A/N: Thanks for the lovely reviews for the first chapter. I'm chuffed to bits that you liked this odd little fic.
I had been chipping away at a follow-up chapter, then aussiecat requested more Kate/Jim & Ellen time. I started typing with that in mind and this chapter was the result. That just goes to show that reviewing is power!
Thanks to Deb838 for being my beta again for this chapter. If only FF would allow emoticons, you'd all know the extent of how much I appreciate her steady encouragment. :)
I still don't own Castle, but I am qualified to do his taxes.
Kate stood in front of the bounty hunter. Her hands were clasped with Castle's as her expression betrayed her mixed emotions. She bit her lip as she hesitated to reenter the world outside the bathroom door, yet she was still humming from the aftermath of their conversation and kiss.
Her hope and bliss were dosed with apprehension and guilt. Layers. There were always layers.
Castle let her linger, but the longer she waited to face her father the more reluctant she felt. She hid herself in her partner's arms one last time, inhaling courage and comfort just in case she had a relapse of anxiety. He held her securely against him as though he understood.
He was Castle so of course he understood.
He loosened his embrace, "Well Katherine Beckett, ready for Christmas Eve dinner, take two?"
"Promise me it won't be worse than take one."
"I can only promise that I will not say anything inane for the rest of the evening. That way your only concern should be Ellen and your dad. That alone has to be an improvement, right?"
She bumped his shoulder with hers as she brushed by him and said with a glance behind her, "Castle, don't make a promise you can't keep. Although since we've covered your unwavering devotion and the kid issue, I can't imagine that you could say anything the rest of the evening that I'd misinterpret to be as terrifying."
He slid his hand down her arm as she passed and tugged her so she took a backwards step towards him, then he graced her cheek with a kiss. He kept hold of her forearm while she fixed her gaze on the door, and away from his scrutiny lest he saw the residual aftershocks of her doubts. He didn't belittle her need to recover by turning her to face him. Instead he said, "Kate, with our track record, I'm sure I'll manage to screw up again, just hopefully not tonight." Then he stepped forward to press himself against her back and wrap his arms around her waist. He kissed her temple and she squeezed her eyes shut and tilted her head against his lips and felt more than heard him say, "Kate, I'm glad you hashed everything out with Boba Fett, but I hope one day we'll be in a place where we'll be able to confide everything in each other. No middleman."
"I'm sorry, Castle."
"Don't be, Kate, you and I are exactly where we need to be for 'this stage in the game'." He breathed in her fruity shampoo as he tossed her words back at her. "Consider him our training wheels."
"Does that mean that if I start spilling all my hopes and fears to you that he'll move out of the bathroom and I'll have a chance to pee in private?"
"Yeah . . . well . . . wait, is this a trap?"
"Don't worry, Castle, I'm still a long way from full disclosure. Boba Fett is safe for now."
He leant down and she twisted in his arms and their lips met in a long lazy kiss. He broke the contact reluctantly, knowing they needed to rejoin their guests. He assured her, "We'll get there, Kate. Until then, my bounty hunter shall be at your beck and call, or should I say your 'Beckett call'?"
Kate rolled her eyes, hiding her relief at regaining some normalcy. She spun towards the door and reentered the real world.
She paused for a moment before opening the door from the study to the great room and took a deep breath. Castle was rubbing her back and felt the inhalation.
He quietly emboldened her, "You've got this, Beckett."
She tossed him one last thankful smile then pressed open the door.
Ellen was engaged in a vibrant conversation with Martha, who was making grand sweeping gestures with her hands as she described the stage dressing for the Nutcracker. Alexis had gone to the kitchen to pour glogg for everyone. Martha had found a non-alcoholic recipe, one which Kate had no doubt would be spiked as soon as her father left, but Kate appreciated the sensitivity all the same.
Her father was standing by the tree inspecting ornaments, some handmade by Alexis, others from various places around the world where they must have gone either in connection with book tours or simply vacations to escape from book tours. Castle broke off to help Alexis while Kate headed for Jim. She took slow calming breaths and hoped that she could salvage the evening.
"I had forgotten how many ornaments you made for your mom and me when you were little." Jim was touching a laminated star adorned with a drawing of what must have been Alexis and Castle in the form of smiley circles with four stems for appendages. Beneath the smaller circle was a rudimentary version of Alexis' name and the bigger 4 legged amoeba was labeled 'babby.'
Kate fingered a Princess Leia figurine and wondered if Castle had given it to Alexis the first year they went to Supernova Con.
"Yeah, but I'm sure you and Mom didn't go quite this overboard with keeping everything."
"I admit I would have only kept my favorite dozen or so, but your mom kept every one. Each one told her a story of what was going on with you at the time," he held up the star, "including the first time you wrote 'Daddy' instead of 'babby,' and the last Santa you colored when you were six before you decided the whole thing was a farce. After that you'd draw snowflakes or stars, but nothing Santa related, not even reindeer because you were so disgusted that we had lied to you."
"I guess I wasn't the easiest child, or the most forgiving."
"Easy . . . no. But you got your stubborn indignation from somewhere, Katie, and your mom and I had more than one laugh about it."
"Yeah, you'd think I would have grown out of that by now, huh?"
For the first time Jim chanced a glance at his daughter. Her brow was furrowed and she seemed way too intent on straightening a miniature beefeater.
"Katie, I know this seems sudden, it's Christmas and even though you said it was okay . . . well, we've hardly celebrated Christmas together since then and for me to bring someone on such short notice was out of line."
She fervently met his eyes, "No, Dad, you're not out of line." She immediately realized that her firmer tone, which had been directed at herself, could have been misconstrued to imply blame he shouldn't shoulder. She ran her fingers through her hair, pulling it back as she exhaled mightily. "It's been too long for you to be on your own . . . too long since we've had much to celebrate this time of year. You and I both are starting over in a way and I'm sorry I didn't react well. I want this for you, Dad, I do. It might take me some time to adjust, but this is a good thing. Mom would want this for you."
"Still, I should have told you earlier."
She huffed sardonically, "Yeah, because I would have been much more sensible about it months ago. No, I can understand why you waited until you knew it was going to go somewhere."
Jim lightly grasped his daughter's forearm, "Katie, I still should have told you, at least before we went to Iowa."
"I'll forgive you that if you forgive my spectacular first impression."
"Agreed." He squeezed her arm. "So, we're okay?"
"Yeah, Dad, on one condition."
"I need a sit-rep. I don't like going into an interrogation blind."
Jim beamed, "I'll brief you on Ellen, Katie, only if you promise to play good cop."
"I'll tell Rick he lost the coin toss but there's no way he could play a convincing bad cop when I question a beautiful woman on Christmas Eve."
Castle had busied himself with the final meal prep while he kept a surreptitious eye on his partner. He observed the change in her brow, the pitch of her eyes and every twitch of her lips. He had to concentrate on sequestering himself to the kitchen to keep from intruding to wrap his arms around her. He had her back if needed, but it looked like she was holding her own and when he saw Jim's expression turn nearly giddy, and he had to agree with Kate's ranting to Boba Fett that her dad was most definitely giddy, he knew she had survived. He was so proud of how she was handling such an uncomfortable situation.
Soon the final preparations were finished and everyone made their way to the dining room. Rick sat at one end of the table, Martha on the other then Alexis next to Kate and across from Jim, leaving Kate across from Ellen, both women situated at Castle's end.
Kate broke the ice by asking Ellen, "So, Dad tells me that you are an appraiser?"
"Yes, for the past twenty years. I was in a position of suddenly needing to provide for my son, Steven, on my own after his father left. Appraising properties allowed for a flexible schedule and I enjoy the variety that I wouldn't have had with a desk job."
"Is that how you met Jim?" Castle asked.
Ellen nodded as she swallowed a bite of turkey, "Several years ago Jim had a client that needed some properties appraised in connection with a dissolution of a rental real estate partnership, and an associate of his recommended me. After that he called me for my professional opinion on a regular basis. It wasn't long before I found myself looking forward to hearing from him, but it was a while before he made a call that wasn't under the pretense of business."
"He said you didn't give that first client a favorable evaluation." Kate supplied from what she had just learned from her father.
She laughed lightly and her eyes twinkled as they shifted slightly towards Jim.
"We had words, but he said later the fact that I stuck by my calculations was what proved to him that I could be valuable." She seemed to nearly blush at how that could have sounded. "What I meant was that he knew that I could defend my work if it was questioned and he felt comfortable that I would be able to justify my figures in the event that I was ever called upon to testify. In hindsight, I think he wanted to employ my services to keep the other side from snatching me up and using me against him."
Castle observed, "It didn't sound like you were doing him any favors if he couldn't persuade you to bend an estimate his way." Just then he realized that Jim had indeed been listening in and questioning the moral integrity on one's (hopefully) future father-in-law was never a good move. "Of course by that I only mean that appraisals are essentially estimates that are based on calculations but there could be a little wiggle room, right?"
Jim took a sip of water to hide his smile at Rick's discomfort before he replied. "Oh, I did make that argument, but Ellen didn't budge. I was not happy at the time but at the end of the day, the last thing I want as an attorney is to have an expert that could be proven partial. I knew that even if Ellen's figures weren't what I would've wanted on that first case, I had to concede that they were fair and wouldn't be contested. Appeals bring headaches and aren't worth the extra stress despite the additional fees." Jim considered him pointedly then added, "Believe it or not, Rick, some of us are really out for justice rather than bloodletting, or at least in addition to bloodletting."
Kate wiped her mouth with a napkin to hide her smile while her dad tried to make Rick as uncomfortable as possible. She was having flashbacks to so many times she brought boys home as a teen, but this time there was a mischievous glint in her father's eye rather than a thinly veiled warning.
"Oh, of course I would never assume you'd do anything questionable." Rick tried to backpedal. Jim just fixed him with an appraising look.
Ellen covered Jim's hand and rolled her eyes, "Really, Jim, isn't Kate too old for you to give her date the evil eye?" Kate tried to cough to cover her laugh. Castle used the opportunity to place his hand on her back and rub it as she leaned forward to accommodate.
Alexis threw in her two cents. "Jim's evil eye is much more effective than Dad's ever was."
"If that's the case, then why have I not met Max yet, pray tell?"
Alexis averted her eyes then took a drink sheepishly. "Gram, this glogg is fantastic."
Rick wouldn't give her the out, "Oh, Daughter, you know he's terrified, admit it."
Alexis put down her glass and lightly huffed. "Okay, maybe he's a bit . . . intimidated, but only because you hang around with cops with guns."
"Hey, I can be intimidating on my own."
"Sure, Dad." She was clearly humoring him.
Jim commiserated, "Sorry, Rick, I think you're at the verge of losing the power of the evil eye, but for what it's worth I feel your pain. There's no more insecure feeling than knowing your little girl no longer approves of you screening her dates."
"Dad, I never approved of you screening my dates."
Castle couldn't help himself, "Well, with Kate, I'm sure it was necessary given that whole 'wild child' phase you mentioned."
Her eyes widened then narrowed at him and she tilted her head slightly towards Alexis in warning not to go into detail in front of his daughter.
Alexis answered her look, "Don't worry, Kate, at least your indiscretions aren't immortalized on the internet. Your streak couldn't possibly have under classed Dad's."
Martha raised a glass, "Here, here!"
"Try to tone down the enthusiasm, Mother."
"What? There were a few girls you were with, Richard, whom I certainly wasn't thrilled about. Let's see, there was Shelly and Trisha and who was that one that barely wore more than a scrap of fabric for a skirt, yes, Clair, was it? She certainly wasn't the sharpest crayon in the box, was she? But I doubt you were after conversation when faced with those legs."
"I'll thank you to cut short the unsolicited Christmas edition of This is Your Life, as entertaining as it might be."
Alexis couldn't help but add, "So will I, Gram, what I hear second-hand from classmates Googling him is damaging enough to my fragile psyche."
"Hey, okay, I admit I wasn't always as discerning as I am now." He placed his hand over Kate's and squeezed, hoping to high heaven that this conversation was not feeding into the doubts he was trying to quell. He decided to try to turn the conversation. "No matter how old you get, Alexis, I promise I will always screen your dates to keep away boys like me, even if you don't want me to. It's a father's privilege."
Kate smiled in a way that told him that she was not only relaxed about the content of the conversation, but she was actually enjoying seeing him under pressure. She shifted her eyes to her father then back at her partner, pointedly.
"Castle, you're not helping your case here."
"Well, if you would have dated me as a teenager your dad would have been well within his rights to stare me off your porch."
"Obviously, since I would have been in elementary school when you were a teen."
Castle winced physically at the barb, "Ouch!"
Ellen smiled and turned to her date, "Jim, I don't think you have anything to worry about, Kate can definitely hold her own. It sounds like Rick had a bit of a colorful past, but he's certainly a gentleman now."
She offered a soft smile to both Kate and Rick. Jim's fork hovered and he pierced Kate then Castle with a sobering expression. "Believe me, Ellen, this one passes muster" The table fell silent at the implied meaning in Jim's statement until he continued with a hint of mirth, "And I can only pray that he's the last one I'll ever need to vet. After all, a man can only take so much drama."
Martha lifted a goblet of virgin glogg and declared, "I'll toast to that!"
Castle raised his glass, trying to take command of the conversation. "And I'd like to propose a toast to everyone gathered here. Christmas Eve has always been a special event at the Castle loft, but never has it been this entertaining. So, to my mother, for whom I'm still vetting dates"
Martha interjected, "The tame ones are way too dull at my age, Dear."
"Please, Mother, it's Christmas, let's not discuss the wild streak that is your life." He returned to the toast, "To Alexis for not having a wild child phase and proving more and more each year that good sense is not genetic."
Alexis glanced at Kate and conceded, "At least yours is improving, Dad."
"I know it is, Pumpkin." He looked toward Kate, who was shifting; feeling that she was next. "To Kate for entertaining a lapse in good judgment by not only putting up with me at work but giving in to my charm after only four years."
Jim commented, "She always was stubborn."
Martha added, "Amen to that!"
Castle gritted through his teeth, "Mother."
After Kate's confessions an hour earlier, Castle wished that Martha would not pick tonight to take liberties with Kate. He started wishing that he had installed an ejection system for her chair. For an actress she had terrible timing.
She waved him off and looked towards an apprehensive Kate, "Oh, Darling, you know how fond I am of you, but with how long it took you to come around, I think an 'Amen' is definitely in order."
Jim was chuckling at Kate's embarrassment.
Kate noticed that his right hand was under the table, likely locked with Ellen's left, which was suspiciously absent from view as well. Ellen shook her head at Jim, playfully reproachful at his reaction, and then turned to Kate. "Don't listen to them, Kate. I think timing is everything. Maybe four years ago you wouldn't have been the same people you are now and you might not have ended up here tonight." She chanced a glance at Jim, and Kate wondered if she was speaking from experience.
If her dad had known Ellen professionally for years, when had that developed into friendship? Was she there for him when Kate had been shot? Had nearly losing his daughter been the impetus for his friendship with Ellen, planting seeds for their eventual relationship? Kate found herself intensely curious and no longer as uneasy.
She nodded and decided to go with it, "Thank you, Ellen. At least you can appreciate that it was strategic timing on my part." Castle noted Kate grinning thankfully at Ellen, who had had her back. Ellen clearly had been vetted and considering the circumstances, was coming through with flying colors.
Kate looked from Ellen to Rick and reminded him "I believe you were in the middle of a toast?"
"Roast, more like" Alexis breathed
"Yes, carry on, Darling." Martha seemed to be enjoying herself immensely. The meal was turning out to be such a far cry from both the stilted dinner where Martha and Jim seemed to reflexively insult each other and the grueling night Kate had braced herself against.
"As you wish." He then tilted his glass towards Jim. "To Jim for not staring me off the porch."
Jim smirked to hide his emotions, "Well, to be fair, not many men would have put up with Katie for this long, and so really, Rick, you're more of a concession than a preference."
"Jim!" Ellen came to the rescue once again. Jim turned to her and she bumped his shoulder playfully. Jim responded by putting his arm around the top of her chair and resting a hand on her far shoulder.
Kate was watching her dad flirt. On one hand it seemed unnatural and something still twisted inside her after more than a decade of Jim's stoicism and isolated devotion to Johanna. Kate assumed that Castle was already jumping to 'pod person' as the logical explanation for this sudden change, but she couldn't help but think that the true 'pod person' was the shell of the man he had become and this was the reappearance of her real dad. She had missed his playful banter and his mischievous streak, which he had been employing in full force throughout the meal.
She had missed him. She had missed this. This carefree, confident version of the man who intimidated her dates and pushed her mom's buttons right up to this side of charming. He had been her pillar of strength when she and her mom cried at the airport before she left for Stanford. She hadn't dreamt that this version of him would ever eclipse the man whom she had cleaned up so many mornings, the man whom she felt responsible for, whom rarely showed up when they arranged to meet. Although to be fair, he put the time and a whole lot of work into evolving into a reliable man for her, but he still had been broken and all too aloof.
She had assumed that resignation had been his best case scenario, but after seeing him with Ellen . . . well, she realized that this change was about much more than if Ellen was infringing on her mother's memory, instead this was about Ellen being instrumental in resurrecting her father. Her mother was gone, her father had suffered so much while grieving her, yet Kate now had her first glimpse of a hopeful future for him.
She thought back to the summer at the cabin. He had been on the phone off and on, and Kate had been too self-absorbed to ask too many questions since she knew he still had cases and assumed the calls were all professional. Looking back she hoped they hadn't been. She might not have thought to inquire about his phone calls that summer, but she had worried about what seeing his only daughter in that state had been doing to him, and how much more he would suffer when the sniper no doubt returned to finish the job.
Kate realized that Ellen becoming part of Jim's life would not just be a comfort to her father, but also to her. She would rest easier knowing that he would have his own partner to lean on when grief unwittingly reared its head once again in whatever form it fancied.
Life held no guarantees.
While Kate's thoughts were racing, she almost missed her father's reply.
"Well, Ellen, I do want to have grandchildren one day and I think he's my best bet."
"Dad!" Kate might have reacted indignantly, but she and Castle shared the briefest glance, confirming that his words were more reassuring than irritating.
"I'd love to have siblings! That would be so fun."
"Alexis." Castle gave her the wide-eyed 'not now' look. Just because he and Kate had settled the matter didn't mean it was up for a public forum. She didn't take the hint. "What, Dad? I'm not getting any younger you know, and it's not like it's outside the realm of possibilities. I mean, you always said you and Mom won 'the baby lottery' with me by defying the odds. It could happen again whether you plan it or not." She punctuated the awkwardness with a slight nod towards the master bedroom.
Now Kate was slouching, shielding her face with her forefinger and thumb on her brow, wishing she could eject herself from the table. The reality that every person at the table no doubt was trying to block the image of the activities to which Alexis not so subtly alluded, not escaping her.
Castle's warm hand rested on her thigh and he rubbed a gentle circle with his thumb. Despite his deflections to everyone else, she saw a glint in his eye, and a lip twitch. It was subtle but it spoke to her of their shared secrets.
Before he could try to grab the reins and steer the conversation in another direction, Jim derailed it completely. "I'm not getting any younger, either, Katie." Great. Kate wondered if this could get any more embarrassing. "But, Rick, I expect a ring on her finger first."
Apparently it could.
Martha uttered another "Here, here!" and took a generous sip of glogg. She seemed to think her role for the evening was comprised solely of supplying interjections to support for her son's discomfort.
Castle's mind was swimming. Suddenly he felt as though he were seventeen and seeking Jim's approval. He uttered a nervous "Yes, Sir." The occasion seemed to definitely call for the use of 'Sir."
Alexis was nearly buzzing with excitement, "Could I be a bridesmaid?"
Kate had her elbows on the table and her head was slung in her palms.
Ellen laughed good naturedly, and reached across the table to rest a hand on Kate's arm. She addressed the peanut gallery. "Oh, leave them be. They'll get wherever they need to be on their own. I'm sure they don't appreciate the prodding."
Martha disregarded Ellen, "Well, I'm not getting any younger either, so it better not be another four years before she gets that ring, Richard. Although you know I'm no traditionalist so I'm not as concerned about the order of things."
Castle rested a hand on Kate's shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. Then he raised his glass to complete the toast.
"And finally to Ellen, who is the only person who Kate and I will invite to Christmas Eve dinner next year."
I feel like this completely got away from me, but it was a hoot to write and what's a family Christmas without some humiliation and chaos?
There will be at least one more chapter which is partially written. I wish I could pound it out straight away but work is preempting my leisure time. On that note, I will warn you that until mid-April most of my writing will continue to take place after 10 pm, which is when my train of thought apparently starts to derail (hence the entire dinner conversation). Reviews are my motivation to stay up late and get some writing in despite the madness which may ensue, so feel free to contribute to my insomnia any time.