Sleepy-eyed and stifling a yawn, Hunter fumbled around the corner and banged inconsiderately on the door diagonally across from his own. "Morning," he announced, trying to shake off the drowsy stupor that seemed intent on haunting him today. "Time to get up!"
There was an inarticulate groan from the other side of the door... which was actually pretty good, considering the number of times he'd gotten no response at all. He glanced over at the door that stood open, revealing an empty room. She was the early riser in the family--an early bird anomaly among a nest of night owls.
"Come on, buddy," he called, banging on the door in front of him again. "Up and at 'em."
With that, he left the room and the occupant it sheltered to their own devices. He wasn't entirely sure that the day's festivities would win out over the comfortable draw of a slept-in bed, but he was convinced that he himself needed coffee either way. His bed, unfortunately, had lost the battle with the day's agenda, and caffeine was the only thing that was going to stave off a rematch.
The kitchen was less welcoming in the morning light than it had been the night before, but he worked around the mess. He heard a door open as he got the coffee started, and the bathroom door slammed a moment later. So drastic measures wouldn't be called for after all. Too bad. Might have woken him up, too.
Hunter had plunked two bowls down on the table by the time twelve years worth of lanky stubbornness stumbled into the kitchen. He grabbed a box from the cupboard and filled them both to overflowing, dumping spoons on the table in between and yanking the refrigerator open. His breakfast companion had plunked himself down in a chair and stared while Hunter poured milk into the spaces between cereal.
They ate in silence, as was their habit. If it was an effort just to get out of bed, small talk was out of the question. They had to be up this early if they were going to make their scheduled itinerary, and they had to be up exactly this early. No earlier. Certain other members of the family felt it was important to leave "buffer" time, time for foolishness or unexpected emergencies that could throw the schedule off.
The two of them knew better. They got up only as soon as they had to in order to dress, eat, and climb into the car. All other activities were non-essential and therefore not something that necessitated an earlier start.
Breakfast was cleared by the simple expedient of dropping the bowls and silverware in the sink, and they were ready to hit the road. Hunter took his wallet and his cell phone. His traveling companion outfitted himself with headphones, personal music selection, sunglasses, and a backpack. Hunter rolled his eyes, watching the kid climb into the passenger seat with all the detachment of a teenager.
Great, he thought, torn between amusement and dismay. Those are the years we need to drag out. Can't he just stay twelve until he's twenty?
He had thought the same thing about pretty much every other year of Hanoi's life, so maybe he was worrying for nothing. But after seeing the teen years from an adult's perspective the first time through, he wasn't eager to repeat the experience. He was convinced, especially after looking back on his own high school years, that it would only be worse with a boy than it had been with a girl.
He turned the radio on as soon as he started the truck, which elicited a storm of protest from his passenger. Hunter pointed out that he had headphones. Hanoi countered that it wasn't his own musical influences that he was worried about, but what Hunter's said about him. It was the principle of the thing, he argued, and Hunter rolled his eyes. Why did that sound familiar?
"Let's talk about industry standards," Hunter said, turning out onto the main road. "If we're gonna talk about principles, let's talk about this so-called music you're so into. Does it have anything other than a beat?"
"Does it need anything else? Come on, if you're listening to old school Toby Keith for the message, then I really am worried about your principles."
This was where Hunter was at a disadvantage. They might start from the same level first thing in the morning, but the kid woke up way faster than he did. How come young brains seemed to engage so quickly when criticizing and so slowly when studying?
It was an argument Hunter was doomed to lose, and finally he resorted to the "I'm driving so I get to decide" line of reasoning. It would only be a few more years before that came back to haunt him, and he was determined to make the most of them. They fell to bickering several times along the familiar route. Each time, Hunter only became more aware that this kid was going to debate him into a corner one day. Just like his dad.
"Headphones off," he ordered when they arrived at their destination. "You know the rules, buddy. Leave 'em in the car."
Hanoi went from confrontational pre-teen to pathetic child in the time it took to blink. "But it'll be forever until we leave, and there's nothing to do..."
"There's plenty to do," Hunter said firmly. "You can bring them in the car on the way to Grandma's, but you're not wearing them in the house."
Or not so firmly. He could tell by the immediate lightening of that deliberately sorrowful expression that he had just been "negotiated." Bringing the headphones in the car on the next leg of the trip had been a victory in itself.
His brother's house at the edge of town had been the subject of much teasing when first purchased, having as it did a very cutesy picket fence and blue vinyl siding. When Hunter's husband had started talking about the possibility of a house soon after, however, every word had come back to haunt him. He had since learned when to keep his mouth shut.
He had learned, Hunter amended ruefully, but he had never gotten any better at it. So when Tori appeared in the open doorway with a fistful of apron and her husband at her shoulder, Hunter had to smirk. They were hopeless. When their dog collided with Tori's legs and tumbled through the door, ungainly legs going in every direction, he laughed aloud. Geez, they could make postcards out of anything they did.
Hanoi was frowning down at the dog by now, steadfastly refusing to humor him with a pat. "Work equals force times distance," he informed the eager dog. "You're doing way too much work. You should either slow down or move around less."
"Happy Thanksgiving, guys," Tori called, waving at them from the porch. "Come on in!"
"Good to see you, bro," Blake added as they came up the steps. "Hey kid," he greeted Hanoi. "Kevin's out back with the basketball hoop."
The boy looked up at Hunter beseechingly, and he just shook his head in fond amusement. Hanging out with the adults while they socialized in typically boring grown up ways was no picnic for any kid, and Hunter knew it as well as he did. "Just remember to come in before we leave."
Hanoi rolled his eyes, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Which it probably was, but the exasperation reminded his father of someone else. "Sure thing," he said, taking off around the house without a second glance.
"How are you guys doing?" Tori asked gently, as the three of them made their way inside. "Have you heard anything from Cam?"
"Yeah," Hunter muttered. "He called last night."
He could remember a time when he had scoffed at the idea of long-distance relationships. He had sworn he would never be involved in one--too much trouble, the stress of never knowing exactly how your partner was or what he was doing... it wasn't just a matter of control, either. It was a question of physical separation from someone you supposedly depended on.
Hunter hated being lonely.
Unfortunately, Hanoi was a lot like him in that respect. Cam was independent, self-sufficient to a fault, and in the face of loneliness he could bury himself in work. The family members he'd left behind had only each other.
"He call late?" Blake guessed, leaving the front door open behind them. They were alarmingly idyllic for a family that lived in a California suburb.
"Yeah, I woke Hanoi up." Hunter clapped Blake on the shoulder as they followed Tori into the kitchen, more for the warmth of human contact than anything else. God, this fall had sucked. "We all had a nice little family chat. Us in our PJs at two in the morning, and them in the middle of some alien spaceport somewhere."
Tori just gave him a sympathetic smile for his bitter tone, but Blake studied him carefully. "You still okay with all of this, bro?"
Hunter glanced out the window at the backyard. "It's not me I'm worried about."
"How's he doing?" Tori asked, opening the oven to slide a casserole in. "Blake, the vegetables."
"Yeah, right." Blake sprang into action. With his head in the refrigerator he added over his shoulder, "Hanoi seems fine. He has a blast when he's over here, and you said his grades are as good as they've ever been."
"Yeah, well." Hunter watched the kids challenge each other with ridiculous basketball tricks, thinking of Cam's pretended disdain whenever practice became an issue at their house. "Grades aren't everything."
"Bro." Blake dumped several bundles of vegetables onto the counter at once, reaching for a cutting board. Or a knife. Probably both. "You have two kids, y'know."
Hunter just set his jaw, still staring out the window.
Tori put a hand on her hip and hitched the other one up on the counter. She and her niece had always been close, maybe more so because Tori didn't have a girl of her own. "How's Michiko doing?"
"Having the time of her life," Hunter admitted grudgingly. "Hanoi is convinced she must be an alien herself, she loves it so much." His birthday present to his sister had been a fake genealogy detailing "the true history" of her adoption. Michiko hadn't been amused, and Hunter had had to swear up and down to Cam that he hadn't known about it beforehand.
"And Cam?" Tori insisted, quietly but inexorably.
Hunter shifted. "He likes it too," he grumbled. He didn't see what was so great about hanging out with aliens, himself. Weren't people on Earth weird enough? What were they looking for out there, anyway?
He was grateful that he had at least one child who showed zero interest in space travel. Michiko's normally withdrawn air evaporated when confronted with anything relating to other planets, and her delight was just enough to make him forgive Leanne for introducing her to the academies' space program in the first place. Just.
If Hanoi had gone for it too, though...
"Then I guess you're lucky," Blake told the vegetables he was efficiently chopping. "She's not old enough to be out there on her own, and you wouldn't want her to be anyway. You're lucky Cam doesn't mind taking her on these crazy 'sabbaticals'."
"What's wrong with Earth?" Hunter wanted to know. "What's wrong with California? I don't get it, bro. Why'd they want to go off on some messed up adventure instead of being with us?"
"Maybe they're wondering the same thing," Tori said carefully. "Why would you want to stay behind instead of being with them?"
Because California was home. It was where they'd met, been married, watched their kids grow up. Hunter stared out the window, wondering if it could be any less home to Cam and Michiko. And if not, what made them want to leave?
Blake and Tori let him brood for longer than they probably should have, but eventually he got his act together and managed some small contribution to the dinner preparations. He arranged some of the vegetables Blake had chopped on a plate while his brother steamed or mashed the rest of them. Tori produced a bowl of homemade cookies from the night before, limiting each of them to one before she covered the bowl and added it to the growing pile on the counter.
For years they had gone to Tori's parents' house for Thanksgiving. Cam's family didn't make much of a fuss over the holiday, so they took the kids to Grandma's... or as close to it as they could manage. Tori's mom had quickly gotten smart about the influx of growing children and had recently delegated the cooking of turkeys to two separate relatives. She was still in charge of the location and organization, and with less cooking she found more time to encourage a festive atmosphere.
An atmosphere they wouldn't all get to enjoy, this year. He wasn't brooding, he told himself. He was just wondering if Cam and Michiko would bother to celebrate at all.
"What about Christmas?" Tori asked casually, while they were cleaning up. The casserole was ready, the extra appetizers and desserts had been arranged, and they were almost ready to call the kids. "Will we see all of you for Christmas?"
"Yeah," Hunter assured her. He said it not because he knew for sure, but because the last time he had asked Cam had said "yes" and he hadn't dared to ask again. "They'll be back by then."
"Time to go," Blake called out the back door. "Beat feet to the front of the house, Kev, Hanoi."
Hunter watched them go with a smile before being distracted by Tori's instructions for food-to-car transport. He and Blake found themselves as loaded down as she was, and they still had to make a second trip. It was almost noon before they were actually on the road to Grandma's house. Thanksgiving was a day-long event... but it was always worth it.
At least, it was worth it to him.