It was almost dark by the time Zacky and Gena pulled up in front of Zacky's parents' house. They had left the house a little later than usual, choosing to arrive at six in place of five. Maria Baker was perhaps not going to like it, but Zacky had felt that spending some time alone with Gena was at the top of his priority list. It had been a long week, filled with practices and making plans to go into the studio, and she had been patient. The moment that Lysander had declined the invitation to join them for dinner, opting instead to go out with some of his friends, Gena had claimed Zacky for her own.
He didn't mind. He had missed her, too.
But he loved his family too and Gena knew that cancelling on his mother was simply not an option. They made their way into the house in silence, walking the familiar front hallway until they came to the living room. And that was where Zacky was greeted by the sight of his family - his father, sitting in his usual chair by the window; his sister and his brother-in-law, curled up on the couch at the far end of the room; and his niece and nephew, the former of whom was reading while the latter sat texting on his cell phone.
Despite having had her nose buried in a book, Gianna was the first to look up and acknowledge the arrival of Zacky and his wife with a wide smile.
"Auntie Gena!" she cried. "Uncle Zacky!"
That drew the attention of the rest of the room, as well as Zacky's mother from the kitchen, and the greetings began. He hugged Gianna, bumped fists with Gavin, shook hands with Nicholas, kissed both Zina and his mother on the cheek, and gave his father their usual one-armed hug with a pat on the back. This was how it always went, almost like tradition. The only thing missing was his younger brother, Matt. Maria, of course, noticed somebody else who was missing.
"Where's Lysander?" she asked briskly, her eyes darting towards the hallway as if she could have missed him. "You didn't bring him?"
"He had plans, Mom."
He pushed a finality into his tone that managed to stop her from asking anything more about her newest grandson, and he breathed a sigh of relief for it. Although he knew it probably wouldn't last, he would take the peace for as long as he could get it.
"Where's Matt?" he asked instead. "It's not usual for him to be late to these things."
"He's not coming," his mother replied, her lips turning down at the sides. She didn't like any of her children missing these family gatherings. But her voice was a little more cheered when she added, "He has a date."
This was probably the only excuse that the woman would ever be happy to hear when it came to needing to miss one of her family dinners - especially when it came to Matt. She had been waiting for years to hear that her youngest son had found the woman of his dreams, that he would soon be married and starting a family of his own. For Matt's sake, Zacky hoped that whatever lucky girl he had taken out tonight turned out to be the one - both because he wanted to see his baby brother be happy, and because he dreaded the thought of what his mother would complain to him about if she wasn't.
He and Gena settled into the usual routine of catching up with everybody. Since Nicolas and Zina had moved out to Los Angeles with the kids, Zacky didn't get to see his sister nearly as often as he would have liked to. It didn't matter that there was less than an hour drive between them - one of them was always busy with something or other, whether it be work or simply life commitments, and sometimes it felt like they were falling apart slowly. But then these family gatherings would roll around and it would be like there had never been any amount of distance or time between them at all.
"Album going well?" she asked him. "Dad said you guys were gonna be done in record time."
"Looks like we will be," Zacky confirmed. "Two weeks tops and we'll be going back into the studio."
It was official now. Matt had booked them in earlier that week, which meant that the time was coming for them to really get down to business and get these songs finished. It had been a good working week - good enough that they had at least half of the album written already - and they had all agreed that the time was right to move on to the next step. Their record label, at the very least, had been glad to hear it.
"Looking at a Winter release, then?"
"Probably," Zacky confirmed. "About time we do one of those, right? I don't think we've had a Winter release before."
Fictional Reality and Nightmare had both been Summer releases, he lamented. Their self-titled had come out in the Spring. Yes, he thought to himself. It was about time they did a Winter release. Just in time for Christmas so they could take a well-earned break before they really had to hit the road and do the album's tour. More importantly, that would give Lysander time to really settle in and get comfortable. And no doubt things with Dakota would be settled by then, too. Both were reassuring thoughts.
"Can we go on tour with you this time?" Gavin asked, wearing the usual grin that he donned whenever he asked this very question.
"Yeah, can we?" Gianna pipped up. Zacky had to hide a grin of his own as Zina rolled her eyes. "We promise not to get in the way!"
"You already know the answer, guys," he told them, nodding pointedly in their mother's direction. "Not until after you've finished high school."
"But you never finished," Gianna sulked at the same time that Gavin asked, "Will your son be going with you?"
"Nope," Zacky replied without missing a beat. "He'll be staying here so he can keep going to school, too."
It wasn't something that they had spoken about, but Zacky knew that it was something he would definitely put his foot down over. Lysander was a smart kid. Smart enough that there was no reason he shouldn't be able to get through high school. He had even managed to keep on top of his studies throughout the death of his mother and moving half way across the country, as far as Zacky was aware. And that was definitely something.
Gianna and Gavin dropped the subject after that, though this may have been because Maria Baker chose that moment to call everybody for dinner. They gathered in the kitchen together, somehow simultaneously smaller and larger than Zacky remembered it. It had undergone a redecorating since he was a child, the tiled walls being stripped down and repainted in beige and the old, rusty appliances replaced by shiny new ones. But it still maintained that homely feel that he had always loved about it. And it was that which would always have him coming back.
He loved listening to the generally cheerful conversation that surrounded him during these get togethers. Gena and Zina would catch his mother up on everything that had been happening in their lives lately and his father would entertain Gianna and Gavin with stories of what Zacky and his siblings had been like when they were younger. Zacky himself would usually talk sports with Nicholas.
But tonight was different. While most of the usual conversation went on around the table, Zacky found himself both sitting and conversing with his sister. She had questions of her own for him, something that he had been dreading but now came to see as a good thing. She wasn't anywhere near as harsh as his mother and she didn't feel the need to be judgemental towards him.
"How are you finding it?" she'd asked him, quiet enough that their mother wouldn't decide to butt in. "Being a father, I mean."
"It's challenging at times," he admitted, "but I think it's going well. Nothing's gone wrong at least."
"Good," she said sincerely. "I'm glad to hear it."
"I'll have to bring Lysander around sometime," he went on. "I would have liked for you to meet him tonight, but he's not too fond of Mom. And I didn't particularly want to keep him from his friends."
She nodded her understanding. He was glad to have it, given that his mother had clearly not been pleased once she realised that her newest grandchild - in all ways but one - would not be attending this family gathering.
"Definitely," his sister agreed. She swallowed another mouthful of her dinner before adding, "And what's this I'm hearing about there being a sister?"
"Dakota," Zacky confirmed with a nod. "I've got people looking for her. If everything goes according to plan, she should be around any day now."
"We'll wait until she is, then," Zina said. "I'm sure your son would be more comfortable meeting the rest of the family if he had his sister with him."
Zacky hadn't considered this, but he knew that she was right. It made him wish that he had gone to her first when he had learned of his new role. But the time for that was in the past now. He had nothing left to do but look forward.
Dessert was a simple affair, even in his mother's house: ice cream and jelly for the kids, and red wine for the adults. It was the traditional way that they would finish off their evenings, with the addition of laughter and more cheery conversation. Zacky lived for moments like these. They were far too few when it came to his family. Thankfully, the same did not apply to his friends.
He found that his mother was much easier to get along with when she had a little alcohol in her system. She was quicker to laugh and less likely to chastise him. He couldn't deny that it made her look healthier too when it made her cheeks grow rosy and red.
As was also customary at this time of the night, Zacky slipped out onto the back patio and lit up a cigarette. It seemed he was doing it less and less these days, but the night would not have felt complete without his stepping away for the moment. He took the time to reflect on the evening and to look up at the stars, just as he had done from this very position as a child. They weren't as bright here as they were in some of the places that he had been, but they were just as familiar. Just as inviting.
He checked his phone briefly - the new habit that he had picked up in recent times - only to return it to his pocket when he saw that he had no missed calls or messages. It put his mind at ease to know this.
He was almost done with his cigarette when Gianna stepped outside. She didn't notice him at first, too engrossed in a heated debate that she appeared to be having on her cell phone. Zacky couldn't help listening in as he flicked the last of the ash away and stomped the butt out.
"For the last time," she was growling, "we are through, Derek. Understand?"
He stepped forward, into the light that crept out from inside, and came to stand beside her. She shot him a startled look but visibly relaxed when she realised it was just her uncle. He raised an eyebrow in question; she shook her head in response. Everything's fine, it said to him. He could see the lie from a mile away.
"No," she said forcefully, her nose flaring and her eyes flashing as Derek said something she didn't like. "That means you stop calling me, you stop showing up at my house, and you get on with your damn life!"
Zacky had heard quite enough by that point. He snatched the phone right out of her unsuspecting hand and brought it up to his own ear, catching the end of a "But I still want you!" in the process. Gianna looked horrified as he cleared his throat.
There was silence on the other end of the line, but that was enough to tell Zacky that he had the boy's attention.
"Listen to me carefully now," he went on, lowering his tone and making it as threatening as possible. "You are not to call Gianna again. You are not to show up at her house uninvited. You are not allowed to even look at her unless she gives you permission first, all right?"
"Who is this?" Derek demanded in a growl.
"Somebody with connections," Zacky replied evasively. "Connections that I won't hesitate to use if I hear that you've been bothering this girl again. Do I make myself clear? If you want to keep your junk, you'll leave her alone."
There was another moment of silence, and then the line went dead.
Zacky hit the end call button before handing the phone back to his niece. She took it without a word and slid it back into the pocket of her jeans, eyebrow raised and a look on her face that Zacky knew all too well.
"What was that?"
"He was bothering you," Zacky said. "You expect me to just stand aside and let that happen? Anna, I've told you before - if you have a problem with somebody, all you need to do is say something."
"I was handling it," she replied with a small shrug. "But thanks, anyway. Now there'll probably be rumours floating around the school saying I've got connections to the mafia. You know that's what you sounded like, right?"
Good, Zacky thought to himself. That would mean the boy would leave his niece alone.
"Ex-boyfriend?" he asked instead.
"Yeah," she admitted, sinking into one of the lawn chairs that adorned the patio. Zacky dropped onto the one beside her. "We went out for a few months. We broke up over the Winter break after I caught him cheating. With a guy, for the record."
"Yeah, no kidding."
Zacky didn't quite know what to say to that. It made him wish that he'd threatened the kid a little more, but it was too late for that now. Gianna seemed quite unfazed. Clearly she'd had the time to get over it.
"Uncle Zee, what's it like to be in love?"
Zacky's eyebrows shot up into his hairline. Of all the questions that she could have asked him, here was one that he had most definitely not expected. It seemed like a question better suited to her mother and yet there she was, waiting patiently for him to respond. And he found that he didn't know how.
He glanced over his shoulder, through the open back door. Although he couldn't see her, he could hear Gena's musical laugh as it drifted through the house to reach him. What was it like to be in love?
"It's awesome," was the first thing that he said, though he knew that this response was hardly satisfactory. He tried to better word it. "It's like..." He thought about it harder, but he found he just couldn't do it justice. "I can't explain it, Anna. But it's the most wonderful feeling in the world."
It was like being up on stage, he decided. He got the same rush. The same thrill. The pitter-patter of butterflies in his stomach. Gena was able to bring out all of this in him, just as going out in front of a crowd could. Only she brought it out better.
"What if I never fall in love?" Gianna asked, her eyes open and honest as she turned to him. "What if nobody ever falls in love with me? I don't want to be alone for the rest of my life."
"You won't be," he assured her. "You're young. You'll meet the right guy eventually. Just...focus on getting through high school first. If none of the boys there catch your attention, there's always college. And after that there's a whole wide world for you to explore and meet people in." He shook his head. "Why are you worrying about love now?"
She shrugged, unwilling to answer, and he pulled her into a one-armed hug. He didn't like seeing her so insecure, so unsure of herself, but that was just the way she was. She always had been.
"It will happen," he said confidently. "When you least expect it. And if it doesn't," he added in a joking tone, "I'll pay off some male model and get him to marry you."
But she was smiling now and that was all he wanted. He gave her shoulders a squeeze before climbing back to his feet and offering a hand to her. She took it without delay and he pulled her to her feet.
He went back inside feeling like he had accomplished something, even if it hadn't been to answer the question that she had asked him. She was still smiling when she went back to her book in the living room and he couldn't help feeling proud as he returned to Gena's side. His arm went around her waist easily, as if he had never left in the first place. She shot him a smile, clearly glad to have him back there.
"I think it's time for us to head off," Zina said, glancing at her watch. "Gotta get these kids into bed at a decent hour."
Gavin heard her and visibly rolled his eyes. He was still texting on his phone and Zacky had to wonder at whether the boy had a girlfriend. It seemed like an age since he and Gavin had spoken. The older he got, the less frequent their hangouts became. They weren't as close as they once had been. It was something he intended to fix.
"We should probably get going, too," Gena added, nudging Zacky in the side. "Make sure Lysander comes home at a reasonable hour."
Personally, Zacky hadn't been too concerned with what time Lysander made it home so long as he did. But he probably should have, given that it was a school night.
"You're right," he agreed. "All right. Let's get going."
They bid farewell to the rest of his family, promising Zina and Nicholas that they would all get together again soon, and headed out into the warm evening.
Like everything in Huntington Beach, it was only a short drive home from his parents' place and it was a journey they made in comfortable silence. Gena was content to watch the scenery fly by while Zacky expertly navigated the backstreets that he had grown up in, easily picking out the quickest route home. There was the house where Johnny had grown up. There was Matt's parents' place.
And then they were home, slipping inside and heading up the stairs without the need to turn on any of the lights. A quick glance into Lysander's room told Zacky that his son was already home and sleeping soundly, a fact that had Zacky releasing a breath he hadn't known he was holding.
"I'd say you're getting used to this," Gena said, having noticed the tiny action.
"Yeah," Zacky agreed, pulling the door shut before following her to bed. "I'd say I am."