A/N: A big thank you to two wonderful people:

dtrekker, both for all the time she devoted to organizing the 12th precinct blogspot competition, and for creating the cover art for this (feel free to give her a shout).

Deb838, who was my covert beta but more importantly, because she let me be neurotic yet kept me grounded. Not an easy balance to strike.

A Bounty Hunter's Secrets

"Why does Alexis have a tradition that doesn't include you?" Kate asked as she positioned the silverware.

"When she was six, Meredith promised to take her to The Nutcracker matinée on Christmas Eve. Alexis woke me up at dawn so I could zip her frilly green dress and curl her hair. Meredith cancelled and for the first time Alexis knew she'd been slighted. She was so stoic, she didn't even cry. Mother got the impossible tickets and made her feel like a princess. After that it became their thing."

"You've never gone?"

"No, I'd spend the time wrapping gifts and assembling toys. Anyway, now Mother uses the event to troll for dates, hoping that Alexis passes as her daughter. Any straight single man who goes to the Nutcracker on Christmas Eve apparently is diva gold. Of course, she's hit a dry patch lately so any guy with a decent smile and a pulse might have a chance."

One look at Kate told Castle that he should have cut short the commentary on parental dating. Jim Beckett and his 'friend' would be arriving soon for Christmas Eve dinner and Kate had bolstered herself against showing anything but (albeit forced) supportive acceptance.

"Your dad is a good judge of character, Kate."

"Castle, it's fine, really. I'm glad he's found someone."

It hadn't been an outright lie; she wanted to mean the words, the sentiment just hadn't taken root.

"Okay, just kick me under the table if you want me to hit the 'eject' button. I rigged an elaborate contraption to launch her through the window, which will open when she's within 4.2 feet of it, then she'll fall through the sunroof of a strategically positioned car which will ferry her home posthaste."

"Posthaste, huh? That's really sweet, Castle. Slightly disturbing that you've worked through the physics, but sweet."

"Yeah, well, thanks to my mother I've spent many dinners plotting the demise of many an unwanted guest. At least you won't be seeing your dad's date the morning after." He grimaced dramatically as he placed a napkin on the table.

Kate considered him. "That must've been hard seeing your mom make so many mistakes."

He shrugged. "That's one of the many differences between you and Mother. To you any relationship that doesn't last is a failure, and you don't want to see your dad get hurt. I've never had that concern because Martha Rodgers doesn't see any relationship as a mistake. They're all part of the fantastic journey that is her life. If a guy turns out to be scum, she has a glass of wine, adds a page to her memoirs and carries on with renewed enthusiasm."

Kate shook her head, "We might want to rethink her new friendship with Dad."

"Alas, the Rodgers zeal can't be helped, but she knows that Becketts are 'one and dones' and she has too much respect for you and Jim to set her cap at him. In fact, I think she lost her cap back in the 70s."

The Rodgers zeal can't be helped.

Kate had never been one to have flings but Rick had been that type of guy as recently as last year. Granted, Jacinda was only a few dates to mask his pain, but what if one day he had the urge to toss his own metaphorical cap in a different direction?

Castle sensed her tensing so he rested his hand on her arm. "Kate?"

The doorbell rang and she stepped away from his touch at once. She normally would've waited for Castle to answer the door to his own loft, but she needed a purpose. She opened the door without so much as a pause to prepare herself. Jim was standing there with his friend, Ellen.

Kate was caught off guard. Her subconscious had assumed Ellen would be the antithesis of Johanna Beckett. She'd no doubt be frumpy with wrinkles and a well-placed mole. Ellen apparently didn't get the memo because she was elegant and had a warm smile, which was more unsettling than if she had been homely and taciturn.

Kate felt her partner's hand on her back. She blinked herself back to the moment but remained speechless. Castle ushered their guests into his home and introduced himself. He nudged Kate who was still struggling to reconcile the situation. She accepted her dad's embrace, but that was all the effort she could manage.

"Merry Christmas, Katie."

When they pulled apart, Kate finally extended her hand and addressed Ellen. "I'm Kate, Jim's daughter."

"Ellen Miller. It's nice to meet you. Jim's told me so much about you."

Jim smiled proudly, whether it was from recalling Kate's qualities or pride at having Ellen at his side she wasn't sure.

Jim hadn't told Katie that he was dating again until a few days before when she had called to invite him to the Castle Christmas Eve dinner. Kate had been hopeful that he would accept a new tradition, but when Jim hesitated, Kate cautiously started interrogating him. He confessed, not that he had backslidden, but that he had been dating someone for the past three months. She had been so blindsided by the news that she only retained bits and pieces of the rest of their conversation. As a result, she knew very little about Ellen.

Kate could only give the lame response, "Oh. Well, we're glad that you could come."

"Thank you for the invitation." Ellen graciously smiled.

Richard Castle, social butterfly, came to the rescue. "Of course we're honored you're here on short notice. My mother and daughter should be here soon. Do you have family nearby, Ellen?"

"No, I have a son in Iowa. He's coming to New York for a visit on the 27th with his family."

Kate was taking notes. One kid, has grandkids, Iowa . . .

Castle continued to cover Kate's sudden social awkwardness. "So you have grandchildren?"

She beamed. "Two. Carrie's three and Joseph's five." She showed them a picture of herself with two beautiful children who had her eyes.

Kate noticed her dad's hand on the small of Ellen's back.

Castle smiled adoringly. "I bet having grandkids is a blast. I can't wait to have some to spoil."

Castle, her partner/significant other/whatever, was only a few years away from possibly having grandkids.

Kate forced herself to breathe evenly.

It's not like she hadn't done the math before, but she was holding out hope that one day she'd have a baby of her own, which could only be a baby of their own. Was he over that part of his life? They hadn't talked about it aside from him saying he 'wanted the option' when he was afraid he'd rendered himself infertile. She hadn't pushed, because if she had to choose between a life with Castle and no kids or a life with kids and no Castle, there was no choice. She was well past the point of considering any form of a future without him. She just hadn't been ready to accept that Rick Castle and children were mutually exclusive options.

Now it seemed he was focused on Alexis' future kids, not hers.

"We went to Iowa for a weekend in November. Jim took that picture. He's so good with them."

Ellen had grandchildren. Maybe her dad didn't care if he had any biologically.

Her reproductive abilities seemed to be suddenly moot.

Why did it bother her? She looked to the mantle and saw Alexis' stocking.

She wanted to fill a stocking, a stocking for her own child, for their child.

She wanted Martha and Alexis to take that child to The Nutcracker so she and Rick could assemble bicycles and wrap Lego sets.

Wait. Her dad went where? She shot a look at him wide-eyed.

He met her eyes and gave her that look. It was a look she knew all too well. It was guilt mingled with an inquiry into her mental status.

Jim had sprung a girlfriend on Kate a few days before Christmas and forced her hand to invite Ellen before his daughter had time to get used to the idea. He had taken a trip with Ellen to visit her only son when he hadn't even told his only daughter that he was dating.

Kate needed to compartmentalize to survive the evening or she'd stay in a fog and her dad might withdraw. She had expected the evening to be awkward, but she had too many issues relentlessly fighting for center stage and she lacked the fortitude to face any of them.

She needed a tactical retreat.

She excused herself and headed for Castle's ensuite to erect a physical barrier between herself and everyone who was addling her mind. She sat on the counter, pulled up her knees and stared at Boba Fett for a good three minutes. She used to find it unsettling to have a life-sized bounty hunter watching her every, very personal move, but considering all the other life-sized characters in the loft, he seemed like her safest option.

She ran her hand through her hair and awkwardly addressed him. "I don't even know where to start." She felt ridiculous, but it was as though words were being siphoned from her, "Since I'm talking to his action figure, I guess I should start with Castle. He's right. Becketts are 'one and dones' but that's not what he's ever known. What if one day the 'Rodgers zeal' kicks in and I'm not enough? He's been nothing but devoted to me and I have no reason to doubt him, but he made it sound as though Martha physically can't help herself from flitting from one relationship to another. What if it's in his DNA? He would never intentionally hurt me, but I just don't want him to look back and feel that he settled, you know? He's it for me. I wouldn't survive it if he didn't feel the same ten years from now."

She thumped the back of her head against the mirror.

"Then Dad brings a date to Christmas Eve dinner." She rubbed her lips together thoughtfully. "I didn't expect to like her, you know? He's smitten. I didn't know Dad could do smitten. And it's a giddy smitten, not the I've loved you all my life comfortable smitten that he was around Mom."

"He hadn't even told me about Ellen and he flew with her to Iowa to meet her grandkids. I admit that stings. Of course, since I'm unhinged enough to be discussing it with a life-sized doll, maybe he had his reasons. Still . . ."

She squeezed her eyes shut.

"It's not that I don't want him to move on, you know? I want him to be happy. Mom would want him to be happy. I just hadn't realized how hard it would be to see him look at anyone like that who isn't her. It's one thing when it's hypothetical, it's another thing when I see the woman who's filling Mom's chair at the dinner table."

"I'm being completely unreasonable."

Kate blew a breath up to wisp her hair from her face.

"Dad took a bold step by bringing Ellen and instead of getting to know her, I'm panicking. This must be so much worse for them than the 'meet the parents' fiasco was for us. Oh no, what if I'm driving a wedge between them? What if when I go back out there, Ellen's gone, or they both are? Dad would have every right to be angry, and we don't need anything else to strain our relationship. He's come so far, but maybe I haven't come far enough."

She looked at Boba Fett then down at her fingernails. When did she start chipping at her nail polish? She needed to change topics.

"What if Castle only wants grandkids?" She plunged from the uncomfortable topic to the unbearable one. "I mean, just look at Alexis. How could we ever have a kid who measures up to her? She's not mine and even I'm insanely proud of her. Huh. I am proud of her. I care about her, I mean, she's Castle's so of course I'd love her for that alone. She might not feel the same about me but maybe by the time Alexis has kids we'll be in a better place and she'll let me be involved."

Kate wrapped her arms around her knees, "Maybe it's me! Maybe Castle doesn't think I'm mother material. I couldn't even fault him for feeling that way since I don't know the first thing about raising kids. I couldn't mess up grandchildren too badly. It's a safer option."

"Just listen to me. We're not even engaged and I'm ranting about grandchildren!"

She rubbed her brow with her thumb and forefinger.

"Still, if Alexis was all we had, would that be enough? We wouldn't have that little baby who's a perfect combination of us. I feel like I'm mourning that loss and we haven't even had the discussion yet." Kate folder her arms around her knees and buried her head. "I'm such a mess."

So much for compartmentalizing, now she'd just have to ride out the emotional overload then try to mask it with make-up.

"Well, maybe we should have that discussion."

Castle's voice pierced her as he edged through the crack in the door. His eyes were so tender with worry or pity or a combination of the two.

"Castle, this wasn't . . . you don't have to –" He wasted no time cutting her words off with his lips. He kissed her soundly and buried his fingers in her hair. He massaged her neck then pressed his lips against her furrowed brow.

She needed the comfort. But his delicate touches caused her pain through the weight of so many insecurities.

"How much did you hear?"

"Not much, just everything from your fear of me succumbing to the Rodgers zeal to your definitive answer to how you feel about us having rugrats one day."

She felt exposed. Some cards were meant to be held close to the chest.

She covered her face. "Is that all?"

"Kate, I know I shouldn't have listened, but I can't unhear it, and I don't want you to take any of it back. Just hear me out, okay?"

She was too frayed to fight him so she drew in a shaky breath and nodded. He took both her hands in his and kept his fingers in motion as if to rub in every carefully chosen word.

"I knew this dinner would be hard on you and I knew it had nothing to do with Ellen and everything to do with your mom. I'm sorry, we were working long hours the past few days but we should have taken the time to talk through it so you wouldn't have had to run to Boba Fett. Although, now you probably have a much greater appreciation for why I keep him around. The stories he could tell you of all the times I pined for you would leave you feeling way too conceited. Thankfully he's a good listener but his lips are quite literally sealed."

He got her to smile. Briefly.

"Castle, it's been thirteen years. It shouldn't hurt so much, but there are moments when I still feel it. Seeing Ellen brought it all to the surface and I'm so angry with myself for how it's affecting me. It's unfair to Ellen and especially unfair to my dad. I feel like such a petulant child."

"You're coping with change and Ellen and your dad both understand that, Kate. They were worried and sent me in to make sure you were okay, not that I wouldn't have come on my own. The point is, no one thinks any less of you for needing time to adjust."

He kissed the vein in her brow, wrapped his arms around her and scooted her curled body over to make room for himself on the countertop. As he sat and looked at Boba Fett, he absently wondered why he'd never thought of sitting there during his own counseling sessions instead of on the toilet seat.

He put an arm around Kate and pulled her against him as he addressed her next fear.

"For the record. If you had heard Alexis read me the riot act on how to treat you, you'd know that she feels strongly about you, too. I can vouch that she's not perfect, but because I love her I choose not to focus on her flaws. Kate," he kissed her temple then waited patiently until she gathered the courage to look at him. He brushed the back of his fingers along her cheek. "I would feel that way about any child I had. I hope there are more, but only if they're with you."

She squeezed her eyes shut.

"Can we just not go there right now?"

"Kate, we are there, and it's really not that complicated."

"Please don't say anything to appease me because of what I told Boba Fett. Rick, you are the big picture for me. I want a life with you and I don't ever want you to compromise what you want to fit my expectations. What you overheard was for his ears only." She pointed to the bounty hunter, "It was too much honesty for this stage in the game."

He nearly laughed, "Kate, whether we talk now or later, we're on the same page. I want us to have a family that includes more kids than Alexis. Grandkids will be fun, but I'm not ready to close the chapter on being a dad yet. Maybe our kids will run around with the grandkids. I can just imagine yelling 'don't hit your nephew even if he did just throw your doll in the toilet!'" That earned him a wan smile. "Kate, if I didn't want kids, why do you think I was so upset about the Thorian blaster?"

"Ego. Pride."

"Okay, I'll grant you that, but the main reason was because it would mean no little mini Castles running around with your smile. You have to admit our kids would be gorgeous."

Kate chuckled despite herself. "Yeah, they would."

"Anyway, as I recall, you said you didn't think I wanted more kids. I assumed that meant that you didn't want any, and I've been trying to come to terms with that ever since."

"Supernova Con does tend to skew one's judgment."

Rick answered ruefully, "You're telling me. That was exhibit A of Alexis' occasional poor choices. And thanks for bringing back that image." She brought her legs across his lap and wrapped her arms around his neck.

"Sorry. It must be hard to think of starting over when your firstborn is old enough to walk around half-clad at a sci-fi convention."

"Do you think we could have boys? Alexis was hard enough but if we had a girl with a real wild streak like you had, that might break me."

"Well, let's not put the cart before the horse. For now we should get back to my dad and Ellen. I have an apology that I'd like to get behind me."

Kate moved to get up but Castle held her against him.

"Not yet." He paused, keeping a firm hold of her. "Kate, regardless of if we're lucky enough to have kids of our own, there's one thing you need to know for certain before we leave the bathroom." He nuzzled his nose along her cheek and spoke low into her ear. "I love you, Katherine Beckett. I am your 'one and done' and no amount of Rodgers DNA is ever going to change that."

"Promise?"

"With Boba Fett as my witness, you are, and always will be the fulfillment of all my dreams."

He leaned in to seal his vow with a kiss but Kate pulled back. "Exactly how valid is the witness of a mute intergalactic bounty hunter?"

"It will hold up in court on six star systems."

She spoke against his lips, "Yeah, that sounds binding."


A/N: I've considered a follow-up chapter, have a few paragraphs written but I'm not sure if it will take shape so for now I'm marking this complete.

Thanks for reading. I hung up my FF stocking and only asked Santa for one belated gift . . .