Everything That Glitters

It's nearly one in the morning when Allie and Rafe leave with their kids and the loft quiets down again. Shannon and Dashiell aren't spending the night here, it turns out, so making up all the beds was for nothing. Ella wants to convince her brother to stick around, let them have an all-night slumber party upstairs like they used to do, camping out on the floor of her bedroom, but she can tell that's not going to happen. Apparently Dash has all but moved in with Shannon, and they're gathering up stuff to go.

Ella misses him before he even leaves. She wraps her arms around her big brother, squeezing tight enough to make him grunt.

"Choking me," he groans out.

"Whatever," she mutters. "This is how you like it. I remember."

He hugs her back finally, picking her up off her feet and then dropping her. "Glad you're back, Ellie."

"Me too."

"Am I gonna see you in the morning?" He's got that suddenly-shy smile on his face that always dazzled her as a little girl, made her want to do anything for him.

"Yeah. You're totally seeing me."

She hangs on the door knob as they walk down the hall hand in hand, Dash making some comment to Shannon and both of them smiling. Ellery gives a soft sigh and then she turns around to her parents and Nick, the three of them watching her as she stands in the entryway. She shuts the door.

"So. . .it's just us."

Her dad wriggles his eyebrows. "You guys are tired, I'm sure. Long flight. But - tomorrow, you up for a baseball game?"

"How is there baseball in March?" she laughs, rolling her eyes and moving towards the couch. She drops next to Nick and he puts his hand at her lower back, this thumb bumping over the ridge of her spine.

"It's an exhibition game," her mother says quietly. "And you don't have to-"

"Yes, you do," her father interrupts. "You have to."

Ellery startles with a laugh but then she remembers the half-conversation she overheard and the phone call from Shannon that started all of this. "Huh. Well."

She turns to Nick and he's grinning and shrugging his shoulders. "Sure. I know nothing about baseball, but always time to learn, right?"

"Man after my own heart," her father sighs out. Her mother rolls her eyes and stands up again, holding her hand out. Ellery's father takes it, lets Kate lift him from the couch, and then she turns back to them.

"Second floor is all yours. We'll see you in the morning."

"Game's at one, Cricket," her father says, a warning on his face. "So. . ."

She snorts. "I'll be up, Dad. I swear. Jeez."

"I know how you like to sleep in."

Nick gives her a startled look. "You like to sleep in?"

"Not any more," she mutters to him, knocking into his thigh with her knee to silence him. "Daddy, I'll be fine. I don't sleep in like that anymore. I have a job, you know."

"See," her mother murmurs. "I told you, Castle. She's a normal, functioning adult. Unlike yourself." She turns around and blows Ellery a kiss, a little wink as her father pouts over her mother's shoulder. "Good-night, baby girl. I'm glad you came home."

"Night, mama."

"Night, Nick. It was good to meet you."

"Meet you and have you become our future son-in-law just like that," her father says with a laugh. Nick is already standing up to shake his hand and say good night, and then her parents turn away, leaving them to it.

For a moment, the unfamiliar quiet in her childhood home is unbearable. Just the muted sounds of her parents moving down the hall to their room and her own psyche squirming within the confines of her body. She's really misunderstood so much, and now that her picture has been shifted, altered, she doesn't know where that leaves her.

So much of who she's become has formed because of what she thought she was leaving behind. Who does that make her when those impressions themselves were so false?

"You okay?" Nick says quietly.

She shrugs.

"You wanna tell me what all of that was about?" he says, his voice reverting to that calm and clear tone that always reminds her of her mother. That same no-nonsense, don't even think of lying to me authority that Nick carries with him like a second skin. It's why he always seems to be at ease, why he is so at ease.

His father shaped him more than he'd like, but in this way, it's to their benefit - both of theirs.

"I just - I don't know, Nick. Trying not to fall into old habits here," she says with a shrug, standing up now. She's suddenly so tired. "It's - I'm afraid I'll wind up being that girl I was when I left. I don't want to be her."

Nick stands with her and takes her hand, his fingers stroking over her own. The mad thump of her heartbeat pulses between their skins and he gives her a crooked, cocky smile.

"I don't want you to be that girl either. Prison bait."

She snorts and shakes her head. "I was eighteen when I left, you idiot."

"Oh, whew. Then go for it. Eighteen is hot."

She elbows him but starts leading him towards the stairs. "Me at eighteen was not hot. Hot mess maybe."

"No, I bet you were adorable."

"Not hardly. I snarled at everyone."

"Yeah, see? Adorable. You know what I like."

She rolls her eyes and starts up the stairs, Nick mounting the steps behind her. Their joined hands bump against her thigh and then she feels him doing it on purpose, stroking lightly, his fingers flaring out at her hamstring.

Ella turns at the top, watches him below her, both of them going still. She's smiling because he makes her smile; she can laugh at all because even when she's snarling, he's smoothing her out of it, cracking a joke, being snarky. He's not goofy like her father is, like Dash is as well, but he has a potent sense of humor, dry and deadly.

"Yeah," he murmurs, shaking off her hand to wrap his arms around her waist. "You don't have to worry, Elle. Your time in LA has made you strong in yourself; you know who you are. Look at how you held your own in the middle of that room."

She frowns, knitting her eyebrows together. "What do you mean?"

"You don't let anyone shield you. You stand and take it. You're fantastic. And that's how I knew I could ask."

Ellery leans into his embrace, rocking him back on the stairs, letting her weight settle against his shoulders. He's so fervent right now. She's never seen him so animated, so forceful about something before; he's always unruffled, so laidback and cool.

But not right now. The intensity in his face is transforming. And it's all about her.

"How you knew you could ask?" she repeats slowly, tilting her head at him.

"I got nothing for you, honey. No job, no place. No prospects. I'm asking you to quit a job you adore - that you're so amazingly good at - to move back to New York and jump into something that neither of us have any idea about."

"I'm do stunts for a living, Nick," she laughs a little, brushing a kiss at his cheek as she slowly circles her thumb at the nape of his neck. "Don't you think I'm used to jumping?"

"No, I don't. Because stunts are controlled. There are no unknown elements. Every second is planned out to the last detail. Which is why you're so crazy good at it. But what we're doing here requires staring down the darkness, standing tall and taking it. And tonight, Elle, you did that like an Amazon."

She chuckles softly at his ear and slides her body down against his, standing on the same step as Nick, brushing her cheek over the harsh scruff at his neck. "Amazon, huh?" She knows he's been doing research for that Amazon princess screenplay; he's been feeding her interesting facts for a month now, so the compliment actually hits home for her. She told Nick last week that he must be half in love with his Amazon princess.

"Yeah. A warrior. Fierce. Smart. Blazing," he sighs out at her mouth, his lips glancing over hers with each word. She feels her body unfurl to his, seeking.

He's never done this before, laid himself out there. He's complimented her and raved about her; he's always had the words. But never this, never touching on things so deep and intimate.

This is more. This is more because he saw something more in her. And he saw it tonight. Enough that he wants to marry her.

That more happened only when she came home, when she melted down all the broken pieces of herself and began forging them together into some stronger stuff.

And even though she's not all the way there yet, Nick wants her anyway. He wants this life for them, here in New York with her family too close for comfort and not knowing what in the world they'll even do.

She sighs out and closes her eyes, feeling his body taut and strong against her. "Thank you," she whispers against his mouth. She's not sure she's ever said it before, not to him; she's not sure she's ever meant it so very much. "Thank you for believing I can do it."

His kiss starts rough, like a knee-jerk reaction, and he grunts into her mouth as he pulls it all from her, the words they've still got trapped between them. And then he gentles, a sudden harsh breath against her cheek before sipping at her mouth, cradling her.

All because of her humiliating gratitude?

"I love you," he says suddenly, intense again as he presses his forehead to hers.

She grins and opens her eyes to see him breathing hard, his hands framing her neck, holding her there. "Hm, me too. Love you too."

"I wanna take you to bed," he murmurs. His fingers paint at her jaw, his kiss so soft now. The slide of his lips over hers makes her whole body frisson with pleasure.

She opens her eyes slowly when she realizes he's stopped. "What happened to bed?" she says archly.

He gives her a sly smile. "I do wanna take you to bed, but Elle, honey, I don't know which room is yours."

She laughs, all of it breaking open over her, and she cups his cheeks and kisses him hard. "I'll lead the way."

"What you do best."

"You'd do well to remember that."

A/N: Everything That Glitters will continue in a second installment - from the point of view of Dashiell - and be titled Everything That Glitters 2.