Author's Note: You guys are so fantastic! Thank you for the awesome response to this. So, first let me give the heads up that there has been quite a time jump from the last chapter to this one. Just so you know. Also, this is the last chapter I have planned for this. I'm leaving it open ended in case another idea for it strikes me, but as of now I am all run out for this one. I *really* need to work on finishing the other two I have in progress ... anyway, thanks guys, and I hope you like it!


Everywhere she looked Castle's loft had been strung with Christmas decorations: mistletoe had been hung sporadically throughout the area, right along with tinsel and stockings and a wide assortment of other festive things. The tree was tucked safely into the corner by the window, and Kate had been delightfully surprised to find that it was real pine when she went to put her gifts under it. The whole atmosphere in the loft was warm and inviting, and she grinned to herself as she gazed out at the jumble of familiar faces. Ryan and Jenny were cradling glasses of eggnog as they conversed with Martha over she could only guess what; Lanie and Esposito were talking softly and grinning to each other over the stockings hanging against one wall. Castle was immersed in conversation with Ashley's parents, although Ashley himself was on the other side of the room taking goofy pictures with Alexis. Even her father was around somewhere, although she couldn't find him right at that moment; he had been talking with Martha not long ago, and she was privately glad to see that the two of them seemed to get along well.

Kate's heart swelled with love for the people around her, and not for the first time that year she was grateful that whatever powers that be had decided that she should get to stick around for this. For all the things that she had lost in her life, Kate had perhaps never been more aware of all the things that she had gained: friendship, love, loyalty … she belonged with these people. She was exactly where she was supposed to be.

"You alright, girl?"

Lanie's voice drew her from her thoughts. She grinned at her friend and nodded, motioning to the room in general as she did so.

"Just taking it all in," She explained

"Castle sure knows how to throw a party," Lanie quipped appreciatively, "But I bet the clean up is gonna suck."

Kate laughed and agreed. Castle had invited her over to help decorate, and she had agreed only after he'd agreed to let her help clean it up afterward. They had made an afternoon of it, Ashley and Kate and the three Castles. Well, Castle and Ashley had been in charge of hanging the decorations while the three women decorated and personalized the stockings; Kate had suggested that the couples could share one, but Castle would not hear of it. Every one of them had their own personal stocking, including Jenny, her father, and both of Ashley's parents. She had teased him for it at the time, and only later admitted to him that she thought it was a very sweet gesture.

Lanie had apparently disappeared while Kate was lost in the memory, because the other woman suddenly reappeared with a second glass of eggnog. She handed it wordlessly to her friend, and when Kate took it they clinked their glasses gently in toast. When Lanie brought her glass down again, the light overhead caught in the diamond of her ring and sent a shiver of prisms into the air.

"I still can't believe he proposed," She said then

"Best early Christmas present ever," Lanie answered, and they both grinned and glanced over at Esposito, who was now engrossed in conversation with his partner

"He must have been saving for a long time to afford that rock," Kate quipped, eyeing the ring in mock indignation

Her best friend laughed and wiggled her fingers happily, sending up another spray of tiny prisms. Kate had been the first person Lanie had called, and they'd done their fair share of excited teenage squealing over the phone. Kate had teased both of them the next day at work, and from time to time when she caught Lanie gazing lovingly down at her hand she'd throw a good natured jibe at her.

"It's a good thing I have strong hands," Lanie shot back, and they laughed

"Hey, Castle!" Esposito called then

"Yeah?" The writer responded, turning to face the other man

"You gonna feed us or what, bro?"

"From the looks of that belly, you don't need any more food!" Ryan said before Castle could answer, "What are you feeding this man, Lanie?"

The laughter danced off the walls, and Kate absorbed the sound as she watched Lanie cross the room to her fiancé. Ryan and Esposito had fallen into a mock argument again, and Kate made a mental note to remind Lanie that even though she was soon going to be his real wife, Ryan would always be Esposito's "work wife".

"Point taken," She heard Castle saying on the tail end of a chuckle, "After you, Esplanie."

"Esplanie?" Several voices chorused at once

"Yeah, that's how Kate and I have decided to refer to both of you," Castle answered, grinning

"Whoa now, hold on just a minute," Kate retorted quickly, "Don't bring me into this. I never agreed to anything."

"Sure you didn't," Esposito said disbelievingly

"Mmhmm," Lanie murmured simultaneously

They migrated to the long table set up for the dinner feast as one big jumble of laughter and taunts. No one had bothered with seating arrangements, and Kate watched with quiet fascination as the seats filled. Martha and Jim had the seats of honor at either end of the table, and from there everyone just seemed to fall into place. Ashley and his parents sat in a row on one side, Alexis seated exactly across from them. Lanie and Esposito naturally sat next to one another, and Kate noticed that they were directly opposite Ryan and Jenny. Jenny and Lanie had never really hit it off with one another, but they were at least civil to one another when a situation called for them to be around each other, which Kate was thankful for.

For her part, Kate surpassed the table completely and joined Castle in the kitchen. She had insisted on helping him serve the food, and although she had not intended for it to work out that way her heart gave a flutter of delight when she realized that it was perhaps the first moment they'd had in private all night.

"What do you want put out first?" She asked

"I will leave that decision in your more than capable hands," He answered, which earned him a glare

She hadn't realized they'd made as much food as they had, but as both she and Castle bustled back and forth between the kitchen and the dining table with various platters she wondered if perhaps they hadn't made a little too much food.

Finally all they had left was the turkey and the ham – "Turkey and ham, Castle?" She'd protested when he told her of his plans – and Castle gave her a sigh and mocked drawing a hand across his brow. She grinned and stepped toward the ham, her shoulder brushing his as he stepped toward the turkey.

"Have I told you yet how beautiful you look?" He said so only she could hear

"You don't look so bad yourself, Castle," She answered, smiling shyly

Her reply had been both a compliment and a jest. She had chosen a deep green French Terry top that bared both shoulders and a pair of pale blue jeans that tucked perfectly into her favorite pair of black knee high boots. She'd taken a long time picking out her outfit that day, privately worrying that she would be a tad underdressed. Her worry had been quickly forgotten, however, when she'd knocked on Castle's door and he'd opened it: the button up shirt he'd chosen was very nearly the exact shade of green as her own, although he had paired it with a dark, distressed pair of jeans. She'd made a quip about how they were starting to dress alike now, and then promptly forgotten all about her fear of being underdressed.

"Lead the way, Wonder Woman," He told her, waggling his eyebrows

Kate laughed and took the wide silver platter in hand. The table was alive with conversation, but it quickly turned into exclamations of surprise and appreciation as first the ham and then the turkey were deposited on the table.

"I'm surprised there's room on the table for plates!" Jim laughed

"You can thank your daughter for that," Martha answered from her spot down the table, "She cooks like it's going out of style!"

"Well to be fair, Dad was absolutely adamant that we needed both ham and turkey," Alexis interjected

"And this doesn't even include dessert," Kate muttered dryly

"Dig in, everyone!" Castle exclaimed then

Whether by accident or by a conscious effort on the part of their friends, both seats to the left of Alexis had been left vacant. Castle took the one nearest his daughter, and Kate tried not to grin when she realized that her spot was between Castle on her right and Lanie on her left. Accident or not, she was supremely pleased with the arrangement.

Much like the hours preceding it, dinner was a study in companionship and warmth. Laughter and joviality were in abundance, and Kate found herself bouncing from conversation to conversation in an exhaustive attempt to keep up with them all. She was fairly certain that she hadn't laughed so much or simultaneously held so many conversations since college; she was relearning what exactly it meant to multi-task.

She noticed that the wine bottles were low about halfway through the meal; the act of pushing back her chair must have caught Castle's attention away from his conversation with Ashley's parents because he made as if to move. Out of reflex she dropped a hand onto his thigh to still his movements.

"Keep talking," She told him easily, "I'm just getting more wine."

"Thanks," He replied warmly

She chose a red and a white wine this time, rather than two reds like they had started with. She popped both corks and then set them back in with a little hand pressure so that they wouldn't go flat while the conversations carried on. Bottles in hand, she was just making her way back to the table when an errant thought came to mind and stopped her in her tracks: she wanted every holiday to be just like this. She wanted every Christmas to look exactly as this one did, a table full of friends and family … and Castle at her side. A lifetime of holiday Hallmark cards brought to life with the man she loved and the family they had made together.

She wanted this to last the rest of her days, no matter how few or how many they were. She wanted to make too much food and argue over whether or not they really needed both ham and turkey and make silly stockings with Alexis while the boys tried to hang decorations.

Kate blinked against the welling of tears that had come unbidden to her eyes, and when her vision had cleared again she found Castle's eyes on her. Their gazes locked for what felt like an eternity, and she smiled warmly to reassure him that everything was all right. He smiled in answer; she took a quiet breath, blinked a few more times to make sure the excess moisture was gone from her eyes and returned to her spot at the table.

By the time they gravitated back towards the brightly lit tree the food and the wine had worked their magic: everywhere she looked Kate saw faces that were both relaxed and flushed. The gaiety, ever present even as the night drew on, was more subdued now. Outside the window, night had fallen over the city and provided the perfect backdrop for the twinkling tree lights. Someone – Kate was putting her money on Martha – had made the command decision to dim the lights in the loft so that the rooms were bathed in a soft amber glow.

They had seated themselves in a semicircle on the floor in front of the tree, and Kate made a seat for herself next to her dad. She looped one arm comfortably through his and laid her head on his shoulder, smiling when he pressed a kiss to her hair. Castle had busied himself with the passing out of the presents, an undertaking that was made easier by the fact that they had very efficiently made separate piles for each person.

"Thank you for coming, Dad," She said softly as she watched her partner's progress

"Nowhere else I'd rather be, bug," He answered, using his childhood moniker for her, "You looked really happy tonight."

"I am," She said simply

"Don't wait on me, guys," Castle told them then, "Open 'em if you got 'em!"

The sound of wrapping paper as it was ripped from packages filled the air then, joined by exclamations of surprise and wonder not long after. For a time everyone forgot about each other as they focused on the boxes in front of them; only Kate held back. She waited until Castle was finished handing them out and had sat himself down with his own pile; he seemed to know that she was waiting for him, and he flashed a winning smile at her from across the gap that spanned between them.

They tore into their piles in unison.

Choruses of "Thank you!" and "This is great!" and the likes danced through the air around them. Alexis, who had made quick work of her own presents, had stood and was now moving around with a camera; she was wearing several new accessories, among them a wild purple and blue stocking cap with a faux Mohawk.

"You're painting again."

The emotion in her father's voice drew her attention as surely as his words: she turned to find him holding the painting she'd done for him. One of the smaller canvases, she'd painted one of her mother's favorite birds: a swan. Two of them actually, one black and one white, against a backdrop of pale blue. One was swimming, one drawn up to take flight with both wings outstretched; between them, a single red ribbon that said "Johanna" in flowing black letters.

"It's beautiful, Katie," Jim said, pulling her to him with one arm and planting a kiss on her forehead, "Your mom would love it. It's about time you started up again."

"I'm glad you like it, Dad."

Kate got to her last present – she had saved Castle's for last – and paused to see where Castle was in his pile. He'd just finished opening his last one: a photo of the four of them, complete with Roy as their fifth, that had obviously been taken at the Old Haunt. The word "Writer" was engraved across the top of a sterling silver frame, "Pain In The Ass" engraved across the bottom. She didn't have to ask to know that it came from Ryan and Jenny – she had received the same photo in a similar frame, although hers had been engraved with a humorous "Slave Driver" across the top.

Seeing that he had finished with the presents that had been set underneath the tree, Kate put her last present to the side and stood.

"You've got one more coming your way, Castle," She told him slyly, "Well, two actually, but they wouldn't fit under the tree."

"That sounds promising," He answered, grinning, "Where exactly are they hiding if not under the tree?"

"In plain sight, of course," She boasted proudly, reaching behind the tree

"How did you put them there without me knowing?" He queried, standing as well

"With a little help from some co-conspirators," She replied evasively, but the look he shot his mother and daughter told her she wasn't fooling him

He probably should have been able to guess what they were just from the size of the wrappings alone, but he'd already had several glasses of wine and, besides, it had been so many months ago …

The first one he unveiled – because they were really more covered rather than they were wrapped – caught him by surprise. He was greeted by the painting he'd seen all those months ago, the portrait of the elephant that had been created out of negative space. He'd forgotten how large it was, and how perfectly the colors seemed to flow from blue to black to purple and back again. Behind him, their friends were praising Kate's talent and remarking on how absolutely stunning it was, but Castle was not paying attention to them. He remembered the day they'd spent painting together in the old firehouse – had thought about it often, in fact – but he had never expected this.

Understanding dawned on him then. He glanced from the massive painting in front of him to the veiled one beside it and suddenly knew exactly what it was. Slightly smaller, yes, but no less beloved to him. He was holding his breath as he pulled the wrapping off the second one, and, sure enough, the sight of hundreds of painted footprints greeted him. Kate's tiny ones, and his larger ones scattered all over the paper in lazy swirls of color; he felt as if he were seeing it again for the first time, even as the memory played back on an endless silent loop in his mind. His eyes roamed over the painting, taking in the heavier spots where they'd literally stepped into one another's footsteps, and as his eyes got to the bottom of the picture he saw something he hadn't before. In one corner, the grouping of prints was tighter and smaller. He focused on those prints, colored only in alternating shades of purple and green, and just as he realized what they were he felt certain his heart had stopped beating. It was a word.

Always.

Kate had spelled out the word "Always" in her tiny painted footprints.

"Kate," He managed to choke out, but could not say more

"You said you couldn't choose," She said quietly, and he was surprised at how close she was now, "Now you don't have to."

When he finally managed to tear his eyes away from the paintings, he only dimly registered that their friends seemed to have found ways to busy themselves in different rooms. That didn't matter to him, though; all that mattered was the woman who stood just a hair's breadth behind him, green eyes watching the play of emotions across his face. He wanted to reach for her, but would not allow himself to lift even a finger in her direction because he knew that if he did he would not be able to keep from crushing his lips to hers. He was too unguarded at that moment to trust himself not to cross that invisible line between them; his heart and his nerves too raw to listen to whatever logic his mind would try to throw at him. In fact, the urge to pull her to him at that very moment was almost overwhelming in its intensity.

"I think we must be on the same brain wave or something," He said to distract himself, "Have you opened my gift yet?"

"I wanted to wait until you opened yours," She replied

"Ah. Well, by all means, Kate, it's your turn."

Something about the way he said it, not quite teasing but almost uncertain in a way, made her stomach somersault. She retrieved the medium sized package from where she had left it on the floor and came back to stand with him; he angled himself away from his painting so that they were standing face to face. She tried not to think about the way he was looking at her as she peeled the red and green wrapping away from the treasure inside.

When she pulled the box top away, she caught her breath in an inaudible gasp. Cushioned against black velvet padding was the most beautiful blown glass elephant she'd ever seen: when she pulled it gingerly from its home, she saw that streaks of purple and blue swirled around the legs and most of the body. The figurine was heavy and well crafted and big, bigger than she had thought at first glance. She felt herself smiling as she turned it over in her hand, admiring the play of colors against the glass.

A flutter of paper drew her attention away from the elephant, and when Kate looked back into the box she noticed an envelope that had initially escaped her attention. She glanced quickly up at Castle, but he had an almost completely alien look on his face. She didn't know if that was a good thing, or a bad thing.

Very carefully, she pulled the envelope out of the box and placed the elephant back inside it, then set it gently on the ground to the side of where she stood. The envelope itself was thick and unmarked, regular letter sized so obviously not meant for a holiday card.

What on Earth? …

A packet of paper, folded into thirds. She willed her hands to quit shaking as she unfolded them, half excited and half terrified to find out what they were.

The first thing she saw, nestled in the crook of one of the folds, was a check made out in her name.

Pay To The Order Of Kate Beckett… $12,000 dollars and …

"Rick?" She questioned, voice wavering

"It's every penny of the rent you've paid for the firehouse over the last six months," He explained softly, "And the deed to the firehouse itself."

Her eyes snapped to his in bewildered confusion. The rent and the deed for the firehouse? She didn't understand … he couldn't? … He didn't? …

"I bought it. The firehouse, I mean."

"When?" She managed to murmur, although she was finding it increasingly hard to breathe

"The week after you showed it to me."

"But … I don't understand, how did you … the account stayed the same, I didn't get a notice saying that the property had been sold. The routing number didn't change."

"It didn't need to. It was a business account, attached to the property rather than to the private owner; when I bought it, both the deed and the account transferred into my name. I wanted to surprise you, so I just let the rent build up."

"You bought the firehouse," She restated, still disbelieving

"Look at the property deed," He advised

She did, only to find that under the block listed as "Owners Information", her name alone stared back at her. Her name, her address and phone number …

"Rick," She started, unable to restrain the tear that tracked a slow path down one cheek or keep the thickness of those to come out of her voice, "My Christmas present is the firehouse?"

"You own it, Kate, free and clear. And before you go and lecture me on how you're an independent woman and you don't need …"

Katherine Beckett had always heard the turn of phrase "to throw yourself at someone", but never before had she stopped to consider the idea of literally throwing yourself at another person.

Which was exactly what she had done.

He barely had enough time to pronounce the last consonant on "need" when Kate – quite literally – crashed into him. One moment he was heading off the argument he hadn't given her a chance to make, and the next his lips were pressed firmly against hers.

That was all the encouragement he needed.

Years of passion - denied, withheld, and ignored – exploded between them with unrivaled force. Pulses racing, hearts thundering against one another like dueling tympani drums, Kate Beckett and Richard Castle were in a race to see who could kiss the other one senseless in the shortest amount of time.

A race that was oh so rudely interrupted by the clearing of someone's throat.

Kate could not tell if she was blushing furiously or just exceedingly flushed from what she would ever after consider the most passionate kiss of her life; either way, she tried to discreetly suck in huge gulps of air to calm herself whilst meanwhile turning her attention to their intruder.

Or, intruders, as it happened.

Esposito's eyebrows looked like they were about to disappear into his hairline they had arched so high; beside him, both arms crossed over his chest, Ryan's eyebrows had drawn together in that look he sometimes got when he was having a hard time believing something.

"Uh, hate to interrupt," Esposito began

"Although if you hadn't Castle would probably be dead from lack of oxygen by now," Ryan interjected in a not so quiet tone. Then, to the writer, "Dude, Castle, breathe."

"Guys," Kate prodded

"Gates just called. We got a body."

"But … it's Christmas," Castle retorted, hoping they didn't notice his difficulty with forming words

"Yeah, well, apparently our dead guy is the son of some hot shot Senator," Ryan said, "Gates didn't want to give the press time to jump on it before we did."

"We'll, uh, go tell everyone," Esposito blundered, clearing his throat

"Try not to suffocate the man, Beckett," Ryan tossed over his shoulder as they turned away

Kate was grinning when she turned her attention back to Castle. He looked somewhat shell shocked, which made her grin widen of its own accord. They were still standing almost against one another and she could feel the somewhat calmed beat of his heart under that of her own.

"Well, I'll say this for her," He quipped, "Gates knows how to ruin a moment."

Kate laughed and pressed a lighter, quicker kiss against his lips before extricating herself from the tangle of limbs that they had become.

"We have a lot to talk about," She said seriously, her tone warm, "But it'll have to wait."

"You would think Christmas would be some kind of safe zone," He teased, switching gears in that easy way he seemed to have adopted

The subtext was there, beneath his light tone and his suddenly business like demeanor. She could see it in the way his eyes were flashing at her: they had several very long conversations ahead of them, but for now he would follow her lead and slip on the work façade. The kisses, the talks, all of it would have to wait, but wait it would.

Well, everything except …

"Rick?" She ventured

He had taken a few steps away from her toward the other room, but her voice drew him up short. He half turned in her direction to signal that she had his attention, but she did not continue right away.

Instead, she closed the small gap between them, one corner of her mouth turning up in a quirky, teasing smile. Quick as a hummingbird, she kissed him once more for good measure.

"I love you."

Kate beamed in the face of her partner's suddenly slack jawed expression, chuckled quietly to herself, and then turned and sauntered back to their waiting family.