Dusk is falling as the ship arrives at New Thani, the recently rebuilt capital city of Telos. As yet the city is no bigger than a town by other planets' standards, but there aren't many Telosians left, and those who wish to return to their planet feel the urge to tread softly on its newly restored surface lest they destroy it all over again.
The ship is a sleek new Republic model, and its pilot is Dustil Onasi, clad in a rumpled officer's uniform. He sets the ship down almost reverently, as if he is afraid of denting it, or bruising the planet beneath it. He takes pride in his skill, and smiles contentedly as the ship settles down squarely in the middle of the docking bay. The cockpit opens and he clambers out, a brisk wind instantly catching his hair and tossing it roughly about. He cuts a dashing figure as he saunters across the bay, arms open to receive the two running figures.
He hugs them, kisses her, and rumples the small boy's hair affectionately. Large brown eyes gaze up at him, recognition dawns, and another hug is given. It's been far too long.
"He's grown so much," says Dustil, in awe. His son, his eldest – the youngest must still be at home – is four years old, and sprouting like a wroshyr tree.
"Kids do that," she says. "Especially when you aren't around for months at a time."
It's an admonishment, but a mild one, accompanied by a welcome-home smile. He promises her yet again that he'll speak to command, get that year's leave they've talked about. During the walk through the city they discuss what they will do with that year, both knowing that it will never come, not while the kids are young.
The buildings here are new – no more than five years old – and their innovative shapes and brilliant colours give him a sense of hope. Maybe he really will talk to command. Maybe they'll try for the daughter she wants so badly. Maybe dad will be okay this time.
It begins to rain as they reach their street, an indecisive flurry of precipitation. They own a large house with room for a growing family, as well as an extended one. Her sister is staying with them this season while she waits for the them to finish building her house in the newest part of town. And of course, there's dad. Funny, really, how he refuses to leave. Not that Dustil has asked, because she would frown on that and – maybe – because he thinks dad would actually leave if he did. But whenever he sees the old man there's a silent determination in his eyes, and more than a little disapproval. The old hypocrite. As if this isn't the life he wants Dustil to have. Honest, hardworking, family man. Just like dear old dad.
His sister-in-law has just started serving up an enormous supper when they get back. The boy runs indoors to find his brother, and they pause in the hallway for a private moment. Every time he comes home its like having their first kiss all over again. They've forgotten each other, the way the other feels in the dark, the million different colours in their eyes. They are always slightly scared to find they forget more and more each time, but tell themselves that leaves more to rediscover.
The house is pristine tidy. It always is the first day back, but by bedtime it's reverted to the usual child-infested mess. His sister-in-law tried to earn her keep by tidying up after them, but by now she has resigned herself to a destiny in which toys litter the stairs and half-chewed food shows up in unexpected places. Dustil doesn't like the house tidy, but she takes such pride in making it nice for him that he has never said. He can remember his dad's words on one of his own visits home, when Dustil was a boy. When his mother, complaining about the mess, finally left the room his father winked, lowered his voice, and said "a tidy house isn't a home." It's one of the truer things his father has ever said.
Supper is served on the best plates, like it always is on the first day home. Dustil never imagined himself as someone with best plates and everyday plates, but his wife is that sort of woman. She does things properly, whether it makes any sense or not. Dustil sits at the head of the table, but he knows he shouldn't. It doesn't feel comfortable, but it's proper. She sits opposite him, the boys on his left and the two other adults on the right, and no one starts eating until everyone is sitting and the drinks have been poured. She passes vegetables and he cuts meat. Dad cuts things up for the boys.
Over supper the conversation is light. She tells him everything that has happened to her and the kids over the last eighteen months, and he remembers every single thing from her correspondence. As she talks he watches her, falling in love with her again. Pale face, minimal make-up, short brown hair. She smiles a lot, which first drew him to her, and it occurs to him that everyone is watching her. Her sister nods along with the tale, occasionally adding details. The boys are devoted to their mother. Every smile of hers triggers identical responses from them. Only dad fails to look entertained by her stories or her voice or her looks, and Dustil does not know why. The two of them get along fine as far as he has seen, and of course he does not seem hostile or upset or… or anything. He suspects his father is only partially here, facing the right direction but gazing far beyond her, and Thani, and Telos at something long ago and far away.
Dustil wonders what his father sees.
He listens to stories of first scooter rides, days in the park, and starting school. His eldest – who he considered naming Carth until dad moved in with them – is excited about this last story and insists on telling it himself. School starts in three days, and he cannot wait. Dustil smiles and nods and notices that there is more excitement now than there was at the space port when daddy came home. He glances sideways at his father and tries to remember meeting him in similar situations, but he can't recall any specific times. Just a sense of bewilderment and an echo of his mother's anxious excitement. She would tell him for years afterwards that he started to cry when he first saw his father, aged six months old. In his dad's version there was a nappy that needed changing, and he would never know whether the old man made that up to ease some of the tension between them, or, for that matter, if he even cared.
After dinner he volunteers to wash up.
"You girls have worked your butts off and all I've been done is kip in a spaceship for the last couple of days."
His wife dries the dishes and stacks them away. He can't help but look round every time she bends down to reach the lower cupboards. They have a droid to do these things, but she thinks it's laziness to make droids do housework just because you can't be bothered. They can hear her sister talking in the other room, and it's a talking-to-grown-ups voice. As hard as he strains, he can't hear his father's responses. He wonders if he's even bothering to make any.
"We've all missed you so much," she says, brushing his fingers with hers as she takes the plate. He smiles the gormless grin of a teenager with his first girlfriend, and he can't imagine being with anyone but her. He doesn't know what he'll do if anything happens to her. He spends so much of his time away worrying, waiting for the next holotransmition or letter, longing to know they're all okay and thinking of him. He understands, now, a little of why his dad kept leaving, but he still can't find full forgiveness for what happened in the end. Or maybe he's just confusing forgiveness with forgetting. Either way, she reads his thoughts.
"Go and talk to him. I'll finish up in here."
His father is nowhere to be found, and a full search of the house reveals a distinct lack of Carth. It is only when Dustil is bordering on panic that he remembers his father's habit of sitting outside on the patio after meals. He slides back the transparisteel doors and finds that the rain is ebbing away, but has not yet stopped.
His father is sitting on a collapsible chair near the lawn, elbow on the arm and chin in his hand. He doesn't acknowledge Dustil as he sits down in the spare chair to his right.
Carth glances sideways at him. For an old guy he is well preserved, brown hair peppered but far from predominantly grey, and his biceps are still better than Dustil's. "Hey," he replies.
"You know it's raining, right?"
Dustil nods resignedly. He can already see a break in the clouds and a billion stars burning for all the world like they will never stop. He knows they will, like everything does, but the two of them are captivated by the sight for an immeasurable amount of time. Eventually the rain stops. Dustil rapidly runs a hand back and forth through his hair, scattering water. Carth doesn't move, but seems to smile as water continues to trickle down his face.
"So how have you been?"
His father seems surprised by the question. "Alright. The usual. I've missed you."
"Yeah. Me too."
It's enough for the moment. They both sit back, content that that is over with, and Carth sighs quietly.
"You lover her," he says eventually. "More than anything. Am I right?"
Dustil grins nervously. "Yeah, dad. It's why I married her."
"'Hmm'? What is 'hmm'?"
His father shifts uncomfortably, as if the chair has suddenly shrunk several sizes. His gaze flicks between Dustil and the starscape as if he cannot decide which one he is addressing.
"It's nothing. I… I'm being stupid."
"I just don't like to see such close attachments. It makes me nervous. When you love people enough, they… They leave. Or you leave. Or both."
Dustil shrugs. "That's not going to happen. There's no war any more, except for border skirmishes. You, me, her and the boys … we're going to be fine." He realises he's talking as if to an old man, when really he should be addressing his father, and his face reddens slightly. "I don't mean to be patronising, dad. I just wish you'd stop worrying. Honestly, it's got worse since you moved in. We thought you'd be better off with us, but are you – seriously?"
Carth doesn't take his eyes off the stars, and he doesn't answer. Dustil wonders if he can hear him, and knows as he does that it's a stupid question. His father might be rich in years, but despite his growing paranoia he is completely fit in mind and body. If he isn't listening to you it's because you aren't saying the right things.
Dustil wonders what it is his father wants to hear.
"You should stay with your family," Carth says quietly. As soon as he says it his eyes tighten, thin lines spreading from the corners, and Dustil knows he is expecting it to spark another argument between them. He shakes his head. He knows exactly what this is about.
"Look dad. What is there to say you wouldn't have died if you were home that day?"
"That's not the point."
"Then what is the point in what ifs and maybes?"
Dustil thinks for a moment that his father is going to stop answering again, but after a moment's pause Carth says-
"Hope. Hope is the point."
"Dad-" says Dustil, then stops, because suddenly, inexplicably, he understands.
"You loved him? That Jedi? You loved him, didn't you?"
This time when Carth falls silent Dustil knows he is right. His father, the widowed, betrayed loner, had learned to love again, and in that love had found only sorrow and more loneliness. Dustil understands in that instant more about his father than he has ever understood before, and he feels compelled to grip the old man's arm.
"Revan," says Carth quietly.
Dustil barely thought about it when Revan died. He'd never met the man, never followed him, never heard him speak. The war against the true Sith was Revan's destiny, and like every destiny fulfilled the only possible outcome was death. He was given a state funeral, but so were lots of people. Dustil didn't care. Maybe he cares now.
"Listen, dad. It'll be alright. You've still got us and the kids, and we'll never leave you on your own."
Carth gives him a look of gratitude, and Dustil knows those were the words he wanted to hear. But in an instant the expression is gone.
"I'm not going to watch your family any more, Dustil," says his father, getting to his feet. It seems to take a little longer than it used to. "Good night, boy."
Dustil listens to his father's footsteps as he goes back indoors. The sky has clouded over again. A soft rain begins to fall. Dustil does not go back inside.
Morning sees Dustil stalking around his house, opening doors and looking in rooms, and then opening cupboards and wardrobes and cabinets, and then he looks in the garden, and he climbs the stairs to the attic and searches that. His eldest son follows him at a distance, wondering what daddy is doing. Eventually Dustil picks the boy up and finds his wife in the kitchen trying to fix a malfunction with the droid.
"This is why you can't depend on the dratted things," she says, almost cheerfully. "Always best to do the important stuff yourself."
Dustil kicks the droid in what would be its groin if it wasn't made of metal. Its eyes light up and life seems to return to it as if by magic. He decides they have to get rid of it.
"I was going to try that next," she says. "What's the matter, dear?"
"Have you seen dad?"
Her eyes widen. "No. He wasn't down for breakfast, but sometimes he doesn't want it. Have you checked his room?"
"First place I looked. His stuff is all there, but he's not. He's not anywhere in the house."
"He can't have gone far. Don't worry, love, he'll be back."
Dustil puts the child down and snatches his coat off the hook in the hall. He shouts some excuse at his wife and runs out into the street. The neighbours are in their front garden, and stare at him as if he is a lunatic, because it's not proper to run around the place like everything's on fire.
He can't wake his mother and there's nothing he can do. No one to call. The house is nothing but rubble, but he can see a way out into the street. His small frame squeezes through a hole in the wall and he tumbles onto the floor, scratching up his arms and legs on broken glass, jarred metal and fallen masonry. He has to find someone. Someone who can help. But everyone is panicking, people are screaming, and smoke fills his lungs as he realises the apartment block next to theirs is ablaze. Tears well up in his eyes, from the smoke or the pain or the fear. No one knows him, no one stops to help him. He can only think of one person to call for, but he doesn't know where to look, and he stumbles through the streets screaming until his throat is in agony-
"Dad? For sith's sake, dad, where are you?"
His feet lead him to the spaceport, and as he stumbles round the corner it occurs to him to check his pockets. His ship's docking permit is gone, along with the datapad containing the unlocking codes for the navicomputer. He curses as reaches the docking pad, and, as expected, finds it empty.
He kicks at some loose stones, and one of them clatters against something. Bending down he discovers a datapad, which he opens. The first entry is a family portrait – man, woman, child. Next is the image of a thin, pale man. Long dark hair, deep black eyes. From then on it is nothing but a journal, updated sporadically. Dustil pockets it, and vows to read it later. For now he looks up at the sky. He wishes he could see the stars, and wishes he knew which one of them his father was heading for. He knows he should have recognised that look in the old man's eyes, that sense of distance, that wanderlust.
And he knows he won't see his father again. Maybe it's the Force that tells him, or maybe Carth did, last night. Either way, he's gone, and this time he won't be comingback.