I read the military datapad for the millionth time.
It is difficult to read, even though it is in Basic, because the anonymous writer had defaulted to a thick milspeak, rendering any meaning and emotion the words might have had lifeless and dead.
I shy away from my own thoughts of those words: 'lifeless' and 'dead'. Instead, I concentrate on decoding the message as diligently as any cryptographer, but it is not difficult to decipher. The message is short and brief, managing to convey the facts without telling me anything of worth.
It says my husband was wounded, and has been granted medical leave.
A brief, clear missive, one would think, and yet it does not tell me how badly he was injured, or why (although I suppose the reason is self-evident, in the troubled times we live in), or why they simply did not pop him into a kolto tank and let him out after a few days. What wounds could he have received that were so dire that kolto was insufficient?
Perhaps the writer of the message chose to hide my husband's condition with these ultra-formal, ultra-conservative, ultra-stilted words, not wishing to upset whatever nameless wife or relative or friend who would receive it, not knowing that it would raise more vexing questions with the dearth of answers it supposedly provided. Perhaps it was written by a protocol droid; that would excuse the lack of emotion, but if a sentient wrote it, I curse him - there is no excuse then for this… this travesty of communication.
My hands shake a little as I hold the pad. Resolutely, I turn it off, putting it down with a firm and precise motion back onto my workbench. I turn away from the worrying enigma it represents, focusing instead on the plants I have brought in to my lab. While my hands are occupied with carefully removing the leaves, my mind is resting on that damned pad. Worry gnaws at me, and I cannot help but wonder what has happened to my husband, and my thoughts turn dark and macabre.
What if he lost a limb? What if he lost... several? Did he sustain a head wound, and is now suffering some sort of memory loss? Or worse, mental function? The thought of my husband's lively face, with his lively thoughts making the light dance in his eyes, forever silenced and stilled by some freak chance, turns me cold.
I feel helpless. And I do not like feeling helpless.
If that happened, it might be better had he died instead, and I flush with shame at the thought. But it niggles at me nonetheless. I would prefer a memory of him, I think, laughing and tall and handsome in his uniform of black, red and gold, instead of a living, drooling reminder of what he once was. The very image makes my skin crawl, and I shake it off with difficulty.
I scold myself for being too pessimistic. There may be many reasons why he is coming home for his medical leave, instead of convalescing in some military medical clinic. I should be grateful and happy, in fact, that he is returning so unexpectedly early from his deployment.
And I would be, if it weren't for that uncertainty that message brought with it. Anxiety and fear and worry writhe in my belly like snakes, a ghastly pregnancy of doubt and distress. For the millionth time, I cannot help but wonder at the brevity of the message, and I cannot help but wonder why he hasn't sent any missives of his own. I love him dearly, but he can be so infuriating at times. A simple one-word message would clear up everything. I would know he is alive and well, and lucid enough to send a coherent message.
But no. All I have is a datapad with a brief message in milspeak.
His shuttle lands in an hour. I try to occupy the time with my work. Despite myself, I am getting angry. Angry at the military for sending such an asinine message, angry at my husband for not sending anything at all, and angry at myself for being angry. My hands move in jerky, sharp motions, methodically stripping the bark from a piece of wood and dropping them into the hamper of the chemical analyzer, but the image of industrious work I present is betrayed by the trembling in my fingers.
I sigh; my hands are idle for the moment while I wait for the computer to start its data collection. I know I should give up the pretense when I cannot concentrate on the chemical breakdown and element data scrolling on the screen. To do that is to admit I did not want to go greet the shuttle.
The fear of what I might see holds me immobile, and I know it is irrational and silly. The uncertainty would vanish once I see him, and yet I want to put off the moment indefinitely. The need to know warred with the need not to know in my belly, burning the breakfast I had eaten into a lump of durasteel.
Our son bangs through the door with the enthusiasm and unrestrained energy of the very young, presenting me with a wonderful distraction from my inner turmoil. I smile and laugh, catching him in my arms and pulling him into my lap, but he squirms out of my grasp, pouting. He has reached that age where being cuddled and kissed by his mother is embarrassing, and a small pang pulls at my heart at seeing this foreshadow of the distancing that must come in the future.
For now, however, he allows me to wrap my arm around his shoulders after he has climbed up onto a bench, standing as he surveys my work area.
"You need to go to school in a few minutes," I say, checking him for dirt and making sure he has both shoes on.
He nods reluctantly, a melodramatic sigh puffing out his little chest. He tries to put off the moment by asking me what I'm doing. I tell him, knowing he is not really interested, and probably does not understand, but I am grateful for having a listener.
Reaching out, he touches the military datapad I have taken pains not to look at while I worked. It sits heavily in his small hands, with a weight and depth all out of proportion to its size. It seems to become more real, as if leeching the reality out of everything else and pulling it into itself, like a black hole sucking in some poor unfortunate that had strayed over its event horizon.
"Why can't I go with you to meet Dad?" he asks.
"Because you have to be in school," I answer with maternal, reasonable calm. The military transports usually come either early or late in the day, when he is not in school, and I can take him with me to meet my husband's ship with a clear conscience.
This time is different, and my son knows it; he is old enough to know that if something is out of the ordinary, it is usually bad news. He, too, is worried. I toy with the idea of taking him with me anyway; he would love escaping the tedium of school for a day, and since the wars started, he hasn't gotten to see his father very much, and I do not want to begrudge him even those few hours. But I want some time to prepare myself, and to prepare him, if my husband comes back as... less than he was than when he'd left. I have to prepare for the worst case scenario.
"Is he okay?" he asks, trying to sound nonchalant.
I look at the chrono; in another half hour, I will know, one way or the other. It is not as comforting a thought as I would like.
"I'm sure he is," I reply, trying to reassure myself as well as my son.
Reluctantly, I pat my son on the shoulder. "Come on," I say, taking up his bag from where he'd dropped it carelessly on the floor. "You need to get going, or you'll miss the speeder."
He screws up his face and pouts adorably, but he takes his bag and jumps down from the bench, leaving dusty footprints on its surface. I hold onto his hand as we walk out of my lab, and he doesn't protest or pull away like he usually does when I do something embarrassing to him, like hold his hand. We walk on the path behind the house in silence, back towards the driveway.
We step inside the foyer of the house, and I hurriedly make sure my son is bundled up, buttoning his coat all the way up, a task made difficult by his squirming. The air has turned a little chill, and I do not want him to catch cold.
How odd it is, how we comfort ourselves by doing the mundane tasks of everyday life. My husband is returning today, and he is wounded, but right now I make sure my son has taken all his datapads, his homework, his lunch in a little Captain Courageous box, his gloves, check to see if his shoes are tied, his hair combed, hands clean, nose wiped, trouser knees dusted.
Preparations complete, I walk with his hand in mine outside, where the school speeder has just turned the corner, little boys and girls playing and shouting inside, visible through the windows.
I give my son one last thorough inspection, and let go of his hand. Usually he shakes me off before leaving the house, afraid that his friends on the speeder might see, but today he seems as reluctant as I am to let go. He looks back over his shoulder as he climbs up the steps, and the doors close behind him. He watches me as he takes a seat, and he continues to watch me as the speeder starts forward again, his head turning to face me as they move away.
Standing on the curb, I watch the speeder go, and I do not look away, even when it has long since passed out of sight. I stand there for a long time, long enough for my hands and feet to grow chill. I turn and go back inside the house, which feels so empty now as I move through the rooms.
I walk into the living room, and I gravitate towards the table with the small holoprojector showing a holo of myself, my husband, and our son. My husband is smiling, dressed in civilian clothes, and barefoot, the legs of his trousers dark with water, and rolled up to his knees.
It makes me smile as I remember when the holo was taken; we were on a camping trip, just before the Senate declared war on the Mandalorians. We were at his grandfather's cabin, and he had just waded out of the lake, two large coinfish held proudly in his hands. Our son had carried his fishing pole and tack box with all the pride of a banner bearer.
Holographic sunlight gild their heads, our son's hair a darker brown than his father's, and as I look at the holo, I remember how much I love them, and my love for them warms me up inside, driving the chill uncertainty away. I know how cliché that sounds, like something from a horrible, saccharine romance, the sort of thing I usually wince at, but that is what I feel.
Memories of that day, and other days, flood my mind. I remember sensations: the feel of my husband's large, callused hands holding mine, the smell of his neatly cut, thick brown hair, of strong soap and clean man, the prickling of his stubbled cheeks on my face. I remember the joy and happiness and stunned wonder in his eyes when he held our son for the first time, holding our baby with such care, as though he were afraid he might break him. I remember his regret and sadness when he received his orders to leave for the wars, and how he would watch our son sleep every night before he left. I remember how proud and happy he looked when he showed me the lab he'd built for me, every sink and shelf and table put in with his own hands. I remember the glorious day we were married, when his shaking hands attached the wedding earring to my ear, and my own trembling hands slipped the ring onto his finger.
I reach out to caress his face, but my fingers go right through the light. I glance at the chrono, and I realize I must leave now, or I will be late.
I am no longer uncertain as to whether or not I must meet his ship. I go, not because I need to be certain, not because I need to know.
I go because I love him.
The route to the landing pad is a familiar one, and I hardly pay attention as I drive our speeder to the spaceport. All military ships and shuttles land in the special zone set aside for the Republic, and I drive through the checkpoint after showing my identification to the soldier on duty. He is a familiar sight, as I am to him, and he waves me through with a polite greeting.
I am a few minutes early. I park the speeder in the nearly empty lot, and I stand by the landing pad, waiting. The sky is a clear blue, with some few fat, white clouds moving slowly across it, as calm and content as a herd of white bantha. There is little space traffic here, the planet not being important as yet to bring a great deal of trade, though there is a small Republic garrison. The metallic smells of the port mingle with the last scents of spring, the odors of grease and fuel warring with the sharpness of grass and leaves. Despite the diligence of the cleaning droids, a few orange and red leaves have invaded the otherwise pristine and utilitarian port, dancing with the whim of the wind as they swirl here and there.
The engine noise of an approaching ship grows so gradually that I nearly miss it, and I notice only when something moves fast in the corner of my eye, making me look up from the play of leaves, and I see the white, gleaming metal of a shuttle. It is the only thing flying in the sky, and my eye tracks it as it loops down and around, settling with a demure puff of thrusters. The wind of its passage blow against my face, the grit and dirt it stirs flying in all directions and blowing my clothes flat against my body. The wings fold up, and after a moment, the hatch in the stern opens.
A lone figure slowly limps down the steps, hauling a heavy, battered duffel bag in one hand, and I breathe again.
It's him. He is alive, and not dead, moving, and not crippled. He smiles now when he sees me, limping heavily forward, duffel dropping forgotten onto the ground, his arms opening wide, and I am folded into them, and my face is pressed into the crook of his neck, his face is buried into the top of my head, and I wrap my arms around his trim waist and hug him tightly.
It is wonderful. Tears of joy and relief and happiness prickle at my eyes.
He grunts a little in pain, but when I look up, there is nothing but happiness in his face. I look more carefully, and I think I discern more lines than usual on his forehead, around his nose, and there are new shadows in his brown eyes. His space-pale skin seems more wan than it should be, and I can feel a weariness in him.
I begin to understand why they sent him home.
I want to ask him what happened, what made those new scars that cannot be seen, that are simply echoed by his physical wounds. But I know he does not want to tell me and burden me, and I am not sure I wish to know. But I can guess, and I know the pain he feels - not the physical pain - is because he feels responsible. If he is wounded, it means he couldn't have been the only one, and there had to have been casualties.
It shames me to realize that I am glad, as long as he is not one of the casualties.
"It's not your fault," I say, trying to reassure him.
He closes his eyes and leans his head down, pressing his face into my hair.
"I know. But too many of them didn't make it. I keep thinking... if I'd just been better, smarter, faster, they'd still be alive," he sighs, his breath ruffling my hair.
"How about you?" I ask. I can feel the bulkiness of bandages under his uniform tunic, wrapped all around his torso.
A tilted grin stretches his face, and my heart skips a little; his smile has lost none of its charm in the years we've been married.
"I'm fine. I just need to lay off any heavy lifting and push-ups for a few days, and I can't play hoverball yet."
He is trying to sound light and facetious, but the way he is still holding me so tightly tells me it was not so easy as all that. There is a desperation about him that was not there before.
"I thought I'd never see you again," he confesses, as if he'd heard my thoughts. His voice is muffled, because his face is still pressed into my hair, and his throat vibrates against my cheek as he speaks.
I comfort him as best I can.
I pull his head down and I kiss him. He kisses me like he has never kissed before, like a starving man offered a feast, like a man dying of thirst offered a drink. Hungry and desperate and almost despairing. He holds me even tighter, even though I have to be pressing against his still-healing wounds. I press no less desperately against him, and I taste his hopes and fears, his dreams and nightmares, mixed with caffa and his own unique flavor. Neither of us notice the shuttle lifting off again, even when the dust and wind make our clothes flap violently.
We break apart to breathe, and he stares at me with a strange hunger, holding me like he never wants to let go. I cup his face in my hands, his clean-shaven cheeks smooth against my palms.
"I love you, Carth," I whisper, staring into his clear brown eyes.
The hunger and desperation softens, fading into joy and warmth.
"I love you, Morgana."
I have no idea where this came from; this story was written out feverishly after inspiration struck me from out of the blue. I blame my twin, Prisoner24601, entirely for this, since it must've leaked out of her head and into mine, but all other mistakes are solely mine. This fic is considered a part of the canon of my other KoTOR fic, "Coming to Terms", but not related at all to it.
With thanks to Kosiah and Prisoner 24601 for beta reading and giving me valuable feedback.