Title: A Bedtime Story

Rating: T

Summary: A part of the WHW series--A ficlet about a father and daughter. Trory.

Disclaimer: Don't own GG or rights to James Whitcomb Riley's poems. I just write fan fic,folks. No one pays me a dime.

His wife had only been gone eight hours, and he'd conceded on a cookie before dinner, no vegetables during dinner, ice cream after dinner, and a delayed bedtime. He'd played stuffed animals, coffee house (as their little girl preferred non-existent coffee to non-existent tea), and he had prayed for scratches to appear on the unfortunately pristine surface of the DVD, thus ending the viewing of Cinderella after two complete showings and her not-so-soft cries for a third. He wondered if all that research into sugar and caffeine had really been necessary—surely seeing a two-year-old attempting to drag her father through an all-nighter was proof enough of their stimulating effects.

"Bedtime, Ella," Tristan soothed, coming out of the kitchen where he left dirty dishes piled up to pause the crying. The dishes would still be dirty at whatever hour he got this girl to sleep properly; ending this first, and very exhausting, day alone with the seemingly angelic toddler. The very child he'd promised his wife would be 'no trouble' for him to handle alone during her absence. It was a piece of cake, he'd kissed her cheek and assured her. His adorable daughter and he would get along swimmingly during her long weekend on assignment. Her first one since their newborn son had rounded out their family.

"Story?" she probed, reaching a chubby hand out to grip his shirt as he leaned over her.

He could see the hope rising behind the still fresh tears glistening in her large blue eyes. Her mother's eyes, on an even more cherub-like face. It was like she knew he was wrapped securely around her tiniest little finger.

Maybe this was why Rory has warned him so much of her tricks. She'd outlined, in a very detailed list form, all the ways Ella would attempt to sweet talk or scare him within an inch of his sanity to get her way and end up the dominating force in the household this weekend. He was to remain firm, not resort to hiring a nanny or dumping the child off with a grandparent, and to call her should anything to awry. He refused to give in, even after being snookered thus far by someone a quarter his size.

"Yes, I'll read you a bedtime story," he promised as he scooped her up into his arms, turning her away from the Disney characters that smiled at them from the television screen as it waited to be coaxed into replaying the film.

This was going to work. He was sure of it, as she rested her miniature head against his shoulder sleepily and let a yawn escape her mouth. He was just minutes away from getting her soundly off into dreamland, at which point he could collapse from sheer exhaustion. He pressed his lips into her forehead, bouncing her slightly, soothingly, as they approached her bedroom. She had just graduated from her crib, and he lay her down on her first big-girl bed, as her grandmother called it; a phrase that made his daughter swell with pride. She was a big girl, and a brand new big sister.

"Okay, so which story is Mommy reading you?" he asked as he looked to her small bookcase, from which Rory chose a bedtime story each night. He joined her as often as possible, but the last few weeks he'd been working late at the office, while his wife so valiantly cared for both of their young children for most of the weekdays alone, on the last dregs of her maternity leave.

"Annie!" Ella bounced on the new mattress a bit, sitting bolt upright on her bed.

"Annie, huh?" he stalled, skimming his fingers over her books. He saw The Owl and the Pussycat, Goodnight Spoon, Knuffle Bunny (Jess' contribution), and of course the book of Grimms' Fairytales, which he'd known to be her favorite. She was a fairytale girl, which, Lorelai informed them, meant she would like all things frilly and pink in a few years. He saw nothing in which Annie was even alluded to.

"Who does Annie play with in the story?" he tried, hoping the excitement for the story would expunge some helpful hint.

"Silly Daddy," she giggled, shivering in her seat. "No one plays with Annie," she corrected.

He began to think she was confusing Annie with Cinderella—had she not been obsessed with her cartoon alter-ego, he would have let himself believe that. He grabbed the fairytale book off the shelf and sat down next to her tiny form, tucking her tightly under the covers.

"How about we skip Annie just for tonight, and read about Goldilocks?" he smoothed her bangs off her forehead, smiling encouragingly. His smile quickly drew to a frown as her lower lip quivered.

He was fully aware of what a lip quiver meant. She did not make a good noise after a lip quiver. He put the book back on the shelf and got down on his knees in search of Annie. This couldn't be that hard. He was trying to ignore the voice that told him to call for help. Rory had enough on her plate with the pre-election campaign coverage and a two-month-old to take care of. She was still breast-feeding, so the infant was toted along with her as she returned to her job early in order to take this very important story to get her back in the swing of her career, and Jacob was still young enough that all he really needed was a meal and a place to crash.

And besides, if he had to call her just to find something as small as a bedtime story, she'd know that he was struggling and would feel guilty for having left him alone. And he wouldn't have that.

"Come on, Annie, show yourself," he murmured under his breath, reaching out with one hand to pat his daughter's arm. Her whimpering was getting louder. "It's okay, Els, I'm gonna find Annie," he assured her, not wanting her to reach ear-piercing decibels.

"Okay, you know what? Let's call uncle Jess," he said in an upbeat tone, kneeling now so that he was face-to-face with his daughter. "I bet he'll know which book Annie is in," he reasoned to both her and himself. She sniffled, and he drew out a tissue with one hand while reaching in his pocket for his cell phone with the other.

"I'm gonna kill you," came Jess's curt greeting.

"I need a favor," Tristan pleaded as he continued to tend to his daughter's runny nose, a side effect of having worked herself up into a near frenzy.

"Do you know what time it is?"

"I know it's late, but I'm trying to get Ella down," Tristan began, sure his friend could sympathize. Or maybe he might have more so had he not just caused the shrill scream to occur in the Mariano household. From the sounds of it, the phone had awoken Ambrose.

"Wait, you don't have Ella down? I don't need to kill you, Rory will," Jess clarified.

"Are you gonna help me, or not?"

"Fine, what?"

He let out a sigh of relief. "Els says Rory is reading to her about Annie. What children's book is that?"

"Annie?"

"Yeah," Tristan smiled down at his daughter, who was trying to say hi to her 'uncle' over the line.

"I don't know of any children's book about an Annie," he said.

"What about a classic? The Secret Garden or Wuthering Heights or something like that?"

"Why did Rory ever marry you?" Jess pondered aloud.

"You want to know the answer to that now?" he asked frantically as Ella's whimpers and attempts to talk to her uncle had evolved into her crawling out from under the covers and into her father's lap. He jiggled her on one knee, in his best attempts to keep the phone out of her reach.

"Wait, it's nearly Halloween," Jess said.

"How long has it been since you've been out of the house, man?"

"I can hang up right now, it's not like I don't have a child to get back to bed now myself, thanks to you," he warned.

"Fine. Yes, Halloween is next weekend."

"It's gotta be 'Little Orphant Annie.'"

"Like the musical? I don't think we have that one."

"It's a poem," Jess sighed. "Is there a volume of poetry on Ella's shelf? Riley?"

Tristan searched over the titles and paused when he came to the collected works of Riley. "Oh thank God," he sighed. "I won't call you again. I swear."

"Uh-huh," Jess sighed. "Good luck."

"You too."

Tristan hung up and slid Ella back under her covers. He grabbed her favorite stuffed bear, Hattie (named for reasons unknown to both him and Rory), and her little arm jutted out around its shoulders.

"I have Annie," he nodded as a smile broke out over her face. "You all set?"

She nodded overly enthusiastically. He loved this age, he decided, despite all the mishaps of trying to share their house with a moody, vertically challenged, bossy being. He joked that it was like having a miniature version of her mother around all the time, but Rory hadn't taken too well to that. He probably shouldn't have said it during her eighth month of pregnancy, which had coincided with the hottest month the eastern seaboard had ever seen. He shuddered to even remember the experience of her hormones being provoked by the searing heat and the inability of any level of air conditioning to aid her. Now that the baby was born and the chill of late October was a reality, it seemed like just a bad, very intense dream.

He flipped the book open, hit with the aroma of a used bookstore—one that his wife would use as cologne if she could—and turned the pages gingerly to the poem. He was surprised it wasn't an epic. Normally Ella liked longer stories, taking quite a while to fall asleep. She had a very active imagination and was never content to miss a happy ending. What he did notice, that caused some hesitation, was that there was a lot of phonetic spelling on the open page facing him. He knew in poetry it was done on purpose, to instill a sense of rhythm and meter, but he'd never been good at this kind of recitation. It's not that his fine instructors hadn't covered such topics in class, he was sure they had—had he bothered to show up to such classes. There were more important things for his teenaged self to do, and he'd deemed those the best kinds of classes to blow off. Never in his future life would those skills come in handy.

He really hated it when his wife was right.

Even back in high school she'd called him out on his behavior being the sort that would come back and bite him in the ass. And now, as he stared at the page of prose with a waiting two-year-old looking up at him in wonder and expectation, he took a deep breath and refused to give into his wife's admonishments. He could do this.

"Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay, An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away, An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep," he began, keeping his voice as clear and steady in the rhythm he thought it was to be read in as possible. His daughter was staring at him like he was suddenly speaking a foreign language. Not that he could blame her—who talks like this? He didn't know anything about this Riley guy, but surely he wasn't originally from around here.

"You okay, honey?"

Ella shook her head vigorously back and forth. "You read it funny," she complained, her bottom lip still stuck out.

"Are you sure this is the right story?"

She nodded. "Mommy reads it different," she continued to eye him suspiciously. She hadn't started calling out for her mother's return, but it looked like it only was a matter of seconds away from getting to that point. Maybe going to a few more English classes wouldn't have killed him. But there was no time for that now. He picked up his phone again and redialed the last number in its memory.

"I swear to God, I'm gonna unplug my phone," Jess warned.

"Where is this Riley guy from?"

"Excuse me?" Jess asked, having evidently picked up his distressed son in his arms, as Ambrose's cries grew louder in Tristan's ear.

"Riley, the guy that wrote this thing, where is he from? France? Spain?"

"Indiana," Jess said slowly, as if Tristan should have known.

"As in, one of the ones in the middle?"

"I'm hanging up now," Jess informed him.

"Okay, look, I tried to read the poem, but Ella says I'm not reading it right. How do you get the rhythm down?"

Jess snickered and managed to do something to quiet his son. All Tristan could hear was Jess's chortles. His own patience was wearing thin, and he had no idea how Jess had suddenly regained his sense of humor—leave it to a double entendre to do the trick. Or perhaps the lack of screaming on his son's part.

"Did you ever attend an English class?"

"A few," he admitted.

"Why don't you just call Rory? She can probably recite the damn thing over the phone," he offered.

"It's nearly eleven o'clock, I can't call her and tell her I haven't gotten Ella to sleep," he sighed. "She'll kill me and probably never allow me to be alone with my daughter ever again."

"You just have to relax and fall into the words."

"What does that mean?"

"Just, skim over it first. See what it's about. Then quit trying to pronounce the words and just say it."

"Do you know it by heart?"

"I'm not reading to your daughter, as much as I love that little girl, I have my own son to get back to sleep."

"And exactly how do you do that?"

"The Clash, at a volume just loud enough so he can hear it, and low enough that Erin can't," he laughed again.

"I won't call you again," Tristan promised, feeling a smidge bit guilty.

"Good, 'cause I'm turning my ringers off," Jess sighed. "Good luck."

"Night," Tristan hung up again and resituated his daughter under the covers. "Okay, ready to try this again?"

Ella let out a big yawn. It was getting late, but she struggled to keep her heavy eyelids open. "Ready," she nodded excitedly. Evidently she had more confidence in his ability to take Jess's instruction than he did.

"An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an'-keep;

An' all us other childern, when the supper-things is done,

We set around the kitchen fire an' has the mostest fun

A-list'nin' to the witch-tales 'at Annie tells about,

An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you

Ef you

Don't

Watch

Out!"

Now she was crying. He put the book down and wrapped his arms around her, afraid that the subject matter was too scary for her. Was this really what Rory was reading her? She wouldn't even let her watch The Count sketches on Sesame Street yet, for fear that it would spook her.

"It's okay, Els, there aren't really any goblins," he soothed. "Do you want me to read Cinderella instead?"

"I wanna hear about Annie!" she howled. He held her tighter against him, to soothe her tears, stroking her hair back off her face and wondering what else he was doing if not trying to read to her about Annie. He sighed, pulled her up into his lap, and opened the book again. He was gonna get this right, if it killed him. He cleared his mind as Jess suggested and softened his tone.

"Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn't say his prayers,--

An' when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,

His Mammy heerd him holler, an' his Daddy heerd him bawl,

An' when they turn't the kivvers down, he wuzn't there at all!"

He was almost getting into this, he had to admit. Once you got used to the fact that the spoken words almost sounded like real words, it wasn't half bad. Actually, it was a little scary—probably a good cautionary tale to keep the kids in line in whatever century this was written in. Evidently in the time before a dictionary was available to the masses, he mused.

He was drawn out of his thoughts when he felt a small fist grip his collar. He looked into his daughter's still unhappy face.

"Can we call Mommy now?" she pleaded, clearly done with his efforts. He wasn't even halfway done, and she'd called it off. He wanted to tell her no, to give him another chance, since he was just now getting into it—but she was two, and she wanted her mother. How could he really say no to that reasoning? He hadn't thus far tonight.

"Yeah, let's call Mommy," he sighed, hitting speed dial. He kissed her forehead again and placed the book upside down on the bed while he waited for an answer on the other end.

"I wondered how long it would take you," she giggled softly, "Or should I say, how long it would take her. She broke you, huh?"

"Excuse me, no one is broken," he came back defensively as he rocked his daughter gently in one arm.

"What did it? You can't find her story?"

"I found the story," he announced. "But evidently I don't read it right. Who is this guy?"

"He's an early twentieth century poet," she sighed. "You really haven't heard of Riley?"

"Guess I was sick that day," he smiled.

"Sure. Just hit speaker phone, will you?"

He did as commanded and held his phone out for both of them to hear.

"Mommy?" Ella sniffled.

"You're up pretty late, kiddo," came Rory's soothing, yet authoritative voice.

"Daddy won't read my story right," she whined.

"Okay, just get all snuggled down, and I'll read it, okay?"

Tristan moved her back down into her bed with Hattie and pulled the covers up tightly to just under her chin. "Okay," came Ella's voice, commencing Rory's recitation. She got through the part he'd already read with ease—slowing in certain parts, when it was Annie taking over for the narrator, her voice lowering and raising and surprising even him with the next lines that she would read. She had the dramatic reading skills that he apparently lacked, and he saw the difference his daughter was missing so badly along with the true presence of her mother. He reclined against the pillows next to his daughter, listening enraptured as she went on.

"An' they seeked him in the rafter-room, an' cubby-hole, an' press,

An' seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an' ever'-wheres, I guess;

But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an' roundabout:--

An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you

Ef you

Don't

Watch

Out!

An' one time a little girl 'ud allus laugh an' grin,

An' make fun of ever' one, an' all her blood-an'-kin;

An' wunst, when they was "company," an' ole folks wuz there,

She mocked 'em an' shocked 'em, an' said she didn't care!

An' thist as she kicked her heels, an' turn't to run an' hide,

They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin' by her side,

An' they snatched her through the ceilin' 'fore she knowed what she's about!

An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you

Ef you

Don't

Watch

Out!

An' little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,

An' the lamp-wick sputters, an' the wind goes woo-oo!

An' you hear the crickets quit, an' the moon is gray,

An' the lightnin'-bugs in dew is all squenched away,--

You better mind yer parunts, an' yer teachurs fond an' dear,

An' churish them 'at loves you, an' dry the orphant's tear,

An' he'p the pore an' needy ones 'at clusters all about,

Er the Gobble-uns 'll git you

Ef you

Don't

Watch

Out!"

Rory paused, and he bent down to see Ella was fast asleep, a smile covering her face as she clutched at her stuffed animal. She liked being scared, it seemed. He had no idea. He put the phone off of speaker and eased out of her room, so he could speak at a normal decibel and not wake her up.

"You have a copy of that there?"

"No," she admitted. "It was one of my favorites when I was her age. Ms. Patty read it every Halloween to the kids around the bonfire."

"Ahh," he nodded. "I thought Ella was afraid of all things Halloweeny," he asked.

"That was until Mom told her a month ago that she could dress up and be whoever she wanted for a whole night and rake in the candy," Rory confided. "She's obsessed now."

Tristan laughed. "Now that I believe."

He heard his son crying in the background over the line, and he felt a larger pang of guilt wash over him. "I didn't want to have to call you, really, everything is under control."

"It's fine," she assured him. "I know it's rough to be suddenly alone with a toddler. They can outwit you easily after they wear down your mental facilities with the repetition of cheesy Disney dialogue and the tantrums," she said. "It's just, I just got Jake to sleep again, and I have to go over my notes from today and get ready for the last morning round of interviews. Then I get to come home," she sighed happily.

"You're having a good time?" he asked knowingly.

"I missed it," she admitted. "But not as much as I miss you and Ella. It is nice, having Jacob here, like bringing some of home with me."

Tristan smiled. She amazed him with her effortless blending of her work and home lives, where as he felt like he was in over his head after just a few hours of trying to do it all by himself. He moved about downstairs, cleaning up after the events of the evening wearily, anxious to just slide under the covers of their bed, even if to just lie there awake and wish she were next to him.

"Well, if you need someone to talk to, I know Jess is up with Ambrose," he laughed, and began to impart her with the tales of how his day had really gone.