A co-authored story by chezchuckles and International08.

"Yeah, sweetie, that's fine."

His voice has taken on that tender tone she's only ever heard when he speaks to his daughter.

"No, of course not, pumpkin. Don't worry about it."

He leans with one hip against the counter, not quite facing her, but not quite turning his back either. It's the perfect position for her to keep an eye on him. He's smiling as he speaks into the phone, but she glimpses a hint of disappointment in those blue eyes.

"Hey, that just means more for us."

His fingers tap idly against the granite, and then his gaze flicks over toward her. She turns her attention quickly back to the meat and vegetables stir-frying in the wok.

"No, Grams is at that play. I kidnapped Detective Beckett."

She looks up from her task to find him grinning at her.

"You doubt my ability to develop and execute a successful plan?"

She rolls her eyes, and he laughs, but not at her.

"Yes, that's true. I'm sure she *could* take me."

He winks, and she whispers a few words at him, not so loudly that Alexis could hear over the phone, but with enough volume that her partner will catch them. Her teasing challenge: "Anytime. Any place."

Castle smirks, ear still pressed to the screen of his smart phone as he mouths back I'm all yours. Yeah, probably she should have expected that. He's rarely one to resist the opportunity for innuendo, though he has shown a somewhat surprising restraint lately. Still. That was a perfect setup, and he didn't let her down.

"Okay, dear daughter of mine, go have fun with your friends. I'll see you later."

He listens for a moment more, and then his whole face breaks into light, genuine happiness painting his features.

"Love you too."

It's not directed at her. It's directed at his daughter. But. She can't control the somersault of her recently mended heart, can't halt the freefall of her stomach.

"Brooks!" he called out.

He caught the slight flinch, the way the younger boy hunched his body for a brief moment before pausing in the middle of the crowded corridor, turning around to see who'd called his name.

Their eyes met, and Richard jerked his head toward the wall, silent instruction to wait for him there, to quit blocking the path of students hurrying to their lunch. He knew, from personal experience, that getting in between teenage boys and food earned one exactly zero friends.

There was a series of excuse mes and sorry about thats as he made his way through the throng, but when he finally reached the wall, Richard thrust out a hand in greeting.

"Richard Rodgers," he offered, using his free hand to finger comb his floppy hair away from his forehead.

The other boy looked at him suspiciously for a moment, but finally accepted the greeting. His grip was firm, and Richard wondered whether he'd received the same lecture about how a man's handshake reflected his character.

"I've seen you around," the younger boy answered. "I'm Jason Brooks."

And then he offered nothing else, eyes darting from side to side, down to their clasped hands until Richard let go.

"Yeah, I know who you are," he said. "Hey listen, I run the short story section of the lit mag. The Ethos?"

Brooks nodded slowly, a flash of recognition passing through his guarded eyes. But he didn't speak. Just waited it out.

"The piece you submitted," Richard said and he noted with interest the way the boy tensed, as if spoiling for a fight. "It was really good."

Shock presented itself briefly in the younger boy's features, and then he cleared his throat.

"It wasn't exactly a short story," Brooks said slowly. "Just kinda. . .something I needed to get out."

Richard nodded. "I know, but somehow it ended up on my desk anyway, and I figured I'd see if I could get to you before Westlake tried to pull you in to another section."

"Another section?" the boy echoed.

The young man laughed. "Essays, for example."

"Oh no way," Brooks said, shaking his head vehemently. "I have to write enough essays for Collins."

Richard grinned, slapped the other boy on the back.

"Been late to history a few times, have you?" he said teasingly, and got the first real smile from the boy. "I had to write more than one of those myself."

Brooks seemed to relax, finally. Establishing a rapport, putting others at ease - Richard was good at that, he'd discovered. Reading people too. Something about being a writer, always looking for the story perhaps, made his powers of observation keener, and he'd seen his younger self in this kid.

"Anyway," he continued. "I'd like you to come up to our office this afternoon, if you can. Third floor, fifth room on the left past the stairs."

Brooks nodded, hesitated, and then spoke.

"I don't know if my father will let me," he said. "Join the Ethos, I mean. He kind of has his heart set on me following in his footsteps. He wants me to play hockey."

Richard shrugged.

"So play hockey," he conceded. "Make your father happy. Writing for the Ethos isn't all or nothing. I just think you have some real talent and I'd hate to see it go to waste."

The younger boy brightened. "You think I have talent?"

Richard nodded. "I really do. That part about acceptable risk, speculation - how people approach their relationships like the market, just looking for who will help them the most in the long run - it was really well-written."

Brooks shrugged, tilting his head. He was young, thin, his eyes both weary and wary. Richard knew he'd worn the same expression for the first few months he'd been at Edgewyck. But he was different now. More confident. Taller. He'd filled out. And even if he didn't play sports, wasn't necessarily popular, his build was enough to ward off bullies. He suspected Brooks had yet to reach the same advantage. Oh, what a difference a year could make.

"My father's a stock broker," the younger boy explained softly, dropping his eyes to the floor. "Investments and returns - that's all he understands."

Richard scuffed the toe of his oxfords against the floor, drawing the other boy's attention once more. When Brooks looked up, Richard gave him an almost-smirk.

"My mother's an actress," he said with a shrug and a wink. "She firmly believes that all the world's a stage. You would not believe how many times I've been roped into running lines with her. She even made me wear a dress once."

Brooks laughed at that, his expression lightening, and Richard felt a certain sense of satisfaction. Words had power, and not just on the printed page.

"Anyway," he said, pushing himself into the now-empty corridor. "Come up to the office later, and we'll talk, see how we can get you involved."

The boy nodded, and Richard was halfway down the hall when he heard his name.

"Hey Rodgers?"

The young man turned back. "Yeah?"

"What did. . .I mean, when you decided you wanted to write - how did your father react?"

Richard looked at him, lifted one hand dismissively, much the way his mother often did, as if a simple wave could dispel the questions.

"Never had a father," he said with a shrug. "Guess I lucked out."

"Rice is done."

She startles at the nearness of his voice, and the spoon clatters against the round metal of the pan. One broad hand lands on her bicep - to steady her, no doubt.

"Jeez, Castle," she grumbles, glancing back over her shoulder to find him altogether too close for comfort. "You should know better than to sneak up on a cop."

He squeezes her arm lightly and drops his hand to his side, stepping back to a more acceptable distance. It's a sign of how far she's come that he didn't get an elbow in the gut when he surprised her. Or maybe just a sign that despite her natural instincts, her body knows she's safe here and there's no need to fight.

"My sincerest apologies," he says repentantly, but she doesn't believe for a second that he actually means it.

"Oh, you're just proud of yourself for getting the drop on me."

He chuckles and leans forward, his chest pressing lightly against her shoulder blade as he reaches around her to snag the wooden handle of the spoon, swirling the contents of the pan and then drawing out enough for a mouthful. He brings it to his lips.

She watches.

His eyes slide shut as he tastes it, throat muscles working as he swallows, and then his pink tongue emerges to lick away a renegade dab of sauce that remains at the corner of his mouth. Which is good. Because if his tongue hadn't removed it, hers might have felt compelled to clean up the mess for him. And that would have been. . .

That is to say. . . Oh, who's she kidding anymore? Certainly not herself. She knows she wants to kiss him. Just doesn't know how to bridge the gap after all this time.

"Want a taste?" he asks, voice low and intimate - more intimate than it should be for what he's offering. "It's good."

Her eyes are still intent on his lips as he speaks and it's not until he nudges her foot with his that she realizes he's holding out the spoon to her.

Her mouth opens instinctively, and he slides the utensil between her teeth. She closes her eyes, savors the taste and the knowledge. When she opens them again he's watching her closely with dark eyes, jaw clenched, the hand that holds the spoon trembling slightly.

"You're right," she says quietly. "It is good."

He gives her a tight smile.

"I'll have to write down the recipe for you."

She bumps her shoulder against his chest, barely resisting the urge to just lean back. He'd catch her, maybe wrap his arms around her from behind. She's certain of it. "Just don't leave out any of those secret spices you wouldn't let me see."

His eyes twinkle at the teasing, the tension in his face melting away. "Wouldn't dream of it."

He sets the spoon carefully back in the wok, his earlier worry for germs apparently disregarded now. Of course, that was raw meat - Salmonella, E. Coli. Any germs currently on the spoon are his. And hers. Together. She finds the thought oddly pleasing. Her germs are keeping his company.

His warmth disappears from her back, and she turns to see him already dishing rice onto a pair of plates. He sidles up next to her when he's finished and lets her add her contribution to their meal.

"Ready to eat?" he asks brightly, and without waiting for her answer heads toward the dining room where silverware, napkins, a bottle of wine and two glasses wait for them.

She follows, gives him a small smile when he pulls out her chair, and watches as he rounds the table to sit across from her.

"So, Alexis is out too?"

He nods, digging his fork into the food, making sure he has both rice and stir-fry together. "Yeah, movies with some friends," he answers easily, the fork halfway to his mouth.

And then a stricken look flashes through his eyes and he sets the utensil back on his plate, untouched.

"Kate, I didn't-" He stutters to a stop.

She cocks her head to one side. "Didn't what?"

His hands lift in supplication. "I didn't set. . .I mean, I knew about mother's play, but I forgot. And I had no idea Alexis had plans tonight. I don't think she did either. Seemed like it was a last minute thing."

Her heart constricts. Is he really this worried about how she'll react to an unexpected dinner alone? Oh. Well, they're at his loft. And there's wine. And he stood so close and fed her, and okay, she can see why he would be concerned about what she'd think. But it's not necessary.

"Castle," she says firmly, sliding a hand across the table to touch his knuckles. "It's fine. It's good to get a chance to just - decompress with you. And hey, good food, good wine? I'm always up for that."

Her words earn her a relieved smile. "Good company too?" he wonders aloud.

She shrugs. "Eh, that? Not so much."

He narrows his eyes at her and purses his lips. "I was going to offer ice cream for dessert, but now. . ."

She laughs, and kicks him under the table. Gently. "You wouldn't dare withhold ice cream."

He leans forward in his chair and kicks back. Also gently. But his eyes flash with mischief and something more. "Well, it's not like I can withhold sex."

A frisson of shock mingled with heat shoots through her body.

"Because, well..." he trails off, suddenly seeming to reconsider wherever he might have been headed with that particular train of thought.

He blushes - actually blushes - and to hide her amusement, she lifts her glass to her lips and takes a long sip while he recovers.

"I'm sorry Alexis had plans," she says after a moment, going back to their earlier subject for his sake. "I know you said you hadn't gotten to spend much time with her lately between her internship and our cases."

He nods. "Yeah, you'd think we'd cross paths more, considering. But she's staying busy, doing things that interest her."

The detective smiles and takes a bite of her own food. It really is delicious. "And I'm sure she's trying to spend as much time as possible with friends too," she says after she swallows. "Before everyone goes off to college, I mean."

He looks down at his plate, and when he looks back up, his eyes are clouded again like they were earlier. "Yeah, there's that too. I'm glad she has good friends though. She'll miss them."

She's not sure what's causing the haze. Probably the thought of his daughter leaving home. "But with the internet and video chats and texts, I'm sure she'll be able to keep up with everyone, no matter where she goes." With him, she really means. With the man who loves his daughter more than anyone else in the world.

She watches as her partner shakes off whatever's bothering him and turns his attention back to his dinner companion.

"Speaking of high school friends," he says cheekily, that familiar spark returning to his gaze. "I never did find out why Madison called you the biggest scofflaw at Stuyvesant. Care to share?"

Kate feels herself flushing. Those were. . .interesting days. She'll tell him. He'll get it out of her eventually. But that doesn't mean she won't make him work for it.

"Not particularly, no."

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