Locked and Loaded

To be completely honest, Castle didn’t expect L.T. to come through for them so quickly. At the very least, he’d expected a few days’ time in which to make sure she was really ready for this. Hold the gun in her apartment, leave it on the table, whatever—not this. Not introducing the element of true danger, not just what her mind fabricated. Motionless on the counter, or in her own hands, it has no power to hurt. She’s trained, and he’s sure she left the safety on and unloaded it as a precaution. This time, it represents a real situation. A real danger. One she will face nearly every day, once she gets back to the precinct.

It’s times like these—when he really stops and thinks about it—that he just wants to sweep her away from a life in law enforcement, provide for her with his vast sums of money, and protect her from every trauma, physical, emotional, or mental. Her job is taxing, frustrating, a never-ending war with far too many casualties. She has almost been one of them already. He loves her, and without her, he knows full well he’d never be the same.

But when his mind inevitably goes down this path of thinking, it always circles back to one point. He loves her, and wants to protect her, so she’s safe. He loves all of her, all the pieces that make her up. If he took away being a cop, he would lose a part of her, one that is irreplaceable. He would lose that grateful, triumphant look she gives him every time they put a bad guy in jail. He would lose her determination, her fire, that goes into interrogation and extracts information from mobsters, druggies, thugs, and other lowlifes.

Losing any part of her spirit is about as acceptable to him as his arm being cut off.

So instead he’s forced to watch her walking toward him and put on a brave smile. Her gait is steady, but the jumpiness of her darting eyes and her uncertain countenance betrays her true feelings. When she reaches him, he doesn’t let either of them say a word before encircling his arms around her and feels her relax against him a little with a soft outpouring of breath. He just stands there holding her, drinking in the cherries in her hair as he knows she’s inhaling the scent of his cologne from where she’s tucked up against him. Seconds tick past, but there’s no place Castle would rather be than cradling her against his body, her soft hair feathery strands of silk on his chin and cheek. When he hears L.T.’s footsteps in the hallway, he releases her slowly and puts his hands on her shoulders, squeezing gently and meeting her eyes. “You can do this.”

“I can do this,” she repeats, mimicking his confidence. Kate turns to face L.T. and Castle retreats to a corner. She backs up to put some space between her and the officer, and Castle repositions himself to be just a few feet behind her in case she falls. He doesn’t know quite what he’s expecting to happen.

L.T.’s eyes lock with Kate’s and she nods. His hand moves slowly towards his gun, drawing it from its holster and directing it in the general area of her chest. The effect is immediate, and except for the absence of sound Castle would have thought that he’d really shot her because of the way she reacted. The shock is clear on her face, like someone who’d unexpectedly broken through the ice of a pond and plunged knee deep in freezing water. He recognizes that look all too well; it’s the same one that engulfed her at Montgomery’s funeral one and a half months ago.

Castle steps forward out of the shadows and runs his hands down her arms to her stiff fingers as he cushions her body against him from behind. He runs his thumbs over her clenched fingers, persuading them to relax while his mouth persuades her to breathe. He feels the tension lessen after a minute or so, and then she says, “It’s okay, Castle.” He dutifully steps back, fingertips trailing along her left arm until he’s forced to break contact completely.

L.T. holsters his Glock and Kate nods her readiness. He draws. She freezes. Castle steps forward. She recovers, “Again.” He draws.

They do this for the better part of an hour, with progressively less and less recovery time needed for Kate and steadily increasing speed of draws on the part of L.T. Either he’s intentionally acclimating her to the speed of a normal draw, or it’s him unintentionally reverting back to his Academy training through repetition—gun up, quick as you can. Castle thinks the latter, as Kate hasn’t requested him to go any faster. And yet she’s still improving. He’s glad. He can’t wait for this ordeal to be over.

But…part of him kind of wants it to stay this way. He’s spending more time with her than ever before, and none of it involving harrowing life-or-death situations. She’s letting him into her personal life, letting him take care of her. They do, well, nearly everything together.

Once she goes back, he’s afraid this “Kate” he’s just spent so much time with will fade into the background as her “Beckett” persona takes charge. He won’t be around as much, if Gates has anything to say about it. He knows she can’t stop them from working together, but Castle’s of the opinion that their new Captain would staunchly disapprove of a civilian assisting with prep for a trial or filling out police paperwork. Not that he ever did any anyway. He’ll have no excuse not to devote more time and interest into his mother’s acting school, and, even more torturously, no excuse to give Gina and Black Pawn to get him out of any long meetings, PR with nosy reporters, late night talk shows, or book signings. He’ll have to—oh, the horror—actually set a date for the Heat Rises book tour and commit to it. Kind of like buying a baseball bat and later bludgeoning yourself with it.

But most of all, he’ll miss the late mornings—if he wakes first, the watching her sleep, if she does, the way she smiles when she sees his eyes flutter open. Instead, awakened by a phone call that means somewhere, someone has died. With Beckett’s luck, probably gruesomely. And that’s not the kind of news he wants to be woken up to every morning.

To Ryan and Esposito, Castle likes the creepy ones, the mysterious ones—he spins wild theories and makes them out to be spies on covert missions—is a spy ever not on a covert mission? or is that just redundant—but really, it’s a defense mechanism. He can’t think about the victims as people; it hits too close to home. Treating them as just another case number is unfair. So he makes up stories, adds grandeur and mystique. So he can focus on something other than their humanity. So that he can think things besides the fact that that could just as easily be him, or Alexis, or Kate, or his mother, or Esposito, Ryan, or Lanie. Every cop has defense mechanisms. It’s how they do their jobs.

He realizes he’s just called himself a cop. He’s not, in any formal sense of the word. Cop helper, a writer, Richard-Castle-just-NY, those are what he is. So why does he do it? For the victims, and…for the girl. The woman who’s captured his heart.

They’ve just finished their twenty-somethingth time when L.T. holsters the rubber weapon for real, clipping it in. “I have to be back to the Twelfth and report for duty in half an hour,” he says. “But if you want, we pick this up again Monday.”

Kate nods, thanking him, and retrieves her stuff. They stand outside the building quietly as they watch L.T.’s squad car disappear into crowded New York City traffic. She turns and snakes her hand into his, squeezing lightly as they begin the walk to where his car is parked a few blocks away. The street is cluttered, but not overly so, and there are only a few other people on the sidewalk. Once they’ve skirted around a particularly suspicious-looking character smoking a cigarette and eyeing them under a dark hat, Castle probes the subject. “So, how do you feel?”

“Like I just watched a horror movie a hundred times over,” Kate sighs. “Every time got a bit better, but it’s still not easy, you know?”

“Towards the end there, you looked like you were reaching for a gun yourself,” Castle reminds her gently.

“True,” she says, looking marginally happier. “I just want to curl up and relax when we get back to the loft. Leave the shooting range for tomorrow. My nerves are shot already.”

Castle agrees immediately.

The next day comes all too quickly for his taste, something that seems to happen all too often when he’s dreading an event in the near future. She’s convinced him to take her to the shooting range where he learned to shoot, and he has to admit it’s a good idea—she’ll definitely have to requalify to carry her firearm, and the number of hours he’s logged at this place getting as good as he is will pretty much allow them to be left relatively alone. He’s very familiar—and very generous—with the proprietors. It goes back to the earlier days of his success, after his first or second bestseller, when the mobs of press really started taking an active interest in him—and his personal life. Before Alexis was born, before he and Meredith had even met, he’d slip away to here, a small gun range at which they’d never even think of looking for him. To Gina and Paula, when they complained he wasn’t doing enough writing, he’d say he was doing research, but really he just needed some time alone that had nothing to do with his career or the fame it brought him. When he needed some clarity.

They give them a private area in the back in which to practice and a whole drawer’s worth of ammunition. They’ve both brought their guns from home, but Castle doesn’t think he’ll get much of a chance to practice today. Her movements are slow but steady as she loads her gun and she steps up to the window, staring down the target. It’s not a human silhouette like she’s used to, just a round one, but maybe that will help dissociate this from her own shooting.

Under his watchful eye she wraps her hands around the butt of the gun, lifting it as her finger finds its way onto the trigger. She’s concentrating hard, and the gun’s not visibly shaking but he knows it very well could be from her point of view as she aims. She fires, and at the sound of the shot jumps slightly. Her arms shift from their straight, locked position and she slowly places the gun, still facing outward, on the sill.

Castle comes up behind her, places his hands on her waist, and supports her. “You okay?” he whispers, and she gives no answer. Her eyes are focused outward, not inward, so he knows she’s not having a flashback, but the will to shoot again appears to have deserted her.

“Come on, Beckett,” he says, purposefully calling her by that name. He has a plan, and it just might help. “You’re a great shot, maybe even better than me. So show me how it’s done.” She doesn’t move, but he slips to the side of her and picks up her gun, placing it once more in her hand and adjusting her slumped stance as he continues, “It’s not a duel, Scaramouche. Here.” Her lips quirk up just a bit. “Square off to the target. Feet shoulder-distance apart.” She shuffles her feet responsively. “Okay,” he says warmly. “Gauntlet your right fist in your left palm.”

She raises her arms, points the gun at the target again. “Whoa, shot too soon,” she whispers, her first words since they’ve entered this place. A real smile tugs at her.

“No cuddling until you’ve shredded that target to bits,” Castle tells her, delighted in her response. He’d hoped reminding her of a day where all of this baggage she’s currently dealing with didn’t exist would help, and it looks like it has.

Bang. Her second shot rips a clean hole next to the first. One point. Bang. Bang. Two, three. Bang. Bang. Bang. Five, four, five. The stack of clips shrinks, and the ratio of spread-out holes to centered ones decreases. Bang, bang. Seven. Eight! That, he thinks, could be enough to merit requalification if she can repeat it.

“Tell you what,” he whispers in her ear, “you put any of the next three in the ten-ring, and I’ll cook you dinner. Whatever you want.”

She smiles, turning her head to look up at him. “Don’t you normally cook us dinner?”

He thinks about it a second. “Fine. I’ll let you proofread the next sex scene between Nikki and Rook.”

“How about you let me be the inspiration for it?” Kate suggests.

“You’re always the inspiration for it,” he says. She grins, then turns back to the target with a look of fierce determination. Bang, bang, bang. Tens. Three of them, nearly obliterating the entire inner ring.

“You’re a very good teacher,” she says cockily, placing the gun back on the sill before throwing her arms around his neck. His face is buried in her cherry-scented hair before he hears her say, “I love you, Richard Castle.”

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