He breathes her in, lets her warm, sweet scent fill him up.
Tightening his arms around her waist, he bends, closing his eyes as her nose finds that spot at the juncture of his neck and shoulder. She's burrowing into him. She's burrowing into him and he never wants to let her go.
He feels her inhale against his skin, and he chuckles, his puff of air ruffling her soft hair.
"Making a memory?" he murmurs into her ear.
She laughs then, and he's grateful for it. Somehow it soothes the deep ache in his chest, eases the growing lump in his throat that hasn't dissolved since he walked down to the car with her a few hours ago.
"All my life," she whispers, her soft voice still muffled against his throat, "when I'm quite grown up, I will always remember my father, and how he smelled of coffee and books."
She smiles against him, and he can feel it in the way her lips move against his neck. But then she's pressing her forehead to his jaw, and he tucks her in closer to his body, holds her tighter when her breath hitches.
"Hey," he soothes, his voice low and gentle as he rubs slow circles on her back. "Hey, pumpkin, it's gonna be fine. You're going to love it here."
"But what if I-"
He shushes her, pulling away enough to see her face. "No what ifs. No doubts."
Her eyes are clouded though, and he lifts his hands, brushes his thumbs under her eyes, wiping away the little moisture he finds there.
"Daddy," she breathes, and then she's wrapped around him again.
Stumbling back under the assault, his knees hit the edge of her bed and he sinks ungracefully to the cheap mattress, dragging her down with him. He's glad for the privacy of her dorm room, glad that her roommate isn't due in until the evening.
Glad he has the freedom here to hold her in his lap. To pretend for a moment that she's still a little girl who will never grow up.
Alexis curls into him, legs pulled up over his thighs, slim fingers twisted into his collar. "Dad, I don't-"
She pauses, takes in a shuddering breath. Castle raises his hand from her knee, tugging on a lock of red hair as he slides it out of her eyes. His fingers linger at her ear, tracing the shell - around, down, back up - the way he used to do when she was a baby.
As amazing, as beautiful as it was then to see sleepy blue eyes blinking up at him, utter trust and wonder and love swirling in their crystal depths, she's become even more wonderful, even more breathtaking with each passing year.
"I'm so proud of you, sweetheart," he whispers into the quiet of the room. "So unbelievably proud."
Her fidgety hands still, and she tilts her head up to meet his gaze. Looking down at her, he tries his hardest to give her a smile, knows it's coming out watery at best.
"I'm so proud of how smart you are," he murmurs, his hesitant smile widening when her face turns a little pink. "How hard you work at school, your drive to be the very best at whatever you do. I'm so proud of your maturity, your wisdom, the fact that I know you're going to do the right thing."
"Dad," she says quietly, ducking her head, her fingers dropping to twist one of his buttons. "When you went to Atlantic City last fall, I had a party. The silver dog statue-"
Laughing, he flicks her nose. "I know."
"You knew? But-"
"I found the trash bag full of red Solo cups in the coat closet, dear daughter," he explains, tugging on her chin so she has to meet his eyes. "And I never really liked that statue anyway."
Her face is bright red by now, matching her hair, and he laughs. "It's fine, Alexis. You don't have to make good decisions *all* the time."
She sighs, and he chuckles, tightens his arm around her as he leans back on the bed until his head hits a pillow and she's tucked against his side, between his body and the wall, head resting over his heart.
"What makes me really proud," he says softly, "is the caring and compassionate woman you've become. How you love people."
Alexis nuzzles his chest, her hand curling around his side to lightly squeeze one of the small lovehandles that has developed as a side effect of their many movie and sundae nights over the past several weeks.
"I learned from the very best," she whispers, and his heart constricts, full to the brim, but then she turns to look at him, blue eyes twinkling. "And by that, I mean Gram, of course."
He scrunches his nose, grabs her sides before she can squirm away and tickles her until she's breathless, shaking against him in laughter. He grins down at her, taking in the joy on her face.
And then her smile dims, her eyes losing some of their lustre, and he knows - it's time.
"I should probably get going," he says quietly. "Let you get settled in a little bit before your roommate gets here."
Part of him wants her to ask him to stay a while longer. But she needs this, he knows, needs the solitude and the chance to ready herself for the semester, for living with someone else, for a life far different than the one she's known until this moment.
His daughter nods, rolling over him with an 'oof' until she can get her feet under her and stand on the floor once again. She reaches out to him.
Giving her much smaller hand a quick squeeze, the writer allows her to help him up, uses the momentum to wrap himself around her one more time. "I love you."
She presses her face to the cotton over his chest, breathing deeply as her fingers clench in the back of his shirt. "Love you too, Dad."
She's been his world for eighteen years, and it feels so wrong to know that he's about to walk out the door, about to leave her to fend for herself.
Even if he'll only be across town, even if he's less than half an hour away - it feels wrong. His throat swells, his heart hammering in his chest, a sudden wetness doing battle with his eyelashes.
He just can't-
And then she's pulling away and tipping her head up to look at him, and he has to plaster on a smile for his baby girl, has to make her believe that he'll be fine, make her believe that this moment isn't shattering him.
He's always been good at make believe.
Spinning around on the tops of his feet-
Smiles of the angels could not be so sweet-
Wide blue eyes and piggy-tails swirl.
She's her daddy's girl,
'Cause he knows the jokes that always make her laugh.
He takes her for ice cream instead of her nap.
At the end of the day by the light of the moon
They turn up the music in their living room.
And she yells
"Dance me! Dance me around 'til my feet don't ever touch down
There's nothin' better than bein' your girl.
And if I am your princess, then daddy,
You are the king of the world!"
-Point of Grace, "King of the World"