Rubber Match – Chapter 20

Castle entered the small confines of the elevator, taking long and deep breaths—slow and steady. He'd learned over the course of the summer that he'd unfortunately developed a minor case of claustrophobia. The therapist he'd seen after getting discharged from the hospital had hypothesized it had to do with the stress of nearly dying. Castle had to admit that it was easier to breathe in open area with lots of windows, where he could see the boundless sky above.

He allowed himself a small smile as he turned around and faced the row of buttons, effortlessly pressing the appropriate button like he'd done so many times over the past three years. Stepping back, he heaved in a deep breath, trying to qualm the butterflies in his stomach. It wasn't like this was a date. Because it wasn't. Originally it was, but going on a date involved actually… well, going out.

Flicking his eyes up to the illuminated numbers above the door, Castle resumed his breathing exercises, mentally picturing Alexis coaching him, like she had many times over the summer. Part of him was worried that being trapped in the small space of the elevator might cause him to go into a panic attack, but he reckoned that since he'd been able to survive the longer up and down elevator trips back at his building, he should have no problem with the precinct elevator… though it did seem to be operating slower today than it normally did.

He had made it through security quite easily. In fact, he'd been immediately waved through by Curt, the desk sergeant, as if he was expected. Castle had been surprised at the warm reception he'd received from the man, even more surprised that he actually remembered his first name, and not just as Sergeant Stevens. After all, it had been a long time since he'd even stepped through the lobby of the 12th Precinct. But, at the same time, it almost felt like he'd never left. In a lot of ways, it was almost like a homecoming, of sorts.

Sighing, Castle shifted the takeout bag in his hand and nervously ran his fingers through his hair, baffled at his rising heart rate, unsure whether it was due to the small space or the anticipation of seeing her again. He closed his eyes, briefly, and gave a shake of his head, trying to calm the amped up energy flowing through his veins.

She had kissed him.

He exhaled softly. Yes. He was positive now. It had been in the hospital, when he had just woke up from surgery, she'd been there. Kate. And… and she'd kissed him… on the lips. And then he'd forgotten, thought it was a delusion conjured up by his drugged induced dreams. Yet, it wasn't a dream. It had been real. She knew that. Knew it all the time. And she'd let him think it was a dream. Kate had run away, which wasn't all too surprising. He wished she'd stayed. Though, in all honesty, part of him was glad she hadn't been around to see him at his worse, when he'd cursed and fumbled and nearly gave up.

It hadn't been pretty for him or his family. He'd scared Alexis often enough with his panic attacks, a burden he desperately wished hadn't had to be forced upon his amazingly wonderful daughter. But she'd handled it was grace and poise, far beyond her years. Castle owed so much to her. Alexis was one of the bright spots in his life, and he was forever grateful for all that she'd done for him during the summer to help him recover.

But now it was time for him to stand on his own. And he was determined to do so and make Alexis proud of him.

Castle desperately wanted to confront Kate about the hospital and the kiss, however, he knew that now was probably not the best time or place, for that matter, to bring it up. Perhaps he could convince her to come by the Loft later, or he could talk her into inviting him over.

He chuckled softly to himself. As if he could talk Kate Beckett into doing something. God knows he'd tried to do that last May, when she was diving blindly into the abyss. He'd failed then. So he wasn't particularly sure of what good his powers of persuasion could do with respect to Beckett and her iron resolve.

The familiar ding of the elevator startled him, a flood of memories stormed through his mind. So many moments had passed between these very walls. Castle was temporarily frozen with the wealth of images and emotions.

"You getting off?"

He blinked, flushed with embarrassment at how the question sounded, not to mention the erotic direction that some of his thoughts had been heading. He flicked his eyes up and saw a man with short-cropped blond hair, his arm draped over the shoulders of a pretty blonde woman. He licked his lips anxiously and glanced up at the lighted numbers above the opening.

"Yeah," he breathed out, stepping off the elevator and backing up to allow the couple to enter. The man paused, and looked at him for a moment with a furrowed brow. The woman rolled her eyes and leaned up to whisper something in his ear. Just before the doors rattled closed, Castle saw recognition flash in the man's eyes as his gaze darted up towards him.

Exhaling slowly, Castle stood rooted in his spot, unsure how to proceed.

"Castle?"

His heart floated up with joy at that voice, and he turned slowly, looking around the bullpen, eager to match up the voice with the woman he knew it belonged to. He felt his breath catch in his throat when he saw her. She was standing by her desk, dress in dark slacks and a deep purple sweater. And she was smiling.

She was gorgeous.

Kate pirouetted in place, leaning down to drop the papers she'd been holding onto her desk. Castle stood there, taking a moment to admire the way her black slacks hugged her backside. He wouldn't put it past her to have specifically worn those pants today for just that reason—to get a rise out of him. Oh, and if he let his thoughts get carried away, she'd definitely get a rise out of him.

Inhaling a quick breath, Castle averted his gaze when she spun back around, the wide beaming smile still gracing her face. He smiled back, stupidly, couldn't help it. He really was smitten with her. Always had been. He'd just never expected just how deeply he'd fall for her. But, then again, things were never easy when it came to Kate Beckett.

Presently, the object of his desire was marching towards him with a purposeful stride. "You're early," she said, a bit teasingly, her tongue quickly flicking out between her teeth for a brief second.

"Proper motivation always does the trick, Detective," he quipped back with a smirk, surprised at how easily his comeback came to him.

Kate smiled at him, her eyes glistening with unsaid emotion. "I'll keep that in mind," she said softly, a slight blush blossoming across her cheeks as she tugged her lower lip under her teeth. "So, what'd you bring me, Castle? I'm starving!"

"Huh?"

"Lunch."

"Oh, yeah, lunch…," he fumbled with the takeout bag, holding it up to show her. "I knew you were thinking Remy's, but since lunch is coming to you today, I figured I'd go with…" and then for the dramatic reveal, "Emperor's Palace!"

"Spring rolls and dumplings?" she asked, eyes lighting up with hope.

"Of course," Castle assured her with a smirk and crinkle of his eyes. "Couldn't forget your favorite side dishes. Also got you vegetable low mein and the kung pao chicken. I even stood by and made sure they put in an extra helping of those little water chestnuts, just the way you like it."

Kate regarded him with soft eyes, so luminous and wonderful. So much was being left unsaid, yet was loud a clear in her eyes. He sighed, wishing he'd have more than just subtle looks and soft smiles.

"Well, lets go to the break room before it gets cold!" she pursed her lips and smiled warmly, gesturing away from her desk.

Castle bobbed his head enthusiastically, and followed her as she swooped past him, leading the way to the break room. He took a moment to look around the bullpen, seeing if Ryan and Esposito were there, but their desks remained empty. He cast a cautious glance up at the captain's office, catching a glimpse of a 50ish man in a shirt and tie, his sleeves rolled up, talking on the phone, looking very disgruntled.

"The new captain," Kate said, noticing his stare. "Bill Blye."

"Blye?" Castle questioned, giving her a mischievous look.

"Yeah, so?" she questioned back, confused, her nose wrinkling adorably.

He let out a low chuckle. "If only there was an officer here named Christian."

Kate stared at him for a moment, baffled as to his meaning. It took her but a second to catch on. A sly smile spread across her face and she shook her head at him. "Actually, that would be kind of funny," she admitted, trying to suppress a light laugh.

"Most definitely," he replied. "Where's Marlon Brando when you need him?"

She laughed, and rolled her eyes. Castle grinned. It almost felt like old times.

"Can't say I haven't contemplated mutiny," Kate murmured, her eyes narrowing in the direction of Captain Blye.

Castle laughed. "Detective Beckett!" he feigned shouting, mimicking the way Trevor Howard had spoken that famous line— Mister Christian!—from 1962's Mutiny on the Bounty. "Well, at least he's not like Hannibal Lecter," he added, making a reference to Sir Anthony Hopkins taking on the role of Captain Bligh in the 1984 version.

"I bet you were the class clown," she asserted, pursing her lips together as she suppressed an amused smirk.

"Yeah, pretty much."

Kate shook her head at him, still smiling. "Alright, clown boy, let's go before someone overhears us and reports us to the teacher," she said teasingly while reaching a hand up to tug him by his coat sleeve until he was moving again.

They entered the break room, and Castle relinquished the takeout bag to Kate as he watched her remove the white cartons and arrange them on the table. He pulled out a chair and sat down, catching a pair of chopsticks when she tossed them towards him, a playful grin gracing her gorgeous features. She sat down right next him without hesitation and grabbed one of the cartons, popping the lid open and diving in with gusto.

"Mmm," she hummed through a full mouth. "So good. You have no idea how much I've missed this."

"What?" he startled, looking at her with mild shock. "Are you saying you haven't had Emperor's Palace since… since last time?" God, he couldn't even remember the last time they shared a lunchtime meal, let alone the last time they'd had Chinese takeout from their mutual favorite restaurant.

"Uh-huh," Kate nodded, dipping her chopsticks into a carton to snag a spring roll. He watched as she slid one end into her mouth and take a bite, wincing slightly at the image… curse his overactive imagination. She knitted her eyebrows at him, giving him a funny look, before smiling and shaking her head, no doubt knowing where his mind had gone. She nudged his leg with her foot under the table. "Get your mind out of the gutter, Castle."

He cleared his throat, and pretended to be interested in staring at an oddly shaped broccoli in the vegetable low mein. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Sure," she drawled out, giving him the look before returning to her meal. "You know, normally I only like having Chinese for dinner… but this isn't bad right now. Actually, this is exactly what I needed."

"Tough case?" Castle asked tentatively, twisting slightly in his chair to gaze at her profile.

She made a low hum in response, snatching up a dumpling with her chopsticks and popping it into her mouth. He watched, mesmerized, as she chewed. A small flash of pink tongue darted out as she licked her top lip before she swallowed. His eyes followed the motion down the column of her throat.

"Feel free to fill me in," Castle offered, finding it oddly important to once again talk shop with her. He had always loved spinning theory with Beckett, and for the moment, he believed it might be easier to tread on familiar ground.

"Okay," Kate shifted in her chair, turning her body towards him. She brought one leg up and tucked it under her as she twisted towards him. He couldn't help but smile. She was really adorable at times. "Peter Beynon, a real estate agent, was killed, execution style—probably after some torture, as well—in an alley behind an erotica store."

"Ooh, I'm liking this already," Castle interjected, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.

Kate smirked. "The boys tried to make up for you not being there," she informed him, then paused, frowning in thought. "They're not as good at it as you are."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

"It wasn't meant as a compliment," Kate answered, giving him a small taste of her famous glare. "What's one of the first things I taught you?"

"Look for the odd sock," he answered immediately.

Kate laughed, all throaty and beautiful. She brought a hand up and brushed her hair back. "Keep going."

"Stay in the car."

"After that."

"Honor the victim," he replied, all hints of humor removed from his voice. "After all, they were all once someone's mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother… And they deserve our respect, no matter how they lived or died."

She gave a nod and said, "Not that I don't appreciate your gallows humor, it definitely made doing this job easier, I still would've liked it if you had… restrained yourself a little more. That being said, you wouldn't be you if you did."

"I understand," he said. "Humor… it has always been a coping mechanism for me."

"I know," Kate replied, her eyes locked with his. A current of electricity past between them, and he knew that she felt it too. He watched as she struggled against it, like she always did. And, just like every other moment, it passed. She averted her gaze and let out a soft sigh, almost like she was disappointed in herself.

"So… Peter Beynon?" Castle spoke up, knowing she needed a way out and back to solid… safer ground.

"Yeah… so Hank and I first questioned the wife," she said.

"Hank? He's your new partner, right?" Castle asked, fighting the snarling beast named jealousy in his gut.

"Yeah. Hank Connors, transferred over from the 20th a month or two back on request from Captain Blye," Kate informed him. "1PP felt I needed a real partner."

"I can understand that."

"No, Castle… that's not what I meant," she sighed, lowering her head, and letting out a breath in frustration. "You'll always be my partner. I don't know if you noticed, but before you, I really hadn't had a stable partner. I went through them a dime a dozen. I scared most of them off, if you asked Esposito."

Castle chuckled. "Oh, I can imagine that."

She gave him a look.

"Just that you're kind of intense," he tried to backpedal. "In… a good way."

Kate leaned back and raised an eyebrow, skeptical, feigning offense.

"Whatever, you know what I mean," Castle huffed, and waved a hand up to dismiss it, turning away to rummage through the cartons, in search of the last dumpling. "So how's he working out?"

"Hank? Okay, I guess," Kate replied. "It's just not the same without you," she admitted, nibbling at a water chestnut. She smiled softly, and glanced up at him, holding up her chopsticks slightly, the small round clump of white still squeezed between it. "Thanks, again, for getting extra. I really do like them."

"I know," Castle said, returning her smile. "So, back to the case… any leads?"

"Well, the wife was having an affair, so she was a logical first suspect," Kate said, chewing. "But she alibied out. Timothy Greene, Beynon's business partner, was the next suspect… apparently they were on the outs, or something. And the business was floundering. We found suspicious activity in Greene's accounts, and we did get some partials off the murder weapon… but…"

"There's always a 'but'," Castle chirped in.

"My gut is telling me he didn't do it," Kate told him. "Yet, this morning, his lawyer comes in and he confesses. Says he paid some hitman codenamed 'The Fixer'."

"But you aren't buying that, are you?"

"Not entirely, but 'The Fixer' is definitely our guy," Kate asserted. "I'm just not sure Greene's the one who paid him."

"Why?"

Castle watched as Kate's eyes drifted off in thought. Her brows creased slightly, and that vein on one side of her forehead appeared. He wanted so badly to reach out and soothe it away, but he refrained from any such physical interaction. Kate heaved in a deep breath, and glanced around. Castle arched his neck and had a look for himself… they were alone, as far as he could tell.

"We think Beynon was working as an intermediary for them," she said.

From the way Beckett said 'them', Castle had no doubt of whom she was speaking. He leaned closer, and lowered his voice. "Are you saying that this case might be related to your mother's?" he asked.

Kate nodded. "Yes, and… and your shooting," she said, her voice hitching up. Her eyes imperceptibly flirted down to his chest before rising up to meet his. "And it got more complicated. The man Amanda Beynon was having an affair with was Congressman Henry Fenton, and the day after Beynon was killed Fenton turns up dead, murdered the exact same way."

"So their murders are connected," Castle nodded, already putting some pieces together from what she has told him. "Both killed by this 'Fixer' guy."

"I think so, yes," she said. "However, and here's the part you're going to love… the Secret Service came in and took over Fenton's case."

"Secret Service… the Secret Service, as in the guys who'll take a bullet for you Secret Service?"

"Yep," Beckett inclined her head. "They swooped on in right in the middle of Lanie's on-scene prelim examination and practically kicked us out."

"Doesn't make sense," Castle said, resting an elbow on the table, his chin in his palm. "I mean, sure Fenton's a congressman, but he's not that important."

"They weren't really there for him, per se," Beckett informed him. "He was going to be meeting with Governor Howard."

"Jimmy?"

"Whoa… wait! Are you saying you're on a first name basis with the Governor?" Beckett questioned, raising her eyebrows incredulously.

Castle stared her down, waiting for her to blink. Just when he knew he had her convinced, he smirked triumphantly. She rolled her eyes and playfully punched him in the shoulder.

"Not funny," she growled.

"Totally was," he said, rubbing his sore shoulder. It hurt, more than he had anticipated—and he wasn't going to let her know that—but it was so worth it. Keeping his hand on his shoulder, kneading the sore muscles, he took on a contemplative expression. "So… if the Secret Service got involved… that means they must be worried that there is a threat to the Governor, after all he is running for President."

"That's what I'm thinking," she agreed. "And the FBI's sticking their noses in this too, making it impossible to get anything really done."

"And having to keep quite about your mother's case makes things complicated," Castle finished, seeing what had her frustrated and unwilling to leave the precinct… even for a date with him.

"Not just my mom's case, Castle," Beckett asserted, a strange look in her eyes. "Ryan and Esposito have been doing some discrete research, and we believe the guy who shot you is also mixed up in this."

Castle's chest tightened and he was at a loss for words. He leaned back in his chair, trying to absorb that bit of information. Unconsciously, he reached up and put a hand over his chest, just above the scar where the bullet had ripped through his body. Having been through several panic attacks since his release from the hospital, Castle was well aware that he was building up to one. His breathing was more difficult and his lungs ached.

"Castle, look at me," it was her voice, penetrating the chaos of his mind.

He felt her hand on his shoulder, her fingers gently caressing the skin on his neck. He swallowed past the lump in his throat and obeyed her command, turning his head to look at her. Her hand moved up to cradle the side of his face, the pad of her thumb rubbing his cheek.

"It's alright, Castle, I'm here, nothing is going to happen," Kate spoke in a calm and steady voice. "Just breathe. Slow and easy." She took a slow breath, filling her lungs and expanding her chest before expelling the air in a long and slow exhale, demonstrating for him. He kept his eyes locked with hers, and did as she was doing.

Oxygen slowly entered his body as he breathed in. He focused on her and her voice, listening to her instructions. The panic and anxiety slowly ebbed away, and his pounding heart slowed its pace to a more acceptable rate. Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply through his nose—the smell of cherries everywhere—before opening his eyes and looking up at her. Castle could not hold back all the love from radiating out as he gazed at her, unconsciously easing into her palm that still cradled the side of his face.

Seeming to realize what she was doing, Beckett startled, jerking her hand back, and then hesitantly dropping her arm. Her eyes remained locked with his as she swallowed.

"Better?" she asked. He could not help but notice the slight rise in her voice.

Castle licked his lips and blinked, forcing the moment away as he averted his gaze. "Yes," he nodded. "Thank you."

"It was nothing," she said, tucking a loose strand of her brunette hair behind an ear. "You'd do the same for me."

"Yes, I would," he said, looking back up at her. "In a heartbeat."

She stilled, and pursed her lips, glancing at him hesitantly. He wasn't talking about coaxing her out of a panic attack, and she knew it. Castle could sense the tension in the air; it was thick enough to cut with a knife, if one felt so inclined to do so. Frankly, he never really understood that metaphor. There was just something inherently morbid about envisioning a knife cutting through things.

He wanted so badly to reach out and touch her, to grab her by the face and pull her lips to his, but he couldn't. There was so many things they needed to talk about, issues that needed to be resolved before they even went there. His mind kept conjuring up images of his hospital stay and of the kiss he'd once believed was only a figment of his foolishly hopeful dreams.

He had to confront her about it. But now was not the time. Yet… he needed some resolution. They didn't have to talk about it, but maybe if he could just get her to admit that it was real, that it had actually happened… then… then maybe that would be enough for now.

Keeping his gaze locked with hers, Castle parted his lips, intent on questioning her about the kiss, when the break room door opened and none other than Javier Esposito—the man had the worse timing ever—came barging in.