A/N: This is what I affectionately call the epilogue that just wouldn't end. I thought I'd be done under 1000 words, but then I just kept writing and writing and finding a loose end here and then a loose end there until I finally completed this monster of an epilogue. Considering it's about a fifth as long as the rest of the story, I'm not even sure it should be called an epilogue. Lol.

Anyhow, I'm so sorry this took forever and a day to get out. Obviously, my definition of "by the end of the week" needs some work. Thank you once again for everyone who has supported this story, whether it be through alerts, favorites, or reviews. Here (finally) is the epilogue. Enjoy!


Epilogue


The last thing Castle expects to see when he wakes up from his afternoon nap (sleeping seems to be all he's capable of doing these days) is Senator Andrew Holden sitting by his hospital bed.

The implications of his presence make Castle's heart stop and start again with a painful thud.

Eyes wild and fingers clenched into the coarse blanket, Castle automatically searches for Kate. "Where's Ka—Beckett?"

"Settle down, Mr. Castle. Everything is fine. Detective Beckett is simply getting a follow-up check-up done."

Castle notices the two implications immediately. One, Holden had called her Detective Beckett, as if he has no doubts that she will return to the force—as if she hadn't left at all.

Castle isn't sure how he feels about that.

It's the second implication that worries him, though.

"You came when Beckett isn't here on purpose," Castle states flatly.

"I see the medication has not dulled your mind, Mr. Castle," Holden says in lieu of directly answering Castle's implied question. "I thought it best not to speak of certain things in Detective Beckett's presence."

Castle's spine stiffens. "I won't help you keep secrets from her."

No more secrets. Never again. Not when secrets very nearly destroyed them.

Holden exhales, the sound catching and resonating through the sudden cloud of tension that rises up between them. "Don't worry, Mr. Castle. I fully expect you to share everything I tell you today with Detective Beckett. I simply meant that it might be difficult to hear what I have to say while in the presence of someone who'd used her as a pawn."

Castle leans back in surprise. That admission is unexpected.

Surprises, all of them. First Captain Gates and now Senator Holden.

Castle has always prided himself in his ability to find the hidden stories, but he's finding that he's surrounded by mysteries.

Mysteries who have their own agenda.

Mysteries whose agendas may not include telling him the whole story.

Okay. Castle's flexible. He can adapt. He can fill in the gaps.

The story forms rapidly on the murder board unfurling in his mind, and Castle speaks before Holden can feed him whatever previously prepared, loose-end tying explanation he has.

"Ryan and Esposito told me about the guy who saved their team from the explosion. The funny thing is, the man's description sounds an awful lot like the guy who shot me."

Castle watches Holden's expression carefully, but instead of any sign of denial, all he can detect is the faintest traces of amusement. Holden knows Castle's game and is willing to play along. Interesting.

So Castle continues pulling at the threads. "That's why you knew what they wanted. Because you had someone on the inside."

"Correct."

"That's why Captain Gates came to you first. She knew that you had someone there."

"Not quite. Victoria didn't know exactly what I had, but she knew that I had the resources to pull Detective Beckett out."

"And you refused to help because you didn't want to give up your man inside."

"Every step of this war has to be executed with supreme precision. A single mistake could set back out investigation for months, maybe even years," explained Holden, not an apology or even a justification. Just a statement of facts.

"I thought you said that you wouldn't be willing to sacrifice your investigation to save just one person. But you showed part of your hand for us."

The senator's lips turns up in what might be a passing attempt at a smile, but it comes off more like a grimace. "I wouldn't say that it was an entirely altruistic move. It was a gamble, and the gamble paid off. We learned much from you."

"You mean, about Sophia Turner and her involvement with the Drag—with Kurtz."

It still feels strange to have a name behind the mystical beast.

Holden nods. "My contact knew Turner, of course. Ironically, Kurtz had assigned him to watch her. But my contact could never quite figure out her angle. If Sophia Turner is indeed a former KGB Agent who'd masqueraded as a CIA Agent—"

"She is," interrupts Castle.

"—then Kurtz is involved with deeper, more dangerous elements than I realized. He's had his pick of ex-military hitmen to do his dirty work for him, but if he introduces international mercenaries into the fray…"

"But can't it also mean that he's getting desperate? Think about it. All the military men we've encountered thus far are not just specially-trained; there's been…a degree of loyalty there. Which means that Kurtz has done something for these guys at some point and they are selling their lives to him to return that debt. On the other hand, mercenaries are only out for the money. There's no such thing as loyalty. Whatever he's planning, he needs the extra manpower badly enough that he's willing to take in unknown elements."

Castle recalls the horror of Blakey's linchpin conspiracy room and the harrowing implications of World War III. The mere remembrance of it is enough to raise goose bumps all over his skin. They'd never found out who was funding Sophia Turner. Could it be…?

"You don't think…"

"I don't know what to think, truth be told," Holden says on a heavy sigh. "I find I can no longer read him. Did you know? We were friends at one point, comrades-in-arms. He used to be a good man, Joseph. An honorable man. I still don't know where he began to go wrong. Or maybe it'd been a carefully constructed mask all along."

Holden notices Castle's hesitation. "If you have something to say, just say it."

"I just…I find that things like money and power rarely changes who a person is. They simply…magnify one's personality."

Hold chuckles quietly. "Is that an attempt at sympathy, Mr. Castle?"

"No, sir. Not really. Just my experience." Castle clears his throat. "So what happens next?"

"We regroup. Reorganize. Settle in for a long war ahead of us. Kurtz has always been a master strategist. Whatever his goals, you can be sure that each step will be meticulously planned."

"Sometimes a well-placed pawn is much more powerful than a king," Castle mutters, the puzzling words spoken in that parking garage all those months ago suddenly taking on a darkened edge. "Smith told me that once."

Holden smiles grimly. "Strategies for chess were perhaps one of the few points of agreements we had between us."

Castle cocks his head to the side, taking apart the phrase and coming up only more questions. "What is that even supposed to mean, though? Is the pawn supposed to be a sacrifice placed for bait, or is it in position to be queened?"

"That is the question, isn't it, Mr. Castle? That is the question."

Holden pauses, staring him down with those imposing gray eyes of his. "I could use your mind on this, Mr. Castle, a consultant who thinks outside the box."

The offer startles him. The writer in him desperately wants to know the answers—to know the story and watch as it all unfolds. To be offered a chance to be right there in the midst of everything…

It's the opportunity of a lifetime.

And yet…

It's at this precise moment that he sees Kate's silhouette through the small windows of the room's door, the slender length of her slipping through the swinging panel with that inherent grace. She has a cup of Jell-O in each hand (lime for him and strawberry for her), and the joyful smile on her face slips off when she notices the senator.

She pauses briefly, then skirts around the senator to take an almost defensive position next to Castle.

His ever-vigilant guardian.

Castle grins and shakes his head. "My place is here," he says to Holden.

"So it should be," murmurs the senator, almost absent-mindedly. Holden's hard gaze softens just slightly at the corners, his eyes lightening with some far-off memory.

It's then that Castle remembers that the senator and his wife had supposedly enjoyed a wonderful marriage. A true partnership of equals. Castle remembers hearing that his wife had tragically passed several years ago though.

Maybe it makes him a hopeless sap, but Castle wonders if maybe part of the reason Andrew Holden decided to help isn't because Castle and Beckett reminds the senator of his wife and himself.

Holden holds out his hand. "It's been a pleasure working with you, Mr. Castle. I hope the next we meet will be under more pleasant circumstances."

"Me, too. Mr. Senator. Me too."

Holden gives Kate a nod of acknowledgement which she returns hesitantly.

When the senator is gone, Castle turns to Kate to explain the situation, but she holds up a hand to stop him. "Don't. Not yet, Castle. Don't tell me yet. I don't think…I don't think I'm ready to hear it yet."

He watches her for a long time, studies the tense lines of her muscles and the twitch of her jaw. She's fighting so hard against her natural inclination to want to just know, and it breaks his heart to witness it.

But this is her personal demon, this poison of addiction, and he's so proud of her for recognizing her weakness and actually asking him to stop her from getting sucked in before she's ready.

He takes the cups of Jell-O from her hands and places it on the bedside table. He barely has to tug on her sleeves, and she's already sinking into his body, her hands coming to rest on his chest. He presses a tender kiss to the crown of her head when he feels the slightest tremors coursing through her body.

He can do this for her. He can be her guardian, just like she is his.

"Okay. When you're ready, then."

"Jeez, Beckett. If I'd known what kind of slave driver you'd be, I'd—"

Castle abruptly stops talking at the dangerous glint in her eye.

"You'd what?" Kate challenges.

"Love you just as much as ever, of course," he saves with a grin, batting his eyes exaggeratedly in faux innocence.

Kate shakes her head in exasperation, but he sees the light flush that creeps onto her cheeks.

Castle thinks it's adorable that she still gets flustered whenever he uses the "L" word, especially since she doesn't seem to hesitate when saying it herself. Distantly, the writer in him sees the story of how there's still a part of her that doesn't expect or feel deserved to be loved, even though she loves so fiercely herself.

The rest of him doesn't really care why she blushes when he tells her. He just wants to say it all the time because he can, and she deserves to be loved so much.

And because she's just so damn cute when she blushes.

"Don't think you can sweet-talk your way out of doing these exercises, buster," she threatens.

"I'd much rather be doing other exercises," he says with a leer, "that are much more enjoyable cardiovascular workouts than walking a treadmill."

She smirks. "I don't know, Castle. If you don't increase your stamina, I'm not sure you'll be able to keep up with me."

His eyes darken, and he steps off the conveyor belt to straddle it with a foot on either side of the machine. He tugs at the arm she has draped over one of the handrails and pulls her close enough to just brush his lips over hers when he speaks. "You know I'm more than happy to prove to you just how much stamina I have."

The tip of her tongue darts out to wet her lips, and it inadvertently swipes a hot line against his mouth.

Or maybe it's not so inadvertent, he thinks, when her fingers drag a burning trail across his clavicle then down his chest as she draws a lazy circle.

"I'd like that," she murmurs in that low, damnably sexy voice.

He pauses a moment, then, "Really?"

He's been cleared by doctors for sex—just keep it as non-strenuous as possible, they'd said and he'd responded with a mental snort; as if sex with Kate Beckett could be anything but mind-blowingly intense—but despite that, Kate has rebuffed every one of his advances.

Though, to be honest, he hasn't been trying very hard. The last thing he wants to do is embarrass himself, and he's still far from fully recovered.

In truth, it's been…pretty incredible actually to just be able to share a bed with her and to indulge in the reality of having her right there beside him all the time. More than once he's fallen asleep to the low murmur of her voice as they talked about anything and everything deep into the dark fold of night, and he can't think of anything more amazing than seeing the way the sunlight catches her hair and sets her skin aglow when he opens his eyes in the morning.

But, he really is starting to feel more like himself, and if Kate is done being so strict about not straining him during his rehab…

"Mmhm," she agrees absentmindedly as her mouth travels along his jaw to the soft, sensitive flesh behind his ear.

He shudders at the heat of her branding his skin, and oh jeez, it's been way too long since they've made love. He's ready to sweep her up into his arms, lingering aches and pains be damned, and drive them both to insanity when—

"You can show off your stamina by doing another ten minutes on the treadmill."

Wait.

What?

He pulls back and glares at the smug smirk on her face. That beautiful, frustrating tease.

"You're so mean, Beckett," he whines.

She has the audacity to wink at him. "Do your exercises. Then we'll see about that other kind of exercise."

He mutters theatrically under his breath about being pushy and mean and such a tease, but inside he's thrilled with her. He's so very thrilled that she's playing with him and not afraid to throw the ball back at him.

Ever since he woke up from his coma (he's still torn between being so incredibly guilty for putting his loved ones through that kind of ordeal and thinking about how ridiculously cool it is that he'd been in an actual coma), Kate has been treating him with kid gloves. She feels guilty, he knows, and she's been overcompensating. And while he'll be the first to admit that a Kate Beckett who fawns over his every need and comfort far supersedes any naughty nurse fantasy he may have ever had, he's also a little freaked out by it.

He's always known that Kate cares (well, except for that brief episode after the bombing case where nothing made sense), and he doesn't need or want her to become someone else for his sake. He wants them. Bickering, teasing, eye-rolling and everything else included.

So it's good—so very good—that she's getting her bite back, even if it's at his expense. Or maybe especially since it's at his expense.

He grumbles, and she laughs at him, but she stays by his side, distracting him from the burn of his muscles as he does that extra ten minutes on the treadmill.

(Because he really, really does want to build up his cardio for what he has in mind for her.)

They're lounging lazily on his couch with the Lord of the Rings trilogy running in the background when he finally brings it up.

"Have you thought about returning to the precinct?" he asks, seemingly out of the blue.

She's cuddled up to his good side (who knew that Kate Beckett was a cuddler?), so he feels it immediately when she stiffens against him.

It's been two months since his release from the hospital, and they still haven't talked about either her conversation with Gates or his with Senator Holden. But they're issues that he knows she's been mulling over, though she tries to pretend like it's not a concern.

Some things will take time to change, and he imagines that this tendency of hers to keep things buried within herself will be one of those things that they'll end up arguing about in the future.

Crazily enough, he can't even be too worried about the idea because he's just so damn giddy at the prospect of them even having a future in which they'll have relationship issues like this to argue about.

"Do you think I should?" she eventually returns, her tone inscrutable.

He's about to automatically shoot back with That's your decision when he notices the tight clench of her fist in the blankets draped over them and the faint note of uncertainty latent in her voice.

She's not deflecting his question, he realizes. She's genuinely asking for his opinion.

A heavy knot in his chest that he didn't even know was there loosens. He knows he shouldn't be—knows that he should have more trust that she won't run again—but he's still caught off guard by the sudden rush of gratitude that floods him. Kate is an actions girl, not a words one, and the fact that she's willing to ask, willing to try at this communication thing has him elated.

That's why he picks his words carefully when he responds. "Kate, you know that whatever you decide, I'll support you a hundred percent."

"Cas—"

"That being said," he cuts her off when he feels her tense in irritation at his non-answer, "I think that Gates was right. Kate, you became a cop because of your mother's murder. But the reason you're a good cop, the reason you like being a cop, goes way beyond all of that. I think you know that."

He pauses, deliberates whether or not this is something he wants to go into right now, but realizes that he can't not say anything.

"And I think that you'll always want to know the answers. There's nothing wrong with that."

To be honest, he doesn't really want her to get back into her mom's case, but at the same time, this last incident has shown to him very clearly that even if she doesn't investigate, the case might never leave them alone. They're in it no matter what, and though he knows that she's afraid she'll just get sucked into again, this time it's different. Really, truly different because they're not fighting this alone.

Her fingers trace a lazy pattern the throw blanket, and she avoids his eyes, almost like she's ashamed that she wants to know. Like she's letting him down by wanting to know.

Oh, Kate.

His heart clenches because he knows that this is something that he broke.

He remembers how excited she'd been to share what she and Esposito had found out about Maddox when Castle had gone over to her apartment. At the time, he'd been blinded by the fear that she was going to get herself killed and the despair of knowing that she might never forgive him of his betrayal that he hadn't realized how much she'd been relying on him to simply be there for her—to be her partner.

She'd opened her apartment door to him with a glowing smile, and in return, he'd shattered her faith in him.

If given a second chance, he knows he would probably make the same choice, but now he can see that he'd played his own part in pushing her down the hole.

He presses a long kiss to the crown of her head before pulling back to say, "I also need to apologize."

She looks at him in startlement. "For what?"

His hands absently rub soothing strokes up and down her side. "I'm sorry that I made it seem like you had to choose. I gave you an ultimatum, and that was manipulative and wrong. Kate, I don't ever want to make you feel like you have to change any part of yourself in order for me to love you. I love you because of and in spite of everything you think is a weakness in yourself."

She swallows thickly. "Even if I'm a blanket hog?"

He laughs. "Even if you snore loud enough to bring down the Great Wall."

"I do not snore! That's you."

"Please. I do not snore."

"You wanna bet?"

"What do I get when I win?"

"Someone's feeling cocky."

"Mm, very cocky," he says with a leer, and she whacks his chest lightly with the back of her hand. "I think I'd like a trip to the Hamptons. And you in a bikini. Of my choosing."

She rolls her eyes. "And what do I get?"

"A trip to the Hamptons. And a new bikini."

She scoffs. "You can't make it so that you win either way."

"Sure I can. I have you, don't I? That means I'm already the biggest winner. Everything else is just extra icing on the cake."

She kisses him for that, but before he can take it any further, she pulls back with a sigh. She tips her head forward so that she's resting her forehead against his. His fingers creep beneath the hem of her shirt to rub comforting circles into the skin of her stomach.

"I do want to know," she confesses softly, "but I don't want to lose this."

She curls her fingers around his arm to emphasize her point.

"You won't ever lose this." Then, because their conversation is getting a little heavy, he adds, "Can't get rid of me now, Beckett."

"Don't I know it," she replies with a familiar roll of her eyes, though her dry tone is belied by her pressing her lips to the underside of his jaw.

He lets her distract him with butterfly kisses and teasing nuzzles of her nose (he's seriously giddy at the fact that Kate instigates just about as much of their physical contact as he does). She needs time to assess, to gather her thoughts, and if he's learned anything in these past years, it's how to wait.

His patience is rewarded when she finally pulls back to face him. She plays with the collar of his shirt and he's once again struck by the incongruity that is Kate Beckett. She's a fighter, a fierce warrior who never concedes, never backs down. She's a seductress without even trying, the siren's call of her intelligence and sly sense of humor impossible to ignore. And yet, there's a streak of shy little girl in her that's all the more delightful for its stark contrast with the no-nonsense, badass detective that she is.

Was.

"I've barely had a chance to start figuring out who I am without my mother's case defining me," she finally says, her eyes staring at some space beyond his shoulder. "Is it even possible to have me without it? Even when I let go, it came after me. Thirteen years, Castle. For the first time in thirteen years, I tried to step outside of the walls I've built for myself. But there is no escape. What if there is no me without it? What then? Things like Sophia Turner popping up again to terrorize us happen, Maddox is still out there somewhere, and Gates is telling me that I can finally know.

"But, God, Castle, I'm so afraid. I've been chasing this for so long, and now that I can finally get an answer, I almost don't want to know. It makes me sick to my stomach whenever I catch myself thinking that because I can't help but feel like I'm betraying her memory. My mom lived for the truth, and here her daughter doesn't even have the courage to face it when it's placed right in front of me!"

She lets out a frustrated sigh and drops her head against him. "I'm such a freakin' nutcase, Castle."

"You are a nutcase," he agrees, knowing that she doesn't need empty words of empathy right now. He's proven correct when she slaps his chest half-heartedly, directing a glare his way. He grins and catches her hand, pressing it palm down against his heart. "But you're my nutcase."

"Not helping, Castle," she grumbles, but she sounds less conflicted and anguished already.

That's good. That's a start.

He likes that he can do this for her. Make things light again. Remind her that he's here for better or worse and damn if those words don't send a shiver of anticipation up his spine. They're nowhere near ready for marriage right now, but he can see it. For maybe the first time in a long time, he allows himself to see it.

He brushes a lock of that gorgeous, silky hair behind her ear. "Remember earlier this year, when you first went back to the precinct and started spiraling and you told me you didn't know who you were if you didn't chase your mother's case? Do you remember what I said to you in response?"

"I remember." A faint smile touches her lips. "You said that I'm who I always was—the one who honors the victims. The one who can bring Sonia's family some peace."

"And you're still that person. No matter if you have your badge or not, if you choose to follow this case or not, you're still you. You're still the woman who amazes me with the depth of your compassion, who awes me with your incredible strength of body and heart…who drives me up the wall with your stubbornness," he adds pointedly, and they both share a soft laugh at that.

Then his eyes soften on her, and her breath catches at the depth of emotions there. He's not hiding anything anymore, and it's terrifying how much he loves her, but it's that good kind of terrifying. It's not the kind that makes her want to run for cover; it just makes her want to run for him.

"You're still the woman I'm crazily, madly, head-over-heels in love with."

Her moss-green eyes glaze over with unshed emotion, and though Castle usually abhors the sight of Kate Beckett's tears, he knows that these are the good kind.

"God, Castle, stop making me cry."

He laughs as he wipes the moisture off her cheeks with his thumbs. She's a blustering mess, and he thinks it the most adorable thing he's ever seen. He replaces his fingers with his lips because he really can't resist her when she's like this—hell, he can't resist her ever, not that he's planning on ever trying.

She pulls his face down by his ears—she has a fascination with them, he's found—so that she can capture his mouth with hers, and the jolt of heat that shoots through him is just as potent as the first time they'd kissed. His name escapes her lips on a gasp when he shifts them so that she's straddling him on the couch. She wastes no time in tugging his shirt up and over his head so that she can sweep her long, slender fingers along the newly healed skin along his side. She leans down to brush tender kisses along the scar, the tips of her hair a cool counterpoint to the heat of her mouth.

"I love you, Castle. You know that, don't you? How much I love you?" she breathes.

He pulls her up by her arms so that they're face-to-face again. She swoops in to kiss him, but he holds her back, just like he had on that surreal night when she'd surrendered everything to him. She watches him curiously, knowing that this isn't a rejection, but she doesn't realize it's a benediction until he gently brings her wrists up to his mouth, anointing with his lips the thin reminders of her days in captivity.

She's so beautiful, every single part of her, scars and fears included.

She'll be difficult to have a relationship with (she already is), and yes, he knows that he'll probably be a pain in the ass on occasion (she'd say way more than on occasion), but this—the love shining brightly in her eyes and the tender worship of his body by hers—this will only grow stronger with time.

Come what may, he knows that they'll make it. That's more than enough.

"I know, Kate. I know."

They're three weeks into their time in the Hamptons when life inevitably intrudes.

The shrill notes of the doorbell slices through the open space of his Hampton house, and Castle and Beckett let out a simultaneous groan.

"Have I mentioned recently that my family has the worst timing in the world?" Castle mutters, resting his forehead against hers even as Kate lets her legs fall slack from where they were wrapped tightly around his waist.

She grimaces as she remembers how more than one make-out session have been unceremoniously interrupted by his mother, his daughter, or both. The first time it happened, Kate had been embarrassed as hell, but now the seemingly near constant disruptions were bordering on both embarrassing and frustrating, especially since he'd been teasing her all morning out by the pool.

Okay, so maybe she'd started it with the way she—well, yeah—but still…

It wasn't even fair how hot the man is with water sluicing down his back as the strong muscles of his legs contract and relax with each propulsion.

Mmm, yeah. Castle and water. Excellent combination.

The doorbell intrudes insistently on her fantasy and she sighs.

"Get the door, Castle. I'm taking a shower."

"Without me?" he says with a pout.

"Yes, without you, so go see if Martha forgot her keys again."

She slips down off the bathroom counter where he'd hoisted her up onto just minutes before, and Castle groans when the move has her front sliding down his and causing all kinds of delicious friction that he can do nothing about right now.

"Ugh, sometimes I want to murder my mother."

Kate quirks an eyebrow at him. "I may not be a cop anymore, Castle, but I'm pretty sure I'd still report you."

"That's just cold."

She rolls her eyes and saunters to the glass doors of the shower, discarding the top of her bikini along the way. She doesn't have to look to know that Castle's gaze is riveted to the endless expanse of skin on her back. She can see in her mind's eye the way his pupils dilate and his irises darken to that molten blue-gray color that she loves.

"Go Castle. The sooner you let Martha in, the sooner you can come join me."

He's out of the bathroom in a flash, the peal of her laughter bouncing off the marble walls behind him.

Kate, shower. Shower, hot sex. Hot shower sex with Kate.

Get the door, and he gets all of the above.

Castle knows he's wearing a huge, shit-eating grin, and he doesn't even try to temper it.

Yeah, he's a smug bastard, but who can blame him when his girlfriend—hah! He gets to call Kate his girlfriend—just promised him hot shower sex?

The doorbell rings one more time just as he yanks the door open.

"Mother, you really nee—" Castle blinks stupidly when the person on the other side of the door is decidedly not his mother.

Captain Gates takes in Castle's attire—or lack thereof considering the fact that he's only wearing a pair of swimming trunks—with barely a flicker of reaction.

"Mr. Castle."

"Captain Gates." Castle quickly tacks on a belated, "Sir."

"May I come in?"

"Oh, yes! Of course. Please." Castle steps back further into the foyer and belatedly notices the incongruent juxtaposition of his swimming trunks and Gates' immaculately-pressed, slate gray suit.

Castle snatches the t-shirt he'd draped over the couch's back this morning and shrugs into it. He still feels severely unprepared and vulnerable for whatever the Gates has to say, but at least he's dressed.

Castle motions toward the sofa. "Please, have a seat."

Castle presses down on his leg to stop its nervous jittering and he clears his throat several times as he tries to figure out what the senator could possibly be doing here. None of the scenarios running through his head are pleasant.

Gates, on the other hand, settles herself down with enviable composure, taking time to absorb the details of Castle's Hampton home.

Castle is proud of his house, a sprawling mansion built on a multi-acre estate that he'd bought used and renovated to his heart's content. Kate likes to tease him about his flair for interior design, but he sees the spark of interest that lights up from the depths of her eyes when she spies a detail that he'd incorporated from one of his many life experiences. She loves the history of it, and he loves her so much for seeing past the grandeur and the wealth to listen to the stories the walls have to tell.

Under normal circumstances, Castle would jump at the opportunity to show off his second home, but in this moment, all he feels are nerves.

This conversation will change something—maybe everything—and he's not sure he's ready for it. Not sure if Kate's ready for it.

"This isn't a social call," Castle blurts out.

Gates inclines her head. "No. The fact that I'm sitting here today very obviously means that something has happened."

Castle takes a deep breath. Gates has done nothing except confirm what he'd already guessed, but it's hard to sit here and listen to the cracking foundations of his and Kate's blissful idle come tumbling down around him.

His leg starts tapping a jittery rhythm as he waits out Gates.

"Sophia Turner was killed en route to the high security facility she was being transferred to. It was a sniper. Beckett's sniper."

"Cole Maddox," he whispers even as his blood runs cold.

Any lingering affection he might've had for the Sophia Turner were extinguished the moment he saw the wounds she'd inflicted on Kate, but her death means that Kurtz is still hunting down all loose ends.

It means that Kurtz will come after Beckett again and again until either she's dead or the Dragon slain.

One or the other.

Maybe that's the way it's always had to be, but he'll be damned if it's Beckett who goes down.

Castle senses her before he sees Kate walk into the open space of the living room. Her hair is wet and there's a towel slung across her neck. She must have wondered what was taking him so long and decided to come investigate.

She's dressed casually, a pair of faded denim shorts and a loose t-shirt, and the contrast between Kate and Detective Beckett has never been as vividly demarcated. Especially when he glances at Gates in her power-suit.

"Captain Gates," Kate greets and Castle violently suppresses the urge to stand and take her in his arms when he notices the slight tremor of her hands.

She's steeling up before his eyes though, and the last thing she needs is for him to make her fall apart. So he clenches his hands in his lap and waits as she sits on the couch next to him, her every move deliberate and measured.

"Beckett. I was just telling Castle about some recent developments." Gates' dark eyes lock with Kate's, and Castle is startled to find that there's some connection between the two women that he hadn't known existed before. "Are you ready to know?"

Castle stiffens, but Kate surprises him by sliding a hand over to him and folding her slender fingers over the tight fists sitting on his thigh. Her touch isn't nervous or seeking comfort.

It's…determined.

"Kate?"

She gives him a small, reassuring smile. "Honoring the victims, remember? It's not just about my mom anymore."

A slow, proud smile spreads across his lips when he realizes that what he sees in her eyes isn't desperation to know the answers—isn't the darkness of needing to bring down her mother's killer. It's clarity of purpose.

For years, she's been consumed by her mother's case because she made it about vengeance rather than justice. So blinded by her own grief and thirst for answers that she lost sight of everything else—including the other victims.

But now…now she's remembering that hers is not the only family ravaged by the Dragon. She is not the only daughter left behind.

And strangely, the knowledge that there are others she can help, others she can bring closure to—it clears her mind, and she sees with the kind of lucidity that she could never before find with this case.

"Together, Castle. We do this together."

It's a request and a condition all at once. She's ready to do this, but only if he's ready to stand by her as her partner in the truest sense of the word.

The lingering anxiety settles.

Yeah. Together. They can do this.

Castle nods at Captain Gates. "We're ready."


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A/N: And that's it, folks. I wanted to officially finish this before the Season 5 premiere tonight, and it looks like I just barely managed to squeak through.

Thank you once again for everyone's interest in this story. When I started writing this, I had no idea I would be as ambitious as I was to try and tackle several issues, including but not limited to the Dragon, Gates, and Alexis' reservations. I'm especially grateful that many of you enjoyed my take on Gates because I think she's one of those characters that has a lot of depth if you just take the time to study her character.

After eight(!) years of writing fanfiction, this is actually the first legitimate multi-chapter story I've ever finished, so this will always hold a special place in my heart. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey, and guys, guess what? We made it through the hiatus! :)

Now prepare yourself for the epic awesomeness that will be Season 5!

With love and immeasurable gratitude,

Jess