"You'd better hurry up, Castle. I'm almost laced up, and you're on the clock with the Zamboni."
He can't believe she's here, that she's actually agreed to the wish he'd whispered snuggled under the covers when she'd stayed over on Christmas Eve. But this morning, she'd dug out her ridiculous neon skates from where they'd been buried in the back corner of her closet (where he's never allowed to snoop), and donned leggings and thick wool socks and a soft, fluffy red sweater and these adorable green earmuffs, and when had Kate Beckett ever worn anything adorable in her whole adult life? Ice skating was apparently the exception to her New York fashionista tendencies.
Knotting the last laces as quickly as his chilled fingers can manage, he stands up and follows her to where she's waiting, with this indulgent little grin and perfect rosebud lips and cherry cheeks, at the cut-out in the wall leading to the ice rink.
It's been two days since she showed up at his door offering, and seeking, new Christmas traditions, traditions for them, traditions, presumably, that she has plans to keep next year, and the year after. Every hour she's spent with his family, her heart has seemed lighter. Even when she had finished with her dad on Christmas Day, she'd called, pushed past the hints of melancholy in her voice that he couldn't help but hear, and asked if she could come back for their "It's a Wonderful Life" movie night. She'd even stopped at the store on the way for extra caramel for the popcorn.
Now that's not to say he hasn't been walking on eggshells a bit, not really bringing up anything that might directly remind her of her mom or her childhood Christmases.
But now, with his gloved hand on the small of her back and his smile propelling her forward onto the ice, he thinks he might be able to push his luck a bit, see if he can salvage a few happy memories for her, bring them into the light of day, and the light of the 80-foot spruce that survived Superstorm Sandy to land at Rockefeller Center, covered in five miles of lights for all of New York to see.
The second her skates hit the rink, she's off like a shot. Obviously she's done this before. Even the little whirling dervish figure skating prodigies that always seem to occupy center ice can't throw her off her rhythm. When she gets halfway around the rink, she looks back for him, and he finds himself still rooted to the spot, just staring after her grace, her bubbling lightness.
His cheeks are already sore from smiling.
On her way to her second lap, she slides elegantly to a stop at his side, holds out her red-gloved hand, face lit up brighter than the whole damn tree.
"You coming, Castle?"
Taking her hand, he pushes off and starts around the oval at her side, states the obvious as an icebreaker.
"You've done this before."
"Not in a long while. But yes, I have. Have you?"
"Every year, sometimes twice, with Alexis. Plus I learned to skate playing hockey as a kid."
"Did you guys go this year?"
"Haven't yet. Sometimes we go on New Year's Eve. Tree's still up a week after."
Steady on skates, he's happy to just hold her hand, fingers intertwined, go at whatever pace she sets, match her rhythm.
People watching, staring up at the tree, just being beside her, take up the first few laps, but eventually he can't hold it in any longer. When the troop of five-year-olds buzz by for the fifteenth time, he starts in with trivia and a boisterous tone, tugging on her hand to catch her eye.
"Do you know what they do with the tree after they take it down?"
"They mulch it, don't they?"
"You are correct. They give the mulch to the Boy Scouts, too. For... mulching things."
"I imagine the Boy Scouts have a lot of parks to mulch."
The blush crests across his cheeks, and he's amazed that though he knows this woman better than any he can remember, except for the two he shares genes with, she can still make him giddy and flustered like a teenager on his first date. Attempting to reclaim his trivia prowess and therefore his manhood, he tries again.
"Yes, but do you know what they do with the last part? The part they don't mulch?"
"You got me, Castle."
Pausing half a beat to mentally acknowledge that yes, he does in fact have her, finally, thank God, he continues, loving the momentary victory in his little useless Christmas trivia game.
"They give it to the U.S. Equestrian Team in New Jersey to use as an obstacle jump."
Turning her face to him with a startled little laugh, she skates closer, shoulders kissing as they sync up their gliding to Andy Williams' "Most Wonderful Time of the Year."
"Huh, that's actually really cool."
"You sound so surprised that I could come up with a piece of inane trivia you'd appreciate, Detective. Do I win a prize?"
Her voice drops to incredulous when she answers, though the sparkle that remains in her eyes tells him she's probably going to indulge him for now.
"What did you have in mind?"
"Twenty questions of Kate Beckett Christmas trivia."
Her lips purse at that, a crease forming between her eyebrows.
Taking his chance while he has it, he lets loose her right hand from his left, reaches around her waist, pulls her into a partner hold, taking up her right hand in his and continuing their rhythm. To her credit, she doesn't falter, lets him have his way, fits herself rather snugly against his side. His fingers sink into the softness of her sweater, and she covers them with her own, smiling straight ahead.
"I guess I can humor you. But I might not last through twenty."
His heart leaps in glee at the prospect of getting even five, but he does his best not to glow too much in her direction, so as not to spook her. Wasting no time, he starts in with the easy ones, the ones she can answer about her life now.
"Eggnog or mulled wine?"
"Made with spiced rum or whiskey?"
"Ooo. I like it. Next year, definitely trying that recipe."
He forges on.
"Ah, but eggnog latte or salted caramel mocha?"
Before she can voice the third syllable he harmonizes, matching the rest of her order exactly.
"-sugar free vanilla grande skim latte. I should have known better, yes, of course."
Looking slightly askance, she drops the corner of her mouth in mock disappointment.
"Moving on. Favorite Christmas song?"
"We haven't heard it yet, but I'll let you know when we do."
Cryptic, but he'll take it. Especially when he's about to head into Christmases past. Using his best over-exaggerated game show host voice, he continues.
"Christmas dinner: turkey or ham?"
"We had lamb, or sometimes prime rib, actually. Turkey and ham were for Thanksgiving."
After she's vetted that one like a pro, he suddenly has hope that maybe she won't stop him.
"Have you ever eaten fried turkey?"
"Once. My neighbor made it one year, set off the smoke alarm in his apartment and got the whole fire department out, so he brought some over to apologize."
"What did you think?"
"It was very... fried."
His laughter just spills out at the sudden squint of her eye and the little crinkle in her nose at the memory, and his exuberance almost throws them off balance, but he reins it in, clutches her just a little tighter to keep their footing, and they push on past the extremely wobbly Japanese tourist couple that appears to have never skated a day in their lives, but yet somehow have made it out into the middle of the main traffic lane of the busy rink.
Since she hasn't told him to stop, he keeps going.
"Presents Christmas Eve or Christmas morning?"
"Christmas morning. What do you take us for, barbarians?"
It takes effort to bite back the revelation that his family, despite their change of plans with her presence this year, typically rips into all the presents well before Santa has had a chance to come down the chimney.
"Nutcracker or Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular?"
"Seriously? The Rockettes. They have camels."
"Real tree or fake?"
"Did you go chop it down yourselves?"
"Uh, also not lumberjacks, Castle."
"Naughty or nice?"
"As far as my parents knew, nice."
"Ooooooo. I want that story."
"That involves so many more than one story..."
"Are there pictures of you sitting on Santa's lap?"
"Why, are you interested in having a photo shoot later?"
"Did you ever try to wait up for Santa?"
"When I was five I snuck out on the roof after my parents put me to bed. I was just sure I could see him land on top of the building. Instead I got cold and frustrated and scared my parents to death, ended up trying to sneak back in a few hours later only to find my mother crying and the police going door-to-door in the building trying to find me. I never really believed much in Santa after that."
That puts a somber tint on the white of the ice, the gray of the snow clouds, the green of the tree. But if nothing else, it's another mystery solved. He's known all along there must have been something that made her stop believing in Santa Claus, and it probably hadn't happened when she was nineteen.
Kate's pace slows slightly, and he sees her gaze drifting over to a spot in the center of the ice. Thinking she's lost in dark thoughts, he's preparing a witty quip about statistics on employment rates and salaries of shopping mall Santas when his eyes land on what's actually drawn her focus. A sandy-haired brother and sister, neither more than five years old, almost spherical with coats and scarves and mittens and hats, are circling a thirty-something man at breakneck speed, and suddenly the little girl swings around behind him, ducks, and zips between his wide-spread legs, the tinier little boy following almost immediately afterward, in sort of a reverse-leap-frog. They both circle right back around their very slowly moving dad and take another turn, but this time, she stops short, and her brother plows into her full speed from behind, sending them both sprawling on the ice, nearly tripping dad in the process.
Kate's been grinning ear to ear this whole time, but when they take the spill, a little gasp escapes, and her face falls, immediately serious. But the kiddos pop back up, bouncing as only little ones can, and beg their dad to do it again, to which he, of course, agrees.
The two of them have stopped cold, his arms still wrapped tightly around her, right in the middle of the rush to watch this scene unfold, and at the renewed smiles and laughter from the family, Kate seems to awaken from her little trance, looks fleetingly at Castle, takes her lower lip between her teeth for just a split second before filling her lungs with air and pushing off again.
They've gone halfway around again in silence, his ears cueing in on the shrieks of laughter from their friends still playing somewhere behind them, when he hears her start to hum.
The volume is low enough that in the din and echo of the sunken rink, he might have missed it, but the notes match what's now wafting through the frigid air. And three notes in, she actually starts singing, low and slow and solemn.
"A merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on, our troubles will be out of sight."
A snowflake hits him square on the nose, and he pulls her hand along to bat at the cold wet spot with his glove. Despite the distraction, she continues in her rich alto, but instead of letting him take her arm back out for balance, she separates from him, switches hands, starts skating backward, pulling him along. She's facing away from the tree, and the reflection of the lights shimmers in her golden-green eyes, big, fat snowflakes now drifting down around them.
She's singing to him, though still so quietly probably no one else can hear.
"Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the Yuletide gay. From now on, our troubles will be miles away."
Humming through the middle, she slows, draws him closer to the edge, stops near the glassed-in wall, sings the last bit straight into his eyes, breath close enough to warm his lips as she blinks, almost shyly up at him. His arms take her up, hold her tight, happier than he thinks he's ever been. And he listens. And his heart hears.
"Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bow, and have yourself a merry little Christmas now."