Better To Have Loved?
Gillian F. Taylor
Iella laughed as Wedge told her about Janson’s latest pranks. Wedge wasn't much good at telling jokes, but he had a way of telling stories about the goings-on in Rogue Squadron that was entertaining. Iella sipped her caf and relaxed as he talked, content with the moment. It was good to feel at peace after the stress of chasing down Isard and her clone. Wedge tilted his head slightly to one side as he looked across the small table at her.
"Did you enjoy your meal?" he asked.
Iella smiled. "Yes. I'm glad Mirax recommended this place to us. It's very ... comfortable here."
They were in a small Corellian restaurant, in a sector of Coruscant that was heavily populated with Corellian expatriates. Most of the voices they could hear had the familiar, homeworld accent. The décor and food were the same that you would find in any unremarkable small restaurant on Corellia. It wasn't sophisticated, or grand, but it was friendly and reassuring. Their server, and some of the customers had clearly recognized Wedge, but they were left to enjoy their meal together without interruption. Just another two expatriate Corellians forgetting for a while that they lived on a city-planet of skyscrapers, not the green and fertile world they had been born to.
Wedge smiled at her. "We'll come here again, then."
"Could be a good idea," Iella agreed. "If they can say General Antilles is a regular here, you might get a discount," she added mischievously.
Wedge grimaced, as she knew he would. Iella was usually amused when strangers approached Wedge and asked for his autograph, or permission to take a holo. He was far too polite to refuse them, but he was never quite sure why anyone would want to treat him like a celebrity. The idea of trading on his name and reputation for favours was as foreign to him as dieting was to a Hutt.
"Or you can just pretend that you're ordinary, and pay up like everyone else," she added.
"I am ordinary," Wedge protested.
"Tell that to Ysanne Isard; either of her," Iella retorted. "Oh, I forgot; she's both dead."
"You killed one of her," Wedge pointed out.
Iella smiled at him and finished her caf.
* * * * *
Wedge paid for the meal, and they left the restaurant in an air taxi. They didn't talk much on the way to Iella's apartment, but sat quietly together in the back, neither feeling the need to fill the journey with chatter. They weren't close enough to touch, but Iella was constantly aware of Wedge's presence. No matter what he said, he wasn't ordinary. It wasn't just his undoubted courage, or his skill in an X-wing or his dedication to his beliefs. All these things and more factored into his charisma, that magical quality that caused men as fine as Tycho Celchu to follow him wherever he led.
He was attractive too. Iella sometimes found herself distracted by the way his dark hair fell over his forehead, or rested against the back of his neck. His expressive brown eyes were his best feature, sometimes showing a vulnerable, boyish aspect that made her want to both mother him, and to do things that no mother should to a son. Wedge trained regularly in the gym, and it showed in his flat stomach and slim waist. Diric had been so much older than Iella, and not physically active. More than once she had caught herself wondering what it would be like to make love with this younger, fitter man. How different Wedge's body would feel against hers. Iella firmly banished such thoughts and looked out of the taxi's windows at the lights of Coruscant.
The air taxi dropped them at one of the landing bays of the block where Iella lived. Wedge walked her back to the door of her apartment. Iella paused outside, and looked in his eyes, feeling her stomach contract with dread.
"Thank you for a lovely evening, Wedge," she said quietly.
He stood very close to her, one hand raised slightly - almost but not quite touching her arm.
"I enjoyed it too," he said simply. His eyes told her so much more.
On other evenings, earlier in their friendship, she had invited him in for a last drink, and they'd sat and talked for ages. The last time they'd been out, she hadn't made that invitation, and she wasn't going to this time either.
"I have to get up early tomorrow," Iella told him.
Wedge caught his lower lip between his teeth for a moment, an occasional nervous reaction that Iella found rather endearing.
"I'll ... I guess I should get back. Got a busy day tomorrow," he replied. "But tonight was really special; let's go back there soon?"
Iella wanted her reply to come out firmly but she couldn't quite look at him as she told him that she had a lot of work on.
"I don't know when I'll be free again, Wedge," she finished.
It was a feeble excuse, and Wedge knew it. He said nothing for a moment, but the hurt was clear in his eyes.
Iella longed to touch him, to rub her hand along his arm as if rubbing away the painful words. Wedge didn't deserve this from her, and she felt as though she'd just snatched a toy from a child and stamped on it. They looked at one another for a few moments, Wedge disappointed and bewildered, Iella aching to throw her arms around him and kiss away that hurt. She was the first to look away, opening her small bag to search for her keycard.
She heard Wedge let out a soft sigh, and when she looked up again he'd manufactured a weak smile for her.
"Take care of yourself," he said, his eyes searching her face.
"You're the soldier: you take care," Iella replied. She swiped her keycard briskly through the slot, then quickly caressed his face, and fled into her apartment. Inside, Iella slipped off her elegant shoes, and curled up at one end of the sofa.
There, she closed her eyes as the tears welled up and trickled down her cheeks. "I'm sorry, Wedge," she whispered. "I couldn't go through it again. I don't want to get hurt like that again."
Diric's death had hurt so badly. She knew that part of the hurt had been the way he'd died, knowing she'd fired that shots that had killed him. Iella had lost him when the Imperials had picked him up, lived through the daily uncertainty of his time in captivity, not knowing if he was even alive, only to have such a brief reunion. Corran and Wedge had both helped her through the bleak months after Diric's death. They'd somehow offered her something secure to cling to whenever the pain had struck and threatened to sweep her away.
For so long afterwards, years, there had been a kind of numbness in her heart. Iella had treasured Wedge's presence, knowing he was something special in her life, but waiting for some kind of signal from inside herself that would say she was ready for him. She worried for him when he was in the midst of the fighting against Thrawn, but she'd told herself it was natural concern for a close friend, no different to the worry she had for Corran.
When the Errant Venture had come out of hyperspace at Distna, to find the shattered remains of Rogue Squadron, her heart had ached in the belief that Wedge was dead. Once more there had been the uncertainty, and a reunion. Wedge had cheated death more often than anyone, even a Corellian pilot, had the right to do. But the fact remained that no lucky streak lasts forever, and Wedge was a soldier on active combat duty. The sense of duty, and dedication to his beliefs that she admired, put his life at risk.
Iella sighed, and wiped her hand across her face. It would be so easy to just let herself fall in love with him. Even now, she wanted to call his comlink and ask him to come back. But the more she let herself love him, the more it would hurt if he should die. She'd survived the death of one husband: to lose another love would be too much. Iella didn't dare take the risk. She had to stop their relationship growing closer before they got too involved. It would protect her from pain later, if war snatched away Wedge's life.
Iella closed her eyes, and remembered the hurt in his face as she sent him away. She wept for them both.
* * * * *
Iella staggered into the apartment and gratefully set the box down on the floor.
"That's the last one," she called.
Mirax stuck her head around the frame of the bedroom door. "Thank you. For getting us this place and helping with the move."
Iella sank down onto the sofa. "That's all right. It just makes me more grateful my home didn't get bombed or wrecked during the fighting."
The apartment where Mirax and Corran had been living had been wrecked during the in-fighting that had followed the war against Thrawn, and the reappearance of the Emperor. Iella had convinced her boss to let them stay at an Intelligence safehouse until new accommodation had been built by the huge construction droids that roamed the city-planet.
Mirax emerged from the bedroom and strode across to the box Iella had just set down.
"I guess Corran reckons that chasing the Invids is a good enough reason not to be here helping?" Iella joked.
Mirax grinned, rummaging through the box. "Apparently they're not having a lot of luck, so far, but Tycho's keeping them busy." She pulled out a cracked ceramic bowl and studied the damage thoughtfully. "I still can't get used to the idea of Wedge not being with them."
Iella leaned over the arm of the sofa. "Seems a waste for him to be pulling wrecks out of Coruscant orbit, while the Rogues are off fighting pirates."
Mirax nodded. "It is, but he seems happy enough with it." She stood up, brushing black hair back from her face as she rose. "He was kind of ... restless, last time I saw him. Something about all that devastation on Mon Calamari and here got to him. Maybe all the people losing their homes, like me and Corran, reminded him of losing his home when his parents died. I think he wants to spend a while trying to fix things, rather than blowing them up."
"He's been with the Rogues about a decade," Iella said. "Maybe he's ready to move on."
"Mmmm. Hard to imagine what could replace flying for him though," Mirax said. She shrugged and headed towards the kitchenette. "Caf?"
"Yes, please," Iella called after her.
Left alone for a few minutes, she turned her gaze to the view of Coruscant from the apartment's window. The broken and shattered remains of tower blocks spoke of the destruction caused during the recent fighting. Millions had died as spaceships crashed down through the atmosphere, and one of those ships had been the Star Destroyer Liberator, with Wedge on board. Being a general in command of a capital ship was hardly safer for him than flying an X-wing.
Iella had rarely seen Wedge since that dinner together in the Corellian restaurant, months ago now. She heard about his work and life at second-hand, via mutual friends like Mirax. It seemed to her that Mirax had been on the right lines when she said that seeing the destruction had inspired Wedge to think about rebuilding, instead of fighting. Iella suspected though that it went deeper than trying to improve things for others. Wedge had spent virtually all his adult life working for the sake of others, and Iella had the feeling that he wanted to do something purely for himself at last. He'd wanted to love her, and be loved, but she'd not allowed it to happen. There was a gap in Wedge's life, and Iella felt that his new work was an attempt to build something that filled the gap.
She sighed, fiddling with the long braid of her hair, and silently wished him happiness.
* * * * *
A few months after that, her wish came true. Iella froze the image on the holonews, and stared at it. She'd been flicking idly through the channels as she waited for her supper to heat, and had happened across a sludgenews network. There, in the gossip of holovid stars and salacious political scandals, she'd seen something she couldn't believe. General Antilles, back from the Maw, had been spotted taking the Omwati scientist, Qwi Xux, out to dinner, and had confirmed that they were romantically involved. The frozen image Iella stared at was of Wedge and Qwi together, arm in arm.
Qwi was delicate and exotic, with her blue skin and feathery, pearlescent hair. She stood close to Wedge, as if seeking his protection from the curious holocam lenses. Everything about her spoke of fragility and innocence, from her large indigo eyes to her fluting, birdlike voice. Iella thought Qwi might have been deliberately designed to appeal to Wedge's protective instincts.
Wedge was looking at her with a warmth and wonder that made Iella's heart ache. She reached out to the holographic image, the light colouring her fingers as she touched his hair and ran a fingertip along the curve of his cheek. She couldn't feel the image of course, but her memory supplied the textures of hair and skin. His dark eyes seemed softer than ever as he gazed lovingly at the woman on his arm. Wedge had found the love that filled the gap in his life.
And that love wasn't her. Iella had been too scared to let their love grow, and so he'd found someone else to put in her place. The pain gnawed at Iella as the anger and hurt built up inside her. It was her own fault; she'd been too frightened to let herself love him; had assumed he'd still be there if she changed her mind. And she'd let him slip away, so he'd given the gift of his love to another woman. Iella had never realized how much it would hurt to see him with someone else. To see him gazing with love at someone else. Qwi would be the one to see Wedge in those vulnerable, intimate moments, as he made love, or slept.
The tears began to blur Iella's vision, making it hard for her to see the image. She stabbed at the remote control, switching the holoviewer off. She didn't want to see Wedge with Qwi anyway. Not ever. The image stabbed at her heart like a vibroblade, reminding her how she'd rejected her chance to be the one he gazed at that way.
And as she'd feared, Iella wept for the love she'd lost.
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