I don't go to the hotel. I probably should, to regroup with the rest of the team, but old habits die hard. You don't get any closer to the target than you have to, even after the hit's successful. They're already back at Castle by the time I get there, online to General Beckman and waiting for me. My report is more concise than usual, but not so much that anyone else would notice. I missed most of the action, after all. I can feel Walker watching me out of the corner of her eye, but I can barely look at her, not until I have the chance to do so at length.
The opportunity comes soon enough. General Beckman dismisses us all, and Bartowski hightails it with that determined look that says he's going to do something stupid. Shaw leans in too close to Walker and says something I can't hear, giving her the kind of look that's none of my business before he retreats somewhere. It's just the two of us left in the main room, and the way she's watching Shaw go says that she's half forgotten I'm here. I give her a second before I put a hand on her arm, guiding her away from the screen. Not that there's anywhere in the base where we won't be under surveillance, but sometimes the illusion of privacy is enough. "Walker."
She startles for a second, which makes sense considering how rarely I touch her. "Casey?"
"Hold still." I step in closer to her, close enough that I lose the right to accuse Shaw of crossing a line, and gently tilt her chin up. There's confused concern in her eyes, but I'm not looking at her eyes, even if some part of my brain is taking careful note of the fact that she's watching me closely and not pulling away. I'm looking at her jaw, her neck, her cheek, her forehead, checking her skin for the slightest scratch or graze. After a second I can see understanding hit her; she nods so lightly that I can barely feel it and relaxes against my hand.
I know that she's fine. I know that I didn't hit her, because I'm a better shot than that, because she's here and Gruber isn't, because I watched her herd Shaw and Bartowski out of the room just in case it wasn't me who pulled the trigger. But I also watched her fall to the floor, and the part of me that stopped breathing until she stood up again is taking some convincing to accept what the rest of me already knows. Something that's been knotted up inside me starts to ease.
It's like she can feel it. She gives me the same patient look she gives Bartowski when he's panicking about something, and when I take my hand away from her chin she lets her fingers brush against mine for just a second. "It was a perfect shot," she says.
I give her a dry look as I shift my weight away from her, putting us a little closer to a safe distance apart. "It was me. Of course it was perfect."
"And you couldn't line it up before he had a gun to my neck?"
The last bit of the knot in my stomach dissolves. If she's clearheaded enough to be a smartass, she's going to be fine. "Guess I didn't think an internationally infamous hitman was going to be that much of a challenge for you."
She punches me in the arm like an angry little sister. "You could have killed me," she mutters, a little bit of an edge to her voice.
I want to grab her by the shoulders and yell, don't remind me, but it's her turn to be rattled now. I just shake my head. "There are some shots you don't let yourself miss."
She tucks some loose hair behind her ear and studies me closely. "That simple, huh?"
"It has to be." Now I am looking at her eyes, because she's holding me in place with them. They're like the rest of her: she makes them so soft most of the time that it's easy to forget that she's built around a steel core. But they're not soft now. They're cold, defiant against the remnants of fear I can see her pushing away. She's in the same place I was, needing someone else to reassure her that it's over and everything came out all right. And now that she knows I was there, too, she's letting the mask slip. I step in close to her again, so I can keep my voice low. "The alternative is an unacceptable risk."
Something in my tone or my words seems to help her refocus. She pushes in even further, practically bumping against me. It's the kind of closeness where the next step is either a kiss or a war, or maybe both. "And you're just arrogant enough to make that work for you, aren't you?"
She wants me to either back down or escalate her challenge. Or, actually, I'm pretty sure she wants to hit me again, but she wants to provoke me into deserving it first. I just shrug. "It's not arrogance when you can back it up."
She doesn't respond right away. She's looking for something else to say, something that'll let her throw all her leftover worry and anger at me. I don't mind. I've been where she is; I know from experience that a close call is harder to get over when it's one of your own people who caused it. And I know that she will get over it, because I know she's a good agent, because I know she's tough enough, because I know her. For now, I'll take the hit if she needs it.
"You just had to prove to us that you could do it."
Sometimes the hit is a low blow. Even if I know she doesn't mean it, I don't like the idea of her thinking I'd take that kind of risk just to show off. I don't let her see the flinch. "Crossing a line, Walker."
She nods, cool and crisp, acknowledging without apologizing. She's not going to agonize over sparing my feelings. Good; I'm not going to agonize over sparing my feelings. "You know that's not how it works," I add.
She nods again, a little more softly this time. "You do what you have to, when you have to, and you worry later about whether or not it was possible."
"And you don't let yourself get caught up in the 'might haves' that didn't happen," I finish, jabbing a finger at her for emphasis and stopping just short of actually touching her. "You take a minute, take a breath, and then let it go."
I'm talking to myself as much as to her, of course, and she knows it. The shape of her mouth changes. It's not a smile, not even her fake one, but it's not the hard line her lips have been in. She's really relaxing, finally, and I can see her taking that breath. "Don't ever do that again," she says softly.
"Don't put me in a position where I have to," I return, just as soft.
I don't have a name for the feeling of mutual understanding that passes between us when I say that, in part because I refuse to give it one. The relationship Walker and I have, this thing that's not exactly personal but stopped being purely professional long ago, is complicated and comfortable enough that there's no point in throwing words at it. It is what it is; it's a part of my life as much as a part of the job – not that those are exactly separate – and even when Walker is driving me up a damn wall I can't escape or deny that she's one of the few people who really matter to me. So when she settles back onto her heels, putting a less aggressive distance between us, and flashes me her "work" smile, there's a sense of relief. I already knew she was going to be okay. Now she's telling me that this thing we have is going to be okay, too.
When she leans forward again and wraps her arms around my chest, I have no idea what she's trying to tell me.
I'm pretty sure this is awkward for both of us. I'm not in the habit of letting people hug me, and she's not in the habit of hugging people, so obviously she thinks she needs this. Or maybe she thinks I need it.
Maybe she thinks we need it. And maybe she's right. The weight of her head against my shoulder feels like she's reminding herself that she trusts me, and the strength of her grip is another reassurance for me that she's here and safe. I squeeze her shoulder and bend my head close to hers, the closest I can come to returning her embrace. If I could hug her, if I'd ever thought that I might, it would have been today. She'd have been in my arms the moment I saw her again. And maybe if I was the type who did things like that, we'd work better together. More likely we wouldn't work at all.
We stay like that for a little while, and I'm just starting to think about pushing her away when she steps back on her own. There's a caution in the way she looks at me, like she's waiting for me to say something snide or give her crap about getting emotional. I'm not going to, not today. Tomorrow anything she says is fair game, but right now… "Three years," I remind her. "Three years working together, and I'm finally getting used to you. Anything happens to you, and I have to start all over again with someone else. You really think I'm going to take that chance?"
This time the smile is a real one. "No, you wouldn't," she agrees. She dips her head for a moment before giving me one of her gently solemn looks. "Thank you."
"Of course." I give her a nod as I turn to leave. "Good night, Walker."
There's something else she wants to say. She looks at me for a moment, brow slightly furrowed and mouth open as she tries to work out how to phrase it. I wait.
Her mouth closes, and her expression settles back into something unreadable. "Good night, Casey."