"Momma." Kate's brow furrows as consciousness swarms her brain, the tiny hand at her shoulder shaking her awake. "Momma, wake up. Santa came!"
"Lily," Grace sighs, her bare feet padding on the bedroom floor, her knee dipping into the bed by Kate's hip. "I said to wait."
"You take too long, Gracie," Lily complains in a whisper, as quietly as a four year old possibly can, and Kate blinks her eyes open to see her two girls balanced above her, Grace with a large, snowman shaped cup in her grasp. "Oh look, Momma's awake!"
"Yes, Momma's awake," Kate rasps, shifting onto her back and grinning as Lily topples onto her lap with a grin, ambling up against Kate's side and practically buzzing with excitement. "Morning, Peanut. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas! Santa was here!" Lily exclaims, bouncing on the bed that Kate drags Grace onto, tugging her teenager to bracket her side, opposite of Lily.
Grace sets the coffee she had brought for Kate on the nightstand before it can spill and climbs onto the bed, snuggles into her mother's side, just like always.
"Lexi's gonna be here too, Daddy said! And Gram, and Grandpa Jim, and-"
"I know, we're going to have quite the busy day, huh?" Kate murmurs, sitting up and wrapping her arm around Grace, brushing Lily's hair back with her other hand, but her youngest just can't remain still.
"C'mon, Momma! Daddy said I gotta wait for you," Lily urges, tugging on Kate's hand.
"Okay, okay, you head back out there and Grace and I will be right behind you."
"Kay!" Lily pops off of the bed, nearly tripping in her haste to race from her parents' room, back towards the living room and the massive Christmas tree, where all of Santa's presents lie.
"Merry Christmas, bud," Kate murmurs before the two of them can follow, welcoming her daughter's embrace, grateful her fourteen year old still comes to her for hugs, for talks, both serious and not, that they have the kind of relationship Kate once had with her own mother.
"Merry Christmas, Mom," Grace smiles, shifting to reach for the coffee. "Here, try. Dad helped me perfect it."
Kate accepts the mug and takes a long sip, humming at the rich brew, the hint of peppermint Castle always added to her morning coffee – even if it is decaf this year – without fail during the winter months.
"Definitely perfect," she confirms with a proud smile, nudging Grace with her hip while she slips her legs from the sheets. "You haven't opened your presents from Santa, have you?"
"No," Grace chuckles, but she can see the excitement swirling through her daughter's eyes like it does every year, no matter how old she grows. The magic of Christmas never seems to fade, especially not for Grace. "Been waiting for you, sleepy."
"I sleep in until eight one day of the year and everyone loses their mind," Kate grumbles, shuffling with Grace through Castle's office, grinning at her daughter's vibrant blue, snowflake pajamas. So mature, but still a kid.
"There you guys are," Castle proclaims from the living room the moment they walk through the door, his eyes sparkling like a child's on Christmas morning, never failing to enjoy it as much as the kids. "Lil's about to combust."
"Am not. I can be patient," Lily argues, not so convincingly as she bounces on her toes at Castle's side.
"Well, the wait is over, time for presents," Kate promises, sharing a smile with Castle when Grace trots on ahead to join Lily beside the tree, folding her legs beneath her to sit next to her little sister.
Rick plops down on the couch, content to watch the girls tear into their gifts as Kate joins him, settling in close and nestling into his side when he opens his arm to her.
Lily squeals over every single gift she unveils, hugging each item to her chest, while Grace opens each of her presents with a quiet awe. That is, until she unwraps the guitar they'd picked out for her in late November - a slightly smaller version of the instrument, a good choice for a beginner, much like the one Kate once had at her age.
Grace gasps and lifts her wide eyes to them, jumping up from the floor to crash into them both. Castle catches her with a grunt as Kate laughs, squeezing Grace's hip to balance her.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she gushes, arms hooked around both of their necks, kisses pressed to both of their cheeks, the guitar still grasped firmly in her fingers and cradled to her chest when she pulls back to stand in front of them. "Oh, I love it."
"When do I get serenaded?" Castle prompts, grinning at the smile on Grace's face.
"As soon as you find me a teacher?"
"Already done, bud. Lessons included," Kate promises and Grace bounce on her toes.
"Gracie's gonna be a superstar?" Lily inquires, staring up at her big sister with bright eyed admiration.
"She's already a superstar," Rick points out and even though it's been years, seven to be exact, Kate still watches the delight ripple through Grace's gaze at Castle's praise, at the boost to her self-confidence.
It's been seven years since they'd met, five since Kate and Rick had married, and she never grows tired of seeing her older daughter like this, never tires of the family they've created altogether.
"Thanks, Dad," she whispers, swooping in to hug him once more, squeezing his neck and letting Rick sway her in his embrace for a long moment.
He wasn't her father, not biologically, but he is her dad. Both sentimentally and legally since he'd signed the adoption papers when Grace was ten, but she'd been referring to him as a parent long before then.
They haven't heard from Will in a while now, haven't seen him in even longer; he writes sometimes, offers his well-wishes, but Grace had mentioned once that he felt more like a distant relative who sent her money on her birthday. Rick was the one who conspired with her mom to throw her parties, make each milestone in their daughters' lives special.
"I don't miss him, I don't think I ever knew him enough to miss him," Grace told her a few years ago when Kate had sat down to talk with her about it for the first time in too long, when Meredith had dropped in unexpectedly to whisk Alexis away for a little while. "I used to, but I had you, Momma. I always had you and now we have Rick and Alexis, and soon we'll have Lily," she'd smiled, more excited than Kate would have thought to have a baby sister on the way. "I have no reason to miss him when I already have all the family I want. When I have a dad who loves me more than he could."
Will had rarely ever come up again after that.
Grace skips back towards the tree, drops back to the floor beside Lily, helping her free one of her new toys from the complicated packaging.
"Here." Kate swings her gaze from her daughters at the murmur of Castle's voice, a question on her lips when he holds out a palm sized box to her, dragging her brow into a furrow.
"You and I exchanged gifts last night," she reminds him with a reproachful look, but he waves her off.
"I wanted to wait for Christmas morning to give you this one," he insists, nudging the box into her hands until she accepts it with a sigh.
She doesn't know what to expect when she eases the lid from the jewelry box - earrings, another charm for the bracelet that never leaves her wrist, perhaps a ring or a slim necklace, but certainly not a key.
"You bought me a car?" she tries, smirking when he chuckles at her, but Rick shakes his head, tentative hope blooming in the soft blues of his eyes.
"It's… do you remember the Brownstone we visited? The one they said already had a buyer cinched in?"
Kate clutches the key in her palm. "No way. The - the four bedroom with the space in the back for a yard?"
Castle nods, brushes his knuckles to her side, to the barely forming bump of her stomach.
"Other buyer backed out," he reveals and her heart stops, stomach flipping. "It's ours if we want it."
"Castle," she breathes, banding her arms around his neck. Ever since they had found out she was pregnant, they'd been talking about searching for a new place, a bigger one with enough space for the kids, for Alexis and Martha when they stayed over.
She loved the loft, probably as much as he did by now, and it would always be home; they were simply beginning to outgrow it.
"You're happy?" Rick asks, lips brushing her ear, and Kate pulls back, dropping her forehead to rest against his.
Grace is showing Lily chords on the guitar, even if her baby sister is too young to understand, and Lily listens with rapt attention, hugging the stuffed dragon Rick had been unable to resist shoving under the tree to her chest, the lights on the branches illuminating the room, decorations glittering all around them, and Kate smiles, savors this second of solitude to soak in the joy that so easily spills through the loft on her favorite holiday.
She's happier than she ever could have hoped for.
"Of course I'm happy," she whispers, brushing her thumb to the comforting cadence of his pulse beneath her fingertip.
"Good. Merry Christmas, love," he murmurs, lifting his chin to seal a kiss to her forehead.
She catches his lips in a proper kiss in answer, smiling against his mouth, smiling so much throughout these last few years that her cheeks begin to ache with ease, and raising a hand to scratch at the stubble along his jaw. "Merry Christmas."
Prompt: "AU meeting. After her father left the family, Kate's young daughter no longer smiles or laughs about anything. But one day they see Castle clowning in public with his daughter and Kate's daughter burst out laughing at his antics. Kate is so desperate to keep her daughter laughing that she quickly approaches him in order to introduce herself and hope they can hangout."
A/N: I owe so much love and gratitude to Nadia for the beautiful cover art, to Alex who took the time to read over each and every chapter and provide me with such valuable feedback every step of the way (and for making the process of writing this story even more fun), and of course, to all who read, reviewed, and sent me too many lovely messages to count. Writing this fic was a true pleasure and it's been a genuine privilege to be able to share it with you.
Again, thank you and I'm wishing everyone the happiest of holidays.