He's stirring their coffees at the counter when he hears her voice floating over from the living room. He looks up to find her with her back still to him, fiddling with her DVD player.

"What were your favorite Christmas traditions growing up?"

It's the kind of question he usually asks her, so it startles him a bit to have their roles reversed and he finds himself tongue-tied.

"Oh, uh...I don't know."

She turns to face him, disbelief etched in the furrow of her eyebrows.


If she'd given him a moment to think, he might have been able to come up with something. But now, his mind is blank.

"There must have been something," she goes on. "Something that you did every year. Ice skating? Christmas lights?"

She's halfway across the room now, closing the space between them.

"Come on, you're always trying to dig through my layers. Time to dig through yours."

There's no sarcasm, no resentment in her voice, and he thinks that must be yet another measure of how things have changed between them. She wants to know him. Not to one-up his knowledge of her. Not because she's hunting for leverage. Just for the sake of knowing.

He shrugs, light with that realization, but a little melancholy with his own memories of Christmases past.

"It was always just my mother and me," he says. "And between her job and our finances, Christmas was always...unpredictable."

Sympathy shows up on her face frequently, compassion is a regular feature in her interactions with the families of their victims. But he doesn't see it directed him very often. And it surprises him to see it now.

"Don't get me wrong, Kate," he says, stretching out a hand in front of him. "Christmas was always good, and I've always loved it. It just was never the same from year to year."

She cocks her head a little, as if she can't quite understand how that could be, and he knows he needs to explain more.

"What we did each year depended on whether or not she had a role. If she did, we might have money for presents and such, but not much time to spend together. If she didn't have a job, then we had more time, and we'd do Christmasy things. But there were never any real traditions that we did every year. And it depended on who she was with at the time too."

It strikes him that however much she's lost, Kate had one thing he'd never had growing up: a stable, predictable home life. He's happy that she had that. Glad that she has those memories.

Not that he thinks he's any the worse for wear for not having had those experiences. It's part of who he is, part of what allows him to write the way he does. The unexpected has always played a role in his life, so he lets it infuse his stories as well.

"So," he says. "No favorite Christmas traditions from my misspent youth. Plenty now though. With Alexis."

She's leaning across the kitchen island toward him, and he watches as the thread of sadness in her face unravels into joy. That's interesting. How happy she is at the thought of something he and his daughter share. She nudges his hand with her coffee mug.

"Go on."

He grins, allowing his delight to shine through.

"Gingerbread houses. We have a competition."

She leans back and quirks an eyebrow at him.

"A competition?"

He nods.

"Every year since she was seven."

"Why seven?"

He braces himself on the counter with his elbows.

"You know she goes to a private school," he says, and she rolls her eyes. Of course she knows. Get on with it.

"They had this project, the year she turned seven. It was kind of math, geometry, a little chemistry, all of that. A way to teach the kids quite a bit but still have it be fun, you know?"

She gestures for him to continue.

"Anyway, the project was to build a gingerbread house. All from scratch. The only pre-made stuff they were allowed to use were decorations: gumdrops, red hots, that kind of thing."

She's listening intently, the way she listens to a witness or a suspect on one of their cases, waiting for him to spill his secrets. And he can tell why she's so good at what she does. He'd tell her anything at this point. That intensity is always hot. But mixed with a little Christmas spirit, a little wonder? Absolutely irresistible.

"So they had to figure out a recipe for gingerbread. Soft enough to not shatter if you cut it, but firm enough to build something. And it had to taste good. They actually had to submit a sample to their teacher for testing until she approved."

She laughs.

"Maybe their teacher was just hungry."

He shrugs.

"That was my theory too. But she insisted it was essential for the learning process, something about testing your hypothesis and conducting trials."

The high-pitched voice he uses to quote his daughter's teacher draws an affectionate shake of the head from the detective.

"And then there was the icing. Same principle as the gingerbread, except for use as mortar, of course. It had to be the right consistency so that you could spread it pretty thin. But it also had to retain enough strength and sticking power to hold things together. And it had to be sweet too."

"More taste tests?" she asks with a chuckle.

He nods.

"Absolutely. Their teacher was in a really good mood all month. All that sugar."

She smiles againt and straightens her posture, inclining her head toward the couch in silent question. He nods, picks up his mug and follows.

"What did you guys do?" she asks as they sit, bodies turned slightly toward each other, knees curled and nearly touching.

"We won," he says with a smirk, leaning down to scoop up Minerva when she appears by his foot and depositing her in the space between their thighs.

Their hands brush briefly as they both reach out to pet the small creature. Minnie arches her back beneath Castle's fingers, purring when Kate scratches at the top of her head.

"I was, shall we say, between contracts. So I wasn't doing much writing. And I wasn't dating anyone either, so I had a lot of free time to mess around. Every day when Alexis got home from school, we'd experiment. Try new ratios of flour to molasses. Different seasonings. More sugar in the icing or less. We really perfected everything. And her house kicked every other house's tail."

She smiles, softly. Tenderly.

"Sounds like you guys had a blast."

He shrugs, his gaze traveling out the window for a moment before he brings his eyes back to hers.

"We really did. I wouldn't trade that time for anything."

She moves her leg just enough to bump their knees together.

"So how did your daughter's school project turn into a yearly competition?"

He feels a little heat rise in his face, and when she sees his blush, her gaze turns accusatory, albeit still playful.

"What did you do?"

He leans back, putting a hand to his chest.

"Me? Why do you automatically assume I did something? I should be offended."

She rolls her eyes.

"I assume because I know you, Castle."

"Oh, fine," he huffs, and even he can't understand the string of words that escape from his mouth, said so quickly they don't even sound like English.

The detective cocks her head to one side.

"Say again? Slower this time?"

He sighs and feels his cheeks redden further.

"I challenged Alexis to a build off because she kept beating me at everything else."

She laughs.

"Like what?"

"Ping-pong. Laser tag. Super Mario. Every single time I taught her something new, she would immediately beat me at whatever it was. And it's not like I was letting her win either. I tried that once with Candy Land when she was three, and when she figured it out, she got so upset that she hadn't legitimately won that she made me promise never to throw a game again."

She looks at him incredulously.

"She figured out that you'd thrown a game of Candy Land when she was three years old?"

He shrugs, a small proud smile gracing his lips.

"She's smart. She pulled an orange card on the first turn, and I told her that meant she got to take two turns at a time for the rest of the game. I really just wanted it to go quicker. Do you know how boring that game is? But when she finished and I was only halfway through, she read the rule sheet and figured out what I'd done."

Kate shakes her head.

"She read the rule sheet? At three?"

He bumps his knee against hers.

"I told you, Detective. Her first word was denouement."

Her laughter fills the space between them, wells up within him, a wave of peace and contentment and rightness.

"So this build off?"

"Was a way for me to regain some of my dignity. Kinda backfired though, at least that first year."

"How so?" she asks, amusement lacing the words.

"The competition was to see who could build the taller gingerbread house without it falling over. There was a two-hour time limit. I figured with my height and experience, I'd win easily. But I was cocky."

She looks at him appraisingly.

"She climbed on a chair, didn't she?"

He hums in confirmation.

"And kept things simple. Triangular walls and a roof, over and over. It actually looked a lot like the Flatiron on Fifth Avenue. I, on the other hand, got a little too fancy with mine and sadly, the whole thing came tumbling down two minutes before time ran out."

"Oooh, tragic," she laments, a twinkle in her eyes as she pokes him in the side.

He drops his gaze to his hands, shaking his head.

"All that work, undone in the span of a single moment. Needless to say, I was crushed."

He flicks his eyes up to hers, meeting her steady gaze.

"Alexis, being the wonderful daughter that she is, offered to let me try again the following year. And thus, a tradition was born."

She smiles affectionately, stretching her thumb to brush over his knuckles. He hadn't even realized they were both still petting Minnie, who is luxuriating with loud purrs under their twin ministrations. His skin tingles under Kate's touch.

"Sounds like fun, Castle."

The softness of her voice tugs at him. He's enthralled by this version of Kate, though he thinks there's not an incarnation of the woman that wouldn't fascinate him. Still, this one who speaks quietly to him, who touches his hand or his arm so easily, who leans into his shoulder, who lets him see her with hair loose and messy, who laughs freely...he's besotted, smitten, and utterly captivated.

He shrugs, grinning at her, knowing his eyes probably speak too much. But she doesn't look away.

"Every year's a little different. We've done height, complexity, decorations, even just sheer magnitude. Our houses took up half the living room that time."

"Who won this year?" she asks. "Unless you're doing it tonight, I mean."

"Nope, last Saturday," he answers. "And I won. We built castles."

She rolls her eyes, but there's no real irritation, just humor.

"Well, isn't that egotistical of you? And who judges these things anyway? I mean, obviously height or size would be easy, but what about the more subjective?"

He laughs, leaning further into the back of the couch and spreading his large hand over Minerva, who has rolled onto her back and is happily presenting her belly for his affections.

"It varies a little from year to year, but usually we have a few of the building staff come up for hot chocolate and cookies. We give them secret ballots and everything."

If it were any woman but Kate Beckett, he wouldn't be telling her all this. He's tried to be suave and mature in other relationships. But then, their relationship has always been different.

He tried charming and sexy on her, at the very beginning, and it didn't work. Eventually he gave in and just behaved like himself.

Less of Richard Castle, famous author and millionaire playboy, the persona he assumes for the sake of the paparazzi and his book sales.

More of Rick Castle, father of Alexis and son of Martha. Easy-going and playful. Caring and sincere. Fiercely protective of those he loves.

And that's how he knows that this, whatever this could be between them, is right. Because he doesn't have to pretend to be something he's not.

"Only you, Castle," she says on a puff of air that could be a chuckle. "Only you could come up with something like that and rope other people into it."

He gives her a cheeky grin.

"I'm just that good."

The glare she shoots him tries hard to be menacing, but fails. Her enjoyment? of their conversation, of his story, shines through.

He vaguely registers that his finger hurts a little and when he glances down, Minnie is chewing on him.

"Don't you feed her?" he asks, but doesn't shake the kitten off.

Kate gives him that teasing, coy, challenging look, the one he always sees right before she leaves him breathless and wanting, often with new material for his fantasies.

"What's the matter, Castle? I thought you'd like it if a pretty girl nibbled on you."

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