This is ridiculous, he thinks. Man up! Get a grip! You're the Last Centurion! You're not afraid of anything!
He takes a deep breath and puts on his sternest voice: the one he used to warn invading armies away from the intriguing box with the mysterious symbols; the one that said he meant business and he knew what he was about. Hands on his hips, he faces his adversary with a calm and steady stare. "All right, young lady: now you clean your teeth, put on your pyjamas, and go to bed!"
The cherub face behind the curtain of ginger hair doesn't flinch. "No! It's still my birthday, and that means I don't have to!"
Still using The Voice, he prepares to rally his position: if he loses this ground, he loses it all. "I don't think so, little miss! You have to do everything your mum and dad tell you to do, birthday or not! Now Melody, take off the crown and let me brush your hair! Now!"
He says that last bit just a little too loudly: she is only five, after all. She flinches just the tiniest bit and her wide green eyes mist over, and it's all he can do not to throw himself at her feet and beg for forgiveness. Instead he softens his voice and makes one last go of it. "Come on honey, please: just do as Daddy says, and I'll read you a story. A long one! …maybe two!"
There's just the tiniest bit of quiver in her lip now, but she squares her shoulders bravely and looks him straight in the eye. "But Daddy! I don't want my birthday to be over!"
And in an instant, he retreats. Maybe it was the tremble in her voice, or the smear of pink icing across her chin—it definitely had something to do with the single tear that threatened to spill from her lashes and crawl down her cheek—but suddenly he knows this is a battle he just doesn't have it in him to win.
He's rounding the staircase and barreling into the lounge when he realizes the error of his strategic retreat: losing one battle has plummeted him into the middle of an even greater fight, and one he's even less-equipped to win. If there's any force in the universe scarier than his teary-eyed little girl, it's her exhausted, angry mother.
He comes to a screeching halt even before she speaks.
"What are you doing down here?" she asks in a voice equally full of weariness and ire. "There is no way you got her into bed that quickly."
"Err…no," he admits cautiously. "Amy, I tried, but she just…"
"Just what? Rory, she's five, and you're her father! I don't care what her excuse is…"
"She doesn't want her birthday to end! She says she doesn't want to clean her teeth, because then her mouth will taste like toothpaste and not birthday cake. She thinks if she can stay up, she can hold onto her birthday a little longer…"
Amy is resolute. "Yes, you're right: her logic is irrefutable," she answers dryly. "And yet…"
"Put her to bed!"
"I…can't." He knows he should be more than a little ashamed to admit he can't handle a 40 lb. five year old on a birthday and sugar high, but this is an old and familiar argument for him—he's long ago given up the illusion of being boss in his own house. The way things were he was struggling to hold onto Second-in-Command.
If Amy is happy to be the superior officer of the household, it doesn't show. From her position on the sofa, she sighs. "And I suppose you want me to do it?" She brings both hands up to rest on her swollen belly just to underscore her point: she's got a pretty good excuse for wanting to stay put on the sofa.
"No," he admits. "No, I'll do it…I just…" He doesn't move from his spot in the doorway.
When she catches the mournful look he gives the stairs leading up to their daughter's room, Amy's face softens. "I know. Rory, I know! You're a big softie. You're Daddy: provider of sweets and giver of piggyback rides. You just can't stand to have her cross with you. But Rory, when do I get to play the good guy? It only makes it harder for me to control her when you give her everything she wants." Amy drops her head against the back of the sofa and pouts—the very same pout that sent him running just minutes earlier. Then, with a groan: "I hate being 'Mean Mommy'! She called me that, you know!"
He tries to suppress a giggle as he pictures his tempestuous daughter saying it. "She did? When?"
"This morning! When I told her she could not have fish fingers for breakfast!"
He laughs softly and moves to sit down by his wife. "She's a stubborn one, our girl…"
"Well, we knew that would be the case! Just look at River…" She turns to him with a grin, but stops when she sees the expression on his face. "Oh, sorry love, I didn't think…"
"No, it's Ok…"
"I know you don't like me using that name…"
"No, it's not that! It's just…they're the same person you know. River, and our Melody: you have to stop talking like they're different people."
Amy nods thoughtfully. "Yeah, but: in a way they are different people! I mean: Melody isn't River yet. She still has to grow up. We still have to raise her!" She pokes him in the ribs with her elbow. "We still have to get her into bed, hint hint…"
"But that's just it! How do we raise her when we know exactly how she'll turn out?"
It's a thought that's been nagging at him more and more lately. When she was small it was easy to just think of her as Melody: his beautiful little girl he couldn't wait to watch grow up, surprises around every corner. Now, the older she got, the more she reminded him of River, and the more he wondered what role he and Amy really played in her life. How much of his daughter's future was set, and how much still lay in her parent's hands?
Amy shifted her weight toward the sofa so she could stroke along the side of his face. Instinctively, he reached a hand over to rest atop the taut drum of her belly. It had taken them years to decide to have this baby: years before they felt safe enough to even consider the idea of another child. The impending birth of this new child, whose life and future remained completely unknown, was giving Rory a lot to think about.
Amy broke into his thoughts with a gentle tug at his chin. She pulled his gaze to hers. "We may know who she turns out to be, but we don't know how she gets there! In the meantime we have to be her parents."
"I know, I know: but don't you wonder, Amy? If it really matters what we do?"
"If you're still trying to get out of putting her to bed…"
"I'm not! Well, Ok, I am, but: really, have you thought about it? About who our daughter's going to be? She's going to be River bloody Song! How are we going to do that? How are we going to get her there?"
Her face is blank, and for a moment he thinks he's genuinely scared her. She stops his apology with a gentle hand across his mouth. "Rory: I get it! You're scared! I'm scared, too. I'm terrified! Not just about Melody, but about the new baby, too: after all, we don't even know how this one turns out…"
Rory nods in agreement, eyes widening with new worry.
She presses on before he can get lost in thought again. "But I'm pretty sure that's what being a parent is about! You never know, and even when you think you do, you can be wrong."
"Somehow that's not very comforting…"
"Well, how's this for comfort: after you put our someday-to-be-brilliant, but-for-the-moment-she's-just-maddeningly-willful daughter to bed, I'll let you rub my feet a little and then we can fall asleep in front of a film: your choice!"
"Can we watch-"
"No Marx Brothers!"
"So when you say 'my choice'…?"
"You have your choice of anything but Marx Brothers. Or 'Carry On Camping'!" She gives him a cheeky grin he can't help but return.
"Such a generous woman I married," he says, planting a kiss on her nose.
"Yep, I have many amazing qualities. Now quit stalling! It's almost ten, and if she's not in bed soon, she'll be impossible to deal with tomorrow."
Melody's propped herself up with pillows against the headboard. Surrounding her is a phalanx of cuddly toys divided into ranks: teddy bears on the left flank, zoo animals on the right, and Telletubbies protecting the center. At the head of them all is a long, rabbit-y cat-like creature covered in purple-striped fur whose name cannot be pronounced by human vocal chords. On her lap is her favorite ABC book. ("'A' is for 'Atom Accelerator'! 'B' is for 'Banana Daiquiri'!") Despite her best efforts to stay up and extend her birthday indefinitely, her head keeps nodding, and she's read 'J' is for 'Judoon' three times now.
When her father steps into the room, her eyes snap open and she does her best to look alert and thoroughly Not Sleepy. "I'm not going to bed!" she insists, before he can say anything.
Her act is a good one, but this time Rory isn't fooled. He can hear the sleepiness in her voice, and see the droop of her eyelids. He crosses to the bed and sits down next to Mr. Fflu!Ghlgh. (How she's able to pronounce it, he will never understand…)
Gently, he takes the birthday crown from her head and begins to stroke her hair, minding the tangles. "Today was a fun day, wasn't it?"
She nods groggily. "Yes. I miss my party…"
Rory laughs softly, remembering the crowd of boisterous kindergarteners who'd taken over his back garden that afternoon. Tomorrow morning he'd have to hose birthday cake and orange squash off the side of the house. "Yes, all your friends came. It was a special day!"
Her eyes are barely open now, but still she's not giving up. "I want every day to be a special day!"
He plants a kiss on top of her head and reaches over to a tub of wet wipes on her nightstand. Gently, he begins to wash off the icing and the face paint. "I want that for you, too. And Melody, I promise: you will have many, many special days to come! Days more special than any little girl has ever had."
She grabs the hand that's washing her face and looks into his. "Is that true? Do you promise?"
He nods, just a little sadly. "Yes, I know it's true. And I do promise! In the meantime, every day I spend with you will be special." He brushes a stray tangle of hair away from her forehead. "I know that's true, as well…"
But his daughter isn't listening anymore: she's finally fallen asleep. He'll peel her out of her stained party dress and wrestle her into some pyjamas. One by one, he'll move aside her army of cuddly toys so they rest against the wall, because he knows how sad she gets when one of them falls off the bed and has to spend the night alone on the floor. He'll tuck her under the white eyelet blanket, and kiss each of her eyelids as he wishes her sweet dreams.
And perhaps he just won't tell Amy that they didn't get around to cleaning her teeth…