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"Your mission, should you choose to accept it--"

Esposito raises an eyebrow over at Ryan, who gives Castle a you've got to be kidding me look. "I'm sorry, 'mission'?"

"Did we say anything about needing a mission?"

Castle glances from one to the other and back again. "No. But you were about to, because--and let me start again, here--your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to do a little detective work, something I hear you two like to dabble in from time to time."

"Dabble," Ryan says. "Is that like you 'dabbling' in the occasional short story?"

"I swear, I don't remember telling anybody we were in the market for a mission."

"I will buy you both a month's supply of espresso beans. And some of this kickass biscotti I found recently."

"Now we're talking." Esposito comes over to Ryan, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with him. Ryan crosses his arms over his chest.

"Well, maybe we're talking. Depends on what kind of biscotti this is."

Castle sighs. "Boys. Boys. Will you let me do my spiel here?"

The cocked eyebrow from Esposito means 'yes', Castle figures.

"Your mission, should you choose to accept it--"

"Is he quoting something, or are you guys actually taking casework from a mystery writer?"

Castle nearly jumps out of his skin at that, but he's got the usual grin pasted on his face by the time he turns around to face Beckett. "Detective. How are you this morning?"

"Busy. Apparently I'm the only one." She tilts her head at Ryan. "If you two aren't busy, you can go run down that autopsy report. I think it should be ready by now."

"Good call." Esposito elbows Ryan in the ribs, and Ryan nods, both of them filing quickly out of the room. Castle leans out the door after them, mouthing talk to me later as they disappear down the hall. He thinks Esposito caught it. He also thinks Esposito can read lips. He hopes so.

"So what was this about missions?"

"No, no, you were right the first time. I was quoting Mission: Impossible."

"Well, don't do too much of that." She heads to the espresso machine and starts up her morning cappucino ritual, glancing over at him once the foam is foaming. "I hear those mission reports usually self-destruct once they're done."

Castle thinks of six snappy comebacks to that line, but only after Beckett's gone. He can just about feel the smugness radiating off her, and he shakes a fist at her back. "Next time, Detective. Next time."

* * *

"So what's this mission that's worth two months of espresso beans and kickass biscotti?" Esposito asks.

"Just find out what her favorite book is."

"Pretty sure it's The Count of Monte Cristo," Lanie calls out. Castle doesn't manage to rein in his wince in time, apparently, because Ryan gives him a shit-eating grin and cackles.

"Ouch. That was a nice one."

"I try," Lanie says. "Castle, unless you want to take a peek at the body, how about you run these gentlemen out of here? I'm trying to get packed up so I can go home."

"Yes, ma'am." Castle beckons Ryan and Esposito a few steps down the hall. "Come on. You know what I'm talking about."

"Oh, her favorite mystery," Esposito says. "Y'know, I remember hearing that Beckett had a soft spot for some detective... what was his name...?"

"Something that started with an S," Ryan suggests.

"Derrick Storm! Derrick Storm! C'mon, I knew th--"

"No, that wasn't it," Esposito says. "Was it..."

"...Spenser?" Ryan offers.

Castle mock-stabs himself in the chest and groans. "Guys. You're killing me here."

"No, no, I got it--starts with S, starts with S--"

"Sherlock?" Ryan tries. This time Castle doesn't even dignify it with a response.

"That was it. Sherlock Holmes."

"This is all very funny, but--"

"Look, what's so important about this, anyway?" Ryan asks. "Your ego been having a crap week? Join the ballclub."

"Have you noticed the date?" A blank look passes between Esposito and Ryan, and Castle sighs. "It's December twenty-third--"

"And believe me, we've noticed you're still hanging out here instead of at home with Castle Junior, trimming the tree--"

"--so what gives?" Okay, it's spooky how Esposito always ends up finishing Ryan's sentences like that. Well, when it isn't the other way around. Castle lets it slide. "What's the big deal?"

Castle grimaces, but at least they let him get away with the grimace for a few seconds instead of pounding him for more information. "I drew a blank," he mutters.

"What, now?"

"I. Drew. A. Blank." Castle sighs and tilts his head back. "I drew a blank on what to get Beckett for Christmas. So I thought, if I can find out what her favorite book--of mine--is--maybe I can do something special."

"Something tells me an autograph isn't gonna impress her all that much these days," Ryan points out. "Even if we could get her to cough it up, what are you gonna do? Dig up a first edition?"

"You realize she's got most of those," Esposito says. Ryan shushes him, and Esposito clams up fast. "Anyway, what he said--you're not gonna get far with an autograph. Just get her some chocolate."

"Yeah, because that's totally original, and nobody else thought of it first." Castle rolls his eyes. "You seriously don't have a clue?"

"Nada. Sorry." Ryan shrugs. "We'll keep an ear out."

"Too bad about that espresso." Esposito claps Castle on the shoulder as he makes his way by.

"Too bad about the biscotti," Ryan mutters, following Esposito out.

"You want some biscotti?"

"You got some?"

"Nah, but I know a place..."

Castle sighs, but when the lights go off in Lanie's lab, he looks up. She's pulling on her jacket as she comes out, and she shakes her head at him.

"Lanie... c'mon, please please please..."

Lanie finishes locking up and steps up to him, crossing her arms. "I love how you're trying to get her a present that's all about your ego," she says. "So two conditions."

"Name 'em."

"One, this does not get back to her. You swear on your next best-seller that you will not tell her I told you."

Castle makes a quick X over his chest. "Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my--"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Second--you come up with something a hell of a lot better than an autographed first edition."

"Already got it planned out. Trust me. It's better than that."

Lanie sighs, but she nods. "Okay. It's Any Port In A Storm."

"Any Port In A Storm! Yes! It--wait, really?" Castle frowns. "That one got hammered by the critics--"

"No accounting for taste." Lanie shrugs. "I think she liked the boat."

"Liked the boat," Castle repeats. "Huh. Okay. Thanks, Lanie, I owe you one."

"You owe me two months of espresso beans, some biscotti, and if you happen across anything that smells good..."

"Ooh." Castle grins. "You're a perfume girl. I should have realized that..."

"Herbal beats floral, and nothing with vanilla." Lanie finally grins at him, and Castle resists the urge to purr at her; she is such a beautiful woman. She would also probably kick him in the nads if he tried to flirt with her, so probably better to avoid it if he's not wearing a cup--which he's not, today.

"I'll remember. Thanks again."

* * *

"Is that a ship in a bottle?" Alexis hops onto a bar stool and flattens her arms on the bar, drops her chin on her arms. "I thought they were usually big wooden sailing ship kinds of things."

"Well, that would be the wrong kind of boat for this particular present." Castle smiles. The tiny speedboat in the bottle has Swamp Jaguar emblazoned on the back. It's even beige and gold, just like the one in the book.

"How did you find a speedboat in a bottle? And is it custom-painted?"

"I know a guy." Alexis looks up at him, eyebrows raised, and Castle sighs. "Okay. I know a guy who used to do the usual wooden ships in bottles. But he found out that if you stuck a Porsche in a bottle, or a steamer, or a train, people got a kick out of that, too. So I asked if he had any speedboats he could stick in a bottle for me, and as it happens..."

"Voila." Alexis grins. "Okay. So... 'Swamp Jaguar'?"

"After the boat in Any Port In A Storm."

"Ahhh. Beckett's favorite Richard Castle book."

"You knew that?" Castle gapes at her. "How did you know that?"

"I asked." Alexis shrugs and sits back up. "It's not a big secret."

"Oh, it's not a big secret unless you happen to be Rick Castle. Then it's all, 'oh, Beckett likes Robert Parker', and 'you owe me espresso, biscotti, and custom-blend perfume'."

"BPAL," trills Martha's voice from the living room. "Online. Or there are others; I'll give you a list. It won't be here in time for the holidays, but if you're shopping this late, you might as well suck it up and buy something from an independent retailer; it'll look less like you're buying any old thing off the rack."

"She shops for perfume online?" Castle murmurs.

Alexis nods at him, eyebrows drawing together in confusion. "You didn't know about her indie perfume habit? She hasn't worn the same scent two days in a row for nearly a year."

"Well, that I had noticed, but it didn't occur to me she'd run out of the designer stuff she already had."

That just makes Alexis giggle, and she points at the speedboat-in-a-bottle again. "So. This is your big present for Beckett?"

"Mmm... no. Not exactly."

"So the big present is...?"

"Not exactly finished," Castle clarifies.

There's that cute little furrow between her eyebrows again. "You're making her something? No, you're having something made--"

"No, I had something made, and that part is finished." Castle nods down at the speedboat. "The other half is all me."

"Does that mean we should get out of your way while you finish up? You're kind of down to the wire."

"I will get it done," Castle says firmly, and he's not sure whether he's making the vow to himself, to Alexis, or to Beckett-in-absentia, but he knows he means it. "But I'm still ready to do the last-last-last minute gingerbread-house decoration-fest, so. Let me just put this somewhere safe..." He takes the speedboat and drops it off in his office, and by the time he gets back to the kitchen, Alexis has everything out--confectioner's sugar ready to get turned into royal icing, various candies separated by type and color, pieces of gingerbread set out and ready for assembly. "You are frighteningly organized, do you know that?"

"I know," Alexis says cheerfully. "Do you want to get the hand mixer out?"

"Nothing would please me more," Castle says, and he heads for the pantry.

* * *

The package arrives on Beckett's doorstep late on Christmas Eve. She looks up and down the hallway, but there's no sign of the courier. The package is neatly wrapped in brown paper, and Castle's name is prominent on the return-address corner, so there's certainly no doubt about who it came from.

She takes it inside, entirely determined to drop it off on her coffee table and get to it whenever she happens to feel like it. It just so happens that 'when she feels like it' turns out to be about three seconds after she sets the package down.

The tiny speedboat-in-a-bottle makes her raise an eyebrow in bafflement, but then a lot of things about Castle trigger that single-eyebrow reflex. When she sees the name on the back of the boat, though, she has a fast jolt of recollection, flashing back to the first time she read that book. 'Swamp Jaguar'? Did he seriously have a character name a boat 'Swamp Jaguar'? Who the hell puts jaguars in a swamp in the first place? And that is one terrible pun, even for Rick Castle...

It's cute, but suspicious. Somebody blabbed. She narrows her eyes as she looks at the other thing in the package, which is a small document folder that looks like maybe a sliver of a manuscript. She opens it up; looks like about twenty double-spaced pages.

She flips back to the title page and actually reads it this time.

For K.B., who reawakens my urge to write late last minute gifts. I meant it when I called you my muse.

Paging through the folder, her eyebrows shoot up until they're nearly at her hairline. Her lips form a little "o" of surprise, and she keeps reading as she heads for the bathroom, starting up the tub and nearly dropping the folder into the water when she can't bring herself to put it down.

Any Port In A Storm is, in fact, her favorite Derrick Storm book; it's probably still her favorite Richard Castle book, and yes, she likes the boat. It's also a book that led audiences to beg for a sequel starring the speedboat-racing heroine--the woman who'd stolen the villain's speedboat and gone out in the dead of night to pull Storm out of the water and get him back to safety. Castle had never gone back to that character, and even Beckett had been a little disappointed.

Twenty pages of Solina Jackson's story isn't much--definitely isn't the sequel everyone had hoped for--but Beckett reads it all in one shot, cheering at the speedboat race and gloating when Jackson doesn't return Storm's calls. She reads it again in the tub, and before she gets into bed, she pulls Any Port In A Storm off her bookshelf.

She's going to have to thank him for this, but somebody definitely owes her one for telling him which one was her favorite book. Can't afford to let him gloat too much, she thinks. He might overdose on smug.

* * *

"Anything but a lump of coal," Castle mutters, ripping open Beckett's present. It's been sitting under the tree for a whole week now, after mysteriously appearing one afternoon while he was out shopping. Having checked it out thoroughly, he's determined that it's heavy, and it makes sort of a rattling thud sound. It doesn't smell like anything, but then, coal doesn't have much of an odor. "Anything but a lump of coal..."

"Not a lump of coal," Alexis says. She's laughing at him, at the little "ooh!" sound he let out when he pulled out the three-pack of pocket-sized Moleskine notebooks, but it's the little egg in the box that's really making her laugh--probably because it's what really has his attention. "Is that..."

"Silly Putty." Castle's beaming; he can't help it. "Oh, look, there's a note--"

Castle -- get this on anything at a crime scene and I'll kill you. No, you can't use it to lift images or print off evidence. Merry Christmas. Beckett.

"She got you Silly Putty? After you stayed up all night writing her a story?" Martha shakes her head. "I think someone needs to teach that woman how to shop."

Castle's already got the Silly Putty out of the egg, though, and he rolls it into a ball and bounces it off the floor. It hits a wad of wrapping paper, and he ends up having to chase it across the room, but he's still grinning ear-to-ear.

"I think she did just fine."

-end-