CAT'S IN THE CRADLE

"What in the world did you put in this?"

His head shoots up at his wife's question, can't tell by her expression whether she likes the meal or not. "Um..."

She raises an eyebrow, chuckling. "It's good. I just can't figure out exactly what you did to it."

He grins in relief. She's not exactly a picky eater, and he knows her tastes better than probably anyone else, but well, he does have a tendency to experiment in the kitchen and she's not always the biggest fan of his creations, s'morelet aside.

"Well, it's not out of a box, obviously," he says, setting his fork on the table and leaning toward her. "Homemade. Macaroni a la Castle."

Sliding the vase of partially chewed flowers on the table - Minnie's work, no doubt - out of the way so he can see his wife better, he watches as she takes another bite, can tell by the movement of her facial muscles that she must be rolling the noodles around in her mouth, extracting every flavor in search of his secrets.

She may have become a cop because of her mother's murder, but there's no doubt that she clearly possesses all the instincts of a detective. Even at home, her need for answers bleeds over into nearly everything.

"Fontina cheese?" she asks, and he nods.

"Among other things."

It's a game now, a challenge, and he can tell by the glint in her eye that she's accepted it as such. She takes another bite. "And cheddar."

He nods again.

"Paprika, but it's..." she muses, trailing off, and he lifts an eyebrow, grins when she finishes the thought. "Smoked paprika."

He purses his lips, cocks his head, taking pleasure in watching her mind at work. "It is. What else?"

"Well, salt and pepper," she offers, and he rolls his eyes. That's a given. She kicks him under the table. He yelps.

And the baby laughs. Of course.

"Outnumbered," he mutters, leaning down to rub at his shin. "Why am I always outnumbered?"

When he looks back up at his daughter, her eyes are sparkling. Those are his, no doubt, though the rest of her belongs to Kate - the high cheekbones, the nose, the hair. Not to mention the ability to wrap him around her little finger.

"Bread crumbs?"

His wife's interjection brings him back to their game, and he shakes his head, glaring at her for kicking him.

She gives him an apologetic - if not altogether sincere - look, and when something brushes softly against his calf, he knows it's her way of soothing his hurt. Still, he might be able to get a little mileage out of it.

"No bread crumbs. Crackers."

She hums in response, and his leg tingles at the gentle touch sweeping across his jean-clad skin. He deepens his glare.

"Don't think you can get away with kicking me by trying to play footsy with me," he warns. "Especially footsy in front of our daughter."

The detective's eyebrows lift. "Footsy, Castle? When have we ever played footsy?"

A smooth form grazes his ankle, and he leers at his wife. "Right now?"

"That's-" she begins, but then she laughs. Chortles, really. "That's not me, stud."

Scooting his chair back from the table, he looks down to find bright green eyes blinking up at him. "Purrrt?"

Minnie doesn't wait for an answer, just bounds up to the writer's lap, rubbing the top of her head against his arm and emitting a happy rumble from the back of her throat.

He glances up at Kate. One hand covers her mouth, but he can still see the edges of the smile she's trying so hard to hide. He chuckles. "Definitely not you."

She drops her hand then, sliding it across the table to curl her fingers around his, squeezing lightly. She winks. "Sorry to disappoint."

Shrugging, he squeezes back, then releases her hand to pet the cat's back, neck to tail in one long stroke. Minnie lets out a loud purr and begins to knead his thigh rhythmically, clearly enjoying his attentions. She nudges his hand, rough tongue emerging to rasp against his thumb.

"You've been feeding her again, haven't you?"

His eyes dart up to meet Kate's. He shakes his head, scoffing at the accusation. "Whaaat? No."

Her eyes widen disbelievingly. "You have. You're blinking too much."

"I am not."

She leans toward him. "Richard Castle. I have known you for six years. I know when you're lying."

"Only because my mother shared all my tells," he retorts without thinking, then claps his hand over his traitorous mouth.

Kate leans back in her seat, crosses her arms over her chest, nodding with pursed lips and narrowed eyes.

He gulps. He *has* been sneaking Minnie little pieces of hot dog and the occasional noodle. She's a little beggar, and she's been sitting patiently at his side - silent but hopeful. And he can't stand to turn her away.

"Castle," his wife growls. "We've been through this. The vet said-"

He frowns back at her. "I know what he said. But she's fine."

Kate sighs, lifting a hand to brush her hair back from her face. Frustrated. She's frustrated with him. That's her signature move. "It's not good for her, Rick. You're-"

He bristles. "I'm what? I'm not hurting her."

The detective leans toward him, extending her hand, her voice low and appeasing. "I know you don't mean to-"

Something twists in his gut and he shoves back from the table, stands, displacing the cat who lets out a whine. His eyes drop to the gray fluff ball who's looking at him somewhat indignantly from the floor. Stupid. This is a stupid argument. But-

"Castle, wait," Kate says sharply, and his gaze snaps back to his wife. "Did you put onion in this?"

"What?" he asks, furrowing his eyebrows. Is she really going back to their silly guessing game?

"Onion," she repeats. "Did you put onion in the mac and cheese?"

He shakes his head. "No. No onion. A couple cloves of garlic."

"Rick," she begins, her face paling rapidly. He has no idea why.

But then their daughter's voice cuts in - questioning, concerned. "Kitty?"


She looks first to her daughter. The tiny girl strains to the side, nearly leaning out of her high chair. Kate follows her line of sight.

Minnie. Coughing under the table. But not just coughing. Hacking.

"Castle," she calls out over her shoulder. "Call Dr. Syring."

After a moment in which she hears no movement, she turns, finds him still standing there, staring down at the cat. "Castle!"

He startles, and his eyes bolt up. "What?"

"Call the vet," she repeats, softer this time.

He shakes his head. "It's just a hairball. She'll be fine. Give her a minute."

"No," she says, stepping toward him, setting one hand on his arm while her other slips into the pocket of his worn, loose jeans.

"What're you-" he starts and she looks up as her fingers close around his phone and pluck it out. Her own is probably still in their bedroom in the pocket of the pants she was wearing earlier.

"Onions, garlic, anything from that family," she tells him quietly, as calmly as she can. "It's all toxic to cats."

His face blanches, his eyes widening and then darting down to the floor where Minnie still coughs with painful sounding wheezes.

"Call Dr. Syring," she says once more, and finally he nods, dropping his eyes to the screen of his phone. "And keep an eye on both of them. I'm going to find the hydrogen peroxide."

She spares one last glance for both her daughter and Minnie. The baby babbles worriedly, little brows furrowed as she swings her legs against the chair, reaching pudgy arms toward her furry friend. Minnie remains hunched over, panting, small body shaking.

The detective turns then, strides across the apartment and through the office into their bedroom. They keep a good supply of first aid necessities in the bathroom, and she flips on the light, the warm glow illuminating the space.

But it's been months since they've needed the hydrogen peroxide. Actually no. It's been closer to two years. Not since her husband - then fiancÚ - decided to play with her handcuffs and scraped his wrists badly. She has no idea where the bottle might be, no idea if they even have any left.

She digs through one drawer, and then another. Not there. She moves on to the cabinet beneath his sink, shuffling around half-empty bottles of shampoo, a tube of bacon-flavored toothpaste, and a set of glow-in-the-dark golf balls.

Ah, there!

Her hand closes around the brown bottle, yanking it out and toppling a few other things in the process. A dark, viscous liquid spills out of one of the bottles. It smells oddly like molasses. But she'll worry about cleaning that up later.

"Kate?" His voice echoes through the apartment and she scrambles to her feet, heads back toward the kitchen.

She nearly runs into him when he steps into the office just as she's passing the desk. His face is white, more fearful than she's seen in a very long time.

"Kate..."

He sounds despondent - devastated - and she's just about to reach out, run her fingers through his hair, comfort him. And then she sees the limp body cradled gently in his huge hands.

Minnie.

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