"What are Alexis and her friends up to tonight?"

Castle leans back against the couch, setting a hand on his now full belly. Between the food, the wine, and the excellent company, he's warm and well-fed and just plain content.

"Mm, I imagine the same thing as every year. They've probably ordered a pizza, watched a few Christmas movies. Made cookies and hot chocolate, maybe. They usually do a little Secret Santa thing."

He glances at Kate to see a nostalgic smile on her face. Had she done the same thing with her friends?

"By now, they're probably all in their jammies in front of the fire."

"Braiding hair and talking about boys?" she asks with a wink.

He shrugs, smiling at her.

"Maybe so."

"So they do this every year?"

He nods, his gaze drifting down to the kitten now stretched across them, back half on her thigh, front half on his.

"Yeah, it's been a tradition for a while. I used to be allowed to stay. I'd keep them supplied with snacks and drinks. Tell stories if they got bored. Play games if they needed an extra person. Make sure they didn't burn anything down. Past few years though, my presence hasn't really been needed."

She bumps his shoulder, a little comfort in his moment of melancholy.

"Well, she's growing up. You probably don't have to worry so much about potential fire damage these days."

He hums his agreement.

"And my mother's around, just in case."

She chuckles.

"Didn't you tell me once that your mother's parties were more raucous than your own?"

He smirks. She's right.

"Yep. But since she's a woman, she's allowed to stick around. Plus, she knows I'd kick her out if she let anything major go wrong."

The detective shakes her head.

"Oh, you would not."

"I would so."

She raises one eyebrow, and he has to admit defeat.

"Okay, so maybe I wouldn't. But only because Alexis would miss her too much. You were there after she'd moved in with Chet. My daughter was nearly despondent."

Kate smiles. He suspects that despite the unfortunate circumstances, she'd had fun during the few days that she'd stayed with them after her apartment blew up. He knows he'd enjoyed having her there, even if his feelings for her were not nearly as clear then as they are now.

"How did she end up living with you anyway?"

He grimaces. Not the best memory. His mother showing up on his doorstep one night, tear-streaked and humiliated and heart-broken.

"The guy she had married a few months before emptied their bank account and skipped town. Took her for everything she had."

Kate frowns.

"Wow. That's awful. Did they ever catch him?"

He shakes his head, his heart clenching at his remembrance of his mother's pain.

"Nope. He'd been living under a false name. He just...disappeared."

Her expression mirrors the one he knows his own face bears. Frustration. Anger. The way it feels when someone who'd hurt your loved one just gets away.

"So, she came to live with us."

"How long?"

He gives her a half-smile.

"Five years now. And it was good timing, really. Alexis was just getting to the point that she needed help with certain things. A woman's perspective. Even if my mother has never had much in the way of perspective."

Kate gives him a look he can't quite interpret.

"Your mother is..."

"Crazy? Dramatic?"

"I was going to say she's a lot like you."

He tilts his head back to see her better and pokes her lightly in the arm.

"Hey now, no need to be mean!"

She rolls her eyes.

"Oh, you know it's true. You're both dramatic, yes. Over the top."

She winks before she says, "And maybe a little crazy."

The detective laughs at the look of affront he knows must be plastered on his face and then lowers her eyes, dropping her hand to run it across Minnie's back. The kitten lets out a little snort in her sleep.

"But, in the little time I've spent with her, I've seen that she has her own kind of wisdom. She's compassionate and giving. Fun to be around. She's a bit of a whirlwind, but oddly enough, she makes me feel safe."

She said he's like his mother. Is that what she thinks of him too? That he is all of those things she just said? That he makes her feel safe?

He wants to kiss her. She is so beautiful, inside and out. So unfailingly kind and generous. How could he not be in love with this woman? He's the writer, but hers are the words that speak to his heart.

"Kate." His voice is quiet, a little rougher than normal.

She looks up, utterly open to him, eyes wide and dark and vulnerable. He wants to tell her again. Wants her to hear the words. This time without the sharp edge of grief at the loss of their friend and mentor. Without the hole in her chest. Without the descending black.

"Kate..." he whispers again, and her eyes flick to his lips before meeting his gaze once more.

His hand rises of its own accord. He's not sure if he's going to caress her cheek, run his thumb under her eye, or cup the back of her head and just pull her to his mouth.

He does neither. Something flashes in her eyes. Fear? He's not sure, but he's not willing to take the chance. The last time he took a chance like that she shut him out for three months, only came back to him when she needed the files for her mother's case. He won't make her do that again. Won't show his hand completely until he's sure that she wants what he offers.

Instead, his fingers swipe a few strands of dark hair away from her eyes as he leans in, his lips meeting her forehead as his palm slides over to cover her ear. He lingers, just for a moment. Her breath warms his neck when she exhales.

He draws back to see her eyes closed. When they open, they're clouded with something, and he wonders if he made a mistake. It's resignation, he thinks, but he's not sure if it's because she wanted him to actually kiss her or because she didn't want to let him get even this close. Either way, he thinks she's disappointed.

But she smiles.

"What was that for?"

He can't be completely honest, so he settles for part of the truth.

"Your kindness. The way you put up with me and my craziness. The advice you give me about Alexis and about my mother. Thank you."

She ducks her head, and her ears redden a little.

"You're welcome, Castle," she says as she looks up. There's a warmth in her voice, little crinkles at the edges of her eyes as she smiles. "And thank you. For the coffee, and your jokes, and your ridiculous theories. You make things...better."

His heart lifts, even as he rebuts her assertion that his theories are ridiculous. She told him before that he makes her job a little more fun. But there's a wide gap between "more fun" and "better."

"Hey, you've gotta admit...we have had cases involving the mob. And spies. And aliens, albeit not from outer space. So my theories aren't completely wrong. Not all the time."

She shakes her head, not even bothering to hide her indulgent smile this time. He loves it. Hopes he can always make her smile that way. Like she can't help it when he's around.

The tickle of whiskers against his wrist and a cool, wet nose pressed into the back of his hand alert him that Minnie is up and wants attention. He smiles at Kate once more before looking down to his lap. Green eyes stare back, blinking lazily.

"Be right back," the detective says as she stands, heading in the direction of what he knows to be her bedroom. Her bare feet make no sound as she walks. His eyes follow her until her back disappears through a door and a sandpaper tongue rasps against his knuckles.

"Hey, little one, whatcha doing?"

Minerva nudges him again, and he turns his hand, scratching just behind her whiskers. She purrs.

"You like that?"

He smooths his thumb up the ridge of the tiny nose, watching as the eyes close, open, close, open, and close again, for longer this time. He's never had a cat, always considered himself a dog man. But there's something inherently calming about the repetitive motions he's using to soothe this small creature. His own eyes are starting to droop a little.

A hand on his shoulder startles him and he jerks, rousing the kitten once more. Kate stands at the side of the couch, a soft expression on her face. Not quite smiling. He can't find the right word to describe it. There's just a gentleness about her.

"Hey," he says, and he realizes he knows exactly what she meant earlier about his voice changing when he talks to his family. Apparently it changes for her too.

"I'm back."

He smiles a little at her seeming shyness.

"I see that. What's behind your back?"

She glances behind her quickly, as if she's forgotten what she was doing.

"Oh, it's a toy she likes. I thought you might like to play with her, but she'll go crazy if she sees it, so I didn't want to show it to her if you weren't up to it. You looked like you were ready to fall asleep."

He grins.

"A toy? I'm awake."

Her eyes light up like he's given her the moon. And maybe he should. Get Kate her own piece of property on the moon, down the crater from his. Or maybe he should just add her name to his deed.

She pulls a long, thin plastic stick from behind her back. There's a thick, fuzzy rope thing attached to it, like one of those faux fur boas Alexis used to use for dress-up when she was little. At the end of the rope, there's a bundle of feathers. The whole getup is very odd looking, but Minnie sits up in his lap, ears pointed forward.

Kate holds it still. And then her hand twitches and the kitten launches herself off his leg, flying through the air toward the thing, barely missing when the detectives moves it again.

Minnie jumps from the couch to the coffee table and slides, landing on the floor and immediately leaping up again. A peal of laughter rings in his ears, and he realizes he's never seen Kate like this. Carefree. Unburdened. His own deeper laugh spills forth and she turns to look at him, dark eyes sparkling.

"You wanna try?" she asks, extending the stick to him.

He nods, reaching out as he stands up. Their fingers brush at the exchange, sending a quick tingle up his arm.

Looking down at the ground, he finds the kitten slowly moving toward the feathers, little body pressed nearly flat against the floor. She pauses, narrowing her eyes. He waits a second, then flicks his wrist up and Minnie jumps after it, twisting in the air, paws extended. He pulls it just out of her reach, and she lands on the couch again with a soft thud.

She sits up, turns her head, and begins washing her back.

Castle looks to Kate, whose hand rests over her smiling mouth.

"Is she done playing already?"

She shakes her head.

"No, give her a minute. I've noticed that she'll do this sometimes when she misses. It's like she's embarrassed that she didn't catch it, so she has to pretend she doesn't really care. Just wait."

The two of them stand still for a good thirty seconds, watching as the kitten does a very thorough job on her back, shoulders, and paws.

Then Kate reaches over, setting her hand on his. He looks at her, but she's pressing her other index finger to her lips.

Slowly, she pulls their hands back. The feathers move, inch by crawling inch, and he sees that Minerva has stopped washing, her gaze instead fixing on the feathers.

For a moment, she sits, attentive. And then her shoulders drop. Her ears turn back and lay nearly flat against her head. Her tail stays down, but the little rump rises, wiggling slightly.

He looks at Kate again, but she just nods toward the kitten, who has begun to creep toward the bundle.

A foot and a half turns to ten inches, then seven, then three, and then Kate jerks their hands back.

Minnie leaps, little paws wrapping around the rope, and pulls it to the ground with her. Kate tugs a bit, and the cat's back paws come up to rabbit against the feathered bundle, much like they did to Castle's hand earlier.

He looks back to the detective, noting the almost proud smile on her face as she continues to pull on the stick, the gray fluff ball now dragging on her back across the floor.

"Did you mean for her to catch it?"

She turns to him.

"That's the best part sometimes. Seeing how excited she gets when she finally grabs it. How ferociously she attacks the silly thing."

"You sound like a proud mama."

A little pink rises in her cheeks and she bites her bottom lip. Oh, how he wants to just kiss her when she looks like that.

"Tell the boys and I'll kill ya."

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