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.

"Detective Beckett," Captain Gates growled from the other side of her desk, "I understand you were in the studio audience. Care to explain to me why you didn't apprehend Mister Castle?"

"I tried," Beckett snapped back. "I was in row five, seat J. That put me directly in the middle of the audience. By the time I'd shoved through the crowd, Castle was offstage. I called it in immediately and searched the studio while I was on the phone with dispatch."

"Convenient," Gates sneered. "There you were, ready to arrest your friend, but you just couldn't get 'round the spinsters and sycophants to do your duty!"

"My father can attest to the effort I put into pursuing Castle."

"Any witnesses who aren't related to you?"

"Yes, actually," Beckett ground out. "Anticipating this inquisition, I asked the studio manager for a copy of the all-camera feed from the show," Beckett explained as she slammed a CD onto the desk. "That's another copy – my original's with my union rep."

"All this will show, if anything," Gates replied, "is that you're a good actress. Tell me, Detective, who selected your seats for the show? Your alibi's pretty weak if you chose where you sat."

"I received the tickets Black Pawn Publishing," Beckett replied haughtily.

"I see. Any other gifts, honoraria, graft, or payoffs you wish to confess?"

"My paperwork for these tickets is on file. Along with the Mayor's statement regarding why Castle was forced onto my team to write this book and his and 1PP's approval for the use of the tickets. You got a problem, take it up with them!"

"My problem, Detective, is that a cheap, celebutante writer managed to elude the NYPD after taking out a hit on a Senator on a nationally syndicate live television program!"

"I can't believe you were ever a Detective," Beckett sneered. "I could point out that Castle had training here as well as other law enforcement agencies. I could point out that he was the federal agent responsible for Montgomery's arrest. I could even point out that the legal basis I had to arrest him was questionable. But it wouldn't matter because your issue isn't really his training or the legal foundation for what he did. No, your problem is that Castle's making you look bad. Forget the rest of the NYPD – he eluded you and you're worried that you'll never be anything but an Interim Captain as a result."

From the furious look on Gates' face, Beckett knew her cut hit the mark. Knowing that she was caught out, the Captain took a few deep breaths before calming herself and addressing her detective again.

"Badge and gun," Gates said while tapping on her desk. "You're suspended for two weeks."

"Gladly," Beckett replied as she stood and deposited the items. "You'll still be looking for Castle two weeks from now, so it's not like I'll miss anything. Besides, I'm sure my union rep will be happy with the extra evidence of bias."

"Leave now, before I…"

"Before you what? Arrest me? You can't do anything. At the rate you're going, I'd be shocked if you were still here in two weeks."

"You had such a promising career, Beckett. I can't believe you're throwing it all away."

"You know what I can't believe?" Beckett asked, hand resting on the doorknob as she stalled her motions to leave the room. "I worked with some of the biggest pigs in the NYPD. Vice, alone, should've driven me out. And then I get Montgomery as a captain – the guy who pretended to help with my mother's case while he was one of the conspirators who set the stage for her death. After all that, it's you who might actually drive me out of the force. Congratulations, ma'am, for yet another accomplishment the old boys club couldn't manage."

"Hey Beckett, you're late!" Esposito called from the table as Beckett entered the diner. "A little suspension and suddenly you're all casual about timing?"

Beckett cocked her head and considered a response as she slid into the booth next to Espo. "You know what? Yeah. Yeah, that's exactly what it's like. So, how was getting up early to turn up at the precinct?" she asked to rub it in.

"Even worse than usual," Ryan grumped from the other side of the table. "We're benched. Not suspended," he clarified quickly, "but stuck on cold cases until our challenge to the transfers is heard."

"You know," Esposito offered as a server dropped a menu off for Beckett, "I'm not sure I'll stay even if we win. Gates isn't gonna stop. She's already riding Beckett hard and you know she'd watch us like a hawk. I'm feelin' pretty good about my other interviews. If something works out there, I think I'm gone."

"I'm thinking about it, too," Beckett noted, much to Ryan's surprise. "This suspension is just the start. If she or the new captain have it in for me, I don't know that it's worth trying to stay."

"What a minute," Ryan interjected. "What new captain?"

"That's what got me suspended," Beckett answered with a smirk. "It wasn't actually about Castle or his escape. She wrote me up for insubordination after I accused her of being so pissed off about Castle because he's making her look bad and she'll lose the 12th as a result."

"Damn, Beckett!" Espo cheers as he offers a fist to bump. "You've got stones! I'm glad somebody called her out. And if Castle manages to get her booted, I'll buy him a beer!"

"If he ever shows up again," Ryan added.

"So, what do you know?" Beckett asked, turning to her main item of interest for this conversation.

The boys exchanged a look, the nodded. After a quick rock-paper-scissors, Ryan won the right to explain.

"They still don't know how he got out of the building," Ryan started with a chuckle. "The studio director was paid off to keep that guy at the front of the phone line for the Q&A period, so the whole thing was obviously a set-up."

"Phone trace went nowhere," Espo added with a nod, "so that's a dead-end."

"Best bet on Castle is that he either stowed away on a vehicle servicing the retail places on the ground floor of the building or he had a way out through the sub-basement," Ryan continued, ignoring his partner's interjection.

"Castle crawling through the sub-basement?" Beckett laughed at the image of her immaculate ex-partner slipping through decades of grime. "I don't think so."

"Me neither," Ryan laughed. "My money was on him hitching a ride with the station's traffic helicopter, but that didn't pan out either."

Beckett nodded along – it was easy to imagine Castle talking or flirting his way onto the traffic chopper. It was a good thought.

"Don't suppose we've got any leads on him since then?"

"You're kidding, right?" Espo replied. "One, we ain't doing anything that connects us to Castle. Gates would have us cleaning the bathrooms in the gym," he shuddered. "Two, Castle hasn't turned up anywhere," he laughed, making it immediately apparent that they were ignoring point one. "He was invisible before his stunt and he's just as invisible now."

"What about Black Pawn?" Beckett asked. "They can't move and they're probably implicated. Warrants out yet for Castle's editor?"

Ryan broke out into a large smile. "Sullivan and Tooms tried to show up and bully their way in without a warrant. It turns out Castle's editor – and ex-wife – has a bit of a temper. She tore them up one side and down the other, then she brought in Pawn's legal staff. 1PP had to get involved. Something tells me Sullivan and Tooms are gonna be doing some remedial classes at the academy."

"Couldn't happen to nicer guys," Beckett replied with a lupine grin.

"And as for warrants, there's a bit of a problem there," Espo laughed. When Beckett cocked a brow for an explanation, Ryan interjected again, looking annoyed at his partner's interference in violation of sacred rock-paper-scissors protocol.

"Castle's attorney is apparently having a lot of fun," Ryan explained. "He's an older guy who's tying the DAs office in knots. Bracken was at the DA's office when this went down, so there're issues about bias and overzealous prosecution. Castle also kind of threaded the needle on how he worded things – technically, he only offered to pay for evidence, not the event. It's pretty specious reasoning, given the presence of a massive financial incentive for malfeasance, but it's the kind of loophole attorneys love."

"And Castle's attorney is freakin' hilarious," Espo jumped in again. "My buddy says he must to there to cause havoc more than plead Castle's case. So, he's just having a ball."

"Still, it doesn't look good that Castle disappeared after he made his announcement," Beckett offered, reigning in some of the frivolity. "And it was clearly premeditated," she noted.

"Yeah, that's true. Remember how we found out that Castle signed his beach house over? Turns out that was around the same time Black Pawn transferred the rights to Castle's books to a foreign company. Looks like they made sure a court couldn't block Heat Wave's publication and distribution. Getting the international relationships set up was probably a part of the reason for this book's delay."

"And timing it with taking down Montgomery and Bracken would be the other part," Beckett surmised, "along with embedding his hidden message in the text, once he figured out who was responsible for Alexis' murder. How in the hell did he pull this off?"

"And where did he go?" Ryan added.

The team considered their questions for a few minutes before Beckett broke the silence. "I think he's gone," she guessed. "He quit his job. He'd already liquidated his assets. He probably moved everything offshore months ago. He was willing to trade his life here in the US for a shot a Bracken."

"An astute observation," noted a voice from beside the table. While the detectives were still turning, the agent who'd tasked Beckett with bringing Castle back slid into the seat next to Ryan, across from Beckett.

"You might as well take off," Beckett sighed in resignation in the face of yet more interference. "I don't know where Castle is and I wouldn't tell you if I did."

"But surely you want to bring him to justice?" the agent persisted.

"If this were about justice, Bracken would be on Death Row or looking at several life sentences in a maximum-security prison. Castle did what he did. Maybe he'll get caught, but it won't be by me."

"You sound like you hope he gets away with it," the agent continued as Ryan and Espo remained quiet and watched the conversational volley across the table.

"And if I knew you weren't wired you might hear a more frank opinion. But, as it is, I'm going to invite you to leave. Find a different patsy or a new trainee and leave me and Castle alone."

"You're sure you can just sent me away?" the agent asked with a sly smile. "My offer still stands – if Castle comes back, he'll need a partner. And it doesn't sound like the NYPD will accommodate your presence much longer."

"I'll be fine," Beckett assured the agent. Ryan and Espo both nodded in affirmation, though each now had arms crossed and glowers in place, unimpressed by this federal irritant. "And even if not, Castle's been through enough. Leave him alone."

The agent stared at Beckett for several long moments, before turning in place to offer the same scrutiny to each of the boys. Then, finally, he laughed.

"You're all a bunch of suckers," he delighted, drawing an actual growl from Espo. "Not one of you asked me for ID – not even your boss!" he cackled. "Congrats," he offered jovially as he slipped out of the booth and stood next to the table, "you passed the test. Rick was worried that his recent choices might have some negative ramifications for you. This should ease the pain," he stated cryptically as he removed three envelopes from the breast pocket of his blazer and dropped them onto the table. "Obviously, the existence of these accounts will look bad, and if you access them the wrong way you'll be cutting Uncle Sam a damn big tax check. Enjoy."

With that, the "agent" turned and departed. As they watched him leave, the team noticed two others in the diner rise to join him. He might not've been an agent, but he clearly knew how to run a covert meeting. Actually, Beckett thought, she still hadn't seen any ID. Who's to say he wasn't an agent happily pretending otherwise to buy himself a little operational freedom…

Beckett's ruminations were cut short by a low whistle from Espo, who'd used a table knife so slice open the envelope addressed to him.

"Two mil," he offered in a low voice, getting a bulging-eyed, slow nod from Ryan. "Out of the country, with instructions on how to access it."

"Not instructions," Ryan clarified, looking at the contents of his own envelope. "Excerpts of related laws. There's not a single word of advice or guidance – that'll keep things cleaner if lawyers get involved. He's being careful again."

Beckett nodded along numbly as she slowly slipped a fingernail beneath the flap of her envelope. Screening her forms from the boys, she continued to nod despite the fact that her total was notably higher than theirs. In fact, they'd have assumed everything was identical had something not fallen from Beckett's bundle and landed on the table.

"What's that?" Ryan asked. "I didn't get a postcard."

"Me neither," Espo offered with a sly smile. "Looks like someone's trying to make an impression. Where's it from?"

"He sent a postcard of a cowboy riding a rabbit?" Ryan asked out loud as Beckett grabbed the postcard and returned it to her hand, where only she could see the details.

"It's just a note," Beckett demurred as she read the short text without sharing it: Just in case you'd ever like to visit, you'd always be welcome. He'd doodled in a postmark from Fort Hancock, Texas, in reference to one of his favorite stories. But the real shock appeared below the note: a phone number.

Beckett sighed as she jumped the gap onto the train. It was early morning, but the three flights she took to get to this point had taken their toll. She hadn't slept a wink on any of them. No, the intrigue of her arrangements meant that her mind never stopped. She knew it wouldn't be easy to find Castle, but the reality was even worse. Traveling on her own passport meant that her itinerary was available via computer to anyone who was interested. To combat this, they'd developed a routine: Beckett would call Castle from the airport, he'd identify a plane that was ready to depart, she'd race to the gate and board just before the door closed. The first time was clandestine fun, much like sneaking out as a teenager. The second time was okay. By the third trip, she was exhausted and cursed the thriller movies she used to like for their blatant ignorance to human endurance and stamina.

She'd finally landed in this city, only to get instructions to race to a train. She'd made it with only minutes to spare, then had problems purchasing her ticket at the automated kiosk. One more 'Please insert credit card again' and she'd have missed her ride.

Stumbling as the train lurched into motion and her fatigue gripped her, Beckett cursed under her breath and started moving towards the first-class cabin, which just had to be at the front of the train. Lugging her rollerboard bag behind her, she began the arduous trek. She'd hadn't even made it halfway before an arm reached out from behind a curtain and pulled her into a sleeper car.

"It's me," Castle whispered in her ear as he quickly stepped back and pulled Beckett further into the cabin, making sure her bag fully disappeared from the aisle. Having reached for a weapon she obviously couldn't bring on her series of flights, Beckett chastised herself for being caught unaware.

"Sorry for the hassle, and the rude reception," Castle offered in a whisper. "We need to lay low for the first bit," he explained as he squeezed past her to collect her bag and lift it to the luggage rack. "If anyone followed you, we need to make sure they don't see you. When your ticket goes unscanned, they'll assume you either never boarded the train or jumped off after leaving a false trail."

"You sound pretty confident," Beckett whispered in reply.

"Not my first rodeo," he replied with a smile. "Traveling through a non-extradition country where I've got some fans among the local constabulary eases my anxiety a bit, too."

Unsure how to react, Beckett instead took the chance to look around the compartment. There wasn't much room, but it was clearly one of the bigger rooms available, considering its miniscule water closet. How oddly considerate of Castle.

As if he heard her thoughts, Castle whispered again. "Go ahead and get cleaned up. You must be exhausted. I've got a basket of food, including your favorites I can remember, ready for later. Rest, eat, then we can talk."

A few hours later, Beckett awoke as the train slowed to make another stop. Once she was thinking clearly again, she found herself surprised that she'd slept so soundly and quickly. There should've been some anxiety about falling asleep in front of Castle, given their strange history, but exhaustion had taken care of that.

As she opened her eyes, she realized that Castle, too, must've had some hard traveling to make their rendezvous. He was sprawled across from her, still asleep. She took the opportunity to study him in repose, finding herself surprised at his peaceful look. In her memory of his times at the precinct, he was so often smiling or laughing. Or looking mischievous. In their one meeting since then, he looked first morose, then resolute. It was odd to realize that a serene look was unusual.

As if sensing her scrutiny, Castle awoke. His hand immediately reached inside his jacket as he tensed and conducted a quick scan of his situation. Seeing Beckett, he relaxed and slowly withdrew his hand as if hoping she wouldn't notice.

"Hungry?" he asked to distract her.

"Starving," she admitted. She'd planned to accept Castle's offered picnic before her nap, but her body had other ideas.

Castle bustled about setting things up, placing a variety of options on the small, fold-out table. From a thermos, he poured them each a cup of coffee. Beckett couldn't help but smile.

"So, fire away," he offered after passing the coffee to her. "I assume you're not here to try to arrest me, even if you're not happy with what I did. I figure you're bursting with questions, so skipping right to the interrogation will be most efficient."

Beckett nodded, surprised by the offer. After taking a quick moment to form her questions, she realized she only really had two that mattered beyond mere curiosity. She started by addressing the second-most interesting issue. "You're right that I'm not here to arrest you, even though I might have to do some fancy footwork if anyone asks if I've seen you. And while I'm still not on board with what you've done, Espo gave me some things to think about. So, I'm going to table that for now and instead ask: why that way?"

"You mean why take out a hit on a US senator in the middle of a TV show?" Castle laughed. "I'm sure there are people who assume it was ego, a desperate attempt for lasting notoriety. In fact, I've read that in more than a few places," he confessed with a smirk. "And back when you met me, that would've been a fair bet."

"But it's not the answer," Beckett prodded.

"No, it's not the answer," he admitted. "I'm not a good man, as you know. Hiring a professional was an option, and a relatively humane one. But I don't want humane. I want him to suffer. I figured ten million was enough to make anyone think about cashing in. He won't be able to trust anyone. And that kind of paranoia builds over time. He'll become increasingly agitated, so convinced that anyone near him might turn that he'll look at them all in suspicion. They'll react to his behavior, which to him will only seem to confirm that they're setting him up. I kind of hope it takes someone awhile to track him down. I'll be happy if he's a chattering wreck when he leaves this world."

"That's pretty dark, Castle," Beckett replied, her mind noting the incongruity of snacking on a chicken salad sandwich while discussing a contract assassination.

"Had I asked you about your hopes when you were twenty years old, would your answer have been so different?"

"No," Beckett admitted. "It took me a while to settle on the idea of catching mom's killer," she confessed in a quiet voice. "Before then, I just wanted him to pay." Beckett watched as Castle nodded along, though she was surprised that he remained quiet. The Castle she remembered didn't often allow for prolonged silences. So, oddly, she prompted the discussion. "I worked hard to develop the skills I'd need to catch him, just as you did. And it hurt – oh, how it hurt sometimes, paying the price for developing those skills. But I worry," she confided, "that the cost of what you've done will be so much higher."

Castle nodded along as he listened to Beckett express her concerns. "I don't," he answered. "Worry, that is. I'm sure there is a cost to what I've done, but it's one I resolved to pay long ago. And – as much as this will make me seem like a monster, especially to a Homicide cop – I'm not actually that bothered now and I'm not sure that'll change."

"Castle," Beckett replied while shaking her head, "you say that now, but…"

"Beckett," he interrupted, "I've actually slept since the television show. It's the first time since Alexis was killed that I've made it through the night without pills or nightmares. I'm comfortable with my decision."

Beckett stared at him, looking for any sign of doubt or remorse. "As a cop, I should be appalled that we're even having this conversation."

"As a cop," he replied, "you probably appreciate better than most the frustrations and imperfections of our justice system. And if you don't mind me saying so, you don't sound as enamored of your profession as I recall," Castle prompted gently.

"I'm not," she admitted, putting down her sandwich as the tone of the discussion muted her hunger. "I feel out of control and I don't like it. A month ago I was proud to be a cop, to disregard other opportunities because they weren't compatible with that identity. But then you arrested Montgomery and Bracken went down. Suddenly, my driving focus to become a cop was resolved."

"I'm sorry, Kate."

"Don't apologize!" Beckett erupted. "You did what I couldn't do. You have no idea how much that stung once I realized what was going on. But after allowing me to indulge in a bit of self-pity, my dad sat me down and asked if I'd rather someone else caught mom's killer or he went undiscovered. The answer was obvious. So, in case it wasn't clear before, thank you."

"There are still others like you, Beckett, as much as we wish there weren't," Castle whispered, seemingly ignoring her thanks. "You used your passion about your mom's case to pursue closure for others. You can still do that."

"I'm not sure I can," she answered sadly as she looked down. "I confided to dad about this and he explained it to me using baseball, his favorite hobby. The Red Sox still have fans, but he's convinced they've never rooted as hard for the team since they finally won the World Series and ended their curse. That's what I feel like – I still want to catch murderers and bring some peace to families, but it feels like I've lost my spark."

As she raised her head again, she was shocked to see tears on Castle's cheeks. He looked so guilty, so crestfallen. He opened his mouth to apologize but Beckett cut him off again.

"And it probably doesn't matter. As you know, I'm currently suspended. What I haven't told you is if I fare well at a disciplinary hearing, I'm still looking at a transfer or demotion. Espo got transfer orders to Burglary, Ryan to Gangs. Our current captain, who came from IA, is convinced we were tainted by Montgomery. So, even if I was as passionate about my job as I was before all this, it's not clear I can continue in Homicide, at least not with the NYPD."

"What're you going to do?" Castle asked. "Is there any way I can help?"

"Besides giving me access to a big pile of cash in an offshore account?" she replied somewhat acerbically. Castle looked sheepish, but not apologetic. "I guess that depends on my other main question for you."

"Which is?"

"Why did you leave me your number? Why go through potential capture to allow us this time to talk?"

Castle sighed and looked down. He started to speak before stopping himself, several times. Finally, after a huff, he offered a terse answer in a small voice. "I'm lonely."

Beckett knit her brows. Sure, seeing him brought back feelings she'd forced herself to forget, naïve hopes she'd tried not to indulge, but that was years ago and…

"Not like that," he said with a laugh. "Well, yeah, like that, too, but that's not what I'm talking about." The small grin dropped from his face as he thought about how to explain himself. "I've been surrounded by people since they died," he began in a quiet voice. "But none of them knew what happened or really understood what it meant. I'm different now. Marked. I can try to connect with others, can pretend for a little while that it doesn't matter that they can't understand how Alexis' murder changed me. But it always falls apart. Murder has just defined too much of my life now. I had a friend who told me I had to let it go, but she never understood that I don't want to let it go. Not if it means forgetting even one single, minute aspect of Alexis."

Beckett heaved a wavering breath. "It doesn't matter, Castle. You'll forget," she confessed sadly. "And you'll hate yourself for it." With that, Beckett lapsed into introspection, revisiting the guilt she's felt when a picture or conversation with her father caused her to remember something she'd forgotten about her mother.

"This is why I wanted to talk to you, to see you again," Castle admitted quietly. "You know what it's like. You're marked, too. I wonder if we could understand each other in a way others couldn't."

Beckett nodded, starting to wonder about the possibilities.

"You've felt it too, haven't you?" he pressed. "That feeling like you should be connecting, should be more engaged, but it seems like letting go would be a betrayal? Like starting something new would require giving up too much of yourself?"

"Yeah," Beckett answered quietly. "I know exactly what you're talking about."

"So maybe having a friend that knows the feeling would come in handy?"

"A friend?" she asked, a skeptical eyebrow raised. "Yeah, that'd be nice."

"So, how can your friend help you out with your situation at the precinct? Given the uproar after my talk-show appearance, I'm not sure I've got much pull these days," he mugged for her.

"Are you kidding? You're the scoundrel vigilante of New York," Beckett informed him, shaking her head again. "The father breaking all the rules to avenge his daughter by taking down a crooked politician? With that dark allure your popularity might be higher now than ever."

"There was a time I would've loved that," Castle sighed in exasperation. "As it is, it's just one more reason to stay away."

"You're not planning to come back?"

"My comment about the Statute of Limitations wasn't an idle observation. I'll be making my home over here for the foreseeable future. Unless a bounty hunter trusses me up for delivery back to the States, I guess."

"Your legal issues won't bring you back?"

"Probably not. My attorney Fitz is handling things for now, and having a lot of fun at it," he laughed, obviously thinking about some communication from his attorney. "Our grand plan is to resolve any criminal cases, then prep for any civil suits."

Beckett sighed, thinking about the non-criminal side of the courts with which she had little experience. "It sounds like you aren't worried about the civil case?"

"I'm kind of hoping Bracken's family files a wrongful death claim," he admitted. "The Feds buried as much about Bracken as they could. But in a civil case, Fitz is confident he could get the contents of my dossiers admitted as evidence. Then the world would know all about what that bastard did and why."

"You could still be found guilty," she reminded him, wondering if he'd even care.

"It's a risk," he answered with a shrug. "Personally, I think it's likely we'd get the old one dollar loss, where the verdict is guilt but the damages are nothing. But it doesn't matter. They can take it all if it means Bracken's gone."

"Says the guy whose money is squirreled away where we couldn't find it," she challenged with a smirk, getting an innocent shrug in response.

"Says the pot to the kettle." He laughed at her look of indignation, before losing his humor as Beckett started to look a bit devious.

"Now that you mention it, I do seem to have found myself an unexpected financial windfall just as my employment situation became uncertain," she prefaced. "And I distinctly recall my former shadow asking if he could help. Well, it turns out I have a pretty ironic request for you, Castle…"

The months following Castle's appearance on New York Now! were not good ones for the NYPD. As each lead to discover Castle's whereabouts proved fruitless, the pressure on the NYPD grew more acute. The media had a field day with the story that had everything – a sympathetic antihero, a charmingly cantankerous defense attorney, a politician who was even more bent and evil than most were assumed to be as a matter of course, tragedy, conspiracy, police ineptitude, and lots and lots of money. Bracken sightings often popped up on social media and dedicated websites as Castle's fans, those interested in collecting the bounty, or those wishing to see frontier justice done created a broad network of spotters. The attention put Mayor Bob Weldon in a difficult spot. When forced to address the issue, Weldon surprised many with a simple statement: "Richard Castle is my friend. And I will always support my friend."

Needless to say, Weldon's comment contributed to tensions with the police force. But it was the four events that followed that gutted morale.

First was the leaked information about Bracken. The bald accusation hidden within Heat Wave prompted a massive amount of attention on a case that federal prosecutors had kept quiet. When information about Bracken's arrest and subsequent plea deal leaked, it was like blood in the water. In the resulting frenzy, the pieces slowly fell into place, starting with Montgomery. As the conspiracy was traced out, the public learned that all of the pain started with dirty cops who were turned by a dirty Assistant DA. Public sympathy swayed toward the Castle and Beckett families and away from New York's public servants.

Second came the news that Beckett, who'd been outed as the inspiration for the popular Nikki Heat, had been forced out of the precinct. This wasn't strictly true – Beckett prevailed in her efforts to overturn her suspension and brought her own charges against the NYPD. Angry and disillusioned about how her career was treated by Gates and others, Beckett lashed back at those who spat on her commitment. The Department thought a quick, quiet settlement would stem the bad press. And perhaps it did, though most considered the payment an admittance of guilt.

The third blow came from an unexpected source. In fact, even the New York Times, which provided the shot, was initially unaware that it had done so. But printed in its legal announcements page was a simple notice posted by a Montenegrin law firm that declared the Alexis Castle Memorial Development Fund had successfully concluded its remit and was, as a result, shutting down. This small, explosive note not only accounced that Bracken was dead, but it reminded the public that the NYPD had been completely ineffectual in preventing Castle's scheme. In fact, the dire threats of prosecution of any who attempted to claim the Fund fell flat, as the notice did not confirm the identity of the Fund's beneficiary.

Having sent one scoop to the New York Times, the architect of the NYPD's disgrace turned to the Financial Times to deliver the final blow. This time, however, the sally arrived with full fanfare as the Times provided unprecedented prominence to a book review, in which it declared Unbound Heat, co-authored by Richard Castle and Katherine Beckett, to be a sure-fire best-seller and well worth the effort to locate, even if current legal issues inhibited sales within the US.


A/N: Back when I finished writing Under New Management, I mentioned that my next story would be a shorter effort inspired by two fanfic friends, The Muse of Apollo and madcrafter72. Anyone who knows Muse knows his role in prompting this story. He's not a big fan of Alexis. In a review to an earlier story he wondered about Alexis' mortality and I thought 'I can't write that – Castle would be a shell of himself if he lost his daughter.' But then I started thinking about how Beckett dealt with her loss…

Madcrafter's contribution is a little different. She wrote a short one-shot called "Two Out of Three" that left me with a crazy-high ratio of lingering thoughts to words written. It's the kind of story that sticks in my head, kind of the 'what if' that really sets things upside down. So, I decided to pull Castle out of the precinct way back in Season One and see what might happen.

This story was a bit of a diversion for me, something to keep my hand in the game while my time was limited. I've tried to stay away from the type of story that ends with an epilogue, but I didn't want this story to draw out. UNM suffered for the periods in which I had to focus on work rather than my writing and so I kept this tale terse to avoid that fate.

I'm not sure what's next. It might be a break, though I still like my Halloween story idea and might actually pull the trigger on it this year. I've also thought about a story called "Back to School Blues," but there's no chance I could have that ready in time for school to resume.

Finally, one last note. I originally joined this fandom because I enjoyed watching Castle with my oldest child, who helped push me into writing. She's been away for nearly seven weeks and finally returns tonight! So, I beg forgiveness but I'll be late in replying to reviews for the last two chapters as I get to focus on her for a bit.

Thanks for reading!