point. "I know you, Beckett. You weren't involved but you volunteered to take the hit. Why?"

"Because I can handle it," she grimaces in reply, seeing where he's taking this conversation but lacking the room to maneuver. "They'd lose their jobs. I can't let that happen."

"Ditto," he replies with a shrug. "And if I take the fall, my job's unaffected. It makes sense."

"Or we lose the evidence," Beckett answers, seeing no hopes for agreement on this aspect of the conversation. "We've got those four perps cold without the recording. The DA's got the film from the elevator, which shows the blonde woman pointing Hastings' gun at you even if there's no audio of her threats. No one would think to ask about other recordings."

"How is this not the worse option?" Castle replies. His nervous energy is mounting again and without anything with which to fidget, he starts to drift around the gym again. "We'd be subverting the system. Tomorrow, next week, next year – sometime the guilt from that would set in. Someday I'd look up and see that look in your eyes – regret, guilt, shame, and, ultimately, resentment. And that would kill me. It would kill us."

"No," Beckett answers slowly, staying a few steps within reach of her partner. But it's not her simple declaration that catches his attention but the quiet certainty of it. "I admitted long ago," she starts as if telling a story, "that there are flaws in the system. 'Random gang violence,' remember?" she asks, harkening back to the excuses bleated by the officers tasked with finding her mother's killer. "And then Roy… I've always known that there would be a time I'd have to decide whether to follow regulations or justice. This isn't the choice I was expecting," she adds, waving a hand between them, "but it's an easier one to make."

"At what cost, Beckett?" he asks, scrubbing his hair again before turning back to her. "You'd seriously be willing to destroy evidence…"

"In a heartbeat," she interrupts fiercely. "I told you I want you there when I'm better, Castle. I need my partner."

Moved by her conviction, Castle stops his pacing and turns back to his partner yet again. "Then we erase it," he concludes heavily. "The four of us need to agree that it never existed in the first place," he emphasizes, though Beckett's already nodding. "And I want to listen to it, first."

He sighs in relief when she enters the all-night café nearly an hour later. They'd split up after their PT session – her to retrieve her cruiser from the precinct and the recording from her apartment, he to clean up after their 'workout.' After the breakdowns and painful confessions in what was already a very long day, he wasn't sure she'd be able to leave the quiet comfort of her apartment. But there she stands with a case in her hand.

Castle stands to catch her attention, offering a tentative smile. Her return greeting is equally timid, though she seems more centered than she'd been earlier. Perhaps their earlier conversation did some good, or perhaps it's the imminent elimination of the surveillance recording that has her more at ease.

The waitress appears just after Castle slides back into the booth. She surveys her patrons with casual disinterest, too tired at the beginning of a long night shift to be nosy.

"Two coffees, one order of fries, one chocolate and one strawberry milkshake, and two cheeseburgers, medium rare," Beckett rattles off before the waitress can even distribute the tattered, ketchup-stained menus. With a shrug, she turns back toward the kitchen without writing the order in her pad or waiting to see if Castle agreed.

"Guess you're hungry," he offers with a raised brow and curious tone.

"How long's it been since you've had a cheeseburger?" his partner ripostes, recalling his comments on the recording.

"A while," he offers with an overly-nonchalant shrug.

"Will you break your fast?" Beckett looks at him, making this a much more important conversation than just choosing a snack. "Please? I'm impressed by what you've accomplished since then," she offers, her eyes pinning him. "But I'm worried about the cost."

"Okay," Castle capitulates, surprising them both. "You'll have to help me work it off later…"

"At the gym," Beckett replies with a perched brow of her own. Her small smile recognizes the return of their banter more than the humor of his comment. His smile in return lets her know he's on the same page.

The waitress returns for a brief interruption, pouring two mugs of coffee and leaving the thermal container on their table for refills. She's again departed before Castle finishes nodding his thanks.

"Ready?" Beckett asks after he takes a sip of his coffee and winces. Apparently eager to get moving, she's already opening the case on the inside of her bench seat. After Castle's nod, she reaches into her pocketbook and retrieves two sets of headphones. She hands the nicer set to her partner, not so much for sound quality as for the long cord that covers the distance from her bench seat to him. After plugging in his set, set does the same for her more modest white Apple earbuds.

"It starts just before your, um, talk with Dixon," Beckett prefaces, reddening slightly and looking down. Aside from a pursed mouth, her partner offers no reaction.

"Does that happen often?" Beckett's mortified to hear herself ask as she watches her hand pause before starting the recording.

"More than usual lately," he replies with another shrug, trying to close down this topic. It's another deviation from his usual bravado on romantic topics, clearly showing his discomfort.

"I'm sorry," she replies quietly. "I should've realized…"

"It's fine," Castle interrupts in his mounting desire to move on. "Let's just listen to my fumbling, okay?"

She'd hardly consider it fumbling, but Beckett lets his remark go without comment. Following his request, she starts the recording, listening to the audio through her headphones while focusing on watching her partner's face.

It's a remarkably different experience listening to the surveillance tape again with Castle sitting in front of her. He blushes and looks uncomfortable during Dixon's effort to ask him out. And rather than comment or wiggle his eyebrows when she makes her comment about assuming he 'knows how to have a good time,' he drops his eyes to avoid her gaze.

Listening to the altercation in the elevator is different. He listens impassively as Eckes' crew drops Hastings in favor of taking him. Turning his wrist, he tracks the time between the blonde woman's final threat and his whiny "ow" after the fight, looking up and giving Beckett a playful shrug while rubbing his head.

Castle cringes in distaste at the sound of himself retching before his interview with Gates, though he looks no more pale now. Still, Beckett reaches out to stop the playback.

"Last chance," she offers. "If you want to listen to this alone, tell me now."

"You've already heard it," he replies with quirked lips and a light shrug.

"But not with you," she explains, feeling clumsy. "It'll be different with you."

"Oh, Beckett," he answers in a voice that suddenly sounds more playful. "To quote a good friend, 'you have no idea,'" he rumbles and gives her the enticing look she'd expected earlier. Ridiculously, she can feel herself blush. "Now," he continues before she can recover, "play the tape."

All playfulness is lost almost immediately as they begin to listen to Gates' conversation with Castle. She might as well be playing cards with him now, she realizes, for all the expression lacking in his impassive stare. He offers no reaction to any of the bombs that fall during the conversation – the reference to trauma reinforcing memories, his guilt about failing to protect her and stark depression at his summer of abandonment, his certainty that Beckett was preparing to cast him aside, the confession of his side project (including the glee with which he baited Gates), the dismay at learning that Beckett had attempted to banish him from the precinct, or the reference to his 'other options.'

Beckett startles at hearing herself moments later. She'd spent so much time worrying at what Castle discussed with Gates that she forgot the bug was still transmitting when that conversation ended. But Castle looks her in the eye when they hear her whisper "I was so worried," both of them recognizing the emotion in her voice. They stare at each other, each trying to see something in the look of the other, until the fumbling thumps on the recording provide aural evidence of Espo's retrieval of the surveillance device.

Castle removes his headphones just as the waitress returns with their order. Brusque as usual, she simply empties the tray on the middle of the table, leaving the partners to divvy up the milkshakes and fries. Glad of the distraction, Castle distributes the food while Beckett packs away the headphones.

Stopping before she closes the lid on the case, she looks up again and catches Castle's attention. "Are we going to…"

"Yes," Castle answers before she finishes the question. "I don't need to hear it again."

Beckett nods, then enters the command to wipe the memory. Then, she catches his attention by lifting the bug from the case and holding it carefully on her finger to allow Castle's inspection. After his grudgingly impressed nod at its small profile, Beckett returns it to the case. Next, she lifts a finger to her lips to signal for silence before turning on the speaker of her phone. Raising the volume of Coltrane's Blue Train until the few other patrons cast them annoyed looks, she starts the bug recording again before putting her phone in the case and closing the lid.

"Recording over the top, just in case," she explains with a small smile. "We don't need Tory or anyone reconstructing the audio."

Castle nods, opting to pop a fry into his mouth rather than answer. Then, under her pointed look, he reaches for the cheeseburger.

He'd intended to take a small bite, the equivalent of a peck on the cheek of his favorite gastronomic mistress. But before he can stop himself he's opened wide, taking fully of the delight and freeing such an erotic moan at the explosion of taste that Beckett blushes on his behalf.

"Good?" she asks, voice cracking embarrassingly.

"Even better than the first time," he moans in delight as Beckett's blush deepens while she thinks of other pleasures that he's apparently denied himself recently.

"So," she jumps in while shaking her head, desperate to distract them both with a different topic. "Was there anything in particular you wanted to hear?"

"Just the conversation," Castle answers after a Herculean swallow. "In Gates' office," he clarifies. "I kind of made things up as I went along. I wrote down what I could recall of our conversation later that night, but I wanted to make sure I had the details right. I had the words," he explains with a vague hand-gesture, "but I wanted to catch the tones."

Beckett nods along, thinking about other conversations where she would've liked the opportunity to go back and listen to herself. As particular examples of talks with her partner come to mind, though, she's suddenly glad for the absence of surveillance equipment. "The school's funniest kid" is already part of the soundtrack to her parade of regrets and she doesn't need to hear it in stereo.

"Can I ask a few questions?" Beckett ventures after a few nibbles to the cheeseburger she only ordered to keep Castle company. The unusually timid tone indicates better than words that these questions will stray into delicate territory.

"You can ask," he replies, inflecting the last word to let her know that he might not answer. "A few?"

Beckett nods, understanding the message. Since he's not pushing her for explanations on her selective memory or inability to control her team, she admits ruefully, she's hardly in a position to demand answers. So, she takes a few moments to formulate her questions. "Four?" she requests, getting a nod in return.

"Who asked you to pull me back?" she starts with a bang, instantly catching her partner's attention. "Back…," she trails off, chastising herself for trying to skirt the issue. "Before I made the terrible decision to ask Montgomery to kick you out," she confesses, "who asked you to rein me in?"

Castle looks at her while he chews slowly, no longer even tasting the beloved cheeseburger. Then, after a slight pause, he shakes his head.

"Was it Josh?" Beckett ventures, frustrated and regretful at bringing up his name. "Or was it my father?"

Castle reaches for his milkshake to provide some cover, but realizes immediately that he can't answer. He doesn't know Beckett's father well, but he knows that the relationship between father and daughter suffered when Jim fell into the bottle. The last thing he's going to do is volunteer information that might cause a rift.

"You heard my comment to Gates," he offers instead. "It doesn't matter who asked, I was already going to try to slow you down," he finishes with a sad shrug.

So it was dad, Beckett realizes. She's played with this mystery since hearing the tape, and those two are the only reasonable options. Castle's got no reason to protect Josh – the opposite, in fact, based on what she's heard about Josh's behavior at the hospital. But it seems more like her father – worried about her behavior but equally worried about jeopardizing their reforged relationship. He must've approached Castle – what a scene that must've been. And how telling that her father went to Castle, not Josh. Smart man, her dad, even if she didn't recognize it at the time.

"Thank you," she whispers. "Thank you for trying to protect me. For trying to protect my family."

Castle looks down, frustrated with himself for being so easily read by his partner. So much for demonstrating the Rodgers acting mettle. At least she doesn't seem upset, so he'll hope for the best for his partner and her father.

Beckett notices his look and suspects its cause. "It's okay, Castle. I'm glad it was dad. We'll be okay," she promises, thinking about her father but okay if he interprets her comment differently. When he simply nods in reply, she tries to divert him into happier territory.

"Second question," she prompts, letting him know they're moving on. "About the letters Gates had, the ones from people who want you…," she starts to introduce before Castle cuts her off.

"Those better not be the letters she has," he says with a little smile, still subdued but trying gamely to play his usual flirty role. "Those are for my private collection."

"Sorry," Beckett offers quickly with a blush. "The letters from the law enforcement personnel who were interested in retaining your professional consulting services," she clarifies, pursing her mouth to avoid smiling at his dancing eyebrows.

"Oh," he replies easily, "those letters. What about them?"

"How many?" she asks at first, the question leading rapidly to others. "From whom? For how long? Why didn't you…"

"Do you remember how I was when we first met?" he interrupts again, his demeanor grown serious again.

"You were…," Beckett trails off, struggling in vain to find an adjective that's true but doesn't spoil the fragile structure of forthright communication they've managed to construct tonight.

"An insufferable jackass," he supplies helpfully. "You don't need to spare my feelings, Kate. I was lost in the fog, awaiting the arrival of my beacon."

Beckett blushes again and lowers her head. How she wishes she could see herself as heroically as he sees her.

"Did you ever wonder how I fell so far?" he asks, then huffs a laugh at her panicked look. "Don't worry, it was a rhetorical question. It's easy to fall, easy to revel in yourself, when surrounded by people who indulge you. When all you get is careful flattery motivated by the illusory hope of a feeble glimmer of reflected glory."

Beckett wonders if he can hear the disdain in his voice, the vein of self-loathing that's surfaced on this strange, wonderful evening.

"That's all those letters are," he ventures with a shrug. "A one-way ticket back to a place where people kiss my ass and offer fakes smiles and fake friendships. That's why I ignore them. I'm not going back to that life," he says resolutely. "I won't go back."

"That's why you do it," she hears herself say, mouth lagging her racing brain. "'They tolerate me,' you said. That's why you put up with women like Dixon. Why you ignore Espo's shots. That's why…," she almost moans, "that's why you don't leave, no matter how poorly I treat you."

How terrifying, she thinks as she lowers her head, that he's only stayed because the precinct is such a harsh place for him, that he's only here because he's so sure that no one will treat him well. It puts the last several years in bleak context, makes her realize…

"Hey," he says quietly, recapturing her attention with a gentle hand that covers hers. "Come back, partner," he pleads, trying to get her to look at him, "you're barreling down the wrong track. You know me, Kate. I'm not a gloomy person and I don't look for ways to punish myself – remember all your teasing about my comforts at the loft?" he tries to joke, in vain.

"I don't stay because this is some purgatory for me," he whispers urgently, leaning closer to her to emphasize his point. When she slowly lifts her eyes back to his, he squeezes her hand. "I stay," he confesses, "because I get a tiny glimpse of heaven every time I see you smile."

God dammit, she's crying, she realizes. For the second time, she's crying in front of her partner. She's made it years – years! – without weeping in front of him, in front of anyone. And it all comes crashing down tonight. Even worse, she doesn't care. She was embarrassed when they were in the ring. But now? If she's not allowed to show some emotion after a comment like that, when can she? And it's not like hiding her emotions has done wonders for her and Castle.

"I'm glad you stay," she replies hoarsely. "I need you to stay. I want you to stay."

"Then I'll stay," he answers quickly, as if it's the easiest decision in the world. His quick support reminds her of his pivot in Burke's office. Following that line of thought reminds her of why they set up that session in the first place. Which leads to her next question.

"Are you going to keep training?" she asks, regretfully pulling her hand from beneath Castle's so she can use the napkin to dab at her cheeks.

"Of course," he answers more easily and quickly than she expected. Noting her knit brows, he provides a devastatingly simple explanation. "Your case is still open. I need to be able to help. Once that's done, we can rest," he promises with a voice gone wistful. "We can buy an island and lounge on the beach, living on the fruit in our rum drinks."

Even though she's worried for his safety, she can't help but smile at the image he's created, the bright, warm future where he still sees them together. But carefully so, she notes. His vision of the future had them in the same place, together but not necessarily together. It's something she needs to address more directly than she dared on the swings, but there's clean-up to do before then.

"Part of me wants to beg you to stop," she admits, reaching for his hand. But instead of grasping it, she turns it palm up before quickly undoing the button on his cuff and pushing his shirt-sleeve up to reveal bruises and welts on his forearm. "I don't like you getting hurt."

"But the other part?" Castle prompts, staying away from the topic of injuries.

"The other part," she continues with a sigh, "the other part's a mess. That part is happy you're stronger. I'd like to say it's because it means you'll be safer in the field with me, and that's true. But I'm also going to need your help. I'm not used to relying on people," she admits. "But you've spoiled me."

"Good," he replies certainly. "Then I've done something right."

"And…," she pauses, gathering strength for this last bit, "in the spirit of what we're sharing tonight, Rick, I'll also say this – your recently revealed prowess is pretty damned hot," she confesses with a blush, a light shrug, and a gently-bitten lip.

"You think I'll stop now?!" he chuckles in reply. "Forget it. I doubt there's a single thing you could've said to be more encouraging than that!"

Still blushing, Beckett tugs his sleeve back down. She's having trouble looking at him after her little confession, so she toys with the button on his cuff instead. "I'm kind of sad I missed the early months of your 'physical therapy,'" she muses quietly. "You know, the days when it would've been easy to chase you around the ring. If tonight was any indication," she admits, surprised at how much this realization stings, "those days are long gone. For me, at least."

"Training's gone well," Castle answers with unusual modesty. "But now my element of surprise is gone. So much for my thoughts about sandbagging Espo into some sparring. That could've been fun."

"You think you could take Espo?" Beckett asks in surprise, wondering how advanced her partner's training has been.

"Honestly?" Castle asks in an effort to get her to lift her eyes back to his. When she does, he looses a little smile. "Yeah. I can."

"Wow. I'd like to see that," she replies, smiling herself at the possibilities. "If you're going to keep training anyway, maybe we can figure out a way to set that up."

Castle's smile grows, but he holds his tongue. It's not her words that cheer him so much as the context – she's talking about working together and planning for something down the road.

"I'll split the winnings with you," he offers magnanimously, already anticipating the wagers that would fly around such a matchup.

"Which bet are you talking about?" Beckett asks again before blushing and returning her attention to his button, which she now pushes home. Her reaction makes it clear she's thinking about a different popular topic of betting in the precinct, one that involves the nature of her partnership with Castle.

"The one I thought I could talk about without making things awkward," he answers after a few long moments, finally opting for honesty.

Even though her work with the button is done, Beckett's hand lingers as she traces the rim of his cuff and tickles his wrist. "That brings us to my last question," she whispers. "Will you wait for me?"

Trying not to squirm under the attentions of her roaming fingers or his own roiling emotions, Castle takes a few moments to ensure he doesn't blow this opportunity he's sought for so long.

"I thought I was," he answers slowly. "If I waited when I thought you were getting ready to send me packing, I can wait when there's the promise of something more."

Dropping all pretense and finally interlacing her fingers with his, Beckett seems fascinated by the sight of their twined fingers. "I'm trying, Rick. I'm trying so hard. I know we're not there yet. I know I owe you answers to the questions you've been kind enough to set aside for tonight. I'll get there," she vows. "It might not've seemed like it tonight, but Burke's good. He's helping me."

"I liked him," Castle interjects, noticing his partner was running down and getting flustered. "We talked a bit after you left. Not about anything personal," he assures her quickly and getting a grateful nod in return. "He wanted me to suggest that we try a joint session again soon. After tonight," he says in a more playful tone, "I think our next session will be a little more textbook."

"Yeah," Beckett chuffs in reply, "we started to talk about some of the big stuff tonight," she agrees. She thinks about his comments for a few moments before squeezing his hand to catch his attention. "You'd be okay with that? With seeing Burke?"

"Kate," he offers with an indulgent smile, "I'd love to be able to help."

He doesn't say it, but Beckett's conscience appends 'this time' to his generous offer. It helps her realize that maybe she can handle her mental recovery differently than she addressed her physical recovery over the summer.

"Good," she offers contentedly. "And you'll stay at the precinct?"

"As long as you want or need me there," he offers with a nod. "I'll have to be careful, though, after kinda spilling the beans to Gates."

"'I am compromised,'" Beckett quotes, getting an embarrassed nod in return. "We'll be fine. I don't think she wants you to leave and we've got leverage even if she does. But for however impolitic your comment might've been," she continues, giving his hand another squeeze, "it still knocked me out of my seat. You declare yourself well, partner."

"Getting better," he offers, trying to stay away from his previous declaration and the memories of Montgomery's funeral.

"So am I," Beckett reminds them both, focusing on her effort in therapy rather than her shooting. "Who knows? Maybe the next declaration will come from me," she hints with a smile that turns into a yawn.

"Long day," Castle notes as Beckett releases her hold on his hand to cover her yawn.

"Long, terrifying, beautiful day," she agrees, cheeks flushed.

"I don't want it to end," he confesses as he pulls out his wallet and drops some cash on the table to cover their meal. "But I think waking up tomorrow will be easier. Brighter."

"Finally," she agrees, opening the surveillance case and quieting her cellphone before again entering the delete commands and shutting the case.

Castle comes around the table to help her rise, letting his eyes linger on her just as she allows her hand to linger in his. But then another yawn arrives, addressed to Castle this time. So, with light chuckles, they turn to depart. Knowing better than to suggest he carry the case, he instead offers an arm to start their courtly walk to Beckett's car.

"Will you come in tomorrow?" she asks shyly after depositing the case in her trunk and opening the door to her cruiser.

"I'm looking forward to it," he replies through his own blush. "I'll be a little late. I promised Alexis a fancy breakfast," he explains to Beckett's sweet smile. "Then we're off to the bank to get Mother a loan, but I'll be in before you know it."

"A loan?" Beckett asks, standing next to her open car door as she delays the end of their evening.

"For her acting studio," Castle nods. "She won't take my money or let me cosign. It's got to be her loan," he laments, now even more upset about the time he'll spend away from the precinct in the morning.

"You know what a loan is, right, Castle?" she asks as she steps away from her car and toward him. "It's borrowing from the future – taking a little bit today to help insure a richer tomorrow," she explains as she walks into his personal space, not stopping until they're nearly pressed against each other. "I think I need a loan, too," she whispers as she leans up and places her lips lightly on his.

The kiss is light and fleeting, over before his mind fully recognizes what's going on. It differs from last year's undercover kiss in all ways save one – it leaves him just as devastated, dizzy, and panting. Looking at his partner, he's relieved to see the same feelings reflected back.

Before he can think better of it, he reaches out and pulls her into an engulfing hug. Still reeling from her own audacity, Beckett cuddles in, absorbing the warmth of his embrace.

Regardless of her efforts to stifle it, Castle can still feel Beckett's yawn. So, with a rueful chuckle, he bustles them back to the door of her car, finally releasing her so she can slide into the driver's seat. She fires up the engine and closes the door, but lowers the window for her farewell. "Thank you," she whispers, still flushed and smiling. "Thank you for tonight, Castle. I'm looking forward to tomorrow."

"Our new chapter," Castle recognizes with a smile to her ready nod. "A new start for us."

Smiling wide, Beckett forces herself to pull away from the curb, driving into the night feeling lighter and more optimistic than she enjoyed since she was a much younger woman. Finally, everything's going their way.

A/N: Merry Christmas! My apologies if the end to this story wasn't quite the present you had in mind, but it was time to draw it to a close. I might come back, though – I enjoy the notion of Cops & Robbers with Castle a bit more tuned up for the encounter. But there's a nefarious plan at work. Back when I started this story, I mentioned that I had three in mind for the time around Rise. The next one's outlined and while separate, it'll provide some tangencies with this story. So, Physical Therapy concludes now to set the stage for Under New Management, which is outlined but as yet unwritten. I'm hoping for some time over the holidays to dive in.

Thanks for indulging me in this story. It was meant as an opportunity to reflect on how Castle might've reacted when he found himself alone and out of the precinct following Montgomery's funeral and the terrible events that followed. But as the story progressed it provided some interesting opportunities to ponder Beckett's thoughts and the dynamics of their relationship, too. And, of course, it was fun to tease about who might be Castle's instructor or how Gates might react if she had engaged differently with Castle earlier in her tenure at the Twelfth.

Warm wishes to you and yours these holidays.