This wasn't exactly how Kate Beckett had envisioned spending her one-year-anniversary. This wasn't even close.
Computer screens across the precinct were lit up with crackled images that vibrated like lightening. The feed was distorted and unsteady as detectives and cops all around scrambled to find it's source. The sound of keyboards banging and hard drives being thrown to the ground could be heard throughout the halls.
"Is it a virus?"
"I don't know. All I know is the system's been hacked."
"No one can trace it. How the hell is this video stream getting in here?"
"Can anyone make out who's on the screen?"
"I think it's Esposito and Ryan. Looks like Castle too. There's a lot of blood in the room. Picture's not great quality. Can't tell for sure but I think it's them."
Chaos was erupting all around her and it was all she could do to just breathe. A loud, strong whining noise began to screech throughout the precinct as each computer hummed in unison. She stared at the screens, horror painted across her delicate features as the picture changed.
Clear and steady now, three figures came into focus, three figures she knew all too well, three figures she loved with all of her heart – words scrawled beneath their bloodied faces with a timer beginning to count:
You have 5 hours before they die. Time to play the game, Kate.
Earlier that day.
"You want to know if you can bring a fan along to a crime scene," Beckett said slowly, making sure that she had heard correctly. "A crime scene, Castle." Frowning, her eyes narrowed as she shoved the remainder of the paperwork she had been finishing into her desk's drawer. "You can't be serious."
"You won't even know she's there. Please, Kate." Richard Castle's voice had turned into a soft wheedling plea, like that of a little boy. It was something he excelled at and it always got him what he wanted. "It would be a dream come true for her. She's like ninety they tell me and I really don't want to be stuck with her all day talking about dentures and prune juice." He shuddered.
"Castle, no." Beckett shook her head, lips pursing adamantly. "It's against protocol. End of story."
"Okay," Castle started again, backtracking as he brushed his fingertips against her cheek. "Look at it this way. If I bring her with us I can send her home earlier which means we can get to our reservations earlier which means ..."
"Which means we can get home earlier," Beckett said, cutting him off with a sweet grin, eyebrows arching in a knowing fashion. "Why, Mr. Castle. Are you trying to get me into bed?"
"Who's getting into bed?" Javier Esposito strode towards the twosome, folders in hand. His partner, Kevin Ryan was close behind.
"Judging by the look of him, it should be Ryan." Castle appeared concerned at the sight of the detective whose skin was far more pale than usual. "You okay, buddy?"
Esposito frowned, turning to eye his friend carefully. "Now that he mentions it you do look a little … off."
Ryan grimaced sourly, brushing the comments of concern aside with a grunt. "I'm fine. Just a little tired. Jenny's just been out of town for a few days and I don't sleep as well when she's gone. Once she gets back it'll be fine."
"Maybe you should go home," Beckett started. Ryan quickly cut her off.
"I said I'm fine," he interjected curtly - a harshness in his voice they'd never heard before, brows furrowing slightly. "Okay?"
"All right," Beckett stammered, exchanging confused glances with both Esposito and Castle before snatching her keys from the top of her desk and placing them in her pocket. "Castle, you wanna' ride with me?"
"Hmm?" Castle appeared lost in thought, still watching Ryan with quiet curiosity. At last her question seemed to register and he snapped to attention, shaking his head as the fog of contemplation cleared. "Nah," he drawled with a loll of the head. "I think I'll share a car with the boys this time if that's okay."
Javier shrugged. "Whatever, bro. I'm driving."
Slightly taken aback, Beckett nodded. "Fine. I guess I'll see you there." Castle opened his mouth to speak, but she was too fast. Holding up a single finger she shook her head, already knowing what he was going to ask. "Without the granny fan, Castle."
Javier's nose wrinkled. "Dude, no old chicks allowed in the squad car. Rule number three."
Castle sighed. "Fine. But you guys have to explain to poor Edna why she wasn't allowed to come. I won't be the one to break her heart."
Beckett grinned. "Somehow I think she'll survive, Castle."
"You do know what old people do, right? They die. Also known as the opposite of surviving," Castle pointed out with knowing charm.
"Are we going to get to this stupid crime scene or not? Or you guys all just going to sit around here talking about nonsense and wasting my time?" Ryan's sharp tone cut through the room and immediately everyone went silent. He appeared visibly uncomfortable - almost sick - shifting about ever so slightly though it was obvious he was trying to mask each movement.
Javier stared, completely shocked at his partner's reaction. "Yeah, bro," he assured quietly after a moment, grabbing his own keys as he started towards the door. "C'mon, Castle," he called over his shoulder as he motioned with his thumb that they were leaving.
"Yeah, give me a second." Castle held up his hand, watching as Ryan quickly trotted off after his partner and disappeared out the door.
"What was that about?" Beckett shook her head in disbelief.
"I was just about to ask you the same thing."
"I mean," Beckett continued, "everyone has bad days but Castle, I've never seen him like this. And I've seen him on some pretty bad days."
"Maybe he's just tired like he said," Castle offered, though knowing in his heart it wasn't true.
"I don't know what it is but I hope it stops soon. Espo's not going to put up with it for much longer and that's just a fight I don't want to see."
"Speaking of getting on Esposito's bad side," Castle jerked his head towards the door. "I really should go catch up with them. See you there?"
"I'll be the one standing over the dead body." Beckett said with a slight grin.
"But of course."
And with that (minus a fleeting brush of his fingertips against hers) he was gone.