The atmosphere, so heavily laden with moisture that the ghost-gray clouds that had eclipsed the sky sank lower and lower to the ground, so that by the time Les arrived back to the borders of Arradan, they seemed ready to touch the ground. The light mist that was falling did not drive Les immediately into the house, but he took a detour through the gardens, taking his time as he did, enjoying the familiar scent of damp earth and stone, and trees and plants anticipating the rain. He knew where his steps were taking him, yet continued onward. A few days ago he would have resisted going there, but now he obeyed the wandering of his feet in that direction without trepidation.
He came upon it suddenly from around an arbor of climbing terriandras, covered in tiny orange buds that were getting close to blooming. There, just off the path, fashioned of pale white ambros marble, was his sister, immortalized at three years of age by a Zehdekian artisan. At her feet grew the official flower of Atad, after which she had been named. Les could never decide by her expression if she were guarding the blue flowers with the white star center that were her namesake, or merely watching them grow. At any rate, the artist had captured the delight on Asya’s features that he recalled at the time she’d helped put the plants in the ground. Back then she’d had the notion that the flowers had been named after her, not vice versa. The memory brought this time not tears, but a smile.
As he drew nearer, he sensed the presence of another. He would have turned aside so as not to disturb his mother’s private musings in the presence of Asya’s image, but too late; she had an uncanny awareness of her children that could almost be mistaken for Force-sensitivity.
“Welcome back, Les,” she called. She sat alone on a stone bench across the path from the statuette, staying dry beneath her cloak. Looking up, she smiled warmly at him as he approached.
“Didn’t mean to interrupt,” he told her, sensing a heart-to-stone conversation had been in progress.
“Not at all; in fact, I was just about to see about finding you.” He held still under her scrutiny as she stared hard at his face, partially shadowed by the hood of his cloak. So it begins – the inquisition into his experiences over the past few days. He wasn’t sure if he could adequately describe them, or even if he wanted to. At last she smiled. “I can see that your excursion went well.”
He smiled in return, in wonder that it showed. He did feel different. “Yes. Yes, it did.” Relieved to find her not pressing him to try and put into words the things he’d gone through in the caves, or explain why he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, he thought it a good time to change the subject. “It is time to go back to Xenen. Isn’t it?” he said, inquiring as to the progress on the transceiver that was prerequisite to their return.
“Your father’s completing work on the comm center now, and we’ll soon be on our way back to Xenen, pretty quick now that you’ve returned in such a timely manner. So if there’s anything you want to do before we go, you’d best do it right away.” Her eyes went back to the statue, and Les regretted his intrusion all the more – she was saying goodbye. “But you could probably spare a moment to join me,” she added hopefully, patting the unoccupied space on the bench beside her.
“No,” he said, taking a backwards step. “I was just dropping by, you know….”
She nodded understandingly. “Yes. It’s all right.” She sighed, then stood up, her gaze still captivated by the girl forever gone. “It just doesn’t seem real here, you know?” she observed. “Especially with the canopy of clouds pressing in so close like it is today, it seems like…like a fairy world, where none of it really happened, and all the evil has been undone and everything is as it should be.” Then reality hits, was her unspoken conclusion.
Les turned from her and bent down on one knee before the stone figure as though bowing before it, and plucked the prettiest of the blooms to give to his mother.
They parted ways as they came into the house, where her disposition changed at the threshold, with the business of packing and readying for the trip to Xenen to occupy her in body and mind. Les found his father in the little room off the study that housed the communications unit, replacing the last of the access panels, banging it into place with the heel of his hand. That done, he sat forward in his chair and checked the displays, nodding and mumbling approvingly to himself.
“How’s it going?” Les said rather abruptly.
Mark gave a cry of surprise and spun around, clutching a hand to his chest. “By the Raven, son – you trying to kill me?” he said with a hint of jest as he recovered.
Les chuckled as he spanned the two steps it took to cross the room. “Not intentionally, no.”
Standing eye to eye now, Les withstood another round of examination as Mark’s eyes probed those of his son. He kept from blinking by concentrating on the gold flecks in his father’s green eyes. “Everything all right?” he asked at last.
Les nodded. “Yeah.”
He held the gaze another long moment, then smiled and patted Les on the shoulder. “Good, good. Glad to have you back.” And that was it. Did his parents make an agreement before his return that they wouldn’t press him to speak of his adventure until he was ready to? Or did they feel they wouldn’t understand any of it anyway? Jedi stuff, he could hear his father saying.
“Mom says we’re about ready to be heading back.”
“That’s the assessment,” Mark confirmed as he began placing his tools back in the metal toolbox sitting on the floor. “I’ve just been out to calibrate the exterior units and everything checks.”
“Anything I can do?” Les asked, feeling like the Johnny-come-lately.
Mark rose from the chair and offered it to him. “You can give this a once-over while I go check out the Ra- I mean, Stormcrow.”
“Really?” Les took over his place eagerly, pleased to be trusted with a test flight. After Mark explained the changes he’d put in place at the control panel, he left him alone at the station.
First things first, receive any incoming transmissions. To his surprise, there was a letter addressed to him, from Chase. Eagerly he read the news, once, then again. They’d missed out on a lot while away. While he didn’t feel terrible for missing a wedding since he, too, would have found it boring, he paled when he realized he’d missed his graduation, a milestone he’d worked so hard to reach. He determined to bring him back something nice from Atad as a graduation present. Then he turned scarlet, starting with the tips of his ears, when he read what he had to say about Chance. It gave him an awkward feeling to think of the next time he saw her, and the possibility of his ears turning red in front of her. He was unsure if he liked her that way, but it was flattering nonetheless.
Realizing he’d spent too much time reading the news from his friend over and over again, he turned his attention to giving the comm a good test. Donning a headset, it felt good, normal, and a little bit exciting, to be trying out for the first time a console of reconfigured equipment. Whom should he message, he wondered as he tapped a forefinger on his chin. He ran through the possibilities – Chase, Shay Memorial, Wayfarer…then, remembering the last line of his friend’s letter, he punched in the personal communication code of his old master, just for the heck of it. He almost giggled when he entered it and keyed the mic to say, in his most official, controller-like voice, “Jinx Katarn…come in, Jinx Katarn. Please respond, over.”
There was a moment of dead air before – just as he was about to get serious and switch it over to another channel and perform a real test – a voice, real and familiar and loud in the headset, returned his inquiry.
Les fell out of the chair and hit his head on the toolbox.