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The Only Rock I Know That Stays Steady

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The only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that works, is the family.

– Lee Iacocca.

 

 

 

When her face first appeared on his phone, a sixth sense told him it was going to be bad news.

It didn’t have to be. But it probably was. That was just how his morning was going.

Sonny was already frowning when he answered his phone. “Gabi?”

“Sonny, I need you.”

Her strained voice instantly had him sitting up straighter. He paused with the spoon halfway to the baby’s mouth. “What’s wrong?”

It could be anything, really, but he was already bracing himself for the worst, had already started to brace himself before he even answered the phone, because since when did they call each other during the arguably busiest time of the morning? Also, he was maybe already on his second cup of coffee and it was barely 7 am.

Sonny had slept through his alarm and, consequently, so had the rest of the household. Paul typically slept like the dead without Sonny there to actually roll him out of bed. Today was no exception. And the kids weren’t exactly going to get themselves up.

Now, they were all scrambling to make up time. But everything that could have gone wrong that morning was seemingly going to go wrong. The baby had spit up on Paul's freshly pressed shirt (twice), forcing him to change (twice), and trying to get their four-year-old, Max, to do anything once he was off his routine was like herding cats. Even the dog hadn't wanted to wake up today.

And now this, whatever it was.

“Gabi?”

“I need you to take Ari for a few days.”

“Why?” he demanded, his mind whirring with worry. “What’s wrong?”

What happened?

“I… I think she needs some, well, Dad time.”

Sonny waited for more, and when it wasn't forthcoming, he asked, “But she's okay? Everyone's okay?”

“What?” Gabi must have realized how she was coming across, because she laughed awkwardly. “Oh. No. She's fine. Sorry. Everything's fine. I just… need her to have some Dad time.”

Well. Okay. Sonny slumped in his seat, the tension draining out of him. Gabi’s defeated tone told him pretty much everything he needed to know.

He tried not to be irritated. It wasn't Gabi's fault that he had slept through his alarm after about two hours of sleep or that he was waiting for another call with bad news. Still, his relief was pretty much just instantly replaced with that old, familiar ache in his temples.

He didn’t need to ask, but he did anyway. “Are you fighting again?”

“Is water wet?”

Oh-kay. Sonny rubbed tiredly at his eyes. The bright sunshine coming through the kitchen windows had seemed so pleasant a few minutes ago.

He turned from the window with a wince, suddenly feeling every minute of sleep he had missed last night. “Gabi…”

He had asked plenty of times not to be dragged into this. Then again, one would think he would be used to being ignored by now, considering all the headstrong women in his life that refused to listen to a word he said.

“This isn’t really—”

“A good time?”

The edge in Gabi’s voice made Sonny sigh. It was going to be one of those conversations.

He exchanged long-suffering looks with Kimi, who gurgled at him around her spit-slick fingers. She didn’t have the decency to look upset for him. Another future enemy.

Sonny gave her a spoonful of carrots anyway.

“Look, I —”

A sudden, loud, banging noise cut him off, and had both Sonny and Kimi glancing upward in alarm.

It was loud enough that even Gabi had heard it. “What was that?”

“Um.” After an ominous moment of silence, Sonny’s gaze followed the sound of Paul’s heavy footsteps emerging from Max’s bedroom, crossing the upstairs hallway, and pounding down the stairs. He appeared in the kitchen with their golden retriever trotting at his heels.

Paul smiled sheepishly at Sonny.

Sonny narrowed his eyes. “I don’t… Can I call you back?”

“What? No. Sonny—”

“Okay, okay.” Letting the obvious question go for the moment, Sonny signaled his husband over, and vacated his chair so Paul could take over for him. He handed off the spoonful of mashed carrots just as Kimi started to whine.

Paul obliged, taking his seat, though he raised a questioning eyebrow at him. Sonny could only shrug.

To Gabi, he said, “Look, it’s fine. We’ll take her. It’ll be an extended weekend.” Ari was supposed to spend Saturday and Sunday with them anyway, and he wasn’t going to protest about spending extra time with her.

Except… “Tomorrow,” he said. “There’s too much going on today.”

“That doesn’t…”

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, “but I have a meeting this morning. Kimi has a check-up appointment later. We also have a parent-teacher conference at Max’s school. Oh, and I promised to visit Uncle Vic at the—”

Gabi wasn't having it. Her voice carried a firm decisiveness that made Sonny’s mouth snap shut. “Sonny, she needs you. You know what next week is.”

He did. And there was just no arguing with that, as Gabi well knew.

Her voice gentled. “You know I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t necessary.”

He did know that. Sonny sighed.

Though, his capitulation was cut off when he abruptly noticed a son-shaped blur barreling towards him. Sonny dodged at the last second as Max darted passed, narrowly missing Sonny's legs— and was he wearing a Superman cape when he was supposed to be getting ready for school?

It was Sonny’s turn to send a questioning look towards Paul, who mouthed back something that looked like, “His choice.” Of course it was.

With a hearty bark, Fish dutifully followed after Max as he streaked back out of the kitchen with his arms held out like a superhero.

“Max, breakfast!” Sonny yelled after him before forcing himself to focus back on Gabi’s voice on the other end of the phone. “Is that what this is about? The anniversary?”

(It was. Of course it was.)

“It’s about a lot of things,” Gabi sighed. “Honestly, Sonny, I’m on my last nerve here, and I have about fifty deadlines racing at me right now.”

Sonny considered mentioning (or re-mentioning) his own deadlines, but the words never passed his lips, because…

“I need you. Please.”

It was the exhaustion he heard in her voice that ultimately won him over.

Sonny slumped back against the counter, sensing all of his plans and goals for the day being benched. As if there were ever any question of Gabi getting her way.

Defeated, he rubbed at his aching temple and said, “Okay.”

Her tone instantly lifted. “Okay?”

“Yes,” he said, already mentally rearranging his schedule. “I’ll pick her up from school, and then we’ll—”

“No. You need to come now.”

“Gabi, she has to go to school!” he snapped. His tone must have been too sharp, because both Paul and Kimi looked over at him.

Sonny threw them an apologetic glance over his shoulder as he poured (more) coffee for himself and Paul, cradling the phone between his cheek and shoulder. Regardless of where he was going today, he now knew he was going to be late.

“Sonny, I’m telling you that she’s refusing to go.”

Sonny winced at that, though he wasn’t particularly surprised. “You know that Parker broke up with her, right? She’s probably afraid to face her friends. And with the anniversary coming up…” He wasn’t trying to antagonize Gabi, he really wasn’t, but he still found himself adding, “We can be patient with her, can’t we?”

There was a pregnant pause. Then: “And by ‘we,’ you mean me.”

“Um. No?“

He thought he could actually hear Gabi's teeth grinding together. “Sonny, I am not just talking about today. She doesn’t listen to me. Ever. Since James moved in, she’s been a complete nightmare.”

Sonny handed the hot mug to Paul. He spoke without thinking as he began chopping banana slices into Max’s cheerios and, really, wasn’t that Gabi’s fault since she had called him when he was already running late? “Well, you’ve only known him a few months—”

And maybe Paul was just smarter than he was, because he immediately sent Sonny a warning look, but it was too late.

“Are you seriously judging me right now?”

“No!” he said quickly. “It’s none of my business. But Ari is fourteen. It’s not exactly surprising that she’d have a problem with you moving so fast with your boyfriend.” And moving him into her house, he mentally added.

Paul sighed.

“That still sounds like judging,” she said flatly.

He ignored Paul’s pitying look. “Sorry?”

Gabi sighed as if talking to him was just that exhausting, and maybe it was, but she was the one asking for a favor, so. “Look, I have to be in a meeting at Bella in an hour. I’m sorry, but I really need you to come now.”

Sonny pinched the bridge of his nose. “All right. I’m coming.”

“Thank you.”

Hanging up, Sonny realized that both Paul and Kimi were staring at him.

“What’s going on?” Paul asked.

Contrite, Sonny ruffled Kimi’s hair and made a silly face at her until she laughed and kicked her chubby legs against her seat. He slumped down into the chair beside Paul at the table.

“Gabi’s having trouble with Ari.” Again went without saying.

Paul expertly avoided Kimi’s seeking hands and managed to get the spoon into her mouth without spilling any of it. It was a good thing, because he definitely didn’t have time now to iron another shirt. “What kind of trouble?”

“She’s acting out again.”

Paul’s mouth quirked. “So, the usual?”

“I don’t know,” he said with a helpless shrug. “She’s refusing to go to school. Gabi wants me to come and get her.”

Sonny stopped himself at the last second from ruining his hair with a frustrated gesture. His fingers tapped anxiously against the table. Paul stilled the erratic beat by gently placing his hand over Sonny’s. He linked their fingers together, and Sonny smiled weakly, feeling himself relax. A little.

“I guess I can reschedule the meeting,” he said. “But Max’s conference—”

“I can handle Max’s conference.”

“You have your interview today," Sonny reminded him.

And speaking of Max…

It was never a good idea to leave Max too long to his own devices. And just as Sonny was having the thought, sure enough, the sound of his telling laughter reached them, immediately followed by Fish's anxious barking. The barking meant Max was probably jumping on the couch again.

Rolling his eyes, Paul handed Kimi’s spoon back to Sonny and went to retrieve their son from the living room.

"It's not an interview. It's just a lunch meeting with Sean.”

Sonny called after him, “Sean from ESPN.”

“He probably just wants to come on the show or something,” Paul called back. “Still, I should be done in time to meet with Max’s teacher.”

Sonny worried his lip, considering. Maybe Ari could tag-along to Kimi’s appointment. She would be bored, but that’s what cellphones were for. She spent most of her time staring at that small screen anyway.

Then again, he had no idea what kind of mood he would find Ari in after her blow-up with Gabi. Arianna had her grandmother’s temper as well as her beauty, and Sonny had as much fortitude against her as a wet noodle. There was a reason Gabi was the disciplinarian. If he was being called in from the benches, then it couldn’t be good.

Fish followed Paul and Max back into the kitchen and immediately buried his face in his dish. Sonny had placed it in its preferred location beside Fish’s preferred person. That being Paul, of course. Sonny couldn’t blame him. Paul was his favorite person, too.

Paul plopped their giggling son down into his booster seat and gave Fish a good scratch behind his ear. He gave Sonny a knowing look, as if he knew him or something. “It will be fine.”

Sonny didn’t have a chance to challenge Paul’s perfectly reasonable optimism, because Max was suddenly jumping into his lap,. Sonny hastily moved his hot coffee away to avoid scalding his son. “Careful, buddy.”

Ignoring him, Max reached for Kimi’s spoon. "Can I feed her?"

"No,” he told Max, “but you can eat your breakfast, so you’re not late for school." (He was definitely going to be late.)

Sonny hooked his finger over the corner of the fruit bowl sitting on the table. He pushed it closer to Paul. “You, too.” Paul took an apple even though he made a face. “I could scramble some eggs?” he suggested hopefully.

“No time,” Sonny said, dodging his son’s grabby hands and determined stance of: "But she likes it when I feed her!" Kimi, lovely traitor that she was, gurgled as if in agreement.

Sonny and Paul exchanged looks. “No,” they said in unison. Max sighed.

"You're sure about his conference?" he asked worriedly.

Paul gave Sonny the same kind of patient look he had just given their son. Which didn’t make him feel ridiculous at all. "I was going to be there anyway. I can handle a preschool conference all by myself. How intense could it be?"

Sonny covered Max's ears with his palms and whispered, "Ms. Mandy might tell you he's a future menace to society."

His husband didn’t seem nearly as concerned about that possibility as Sonny felt he should. "We already know that. Sonny, I can handle it.”

Sonny knew that. He did. It was just… a lot. There was a lot going on. A lot of balls in the air. But it was fine. It would be fine.

Except Paul was still giving him that look he sometimes did when he was being patient and open and waiting for Sonny to give.

"What about you? Are you going to be okay today?"

He purposely kept his voice light. "With Ari?"

"No, I meant…"

"I know what you meant," Sonny said with a weary sigh. Nothing got by Paul.

As if to prove this point, Paul said, “You didn’t sleep last night.”

Something about the careful way Paul said it made Sonny’s chest tighten with something like shame. Frowning, he ducked his head, not meeting Paul’s eyes as he said, just a tad defensive, “I slept.” A little.

Paul didn’t look convinced. It must have been his imagination, but even Fish seemed to be giving him judgey eyes. Really, he hadn’t slept right in at least a week. But, not wanting to discuss it, he instead turned it around and asked, “What was that loud noise upstairs?” Just in case they thought he hadn’t noticed.

Both Max and Paul froze at the question, and Sonny’s eyes narrowed again with suspicion. Hmn.

“Well, um,” Paul tried, but not before Max had already drawn himself up in Sonny’s lap and declared, “We were not playing catch in the house.” He looked to Paul. “Right?”

Paul and Sonny both sighed. Sonny shook his head. “What broke this time?”

Because this was apparently the house of lies, Paul and Max both said, “Nothing.”

Uh-huh. Unimpressed, Sonny asked, “Does it need to be cleaned up before we go?”

“No, Daddy cleaned up the lamp,” Max said, stuffing a spoonful of cereal into his mouth. So, it was Max’s baseball-themed lamp from Grandma Tori. Great.

Paul groaned into his hands. “Thanks, Max.”

You are telling your mother if she ever notices it’s gone,” he told Paul.

Ignoring his noise of protest, Sonny went to take Paul’s still half-full coffee mug to the sink. He would just have to grab another coffee later, because they were already five minutes passed late, and more if Paul hit traffic on his way into the city.

Paul caught his arm. He waited until he held Sonny’s eyes, and then he pressed another apple from the bowl into Sonny’s palm. Because Sonny hadn’t bothered to eat either and because, even after all these years, Paul really did miss nothing.

“Sonny…”

He gave Paul a reassuring smile. "I'm fine. It's... fine."

"You'll call me later if you need me?"

"Of course."

 

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They parted ways in the driveway, Paul and Max headed for one car and Sonny and Kimi toward the other.

After the kids were situated in their respective car seats, Sonny straightened Paul’s tie and kissed him goodbye. Then, he and Kimi went to fetch Ari.

Ari met them at the door, ready with her weekend bag packed. Over Ari’s shoulder, he saw Gabi mouth, “Thank you.”

Sonny had some things he simply couldn’t put off at the Titan office. The meeting could be rescheduled, but there were still other important deadlines that couldn’t be ignored.

Unfortunately, his mother had to cancel her “Kimi day” at the last second, so Sonny found himself with two kids instead of one. Because of course he did.

As he made his calls, Ari sprung around in his big, plush desk chair, fiddling with her phone, while Sonny’s executive assistant kept Kimi entertained. He felt a little guilty that Sabrina was being distracted from her own work, but she seemed happy to be playing patty-cake with Kimi instead of answering Sonny's emails. Which? Fair.

His phone conference with Beijing proved succinct and productive. No passive-aggressive battles with Shin, Jr. this time. Hallelujah. Even after all these years, half the battle always seemed to be about getting people to take him seriously. He emailed his notes up to his father, and that was that.

After, Sonny took the girls to the Brady Pub for brunch.

In their favorite booth, Sonny watched Ari sullenly push her eggs around on her plate. So far, none of the food had actually made it into her mouth.

Sonny eyed her with concern. Ari had been so moody lately. Her teenage years had barely started, and she was already leaning into them hard. He didn’t understand what had happened to his happy, bubbly girl. (It’s the hormones duh, Chad had told him.)

“How bad was the fight with your mother?” he asked lightly.

She shrugged. Slouched low in her seat, Ari had barely said two words that weren’t directly prompted. The only one keeping up a conversation was Kimi, who happily babbled to herself as she smashed up banana slices on her highchair.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Sonny offered.

Ari shrugged again, and Sonny sat back with a sigh. “Ari, talk to me.”

He half-expected to be ignored, but Ari surprised him with a question. “Are you coming with us to the cemetery on Sunday?”

He stared, caught off guard for a second. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?” The whole extended family was planning to be there.

“I dunno,” she muttered. “Just checking. Who else is coming?”

“Grandma Sami will be there,” Sonny said. “Grandma Marlena and Grandpa John. I think your uncle, Johnny—”

“Are you bringing Paul?” Ari asked, cutting him off.

Still confused, Sonny searched her face for some clue to Ari’s mood. He found none. “No…” he said carefully. “Paul has to work. There’s a Cubs game.”

“Oh.” He couldn’t discern from her tone whether she was pleased or disappointed, which just confused him more.

“Honey…” Sonny braced himself before going straight for what he figured was the heart of this strange mood. “I know you wanted Parker to be there.”

Teenage hormones or not, Sonny felt it was undeniable that once Parker Jonas had become part of the mix, everything had gotten worse, the drama meter turned up to eleven. Everyone had rolled their eyes at him, but he knew Jonas was going to be a problem the second he laid eyes on the punk, fresh back from Chicago where he’d spent most of his time with his mother and where he’d probably picked up his bad attitude. Sonny found the fact that Parker had been the one to end things with Ari, frankly, baffling.

(But he also kind of wanted to send the punk a gratitude basket.)

Ari’s expression instantly fell at Parker’s name. It was a shame that Sonny didn’t have Paul there to gently nudge him, because he had obviously stuck his foot in it again.

He saw immediate evidence of his faux-pas when her face went beet-red. “I don’t want him there!”

He flinched a bit at her sharp tone. “Okay, but…”

Her voice rose. “Why would you even say that? He’s a jerk. I hate him. I hope I never see him again!”

“All right.” There were people looking at them now, and Arianna looked near tears. Sonny wanted to tell them to mind their own business. “Sorry. I get it. Never mind,” he said hurriedly, hoping his best calm voice would actually work for once.

“I… I don’t care about him anymore, okay?”

“Of course. Right. That… makes sense.” It did make sense and would hopefully soon be true. Sonny looked forward to the day when Jonas was a long-forgotten memory for her.

Ari was obviously embarrassed by her own outburst. She sank lower in her seat and pouted harder. Sonny felt like an asshole. Worse, he felt inept. He never seemed to say the right thing to her anymore.

And Ari’s anger had startled Kimi, who started whimpering in a way he recognized as a harbinger preceding a loud wail. Sonny quickly moved to pull her from the highchair.

“Come here, baby,” he soothed. He settled Kimi down on his lap and kissed her head. Easily distracted, she stopped fussing in favor of playing with Sonny’s spoon.

“I thought it was just going to be us,” Ari muttered. She stabbed at her eggs.

“Grandma Adrienne had something come up.” And he hadn’t exactly known he was going to have both girls, had he? Sonny didn’t understand this attitude. She usually loved spending time with her baby sister.

Ari just shrugged again, back to scowling at her breakfast and ignoring him.

Sonny sighed. After some awkward silence, he tried again. “So, how’s school going?” And why are you refusing to go?

He expected another sullen shrug or some hedging. She surprised him again by actually answering. “I have to write a paper about my family. Like, a real one, with a thesis and everything.”

“What are you going to write about?” he asked, genuinely curious. She had a multitude of options. Her family menagerie included super spies, titans of industry, former models, and athletes. Her mother currently worked for a prestigious fashion magazine. Paul was an announcer for the Cubs and also hosted a popular XM radio show. The list went on.

“I was going to write about my dad,” she said quietly, and the breath swiftly went out of Sonny’s chest. Of course.

“I started to… I did some research… but then I changed my mind.”

Sonny frowned. “Oh. How come?”

The sad slump of her shoulders broke his heart a little. “I don’t know what to write.”

It wasn’t that they never talked about Will. But, sometimes, he worried that they didn’t talk about him enough. It was just… hard. Complicated. And he couldn’t exactly explain that to Arianna. He still had a hard time explaining some things to himself. And it always got harder around the anniversary of Will’s death.

Ten years. He couldn’t believe it had been ten years.

Sonny cleared his throat and needlessly rearranged his utensils (except for the spoon that Kimi had claimed as her own). “Well, you would have a lot of family to help you with that,” he said carefully. “I could help you.”

She glanced up at him. “You would?”

“Of course.” Sonny reached over and squeezed her hand. “No matter what you write, it will be great. You’re a great writer. Just like your dad.”

Ari bit her lip and nodded. She had been writing stories and poems basically since she could hold a pen. A chip off the old block. It wasn’t like her to stress over a single paper.

It was obvious that Ari had more to say, but she kept it to herself. They lapsed back into silence. Sonny didn’t know how to pry further without upsetting her. He also didn’t know why he felt so anxious all of a sudden. His knee jittered up and down beneath the table. He wished he had more than two hours of sleep before dealing with… whatever he was dealing with.

God, he missed Paul in situations like these. Not just because Sonny found him to be a calming presence just in general, but also because people usually found Paul easier to talk to. He was so much better at stuff like this. He was a good listener, and he asked the right kinds of questions. It made him a good interviewer. And not for nothing, but it was one of the things that made him a good husband, too.

But Sonny didn’t think this was what Paul had meant when he said to call him. And if Will was the issue, then… this wasn’t something he could ask Paul for help with.

Sonny was on his own.

With a sigh, he signaled for the check.

 

 

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