Music is nothing separate from me. It is me. I can't retire from music any more than I can retire from my liver. You'd have to remove the music from me surgically — like you were taking out my appendix.
-Ray Charles

"So," said Castle as he followed Beckett out of her bedroom, fastening the cuffs on his shirt as he went, "since tonight is such a big deal, does this mean I'm gonna get lucky in the dressing room?"

She scoffed, rolling her eyes. "You certainly get points for persistence." Yet again she mentally kicked herself for having lost control that one time, in the early weeks of their relationship. It seemed like he would never stop trying to make it happen again, but she was determined to stay strong. That was not how she wanted to end up on Page Six again.

"Would it help if I point out that this is our last chance for a while?" he wheedled. He continued to follow her as she moved through the living room, gathering up her sheet music and other items she would need for her tutoring session. "I mean, who knows how long it'll be before they ask me to conduct again?"

"That's true," she mused, keeping her expression neutral. "I guess it's a risk we'll have to take."

Castle laughed softly and kissed her cheek. "Hope springs eternal."

They parted ways at the subway station, getting onto separate trains; Castle was headed back to the loft to do some composing, and Kate went to meet with her tutoring student.

Her shoulder was feeling much better today, and fortunately didn't give her any trouble during the lesson. Afterward, she returned to her apartment and spent some time standing in front of her closet, trying to decide what to wear tonight.

She selected an outfit and laid it out on the bed, and then, still looking critically at the contents of her closet, picked up the phone and dialed.

"Hi, Kate!"

"Hey, Lanie. How's it going?"

"Not bad. The usual," her friend said. "What's up?"

"Listen, I know I said I was too busy to hang out," Kate said, letting a bit of embarrassment creep into her tone, "but I just realized that I need a new dress for the Carmina Burana concert. I can't keep wearing the same two gowns to every gig."

"Girl, are you asking me to go shopping with you?" Lanie sounded simultaneously astonished, delighted, and suspicious. "It's not even anywhere near April Fools."

"Shut up," Kate said, blushing. "I just... I need the perfect thing. Something that will really wow Castle."

"Honey, you know you could show up in sweats and sneakers and that boy's jaw would drop to the floor," her friend said with fond amusement. "But of course I'll help. I'm picking the store, and the refreshments are on you."

"Deal," Kate grinned. "How's Saturday?"

"Morning, when the shops aren't too crowded yet?"

"Sure, that sounds perfect. Thanks, Lanie."

"See you then."

After hanging up, Kate took a shower and then made herself a quick sandwich. But as she sat at her kitchen table, poking at the last few crumbs on her plate, she heaved a sigh, knowing that she shouldn't put off the next phone call any longer than she already had.

She rinsed the plate and put it in the sink, and then went into the living room and sat down on the couch with the phone in her hand.

She took a few deep, calming breaths, and dialed Roy's number.

He answered almost immediately. "Hello? Kate?"

"Hi," she said, feeling awkward. "Um, Castle told me that you called."

"Oh, right. Yes. I just wanted... to make sure you were all right." Her mentor's voice sounded tired and sad, tugging at Kate's heart. Her gut churned with an uncomfortable mixture of feelings.

"I'm okay, Roy," she said quietly. "It's been a, a pretty difficult week."

"Sure. I understand," he replied, and she fought back a flash of indignation, because how could he understand? But that was unfair, she told herself firmly. He was trying, and so should she.

"So, um," she said, biting her lip, "I'll see you tomorrow at the usual time? If, uh, if Evelyn says you're up to it."

"Of course I am," he said immediately. "Of course I am, for you, Kate."

"Okay." She took another careful breath. "Okay, see you tomorrow, then."

"See you tomorrow. Yes. Good night."

"Good night."

She hung up the phone and stood up to stretch the tension of the conversation out of her muscles. Her chest and throat felt tight too, so she went to the kitchen to drink some water, and did a few breathing exercises.

Then she went back to the bedroom to put on the outfit she had selected. It was time to head out to the theater for her boyfriend's big night.

Castle had gone straight home after leaving Kate's apartment. The loft was empty and quiet. Checking the time, he set an alarm on his phone for two hours, and then he settled in at the piano with an unruly heap of paper.

Over the past few days he hadn't gotten a lot of time to compose, but he had stolen opportunities here and there - mostly in the wee hours when the call of nature woke him, or at odd moments in between working on the case with Kate, conducting the show, and everything else. Underneath all the other emotions of this very hectic week was the buzzing excitement of creation, that skin-tingly feeling that he got when a new story, with all of its melodies and harmonies, was coming to life.

He had bits and pieces of several new songs floating around in his head, and at the moment none of them had quite fully gelled, nor had the plot that tied them all together. But he wasn't frustrated yet. He knew it was going to happen; he could feel it.

The other night, when Kate's nightmare had woken her, he'd been messing around with a new idea for an action scene. It was loosely inspired by their near-miss with the car, but for his purposes he had raised the stakes. Nikki and Rook were involved in a shootout with some criminals in - what else? - an abandoned warehouse. A rogue cop ambushed them, and Rook flung himself in front of Nikki, fully prepared to take a bullet for her.

What Castle couldn't quite decide yet was whether the bullet actually hit Rook. Or maybe, despite Rook's best efforts, the bullet hit Nikki instead. Or, on the other hand, maybe they had both been smart enough to wear their bulletproof vests, so the bullets bounced harmlessly off of them... Nah, that was boring.

That was what he had been debating with himself when he heard Kate cry out in the throes of her dream. When he'd gone into the bedroom to make sure she was all right, and found himself looking down at Kate's terrified face, wild-eyed and gasping with the horror of whatever she'd dreamt, he'd realized immediately that there was no way he could let Nikki Heat take a bullet. It would have to be Rook. He would do anything for her.

That decision having been made, he assembled the scraps of songs that he had so far into a loose semblance of chronological order, waiting for them to show him the story that they formed. The plot was still more of a vague outline than anything else, but he had a few key elements figured out already. It was enough for now. He separated out the newest song and began to work on fleshing out its melody and accompaniment.

Engrossed in his work, he was startled when his daughter laid a hand lightly on his shoulder.


"Alexis, hey," he exclaimed, blinking, turning to look at her. "What's up?"

"It's almost time to get ready to go," she said. Checking his phone, he saw that there were only a few minutes left until his alarm would have gone off.

"Perfect. Thanks, pumpkin." He stood up from the piano bench and gave his daughter a hug. "How was the second day of school?"

"Great," she beamed. "Want to hear all about it?"

"Of course!" He released her and stretched, rolling his head on his neck. "You talk, I'll make the sandwiches."

The enormous open space of the theater was still resounding with the cheers and applause of the audience after the third curtain call, but the cast of Storm Surge, rather than leaving the stage, stood in place; the house lights remained dark, the stage illuminated; the curtain wasn't coming down. The performers stood on the stage, smiling and waving at the appreciative crowd, as Castle descended from his conducting podium and made his way around the perimeter of the orchestra pit to the stairs at the side.

Someone handed him a microphone, and when he reached the stage, a spotlight illuminated him, making him seem to shine even brighter than the cast around him. He took a moment to shake the hands of the principal performers, saying a few words to each, and then gave a smile to all the rest before turning to face the audience.

"Thank you. Thank you so much," he said into the microphone, beaming from ear to ear. The audience's applause gradually began to ebb as he spoke. In the luxury box high above the stage, Kate stood with Martha and Alexis, taking part in the standing ovation that the audience had given the end of the show.

It had seemed to Kate that Castle had conducted tonight's performance with extra vigor, throwing himself into the music with the flair that his fans loved. She knew that this week had been tiring for him - nine performances in eight days, on top of everything else he had been doing - but she also knew that he loved it. Conducting wasn't Castle's primary passion, but it was something he enjoyed, and it kept him engaged with his own music even long after a composition had been finished and sent out into the world.

So, for that reason, Kate had been happy to see Castle clearly having such a good time doing the show tonight. Of course, on a more basic level, she had gotten her own enjoyment from watching him conduct, like she always did. She'd been glad for the cover of darkness as she sat between his mother and daughter, watching Castle's body move to the beat.

"Thank you," Castle said again as the audience quieted. "Ladies and gentlemen, it's such an honor to be here with you tonight. I don't know if you've heard, but tonight's performance was a very special one." Light laughter rippled through the theater. "This was the one-thousandth performance of Storm Surge here in this very theater," Castle continued, "and I hope you'll all indulge me for a minute, because there are so many people who have contributed to the success of this show, and I need to acknowledge them tonight."

The audience was rapt; a few people were pushing their way out of the rows of seats and leaving, but most stayed. Kate saw more than a few phones held up, pointed at the stage. Taking pictures or video during the show was strictly forbidden, but this speech was different.

"First and foremost," Castle said, "I have to thank this amazing, fantastic cast. I couldn't have asked for a better group of performers to bring my story to life. Aren't they great?" He swept his arm backward, indicating the entire group of singers and dancers on the stage, and they all smiled as the audience burst into applause again.

Castle waited it out, and as the clapping died down, he went on. "And of course that includes our amazing orchestra. I know you can't see them too well down there in the pit, but believe me, you'd have noticed if they didn't show up." More laughter. "Give them a big hand, folks," he urged, and the audience obeyed.

"Of course, we also have to thank the people who make everything work behind the scenes," Castle continued. "Thank you to the directors, the lighting crew, the sound crew, set designers, the stage hands, the house managers, front-of-house staff, the janitors, the ushers, and everyone else making the magic happen backstage. Thank you to our publicity team, the marketing team, the general manager of the theater. And where would we be without the deep pockets of our executive producers?" He gestured toward the first row of seats. "Geoffrey and Alice, thank you so much for believing in me and my shows, and for putting your money where your mouths are."

He waited out another round of applause.

"I also need to thank you, all of you out there in the seats," he said next. "If you guys weren't coming to the show, talking about the show, buying the soundtrack, telling your friends to come to the show, telling strangers you see on the street to come to the show, we'd be nowhere. It's not much fun to put on a show without any butts in the seats, let me tell you." Another round of laughter. "So, thank you for coming, and be sure to tell all of your friends what a great time you had."

As the audience was laughing and applauding, Castle turned serious; his lips were still curved in a smile, but the teasing twinkle in his eyes was gone, replaced by a more earnest expression.

"Last, but absolutely and definitely not least," he said. His voice had dropped lower, and the entire hall fell silent, hanging on his every word. "I have to thank my family. There's no way, absolutely no way any of this would have been possible without them. My fabulous, colorful, effervescent mother... My brilliant, kind-hearted, level-headed daughter..."

He paused, lifting his eyes toward the top of the theater, and Kate knew that the stage lights shining on him made it completely impossible for him to see her, but even still it felt like he was looking directly into her eyes.

"And the love of my life," he finished, the tender words ringing out through the space like a caress. "You make everything possible."

Kate felt tears springing to her eyes as she smiled back at him, even though she knew he couldn't see. She could feel Martha and Alexis looking at her, and some of the audience members were turning, craning their necks upward to catch a glimpse, but none of it registered. She only had eyes for the man on the stage.

Castle, ever the showman, drew out the moment for exactly the right length of time. Then, breaking into a wide grin again, he pulled his gaze back down to the audience and proclaimed, "Again, thank you all so much, and have a wonderful evening."

The audience applauded again, and the house lights came up. Castle turned back toward the cast members and began shaking their hands as the curtain came down, shielding them from view.

"He certainly knows how to make a speech, doesn't he?" Martha said with humor in her voice, but her eyes were soft as she put a hand on Kate's shoulder. Kate smiled and nodded, brushing the moisture from her eyes with her fingertips.

"You can say that again," she agreed.

Alexis, smiling, leaned over to give her a hug. "I'm glad you're part of our family," she murmured into Kate's ear.

The words gave Kate pause. As she replayed Castle's speech in her mind, she realized that he had, indeed, implicitly included her in his family. She hoped his mother and daughter couldn't see how her face flushed hot at the thought, a strange sensation twisting in the pit of her stomach.

The three of them made their way down the stairs and backstage, where there was a celebratory atmosphere filling the space even as everyone was doing their usual post-show routine: stagehands putting sets and props away, performers removing their makeup and changing their clothes, orchestra members packing away their instruments.

Castle was surrounded by a small crowd of performers and crew members, all chattering away at him, and he was smiling as he answered them, clearly enjoying himself. But he lit up even brighter when he caught sight of the three women, and with a hasty "Excuse me" he pushed his way out of the group to greet them.

"Dad!" Alexis said, and squealed when he swept her up into a hug. "Great show," she said, and he thanked her, smiling fondly into her eyes as he set her back on her feet.

Next he embraced his mother, closing his eyes briefly as he bent down to her. Martha murmured some words in his ear, too low for Kate to make out, and his ears were pink when he straightened back up again.

Then his eyes met Kate's and her breath stopped in her throat, just for a moment, at the expression on his face. She was the one who moved first, suddenly eager to touch him; not the feral possessiveness of the other night, just a simple craving. She came forward and lifted her arms around his neck, pressing a kiss to his cheek as his arms came around her body.

"That was amazing," she purred into his ear. She could feel the residual energy of the night still buzzing in his body, his muscles almost trembling with it. When he chuckled, his chest vibrated against hers, making her skin tingle.

"Do you mean the opera, or the speech?" he teased, pulling back a little to look into her eyes. His expression was almost giddy. She couldn't help smiling back at him.

"Mm," she hummed, "well, the opera was pretty good."

"Tease." Smirking, Castle pressed his lips to hers, a restrained kiss in deference to the throngs of people surrounding them, but she could feel how badly he wanted to make it something more. She slid her hands down to his chest and gently pushed him away.

"Is there an after-party, babe?"

"Yeah," he confirmed, reluctantly letting go of her, but keeping one arm loosely around her waist. "There's a little shindig at a bar a couple blocks away. They got a cake and everything, from what I heard."

"Sounds great," she smiled. "You should go get changed, then."

His eyes flashed and sparked at her, but she just grinned. No way was she going back to the dressing room with him right now, watching him take off his tux. Not when he still had that post-performance euphoria singing through his veins. She knew exactly where that would lead.

"I'll keep your mom company till you're ready," she said, holding back a smile at the exaggerated pout he gave her. "Go on, babe."

She pushed him away again, but he grabbed her hand and reeled her back in, planting another hot, wet kiss on her before he sauntered away, grinning.

There was indeed a cake at the party: an enormous one, with Derrick Storm's logo and the number 1,000 drawn on it in decorative icing. Castle was conscripted to slice it, and although the cast and crew chanted "Speech, speech!" he declined to declaim again, shaking his head and smiling at them all as he wielded the knife. He'd already said his piece back at the theater.

He enjoyed the party, which was lively and cheerful, but even as he was circulating among the crowd, laughing and chatting, accepting handshakes and hugs and pats on the back, he was constantly aware of Kate. She sat at the bar chatting with the performers as they came and went; she was looking elegant and almost regal with her straight posture, her hair up in a tidy bun, her long legs on display under a short but tasteful skirt. His eyes were drawn to her again and again, his skin tingling with the knowledge that at the end of the evening he was the one who got to take this woman home.

Alexis had skipped the party and gone straight home, since it was a school night; Martha had come along to the party, but disappeared early on, probably heading out to another soiree of some kind. So when at last he decided that he'd had enough of the carousing, he signaled Kate with his eyes, and she nodded, smiling her secretive little smile as she slipped off to the restroom.

He took a few more minutes to say his goodbyes, and then at last he was alone in a taxi with Kate, his ears ringing from the comparative silence after the boisterous atmosphere of the party.

He gave his address to the cabbie and then immediately turned to his girlfriend, pulling her closer to him on the car's seat. "You look gorgeous tonight, by the way," he husked into her ear.

"Thanks," she murmured back, her voice catching. She clutched his shoulders, and he could feel her breast pressing against his ribs, her breathing shallow and fast. "Rick..."

"Hmm?" He was busy kissing his way along her jaw. His hand was on her knee, sliding stealthily up under that short skirt.

"That - that speech you made," she panted. "It was - I don't even-"

"All true," he vowed. "Meant every word." He moved lower, nipping at the sensitive spot under her ear. She gasped breathily and pushed his hand out from under the skirt.

"Oh god," she moaned. "Are we there yet?"

His fingers teased at the soft skin of her inner thigh, right at the edge of the skirt. "I can get you there in-"


He chuckled low in his throat and lifted his head to capture her lips. She surged against him, whimpering as her mouth opened under his.

Fortunately, it was only a few more minutes before the cab arrived at his loft. They tumbled out of the elevator and stumbled into his bedroom, tugging frantically at each other's clothes, both equally eager to get to skin on skin. The door of the bedroom slammed shut and they fell onto the bed, wrapped up in each other.

On Friday morning, Kate was the first one awake as usual, and she left Castle sleeping while she showered and then picked up the clothing they'd left scattered across the floor of his bedroom. She grinned to herself as she dumped the items into the hamper, and then opened his closet to see what she had to wear.

There was a pair of jeans and a t-shirt that would do well enough; she made a mental note to do some laundry and then do an inventory of what needed to be swapped out between Castle's place and hers. As she got dressed, she found herself thinking about the inconvenience of keeping track of her wardrobe at two different locations. How much easier it would be if they both lived in the same place.

The thought startled her, and she froze in the middle of the bedroom with her jeans halfway on, forgetting to breathe for a moment. Where on earth had that come from?

Slowly she began to move again, glancing over at Castle and feeling very glad that he was still asleep and couldn't see her getting flustered. She pulled the jeans up and fastened them, then reached for the t-shirt.

Was it really that strange to think about moving in together? she asked herself as she went out to the kitchen and filled the teapot. They'd been dating for nearly a year, after all. And she was more serious about Castle than she'd ever been with a man before. It was difficult - no, impossible - for her to imagine ever wanting anyone else.

But where would she put her piano? she found herself wondering somewhat irrelevantly. She shook her head at herself. Stupid. It was silly to even be thinking about moving in together, when Castle had never said a thing about it. Maybe he didn't even want that yet. She was getting way ahead of herself.

Biting her lip, she pushed those thoughts out of her head and tried to focus on the day's agenda instead as she opened the fridge.

Just a few minutes later, as Kate was slicing some fruit into her bowl of yogurt, Castle and Alexis emerged from their separate domains. Both were dressed and groomed, although the daughter was much more perky than the father.

"Good morning," Kate said, amused, as Rick went straight for the coffee machine and Alexis the fridge. The two of them stepped around each other in what looked like a well-rehearsed dance.

"Morning," Alexis answered, giving Kate a smile. Rick might have said something, but it was drowned out by the whirr and grumble of the coffee machine grinding its beans.

"You must have a rehearsal today," the teenager added, looking at Kate's steaming cup of green tea and her breakfast of yogurt and fruit.

"I do," Kate confirmed, returning Alexis's smile. "And a voice lesson," she added, looking somewhat hesitantly at Castle, as she realized she hadn't told him about that.

Castle raised his eyebrows over the rim of his coffee cup. "Oh?" he said, sounding more awake now that he'd taken a few sips. "You talked to Roy?"

"Yeah," she nodded. She dropped her eyes to the fruit in her bowl, trying to appear casual, for Alexis's sake if nothing else.

Castle seemed to get the message. "Good," was all he said, but he put his cup down and came over to give her a hug.

Kate rested her cheek on his shoulder, closing her eyes, just enjoying the feeling of being in his arms. He made her feel safe, gave her confidence when she needed it most. She slid her arms around his back and gave him a squeeze.

"Guys, you're blocking the toaster," Alexis complained good-naturedly, leaning around them to get at the appliance. Kate huffed and let go of Castle, flushing a little.


His eyes twinkled at her as he echoed her apology. "Sorry, pumpkin. You got all that paperwork, right?"

"Yep, thanks," Alexis replied as she pushed down the lever on the toaster. "You'll probably have more homework over the weekend."

"Something else to look forward to," he joked, opening the fridge. "Anyone want a s'morelet?"

Thanks again for reading! One more chapter to go. If you saw me fretting on Twitter this week about where to break the chapters, you may like to know that I decided to stick with the original structure, which results in an extra-long final chapter. I know you won't be complaining. :)

There is a Castle Pornado this weekend, and I'm not sure whether I'll be able to finish a full-length story for it, but I will have some mini-fics on my tumblr if you want to check them out.