My entry for the 12th Precinct's Christmas Fanfic Competition. I'll warn you that almost immediately after I submitted it, I realized that writing and submitting this was probably not the best idea I've had in recent memory. Nonetheless, it's out there already with my name attached, so I figured I might as well claim it on my own account.

His fingers were warm and thick between her own, his grip a sturdy tether that held her down, kept her from drifting away.

He squeezed, and she returned the gesture automatically.

"A year," she murmured, and his fingers flexed once more against hers, his body shifting infinitesimally closer to her side, the solid strength of him pressing into her space.

She heard him swallow, heard the soft clearing of his throat. "It's hard to believe it's been that long."

Nodding, the detective turned her head slightly, just in time to see him swipe his free hand across his cheek.

She leaned toward him, pressed her temple to his shoulder, the width of his bicep supporting her head.

"I miss him," she keened, the heavy lump in her throat and the tears suddenly streaming down her face surprising her with their abrupt arrival. "God, I miss him so much, Castle."

His whole body oriented itself toward her, his arms enveloping her thin frame. Sobbing, she buried her face in the crook of his neck, felt his nose nudging through the shroud of her hair, his breath washing over her ear as he echoed her grief.

"I never knew," he whispered, his low voice rough. "I never knew what I was missing. I never dreamed that falling in love with you would make me realize..."

She shuddered in his arms as he trailed off, her heart leaping in her chest, struggling powerlessly to free itself from all of this this marrow-deep ache that left her trembling and broken, devastated and unable to catch her breath.

Castle held her tightly, his arms steel bands around her, his chest a solid wall and yet a soft place to land. Gradually, her gasps turned to hiccuping breaths, synchronizing themselves with Castle's until they both steadied.

She tipped her head back, unable still to open her eyes, to see the stricken look on his face.

But she tilted toward him blindly, knowing he would catch her. And he did. He always did. His forehead met hers, their hot breaths mingling in the night air as his hand found hers once more, their fingers tangling.

"I've never been religious," he said quietly after a moment. "But sometimes I-"

She nodded, her nose bumping his gently. "Me too. I can't believe there's nothing more, that he's just gone and I'll never see him again."

He sighed in the snow-muffled silence of the night and she opened her eyes just as he turned to stare at the space in front of them, at the speckled stone, at the ring of dark fir branches and bright holly berries, at the pale ribbon fluttering in a breeze that carried up to them the fresh scent of Christmas.

Evergreen and holly. Symbols of life and hope and protection, and where had they been last year?

Where had they been during that span of a few days when their almost unspeakable joy had turned to nearly unbearable grief?

She didn't know if she would ever have an answer.

But they had borne it, together. As they always did.

"We should go," she said softly. "It's Christmas Eve. Your mother and Alexis will be waiting for us."

He nodded, and then Castle knelt and brushed off the light dusting of powdery snow that had accumulated on the wreath while they'd been standing there.

Kate watched as he pressed bare fingertips to the cold stone, tracing the sharp angles and smooth curves of the name on the granite marker, his broad palm obscuring the numbers she knew by heart, the dates far closer together than she had ever thought possible.

She tightened her grip on his other hand, listened to the muffled creak of his knees as he stood, almost missing the barely audible whisper that escaped his lips on a puff of breath and hung in the air like smoke.

"Merry Christmas, Son."

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

"Coventry Carol," 16th century Christmas carol

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