Obviously, this owes a great deal (understatement of the century candidate) to George Lucas, to Donald F. Glut's novelization of "The Empire Strikes Back", and to Michael Stackpole's "X-Wings" series of novels. All of the Rogues (except Wedge, Tycho, and Wes) are mine.
No copyright infringement is intended.
Wedge had waited until the last minute before leaving what was left of the Hoth encampment. Eleven pilots, including himself, had reached the parked and waiting T-65s after the signal to retreat had sounded-eleven of the twenty-four that had vaulted into snow speeders to cover the retreat from the ground, two squadrons reduced to less than one... six of them had been from Ten (Gray Squadron, that was, like Rogue had been 'Seven' until they got in the air; every general had his own notions about nomenclature. Dodonna had liked colors; Rieekan preferred numbers.). Gray'd lost half their pilots, including their captain, and were somber about it; none of them had been in such an unbalanced action before. They'd come in, climbed into their X-Wings and blasted off without wasting much time, the whistles from astromech R2s replaced by the powering up of the fighters' sublight engines. Tycho and the redhead Sainer'd been there when he and Janson arrived; the Alderaanian's exultant gesture on seeing him had matched Wedge's own emotion perfectly. And then Luke had straggled in on foot, and Wedge had to start hoping that somebody else might show up. He knew who'd gone down, knew there was no way Hobbie and Pars had survived their spectacular immolation, but Booster's words rang in his ears: you don't know they're dead if you didn't see the bodies. Of course, for Booster it was cautionary, not hopeful, but still...
They had all raised their heads sharply when the Falcon tore by, close and fast and encouraging. Han wouldn't be leaving this iceball if Leia weren't already away, Wedge knew; his compatriot talked tough but, like Booster, had an interior as soft and sweet as ryshcate ... not that anyone would ever say so out loud about either of them. And Leia would be anything but the first to leave. The ground staff must be gone; the last transport had taken the foot soldiers on board and left with its two escorts while the remnants of Rogue and Gray had been abandoning their snow speeders and running for the X-Wings left waiting for them. Everyone was off this frozen slice of hell except them.
Wedge found himself in charge, though he was nominally the second ranking man there. Luke was in a hurry to leave, as who wasn't, but something about his body language spoke of a decision reached, or a job finished. He all but ignored Wedge's call of "Good luck! See you at the rendezvous point!" as he climbed into his X-Wing and powered it up, and left without a backward glance. Wedge shrugged it off and did what had to be done; after all, half the time Luke was someplace else anyway, trying to master the Force, or be mastered by it, Wedge wasn't completely clear on which.
Luke had tried to explain it to him once, back on Ord Mandell. "When you're in your X-Wing, which is in control: you or the fighter?"
Wedge had given the question serious thought. "When a pilot" he'd started, but Luke had shaken that no-longer-really-blond head at him.
"No," he'd said, reaching out and putting his hand over Wedge's heart. "Not 'a pilot', Wedge. You. When you're in your X-Wing?"
"Neither," he'd said after a long moment. "There isn't any 'control'. It's not like a freighter. I don't control it, it doesn't constrain me. We're," he'd felt himself blush, it sounded so damned mystical, but continued steadily, "one thing. The same thing. II fly. I mean, I don't fly it, I just ... fly."
"Exactly," said Luke simply, almost as if he'd just been waiting for Wedge to understand it. His blue eyes had warmed. "That's the way it is with the Force. It flows through a Jedi, it both guides his actions and answers his will. That's what Ben said, anyway. I, I can't find that center point, Wedge. A couple of times I've felt it, just like that, but I can't do it even some of the time, much less on a regular basis. I haven't felt it since Yavin. No matter how hard I work." He'd slammed a fist into his other hand. "In fact, sometimes it seems the harder I work the further away I get." His voice had been filled with frustration and anger.
Wedge didn't know anything about the Force, or being a Jedi, but he did know frustration and anger. So he left Luke alone to do whatever it was he was trying to do, and just ran the squadron for him. And if Luke got it figured out, became a real Jedi, came back full-time to the Alliance military? Well, Wedge had never heard of a Jedi fighter pilot. Jedi Generals, yes; Jedi Majors, no.
He waved Tycho and Sainer off with Gray, and hustled Janson into his T-65. The kid (that's how Wedge thought of him, though he was probably not much if any younger than Wedge's own twenty-two), taking his duties as wingman too seriously, wouldn't leave, and Wedge felt a stab of irritation. Then his common sense overrode that; if he stayed too long for it to be safe for Janson, it wouldn't really be safe for him, either. After all, Wes had been flying for the Rebellion as long as he had.
He climbed into his own T-65; he was getting spoiled, he realized. He missed Tyree's help with the buckles and the cockpit latches, especially the latches. He glanced at the chrono. Two more minutes. He could wait two more minutes. Then they'd have to leave. He began powering up, and Janson followed suit. Then his eyes caught on something else, and he armed his weapons and lifted off the icepack.
"Wedge?" Janson's voice over the commlink was strained. Wedge couldn't blame him. "We leaving now?"
"In a minute," said Wedge. "Get high, Wes, and cover me. I'm taking out this hardware." He extended his S-foils and locked them, banking around to make a strafing run. He was relearning why they hadn't been using the fighters. The long hours the mechs had put in (now gone for naught) to make the speeders function in the cold, which naturally didn't bother the at-home-in-deep-space T-65s, had been necessitated by all the ambient moisture on what was a planet with, so far as Wedge could tell, no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The heat of his four sublight engines was creating a heavy fog in the area, which wouldn't have bothered him if he hadn't had to cross and recross the same space. Moreover, ice was forming on his S-foils and windows. Thank Sathembi he'd never had to engage in combat in such conditions! The fog was forcing him to fly on instrumentation to be sure of hitting all his targets, and Wedge missed being able to see. Plus, though this didn't bother Wedge as much as it did most of the pilots, the gravity screwed up the fighter's responses. He didn't like it, but he could adjust easily enough.
Janson slipped past him, adding to the fog, heading for the upper position, his own S-foils locked as well. The X-Wings (more than a squadron's worth!) and snow speeders on the snow looked helpless, and for a second or two Wedge balked at shooting them. But the course to the rendezvous point was already in his navicomp... now maybe Tyree was the only mech who'd done that, it was certainly possible, but it was as likely that time had been bought for them all. If some clever Imp made it to the rendezvous before the Alliance ships had cleared it... well, Wedge didn't see any point in finding out how that would play out. And while T-65s were not generally used by Imperial forces, Wedge didn't want to find himself facing these some day down the road.
He caught most of the fighters on his first pass, and banked around for a second run. "Wedge!" Janson yelled at him, "Walkers!" He registered Janson dropping past him in a sliding dive designed to distract the enemy, all lasers firing. The X-Wings were sluggish in atmosphere, and the fog wouldn't help, but they were faster and packed a lot more punch than the speeders; the AT-ATs wouldn't be able to ignore Wes the way they had brushed off pilots when they'd fought earlier. Wedge slewed to his left and down, hoping the fog would screw up the walkers as much as him, and strafed the remaining T-65s. He'd gotten a little close, he rocked from the blast as the last three went up together, but he was okay. Fire from the walkers lit the foggy air on his left side.
"Wedge! You okay?"
"Wes, get out of here," he said, keeping his voice calm. He banked hard right, pulling into an almost vertical climb. One thing about walkers, they couldn't follow you. He broke into sunlight and looked for Janson, found him; his wingman closed up with him as they tore into the upper atmosphere. The noise of the engines in the air made the R2 impossible to hear, but Wedge looked at every readout in his cockpit every couple of seconds and he saw the warning. TIEs, waiting above. Well, not unexpected. "Get ready," he told Wes. "Remember, we're leaving. Nothing here is worth dying for any longer."
"Right, Wedge," said the kid. "Evasive?"
"Absolutely. Get gone as soon as you can. They can't follow." And a couple of stray X-Wings wouldn't justify a carrier's abandoning its non-hyper-capable interceptors.
The higher they climbed, the more sweetly the T-65 responded. Once again Wedge felt balanced, capable, alive, the way he only did at times like this. He could see again, could move again, felt as though he could do anything. Only the need to watch over Wes Janson caused him to rein in the euphoria and look for the shortest possible route with the fewest possible TIEs to a place far enough outside the gravity well to go into hyperdrive. Otherwise, he might well have decided to avenge Hobbie, Pars, Dack, all those boys from Gray; the way he felt he could have taken on one of the Super Star Destroyers filling half the sky. Instead, with Janson staying tucked in neatly next to him, he spun away from the Imperials heading in their direction and made for open space.
TIEs followed. Oddly, it seemed to Wedge that the SSDs were moving into the Hoth system's asteroid belt, accompanied by many of their TIEs. He couldn't imagine what they could be after to take such a risk, but he certainly could imagine why, given such a choice, as many as were were following him and Wes instead. He checked his readouts, looked over his shoulder, and heard Janson's tense voice even as he saw the TIEs closing in behind.
"Wedge! Three on our tail!"
"Break left, Wes, I'll take care of them," he said, keeping his voice calm.
"Left?" said the wingman, who was so close on Wedge's right-hand side he could see scratches on the kid's paintjob.
"Left," repeated Wedge, "toward me. Now!" That had the crack of command in it, and Janson broke left just as one of the TIEs fired, leading for a right-hand turn by the rebel. The edge of the blast singed Janson's upper starboard S-foil, and the kid's T-65 rocked. Wedge, already rising through a sharp right-hand turn, jobbed at the controls, passing so closely over Janson that he might have scratched his own fighter on the kid's astromech droid. Tyree wouldn't approve of that... Wedge was firing as he came around, and one of the Imps exploded very satisfactorily. The other two, trailing the first one, were confronted with an X-Wing in their faces. They broke in opposite directions, sharply, and Wedge continued his turn, following one and firing until he hit it. Almost immediately he was rolling up and away, searching for the other eyeball.
"Wedge?" Janson called. The strain was back in his voice.
"Keep going; I'm right behind you!" Wedge called back. He found his wingman, straightened into pursuit, and stepped up the speed. The other Imp was coming in, and he'd found a couple of friends. They were concentrating on Janson, who was running as hard as he could. He only needed a handful of seconds and he could go into hyperdrive. Wedge intended to buy him those seconds. Nobody else dies today. At least, no more of Wedge's people. "Get out of here, Wes, I'll be along in a minute."
"Get!" He started firing before they were really in range, to attract their attention. It worked. They abandoned Janson, who had, for a wonder, obeyed and was hauling freight in a straight line as fast as possible. Wedge had never found cause to admire the brains on an Imp pilot, but they could tell the difference between predator and prey all right. Wedge hoped Janson's hyperdrive was working and then forgot about the kid as four TIEs converged on him.
It was just like Dantooine: Wedge could see all of them, where they were and where they were going and what they were going to do next. It helped; it helped a lot, but there were still four of them, and they were still faster. By the time he'd taken two of them out, he'd been hit, and hit hard. He was running on three engines, and his comms had cut out with a squeal that sounded like an R2 unit in panic. He cut around to go after the remaining pair, and saw more coming at him. He rolled, fired, watched another TIE explode, and as suddenly as that his mind cleared. No, not that exactly, he'd been thinking crystallinely clearly, but his common sense kicked back in. Nothing here is worth dying for, that's what he'd told Wes, and it was true. Wes was worth it, but he was long gone, and Wedge needed to be after him.
Firing in short bursts, he searched for a hole and found it. With a final shot that clipped the vane of the nearest TIE, he gunned his engines and ran. They weren't expecting that, and it took them a minute to come after him. But one, maybe two, of them caught him a jolting blast before he was out of their range. Hyperdrive was still online, and he punched it in.
Hoth faded beneath him, shivered with the drive's engaging and vanished as the stars exploded into lines of light and the X-Wing leapt into hyperspace. Wedge wasn't the slightest bit sorry to leave it, if the truth were told. They had been there for 35 days, no more, but he wasn't certain he'd ever get warm again. Of course, he'd have liked to have left a little more leisurely, but that couldn't be helped. The Empire was taking them more seriously these days, getting more assiduous at tracking them down, more eager to come to grips. It was a compliment Wedge could have lived without.
It was a compliment Hobbie, Zek, and the rest would have lived without...
Wedge shook his head, as if physically throwing off that thought; he didn't have the time to deal with it now. That "leap" into hyperspace had been more a controlled fall, and he knew he was hurt. That was how he always thought of the T-65, not as 'it' but as part of himself. And just as when everything was perfect, the way Tyree kept it, he felt whole inside the cockpit, now he felt crippled, limping, like he had broken bones, lost sight in an eye, gone deaf...
He tried running a diagnostic, and found only more bad news: whether it was the R2 or the interface, only nonsense scrolled up on the readout. A quick test of the guns showed him he had one still working well, upper starboard. Lower starboard stuttered, and neither port gun worked at all. For that matter, it was one of his port engines he'd lost earlier, and he thought he had lost the other one at the end there. Whenever he'd lost it, he had. The whole S-foil complex on that side was damaged, and he didn't know how badly. At the moment, he was okay, because his hyperdrive was intact, channeling to his two remaining engines, but what was going to happen when he dropped out of hyperdrive and tried to go sublight was going to be a different story. It was a struggle to maintain balance now, and in normal space it would be worse, much worse, and he couldn't trust it to his R2. More, the loss of the engines was slowing his hyperspace speed as well. He was going to be very late to the rendezvous. What he didn't think about was whether his speed was enough to make it past any gravity sources the course would not have taken into account for something with the legs of a healthy T-65, because there just wasn't anything to do about that. What he did hope was that he could get back to hyperdrive if no one was still there waiting for him.
Fortunately, he could, because no one was. When he shuddered back into normal space, there was nothing to see except emptiness. It didn't surprise him, because he was a good five hours late, maybe more; his control panel chrono was one of the things not working correctly. He wouldn't have waited for him that long, not given that he was senior enough to know where the new base was being set up. If it were possible to change a course in hyperdrive, he'd have done it. But it wasn't, so he'd had to come here. Admit it, Antilles; you were hoping a carrier would still be here... He was tired from fighting his crippled ship, and he had an oxygen deprivation headache; he'd thumbed life support down to 75%, knowing he was going to be out a lot longer than he should be. He was even tempted to hunt for a planet to rest up, but he wasn't at all certain he could fight his way through atmosphere once, let alone three times; he had a nasty suspicion that pieces might come off.
He pulled off his helmet; there wasn't much need to keep it on, since nothing was working. Rubbing his eyes, he punched in the coordinates of Verbama with the other hand and waited for the navicomp to deliver the solution. Hope that still works... of course, it did get me here. Assuming here's where I think it is. And if it doesn't, it's not like I have a lot of options. He pinched the bridge of his nose, leaned back, and then straightened up. This was no time to take a nap. Thoughts drifted through his head, randomly. He hoped Han could get Jabba the Hutt to listen to him long enough to pay up. Funny how Han did get paid... I guess it's true what they say, you gotta want it. He wondered how Leia was doing sorting out Han and Luke. He wondered what Mirax was doing; she'd taken to running arms for the Rebellion every once in a while. Surely she was better off than he... It suddenly dawned on Wedge that Booster would be getting off Kessel this month sometime. If he was still alive. Though Wedge had a hard time believing that Booster couldn't survive five years of spice mining, not if he behaved himself anyway, and he would, for Mirax's sake. Have to find out... sure; just ask the next Imp you meet to check on the release lists from Kessel. They'll be happy to oblige. The navicomp beeped at him. There was the solution. Well, a solution, anyway. He took a deep breath, put his helmet back on, and punched in the numbers. Time to go. The stars exploded around him and he fell back into hyperspace.
It was another ten hours to Verbama, at least that's how long it took Wedge to limp there. By the time he got there, the only thing he was able to concentrate on was the imperative need to come in under his own power and land it himself. He didn't think anything had actually fallen off when he came into the atmosphere, but it was such a struggle to keep level that he wasn't certain. He'd closed his S-Foils, though he had a bad feeling about the portside set. He had actually forgotten about his comms being out until he was overhauled by another X-Wing, who did a visual check. He rapped on his helmet and shook his head, and the guy nodded and waved him in. Wedge forgot about him almost immediately, concentrating on finding his way to the field and keeping level and under control as he did. Everything had narrowed down to that single necessity.
The field had a big prefab hangar at one end of it, its doors open. Wedge's instinct was always to get under cover, and he did so now, slowing and carefully maneuvering through the door and setting down on the empty floor as neatly as if he were flying back from a routine and uneventful patrol. He stared through the window, feeling like his headache was the only thing keeping him awake. He had vaguely registered people on the field, but only vaguely. He had also registered that someone still in Hoth whites was sitting on his heels near the back wall of the hangar; someplace in his mind he must have known who it was, because he wasn't surprised when the man ducked under the nose of the T-65 and climbed up onto the fighter although the engines were still running.
Tyree. It would be okay now.
Tyree was unlatching the cockpit. Wedge leaned back and brought his hands up to his face, pressing them against his nose and cheeks, and then shook his head. Tyree was rapping against the window. Wedge stared at him for a minute, and then realized what he wanted. Wearily, he reached out and unlatched the rear portside catches, whose external controls were apparently another casualty. Tyree popped the hatch open and pushed it back. The rush of fresh air was like cold water. Wedge woke up in a hurry.
"You okay, sir?" Tyree asked, with concern in his voice, reaching down to kill the engines.
"I will be," said Wedge, pulling off his helmet, and then his gloves, and breathing deeply. His eyes narrowed as he really took in Tyree's appearance: coldweather whites, unshaven, bruised-looking eyes.... "How long have you been waiting?" Although I probably look worse....
"Since we got here, sir," the mech said simply. "I knew you'd be in. What's the damage?"
"Sith, Tyree, it'd probably be easier to tell you what's still working," Wedge answered, rubbing the back of neck. "Port engines and guns are out. Lower starboard laser is shaky, for that matter. Comms out. Stabilizers shot. Attitude thrusters, too. Ahhh.... I don't know where the problem is, but the R2's not making any sense." He raked a hand through his hair, thinking.
"That's enough to be starting with, sir," said Tyree. "I'll sort it out."
"I'm sure you will," Wedge said, and he was. If it had been up to him, he'd have junked the thing, but he'd had that feeling before. He fully expected Tyree to show up in a few days, wiping his hands on a rag, and tell him he could have his fighter back now, sir. Wedge wasn't sure how the mech did it; he was fairly certain he didn't want to ask. Somebody might have to be arrested, and then where would he be?
"Janson said you got three for sure, probably four?"
"Five, actually, but only three confirmed, I guess," said Wedge. "And one more clipped, anyway." Tyree's scorekeeping was somehow essential to the mech's war. Officially Wedge would take the three Wes Janson could confirm and forget the other two, but he always gave Tyree everything, however unconfirmed or partial. Janson said... Wes made it, then. Something good...
"A good day, then, sir," said Tyree.
"I guess," said Wedge. He'd learned the futility of this argument a long time ago. "What's this place like?"
"Warmer than Hoth," said Tyree. It was as close as he got to a joke.
Wedge smiled. Tyree took the helmet, and then reached down and loosened Wedge's buckles and helped him out of the cockpit. Wedge dropped to the floor, his knees buckling slightly at the gravity pull; he had already adjusted to it, so he didn't actually fall down. He was sorely tempted to lie down and go to sleep right there, though. "Tyree, where's quarters? No, headquarters," he changed his mind. Report and get it over with, then sleep. For a week.
"Out the back door, sir, and you'll see a big, sort of brown, stone building. That's where they put headquarters."
Big and sort of brown. Well, Wedge figured he'd find it. If there were more than one such building, Tyree would have said the one in the middle or with the blue doors. He wasn't much on description, but he got the job done. "Thanks, Tyree." He held up his hand and the mech dropped the helmet, gloves tucked neatly inside, down to him.
"Lieutenant Celchu was asking about you a couple of hours ago, sir."
Wedge flinched, looked back up at his mech. "Tyree, don't try to break bad news easily."
"Sir?" Tyree looked slightly puzzled.
"Never mind. Thanks." He turned away, and then back. "Tyree."
"Sir?" The mech pulled his head out of the cockpit and looked down again.
"Get some sleep before you start working on that. I'm not likely to need it tomorrow."
"Sir. If you say so."
"I do." Wedge headed for the door. He very nearly turned back and asked where quarters were, but he knew better. It was just... Tyree never told him who was around, not even on squadron business, not unprompted. The unsolicited information that Tycho was alive was meant to offset something else, and Wedge knew he wasn't going to want to hear it. But it couldn't be postponed for long, so he might as well get it over with. At least Tycho made it, he thought, and smiled involuntarily. Tyree does know me better than I might like.
He stepped out onto a path surrounded by knee-high grass and paused for a minute to soak up the sunlight. It was warmer than Hoth; it was possible it would eventually prove to be too warm, but at the moment it felt good. The deep chill in his aching muscles started to ease away. He lifted his face to the sun, eyes closed, and wondered, idly, what the odds were that he could just stand there till dark.
He had just enough time to think never ask the odds and not enough time to brace himself before he was literally swept off his feet in Tycho's welcoming embrace. At least he wasn't a Wookiee. The Alderaanian swung him around once and put him down, and then grabbed his shoulders and said, "Wedge. You had us worried, most of us anyway. You look like hell."
"Oh, thanks," said Wedge, slapping Tycho on the arm. "You look like Tycho Celchu, but you can't be. Who are you and what have you done with him?"
"Idiot," said Tycho, turning the insult into an endearment in very nearly perfect Corellian fashion. He shook his head and let go of Wedge, relapsing into his usual Alderaanian manner, almost embarrassed, it seemed, to have shown such open emotion.
"What do you mean, 'most of us'?" Wedge demanded.
"Well," Tycho answered, taking Wedge's helmet from him with a quick, decisive grab, "Tyree. And Wes said if Tyree was waiting on you, you'd make it. Ah, the confidence of youth." Tycho sounded like a graybeard.
"Wes made it back okay, then?"
"Yep. Unscratched." Tycho fell in next to Wedge as he headed for the headquarters building. "Well, slightly singed, but okay. I don't mind telling you, I was praying he was right. I don't want to be Rogue Leader that bad."
Wedge gave him a jaundiced look. "Right..." The meaning sunk in. "What do you mean, Rogue Leader?"
"You didn'toh, Sith." Tycho was discomfited.
Wedge stopped walking and faced his friend. "No, I didn't. Whatever it is. Tyree tells me nothing. What is it? Luke" he didn't want to hear it, so he offered another choice. "They promoted him?"
Tycho shook his head. "No. He never got here. But, heyyou only just did," he added in a would-be hopeful tone.
Wedge closed his eyes. Except Rom and Sainer, Luke was the only Rogue left from Yavin; he was the only man left from the Death Star run... somehow, you never thought he wouldn't make it. "Did you and Sainer run into real trouble with Gray" he stopped abruptly, asked, "Did Sainer make it?"
"Yeah, yeah. Sainsy and I got all six of them here okay," said Tycho.
"Then what is it?"
"What's" Tycho began, but Wedge interrupted him.
"Tycho. It's me. I know that look. There's more than Luke. What? Siththe general?"
"No, Rieekan's here."
"Tycho. If you make me keep on guessing, I will slaughter you personally." Wedge put his hand on Tycho's arm and stared at him.
"Oh, Sithspawn. I can't believe Tyree didn't tell you... You didn't hear anything?" Tycho was not making it better.
Wedge took a deep breath. "My comms were out. Tyree doesn't talk much. I didn't see anybody else, I haven't heard anything, and if you don't tell me right now, I will break your arm and transfer you to Y-Wings." His tone was deadly serious.
Tycho swallowed once. "The princess."
Wedge had known, somehow, that was the name Tycho was holding back. Nevertheless, he felt like he'd received the proverbial kick in the gut. If he hadn't been holding on to Tycho, he might have gone to his knees. As it was, his fingers tightened on the Alderaanian's arm, and he closed his eyes, abruptly unable to look at anything alive, not even the grass. He raked his other hand through his sweat-dampened hair and clenched his fist at the nape of his neck. Not Leia. Not again. Not for real.
"Wedge?" Tycho's blue eyes, speedwell blue Leia had called them once, were dark with concern when Wedge opened his own and met Tycho's gaze. Rogue Squadron had gotten over their notion that Wedge was romantically involved with the princess, but they all knew the two were close. And Wedge wasn't close to many people any more, not at the rate they died on him.
Wedge wrapped his other arm around his head, too, for a minute, and then, raising his head sharply, held his hands helplessly in front of himself, unsure what to do with them. After a moment he slammed his right fist into his left palm, swearing as he did. "Damn! Damn," he repeated more softly, and rubbed his eyes roughly. "Black, dead stars," he said, his voice sounding ragged to himself. Tycho didn't blink; well, Wedge reflected, he hadn't taught him that particular smugglers' obscenity. "What happened? Which transport was it? Who was on itwho were their escorts?" his voice sharpened on the last question, and hearing that he felt ashamed. But he let the question stand.
Tycho was shaking his head. "She left it late to leave"
"She didn't get out at all? She was still there when" Wedge didn't think he stand that.
"No," Tycho said hastily. "No, she left with Solo. They were cut off... He told Major Derlin he'd get her out."
"Han... They did leave." Wedge swallowed. "Han too? And Chewbacca?"
"Yeah. No word at all." Tycho seemed calmer now; Wedge figured the bad news was finally over. Thank Sathembi. He wasn't sure how much more of it he could have taken. His friend added, "Fflitwith the last transport but onesaid it looked like Solo was having trouble engaging hyperdrive."
"The asteroids." Wedge felt calm himself, drained. He knew it was temporary, he was going to hurt later, but for the moment it seemed clear, even simple.
"Han ran for the asteroids," said Wedge. Tycho still looked puzzled, so Wedge elaborated. "When I came out of the atmosphere, it looked like SSDs and TIEs were headed into Hoth system's asteroids. I couldn't figure why. They must've been chasing Han. The Falcon's unmistakable amongst our ships, they'd have known who it was, maybe even intercepted his call to Derlin. Anyway, he must have run for the belt to avoid capture."
"That's suicide," protested Tycho.
"Yeah," agreed Wedge. Better than an Imperial interrogation chamber for Leia, though. He looked at Tycho and said so.
"I guess," he agreed, and repeated more certainly, "Yeah, I guess so at that." They were silent for a long time, and then Tycho said, "You want to talk to Rieekan, then, Wedge?"
"No." Wedge was abruptly sure of that. Vertrix he could have talked to, or Dodonna. Even, he realized with a dull wonder, Williard. But not Rieekan. "No. I don't have anything to tell him that Wes couldn't. I want to get clean, to eat, to sleep" to grieve "not necessarily in that order."
"Come on, I'll show you where we're quartered. They unloaded all our stuff this morning."
They walked in silence up to the long, low, grey building next to the field. Wedge smiled and returned greetings from pilots, said things like "Thanks" and "It was no trouble at all" and "Yeah, three kills", and all the while wanted to turn on them all, snarling. Hobbie, Zev, Pars, Anri, Dack, Carro, Preeman, ... those boys from Gray... all those ground troopers whose names he didn't know... Han... Chewie... Luke... Leia. Too many deaths. He needed to be alone. He needed it very much.
Finally they stood in front of the door to what Tycho said was his room. He pushed it open, reached to take his helmet back. Tycho held onto it for a moment before releasing it to him. "Wedge ... you want to talk?"
"No." That came out sharper than he'd meant it to. Tycho's eyes clouded and he started to turn away, then hesitated. Wedge reached out and gripped his arm. "Tychothanks. Later. But not now. Not now."
"Okay, Wedge," Tycho nodded. "I'm next door. See you in the morning?"
"Yeah. For sure." Wedge turned to go inside, and then paused. "Tycho"
"I really am glad you're here. You know?"
"Yeah. I know." Tycho punched his arm gently and left.
Wedge went into the room and shut the door. Then he leaned against it, dropping his helmet, and, covering his face with his hands, sank to the floor. You didn't see any bodies, he reminded himself, but he couldn't convince himself that meant much. He stayed there for a long time, and then rose to his feet and fell face down on his bed. Although he was worn to the bone, sleep wouldn't come. Instead, memories ran through him: Luke, eager for a taste of combat, saddened by Biggs's death, confused about his destiny, bewildered over Leia; Han, so cocky and self-assured and making him so homesick with his flippancy and offhand courage, swooping in over the Death Star, leaning back against Chewbacca with some sarcastic comment, butting heads with Leia; Chewie, so damned patient with all the fools he had to deal with, so funny, so loyal to Han, so careful of Leia; and Leia, always back to Leia, Leia walking with him on Dantooine, talking with him in her yacht, in the Answer, joking with her father, weeping for Alderaan, in command at Hoth, talking with Vaerrit and Dodonna and turning him from a mercenary into a Rebel. Leia, so assured, so strong, so kind...
Eventually, he did sleep. And when the deep, almost drugged sleep of exhaustion passed, the nightmares came, and all his dead, from Gus Treta to Hoth, visited him again.
When he woke, it was dark outside. His chrono told him nothing reliable, he hadn't set it to local time, and he didn't even know how long the days were here. It wasn't like planets kept Standard time... careless of somebody. Well, it did tell him he'd slept fourteen hours straight. Funny, he didn't feel that rested. But he knew he wouldn't get back to sleep now. He lay quietly for a few minutes before realizing that he was still wearing his flight suit, complete with boots. Damn, you must have been tired. A sniff confirmed his guess; next thing he did had better be a shower. With a sigh he sat up and started on his boots.
The shower had hot water as an option. Gratefully he selected it and stood under it as long as the heat lasted, feeling the stinging on his skin and the relaxation in his muscles and beginning to get warm again. One thing they had not had on Hoth was hot water... hot anything, for that matter. He kept his mind as blank as possible, indulging in the sensations. He didn't get much chance to do that nowadays. It felt good. After he dried off, he dressed in the lightweight tan uniform that he hadn't worn in more than a month and then stood indecisively in the middle of his room. He knew he should eat, but he was no longer hungry, and he didn't want company, anyway. He could unpack; that would kill all of half an hour... maybe he should start collecting stuff, like Sainer, stop traveling so light. He compromised, pulling out the holo of his parents and finding the perfect spot for it. The rest, such as it was, could wait.
He found himself standing by the window, looking out at the stars. Verbama, like most planets, didn't give you a really good look at them, in fact Hoth had been better, but they were what passed, under air, for brilliant. They pulled at him. He picked up his cap and went outside.
The air was still warm, even though it was dark. He returned the salute of the young soldier outside and made his way into the grass and away from the field. The sky was clear, not a single cloud, and no wind stirred the grass. One single moon, large and not quite full, hung low on the horizon. Colors were bleached to nonexistent, but there was still plenty of light for walking. He picked his way through the field toward the crest of the nearby hill, hoping there weren't any nocturnally active bugs or whatever Verbama had, but not really concerned about it. Once he reached the ridgetop, he sat down with his arms linked around his knees and looked up at the sky. He was well aware that constellations were accidents of location and perspective, but he hunted for some familiar pattern nonetheless.
"Corell's to your left," said Tycho's voice. Wedge didn't look at him. He continued, "You can't see it from here, though up there you can."
After a moment Wedge said, "That means Corum must be visible, too."
"I suppose," said Tycho. "You okay?"
"No." But he smiled wryly and added, "I will be. Pull up a seat."
Tycho settled next to him. "You eat?"
"I thought not," said Tycho. "Here." He handed Wedge a large hunk of bittersweet chocolate.
"Where did you get this?" said Wedge, surprised. He couldn't remember when he had last seen some of that; it wasn't high on the Rebellion's priorities.
"I have my sources, Antilles," said Tycho, sounding mysterious. "I can't betray them."
Wedge laughed. He raised the chocolate to his face and smelled it. Suddenly he was ravenous. He downed the chocolate in three bites.
Tycho laughed. "I figured," he said, and rummaged inside the small bag he'd carried up. He dropped what sounded like a two-pound slab on the ground between them. Something rattled and Wedge reached out to take the glass Tycho held up for him. "Alderaanian port," said Tycho. "Port and dark chocolate; my grandmother called it 'the most comfortable comfort food an adult can get'."
"Your grandmother was a wise woman," said Wedge, and emptied the glass. He held it out and Tycho refilled it. The Alderaanian shifted position and settled with his back against Wedge's. Wedge relaxed and leaned into the support and sighed softly. After a moment of silence, he asked, "Where is it?"
"Over there somewhere," Tycho waved vaguely at the sky. "Next time you go up, ask your R2."
Wedge made an assenting noise and ate some chocolate.
"Is it later?"
"The way you let me sleep..." Wedge said, half-accusatory. "Yeah, it is. Sorry"
"Forget it. I'm somebody who knows, remember?"
"Yeah." Wedge nodded; his head bumped comfortably against Tycho's.
"I'm really sorry about the princess, Wedge," Tycho said into the darkness. "I know you cared about her."
"We were good friends," Wedge said simply.
"Know her a long time?"
"Long time," he answered, "but not really, I guess. It just seems that way. Four years."
"In a war, that is a long time."
"So it is." Wedge closed his eyes. "Damn. It's not long enough."
"Is it ever?"
"Is that deep, Celchu? Or is it the port?"
"I don't know." Tycho sighed. "She's going to be missed. Mon Mothma's all well and good, but Princess Leia put spark into us. Besides, she was Alderaanian..."
"Politics?" Wedge wasn't upset, but he found himself curious. "That's what's on your mind?"
"Well...." Tycho sounded slightly embarrassed. Wedge felt him reach out for the port. "I didn't know her..."
"What?" Wedge craned his head around to look over his shoulder. "What? How could you not know her? You were on Hoth with her for more than a month, Ord Mandell for six, Versace for what, nine? ten? You never met her?"
"No, I never did. I would have... C'mon, Wedge, she was a princess."
"I thought that was, you know, obsolete. Ceremonial."
"Well, yes, but... She was still a princess." Tycho protested.
"You were both Alderaanian." Wedge was honestly curious. He simply couldn't imagine not looking up another Corellian in a year and a half. And Alderaan washad beena single planet.
"She was from the other side of the planet. We didn't move in the same circles; my father was in communications"
"Your father owned the major Alderaanian interstellar communications corporation; you make him sound like he laid cable."
"I went to the Imperial Academy."
"Yes, but you saw the error of your ways," said Wedge gently.
"She'd have liked you," Wedge was sure of it. "Hey, she liked me."
"That's no guarantee," Tycho said.
"I was a smuggler. You were an officer and a gentleman. And from Alderaan."
"Maybe so. I'd have met her eventually, Wedge," Tycho protested, and then his voice softened. "I wish I had; I really do."
"If I'd known you didn't know her, I'd have introduced you."
"I know." Tycho reached out with the bottle and Wedge held up his glass. "Anyway, even though I didn't know her, I'm going to miss her. I know how much worse it is for you. And Solo, too."
"Thanks." Wedge drank.
"Did you know him before?" Tycho sounded curious.
"I wasn't that precocious. Yeah, I met him once, though he probably didn't notice me." He laughed a little. "My mom liked Chewbacca, I remember that. I heard a lot about Han, of course. It's not often someone wearing Corellian Bloodstripes gets kicked out of the Fleet and ends up with a price on his head."
"Role model?" Tycho teased.
"Nah." Wedge laughed for real. "My role model's doin' time on Kessel."
"Bad role model, Antilles."
"Good man, though."
They fell silent, eating chocolate and finishing the port. The moon sank and the sky got darker; a small breeze ruffled the grass and slightly ameliorated the warmth of the night. Eventually Tycho broke the quiet. "Know what we got?"
"Not more guesses," said Wedge.
"A what?" Wedge was genuinely startled.
"One of the Fleet's admirals defected?"
"No. He's Mon Calamari, name of Ackbar. He, ah, 'studied' under Grand Moff Tarkin before he got away, and he brought us four capital ships."
"Damn. Really?" Wedge couldn't believe it. Good news? He wasn't used to that anymore.
"Really. He wants to see you today. Thought I'd mention it."
"Also thought I'd point out you're out of uniform... Captain."
"Hey, I'm your XO, unless you fire me. I hear things."
"My XO... I'd better start watching my back," groused Wedge.
"True enough," said Tycho. Wedge could hear his grin. But when he spoke again, he was sober. "Sorry about Luke. He'll be sorely missed."
"I think Luke has just gone somewhere," said Wedge, and as he heard himself say it he realized he did almost believe it. "Just gone to do some Jedi thing. He's too good, and his ship was in too good shape. I don't think Luke's dead."
"I hope not," Tycho's response was heartfelt. "I really do. We need him. He's no Darth Vader"
"Sathembi forfend!" That was completely involuntary.
"You know what I mean. Jedi, that's an important symbol. And Luke is... well..." Tycho was at a loss for words.
"Yeah. He is that," agreed Wedge.
"Ackbar'll be in his office in a couple of hours," said Tycho. "Maybe you and I should take a turn around the base, check out the hangars... walk off this port?"
"Maybe we should," Wedge conceded. "First impressions and all that."
Tycho stood up and looked down at Wedge. "Think Ackbar'll let us call ourselves Rogues?"
"I'm not going to hold my breath."
Tycho laughed and held out his hand to haul Wedge to his feet. "Let's go, Squadron Leader. Find you some captain's pips somewhere and show you the lay of the land."
"Don't mention it. You'd do the same for mein fact, you have done."
Wedge slapped the Alderaanian's shoulder. "Let's go."
The two walked down the hill back to the base.
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