For everyone who has reviewed, tweeted, and otherwise messaged me about Sweetheart and The Message.
She wakes to the sound of soft babbling, the quiet murmur of her stepdaughter's voice, a gentle shushing.
Her heart breaks all over again.
Her heart breaks for the girl who - despite the maturity she already possessed - has had to grow up far too quickly, who has had to push through the pain to help her family, whose world shattered in a single moment.
Her heart breaks for their beautiful son, the bright, happy little boy who's never known his father's touch, who doesn't know just how much he reminds Kate of her husband in every quirk of his lips and not quite toothy grin and in the way his blue eyes sparkle with pure happiness any time Kate or Alexis are near.
Opening her eyes slowly, she realizes it's still dark outside, still early.
Her gaze drifts automatically to the other side of the bed. His side - empty and cold as it always is now, as it has been since that day a little more than a year ago.
Well, not always empty and cold. Some mornings she wakes up to find Alexis stretched out on her father's side of the bed, her hand resting firmly on the belly of her little brother where he rests between them. She's never been more thankful for her stepdaughter than she has been in the past year. They've held each other up, she and the strong, beautiful young woman. There's no one else - no one else who knows how hard it's been.
She listens now to the young woman's quiet voice comforting her brother. She must have been up late studying when Nathaniel awoke.
She listens, her heart filling with tenderness at the sounds of movement, at the softly spoken words.
"How ya doing, bud?" the girl murmurs. "What's got you up, sweet boy?"
She hears a shuffling through the baby monitor on the nightstand, can picture Alexis settling the boy in her arms, sitting in the chair next to the crib to rock her brother back to sleep.
"Hey there, Mr. Nate," Alexis sing-songs in that pure tone. "How's that?"
Kate shuts her eyes against the welling of tears, listens as her boy smacks his lips together, makes those familiar baby noises that both comfort and break her. She remembers when she discovered sleepy Castle, not quite awake Castle, the Castle that she would watch when she woke up from a nightmare in the wee hours of the morning, the very sight of him still and peaceful in sleep a balm to her fearful heart.
Nathaniel is so much like him, possesses that same laid-back nature, gives her that same sense of rightness when she watches him fall asleep.
It's how they named him, she and Alexis.
Nathaniel Atticus Castle.
They'd agreed that he would appreciate the name. They've told people he was named for Nathaniel Hawthorne - a famous writer of dark stories - and Atticus Finch - a famous proponent of justice.
And it's true. Both of those things are true.
But there's more too. There's the meaning known only to Alexis and Kate.
"Nathaniel," the girl had suggested as she held the newborn carefully, perched on the edge of Kate's hospital bed. "It means 'he gave.' And that's what Dad did, isn't it?"
Kate had found herself speechless, throat clogged with tears. She nodded, meeting her stepdaughter's watery eyes. Leaning toward the young woman, she wrapped a thin arm around the redhead's shoulders, sliding her other hand up to stroke the downy dark hair. The baby opened his eyes at that moment, his gaze seeming to slowly focus on the pair of them. His eyes were so blue.
"Nathaniel Atticus," Kate had said when she finally found her voice again.
"Atticus?" the girl echoed. "Because my middle name is Harper?"
The detective smiled. "Partly. But also because Harper Lee based him on her own father. And I can't think of a better example this one could follow than his dad. He's already got the looks, and no doubt the personality will follow."
It was a big name for such a little boy. But they were right. Nathaniel is his father in miniature, Kate's bright spot in the darkness that descended the afternoon she got the call she'll never forget, the afternoon when she retrieved her phone from the prison guard to find three missed calls on her phone: one from Castle with no message, one from the precinct telling her to call immediately, and The Call - the one from Alexis, her voice tight and desolate, whispering "Kate, please call. It's about Dad."
She listens to the monitor for a moment more, but Nate babbles on and Alexis is still trying to send him back to sleep. Rolling over, she heaves her weary body from the bed, snags the bathrobe draped across the chair, and cinches the belt around her waist.
She needs to see them.
Padding through the room, she pulls her phone from the charger, just in case. She's on call today. The detective takes the steps carefully, makes her silent way toward the smallest bedroom, finds her stepdaughter leaning back and forth in the rocking chair, one foot curled under her body while the other pushes off the floor rhythmically. She's humming.
Alexis looks up, smiling softly, a little sadly. The once bright light in her eyes is a little dimmer these days. "Hey."
"Did he wake you up?" the older woman asks and she goes to stand by the chair, leaning down to press a kiss first to Nate's forehead and then to her stepdaughter's.
The girl shakes her head. "I was still up studying for my O-Chem final."
"He wasn't really crying," Alexis continues. "Just talking to himself. I think he likes the sound of his own voice."
Kate laughs quietly. "Just like your dad."
"Yeah," the young woman says. "I wish..."
She trails off, but the detective nods, reaching over to brush a lock of fiery red hair out of the girl's eyes. "I know. Me too, sweetheart."
Silence descends for a long moment, broken only by Nate's occasional murmurs. He blinks up at them a few times in the dim light of the room before his eyes drift slowly shut. Kate drops to her knees next to the chair, watches her children, her strength.
The phone in her pocket rings, harsh in the quiet, startling all three of them. To his credit, Nathaniel doesn't cry, just opens wide blue eyes, his lips parting to form a surprised O. The detective fumbles for a moment before retrieving the phone from her bathrobe pocket and pressing it to her ear without looking at the display.
"Beckett," she answers, long-formed habit taking over. The only time she gets calls this early it's for work, and she continues to use her maiden name there.
"Could I speak to Kate Castle?" the voice on the other end asks.
Not work then. "Speaking."
"This is Dr. Gabriel Bodie."
Oh god. It can't be-
"Mrs. Castle? He's awake."