The smell of barbequing meats filled the air. Captain Tristanidad Luciano stood near the grill on the deck in his backyard, wearing casual clothes and holding a pair of tongs, as Colonel Jecamiah Agastya walked around the house and greeted his young friend. The Colonel also dressed casually, took a deep breath. “Oh, Lords of the Fourth System, what are you cooking? We’re going to have to fight off your neighbors!”

Captain Luciano smiled. He was happy that his mentor and friend would join him on an off-duty day. The Captain’s children played in the yard, laughing and enjoying themselves. As was often the case, Mungo Chaldea, the General’s son, was playing with them. The Colonel smiled as he watched the kids, and Luciano handed Agastya a dark glass bottle without any label.

“Brewed it myself,” confided Luciano, as Agastya studied the bottle.

Agastya sniffed the opening of the bottle, and his eyes widened as he smiled. He could smell the strong hops’ scent, but he also could smell a familiar, citrusy aroma. He tilted the bottle back and took a long draw. “Amazing, my friend. You certainly have a talent for food and drink.”

“Do you detect a hint of any fruit?” asked Luciano.

“Sayangfruit, from the tropics, I believe,” Agastya suggested.

“Very good,” replied Luciano. “What do you think of it?”

“I think you better have more than one bottle set aside for me this evening!”

Both men laughed as they looked out in the yard, watching the kids as they played. The Captain’s wife, Kalila Luciano, came out the backdoor, holding a large tray. Luciano kissed her as she handed him the large plate.

“I know you two boys will forget the vegetables if someone doesn’t put them in your hands; all you two do is eat meat and drink beer!” she joked, as she hugged Agastya and whispered into his ear. “We’re so glad you decided to join us this evening. It means a lot to Tristanidad and to me.” She kissed Luciano again and headed back inside.

“What’s this about?” Agastya asked Luciano.

“Fifteen years ago today, my friend,” replied Luciano, “you kept me from making a terrible mistake. I was ready to let her go, but you persuaded me otherwise. I’ll never be able to repay you for that.”

The Colonel smiled and nodded. He was happy for his young friend. Out in the yard, the kids were laughing and running around without a care in the world. The Captain’s kids had a beautiful family. They were growing up in an excellent home, with two parents that loved each other and loved their children without conditions. He was proud of his friend for also being so supportive of Mungo. The boy was spending more and more time at the Luciano home. While the boy’s home was less than ideal, at least he had a place where he could feel loved and safe.

*****

Earmon Terman watched as Colonel Agastya walked in the door of the Boatman’s Grub and Pub. Reaching below the bar, he brought up an empty glass, setting it on the bar in front of the seat that he was sure the Colonel would use. He turned around and selected a tall bottle from behind the bar. As he poured the golden-colored liquid into the glass, the Colonel sat down.

Agastya studied the glass for a few moments and then took a small sip. The bartender nodded and went to wait on other customers. It was late, and the bar wasn’t as busy as it had been earlier in the evening, but Earmon left the Colonel alone in his thoughts while he finished his drink. As the Colonel emptied the glass, the bartender returned, looking intently at the Colonel.

“It’s a rare day that I have to ask you for another round,” the Colonel remarked rather flatly.

“Is that what you really need?” replied Earmon.

The Colonel, chuckling, divulged, “I’ve known you for almost twenty-five years. You scare me at times with your ability to see into my soul.”

“You’re wrong,” the bartender announced, as he placed a folded photo on the bar in front of Agastya. “Your mind tells you that too many years have passed, but your heart will never let go, until you know.”

Earmon walked away, and Agastya stared at the folded photo lying in front of him. He knew what he would see without even unfolding it. He’d left it on this very bar, about twenty years before. It was almost inconceivable that it was sitting in front of him again. So, Earmon had picked it up off that bar and kept it for all these years, just waiting for this moment to put it in front of him again.

He picked up the photo, holding back the tears that were fighting to burst out of his eyes. It had been a wonderful evening with the Luciano family. The food and drink had been fantastic, and the company even better. Tristanidad and Kalila Luciano were two of his best friends, but they had something that he would never have. He was glad for that evening so many years ago when he’d convinced Tristanidad not to let Kalila go.

He unfolded the photo. He was so much younger in that picture. He was so happy. Aridatha Dolce had her arms around him, holding him tight and smiling. She had been the light of his life. She was so perfect. They were so in love, but he had broken her heart. He was so convinced, all those years ago, that she would be better off without him. He irrationally believed that his military career was simply too risky for him to make her wait for a call that might have come. He might have died in a battle somewhere, and she would have been left alone.

As he looked at the photo, he knew he’d been so wrong. Twenty years had passed, and that call would have never come. He was still alive; she was still alive, but he was all alone. Placing the photo back down on the bar, he walked out the door.

• • •

Chapter 23 Chapter 25

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