The elevator doors opened to reveal New York's Finest in the midst of a party, but the occupant of the elevator was in no hurry to join them.
Kate clutched a red gift bag in her hands and eyed the scene before her like it was a fruitcake she felt obligated to accept. She stood there so long the doors began to slide shut, and she felt a glimmer of fruitcake-dodging hope. Maybe she could just quietly slip away...
An arm suddenly shot into view, reopening the doors and halting her escape. "Oh, no you don't," Lanie warned. "Get your butt out of that elevator and join the fun. Or whatever this is."
Kate didn't move. "I don't know, Lanie. I'm not really in the mood for an office party. No one will notice if there's one fewer person around the punch bowl."
"Yes, they will," Lanie argued. "Gates definitely will. I think I saw her taking attendance. Besides, if I have to do this stupid Secret Santa thing, so do you. Get those boots walking." The shorter woman stepped in to grip her friend's elbow and practically frog-marched her forward before the doors could close again.
"It's not even a Secret Santa," grumbled Kate. "It's a 'Winter Holiday Mystery Gift Exchange'. Like we don't get enough mystery in our lives already."
"Why did Gates pick this year to subject us to her Winter Holiday wrath?"
"Something about employee feedback forms describing her 'oppressive lack of humor'."
"And now she's the only one laughing. Well, never mind how we got here," Lanie dismissed their fate with a wave of her hand. "We're here now, so let me introduce you to that punch bowl."
Kate raised an eyebrow and took note of Lanie's louder voice and looser joints. "It looks like the two of you have already met. I take it someone added a secret ingredient?"
Lanie gave a conspiratorial nod. "Blackberry schnapps. It took me a few glasses to be sure, but a good scientist is always thorough." She narrowed her eyes at Kate's attempt to not smirk. "Hey, don't you judge my research methods. I've been reduced to buying orthopedic insoles for Perlmutter to get him to shut up about his damn arches, and to top it off, Javi has been dropping hints all week that he drew my name, and I'm willing to bet he bought me something completely inappropriate for an office party. I need a little liquid cheer."
They stopped in front of an artificial tree with at least a dozen identical red gift bags piled underneath. Kate stared again at the one in her hands, hesitation written all over her face.
"What's the big deal?" asked Lanie. "Whose name did you get?" She snatched the bag and read the tag before Kate could stop her. "Castle? You're nervous about giving Castle a present?" A flash of insight was followed by the spread of a knowing grin across her face. "Ahhh, so I'm not the only one who's getting an inappropriate gift tonight." She shook the bag and a small item shifted around inside. "What is it?"
Kate snatched back the gift but didn't bother denying Lanie's theory. "Forget it. This was a stupid idea."
Lanie snatched the present again- liquid cheer apparently made her cheery and quick- and added it to the pile under the tree. "Whatever it is, let it go and live a little. C'mon, you need punch."
Castle found Ryan and Esposito at the food table.
"Merry Christmas, gentlemen. Have you tried the mini pickles wrapped in corned beef? They're... fascinating."
Ryan eyed the pickle plate suspiciously. "Tell me something, Castle. We're all friends here. Why is this so...not fun?"
Esposito gave a humorless grunt. "Nothing sucks the life out of a party like mandatory attendance." He smiled and added, "But I, for one, am making the most of the Secret Santa-"
"Winter Holiday Mystery Gift Exchange," intoned Ryan and Castle in unison.
"Whatever. I got-"
"Whoa whoa whoa," Castle interrupted. "Ame-lay arty-pay or not, the sacred rules of Secret Santa must be upheld. No revealing your giftee until after the presents are opened."
"Fine, have it your way." Espo shrugged, but he was obviously dying to share his brilliant purchase. "I'm gonna go hang out with someone who's not the fun police."
As they watched Espo walk away, Castle asked Ryan, "He got Lanie lingerie, didn't he?"
"Dead man walking."
Castle shook his head. "As for me, I am using this opportunity to mend my fences with Gates. My creepy, collectible fences."
Ryan shuddered. "You actually found replacements for the dolls you smashed? How much did that set you back?"
"It wasn't cheap," Castle admitted, "but it's a small price to pay for a little goodwill."
He stabbed a toothpick through an hors d'oeuvre and offered it to Ryan. "Now seriously, you should try a meat-covered pickle. There's cream cheese involved somehow, too. It'll revolutionize your Christmas."
Kate was nursing her first glass of punch as long as she could. Hopefully the stupid gift exchange would happen soon and she could keep it to a one-drink party. She and Castle didn't officially have plans for later, but she was pretty sure they would as soon as he opened his gift. Nervous or not, she couldn't repress her grin when she pictured the look on his face after he pressed play...
"Did I say something funny?" Perlmutter asked.
She jolted back to reality. "No- sorry, my mind wandered. What were you saying?"
"I was telling a joke."
"Forget it. I don't know why I bother coming to these things."
The tinkling peal of a bell saved her from needing to reply. "Can I have your attention please?" Gates announced. Her bell was silver. Of course. "Gather 'round the tree. It's time to begin the gift exchange!"
Kate gave Perlmutter an overly bright smile and said, "Duty calls!" She angled towards Castle on the way to the tree, and together they found a spot in the outside ring of participants. He leaned sideways into her shoulder to give her a nudge as they sat side-by-side on the edge of a desk.
"Happy Winter Holiday party," he smiled.
"Yeah, same to you," she replied in a flat tone.
"Why does that sound vaguely threatening?" he asked.
"I just want to get this over with and get out of here."
"Why, do you have other plans this evening, Detective?" Castle asked innocently.
"More like educational."
"Oh, really?" He grinned. "I am a great believer in the value of lifelong learning."
"I'm counting on it."
Gates rang her bell again now that the final stragglers had gathered. "Thank you all for coming," she began. "As you know, you each drew a tag from the hat, and each of you used that same tag and the identical gift bags I provided to wrap your gift. If you think you've got the chops, try and figure out who your mystery gifter is."
She picked up a red bag from the top of the heap and searched for the tag. "The first one is for...Mr. Castle." She continued passing out the bags until the underside of the tree was empty.
"Alright, people, open your gifts, and let the guessing begin. Good luck, and happy holidays."
People had just begun to pick ambivalently at the tape and staples holding their bags closed when half the phones in the precinct came to life. They didn't even try to mask the relief on their faces as everyone sprang up, dropped their bags and hurried to their desks.
"Is it my imagination, or does the staff seem really enthusiastic about their jobs right now?" Castle asked. He got no answer, because Beckett was already halfway across the bullpen. He sighed, then followed her.
Ryan was the first to get to a phone. "Anonymous tip called in of multiple bodies dropped in front of a building in Manhattan. Address is...come again?" He asked the person on the other end of the line, then frowned. "Address is...here."
"What do you mean the address is here?" Beckett asked.
"I mean it's our address, this building."
Beckett said, "Espo, would you please go down to the desk and see if they have a pile of bodies?"
"I'm on it," he called over his shoulder on his way to the elevator.
Five minutes later, Esposito was back.
"What's going on down there?" Gates asked.
"The reports were true," he said. "I did find multiple bodies." He held up a large evidence bag.
It was filled with gingerbread men.
Lanie poked at a cookie through the plastic with the hand that wasn't holding punch. "I'm guessing cause of death was 12 minutes at 350 degrees." She giggled.
In Javi's other hand he held a Christmas card that featured Santa's reindeer gathered around a punch bowl. "This was attached."
Castle took the card and flipped it open to read. "We're sure your party needs livening up. You're welcome. Merry Christmas from the 54th."
"That's unbelievable," said Ryan.
"I know," agreed Castle. "How could reindeer possibly hold punch glasses in their little cloven hooves?"
"Not the card," said Espo. "I can't believe my old precinct would punk us like that. You know what this means, don't you?"
"We need to move the meat pickles over to make room for the cookies?" guessed Castle.
"Revenge," said Ryan. "And it needs to be good."
"Come on, bro," said Espo, "let's gather the troops for a war council." They headed for the conference room.
"Wait," called Gates, "aren't you going to open your mystery gifts?"
"Yeah, of course we are," said Ryan, backing away. "In just a minute."
Gates sighed. "I see the prevailing Christmas sentiment around here is retribution. Well, I tried. I hope you all remember that the next time someone asks."
"We will definitely remember, sir." Beckett said.
In the ensuing chaos of payback planning, the red bags were temporarily forgotten. Eventually, one by one, the recipients went back to find their gifts and open them, and Gates was right. The contents were a mystery to nearly everyone.
Esposito's present was a gift basket filled with pre-wrapped sausages and spreadable cheese balls. One of the most impersonal, grab-it-from-a-kiosk-in-the-mall gifts known to man. He left it in the bag and headed for the punch bowl.
Ryan walked over to meet him. "So what do you think?" he asked, nodding towards Espo's desk.
"That was from you?" His partner was surprised; Ryan was usually such a sap about meaningful gifts.
"It was Jenny's idea, actually. She said you needed a set."
Javi looked in the direction of his gift, then back at his partner. The sausage and cheeseball basket had suddenly gone from meaningless to mean. "Jenny said I need a set? Why would she say that?"
Ryan frowned. "I don't know, she said you two were talking and the topic came up. Why, are they the wrong size or something?"
"Hey, not cool, bro." Espo said. "Listen, she asked me about Lanie, and I may have shared a few things, but I didn't bring it up. I'm not one of those pathetic guys who can't stop talking about getting back with their ex."
"Yeah, I know that."
"I thought Jenny liked me!"
"She does!" Ryan was now thoroughly confused. "Look, if you don't like them, I've got the receipt. I didn't realize you would get so defensive about guitar strings."
"Well what did you exp- wait. Guitar strings?"
"Yeah. Aren't we talking about your mystery gift?"
Esposito led Ryan to his desk, opened the bag and showed the contents to his partner.
"A sausage basket?"
"You must have taken the wrong bag."
Espo pointed to the tag marked 'Esposito' in permanent black marker.
"Huh. Weird." Ryan replayed the last five minutes in his head and snorted with a sudden burst of laughter. He opened his mouth to comment.
"Just- don't." Esposito held up a hand. "This never happened."
Castle found Gates refilling the punch bowl. "It's the strangest thing," she said. "My mother's Very Berry Christmas Punch has never been this popular before."
"It has certainly been a highlight of the party," Castle replied, casting his eyes around to see if the schnapps bandit was lurking at the ready. "You've probably guessed that I'm your mystery gifter."
"Oh?" She didn't seem as sure as he was, but he pressed on.
"I hope this will help us put our past misunderstandings behind us and start fresh next year."
Gates gave him a noncommittal look. "Well, I appreciate the sentiment, Mr. Castle. I suspect you will continue to grace us with your presence for years to come."
"Thank you, Captain. And Merry Christmas."
As Castle walked away, Gates thought about the small, unmarked mp3 player and earbuds in her office. She hadn't actually listened to it yet, but now she was curious what the writer had to say.
"I have to say, Javi, you surprised me." At the sound of her voice behind him, Espo turned to face Lanie.
"I did?" He tried to read any murderous intent in her face, but she seemed pleased.
"Yeah, this is very sweet," Lanie continued. "I'll admit, I thought for sure you were going to do something horrifying like give me underwear at an office party."
Espo schooled his face very, very carefully. "What? No way! That would be..."
"Completely idiotic," finished Lanie. "But a gift card for the wine shop I like? That's not bad." She smiled and added, "I've had too much punch to make any promises, but call me next week."
As he watched her walk away, Javi released the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. Bullet: dodged.
Kate had gotten the idea a few weeks ago after they watched A Fish Called Wanda. She had been laughing at Jamie Lee Curtis's ultra-turned-on reaction to John Cleese speaking Russian, to which Castle had responded, "You laugh, but I know how she feels. Remember your cover accent the night you rescued me from the Russian mobsters' poker game?"
"Vaht, you are meaning zis accent?" she asked, slipping into it easily. "You think parusski is language of love?"
Castle groaned and pulled her nearly into his lap, nuzzling her neck. "So hot."
"Maybe if you are good boy I give you lessons."
Now here she was, at work, giving her boyfriend a recording she made of phrases no respectable guidebook would ever print. This was so far beyond a mix tape. She really was a lost cause.
He hadn't said a word yet, and the suspense was killing her. When he finished mingling with a handful of uniforms from holding, she approached him.
"So, do you like your present?"
He was about to shrug when he picked up on her nervous vibe. "Was it from you?"
"Very funny. You said you wanted to learn, so I thought I'd get you started."
"I did? I said that?"
"Well, more or less." This was not the reaction she had expected. "I thought you would like it."
"I do! Of course I do!" he exclaimed, shifting into damage control mode even though he had no idea why he needed to. "I was just...surprised, that's all."
Beckett narrowed her eyes, her detective instincts tingling. "Did you even listen to it yet?"
"Listen to it? No, not yet."
"Castle! Why not?!"
"I'm sorry! I didn't happen to bring a guitar with me today."
"Wait- what? Why would you need a guitar?"
"How else am I supposed to listen to these?" Castle opened his bag and pulled out a set of steel guitar strings.
Kate could only stare at them for a few seconds. "That is not your gift."
"Well, they were in a bag with my name on it. What was I supposed to think?"
In a tight whisper she said, "Castle, your gift is 'Dirty Russian, Volume One.'"
His eyes lit up. "A Fish Called Wanda! That's so fantastic!"
She shook her head emphatically. "No, it is not fantastic. Because if you have a bag of guitar strings..."
His eyebrows shot up as the other shoe dropped. "...then someone else at this party is getting quite an education."
Ten minutes later, the party-goers had worked out that every single present went to the wrong person. The gingerbread prank had disrupted the gift exchange at the perfect time to keep them from realizing immediately what was going on- too perfect.
"It's them again," Esposito said, practically shaking his fist at the 54th. "The body drop was only a distraction to throw us off. We have a traitor in our midst who switched all the tags."
"Be that as it may," Beckett said, "we're still missing the gift I got for Castle. Who hasn't shown us their bag yet?"
"Only Gates is left," said Espo, and Beckett and Castle both groaned.
"What about you, Beckett, what did you get?" Ryan asked.
Kate gasped. "I forgot about mine!" She dove for her desk and wrenched open the top of the last unopened bag.
Her hope was short-lived. Her shoulders slumped and she sat heavily in her chair. She looked up at Castle. "We're dead."
Lanie peeked into the bag, then whipped around to face Javi with a look of triumph. "I knew it!" With two fingers she lifted something small, red, and mostly sheer out of the bag. "You are so busted, mister."
Beckett knocked on Gates's open office door. The captain was sitting in the darkened room with a glass of punch, feet propped up on the corner of the desk. Also on the desk was an open red bag.
"Sorry to intrude, sir..."
"No, please come in. I was just getting a moment of peace." She took a sip from the cup in her hand, then considered the liquid inside. "I see now why mama's punch is so popular ton. I'm liking it more and more myself."
"Sir, I have something that belongs to you." Kate held out the red bag that Perlmutter had willingly handed over. "It seems that Phase II of today's prank involved switching all the gift tags."
"Ah. That explains a lot." Gates looked inside the new bag and smiled. "The Gemini! Thank God. I thought he had lost his mind."
Kate glanced at the bag on the desk, took a deep breath, and pressed on. "Sir, I'm trying to sort out the mix up, and I believe you ended up with Castle's gift."
"In that case, you'd better take it." She picked up the bag and handed it to Beckett. Kate peered in and confirmed that the contents were intact.
"Thank you, sir," she said, but didn't turn to leave.
"Is there something else, Detective?"
"By any chance, did you...listen to it?"
"Why do you wonder?" The woman had an impressive poker face; Kate couldn't read her at all.
"Just curious. Never mind, I'll see you on Monday," she said in a rush, and turned to go.
Beckett had reached the doorway when Gates spoke up again. "It turns out Mr. Castle isn't the only one with a talent for words."
Kate froze and slowly turned back. Crap. "I'm not sure what you mean."
Gates was looking into her cup again. "This is very good punch, Detective. But I have not had so much that tomorrow I won't remember this evening."
"Sir, let me explain-"
Gates cut her off. "However, I have had enough to put me in a holiday mood. The kind of mood that lets me pretend I just listened to surveillance from an undercover operation in a Russian brothel. The kind of mood that lets me continue pretending that I don't suspect a thing."
Gates took another sip of punch and pulled the Gemini dolls out of the bag to admire them.
"Good night, Detective."
Castle intercepted her as she came out of Gates's office. She looked a little stunned.
"Well?" he asked. She handed him his present.
"Here. Merry Christmas."
"I'm not sure. But we might be okay." She shook her head to clear it. "I'll fill you in later. Let's get out of here."
Kate didn't even wait for the elevator doors to close completely before she turned to rest her hands on Castle's chest. The accent was back.
"So are you ready for first lesson?"
Castle wrapped both arms around her waist. "I am your pupil, eager to learn. I'm tempted to make a joke about my sharpened pencil, but maybe that's too much."
Kate leaned in to brush her lips close to his ear. "С Рождеством, Castle*."
"What you said."
*Merry Christmas, Castle