It's another hour before either one of them moves. They've spent the commercial breaks talking softly. He's told her about the recent "college tour" Martha and Alexis have completed. She's filled him in on the latest Esplanie drama, and how she thinks they might be close to getting back together (he grins at that).

As the movie ends, their conversation meanders on to Ryan's upcoming nuptials, and winds around to his own two weddings (Lavish disasters both, he laments, he should have known then), and when she asks him what happened, he tells her he might need more of her "special" hot chocolate if they're getting into that subject.

Honestly, he expects her to drop it. But she surprises him by nodding, sliding out from under the blanket and heading to the kitchen. He follows, holding the still sleeping kitten in place with one large hand.

He leans against the counter, watching her back as she heats more milk. When she turns to face him, she has an odd look on her face.

"You don't," she starts and pauses for a moment. "You don't have to tell me, Castle. It's none of my business, really. I've just wondered."

He shrugs.

"Can't blame you for that."

She contemplates him for a moment, her eyebrows furrowing the way they do sometimes when she's staring at the board, trying to make a connection.

"You're a good man."

Her handful of words fills him up, gives him wings.

"I try," he replies with a small smile.

"You do more than try."

"I," he begins, and has to swallow to clear the sudden tightness in his throat. "Thank you, Kate. That...that means a lot."

She nods, and turns back to the stove to remove the milk from the heat, stirring in cocoa and sugar, followed by more schnapps, and Irish cream, with a little whiskey this time. Jameson, he notices, and he wonders if it might be her small tribute to his alter ego.

She pours their mugs, and he leans forward to take his. Minerva stirs on his chest, awakened by the smell or the movement, and meows plaintively at him. He looks to the detective for direction.

"She's probably hungry. Set her down, and I'll get some food for her."

The kitten squirms as he gets her closer to the floor, wriggling to get out of his hands, but rubs her cheek against his ankle once she's down.

The detective chuckles, and Castle looks up in surprise.

"She's marking you as her territory," the woman says.

He wants to tell her that little Minnie is not the only one in the room who's claimed him, but that's more of an inside thought than an outside one, so he just grins.

"When did you get her anyway? She can't be more than a few weeks old."

"Last week. Found her at a crime scene. That open and shut case you missed because of your meetings?"

He nods in remembrance. He'd had meetings with the Black Pawn execs. Heat Rises has done so well that they're considering a new contract, at least two more after the fourth, maybe up to five more.

He hasn't told Kate yet. He knows she wanted him back after the summer, suspects she might care for him more than she lets on, especially with her suggestive little "next time, without the tiger" comments and the like.

But he's not positive she'll want him around for another two years, let alone five. And though he has plenty of research, he knows that if their partnership ends, so does the Nikki Heat series. He couldn't write it without her.

So he hasn't mentioned about the possible extension, just told the execs he'd need some time to think.

Anyway, he hadn't missed much that day. A scream and a shot heard and called in by neighbors. When the team had arrived, they'd found the killer still trying to clean up his mess.

Easy-peasy, Kate had told Castle afterward, and though they both liked the weird ones, he was grateful for the quick cases now and then, for the chance it gave her to rest and him to stop worrying about her working herself into the ground.

"...and since she was a stray the vic had been feeding and I was the only one whose apartment allowed pets, I took her."

He'd zoned out, he realizes, but tries to look like he's been paying attention and nods.

"Plus, it's nice to come home to an apartment that's not totally empty, you know?"

He's barely holding back from offering to be the reason her apartment isn't empty, but they're not quite there yet, so he refrains, makes a joking observation instead.

"First, It's a Wonderful Life, now taking in a stray? I think you've had a little too much eggnog. Been partaking in the Christmas spirits, have you?"

She just shrugs, her eyes smiling, though her lips remain non-committal.

"I figured the last stray I adopted worked out pretty well, so I might as well add another."

He has a feeling he's missing something, but he hasn't worked out just what it is. There's an adorable quirk of her eyebrow in his direction, and then he understands.

"Yes, but will this one bring you coffee?"

She takes a sip of her hot chocolate before responding.

"Mm, probably not. She is house-trained though."

He's torn for a moment between taking offense and just enjoying her wit, and the obvious pleasure she's getting from this conversation. His delight wins out, and he laughs.

"I'll have you know, Detective Beckett, that I have been house-trained for at least," he pauses and pretends to count on his fingers, "sixteen years. Alexis taught me very early."

Her answering chortle sets off a chain reaction in his body: a flare in his chest, a bolt of electricity down to his fingers, a tingling in his toes, all capped by a gently spreading warmth.

She tilts her head back toward the living room, and he nods in silent answer, pushing off from the counter to follow her.

He hears a curious "mrow" from the floor, and glances down to see Minerva looking up at him, finished with the dry food the detective had put out for her while she was telling him how she ended up with the tiny creature.

He reaches down to lift her again, but she shimmies up his pant leg before he has the chance.

Kate laughs.

"That's how she got me too. Climbed me like a tree, snagged my favorite khaki pants."

"And you still took her?"

"Well, I mean," she says, gesturing to the kitten who is gazing at him from her claw-hold at his sternum. "Who could say no to that face?"

He shakes his head, and endures the momentary pain until Minnie is once again on his shoulder, nuzzling his ear and purring loudly.

"What is it with you Beckett women thinking you can walk all over me?"

She laughs again, and he's certain he could get terribly used to that sound.

They sit, and she picks up the remote again, flipping channels for a minute or two and settling on some claymation movie he's never seen, with singing camels and...is that the California Raisins?

A glance at his partner reveals nostalgia painted across every angle of her face. She catches him looking, and shrugs her shoulders.

"I was eight when this came out," she says quietly. "My dad loved it, but it drove my mom crazy, and she'd always hide the tape right after he watched it, so he couldn't watch it again. He inevitably found it every year. I haven't seen it in a long time."

She smiles a little at the end, and he takes that as his sign that she's okay, so he doesn't push. Instead, he turns back to the screen, just at the right moment to see something he doesn't expect.

"Are those dinosaurs?"

"Mmm," she hums in affirmation. "Rex and Herb."

They're wearing Santa hats.

He shakes his head and leans back into the couch, setting in, keeping one eye on the screen and the other on the detective. Finally, she acknowledges his stare.

"What, Castle?"

He grins.

"You are a mystery, Katherine Beckett."

She tilts her head a little, looking down before lifting her gaze again, dark eyes arresting him through long lashes.

"Can't have you getting bored, can I?"

He thinks she might, just might be flirting with him a little. He's not sure though. She might just be teasing about his attention span. Hard to tell with her. The difference between flirting and teasing. Maybe they're the same thing.

"Bored? With you?" he scoffs. "Not gonna happen."

Twin spots of pink appear in her cheeks, and she nods solemnly, though her eyes are dancing now.

"Good to know."

"But feel free to surprise me anytime," he offers, turning back to the show, but not quickly enough to miss the small, pleased smile she tries to hide.

A flock of ducks fill the screen now, singing "Here We Come A-Waddling" and he laughs, too amused by the show and the woman beside him to hold it in any longer. Minerva doesn't appreciate being jostled, however, and lets him know.

He yelps at the nip to his earlobe, and Kate looks at him, startled.

"She bit me!" he says indignantly, as he reaches up to remove the testy creature from his shoulder.

He sets her on his lap instead, where she promptly curls up, disregarding the author's withering glare.

A snort from his side draws his gaze to the detective, whose hand covers her mouth, and whose eyes are crinkled in laughter.

"Yes, yes, laugh at my pain," he gripes.

"Oh, come on, Castle, man up," she says. "You're not even bleeding."

He opens his mouth, but she continues before he has a chance to say anything.

"And yes, she's had all her shots."

"Thank goodness for small favors," he grumbles, and reaches up to rub at his ear.

Her hand stills his, and she pulls it away, using her long fingers to nudge his head so she can examine both sides of the lobe.

"You're fine," she says, and tugs on his ear gently. "Not even a mark."

"You know," he starts when she's dropped her hand and he's regained the ability to breathe normally. "You and your cat here are a lot alike."

"Hmm?" she asks, reaching over to stroke the soft ball of fluff resting on his thigh. "How so?"

He joins her, rubbing a finger under the kitten's chin as he did earlier and receiving an extra-loud purr and a lazy blink in return.

"Well, first off, you both have beautiful green eyes," he tells her, and the hint of pink on her cheeks returns. "Though hers are a brighter, pure green, and yours look more brown depending on your clothes and how you're feeling."

She smiles, and he's grateful.

"Second, you both like to walk all over me."

That earns him a smack in the chest, though not hard enough to hurt. He captures her hand in his for the briefest moment, squeezing lightly before releasing.

He hesitates to continue with his last point, not because he's afraid he'll hurt her. The opposite actually. He readies himself to move quickly, just in case.

"Last, you both go after my ear when you're upset with me."

As he's speaking he slaps his hands over both ears. She surprises him though, and goes for his side instead, pinching a roll of skin just hard enough to make him squirm.

He works hard to stay in shape, mostly so he can keep up with her in the field, but the late nights accompanied by too many meals of pizza or burgers or Chinese mean that he's added a few pounds over the last three years. Honestly, he's not sure he minds if it means giving her something to grab.

"Geez, woman!" he exclaims when she lets go of him. "I bring you hot chocolate, and this is how your repay me? By pinching and hitting me and siccing your attack cat on me?"

She laughs mockingly, and he can't hold onto his frown.

"Try again, Castle," she says. "Or better yet, let me be the storyteller this time. See, in my version, here's how it happened: you showed up on my doorstep on a Friday night, lonely and bored. And yes, you brought hot chocolate, I'll grant you that. So...I invited you into my apartment, shared my blanket, and let you watch a movie with me. Also, I made you hot chocolate, and provided alcohol. And I was thinking about letting you spend the night on my couch if your daughter's girls' night was a sleepover, but I'm reconsidering that offer at the moment. So, how'd I do?"

He gives her a cheeky grin.

"You have a real talent there, detective. Might even give me a run for my money."

"Thank you," she responds graciously. "I did learn from the best."

He knows better by now than to think she's offering him a sincere compliment, and sure enough, she doesn't disappoint.

"I'm speaking, of course, of best-selling author James Patterson."

He mimes a knife in the chest, and slumps back against the cushions with his arm over his face, peeking out of one eye to take in the undisguised affection in her expression when she thinks he can't see.

"Such a drama queen, isn't he, Minnie?"

He moves his hand from in front of his eyes, but sets it lightly on her forearm instead, pausing the movement of her fingers as they run through Minerva's gray scruff.

"Really, though. Thank you for letting me hang out here tonight, Kate."

He sees a frisson of warmth race through her features before she answers.

"You're my partner. I'm not going to just leave you out in the cold. You show up, I'll let you in."

He has a feeling that she means for her words to cover more than just this night, but he knows better than to push. Pushing gets them nowhere. Sends them backward sometimes. She's right. If he'll just show up, she'll eventually let him in.

But maybe he needs to let her in too?

"I'm grateful to be your partner, then, and your friend," he says, meeting her soft eyes, but hesitating a little before he continues. "You're one of the few true friends I have."

She raises her eyebrows.

"You have tons of friends, Castle. I mean, you always say you've got a guy everywhere."

He shrugs.

"I said true friends. Not people who owe me favors or like me for my money or fame. There are plenty of those. But people like you, the boys, Lanie? Not so common."

"What about the guys you play poker with? They're your friends, aren't they?"

He tilts his head.

"Sort of...I mean, the writers are more or less my colleagues, but I wouldn't show up unannounced at Connelly's house to watch a movie. As for the others, it's something like symbiosis with the Mayor and Judge Markway. I give good press, sometimes campaign donations. They get me out of trouble. Or these days, make sure I can continue to get myself into trouble."

He nudges her with his elbow, a nod to the mayor's phone call to Gates at the beginning of the Fall that got him reinstated.

She smiles, but it doesn't reach her eyes. He's not sure if it's his unintentional reminder that their work is dangerous, and he could get into real trouble someday or the reminder that when the Mayor's term expires, his might end as well. He'd better move on to a happier subject.

"So you, my dear detective, are a true treasure."

He beams at her, and her expression lightens.

"I don't know, Castle...I might just be using you for your coffee."

He barks out a laugh.

"That I don't mind. Feel free to use me anytime, at least for my coffee."

He winks at her before continuing. "Or my body. Your choice."

Her lips curl into the half smile that he loves.

"Hmm...I think I'll stick with the coffee."

He opens his mouth to tell her it's her loss, but he doesn't get that far.

"For now, at least."

She lets out a wicked laugh at his sudden intake of breath.

He can't think, isn't sure of the right response, but before his brain can recover, she's standing and heading to the kitchen, her voice floating back to him.

"I'm hungry. Chinese sound good to you?"

He can only nod when she turns and quirks an eyebrow at him. Minnie jumps from his lap, meowing and scampering after her owner. He decides the kitten has the right idea and follows.

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