FLUFF

They play the game a few more times until all three are well and truly worn out. Both Castle and Beckett have been working hard lately. Though none of the cases since the tiger have been particularly challenging, dealing with murder is always a strain.

So he's grateful that the two of them have a chance to relax this evening, though he's certain it's not exactly what either of them expected. He never would have guessed that he'd meet someone new in Kate's life tonight, especially not someone of the small and furry variety. And of course, Kate didn't even know he was coming over at all.

"You didn't have plans tonight, did you?" he asks, suddenly worried that he might have interrupted something. "You weren't going to a party or anything?"

She raises one eyebrow at him and then gives herself an obvious once over.

"Do I look like I had plans, Castle? This is not exactly a party outfit."

His eyes skim up her body, the bare feet, pajama-clad legs, thin tank top. How is she not freezing? He's comfortable enough in his maroon sweater, jeans, and socks (the shoes had come off a while ago), but her apartment isn't what he'd call warm.

He shrugs.

"Depends on the party, I guess. You'd fit right in at a slumber party. And aren't you freezing?"

She gives him a long look, and to be honest, he's a little terrified of what she might say next.

"Why? You wanna warm me up?"

Uh. Yeah, he really does. But he can't say that, can he?

"I"

When he doesn't complete whatever he was going to say (he's really not sure what it would have been), she rolls her eyes and shakes her head at him.

"You are just so easy."

He lets out a breath he didn't know he was holding. Only for you, Kate, only for you.

She flops back down on the couch, patting the spot next to her.

"One more movie, then bed?"

He smirks.

"Who's the easy one now?"

He really should have expected the cushion that hits him squarely in the chest.

"Separately, Castle. And I still sleep with a gun."

She says the words, and he wouldn't dare to suggest she means otherwise, but unlike two years ago, there's a twinkle in her eye, and he can't help but again remember that moment of "next time, let's do it without the tiger." Maybe she sleeps with cuffs too.

The opening strains of "Welcome Christmas" reach his ears and turns to the tv to see the Whos beginning their decorations. He smiles.

"I love Dr. Seuss."

The detective nods.

"Had a feeling you might."

He settles into the warmth of the couch, extending his legs and propping his feet on her coffee table. He stretches his arms across the back of the couch, brushing against the back of Kate's head as he does.

"Smooth," she whispers, but doesn't move away.

He really wasn't trying to put his arm around her. Despite the extra level of physical interaction between them lately, he's not sure how that would be received.

But when she reaches for the wineglass he refilled for her (after they were done playing with Minnie, of course) and then leans back, she's a little closer to him, her upper arm brushing his side. He's glad he went with the cashmere sweater today. It's warm and soft, and it won't be abrasive on her bare skin.

She shivers a little, and he can't resisting jabbing at her a bit.

"Need me to warm you up after all?"

She laughs, and pulls the blanket higher.

"Think I'm good, Romeo. But thanks for the offer."

She turns back to watch the Grinch and Max, and he does too, but his attention stays with the detective, the smooth curve of her shoulder tucked into him, the tickle of her hair against his bare forearm when she turns her head, the scent of cherries a little fainter, giving way to her own natural spice.

"What are you guys doing for Christmas?"

Her voice is quiet, and it takes him a moment to pull himself back from his daydreams of burying his nose in her hair and just breathing deeply.

"Oh. Just sticking around home tomorrow and Sunday. I imagine we'll probably watch A Christmas Story at least once tomorrow night."

She tips her head up to look at him.

"Oh, that's right. They do that 24-hour marathon. My dad loves that movie. I'll have to remind him."

She's smiling again. She has smiled so much tonight, and he's grateful, glad not only that he gets to see it, but that he seems to be part of the reason the smile is there in the first place.

"Are you spending Christmas with your dad?"

She nods.

"Leaving tomorrow. We're going up to his cabin."

What she doesn't say, what he suspects, is that she and her father spend Christmas at the cabin because it still hurts to celebrate in apartment she grew up in, her mother's absence still so noticeable. Plus, it can be good just to get away, even if only for a day or so.

"When do you come back?"

"Monday morning. I'm on call that night. You gonna be around?"

He shakes his head. He wishes he would be around.

"I'm taking Alexis out to California to visit her mom. We leave on Monday. Come back on Friday. Gotta be in the Big Apple for New Year's Eve."

He smiles, but she doesn't. She looks a little worried actually. Maybe not openly, but it's there in her eyes.

"How is Alexis' mom? You haven't mentioned her lately."

Oh.

He shrugs.

"Fine, I guess. It's been a while since I've seen her. Every time she's been in town in the past couple of years, we've been on a case, so thankfully, I haven't really had to spend any amount of time with her."

The detective furrows her eyebrows.

"Thankfully?"

He half-smiles, ducking his head for a moment and then meeting her eyes again.

"Alexis is the only good thing to ever come out of my relationship with Meredith. And don't get me wrong, I will always be grateful to her for that one reason. But everything else that comes with being around her? I can do without it."

He remembers now their earlier forgotten conversation about his weddings, though he suspects her question had more to do with wanting to know how his marriages ended than how they began.

She hasn't said anything, still just regards him carefully, so he continues.

"We started dating a few months after Kyra left. Meredith was...fun. Carefree. We were having a good time together, and honestly, I just wanted to move on. She helped me do that. And then she got pregnant with Alexis."

Kate nods. "So you married her."

"So I married her. Remember the wedding disaster I mentioned earlier? Yeah, she got morning sickness at the reception, and yelled at me for 'putting her in this condition.' Publicly. In front of our friends and members of the press."

The detective winces and shakes her head.

"But, I wanted my little girl to have the family I never had, so we stayed together. And once the hormones balanced out a bit, it was pretty good for a while. After Alexis was born, Meredith was a doting mother for a few months. And then she wanted to go back to work, and since I could write from home, we figured that was fine for us."

He looks down when Minnie jumps onto his lap. He's not sure where she's been, but it seems she's decided to join them for story time. His hand covers her small back, the steady rhythm of her breath calming him.

"She got a few parts on soap operas, little roles, and she seemed happy enough. I was writing and enjoying being a father more than I thought I would. But Meredith...I don't know. I think she's just not cut out to stay in one place for too long. She needs new and shiny, needs excitement. And I wasn't enough."

He stops. It's hard, admitting that you're not enough. He wonders sometimes if he's been enough of a dad for Alexis. If he'll ever be enough of a partner for the woman sitting at his side. Kate's voice is quiet when she speaks.

"She cheated on you?"

He nods.

"And served me with divorce papers. But she let me keep Alexis."

The compassion in her eyes doesn't surprise him, but he is feeling a bit vulnerable, so he turns back to the tv where Cindy Lou Who is listening to the Grinch's explanations of his actions.

"You know," he says quietly, seeing from the corner of his eye that Kate is still watching him. "Alexis always reminded me of Cindy Lou Who. So trusting. So innocent. Such a good heart."

Kate touches his hand briefly.

"You've done a good job with her."

He shakes his head self-deprecatingly.

"She mostly raised herself. I just tried to not screw her up too much."

"Castle."

The tone of her voice catches him by surprise. It's almost stern.

"Don't sell yourself short. You're a great father. Alexis is lucky to have you."

Her words warm his heart. Tonight has been good for his soul, assuaging some of his doubts. She's good for him.

"Thanks."

She just bumps her elbow against his side.

"I've just always felt like I needed to give Alexis more. Needed to protect her better. I've kept her out of the press as much as possible. That's one of the things that went wrong when I married Gina. She wanted a big wedding. She loved me, yes, but she's also a business woman, and she knew that coverage of our wedding would help sell books. I didn't want my little girl's picture all over the paper."

Kate nods when he looks at her.

"Understandable. Did Gina not get that?"

He shrugs.

"She got it. She said she'd make sure no one bothered Alexis or took her picture. But I was a jerk about it and we fought. Almost called off the wedding. We made up and went through with it, obviously, but I think that was the beginning of our problems."

Kate opens her mouth and then closes it again, like she's changed her mind about what she was going to say. He nudges her.

"What?"

"Can I ask how you got together? What drew you to her?"

He softens his eyes, smiling.

"You can ask me anything."

There's a shy look on her face, and he remembers that she is, in fact, on of his fans. She reads his books. And though she teases him and puts him in his place, he knows he's still one of her favorite authors, and that's gotta be weird for her sometimes.

"We met through work, obviously. She's risen in the ranks since, but back then she was my editor. So we spent a lot of time together, going over my manuscripts. She'd help me figure out plot points from time to time. We had a lot of similar interests in books, of course. She's driven and she's passionate. Those qualities as my editor made me a better writer."

Kate nods, but there's a tightness in her jaw, a little tic in one of the muscles.

"And you would think that those qualities in my wife would make me a better man. But they didn't. She pushed too hard sometimes. She wanted me to succeed. And I know part of it was because she wanted the best for me personally. But I didn't always see it that way."

"You thought it was all about the business side."

He nods.

"I felt like she was using me. And Alexis. I don't think she was, but I accused her of it, and we fought about it one too many times, and then she was walking out."

"And this last time?" the detective asks, and the look in her eyes makes him think maybe this is what she really wanted to know.

"We had that same spark at the beginning. She's quick-witted and we still have similar interests. But we fought too much, and I just realized she wasn't what I wanted, and it wasn't fair to anyone for us to drag it out. So I ended it. For good."

The movie is ending. Not that they really watched much of it. He lifts Minerva from his lap and sets her on the arm of the couch. Standing and stretching his arms over his head, he's just about to ask if he may use her guest bathroom when he voice catches him.

"What do you want?"

It's quiet...he's not sure she even meant to say it out loud, so he lowers his arms slowly, giving her a chance to retract the question if she wants, to head to the kitchen or her bedroom if she needs escape.

But when he looks down at her, she's watching him warily, waiting for his response.

You, he wants to say. You, always. But there's a wall, and he thinks he's still on the other side. So he shrugs.

"Magic. Someone who makes me laugh and keeps me on my toes, who keeps me humble. Someone with passion, but not about business or money, but about the right things, the things that matter. Someone who will care about Alexis and be there for her when I can't. Someone who pushes me to be a better man. Not too much to ask for, is it?"

She tilts her head, and then stands up next to him.

"Not too much."

He's not sure what to say now, but as it turns out, he doesn't have to say anything. She touches his wrist, eyes meeting his warmly.

"It's late. You know where the bathroom is. I'll grab you a blanket."

She heads to her bedroom and he hears her rummaging around. He picks up their wine glasses and the remainder of the evidence of their evening and heads to the kitchen, tossing containers into the trash and setting the glasses in the sink.

That's where she finds him, doing dishes, and she touches the small of his back to get his attention.

"Blanket is on the couch. And here's a toothbrush."

"New?"

She gives him her duh look, and he nods.

"Good," he says solemnly. "Because I don't want any of your girl cooties."

She just rolls her eyes, but the corner of her mouth twitches, and he knows she's amused.

"Goodnight, Castle."

His eyes follow her retreat, and she turns back to look at him when she reaches her bedroom.

"Sweet dreams, Kate."

She studies him from across the room for a moment.

"I'm leaving my door cracked."

His eyebrows shoot up.

"Why, detective, that sounds almost like an invitation. Is this your only blanket? Are you worried you'll get cold?"

She shakes her head, but there's the hint of a smile on her face.

"Not my only blanket. And not an invitation, at least, not for you. Her, on the other hand..."

Minnie is circling his feet, and he leans over to pick her up before she can climb him again.

"Understood," he says with a wink, and she disappears into her room.

He takes care of business in the bathroom, and when he returns the couch, the kitten is sitting on top of the blanket. He lifts her up and sets her to one side while he reclines and arranges the blanket and cushions to his liking.

"Looks like its just you and me now, Miss Minerva."

She promptly curls up on his chest, and he listens to her soft purr as he waits for sleep to find him.

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