Federal Heat

an If At First, Try Again sequel

Note: It is essential to have read both 'If At First' and 'Try Again' in order to understand this story. Those two stories also have a prequel entitled 'One and Done' which is NOT necessary to read, but might establish a baseline for these characters that would be good to have.

"You cannot always be happy, but you can almost always be focused, which is the next best thing."

-'Rapt' by Winifred Gallagher

Beckett clapped a hand to her chest, trapping the rings dangling from the chain around her neck. She lunged up the last of the steps, wiped the slick sweat from her neck, and ran along the back of the top row of seats, then plunged back down the steps.

Stadiums. Kate Beckett hated early morning stadiums. Making a circuit of up and down, up and down, every single aisle, every single staircase in War Memorial Stadium at five a.m. without coffee was what Beckett considers cruel and unusual punishment.

She heard Reddick gaining on her and picked up her pace, practically flying down the stairs. She had learned, in the last ten weeks, to take them two at a time with her glutes doing most of the work, letting her long legs rest a bit. Reddick huffed as he fell behind. Beckett was in the top ten percent of her training class at Langley, but it wasn't because she wanted to be. She had to be. A requirement of joining Shaw's team was top marks in FBI Academy training.

Beckett dodged the railing and darted along the straight concrete walkway, then began the slower climb up, her breath rattling in her chest despite being in the best shape of her life. Stadium stairs were just. . .grueling. No matter what.

On the Monday after being fired from the NYPD, Beckett had taken a horrendously expensive flight to DC for the interview with Jordan Shaw's boss, Deputy Director Wilson. She had breezed through the criminal law elements, the constitutional law aspects, even the critical analysis sections. Code-breaking tests had been timed, but she'd scored in the 99th percentile for those as well.

She had been polygraphed, had passed that with ease, and then she'd been given reams of paperwork to fill out. The application process was rigorous if only for the vast amounts of tiny bubbles she'd had to shade (completely) with a number two pencil.

Beckett had yet to hear whether or not she'd passed the background check, but she was a police officer-had been a police officer-so she didn't expect that to be a problem. She was a natural for the program, Shaw had assured her, but she absolutely had to do exceedingly well in the training program.

She was halfway through that program now at ten weeks. Every day she got up a little before five in the morning, ran stadiums with her classmates, stood at attention in the quad for an hour for roll-call, then went to classes (ethics, criminal investigation, forensic science, on and on). Lunch was twenty minutes, usually limp, cold, and disgusting. She had physical training after lunch, anything from obstacle courses to a five-mile run (easy) to combat training.

As a former officer, and as a woman with a healthy paranoia, Beckett had an advanced knowledge of defensive moves; the trainer often used her as his sparring partner. She'd become ostracized from her class because she pushed herself so hard to excel, but she couldn't afford to socialize at the expense of her success here.

This was her last shot. If she washed out of the Academy, she had no chance of bringing down the man who had murdered her mother, who had orchestrated Beckett's dismissal from the NYPD. She had to do this.

In the stadium, Beckett was alone at the top; Reddick had dropped too far back now to catch up. She could see the rest of her class in a ragged line behind her, five or six of them were almost three stairs away. She was coming up on the halfway mark now; her sweat burned in her eyes.

Beckett lifted her hand to swipe at her eyebrows; the rings swung free and bounced against her collarbone. She tucked the chain into her sports bra, promising to herself to have both of the rings cleaned when she got home (if she made it home). Home. New York. Castle.

Reddick had commented often on the rings, had banded some of the others together to tease her about them. But Beckett had seen real malice in his eyes, and she'd refused to explain. She was afraid now to take them off for sleep or workouts. So they stayed on the chain around her neck.

Her chest burned against them; she tried to push out thoughts of Castle entirely. It did her no good to start thinking of him, of the city, of the guys at the 12th right now. If she gave in to it during early morning stadiums, she would be a brutal wreck the rest of the day.

After the interview in DC, Beckett had flown straight to Quantico; she'd never got a chance to see Castle again, or thank him, but they'd shared a rushed phone call before her cell had been taken from her. She'd met her fellow trainees, her classmates, and had been paired with Reddick for their 'integrated case scenario' in Hogan's Alley. Beckett wasn't looking forward to that whatsoever.

Michael Reddick was an ass. Ego-driven, attention-seeking, but he was deadly calculating.

She might have appreciated having a superior partner if he hadn't always been trying to sabotage her. She'd managed to avoid the worst of it so far, his purposeful misdirects, his incorrect answers, but when they would go to Hogan's Alley at the end of their training, they absolutely had to solve using the skills they'd acquired in training, and Beckett wasn't entirely sure that Reddick will do his job. But it was their final project, so to speak, the thing which would make or break her, and she needed him to fall in line. Soon.

Beckett hated needing anyone.

So much of training was stuff she already knew, but the rest of it was so completely alien to her that it makes her second guess this decision. Anti-terrorism, bomb detonation and removal, counterintelligence, forensic science, behavioral science, weapons of mass destruction. . .

What Beckett had was a smattering of shallow details and broad concepts in the wide scope of criminology, but new agent training required an in-depth working knowledge that just might be too much for her. Fortunately, the interrogation techniques, legal disciplines, interviewing, and criminal investigations were second nature for her, and she was ruthlessly intelligent. She knew she had the brains for it, the critical thinking skills. She just had to make sure Reddick did what he was supposed to.

In a week, her class had an ethics training field trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, and in eight more weeks, they'd be required to 'arrest' the suspects in the mock case they'd investigated. After that case exercise was the Capstone exercise, where they'd have to gather intelligence and profile a variety of culturally diverse suspects; this was the one she was worried about. It seemed more like guessing and less like cold, hard facts. Where was the timeline? Where was her autopsy, her trace evidence?

Beckett was finding this twenty-week. new agent training to be a strange combination of physically daunting and politically correct.

It was messing with her mind.

Beckett paused at the stop of the stadium once more, just for a moment, and watched the first flickers of light showing up along the horizon. The darkness of pre-dawn suited her better, but she welcomed the passage of time. Every sunrise she saw meant another day closer to Castle.

Castle. Right. She wasn't happy with it, not entirely, but she needed it. Him. Whatever.

Not just Academy graduation, not just a new job in the FBI, not just criminal profiling with Agent Shaw's team, but what she looked forward to the most was returning home to Castle.

She pressed her palm to her chest, felt the round shape of both rings, the sharp edges of her mother's diamond and the always-cool titanium smoothness of Castle's. She started back down the stadium steps, letting her momentum carry her. She had another two stairways to go before she was done.

She hadn't seen Castle in ten weeks, and she hadn't been given her personal effects back (cell phone, ID, her personal weapon-all held for her in storage), but she was able to get care packages. She'd had a note from Shaw early on, reassuring Beckett that Jordan had given her contact info to Castle and her partners at the 12th, and ever since then, the mail had been her lifeline.

It'd taken a week before Castle's package had arrived for her, wrapped in brown paper, her name written in that blocky scrawl, his scent clinging to the box. When she'd opened it in the privacy of the dense woods bordering the obstacle course, she'd been glad she'd slipped out to be alone.

This would've been a disaster to open in the cafeteria.

The jeweler's box had been that telltale Tiffany's blue, looking remarkably similar to the boxes Castle had put all the candy jewelry in. . .oh, ages ago. When she'd cracked the lid, she really had been expecting another ring pop, another clever joke to make her smile.

She hadn't expected an actual ring.

Titanium silver, according to the little card inside, which had also assured her meant the ring was durable, an aircraft grade that would be nearly impossible to break or shatter. Castle had added: no matter what you do, the promise holds.

A warning and a promise both.

With her chest too tight, Beckett had pulled the ring from it's soft bed, realizing then that it hadn't been fit to her finger. It was too wide, the circumference too big; it dangled from her thumb.

It was supposed to be his.

Without only a moment's hesitation, Beckett had slipped the chain from around her neck and had added Castle's ring to her mother's, the two of them fitting perfectly side by side. It was only then, with the afternoon sunlight slanting through the dense trees, that Beckett had seen the etching inside the band.

August 27

He'd set a date. He had set a date, and he had gotten her a ring.