NOT EVEN A MOUSE

He sneaks out before she wakes up. Before any of them wake up. And yes, it's four-thirty in the morning, but he knows they'll be up soon. By five. Six at the latest.

As much as he loved having a little girl who depended on him for everything, he was secretly glad when she reached the age that meant she wanted to sleep in, even on Christmas morning. When he got to rouse Alexis from her bed, rather than waking, startled, to find her bouncing on his chest at five-thirty a.m.

Lilian and James are no different than Alexis was at that age, and of course, Kate's an early riser too, despite the fact that they were up until late last night putting together that bike. Late, he admits, mostly because he wouldn't look at the directions.

Still, he's a little proud of himself for slipping unnoticed from beneath the arm his detective had slung haphazardly over his chest sometime in the night. Proud of himself for not making a sound as he dressed in the dark, pulling on yesterday's jeans and a soft flannel shirt, socks and slip-on shoes.

A quiet "purrrt?" greets him as he pads stealthily through the living room, and he glances down, finds green eyes watching him sleepily from between a pair of matching boxes which he's fairly certain hold matching laser tag sets for his two youngest offspring.

"Hey you," he murmurs, dropping to one knee to ruffle silky gray fur and earning a gentle head butt to his palm.

The cat stretches lazily, her body long and sinuous for a moment before it seems to contract, and then she winds around his leg, rubbing her cheek against the cuff of his jeans and purring.

"Yeah, yeah," he whispers, his fingers sliding down to scratch the underside of Minnie's chin. "You've marked me. I get it."

She blinks up at him, and he wonders, for just a moment, if what he's about to do is really a good idea.

But the deed's been done. He signed the papers yesterday, and the place is closed today, so even if he regrets this even if Kate is furious with him for not consulting with her they'll have to live with his decision for at least today.

Really, though, he thinks it's time.

"Okay, sweet girl," he says after a long moment of smoothing his hand from the top of Minnie's head, down her back, and all the way up to the tip of her proud, inquiring tail. "I'll be back soon."

He gets to his feet slowly, his knees creaking a bit, and strides quickly and quietly across to the loft. Castle glances behind him as opens the front door, listens for the patter of little feet that shouldn't be out of bed, for the sleepy sigh of a detective waking to not quite cool sheets. But all is still and silent.

Minnie has followed him, and he sticks out one foot to nudge her away if she tries to escape, but she only sits back on her haunches and regards him with something of an accusatory look.

"It'll be fine," he says, not quite knowing why he feels the need to justify himself to the cat. "Really."

He slips out and shuts the door carefully behind himself, takes the stairs down, just in case the elevator might ding too loudly.

Eduardo is already on duty, and the man grins when he sees the writer approaching. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Castle."

"Merry Christmas, Eduardo," Castle replies, and he returns the smile, clapping a hand on the other man's shoulder. "Now, I believe you're holding something for me?"

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