Kate Beckett stepped off the elevator in Castle's building and stumbled slightly. She reached out her hand and braced herself against the nearby wall as she regained her footing. Bleary eyed, she shook her head and continued on the path towards the writers' penthouse, though her feet felt increasingly heavier with each step. Double shifts that involved her staying up all night never seemed to get easier. If anything they were becoming progressively harder the older she got, especially without the adrenaline of a case powering her through. Thankfully, the remainder of her day would not be too strenuous, and she would definitely feel better after she had some food.

She paused just in front of the door, which now displayed a Santa figure about three foot high. The plastic jolly man was totting an oversized green sack over his shoulder and wearing a cheeky grin. She stared at it for a moment, trying to remember if it had been sitting there the last time she was at Castle's apartment. She didn't think it had been, but she'd been pretty hungover, so it was entirely possible.

Taking in a deep breath, Kate took a moment to mentally prepare herself to enter what she assumed would be an extremely festive atmosphere. Kate cared for Castle and his family, truly. They had never been anything but kind and welcoming to her; they had treated her practically like one of their own for many years, but they could, at times, be a lot to handle. She was particularly concerned since she was so unused to a family Christmas atmosphere. That combined with the fact that she was already tired meant the afternoon could be a bit more challenging for her than they realized. She knew they were well-intended, but she had also seen their other celebrations enough to know she had no idea what she was about to walk into. Santa himself could have been inside and that would not have surprised her one bit.

Though she had agreed to join Castle for Christmas, the decision still unnerved her. She and Castle's relationship had been nothing but rocky for the prior month. Now that the misunderstanding had been cleared up things were better for them, but the last time they talked she sensed things were still a little off. On top of all that, opening herself up to a Christmas celebration was a pretty big deal. She'd been thinking about her mother a lot over the prior few days and rationally she knew that her mother would not have wanted to cancel Christmas forever due to the painful memories it caused. Still, actually joining a celebration again was easier said than done. She just had to hope that the Castle-Rodgers family gave her a chance to dip her toes in first before she was expected to do a cannonball into Christmas.

After knocking on the door, it only took about twenty seconds for it to be yanked open and for Kate to find herself enveloped in a strong, motherly hug. "Merry Christmas, darling girl—c'mon inside."

"Ah, thanks. Merry Christmas to you, Martha." Kate smiled as their embrace ended, then she fought a laugh when she caught a glimpse of the elder woman's outfit. She wore green and red plaid leggings and a sweater that was decorated with red, green, and gold sequins patterned together in the shape of a wrapped Christmas gift. Given Castle's mother's propensity towards very loud outfits, she genuinely wasn't sure if Martha was wearing the "ugly sweater" ironically or not.

"Oh good there you are. Just in time." Castle emerged from the kitchen, a white dishtowel thrown over one of his shoulders, and the sleeves of his red sweater pushed up to his elbows. He gave her a brief hug, kissed her cheek, and said softly, "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Castle," she echoed. Then, as she surveyed the landscape of the apartment, a bark-liked laugh escaped her lips when she saw the area around the tree, which had previously contained neatly wrapped piles of presents, had been utterly decimated. Wrapping paper and ribbon were strewn everywhere. Empty boxes were piled in various spots and there seemed to be a shocking amount of new toys on display considering no one in the room was under eighteen.

"Oh, wow. Looks like you were on the nice list this year."

Rick smiled. "Yes, we all were. And we didn't clean up on purpose to give you more of a family Christmas feel."

She chuckled. "Thanks. Did you get all the toys you wanted?"

"Most of them. C'mon have a seat. Lunch is ready."

Kate took off her coat, hung it in the closet, and then went to the table where Alexis was waiting to give her a hug and direct her towards her chair. The table was already loaded down with platters of ham, green beans, mashed potatoes, and bread. A moment later Rick arrived with the final two dishes: candied yams and a small portion of roasted brussels sprouts.

"Oh my gosh…this is so much. You should have let me bring something."

"Nonsense; you're our guest," Rick said simply. Then, when he sat in the chair beside her, he stroked her arm gently and added, "And we're very glad you're here."

The quartet spent the next few minutes passing dishes around the table and loading up their plates. Kate soon learned that the brussels sprouts were specifically for Martha as she was the only one who really liked them, and the yams were mostly for Alexis since they were her favorite. Rick also reminded her that there were cookies and brownies for dessert, but Kate was certain she would be too full and would need to have those as a treat later on.

"So, did you have a quiet night at work, darling?" Martha asked her.

"Mostly. A B&E call came in around one and I assisted since we were so short staffed. Fortunately, it was just a bunch of teens making trouble, but I'll take a little property damage over a murder on Christmas."

"Did you ever work in the robbery division?" Alexis asked.

"Sort of. Right out of the academy you do a lot of rotations when you're training. And especially as a beat cop I responded to a lot of robbery calls at stores and private residences, but since homicide was always my preferred division that's where I tried to spend as much time as possible."

They ate quietly for another minute when Rick suddenly jumped up and hurried into the kitchen, returning with a wine bottle. "I'm so sorry, Kate; I forgot to fill your glass."

"Oh its fine. With all this food if I add any wine to the mix I'll probably just fall right to sleep," she added with a slight laugh.

"C'mon, dear. It's the holidays so we bought the good stuff," Martha said, raising her glass in a mock toast.

Kate laughed lightly, then turned to Castle, who held the wine bottle expectantly. "Um, okay. Just half a glass, thought? Please."

"Of course." He poured as she asked then set the bottle in between the ham and bread dishes before sitting again.

Kate sipped the wine (which she had to admit was delicious) and then turned to the writer-slash-chef to offer her compliments. "Everything is really amazing, Castle; it's delicious."

He smiled easily. "Thank you. Big holiday meals like this are something I get a lot of joy out of. And don't worry—I don't let Mother touch anything so there's little chance of food poisoning."


"Just stating facts."

Martha shrugged and turned to Kate. "One undercooked turkey twenty years ago and you're branded for life, apparently."

For the next twenty minutes the family finished up their meal while talking about a variety of things, including some of the presents they'd given each other that day. Kate was all too happy to quietly listen as she was really feeling the tiredness settle onto her shoulders since she'd been up for nearly a day and a half with only two twenty-minute naps counting as her sleep. As the meal drew to a close, Rick asked Alexis to begin to pick up the wrapping and ribbon in the living area while he and his mother cleaned up the plates and leftovers.

"Can I help with something?" Kate offered when her name was not included on the chores list.

"No," Rick said, laughing.

"Please? I want to. Moving around will help keep me awake."

"You can help me," Alexis offered. Kate nodded and followed the girl into the living room before the writer could rebut.

Working together, they loaded up a large black trash bag with the remnants of Christmas. As Kate shifted items around so all the bits of wrapping and string could be gathered, she couldn't help but laugh to herself at the volume of gifts. Of course, she was not even a little surprised that Castle was so generous over the holidays, but there really were a lot of things, a good portion of which were expensive. She had certainly grown up well-off and never once felt financially insecure as a child, but her parents also were not prone to overindulgence. Her Christmases had been neither sparce nor abundant, but this was a whole other level.

"Oh, Kate, you missed one," Alexis said, directing her attention to the floor space under the tree.

Kate looked and saw only one lumpy wrapped gift and her brow winkled. "That gift is still wrapped, I…"

With a sparkle in her eye that reminded Kate of her father, Alexis said, "Right—that's your gift."

"M-my gift?" Kate stammered with shock. She and Castle had already exchanged gifts a few days earlier when he stopped by to provide tokens of appreciation to the staff of the homicide squad, most of which consisted of candy and lottery tickets, but he gave Ryan and Esposito each tickets to see the Knicks and her a coffee mug that had an image of two crows on a wire and the words "attempted murder" on it. Though it confused her at first, when the joke clicked in her mind she laughed out loud. He also gave her a one-hundred-dollar gift card to Starbucks saying, "In case there's a coffee emergency and I'm not around." Keeping on the unintended theme, she had given him a gift box containing six bag of exotic coffee beans. He was thrilled and suggested they try some of them together, which she had no complaints about. But since they'd already exchanged, she was surprised he was presenting her with another gift.

"Ahh thanks for cleaning all that up, guys. Oh—did Kate open her gift yet?" Castle asked as he walked in front the kitchen.

"You didn't have to get me anything else."

He smiled and shrugged one shoulder. "It's not a big deal; open it."

She crouched down, picked up the present, and pulled open the paper from where it was tapped together. Inside the package she found a pile of red and white plaid fabric, and then gazed up at the writer curiously.

"Christmas PJs," he explained. "They match the ones we all wore last night. I thought it might be nice to relax in those."

"Oh, Castle, that's so thoughtful but…I don't want to be the only one wearing PJ's," she added with a light laugh.

Again, he shrugged. "I'll go put mine on if that would make you feel better. C'mon—get all cozy to watch the movie. You don't want to wear the same clothes you've been wearing for over a day, right?"

She arched a brow. "Are you implying that I smell?"

Grinning he said, "Well I wasn't going to say anything…Alexis probably would, though."

"Hey!" The younger girl balked.

They all laughed, and then Kate went into the bathroom to change into the pajamas, which she had to admit were very soft and cozy. When she returned to the living area, everyone had gathered on the couch, leaving a vacant spot at the end of the sofa beside Castle. Once she sat, he pulled a ivory colored knit blanket from the back of the couch and handed it to her with a smile. "Thanks."

"of course. Now, as the guest…you can choose the movie," he said before holding up two DVD cases.

"Scrooged or Christmas Vacation? Interesting choices," she said as her eyes darted between each movie case. After a few seconds she said, "Scrooged; I don't think I've seen that before."

"Really?" Castle asked as he stood to cross the room and put the DVD in the player.

"Well, there are just so many versions of A Christmas Carol; you can't watch them all."

"Not with that attitude you can't!" He teased with a wink.

She laughed and draped the blanket across her lap before sitting back to watch the movie. About twenty minutes in she realized her eyes were closed and sat up with a little gasp. Disoriented, she looked around and saw that her body had slumped towards Castle's and he was smiling down at her. Embarrassed, she rubbed her fingers over her eyes and asked softly, "How long was I out?"

"Maybe five minutes. You can go back to sleep if you want."

She shook her head and tried to force her body upright again. "No, I shouldn't, or I won't sleep tonight."

"Just a little doze? I promise I won't let you sleep long." He offered. Her expression must have looked hesitant because he enticed her further by saying, "C'mon. You don't have to sleep if you want, just get comfortable." He then scooted a little closer to her so that their shoulders were touching. He placed his hand against the inside of her left forearm and gently caressed her wrist. Though it was arguably the most intimate touching between them to date, Kate didn't feel at all like pulling away. She smiled at the tingles his touch gave her and gave in to the relaxing pull of his warm body. Her head dropped into the crook of his neck and she brough her right arm over so her hand could curl around his bicep. Then, she shut her eyes and a smile crossed her face when she realized for the first time that she was cuddling with Castle, which was the best possible Christmas present she could have received.

"So…at the risk of sounding like an eight-year-old…do you want to play with my new race car next?"

Kate laughed as she gazed over at her partner. For the prior hour they had been sitting on the floor in front of the Christmas tree looking at his gift haul. They started playing one of the card games he had, but it didn't make as much sense playing with just two people as it would for a larger group. Then he'd been explaining to her why some of the comic book figurines meant so much to him, and time had gotten away from them, not that she was complaining.

"I don't think so Castle; I think maybe I should get ready to go."

He frowned. "Really? You don't want to stay for dinner?"

She laughed and put her hand over her stomach. "No, no—I think I'm still full from lunch."

"At least take some leftovers with you for tomorrow?"

She nodded. "Sure, I'll take a little bit."

He stood and reached out a hand to pull her up as well. She excused herself to change out of her Christmas PJs while he went into the kitchen to pull all the storage containers from the cabinets and the leftovers from the fridge. A few minutes later she joined him in the kitchen and, after she'd gathered a little bit of everything, she turned to him as she put the lids back on the containers and said genuinely, "Today was really, really great."

"Yeah? You got your fill of Christmas spirit?"

Thinking back to the moment just after the movie ended when Martha tried to get them all to join her in some very loud and slightly off-key Christmas carol singing, Kate chuckled. "Yeah, Castle, I really did. Thank you so much for inviting me."

"Wouldn't have wanted it any other way."

The softness and sincerity of his tone coupled with the intensity of his gaze struck her heart in a most unexpected way. She felt it stutter in her chest as tears pricked her eyes and she instinctually looked away from him. Though she'd lived with the memory of his words from the day of his shooting for many months, it wasn't until that exact moment that she fully believed them. He did love her and care for her far beyond the depths of friendship. And days like that one, on which every interaction seemed so easy it felt as though they'd been together for the entire lives, solidified for her that one day she would be ready to fully love him too. She wasn't quite there yet, but those days were just barely out of her reach. With time and patience, they would come.

"Hey, are you okay?"

Hs fingers gently cupping her jaw drew her attention back to him and she was forced to brush away a few tears. "Yeah, I'm fine. It just…all kind of hit me. How nice holidays are when they're like this."

"Well, I don't want to be too presumptuous here so there's no pressure but…maybe next year you could join us for Christmas Eve, too."

Nerves and embarrassment bubbled over into a laugh as she said his name warningly. "Castle…"

He grinned innocently. "I said no pressure."

"I know but…well, maybe we should talk about what's going on here. About what happened last weekend."

He nodded. "Yeah, okay."

"It's, um," she sighed and dusted her fingers over her brow. "It's a bit blurry as you can imagine. You probably remember what I said better than I do."

He began to put the leftover containers back in the refrigerator as he said, "Well, I know you said that you wished you didn't miss me."

She nodded now, vaguely recalling that. At the time, she'd meant that she wished she didn't have to miss him, that she didn't have to feel the sharp stab of pain in her gut when he sent her call directly to voicemail, but she also understood how that could have been interpreted in another way. "I said that because I wished you were still my partner since at the time it seemed like you didn't want to be. I…I was also very upset with myself for not being able to be ready for a relationship faster, since I figured you just got tired of waiting for me and decided to move on."

His eyes flashed with hurt and he said clearly, "I wasn't tired of waiting, Kate. I'd wait for you for a very long time."

Feeling a resurgence of past pain, she pointed out, "But you didn't. I saw you with that woman who was driving your Ferrari."

His expression morphed into a guilty one as he leaned back against the counter by the refrigerator. "Yeah, Jacinda… that wasn't anything, though."

"She drove away in your car," Kate said pointedly.

He shrugged. "Admittedly not one of my best choices but…she was flirting with me and wanted to spend time with me. I was hurting at the time and I wanted to be around someone who wanted me since I didn't think you did."

Kate dropped her chin to her chest, knowing she owed him yet another apology. "I'm sorry. This is my fault. If I had just been honest with you from the beginning… I just…" She let silence hang between them while she gathered up her thoughts. "It's so crazy because I'm in my thirties. I've had relationships before, obviously, but always knowing that I'd be holding back, always keeping that one foot out the door. Therapy has shown me that I was doing that in more ways than I even realized."

"Therapy?" Castle asked, intrigued.

She blushed slightly, having forgotten she hadn't fully explained that to him. "Oh, um, yeah. I've been going to therapy since my shooting, trying to work out my issues. I am trying. It's just…It's been harder than I thought. That makes sense I guess." She gave a sad little laugh. "Can't undo thirty-some years in just one session, but I am trying, because it's the only way to get to the place I want to be."

"And where's that?"

Kate sucked in a ragged breath, picturing in her mind the moment when her therapist, Dr. Burke, had asked her what she was more afraid of: Castle waiting for her, or him not waiting for her. Now she undoubtedly knew the answer. Having almost lost him, him not waiting for her was the scarier thing. That didn't mean that their relationship wasn't a little scary for her; it was, but it was the good kind of scary. The kind that filled her stomach with butterflies and also made her heart swell with joy. Particularly then, after spending a good part of Christmas day with Castle and his family. She now knew what she was working towards. That one day she might be there not as a guest, but as an official family member. That one day curling up beside Castle on the sofa to watch a movie wouldn't be brand new, but a frequent occurrence. That was what she wanted more than anything, and just like all of her other goals and desires, she'd fight with everything she had to get it.

"With you. I want to be with you."

He smiled easily and said, "Well then. It sounds to me like we're definitely on the same page about what's going on here."

She let out a slight laugh at his casualty and then nodded. Two tears slipped down her cheeks but before she could brush them away, he stepped forward, cupped her jaw with both his palms and used his thumbs to brush away her tears. "I want to be with you, Kate, but if you need me to keep waiting-"

"No," she shook her head as much as she could with his hands holding her. "I can keep working on things with you, right?"

"Of course. Whatever you need, Kate. I'm here for you."

Feeling her chest tighten with joy and excitement, she let her hands fall against his waist and her fingers curl against his sweater. He dipped his head and brushed the tips of their noses together, cautiously testing the waters. Not wanting to wait another moment, she surged up onto her toes and met his mouth with hers for their first real kiss. Tingles burst out across her whole body at the sensation of completeness. She slid her hands across his back, pulling them closer together and sinking into the kiss with a soft moan. Kissing him truly was everything she hoped it would be—and more.

Several moments late when their lips broke apart, he brushed his thumb over her cheek once more and whispered, "Best Christmas ever."

She laughed breathily at his unexpected comment, but she definitely agreed; it was by far the best Christmas she'd had in a very, very long time.

A/N - thank you so much for reading and I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas!

the final chapter will be posted New Years Eve :)