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"Elephants love reunions. They recognize one another after years and years of separation and greet each other with wild, boisterous joy. There's bellowing and trumpeting, ear flapping and rubbing. Trunks entwine."
― Jennifer Richard Jacobson, Small as an Elephant
The lighter clicks, flint sparking against the ribbed metal wheel, and he watches the flame burst to life in his hand, bright and orange. It dances in the wind from his breath as he holds the tip of an incense stick in the heart of the fire. Sweet smelling smoke curls up around his head when it catches, tickling the inside of his nose and settling at the back of his throat. Releasing the button, Castle drops the warm lighter in the drawer of his nightstand and knees it closed. He nestles the incense in its holder, watching the red ember and wafting smoke for a second longer before closing the lid and dropping down on the edge of the bed.
Moonlight mixes with the soft amber glow of his bedside lamp and Castle dips his toes into a wavering pool of it just off the edge of the rug, watching the shadows roll across his skin like waves. He looks up when the bathroom door swings open, the short, dark hairs along his bare limbs wilting in the rush of steamy air. The bright vanity light casts her in a silhouette for just a moment before she flicks the switch and steps out into the bedroom, hands still smoothing lotion over her arms. Her body pushes against the overstretched cotton of her favorite tank top, the bottom no longer able to fully cover the rounded protrusion of her stomach, leaving a wide swath of exposed skin between the hem of her shirt and the waistband of her sleep shorts. He loves to drag his fingers across that patch of skin, trace a wandering line over the changes their love has brought to her body.
Castle reaches out for her as she draws near and Kate steps between his spread legs with a sigh, curling her hands over his shoulders and sagging into him when her knees hit the edge of the mattress. Planting his fists behind him, he scoots to the middle of the bed and shifts, stretching out on his side. Kate crawls in after him, her body warm and soft as she curls into his, face turned into the crook of his neck and one leg threading between his own. Her stomach presses against him and Castle wraps his arms around her, one at her neck and the other at her waist, holding her as tightly as he can.
They don't talk about it very often. Seven months in and she's really only mentioned it twice. But it's always there, that sense that something - someone - is missing. And as much as he tries, as desperately as he wants this experience to be filled with nothing but joy and positivity for her, he knows that in the end, there are going to be these moments of emotional pain that he can't shield her from. All he can do is hold her, curl his body around her and their baby and hope his love is enough.
Kate draws in a deep, stuttering breath, her ribs catching on the exhale, and he smooths calming circles over the bare skin of her shoulder with the tips of his fingers, lips pressed against the damp hair at her temple. She shifts against him, moving her hips into a more comfortable position, and then settles down again, her body relaxing in increments. The toes on her left foot pop when she curls and flexes them and he gives her an exaggerated shudder at the sound, smiling when she lets out a watery chuckle.
Silence stretches between them, comfortable yet heavy, until finally she breaks. The hand along his back slides down, her fingers slipping under the hem of his t-shirt to feather along the small of his back as she whispers, "Tomorrow's her birthday. She would have been sixty-two. I don't -" Her voice catches. "I keep thinking about how much she would have loved being a grandma. She always joked about how she hoped I had a kid just like me so I'd know what she went through."
"Oh, please no," he mock groans. "I don't think my heart could hold out through the teenage years of Rebel Becks Junior."
Kate pinches his side, huffing. "I wasn't that bad."
"Sure," Castle draws out, playful sarcasm in his tone. "Whatever you say."
"Which one of us put a cow on the roof?" He searches for a response but comes up empty. "Yeah, exactly."
Sliding her hand out from under his shirt and up to his shoulder, she pushes at him until he rolls onto his back. Her stomach presses against his side and she reaches for his hand, her thumb brushing over the wide, flat band of his wedding ring. Castle combs the fingers of his free hand through the ends of her hair, eyes closed as he listens to her breathing and waits.
"I have so many questions," she murmurs at last. "So many things that only my mom can answer for me. But she's not here and sometimes when I remember that, I feel so lost."
His heart gives a painful kick against his ribs and he fights the urge to roll over, gather her to his chest and remind her that she's not lost. Not anymore. Neither of them are.
"I know I'm going to be okay," Kate continues, curling one leg over his and hooking her foot behind his knee. "I'm not doing this alone -"
"Never," Castle insists, a raggedness in his voice that scares him a little. "Never."
Her lips are warm against his shoulder. "I know. Sometimes, though -" She pauses, sighs. "I just really want my mom."
He doesn't have the words for that. There aren't any. Nothing he, or anyone else, can say will make this better. He would sell his soul to make her happy - probably already has - but this is the one thing that, no matter how much he wishes differently, he just cannot give her.
Castle walks backward through the front door of the loft, an empty car seat held loosely in one hand and his eyes trained on his wife and son. They have a son. He can't get over it. Eight pounds four ounces and twenty-two inches of absolute perfection, with a head full of dark hair and a birthmark that Castle swears looks like a feather quill along his left thigh. Kate follows him over the threshold, the swaddled baby held against her chest, her lips dusting a light kiss over his tiny forehead.
"Welcome home, Milo," she smiles, looking up at him over the baby's head.
Castle puts down the car seat, pushing it up against the wall with the toe of his shoe, and then steps over to them, wrapping an arm around Kate's waist. His hand covers hers on Milo's back as he leans in and presses a kiss to his son's head, the gentle baby scent filling up his lungs and making him shiver with delight.
"You gonna cry again?" Kate asks, her tired eyes sparking with amusement.
"Probably," he shrugs, moving his lips from the baby's head to her cheek. "But I'll try not to do it at the same time as him."
Huffing out a laugh, she tilts her head, knocking her temple against his. "I make no such promises."
"Noted." Milo whines, his tiny fingers unfurling next to his cheek, and Castle presses his thumb into the curve of Kate's hip. "You wanna go sit down?"
She nods, turning to look over her shoulder, doubt wrinkling her brow. "I don't really want to take him upstairs yet."
Smiling, Castle nudges her toward their bedroom. He planned for this, knew that after just having given birth she wasn't going to feel like trudging up and down the stairs with an infant, much less want Milo that far away from her for any length of time. The glare he'd been met with the first time he contradicted her on the topic of where the crib should be set up for the first few months had nearly turned him to stone so he'd kept his mouth shut after that, plotting in silence.
They cross through the office and into the bedroom, Kate's hospital bag bouncing off his right thigh, and her breath catches when she sees the bassinet, part of a matching set with the crib from the nursery, set up along the far wall. A portable changing station stands alongside and the cherry wood glider she'd spent hours agonizing over sits angled under the window. Kate turns to face him, a teary smile pulling at her lips.
Castle shrugs. "Didn't want you breaking your neck trying to go upstairs at three in the morning."
"Who says I'm the one getting up at three?"
He waggles the fingers of one hand in the direction of her chest. "Those do."
Kate narrows her eyes at him. "Be glad I'm holding your kid right now."
Stepping closer, Castle wraps his arms around her waist, the baby held between their chests. He lowers his lips to her ear, presses a soft kiss just below the lobe. "I am," he breathes. "So damn glad, Kate." Milo snuffles and Castle steps back, hitching a thumb toward the bassinet. "Wanna see what he thinks of his new bed?"
Nodding, Kate moves around him, taking the few steps over to the corner where he had everything set up. He stands behind her, his chest almost pressed to her back, as she takes it in for a moment before stepping up to the side of the bassinet. Her breath catches as she looks down and he wraps an arm around her middle, hand fisting in the fabric of her loose dress.
Shifting the baby to one arm, Kate reaches into the crib, her fingers brushing over the plush gray velvet that makes up the elephant's body. He watches her stroke over each of the legs and along the stomach, across the one visible ear and down the length of the trunk. She repeats the movements three times before finally speaking.
"Rick - "
"I found it online when you were about four months pregnant," he explains, voice calm and quiet. "We were in the middle of our incredibly long debate about the pros and cons of nursery themes. I was certain I could win you over with this so I ordered it immediately. Who doesn't love a cute baby animal jungle theme, right?" Kate fingers the ear again and he presses a kiss to the side of her neck. "But by the time it got here, I'd fought my battle and lost. It wasn't until later, when you were in the shower crying and thinking that I couldn't hear you, that I realized why you were so opposed to a jungle theme."
Kate sinks back against him, her head resting on his shoulder. "Elephants."
Castle nods. "Yeah. I was an idiot. So I put this little guy away and pulled you out of the shower, promised myself while I was holding you that night that I'd never bring it up again."
"But you are."
"I am." Still gripping her waist, he uses his free hand to cup the back of Milo's tiny head. "I am because I think this is something you can share with him, Kate. Elephants are a connection you have with your mom. If you let them, they can be a connection for all three of you. Your mom, you, and Milo."
Kate lets out an unsteady breath, tilting her head to press her lips to their son's downy hair. His fingers slip down the baby's back as Kate leans forward, her hands shifting Milo's tiny body with care, nestling him down next to the elephant's oversized form. The baby smacks his lips, one hand curled over edge of his swaddling blanket, and sleeps on. A tear shimmers in the corner of her eye when she turns to face him, a shaking hand lifting to cup his stubble covered cheek.
"I love you," she breathes, raising up on her to kiss him, a mixture of gratitude and grief on her lips. "Thank you."
"Love you too," he mumbles, pulling her into a hug, squeezing as tightly as he dares. They sway together in front of their sleeping son's bassinet for just a moment, breathing in sync. Castle grips the back of her neck, fingers flirting with baby fine hair at her nape. "You should lie down. Get some rest while you can."
She nods, her nose grazing his neck. "Come with me?"
Kicking off their shoes, they crawl into the middle of the bed together. Castle pulls her close, her body flush against his for the first time in months. Legs tangled, Kate pulls him down for a sloppy kiss and then slumps against him, her body finally giving in to exhaustion. Closing his eyes, Castle listens carefully, tries to pick out the difference between his wife's breaths and his son's.
"You know you're getting up at three in the morning with him too, right?"
"Yeah," he smiles, never having had any intention of doing it any differently; He's not missing a moment of this. "I know."
AN: To see the picture that inspired this fic, check out my tumblr: airbefore dot tumblr dot com / post/96934789144
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