Rick Castle was on the wrong side of the table.
A year and a half ago this would have felt all too natural, sitting in the interrogation room, waiting for some cop with a frown and a file folder to stalk in and comment on his rap sheet.
A year and a half ago, he'd have been smug about it, too. He'd have treated it as a joke: nothing to worry about; just fodder for the next book. More boyish antics from the playboy and Man About Town.
Now, it was the world upside down. He was playing against his own team. He hardly knew when it had happened, but he belonged out there now, riffling through clues with the rest of them, trying to catch the suspect in a lie. It felt all wrong in here, on the defensive.
The worst of it was he wasn't even equipped for this now. The Troublemaker Playboy was a persona he'd perfected and worn for years like a second skin: a wall between him and the world. But he'd started pulling that down when he'd met Beckett, and now when he suddenly needed it again, the old protective skin no longer fit.
Never mind that there was a lot more on the table this time than a stolen police horse – he wouldn't be charged, he knew. They would run ballistics, and prove the gun he'd held was just this story's red herring. But Beckett and the guys had seemed genuinely angry when they'd arrested him, and that really was worrying.
He'd left on good terms, yes? He'd been chivalrous! She'd made her choice, and he'd stepped out like a gentleman. So why had they greeted him today with all the warmth due to a long lost fungal infection?
And then they'd arrested him for the murder of his good friend, Sue McGinty.
He shifted his hands awkwardly. No one had even offered to remove the handcuffs, and the metal was starting to chafe.
Richard Castle: dangerous criminal?
He almost laughed aloud at the thought. There, at least, was some comfort: maybe Beckett had had no choice in arresting him, but however pissed she was – God knew why – there was simply no way she believed he'd done it. She knew full well he was about as violent as a grade school spelling bee. She'd once accused him of killing her patience, but that was as far as it went.
And with that, Detective Kate Beckett appeared in the doorway.
Right on cue.
Just how I'd write it, he thought, and then mentally cursed and told his inner novelist to shut up. She was here, and not smiling. No need to narrate.
Beckett sat across from him at the table.
Yes, she was carrying a file folder...
"This isn't official, Castle. It's not protocol, either, but Montgomery is pretending he doesn't know I'm in here."
She paused, adjusting her chair. Castle couldn't help noticing a change in her demeanor since spring. This felt too much like the first day they'd met, with her not trusting him, maybe even resenting him, and her defenses were definitely up.
"Morrison will be in later to handle the official interrogation. I won't be taking part, given the circumstances."
"Damn it, Castle, you're my partner! Or you were. And you were standing there, holding the gun. When you left you said, 'See you in the fall.' Is this what you had in mind?"
"A gun. I was holding a gun! And I was coming back, as soon as. . ."
"As soon as what? You'd covered up the evidence?"
Castle bit back his first reply, as he looked into Beckett's eyes. There was so much anger there, and something else, too…
"I didn't kill her, Kate."
Time froze just for a moment. Beckett let out the breath she'd been holding, and an emotion Castle couldn't quite read crossed her face.
"God… Did you really think I might have?"
"You did. My God, you thought… I've been gone three months, Beckett! How much can a person change in three months?"
Well, a lot, actually, said the inner novelist. Castle had changed radically after meeting Kate Beckett. Yet, all that was only superficial: stripping away the façade. And she'd learned so much about the man underneath. If she really had even considered…
"Ok, Detective. What aren't you telling me?"
She stared hard at him as she spoke. "Castle, you match the description of the man seen breaking in minutes before the murder. There was no other exit but the way we came in, and we passed no one. We heard the shots, and found you, and only you, standing over the body with the gun in your hand."
"With a gun! I heard those shots too, Beckett. I didn't know Sue was already dead! I grabbed a gun, and ran in to try to help her. I was holding that gun you took off me when the shots were fired."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"You know what I meant. I wasn't even in the same room. Look, just run the ballistics."
"We did. They rushed it through, since the Mayor's a fan."
"Right? So why am I still sitting here in handcuffs?" And his thoughts added, why aren't you smiling at that?
"Castle… The gun is a match."
Richard Castle, dangerous criminal.
He had been standing over the body, holding a gun: the murder weapon, apparently, which wasn't possible. But who would believe it?
"Beckett, Sue McGinty called me early this morning and said she was in trouble. She said I might be able to help. She'd been working for Black Pawn, doing some cover art and graphic design, and maybe it had to do with that. She wouldn't say. But when I got there, the door was standing open, and I heard her screaming. I ran in, I grabbed that gun off her work desk, and I went looking for Sue. I heard those shots, and ran toward them, and when I reached her… Maybe she should have called someone else for help. But I'm telling you, she was dead when I got there. That's the truth. Tell me you at least believe that much."
"That Richard Castle, murder mystery novelist and criminology expert, wandered into a crime scene, picked up the murder weapon, and went to stand conveniently over the body just in time for our arrival?"
"Kate, there is no way that gun was the murder weapon! I don't care what ballistics says. Run it again. I wasn't in the room when she died, and neither was that gun." He paused again. "Look, if it's true that the test came back positive… It's not even possible, but if it's true… I'm going to need you."
Beckett's expression changed, then. It struck Rick that the new look in her eyes had nothing to do with the murder.
"Will you? You didn't before."
"What are you talking about?"
Beckett reached into the file folder that had been lying forgotten on the table. The paper she tossed in front of him was a clipping from the ledger, and he recognized it at once. A smudgey, newsprint edition of his own cheeky grin stared accusingly up at him. Oh…
"You said you'd be back in the fall."
"It's only September… I… It's still fall, Beckett. Technically, winter doesn't begin until December 21st…"
"Shut up, Castle."
He shut up.
"Shadowing me was one thing, Castle. Research for your books? Great. It made the mayor very happy, and we all like for 'Bob' to be happy. But it didn't stop there. Castle, we made you part of the team – Ryan and Esposito, too. We've worked together for more than a year. We've trusted one another when lives were on the line. That means something, Castle. You were my partner. And you think you can just walk out on us all those months without so much as a word? Maybe you didn't pick this up in your 'research,' but a cop shouldn't have to wait for a press release to hear their partner is back in the city!"
Rick tried to collect his thoughts. Partners. Did she really see him as her partner? And she was right, of course. He should have called, or written, or texted – he owed them that – but how could he tell her why he hadn't? That it had been hard, impossibly hard, to walk away and leave her with Demming, but that once he'd done it, coming back was even harder? Was he supposed to call up and say, "Hi, it's me, the third wheel, just checking in! How's everything going with the guy I lost out to?" Better to keep it a clean break, and try to work things out with Gina. He'd wanted to come back and shadow Beckett again, of course. It was shadowing Beckett and Demming that he couldn't face…
"What, Castle?" She was still glaring.
"About the murder?"
"Forget the damned murder! Officially, I'm not even on this case."
"You're just the arresting officer."
"And the chief suspect's muse."
"Fortunately, that fact will not come up in court."
"What, no retaliation for the 'muse' comment?"
"You're sitting there in handcuffs, under suspicion of murder. I can hardly shoot you here. It would look unprofessional."
"About those handcuffs…"
At last, Beckett's glare faded and she fought to hold back a smirk. "Ryan told them to leave them on you, actually. The boys aren't too happy with you, Castle." She did pull out her keys, though, and couldn't hide her amusement any longer when she saw his expression. It was a face you might see on a little boy whose friend had just broken his prize slingshot. He looked, she thought, just like a puppy that's had a bigger dog steal his new bone: shocked, startled, offended, outraged, hurt, and completely adorable.
Yes, damn him. He was adorable, even here and now. His mussed hair made that 'little boy' look of his all the more marked, while at the same time the cuffs were pulling his shoulders back in a way that… No! She was not going there. She was supposed to be holding a grudge. Focus, Beckett.
Castle groaned as his arms were freed, and rubbed melodramatically at his wrists.
"See if I send Ryan an advance copy of Naked Heat. Those things hurt!"
"Oh, man up, Castle. What did you expect? I'm pissed off, myself."
Castle grinned. "You're smiling, though."
"Yeah, well, under the circumstances, I suppose I get some satisfaction out of seeing you suffer."
The circumstances. Castle's grin faltered.
"Kate, I'm telling you the truth about that gun. I get that you're mad at me, and I will make it up to you, somehow. But I meant it when I said I'm going to need you. Those results from ballistics… Alexis still thinks I'm coming home for dinner."
Worried, apologetic, adorable, and then he has to mention concern for his daughter… Damn the man. So much for letting him stew.
"Of course I believe you, Castle. Your story makes no sense, but the thought of you as a murderer makes even less." She sighed. "I'm still furious at you, and I can't speak for the rest of the team, but I believe you."
"I was going to come back, you know."
"What, in time for Christmas?"
"Soon. I wasn't… Ready yet."
"Whatever that means."
"I'm back now."
"Yeah, you are. At least until bail is set." She rose to leave.
"What is it, Castle?" (Yes, there was that grin again. Even possible murder charges couldn't keep it down for long.)
"You know this is going in the next book."
She paused at the door, one hand on the knob. Damn the man!
"It's good to see you, Castle."
"You too, Detective."