“Well, Dad, the Sixth didn’t fall apart while you were gone,” Mikey said to his father as their shuttle glided toward the ISD-II Justicar, the seat of Michael Bullian, Sr.’s command. The pilot frowned when his father didn’t answer, glancing sidelong at the other man, who hunched over an oversized datapad with a stylus, muttering under his breath. “Dad?”
His father glanced up, blinking as if startled. “Were you saying something, Mikey?”
“Never mind. What’re you wrapped up in? Someone frak something up while we were gone and I didn’t hear about it?”
One corner of his father’s mouth twitched toward a smile and he shook his head. “No, nothing like that. Just a design I’ve been tinkering with since we left home.”
He just called Xenen home. He hasn’t done that…he hasn’t done that since I was maybe ten or eleven years old. “You’re going to break it off with her,” he said quietly. “With Amma.” I know that he said he was going to do it, but I guess I didn’t really believe that it was actually going to happen.
His father nodded, straightening in his seat. “I’ve asked for a reassignment back to the Kartuiin Sector,” he said. “Transmitted it before our transport hit hyperspace. I imagine that my new orders will be waiting for me when I get to quarters on the Justicar.”
Mikey shook his head slowly, just staring at his father. “I can’t believe that you’re actually going through with it.”
The brow over his father’s artificial eye lifted. “Why’s that?”
“I just…it’s never seemed like you wanted that before, Dad. You went home to ask Mom for a divorce and now you’re…it’s not that I’m not happy, but—”
“But you’re wondering what the source of the sudden change is all about.”
Mikey closed his mouth and nodded. He couldn’t sense any anger in his father, which was either a very good or a very, very bad thing. The pilot watched his father’s eyes—both artificial and organic—and felt guilt begin to coil in his belly.
It’s not like I wanted him to break things off with Mom. I tried to talk him out of doing it, didn’t I? It’s just that I didn’t expect this. I figured it’d somehow go back to business as usual as soon as we were back here. I guess I was wrong this time.
“I’ve loved your mother since the first moment I laid eyes on her,” Michael Bullian, Sr. said softly, looking away from his son and staring at something very long ago and far away. “I’ve said it before, but I’ve always forgotten what that actually felt like. Every time I left, the loneliness would come and it would crush me, but I couldn’t stay because staying would mean giving up my dreams.”
“So you slept with half the eligible women in the fleet because you were lonely out here?” For all his own escapades, he’d never quite crossed the line his father danced over every single day. He was careful where his father wasn’t, unattached in a way his father pretended he wasn’t.
I may break a few hearts, but I don’t break apart families.
“I know,” Mike said quietly. “I’m a bastard, son. I always have been. Your mother…she’s always made me better than I am.” He looked down at the datapad in his lap, at the sketches and calculations. “She always knew.”
“Knew what?” Mikey’s stomach bucked. Mom knew what he was doing? She’s known for all this time and she never…she never said anything? Never did anything about it? “Dad…she knew you were cheating on her?”
His father’s eyes slid closed and the older man nodded slightly. “She knew. As she put it, the service is lonely and I could never stand to be alone. She knew that about me from the beginning. It was easier when we were both with the Aurora Force, but then I left. That’s when it started.”
“If it were you, would you want your kids to know?” Mike exhaled a quiet sigh and shook his head. “She’s a strong woman, your mother, and I don’t deserve her. I love her, but I don’t deserve her.” He smiled, almost wistfully. “But she’s stuck by me anyway, regardless of how much I’ve screwed everything up. Now it’s time for me to make up for all of that.”
“And if they deny your request for reassignment?” Mikey asked quietly. “What happens then, Dad?”
He considered the question for a long moment, staring at nothing, before his blank expression melted into a smile and a shrug. “Then I resign and go home anyway. I’m sure that I can talk Dalsuna into giving up that teaching post on Conceli VIII and starting a shipworks with me. It’ll just take some persuasion.”
All Mikey could do was stare at his father in confusion and awe. “You’ve got it all figured out.”
His father looked at him, something softening in his eyes. “It’s time I made up for all the mistakes I’ve made, Mikey. With your mother, with you kids, with everyone back there that I walked away from. They stood by me when I was on the very edge, about to go over, and they pulled me back from the brink in a way that no one else ever has or ever could. I have a debt to pay to the Aurora Force and it’s time I paid it.” He looked down at the datapad again. “And it starts with this.”
“What is it, anyway? Looks like some kind of hybrid of an X-wing and an A-wing and a TIE Interceptor that might actually work.”
“Something your brother came up with before I left to take command of the Justicar,” Mike said. “The model’s in my bag. I haven’t been able to get this out of my head since we left Xenen.”
“So that’s what you’ve been working on this whole time.”
Mike nodded. “Yeah.” He paused before he looked at his son, voice hitching as he spoke. “Mikey, if something happens to me, I need you to make sure that all of my plans, all of my engineering and design files, all of those make it to your brother.”
Mikey felt a pang of jealousy but fought it down. Davil might never forgive their father for everything he’d done, but those files would be Michael Bullian’s attempt to bridge the gulf that had opened between a father and his eldest son.
“Dad, nothing’s going to happen to you.”
“I told your sister the same thing, but you know Ari. She didn’t want us to come back here.” Mike took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. “We’ll need to be careful.”
“I’m always careful,” his son said quietly. “Was the warning for both of us, or just for you?”
His father winced.
Just for him, then. Mikey’s lips thinned. “We’ll have to be careful,” he said, echoing his father’s word. “If only to prove Ari wrong and give her a little more hope.”
The voice of the shuttle’s pilot crackled over the intercom, filling the shuttle’s passenger compartment. “We’re on final approach, gentlemen. Docking in three minutes.”
Mike glanced at his son and smiled faintly, packing up the datapad. “Well. Back to business.”
His son just nodded slightly. “Yeah,” he said, voice quiet. “Back to business.”
• • •
Ithor. Mike tossed the datapad onto the desk in his quarters, starting to pace. He had to bring the Sixth Fleet to Ithor with all due haste. There was no indication that his request had even been reviewed.
It doesn’t matter. I’ll just get the fleet to Ithor and then I’ll deal with everything I need to deal with after that. It was a small delay, but nothing he couldn’t handle.
He’d shot off a quick transmission back to Xenen for Indy, letting her know that he and their son had made it back safely. She’d call if she could—he knew that.
We both have fleets to run.
His door chimed a second before the hatch slid open. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath as the scent of her perfume hit him. As confident as he’d tried to sound when talking to his son about it, telling Amma it was over wasn’t going to be easy.
“When did you come aboard?” he asked as the hatch closed behind her.
“Half an hour ago,” she said. “I had to finish something off before I could steal away. The fleet’s restless and you cancelled everyone’s leave as soon as you got back. I knew I had to come quick. What’s going on?”
For a moment, he considered not telling her—disappearing might be the better option.
You’ve been a jerk to everyone in your life already. She deserves to know the truth. The mistakes stop here.
Amma’s arms slid around his waist, one of her hands trailing dangerously low. He swallowed hard and stepped away, turning to face her.
“We need to talk,” he said softly.
She arched a brow at him, lips pursing slightly. She was beautiful—had the look of her mother, a friend of both he and Indy back in the old days—and seemed impossibly young. She was young, too young for him.
What the hell was I thinking?
“What do we need to talk about?” she asked softly. “How long will you be gone this time?”
“When I leave this time, I’m not coming back,” he said.
There. I said it.
Now her brows knit, fair brows over blue eyes, her expression caught somewhere between confusion and a pout. “What’s that supposed to mean? Some kind of crazy Jedi vision thing? Has the Force told you something?” Horror bloomed in her eyes and she caught his face between her hands. “Are you going to die out there? Oh, Mike, you can’t die. You just can’t.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he said as he gently disengaged her fingers from his cheeks. He held her hands for a moment, then released them. “I didn’t ask Indy for a divorce, Amma. After this mission, I intend to go home for good. My place is in Kartuiin with my family, not out here.”
“Not with me,” she whispered. She fell back a step. “You said you loved me.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry,” she echoed. Her expression grew hard as she backed toward the door. “I’m sure you are. Look…when you realize what a mistake you’ve made, you know where to find me. I’m not going anywhere.” She stopped, then lunged toward him, capturing his lips in a kiss that set his blood aflame.
He pushed her away, swallowing hard. “I’m not making a mistake,” he said, forcing his voice to be steady. He would miss her, but this was right.
I’ve made so many wrong choices and not realized it, but this time I know I’m doing the right thing.
“Good-bye, Amma,” he said quietly, then walked past her to the door. He cycled the hatch open and waited, watching her.
She stared at him for a long moment, then walked to the open hatch. “Until next time, Mike. Until next time.”
She stepped out and he closed the hatch behind her, an ache growing inside. His stomach roiled.
Then his comm chimed, the emblem of the Aurora Force appearing on the screen.
Mike Bullian smiled and nodded slightly to himself.
I’ve made the right choice.