Ryan grins as they approach the building, and Kate glances down to double check that she and Castle are not, in fact, holding hands. They're not. Must be something else then.

"Let me get this straight," the blue-eyed detective says cheekily. "You two make it out of the lair of a three hundred pound hungry tiger completely unscathed, only to be mauled by a one pound kitten. How does that work, exactly?"

She has to give it to him. That was a bit funny. Watching him feed the birds with Esposito is just icing on the cake. They're like her little brothers sometimes, and she can't help but love them for their goofiness, be grateful for their friendship.

"She just lulls you into a false sense of security, you know?" her partner is telling them now. "I mean, she's all sweet and cuddly and affectionate, and then, BAM! she's got her claws in you."

Esposito bumps Castle's shoulder as they step into the elevator.

"Dude, I do not need to know what happens when you and Beckett hang out. She's like my sister, man!"

Yeah, maybe love and gratitude aren't exactly the right words to describe how she feels about them.

Somehow, she manages to swing her leg around Castle's knee and catch the Hispanic detective's shin with her heel.

"Madre de Dios!" he exclaims, leaning against the side of the elevator and reaching down to clutch at his leg. "I see what you mean, bro."

She levels a glare on him, and he shuts up instantly. Castle's body is close enough that she can feel the slight quiver of his arms, and when she looks up at him, both lips are tucked tightly between his teeth, holding in his laughter.

She's just about ready to glare at him too when he gives her a subtle nod, a little message of serves him rightcommunicated clearly through his eyes.

They've ganged up on the writer in the past, especially when he was "cursed," but she and Castle have had their fair share of "us vs. them" moments against Ryan and Esposito too. And it looks like the dynamics won't be changing anytime soon.

Esposito is still complaining when the elevator doors slide open and they're confronted with an empty hallway.

"What's the number?" she asks as they step out, looking to one of the boys for the information.

Ryan glances down at his notebook.

"Five-oh...that's not good."

She follows his eyes to apartment 503, takes note of the splintered wood that used to be a door, now demolished by an axe or a sledgehammer or something equally destructive.

None of them are wearing vests. They weren't expecting this kind of reception. And who knows who or what might wait for them inside?

She exchanges a look with Esposito and then Ryan, finally turns her eyes to the fourth member of the team.

"You stay out here until we clear it, Castle."

She makes sure the command in her voice is clear, and for once he doesn't argue, just nods. But just as she's about to turn away and follow Esposito inside, he speaks, barely more than a whisper, low enough that she's the only one who can hear the words.


"Careful. I know. I will. You keep your eyes open too."

He nods again, and she steps past him, brushing her knuckles along his hip on the way.

Esposito gives a silent three-count and throws open what remains of the door, calling out a warning to whomever might be inside.

Darkness fills the space, the curtains closed, and every light off. The three detectives fan out, checking the rooms one by own, hastily retrieved flashlights searching every corner for signs of life or death. But there's nothing they can see, no one to be found. The first thing she does once they've cleared the apartment is hunt for the light switch. The second is to call out for Castle to let him know he can come in.

He doesn't answer.

Her heart pounds rapidly in her chest, as she locks eyes with Ryan who stands closest to the door. The man steps quickly out to check on the writer.

"Beckett?" he calls from the hallway. "He's gone."

No. She left him alone for two minutes, tops. Probably less than that. That's not enough time for something to have happened to him. Not after everything they've been through to get where they are now. Not after last night and this morning and their battle to make things right between them. No...

Esposito is on her heels as she exits the apartment. They'll need to finish checking things out. But she has other priorities at the moment. Namely, one Richard Castle.

Ryan stands in the hallway, awaiting her instruction. But before she has a chance to say a word, to form a single plan in her mind, his laughter rings out from the open doorway a few yards away, and there he is, leaning down to let an older woman pat his cheek, that crinkled-eyed smile on his face.

She's going to kill him for disappearing like that. Hug him first, maybe. But then kill him.

"Hey, there you are," he says when he looks up. But he must catch the expression on her face, possibly those of the boys as well, because he immediately looks concerned. "Everything okay?"

She shakes her head as her heart rate slows back to its regular pace.

"Fine, Castle," she tells him, giving him a tight smile when the worried look doesn't leave his face. "What's up?"

His posture straightens, and he searches her eyes, glances over to Ryan and Esposito who both just look relieved. When none of the three detectives offer anything more, the writer gestures to the woman, and Kate studies her for the first time.

"This is Gloria Dias," he says, hand coming to rest gently on the woman's stooped shoulder. "She lives in 506."

She's barely five feet tall - tiny, especially when standing next to the detective's rather large shadow. But the woman has the look of someone who has seen much, who has survived by determination and grit and sheer force of will.

"You are looking for Claudia Restrepo?" she asks in slow but confident English, and Beckett nods, approaching the pair. "She is gone."

Esposito opens his mouth to speak, possibly to question the woman in Spanish, to get answers more quickly, more fluidly. But Castle jumps in before the other man has the chance.

"Gone how?" the writer asks quietly. "Gone as in she left?"

The wizened woman shakes her head.

"Dead, Richard Castle. Two days ago. Friday morning."

The kid was innocent, and now their only other lead is dead. Lovely.

"How did she die, Ms. Dias?" Kate asks, stepping closer to stand next to her partner. His elbow brushes against her side and she realizes she's a little too near. A night and a morning of close contact between them has skewed her perception of acceptable distance. But she's not going to move now - that would just make her look skittish to him and raise suspicion from the boys, and she doesn't want either. Better just to stay put.

"She had a heart attack," the woman says, lifting her hand to gesture toward the other apartment. "Right here in the corridor, as she was bringing in her groceries. I called 911, but it was too late by the time the paramedics arrived. It is too bad. She was a good friend."

Kate steps back, sweeps her gaze up and down the hallway, drifting back toward the broken door.

"Do you know how that happened?" the detective asks, pointing back toward the other apartment.

The woman shakes her head.

"I went to visit my daughter and her family on Friday night. Yesterday was my granddaughter's eleventh birthday. I just returned and saw the door that way a few minutes ago. I was about to call the police when I heard the yelling and came out to find Richard Castle standing in the hall."

Kate gives her partner a look, and he ducks his head sheepishly.

"Nikki Fuego," he says with a small grin for the weathered woman who is looking up at him with a strange mixture of awe and motherly affection. "She recognized me from my picture on the back."

Oh. She's seen him with groupies and gangsters, but grandmothers? That's new. And sweet, the way he smiles at the woman. He's a good man, generous and kindhearted.

"Did Mrs. Restrepo live with anyone?" Ryan pipes up, drawing her attention away from the sparkling blue of her partner's eyes, back to the investigation.

The woman nods.

"Her son, James."

"Have you seen him recently?" Ryan asks. "Since she died, I mean."

Ms. Dias shakes her head.

"He'd been gone about a week. She told me he was out of town on business. I am sure someone called him after his mother died, but as I said, I have not been home."

Beckett nods to Esposito and he steps away from the group, phone already to his ear, calling the information in to confirm the son's whereabouts.

"Is there anything else you can tell us, Ms. Dias?"

Her partner's voice is soft, compassionate. But the older woman shrugs.

"They were quiet people. There isn't much to tell. They lived here for five years. There were never any problems as far as I could tell. He went to work every day. She stayed home mostly. We attended the same church. But aside from that, I can think of nothing else."

The detectives thank Ms. Dias for her time, and Kate watches, holding back an affectionate smile, as the writer bends to press a kiss to the back of the older woman's hand. She blushes, and as he straightens, Castle gives her a roguish wink. Mrs. Dias laughs and smacks him on the arm, and warmth flares in Kate's belly as she takes in the scene.

"Always the charmer, isn't he?" Ryan whispers, and Kate turns to see the blue-eyed detective standing next to her.

She shrugs, ignores the knowing look he's giving her.

"Part of his nature, I guess," she offers. "And it probably helps sell the books too. All part of the persona."

Ryan nods and focuses his gaze on the writer, whose attention is still on the older woman, head tilted down to her level, eyes twinkling at whatever she's saying to him.

"It's not a bad thing," the other detective tells her, breaking Kate out of her thoughts. "He's a good guy. I'm glad he's here."

A flutter of affection for her teammate rises up in her chest, and she turns to him. He's getting married in a week, and Jenny will be a lucky girl to have a husband like Kevin Ryan. He's unfailingly loyal, smart and kind. He'll be a good mate, and a good father someday too.

"Don't you dare tell Castle I said this," she warns. "But I'm kinda glad he's here too."

And then the gentle smile on the man's face turns to a teasing smirk.

"Yeah, I just bet you are."

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