He wakes up and smells pancakes and remembers that means a day with Dad, so, “Excellent,” he says as he gets out of bed.
Dad is in the kitchen when he races in on his racing feet.
“Good morning, sweet boy,” says Dad and gives him the pancakes with the most chocolate chips.
“Tell me a story?” he asks, and Dad says, “Say it again without your mouth full,” and gives him juice.
He swallows and drinks his juice and asks again. “Tell me a story.”
“Okay,” Dad says, and he puts on his storytelling voice. “Once upon a time there was a man.”
“Was he an old man like you?”
Dad thinks. “He was younger than I am now, and older than you would want to be.” That gets a nod and Dad smiles and continues. “Being himself was lonely and sad, and he didn’t know how to change it. One day he woke up and found that his smile was lost. It had disappeared like it never existed, and it made him so upset that he didn’t even have the energy to look for it. He just went to sleep and woke up over and over again. But then one morning he woke up and saw a girl who made him wonder about his smile again. So he took all his energy and packed up all his hope and traveled to meet her. And almost right away, she handed him a smile and asked, ‘Is this yours? I found it all alone and thought someone might be looking for it.’
“‘Thank you,’ said the man, and took the smile from her hand and let it warm his face. And from then until today, he knew that he wanted to stay by the side of the woman who found smiles.”
The boy chews the last of his pancake, considering. “That was good. But maybe too sad for breakfast.”
“Maybe you’re right,” says Dad with a laugh. He scrunches up the boy’s hair, then swipes his thumb along one syrup-sticky cheek. “Let’s get you cleaned up. We have things to do today.” He holds out a hand.
A small, matching hand slides into it immediately, and the little boy hops down from his chair. “Do we have a list?”
“So let’s go!”
“Clothes first. And don’t think I’ve forgotten about the face-washing.”
Their first stop is the grocery store, little boy legs swinging from the child seat as they navigate the aisles. The cart fills with cereal, chicken, Mom’s favorite ice cream.
“Go fast,” the boy requests, and Dad glances around to make sure that no one is around before he picks up speed and jumps onto the cart’s edge to skid to the end. They’re both laughing as they reach it, then Dad places a finger to his lips and mocks seriousness as an old man frowns at them. They are perfect, silent mice as they move over to the produce section.
“Tell me a story?” the boy asks as Dad examines heads of broccoli. If it was a distraction, it doesn’t work; three are bagged and dropped into the cart before the wheels turn toward the apples.
But Dad keeps his promises. He leans close and begins.
“Once upon a time, there was a grocery store that kept its floors perfectly clean. Someone was always mopping and leaving a sign to let people know that things were wet. But one day, the new worker mopped up and forgot to put up a sign.
“And maybe it would have been okay if someone was checking to see if it was wet, but the next woman who came around the corner was tired and wanted to go home. She wasn’t looking. The floor was so slippery that she fell in a second and dropped all her food on the ground.
“A man came over to help. He saw that her milk was spilled and her eggs had smashed and her bread was all wet, and he thought that he would find her crying. Instead she just started cleaning up.
“‘Aren’t you sad?’ he asked her. ‘Your milk is spilled. Your eggs are smashed. Your bread is all wet.’
‘Of course I’m sad,’ she told him. ‘Look at my spilled milk. Look at my smashed eggs. Look at my wet bread. It was a big accident that I fell, and maybe I could have just walked away and left it. But then someone else would have to do all the work. Walking away or being sad won’t put my milk back in its bottle. It won’t give me back whole eggs. It won’t make my bread dry. So I need to clean it up. And once I do, I can get new food and go home.’ She smiled at him, then looked down at the mess still in front of them. ‘I think maybe I’ll make French toast once I get there.’
‘Can I make French toast with you?’ he asked, even though they were strangers, and he was surprised when she said yes.”
The little boy thinks about that story as a bag of Yellow Delicious tops off the cart. “That was pretty good,” he says as they wheel toward the checkout. “But maybe we should have had French toast instead of pancakes today.”
“I think I have something to fix that.”
Blueberry muffins might be the usual treat at their favorite coffee shop, but when Dad picks a French toast muffin, it earns him a smile.
They sit in the window seats so they can watch everyone walk down the streets, jackets draped over their arms from the sudden arrival of warm weather. The boy kicks his dangling legs and slurps some hot chocolate - his favorite drink no matter what time of year.
He waits until Dad’s swallowed his first sip of coffee, then: “Tell me a story?”
Dad chuckles, and drinks more coffee, looking around at the people talking and laughing around them.
“Once, in a coffee shop a lot like this one, there worked a man. He didn’t like his job very much: people were sometimes rude to him, and he didn’t make a lot of money, and he only got to try the most broken, crumbly cookies after everyone was gone. Every day seemed like it was the same.
“And then one morning, a woman stomped in and came angrily over to the counter. She was angry when she ordered her coffee, and she was angry when she asked if she could have a muffin too, and she was angry when she told him her name.
“‘Are you okay?’ he asked, just to be polite, and he was surprised when she told him all about the bad day that had made her so angry while he made her coffee.
“When she was finished, she seemed embarrassed. ‘I’m sorry for being angry. You’re a stranger and you’ve been very nice,’ she said.
“He put her cup of coffee in front of her. ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘Sometimes we have bad days. But your friends and your mom won’t be mad at you forever, and if you had a bad test, you can make sure to study hard for the next one.’
“‘Wow,’ she said. ‘You were really listening.’
“‘You were having a bad day. I think you needed a good listener,’ he said, and gave her an extra muffin.
“He thought he would never see her again after that, but the next day, she came back in and ordered her same coffee and two muffins, one for him and one for her, and told him about her good day. And now even though every day was the same, he was happy because it meant he got to see her every day.”
The little critic chews slowly on the remainder of his muffin, contemplating. “That one was okay,” he says finally. “Should we tell the coffee man about our good day?”
“Maybe we’ll do it another time,” Dad says with a laugh, standing with his empty coffee cup and extending a hand. “But we have more places to go first.”
They’re library regulars, in at least once a week, and they have a routine. First an hour of storytime, singing and swaying and dancing in a circle, kids tucked into parents’ laps to listen carefully to the presented book, playing on the floor as puppets and blocks and toy cars turn into elements of the world's greatest adventure stories. Then over to the kids section to carefully examine and select five new books (well, four new books and an old favorite) and on to the desk to trade last week’s book for this week’s.
“There you are!” says the librarian, and smiles as the two go to sit in one of the big chairs by the window.
They never read more than one book before they go home, but after it has been returned to the bag, the little boy asks in his polite, library voice, “Can you tell me a story, now?”
Dad holds him close as they snug together by the big, sunny window. “Once there was a woman who worked in a library. She had not always wanted to work there, but now that she did, she was good at her job.
“But people weren’t always nice to her. ‘A library?’ they would laugh. ‘What’s the point? Books can give you papercuts. Books can burn up in a fire. Books are boring! Don’t you know everyone is using computers now? Computers are pretty and safe. They have everything you will ever need. They are never boring.’
“‘I also like computers,’ the librarian told them politely. ‘I can even help you learn to use them better. And our library has many different amazing ways to learn and play. But books are very good too, and you would miss them if they were gone.’
“But they just laughed and left her there, upset.
“One day, the woman was alone in her library. It was snowing very hard and she did not think anyone would come, but the library was open, just in case. And then a man came in. He was covered in snow: snow on his hood and on his shoulders and on his boots. He dripped snow as he came to the desk.
“‘I’m looking for a very special book,’ said the man. ‘I have tried and tried to find it, and I don’t know what else to do. Can you help me?’
“And the librarian said, ‘Of course I can.’
“She found the book quickly (she was very good at her job), but it was snowing even harder now, and she invited the man to take off his coat and stay for a while. They put the books back on the shelves together.
“‘Do you like the library?’ he asked.
“‘Yes,’ she told him. ‘I love the library. But sometimes I worry that no one else does.’
“‘You are here,’ he told her, ‘with your beautiful books that you take very good care of. You are here to help, and one day they will need you, and you will be here.’
“‘Thank you,’ said the librarian. ‘It has been a long time since someone knew how important my library is. It has been a long time since someone thought I was important.’
“It had been snowing so hard that the lights suddenly went out. The man smiled and said, ‘I think now people will want to have a book. I think you will be very important to them.’ And he was right.”
In the early afternoon sun, it almost seems that the boy has fallen asleep, his head heavy on his father’s shoulder. He has only recently stopped taking regular afternoon naps. But a moment later he sits up brightly and says, “That was a very good one. But it was silly when the people didn’t like the books.”
“You’re right,” Dad says, spotting his intentions right away, “but sometimes people are silly. And I know you love your books, so let’s finish up our list first so we can get home and read some more.”
The little boy thinks. “Okay. What’s next?”
The line at the bank is not long, but it must seem to stretch forever when all you can see are the legs in front of you. When Dad feels a tug on his hand, he isn’t surprised. He bends to lift the little boy, and without being asked, he begins.
“‘Once there was a man and a woman who were both having a regular day. They woke up and got dressed and went to work and did their work and then they went to have lunch. On the way to lunch, they decided to stop at the bank.
“But as they stood in line, there was a robbery. The robbers had masks and guns, and they yelled for everyone to get on the ground.
“The man was worried. He looked around at all the people who were so scared. Some of them were crying. He wanted to help, but he didn’t know what to do.
“But while the robbers were getting their money, the police drove up outside. The robbers wouldn’t leave unless they could get away and the police didn’t come in so no one would be hurt.
“It was hot inside, and they were stuck for a long time. The man watched everyone getting more and more scared and more and more angry, even the robbers. Finally, the woman raised her hand and said, ‘It is hot. There are kids, and people who are old or sick. Everyone is thirsty. You need to get us some water.’
“The man worried about what the robbers would do. Would they yell at her, or hurt her? But they looked at her and she looked back at them until one of the robbers went to get water.
“‘That was brave,’ the man whispered to her as everyone drank their water.
“‘Well, I was really thirsty,’ she whispered back. ‘But now can you help me be really brave?’
“The man knew that her plan to trip the robbers and hold them down was dangerous, but he looked at her face and how she wanted to help even though it was scary and it made him brave too.
“They helped the police officers get the robbers, who told them thank you even though what they had done could have gotten people hurt. It was very late when everyone finally got to go home.
“‘Can I walk you to your house?’ the man asked.
“‘You don’t have to walk with me to keep me safe,” she said. ‘Remember that I’m a robber-fighter.’
“‘I remember,’ he said. ‘But maybe I just want to walk with you.’
“‘Okay,’ she said. She held out her hand for him to hold. ‘Maybe I just want to walk with you too. And I can help keep you safe.’ And they walked each other home.”
Luckily their story has stayed between the two of them in the bustle of the bank, and has passed the time well: they are almost near the front. In the short moment before it is their turn, the little boy offers, “That was a very good one. I liked that the bad guys got beated.”
Dad gives him a little squeeze. “I like it when the bad guys get beaten too.”
With their banking done, the little boy leads the way back outside, carefully looking both ways and nodding his positive evaluation at Dad before they can cross the street. Dad does his own looking then nods back. The boy already knows where they’re going; Dad’s handed him the dry cleaning ticket, and he holds it tight with responsibility.
They’ve made the walk before, but each time, the minutes seem to stretch just as long. “Tell me a story?” the little boy asks as they go.
Dad looks amused, thinks for a moment, then begins.
“Once there was a man and a woman who worked together in a dry cleaning shop. Every day they came and cleaned people’s clothes, took away stains and solved problems.
“The woman noticed that the man didn’t talk very much, but she liked to make him smile and laugh when she talked about her life.
“Her life was very busy. Her mom was sick and she had to take care of her sister. She wanted to spend time with her friends, and of course she had school, because school is important.
“One day, everything went wrong. She was so tired that she woke up late. She needed to help her mom. She needed to drive her sister to school and go help her friends and do her homework too. When she finally got to the dry cleaners, she was very late for work.
“She was very embarrassed when she went in, and she thought the man would be angry. But instead he just asked, ‘Is everything okay?’
“The woman thought about keeping it a secret. Maybe it was more embarrassing to tell him about her hard, busy day. But instead she told him the truth, and when she did, he just said, ‘Next time, you should call me. Maybe I can help.’
“It had been a long time since anyone had even asked to help the woman. She almost wondered if it was a mean trick. But then she looked at his face, and she knew that he just wanted to be nice. He had heard so many stories about all of her different responsibilities, and he actually just wanted to help her.
“The next time she had a very busy day, she called, just to tell him about it. And the time after that, she called him to help. And he did.”
Swinging their joined hands, the little boy says, “That was a good one.” He points to the Open sign on the dry cleaners they’ve now reached. “Do you think the man and the woman will be in there?”
“What do you think?”
“No,” the boy scoffs, already trying to sound adult with disdain and lack of imagination. But then a shy, dimpled smile offers itself and he asks quietly, “But what if maybe yes?”
Plastic-wrapped clothes over his arm, Dad shows off the list, completed now with neat crossed out lines through each errand. “That was a good job. I think it’s time to go home for lunch now.”
“We should do one more store,” the little boy says, and when Dad bends to his level, he whispers in his ear where they should go.
On the way home, the boy holds with such care the beautiful sunflower they selected from the florist. Dad smiles in the rearview mirror, watching him sit so still and tall in his booster seat.
“Tell me a story?” the boy asks, and there’s just enough time before they get home, so Dad starts.
“Once there was a woman who worked in a flower shop. She knew the names of all of the flowers and which ones smelled the best and what would be pretty with what else. She knew what flowers to have at a wedding and which ones to bring to someone in the hospital. She was very good at her job, but most people she met weren’t very nice about her work.
“‘A flower shop is so cute,’ they would say when they bought flowers from her, and look at her like she was a baby.
“‘Don’t you need a real job, a better job?’ said her mom. ‘You can’t just work with flowers forever.’
“‘Why don’t you just sell your store?’ said the owner of the big flower store down the street. ‘You will never sell enough flowers. You will never be as rich as we are.’
“The woman had worked hard to learn her job, and she knew that she was good at it. But one day a man came in and pointed to her store windows and asked, ‘Are you really the one who did those flowers?’ and she just got too mad.
“‘Yes, I did the flowers, and I worked hard on them and they are beautiful. They are beautiful even if someone thinks they are simple or boring or silly, and I am proud of them.’
“She stood there with her hands on her hips and glared at him with squinted up eyes. He looked at her nervously, but then he said in a calm voice, ‘You should be proud. I wanted to come in and ask because your flowers are beautiful. It must be very hard to be good at your job when people don’t think your job is important.’
“The woman loved her friends and she loved her family, but it was the first time in years and years that it seemed that someone understood her and her work. She was embarrassed. In a very quiet voice she said, ‘Thank you.’ Then, a little stronger, she said, ‘Let me help you. I think I can find the perfect flower for you right here in my store.’
“He smiled at her. ‘I know you can.’”
“Just like we found the perfect flower for Mom!” the boy says eagerly.
“Exactly,” and they turn into the driveway and they are home.
The rest of the afternoon slips by, lunch and a playdate filling the hours as the sun grows brighter and then slides slowly down.
“What time will Mom be home?” the boy asks as he maneuvers slippery spaghetti into his mouth as the dinner table.
“Late,” Dad remind him. “Around bedtime.”
Somehow, that doesn’t make a case for going easily and early to bed to bring her home faster. There’s playing to do first, and a long, splashy bath (Dad has to put on dry, comfy clothes after), then pajamas and a considered analysis of the arrangement of bedside stuffed animals.
Dad agrees to three books, and those have to be meticulously chosen as well. There are some voices that Dad just doesn’t do as well, but it would be rude to tell him that. The library books are kept downstairs to avoid further complicating things.
Halfway through the last book, they hear soft footsteps in the hallway. Dad raises himself up a little, then smiles and relaxes back as Mom comes into the doorway.
“Room for one more?” she asks, and when Dad says, “Always,” she snuggles herself tightly in with them too.
Dad finishes the book and closes the covers. He and Mom get up and lean over the edge of the bed. Kisses from Mom, extra kisses from Dad.
“You’ll be gone when I wake up?” the boy asks. Dad has a job in a museum for grownups, and sometimes other people want him to come help at their museums for a little while.
“My plane is very early, so yes.” Dad says, “But I’ll be back in two days.”
“Big fun for you and me while it’s just the two of us,” Mom says with a grin, and the boy grins back. Mom makes the best cereal, and she does good dancing at storytime. He settles back, cuddles under his covers, holds his stuffed tiger close. Then, predictably...
“Tell me a story,” their little boy begs. Dad smiles and takes a breath. His voice is a hush, and he’s barely spoken when the boy is breathing deeply asleep.
“Everything okay in Cleveland?” Angel asks once they’ve shut the door. He slides his arm around Buffy’s shoulders as they move down the hall toward the stairs.
“Should be,” she says. “I don’t think I helped that much except for reminding everyone about the see it, slay it rule. If you and Giles don’t know what a Flame On is, I don’t know how I’m supposed to.”
“The younger ones like having you come around even if you’ve never actually fought a Flah’mun before,” Angel reminds her. “I think you would have appreciated an older slayer when you were starting out.”
She wrinkles her nose at him. “We have very different memories of my early slaying days. At the very beginning I would have wanted her to just take over everything, then I would have gotten jealous that she was better than me, then I would have accused Giles of liking her more, then I would have been sure she was trying to steal you...big ol’ sister slayer mess in the making.”
“Some of those worries might not be gone,” he teases. “Allie had a great roundhouse last time I saw her, and Sana is always telling Giles how smart he is.”
She pokes his side. “What about you?”
“I think you’re stuck with me,” he tells her, kissing her head.
There’s a noise back at the end of the hall, and they both tense and freeze. They listen closely, half supernatural warriors alert to all the dangers of the world, half just parents dreading a second round of bedtime settling. But they quickly realize that it was only the inevitable kicking of a stuffed animal off the crowded bed and continue walking, successfully making it downstairs.
Angel starts washing the dishes while Buffy sits at the kitchen table and drags another chair over to prop her feet on. Seven years of humanity, five years of marriage, four years of parenthood - they have a routine now, and usually it involves a lot more time together than they've had over the past few days. On busy weeks like this, she'll take all the moments she can get with him, even when it's just watching him being busily, easily domestic. Maybe especially then.
“How was he today?” she asks.
“Good. He’s a big helper,” and Angel’s smile is so wide, so full of happiness and time and weight and loss and pride, that she stands again and presses herself into a hug against his back.
“How many stories did he get out of you?”
“I don’t know how you have the patience to keep coming up with them,” she says with muffled humor into his shirt.
He shakes water off his hands into the sink and turns, holding her close too. “I had some good inspiration,” he says.
He’s happy to keep coming up with stories. Their son hasn’t figured out yet that past the details, everything is always the same. It’s all just different times and different ways for the two of them to meet, different hims and different hers that all seem to end in the same place: right here in the happily ever after.