The Giving Store

Kate's ice cream is half gone by the time they slide under the cool shade of the tree-lined path in Central Park. She's had to eat it quickly as it melted in the sun, licking her fingers and the cone as well, but it drew giggles out of Ella's mouth, making it completely worth it.

Under the trees, Kate can let Ella down to her feet, and the girl runs ahead on the path, picking up sticks even as she holds her ice cream cup aloft, keeping it protected. Allie finds them one of those oversized wooden benches that looks like it was hewn straight from the tree, and she and Kate sit down to finish their ice cream.

The breeze tickles the back of Kate's neck, makes the leaves overhead rustle and shiver. Ellery plays on the other side of Allie, stopping from time to time to take another bite of her strawberry scoop with its gummy bear topping. Kate catches sight only of her pony tail bobbing, but it's enough to know the girl is still with them.

"Thanks for taking me to that bookstore," Allie says quietly, her face to the dapples of sun. "I really needed that."

Kate waits on the girl, but Allie doesn't say anything more. Why she needed it, why she was moved to tears. "So talk to me about grad school," Kate pushes, hoping to open things up. Allie started the program last semester after finishing her undergrad at Chicago as well. She hasn't heard a bad word about the university, but it's obvious that something has Allie upset.

"No, it's fine. It's not that," she says, sighing and tilting her head back. The gold in her hair catches the light that manages to filter between the trees, and her green-blue eyes flash open again. "It's Mike."

"Oh." Kate's stunned actually. She thought Allie and her friends were calling him McDreamy like the old tv show. Her boyfriend seemed so charming and pleasant when Kate met him, really sweet on Allie. "What's... wrong?"

"He's - um - he's... I don't know how to really say this."

A cold horror washes through Kate, ice water in her veins. "Did he hurt you?" she rasps, sitting up straight on the bench like she could do anything at all to change-

"No!" Allie yelps, blushing furiously. "No, oh my God, Kate. No. Mom. Like I'd ever let some guy hurt me."

"You'd be surprised," Kate mutters, hiding her eyes behind her hand for a moment's recovery. "Hell, Alexis, you scared the crap out of me. Oh, God, you're not pregnant, are you?"

Alexis bursts into laughter, and Kate drops her hand, taking it as a sign that the girl isn't, in fact, pregnant.

"No, I'm not pregnant, but jeez, you're one to talk."

"I wasn't twenty-three," Kate shoots back, narrowing her eyes. "Don't you dare get pregnant before you know who you are and what you want out of life. If you know that right now, then fine. Get pregnant."

Allie sobers fast and gives her a quick nod. "No, I - guess that's part of my issue. I don't... I'm not sure I know who I really am."

"People change," Kate offers, redirecting her thoughts, trying to soften her tone. "Especially in college. We find out who we are and what matters, what truly is most important."

"Yeah, but I'm not in college any more, am I? I'm in grad school, supposedly on track to be a professional, have my life together, and in my line of work, I'm telling other girls what to do with their lives. Same exact words of wisdom. Don't get pregnant, finish school, find out who you are. And yet-"

"And yet you don't know what to do with your own life," Kate finishes, sinking back to the bench. This? This, she can do. This is the kind of mothering that Kate excels at - being a listening ear and a sounding board. She's done this from the beginning, before the beginning, back when Castle was freaking out about his fifteen year old having a crush he didn't know about.

It makes her smile, thinking about him, about how far they've come, how much they've changed. Matured. Grown together. All the songs make sense.

Allie grumbles, chucking her ice cream cup at the camouflaged trash can. "I don't know what to do with my life. Personally, I mean. Professionally, it's completely mapped out. It is so clear to me what happens next. But personally..."

"I know you've said that you want kids," Kate offers. "Despite my comment about getting pregnant, I don't want you to think that I don't value that as a personal choice. Even - even as a professional choice, Allie, if that's what you want."

The young woman gives her a wry smile. "Thanks, Mom, but that's, um, kind of exactly the opposite problem."

"Oh?" Why does Kate's heart beat a little fast to hear Allie say she doesn't yet want kids? She's afraid it's some lingering condescension for a way of life that Kate never would have picked on her own, never would have even found had it not been by accident. Because of Castle. And that's really unfair, and kind of sad, and she doesn't want Allie to waste time if that's what she wants.

Allie rubs her fingers against her jeans. "Mike wants kids. Um. Now."

"Oh, God," she blurts out. And then winces at hearing herself. Kate hopes Allie isn't just modeling herself on Kate, her only real example maternal strength, and pushing away what could be the greatest thing in her life. "I mean - obviously, you guys are the best thing that's ever happened to me. The Castle family. All of you. Big and little."

Allie gives a flustered laugh and glances at her. "Well, thanks. I think you're one of the best things to ever happen to me, too. But I don't want kids right now. And - maybe this is really awful - but the idea of kids with Mike makes my stomach turn. And I think... didn't you say once that you felt like that about dad?"

Kate chuckles, lifting an eyebrow in self-deprecation. "Hmm, well. I - it's quite possible I said that. But I think it was - the whole idea of being pushed into something I wasn't ready for. But Dash made me ready, forced me to be ready, and well, he taught me. Poor kid. He was my little guinea pig. And your poor dad. He might not seem like it, but he has the loyalty and patience of a saint."

Allie shakes her head, scraping a hand back through her hair. "Don't sell yourself short. You're great. Totally made for - well, I don't know, that seems disingenuous. You weren't made to be a mom. You were made to be badass. But it really does feel like you were made to be Dash and Ellery's mom."

"And yours," she says firmly. "After a time."

Allie blushes, but her smile is both shy and pleased. "And mine."

"I feel the same - I was made to be a mom to some very specific kids," Kate smiles back. "And you know, you will too. You'll hold your newborn and feel like your whole body and soul have been broken open for that little mewling thing. Just for them. No one else."

Allie blinks and then stares down at the ice cream in her cup.

Kate frowns and wonders where they've gone off the road. She's had conversations with Alexis about this before, about having kids, how excited Allie is to have her own family, to be a mom, despite some pretty mediocre examples in her own life. (Despite Kate's instincts screaming no whenever Allie expresses her life-goals in terms of how many children she wants.)

Kate hopes she hasn't done this. Somehow turned the girl off.

"And you know," she offers, trying to get them back on track. "It's really amazing, what it does to you, having a kid. But it's smart to think about what it does to your relationship too, smart to think about you and Mike. That was hard. Your dad and I had therapy before Ella was born, just so that we knew how to communicate effectively with each other. So just because you and Mike aren't perfect, doesn't mean it won't work-"

"I don't want kids with him," Allie blurts out, cheeks pink, but her face so very convicted. "I want kids. But I can't even imagine - it makes me sick - to think of those kids being his. I dream about my kids, Kate. I have such vivid... and I can't do it with him. But I love him."

Kate gently lays her hand over Allie's in the girl's lap, rubs her thumb over Allie's knuckles. "Oh, honey. I'm sorry." She takes in a long breath and hates that she has to say this, but it's necessary. "Maybe he's not the man you want for your family. If you want kids, but you don't want his, then your heart is trying to tell you something."

Allie groans, tilting her head back, but Kate can't make this decision for her. And maybe she's entirely wrong. Maybe that same instinctive dismissal she had for Castle and his arrogant, jackass ways is what Allie is feeling now, a feeling that could actually change with time. With a more forgiving love, a deeper understanding, a little mercy and maturity.

"Okay, Allie, no more advice. You just want to vent, I get it. But - please? - listen to your instincts. You've got a good head on your shoulders, and, unlike me, you're not afraid of what you want in the personal department. Plus you've had a thousand behavioral therapy classes, abnormal psychology, deviant behavior - I think you'll know when it's right and when it's not. Just don't rush into anything, okay? Give yourself some time. You're young. I didn't have Dash until I was in my thirties."

Allie lifts her head, gives Kate a wan smile. "That's true. You're right." A little breath of relief. "I do have time. We have time. I'll talk to Mike when I get back to Chicago. We'll - he can wait. I mean, we've got to get through school first anyway."

"There you go. It'll work out. I promise. One way or another."

Allie grins now, looking so much more at ease than she has all week. Kate wishes the girl had spilled her guts at the beginning of her spring break rather than holding it in all this time. Though she's hardly one who can throw stones.

"Hey, where's Ellery?" Allies says.

Kate sits up straight, scanning the trees. She grins and nods with her head as she spots her daughter's pony tail. "Just off the path, behind the bench. See? She's got her back to us."

Allie peers through the cool shadows and cocks her head. "What is she doing?"

Kate studies her daughter a moment, the angle of the girl's body, the bob of her head. "Huh. I don't know. Let's investigate."

Kate slips off the bench with Allie following behind, both of them somehow knowing that they must be absolutely silent. If Ellery knows she's being observed, she'll cease her play, whatever it is.

It is only in that sudden, advancing silence that Kate realizes how otherworldly it is under the trees, how their height and grave darkness of bark makes them seem like sober wizards conferring. The air is rich with loam, the light cool green, touching on her arms and neck and face, the struggle of spring.

Ellery is crouched before one of these old and imposing trees, lifting her spoon from the cup and touching her pink ice cream to barked lips.

Kate halts. Behind her, Allie, grips her shirt and stops, the too-loud sound of twigs breaking and breaths catching.

The tree has something like a face - knobs where drought or disease have blighted the trunk long ago, creating a wizened expression, drooping eyes, a crooked gash of a mouth. Maybe it was lightning that scarred the tree, but however it got there, Ellery is feeding the tree her ice cream.

And talking to it.

"More?" she's saying, tilting her spoon into the bark so it dribbles a little pink line. Her voice is as quiet and certain as Kate has ever heard it. She didn't even know the girl knew complete sentences, but here's Ella having an entire conversation alone. She uses a leaf to dab at the dribble. "There, there, you clean now. You happy? I not leave you."

Kate's heart flips, her hands trembling.

"Oh, my God," Allie breathes at her ear.

Ellery replaces her spoon in the cup and sets it down, leans in and puts her cheek to the bark. Her little hand pats the trunk, over and over, soothing. "It okay. He come back. Mommy says he come back for you."

Allie moves like she might dart forward and hug Ellery, but Kate grabs her, holds her back. She shakes her head, begins a slow withdrawal. Allie looks confused, a longing look cast towards Ella, but Kate tugs and they head for the bench.

When they're sitting again, a little shellshocked and breathless, Kate can see the swing of Ellery's pony tail as she comforts the tree. Kate's hands are still shaking a little, but she presses her palms to her knees and catches Allie's questioning look.

"Let her have her world," Kate says, her voice rough. "As long as she can hold on to it."

"What?" Allie frowns. "But - we play pretend all the time. We-"

"No," Kate gets out, shaking her head. Castle would understand. Castle would get it, how vital it is that Ella not be intruded upon. "It's not pretend. It's - what I lost so young, what she'll lose one day too. But not today. Not right now. Don't interrupt her."

"What you lost?" Allie cries out, looking bewildered. "But your mom-"

Kate gives a choked laugh and can't help smiling, still dizzy with what she's witnessed. "Not my mom. No. I lost the ability to believe. But we're doing something right, if Ella can believe she needs to comfort a tree. Even if it made her cry. Worth it. Your dad is so good at that-"

"Good at what?"

"Magic," Kate breathes. "It's magic."

Ella still has the Castle magic.