The journey back to Xenen seemed to take forever. Little was said between Janet and Les, and he was glad to give his mother space. What he sensed from her was such a mixture emotions, each about to spill over, while she struggled to keep the lid on them, hang in there, survive, keeping her focus on the task of getting them home again. Under the not-so-inconsequential guise of keeping an eye out for the Vong, Les assigned himself to lookout duty, situating himself at a gunner station with a broad bank of windows to the stars, currently a swirling kaleidoscope as the Stormcrow hurled through hyperspace.
His arm ached. His new one. Absently he flexed that hand, sheathed in a black glove, faintly aware of the servos and wires he felt working throughout, performing duty in place of the muscles and tendons that should be there. It would be a lifelong reminder of the events on Coruscant – of his old master.
Thanks for the memories, he grumbled broodingly within himself. He barked a quick, humorless laugh, then fell back into the enveloping silence. Why did he laugh? It wasn’t funny. Nothing was, anymore. Nor would ever be. He had enemies now, powerful ones. He felt their eyes on him; he would never be rid of their gaze. The choice before him now was to either live up to the life they’d deigned to allow him continue, his second and probably last chance – or become more powerful than they.
Why either-or? Why not both? …Or neither?
The wisdom of Jinx came forward to offer advice, words that had been hammered into from childhood, that had visited him throughout his formative years to guide him whenever the master had been unavailable and he’d had to fend for himself. Les covered his ears and sucked air through gritted teeth to shut them out, to force back the tears that kept trying to surface. It was at times like this that the grief and pain of his mother joined with his from across this ship, and everything from the moment he set fire to the castle to the last dying embers of the funeral pyre for two slain warriors played unmercifully through his head. It was nearly more than he could bear. “No…no…stop…,” he growled until the feeling had passed. Get a grip, Wyler, he thought, sitting back in his chair and straightening his hair, gestures of a normality that seemed to have slipped away somewhere.
By the Raven, what is father going to think? What’s he going to say? How would he take this? He wouldn’t be able to bear the dimming of that twinkle shining from behind his eyes that said without words how proud he was of him…would he be proud, maybe secretly, of what he’d set out to do? Or would he abhor him, what he had become? He clenched his fists. He couldn’t live with that. He would do anything for that man, his idol – as evidenced when as a boy, awakening to his powers in his defense, he raised his hand, through mere thought, against those who would’ve destroyed him. Was it destiny that his first realization of his connectivity with the Force had been a toying with the Dark Side?
Was there any hope for him? Or was he lost, destined to meet his end as a betrayer of everything he’d been brought up to value? Or…was there an opposing point of view that had been hidden from him, left for him to discover on his own? The questions gnawed at his insides, driving him insane.
At last the ship dropped back into realspace, ending the final leg of their journey. Les’ heart thudded hard in his chest at the thought of having to face everyone again, of trying to live life and have things return to normal. He rose and made his way up to the cockpit.
He sat down beside Janet and looked over at her, studying her profile because she wouldn’t look at him. His pulse raced. There was so much he wanted to say to her, but couldn’t find the right words, and now they were on a course for the Wayfarer and they would get out and be surrounded by all sides by people both there and planetside and he felt the time slipping away for them to be alone before they were thrown back into day to day life and the journey, this horrible journey they had met together and drifted apart to places neither of them knew where they were or what to do next and he wanted to say something – something.
“Mom….” Janet tensed at the sound of his voice breaking the silence, as though expecting a blow. Les hung his head. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” She bit her lip and made no reply. And with that, he’d run out of words. Heart sagging into his boots, he sighed. “You…disappointed in me?”
“What do you think?” There was a hardness, a restraint, to her voice that brought the tears up again, and again he had to choke them back. He wanted things the way they’d been before, but perhaps that was too much to hope for – they may never be again. That was something he didn’t want to face. He swallowed hard, then asked, “Do you still love me?”
Finally she looked at him, her eyes brimming with tears she would not allow, not yet. He noticed lines around her eyes and mouth that hadn’t been there before. She repeated in a softer tone, “What do you think?” There was a long moment of silence in which Janet refocused her concentration on their landing. When they’d touched down and the engines were shut down, she reached a hand over to Les to stop him from getting up. She caught his gaze and held it. “Don’t you doubt it, ever. But if you do, just think back to…to what happened. Then you should know that you ought never have to ask me that question again. Understood?” It was all he could do to maintain eye contact, to read what went on behind them. By all rights he should be alive, and I would be setting down alone here today. That was my choice, and I chose you. I would always choose you. Even so, how do I live with myself now?
“Yes, ma’am,” he said quietly, gathering that she was waiting for an answer. He broke the gaze, looking instead out the cockpit window, where he noticed two figures standing inconspicuously off to the side and out of the way, waiting for them to disembark. Mark had been successful in sweeping Asya’s long hair out of her face with a ponytail. Keeping close by his side, she stared blankly up at the lights of the hangar as if counting them and taking her time at it. Mark was looking at his ship without expression. He looked old, tired. Janet stood to go, but Les, unable to tear his eyes from the pair, didn’t budge.
“Go on ahead,” he told her. “I’ll be right behind you.”
She stopped at the cabin door. “All I ask of you,” she said, turning back to him, “is that you appreciate the measure of grace that’s been extended to you, by so many – make the most of it.” With that, she left him alone on the bridge.
Momentarily, Janet emerged some meters below him on the hangar floor, her step quickening as the distance closed between her and Mark. Then she was enfolded in his arms, and Les could feel from there the release of all that she’d held back all the long way home. It was unexpectedly unsettling to see her reduced to such tears – she, the Unshakable One. He watched Mark stroke her hair and whisper condolences in her ear, and caught the glimmer of a tear as it ran down his weathered cheek. What was that for? Surely not for Jinx. For mom?…for him? The more time went by, the harder it was to pry himself from the cockpit and take those final few steps to rejoin his family. Mark and Janet stood apart now, talking back and forth in voices muted by distance and the hull of the Stormcrow, while Asya stood close by, her unblinking eyes looking straight at him – straight through him, it seemed. Who knew what was going on inside that head? Did she know anything of what had occurred since he last saw her? This wasn’t getting any easier. He got up and forced his legs to measure the distance between him and his father.
He maintained a suitably contrite expression as they faced off. He shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. “Hey, Dad,” he said meekly.
Mark nodded in greeting, opened his mouth, closed it again. “Les, son….” He searched the length and breadth of the hanger for words, and found not any that seemed appropriate. Finally he just closed his eyes and shook his head, a long sigh saying more than mere words could express. “I…I don’t know what to say,” he said quietly. If he’d shouted in anger and thrown stuff around it would’ve been better. He was tormented by the way Mark looked at him, as though from across a gulf, like one would size up a stranger. He groped desperately for that bond that had connected them so closely; a bond he had never considered could grow tenuous.
“Look, I’m sorry I took the Stormcrow…and for a lot of other things.” The light saber hanging from his belt, it had grown into an unbearable weight. He unclipped it and held it out to him, the metal cold in his palm. “Here, take it – hide it, destroy it, I don’t care. Do what you will with it, I don’t want it anymore.”
Mark looked at it in a sad kind of way and shook his head. “No, I’ve no right to it; and besides, you could just use a Force trick or something to find it, or build another one. And you couldn’t separate yourself from the Force any more than you could live without your own skin. You’ve just got to…learn to live with it. Go on from here, make the best of what you’ve got left.” His voice trailed off and he got a faraway look in his eye. Les wasn’t sure whether the last bit was addressed to him, or to himself. He felt like running, screaming, destroying something. He took a deep, calming breath to maintain control. Duly reprimanded more by words not spoken than by those that were, he returned the saber back to its place on his belt.
He couldn’t help but ask him, too. “Do you still love me?” he challenged with eyes glittering with consternation, trying very hard not to slip the words through clenched teeth.
The question openly wounded him. “Nothing…nothing can change that.”
Other things can change, he thought bitterly. He felt a hand slip into his, and looked down to see his sister looking up to him with those eyes grown odd from her time spent under the care of the Vong. Her expression was fixed, changeless; but her eyes had retained that familiar awed reverence that was reserved for her older brother. It was that that almost broke him.
An overcoming weariness like Janet had suffered only on rare occasions came over her, but she didn’t want to slow down or stop, as though by pushing on she could outrun things she would rather not think about. “Come on,” Janet said, urging them onward. “Let’s get out of here. I’ve got work to do.”