Different Paths Rating: PG
Gillian F. Taylor

Commander Wedge Antilles, co-founder and leader of Rogue Squadron, official Hero Of The New Republic, and the most highly decorated pilot in Starfighter Command, appeared in the hatch of the shuttle that had just returned him to the hangar of the New Republic's headquarters. There was no one to greet him.

He didn't seem to mind. He sauntered down the ramp of the shuttle, hands in the pockets of his comfortable, travel-worn ground uniform, and stepped to one side to let the shuttle crew disembark. Wedge was in no hurry to leave the hangar. His gaze fell on the half-dozen X-wings parked on the other side of the hangar, and a touch of wistfulness showed in his dark eyes. Wrapped up in his thoughts, he started when someone clapped a hand on his shoulder.

"What ...? Luke!"

Luke Skywalker chuckled and drew his friend into a warm hug. "It's good to see you again, Wedge."

"And you." Wedge pulled back to look his friend over. "I didn't know you were going to be here."

"I wasn't expecting you either," Luke replied, smiling. "I came to speak to the Provisional Council, and Leia told me you were due back for a few days. I guess even Official Heroes need a break from all the attention."

Wedge wrinkled his nose in distaste. "I know the New Republic needs heroes, and needs to show new worlds that we're not all bandits, but I still wish they hadn't insisted it had to be me paraded around like a trophy. They should send someone like Janson. He'd love all the applause, and the dinners, and speeches."

"You'd seriously let Wes Janson represent the good name of the New Republic?" Luke asked, starting to walk with Wedge towards the main doors at the back of the hangar. "Janson's idea of diplomacy is to make sure he's got nice warm water in the bucket he's balanced over your door, instead of cold."

Wedge laughed and shook his head. "That is so true." He looked sideways at Luke. "So what are you doing with yourself these days? Or is that classified?"

"I've continued my Jedi training," Luke told him. "I'm trying to build on what Ben and Yoda taught me, but there's still so much I don't really know. I've been searching for information about the Jedi; databanks, folk-lore, relics, maybe even other Force-sensitives who escaped Palpatine's purge. There must surely be some out there in the galaxy."

Wedge's expression turned thoughtful. "It's been a good while since we last met and talked, hasn't it? Did you ever hear about what happened to Rogue Squadron on Malrev Four?"

Luke had never heard of the planet, but something in Wedge's voice, and in his Force sense, told him this would be interesting. "I've never heard of it," he replied.

Wedge glanced up and down the busy corridor they were in. "Let's find somewhere we can sit down and get a drink. You'll want to hear this in detail."

* * * * *

Luke settled himself into a chair in the Officer's Mess, and took a long drink from his mug of Lomin ale. He was keen to hear what Wedge had to tell, but he waited with outward patience as Wedge made himself comfortable and sipped at his glass of whiskey. Wedge stared into his glass for a few moments, then began speaking.

"This happened ... um ... about a standard year ago, now. A Bothan spaceliner had gone missing and we went to the Malrev system to look for it. The whole story is quite complicated, but the relevant part is that there was a Sith temple on the planet."

Luke's eyes widened at that news, but he didn't interrupt.

"The Emperor found the place, and intended to turn it into a major outpost. After he died, the people stationed there found the place disturbing and left; all except a Devaronian technician called Cartariun. He stayed and learned to use the Sith energy. He used it to control the primitive natives and armed them with what the Imperials had left behind." Wedge paused, a wave of sadness, tinged with guilt, flowing from him. "We killed Cartariun and destroyed the temple, but only because Dllr and Herian sacrificed themselves."

"They died to protect the lives of others, Wedge, including you. And you have chosen to take the same risk with your own life," Luke said gently.

Wedge nodded, accepting the comment, but he seemed uneasy. He circled his glass slowly, watching the amber whiskey swirling inside. Luke took another mouthful of his Lomin ale and waited for him to speak. Eventually Wedge looked up.

"I should have died on Malrev Four," he said abruptly.

"Cartariun's beasts shot down my X-wing just after we arrived. I crashed badly; it should have been fatal." Fear and despair flashed through Wedge's sense as he recalled the memory, telling Luke far more than his simple words. Wedge took a deep breath and continued. "Cartariun was looking for someone to join him as a disciple, so he had me brought to the temple. He used the Sith energy to heal me." Wedge looked straight at Luke, his eyes wide and anxious. "I'm only alive now because Sith magic was used on me. Sometimes I wonder ... Could that leave a mark?"

Luke thought about that, painfully aware of just how little he still knew about such things. He supposed it was possible that Sith forces could leave a taint on those exposed to it, but it was difficult to imagine Wedge corrupted that way.

"It could be possible," Luke answered slowly, knowing that was not what his friend wanted to hear, but unwilling to lie. "I don't think it's happened to you," he added. "Someone who was sensitive to the Force might be more at risk. I don't think it could have a lasting effect on you."

"The energy was very strong on that planet though," Wedge insisted. "Everyone who was there felt something; Tycho, Janson, Nrin. They're no more force-sensitive than I am."

Luke frowned as he thought. Wedge must have been carrying this worry with him for over a year now; there was no one else in the galaxy he could ask for help about this. No one else who could remove that faint doubt. Luke had to find some way of reassuring him, or that uncertainty would fester in the back of Wedge's mind.

"Drink up," Luke said, indicating the glass of whiskey.

Wedge blinked at him, baffled.

"Finish your drink," Luke told him. "It'll help you to relax. I'm going to try something and I need you to relax and go with it."

"Okay." Wedge swiftly downed his whiskey and smiled, displaying a confidence that Luke sincerely hoped was justified.

Luke banished stray thoughts and began to concentrate, opening himself to the Force. "Try to clear your mind, Wedge. Don't resist me; just relax as best you can." He reached across the small table with his left hand and touched his fingertips to Wedge's face. Wedge closed his eyes, keeping his face calm, but his right hand was clenched into a fist.

Luke reached for Wedge's strong, clear Force presence. He touched Wedge's mind, sensing the discipline holding back fear. Wedge was concentrating on his breathing, slow steady breaths that filled his lungs and cycled out again. Luke merged himself deeper into Wedge's consciousness, searching for any taint from the Sith energy. Wedge's presence blazed brightly around him; strong, pure and warm.

What did Cartariun say to you in the temple?

The memories surfaced in Wedge's mind. A dark, stone-built temple. A Devaronian in red robes. Apprehension and fear; fear for the lives of Rogue Squadron pilots threatened by Cartariun. Disgust as Cartariun revealed his manipulation of the Irrukiine and his lust for power. The shock of being helpless against Cartariun's power, then the resolution to defy him, to stop him. Utter certainty that such power could only bring evil.

Luke suddenly got a vision of Wedge as a brilliant light, a torch upheld against the dark of evil and corruption.

He gently withdrew himself from Wedge's consciousness, carefully breaking the contact between them. As his perceptions returned to the wider world, Luke found Wedge gazing wide-eyed at him across the table. Wedge blinked and shook his head as though trying to shake his thoughts back into some kind of order.

"You've got nothing to worry about," Luke reassured him, smiling. "Sith magic can heal you, or kill you, but it can't corrupt you, Wedge. Not you."

Wedge began to smile too, his dark eyes lit with a clear confidence. "Thank you." He chuckled and shook his head again. "That's inadequate, but I guess you know how I feel. That ... that Jedi mind touch, or whatever you call it, is the ... there's nothing I can compare it to." He gave up trying and leaned back in his chair.

"It's a remarkable experience from this end too," Luke remarked, taking another drink of his ale.

They sat quietly for a minute or so before Wedge spoke again.

"You asked me to tell you about Cartariun and the temple. Why ... I mean, couldn't you see that for yourself?" Wedge shifted uneasily, but looked Luke straight in the eyes.

Luke understood what was behind the question and answered quickly. "I had no intention of probing into your memories, Wedge. I asked you to consciously think about the temple to bring it to the top of your mind. Then I could touch those memories easily and without needing to search through other memories to find them." Luke paused, giving Wedge time to assess what he was saying, and himself time to find the right things to say. "I couldn't reach deep into your memories without you knowing,"

Wedge half-smiled. "I'll have to take your word for that." The smile widened. "I remember back in the early days, when you used to try and practice your Jedi skills by influencing me to buy the drinks."

Luke held up his hand and spoke in a deep voice. "I will buy the next round." He laughed and spoke in his usual tone. "It never did work, did it? I used to think it was because I didn't how to do that. Now I know how much Corellians hate to buy drinks for others, I doubt if even Yoda could have gotten a drink out of you."

"There's many things I'd do for you, Luke, but buying a drink ... "

"Good." Luke smiled at his friend. "Because I want to go to Malrev Four, and I'd like you to come with me."

* * * * *

Twenty-four standard hours later, Luke was studying the sensor displays as Wedge delicately landed the small shuttle that Leia had acquired for them.

"Sensors show something that looks as if it is, or was, artificial, about 3 klicks from here." Luke spoke loudly to be heard over the whine of the repulsors as the shuttle touched down.

"Sounds about right," Wedge answered, eyes and hands busy on the controls in front of him.

He had brought the shuttle to a clearing in the forest of straight, dark evergreen trees that covered a large part of this continent. This site was on the nightside of the planet, so Wedge was relying more on his instruments, than on the shuttle's exterior lights, to make the landing. The touchdown was so gentle that Luke almost missed it.

He looked across at his friend and smiled.

"You handle this shuttle as well as you do an X-wing. How often have you flown one?"

Wedge powered down the repulsors. "Just the once."

"When was that?"

"Just now." Wedge gave him a cocky grin that was pure Corellian.

Luke swatted him on the shoulder. "I've marked the direction of those ruins. We shouldn't have too much trouble finding them." He glanced through the viewport at the dark trees that surrounded them.

"I'm not setting foot outside this shuttle until daylight," Wedge declared, finishing his post-flight shut-down. He flicked the last switch and turned in his seat to face Luke. "The natives are big, strong and mean, even without Cartariun's help. And even if they're not nocturnal, I'm willing to bet there's some large predators here that are. I don't know what predators exactly, but I'm certain they'll be better evolved for hunting things in the dark than I am. Getting vaped by a better pilot is one thing; being eaten by something with an IQ barely in double figures is not how I want to die."

Luke chuckled. "I'd hate to be the cause of you dying in a way that you didn't like. How about we fix a meal and then get some sleep?"

"Okay. And it's your turn to cook."

* * * * *

Settling down to sleep later, Luke was aware of the strong Force energy on this planet. It seemed to tingle in the air, just beyond the reach of his normal senses. The feeling was so strong that Luke wasn't surprised that Wedge had seemed uneasy since landing on this planet. He was sure that Wedge couldn't consciously feel the Force, but other members of Rogue Squadron had reported a subliminal something that affected behaviour here.

Luke opened himself to the Force, stretching into it in an effort to find why it was so strong here. He shivered as he felt the faint corruption of the Emperor in the Force here. There were other, unknown presences too: some dead, who had left their mark on this place, and others living. He got the impression of many semi-intelligent beings gathered not far from the shuttle. They would be the Irrukiine Wedge had told him about. Their minds were simple, and easy to influence.

Another presence was much stronger and closer; that of Wedge, sleeping in the cabin next to Luke's. As Luke relaxed his concentration on the Irrukiines, he became aware of the distress in Wedge's sense. There was a strange quality to the feeling he was getting from Wedge, which Luke suddenly realized was because Wedge was dreaming. Asleep, Wedge couldn't control his emotions, nor the pattern of his thoughts. Luke wanted to sleep now, and certainly didn't want to experience second-hand nightmares. He tried to withdraw from the Force, cutting down his sensitivity. Wedge's presence seemed to fade, but Luke couldn't block it entirely.

Luke lay in his darkened cabin for a few minutes, then quietly slipped out of his bunk and padded barefoot into the corridor. Wedge's door wasn't locked, and opened at his touch on the panel, letting the low light from the corridor spill into the small room. Luke entered, moving quietly to the bunk where Wedge lay curled beneath the light covers. Wedge's breathing was rapid and he moved restlessly in his sleep. Luke heard him murmur something, but couldn't tell what he was saying. Cautiously, Luke reached out to him through the Force.

He wasn't trying to get deeply into Wedge's dream, but Wedge's mind was open, and full of strong emotions. Wedge was dreaming of a starfighter battle, one that was going very badly for the Rogues. There was something wrong with Wedge's comm system; he couldn't give commands or advice, couldn't summon help from elsewhere. But Wedge could see and hear his pilots dying around him. A bright flash and ball of fire lit space to the left of Wedge's cockpit, and the blip for Rogue 4, Wes Janson, vanished from Wedge's sensorboard. Luke felt Wedge's anguish, the increasing sense of despair, and the guilt of continuing to survive while his pilots died.

Fighting down the emotions he was getting from Wedge, Luke reached deep into his own, calm centre. When he had his emotions under control, he drew on the Force to send reassurance and positive feelings to Wedge. Working slowly and carefully, Luke gradually banished the nightmare and pushed Wedge into a deeper phase of sleep. When he was done, Wedge lay quietly, his breathing slow and steady. Luke watched over him for a minute, pleased at being able to bring his friend some peace and relieved that he hadn't woken him. Catching himself yawning, Luke headed back to his own cabin.

* * * * *

Wedge seemed more his usual self at breakfast. He was very thorough about checking the kit he was carrying before they left, slipping a couple of extra blaster packs into the pocket of his jacket.

"Ready?" Luke asked, waiting by the hull door.

Wedge checked the set of his blaster in its holster. "Ready."

Luke opened the hatch and led the way out, taking a deep breath of the warm, fresh air outside. The air smelt strongly of the trees and grass, of abundant life. Luke turned in a circle, gazing at the apparently endless vista of trees that surrounded the clearing they were in.

"After growing up on Tatooine, I'm still amazed to see planets filled with so much life," he said, half-smiling. "To smell so much moisture, and life in the air ... it still feels like a miracle."

Wedge nodded. "When you spend a lot of time in artificial environments, like spaceships, you tend to forget what a planetary atmosphere is like. Just feeling a strong breeze in your face is a novelty."

"It's refreshing," Luke answered, leading the way towards the trees. "And humbling. Experiencing a thunderstorm is a powerful reminder that we don't have everything in the galaxy under control and subject to the press of a button."

Wedge grinned. "I remember the moment you first climbed out of your X-wing on Hoth. You didn't seem so keen on experiencing weather then."

Luke shivered at the memory. "I don't recall you being overjoyed at living in sub-zero temperatures either."

"At least I joined in when Janson started a snowball fight. I didn't stand around looking shocked at the very idea of playing in all that nasty cold stuff."

As they talked, both men were fully alert to their surroundings. Wedge walked in front, the direction finder held in his left hand, while his right hand hovered close to his holstered blaster. Luke was a couple of paces behind, reaching into the Force to feel the creatures that watched as they picked their way through the undergrowth. He sensed a small group — a pack — of predators flanking them at a short distance. Focussing on the mind of the leader, Luke sent out the impression that he and Wedge were dangerous predators, not prey. The pack slowed down and turned away, seeking easier kills.

Wedge, of course, had felt nothing of all this. He continued to pick his way through the scrubby bushes, still clearly believing that an attack would come at any moment. Luke wondered whether to tell him about the predators he'd fended off, but decided that Wedge would only worry about them anyway. As they got closer to the ruined temple, Luke could feel the brooding presence there even more strongly. He concentrated hard on it, feeling the ugliness of the Emperor's personality in the darkness that filled the Force.

The remains of the temple came visible through the dense tree cover. It had once been an inverted stone pyramid, but now it lay in vast, shattered sections, heaped around a central pile of rubble. The dark feelings that weighed on Luke came from that mass of broken stone. Luke deliberately lightened his contact with the Force. It was so strong here; a web of life tainted by the darkness from the temple. Only Wedge's presence seemed clean, but Luke didn't want to focus on him. The power of the Force here seemed to magnify thoughts and emotions, making it too easy for Luke to inadvertently eavesdrop on Wedge's mind.

Oblivious to what Luke was experiencing, Wedge picked his way around an outlying chunk of ribbed stone wall and halted, tilting his head up to take in the entire mass of the temple.

"This is an ugly place," he said, ambiguously.

Luke agreed. He wasn't quite sure what to do now they'd reached this place, and Wedge didn't seem inclined to get any closer. As he hesitated, a half-dozen Irrukiine burst out from a clump of scrub and charged at them. The strong taint of the Emperor's presence in the Force had masked their presence from Luke's light contact with the Force.

The creatures were fur-covered bipeds, with powerfully muscular legs and upper arms, and a smaller, second pair of arms emerging from their torsos around waist level. They roared as they raced to the attack, exposing pointed carnivore teeth, and brandished primitive weapons of bone or wood.

Wedge reacted first, drawing his blaster and firing before Luke even had his lightsaber free. Wedge poured blasterfire into one Irrukiine after another. They were so powerful and ferocious that it took two or three direct blaster bolts to bring each one down. Luke stepped up to Wedge's side, holding his lightsaber ready, and reached out to the Irrukiine through the Force.

Stop! Do not fight us! Leave us!

Luke sent the thoughts with all the power he could muster. Wedge flinched and ceased firing for a moment, turning to look at Luke with a startled expression. Fortunately, the Irrukiine's rush stumbled to a halt. Luke kept up his concentration, forcing the command into the Irrukiine's minds. The aliens began to turn and shamble away, picking up speed as they retreated. Only when the survivors were completely out of sight did Wedge sigh and lower his blaster pistol.

"You caught me by surprise with that 'go-away' command," he remarked, still keeping a wary eye on the fallen Irrukiine.

"Sorry about that," Luke answered. "I was concentrating on making the command as powerful as possible and the Force is very strong just here." He switched off his lightsaber. "Cartariun found them controllable so I was pretty sure I could get them to leave us alone without having to kill any of them."

Wedge shrugged. "I've fought them before, I know how dangerous they are. I can't use the Force, and I'm not getting into hand to hand combat with something that's got more hands than I have. So blaster pistol is my best option."

His expression was stubborn, but with the Force so strong here, Luke had no trouble in picking up what really concerned him. Wedge's eyes, his whole presence, were tinged with loss and fear. He wanted to protect Luke, to bring him back from this place alive, not to see another friend die, not to carry the guilt of surviving while others died. This planet's energies haunted him with his personal nightmares. Luke took a slow breath, diminishing his connection to the Force and calming his mind.

"Well, either way, they're not troubling us any more," Luke said quietly. He managed a smile, and was relieved to see Wedge's face brighten in response. "I guess we'd better keep moving." He gestured towards the remains of the temple.

Wedge looked at the ruins and took in a long breath, holding it for a moment. "I'm with you."

This time Luke led the way, lightsaber in hand but unlit. He made his way carefully around the rubble, studying the collapsed remains of the temple for a way in. After a few minutes searching, he found a gap between broken slabs of stone. The sunlight seemed to vanish as they ducked under an angled slab and made their way in. Wedge swapped the direction finder for a glowrod, shining it ahead to where the passage opened up. The walls inside the temple were plain stone, decorated only by some kind of small creeper that grew in the crevices.

"I don't recognise anything," Wedge said, speaking softly as though he were afraid he might disturb something. "But the rooms and corridors I saw all looked alike."

Luke halted, and opened himself to the Force again. The sense of evil was stronger than ever, making him shiver. "There's a focus, somewhere within this temple." He turned on the spot, trying to orient himself.

"There was a big statue of Palpatine," Wedge told him.

Luke got a sudden vision in his mind: a statue of the Emperor, cloaked and hooded, sitting in a massive chair. "That's it," he whispered, unsure if the vision had come directly through the Force, or whether he'd accidentally got it from Wedge's memory. "It's over this way."

Getting to the vast hall where the statue sat was no easy matter. Corridors had collapsed, so they had to climb over rubble that sometimes slid from under their feet, and squeeze through tight spaces. All the time, the sense of oppression grew stronger. Luke found himself breathing faster, his nerves on edge, and with a growing feeling that he wouldn't be strong enough to defeat what lay ahead. And always close to him was Wedge, who spoke not a word more than needed.

When Luke finally saw the statue looming ahead of him, he halted so abruptly that Wedge almost collided with him. The figure was more than twice Luke's height, the face mostly hidden by the hood of the cloak. It was set back in a massive alcove which had protected it when the great hall collapsed. Rubble was piled before the foot of the statue, but the figure of Palpatine itself seemed untouched by the destruction around it. Sunlight came in through the broken ceiling, dousing the statue in a brilliant glow.

"So what do we do?" Wedge asked as he looked up at the brooding figure.

Luke didn't answer at first, only vaguely aware of the question. Then he pulled himself together, mentally shaking off the overwhelming dark presence he felt. "We ... we've got to destroy that somehow."

"We'll have to improvise something." Wedge's voice was steady. "I can rig my spare blaster packs to explode but we'd have to somehow place them very precisely to cause enough damage."

Luke raised an eyebrow. "When did you learn how to do that?"

"Here and there. Rogue Squadron doesn't do all its missions in X-wings, you know. You bind the blaster packs together and set them to maximum, then remove the overload Sturm dowels. After that, you've got 20 to 30 seconds to place them and get clear."

"I can move them with the Force," Luke said. He studied the statue thoughtfully. "I could use my lightsaber to carve a hole in the statue, then guide the bomb inside."

Wedge nodded. "That would be best." He managed a faint smile. "I'm not used to having a Jedi to call on when I'm planning things."

Luke caught a faint sense of regret from Wedge, regret that their lives had gone in such different ways. Every new step that Luke made as a Jedi, was a step where old friends like Wedge could not follow. He pushed the thought aside and concentrated on the here and now.

"We still make a good team when we get the chance," Luke said.

Wedge nodded, and switched off his unneeded glowrod. He snapped it back onto his belt, and reached for the pocket where he'd put the spare blaster packs. His hand stopped by the flap of the pocket. His face tightened, gaze turning inwards as he seemed to concentrate on something.

"Luke, I can't do it." His fingers flexed slightly, but moved no closer to the pocket. "It's ... something's blocking me."

"It's protecting itself," Luke guessed. "I'll get them." He moved in front of Wedge and started to reach for the jacket pocket.

Wedge's other hand moved, raising his blaster to aim it point-blank at Luke's chest. Wedge's eyes widened briefly, then the look of fierce concentration came back. Luke stayed still as Wedge's hand trembled, the muzzle of the blaster almost brushing Luke's tunic.

"I ... it ... wants to kill you. Stop you." Wedge was gasping for breath under the strain of resisting the statue's influence. There was desperation in his eyes as he looked at Luke.

Luke reached into the Force, feeling the weight of the Sith energy that was pressing on Wedge. Even as he marvelled that Wedge had resisted so far, he knew it couldn't last. Either Wedge would succumb and start shooting, or his mind could collapse under the strain. Luke extended himself through the Force to Wedge, found the vulnerable spot on his neck and used the Force to press on the nerve there. Wedge buckled abruptly, unconscious before he hit the floor in a crumpled heap.

The dark energies swirled around Luke as he bent to retrieve the blaster packs. They commanded him to stop, filling his mind with the urge to flee. The strength of the Sith magic almost overwhelmed Luke, casting despair into him. Surely he was never strong enough to master this? He tried to withdraw from the Force, to block it effect on him. The Sith magic battered his mental defences as he crouched, his eyes closed as he tried to concentrate on keeping his mind together.

His hand brushed against something; Wedge's jacket. Luke opened his eyes and saw his friend, helpless, on the ground in front of him. He reached through the Force, reached for Wedge's clean, honest presence. And found the strength to pull the blaster packs from Wedge's pocket. Tape from his utility belt bound the packs together, then Luke slowly stood and turned to face the statue. It took a major effort of will to activate his lightsaber. Luke reached deeper into the Force, pushing back the darkness that battered him and clinging to Wedge's presence. He threw his lightsaber, guiding it with the Force. It buried itself into the stone chest of the statue. Luke circled with his hand and the lightsaber moved, cutting a wider hole.

The job only took a few seconds, but it seemed far longer to Luke. He recalled the lightsaber, switching it off as it returned to his hand. Once it was attached to his belt again, he set the blaster packs to maximum and pried the Sturm dowels free. The pressure in the Force intensified yet again, almost paralysing Luke as he stood with the overloaded blaster packs in his hand. Again he reached out to Wedge, using his bright presence as an anchor. Centred in the light side of the Force, Luke threw the blaster bomb. He held it with the Force, directing it, pushing it against the power of the Sith magic. The bomb reached the hole he'd cut and vanished inside. Luke let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding.

There was no time to relax though. He picked up Wedge and drew on the Force again to get them both over a pile of rubble. Luke lost his footing at the top and slid down an angled chunk of wall, hanging on to Wedge and using the Force to stop them from hitting the ground too hard. They landed in a heap, Luke gasping for breath. He'd barely figured out which way up he was when the blaster packs exploded.

Even as shards of stone statue were flying overhead, Luke felt the dark presence fade. He stayed where he was until the last echoes of the explosion died away. His mind felt lighter but he was incredibly drained, unwilling to move more than absolutely necessary. Only when Wedge began to stir did Luke lift his head, looking at his friend. Wedge opened his eyes, blinking in a puzzled way until he focussed on Luke's face.

"It's gone, hasn't it?"

Luke nodded, painfully hauling himself to a sitting position. Wedge did the same, rubbing his forehead.

"Sorry I wasn't much help," he said.

"You were," Luke told him. "I don't think I could have fought all that dark energy without you to anchor me to the light."

Wedge looked faintly baffled but let the subject drop. "I haven't had a headache like this since the morning after Endor." He looked only marginally better than Luke felt.

"There's no hurry now," Luke said. "We broke the focus of the Sith energy here, but I'd like to take a look around, see if we can find any artefact that Palpatine left behind."

Wedge groaned softly, rubbed his forehead, and turned an accusing look at Luke.

"When we've got the strength," Luke added, leaning back against the stone and relaxing.

* * * * *

They searched the ruined temple as best they could, but there was nothing of interest to Luke. Their journey had been worthwhile though, for the lingering influence of the Emperor had been cleansed from the planet. Luke felt stronger for having faced and overcome that dark presence. Wedge had slept peacefully on the return flight, and seemed stronger in spirit, as though a burden had been lifted from his heart.

Luke peered through the forward viewport as Wedge set the shuttle down in the hangar.

"The galaxy's only Jedi and the Fleet's most decorated hero return from a mission, and there's no one here to greet us but a couple of mechanics," he remarked.

"Good," Wedge answered with feeling. "I know where my own quarters are and I'm quite capable of carrying my own bags. I don't need any more parades, thank you." He flicked off the shuttle's controls with unnecessary briskness.

Luke grinned. "You secretly love all the attention, don't you?" he teased. "You can't hide it from me."

Wedge glared at him. "If you can read my mind right now, you'll change the subject."

"I don't need any Jedi skills to know how you feel right now," Luke replied. "That's a very impressive glare you've developed. Generals glare like that you know."

"I'm just a commander, and I intend to stay that way. And the sooner I can get back in command of Rogue Squadron, the better." Wedge unbuckled his harness and started to rise.

Luke nodded. "You're right, it's where you should be." He rose too and threw an arm about Wedge's shoulders. "Thank you for going back to Malrev Four with me; I know it wasn't easy for you."

Wedge relaxed and smiled. "You know I'm a fool for helping out friends. And you're a friend I don't get to see so much of any more."

Luke tightened the hug briefly, and let go. "Our lives are on different paths now, but I think those paths will keep crossing."

Wedge nodded, a little sad, but resigned. "Take care of yourself out there, Luke."

"And you." Luke smiled. "Haven't you got another couple of days of leave still?"

Wedge brightened up at the reminder. "What are we waiting for?" He made a sudden dash for the cockpit door. "Last one to the cantina's a tauntaun's tail-wiper! And no cheating with Jedi stuff."

Laughing, Luke raced after him.


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