Kate’s day is not going well. The absolute joy of being back at the precinct and back to her job wore off well over two months ago--it’s now December, how the time flies--and she is once again perfectly capable of having truly crappy days. Even if disastrous would be too heavy-handed a word to describe it, so far it had been annoying beyond belief. It pissed her off.
It had started out with some of this:
“Hey, look, Kate, a chicken!” Castle points to it like it’s an alien who’s just landed on Earth.
“Come on, we need to talk to Mrs. Roscoe,” she replies. They didn’t have time for his antics, as Mrs. Roscoe would soon be leaving by plane. “Ee-i-ee-i-oh your butt over here.”
“Ooh! A cow!”
And some of this:
Castle looks down at the box of latex gloves apprehensively. “Do you have any...other...color?”
Kate glances at him. “No, why?”
“Well, there are two of us and the gloves are blue...”
“Nothing, it’s fine,” Castle pulls them on. Kate sighs exasperatedly and tugs him towards the crime scene. She will never understand him.
So it’s with great relief when she meets up with Esposito and Ryan again, standing over a pool of blood on the pavement of the tight alleyway. “Sorry we’re late,” she calls out to them as they approach. “We were finishing up the interview with Roscoe just outside the city when you called.” It’s the second body in two days, giving them two cases to work simultaneously, all before leaving for California to see Alexis off to college. She could, of course, stay behind and work, but she really wants to go. “Did Lanie already leave with the body?”
“Yep,” Espo confirms. “Vic’s Amy Bennett, twenty-four. We know it’s not a mugging gone wrong; we found her wallet on her with fifty bucks in cash and three credit cards still inside.”
“Cause of death?” Kate asks.
“Lanie wanted to get her back to the morgue as soon as possible, but COD was pretty obvious. A slug straight through the neck, severing the...”
“Carotid,” Ryan nods.
“...carotid artery around 1:00 A.M.” Esposito turns to his partner. “Dude, I was going to say that.”
“Sorry, it sounded like you weren’t,” Ryan shrugs. He looked at Beckett. “Uniforms were chatting with the neighbors, said that a scary-looking man likes to hang out in this alleyway at night. They had his name since they’d called the police on him a few times, but he wasn’t breaking any laws by just loitering. He made them feel unsafe, but there was nothing the uniforms dispatched could do about it. David Pratt, they’re processing him in now. We’ll test his prints against any Lanie finds on the body, but at the very least he might have seen something if this alley is his usual haunt.”
“Good to know things are well-taken care of when traffic gets bad,” Kate nods her appreciation. The ride back to the precinct is short and uneventful, and once she arrives she begins pondering the board of their other case, as there’s nothing to do until Lanie has some more information for them. Esposito and Ryan are taking point on Pratt’s interrogation, and Castle is sitting next to her desk playing with the latex gloves he’d refused to take off. After about an hour of staring at the murder board and hearing Castle’s attempts to make inappropriate noises by stretching and snapping the rim of the gloves against his skin, she goes for coffee. Coffee helps.
The phone rings and Castle jolts out of his latex-related stupor. He looks around, but Beckett’s nowhere in sight. Neither are the boys, or, happily, Gates. He picks it up. “Detective Beckett’s phone.”
“Castle?” comes Lanie’s incredulous voice from the other end. “You’re not allowed to answer Beckett’s phone!”
“Yes, I am,” Castle smirks.
“Since when?” she demands. “I thought you two were trying to keep this whole relationship thing on the down low for Gates?”
“Since...” Castle really can’t think of a good answer for that one. “Can...is there something I can do for you?”
“Yeah, write this down,” Lanie instructs. He makes motion for neither pen nor paper. “I’ve got a partial off the shell casing. No matches in the system or from Mr. Pratt, but I did find some trace DNA.” She pauses. “Are you writing this down?”
“Yes,” Castle lies, looking around at the empty desk.
“Okay, hang on,” he says, rummaging through the box at his feet with one hand. He can hear her huff on the other end. Castle spies a pad of paper near the bottom of the box and lifts the line of elephants figurine. He turns to set it on the desk out of the way to be faced with an angry Beckett.
“What are you doing?” she demands.
“Ooh, you are in trouble,” Lanie says in his ear.
“I’m not in trouble,” Castle whispers into the phone before placing it back on the desk with what he hopes is an apologetic expression. “Lanie got a partial print. It’s not a match for Pratt. He’s not our guy.”
“Who said you could answer my phone?” she asked. She looks down at the row of elephants still in his grip. “And why are you going through my stuff?!”
“I...I was just looking for a pad of paper,” he tells her, giving her the most innocent look he can. She plucks the elephants out of his hand with a glare, but before she can do anything further Esposito walks up holding a manila folder of case-related material.
“Pratt says he did see a guy, and Tory got a hit on a security camera of him. Name’s Victor Marcel,” he informs them. “Coffee shop, fifty-third and ninth.”
Much to Kate’s relief, Marcel is their guy, and stupid enough to stash enough evidence at his apartment to convict him. Their other case is shut down by Lanie when it’s revealed to be an assisted suicide after all, wrapping everything in a neat, if depressing, little bow. Castle’s out on a last minute shopping trip for college necessities, and Alexis is spending her last day in New York with Paige. Castle graciously agreed to pick her up tonight directly from Paige’s house with her luggage in time to catch the redeye.
Castle’s phone rings; he must have forgotten it when he left for the store. Kate sighs at the incessant buzzing, and then stares at the phone as an idea occurs to her. She slides off the couch and picks it up. A proper revenge, especially if this call is something embarrassing. It’s a blocked number, which is just as well--Castle didn’t know it would be Lanie when he picked her phone up.
She answers it and barely gets out, “Richard Castle’s phone,” before the person starts talking. It’s no one she recognizes, a deep voice that is unmistakably male.
“The man you’re looking for,” he says, “is William Bracken.” The line goes dead.
“I’m back,” Castle announces, opening the door and putting his jingling keys on the rack. Kate’s sitting looking somewhat perplexed on the couch. “Is something wrong?”
She rises to meet him. “Castle, do you know anyone who calls from a blocked number?”
“Not off the top of my head, no,” he replies, bemused. That’s a lie; he can think of at least two, but she can’t know about them. “Why...why do you ask?”
“Someone just called, and I answered it,” she says, holding up his cell. “It was a blocked number, and all he said was, ‘The man you’re looking for is William Bracken.’ Do you have any idea what he was talking about? And who’s William Bracken?”
“Let’s look him up,” is all Castle can say in answer. He gestures to Beckett’s computer, and she hands it to him, still looking majorly confused. He types the name into Google and starts scanning the results. “William Bracken, hunter, tradesman, and surveyor who explored Kentucky in the last decades of the 18th century...guessing it’s not him. Umm...William F. Bracken, owns an art studio in Tallahassee...”
“Still not ringing any bells?” Kate asks.
Castle shakes his head, activating the scroll bar. “William H. Bracken, New York State Senator. William Bracken, professor at UC Santa Barbara. William Bracken, head of a toy company that makes finger puppets for children. This is hopeless.”
“We don’t even know who that guy was or what he was talking about,” Kate agrees. “For all we know, he could have had a wrong number, or...” She trails off at the sudden stiffening of Castle’s back. “What? You got something?”
“Senator,” he breathes, more to himself than her. “A politician.”
“Hang on a minute.” He clicks on the link to the Senator’s homepage, flooding his screen with a whole lot of red, white, and blue. “See that?” he turns his computer towards her. “See what it says there? FUTURE FORWARD.”
Kate stares at it intently and then returns her gaze to him with a bemused look. “Yeah, it’s his campaign slogan. So what?”
“Listen, Kate, there’s something I have to tell you,” he says seriously. He sets the laptop to the side, gently closing the lid. “I think I know who hired Maddox to shoot you.”
“Bracken?” Her eyes widen in disbelief. ”How? Castle, if this is one of your crazy conspiracy theories...”
He takes a deep breath. “This is going to be hard, but hear me out. Please. I wouldn’t joke about this.” She gives him the slightest of nods. “Before Montgomery went into that hangar, he sent a package to someone he trusted. It contained information damaging to the person behind all this. Montgomery was trying to protect you. But the package didn’t arrive until after you’d been shot.” She frowns, questions obviously on the tip of her tongue, but he doesn’t stop long enough to let her ask. “Montgomery’s friend struck a deal with them. If they left you alone, the package and the information inside would never see the light of day. But they made one condition—you had to back off. In order for the deal to work, someone had to make sure you weren’t pursuing it. And that man chose me.” Castle swallows. “The first day I went back to the precinct—after you kicked me out of the hospital, it was the fifth or sixth day after you’d been shot I think—I got a call from this guy. He didn’t tell me his name, but he explained all of this to me. The stakes. The deal. What I had to do.” She’s just staring at him now, and he can’t even look at her because he’s scared of what emotions he might find written all over her face. Fear. Disbelief. Sadness. Betrayal. Anger. Hurt. Fury.
“We were at the cabin when I got a second call from him. You were in your room, and he told me that we were breaking the deal. He said you were looking into the case right then, and that I needed to get you to stop before the people who wanted you dead noticed. So I went in and asked you to run through a scene with me to get you away from the laptop. When you were calling your dad later that afternoon, I snuck in to see how you got your hands on the case file anyway and discovered a virus on the computer. I deleted it, and the next day my phone rang. It was Mr. Smith again. He said they hadn’t noticed our infringement, but demanded I replace the virus on your machine because it was his, and it was through that that he was making sure you were still protected. And so I did.”
“You put it back,” Kate says in a hushed voice. “You let him spy on me?”
“It was for your protection, Kate! I didn’t have a choice! You were still pursuing your mom’s case and the only reason I even knew about it was because of Smith! I love you, and I wasn’t going to lose you to this case and those men so soon after I’d gotten you back.” Castle looks at her seriously, and she can’t figure out how to feel.
“Castle,” she says in a low voice. “I don’t trust easily. You know that. I’ve had it broken too many times to be handing it out freely. You have to promise me you’ll never, ever keep something like this from me.”
“Then you have to let me in on this stuff, so we can discuss it before you make any rash decisions,” Castle demands right back. “If I’m going to be a part of your life, I need to be part of your life.” Kate’s silent, staring at the couch space between them.
“Do you really want to be in this part of my life, Castle? This is the part where people get hurt. Where people die.”
“Yes.” Castle meets her eyes, his blue ones intense and sincere. “I want to be with you, Kate, through all of it.”
“Fine,” she says, and it’s all she can say. “Fine.” She can’t force ‘I love you’ or even ‘thank you’ out of her mouth because she can’t thank him for risking his life for her. She can’t thank him for putting himself in danger for uncertain reward. All she knows is she can’t lose him. “Fine, Castle. I agree to your terms.”
He blinks, surprised. “Okay then.”
She takes a deep breath. “Is there anything else I should know? If so, this would be the time.”
He shakes his head. “No, nothing else that I can think of. But that man on the phone? I think that was the Fox—the guy I hired to find out more about the virus. I was hoping we could use it to track him down. He has the file—he has the answers we’re looking for.”
“And did this...Fox find Smith?”
“No. He shut me down, told me not to call him again. But one of the forms of payment he had me use was putting a character in Heat Rises, a politician with a red-and-blue campaign pin with the letters FF. FF, Future Forward!”
“It still could be a coincidence, Castle...” Kate says uncertainly.
“No, Kate, it makes sense. It’s all connected. Why would the Fox’s client use a character in my books as proof the Fox had worldly connections? The only reason I can think of was that wasn’t a random suggestion, it was specifically supposed to be me. He was supposed to prove that he knew me, that he could ask a favor of me. With the new FF thing, I’m betting that Bracken planned on being able to use me to get through to you! Think about it. You’re a very private person. I’m a very public figure. You would notice if someone new showed up in your life and tried to get close to you, but me? They’re trying to use me to get to you.”
“But there’s no evidence, or proof, or...”
“Not yet, but now we know where to start looking! We’re close, Kate,” Castle exclaims, taking her hands in his. She pulls them away, picking up the laptop, closing the lid, and setting it aside.
“I want to believe you, Castle, but I have to follow the evidence. It sounds like too many coincidences, but I’m afraid that I just want an answer after so long that I’ll be willing to accept any theory, whether it holds up or not.” He opens his mouth to protest but she doesn’t let him, looking at her watch. “We’ve got an hour and a half before we have to pick up Alexis. Let’s load up the car, take it to my place. Now that we have a possible name, we’ll look through my mom’s stuff again. If he’s in there somewhere, then I’ll know I’m not just chasing ghosts.”
“Okay,” Castle agrees. “You get our stuff, I’ll get Alexis’s?”
“Sure,” Kate responds, standing from the couch. She enters her bedroom hearing him take the stairs two at a time, pausing just beyond the threshold to take a deep breath. She can’t get carried away with this. She can’t. She has to go slow, be thorough, no matter how much she just wants to drag him into her interrogation room with no evidence to speak of, rail on him for half an hour, and elicit a confession. To look him in the eyes and tell him that he’s going to prison for the rest of his life because that’s where he belongs.
She fetches Castle’s bag and her own, running back for her hair brush when she realizes she forgot it. Castle meets her at the door and they lug the bags and suitcases into the hall, Castle making some joke about airline luggage fees ending with, “Thank God I’m rich.”
They pile them into the trunk of the car and take off, Castle driving simply because he can. His hours spent behind the wheel had severely diminished when Kate returned to work and he was relegated to the passenger seat in her Crown Victoria again.
The trunk cover barely fits over their baggage without warping, but she’s glad it does because it means they don’t have to cart all that stuff into her apartment and back. As soon as she’s in the door she heads for the closet where most of it is stored, taking down box after box. “I’ll start with case files, you with letters and correspondences?” Castle suggests.
“No, she had her own language for her cases and appointments,” Kate tells him. “Neither my dad nor I were ever able to crack it, but I do have some theories on how to parse some of the words. You take the letters.”
Castle agrees and soon they’re both silent, sifting through documents and cards and notes. It reminds her irresistibly of that first case they worked, Castle’s copycat killer and going through his fan mail. Little did she know back then, when she was furious at him for reading her so easily, that someday they’d be sitting on the floor of her own apartment doing the same thing but for her mother’s murder.
“What about this one?” Castle asks. “It’s from a William, no last name mentioned.” He hands it to her and she scans it quickly. Her momentary excitement drains away.
“No, William Hartford was a family friend. They used to exchange a lot of letters,” she says, handing it back. Her gaze falls on the next page of notes she’s poring over. “Hey, look at this. WHB:ADA.”
“That’s his initials,” Castle admits. “But ADA?”
“Look it up in conjunction with his name,” Kate says. “I have a gut feeling about this. It’s him.”
Castle pulls out his phone and stares at it for a minute, occasionally tapping the screen. Kate rocks back on her heels, trying to calm her racing heart. “Kate, Bracken was an Assistant District Attorney before he got into politics,” he says, meeting her eyes. “Maybe they met for one of the cases she was working and ended up on different sides? But what case would be worth murdering the opposition?”
“There are other random initials, just not the name of her client...” Kate says. “Coonan never got a chance to tell me who hired him. McCallister said he was too powerful, called him the Dragon. Raglan was taken out before he could tell me anything. Bracken being in my mother’s notes is important; it just doesn’t say why he’s mentioned. That he was connected to Montgomery, Pulgatti, McCallister, and Raglan is all still just speculation besides one phone call from an unknown source. It’s so convoluted, Castle, how are we ever going to sort out all this mess?”
“We ask the man who knows all the answers,” Castle says, realization spreading all over his face. “And I know a surefire way to get his attention. Come on, it’s back at my loft—”
“Rick, we can’t,” Kate says. “We have to pick up Alexis and make it to the airport. Bracken’s not going anywhere. This can wait until we get back.”
He studies her seriously. “Kate, are you sure?”
“Absolutely. Bracken’s taken so much from me already—I’m not missing Alexis going to Stanford. When we come back, we’ll contact Smith. For now I just want to forget all of it—focus on Alexis.”
“Thanks,” he smiles. He glances down at his watch. ”We’d really better get going; she’d kill me if I made her late to orientation at her dream school.”
Kate nods and starts to shove the boxes under her bed for later. “Orientation, ha. You do know there’s no official orientation for semester transfers, right?”
“What do you mean? What orientation has she been going on about all week then?”
“Um, orientation as in being shown around by Ashley, seeing all the sights, meeting all his friends...” She laughs. “You’re dense sometimes, Castle.”
“As long as it’s only sometimes,” he grumbles. “And other pieces of wool from my lovely daughter you’d like to pluck off my eyes?”
As soon as Castle sees her, all thoughts of Bracken and the Johanna Beckett conspiracy fly out of his mind. It’s been just hours since he’s last seen Alexis, and she’s wearing the exact same thing as when she took off this morning: boots, jeans, a white scarf, and her fluffy-hooded brown jacket. Her purse is slung over one arm, and she just looks so grown up that at first he can’t even answer her question without bawling like a big baby. “Ready to go?”
“Yes,” Kate says wisely from next to him when he fails to respond. She gestures for Alexis to go ahead and then loops her arm with his, leading him back to the car. “Sit in the back with her,” Kate tells him, “I’ll drive.”
On the way to JFK Alexis chatters in the backseat with him, something about Paige and Columbia and Dartmouth. “Are you even listening, Dad?” she asks, and he’s jerked back into the present. Kate glances at them through her mirror.
“Yes, of course I was listening,” Castle assures her without conviction. “Sorry, pumpkin, I was just thinking about when you were small.”
“Dad, you’re not going to be one of those parents, are you?”
“The ones that can’t handle the separation so they’re constantly telling stories from when you were a kid and calling you cutesy names and end up embarrassing you in front of your new roommate?”
“I promise I’ll stop as soon as we set foot on campus,” Castle says. “But just...indulge me for right now, okay?”
She smiles. “Sure. But you will certainly not be mentioning to anyone—ever—that my dream school at six was the princess academy, got it?”
“Cross my heart,” he grins.
They arrive at the airport two hours early as is recommended, give most of their luggage to the attendant, and board first-class before anyone else does. “How did I ever survive long flights on planes before I met you?” Kate asks, reclining her seat to its maximum and nearly lying flat. “There’re blankets and everything.”
Alexis takes the window seat like usual and Castle slips in between them. His daughter gazes out the window as the plane takes off, but soon after falls right asleep. Kate’s on the aisle end of their row with her eyes closed and her hands folded in her lap, but he can’t tell if she’s sleeping or just pretending to. If she’s faking it, he knows exactly why and he can’t help but feel a little hurt that she wouldn’t want to talk about it with him and would choose to stew in it all by herself. Then again, maybe she doesn’t want to discuss it when he’s sitting next his daughter. Or maybe he’s wrong, and she really is asleep. He’s not going to find out.
Castle leans up against the headrest, closing his eyes as well. It’s around a seven-hour nonstop flight, so he should get some rest as well. Before he knows it all the lights are back on and the plane is trembling as its wheels meet the surface of the runway. He turns to look at Alexis, who greets him with alert eyes and an excited smile. Kate’s groggier, but she’s the first one out of her seat when the plane comes to a full and complete stop to start unloading their carry-ons from the compartment above their heads. From the pleased expression on her face he supposes she still enjoys the novelty of having full use of her arms after so many months without it.
Upon exiting SFO they board a free shuttle to the rental car lot, where he rents their vehicle for the next two days. Coming from New York it feels like it should be two o’clock in the morning, but he has to keep reminding himself that in California it’s only eleven at night. One would think that with all the traveling he does for book tours and whatnot that he would have developed very flexible circadian rhythms, but time zones have never agreed with him. Right now the only thing his brain’s telling him is that he should be either in bed or sitting in front of his laptop staring with thick, glazed eyes at the bright screen.
He enters the location of their hotel in Palo Alto into the Maps application of his phone and starts driving, trusting it to navigate the unfamiliar roads. Kate’s in the passenger seat passively watching the cars go by, and Alexis is perfectly content in the back. He’s putting all his energy into driving, but he’s vaguely aware that she’s pulled out her phone and is having a very animated conversation on it, full of “I’m so excited, Ash,” “I know, I can’t wait!,” and “I don’t know how I’m going to sleep tonight!”
Kate looks amused by the chirpy noises coming out of his daughter in the backseat, but she doesn’t comment, probably reminiscing some Stanford memories of her own. Or memories of some ex-boyfriend. He hopes it’s the former. About thirty minutes later, they arrive in Palo Alto, and it takes only a few more to have him parked at their hotel. He goes to the front desk for the keys, as the booking was in his name, and returns with two keycards. Alexis won’t need one, as she’s only here for the night.
The accommodations are nice, but not exactly the first-class he’s used to. There’s a TV in the cabinet that no one touches, a large bathroom, and two queen beds in the main room. Everyone turns in almost immediately, and once they’re all settled Castle reaches up and shuts off the light, plunging the room into darkness. Kate sets an appropriate alarm on her phone before snuggling down next to him. A few seconds later, Alexis asks from the next bed over, “You two are going to behave yourselves tonight, yes?”
Castle can’t help but smile and roll his eyes. “Yes, Daughter.”
“Thank you, Father,” she says back. If she says something else he’s not aware of it, fast asleep with Kate curled up next to him. As it should be.
The next day is a whirlwind. Figuring out the parking rules at the university is confusing to say the least, and by the time he’s fairly certain they’re not going to get ticketed—or worse, towed—in their current spot she’s itching to go like she’s got a mouse crawling up her pant leg. Literally as soon as he touches his foot to the first cobblestone of campus Ashley appears with a posse of his college friends, crowding Alexis, who’s thrilled to see them even though he’s positive these friends are more recent than Ashley’s time in Marlowe Prep.
Ashley greets her with an enthusiastic kiss and then one on the tip of her nose before turning to Castle and shaking his hand. The boy still calls him “sir,” a fact that pleases Castle greatly. He should wave around antique guns more often. He has to admit that Kate seems much more accepting of Ashley’s delight in being reunited with Alexis than he feels. Well, at least he talked her out of rooming with him—at least for this first year. Half-year. Uh-oh, she may have duped him on that one.
Before he knows it they’ve seen the entire grounds on one large walking tour, have eaten in two of the cute little cafes, and have somehow ended up back at the dorms with the sun setting in the background. He knows what time it is, and it pains him. It’s time to say goodbye.
Alexis seems to realize this too and turns to him, breaking with Ashley for what he guesses is the first time all day. “Can I have a minute alone with my dad, please?” she requests, and her boyfriend immediately nods, gives her a quick, reassuring smile, and skedaddles. She looks up at him, takes a deep breath, and envelops him in a bone-crushing hug.
“Are you sure about this?” Castle asks her, looking directly into her eyes. “It doesn’t matter about the deposit or any of that—if you want to wait on this, Stanford will still be here come fall, and…”
“Dad,” she stops him. “I’m ready to start college. You know that. Why are you trying to talk me out of it?”
“I’m not,” he sighs, “just giving you an out, that’s all. I’m really going to miss you, sweetie.”
“Hey,” she says, growing stern for a minute. “What did we say about cutesy names?”
“Sorry,” he apologizes, a grin tugging at the corners of his lips.
“Dad, there’s something I want to read you,” she tells him, reaching into the back pocket of her jeans. She pulls out a well-worn piece of binder paper. It’s about two-thirds full of his daughter’s handwriting in bright blue ink. She takes a deep breath before she starts. “There’s a universal truth that we have to face, whether we want to or not,” she begins, glancing up at him at the end of the sentence. “Everything eventually ends. As much as I’ve looked forward to this day, I’ve always disliked endings. The end of summer, the final chapter of a great book—” His mouth opens slightly, but he remains silent. “—parting ways with a close friend. But endings are inevitable. Leaves fall, we close the book, you say goodbye. Today is one of those days for us. Today we say goodbye to everything that was familiar.” Her eyes are no longer dry and his aren’t either. “Everything that was comfortable. We’re moving on. But just because we’re leaving, and that hurts, there are some people who are so much a part of us they’ll be with us no matter what.” She looks up at him again, meeting his eyes. “They are our solid ground. Our North Star. And the small clear voices in our hearts that will be with us. Always.”
“Alexis, that’s…” He doesn’t know what to say.
She shrugs a bit self-consciously. “It’s the speech I wrote to try out for salutadictorian if I didn’t end up valedictorian. I was going to give it at our high school graduation.”
“It’s beautiful,” he tells her, still slightly in awe. “But...but that’s kind of just what I mean: you’re skipping your last semester of high school! You’ll never get this time back. You’ll never get to give that speech at graduation. You’ll never get to go to senior prom. There’s so much you’ll never get to experience—”
“Dad!” She’s looking at him, indignant.
“I’m sorry, pumpkin. I’m just going to miss you, that’s all.”
She goes in for another hug, holding him tightly. “I’m going to miss you too, Dad.”