Disclaimer: The only part of Castle that I own is the TV on which I watch the show.

A/N The day after I finished "Falling Down" it occurred to me that there was something I wanted to explore about Beckett's final run at Bracken. This chapter has a long set-up, but I thought it necessary for a variety of reasons, including the need to get inside Beckett's mind. Despite some of what will happen in this story, I promise you two things: she won't fall off the wagon again and there will be a happy ending.

Neither of them wants to wait to get married.

"We've been together for a long time," she says at breakfast, the morning after she proposed to him.

"And flirting for ages before that," he agrees. "We're not exactly rushing into it."

She keeps staring at the ring that he slipped onto her finger last night, the one that he'd been secretly carrying in his pocket since the day after her 33rd birthday. She thought that it might feel strange, but it feels perfect, as if it had always been there. She's been sober for a year, and she's well grounded. In seven weeks she'll turn 34, and she's very aware of her biological clock.

Before they're halfway through their coffee they settle on a wedding date, barely two months away: Saturday, December first, which will give everyone a chance to recover from Thanksgiving before diving into Christmas.

"You sure about getting married here, Kate? In the loft?" Honey from the bagel that he's holding has dripped onto his bare chest, which is both arousing and distracting, but this is an important conversation so she forces herself to focus on his face. "You sure you don't want a zillion guests and a hundred white doves and valet parking and a tent festooned with roses and peonies and a five-foot-high cake and a symphony orchestra playing while your father walks you down the aisle beneath the summer sky?"

"Positive. The only part of that I want is my father walking me down the aisle, if you can call a short path between some chairs in the living room an aisle. Which I can."

"And the mayor doing the honors?"

"The mayor's the one who made it possible for us to be partners at work, so it seems apposite that he's the one who oversees our being partners in life."

He leans across the counter and brushes his hand across her cheek. "Do you know what it does to me when you use a word like 'apposite' this early in the morning?"

She smiles. She hadn't used it deliberately; her subconscious must be responsible. Thank you, Dr. Freud. "Mm-hmm."

"You okay with me being the groom?"

"Yup. You okay with me being the bride?"

"Yup."

"Okay, then. Do you want to kiss the bride?"

"I do."

"Good. And I see you already know the words for the service."

Under absolutely no circumstances would he say, "I've had practice." He hopes that she's not thinking of it, either. What he does say is, "Guess it's time to go to work," but not until after he kisses her.

"I'm going to take off this spectacular ring," she says, gazing at it again, "and wear it on a chain around my neck until we tell everyone."

xxxxxx (Two-month time jump)

The wedding is as perfect as her engagement ring. She wears her mother's exquisite dress, which makes her feel that she's here with them, watching over them, giving them her blessing. When Castle sees Kate come down the stairs with Jim, he's so overcome that he cries. They have no attendants, just their parents and Alexis standing up for them as the mayor officiates and they exchange vows. The sound of twenty guests cheering is as loud as if there were ten times that number. Everyone dances and sings and eats a four-star meal and makes toasts with Champagne and with sparkling cider. They'll take a honeymoon next summer; for now they're spending two nights at a suite at the St. Regis Hotel, and on Monday–they are taking one day off from work in honor of the occasion–they'll relax at home.

"This bathroom is bigger than my first apartment," she says on Sunday morning, leaning back against him in the oversized tub.

"Mine, too," he says. "And mine came furnished with menacing cockroaches. They were so big that they used to stand up on their back legs and wave the other ones around as if they were about to challenge me to a fight. They probably would have won."

"That's a good story, Castle. Remember to tell it to our kids."

He's so surprised that he sits upright, which results in some of the bubbly water sloshing out onto the marble floor. "Kids? Are you pregnant?"

"Noooo, not quite ready for that. We got married yesterday." She waits for him to settle down, then tips her head back to look at him. "I'm starving, though. Aren't you?"

When he laughs she can feel the vibration across her shoulders, down her back, her butt, and her thighs, like some short but highly personalized massage. "Yes, I'm starving. You gave me a hell of a workout last night, Kate. And this morning."

"Why do you think I've been soaking in here for so long? I think you found previously unknown muscles in my body. And spots."

"Spots?"

"Places." She raises one eyebrow.

He laughs again. When he recovers he says, "Well, since we both need to rebuild our strength, I'm going to get out and phone down for an enormous breakfast."

He puts on a robe and pads out to the living room. While he's placing their order she dries off and gets into the other robe provided by the hotel, running her fingers down one arm. Mmmm, cashmere. Nice. She walks to the far side of the living room to look through a round window from which she can see Central Park, four blocks to the north. It's a beautiful view, despite scudding gray clouds that could be bringing snow. She startles when she hears a knock and a voice announcing room service. "Wait, wait, wait, Castle, don't let him in yet. Our bedroom."

"What about it?"

"I don't want him to see what we did to it, for God's sake. Pillows all over the floor, those scarves tied to the bedposts." She runs to the bedroom, shuts the door behind her, and doesn't emerge until he repeatedly assures her that they're alone.

"By the way," he says a few minutes later, waving a piece of bacon. "Good thinking, to bring those scarves."

"Thank you."

"Oh, thank you."

"I'd say the pleasure was ours, wouldn't you?"

"I would."

"They eat quietly for a while, glancing at the food only long enough to ensure that their forks are hitting their targets. The rest of the time they're looking at each other.

It's she who breaks the heated silence. "I know you're dying to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. It's one of the reasons you chose this hotel, isn't it? We can walk there in less than ten minutes."

"I thought we'd do that this afternoon. Right now I want to work off some of this mountain of food I've just eaten. All this eye sex we've been having has given me some ideas."

"It has, huh?"

"Definitely."

"I untied the scarves when the waiter came up. Want me to put them back?"

"Also definitely."

Eye sex leads to a great deal of full-body sex, and they don't get to the tree until quarter to eight, by which time it's dark. "It's much better this way," he insists. "You can appreciate the lights more."

They stroll from there to a nearby restaurant for dinner, and over dessert she announces, "I'm not quite ready for a baby, but you know what I am ready for? A dog."

"Truly?"

"Truly."

Later that evening they sit in their enormous, luxurious hotel bed, sharing an iPad as they scroll through Petfinder and local shelter websites. "Stop," he says. "Why didn't I think of this before? There's one right around the corner from us, on Centre Street. I've been by it a million times, seen volunteers walking the dogs." When he clicks on the link for adoptables, they point to the same puppy in the fourteenth row and say, "That one." He's a little black ball, unnecessarily identified as "hound mix," looking straight at them with a pick me! pick me! expression.

"He's adorable," Castle says.

"He's perfect. But it's the name, too, right?"

"Goes without saying."

The three-month old puppy is Gummy Bear. At five o'clock the following afternoon he's theirs, and they take him home.

For the next three months, they live in a bubble. Things are going well at work. They're crazy about the dog–who quickly becomes just Gummy–and vice versa. They have a magical Christmas; kiss at midnight on the banks of the icy Hudson as 2013 gives way to 2014, and revel in a Valentine's Day of epic proportions.

On the first Sunday in March, the bubble bursts. It's a cold, sleety day that's good for nothing but staying indoors. They've taken Gummy out twice this morning, each time in a different coat since Castle had insisted that he have several, for a variety of weather conditions. "You can't have him wearing a raincoat if it's snowing," he'd said. "Doesn't make sense."

Around eleven, just as she's put a batch of brownies in the oven for her AA meeting tomorrow evening, her phone rings. It's Gates, who wants to know how soon she can get to the precinct.

"Uh, sir, I'm actually not on call today."

"I'm aware of that. But something has come up and I'm afraid it can't wait."

She assures her that she's on her way, and is about to click off when the Captain adds, "Come alone. Do not bring Mister Castle."

This time Beckett does end the call. "Shit."

"What's up?"

"Gates told me to come in. Alone. Not with you."

He looks a little concerned. "Did she say why?"

"No. I'm sure I'm not supposed to tell you, but she didn't say that, so I am." She shrugs her shoulders. "Don't worry. I'll be home soon. Could you take the brownies out when the timer goes off, please? Should be in twenty minutes, maybe a little less."

"Sure. May I have one?"

"Yes, but only because you're watching over them for me." She kisses him, scratches Gummy behind the ears, and puts on her coat and boots. "Make sure it's only one," she says from the front door. "Most people in AA have an even worse sweet tooth than you. And don't give any to Gums."

"I know," he says solemnly. "Ix-nay on the ocolate-chay when it comes to dogs."

"He's a smart little guy, Castle. He might know pig Latin. Just saying. Bye."

As soon as she arrives at the Twelfth, Gates takes her to a room and introduces her to one Captain Fowler, Chief of Narcotics, who swears her to secrecy before filling her in on his case. A new, untraceable drug ring–they don't use banks, don't allow dealers to meet suppliers–has quickly taken over the uptown cocaine and heroin trade and slit the throats of half a dozen drug dealers. No one has been able to identify the killer.

A three-month investigation has yielded nothing except the undoubtedly fake name of the leader, Lazarus. Yesterday a phone intercept had led them to a low-level courier, Elena Markova, an English-speaking Russian native who'd taken the job because she needed money and the work was easy and anonymous. She'd get a text for a pickup, find the package, and take it where she was directed. That was it. Now she's scared and wants out, but she can't get out.

Fowler had written her off as useless, but this morning she'd received a text requesting a meet at 5:00 at the Wydmark Hotel. The boss wants to promote her. Finally, a break: the cops would have a face, maybe more than one. But when Fowler pressured her to accept, she'd attempted suicide and she's hospitalized.

"Long story short, Detective," he says, "we want you to go in her place. You're the only person in the department who looks somewhat like her and speaks fluent Russian. It's simple. Go to the hotel, meet your contact. Over and out."

Still, she sees what might be a flaw in this simple plan. "What if they know that you turned Elena?"

"Not possible," he says dismissively. "No one knows she's made contact with us."

Gates doesn't like it. "What if they see Detective Beckett and realize that she's not Elena?"

Fowler brushes her off, too. "They told Elena to wear a red scarf. Clearly they don't know her on sight."

She and Gates have a private conversation in the corridor. Her boss is unhappy with Fowler's tactics, and tells her best detective that she isn't obliged to take the assignment. The fact is, Beckett loves challenges. More important, she knows what it's like to be hopelessly stalled in an important investigation, so she agrees to go. It does sound straightforward.

She makes a short call to Castle. "I have a meeting, and this time I really can't tell you what it is. But it'll only be a couple of hours. Was the brownie good?"

"Sensational. Gummy and I look forward to your return. He wants to roll around on the floor with you. So do I."

"Deal. I'll be back by six."

She's mildly anxious when she steps into the lobby and adjusts her red scarf. Fowler is giving her instructions via her ear piece. Take the elevator to the eleventh floor, he says. The meet's in room 1123, he says. Undercovers have your back, he says. Stay calm, he says. Memorize names and faces of everyone you meet, he says. You'll be out in no time, he says.

What he doesn't say is that when she gets into the elevator and asks for the eleventh floor, the bellman will pull a gun on her as soon as the door is closed. What he doesn't say is that the bellman–a thug who is obviously not a bellman–will force her out on the second floor, take her to the garage, bind her hands with zip ties, and throw her into the back of a truck. She has never seen a deal go south so fast or so badly. As the truck barrels along city streets and then what feels like two-lane blacktop, she speaks into her tiny, hidden mic and describes the truck to Fowler–if the jerk is listening–and tells him what direction that she's thinks they're headed.

When the truck stops she leaves a final message and kicks away the mic. The move saves her life, at least for now. The thug opens the door, pulls a gun on her again, and checks her for a wire. When he doesn't find one, he covers her head with a hood and roughly leads her inside somewhere. She uses that brief period to try to put herself in the skin of Elena Markov, a woman she knows almost nothing about, has never met, or even seen.

Inside turns out to be an old mansion. She survives a brief interview in Russian with a man who then switches to English, introduces himself as Jones and and the thug from the truck as Harden, and apologizes for the way in which she'd been brought here. Wherever here is. Hell on earth, if she has to guess, and guessing is all she has.

And then the stunner: Jones says Lazarus admires her work and wants to put her on the permanent payroll–at 50 grand a week. Oh, something is way, way off. There's no way Markov is small-time, not with this kind of offer. In the truck she'd tried to make a mental sketch of Markov so that whoever she has to meet would find her credible. Now she has to erase it and start over, and she has almost no time to do it.

This is probably the only chance she has, so she risks it. She insists on meeting Lazarus: "It's a matter of trust." Jones agrees to pass along her request, and leaves her alone in his office. She has to think as fast as she ever has. She has to use every bit of training she's ever been given, or given herself, to work out a way to convince them that she's Elena. To get the hell out of here. Alive. The pressure to come up with something is all that keeps terror from destroying her.

How long before Jones and Harden return? Two minutes? One? She searches the desk: it's empty except for a pen, which she takes. But it also has a landline, and she quickly dials Esposito.

"Beckett! Where are you? We've got half the force looking for you."

"Trace this call," she tells him. "Get eyes on me." Whoever Markov is, "her story is a lie." She hangs up. She doesn't dare take any more than the few seconds she's used.

Don't think of Castle, she tells herself. Don't do it, don't do it. Just focus on this situation. Until recently, she never worried about her own life. If a job had gone wrong and killed her, so be it. If she'd made a bad decision and died as a result, so be it. So long as she didn't drag down anyone with her. It's why she had liked working without a partner before Castle showed up; she was part of a team, but in many ways she was on her own. But she has no playbook for this new game, and what happens if she screws it up? What happens to Castle if she dies? Does he turn into some version of the dark, vengeful, tormented person that she was for years after her mother's death? Exactly the opposite of the optimistic, exuberant man he is? He is the love of her life and she knows that she is his.

She hates everything about the set up, this operation, whatever it is, but she's suddenly filled with a new resolve. She'd been wrong: Castle is exactly the person she should let fill her mind. They're yin and yang, dark and light. That's why they've worked so well together from the start. She has to pretend that he's here with her, and together they will create a plan to liberate her from this mess.

When she's taken to another room to wait, her mood grows bleak again. The place gives her the creeps. She may not survive, and she has to find a way to say goodbye to Castle in case she doesn't. Using the pen she'd taken from Jones's desk, she writes him a short, passionate letter of love and gratitude, folds it up and hides it behind a vent. She had jabbed her finger tip with the end of a paperclip and smeared her blood on the grate. If she doesn't make it, forensics will find it and at least Castle will have her letter.

No amount of silent brainstorming could have come up with the next horrific reality. Jones reappears and says Lazarus will meet her. But first she must, in his words, "do what you do best." Kill someone. So that's it. Elena Markov is a professional killer. She must be the one who slit the throats of the drug dealers.

She's denied the name of her victim, or a reason for terminating him, just driven to his house in the pitch dark and told to do it while Harden waits outside. He hands her a gun and tells her this is a test: Lazarus wants to see how she improvises. While he's talking, while she keeps raising objections and questions to rile him up and buy herself time, she feels as if she splits in two, then returns as a gruesome hybrid. She's bad-ass Beckett fused with bad-ass Markov. She's more than cold-blooded, she's ice. She has no heart, because a heart would have blood. That's what Harden will see, anyway; that's what she'll make him see.

When she enters the house, she finds her "target"–that's what Harden calls him, as if he were a bale of hay at a carnival shooting booth–watching TV. She points the gun at his head, fires, and fires again. And again. Elena Markov doesn't miss.

Harden will want to see the body, she's sure of it. She comes back out with a deliberate swagger, and stalls him as long as she can, but he insists on the two of them going into the house. He takes a quick look at the carnage and they leave.

He should have been more thorough. Because as soon as they're back in the truck the "corpse" rises, just as she'd told him to, rinses the ketchup out of his hair, and washes the beet juice off the wall. Markov doesn't miss, but Beckett does. She misses when she wants to, and she had. Furthermore, she knows how to create a realistic-looking crime scene. Fortunately the man–Evan Potter, a corporate lawyer who is as baffled as she–has a well-stocked fridge and had immediately agreed to her hastily constructed plan. "Lie still and hold your breath when we come in. Count to a hundred after we go and then call Captain Victoria Gates at the twelfth precinct. I wrote the number on your ketchup bottle label. Tell her I'm in a compound near here. Old, expensive house. Got it?"

"Got it."

She's quiet on the ride back, her relief unvoiced, her nascent belief that she'll get away spreading through her. She's counting on Potter. A life for a life. She'd saved his, now he has to save hers. Back at the house, she's told to clean up before her meeting with Lazarus, and she as slow as she can be. A giggling, drunken young woman stumbles into the bathroom–is she someone's "date"? All she says is, "I don't know who these guys are, but they sure do like to spend money." She leaves her purse when she goes into the stall. Beckett has just enough time to dig out the woman's cell and text Espo with her badge number and a partial address before Jones tells her to come out.

Her relief lasts only as long as the moment when she comes face-to-face with Lazarus. She's led through a basement where women are counting stacks and stacks of money. There must be millions here. It's a huge counting room. There's also a large whiteboard covered with what appear to be routing numbers and sums.

"I'm impressed you've been able to hide this from the Feds," she tells her escort, trying to record every detail of the room.

He laughs. "You don't know the half of it."

She will, she promises herself. She'll know more than half. She'll know all of it. And then she tamps down a shudder when she hears screams coming from behind a door at the end of the corridor. When Jones tells her to wait she takes the opportunity to read over the shoulder of a man who is cutting checks. The payee on the one in his hand is Future Forward. She memorizes that, too.

Now she's in Lazarus's den, its floor covered in blood. She can't see him properly, but enough to know that he's a big man. He's still in the shadows when he tells her that he's made an exception to see her. "Between our needs and your skill set this could be a very profitable arrangement."

"I agree." She chokes on her words. She knows this voice. It floods her entire system. It belongs to the man who had mocked her mother in the Dick Coonan case three years ago. He's twice her size, but she'd grabbed him and smashed him up against the two-way window in interrogation. Castle, Espo, and Ryan had told her to back down. Montgomery had kicked her off the case.

Vulcan Simmons. His name is acid in her veins. Vulcan Simmons is Lazarus, risen from the metaphorical dead and almost certainly about to kill her. She's not in the safety of the precinct now. She's alone against him and the hellish forces that swirl around him and he's going to recognize her. She won't get out of this. He's out of the shadows now. He knows her.

"I never forget a face," he says. "Detective Beckett."

He has a gun. He'll shoot her here. But he doesn't. He wants information before he kills her, and she's damned if she'll die without giving him the best fight of her life. Fuck you, Simmons, she thinks. Fuck you.

And then he grips her head, shoves her her face-down in a metal tub of ice water and holds her there. She struggles wildly and eventually he yanks her head up. She's as cold as she'd been when she and Castle were trapped in the freezer. Castle's not here. She's grateful he's not here. She doesn't want him to see her like this, to see her like this at the end of her life. She's 34 and wearing his ring and never had a chance to have children with him.

Simmons thrusts her into the water over and over and over again. Each time he pulls her up and she gasps for air he asks her what her mission was and what they know about Lazarus. She doesn't give an inch.

It's hard to concentrate when she can't get oxygen into her lungs or her brain, but she wonders why he's referring to himself in the third person. Vulcan Simmons is an arrogant monster, but surely he'd demand, "What do they know about me?" Is it possible that he isn't Lazarus? Is he someone else's henchman? Whose?

He calls her undignified and forces her into the water again.

When he wrenches her up this time she says, "You want undignified? Wait 'til you see what I do to you."

That makes him laugh. "You're just like your mama. Both playing in worlds where you don't belong."

She lunges at him, but Harden gets her in a lock hold.

"Your mama paid for it with her life," Simmons says. "So will you. But first, tell me what I want to know."

Harden dunks her so often that she loses count. She's out of the water. Harden must have hit her head on the edge on the tub because she feels something warm on her forehead. Blood. She can just understand Simmons, still insistent, his voice burning into her.

"I can feel the panic in your soul."No you can't, you son of a bitch. No panic here. No panic.

"And I promise I will end it. Just tell me what I want to know."

No fucking way. No way in–

She can't feel anything now, can't see or hear. Is she dead or is she dreaming? If death is a void, she must be dead. Gradually she becomes aware that she's being carried, and not in the loving arms of an angel, or better yet, Castle. Whoever it is is rough, and suddenly drops her. She forces open her eyes. They're in the woods. It's dark and cold and she's wet. The man has gagged her and is shoving her along with his gun; she can only stumble, not really walk.

She's not dead or dreaming, she's conscious, more or less.

It's Harden. Something about him going hunting here when he was a kid. Finding places to hide. "Over the years it's come in handy." He trips her and she rolls down a hill, unable to stop herself. When she reaches the bottom she can't move. Even if she could, she wouldn't. She's recovered enough to refuse again. He wrenches her to her knees and takes the gag out her mouth. Claims he'd known she was a cop because he could see it in her eyes.

"I've killed cops before," he boasts. "In fact, a few of them are your new neighbors."

So this will be her grave? Not if she can reason with him. He seems like a weak link. She could sense his dislike of Jones, being ordered around. "My people will hunt you down and kill you," she says. "But help me take down Lazarus and you can set any deal you want."

He won't deal.

It's the end, then. Her fight's gone. It's over. She's waiting for the bullet to her head, but Harden turns away from her, and in an instant she sees someone slit his throat with a precise slash. After a few seconds her eyes move from the blood running from his neck to the blood dripping from the killer's knife. She gasps.

"Elena." She's lost track of how many times today she believed that she'd die, but here's one more. The final one. Except that Elena is walking away.

She's dumbfounded. "You're not going to kill me?"

"He sent me because he owed you. He said he wanted you to live."

What the hell? "Who sent you? Who wanted me to live?"

"Lazarus."

With those three syllables, she disappears.

If the torture hadn't left her so depleted, she'd run after her, but she can't even walk properly. She can't even crawl. If Lazarus is saving her, for now, she's safe here, if she doesn't die of exposure. Her limbs aren't working but her brain is. And just like that, it's on fire. Lazarus is Bracken. Of course. It's the only thing that makes sense. He's the dirtiest politician alive, with one of the cleanest images. He's way more than dirty, of course; he's a criminal with his hands in every kind of filth. And he'd let her go. He'd done it because she'd saved him from a car bomb thirteen months ago.

"I suppose this means I'm in your debt," he'd said afterwards.

"Nothing's changed between us," she'd replied.

"Even so," he'd pressed, right before walking out of the room at the precinct where they'd been having a brief, private conversation. "It's a dangerous world out there. You never know when you might need a friend."

The darkness takes her over. "Please," she says, trying weakly to stave off sleep. "Please, someone find me. Please."

Castle, Espo, and Ryan are driving to Scarsdale, hitting 100 in some stretches. None of them is talking. The air in the car is thick with despair. He'd first called her at 5:20, to ask if she could pick something up on the way home and had left her a voicemail. At 5:40 he'd texted. Half an hour after that he'd called again. Ten minutes after that, another text. From that movement on, every two minutes he called her, Ryan, and Espo, but none of them answered, despite numerous voicemails of mounting anxiety. By 7:30 he'd been frantic with worry and asked Alexis to come home and stay with Gummy, just in case.

He'd arrived at the precinct at 8:00 and within fifteen minutes he'd threatened Fowler. The situation had not improved. It was clear to him that all of them–Fowler, Gates, Ryan, and Espo–thought she was dead or soon would be. They'd stayed at the Twelfth all night, working on what little they had. Tiny scraps in some horrendous patchwork quilt of drugs and murder and God knows what else.

Hope had come in tiny bursts that had quickly fizzled. When Evan Potter had phoned Gates, they'd brought him in immediately, but he'd been no help. A partner in a white-shoe firm in Manhattan who worked solely in finance, especially estates and trusts. His record was clean and so was his firm's.

"Your wife was incredible," he'd told Castle as he'd left.

Was. Not is.

They'd been ecstatic when the abbreviated text from Kate had arrived, but even Tory, the brilliant, resourceful tech, couldn't trace it. He'd tried to be positive, but it had gotten increasingly difficult.

Kate had told Potter she was in a compound that had an old, fancy house. Their only clue. So they'd spent hours scouring maps of the countryside around Scarsdale and searched property tax records. Finally they found a possibility, and that's were they're headed. It's 5:30 a.m. She has been off the grid for more than half a day.

They're at the head of a convoy that includes dozens of cops, including a SWAT team, an ambulance, a hostage negotiator, and four police dogs with their handlers. He'd gone home to get some of her exercise clothes from the laundry basket. Each dog would be given time to sniff them before they got out of their SUV.

She can't be dead. She can't be dead. She can't be dead.

If she's dead he will kill Fowler with his bare and powerful hands. Let them send him to prison.

She can't be dead.

All of them park on the side of the two-lane road, 250 yards south of the compound. Everyone but the K-9 unit holds back; the plan is to give the dogs a few minutes in hopes that they will lead them to Beckett, and the rest of them will then surround the place. For now, radio silence. He excuses himself, crosses to the other side of the road, and throws up.

Five eternal minutes later, Espo's phone lights up with a text from K-9.

"Beckett alive but breathing shallow. Send doctor and gurney in ASAP. Body of male, about six feet, 30s, throat slit, nearby. No weapon in immediate vicinity."

He doesn't care what the protocol is, he's going with the doctor. While the EMTs are lifting her on to the gurney, he sees the dead man nearby. Whoever he is, he's almost certainly not a friend. If he's part of all this, Castle will find his grave in a few days and spit on it.

He holds her hand while she's on the gurney; "Gently, Castle, don't rub her hand," one of the EMTs says kindly. He holds it in the ambulance while the EMTs cut off her wet clothes, which are frozen in spots. Holds it while she's covered in blankets. Holds it while they dress the wound on her forehead.

"Castle?"

"That's me," he says, thrilled that's she speaking, trying not to cry, but figuring if a tear lands on her it might warm up.

" 'm I in an ambulance?"

"Yes. We're going to the hospital."

"No. Home."

"They have to take you there, sweetheart, to check you out. I promise you the instant you can leave I'll get you home. Hire twenty-four nurses if that's what you need."

The ambulance speeds away, no lights, no siren. Not until they're clear of the place. Teams have moved in. Castle wonders if there's anyone in the house, or if they've taken off.

A few hours laters Gates and the boys join them in the hospital, with the disappointing but unsurprising news that the raid on the house had netted nothing. The place was empty. "The mansion is held in trust by an offshore corporation," the Captain says. "It'll be months before we find out who the real owners are."

Fowler's team had picked up Vulcan Simmons in Washington Heights. He, of course, had a solid–as in bought and handsomely paid for–alibi.

"So we have nothing?" Castle asks, sitting next to Beckett on her bed. He feels a tug on his sleeve.

"Not nothing," she says. She's still weak, but not too weak to write "Future Forward" on a pad and show it to them. "Part of the money laundering. Whatever it is, a lot of cash is being funneled into it."

With that precious bit of information, her colleagues leave for the precinct, and she and her husband are alone.

She looks up at him. "Castle?" Her voice is soft and tentative.

"Yes?" His is soft, too, but not at all tentative.

"Are you mad at me?"

"Why on earth would I be?"

"Because I took the assignment when I could have said no."

He swallows and waits a moment before answers. "While you were–. While you were away, gone, there, I talked to Gates and Fowler. For hours. I know exactly what kind of crap he sold you. He blindsided you. I'm going to be furious at him forever, but not at you. I married a cop, and I did it with my eyes open. You didn't know you were doing something dangerous."

"Thank you." She squeezes his hand.

"Were you worried about that?"

"I was worried about dying and leaving you alone and your turning into what I used to be, before you. Driven and sad and angry and eaten up. I couldn't bear the idea that that could happen to you." That's what breaks the dam. She hadn't let herself cry, and now she does, and so does he. They cry in each other's arms until they're cried out. And then, with a little sweet-talking from Castle, the doctor lets Beckett go home.

Ryan calls to tell them that they'd traced Future Forward. A political super PAC that got $160 million in drug money, which was then legally laundered and is impossible to trace. Evan Potter had set up Future Forward for a client, but didn't run it. He had no knowledge of the drug connection. His part, perfectly above board, had been over ages ago. And the client? Mysteriously died of a heart attack earlier today.

"That's why you can't find the money," Beckett says to Ryan. "Someone's using it to build a massive political war chest."

After the call, when they're drinking hot chocolate–she's off caffeine for the rest of the day–Castle says, "Well, at least there's this. Now that we know that Simmons is Lazarus, he'll be watched twenty-four seven. He won't be able to rebuild."

"He's not Lazarus."

"What?"

"If he were, I'd be dead. Simmons is just a figurehead. Someone much bigger, much higher up, much more powerful is Lazarus. Someone who wanted me alive."

His eyes are round as he turns to her. "Who?"

"Bracken." She points to the TV, where the Senator is smiling at the camera. The sound is off. "The man who's just said he's going to run for President. Interesting timing."

She turns off the television, and in the next half hour tells him what had happened to her, sparing very few details, right through to her realization of who Lazarus is. She recounts it unemotionally, and initially he thinks she's doing it to spare him. But as she gets closer to the end, he understands that it's not just that. She has to put this all at a remove, as if it had happened to someone else, someone she doesn't know but might have read about in a book. And that frightens him almost as much as the event itself, her detachment. Not from him–because she says again and again how much she loves him, how that and his love for her had helped keep her going–but from herself.

"Let's go to bed," he says, his hand caressing her cheek.

"Okay," she says, giving him a faint smile.

In bed she curls against him as closely as she ever has, and they fall asleep.

Something wakes him, and he squints at his phone. It's 2:45 in the morning. She's not in bed, and she's not in their room. He gets out of bed and checks the bathroom; she's not there either. His heart is pounding as he runs through the living room and sees her standing in the kitchen. That's what had woken him, the sound of her there, and the lights. She'd turned on all the lights. Gummy is sitting next to her foot, looking up at her.

Her arms are wrapped tightly around her torso. "Where are the brownies?"

"The brownies?"

"I made them for AA. You took them out of the oven for me. Where are they? I missed my AA meeting tonight. I missed it. I was taking brownies. I have to make some more."

"I put them in the freezer. They're safe. They're fine. You can take them next time."

"No, I need to make more. They have to be fresh. Not those. Those aren't good." She yanks the refrigerator door open and takes out butter and eggs. He steps right next to her and puts his hand over hers, the one holding the egg carton. "It's so late, Kate," he says. "Why don't we do this in the morning?"

"Don't you see, Castle?" Her eyes are full. "I missed my meeting. I never miss my meeting. Bracken made me miss my meeting."

TBC

A/N I often wondered how Beckett was found in "Belly in the Beast," since it never came up. So I decided how I'd have done it.