I can't shake the all too familiar faces of my crew out of my head as we enter the kitchen, but I try to replace them, temporarily, with my family's. I can see my mother shoveling some salad together in a large bowl, my sister mashing some potatoes, Greg standing over a simmering sauce pan. It all smells delicious, and very different than what I'm used to.
Mallory smiles in my direction. "Why don't you and your Banner set the table?" At this my mother sends her a strict look, but doesn't seem offended.
"Sure," I respond. I move to a cabinet in the far corner, unsure. I begin to open them, and am met with only spices and random liquids.
"Um...Sorry, but where are the plates?" I ask, feeling sheepish.
"Oh, sorry honey!" Mother then points to anther cabinet, and I begin stocking up on the needed silverware.
I move to one doorway and get an amused comment from Mallory. "That's the living room."
"I knew that," I lie. Banner chuckles behind me, and I shoot him a frustrated look.
Once we make it to the dining room and successfully set the table, all the food is brought in from the kitchen and we seat ourselves around the table.
"Greg, run and get the others," Mallory instructs. Greg doesn't hesitate in running outside and I can hear him calling for them.
"Where would you like me to sit, Mrs. Lynder?" Banner asks politely, standing back from the table.
Mother thinks for a moment before replying. "Why don't you sit across from Naomi? I'm sure she would like a familiar face nearby." A rush of sharp guilt goes through me as I realize that she's correct. The idea of Banner leaving me soon is enough to send a wave of terror through me, even though I know that this is my family. Can't Banner be my family, too?
Eventually we all begin our dinner, and I try to recognize each warm smile in my direction. Pretty soon, though, I begin to feel slightly lightheaded with the fact that I'm sitting around the dinner table with my family. It's the first in eight years.
"So, Naomi, Banner," my father begins. "How did you two end up crew mates? What exactly is a crew mate?" He adds, giving an apologetic smile.
Banner takes up the question. "Well, a crew mate is basically like your partner in crime. You do everything together; very rarely is there a solo Valer." He pauses. "We're strong believers in the buddy system." This earns a laugh from the occupants. Banner looks to me, expecting me to answer the other question. I can't count how many times we've looked to each other to finish our sentences.
"Susumu, our crew leader, put the two of us together because we had an instant connection, which is the most common reason people are put together as crew mates. I mean, you've got to be able to put up with them, because you're practically joined at the hip most of the day."
This earns a look of concern from my mother. "You mean, you're always together? Even at..."
As what she's implying sinks in, my family's heads swivel to us. I look at Banner and he laughs as I turn red.
"No! Definitely not! Boy and girls have separate barracks and everything. We spend all day together, is what I meant." A few relieved laughs are heard from around the table, and the tension visibly relaxes.
"So, you two aren't together?" Mallory asks, a look of mischief in her eyes.
"No, we love each other and all; I mean, I'd take a bullet for your little sister, and I know she'd do the same for me. It's a family bond. The entire crew has each other's backs-"
"As long as you don't slack," Banner and I finish together, repeating the old rhyme every Valer learned their first day of training. We share a smile, and I try to forget that he's not going to be staying here for long. Susumu's promise rings in my ears, I will do everything I possibly can to get you back with the crew as soon as possible. I can only hope that he holds true to his promises.
Banner clears his throat, preparing to launch into the speech I know he's memorized.
"I have to explain exactly why your daughter has returned to you, along with some other details concerning her service at Bluevale." The family gives him their full attention, but I know in a few moments they'll not be so calm. I give Banner a nod to encourage him forward.
"Naomi has served a running total of eight years and two months as a full fledged Valer, and has offered her services willingly and totally. Because of her skill with the public, and her willingness to do so, she has been temporarily sent home to recruit others to the service of Bluevale." The family stirs, catching on to the word "temporarily." Banner pushes forward.
"When she will return from her brief leave is not yet decided, but you do need to be aware that she will be returning. She should be receiving update letters at least once a week, and if these letters are in any way prohibited, Valers will be sent here to be sure everything is in order. Are we understood thus far?"
A few scattered nods, and I see that my mother has tears in her eyes. I quickly look away, repeating the same thing I've echoed for years now; Do your duty.
"I apologize if you were lead under false pretenses about the return of your daughter," Banner presses on. "However, it is entirely her choice to continue in the service of Bluevale. If any of you have any questions, you may ask me tomorrow, but for tonight, let's enjoy this wonderful feast you have all so graciously prepared."
I can't help but admire the way my family pulls themselves together after this, and continues on with the dinner. There is some small talk, but only a few questions concerning Bluevale. I can't help but feel as if I'm abandoning my family, but it was my own father who was the one who taught me my first Bluevale standard.
Do your duty.