Kate enters the loft to the sound of laughter, the boom of her husband's rich amusement and the giggling bursts that accompany it and force her lips into a smile against her will.
She drops her messenger bag, heavy with paperwork and forms that demand her attention, on the floor near the entryway, promising herself to pick it up before she settles in with them. She's about to allow her keys to land unceremoniously on the table they've always kept conveniently next to the front door, but pauses before the keys can slip from her fingers.
They had found the little plaque adorned with painted gold elephants at the street fair last week, walking through the flea market with their six month old son strapped to his chest, browsing for nothing in particular. Elephants always caught her eye, and since becoming her partner, they had started catching Rick's as well.
"We've been need of a key hook for a while now," he had mused, handing the vendor the required amount and passing their purchase off to her. "And it'll look great right next to the front door."
Kate had smeared a kiss to his cheek as they had continued down the street, holding their new home accessory in one hand while the other hooked in the crook of his elbow. "It's perfect."
"I think I hear Mommy," she hears Castle gasp, the smack of James's hands to the surface of his highchair following, and Kate slides her keys onto the trunk of the middle elephant, tracing the brass ears of her favorite animal and taking a deep breath.
Today had been bad, her chest was aching with it and her eyes stung from the tears she's been biting back all day. But she had remembered him mentioning on the phone during her lunch break that Martha may stop by for dinner, Alexis too if his daughter could make the time between her classes and the new internship she had landed at the law firm last week, and she needs to pull it together before then.
Kate exhales and steps free of the foyer, her eyes immediately landing on Castle feeding their son in the kitchen, making airplane noises to encourage James's consumption of mashed ravioli. But their son sputters at the sound of her heels, at the sight of his mother once she's mere inches from the kitchen.
"I was so close to getting a full serving in him," Castle sighs, giving up hope on depositing another spoonful of the baby food into James's gaping mouth, the squirming making it impossible.
Beckett chuckles her apology, but Rick is already waving her off, relieving James's of his bib and wiping his mouth clean. An exclamation of glee leaves his mouth once Kate has her hands under his arms, hefting him up and out of his highchair and cradling him to his chest.
"Such a momma's boy," Castle mutters, shaking his head at the two of them, but his eyes are warm when they meets her, so soft and blue, and quickly filling with concern when she has to blink back the strengthening threat of tears.
The sound of the door opening cuts him off and she buries her face in James's little neck, inhaling the scent of baby oil and laundry detergent from her son's onesie.
"Hello, hello," she hears Martha sing song from the foyer, doing her best to suck in a fortifying breath, but Castle is already walking past her, squeezing her shoulder as he goes.
"Mother," he greets, and she doesn't have to look to know he's embracing his mother in the entryway, allowing Kate the moment she needs.
She's held it together all day. She can make it through dinner with their family, she can manage a couple hours of conversation and force a few more smiles so his mother and daughter won't worry. It's not even a big deal, she just… she couldn't handle the sympathy, not from them too.
James wiggles in her grasp and Kate lifts her head, glances down to see James's staring up at her with his father's wide blue eyes.
"Hey baby," she whispers, rubbing his back and supporting his spine when he leans back against the palm of her hand. "Mommy missed you today."
James's tiny hand lifts to her cheek, taps as if in confusion, maybe even concern, and she smiles for him, couldn't stop the spill of her lips if she tried, and it seems to placate him, has James grinning back excitedly at her.
"Oh and there's my favorite grandson," Martha announces, breezing into the room with a brilliant smile and open arms. "And Katherine, looking gorgeous as ever despite looking dead on your feet."
Kate huffs, exchanges cheek kisses with Martha and allows her to accept James into her arms. "Thank you, Martha."
"Just saying, kiddo. You already have the beauty, but you still need the rest," her mother-in-law chastises and with a wink, bouncing James on her hip and swaying towards the living room.
Castle has lasagna cooking in the oven, nearly done if the dwindling numbers on the timer are any indication, and she begins retrieving the plates, the silverware. But when his arms wrap around her from behind, his hands splaying wide at her stomach and drawing her back to rest against his chest, she gives up, covers his hands and drops her head to his shoulder.
"Hard day?" he murmurs, smearing a kiss to her cheek, rubbing circles over her stomach with his thumb.
Kate turns in the circle of his arms, bands hers around his neck and rises on her tiptoes, buries her face in his shoulder. And she lets herself cry.
Castle rubs her back, soothing the ragged shudders of her rib cage with his hands and the whisper of his lips at her temple. Throughout the last couple of years, she has been willing herself to break the tradition of mourning so deeply on the anniversary of her mother's death, trying so hard not to dwell on the loss that had defined her.
Rick had woken with her for James's feeding in the middle of the night, had soothed her inevitable flares of grief with the warmth of his embrace, the comfort of his voice in her ear, had done the same before she had left for work a few hours later.
"It's okay to grieve," he had reminded her softly.
"I know, I just - I don't want to drown in it anymore," she had explained, tightening the arms around his waist, embracing his empathy for once instead of steeling herself from it, and her husband had pressed a kiss to her forehead, infused strength to get through the day into her skin.
"I won't let you drown, Kate."
Castle practically has her lifted off the ground, the toes of her shoes barely grazing the hardwood of the kitchen floor, and she sighs out against the cove of his neck, brushes a kiss to the hinge of his jaw.
"Thanks for helping me keep my head above water," she whispers, wiping at her eyes as his arms slowly begin to loosen.
"Always," he murmurs, helping with the stains of moisture on her cheeks, brushing his thumb beneath her eye. "You know that."
Kate rises up, balancing on her toes again to fit so perfectly against him, to place a kiss to his mouth, to let him taste her gratitude, the happiness that he holds so much responsibility for.
Their height difference has always been slight, but noticeable. To him, at least. But the few inches that separated them became far more apparent once they started dating, once he was allowed to hold her in his arms and was able to truly appreciate the way she could fit so snugly against his chest, her head tucked beneath his chin.
He thinks the way she rises on the tips of her toes, though, surges against him to meet his embrace so firmly, is his favorite type of hug.
"Come on," she murmurs, dropping back to the soles of her shoes, and snagging his hands from around her waist. "I'm starving and James-"
"Probably needs to be rescued," Castle chuckles, glancing towards the living room, where his mother has their son balanced on her lap, filling his head with a story from the stage.
Kate huffs a laugh, drags him towards the couch, towards their family, swatting him in the chest for the teasing at his mother's expense. But her smile is dazzling, even on one of the hardest days of the year for her, and his heart swells with relief, with pride to be considered one of the reasons for her joy.