After exactly one year, a little over 40k words, and more hours than I care to count, Fallout (a.k.a. The Story that ATE MY LIFE) is finally complete. There are plenty of great authors here who are lots more prolific than I am, but this is the most ambitious project that I've ever undertaken. Unfortunately, I grossly underestimated the amount of time and attention it was going to require from me. Then again, I also didn't expect that, through the process of bringing it to completion, I would fall in love with writing all over again. For everyone who's been reading from the very beginning, thanks. Your kind comments and encouragement kept me writing when both my time and my enthusiasm were in short supply. For people that jumped in along the way, I appreciate your willingness to read what was obviously a long-running work in progress. I'm planning on taking a few weeks off to actually read some fic instead of just writing it, but I still have two unfinished projects on the back burner. In short, I'll be back.

And, oh yeah, the characters are STILL not mine. (Although I'm beginning to feel a little possessive of them right about now...)

For my muse. She knows who she is.

Fallout, Chapter 13

The set of his jaw is grim. "So what do we do next?"

"The police can hold him for 48 hours. We use that time to serve the warrant. Look through his computer records, check his travel in and out of New York."

"And if you don't find anything?"

"We will."

Their shared thought hangs unspoken in the air between them. We have to.

He slaps his palm against the wall in frustration. "I wish there was something I could do."

"There is. Talk to your family, especially to Meredith. See if any of them remembers anything that Evans might have said or done that might be significant."

"You know," he says bleakly, "it occurs to me that if we hadn't gone through with this little charade, he would never have gone after..."

"Stop." She touches her fingers to his lips. God knows she did her share of second-guessing herself after her mother's murder. It never accomplished a damn thing except to make her doubt her instincts when she needed them most. "You don't know that. Look, this guy is smart, and he's careful, and we have every reason to believe that he would have just tried again in some other way. We don't have time for self-flagellation, okay?"

His eyes are downcast, but he nods his acquiescence. She moves her fingertips from his mouth along the line of his jaw and finally to the back of his neck before pulling him close and kissing him gently. There's too much uncertainty about the future for the warmth between them to blossom into heat, but sometimes comfort is even more important than passion.

When she finally lets go of him, he seems steadier. "Take care of yourself," she says. "And of them."

"I will." He brushes his knuckles against her cheek as she turns to go. "Good luck."

Kate makes her way to Dustin Evans's apartment, where she's met outside by a beaming Ryan and a disgruntled-looking Esposito, both of whom are busily picking scraps and shreds of paper from their clothing.

"There's a community recycling bin here," Ryan explains, "but it only gets picked up every couple of weeks. Check out what our boy Javi found on our little dumpster diving excursion."

Esposito gives her a plastic baggie containing a slightly crumpled piece of paper. It's a handwritten letter to Evans.

Hey, Dustin! (Calling you that feels weird, Bro! You'll always be Donnie to me.)

I know it's been a while since you've heard from me. The reason I'm writing to you today is because Teresa is sick, and she needs help. My income just isn't enough anymore, even though I've been working two jobs since October.

The letter goes on for several more paragraphs. It's obviously the fundraising letter than Philip Jacobi sent out on Teresa's behalf. What's most remarkable about it, though, is that several letters, and in some places, combinations of letters, are circled in red ink. She looks at the ones in just the first few lines.

e st Ca B t ck le M O

With a little rearrangement and repetition of certain letters, it's not too hard to figure out a familiar group of words:

Castle Beckett BOOM

"Gotcha, you son of a bitch," she says softly. "Apparently his proclivity for forgery never went away entirely."

At Ryan's questioning glance, she says, "He stole from the Jacobis by forging checks when he lived with them."

"Too back they didn't prosecute his punk ass back then," Esposito says as he continues to brush shreds of paper from his jacket. "It might have saved us some time and Alexis a hospital visit if we'd known he was such a lowlife."

"You think it's enough to keep him in custody?" Ryan asks.

"Maybe," she says cautiously. "We need to see if we can find some paper here that matches the notes. Our originals don't have any prints, but with this letter and a match for paper and ink type, we might be able to hold him on charges of menacing and trespassing."

"That's a long way from attempted murder. Why would he even bother writing the notes, much less go to the time and effort to copy Jacobi's handwriting?"

Esposito nods thoughtfully. "I can see him maybe writing one to the publisher to throw us off the scent, but that's purely a low-risk move. He had to have broken into your place to have left that note under your bed."

"Don't forget that it's a risk that paid off," she says. "Money didn't look like a valid motive in the beginning. This letter is good, but it's not enough to put him away. There's another link somewhere between Evans and Jacobi, and we need to find it."

Hours later, the team finally finishes its search of Evans's place. A notepad of what looks to be the same type of paper as that used in the notes is taken into evidence, along with a box of envelopes, several different types of pens, and a box of plastic gloves.

Her father and his friend are already settled into the airport hotel, so, after a late dinner of overpriced sushi, she, Ryan, and Esposito check into a hotel near the hospital. She takes the opportunity to indulge in a very long, very hot shower. When she finally turns the water off and reaches through the billowing steam for a towel, she sees her phone next to the sink and notices that she missed a text from Martha.

What are you wearing?

She texts back:

That had better be you, Castle.

Instead of replying, he just calls her. As soon as she answers, he says, "You never answered my question."

"I just got out of the shower, so I'm pretty sure an intellectual such as yourself can figure it out."

"Well, there are two obvious choices." She can hear the smile in his voice. "A towel, or nothing at all. Being the eternal optimist that I am, I'm going to vote for nothing."

Kate chuckles in spite of herself. "I see where she gets it."

"Where who gets what?" he asks.

"Where Alexis gets her resiliency. You were both targets of murder attempts over the last couple of days. And yet, you're both remarkably okay."

"It's the one positive trait we inherited from my mother—the ability to not only be aware of, but to embrace the fact that we're living in denial."

As she dries herself off, she tells him about Esposito's find and the seizure of the writing materials. It will take some time for the lab to run a complete analysis to see if the materials match what they already have in evidence. "So, how's Meredith?" she asks cautiously.

"Pissed off, freaked out, and concussed. Sounds a lot like our marriage, now that I think about it."

"Pissed off and freaked out, I can understand," she says, "but concussed? How does that remind you of your marriage?"

"She stepped on a skateboard I left in the living room once. Turns out hardwood floors are pretty damn hard. And there was that time I fell out of the tree on top of her."

She could ask, but she figures that there are some things that she's just better off not knowing about him.

He continues, "I had planned on having my mother tell Meredith that I was still alive, but, unfortunately, she walked into the room just as Alexis and my mother got back. Meredith saw me, fainted, and hit her head on the floor. The good news is that she got the room next to Alexis. I think it's good for her to have me here as a whipping boy. It keeps her mind off of Evans and what he tried to do."

"Did you get any useful information about him?"

"Not really. Alexis says she remembers him fiddling with his phone around the time of the explosion, but that's hardly admissible. Meredith just doesn't want to talk about him at all, but I'm sure if she knew something she thought might help, she would tell me."

"Is Alexis still scheduled to be released tomorrow?"

"All her blood tests came back fine, so yes, we can leave first thing in the morning. She and my mother did some surfing earlier and found a nice vacation rental in SoHo. It'll work until our place is fixed." He pauses for a few seconds. "I'm going to miss you tonight."

She looks at the queen-sized bed in her room. After last night, it's going to feel uncomfortably roomy. "I'll miss you too. Good night, Castle."

"Until tomorrow, Detective." he says softly.

The flight back to New York is uneventful. Still processing the events of the last few days, Alexis tends to cling to her father, which suits Kate just fine. She spends her time planning her strategy for interrogating Philip Jacobi. Now that they have the marked letter and a tentative link between the two, she wants to use it as a wedge to pry Jacobi away from his misplaced loyalty to Evans.

When they arrive back at the airport, Ryan takes Castle and his family to their new home away from home. Kate says a quick goodbye to her father, and then she and Esposito head directly to the precinct. After a quick briefing with the captain, she has Philip Jacobi brought back into one of the interrogation rooms. He looks sullen and withdrawn, as though he's finally begun to realize that this is, and will continue to be, his new normal for a very long time.

She doesn't pull any punches. "Dustin Evans is in custody. That name ring a bell, or would you prefer Donald Eckersly?" She doesn't have to look very hard for a tell.

His shoulders twitch reflexively, and then relax. "I know him. So what?"

"So you wrote him a letter about your mother being sick. He wrote a couple of letters too." She takes the plastic-protected "BOOM" letter and the "Made you look!" note out of her portfolio and places them on the table in front of Jacobi. She gives him sufficient time to read them and connect the dots. "If the writing looks familiar, it's with good reason." Now she shows him the red-marked letter that they found mixed in with the recycling. "He took your words, Philip; he took your writing and used it against you."

"I—" he swallows hard. "I don't have anything to say."

"Evans isn't talking, either." She leans back in her chair and steeples her fingers together. "He didn't even have to throw you under the bus, because you crawled right out in front of it. What kind of money did he promise you? We already know about the ten grand. Your mother gave us what was left of it, and no matter what, there won't be any more now. She's on her own."

He looks at her intently, with abject misery in his eyes. "You ever have a mother, detective?"

He can't know just how much of a sore spot he just hit. She struggles inwardly to keep her composure. "Doesn't everyone?"

"No. Having a baby doesn't make a woman a mother any more than pounding a nail into a two-by-four makes me a architect." His expression grows hard. "There was a woman I knew for the first ten years of my life. Whenever she got her drugs or her drink on, I would hide in the closet, under the cabinets, behind the couch, anyplace I could find, hoping like hell she wouldn't find me before she passed out. Sometimes I got lucky." He shrugs. "Mostly, I didn't. The last couple of years, we didn't have anywhere to go. There's not too many places to hide when you're living in a car."

"So I left. Being on my own was the best thing that ever happened to me, until I found the Jacobis. Frank was a good man. He gave me his name and a future. But Teresa helped me with my tie when I went to the prom, she fixed me pancakes with funny faces made out of chocolate chips, and she never complained when I outgrew my shoes three times in one year." He blinks back tears, and his voice grows hoarse. "I just wanted to pay her back, you know? Her doctors say she has a chance of beating it, but not if she can't afford the treatment." He looks around the interrogation room desperately. "He said he would take care of her if I couldn't. No one was supposed to get hurt. I never thought something like this would happen."

"Something happened, all right," she says softly. "He tried to murder someone else yesterday." Jacobi shudders visibly and begins rocking back and forth in his chair. He's so close. She pushes just a little harder. "Is that the type of person that your mother would want taking care of her? Tell me everything you know, take a polygraph to back it up, and I'll do whatever I can to get you a deal."

He blinks, bows his head, and finally breaks. "He showed up at my apartment about three months ago..."

"So that's what we have to work with." Kate points out the latest additions to the murder board that she's moved into the isolated conference room in what's becoming an increasingly difficult effort to keep Castle's continued ability to draw breath under wraps. They managed to get him from the parking lot into the conference room with nothing more than a few odd looks and a shout from down the hall as they entered the elevator, but she knows it's just a matter of time before the news is all over the precinct. "Evans got Jacobi to steal the explosives and build the bomb by convincing him that he was going to use it to blow a safe. They shared the risks—Jacobi by taking the explosives and constructing the device, and Evans by planting the bomb, detonating it, and taking the cash. They were supposed to share the rewards as well, except, as we all know, blowing a safe was never Evans's intent."

The captain asks, "So is Evans is sticking to his story about not having seen Jacobi since he moved to California?"

Ryan swivels around in his chair. "I put a call in to California an hour or so ago. That's what he said yesterday, and his story hasn't changed."

Esposito adds, "I showed Evans's picture around to Jacobi's neighbors. No one remembers seeing him."

"The thing that bothers me is the money." She reaches into the evidence box next to her and pulls out the plastic bag containing the envelope and the few hundred dollar bills that were left of the original ten thousand. "Even though they were due to split the money afterward, Jacobi said that Evans gave him ten grand in new hundreds the day that he picked up the bomb, probably to buy his silence if anything went wrong. There weren't any withdrawals from his bank accounts that would account for that kind of money, so where did he come up with it?"

Castle grabs the bag and looks at the money excitedly. "New, uncirculated hundreds. Oh my God," he says abruptly. "I can't believe I forgot about that, but once we found out about Alexis..."

"Whatever it is, you can tell us now," the captain says.

Castle looks at Kate intently. "Do you remember me telling you that Evans was trying to drum up financial support to make his movie?"

"Don't tell me—" she starts.

"I gave him ten thousand dollars. In cash."

"You mean, you paid for a hit?" Ryan asks. "On yourself?"

Esposito shakes his head. "Man, that is messed up."

"Any chance you have the serial numbers of the money you gave him?" Montgomery asks.

"No," Castle says, "but you should have what's left dusted for prints."

"I already did," she says.

"I thought you said they were uncirculated," Ryan protests.

"Not entirely," Kate says. "There were six bills left. They looked new, but I had them checked anyway, and there were some usable prints on them. We compared them to Dustin Evans and Philip Jacobi, but we didn't get a match for either one, so I didn't think it worth mentioning. Some of the prints belonged to Teresa Jacobi, but there are more that are unaccounted for."

"I know whose prints those are." Castle raises his hand. "Alexis did an experiment at school involving money. She was analyzing the amount of cocaine residue on circulated hundred-dollar bills and she needed uncirculated ones for a baseline. I got her a bundle of hundreds from the bank to test, and when she was done, she rebanded them and put them back in my safe. It left me with more cash than I normally like to have on hand, so when Evans asked me for money for his film, I just gave him the whole bundle. The other prints have to belong to Alexis."

"Confirm that with the lab," Montgomery tells her, "and as soon as you do, let me know. I want to see Evans try to explain how money with Alexis Castle's fingerprints on it ended up in the hands of Philip Jacobi." The captain gets to his feet. "I'm going to get on the phone right now and get the ball rolling for the extradition of Evans to New York. I smell a charge for attempted murder, and it's about damn time. By the way, the mayor's called a press conference in two hours and he insists that you," he points at Castle and Beckett, "both be there."

She squeezes Castle's arm gently as she gathers her things up. "I need to check in with the crew in the lab, but I'll be back when I can."

When she gets back, Castle's pacing agitatedly along one wall of the conference room while stretching the cord of the room's phone to its limit. "Yes, I do realize that I have a lot of nerve asking you for a favor after letting you think I was dead, but I'm sure you can agree that this is the right thing to do. Right. Okay. Thanks, Gina."

He hangs up and looks at her. "Well, that went better than I expected."

"It didn't sound like it went very well at all."

"The thing you have to understand about Gina is that she never lets her narcissism interfere with her business sense. She's irritated because I let her think I was dead, but she won't let that get in the way of doing what's best for Black Pawn. Now tell me what you got from the lab."

"Well," she smiles, "not only did they confirm that the prints on the money belonged to Alexis, but the paper, envelope, and ink samples we got from Evans's apartment all matched the notes we already have in evidence. We matched Evans's travel records to the times when Jacobi says they were in contact, so everything he's told us checks out. With Jacobi's testimony, we finally have enough to put him away."

The chief pokes his head in. "The mayor's almost done reviewing the case. You'd better get out there."

Castle shuffles the papers in his hands as they follow the chief to the briefing room where the press conference is being held. "You know, I was really hoping I'd have a little time to talk to you about this first."

He's making her very nervous. "Talk to me about what, Castle?"

He stops at the entrance to the room and takes her hand. "Look, just promise me that you won't make any snap judgments without hearing the full story. I think I've earned that much."

She doesn't have any time to reply before they're suddenly thrust out in front of the pool of reporters. A collective shout runs through the room as they recognize Castle. She makes her way through the crowd to the back of the room as the mayor wraps up the details of their investigation, Castle's assistance in solving the case, and the coming extradition of Dustin Evans to New York to await trial.

Finally, the hubbub quiets a little, and Castle takes the microphone. He's addressing the entire room, but his eyes are riveted on hers. "As a near and very dear friend of mine recently reminded me, a homicide usually leaves more than one victim behind. Family and friends often struggle in the aftermath of these crimes. I'm pleased to announce the formation of the Johanna Beckett Victims' Advocacy Foundation. The foundation will help provide counseling services as well as financial assistance for those coping with a loss of income in addition to the loss of a loved one. I'll be donating all of the proceeds of the sales of my novels during the last week to the foundation, as well as a percentage of all future sales of Nikki Heat novels. Black Pawn, my publisher, has also agreed to donate its profits from all of my books purchased during the last week."

There's more, but her mind refuses to focus on anything but the way he used her mother's name. It's a fitting legacy—her mother always championed people who had no voice of their own—but she's concerned about how her father might take it. Castle should have asked, dammit, but she wants to hear his explanation. She owes him that, at the very least.

He finishes his statement, answers questions until they start to get repetitive, and leaves the room escorted by enough uniforms to keep the newshounds at bay. She's almost arrived back at her desk when she gets a text:

south stairwell, third floor

Apparently, he's found a place secluded enough for them to have a few minutes alone. When she gets there, he's ready with an explanation before she can say a word.

"I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to talk to you about this before. I wasn't entirely sure I'd have Gina's buy-in." He hands her a sheet of paper with an embossed header. "What do you think of the foundation's letterhead? Alexis designed it."

She scans it quickly. "My name is on here."

"Of course it is. So's your father's." He points to the line above her name. James Beckett. "You're both on the board of trustees."

"Why?" she asks.

"I asked his permission before doing anything else. He was only willing to let me use your mother's name if he got to have some oversight into how the money was distributed. I thought it was a terrific idea. I'm glad I'll be able to work with him."

"No, I mean, why start this foundation?"

"Well, it's just like I said in the press conference. Solving the homicide is only part of the equation. There are people out there that need other kinds of help."

She has no idea how much money Castle might have earned in the last few days, but she knows exactly where to put it to good use. "Would you mind if we started with Teresa Jacobi?"

"We'll go out to Brooklyn tomorrow, if you like." He bends down and runs his lips lightly over the place on her neck where he marked her what seems like a lifetime ago. "I promised I'd make it up to you, remember? I forgiven?"

She remembers wondering what he'd do for her, whether he'd take her to dinner, or away for a weekend. She never imagined that he'd find a way to make her work even more meaningful.

"Yes." She wipes away a tear as she kisses him twice—once for herself, and once for her mother. Her arms wind around his neck as she hugs him tightly, "Thank you."

They spend the next several days in a holding pattern. Castle has a ton of legal matters to attend to along with getting his place fixed and spending time with Alexis and his mother. All of the paperwork that she back-burnered during the case comes full circle. Evans's lawyer fights his extradition, and the D.A. fights giving Jacobi a deal, but she eventually emerges from both battles victorious.

The two of them manage to squeeze in a few phone calls and texts here and there, as well as a desk-side lunch at the precinct, but it's not enough for either of them. Then, out of the blue, she comes back from a meeting late one afternoon to find him sitting in his usual chair beside her desk. He's armed with a broad grin and an invitation to Lanie's favorite pizza place, so she immediately punts her last two files to Ryan and Esposito, reschedules a meeting, and leaves arm-in-arm with him, not particularly caring whether or not anyone sees that they're together.

The pizza is still terrific, and the company is even better, and he doesn't seem at all surprised when she asks him if he'd like to go to her place. She, however, is surprised when he declines.

"Why don't we go to mine instead?" he asks as he takes her hands in his and smoothes his fingertips across the new nails that are just beginning to grow in. "I'd like you to see what we've done with the place."

"Do you mean that it's done already?" she asks, incredulous.

"It's done." He pulls her to her feet and enfolds her hand gently in his as they walk back out to the sidewalk. "My mother and Alexis are spending one last night at the rental, though. Alexis wanted to throw a slumber party there, so I think I can probably kiss my security deposit goodbye, but she deserves some fun."

After the last couple of weeks, they all do. He continues to hold her hand all the way to his place, letting go only to pay the cabbie.

"I'm just amazed that you were able to get everything fixed so quickly," she says as they enter the elevator. He must have had people working around the clock.

"The damage wasn't as bad as it looked." His expression is grim for just a moment before his mouth relaxes into a smile. "Which is good, because it looked like something from Dante's sixth circle of hell."

When they finally arrive at his door, he opens it and stands to the side so that she can walk in first. "It's beautiful now," she says as she turns to survey the entire room. The colors are warm and inviting, the kitchen has been redesigned to have a more open feel, and the new furnishings look solid, but comfortable.

"Yes, beautiful," he echoes softly, but his eyes are riveted on her. "It feels a little strange, though. New furniture, new flooring, new fixtures, new windows, new paint." He puts a fingertip beneath her chin and tilts her face up to meet his as he kisses her softly. "New us."

She opens her mouth beneath his touch, tries to deepen the kiss, but, inexplicably, he pulls away.

"Come on, I want you to see something." He takes the stairs two at a time and stops in front of what she assumes to be his bedroom. "Now, you're either going to think this is fabulous, or you're going to go back to the precinct to write up a restraining order. I'm hoping for the former."

She's surprised and, at first, a little overwhelmed by the room. It's eerily similar to her bedroom in her apartment. Not an exact replica, or she'd be tempted to go for the restraining order in spite of all they've been through together, but the rug, the pillows, the curtains, the bookcases, even the style of furniture are all very much like what she chose for her own place. She crosses over to his bed and sits on it experimentally. "It's a little higher than mine."

"I could have it lowered if you like," he offers.

"No, it's okay," she says softly. "I can get used to it."

He lets out a sigh of relief. "I'm glad it doesn't creep you out. I wanted a change," he explains, "and I wanted you to be comfortable here. Asking you to pick out swatches seemed a little obvious, so I figured I'd go with things I knew you'd love."

She slides off of the bed and moves to stand in front of one of the open windows. The new curtains waver and twist in the cool breeze as she puts her hands on the sill and takes a long, deep breath before turning to face him. "It's not the things in this room that I love."

"Kate—" He pulls her into his arms and then frowns. "You're shivering. Here, I'll close the windows."

She's not cold. She's trembling with emotion, and with excitement, and with so much pent-up want that there's not room in her for anything else right now.

She wraps her hands in his hair, pulls his head down to hers, and kisses him hard. This time, there are no phones, no doorbells, and no well-intentioned coworkers to interrupt them. There's just the two of them, and their only source of frustration is the few fleeting seconds when they have to break their kiss long enough to remove a piece of clothing.

They've waited far too long for there to be much in the way of gentleness here tonight. He breaks the clasp of her bra trying to undo it, murmuring, "I'll buy you a new one. I'll buy you a dozen new ones." She runs her hands across his broad back, irritated at the fact that he's still wearing his shirt. There's too much fabric and not enough him, and he chuckles when she finally manages to do away with it. The last vestiges of clothing are thrown to the floor and she settles herself on his bed, grateful for the fact that she's the first (and, if she has her way, only) woman brought into it.

Kate closes her eyes and fills her senses with him—the warm, spicy scent of his aftershave, his breathing ragged in her ears, the touch of his hands all over her body—tentative at first, then firm, then downright demanding. She expected that they would be good together, but they're better than good—they're amazing, and it doesn't take her long at all to discover the advantages inherent in having a mattress at the same height as his hips. Then her mind is filled with kaleidoscope images—tumbling, spinning, fracturing all around her. She teeters for a moment, gasping, trembling, and then, oh, God, falling, but for once unafraid, because she's always known that this is how their story would play out. This isn't just about what they do, but who they are. Author and muse. Creator and inspiration.

She grounds him, and he gives her wings.

Her voice doesn't break on his name so much as it shatters along with the rest of her—not on "Richard", or even "Rick", but on a shaky, uneven "Castle".

He doesn't seem to mind.

End of Chapter 13