Ben finds him in darkness on the front porch swing, Mom's Christmas present a few years back. Dad made it himself. Man of many talents.
One of which is an impenetrable and frightening stoneface. Ben is near to quaking in his black combat booties.
The rainstorm hissing all around them is a hot one, and the wind, warm and humid as breath, is playing at the hem of Ben's untucked shirt. Mom hates weather like this. It makes her hair poofy, and Dad laughs at her attempts to tame it.
Right now he's got a bottle of brandy on his knee, fingers curled around its neck. Approachable, but tetchy. His right arm is taking up as much space on the swing back as he can make it.
Ben stands stiff against the porch railing and lets the storm blow curls out of his eyes.
"You gotten any smarter since we last spoke?" Dad says conversationally.
"No way in hell," Ben says. It's a beautiful start.
"Then I dunno what you're doing out here. I think I made myself clear."
"Think so. The part where you kicked a door in stands out in particularly shiny detail."
"Mighta been a bit perturbed at my son's sudden case of brainless suicidal heroics."
Ben's got a snappy comeback, it's right there on the tip of his tongue—but he reins it in. "I didn't come out here to have another go," he says. "I came to talk."
"I said my bit."
"Yeah, I heard. Now I'm sayin' mine." Mom would know how to phrase this so that nothing else winds up broken (someone's arm, for instance). Ben's plan is just to muddle along and hope his mouth somehow spits out what he means. He tries empathy. Empathy's good, right? "I know you had a hard war."
It's the wrong opening line, all wrong. He can tell by the world of trouble in the expression his Dad turns up at him now. "You know, do you?"
But Ben doesn't have it in him to be angry anymore. He slumps against the railing and says: "I ain't joinin' the same army you fought. I'm joinin' up with my homeworld's division, not any spit-and-polish bunch of dandified Core officers. It's different."
"Son, where do the gorramn orders come from, do you think?"
"From Governor Davis and our own ruttin' generals, Dad. I'd be fighting for Persephone."
"You'd be fighting for whatever Parliament told you to fight for."
"Dad," Ben says, exasperated. "I'm not gonna change my mind."
Dad laughs mirthlessly, then lets out a long, long breath. That throws Ben a bit, as does the way his father suddenly leans his elbows on his knees, head in his hands. He looks bone weary, and older than Ben's ever seen him. "He's less rock than spidersilk," Aunt River likes to say.
At any rate, Ben expected more yelling, not this heavy resignation. It occurs to him that he can't be the only one Mom tried to talk some sense into this evening.
"What I'm tryin' to get through your skull, Ben," Dad says, barely audible over the rain, "is that it ain't worth it."
"Reaver ships were caught on sensors not far out of Boros' orbit, they're gaining numbers every year, we know they've got an eye on Eavesdown, and you're tellin' me it ain't worth it?"
That earns Ben another glare, the kind that chills. "Even if you were deployed to defend virgin Persephone's gorramn rolling plains—which ain't likely—what makes you think it's worth your life? Do you really wanna get cussed at, shipped out, and slaughtered like livestock? Kill crazy folk on the orders of other crazy folk?"
Maybe Dad thinks Ben has never thought of it that way before. He's wrong. "I'll do that, yes."
The fragrance of sodden earth rises around them while Dad stares at him and lets the words sink in. The back of Ben's shirt soaks through and starts sticking to him, thin and translucent as onion peel. He suspects he's just said something profoundly stupid.
"I wish you wouldn't," Dad says in the end, eyes elsewhere. Half his life he's been giving orders; requests are treacherous ground for him now.
"Well, I'm gonna."
And there's really nothing else to say about it now. Further argument would be repetitive, useless, and kind of annoying. So Dad just looks up, sad-eyed and backlit by lightning, and holds out the bottle of brandy. Ben accepts both the peace offering and the space on the swing next to him. They swing slowly and listen to the crescendo and decrescendo of rain slapping the roof. It feels like every other late summer evening. It feels like he's already gone.
"It's true, though," Dad says, unsmiling. "The uniform's a chick magnet."
Surprised into laughter, Ben has another pull at the brandy bottle. "That how you caught a Companion?"
"No, that's how I caught me an Amazon. Stuck to me like grease on Kaylee for ten gorramn years."
"Aunt Zoë's a chick?"
"Best not tell her I said so."
They sit for a long time, sometimes talking, sometimes not. Dad doesn't mention uniforms again, and Ben doesn't mention leaving in two days' time. The thunderstorm limps away, leaving a moonless black sky, and the brandy disappears between them.
At midnight the screen door squeals open and shut, and Mom pads barefoot across the damp wood. She's wrapped a red shawl over her plain blouse and pants, and, true to form, her hair has poofed voluminously.
"You cold, bao bei?" Dad says as she squishes in between him and Ben, tucking her feet up beneath her.
"Always, lately," she murmurs as his arm goes around her shoulder.
"We gettin' all mushy here?" Ben says, scooting to the far end of the swing.
Mom leans across the gap and kisses his cheek. "Never."
Miles away, the storm mutters and growls to itself. The porch swing creaks on its chains, and Ben feels foolish and frightened and utterly invincible. He'll worry on it in the morning.