In Spite Of All The Damage
A note before we start: This was written for a challenge over at livejournal at undermistletoe. I signed up for the non-holiday cliche day and wrote a "trapped together" story.
It starts because Castle pokes his nose somewhere it doesn't belong. (Of course it does.) He's trying Beckett's patience lately, in a way that is both annoying and endearing, which makes it even more annoying.
They're searching their victim's house in upstate New York, a farmhouse ("with cows!" he had exclaimed) on an isolated property with a large, damp basement. A basement which she told him, expressly, not to wander off into since she was the one with the gun, and while the place appeared to be deserted, there was a protocol to be followed with these things. He ignores her of course, something has caught his attention and he's busy spinning a story in his head.
It takes her a few moments, her observations are going unanswered so she calls his name, twice, before she realises - she's alone in the living room/kitchen and the basement door is ajar. She calls his name a third time, in a tone that suggests it might as well be a curse word.
She follows him down the stairs, heeled boots announcing her presence, and finds him standing in front of a pile of, well, best she can tell, junk. She is incredibly unamused.
He grins at her, like he's found something important, and is about to inform her of the fact of his discovery when, apparently without cause, the door slams shut.
He closes his mouth.
They both turn to stare up the staircase.
Beckett has a sudden feeling of dread, but shakes it off - it's silly, and they might as well have take a look around now that he's lured her down here.
He's found some personal correspondence, he tells her eagerly. The victim had clearly thought better of tossing the letters between him and his ex-wife. "She was not particularly a fan," he says, with far too much glee.
"Mmm," Beckett looks over the letters, some of which detail fairly violent threats. "Ryan and Esposito are still checking out her alibi, so we'll see what they turn up."
"I'm just surprised they still bothered to send each other snail mail," he muses, "In this day and age."
She rolls her eyes and uses her flashlight to search the darker corners of the room, but turns up nothing of consequence. There is a lot of old sporting equipment, books that have never been taken out boxes after a move, a couple of broken appliances and outdated technologies - a cassette player and a VCR - the usual kind of thing found in basements. There is also a lot of dust. She wrinkles her nose at the grime on the pads of her fingers as she opens a box to reveal long-ago forgotten Christmas decorations.
"I don't think there's anything else here," she observes, "Might as well check out the rest of the house."
Castle agrees, making an off-colour remark about the box of porn videos he uncovered and follows her up the stairs. She can feel him staring at her, and can almost sense the Nikki Heat analogy he's gearing up for. "Whatever you're thinking," she warns, without glancing backward, "About the titles you just read, Nikki Heat and my ass, you'd better stop."
"How did you know?" he sounds truly wounded, but when she turns to glare at him he's grinning like nobody's business. She doesn't verbalise her response. Idiot.
When they reach the top stair, Beckett tries the door, surprised when the knob doesn't turn. She tries again, with more force, giving it a subtle hint with the tip of her boot.
"What's wrong?" Castle asks.
"It's locked." She makes a fist and pounds, mostly to vent her frustration.
"Let me try," he demands.
"Fine," she steps aside, watches him struggle for a few seconds before giving up and manages a small smile in her triumph.
"It's locked," he echoes her earlier statement, defeated.
A beat passes before he regains some of his usual wit.
"If this is some ploy to get me alone, all you had to was ask," he jibes.
She narrows her eyes, "I never doubted it for a second."
He gulps and whips out the phone that, as far as she can tell, does every thing except make his coffee in the morning, "Great. No cell reception."
She feels around in her back pocket and retrieves her own cell phone, but is unsurprised to find herself in the same dilemma.
"Well," he almost-squeaks, "Eventually Ryan and Esposito will think it's strange we've disappeared."
She raises an eyebrow, "Do I detect a hint of panic?"
"Not a huge fan of dark, dank, underground basements that lock from the outside," he defends himself, "I don't know about you, but that screams "torture den" of a serial killer to me. Just think," he does a fairly comical dance, shuffling from one foot to the other in an attempt to avoid the ground, "We could be standing on hundreds of decomposing bodies of attractive blonde nurses just shy of 30."
She must look perplexed. "They remind him of his mother," he adds, to clarify.
"Firstly," she counters, "We are so far from civilisation or a hospital, that nurses seem unlikely. And secondly," she raised a hand to silence his rebuttal, "Hundreds? That is, statistically speaking, an incredibly active serial killer."
"All the more reason to assume he's coming back for us," he declares.
"Not to mention the fact that our victim is the owner of this house, so your supposed serial killer is lying on Lanie's slab back in the city," she says, "Don't worry, I think we're safe. And," she grins and bumps a fist against his shoulder, "If you're a good boy I won't tell Ryan and Esposito how scared you were when I couldn't open that door."
She turns and makes her way down to the storage space, "Come on," she calls, "Stop sulking and help me look for something to get us out."
"Maybe the serial killer-slash-our victim was an axe murderer," his face lights up and he bounds (sometimes he really does remind her of a little kid) down the stairs to assist in her search.
40 minutes later and they've inventoried the room, but found little to help with the predicament. Castle is amusing himself with a box of ping pong balls and Beckett is starting to feel like the high-pitched tap-tap-tap as they bounce off the wall and onto the cement is the loudest sound she's ever heard.
"Castle," she finally hisses.
"What?" he throws a ball up into the air and catches it.
She glares at it pointedly.
"So, let's hear it," she sighs, sinking down onto the bottom step next to him.
"Your brilliant theory. I know you're concocting one, you've been staring off into the distance and fidgeting for half an hour."
"I was just thinking about how it's sad that Nikki Heat's last moments are going to be in the basement lair of a dead serial killer. How, in five years, when his son finally gets around to selling the house he inherited, he'll come down and make the gruesome discovery - two skeletons, lying in a final embrace," he trails off at her eye roll, "Or maybe the male skeleton shows non-conclusive evidence of being strangled to death by his charming companion," he smiles sweetly and she tries not to laugh. "Either way, the son discovers the bodies, and in the process of removing them, the victims of the serial killer are uncovered. I feel like that would make a poignant ending - the families of the serial killer's victims get much needed closure, but the focus is on the son, who's image of his father is shattered. But I'm not sure it's really how I want Nikki to meet her end. Or how I want to meet mine for that matter."
"You're over-reacting," she nudges him, "Ryan and Esposito must realise that we should nearly be back by now, or that I at least would have called to tell them what we found, if we found something that would delay us. They'll be here soon."
"They probably think we don't want to be found."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, you know," he grins, "They probably think we stopped for some quality time."
"Castle, I assure you that if that were ever to happen, which it won't, it would not be in the middle of an active murder investigation."
"I know," the grin fades to a more serious expression, "You know I admire your work, your skills, your professionalism. Don't pretend I don't."
She tries to think of a comeback, something pithy to lighten the mood, but he has a point - she does know all of that - and in the moment she can't think of a single thing to say. Except (she draws a breath), "I know." And after a moment of silence she adds, "Thank you."
"I don't know," she shrugs, "Respecting me."
He leans against her shoulder, "I don't know anyone who wouldn't. They'd have to be an idiot, or crazy, or both." Castle being Castle he can't let a moment just be, and just as she's slipping her eyes closed contented he adds, "Of course I'm right about Ryan and Esposito assuming we're playing hooky to respect each other. I'm pretty sure there's money changing hands there."
"Pretty safe odds it won't happen," she jerks away from him.
"Never is a long time Detective," he says, half-thoughtful, half-playful. Typical. She busies herself looking at her hands.
"So do you still want to hear my theory?" he quickly gets bored with silence.
"You have a theory?"
"Ex-wife's jealous lover," he says, like it's obvious. "I mean, she's mad in those letters but no one wants to do those things to someone they don't love. I think she feels angry that he left her, but she's mostly angry at herself because she still wants him and he won't have her," That hits a nerve she didn't know she had, but she keeps it to herself. Poker face. He continues, blissfully ignorant as he sometimes is when he's carried away telling a good story, "She didn't kill him. But, enter new boyfriend, probably with a dangerous criminal past that she doesn't know about, or does, but thinks she can reform him. He's the jealous type, sees that she still loves her ex-husband and decides to clean things up, end the marriage more permanently."
"Absolutely no evidence whatsoever," Beckett argues, "But I agree with you that the ex-wife didn't do it. Looking at the body, I'd say the murderer was bigger and stronger than our victim, but Lanie should let us know the specifics tomorrow morning."
"If we're not still sitting in a dead guy's basement," he groans.
"You know, if you hadn't run on ahead I wouldn't have rushed down here and maybe we would have thought to prop open the door," she accuses.
"No way," he contends, "No one assumes a normal-looking door locks from the outside. It's a terrible feature - when would it ever be useful outside of a jail or a hidden torture chamber?"
"Castle, this is a guy's basement, plain and simple, we've been through pretty much all the stuff in here. He doesn't even have a regular toolkit. There is absolutely no way this is a hidden torture den."
He looks at her, and shrugs, "Then why the door that locks from the outside? Maybe he was holding someone prisoner."
"Maybe it's an old, faulty lock."
"Maybe it's a ghost!" he sounds particularly thrilled with this latest speculation.
Beckett is sceptical, as usual, and as usual it's written all over her face.
He steers the conversation into what he hopes will be more neutral territory but suspects will just be a different kind of fight, "So, you're coming to my Christmas party right? I mean, everyone else will be there - Lanie, Esposito, Ryan - Ryan's bringing Jenny by the way, so you're welcome to bring Dr McDreamy."
She shrugs, "We'll see."
(She doesn't like to tell him too much about that particular area of her personal life. She especially doesn't think it's time to bring "Dr McDreamy" to what is, ostensibly, the office Christmas party. That might send signals she's not ready to send.)
"Alexis really wants you to come," he plays his ace.
She smiles at the mention of his daughter, "I didn't mean that I wasn't planning on coming. I just meant I don't know if I'll be bringing someone. But thank you, for the invitation."
"Always," he smiles. "So anyway, I've got this great eggnog recipe and the Haunt is all done up, you'll love it. Mistletoe hanging above the bar, too much of it too miss, so I expect to be the cause of some awkward run-ins post-party."
"You take far too much pleasure in the misery of others," she observes, idly.
"Guilty," he holds his hands up in surrender, "But in my defence, at the office Christmas party? I'm really just an enabler."
She desperately wants to wrap up this holiday talk before he starts enquiring after her Christmas plans and ferrets his way into her life even further, slowly but surely wearing her down until she agrees to spend the holiday with him and his daughter watching Christmas movies. Or something. She imagines they do that.
"It's funny isn't it?" he muses, "Christmas is only four weeks away already. Seems like yesterday it was summer."
Possibly her second least desired topic of conversation: the summer when he left the precinct for his real job. Or, more accurately, the summer when he left her in the city for the ex-wife in the Hamptons. It's a rare moment that she'll indulge the latter thought. But they've never really talked about it, save the brief tussles on the Whitman-Santori-McHutchen case. She's never really told him why she cared so much when he didn't call, what she did over the summer, how her life changed far too much for her liking when he took his leave of absence from it. She's not really sure she knows the answers herself.
"You have to come to the Hamptons next summer," he tells her, "It's the perfect escape from summer in the city. Maybe I'll try and get the boys and Lanie to come up for the 4th of July. Anyway, you definitely have to come, stay for a few days. I won't take no for an answer next year," he stops, noting her reaction which she fails to fully suppress, "What's wrong?"
"I would've gone," she says quietly.
"This year, when you asked me," she pauses on the precipice, knowing she'll regret this admission the next morning, when Ryan and Esposito finally realise they're missing, if they haven't already. "I was going to say yes."
His expression changes, his jaw seems tighter. "That's not what you told me."
The room suddenly seems a lot smaller.
"Well," she shuffles her feet a little, "I did some thinking and I changed my mind. And I was going to tell you, at your going away party, but you barely put in an appearance."
"I..." he falters, "I thought that was what you wanted. You asked me, you asked me not to make it awkward between us because you were with Demming, and so I left, because I had to, because I wanted you to be happy, and I couldn't," he swallows and stands, walks away from her, "I couldn't do what you asked of me, not right away."
She stands too, "So you go to the Hamptons with her?"
It sounds a little to accusatory, a little too angry, even to her ears. It's barely quieter than a yell.
"Why does that matter?" he snaps back, "You said no. You were with Demming. Why does it matter who I went anywhere with?"
She takes a breath, answers levelly, "I broke up with Demming, Castle. Before your grand exit. Because I was going to say yes."
She continues, "So, you're right. It doesn't matter who you went anywhere with. It doesn't matter that you're still with her. You're right. I told you what I wanted, you tried to respect that, but," she runs a hand through her hair in frustration, "We have incredibly bad timing. And you weren't a terribly good friend. But that's done. It's in the past. I just don't want to talk about summer or the Hamptons or the holidays."
"Ok," he says, and he steps towards her, places a hand on her arm and squeezes lightly, "I'm sorry, for what it's worth, I didn't mean... I didn't mean to hurt you. I wish," he searches for words for a second, a rare occurrence, "I wish that you had come."
"Maybe it's for the best," she tells him, softly, "That I didn't."
"I don't believe that for a second."
She shrugs, sits back down on the bottom step. He sits next to her, leans into her, "Realistically, how long do you think it'll take Ryan and Esposito to realise we're missing? I'm beginning to worry that Alexis will beat me home and start to worry when I don't answer her calls."
She shrugs, "I don't know Castle, it could be a long night."
As if in answer to her remark, the sole lightbulb dimly lighting the room flickers and dies. In the dark, they both look up and stare at the extinguished light.
"Well," he remarks, "It probably can't get any worse."
"Don't say that."
His tone changes then, and he asks her a question that floors her a little. She's not used to his serious side. It's a lot easier when he's being flippant.
"Do you really think it's a good thing that things happened the way they did?"
"Does it matter?" she sighs, "You're with Gina. And for better or for worse it happened the way it happened."
"Gina and I," he pauses, "Well. We may have broken up."
"Really?" she almost laughs, "You may have?"
"Well. Ok. We did. Or rather she did. With me."
"I'm sorry Castle," she squeezes his knee, fleetingly.
"Something about how between working with you and buying a bar and raising a daughter, I don't have much room in my life for her and how, given that we've tried marriage and failed at it, it was time to move on. She didn't want things to get too serious with me."
"But she's your ex-wife," Beckett sounds incredulous.
"Well, that makes things complicated, it doesn't necessarily make them serious. Besides, she was right. Between you and Alexis and my mother and the bar, there's not a lot of room for a whole lot else."
"Between the cases, you mean," she corrects him, "Not me. The cases."
She thinks she can detect a hint of amusement in his tone. "Yes. Well, McDreamy might have something to say about it otherwise, so I must have meant the cases."
"I don't think you have to worry about him," she says, before she can stop herself, "It's not serious. We both work a lot. Both love our jobs. It's... convenient."
"Well, convenient is good," he tries to rescue it, "For a start."
"It is," she agrees.
They're looking at each other now, in the darkness. And she's leaning toward him, and he reaches for her hand. Her fingers slide through his. He smiles in the dark. She feels herself beginning to blush and is suddenly glad the light went out. He squeezes her hand and leans toward her. She has the strangest sense he's about to kiss her, and the strangest thing about it is that she doesn't mind at all. She almost wants him to. Her eyes close, involuntarily, and she waits.
But there's nothing, except a loud bang which startles them both. She pulls her hand back quickly and jumps up and the same time he does. Ryan and Esposito look down at them from the top of the stairs.
"What are you two doing down there?" Ryan calls.
"Nothing," they answer, too quickly and in unison.
"They sound sheepish," he remarks to Esposito.
"Agreed," Esposito replies.
"Thank God we rescued you," Ryan says as Castle and Beckett emerge from the darkness. "Who do you think would have killed the other for food first?"
Both Castle and Beckett are oddly quiet on the subject.
Ryan comments on it as he and Esposito follow Beckett back to the city. "They didn't seem overjoyed, given that we saved them from certain death."
"We should have left them down there for a bit longer," Esposito glances sideways at Ryan, "If we did, I'm pretty sure you'd owe me twenty bucks."
Ryan rolls his eyes, but when Esposito looks over again his partner is smiling.