Disclaimer: Not mine.

AN: Just a little bit of holiday fluff. Sort of a wishful what-if scenario for mid-season four.

"And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been"

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

The clear, cool air stings the insides of his nostrils. Castle inhales through the pain, breathing until his shoulders roll back with the expansion of his ribcage. Man, he loves the scent of pine. Not that sickly fake smell that emanates from cardboard air fresheners or neon green christmas candles, but the real clean aroma of bark and needles and sap.

Rick Castle knows he's a city boy through and through but has never let that stop him from indulging in the occasional bearded mountain man fantasy. A rough-hewn little cabin plunked down in the middle of a clearing, with trees stretching toward the sky on every side and a room with nothing but a window and solid oak desk where he could write. He'd cut his own firewood and catch his own food and wake up every morning with his nose buried in a cascade of sundrenched caramel waves.

He exhales, breath ballooning out in a puff of steam, and shuts the door of his SUV. That last part is a relatively recent addition to the fantasy, one he can't quite deny himself even though he knows he should. At least for now.

The loose gravel driveway shifts under the tread of his boots as he plods to the front porch, making not even a perfunctory attempt at stealth. There's no point. He saw the twitch of the curtains when his headlights swept across the front of the little cabin. She knows he's here.

He makes it two steps up the stairs before the front door swings open.


It's a pronouncement. Nothing more, nothing less. Castle takes the last two steps up onto the porch, one hand raised in greeting. Warm amber light glows behind her, blurring the angles of her body into shadows, a deep and welcoming darkness he wants to dip his fingers into.

"Hey," he says, lifting one gloved hand in an anemic sort of wave, all the confidence he felt on the drive up wilting away in the face of her stare.

"What are you doing here?"

"I - Uh. Well, I -" His adam's apple hangs in the middle of his suddenly arid throat. Castle forces it to bob, wincing against the sandpaper scratch. "I had a thought about the Saunders case."

Firelight plays across her left cheek, long fingers of it sliding along her skin from temple to jaw. If he squints and tilts his head a fraction of an inch to the right he can just barely make out the flicker of a smile catching at the corner of her mouth.

"A thought that couldn't wait two days?"

The fine baby hairs sprinkled across the nape of his neck catch at the high collar of his wool coat when he shakes his head. "Nope. This thought needed to be shared immediately."

No, it didn't. He knows and so does she. But it's been three days since he last saw her and he was starting to get antsy, the all too familiar cold band of anxiety tightening around his chest with each passing hour.

"The phone is pretty immediate," she says, fingers still wrapped around the metal handle of the screen door, the mesh and wood a flimsy barrier between them. "You could have just called."

"And miss the look of awe on your face when you realize, yet again, the depth of my crime solving genius? Not a chance, Beckett."

The grin she's been battling wins - whether by force or concession, he'll never know - blooming until the apples of her cheeks lift and shallow laugh lines bracket her mouth. Those line should be deeper. The hinges of the screen door squeak when she swings it open. She turns, angling her body to make space in the doorway. For him.

"Come on, Castle," she invites, sweeping an arm toward the living room. "Dazzle me with your brilliance."

The mystery of the cabin falls away as he steps inside, replaced by a warm comfort. Castle stands in the middle of the room, arms loose by his sides and eyes roaming. This place, with its scuffed wood floors and faded old furniture and wide open floor plan, is simultaneously everything and nothing he imagined. Pea green countertops in the kitchen give away the age of the place but everything else about it feels timeless. He can just as easily imagine Laura Ingalls scampering down the hallway in an old night dress as he can Kate Beckett curled up in the window seat with a copy of Little House on the Prairie.

The front door closes with a thump and he looks over his shoulder, finds Beckett leaning against the door jamb with her arms crossed and the ghost of her smile still shimmering on her lips. One eyebrow lifts and she twirls a hand at him.

"Any time."

Right. The theory that just couldn't wait. Okay.

"What if - and hear me out before you scoff -" he says, hands reaching to unknot his scarf as he turns around to face her - "What if the reason we haven't found the murder weapon yet is because there is no murder weapon left to find?"

She squints at him, that one-eyed wink that makes the muscles in his thighs quiver. Her hair, piled up high on the top of her head in a messy but somehow still sexy as hell bun, flops to one side when she cocks her head.

"Exactly how much eggnog had you had when you came up with this theory?"

He can hear the air quotes in her voice and his heart gives a staccato thump against his ribs. This is what he's missed. The back and forth. The bickering and flirting and gentle jabs that form the foundation of their partnership. For months now, everything between them has been cautious and guarded, both of them skirting so carefully around the elephant that seems to make its way into every room they're in. Most of the time he's confident that it's worth it. That they'll come out on the other side of it all in a better place but sometimes -

Sometimes he'd do just about anything to get back what they used to have.

"You wanna let me get the whole thing out before you mock me, Beckett?"

"I have a feeling I'm going to need wine for this," she sighs, pushing off the door and heading straight for the kitchen.

Logs glow red in the fireplace, the flames dancing from one end to the other in an eons old ballet. A chunk falls off on the end of one and embers fly, spiraling up into the chimney. It reminds him of a toy he bought for Alexis one Christmas, a little winged fairy that could take flight with the pull of a rip cord. She'd loved that toy. Had played with it for hours on end, sending the doll rocketing into the air over and over.

"What's that look?"

Castle hums, lets his face fall in the direction of her voice. Beckett sits next to him on the floor, their backs braced against the couch. His coat and scarf hang on the rack next to the door with his boots discarded in a messy pile underneath. A half-empty bottle of red stands on the coffee table, the dark wine sparkling like rubies in the light.

"What look?"

"That look," Beckett repeats, drawing a circle around his face in mid-air. "Your forehead is all scrunched."

He lifts a hand to his head, draws his fingers over his brow. Yep. Scrunched.

"I was just thinking about this toy I got Alexis for Christmas one year. I think she was around eight or nine. It was her favorite thing in the world for about three months and I have absolutely no idea what happened to it."

Beckett hums. "You should ask her when she gets back from California."

He nods, head still lolling in her direction, mesmerized by the way her hair catches the firelight when she shifts, the lighter strands turning almost golden. She stretches her legs out and points her toes toward the fire. Fuzzy grey socks dotted in a pattern of steaming cups of coffee wrap her feet and he doesn't even try to hold back the smile.

"You like them?" He asks, prodding the bottom of her foot with his big toe.

Their calves brush, lycra rasping on denim, and she nods. Flexing her ankle, she returns the gentle pressure.

"I told you I did, Castle."

She did tell him.

He'd agonized over it for days, going back and forth over whether or not he should give them to her. Were they too much? Too little? Too intimate? Too cold? In the end, it'd been his mother who had made the decision for him, dropping the little blue gift bag on Beckett's desk when she'd stopped by the precinct under the guise of meeting him for a fabricated lunch date. His immediate instinct to commit matricide had been quickly subsumed by a rush of gratitude when Beckett had looked up at him through her lashes, her cheeks pink and the socks clutched in one fist, and told him they were perfect.

"Yeah," he agrees, the top of his foot still pressed against the bottom of hers, "you did."

The fire crackles and pops. They sit together in a comfortable quiet, sipping wine and listening to the sharp wind whip through the trees. A muted ding rises out of his pocket and Castle fishes out his phone to read the text.

Happy New Year, Dad!

"Looks like it's midnight," he says, turning the screen so Beckett can see it.

"Looks like it," Beckett nods as he shoots a quick response back to his daughter.

He tucks his phone away and lifts his wine, offering her the rim. Their glasses clink and they sip, Beckett's eyes fluttering closed as she swallows the last drops. She leans forward and sets her empty glass next to the bottle, a looseness in her posture that he hasn't seen in far too long.

"Happy New Year, Beckett," he offers, placing his own glass down on the floor, the last remnants of wine trickling down the curved sides.

The amber flecks in her eyes sparkle when she looks back at him. Cool, dry fingertips skim across his cheek and this time it's his eyelids that flutter. Her lips taste like wine and chapstick when she presses them to the corner of his mouth, the warm breeze of her breath pulling up goosebumps along his neck.

"Happy New Year, Castle."

Screw the Mayans. 2012 isn't going to be the end of anything.

It's only the beginning.

Thanks for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always appreciated.

Side note: such a happiness HAS NOT been abandoned. Alex and I are both committed to finishing the final three chapters of that story. But we are also people with lives outside of fic and unfortunately real life has been sort of hectic for both of us in the last few months. We appreciate your patience and understanding and hope you'll feel the wait is worth it in the end.