"Baby, what's the matter? Why are we so upset?"
Her 18-month-old had started blubbering the second she'd placed him in his crib for the night, and it was making Michelle more than a little uneasy. Her littlest boy hadn't been himself all day. His usual big appetite had diminished significantly, and he lacked the energy that would normally tend to drive her crazy. The only thing he'd wanted to do was stay on her hip all day, and Tony hadn't been able to make him giggle even once, despite his tireless efforts. There had been tears the one time she was able to get him down for a nap, but now he was absolutely miserable.
She reached in and pulled him back out of the crib, rubbing his back soothingly as he sobbed into her shoulder. "Shh, it's okay, honey. Mommy's still here. Shhhh." Once he calmed down, she gently brushed the tears from his face. "You're not feeling very good, are you, buddy?" He reached his little arms out and encircled her neck, pressing his cheek against her chest and making it clear that he did not plan on releasing her any time soon. "Aww, baby." She smoothed her hand over his soft, brown hair. It was when he did things like this that he had her completely at his disposal. "All right, you can stay up and help me put your sister to bed, how's that? But then Mommy and Mason both need to sleep."
He seemed to relax a little as she carried him across the hall to Madelyn's room where her daughter was already in her pajamas and ready for bed. "Hey, sweetheart, did you brush your teeth already?"
"Yep! See?" She flashed her pearly whites and scooted over to make room for her mother and brother on the bed.
"Wow, look how shiny." Michelle situated Mason so he was sitting on her lap, propped up against her.
"What's wrong with Mase? Why isn't he sleeping?"
"He's not feeling very well."
"Poor baby." She pressed a very audible kiss to her little brother's cheek. "The bedtime story will make him feel better."
"Hmm, I bet you're right. Which one do you want?"
"The one with the princess and the knight."
"The princess and the knight... Do I know that one?"
She shrugged. "Daddy does."
"Daddy told you that one? Do you remember how it goes?"
Maddie stroked her brother's bare foot as he watched her intently. "I think so."
"How about you tell the story then? Since I haven't heard it before."
"I don't think Mason's heard it either. Okay, I'll tell it. Once upon a time there was a princess and a knight. The princess helps the knight protect the kingdom 'cause that's just the kind of princess she is. Not the normal kind. Then the bad girl—no, the bad guys 'cause the bad girl isn't 'til later. The bad guys catch the princess and make the knight lie to the good guys to save her. Then they lock the knight up in the dungeon—that's not good 'cause the dungeon's for bad guys only." She paused, forehead scrunched in concentration. "Then the wizard let the knight out of the dungeon and the princess kissed him and said, 'my hero!' and then they almost lived happily ever after."
A knowing grin formed on Michelle's face. "They almost did?"
"Yeah, they didn't yet because the knight was sad 'cause he had to get a new job but he didn't want to and then the princess got sad 'cause he was sad so she went away! But then there were lots of bad guys in the kingdom and the other knights needed help so the hero-knight had to fight bad guys with the princess again until the bad girl tied him up. Never give swords to bad guys! Bad idea."
Michelle had to fight the urge to giggle. "I'll keep that in mind. Was the knight okay?"
"Yeah, the bad girl told the princess to lie but she said, 'No way, I don't listen to bad guys,' so the good guys helped her rescue the knight from the bad girl and he wasn't hurt very bad and then they lived happily ever after and got married and had a baby prince and a baby princess and that's the end of the story only not really 'cause Daddy doesn't know the rest of it." She took a deep breath exaggeratedly as if she'd been holding it the entire time.
Michelle chuckled at her exasperated little girl. "Wow, that was a lot to remember. I think that just might be the best story I've ever heard," she praised.
Maddie seemed pleased. "They're both heroes, right?"
"I... I don't know, sweetie, what do you think?"
"I think they are 'cause they saved each other."
"Mmm, I don't know about that princess, though," she reasoned, smirking. "She really didn't do much, did she?"
"Yeah she did. She helped the good guys get the knight back."
"Is that what Daddy told you?"
"Yep. And she didn't lie to the good guys even though the bad girl was gonna hurt the knight. That was brave."
"Was that brave or was it just the right thing to do?"
"Doing the right thing is brave. Right?"
She was wise beyond her years, that girl. Michelle opened her mouth to answer when her husband appeared in the doorway.
"Came to say goodnight to my favorite daughter."
Maddie giggled, rolling her eyes. "Daaaaddy, I'm your only daughter."
"What? Really?" He grinned and kissed her forehead. "You're the best daughter in the world, then."
Five minutes later Tony and Michelle were standing outside their middle child's bedroom door. She raised her eyebrows at her husband.
"The princess and the knight, huh?"
He mock gasped. "Don't tell me you've never heard that one."
"Mm, you know, it sounded a little familiar."
He pulled her in for a kiss and stroked Mason's chubby cheek. "It's a classic, Michelle."