He thinks it’s a joke at first. Of course it’s a joke; he knows the history of War of the Worlds and the infamous radio broadcast, and he thinks someone is using current technology to pull another stunt like that.
It’s one of those rare days when Alexis is at school, and his mother is out who-knows-where, and Beckett doesn’t need him. In fact, Beckett had insisted that Castle’s presence distracted her, and she wanted to get through her backlog of paperwork without him around. Castle uses the time to work on his latest book because he has a publisher and an agent to satisfy.
He’s listening to his favorite light jazz station while pounding away on his laptop, and that’s when he first hears the news. He’s in the groove, anyway, so he’s only listening with half an ear when the DJ says, “We have reports of alien ships appearing over several major cities.”
And that’s why Castle thinks it’s a joke. He’s not really paying attention, so the news just makes him chuckle absently. Castle reaches the end of the scene he’s writing and hits “save,” because he learned that lesson 16 books ago.
He’s working on the next scene when the voice on the radio breaks into his concentration again by announcing, “Oh, my God. We’ve just received word that the White House has been destroyed.”
Castle freezes. That’s not something anyone would joke about, not after 9/11. The rising hysteria in the DJ’s voice makes his heart pound a little harder, and Castle swallows his own incipient panic.
He’s had a lot of practice at not panicking over the last few years.
The DJ begins to read a list of locations that have been attacked, and Castle brings up his Twitter feed. He’d turned his notifications off so he could work uninterrupted, and now he sees tweet after tweet about buildings being blown up and strange ships in the sky.
It’s not a prank, then. It can’t be a prank. It’s real.
Castle picks up the phone to call Alexis, but he gets a message saying that the network is too busy. He tries calling Beckett next with the same result, and he curses, worry adding color to his language.
And then, the radio falls silent, which is somehow even more ominous than the list of locations that have been attacked.
Castle tries calling Alexis again, but this time he doesn’t even get the error message. When he checks his email from his laptop, he can’t connect to the internet. And when he turns on the television, Castle gets nothing but static. There isn’t even a message from the emergency broadcast system.
For a moment, he lets the panic overtake him, but he rides it out, letting the terror run through him, letting his mind race, until his thoughts coalesce: he can stay in the apartment, where Alexis and his mother and even Beckett will be sure to find him, or he can search for them. Those are his options.
Castle is momentarily torn. He has no idea where his mother might be—Castle vaguely recalls her saying something about having lunch with a friend, but he doesn’t remember where. Beckett might be at the precinct, but she might be out on the streets, too.
Alexis has to be Castle’s priority, and he knows his daughter. She’ll either come straight home, or she’ll stay at school. Before he can do anything else, before he can make any other plans, he has to know Alexis is safe.
Castle grabs a backpack and begins gathering supplies—a few bottles of water, a few granola bars, and a couple of apples. He checks the fridge and the cupboard and notes with approval that they’re well stocked.
Almost as an afterthought, Castle writes a note for his mother or whoever else might come by.
I’m going to the school to get Alexis, he writes. And then to the precinct. I’ll be back as soon as I can.
He locks up carefully behind him, and then sets out. The streets are full of people, mostly milling about aimlessly, and Castle hears snatches of conversation as he strides along the teeming sidewalks.
“Did you hear that the White House was destroyed?”
“Do you think the president is dead?”
“I heard the Pentagon was blown up.”
“What are we going to do?”
The subway isn’t running, and Castle can’t find a cab, so he hoofs it, distracting himself from worry by spinning stories about the people he sees. He notices the police officers more than he would have a couple of years ago, and one of them in particular catches his eye.
She’s directing traffic, and she’s so young—although everyone under the age of thirty looks young to him now. Castle sees the wedding ring flash on her finger as she waves a line of traffic on, and he sees the thin line of her mouth, the fear in her eyes, and he imagines her as a wife, as a young mother.
Perhaps her husband is another cop, and she’s worried about him and her new baby, who’s in daycare.
No, he thinks, feeling as though that’s too depressing. It makes a better story if the baby is with her mother, or her mother-in-law.
He likes the visual—the grandmother holding the infant, waiting anxiously for her daughter and son-in-law to come home.
And then he passes by, and she’s lost in the crowds, and Castle will never know her true story.
That’s just how it works, but he likes to imagine a happy ending for her—that she will be reunited with her husband and child and the grandmother.
Right now, Castle needs a happy ending. He’s hoping for one for himself.
He’s a New Yorker, so he’s used to walking, but it’s still a long hike. During the trek, his mind spins a hundred scenarios—finding Alexis at the school, not finding her there and wandering the streets looking for her, finding Alexis but not finding Beckett.
Not finding any of them, and being alone.
Castle doesn’t allow himself to give that scenario more than a passing thought. He refuses to believe that he won’t find all of them eventually, that they won’t make it through this crisis.
The school rises up before him, and Castle lets out a relieved breath, trying not to think about how much his feet hurt. He’s made good time, though, and he enters the school in the early afternoon.
The school is oddly quiet, but the principal greets him in the foyer, and he smiles at Castle in recognition. “Mr. Castle! Alexis is in the gymnasium with the other students. We wanted to keep them here until their parents arrived.”
“Thanks,” Castle replies, and heads down a wood paneled hallway. He knows his way around the school, and he finds the gym without any trouble.
He doesn’t have to look hard for Alexis. She spots him coming through the door, and Castle hears her voice cutting through the buzzing of young voices. “Dad!”
Castle zeroes in on her as Alexis makes her way through the crowd. Ashley is close behind her, and Castle notices that she’s holding Ashley’s hand at about the same time she drops it and throws herself into Castle’s arms.
He holds her tightly, breathing in the faint, flowery scent of her shampoo and soap. He’s so damn grateful she’s safe that he closes his eyes and holds on for a long time.
“Are you okay?” he asks, pulling back but keeping his hands on her shoulders. “Is everything okay?”
Alexis nods. “I was waiting for you. I knew you’d come.”
“I’ll always come,” he promises, and spares a look for Ashley. “Are you okay?”
Ashley manages a wan smile. “Yes, sir.”
“Have you talked to Grandma yet?” Alexis asks.
“She was out, and the cell signal went dead before I could call.” Castle notes that Alexis and Ashley are holding hands again. “Are you ready to get out of here?”
Alexis hesitates and glances at Ashley, her expression uncertain. “Dad, Ashley’s parents are out of the country on a business trip.”
Castle can see the unspoken request in her eyes, and he’s never been able to deny Alexis anything she wants, not really. She’d be spoiled rotten if she weren’t such a great kid.
“Is anybody going to come looking for you?” Castle asks. He’s not sure he’s ready to take responsibility for another child.
And Ashley is just a boy, pale and frightened, clinging tightly to Alexis’ hand, looking at Castle hopefully. “Not until they can get to New York,” Ashley says. “I don’t want to impose, but—”
Castle hears what he won’t say, that he doesn’t want to be alone, and Castle can’t blame him. He can’t leave Ashley here, not when Alexis is looking at him like that, and not when Ashley might be left alone for days or weeks or longer still. “I’ll let the principal know that you’re coming with us,” Castle says. “If your parents manage to contact him, he’ll let them know.”
The naked relief on Ashley’s face tells Castle he’s doing the right thing, and Alexis is looking at him like he’s just hung the sun and the moon, and Castle loves being his daughter’s hero.
Besides, it feels like the right thing to do.
“We have to go by the precinct,” Castle says, making a split-second decision. He should probably take the kids back to the apartment first, but now that he’s found Alexis, the need to find Beckett is paramount.
Alexis takes his announcement in stride. “Of course,” she says, as though she’s known that’s the plan all along. “You want to find Detective Beckett.”
And it’s just that easy with Alexis, because she knows how he feels, and she’s game for anything Castle suggests.
“I do,” Castle admits. “Let me talk to the principal, and then we’ll leave.”
Castle ignores the relief that crosses the principal’s face, because he can’t blame the man. Having one more student off his hands is a weight lifted. Castle also ignores the way Ashley clings to Alexis’ hand because he thinks the boy needs whatever comfort Alexis can provide.
The scenarios drift through his mind—if Ashley’s parents are killed and Castle has to continue to take responsibility for him, if Ashley’s parents are alive, but can’t get back to New York, still leaving Castle with the added responsibility.
Castle prefers the version where Ashley’s parents return, and there’s a happy reunion, and he’s a hero in their eyes, too.
He’s not opposed to killing off his hero in books, but he prefers a happy ending in the real world.
They walk the streets of New York, heading towards the precinct, and there are just as many people wandering about now. Castle reaches back as they work their way through the crowds, and Alexis grabs his hand. They form a human chain, Alexis pressing close to Castle’s back, Ashley close behind her.
When they’re about halfway, Castle calls a halt, and they share the bottles of water, the apples, and the granola bars. Ashley thanks Castle more than once, and Castle thinks that the boy would probably follow him anywhere at the moment, just as long as someone else could be in charge.
“What are we going to do, Dad?” Alexis asks halfway through her apple.
“I don’t know,” Castle admits. “We’ll look after each other. That’s all we can do, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Alexis replies, and she manages a smile. “That’s what we always do.”
They reach the precinct when the sky begins to darken, and Castle pauses outside the doors. He’s afraid that Beckett won’t be happy to see him. He’s afraid she’ll be out on the streets. He’s afraid of losing her.
Castle doesn’t know how Beckett will respond to his appearance. Will she come back to his apartment, or will she insist on going to her own place? Castle knows that he wants to be able to keep an eye on her, to keep her safe, even though Beckett is eminently capable of taking care of herself.
He wants a happy ending. He wants her.
“Dad?” Alexis asks. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he assures her. “Let’s find out if Detective Beckett is in.”
They walk inside and take the elevator up to Beckett’s floor. Alexis and Ashley crowd in behind him, still holding hands, and Castle reaches out to clasp Alexis’ shoulder, needing the comfort of human contact.
The doors slide open, and Castle steps out, his hand still on Alexis’ shoulder, Alexis still holding Ashley’s hand, and Castle is grateful to see Ryan and Esposito at their desks. He doesn’t think he’s imagining the expressions of relief and pleasure when they catch sight of him.
“If it isn’t Castle,” Esposito says. “Turning up just like a bad penny.”
“That’s what I do,” Castle says, forcing a smile. “Where’s Beckett?”
“She’s around here somewhere,” Ryan replies. “I think she was going to talk to the captain, but she should be back any second.”
Castle loses track of what Ryan is saying about halfway through the explanation. He catches sight of Beckett across the bullpen, and he releases Alexis to take a step towards her.
He knows the moment Beckett sees him. The relief washes over her, and her shoulders drop, as though she’s releasing a tremendous amount of tension. She takes two steps towards him and stops, as if uncertain of her welcome.
Castle closes the distance between them, wanting only to touch her, to reassure himself that she is alive and well and here.
In this moment, the future doesn’t matter, this disaster isn’t insurmountable; he doesn’t care about the alien ships, or that buildings are blowing up, or the fact that all communication is down.
Castle has Beckett, and that’s enough of a happy ending for right now.
He reaches out to grasp her shoulders. “It’s good to see you,” he says, because as good as he might be with words, right now he can’t think of anything else to say.
“Yeah,” she replies. “It’s good to see you, too.”
And then Castle closes the last few inches and presses his lips to hers.
It might be the end of the world, but this kiss makes it feel like it’s a beginning.