This one is for Castlereader, who definitely earned it.

A/N: This chapter turned out to be a really weird mix of easy and hard to write. I've had the last three sections and the first two written for almost two months. Heck, I've had the last three sections written since before I finished chapter 19. It's all the stuff in the middle I just couldn't quite seem to get a handle on. I'm still not sure if I'm happy with it, but I guess we'll just have to see what you all think. Reviews would be awesome; just sayin'.

Disclaimer: Not my world, just my words.

My God, it takes an ocean of trust
Takes an effort, it does
My God, it takes an ocean of trust
It's in the Kingdom of Rust...
- Doves, Kingdom of Rust

Christ, this guy gives him a chill. Yeah, he's cuffed, and they're safe in the box with a table between them and him, but it's taking a lot more effort than normal for Castle to maintain a nonchalant, confident facade. Because a facade is all it is; Thomas Gage just flat gives him the creeps. He's got to be the scariest perp they've had in here since Marcus Gates. Or maybe Roland D'Andre.

Castle can feel his hands sweating, flexes them briefly and puts them under the table to wipe them discreetly on his pants legs, before returning them, folded, to the table in front of him.

"Everything that you have on me, or you think you have? It's all going away. And we're done here."

For the first time ever, he feels like warning LT to be careful as they pass him on their way out of the box. Wants to tell him not to give this guy even a fraction of an opportunity to pull anything on the way to holding.

He knows LT too well to do it, though, fears it might be taken as questioning the man's professionalism. He knows LT is always, always careful. Why else would he have entrusted Kate's safety to the man in the hospital?

So he grits his teeth and holds his tongue until they get into the observation room.

It doesn't really hit him until later that night, when the station has been locked down and they're stuck upstairs, resisting the urge to drink just one more coffee.

His daughter was right there. She could have run into whoever took the body from the morgue.

The thought almost makes his blood freeze in his veins. He clenches his fists and forces himself to breathe through it, breathe through the incipient panic. She's OK, his little girl is OK. Lanie said she left for home almost an hour before the lockdown.

He resists the urge to call her, check up. Not cool dad behavior.

Instead, he steps out to the stairwell and takes out the burner. If he's stuck here with no web access, he can at least get a verbal update from Pierce, something to distract him from imagining worst-case scenarios involving his only child.

The only word from Holt in the past two weeks came four days ago, a simple email notification that he had returned to the country and work was in progress. But Pierce has been busier, and information has been incoming from several fronts.

"Pierce here."

"Hey, it's me."

"Rick! Damn, I'm glad you called. Where are you?"

"I'm at the 12th. Place is locked down right now..."

"What? Locked down? Why?"

"We had an escape earlier today, and nobody is allowed in or out until they've cleared the building. Why, what's up?"

"We're in business, that's what's up. Your guy planted the first set. We just started getting data from transmitter number two, about an hour and a half ago."

"Anything useful, yet?"

"No, just some random noise and chatter, including what sounds like someone running a vacuum cleaner. No phone or computer traffic at all, yet; just ambient. I haven't even figured out whose house or office it's coming from. Which reminds me..."


"I need some way to get information to and from this guy more directly. We need a little better coordination on this, and if we have to go through you, wires could get crossed. I've set up a separate throwaway address specifically for him to contact me. Can you get it to him?"

"Of course. I'll ask him to set up a separate secure channel for you, too. I can get you his public encryption key, unless he decides to use a different one for his communications with you."

"Good. So, that covers that. Next item: I think we've now tracked down pretty much everyone who worked at Sterling in the early 90s. All but one of the leads we've gotten have panned out nicely; there's one guy who's now dead."

As Pierce probably expected, Rick has to ask: "Anything suspicious about the death?"

"No, he died of natural causes, 'after a prolonged illness,' as they often say in the obits. I double-checked, just to be sure. It was ALS."

"Lou Gehrig's disease?"

"Yep. Most people who get it don't last more than 4 or 5 years. This guy apparently held on for almost 8."

"He must have been a real fighter."

"Yeah." They both pause for a moment, before Pierce continues, "We need to start thinking about how we're going to, well, exploit those contacts."

"I don't really want to move on it until we have strong reason to believe that Gossard is our guy. If he bought someone at Sterling, they may have stayed bought."

"And, if we start sniffing around, they may panic and warn him."

"Yes. We could tip our hand if we pursue that too soon." Castle looks back at the door to the stairwell. He's been gone a while. Someone may come looking for him soon. "OK, anything else?"

"No, still digging into Phaedra, Arantis, and Suada; nothing to report on yet."

"All right, then, I need to get back to the team here before someone comes looking for me. I'll call or email once I get home."

It doesn't make sense! He pulls furiously on the pistol but somehow it's jammed, hooked on something, which doesn't make sense. She carries a Glock; there's no exposed hammer, nothing to hook on, how can it be snagged?

He twists his hand back and forth, yanking harder and harder to free the gun from under the seat, desperately squelching the rising panic. Beckett's forward from him in the car, it's filling fast and she may already be under water.

He glances upward, sees a shimmery, mirror-like reflection of light from the flashlight off the underside of an air pocket near the back window.

Oh, God. She's under.

The thought fills him with an almost berserker-like burst of fury - NOT LIKE THIS, NOT LIKE THIS - he whips his arm viciously left and right and feels something give, and suddenly, miraculously, the gun comes free.

He feels forward, catches her hand (limp, ohgodohgodohgod, she's not moving) and then reaches down, finds the the buckle mechanism, the belt just above it, jams the muzzle right up against the belt and pulls the trigger. He feels the belt jerk but not give way, feels the hole left by the bullet and jams the muzzle against the remaining scrap of belt, pulls the trigger again.

The belt snaps and pulls loose from his grip, and he immediately reaches forward and up, grabs her by the shoulder; she floats loose from her seat, limp (not moving not moving not moving) and he circles his arm around her waist and pulls her back through the gap between the front seats into the back seat.

He grabs her by the back of her head, gripping her hair panic-tight and pushing her face up and into the air pocket, hoping against hope that she might draw a breath or two, even as he noses forward into the pocket himself. There are about 5 inches worth of air left; he takes several fast breaths, knowing it's going to be a hard swim to the surface.

Harder still, having to drag her up with him. He takes a fast look, and her face is slack and pale, unconscious, not breathing. He rips his sodden coat loose, the only dead weight he can drop quickly, discarding the $2000 garment without a thought. Then he takes a desperate grip on Kate's belt, pulls back from the window, and starts firing. It takes four rounds before the window blows out, the last of the air leaving the car and sucking them both out with it.

He holds tight to her belt as the current whips them violently upward and out, jams the Glock into his belt and then uses his now-free hand to grip her by the collar, starts stroking hard toward the surface. Thank God it's light enough that he can see the surface, far above them but he knows he's going in the right direction.

He can see the last bubbles of air from the car rising past, confirmation that he's going the right way. The surface is so far, infinitely distant and he can feel his lungs straining already, adrenaline and exertion burning up oxygen in his system rapidly.

He ignores the fierce pain in his lungs and continues kicking upward, upward, upward. All his strength is brought to bear on two imperatives: reach the surface and don't let go of Kate. His vision starts to tunnel and he thinks for one terrifying moment that he won't be able to make it, the weakness of his body will betray him, betray them, and he grips her collar even tighter; if it's a choice between the surface and her, he chooses her, will always choose her.

Then they burst through into the open air, he blows out stale air and drags in oxygen, sweet breath of life, one breath, two, three, and the world comes back into focus again.

He rolls Kate's head and neck up and onto his shoulder as he continues to kick furiously, keeping them both afloat and getting her face above water. She doesn't breathe, doesn't stir, and he wonders how much water she's sucked into her lungs already.

He knows that time is of the essence, every second without oxygen increases the risk, and with that thought he turns toward her, pinches her nose shut and blows two hard breaths into her mouth, then a third. He can feel the air going in, down her lungs, so he knows she hasn't filled them with water.

He blows in a fourth breath before looking around and spotting the pier, a pier, anyway, only 20 or 30 yards away, and he takes a grip on her hair at the crown of her head and starts sidestroking powerfully toward it, looking backward with each stroke to be sure he's keeping her face clear of the water. The current of the river isn't strong here, they won't be swept past the pier, but he swims like a maniac anyway.

His arms are screaming and even his legs are starting to tire when he takes one last stroke and slams into one of the pilings, moving faster than he thought; he loops his free hand around the wood, gripping hard and bringing Beckett up against him. He loops a leg around the piling as well, frees his hand to grip her again, pinching her nose shut and blowing several more breaths into her.

The piling upstream of him has a series of hand-holds drilled into it that he could use to haul himself upward, but only if he didn't have an unconscious partner to deal with as well. He casts about quickly, spots another small dock, low to the water, about another 20 yards downstream. He might be able to just climb up onto that one, haul Beckett up behind him.

He blows several more breaths into her, then shakes himself loose of the piling and starts swimming frantically toward the low dock. He reaches it in less than a minute, flails up with his hand and grabs hold. Looking underneath, he can see a ladder on the far side of the dock and immediately starts hauling himself and Beckett around, kicking hard and pulling himself along by hand.

He can't remember ever feeling more relieved than he does when he grabs hold of the first rung and feels it solid and unyielding in his grip. Three more hard breaths into his partner and he starts climbing. He rolls up and over onto the dock, one hand dangling over the edge to hold onto Beckett's collar, her body still three-quarters submerged. He struggles up to his knees, gets a grip on her collar with his other hand and hauls her bodily up and onto the dock.

He's on her in a flash, feeling her neck for a pulse, his ear against her chest. Her heart is still beating, miraculous; nicked by a bullet less than a year ago and still it beats. She has the heart of an ox, the heart of a Titan.

He gets her flat on her back and starts blowing air into her lungs in earnest. He has to force himself to count, remembering eight to ten breaths per minute, six to eight seconds between breaths.

After about 20 breaths, he pulls back and checks his pockets for his phone, her pockets for hers, finds nothing. He shouts for help, prays that someone nearby will hear him; he gets into a rhythm: three breaths, call for help; three breaths, call for help.

He's been at it for five minutes when he hears someone calling down from the dock above. "Hello? Is someone there?"

Thank God, thank you God.

"We need help down here! Call 911, I've got a police officer down, tell them we've got a drowning victim!"

"Got it, hang on, calling now!"

He immediately goes back to work, blowing air into her with renewed vigor.

"Good news, buddy, they're on the way, they said about 10 minutes!" He can hear footsteps retreating and starts to panic.

"Where are you going!?"

"Coming down to help, don't lose it, I'll be down there in just a minute."

He forces himself to calm down, checks her again for a pulse, finds her heart still beating. He goes back to breathing for her, praying for a response, any response.

He hears their savior approaching, heavy boots clomping along the dock at a jogging pace, and he's about to raise his head to look when Beckett suddenly convulses under his hands, her head snapping up and catching him squarely in the mouth.

He rears backward reflexively before reaching forward and gripping her by the shoulders, rolling her onto her side as she starts coughing and choking, river water flowing out of her mouth onto the worn ancient boards of the dock. She thrashes frantically and he almost loses his grip before another pair of hands land on her waist and hips, holding her down.

"Holy shit, caught a marlin once, thrashed just like this when we pulled it into the boat."

Castle gets the image in his head, the big fish superimposed over Beckett; he feels a sudden hysterical urge to laugh at the thought, feels the urge die just as quickly when her eyes snap open and she reaches out for him blindly, her hands gripping in his shirt, her nails digging into his skin. The pain is incredible, galvanizing; he grabs her wrists and pulls her hands loose, holds her by the wrists as she convulses again, one last series of horrible, hacking coughs bringing up the last of the water.

Then she's gasping, hauling in huge panicked breaths on her own, punctuated by more coughing, and her entire body starts shivering violently as she curls onto her side. She reaches out to him again, her hand scrabbling along his leg until he catches it in both of his and holds on tight.

"You're OK, Kate, you're OK. Help is on the way, just breathe, keep breathing."

"Castle... Castle..." Her eyes find his and he sees something in them he immediately wants to forget, some terrible knowledge that he doesn't want to hold. "Castle..."

"Just breathe, Kate, save your strength and breathe."

He looks again and it's her, thank God, it's just her, cold and afraid but alive and Kate again. He pulls her into his arms and tries to give her his warmth, the sound of distant sirens reaching his ears.

She sits alone in her living room, nursing her second glass of scotch, the remains of the Chinese takeout cold on the table already.

She just wants to be able to shut her brain down, get some badly needed sleep before the coming day, and forget how she closed out this one.

How she's been a colossal, idiotic, immature bitch.

The entire second half of her day has felt like one long out-of-body experience, hovering apart from herself and watching in bewildered horror as she sniped and snapped and abused the man who just saved her life.

What... the... FUCK?

She swears Sophia knew what she was doing, that those final words were directed as much at her as at Castle, slipping a knife between her ribs and twisting.

Yes, I was there first. I was his muse before you, I took him into my bed, I made him a notch on my lipstick case.

She wasn't even out of college when Sophia was putting her brand on Castle, the man she...

Shit. She can't even say it in her own head. Curses herself for a coward for the thousandth time.

She grabs the bottle, pours another healthy dose into the glass.

She thinks about running a bath, but that just brings a flurry of images, of wine and candles and a (his) book and it's all she can do not to hurl the glass across the room at the thought that Sophia has ruined that, even that.

So instead she swallows down the last of the scotch, hot and harsh in her throat, spins the glass across the table until it clinks against the bottle. She hauls herself to her feet and trudges down the hall, unbuttoning her shirt as she goes.

She knows she's just going to toss and turn most of the night, but she's too tired to put it off any longer.

She has to make it up to him somehow, but she has no idea how.

It happens so fast; he's just starting to get that something isn't right feeling and suddenly everything flips upside-down. Sophia with her sidearm out, Agent Corrigan plucking Kate's Glock out of her hands, giving him a weapon to hold on each of them. He gauges the distance to the man, realizes there's no way he can reach him quickly enough.

Then they catch a break; she sends Corrigan after the girl. That leaves one person and one weapon to deal with. His mind races, but he can barely wrap his head around it, can't believe it's happening; Sophia Turner?

Then Sophia trains her weapon on Beckett, and he can almost see the switches flipping in her mind, dismissing him as a threat, focusing on Kate. He feels a mantle of coldness settle over him, like snow on his shoulders and back. The adrenaline is fizzing in his blood and his brain starts revving up, thoughts moving quickly. He remembers that, just like Scott Dunn, Sophia's weakness is pride; it's not enough that she's smart, she wants you to know it.

Keep her talking.

"It was you this whole time?"

"I'm afraid so." Oh, yes, there it is: the smarmy condescension. Always the smartest person in the room, eh, Sophia?

"Then why bring us here? Why not just leave us at the facility?"

She looks at him like he's dense, like she can't believe he doesn't understand; she shifts her aim to him. "Because you just... don't... stop. You need to know the story, the whole story. If something doesn't add up you just don't let go." She shakes her head. "Why do you think I brought you inside? I was protecting the op!"

Beckett speaks then, contempt heavy in her voice. "Like you were trying to protect the operation when you killed Blakely and McGrath?" She shifts slightly, widening her stance a touch.

He feels a burst of panic. Don't try it, Kate. She's too far away. He speaks quickly, trying to get Sophia's focus back on him, the first thing that comes into his head. "You set up Gage."

"For the linchpin to work, the Chinese have to blame the US government. The operation has to trace back to the CIA."

"And when you needed to cover your tracks, you killed them. So then you needed someone else. You needed Danberg." It all comes together, the picture - the story - now clear. "Sophia. World War III? Why?"

"Let's just say there are certain parties who will pay anything to reshape the world."

She moves around behind them, giving Beckett a prudent berth, her weapon never wavering from the detective.

"I don't buy it. The Sophia I know wouldn't sell out her country. Not for money, not for anything."

She laughs, hollow and vicious and cold. "Well, that's one thing you got wrong, Rick. Это не моей стране; никогда не было!"

"On your knees, both of you." She moves in close to Beckett, kicks her in the back of the left knee to drop her, training the gun on her back as she falls.

Rick sees the gun pointing at Kate and the fury finally boils over inside at this traitorous bitch, fury at yet another betrayal, another threat to the woman he loves.

He turns to face Sophia, raises his hands and takes a step toward her. "Go to hell. You want to shoot me, you look me in the eye and do it."

Her eyes narrow as she regards him, incredulous, "You don't think I'll do it?" She levels the gun at his chest. "I know you're not that stupid, so I guess it's just your usual foolhardy courage." She sneers, sneers at him. "Your father would be so proud."

He mentally stumbles for a fraction of a second before he steels himself, hammers the emotion down. Bullshit mind game. He calls upon every last shred of his inner Martha Rodgers and drops his mouth open, lets his eyes widen in shock. "My father?" Come on, Sophia, you started the game, let's see you finish it.

"You don't think you got that kind of access to the CIA with nothing but your charm, do you?"

He edges a few more inches toward her, drawing her attention away from his creeping feet and toward his face by slumping his shoulders and turning his head down and to the side, furrowing his brows as if considering what she's told him, then turning his face back up to hers with a bewildered expression. Just a few more inches...

She gives him a cold smile, cocks her head as if she's just been granted a minor revelation. "You really don't know, do you?" She chuckles grimly and spits out "I guess you never will" as she raises the gun to his face, steps forward and extends her arm.

Thanks, BITCH.

He ducks his head to the left, so hard and fast that his vertebrae pop; his hands blur inward and he catches her gun hand with his left, slams her brutally on the forearm just above the wrist with his right, feeling one of the bones in her forearm snap. The gun goes off, bullet flying wild over his right shoulder.

Kate screams "NO!" and lurches upward, but before she even gains her feet, it's over; he yanks Sophia toward him by her now-broken arm, and the gun drops from her nerveless hand. Her shriek of agony is cut short as he lunges in and to the left, his right hand comes up and over, and he clotheslines her viciously with his right forearm. She drops like a sack of meal, overtaking the gun in her fall to the concrete floor, slamming flat on her back. Out cold - or possibly dead.

His right ear is ringing from the gunshot; he drops to one knee and scoops up the weapon, quickly reverses grip on it and points it at Sophia. No, not dead, her chest continues to rise and fall.

"Cuff her, Beckett." He looks up, sees Kate gawping at him, open-mouthed with shock. "Damn it, Beckett, snap out of it and cuff her. We have to stop Corrigan!"

"Christ, it really was Sophia." They both startle at the voice, Castle whipping up the pistol to point at the new arrival, barely a hairsbreadth from squeezing off a round at him before he recognizes Danberg. The man's eyes widen and he recoils, his gun hand up and his empty hand open toward them, shouts "Whoa! I come in peace!"

The cavalry arrives?

Beckett shakes off her paralysis, quickly draws out her cuffs, then stoops down and rolls Sophia onto her stomach. She pulls the woman's hands behind her and snaps on the cuffs, cinching them solid, but not too tight. Her right wrist is already starting to swell up alarmingly, and she wonders absently if the broken bone may have opened an artery inside. She can't bring herself to care.

When she stands and turns toward Castle, he's already holding the pistol out to her, grip first. "Take it. Let's go."

Danberg moves toward the exit through which Agent Corrigan disappeared. "Come on, come on, we're all out of time!"

She draws out her phone as they move, calls Espo and tells him to send a bus to her current location. When he tries to draw her out, she cuts him off, "Just GPS my phone, Espo," and drops it into her pocket.

How could he have forgotten how fast she is? Despite all the training, the cardio and running, he just can't keep up. She runs like a damn deer. Even Danberg is starting to fall behind.

They both manage to make up the distance when she hits the stairway door, and the three of them turn right, together, into a hallway. The sounds echoing down the hall suggest they've reached the lobby area.

They exit the hallway, turning right again, and there he is: Agent Corrigan, moving away from them toward the main entryway. The purpose in his stride makes it obvious he has acquired his target. He sees the agent drawing his weapon and tries to force more speed into his limbs.

Astonishingly, Beckett puts on a burst of even greater speed, pulling away from them as Corrigan stops and raises the weapon.

He never sees her coming, too focused on making the shot to spare any awareness for anything else.

She is running full-tilt when she slams into him, hitting him high on his right side and going down on top of him.

Danberg is only a few steps behind and before Castle can even blink, he is down on top of Corrigan as well, yanking his free left arm into a hammerlock and helping Kate haul him to his feet.

Castle scans the hallway wildly, spots the young girl in white with her mother's arm around her shoulders, not a dozen paces away; the woman is looking over her shoulder, curious but apparently unconcerned. After a mere second or two, they both turn away and follow the rest of their entourage down the hall. Alive and unharmed.

Disaster averted. He wants to find a bathroom and puke.

They've been driving for 10 minutes in a pregnant silence when Castle finally speaks. "What did she say?"

She spares him only a quick glance; traffic is tight and she's still shaky with residual adrenaline, doesn't want to risk an accident. What did she say? She's having trouble tracking; somehow she lost the context. "What? When?"

"Soph - the traitress. Whatever her real name is. You speak Russian; what did she say?"

She can't remember the last time he sounded like this, so bewildered and lost. Was it after Tyson escaped, leaving him alive to stew in his own failure? No, not even then. "She said..."

But then she can't continue. The light ahead turns yellow, and she could make it but chooses to stop instead. She takes the opportunity to look more closely, and it's there, all over his face: how it eats him. The crowning, epic misjudgment in a lifetime of misjudgments.

He gazes back at her, sees the hesitance. "It's OK, Beckett." He gives her a wry smile. "I've already hit bottom; can't hurt me any more."

He loves me. I can never, ever forget that.

And maybe he once loved Sophia, maybe he didn't; but if he did, what did it get him? It almost... wrecks her; she could just weep for him, and somehow he finds a smile for her. He can always find a smile for her, even when she doesn't deserve it. Especially when she doesn't deserve it. She swallows, finds some reserve of emotional control and manages to keep her voice steady. "Sophia said: 'This isn't my country; it never was.'"

He loves me. Oh, God, please don't let that be another mistake.

She watches the muscles in his jaw flex, the hard swallow as he chokes down some horrible emotion. He turns his head forward, looks out the windshield. I guess you were wrong, Rick. Still some pain left in that well.

After a few seconds, he speaks again. "I try to imagine the level of... duplicity that would take. To live in that lie, 24x7, year in and year out. To never develop an iota of loyalty to your adopted country, even after your own country had ceased to exist; even after 20 years, she never..." He shakes his head. "The mind just... quails."

She reaches out, touches his arm; it's all she can trust herself to do. She wants to just pull over, fold him into her arms. But she's afraid that if she does that now, she'll never be able to let go. Instead she sighs, tells him, "Sociopathy isn't a mindset you want to try to understand, Castle."

"Oh no, Beckett; no no no. She's not a sociopath. Sociopaths would make terrible agents because they have absolutely no loyalty, none; the concept is entirely alien to them, and they are out for number one, first, last and always." He looks back at her. "It almost might be better if she was, though."

"How is that?" The light changes and she has to turn her attention forward again, checking 10 and 2, pulling through the intersection.

He turns his head away from her, stares vacantly out the front windshield. "Because, Beckett, the alternative is hatred: a hatred so intense that I can barely conceive of it. She hated this country so much that even after her own country had been dead 20 years, she was willing to lie and conspire and murder to destroy it."

He snorts derisively, and she sees him trying to smile again but failing, which means the derision is directed at himself. "And I never had a clue. Almost a year following her around, studying her, even sleeping with her at the end, and I had no idea anything was wrong. And it almost got us both killed. I almost got you killed. Again."

Oh, fuck. That does it. She flips on the gumball, hits the gas and speeds down the street, looking for a space, a loading zone, anything.

"Beckett, what are you -"

"You SHUT UP!" She bellows at him, desperately covering the sorrow and shame and heartbreak with anger.

He blinks at that and clams right up; that tone brooks no argument.

She spots a space 50 yards up, changes lanes with barely a glance over her shoulder. Ten seconds later, they're parked; she switches off the lights, kills the engine. Then she just has to sit for a moment, compose herself, not looking at him.

"Don't you do that, Castle. Don't you DARE." She grits her teeth and grips the wheel, the tendons in her wrists like cables under the skin. "The entire CIA was clueless, Castle. For more than 20 years she fooled them all, even with background checks and drug screens and regular fucking polygraph tests, she fooled them. Compared to them, you barely knew her, Castle. She put up the same front for you that she did for all of them."

To his credit, he takes it; she can see him out of the corner of her eye, watching her, taking it in.

"You're good, Castle, but you're not that good. Nobody is that good." She breathes in, breathes out; feels her pulse starting to drop back toward normal. She thinks, distantly, that dumping this much adrenaline into your system in the space of a few hours can't be good for you.

"You didn't almost get me killed, Castle. Sophia almost killed me. What you did was save my life, twice in three days. Hell, if Blakely was right, you saved us all." Breathe in, breath out. Finally, she feels like she has herself under control well enough to look at him again. "Also, what is this 'again' shit, Rick?"

His mouth opens, and she can actually see him making the decision to censor himself, his mouth snapping shut again. He shrugs, morose and contrite and a little bit petulant.

Oh no, buddy. You don't get to drop that bombshell and then shrug it off. "Start talking, Castle. Start talking, or I swear to God I will get Kevin and Javi to drag you down to the polygraph lab and strap your sorry ass in, and then you can talk."

Now it's his turn to look away. "How many times have we cheated the guy with the scythe since I walked into the 12th, Beckett?"

"So many that I've lost count. But they were all in the line of duty, Castle. You didn't drag me into anything. I'm a big girl and I make my own decisions." She reaches out, grabs his lapel and gives him a brisk shake. "I want you to drop that garbage! You're my partner, and I refuse to let you drag that weight around!"

"Even..." He trails off, doesn't continue.

"Even what? My mother's case?" What is it with him and that case these days? He's like a first-year at Hogwarts, trying to talk around the subject of he-who-must-not-be-named, or something. Ever since she came back to the precinct... "Do you... do you think I still blame you for that? That I hold it against you in any way? Were you not there after I shot Coonan? Because I remember you being there, and I never thought I'd have to repeat myself."

"I know, but still... I'm the one who dug it up, got the ball rolling."

"Bullshit. I put it right back down again, Castle; I didn't touch it until the Coonan case. And I forgave you. You came into the precinct that night with your hat in your hand and you apologized, and I forgave you. That's an end to it." She looks back out the windshield, returns her hands to the wheel just to give them something to do. Something other than touching him.

Because, oh, does she want to touch him. Touch and hold and... taste... and all those things she only lets herself think about at night when she's alone in the dark. She can't go down that road now, too soon, still too... She'll screw it up, she knows she will, there's way too much at stake and she'll panic, she'll freak out and fuck things up.

She closes her eyes, just a few seconds, and sees the vision that's always lurking there, brilliant sunlight and his eyes (oh his eyes) blue against a clear spring sky, and his voice whispering to her as darkness descends. She feels it all drain out of her then, the sadness and fury both, leaving her calm, purged. "I've always wondered..."

"Wondered what?"

"What prompted that. The simple apology. You spent all that time calling and texting and sweet-talking me, and it was all about justifying yourself. Never once did you actually say you were sorry. I... decided that you just didn't have it in you. And then you surprised me. Why did you come back and do it that night?"

"It was something Alexis said." When he doesn't continue, she gives him the look and raises her eyebrows, motions for him to go on.

"She had a fight with her boyfriend; he screwed up, forgot about their date, and they went back-and-forth over it. She asked me why boys were like that. Why they always had to argue and justify themselves, and why couldn't they just say they're sorry?" A reluctant, lopsided half-grin appears. "And it hit me that I had almost two and a half decades on Owen but I was doing the exact same thing. It was a sobering mirror to look into. You may have noticed I have a problem with ego and pride, Beckett."

She just snorts and nods.

"I couldn't just swallow it and own up to what I'd done, how I'd hurt you. I didn't want to leave the precinct. I didn't want to lose what I had with you and the boys, the feeling of purpose, the rush of solving cases, any of it. But most of all, I didn't want you to think I didn't care that I'd hurt you. Even if I was still out on my ass, I didn't want you... out there somewhere, believing that about me. So... apology."

"OK. Thanks. And it wasn't you that got the ball rolling again, Castle. Again, for the cheap seats: it was the Coonan case. You don't have any reason to blame yourself, and I want... you... to... stop. We've got enough baggage without that in the mix." She starts the car, checks over her shoulder and pulls back into traffic.

He's quiet for a few seconds, digesting it. "All right."

"You promise? I was serious about the poly, you know."

"Wouldn't doubt you for a second. And yes, I promise; pinky-swear, in fact." He holds his hand out to her, little finger extended; she rolls her eyes and links hers with his briefly, and he smiles at her, the first real smile in days. She's honest enough with herself (even if not with him) to know that that's on her.

She's the one who let stupid, petty jealousy get the best of her, let herself be angry with him, and why? Because she wasn't his first? Because he didn't... save himself for her? What is she, 15? But that's a talk (and an apology) for another day; they've had enough drama for today.

She smiles back, nods. "All right, then. We're good?"

"We're good."

They drive on toward the 12th in silence for a few minutes; Castle keeps his eyes turned out the window, but he looks... lighter. She's glad, and she wonders if he's already back to doing his people-watching thing. She catches him doing it constantly; by now she can almost hear the wheels turning when he's doing it, his boundless imagination running amok, spinning tales about the passers-by. She smiles, then clears her throat. "Just for the record, though..."

He turns back to her, eyes intent and curious. "For the record, what?"

"You almost had me with the pony."