Six Months Later - December 2010
"I have to work," Kate said quietly, letting her fingers brush over Castle's as he handed her a coffee, and smiling at the latte art in the foam; a Christmas tree.
"Uh-huh." He smiled at her weakly.
He hesitated for a moment, sipping his own coffee before leaning back against the counter and staring at her. She frowned. He'd been quiet all day and when the boys had suggested drinks at The Old Haunt after work he'd displayed none of his usual enthusiasm. "I spoke to Montgomery," he said at last.
"And you lied to me. Don't pretend. If you aren't ready, why not just tell me?"
Oh. Understanding dawned, and Kate stared into her coffee cup, wondering how she could explain this to him. Just because they were together didn't mean that she could put years of hurt aside. "Christmas means something different to me than it does to you," she tried.
"It's Christmas. I mean, how can it be different?"
She sighed. "Castle, every winter, as soon as that chill rolls in, I'm right back there in that alley. January ninth and we still hadn't taken our Christmas decorations down. And by the time my dad and I did, it was like we were putting Christmas away forever." Castle nodded at her, and she continued. "We haven't opened those boxes since."
"I didn't know," he said quietly.
"That's why every year my dad goes up to his cabin and ever since I became a rookie I have taken the Christmas shift. Because I know that there are families out there that are celebrating together in their homes and I am keeping watch. And that is my tradition. And that is important to me. It's as important as your tradition is to you. And I'm sorry, Castle. I thought I could let that go, but I-"
"I understand," he said, and Kate smiled, meeting his eyes at last.
"I can't come to your Christmas dinner, Castle. I thought I could, but I can't- maybe next year."
The last part was out of her mouth before she could stop the words escaping, and she smiled wryly; this was how their whole relationship had started. Making promises and offers that she hadn't thought through. Well, she considered. The impulsive invitation that she'd made to Castle last summer had been the best thing she'd done all year; the days at the lake were etched into her memory as the happiest she'd spent in a long time, and she grinned, remembering another invitation she'd made.
"Do you remember when we were at the cabin? I told you how beautiful the lake was in the snow. You said you'd like to see it."
He nodded, curiosity in his eyes. "Yeah."
"After Christmas, after my shift, and after your family thing- do you want to come up to the cabin with me, for a few days? See it in the snow? Alexis could come up too, if you want?"
"I'd like that," Castle nodded, moving forward and brushing a gentle hand across her face, cupping her chin for a beat, before taking a step back, the picture of respectability in the precinct. Just because the boys had worked out that they were in a relationship about a month after their return to work last summer was no reason for every single cop on the homicide floor to know.
"Okay." Kate stood, picking up her coffee cup again. "We'll drive up together the day after Christmas. But right now we've got a murder to solve."
"Sounds great," Castle agreed softly, before his expression revealed a hint of worry. "Are you going to police how many books I bring this time too?"
This wasn't so bad at all, Kate reflected. New traditions were a good thing, and much as she wished she'd been able to share Christmas with Castle and his family, it was good that he was here now. Baby steps, she reminded herself. Maybe by next year she'd be able to celebrate properly. She smiled to herself as she realized; she really was envisioning a next year with Castle.
Well, she figured, glancing at the man beside her and smiling, the last six months had been great. And now, cooking dinner in the cabin with her boyfriend, his daughter, and her dad, she felt a contentment settle over her, an inner calm that she hadn't felt for a long time.
"You wanna get the tomatoes from the cupboard?" her dad asked, looking up from where he was chopping onions in the kitchen.
Kate nodded, finding them and placing the can on the counter, something occurring to her that she'd been meaning to ask her father for a while now. "Dad?"
"Uh-huh?" Jim asked, and Kate turned the faucet on, handing Castle a glass of water before filling her own.
"Last summer when Castle and I were here we went out to the tree house," she started. From beside Jim, Castle cast her an anxious look, and she shot him a grin. "I thought it looked like it was in pretty good shape- I just wondered if you had been fixing it up."
"You have a tree house?" Alexis asked from across the room, where she was curled up on the sofa reading. "Cool."
Jim nodded, apparently surprised. "You went out there?"
Kate nodded, smiling at the memory. Too bad she and Castle couldn't go back there this trip. Well, she figured, they probably could, if they drove, but it was far too cold to do what they'd done last time they were there. "Yeah. We hiked over."
"The summer before last I went out there a bit, fixed it up a little," Jim told her. "Figured I should, even if you're too old to be getting any enjoyment out of it."
Kate swallowed. No. No, she and Castle had managed to get a whole lot of enjoyment from the tree house. Castle coughed, choking on his water, and Kate shot him a warning look.
"The neighbors have a couple of grandkids now," Jim continued, and a teasing expression played on his face. "Who knows? Maybe I'll have my own grandkids before too long."
"Dad!" she hissed, sneaking a peek at Alexis first; the girl looked like she was on the verge of laughter, and she looked at Castle, horrified. Her boyfriend, though, was smiling, a dreamy expression on his face. "Castle!"
He grinned at her, taking a step back and holding up his hands in a motion of self-defense. "He started it," Castle pointed out, indicating Jim with a nod of his head, and Kate groaned.
Jim tossed the onions into the pan and handed her the spatula, before shrugging and heading into the living room to stoke the fire. "Come on, Katie," he teased, and Kate shook her head indignantly.
"Don't Katie me," she warned her father, and Castle laughed, leaning back and nudging into her.
"Yeah, Katie, come on," he mocked and she narrowed her eyes at him.
"If you 'Katie' me, I'll shoot you," she threatened.
"You didn't bring your gun," he pointed out, and she quirked her lips at him.
"Fine. Play it your way. But see if you like sleeping in the twin bed in Alexis' room," she threatened, and Castle shook his head frantically, glancing over to make sure Jim and Alexis weren't listening to them.
He chuckled, his voice low in her ear. "You know I prefer the tent over that bed," he whispered. "Although only when we zip our sleeping bags together."
A/N: Oh my gosh, thank you guys! I've absolutely had a blast writing this, and I've never had this kind of feedback on a fic before, so I'm super happy. Every review, follow, favorite and read has made my day! And K has been a huge help in beta-ing, thank you!
I have another story on its way: the story I wrote for NaNoWriMo has been edited, and the first chapter will be out tomorrow. It's called Two Coffees, and while it's not all fluff like this one, I hope you'll read it and like it!