Obviously, this owes a great deal (understatement of the century candidate) to George Lucas, and to Michael Stackpole's "X-Wings" and Kevin J. Anderson's "Jedi Academy" series of novels. The Rogues are mine, except for Wedge and Tycho, and so's everyone on Ryssshara and Lefcort.
No copyright infringement is intended.
“Major Antilles?” said the corporal, looking up as Wedge entered the outer office. “Please, go right in, sir, the admiral’s waiting for you.”
Was he, reflected Wedge as he thanked the corporal and crossed the room. That probably wasn’t a real good sign. Though, looking for the brighter side, maybe it heralded a squadron transfer to someplace a little closer to the action. He knocked once on the inner door and opened it, bracing himself for the extra humidity the Mon Calamari’s offices always had.
“Ah, major,” said Admiral Ackbar, “come in.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Wedge, glancing at the balding, stocky, human general in Starfighter tan standing by the window. He’d seen him around the base the last week but had never spoken to him.
“General Salm,” said Ackbar, “Major Antilles.”
They nodded at each other. Wedge thought Salm looked annoyed, but then he’d looked annoyed when Wedge had seen him earlier. Maybe he always looked like that.
“Your squadron is up to strength again, is it not?” asked the Mon Cal admiral.
“Yes, sir,” said Wedge, not sure if he should mention trying to find a desk job-a good desk job-for Sainer.
“Good,” the admiral said briskly. “Then they’ll be less likely to miss you.”
“Miss me?” Wedge said sharply. “I’m going somewhere?”
“Yes, you are,” said Ackbar. “You’ve been selected for a special assignment, major.”
“What sort of assignment, sir? For how long?”
“If you’ll be quiet, major, the admiral will explain,” said Salm.
On the other hand, maybe he always was annoyed. “Sorry, sir,” Wedge said to Ackbar.
Who waved a hand in a gesture Wedge knew meant ‘don’t worry about it.’ “A tour.”
That seemed to be all; it wasn’t what Wedge would have called explaining. “What sort of tour?” he said cautiously.
“You will visit as many worlds, particularly those who are not deeply aligned with us yet, as you can. You’ll meet governors, give interviews, and in general represent us to their publics, their ordinary citizenry.”
Salm sounded a bit impatient. “As the admiral said, major, you’ll give interviews, on holovision or whatever they have. Aerobatics. Parades.”
“Aerobatics?” Wedge heard his voice rise incredulously. “There’s a war going on and I’m going to be giving circus performances?”
“I’m not familiar with circuses,” said Ackbar, “but, yes, aerobatics. Parades. That sort of thing. Entertainment.”
“Entertainment?” Wedge couldn’t believe his ears. One glance at Salm told him the general couldn’t believe his own; Wedge quickly looked back at the Mon Cal admiral who had, before this, seemed fairly rational. “Parades and aerobatic shows? Sir, I can’t believe you’re serious.”
“Yes, that seems obvious,” Ackbar’s emotions weren’t always easy to read. He appeared more amused than angry, though.
Wedge ventured another protest. “Sir, there must be at least two dozen pilots better qualified than I am for this sort of thing, assuming,” he couldn’t help adding, “that this sort of thing is even necessary.”
“We believe it is,” Ackbar said peaceably.
“But not with me, surely. I’m a combat pilot, sir, the war is hardly over, and I don’t want-”
“Nonetheless, major, you will go.”
“As what?” Wedge demanded. “A diplomat? A performing dog? A walking recruiting poster? I’m not going to be very good at it-”
“I sincerely hope, major,” Salm said with ice forming on the words, “that that is a prediction and not a threat.”
“And I sincerely hope that that was a pleasantry and not an accusation-”
“Gentlemen, enough!” Ackbar’s voice sliced through Wedge’s angry response. Salm bit back whatever he was planning on saying and Ackbar continued in the silence. “If you will cease roiling the waters, perhaps we will be able to see a little more clearly. Let your passions settle to the bottom; what is it you say? Take a breath and count to ten? Do it, gentlemen.”
Wedge didn’t count, but he kept quiet. So did Salm.
After a moment, Ackbar spoke again, his throaty Mon Cal voice hard to read. “Now, now that we are all calm and passion is no longer muddying the waters, let us all look carefully at what lies in them. General,” he turned one amber eye toward Salm, “the major was not formed in any institutional military tradition. He believes it is his right, if not his duty, to argue orders with which he does not agree. He has always done so, since our first meeting. But I have known him since the evacuation of Yavin; allow me to reassure you that he has never, not once, failed to accept orders once given or to execute them to the utmost of his not inconsiderable abilities. Major,” now Ackbar’s other eye swiveled to Wedge, “the time for arguing these orders is past. You are not a command-level officer, by your own volition, and strategy is not in your purview. Like your squadron, you are a weapon wielded by those who make the decisions. It is unfortunate if you do not approve of all of them, but that is how it is. And this decision is made.” He stopped, waiting.
Wedge couldn’t see any way around it. He clenched his jaw on his first response, and exhaled slowly to calm himself down. “Yes, sir,” he said. “When do I leave?”
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Fortunately, Ackbar didn’t wait for an answer. “In one week.”
“One-” Wedge bit back the rest of it. “Yes, sir. I’ll be ready.”
“Dress uniforms,” said Salm.
“Naval dress,” said Ackbar firmly, in the tones of a man prepared to win the argument.
Wedge could not have cared less whether he wore Fleet white or Starfighter blue. If it wasn’t orange, it might as well be nothing. “Yes, sir. I’ll have to draw some.”
Ackbar blinked once. “The quartermaster will be ready to tailor them for you tomorrow afternoon,” he said. “Make sure your T-65 is ready for transport.”
“It needs to be pristine,” said Salm. “If it’s not, well, sign out a new one.”
“Sir,” said Wedge, carefully, “if it’s supposed to be the one I used to take out the Death Star-”
“It should be a little marked-up, major?” said Ackbar. “Yes, I agree. Take yours.”
“Yes, sir,” said Wedge. “Sir?”
“How long will this... tour last?”
Ackbar shrugged; it was a learned gesture, one that he used to make humans feel more at ease. It wasn’t working this time. “That is up to the discretion of the politicians, major. It will last as long as they think you’re doing any good.”
“Do you have a guess, sir?” Wedge said, ignoring Salm’s challenging stare.
Ackbar shrugged again. “A guess, major? A year, perhaps longer.”
“A year?” Wedge lost his composure.
Ackbar spoke before Salm did. “Perhaps longer. There are a good many worlds out there, major. And,” he blinked once, “you will be the only one doing this.”
Wedge took a deep breath, forcing himself calm. “Yes, sir. I see...Who will be taking over the squadron?”
“I wondered,” said Ackbar over the beginning of Salm’s remark; the general fell silent. “I wondered if you were going to ask. I want your recommendation.”
“Captain Celchu,” said Wedge without hesitation.
“Captain Celchu,” said Salm, “is an ex-Imperial fighter pilot.”
“Many fine officers,” remarked the admiral, “some of our finest, once served in the Empire’s forces.”
“They didn’t all engage in combat against us,” said Salm. Trust him to bring that up. Wedge was beginning to seriously not like the man.
“Is this a problem among your squadron?” asked Ackbar.
“No,” said Wedge, reining his temper in. He didn’t want them bringing in an outsider. Sainer wasn’t up to it; maybe Wes... but Tycho was the rational choice. The only choice. “Captain Celchu is my exec, sir, the squadron knows and trusts him. And he knows them. He’s an Alderaanian, sir, that outweighs anything else. For the squadron, at least, sir.”
“I agree,” said Ackbar. “He was my choice, as well. He will assume command then; general, have the appropriate orders cut tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” said Salm. Wedge had to hand it to him; at least he practiced what he preached.
“Will there be anything else, sir?” Wedge addressed that to the admiral, but it was the general who answered.
“Mission briefing tomorrow, Major Antilles, at 1000 hours in Colonel Moran’s office.”
“Yes, sir,” said Wedge, and then saluted Ackbar and left. He headed for the squadron’s building on foot. The mood he was in, he didn’t feel like riding; any driver would want to chat, they all wanted to chat, and he wanted to be angry in peace.
And then… he stopped walking. He was still going to be angry when he got there. He was going to need some serious alone time to get calm enough to tell the squadron. “Sith take it,” he said out loud and went to his quarters instead.
“Major?” The quartermaster-tailor, a small grey-furred Riffin, blinked. “I thought-well. This is wrong.”
“I wish,” said Wedge. “But it’s not. I’m your two o’clock.”
“But ... they said, Fleet dress. White. You are a Starfighter. That’s blue. Royal blue dress uniforms, not white. You should have blue uniforms.”
“The admiral says white, I wear white,” said Wedge in rueful amusement.
“How can I do this? Starfighters wear blue. And scarlet.”
“I know,” said Wedge. It occurred to him that although the white uniforms were conspicuous, they weren’t gaudy. Take the upside where you can find it, he thought. You may be giving circus performances but at least you won’t look like a clown…
“What am I to do, Major? Make a Starfighter uniform in white? With the scarlet stripes and the gold-”
“No.” Wedge said, revolted at the notion. “The admiral said, ‘naval dress’. Just make me one of those.”
“Four,” the Riffin said. “They said you’d be wearing it most of the time, so you’d need more than one. You’re a major,” he said, affronted. “Am I to give you lieutenant-commander’s insignia?”
“No,” said Wedge. “I’m a major. Make it with major’s stars.”
“This isn’t right.”
"Take it up with the admiral.”
The quartermaster didn’t seem inclined to do that. Instead, he took Wedge into the back, where he discovered why he was an appointment instead of a walk-in. He’d never had clothes tailored to him before; it was an odd experience. It wasn’t just the length of his legs or arms and the width of his shoulders and so on; circumferences were taken, neck (which made sense), arm in several places, wrist, hips, thighs… The Riffin scrambled up on a chair to measure parts of him, his sharp fingers seeking out every possible moving part and many that didn’t. In some ways it was more thorough than a medical exam; by the time he was done, he expected the quartermaster could have built a duplicate of him. At least he didn’t comment on the scar.
And then he did most of it over again with Wedge dressed. “We have to make sure your jackets fit over your shirt and trousers,” he pointed out.
“My dress beige came off the rack,” Wedge had tried to forestall the whole thing.
"I’m sure it did,” the Riffin had said. “And I’m sure it looks like it did. Naval dress whites are rather a different thing. Sir.”
So he gave up and stood still and distracted himself by wondering how precisely he was going to break this to the squadron.
Not that he thought he was irreplaceable, no. And not that he thought Tycho wouldn’t do a good job. But how could he tell them that he was going off for a year, maybe longer, to play games while they were still in combat?
As it turned out, he didn’t have to. He really should have gone by the squadron’s offices before going to Colonel Moran’s that morning. Salm had already been there to inform Tycho of his new position. And while the Alderaanian was much too well-trained, even after all this time, to jump a general, he had no such qualms about doing it to a major. Or least, about doing it to Wedge.
“It’s not my fault,” Wedge protested. “I did not volunteer for this thing.”
“That I can believe. You don’t have that much sense.”
“You’re pushing it,” Tycho said. “You could use a stand-down--and I know you don’t want to hear that so I won’t say it again. But me in command? That’s where you’ve lost it.”
“If you didn’t want to be in command you shouldn’t have volunteered to be my exec,” Wedge pointed out. “Who else? Sainer? That’s not a good idea any more, Tycho, you know that.”
“Yeah,” Tycho agreed.
“You’re going to have to do something about him,” Wedge said. “Sorry to dump that on you, but I’m not going to have time. If I had the authority, which I don’t.”
“I know.” Tycho looked unhappy. Sainer and he had roomed together for a long time, and their shared Imperial and Academy background made for a close tie. But the redhead was just not right any more, and hadn’t been since the Battle of Endor.
Sainer hadn’t lost his nerve, exactly. It was more subtle than that. It was the bacta tank that had gotten him. Sainer had been in the tank for three days at a single stretch, and then back in again not ten hours after coming out, and he hadn’t handled it well. Wedge understood, a little, how he felt about it. Bacta was better than dying, but it wasn’t a good experience, and some men were more afraid of repeating it than they were of getting hurt in the first place. And medical droids didn’t understand how to deal with that.
Wedge rubbed his hand, remembering the tank after Endor. Bacta was better than losing fingers, fingers were hard to replace, a whole hand was easier. But if he’d been partly conscious when they’d hauled him onto Headquarters Frigate after disabling that Bakuran message drone’s fail-safe, he’d have fought going into the tank, he knew he would have. All the way conscious, no, rational, no; bacta was better than dying, but only partly aware and bacta was too much like dying. And Sainer hadn’t known what was happening when he was tanked. Waking up in the tank, that was the worst. And Wedge remembered how the droid had wanted to tell him all about the various ways he could have been crippled up for life... he’d told the droid to shut up, and he’d meant it, and it had. But Sainer was the kind of guy who actually listened to them. By the time he was back on active duty, he was just not right for Rogue anymore. He wasn’t afraid of dying; it was more insidious. He was afraid of being badly hurt, afraid of the tank. He’d flown well, but he’d flown scared.
And flying scared would get him killed. And others with him. But figuring out exactly how to deal with the problem without destroying what was left of Sainer’s self-respect, that was the rub. Oddly, Wedge had missed being able to take the problem to Williard.
“I’ll think of something,” Tycho promised. “Don’t worry about Sainsy. I’ll find him a good job.”
“Rom?” Tycho was surprised. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that boy’s nerve.
“People are floating his name for a captaincy, a squadron even.”
Tycho’s blue eyes were suddenly amused. “Our little boy’s growing up.”
Wedge grinned. “And fighting it every step of the way. Williard once told me he had a profound lack of ambition.”
“That’s true enough.”
Wedge wasn’t entirely sure. He’d come to the conclusion that just being alive, well-fed and -liked, and having spending money was so much more than Rom had ever dreamed of as a kid that, for him, having more ambitions was simply unthinkable. But Rom only mentioned his childhood when he was drunk, and he chose the people who saw him that way very carefully; it wasn’t Wedge’s secret to tell. Now he shrugged slightly and said, “At any rate, he’s a damn fine pilot and he’d make a good squadron leader, so you’ll have to talk him into it.”
“Oh, thanks. Any other little pieces of joy you want to leave me with?”
“Mik Rieekan wants a transfer,” Wedge said. “To a capital ship. I think we should get it for him.”
“Won’t please his father,” Tycho said, but it was just an observation. “So I get to fill four places. Including coming up with an exec.”
“Want my opinion?”
“Wes or Raelay.”
“I was thinking of Wes,” Tycho nodded.
“At least you’ll have Sunrunner,” Wedge consoled him.
Tycho brightened immediately. “Yes, I will, won’t I? At least until you come back… when do you leave?”
“Five days,” Wedge said. “Five fun-filled, briefing-packed days.”
“I know you’re going to hate it. But-”
“Do not tell me I’ll be good at it. And don’t tell me it’s a good idea, either. Or that you’ll be fine without me.”
“I won’t.” Tycho paused just long enough to be answering only the last phrase, converting Wedge’s ‘you’ from plural to singular. Before Wedge could reply, Tycho added, lightly, “I’m sure you’ve heard enough of that. But keep in touch.”
Alderaanians, Wedge thought for about the millionth time since Tycho had come into his life.
With the dinner party drawing near, Rikhof went looking for the major. War hero or not, Alliance standing on Ryssshyrra wasn’t strong enough to take his standing up the royals. The cipher clerk was the last one to have seen him. “He got a message,” she said, “and after he read it, he went out.”
“Out?” said Rikhof. Out covered a lot of room. “Out where, exactly?”
“He didn’t say. Out back somewhere,” she gestured vaguely towards the ocean.
Well, that was good. He didn’t have a lot of room oceanside. He’d be easy to run down. Rikhof passionately hoped so, anyway.
Rikhof had been sent here by the Alliance diplomatic corps a year ago for the same reason everyone else in the consulate had been chosen: his looks. He was tall, rangy, and very blond, just like the ruling Ryssshyrri. Unlike them, he wasn’t terribly sure of himself, nor did he have a profound faith in his divine right to be who and what he was. He just worked very hard, tried to stay out of everybody’s way, and paid a lot of attention. Not surprisingly, this meant he had a better handle on Ryssshyrryan ways and customs than most, not that that was saying much, really. So he was the major’s cultural liaison.
The major intimidated him, too.
Oh, it wasn’t the major’s fault, Rikhof was more than willing to admit that. He didn’t try to intimidate, he was neither lordly nor abusive. He was just... a war hero. And Rikhof was a young, overpromoted, academically inclined communications tech. And a low-status male on Ryssshyrra, even if an Alliance one.
He walked outside, bracing for the seawind, and saw the major right away. He hadn’t gone far at all, just out to the cliff edge where he was standing, looking out at the ocean. Rikhof started towards him. After covering half of the fifty yards, he changed his mind. The major wasn’t looking at the ocean, his gaze was directed too straight ahead of him. He was standing motionless near the drop-off, his weight on his left leg. His head was bare, the wind pulling his hair, and his hands were shoved deep into the pockets of his jacket. He didn’t look as if he wanted to be disturbed. Rikhof slowed, and took a good look at the major, as if for the first time.
Not tall, slightly built, dark haired, the major was not, by Ryssshyrryan standards, attractive. In fact, as far as Rikhof could figure, going by the local population, what he probably looked most like was a teenager, years younger than he was, and not a particularly well-favored one at that. Amazingly, to Rikhof at any rate, Ryssshyrri still competed for him.
In fact, the first night he’d been there Rikhof had realized that he’d underestimated Ryssshyrryan force of habit. No less than three high-status women had vied to escort the major into dinner. The Lady vinDoria had attacked the Lady vinHalsa’s choice of colors, and suddenly Rikhof had realized his error. He’d leaned down and said, softly, to the major, who was, he could tell, about to say something, “A word in your ear, sir?” and to the ladies, “Please excuse us a moment, ladies; consulate business which will not take a minute; I’ll have him back before you notice he’s gone.”
The two men had withdrawn, and the major had lifted an eyebrow. “I hope this consulate business is taking me away from here tomorrow?”
“No, sir,” Rikhof had said carefully. “It’s not consulate business at all, or not exactly. I forgot to mention, sir.... I mean, I have no comment on your orders or your inclinations, but you should know: taking you into to dinner is status.”
“Really?” he sounded amazed.
“Yes, sir. And bearing your child is the highest status of all.”
“Say that again.”
Rikhof assumed that was rhetorical. “You have no say over who takes you in, sir, you’re a male, and a guest; so you’re under no obligation to, uh, bed whoever it is; but, if you voice a preference, it will almost certainly be yielded to, since you are a guest, and then you will be. Obligated, I mean. Or else you’ll be devastatingly rude. So, ummm, well, if you want to keep your options open, sir, you should keep your mouth shut. Even saying you like blue better than crimson is a preference, and delicately stated too. Just say you have no opinions.”
“Thank you,” the major had said, with feeling, and he’d been very good at it. He’d gone to dinner with the Lady vinDoria that night, and the Lady vinRaffla the next, and the Lady vinSancha last night; to Rikhof’s knowledge he’d gone to bed alone all three nights. Rikhof assumed the Ryssshyrri had been just as happy.
Oh, well, just one more night. The major left in the morning, and things would get back to normal.
Rikhof glanced at his chrono. He was going to have to interrupt the major’s meditations, or whatever. There was barely enough time left to get him dressed for dinner. He walked the rest of the way and cleared his throat. “Major Antilles?”
“Yes?” the major turned to look at him.
Rikhof was startled. The man looked ten years older, and Rikhof would have sworn his eyes were green. It must be the light. Or else... “Bad news, sir?”
The major took a deep breath, and shook his head. “Not generally, no, lieutenant. Personally. Someone ... died. What do you need?”
“Dinner, sir? You need to get changed.”
“Dinner. Yes. The royal court. I suppose it’s completely formal.” That wasn’t a question, and Antilles fell into step next to Rikhof as he spoke.
“They will want the full regalia, sir,” he nodded.
“Saber and all.”
“Saber and all, sir.”
“I certainly hope no one ever asks me to draw that thing; it has an edge, you know, and I’d probably cut myself.”
“Yes, sir,” said Rikhof without thinking. “I mean, no, sir, I’m sure not; it’s symbolic, sir.”
“I suppose so.” They entered the guest quarters and the major disappeared into the dressing room. When he emerged, he was wearing the naval dress whites Rikhof had never actually seen anyone wear in person before this visit; the younger man had a fleeting glimpse of why the Ryssshyrri still competed.
The high-collared, severely tailored jacket made Antilles look even slighter than usual, but somehow there was no aura of fragility. The stark white made his thin face darker and brown eyes more vivid, and the splash of color on his chest from the ribbons, the only color on the uniform save the silver of epaulet, stars, and buttons, drew the eye and the imagination. The saber buckled about his slim hips lent length to his legs and a note of danger to his person, especially after he pulled on the white gloves and rested his hand on the silver, white sapphire studded hilt. From the neatly cropped hair to the gleam of the white leather ankle boots under the cuffless trouser hems, he looked every inch the war hero. In particular with the somber expression he was wearing.
Rikhof was completely intimidated. He led the way to the great hall of the consulate in silence.
No less than five Ryssshyrri were waiting, including one of the royals. Rikhof found his voice in time to name all of them to Major Antilles, a necessity because no one ever showed up twice. “The Princess anDorian, the Ladies vinKarrsa, vinSariya, vinTaika, and vinHera,” he said under his breath.
“vinTaika,” the major repeated questioningly.
Rikhof nodded and then faded back to stand with their escorts while they contested for the major’s dinner company.
“I appeal to you, Major,” the princess turned sweepingly on him. “Share with us your opinion: whose gown is the best color for the evening?”
This was a standard opening gambit; Rikhof had seen the major deflect it easily three times now. Even when pressed with the obvious value of his own clothing, he’d pointed out that it was a uniform, and he had no say in it.
Antilles paused a moment, as if considering, and then said, “In truth, your highness, I’m not well educated in æsthetics, and my opinion is probably not worth much. But-”
That last was a new word. Five Ryssshyrri and their male escorts, and one Alliance comms tech, froze, waiting to hear what was coming next.
“-as you do me the honor of asking, I’ll say that my white best becomes the Lady vinTaika’s jade gown, at least in my opinion.”
Five pairs of blue eyes conferred wordlessly. After a moment, the Princess anDorian placed one hand lightly on the major’s shoulder and held her other out to vinTaika. “I believe that the major’s æsthetic sense is not so poor as he would have us believe. Taika Rial’s jade is well set off indeed. Dine well, my dears.” She placed the Lady vinTaika’s hand on Major Antilles’s arm, and then turned and took her own escort’s arm and led the company in, the now-lone male heading off on his own with a faintly startled look on his face.
Rikhof had watched them in surprise, and then had made his escape to the main consulate complex. The second undersecretary, Ferrot, looked up when he entered. “Ah, Rikki; tell your major when he gets back that the foreign minister is having a gambling session this evening. He’s Corellian, right? He should enjoy it.”
“Ah,” Rikhof said, sitting down. “He’s, uh, not going to be available.”
“How so?” Feuthran, the deputy security chief, was concerned.
“Well, he told anDorian that vinTaika’s dress was prettier.”
There was a moment of silence, broken by Feuthran. “Hey, why not? It’s his last night here, after all,” he shrugged.
“I’m just as glad,” said Ferrot. “It’s a little awkward having a war hero visit who refuses to leave a baby behind. The foreign minister even asked me if he was here, instead of in combat, because he’d been ‘damaged’.”
“What’d you say?” asked Feuthran curiously.
“No, of course. Either way, I figured he didn’t want it spread around.” He stood up. “vinTaika? Well, well. There is going to be some major status shuffling going on. I’d better get a report ready for the consul.”
It hadn’t worked. Wedge wasn’t sure if he had expected it to, but it hadn’t. Oh, while he was awake everything had gone well. And he had tired himself enough to sleep. But once he had slept...
The first time he had woken her vinTaika had apparently chalked it up to his gender. The second time she’d been willing to believe it was his combat experience. The third time, though she was compassionate enough, she raised no objections when he said he thought he should just return to the consulate.
She had ordered out a driver for him, but he’d decided to walk. It couldn’t be over three miles, and the tireder he got, the better. If he got tired enough, the dreams wouldn’t wake him, and if he didn’t get some sleep he’d be in no shape for the final press conference in the morning. Once he left Ryssshyrra he could miss all the sleep he wanted ... I am tired; that made no sense at all.
He walked down the street in the comforting dark, vinTaika’s driver a respectful distance behind him, and brooded. Wes’s message had been short and comfortless, which was, oddly, a little comforting in itself. Boss-bad news. I can’t tell you much, let’s just say Williard wouldn’t have approved of the plan. Tyke didn’t much like it either, but you know how it goes. He got it done, but we lost the captain. Sorry.
He hated Wes’s slightly clandestine messages as much as he craved them. He fretted over them, usually pointlessly and he knew it, because he didn’t have the information he needed to know whether he could have kept more of them alive if he’d been there. Ackbar could pull him out of the squadron and send him on this idiot tour, but the admiral couldn’t detach him from his people emotionally, only physically. Wes at least gave him the illusion of connection.
He looked up at the stars as he walked. He didn’t know where Tycho had died so he found Alderaan’s bereaved sun instead. Tycho... he didn’t want to believe it. It was still just words on a messageprint, ‘we lost the captain’. Just words, rumor... you don’t know if you haven’t seen the body. But he did know.
Tycho was gone. Whether he wanted to believe it or not, he knew it. He knew it in his bones, and in his hindbrain, where the dreams lived.
And the worst thing about losing Tycho was that he didn’t have Tycho to go to for comfort. No squirreled-away Alderaanian port, no solid reassuring presence in his emotional gloom, no halting heartfelt words...
No Tycho. For forever.
And that was the truth.
Eight months later, Wedge rode up in the lift with his local escorts in the silence customary in public transport, careful not to move out of the prescribed distance from any of them. Too far away, and it was a rude implication that he didn’t want their company, and while all things considered he might have gotten away with that, it would have more or less made his trip useless. And too close was either a threat or a presumption, and with at least one and maybe two of the trio presumption would probably earn him the sort of intimate involvement he didn’t want with anyone, let alone a lizard he’d just met yesterday. The silence was a relief after the past five hours, although he could feel two pairs of red eyes and one of gold watching his every move with the unblinking stare that he hadn’t grown used to yet, and fervently hoped he wouldn’t have the time to become accustomed to. Do they sleep with their eyes open? he wondered, but he wasn’t going to ask.
He ran his finger under the stiff collar of his dress uniform. The heat had him sweating and the humidity had his clothes sticking to him and Lefcortians didn’t practice climate control. He was immensely grateful that they had installed it in their only offworlders’ hotel. Inside a Lefcortian building was normally no better than outside, except that it wasn’t quite so bright, which was probably the only thing about Lefcort that didn’t bother Wedge. On the other hand, he had only one more day. One more day here, anyway. He watched the side of the building crawl by as the transparent lift moved slowly upwards. Lefcortians were also never in a hurry. Of course, with this heat and humidity, that’s something to be grateful for.
He had learned not to look down at the ground receding underneath them. Although the floor of the lift was, like the rest of it, transparent, looking down seemed to disturb the Lefcortians. Looking up was worse; that he’d actually been warned against. Partly because they weren’t able to look upwards themselves, the Alliance liaison officer (who had vanished from Wedge’s ken after thirty minutes, never to reappear) supposed, and partly, he was surmising now, because the motion bared a human’s throat. ‘At any rate’, he’d said, ‘never look up.’ And the potentially interesting view of the city and landscape was blocked by Wedge’s escorts, the smallest of whom was a good foot taller than Wedge and broad. And he couldn’t ask them to move, because of something about the position next to the building’s wall being the honor spot. And honor couldn’t be deferred, only accepted or rejected. And much as Wedge would have liked to reject the whole trip, it wasn’t really an option. So he watched the wall. And they watched him. It occurred to him to wonder if they were more interested in their view than he was in his, but again he wouldn’t ask.
The lift finally eased to a stop. One of the males, A’Replavan Wedge thought, verified the floor number both on the lift’s internal display and in the mosaic on the wall facing the doors, and then pulled the doors open. A’Hurigin slipped past and entered the hall first, and then the others waited for Wedge. He walked down the hall with his trio of attentive Lefcortians, who had begun to babble in series again the minute they came out of the “public” lift into the “private” hallway. The contrast between the nearly silent streets and sidewalks and the hissing and yowling that filled the rest of Lefcort was marked. It did help him be sure which male was A’Replavan and which was A’Hurigin, though, since A’Replavan didn’t speak Basic and A’Hurigin translated everything he said. They didn’t seem to expect him to answer them, which was just as well since most of what they said was a repetition of something they’d said earlier and most of the rest of it were obviously ritualized commonplaces not designed for intelligent response, which was, he figured, why they never translated back into Lefcortian for A’Replavan. When he did speak, they all fell silent and stared at him as though expecting pearls of wisdom, which had a rather dampening effect on him. Mostly, he just listened to them as they traversed the long hallways which all Lefcortian building seemed designed around, and that’s what he did now.
When they reached his room, he turned to them and smiled, remembering not to show any teeth. That wasn’t hard, because Wedge had lost the urge to really smile at anyone months ago. “Thank you,” he said, clasping his hands together before him, “for your most excellent conduction and more excellent company. Truly I would have been lost today without you.”
“It is our honor, Major,” said A’Hurigin.
“Truly, our honor and our privilege,” said M’Aurith.
A’Replavan’s words were repeated by A’Hurigin: “Our privilege always, now and this evening, when we return.”
They cocked their heads sideways and waited for him to speak. Fortunately, his words were laid down for him. “I shall await you with anticipation.”
“The anticipation is ours, Major,” said A’Hurigin.
“Truly, and our pleasure as well,” said M’Aurith.
And A’Hurigin’s translation: “Our pleasure and our honor always. Rest now, Major.”
“Rest in peace and in comfort,” said M’Aurith, and Wedge realized that A’Hurigin had ended one round and started another. It wasn’t always that easy to tell.
A’Replavan spoke again, and the other male relayed the words. “In comfort, rest, and in the knowledge that we will return."
"Thank you; I will,” said Wedge and watched as they went down the hallway, chattering. It seemed to him that when they were alone they talked out of sequence, maybe even on top of each other’s words, but he wasn’t certain. He knew they weren’t going far. One of them would take up position by the lift shaft on the floor, another by the lift shaft on the ground floor, and the third by the hotel’s main doors. If he hadn’t been the only person on this floor, he reckoned one of them would be standing outside his room all the time. He shut the door and leaned against it, and the cool dry air hit him like a welcome. For the first time all day he felt free to rub the long red welt left on his jaw and neck when an unhappy Lefcortian child had resisted having his picture taken. It didn’t hurt much anymore, but it was still tender, and it itched. He decided to ignore it. Glancing at his chrono he saw he had two hours to himself.
He poured himself a cup of caff (or what the Lefcortians called caff) and walked over to the glass door onto the balcony. He had to admit he had a beautiful view: the fringe of the unnamed city, the mountains blue in the distance beyond the winding river and the dark red plains, and in between the field of the fledgling space port with its dozen or so ships. He put his arm against the lintel and leaned against the other side, cradling the warm almostcaff next to his collarbone between sips, and watched the field with a nostalgia that was, in recent weeks, threatening to turn into full-blown rebellion. He sighed and leaned more heavily into the door.
Behind him, the door to the suite opened, a totally unprecedented occurrence, and one he’d have thought completely unlikely. Even if the schedule had changed, improbable in itself given the Lefcortian love for timetables, his escorts had always announced themselves and begged permission to enter. Wedge’s mind raced. He was wearing a dress uniform, true, but that didn’t mean he was unarmed. He had both a gem-hilted saber, which he sincerely hoped he would never have to rely on, and a flashy but efficient silver-chased blaster. He was also holding a nearly-full cup in his blaster hand and standing with his back to whoever had just come in. Only the reflection that it would be very difficult for someone to get past his three Lefcortians, plus the hotel staff, prevented him from dropping the caff and hitting the floor, going for his weapon. If it was the maid, he’d feel like an idiot. But he did straighten up, changing hands on the caff and trying to resolve the blurred image in the windowpane two inches in front of his nose into something recognisable.
And then the door shut and his visitor spoke. “Wedge Antilles, if you don’t get out of that damp wool you’re going to catch pneumonia.”
He relaxed and turned around, smiling widely, belying his words. “What are you, my mother?”
Leia Organa laughed. “Corellians! Don’t any of you ever just say, How nice to see you!?” She held her hands out to him.
Wedge put the caff down on the nearest flat surface and took her hands in his. “No,” he said, pretending to give her words serious consideration, “I don’t think we do.” He suddenly pulled her into a real hug, which she returned, and said, “‘Nice’ isn’t good enough, Leia.”
“It’s been too long, Wedge,” she said. She stepped back, holding him at arms’ length again, and looked at him. “What have you done to yourself? Or does he at least look worse?”
“Oh, that. It’s nothing,” he said, unwilling to explain that he’d been clipped by a toddler’s tail. It had been embarrassing enough when it had happened. “It’s nothing,” he repeated. “If this uniform collar weren’t so high, I wouldn’t even notice it anymore.”
“You look good in that uniform,” she said, straightening one of his ribbons.
“Well, take a good long look,” he said. “I’m thinking about chucking it.”
“Oh, Wedge,” she said. “I know you’re bored, but-”
“Bored? Bored doesn’t begin to cover it, Leia.” Abruptly he remembered his manners. “Can I get you something to drink? To eat? Or are you here officially, maybe going to this thing tonight? In my place maybe?” he added eagerly.
She smiled at him. “Some caff would be nice.”
“Warning: they call it caff, but I don’t know what they make it out of. It’s not bad, it’s just not caff.” He poured her a cup, adding sweetener the way she liked it, and indicated the least uncomfortable chair.
“Thanks,” she settled into the chair and took a cautious sip. “Interesting. And yes, I’m going tonight. We can go together; I can’t deprive the Lefcortian ruling party of their war hero.”
Wedge collapsed into one of the other chairs, managing the saber with an ease he wouldn’t have believed he’d ever acquire. Too long wearing it. “I’m going mad. Oh, you laugh,” he leveled an accusing finger at Leia, who was in fact laughing, and then waved his hand dismissively. “We’ll see how long you’re laughing. I tell you, I’m going barking mad.”
“How will we be able to tell, dear heart?” she said, and then sobered as he laid his head on the back of the chair with an inarticulate snarl of disgust. “Seriously, Wedge, I know you don’t enjoy this-”
“Enjoy it? What’s not to enjoy?” he demanded. “Look around. It’s not the most comfortable room I’ve ever been in, but they sure enough tried. It’s got a nice bed, a gorgeous view, climate control, hot water, room service... true, it’s not quite up to the standards of what-was-it, Fellix, where they put girls into the bed to keep it warm, but I’m not going to complain.”
She laughed again.
He laughed a little with her, and then sobered. “Leia,” he leaned forward, putting his forearms on his knees, “look at me. Twenty-three months ago I fired torpedoes into the reactor control units of a Death Star and killed an Emperor. At least that’s the story. And what have I done since then? Slept in nice warm beds. Eaten so much allegedly good food it’s a wonder I haven’t either died or had to have my uniforms resized. And speaking of which, I don’t even know where my regular duty uniforms are, I haven’t had occasion to wear one in so long. I’ve drunk at least two hundred different kinds of intoxicants, emerging with my preferences for Whyren’s Reserve, Montyrn brandy, and Rhyferrlan ale unchanged or even seriously challenged. The worst danger I’ve been in is hangovers during state breakfasts, and it’s possible that’s made them more interesting.”
Leia was laughing, and he couldn’t help but smile himself. But he continued, serious under the light words. “I haven’t flown except to put on acrobatic shows for civilians. Nobody has shot at me and I’m only sure the T-65’s lasers still work because Tyree's here and he wouldn't let them go. I have kissed, at a conservative estimate, a half a million babies, not all of whom, I may add, wanted to be kissed. And I have had my picture taken with more heads of state than I even knew there were states to have heads. Look at this place, it’s typical. I arrived yesterday, and immediately went to a reception. Then a newscast and several press conferences, designed I think for different population segments but all of them with inane and depressingly familiar questions. Then, out to some sort of fairground where I gave a speech and listened to three others. Then,” he heard the frustration in his voice, but let it stay there, “I was introduced to four or five thousand people, and had twice that many pictures taken, because everybody wanted just one more, please, Major, in case the first one doesn’t come out. Then, on to another reception, a dinner, and a party.”
“Oh, poor Wedge,” said Leia. “Not a party.”
He ignored her. “Then, this morning, a lovely breakfast with the ruling council or whatever. Then, an airshow, in which “The X-Wing That Destroyed Palpatine” amused the local citizens with daring acrobatics. Then, a luncheon with selected schoolchildren. About two hundred selected schoolchildren. Then, more press conferences, again with not one new question. And in about two hours, an evening of musical theater, prefaced by a small four-course supper and concluded by a comfortable twelve-course dinner. And then tomorrow I leave. I go someplace else and do it all over again with at best minor variations.
“Meanwhile,” he dropped the humor from his voice, “the war goes on. Palpatine’s dead, but you know as well as I, or better, that the Empire didn’t roll over and die when he did. Wes Janson may not be able get captain’s rank, but he can charm my location out of the staff, so he writes me. Rom’s gotten his own squadron, may the Force help them. Mik Rieekan is on a Star Cruiser now. Malina Afrit’s made colonel. Tyll Sainer’s doing something too secret for Wes to find out. Cho’san V’laris is dead, so’s Raelay Montran. And Tycho. My squadron is out there, Leia, they’re fighting and dying, carrying the battle to the Empire. I should be there, not here. If Ackbar wanted to make me sorry for turning down promotion, he succeeded.”
“Wedge,” Leia got out of her chair and sat down on the arm of his, reaching for his hand. “What you’ve been doing is important, crucial even. Imperial propaganda paints our forces as monstrous, evil. You’ve been showing a lot of worlds that’s not true. You’re the quintessential Rebel warrior, yes you are,” she said as he shook his head, uncomfortable with the phrasing. “You destroyed two Death Stars-”
“One. I was just in the vicinity for the other,” he corrected her, wondering why he bothered. She’d been there, after all; she shouldn’t fall for the line that everybody else kept repeating.
“Don’t confuse fact with legend, Wedge,” she said. “Jan Dodonna knew what he was doing when he put the Death Star circle on your Yavin combat tab. Luke is a Jedi, and Han wasn’t in the Rebellion at the time; we needed to say that an ordinary soldier could be catalytic in the right place. You know that. Besides, you did survive the run.”
“Where is Han?” he asked, changing the subject.
Her dark eyes told him she knew what he was doing, but she answered him anyway. “Chasing Zsinj. Don’t green up your eyes at me, Wedge Antilles. If you were a general, you’d get to do things like that, and I’d rather you were than him, if I’m going to be honest about it.”
“He’ll be all right,” Wedge gave her hand a squeeze. “If Vader, Fett, and Jabba couldn’t take him down, what chance has a poor Warlord got?”
“I know. But don’t think you’ve got me distracted by talking about Han. You’re the hero under discussion, and sending you out to show how utterly nice and normal we are was a very important mission. I mean, look at you. A chest full of medals, veteran of every battle from Yavin to Kansho, killer of two Death Stars and an Emperor, and withal such a pleasant, modest young man.”
Wedge snorted. “You mean if I was a braggart I wouldn’t be here? I can start, you know. I studied under the best.”
Leia patted his shoulder. “You couldn’t if you wanted; your style is to let your deeds speak for themselves. Anyway, it’s too late.”
Wedge groaned. “Don’t say that. I may have to resign.”
“No, you don’t.”
Wedge looked at her hopefully.
“Two more stops, and then back to the war.”
Wedge grabbed her in an overbalancing hug with a whoop. “Back to the Rogues?” he asked. Though frankly, after fourteen months of this nonsense, he'd take any combat assignment they offered him.
She pushed herself upright, laughing at him. “Greedy, aren’t we? Yes; well, sort of. Ackbar has a plan-”
“Ohhh, you wouldn’t. Would you?” he stared at her. Ackbar might... “Don’t tell me the whole squadron is going to be doing dog-and-dewback shows...”
“No. Absolutely not. I persuaded Ackbar to let me tell you,” she said. “First, you have to take a promotion. The new Rogue Squadron is going to be an independent squadron, and its commander has to be a commander.”
“Coercive,” grinned Wedge. “Okay, I’ll take the promotion if the squadron comes with it. What else?”
“Well, it’s going to be completely restaffed. I know there aren’t many you knew still with it-”
“Wes and Hobbie Klivan,” he said. “Assuming Wes isn’t pulling my leg about Rom growing up.”
“-but Ackbar, well, all of us, really, think we need to put together a whole new Rogue Squadron. With carefully chosen pilots-”
He looked at her with one eyebrow raised. “Just what do you mean by that?” he asked, “Carefully? We’ve always chosen carefully.”
“Of course you have, from what was available. This time, the whole Alliance will be available. And there’ll be a few more considerations-”
“Politics,” he said, hoping he was wrong but sure he wasn’t. “Leia, you can’t staff a fighting unit on political considerations.”
“That’s the last criterion, Wedge. We need to demonstrate to other worlds, well, how inclusive we are. We need Thyferrans, for instance, to keep them from withholding bacta. And we need a Bothan, because, well...”
“Because of Endor. Right, we need more-,” Wedge stopped abruptly. More sloppy spies wasn’t kind, might not even be true. Might not.
Leia’s expression told him what she thought of Bothans, but all she said was, “And so on. We need other nonhumans in the squadron, because, well, to be frank it’s going to be as much propaganda as weapon. But I know exactly what you mean, and believe me, you won’t be asked to take anybody who’s not one of the best pilots in the Fleet. It’s just, well,” she paused.
He could fill in the blanks. “Hobbie and Wes are out?”
“Tentatively. They’ll get their own commands, probably training commands. Wedge,” she said earnestly, “we’ve been in a lull since Palpatine died. The diplomatic corps has done all we can to bring in new worlds. At the moment, we’re no farther ahead than we were four, five months ago. Who’s joining us has; who hasn’t, won’t. Coruscant is arming and ready, and Moffs and Warlords are getting their feet under them. We can’t wait any longer. The Empire may be dead, but just like you said before Bakura, it’s going to do a hell of a lot of damage in its death throes.”
He remembered. He’d been pessimistic, remembering how so many people had thought Yavin was the end. Yavin hadn’t even been the beginning of the end, only, at best, the end of the beginning. Endor wasn’t the end, either, he’d known it then and seen it proved true. “I wish I’d been wrong,” he said.
“I know,” she answered. “But you weren’t. Now we have to cycle up and do it again. We have a lot of new help, but they’re riding a crest of euphoria. We need people like them, like Wes, I mean, to train our new fighters, and like you to lead them.”
He considered it. Wes and Hobbie would do a good job training people, especially Wes, but he wasn’t ready to abandon hope yet. The main thing was, would politicians, not ex-fighters like Leia, but purely political animals like that Bothan Whatsisname Fey’lya, try to foist political choices on him? He wasn’t going to jeopardize his squadron with people who weren’t up to the weight. “I get final say? On personnel?”
“Ackbar and General Salm get final say,” she admitted. Salm. Well, could be a lot worse, Salm’s a soldier, and, I think, an honest one. “But you get to provide your opinions. And you know Ackbar will listen to you. And the final cut will be made from pilots who qualify militarily.”
“So, I may get stuck with Fey’lya’s nephew, but only if he can fly?” Wedge said wryly.
“Right. Though, happily, Borssk Fey’lya doesn’t have any relatives in the Fleet.”
“Surprise me,” said Wedge.
“You’ll do it?”
“As opposed to more of this nonsense? Absolutely.”
“Wonderful!” Leia sounded like she really meant it. “I’ve got your commander’s rank insignia in my room. I’ll give it to you before we leave tonight. Unless you want to wait for Ackbar to pin them on personally?”
“I’ll forego the pleasure,” said Wedge, adding, “I’d rather you than Ackbar any day, anyway.”
She smiled. “Then, I suppose I’d better let you get ready for this dinner.”
“Supper,” he corrected her, rising. “Then the play, then dinner. I hope you’re hungry; it’s very rude to leave any food on any plate.”
“I’m a diplomat,” she said, “I’ll survive.”
“So will I, now,” he grinned at her. He walked her to the door, and thought of something. “Another warning. This building is the only one on the whole planet with climate control. Dress for the heat, and consider yourself lucky that you can. I get to slip into another one of these. By dinner time, I’m going to feel like I’m dressed for Hoth.”
“You Corellians,” she said fondly. “You complain every time you have to get dressed up nice. At least it’s worth the effort.”
He snorted. “You’ve ever gotten Han into this? That I want to see.”
She laughed ruefully. “No, not yet. Not into choker whites. But I will, you wait; or at least, into blues.”
“My money’s on you,” he said.
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