"What time are you heading up to your dad's place?"

It's still early. He'd woken up a little after seven o'clock, and they were finished with breakfast by half past eight, so he knows it's probably not safe for him to head back to the loft quite yet. If she needs to get going though, he doesn't want to slow her down.

Well, he does, but he won't.

He can just go wander the streets for a bit if he has to find something to occupy his time. He likes New York at Christmas.

"Probably not until early afternoon," she says, and his spirits lift.

Maybe he won't have to leave so soon after all. She lets out a yawn, and one of his own answers.

"Why did we get up so early?" he asks, sitting down on her couch again and patting the spot next to him. "Actually, you're the one who got up early. I was sleeping peacefully until you woke me with your creepy staring."

She gives him a sheepish smile and surprises him when she does sit down at his side.

"Habit, Castle, sorry."

He turns to look at her, raising one eyebrow, and she splutters.

"The waking up early! Not the staring! And anyway, I was watching Minnie sleep, not you."

He hums in answer.

"It's okay, Detective. I know I'm cute when I'm asleep. At least that's what my mother always said."

She rolls her eyes.

"Might be the only time," she mutters under her breath, but he hears it clearly.

He leans away from her, dropping his jaw in feigned astonishment.

"Did Katherine Beckett just admit that she thinks I'm cute?"

Her eyes widen.

"What? No!"

"You totally did!" he crows, pumping a fist into the air and leaning slightly into her space as he sing-songs the next words. "You think I'm cuu-uute..."

She shoves his shoulder, but doesn't move away from him, despite the rising pink in her cheeks.

"Oh, shut up, Castle. Besides, remember that photo at the Old Haunt? I told you that you were cute back then."

Somehow he thinks that didn't make her point the way she meant it to, because she flushes a deeper red. He can't resist poking at her a little more.

"Admit it, Kate. You just can't get enough of my boyish charm."

She shakes her head, but he's pleased to note that beneath the annoyance in her narrowed eyes, there's a sparkle of true affection.

He lets out a loud sigh and pats his belly.

"Well, now that we've got that settled, I have to tell you: your delicious food and soft couch are making me extremely sleepy."

She nudges his side with her elbow.

"Do I bore you, Castle?"

He gives her a slow smile, leaning back into the couch and closing his eyes.

"Nope, but boring and relaxing are two very different things. I could take a nap right now."

To his surprise, he feels her settling next to him, her arm brushing his.

"Mm, me too."

The knot in his chest tightens. She's been so comfortable with him last night and this morning. He doesn't know what's made her that way, but whatever it is, he hopes it doesn't change any time soon.

"Castle?" she calls, her voice soft and a little dreamy.

"Hmm?" He opens one eye to regard her, her body still, eyes closed, a slight smile on her face. The picture of contentment.

"I'm not gonna wake up with any puncture wounds this time, am I?"

He laughs quietly, remembering the two previous times they've woken up together.

"Unless they're from your cat's claws, my guess is no."

The feline in question chooses that moment to appear, jumping onto Castle's lap and kneading his thigh. He strokes her fur a few times and she curls up, purring.

He looks at Kate again. Her eyes are closed, but he can tell by her breathing that she's still awake, if barely.

"But hey," he points out, "at least it didn't look like a hickey this time. No awkward questions."

She hums, a little noise that tugs at his stomach.

"That thing hurt like hell, Castle," she says, her voice faint, barely distinguishable even in the quiet of the room. "I wish it had been a hickey."

His mouth is suddenly dry, but she says nothing more. He stares at her, probably for longer than he should. When she speaks again, it startles him.

"Quit staring, creepy. Go to sleep."

He closes his eyes, but he's not so tired anymore.

Her breath evens out around the same time his heart rate does, but his mind is still buzzing. Mostly with what it would have taken for her to have a hickey there. And for him to have a matching one.

He still remembers the feel of her skin under his fingertips the night they danced together undercover at the MADT fundraiser. It was warm and smooth, and she shivered the first time he touched her back, though she claimed it was the coldness of his fingers from the drink he'd been holding.

Ryan's wedding is coming up in a couple weeks. There'll be dancing at the reception, and maybe if he's lucky, he'll get to hold her again. Although if her attitude toward him lately and their current closeness is any clue, maybe it won't take as much luck as he thinks.

He lets himself drift in his own soothing ocean of the steady sound of her breathing and the warmth of her body next to him.

Awhile later, he's not sure how long, he feels her hand brushing over his to pet Minerva, who still sleeps on his thigh, little head cradled in his hand.

His cheek is pressed against the top of her head, the softness of her hair tickling his neck thanks to the way she's tucked against his shoulder. They must have leaned into each other unconsciously while they napped. And she's awake, but she hasn't moved away from him.

He smiles, and she must feel it, because her hand pauses.

"Time is it?" she asks on a yawn, the vibrations of her voice racing through his shoulder to his chest.

He lifts his left arm to check his watch.

"A little after ten."

"What time do you have to be back at the loft?"

He chuckles.

"It's more of a matter of when it's safe to go back. Alexis will give me the all clear when her friends have left. They're usually gone by noon. But if you need me to clear out before then, I will."

She shakes her head. He's amazed that she still hasn't moved it from his shoulder.

"You can hang out here. I'll probably leave around one. I don't want to beat my dad out there, since I don't have a key."

He hesitates before he asks the question he knows he probably shouldn't.

"What did you do out there all summer?" He knows he's intruding on her privacy, so he tries to inject a little humor to soften the question. "I would have gotten so bored."

She sits up, lifting her head away from him, and his heart sinks. Should have kept his mouth shut. They were doing so well.

"I slept a lot, at least at first. Just gave my body a chance to heal. After that I read quite a bit. Spent a lot of time thinking."

He nods, dropping his gaze when she turns to look at him. His thumb moves automatically to stroke the soft fur of Minnie's ears.


He can tell she's asking for his attention, but he's not sure he can look at her right now. When she sets a soft hand on his arm though, he lifts his eyes to meet hers.

"You weren't the only one I didn't talk to this summer. The boys didn't say anything. I'm their boss, sort of, so they probably didn't feel like they could really call me out for it. But Lanie gave me an earful. She was so mad at me."

He's not sure what he's supposed to say, so he just watches her, lets her figure it out on her own. He knows she needs that sometimes. She looks away from him for a moment, letting her eyes drift down to her hands, which have retreated back to her own lap.

"I never meant to hurt you."

Her words come out softly.

"But you did," he says quietly.

He doesn't want to push her away, never wants to let her go. But that doesn't mean she doesn't need to know what she did to him.

"I know. And I am so, so sorry."

The tremor in her voice is enough to have him reaching over to gather both of her hands in both of his.

"Kate," he murmurs, waiting until she meets his eyes and squeezing her hands when she does. "It's in the past. You took the time you needed. And I'm a big boy. I survived."

She shakes her head, furrowing her eyebrows.

"How can you just let it go that easily?"

He lifts one hand to set it on her shoulder.

"You've been through so much already, and you don't need me adding to your burden," he says, then gives her a soft smile. "Plus, when you're a parent, you learn to get over being upset quickly. Otherwise, you'd spend half your time wanting to strangle your kids. Yes, even Alexis."

Her expression lightens. Mission accomplished.

"Besides," he continues, "it's not like you haven't forgiven me for things too. Small stuff. Really huge mistakes. There's been quite a bit of both as I recall."

He shrugs, tilting his head to one side.

"It's like when we were cuffed. We went around in circles for a bit. We pushed and pulled each other in the wrong direction. The cuffs pinched from time to time. But we figured it out, found our rhythm, and made it out alive."

She squeezes the hand under hers.

"We did survive a hungry tiger."

"Exactly," he says and then leans closer, leering playfully at her. "Speaking of which, did you need me to check you for injection marks?"

He's near enough that she can twist his ear, but not before he sees her eyes flash with something other than irritation. Something that might have been desire.

Castle yelps and tries to get out of her reach, but one of his hands is still tangled with hers and she pulls him back.

"Oh, quit being such a baby," she says. "Besides, I let you pull my pigtails all the time, but when I twist your ear you complain about it? How is that fair?"

She's got him there, but she's still grasping his hand. And that makes up for all the ear-twisting in the world, so he just shrugs, acknowledging her point.


There's a hesitancy in her voice.


She squeezes his hand. "Thank you."

His questioning look prompts her to continue.

"I know you were angry with me at the end of the summer. And you had every right to be upset. So thank you, for coming back anyway."

He can see the knowledge in her eyes. She knows, or at least hopes she knows what he's going to say. But he thinks she needs to hear it anyway.

"Always, Kate. We're partners."

He grips her hand tightly for a moment and bumps her shoulder with his.

"Besides, if I'd quit working with you, I never would have met the new lady in my life."

She quirks an eyebrow, but there's a hint of insecurity in her look, and he mentally curses his attempt at a joke.

"What's this new lady like?"

Maybe he can play this off though, make her laugh, and truly get her to understand that he's not looking for anyone else to fill the space in his heart. It's distinctly Kate Beckett shaped, and no one else would do.

"Well," he begins. "She's smart. Cute, with gorgeous green eyes. She's playful...very affectionate too. She's pretty energetic, but doesn't mind just curling up with me in front of a movie."

Her eyes narrow slightly.

"She doesn't mind that you spent the night here?"

He shakes his head.

"She knows I'm here. She's...I don't know...different somehow." He pauses dramatically. "Gray and furry, for one."

It takes her a second before she realizes what he said, but when she does, she wrenches her hand away from him and smacks him across the chest. The commotion wakes Minnie, who looks between them, blinking lazily.

"Richard Castle! Are you describing my cat?"

He shrugs, keeping his face as solemn as he can.

"What can I say? She's stolen my heart."

He told her before that she and Minnie are a lot alike. He hopes she remembers that now.

And judging by the look on her face as she shakes her head at him, the sparkle in her eyes that answers his own mischievous twinkle, and her lips pressed tightly together to hold back a smile, he thinks she just might.

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