Title: . . . And Beyond
Warnings: This story takes place in the Rust universe. However, all of the relevent backstory is written in so that it should stand alone.
Word Count: 4,503
If it weren't for the pants, it might not have been so bad. First, they were white, and even he knew that wearing white after Labor Day is a no-no. Second, they were spandex. As far as Zac Hanson was concerned, no sane man should ever willingly wear spandex. Except maybe if he were a superhero like Superman or Spider-Man.
If it were for anyone else, Zac would have absolutely refused to wear it. Only for one person would he sacrifice his dignity and self-respect.
"Dad, you look so cool!" the person in question exclaimed as he hopped into the room.
Zac fought to keep the grimace from his face as he turned to face the five-year-old. The battle was easily won because as soon as his eyes landed on the little cowboy, a grin appeared. "Howdy, partner," Zac said in his best southern drawl.
"Dad, that's my line!" Kasen exclaimed.
"Oh, excuse me," Zac huffed as the left side of his jet back bumped into the dresser. He glanced over his shoulder at the offensive prop and then looked back to Kasen, who was looking at him expectantly. Zac didn't have to ask. He knew what the boy was waiting for. He sighed softly to himself and then puffed out his chest and in a deep voice boomed, "To infinity and beyond!"
Kasen grinned excitedly and hopped up and down in place. "This is so cool!"
Cool was not the word Zac would have used, but he had to admit that seeing Kasen's excitement over their costumes made it all worth it.
"I guess we should get ready to go," Zac commented. "Where's your aunt?"
"Bathroom," Kasen said, making a face. "She's putting on her face."
Zac raised an eyebrow. "Is that what she said?"
"No, she's putting on her make-up, but that's what grandma says when she's doing hers," Kasen shrugged.
Zac chuckled, "Well, let's go see if she has her face on, so we can get going."
Kasen's eyes lit up and he hurried ahead to collect his aunt Avery.
Zac moved at a more leisure pace. He wasn't particularly thrilled by the idea of leaving the house in this get up, and he wasn't all that interested in their destination either. If Avery hadn't got to Kasen first and told him all about the party her friend was having for adults and kids, Zac would have likely given her an excuse about already making plans. He suspected his middle sister knew this. She was sneaky that way.
When Zac reached the living room, Kasen and Avery were waiting for him. His sister took one look at his costume and began to giggle.
Zac gave her a stern warning look, but it didn't seem to faze her. Then he took in her attire and his eyes grew wide. "Where's the rest of your costume?" he demanded.
"Buzz off, I'm a pirate wench," Avery retorted.
"You're definitely a wench," he muttered. He eyed her uncomfortably. He didn't like how much skin was visible. He also didn't like the idea that on any other woman he might have liked it. "Do mom and dad know what you're wearing?"
"Zac, I'm not twelve anymore," Avery sighed. "I'm an adult, so even if mom and dad didn't like what I was wearing, there's not a whole lot they could do about it."
"I'll take that as a no," Zac said.
"Don't be a buzz kill." Avery rolled her eyes, grabbed Kasen's hand and sashayed her way over to the door.
"That's going to get old really fast, you know."
"Who did you say your friend was again?" Zac wondered as Avery pointed out their destination.
He'd been expecting a tiny house or an apartment somewhere, but instead, he found himself pulling into the driveway of a decently sized two-story house.
"Her name is Nora," Avery explained. "She actually taught one of my art classes last semester."
Zac's eyes widened at that. "She's your professor."
"No, she's my friend, Nora, who is also an artist that sometimes teaches," Avery retorted.
Zac frowned as he parked his car behind a sedan. Before he even had the car turned off, Avery was already climbing out. Zac sighed and unbuckled his seatbelt and got out himself. Kasen had already unbuckled his seatbelt and clambered out when Zac opened the door for him.
"Don't forget your hat, partner," Zac reminded.
Kasen's eyes widened as he patted his head, realizing his hat wasn't there. He scrambled back into the car to grab it. He sat it on his head and then took his dad's outstretched hand.
Zac smiled a little as he followed the wench up to the front door.
A few years ago a night out like this would have been next to impossible to enjoy. Zac likely would have spent most of the night worrying about where his now ex-wife, Laramie, was and if she would even acknowledge Kasen and whatever costume he wore.
Since their divorce over two years ago, life had changed drastically. Zac hadn't spoken to Lara but a handful of times. He knew she was well and had a job that kept a roof over her head. Their talks were always short. She hadn't seen Kasen in person since she moved out, but when she called she always asked after him.
It had been hard at first to speak to her, knowing she had no interest in being a part of Kasen's life. He was beautiful and bright; he was the sun in Zac's universe. Lara had a lot of things she had to work out with herself, though, and so Zac tried not to be angry with her. In time, he'd come to realize that her decision to walk away was possibly the best thing she could have done for all of them.
When Zac spoke to Lara last, she sounded happier than he ever remembered her. Also, her interest in Kasen seemed to have grown. She didn't want to intrude upon his life and be a mother to him, but she did care in her own way. For Zac, it was really just a relief.
Beyond the divorce, though, his life had changed in other ways.
After he and his brother's band, Hanson, was dropped from their record label, things had been strained between himself and his brothers. Their relationships were tenuous at best, but as he and Lara decided to divorce, his relationship with his brothers was rekindled. It hadn't been easy at first, but they were all struggling and somehow found strength from each other.
It wasn't long after they'd made amends that the subject of reuniting the band for another try was brought up. It had been worrisome in the beginning because they had all changed so much since they were last together as a band, and things had not ended well before. However, the changes had matured them in many ways, and somehow they had been able to come together and work cohesively, forming their own record label and making up their own rules as they went along.
Their first album had come out almost a year after reforming the band. Any worries they had over record sales were squashed in the first day. The album was an independent success.
They had gone on tour the previous summer to support the album. It had not always been easy with a small child to take care of, but Zac's mother and sisters had come along throughout the tour, trading off weeks to help with Kasen. He'd only spent a couple of weeks out of the summer away from his father, and Zac had missed him every minute of it.
Zac was surprised to find that as much as he'd enjoyed touring that he was just as happy when he was finally back home and able to enjoy a quiet life with his son. The band had been hard at work on their next album. It was a quick turn around for them, but Zac didn't think the fans would complain.
He was happy with the new direction of his life. The only problem was his family's constant fretting over how introverted he'd become in recent years.
He knew his family thought it had happened after Kasen was born. He was the primary caretaker, as Lara had only done the bare minimum to help with their son, but Zac thought it happened before he met Lara.
When the band had been dropped from the label, it had been a serious blow, but the consequent rift between his brothers was been the added kick in the ribs. He'd grown up much different from other people his age, and coming away from a career cut short before he'd even reached his twenties had left him uncertain and shaken.
He thought that was probably the reason why he'd been so reckless and slept with Lara on a whim. When he found out she was pregnant, a new course had been set for his life. He'd dove headlong into his role of father and husband. Things hadn't worked with Lara, but Kasen had become his life.
Nothing else, besides music, held interest for him the way Kasen did. After being burnt so harshly by his relationship with Lara, dating hadn't been at the top of his priorities, much to his mother's chagrin. He knew she was still hoping that he would find a nice girl to settle down with.
At least Isaac was sympathetic to his plight after going through a divorce of his own. While their mother fretted over himself and Isaac, Taylor had gotten off the hook, claiming that as a recovering addict that dating was not in his best interest for the moment.
Zac wondered if their mother had roped Avery into tonight's journey. His sisters were nearly as bad as their mother. Jessica was recently married and still in the honeymoon phase - a phase Zac never really had a chance to enjoy since his marriage to Lara had been forged more out of willingness to do that right thing than out of love. Jessica had been absorbed in her own life, giving Zac a break from the questions about dating, but Avery was keen on "helping him meet people." He mostly thought she just liked to make him feel uncomfortable as payback from their childhood.
When they reached the front door, Avery rang the bell. Zac was surprised that he couldn't hear music blaring from within, but then he remembered that Avery had insisted that this was a party for all ages and that there would be other kids for Kasen to play with. He wondered mildly if it would seem too creepy if he just hung out with the kids. Adults seemed to trip him up more often than not these days.
The door opened a moment later by a woman with dark auburn hair and vivid blue eyes. At first that was all that registered because her eyes were so shockingly bright. He knew people cooed over Taylor's eyes, but he had never been able to understand what all the fuss was about - probably because they were fawning over his brother and it just seemed weird, but looking at this woman's eyes, he was stunned and finally understood.
"Avery!" she exclaimed, joy evident in her alto voice, as she stretched out her arms to hug the wench.
Zac felt a tug at his hand and glanced down at Kasen. "We match!" he cried.
Zac was momentarily confused. Then he heard the alto laugh followed by the woman saying in a southern twang, "We sure do, Woody!"
It was then that Zac took in the woman's cowgirl costume - complete with a white long sleeved button up shirt with yellow at the chest and wrists and a small red ropelike embellishment and blue pants with a cow print chaps in the front.
She was Jessie, the yodeling cowgirl, all except for -
"Where's your hat?" Kasen wondered, completing Zac's thought.
The woman smiled down at Kasen. "I guess it got misplaced. You gonna help me find it?" she asked. Zac was amused that she was still speaking in a southern drawl. Where her initial greeting was slightly exaggerated, as she spoke now it sounded for more legit.
"Sure!" Kasen agreed readily.
"You better ask Buzz if that's alright," the cowgirl suggested.
Zac glanced at Avery to find her grinning broadly at the exchange. His sister seemed to know the woman, but Zac wasn't about to let his kid just run off before any introductions were made.
"Zac, this is Nora," Avery said, apparently understanding his questioning look. "Nora, this is my brother, Zac, and his son, Kasen."
Nora held out her hand, and Zac took it. Her grip was firm but still feminine as she said, "It's so nice to finally meet you, Zac. Avery's told me so much about you, Kasen and the rest of the family."
Zac wasn't exactly sure how to respond to that, and he was slightly distracted by the fact she continued to speak with a slight accent. Apparently, it was more a part of her than just her role of the cowgirl.
"It's very nice to meet you too," Zac replied somewhat awkwardly. "I hope you don't mind that Avery brought us along."
"Oh, no, of course not." She stepped back out of the doorway. "Please come inside."
Avery led the way into the house, and Zac and Kasen followed. Inside, Zac could hear the faint sound of music and voices carrying from other rooms of the house, but it was not at all overwhelming.
He glanced around, taking in the Halloween décor, and grinned. The lights were turned down, but it wasn't so dim that he couldn't see. Spiders and pumpkins and webs adorn the entryway in a tasteful manner, and it made Zac curious about the rest of the house.
"We've got snacks in the kitchen and games for the kids down in the basement," Nora commented. "Do you like games, Kasen?"
"Yes!" His enthusiasm was almost tangible.
"If it's alright with your dad, we can go check them out. And maybe find my hat while we're at it," Nora smiled.
"Can we dad?"
Refusing Kasen was next to impossible on a regular day, but seeing his excitement now, Zac had no choice but to readily agree. Besides, he wanted to check out the rest of the place.
"Sure, let's go."
Nora extended a hand, which Kasen readily took. Avery commented that she was going to grab a drink, and Zac followed his son and his apparent new best buddy down the hallway.
Halfway down, there was an open doorway with stairs leading down to the basement. While the hallway hadn't been overly decorated, the stairway was covered with small plastic Halloween décor such as spiders, rats, snakes and webs. Kasen squealed in delight at the sight of them, boy through and through.
At the bottom of the stairway, Zac found himself swept into a fun, yet slightly creepy scene. He worried a bit that the coffins and skeletons and dark atmosphere might keep Kasen up at night with bad dreams, but upon inspection, his son seemed absolutely thrilled by the scene.
Zac grinned, taking it all in. There were more people here than he'd seen upstairs. There were a handful of adults, but the majority of the crowd was comprised of children. There were games set up all throughout the room - beanbag toss, bobbing for apples, building a scarecrow.
All of the kids in the room seemed completely immersed in the games offered to them, and Zac was impressed. Zac hadn't been to many Halloween parties. At the time he hadn't thought much of it, but now he felt like he might have missed out, after all.
"Want do you want to try first?" Nora asked, eyeing first Kasen and then Zac. Zac felt he should have been embarrassed by the apparent awe upon his face, but he could only match his son's twin grin.
"I wanna make a scarecrow," Kasen decided, but he eyed the group of kids at the table warily. Zac never really considered Kasen to be shy because he was always so full of life, but most of the time he was only around Zac and the rest of the family.
It was when he was around other people that he seemed uncertain of himself. Zac tried to remedy this by taking Kasen to play at the park with other kids, but he didn't have a regular playgroup. Watching his son now, Zac was reminded once again that he didn't want his son to grow up in such a small circle of people that making friends outside of that group would be difficult. Since he'd started preschool, Zac thought things might be getting better, but, like any good parent, he worried.
"Well, then a scarecrow we will make," Nora readily agreed. She started toward the table in the corner, but paused when Zac didn't immediately follow. "You coming, Buzz?" she asked over her shoulder.
Zac shook himself out of his stupor and nodded and hurried after them. Nora made quick introductions to all of the other kids at the table, but lingered at the last child - a blonde girl donning a pink and blue dress with matching blue bloomers and a hat. Zac spotted the staff leaning against the table and knew she was meant to be Bo Peep.
Zac grinned a little as Nora said, "This lass is my sassy little Lily."
"Mama." Lily made a face, showing her embarrassment as her mother's lingering.
"Lily," Nora said sternly. "Say hello to Kasen and his dad, Zac."
Lily gave Zac a cursory look before waving at him. She then focused on Kasen and took in his costume.
Her eyes lit up with enthusiasm and without further prompting from Nora, she scampered over to Kasen. She leaned in to speak to him, so Zac couldn't hear what she had to say, but whatever the question, Kasen nodded and smiled back. Lily then extended a hand and led him back over to her previous place at the table.
Nora took a step back beside Zac and watched as Lily helped Kasen gather the materials he'd need to create his scarecrow. "She's a bit of a busybody, but I think the costume won her over," Nora commented.
"Looks that way," Zac agreed. "She's yours?"
"So the doctors claim. Although, I'm not completely convinced that there wasn't some kind of a mix up at the hospital," she sighed, glancing over at Zac.
Zac smiled a little. He wasn't completely sure what to think of Nora, but Kasen had certainly taken to her, and Nora's daughter had definitely taken to Kasen, so they couldn't be bad people. At least so long as Zac discounted Avery's acquaintance, but he couldn't blame them for knowing the heathen anymore than he could help that he was related to the girl.
"It looks like the kiddies are taken care of," Nora commented. "Would you like to grab a drink?"
"Oh, I'm not sure I should . . ." Zac began, about to decline, but Nora held up a hand to stop him.
"We have hot cocoa and apple cider for the responsible adults," she explained quickly.
"Okay then, apple cider sounds pretty good."
Nora turned to head back up the stairs, but Zac paused to watch Kasen for another moment. He didn't mean to be an overprotective parent, but in the five years since becoming a father, he hadn't spent more than a handful of weeks away from his son.
"He'll be fine," Nora spoke softly into his ear, making him jump. He hadn't heard her return to his side. "There are plenty of adults around, and now that Lily has her claws in, she won't let him out of her sight."
Zac eyed his son who was happily stuffing straw into some kind of material. His smile was a mile wide, and his lips were moving rapidly as he spoke to Lily. Clearly, Nora was right. He glanced around the room at the adults manning each game station. Wherever the kids went, they would be safe.
Taking a deep breath, Zac turned and gestured for Nora to lead the way. Within minutes, he had a cup of apple cider in hand and before he knew it, he was being led to the family room where an Ouija had been set up.
Shoulder to shoulder with Nora, they tried to conjure a spirit. Nora was intent, but Zac could only see her and feel the warmth that seemed to radiate from all around her. Cheating abound by non-believers, the game was deemed a lost cause, and like a blind man, Zac followed Nora. Introductions were made with many guests, but still he could only see the beautiful redheaded woman.
He was not the type to be easily smitten, so his quick turn around in interesting in Nora was startling, but there was something about this woman that drew him in. Perhaps it was how easy she and Kasen had taken to each other. His son was not starved for love, but deep down Zac worried that his son vied for motherly affection. Kasen always came first, but for the first time in a long time Zac wondered if he too was longing after a kind of intimacy he had not experienced in years.
He wasn't stupid enough to fall into bed with another woman on a whim. He'd been reckless with Lara, and even if it brought him Kasen, he was not prepared - physically or mentally - to endure another relationship that was doomed from the start.
"So you teach art?" Zac asked when he found himself alone in a corner with Nora.
"Yes," she smiled. "And you're in a successful independent band?"
"I see my sister has really been dishing," Zac smiled.
"Just a little," Nora shrugged. "She's proud of you."
"She'd be prouder if she could get me married off again."
"Marriage is sometimes overrated."
"You don't believe in the institution?" For some reason this idea made Zac's chest ache.
"No, I do," she said. "I just don't believe that you have to be married to be happy. Lily and I are much happier without her father in the picture."
"So are Kasen and I. Without his mother, I mean." He was surprised to find himself admitting this to someone he barely knew, but inexplicably, he felt incredibly comfortable with this woman.
"He seems like a very happy little boy."
"I hope so," Zac agreed. "Preschool has been a little tough for him. He's shier than I expected."
"He'll adjust, I'm sure. Just give it a little time. Believe it or not, Lily was a bit shy when she started school as well, but look at her now. Bossy was ever," Nora spoke fondly. "But they seem taken with each other. It would be great if we could get them together for play dates every once in a while."
"That would be nice," Zac agreed. Should he feel guilty that he was happy to agree in hopes of getting to know this woman better? It wasn't as if he didn't want Kasen to have someone to play with outside of school. He just hoped that he would benefit from these play dates as well.
He wondered if he should voice this desire, but before he could form the words in such a way that wouldn't make him sound like a fixated lovesick teenager, someone shouted Nora's name. "I think we've got our first drunken casualty of the night!" the person exclaimed.
Nora looked dubious and apologetic as she excused herself, but as soon as she was gone, Zac felt cold and alone. She'd taken all of the warmth with her. He couldn't believe he'd developed a crush. Wasn't he too old for this kind of thing? Maybe this was his sign that it was time to get ready to go, but he'd have to find the wench first.
Peeling himself away from the cozy sofa in the corner, Zac moved to collect his sure to be annoyed sister. He could already hear her calling him a party pooper or something much worse. However, he did not see her among the collection of adults that had gathered on the main level of the house. He couldn't imagine her venturing down to play with the kiddies, but he traveled down to the basement anyway.
He found Kasen, still glued to Lily's side, waiting to bob for apples. He worried a bit about this game, but he could see the parent at the game station was keeping a close eye on each child as they took their turn.
Zac didn't want to tear Kasen away from the game before he had a chance to play, so he headed back upstairs, wondering where he might find Avery. He shuddered at the thought of her taking a man upstairs. He wasn't at all dressed in a way that could be construed as intimidating, so charging into a room to protect her honor - assuming she still had it - would likely only get him laughed out of the house. Lovely.
Instead of going to search upstairs without Nora's permission, Zac decided to seek her out and make sure she hadn't seen Avery. However, when he reached the doorway to the bathroom, where Nora was nursing the sickly guest, his search ended.
"Avery," he groaned, spotting his sister sprawled on the floor with her face in the toilet with Nora holding her hair back. "Are you drunk?"
"No, I was just buzzed," she spat, lifting her face from the toilet, "and if you don't want me to kick your ass from infinity to beyond, then you'll buzz off."
"That's still not funny," Zac muttered, stepping further into the room. "And I can take care of her, Nora. You have guests to attend to."
"That's okay. I don't mind," Nora shrugged and smiled at him. "It's not like this is my first time dealing with vomit. I'm a mom, remember?"
"And I'm a dad," Zac pointed out. "I've had my fair share of handling a pukey situation."
"Are you two seriously flirting while I'm over here hurling?" Avery whined. "This is going to be really embarrassing for everyone when I bring this up at your wedding reception."
Zac felt his face go red at his sister's words. It was on the tip of his tongue to refute her assumption that he was interested in Nora that way. He had no idea how she even knew to begin with, but when he worked up the courage to look at Nora to dispel Avery's accusation of a possible attraction, he saw that Nora was blushing as well. She looked so lovely that the words died on his lips, and he hoped that maybe his sister, even in her incapacitated state, wasn't so far off the mark.