It was always a surprise when a holiday season passed without a crime scene. Christmas was a time for families to get together, which, in Kate’s mind, often resulted in harsh feelings and stress rather than peace and joy - the perfect recipe for crimes of passion, or stupidity. It had been a quiet Thanksgiving, a long, cold December. Though the season wasn’t over yet, and she fully expected New Year’s to be as much of a bane on her existence as ever, Kate continued to hold her breath and hope all the same. Truth be told, she needed the respite.
Even before he was sober, her dad had always done what he could to make the holidays special for her, make it so she didn’t feel deprived of a real family Christmas. And she had fond memories of quiet Christmas mornings, opening presents while her dad sipped coffee, watching with tired, bloodshot eyes and shaky hands that told of his attempts at restraint. But as lovely as those memories were, there was just nothing for it - the holidays were a time when those who’d been lost came to mind, making the loss feel just as fresh as it had so many years ago.
She’d created a good life for herself. She felt lucky to do what she did, and to work with people whose company she actually enjoyed and appreciated. The watch on her wrist reminded her daily of the family she still had, the father she’d gone through hell with and fought to save. But at Christmas, more so than at any other time, she missed her mother.
The department Christmas party was in full swing by the time Kate entered the Old Haunt, stomping slush off her boots and scanning the crowded room. Unsurprising was the sight of Ryan and Esposito acting as each other’s wingmen with two blondes at the end of the bar. Kate gave a wave to Lanie, who rolled her eyes in the boys’ general direction and lifted her cocktail in a “go with God, my sons” fashion.
Montgomery was nursing a drink and chatting with the bartender, who had ducked down to grab something from underneath the bar. Kate sidled up and slid onto the adjacent stool, nodding to the Captain. “Can I get a-” she started, cutting herself off when the bartender straightened up, because hell if it wasn’t Castle himself.
“Glass of wine? White, I imagine,” he said smoothly, looking entirely too pleased with himself. Reaching behind him, he grabbed a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and held it up for Kate’s approval. She nodded.
“Bartending? I didn’t realize book sales were that bad, Castle.”
Castle slid her glass across the bar and smirked at her. “Very funny. You know, this is a piece of-”
“New York history, so you’ve mentioned.” A few dozen times, she added silently.
“Exactly. I’ve seen it from where you’re sitting, and now that I, oh, own the place-” He paused for the dramatic raising of Kate’s glass. “Thank you. Anyway, I figured I might as well be part of the process.”
Kate sipped her wine. Knowing what she did about Castle, it made sense. He was like a kid in a candy store about so many things, always eager for new experiences and fresh viewpoints. It drove her up the wall when it interfered with her solving a case - although, she was forced to admit, Castle’s presence generally tended to help rather than hinder those things in the long run - but generally she understood it, even admired it. It spoke to a certain adaptability, no doubt born of an utter lack of permanence from a young age.
“Besides,” Castle continued, pouring Montgomery another drink, “there’s something to be said for finally being able to host a drunken adult party away from the prying eyes of an all-too-intelligent teenager.”
Kate smiled at that. “What’s Alexis up to these days?”
Castle made a put-upon face. “Ash,” he said in a menacing tone that explained everything.
“First love. It’s cute.”
“Sure, until she shows up with tattoos and belly rings and starts roaming the streets at all hours of the night.”
Kate let out a small laugh. “You never know, Castle. Alexis just might be the girl to buck the wild child trend. She’s not me, after all.”
“True enough,” he murmured. “You are something of an original, Detective Beckett.”
It always unnerved her when he talked like that, with no pretense, no bullshit. She couldn’t even begin to explain why. “Just tell her to stop jumping the turnstiles in the subway,” she joked to break the moment.
“Speaking of my favorite juvenile delinquent, she has ordered me to invite you to Christmas Eve, chez Castle style. The Rodgers women don’t believe in denying themselves goodies any longer than they have to, so we always do our celebration then.”
“And play with all your shiny new toys on Christmas Day, I bet.”
Castle’s eyes brightened. “Exactly. This year - Beatles Rock Band.” He leaned his elbows on the bar. “So what do you say? Do you have plans?”
Kate shrugged. “My dad and I are Christmas Day traditionalists, so I’m free.”
“Sure,” she says, feeling like she should make up an excuse but not particularly wanting to. “Thanks, Castle.”
“Detective Beckett!” Alexis squealed, throwing her arms around Kate’s neck. “You came!”
“Kate,” she corrected as she smiled into Alexis’s fiery hair and returned the enthusiastic squeeze. “Thanks for the invite.”
“Of course.” Grabbing her by the hand, Alexis led Kate to the kitchen island, where Castle was stirring a pot of cider. “Dad. Cider me.”
“You got it, baby bird. Beckett,” he nodded. “Merry Christmas.”
“You too,” she said, slipping off her coat. “Where’s Martha?”
“She’s right here,” a voice sang out from the staircase. “But she’s leaving, as her public awaits.” Martha swept down the stairs, pulling her gloves on. “Hello, darling,” she said, wrapping Kate in a hug when she reached the ground floor.
“Hi, Martha. You’ve got a show today?”
“The theater never sleeps,” Martha said with a flourish before pecking Alexis and Castle on their cheeks in quick succession. “Merry Christmas, all,” she said, and with that, she was gone.
“Mother set a new record by demanding her gifts on December 22nd this year,” Castle explained, looking exasperated yet amused all at once.
“Ah.” Her mother had always wanted to prolong the experience as long as possible, she remembered. She’d even insisted that Kate and her dad hold off on their last presents to her until New Year’s Eve.
“Speaking of presents,” Alexis said, her eyes sparkling hopefully at her father.
“Hopeless, the lot of you,” Castle grumbled, but waved them over to the couch nonetheless. Kate took a seat, her eyes taking in the humongous tree and lights strung up around the room.
“It looks like Santa’s helpers have been busy,” she commented.
“We take our Christmases very seriously,” Alexis said.
“So I see. Where’s Ash today?”
“At his parents’. He refused to give me my present early,” Alexis pouted. “But it’s okay. I told him today was a family thing anyway.”
Touched, Kate smiled over the rim of her cider mug.
There was nothing her measly public servant’s salary could buy either of them that Castle couldn’t acquire ten times over, so Kate had kept things simple, though heartfelt. She’d found a finely bound journal at a shop in the Village that reminded her of Alexis. “In case the apple decided to stick close to the tree,” she explained as Alexis pulled it out of the gift bag. Along with the journal, she’d picked up a CD that she’d loved at Alexis’s age, one of the few that didn’t make her cringe to listen to now.
“Not as cool as an iPad,” Kate said with a shrug, referencing Castle’s gift to Alexis.
Alexis looked up from the lyric booklet and shook her head. “Are you kidding me? This is great. Thank you,” she said sincerely.
“And now it’s my turn,” Alexis said, handing a wrapped parcel to Kate. It was a novel that she’d recently enjoyed, she explained as Kate ripped the paper off. “You need to read something besides him every now and then,” she said with a tip of the head to her father.
“No more gadgets for you,” Castle said with an arched brow. Kate smirked. She was pretty sure that the day she watched Castle deny Alexis anything would be the day pigs flew over Times Square.
“Thanks, Alexis,” Kate said. She slid her gaze over to Castle, who had an expectant look on his face. “Oh, was I supposed to get you something?”
“I think putting up with me is probably enough,” was Castle’s response. “But it might have been a nice gesture-”
He was cut off by Kate tossing a gift into his lap. “Gotcha.” She watched him unwrap the thesaurus.
“Is this a hint?”
“Sometimes I just wonder if you know what words mean,” Kate said sweetly to the tune of Alexis’s delighted laughter.
“Very cute,” Castle said. “I’m so glad I decided to host Make Fun of Castle Christmas Eve.” He nudged a large box over to her with his toe. “Let’s see what you make of that.”
Kate raised her eyebrows when she opened the lid to find sleek, knee-high motorcycle boots. “Wow,” she said.
“In honor of the good old days, and in the eternal hope that they’ll come back around,” he explained.
“Am I supposed to know what that means?” Alexis asked as Kate ran a finger down the soft, smooth leather of the boot shaft.
“Probably not,” Kate said at the same time as Castle’s short, emphatic “No.”
After presents were dispensed with and massive quantities of Chinese food - one tradition Kate decided she could definitely get on board with - were consumed, Alexis sprung up from the couch. “Know what it’s time for now?” she asked Kate.
“I’m afraid to ask,” Kate laughed.
“Christmas laser tag,” Alexis said as she jogged across the room.
“Christmas laser tag!” Castle repeated excitedly at Kate’s questioning look to him. “Like regular laser tag, but even more awesome in its festivity.”
“You two do realize I’m the only one here who actually knows how to shoot a gun,” Kate said, rising to her feet and pulling her hair back in a low ponytail.
“Yeah, sure,” Alexis said, returning with laser packs and handing one to Kate. “But I think you’re underestimating how seriously boss I am at laser tag.”
“Fair enough. And your dad?”
“Psht. The two of us? He doesn’t stand a chance.” They strapped themselves in, nodding decisively and in unison at each other.
As with most things, Alexis proved to be right. After three rounds, Castle made a grand show of limping out from behind a partition with his hands up as Kate fed the birds in Alexis’s hand.
Alexis made it through It’s a Wonderful Life and half of A Charlie Brown Christmas before she was sacked out on the couch, her feet in her father’s lap and her head buried in Kate’s shoulder. Kate absentmindedly stroked her hand through Alexis’s hair, focused on the television until she felt the unnerving sensation of eyes trained on her. She turned her head to find Castle looking at her oddly, as if he wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. Which was only fair, she decided, looking back at him silently. She never knew what to make of him.
“I should get this one to bed,” he said suddenly, breaking the silence. He slid Alexis’s legs off his knees and stood up, reaching for her arms to hoist her up. “Say goodnight, Gracie.”
“Mmmph,” was Alexis’s reply as she rubbed her hand across her eyes.
“Come on, pumpkin, help me out here. You’re about three feet too tall for me to carry you upstairs.”
“Merry Christmas, Kate,” Alexis said sleepily, bending over to kiss her on the cheek. “I’m glad you came.”
“So am I. Merry Christmas, honey.”
Kate bent down to find her shoes, taking Alexis’s exit as her cue to leave. It was getting late, even for someone who wasn’t routinely in bed before 11 like Alexis. Castle returned as she was slipping on her gloves and reaching for her coat.
“That’s some kid you’ve got there. She must have had a really good nanny, when he wasn’t chasing tail on the playground.”
Castle spread his hands in a who, me? guesture. “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. You’re headed out?”
“Yeah, I should get home. It’s late, and I’m still not convinced we won’t have some gruesome triple homicide crime scene come Christmas morning.”
“Why, Detective Beckett, I do believe I hear a ‘bah humbug’ in there somewhere.”
She shrugged. “Not a Scrooge, just a realist. Comes from one too many Christmases standing over a dead body.”
“If there’s one thing to be said for Castle Christmas Eve, they usually don’t end in murder. Though we’ve come close a time or two when both Meredith and my mother have been in attendance.”
“My money’s on Martha,” Kate said. “And I certainly enjoyed my homicide-free Castle Christmas Eve. Thanks for having me.”
He smiled, the motion lighting up his face. “My pleasure. I’ll walk you out.”
Castle opened the door to a sprig of mistletoe dangling from the doorframe.
“That wasn’t here when I got here,” Kate said suspiciously.
Castle raised his hands. “Don’t look at me,” he said. “I would have been way more obvious about it.”
“Now that I believe,” Kate agreed.
“No, this has the feel of a cagey Rodgers woman. Rodgers the elder, I’d bet, though I wouldn’t put it past the young’un.” Castle looked intently at the offending plant, as if he could make the story of its hanging replay in his head if he started at it long enough.
“Well,” Kate started.
His gaze slid from the mistletoe to her. “Well,” he echoed.
“It is Christmas,” she ventured, not sure what in the world was possessing her.
“It is indeed,” he said. His eyes warmed, but he stayed where he was, obviously making it her move.
“Traditions are important,” she continued, stepping closer.
“Very,” he agreed as she leaned in and pressed her mouth to his.
Kate didn’t kid herself; even from the beginning, before she’d discovered that there was a real live person under the sleazy author persona, she had been interested. She had eyes, after all, and she knew a good time when she saw one. She’d avoided it, at first because he really did annoy her ninety percent of the time, and later because, well, she’d actually started to care, and that didn’t jive with a one night stand. But still, she’d been interested on a base level. And she wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Richard Castle was a really, really excellent kisser.
His hands rested on her hips inside her wool coat. She gripped his shirt in her glove-encased fingers, wanting to stay there, or go upstairs, or do anything besides leave this warm, happy bubble for the cold of the city at night. That she was even thinking along those lines was enough to make her pull back, just slightly. Castle let her, dropping his hands but not moving any further away.
Things were complicated enough as it was, and she wasn’t ready to make it worse. As it was, this could still be talked away as a kiss under the mistletoe, a nod to tradition on one of the nicest Christmases she’d had in a long time. But still, she couldn’t help the feeling that complicated was coming for them whether they were ready for it or not.
“Merry Christmas, Rick,” she said quietly, his name a concession to the fact that whatever they might say on Monday, this wasn’t business as usual.
“Merry Christmas, Kate,” he said with a nod, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking.
Christmas Day passed without incident. Kate suggested to her father that they hold off on gift-giving until New Year’s Eve, and his eyes misted over as he nodded and said that he’d like that.
Monday morning rolled around, and no one besides herself and Castle knew why Castle knocked over his cup of espresso when she strolled into the precinct in her brand new motorcycle boots.
“They were a gift,” she said to Esposito, hiding a grin as Castle spluttered and wiped futilely at his coffee-soaked jeans.