The knock at his half-open bedroom door startled Richard Castle. He looked up guiltily, but it was just his mother.
"Alexis and I have been entertaining your guest out there for a while now," Martha said pointedly.
Castle grimaced. "Sorry. I just needed a break."
"All right, Mother, I'm going."
When he got out to the kitchen, he found his daughter picking at the remains of her pancakes and valiantly making small talk with Jacinda, who had just a cup of coffee and a few strawberries in front of her. He realized that Jacinda probably hadn't eaten a pancake in years, and suddenly Castle felt very old and very foolish. He gave her a quick peck on the cheek before walking around the table to drop a kiss on Alexis's forehead.
"Good morning, sweetie pie." He hoped to God she still remembered their code. He hadn't had to use it in a few years now.
His daughter threw him a vaguely disgusted look, but played along. "Good morning, Daddy," she said in a saccharine voice as she launched into a running monologue about the boring minutiae of the high school academic and social scenes and all the things she needed "Daddy" to help her with today. Castle and Alexis had started playing this "game," as Castle insisted on calling it, when Alexis was just a little girl. Whenever Castle had gotten tired of one of his girls of the moment but hadn't wanted to hurt her by actually breaking things off, he'd call Alexis "sweetie pie" at breakfast and she'd know to start playing the "needy, obnoxious daughter" role until her father's date got bored or annoyed enough to leave. Castle's flings often claimed to like that he was a doting father, but few of them could hold up in the face of an obnoxious little girl - or, apparently, an equally obnoxious teenager.
Because it worked this time, like it always had. Before Alexis had even run out of breath, Jacinda was suddenly remembering some shopping she had to do before her next flight out, and she pointedly did not ask Castle to join her. It was all he could do to swallow a grin of pride at his little actress's skills, and he couldn't help but wonder how Kate would react to his daughter's act. She'd probably see through it immediately.
Once he'd seen Jacinda out, Castle sat down at the table with Alexis. He suddenly realized that she was being oddly quiet.
"Alexis? Something wrong?"
"Not cool, Dad."
"You used to love that game," he protested.
She rolled her eyes. "When I was eight, maybe."
"Well, sorry. Thank you for helping. I'll buy you that pony you always wanted," Castle wheedled, trying desperately to lighten the mood. With everything else going on, an upset Alexis was not what he needed right now.
Alexis just glared.
"Shopping spree at The Strand?" he suggested.
His daughter's eyes lit up. "Done."
As he got up to pour himself a cup of coffee, Castle thanked his lucky stars that he'd wound up with a daughter who'd rather spend his money and their quality time at a used bookstore than at Henri Bendel. But that still didn't explain Alexis's mood.
"But seriously, Alexis, what's wrong?" he asked as he sat back down with his mug. "I thought you were supposed to be more okay with me dating as you got older, not less."
"Dad. Come on. It's not about my age. Or about you dating."
Castle arched an eyebrow. "Are you saying I'm too old for these shenanigans?"
"No." Alexis thought for a second. "Well, yes, you are. But that's not what I was talking about."
"Then what's going on, honey?"
"Flings with flight attendants were okay, before - before."
"Before what?" Castle was starting to suspect where Alexis was going with this, but he had to know if it was just in his head or if she'd actually say it.
"Before Beckett," she burst out, then stared down at her coffee cup, afraid she'd gone too far.
"You're not going to convince me you don't love her."
"No." Castle chuckled wryly. "You're way too smart to believe that."
"And you've always taught me how important it is for women to be smart and strong and independent - like Detective Beckett - but now you're back to dating random party girls just because they're hot? Way to set a good example of what makes a woman desirable, Dad. Was that one even much older than me?"
"Ah . . ." Castle's head was spinning. "I'm not sure I really want to do that math right now. But point taken."
"And before, when we used to play that game . . . well, it was different."
"Different how?" Castle asked gently. Alexis, always quiet, had become more withdrawn as she neared adulthood, and if she was actually willing to have a serious conversation about this, he really didn't want to screw it up.
"It always . . . it was always like reassurance that those women didn't mean anything to you. I knew the game, so I was the one who mattered. I liked being the only one who mattered," Alexis admitted.
This wasn't quite what Castle had expected. "You're still the one who matters," he said fervently. "Loving Kate doesn't change the fact that you're the most important thing in the world to me."
"I know, but - that's kind of the point."
"What is?" He'd lost her again.
"Detective Beckett's different. You're different with her. In a good way. It's - well, this is the first time I wouldn't mind not being the only one who matters. If it's her."
Castle felt himself getting choked up, so he pulled his daughter in for a hug to buy himself some time. "Thank you, sweetie," he finally said. "That means a lot. Especially since I know you're sometimes less than thrilled about my work with her."
Alexis shrugged and pulled back a little. "It's like I said after that bombing. You're doing something important. I'm not going to stop worrying, but I'm not going to try to stop you, either."
"But as far as Kate herself . . ." Castle sighed. "I won't deny that I love her, no. But she doesn't want me. I have to try to move on."
To his astonishment, Alexis collapsed in a fit of giggles.
"What?" he demanded, only half-pretending his hurt and outrage. "Is my suffering really so funny to you?"
"Oh, Dad," she gasped. "I know you're dumb about women sometimes, but you cannot possibly be that dumb."
"I - what? What are you talking about?"
"Of course Detective Beckett wants you," Alexis said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"She does? Wait, how could you possibly - "
"Dad, I work for Lanie. You really think I don't hear things?"
"I - I just assumed that they wouldn't talk about me in front of you. You know. If they talked about me. Which they don't. Because she's not interested."
"They try not to say much in front of me, but my work tends to be in the background. Sometimes they forget I'm there, or don't realize I'm within earshot. And if they're talking about you, I listen."
Castle grinned. "My little eavesdropper. I trained you well."
"Sometimes I wonder what it's like to have normal parents . . ." Alexis said with faux melodrama.
"Well, don't leave me in suspense!" Castle yelped. "What do they say about me?"
"I'm not doing all your work for you here," Alexis protested.
"But she likes me?"
"Yes, Dad, she likes you."
"So why doesn't she . . .?"
Alexis shook her head at him. "I didn't need to overhear anything to know that. Isn't it obvious? She's lost so many people. She doesn't want to risk losing you."
"Oh." Castle stared at his daughter. "How the heck did you get so smart?"
"Remember, genius skips a generation."
"Yeah, yeah . . ." Castle felt himself grinning. He couldn't help it. "So I should . . . do something about this . . ."
"You really should."
"But first we have some books to buy."
"Yes, we do. And you're going to make this reward a good one."
"I am?" Castle asked.
"Didn't I just give you some really good information?"
"Yes, yes you did."
"Plus, it's the last one. You know how sometimes I have to make the rules, even though you're supposed to be the parent?"
"I suppose I can't deny that."
"Well, new house rule. That was the last time I am ever playing that game. Next time you bring a woman home, make sure she's the one you want to keep."