“Kate, come here a minute,” Castle says softly. She can feel his hand at the small of her back, and she wonders of he’s about to insist they go home. And which ‘home’ that’ll be. She doesn’t feel strong enough to fight him on it right now. But no, he defended her against Gates. So what then?

He guides her to the break room and sits her down at one of the tables. He takes the seat across from her and her hand in his. His hands are soft and warm covering hers, and she can no longer conceal the slight shake to them. “Why are you doing this, Kate?”

A billion answers flit through her head, but she tries to answer him with the most honest. It’s not just about getting back to her job. In this scenario, she has nothing to prove. Nothing is expected of her. She’s stubborn, not stupid. She knows that this is pushing it. She knows this probably isn’t the best place to be. “I’m scared, Castle. Of being out there. With just my shooter out in the world, I was willing to face that. I was willing to take the chance that he was still out there, because if he hadn’t made another move by now he probably wasn’t going to. I couldn’t live my life in constant fear of him. Now there is a very real chance that someone else is gunning for me—that man in Gates’s office. I saw him, Castle, I saw his face. It’s not that I’m rushing back into my job, I know I’m not ready for that, I know that, but I’m safer in here. Everyone’s on watch for him in here. There are people I trust, with weapons, in here.” She wills him to understand, knowing she hasn’t explained herself very well. Every thought and emotion is a jumble in her head.

Castle nods and she looks up to study his expression. He looks...impressed. Surprised. That that was her reason? Maybe. That she was willing to admit it? Probably.

“Okay, Kate,” he smiles, squeezing her hands. “I understand. We’ll keep you safe. You have nothing to worry about.” She smiles weakly back. “How are you doing?”

“I’m okay, Castle. Shaken, but okay. It doesn’t get easier each time, but being here helps. At the mall, at my caught me by surprise. Here, there are suspects everywhere, and some of them are criminals. It’s to be expected I guess.”

Castle gives a short laugh. “Guess we need to find you a new job then.”

Kate stands. “Well, we wouldn’t want them to walk free, would we?” she answers back lightly. “Come on, let’s go see what Espo and Ryan are up to.”

“Yeah,” Castle agrees. “Oh yeah, back in Gates’s office, did you say ‘Wild Heat’?”

It takes Kate a minute to figure out what he’s talking about. “What? Oh, yeah, I did. First thing that came to mind.”

“Wild Heat,” he mused. “Good name for a Nikki Heat book.”

“Feel free to use it,” Kate says. “It already has a history—it probably saved Alanis Casparian’s life and wounded some narcotics officer in the foot.”

“Awesome,” says Castle. “Well, not the foot part, ow, but awesome.”

Kate chuckles weakly and heads for the door. Outside, to her relief, most of the witnesses for the daytime shooting have left. Fled, really. The precinct is back to normal. She takes one look at the unbroken whiteness of the murder board and knows what she wants to do. With Castle watching, she picks up the photos from Ryan’s desk and begins to post them rapidly, as well as cover some of the blank space with her readable, easy-on-the-eyes capital letters. It irks her that she can’t even list suspects or victims, as no one has been killed yet and they already know who the man with the gun is. The only reason this is their case is that it happened at their precinct, on their floor. According to Ryan, narcotics had been itching to get their hands on this one given what had happened to their uniform, but were forced to concede that homicide might have more experience handling this sort of thing. Kate caps her marker, having moved all of the information available to her onto the board. She hadn’t realized just how much she’d missed the distinct scent of whiteboard marker and the definitive squeak of the tip against the board’s slippery surface. The combined smell and sound, along with the familiar task, help to ground her a little.

She can feel Castle’s eyes boring into her from his protective position five feet away. His stance reminds her of a watchdog. Or a meerkat. But for once she doesn’t mind him watching her work.

As soon as she’s capped the pen, Espo’s sliding over to her in his chair. “Why are you here, Beckett? None of us would blame you if you just wanted to go home. You’ve got nothing to prove. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, Espo, I do,” she says. “I guess I just don’t want to be the victim again. I want to be a cop instead.” Esposito nods and some of his concerned expression melts away.

Before he can say anything else, however, Gates is storming past them and yelling loud enough to gather the attention of the entire bullpen. “Damn, how did they get in here? I thought I made myself clear; clear this floor of civilians and allow in authorized persons only for the duration of this case!”

“Sorry to interrupt your investigation, but all access pass,” the orange-haired woman held up her badge. “We’re going to need everything you have on Finn Sandler.” Kate recognizes her immediately.

“Special Agent Shaw,” she says with a handshake. Espo and Ryan scramble to greet her as well, with Gates bobbing in her wake.

“On what grounds are you taking over our investigation?” Gates demands.

“Sandler is a person of interest in several kidnappings,” Shaw replies before turning back to Kate. ”It’s nice to see you again, Detective Beckett. I saw on the news you were shot. How’re you holding up?”

“I’m okay,” Kate smiles unconvincingly.

“I’ve been there,” Shaw replies. “You and I, we should chat after our work here is done.”

Kate nods, wondering when Agent Shaw had ever been shot. For once, she’s not angry that the FBI is taking over her investigation—Esposito’s investigation. Habit. Though she had initially been hostile to the bureau’s butting in, she had warmed up to her over the course of the Scott Dunn case. After Kate had rescued her from Dunn, the two had gone their separate ways. She was loathe to admit it, but part of the reason she’d disliked Shaw at first was all of the cool gadgets she brought with her and the way Castle hung on her every word. If she was a one-writer girl, then Castle should have extended the same courtesy and been a one-muse man. Nevertheless, she has nothing to worry about now. She knows exactly where she and Castle stand, and Agent Shaw is resourceful and intelligent—she’ll only be an asset in catching Sandler. Plus she’s friendly to work with, unlike other federal agents she’s known.

“Detectives Esposito, Ryan, Mr. Castle, nice to see you again,” Shaw says.

“You all know each other?” Gates asks, connecting the five of them with her fingers.

“Yes, we worked with Special Agent Shaw on the Scott Dunn case,” Esposito answers. “Beckett’s apartment got blown up and Agent Shaw was kidnapped by Dunn.”

“And I was rescued by Nikki Heat,” Shaw says with a slight smile. The team smiles too.

“Nikki Heat? I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” Gates questions.

“She was rescued by Beckett and Castle,” Ryan supplies. “Dunn had a fascination with Nikki, and she’s part Castle, part Beckett.”

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced,” Shaw turns to Captain Gates. “Special Agent Jordan Shaw.”

“Captain Victoria Gates,” Gates’s expression is slightly softer, but her eyes are the giveaway. She’s not happy about this intrusion into the workings of the precinct one bit. “Welcome back to the Twelfth, Special Agent Shaw.”

“It’s nice to be here. You’ve got a good team; we’ll try to keep you in the loop as much as possible.”

“We appreciate it,” Gates says. A uniform walks up and says something close to her ear. “Excuse me; I’ve got the commissioner on the line. Detectives, give your full cooperation to Agent Shaw and her team.” She hurries away as Espo and Ryan murmur their assent. She finds herself nodding too out of habit.

“We’ll need a place to set up like last time,” Shaw says, “I’ve got guys in the elevator right now with the smart boards and more equipment on the way.”

“Same place as last time works,” Espo suggests, and Shaw nods smartly, signaling her guys to the location. Agent Avery, her partner, joins her and greets the team in much the same way, although a bit more formally. She knows from experience that they have a very effective partnership—without the banter that accompanies hers and Castle’s, but with the same mutual trust and respect.

Within minutes the FBI have set up the infamous “war room” with its three large glass screens, numerous computers and monitors, and agents bustling around inputting all the data the precinct collected from Casparian, the video footage, and even the perp’s sketch, although it probably won’t matter seeing as they’ve already identified him as Finn Sandler. In the center of the board, the Victim Comparison Matrix is already chugging away, with three other victims within the blue circle and Casparian outside of it. Kate can remember how most of this works from last time, but seeing it all again makes her even less willing to return to her apartment anytime soon. Maybe she’ll ask to stay over at Castle’s for a few days.

Castle points to the board. “Why isn’t Casparian in with the other three victims?” he asks Shaw.

“Because we don’t know the circumstances of this hostage situation,” Shaw answers. “Casparian may have been just opportunistic for Sandler, or she may have actually been his next target. Until we know that, we’ll keep her separate from the other definite victims.”

“Ballistics,” Esposito strides in holding a packet of papers aloft, “for the gun Sandler was using. He probably will have ditched it by now, but we can cross-reference the bullets with those used in other unsolved murders in our database.”

Shaw takes the papers, leafs through them quickly, and then hands them off to one of her underlings. “Is Casparian still in the precinct?”

“No, Doc Holloway sent her home,” Ryan answers, a woman around Kate’s age in tow. “But we had a protective detail on her just to be safe, and as soon as we heard about Sandler’s other kidnappings we radioed them to take her back here to be put in witness protection. ETA in ten minutes.”

Shaw nods. “Good. Who is this?”

“Tory Ellis, narcotics. She’s our best video tech, and she’s the one who managed to combine the sketch and the shaded face from the feed for facial rec,” Ryan answers. They shake hands.

“Agent Avery can show you the ropes of what we’re doing here,” Shaw tells her.

“Tell us about the other victims,” Esposito suggests. “What’s Sandler’s MO?”

“We’ve yet to find anything definitive connecting any of them,” Shaw replies. “Sandra Baker, thirty-nine, biochemist, married. Lucas Milton, fifty-five, accountant, married. And Kyle Neme, twenty-three, mechanical engineer. Each of them was abducted in a different part of the city and taken to different locations to be tortured. The first victim, Sandra Baker, was killed in the process, but we managed to recover samples of epithelial cells from under her fingernails. Ran them for DNA, nothing. Second victim, Neme, same MO as the first, taken off the street in the dark, no witnesses, but a tenant from the nearby apartment building heard the screams from the torture and called 911. The NYPD found Neme with multiple stab wounds and four of his fingernails ripped off of his left hand and he was transported to the hospital. They ran DNA and found the same as ours, which pinged on our radar. Neme recovered and was able to give us a license plate number and a sketch of his kidnapper, but when we caught up with the van it had Sandler’s partner, Ian Dubose, inside instead. Milton was found a few days later with wounds identical to Baker and Neme’s, but he looked to have been killed before Baker.”

“So Sandler did the kidnapping, and Dubose did the torturing,” Castle says. “Do you know what information they were trying to get out of Baker, Neme, and Milton?”

“Not yet,” Shaw answers. “Hopefully something will pop on the Matrix.”

“Agent Shaw,” one of her guys interrupts. “Nothing yet in the comparison, but ballistics got a match to an ongoing investigation at the Fifty-Fourth Precinct. Ran ‘em twice, they’re sure it’s the same gun.”

Shaw nods smartly, satisfaction flashing in her eyes. “All right, everything on that case on the big screen.” The man hurries away and a moment later the boards are filled with text and documents. “Add him to the comparison as well,” Shaw directs. “Unless we’re able to break Dubose, finding a connection is going to be our only lead.”

“There,” Agent Avery points. “Lucas Milton and their victim, Fernanda Gonzalves, worked at the same company, Labaque Incorporated.”

“Everything you’ve got on Labaque—” Shaw barely has to say it before it zooms up onto the large screens for them to peruse. Kate steps closer to get a better look, conscious of Castle mimicking her move. He’s staying close, and she’s grateful.

“Labaque Inc. is a large biotech research company with advanced work in genetics and cellular mitosis,” Castle reads off quietly and then lapses into silence, still moving his lips.

“I think I may have found that connection you’re looking for,” Tory Ellis speaks up. It takes Beckett a minute to place her as one of their own, as she looks so at home among the feds. They all move backward to give her room next to the smart board. She enlarges a section of text with a flick of her fingers and does the same to another document. “Labaque Inc. recently bought out several smaller facilities, including GENtex and Technogen. Eight months ago, GENtex took over a smaller company, Baltimore Labs—”

“Where Baker worked,” Kate catches on. “Three victims all working for the same company? That can’t be a coincidence.”

“It’s not,” Shaw agrees, and motions with her hand. “We’ll go find out what we can at Labaque’s central offices; Detectives Ryan and Esposito, you two check out the old GENtex labs. If their people are being targeted, they’re going to want to cooperate. And if they don’t, well, that says something too.”

“On it,” Esposito nods. For a moment Castle looks excited at the prospect of splitting up—if Espo and Ryan aren’t going with the FBI, then she and Castle get to ride in what he calls the fedmobile—before remembering Gates’s instruction that they are not to work on the case outside of the precinct. Kate feels sorry for holding him here, but there’s nothing she can do about it. Even if she felt safe letting Castle go without her, Gates would never allow him to assist on a case, especially such a high profile one as this.

Shaw turns back to Kate and Castle at the last second before she follows her team into the elevator. “Go home and get some rest, Beckett. There’s going to be nothing more for you and Castle to do tonight, and I know how much a bullet wound can take out of you. We’ll call if anything exciting happens, don’t worry.”

Kate nods uneasily and watches her go with mixed emotions. Jealousy, that Shaw is able to go out and find this guy. Relief, to get some rest. She’s been on her feet longer than normal—not all afternoon, but a good portion of it. She’s also had to be actively engaged all that time as well, sitting or standing. Add to that the extra tenseness in her muscles from the PTSD and she’s very willing to admit she’s tired. It’s only five o’clock—she never leaves the precinct this early—but for now, Agent Shaw is right, there’s nothing left to do.

That night, despite a delicious home-cooked meal by Castle’s daughter and Castle’s own warmth in the bed beside her, Kate can’t seem to fall asleep. Her mind just keeps running: sometimes playing back the shooting and the gun that Sandler held, sometimes about the case, and sometimes just…thoughts. Castle’s been fast asleep for hours—the clock reads 3:45 A.M.

With a sigh, Kate slips the covers off of her and, careful not to disturb Castle, tiptoes out of the bedroom and shuts the door behind her. The living room light is on, and Kate gravitates toward it. “Alexis,” she whispers. The red-head jumps slightly before recovering. Alexis is curled up under a blanket on one end, her legs tucked up to her chest. Kate sits down and Alexis tosses her one end of the blanket.

“What are you doing up?” Alexis asks mid-yawn as Kate situates herself under it.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Kate answers truthfully. “You?”

“Me neither,” Alexis shakes her head.

“Is there something on your mind?” Kate asks gently. “Is something wrong?” She’d much prefer to talk about Alexis’s life than her own, and she has a feeling that’s where this would have led had she not taken the initiative and spoken first.

“No, nothing,” Alexis says uncertainly. Her worried blue eyes betray her.

“Are you sure?” Kate says. “Does it have to do with Ashley?” She knows all about Alexis’s boyfriend, and though Castle seems to think they make a pretty solid couple—for a high school relationship at least—Kate’s been in enough of them to know things can change drastically at a moment’s notice.

“No, we’re fine,” Alexis says in that same quavery tone. “It’s just…” Kate looks at her expectantly. “When Dad came home and said you two’d been working a case at the precinct, I got scared.” Kate nods. “I know this may be hard for you to talk about, but when you were shot, he tried to knock you down and out of the way. He put himself in the path of the bullet.”

“Alexis,” Kate says, leaning closer. A hint of guilt is starting to seep through her veins. “I didn’t ask your dad to do that. Actually, I would prefer he never tried in the first place. I don’t want to see him get hurt, and I don’t want to see you lose your father.”

“I know that,” Alexis whispers. “I know that, I do. I don’t blame you in the slightest—I don’t want you to get hurt either. But when you guys said you went back to the precinct…for as long as your partnership has gone on, I’ve trusted you to take care of him, Kate. You to always bring him home—maybe not at the end of every day, maybe not without a few scratches, but I’ve always trusted you to bring him back safe eventually. I can’t help but wonder, who’s looking out for him now?”

“Everyone at the Twelfth,” Kate replies automatically. “Ryan and Espo, they’d never let anything happen to him. And neither would I, injured or not. I would take another bullet for him, Alexis, if that meant he could come home safe to you.”

Alexis smiles, reassured. “Okay, but don’t make habit of it, yeah?”

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