Found, and Lost
Rogue Squadron was spared the usual idle chatter on the long, lonely hyperspace jump in their individual fighters, the members of the highly decorated squad longed for it. They just couldn't bring themselves to talk about nothing. A squadronmate had been lost; Rogue 2, Ibtisam, had flown over Ciutric in the failed mission to retrieve Sate Pestage, leader of the Empire. Pestage had offered a deal: no resistance in the taking of Coruscant, if he could be given systems and planets for him and his people, retention of his fortunes, and a promise to be left alone by the New Republic. Princess Leia Organa had not been able to resist the offer, and the Rogues and Page's and Dendo's Commandos had been sent to pick up the "package."
Unfortunately, Pestage, an opportunistic and remarkably stupid man, tried to play several sides against one another: Warlord Leonia Tavira vs. Admiral Krennel vs. Ysanne Isard vs. the Alliance. Everyone had lost, though none more than Pestage, who was strangled by Krennel, on Ciutric. His murderer became an independent warlord, seizing what could be found of Pestage's personal fortune, on the run from Director Isard. And though Krennel and the Ciutric Hegemony could someday become a force to be reckoned with, it was something the Alliance could not deal with right now.
Ibtisam's body was delivered to a reserved hangar, where all Rogues, past and present, could assemble, albeit temporarily. There, Wedge unveiled the Rogue memorial -- static holograms of the deceased members of Rogue Squadron and its predecessor, Red Squadron. Ibtisam's image would join them soon enough, but today was her funeral. Wedge stood before her coffin, with the dead Rogues behind him.
Can you hear me, Doc? How about you, Piggy? Is Biggs watching out for you all? How about for us? Hope Dllr has found his music. Wedge closed his eyes as they grew bright with unshed tears for his fallen friends.
"I wish our monument to the fallen of Rogue Squadron was more permanent. Perhaps when we win, it will be... permanent and no longer subject to expansion. I think all the Rogues we honor here would be very pleased if none of their comrades ever joined their ranks in death. Ibtisam is joining them, her heroism matches their heroism..."
Throughout the ceremony, Wedge could hear Nrin, the Quarren who was Ibtisam's closest friend, keening and sniffing softly. The two pilots were "natural" enemies -- on their homeworld, the Quarren had blamed the Mon Calamari -- the species to which Ibtisam belonged -- for traveling into space, and attracting the wrath of the Empire to their planet. They bickered and fought intensely, until Ibtisam, along with Wes Janson, had been shot down over Brentaal on a previous mission. When faced with the possibility that he might never see her again, Nrin was forced to confront his feelings toward her as an individual, and not as Mon Cal.
Just before the battle that claimed her, the two had resolved to start a serious relationship, ostensibly to show Quarren and Mon Cal that the two species could co-live peacefully. But they had fallen in love, and meant to make a true and meaningful life together.
Wedge noted that this jinx was one that many pilots knew about and feared. As soon as you resolved to do something with your life outside of the squadron, you'd get killed or captured. There was nothing he could do for Nrin's grief, other than to order him to see counselors. And to grant Nrin's request for transfer out of the squadron.
* *** *The ceremony was over. Nrin, his features twisted with barely contained grief, stood at attention before his commander as Wedge signed his release from the Rogues.
Wedge had granted Nrin's request to let the mourning pilot take Ibtisam's remains into space, and to fire the proton torpedoes at her coffin that would vaporize her remains into atoms. Normally, as her assigned wingman, Wedge would have performed the deed, but they all understood Nrin's need to say goodbye to her privately and completely.
Or maybe Wedge didn't understand. He'd lost so many friends and comrades in his years with the Rogues, but never one with whom he'd hoped to share his life. If Wedge's ache at Ibtisam's death was so much as an iota of Nrin's pain, Wedge didn't think he could bear it.
Other humans might have dealt with this revelation by guarding themselves from the inevitable pain. They might have closed all contact with others, making no friends so that their eventual and inevitable loss would not hurt so much. Indeed, Tycho has pointed out that Wedge was guilty of that very thing -- the time Wes and Ibtisam had been shot down over Brentaal, Wedge quietly confessed that it hurt more to lose Wes, whom he'd known longer. Wedge had tried hard to correct this very human instinct and to always consider his pilots as intelligent, caring personal friends, and not just as commodities or mere... pilots.
But Nrin quietly told him that if he had to live Ibtisam's death all over again in exchange for the chance to grow closer to her sooner, he gladly would. And that convinced Wedge that he needed to feel connected... whole... even if it meant risking the loss of everything someday.
Therefore, he made a date to see Lieutenant Reina Faleur of Supply. Tycho had set up a blind date for him with the woman from Chandrila before they'd left for this disastrous mission on Ciutric. Wedge had made a promise to her that he would come back, and he wanted to make sure he kept his word. She represented life, a new beginning, in the midst of his dealings with death.
* *** *Reina opened the door to her small apartment and was momentarily confused by the swaying mass of plant and flower material that was presenting itself to her. The bouquet spoke, "For you, Reina."
She immediately recognized the voice of Captain Wedge Antilles, who was carrying the beautiful arrangement in front of him. She laughed and relieved him of his cargo, "Come in, Wedge! You're just in time! And thank you for the bouquet -- it's gorgeous!" Though they'd had just the one date at the officer's club, they had hit if off immediately, and she felt very close to him. She wondered every minute while he was away on his mission if she'd met the man of her dreams, just to have him taken away from her. But her fears were unfounded, and here he was, standing awkwardly in her foyer.
She cradled the flowers in her left arm, and held her right hand out to him. He took it, and let her lead him into her kitchen, where she found a vase for the enormous bouquet.
She smiled and walked over to the sideboard, carefully placing the flowers to the side. She bumped into Wedge; he was standing behind her, and she was caught unaware as she turned around. But quick to recognize the opportunity, she pressed herself chest to chest with the handsome commander of the Rogues. Gazing into his warm, brown eyes, she pulled his head closer to hers, and gently kissed him.
Wedge wasn't as comfortable around Reina as she obviously was around him, but he couldn't complain. The Lieutenant's kiss was highly addictive, tasting of purest water, and he wrapped his arms around her back and waist to draw her closer.
Then his stomach let out a loud growl.
Both looked up, startled, then started to laugh. Through her mirth, Reina apologized, "I'm sorry, Wedge! Let me get you dinner! After all, I spent all day preparing it!"
"If you want to know the truth, I was too nervous to eat earlier," admitted Wedge, "It was a long trip back, and I had the memorial and funeral to attend to today. Plus the usual reports and debriefings."
Her dark eyes glowed at him, "So you had said in your call to me earlier. But I can't believe you hadn't been able to eat! You must be starving!" She was pulling platters and flatware from cabinets, crystal goblets for water and wine, moving back and forth past Wedge as she set the table.
"Here, let me help," offered Wedge, intercepting her between kitchen to table and grabbing the cutlery she was carrying. He at least knew how to set a formal table, having sat through many dinners staring at the table setting instead of listening to the speeches. "Actually, you're right. That's all smokescreen. I was actually kind of nervous to be seeing you." He averted her eyes, suddenly shy with himself.
"What ever for, Wedge Antilles? I don't bite," said Reina, lightly amused. So, I can make the great Antilles nervous!
"Well, there was that Ewok dance Tycho and Winter mentioned, and you wanted to see," started Wedge, "which, by the way, he was sworn to secrecy never to reveal!" They laughed, as he laid out the mats and crockery where she indicated on the table, "This going to sound awfully goofy, but I've been fighting for the Alliance almost ever since I lost my parents, when I was still a teenager. Haven't had time to date much, and I was worried about the abrupt way we had to leave for the mission the last time I saw you." He still didn't look up, and he felt his cheeks burning.
Reina came up beside him with a small tray and offered him a delicious looking hors d'oeuvre. As he swallowed it, he thought it was simply the most fabulous thing he'd ever tasted. She was clearly a wonderful cook.
She placed a hand on his back, and started slowly rubbing. "You have nothing to fear from me, Wedge. I like you, I'm grateful that you're safe, and that you're here. Let's enjoy it while we can." He thought she sounded a little sad, but maybe he was just nervous. She gave him a peck on the cheek, then pulled him into the kitchen to have him help with the remaining platters and bowls.
They drank the wine and enjoyed the food Reina had prepared. She amazed him when she mentioned that all the food he had eaten had come from the same standard Supply issues that Rogue Squadron normally received.
"But this is a Coronet City feast! It tastes great! It's more than that -- it's digestible! I can't stop eating it, I'm growing fat just thinking about it," exclaimed Wedge. He shook his head, "This is not the same stuff that's fed to us, I don't believe you."
"Thank you for the compliments," replied Reina, dryly, "I assure you, it is. With some spices, herbs, a cooker that's something more than a field box -- amazing what experience, ingenuity, and a skilled tongue will do. You have my mother to thank for this ability. I can cook just about anything and make it taste good. Made me a popular, but very chubby, adolescent."
"Way to a man's heart, they say," grinned Wedge.
Reina's eyes suddenly looked sad, though the rest of the smile was still there, "Yes," she replied, simply.
Dessert was a towering cake of many layers, filled with a grated fruit Wedge couldn't identify, and two different flavors of crème, and the most delicious caf. When the meal was finished, Wedge gave out a contented sigh, "Good thing I couldn't eat anything before I got here. Thank you, Reina. That was the best meal I've ever had! And the company and conversation only enhanced the food and wine."
They carried the dishes back to the kitchen. Wedge offered to wash, while Reina dried and put away. He'd taken off his formal uniform jacket, leaving him sleeveless in the form-fitting unitard. They continued chatting about family, how they'd joined the Alliance, all the little things people tell each other on a date. All the while, Reina admired the form beneath the unitard, gazing upon him and savoring his handsomeness. So lost in thought was she that she didn't realize that Wedge noticed she was staring. He tossed a handful of soap bubbles at her. They landed on her nose, to her complete surprise, and she let out a little yelp.
He laughed at her, even after she flipped the plate she was holding back into the sink, splashing him. Wedge threw more bubbles at her, and the situation degraded to a water fight, with more water and bubbles on them and on the floor than in the sink. Both had slipped and collapsed to the floor of the tiny kitchen, laughing so hard their sides and full stomachs ached. They held each other as they laughed and smiled, until Wedge leaned down and pressed his lips to hers.
She returned his kiss, wrapping her arms around him, slowly massaging his triceps with her fingers. As they pulled each other closer, Reina let him push his knee between her legs, and she slipped her leg over his. Their tongues started to wrestle and their breathing quickened as Wedge became aware of the warmth on his thigh; she was as turned on as he was. He felt her hands behind him, undoing the long fastener of his unitard. Wedge helped her pull the fabric down his arms, leaving him naked from waist up.
Likewise, Wedge found the buttons on the shoulders of her dress and the fastener down her back, and undid them. The two of them lay side by side on the kitchen floor, kissing and fondling, each half-naked.
Reina shuddered when Wedge's lips encircled one of her large, brown nipples, and started sucking on it softly, while his hand gently formed itself around the surrounding breast. She moaned as he dragged his tongue across the top of her breast and up her throat, leaving a cold, wet trail, which he blew on to make her shiver.
Wedge noticed they were lying in a puddle of cold, soapy water, and pulled himself up to a sitting position. He leaned down again, enveloping Reina's lips with his, and drew her upwards, holding her shoulders. Still kissing, they stood up together, and pulled the remainder of their clothing off. Standing naked, they embraced, and their kisses became more urgent.
Reina took his hand and led him into her bedroom. He admired her firm buttocks, her perfectly muscled back, and her long, toned legs as she walked. Her arms themselves were erotic, and Wedge was convinced that just thinking of her perfect arms would arouse him. With a dopey smile, he followed her.
She had arranged candles around the room. They were lit, casting a soft yellowish glow over the bed and the walls. He stopped her progress and turned her to him, so he could look into her face. She rested her head on his shoulder as he bent down to pick her up, and carried her to the bed.
He laid her down so her knees bent over the edge. Spreading her legs, kissing along the tattoo around her right ankle, he let her scent fill his head, prompting him to get closer to the source. He admired how beautiful her vagina was, blossoming as it did at the top of her strong, perfect thighs. Leaning down, he drew his tongue along her moist labia, enjoying himself as much as he pleased her.
Reina drew her knees up to expose more of herself to Wedge as he made love to her with his mouth. She couldn't keep herself from writhing and bucking up against him as he licked and sucked at her clitoris. Reina always enjoyed sex -- sometimes too much so -- but she knew that sex with Wedge Antilles was special, and -- as inexperienced as he claimed to be -- that he knew what he was doing. She had lost count of the number of orgasms he had brought her to, and they all seemed to blend together in a continuous arousal and peaking.
As her erotic breaths and throaty cries died down to contented sighs, he stopped and stood over her, greedily savoring the sight of her sated body: eyes closed, her head tilted back, her hands clutching at the covers beneath her. He picked her up again, and repositioned her on the bed. He crawled up to her from below, pushing her thighs apart, and placed his engorged member at the opening of her warm, moist passage. Wedge pushed forward slowly and he closed his eyes as Reina brought her feet onto the bed's surface, and pushed her slit up toward him. Buried deeply in her, he embraced her body and slowly started grinding into her.
Reina's fingernails dug into the muscular triceps she had admired earlier in the evening, leaving marks on them when she released her orgasm. The room was filled with her long, loud moan, as she gyrated hard against him, and Wedge felt his climax starting to boil deep within him. He buried his face in the curve of her neck as his ejaculate burst forth. He discovered later that he'd bitten her hard enough to leave a mark for days after.
They fell asleep together, and when Reina woke up hours later, Wedge was gone. She found a note from him, thanking her for dinner and her hospitality, and excusing himself for being called away from her so early in the morning. Could he see her again? She smiled as she read the note. When she finished, she clutched it to her chest and told herself to thank Lieutenant Celchu for introducing her to Wedge. Perhaps she could have Tycho and Winter over for dinner, too. She picked up her comlink and called Wedge's frequency.
* *** *Back at the gym, Wedge felt relaxed, calm and happy. The night spent at Reina's had loosened the tightness he'd acquired during the unraveling of their previous mission to Ciutric. He'd always envied how well Tycho could bounce back from the worst missions, as long as he could see Winter. Wedge, at last, understood.
It wasn't just that she was a wonderful cook, or that he had been able to make love to her so instinctively or that it was so good. They talked and laughed together, acted childish, and he felt at ease with her. Wedge hadn't lied to her -- all of his adult life had been occupied by fighting or leading, with not much time left for dating. Though not a virgin, Wedge couldn't really use both hands to count the number of dates he'd had.
Reina was special. He hoped she'd call him back. He wanted to see her again. His whole time at Admiral Ackbar's office, he could barely keep his attention on the details of the reports he'd submitted. The General had noticed, and grumpily dismissed him.
When his comlink sounded, Wedge leaped off the exercise equipment he'd been using with such vigor that all the sleepy-eyed officers in the gym noticed. In particular, Wes Janson noted it, and saved the information for some mischief in the future.
* *** *Wedge walked around all day with a huge, silly grin. When he saw Tycho, he put his arm around the other man's shoulder and, leaning his whole weight into him, started with an effusive greeting and thanks.
Tycho, tired himself after a fantastic night with Winter, shoved Wedge off of him, "Forget it. Reina's already thanked me! She just about handed me her first-born out of gratitude. You must be some studmuffin, Wedge."
His commander abruptly stumbled and he stammered, "S-she did-dn't say th-that!"
"No, not in so many words," Tycho's face twisted into a grin, as he noted Wedge was blushing furiously, "but I could tell she had a marvelous time with Captain Antilles. Hey, I think she even kind of likes you."
Wedge smiled again, put his hands in his pockets and sauntered away from Tycho. He'd started to whistle happily. Tycho shook his head, thinking, He's like a little kid! Funny, never knew how cute Wedge could be when he's in love. Come to think of it, has he ever been in love before?
Wedge found Reina at the pool, getting ready to do her daily swim. She was just about in the water when he arrived, so he settled for standing in the doorway of the men's lockers, watching her body propel itself from one end of the pool to the other, then back again. So that's how she keeps those arms in shape, he thought, watching the firm, smooth strokes, not to mention the rest of her. She's beautiful! When she stopped, he was startled to see her pulling herself out of the pool and accepting a towel from none other than Wes Janson, playboy of Rogue Squadron. She let him wrap the towel around her shoulders, and though she was probably just thanking him, Wedge felt a pang of jealousy as she looked up at Wes, standing close to her.
He lurked in the shadows as Reina finished toweling off. She spoke to Janson again, and started walking toward the female locker rooms. He waited as Wes approached him, oblivious to Wedge's presence.
"Oh, hi, Wedge. What're you doing here?" asked Janson, his normal cheerful self, "didn't you get enough of a workout this morning at the gym?"
Wedge tried to keep his tone professional and even, "I should ask you the same, Janson." He was surprised at how tempted he was to confine his old friend to barracks for the next twenty years.
Wes apparently didn't notice Wedge's tension, "See you at the sims later, okay?" and he was gone.
* *** *Wedge thought he saw Wes Janson coming out of Reina's apartment building.
Wedge did a double take, making sure it was indeed Wes jumping over the bushes and crossing the roadway. The man was moving away from Wedge at a fast trot, but there was no mistake. Wes, why you...
* *** *Wedge and Reina had gone out to see a new holodrama and for a casual supper afterwards at a new Selonian restaurant which had gotten good write-ups. Now they were in the public gardens, viewing the phosphorescent display of blooms that were apparent only after dark. Wedge, looking out the corner of his eye, admired her profile, glowing in the soft, reflected light.
She was laughing easily with him, "Wes? Oh, he's mostly harmless. He's just a big, sweet boy scout!" Wedge, under the auspices of asking her how much she knew about each of his squadron members, listed off the names of the men and women of the Rogues, starting with Janson. "Whenever he's around, he'll do little favors for me. He's such a gentleman -- you should see him! He does things for every woman at the pool, young or old. He's gallant and he's charming, like a wonderful puppy -- I like him a lot."
Wedge felt ashamed of his jealousy toward Wes earlier that week. It was hard to think of him that way, but maybe Wes was just being a nice guy, without any interest in Reina. Maybe he really was at Reina's building for some other reason than to see her? And mynocks might someday be domesticated as fine housepets, He grinned at the thought, Ah, well. It was still fun vaping Wes in the sims every day, even though my aggression was obviously misplaced.
"Soontir Fel -- now him... I feel so bad for him. He's so sad, so withdrawn. Sometimes, I feel like hugging him or doing something to comfort him," continued Reina. Uh oh, thought Wedge, jealousy alarm... But Fel is no threat! What's wrong with me?
Wedge wanted her to stop talking about the big, handsome Colonel, and put his hand to her cheek, turning her face toward him. She stopped talking and trailed her tongue down his palm. The sensual manner in which she did this sent an instant message to his groin, and he quickly drew her to him. They embraced in the middle of the walled garden, enjoying their physical and emotional closeness.
Wedge led them toward one of the walls, trapping Reina against it, pressing into her with his body. He started sucking on her earlobe and dragged his tongue down the side of her neck. Reina's breath hissed and then she sighed with delight as he buried his mouth in the curve of her throat by her clavicle. She clutched at his head as he pulled her dress up and started probing her vulva and gently rubbing her clitoris. Her breathing became heavy as she felt his stiffness penetrating her.
Bracing herself against the wall, Reina drew her legs around his. Wedge leaned into her, pulling her ankles around his back. Sliding his hands up the length of her legs until he was holding onto the top of her thighs, he started thrusting into her with short, jerky movements. She held him tightly, losing herself to her billowing orgasm; she felt Wedge's back arch, pushing his pelvis forward into her as he ejaculated deep into her pulsing womb.
"Shh. There's not much time," she whispered back, "I love you."
In a rush, he knew it was true. Wedge Antilles had fallen in love.
* *** *The man sat in the darkest shadows of the garden, watching the attractive couple give in to their primal urges. He smiled as he recognized the man who was making love to Reina Faleur.
* *** *Reina sat nervously at her desk, tapping her fingers on the datapad. She couldn't concentrate. She'd seen Captain Antilles every night since he'd returned from Ciutric, and this was the first mission since then to which Rogue Squadron had been called out. The requisition forms she'd received indicated that the target was in the direction of Nal Hutta or beyond.
She gazed at the hologram on her desk, of her parents, her baby sister Sera, and a young boy. It was for the safety of that boy and her family that she was obligated to do what she was preparing to do now.
Months before, she had been contacted by her much younger sister, telling her that the boy was suffering from a mysterious virus. Reina tried to assure Sera that it was probably something he'd picked up at school, but the assurance rang hollow to both of them.
An Imperial agent had contacted her, claiming responsibility for the boy's illness. He assured Reina that unless she complied, the boy would die, and her family would be tortured. And thus, Reina had come to agree to duplicate and encode manifests and requisitions and forward them according to the procedure she was given, into Imperial hands for analysis.
She'd contemplated warning her family, telling them to hide. But they would panic, and would admonish her to never accept such a threat. They would be strong enough to protect the boy.
The boy's name was Corgal, after his grandfather. He was the son of a man who was wanted on Chandrila as a traitor, one who had sold out to the Empire. Corgal's grandparents and young aunt took care of the toddler, raising and protecting him as much as possible.
His mother was Lieutenant Reina Faleur.
Reina, knowing the requisitions she stared at were for the supply of the Rogues on their current mission, understood that her failure to protect Corgal, to repel the threat made to her family, had endangered a man she had come to love. She hoped to make a future with Wedge, but she now found herself between threatening his life, or her son's.
She made some modifications to the files, then sent them, encrypted in that special manner that she'd been given instructions for. Reina closed her eyes and said a prayer.
* *** *Rogue Squadron returned from Nal Hutta, this time as the whole unit, with no losses. Hobbie Klivian had been shot down during the fighting and needed medical care, as had Feylis Ardele and new squadron member Jonsira Thowic, a Twi'lek who had been adopted by human parents. All had ejected successfully from their damaged craft, but suffered from exposure, injuries from impacting micro-debris, and heat loss. Wes Janson's foils were stuck in attack position, but he was able to make the jump to hyperspace with the rest of them. An Imperial fleet had been sited exactly two systems rimward, but the Rogues had been able to complete their mission and slip out of Hutt space before they posed any immediate threat.
The relief she felt was palpable, but she was consumed with fear that the Imperial agent would come after her. She knew Wedge needed to file his reports, be debriefed, and attend to the injured, but Reina wondered if she could wait to see him, to make sure he was really all right. Or would she explode from the fear and anticipation?
Their relationship had moved to a point that she'd programmed Wedge access to her apartment, but she had not expect him to be there when she got home that evening. Something was being cooked, and she sniffed appreciatively at the aroma. Heavy, spicy, but well balanced, was her assessment.
She turned the corner and saw Wedge in the kitchen. He'd just turned off the grill and had piled a platter high with tenderloin noisettes of some sort, with a blackened sauce over them. He smiled at her, "Your timing is perfect. It's Thyferran night. Your choice of wine."
Reina took the platter out of his hands and placed it quickly on the counter, then grabbed him, holding him tightly to her.
He knew she'd probably miss him, but her reaction surprised him. She looked at him and whispered, "I'm so glad you're safe. I was so worried." He was more surprised to see tears brimming in her dark, bright eyes.
He blotted her tears with the corner of a kitchen towel, and rubbing her hair, he murmured, "I missed you, too. I promise, Reina, that if there is any way for me to do it, I will come back to you," he smiled at her, "You're probably hungry. Let me feed you, will you?"
Reina picked a wine she thought might suit whatever Wedge had made, and they sat down to dinner. He told her what he could about the mission, though he had to stop when he came to the part about spotting the Imperial fleet several systems away, because she started to choke. He quickly moved to help her eject the food from her windpipe, but she waved him away. Just an errant swallow as she got caught up in the excitement of the story, she assured him. After a few more sips of water and wine, she settled down, and they continued their dinner.
She told herself she'd done the right thing, modifying the orders in the copy that she'd sent to the Imperials. They needn't know what she'd done. The little changes had clearly had an effect on the Imperial fleet's ability to judge where Rogue Squadron would likely be. But if they figured out what she'd done, something would happen to Corgal. She was trembling and looked distraught, and Wedge misinterpreted her distress.
Her reaction to his tale affected Wedge pretty deeply. How worried would she have been for me? Reina must have been under tremendous strain while he was away. It made him nervous to know that someone cared for him so much as to become almost ill if he was in danger. Strange as the logic would seem to him later in life, it drew him closer to her, and he resolved to assure her that as long there was a way -- no matter how impossible -- he'd always come back to her.
* *** *A note was on Reina's desk the following day. It read, "Your boyfriend," and that was all.
Reina understood. The Imperial wanted her to bring Wedge to a prearranged pick-up location. He would simply disappear.
Reina nearly fainted at the thought. She wouldn't do it. Even if they killed Corgal.
* *** *Wedge was standing outside Reina's door, rehearsing his proposal for the hundredth time, checking compulsively to make sure the ring was still in his pocket. Tycho -- whom Wedge considered to have the best taste among his pilot friends -- had helped him pick it out: a silvery band embedded with cool, blue, variegated stones, the combination shimmering like a stream of clear water tumbling over rapids. On the way out of the jeweler's, they ran into Wes Janson and a fully recovered Hobbie Klivian. Hobbie hooted and teased his commander; Janson was strangely quiet.
Wedge put Janson's uncharacteristic behavior out of his mind, as he prepared to keypunch his access code to enter Reina's apartment. As he nervously tapped in the four-digit code, he heard a cry and a crashing thump coming from within. He ran into the apartment, to find Reina on her knees, her hands over her mouth, her eyes wide and staring at a large holo, projected into the middle of the lounge. It apparently was a static image, with no additional message. The image showed people, whom Wedge knew represented her family. But there was something wrong with the holo -- no one was smiling, except a large, broad man, who was holding a young boy -- who looked like he was crying.
Reina had started to sob, and Wedge went over to her, encircling her with comforting arms. He felt her trembling, as if violently cold. He held her, but her trembling didn't cease.
"Wedge," she whispered to him, her breath coming raggedly, "there are things you need to know about me -- " and though Wedge tried to sooth her by telling her he didn't need to know now, she started to talk, and couldn't stop.
* *** *Wedge looked at the sleeping form of his lover. She was exhausted from worry, and confessing to Wedge had been a violent purge. He'd carried her to the refresher when the turmoil in her gut couldn't be contained, and listened to her in that tiny room, through crying and heaving, rubbing her back and bringing her water to try and settle her down. What he heard was devastating, and he was having trouble processing it all.
She told him about her son, born out of wedlock to a man named Fiim Mooristhe from Chandrila. As a pudgy youth, she was thrilled that he'd even noticed her. He first met her when she'd been working at a restaurant as a chef's assistant, and Reina knew he loved her cooking more than he cared for her. But she enjoyed watching him enjoy her food, and discovered that she enjoyed sex, though even then, she understood that he wasn't a considerate lover.
The smiling man in the holo was the father of her child. One day, he'd broken off their brief affair and had left suddenly. She discovered shortly after that she was pregnant, and she was forced to leave her job and go home. The pale, purplish tattoo she bore on her ankle was a brand within her clan, the mark signifying a woman whom was unmarried and carrying a child. It was little understood or recognized outside of her extended family, but those who forced it on her knew its meaning and the life of humiliation it could impose. Her parents sought to reduce the shame she felt at bearing it, encouraging her to join the Alliance military and to leave her child with them and her very much younger sister. They could be passed off as brother and sister of older parents.
She'd done it to spare her family her shame, and to allow her son to grow up with loving parents who were not marked. Even among the many Chandrilans in the Alliance, nearly none recognized the mark as anything more than something trendy acquired in her youth. Unable to afford the surgery to remove the mark on her skin, she had embellished it somewhat, making it more fashionable, and less recognizable. Reina even started using the base's pool every day, and didn't bother covering the mark on her ankle. To her relief, no one ever noticed it.
Corgal's father had joined Imperial Intelligence, and by blind luck, he'd been assigned to convert her. He came unannounced to her apartment one night, and lewdly admired her, saying that she had shaped-up well, turning from a cute, pudgy adolescent to a fit, vibrant woman. Despite the beating he gave her upon their reunion, she had stood firm against him, threatening to expose him. The only break in her resolved was the revelation that he knew about Corgal -- and he had demonstrated what he was capable of doing to his own child. Within hours of his visit, she received a panicky live-time holo from her sister, who feared the boy would die -- he'd come down with a sudden and violent illness.
Responding immediately, Reina met her ex-lover where and when he ordered her to be -- in a dark, underground tunnel, behind the ruins of a forgotten factory. She accepted the danger he imposed and was forced to swear she would do as he ordered. He gave her instructions, reducing her to betraying her friends in the military. She was nearly catatonic with shock at what he wanted her to do.
Then he grabbed her by her hair and pulled her down. He viciously raped her in the debris-clogged alley, laughing sadistically about how and where they'd find the various parts of her if she ever dared disobeyed. During the entire humiliating act, he had held a loudly humming vibrobrade close to her body -- a further demonstration of his control and power over her.
The boy had recovered within the day.
Any time the paperwork was not delivered as ordered, something would happen to her family. Her mother suffered a disfiguring facial scar when her hairdresser suffered a racking coughing fit while trimming her hair. Her father had been hit by a speeder and had lost two fingers of his left hand. Her kid sister had been attacked by rabid animals, escaped from a lab, on her way home from school and had to undergo the difficult and long treatments to heal from the disease. Reina confessed that she had changed some parameters on the papers issued for supplying the Rogues, resulting in the Imperial fleet targeting the wrong system to attack. Her son's arm had been broken in a mysterious fall the next day.
And she'd most recently received a note, simply stating that she was to bring Wedge to that same spot, so that the Imperials could kidnap him.
* *** *Wedge felt sick that Reina had born the weight of her treason for those she loved. He had heard about such cases, of course... it was well known that those who were under stress -- financially, socially, academically, anything at all -- could be targeted by opportunistic spy mongers. Reina's case was a little rarer in that she was not paid for information, but had been violently abused and blackmailed from the beginning.
When Reina, at last, had stirred from her dreamless sleep that terrible night, he made sure he was there. Still sleeping, she flailed, shrieking that she was falling, and Wedge held her, letting her know she was fine, that he was still with her. She came awake, demanding that he make love to her, to hold her closely, to help fill the emptiness and coldness she felt. Wedge hesitated, but she pleaded, and he found himself embracing her nakedness tenderly. He still loved her, and he feared for her.
They had talked about what to do next. She promised Wedge that she would do anything to capture or kill the man whom was responsible for her misery, and consented to telling everything she knew to General Airen Cracken, head of Intelligence.
And now, members of a counter-intelligence ground unit and Rogue Squadron were in position. Wedge and Reina were starting to walk slowly toward the meeting point. She was sobbing quietly, afraid that she really would be forced to turn the man she loved over to the man who had terrorized her these past months. She could feel eyes on her, but didn't know if those eyes belonged to Alliance people, or to Imperials.
Wedge, his arm around her shoulders, tried to look casual and unsuspicious, but he admitted to himself that he, too, felt scared. Reina had been arrested upon her confession, but was released to his custody when she agreed to help capture the Imperial agent. A plan had been made, and Wedge would be the bait to hopefully flush out the whole spy-mongering crew.
He tried to concentrate, but his thoughts kept drifting from the current mission; they were back in a little gray office, where he and Reina had exchanged vows witnessed by General Cracken. It wasn't a legal marriage, per se, it was more of a commitment ceremony. He had felt it was important that she understand how he felt for her, and that he would do anything to protect her.
In the prison cell where she was kept until her interrogation, he finally asked her to marry him. Reina yelped out a startled, "Yes!" but then immediately insisted that the ceremony not be a legal marriage. If the New Republic went back on their word and she was arrested and incarcerated, she did not want Wedge held back. She made him understand that this was important to her; she had done so much harm already, she couldn't bear to inadvertently do more.
He wanted her to have the ring he bought for her, but it was taken from him as he entered the prison for security reasons, along with anything else that could be used to harm Reina or the guards. It will have to wait, Wedge wasn't supposed to touch her during his visit, but he couldn't help it, I'll wait forever for her.
Deeper into the overgrowth, they ducked into the appointed passageway in response to a sudden, short rainshower. Wedge knew she had been raped in this tunnel, so he was considerate of her mood, and tried to move in as non-threatening a manner as possible. To his surprise, as soon as they were in the shadows, she grabbed Wedge to her. Her back to the tunnel wall, she clutched at him like she was drowning.
Wedge embraced her, trying to calm her down, "I'm here. I love you. I'll never leave you. Reina, when this is all over, you will marry me, legally? Promise you will, Reina."
Holding her close to him, he kissed her lips softly. She surrendered to him, his words of assurance echoing in her mind, and visions of their possible futures flitted through her consciousness. Reina lost herself in his kiss, savoring him as if it was going to be her final time with him.
She sighed, feeling the tears forming behind her closed eyelids. If she had to die now, she would go happily. Wedge made the good things out-tally the nightmares in her life.
"Yes, I will," she murmured against his lips, and their lips locked more tightly onto each other.
A deep, guttural chortling filled and echoed through the tunnel, and the light at the entrance went black as a large figure moved into the doorway leading to the meadow outside. Reina hadn't opened her eyes, hoping that she had imagined that laugh.
"How nice that Wedge Antilles is so gallant," the voice was a sneer, spilling out contempt, "Trying to make an honest woman of her, are you? I can't say I blame you -- she's a nice piece, don't you agree? And there are a lot more where she came from, don't worry."
Wedge had turned to face the figure, protectively shielding Reina behind him, "Then you won't mind me taking what's mine and leaving."
The big man stepped out of the shadows. Wedge recognized him from the holo that was delivered to Reina's apartment the night he had prepared to ask her to marry him. The face was cruel and twisted, and his angular features handsomely framed the contempt he felt for his victims, "Little man, she's will never be yours. She's mine. Isn't that right, Reina, honey? That beautiful, pert ass is mine, isn't it? Not to mention that nice box. Hope you like how I beat it into shape, Captain. Not every girl's hole heals up as nicely as Reina's."
Reina shrank with fear and shame. She hated him. He was capable of reducing her into a tortured animal, bearing no resemblance to the woman she'd made of herself, the woman whom Wedge had grown to love. She knew he could feel her collapse inside, but she couldn't help herself. She had no nerve in her to resist Fiim Mooristhe.
A sigh issued deep from his chest, and his voice mocked her, "Reina, sweetheart, you're a good girl... Thank you for bringing Captain Antilles to me. What? Oh, oh, I understand. You like Wedge Antilles, don't you?" His tone froze fear into her gut; it would never melt from her, she was sure.
"I'll tell you what... I'll take both of you with me. Would you like that, Reina? You can sit by and watch while I have fun with your boyfriend, then he can sit and watch while I have my way with you. It'll be like a family!" Fiim's tone oozed with sadistic glee. He gave a signal to someone, and Wedge's arm was nearly pulled out of its socket as he was pulled away from his lover.
Wedge was forced to his knees as his arms were twisted painfully and expertly behind him. He wondered where the Alliance folks were. Reina's ex-lover pulled his heavy boot back and kicked Wedge in the chest hard enough that he thought he felt a lung collapse.
He heard an explosion and then blacked out.
* *** *Wedge woke up under a pile of debris that had once been the wall of the factory access tunnel he and Reina had entered. His torso and arms felt like they were burning, and he tasted blood. His ears rang, as if from an explosion, but he didn't think anything was broken and he wasn't buried particularly far beneath the surface.
He recalled how he had gotten there. Reina! Where was she? Where was the man who had threatened her? As he dug himself out under the debris, he recalled his name was Fiim Mooristhe, and he remembered that he'd seen the big man dragging Reina out of the tunnel as his consciousness left him. He recalled being surprised that he couldn't hear her as she was carried bodily out into the open.
He heard the familiar sound of X-wing engines and immediately understood -- Imperial air support must have made a move, activating the Rogues. The factory and the access tunnel must have been hit as Imperial and Alliance ground staff scrambled for cover or escape.
No bones seemed to be broken, and as Wedge jogged down the path, he saw the bodies of Imperial ground agents. He picked up blasters and power packs and made his way outside. He saw a shuttle about a klick away -- obviously how Mooristhe and his men came in, and how they hoped to take Wedge and Reina away. A well-placed shot had melted the sub-light engines, meaning Alliance Intelligence would be able to glean a lot of information from what was left intact. Men had been captured, the injured were being attended to, and it should have been a mop-up at this point.
But he couldn't see Reina or Fiim, and noticed that the core of activity seemed to be skewed toward the hills to his right. Wedge made his way there.
Snipers were in position, but they explained to Wedge that none could get a shot at Fiim. Obviously a skilled field agent, he used Reina as a body shield, varying his movements so that no clear shot was possible by even the best of them. They had headed for a wooded area, where they halted pursuit. It could have been a trap, but it was just as surely a dead end for Mooristhe. There were ravines and gorges throughout the forest where they could hide, but it backed onto a sheer drop on one side and a nearly vertical rock wall adjacent to that area. It might be a matter of waiting Mooristhe out once he realized this. No other agents were seen to accompany them, so it was only Fiim, Reina and whatever weapons the man carried with him, or whoever was waiting for them.
By now, the Rogues had landed close by and had clustered around Wedge. Notes were exchanged, and as the situation became clearer, Colonel Fel quietly offered his analysis, "Lieutenant Faleur will not likely survive the hour, but Mooristhe will not let us know this. He will have a small ship hidden, and he is waiting for you."
Wedge nodded, "And he knows he's worth at least my life, militarily speaking. He's the lynchpin, the guy who creates and knows who the molls are, and who knows where the information is going. But he seems to be obsessed with Reina, I don't think he'd kill her, and he won't kill himself -- he doesn't seem the type. Too much ego to be prepared for that eventuality."
Fel grimaced, "Do not underestimate the Empire's wrath in repaying mission failure." Tycho blinked slowly as he recalled his classmates being taken away for being suspected Rebel sympathizers. He had heard they died not by a proper execution for treason, but in interrogation, where new methods of torture were tested on them. Fel saw his former student's expression, "Yes, Lieutenant Celchu. There are things much worse than death."
"But he's flawed," argued Wedge, "he came after Reina himself because they have a history; he should have let another agent do that work and insulated himself. He should have sent someone else to get me. This was sloppy work, and Mooristhe will have nothing to lose if he surrenders to us. He'd be val-"
"Captain," interrupted Fel, louder this time, "this man has your girlfriend in custody. He grabbed her because he ultimately wants you -- you're right in assuming that your life is equal to his. He will kill her. But he will die before he surrenders to the Alliance, because he has to. His current mission is to capture or neutralize you. I served with him once on Imperial City -- he's completely amoral and without any possibility for redemption. He is evil, and I recommend you not hope for him to go turncoat."
Tycho put his hand on Wedge's shoulder, feeling how highly-wound his friend and commander was, "Wedge, sometimes there is such evil concentrated a person that the only right thing to do is to let him die."
Wedge had lived with death since the day Loka Haask and his pirates destroyed Gus Treta Station, orbiting Corellia, forcing his parents to sacrifice their own lives for the lives of hundred of others on the station. On every mission, he knew he stood a good chance of being killed, or of one of his pilots dying or being left behind. Sacrifices were required every time, and getting everyone home was a bonus, something to be grateful for. He knew that and understood that.
But this time, he wasn't prepared to permit the sacrifice.
"Wes, charge up your blaster and rifle and come with me," he ordered, "Tycho, you and the others prepare to fly -- I figure he has a skipray blastboat or similarly sized ship. Work with Fel, and coordinate should Mooristhe get in the air -- I'm assuming he's no fighter pilot, and we need to take him down intact, if possible. If he gets away, force him down. Have comlinks set to Intel-Rogue frequency, and let Cracken's men in on the plan."
"Uh, uh," Hobbie Klivian, shaking his head in the negative, "not until you tell us what are you and Wes doing?"
Wes replied, not looking at all like his normal, jovial self, "We're going to rescue a damsel in distress, and if what we do goes well, Mooristhe won't get a chance to get into the air."
Wedge barked out the order, "Move out!"
The Rogues scrambled.
* *** *Wedge heard a double tap of the comlink, followed by a single tap, indicating Wes Janson was in position, high above him. Both men had a clear view of the bottom of the gorge where the small escape craft had been hidden. Looking at it, Wedge knew it was designed only to carry two people, their life support apparatus, very little cargo, and had hyperdrive engines. It was little more that a TIE bomber with extra engines built on, making it much slower than an X-wing. Even if Mooristhe did make a run for it, the Rogues would have no trouble forcing it down.
Which made Wedge think that the plan all along was for Mooristhe to take a hostage with him -- either Reina or Wedge, but not both. Wedge shuddered, realizing that Reina would be sacrificed if Mooristhe could collar Wedge.
The gully was U-shaped, with the upper edges rising up unevenly and at different heights; the ship was situated in the bottom, facing toward a cliff edge. For a quick getaway, the repulsorlift engines wouldn't even need to be activated, and the ship could simply push forward over the cliff and become instantly airborne. It was cleverly positioned, but right now, Wes was sitting on the higher of the two edges that defined the trough-shaped morphology, his back to the cliff edge, with a clear view of the entire side of the ship, including the small gunner hatch.
Wedge moved forward carefully toward the ship, and was rewarded with a glancing blaster shot by his right ear, so close he could feel the superheated air singe his hair. Mooristhe, with Reina held by the back of her neck before him, glowered at Wedge dangerously. Her arms were shackled behind her at the elbows and wrists, and she was fitted with a choke collar and gag. Her clothing was ground with dirt and torn, indicating that she'd been dragged part of the way here. She was bleeding from cuts and abrasions, and every piece of exposed skin showed bruises.
"Good of you to accept the invitation to follow me here, Captain," spat the Imperial agent, "saves me some not inconsiderable trouble."
Behind Mooristhe and Reina was the ship, its hatch open. The blaster was trained on Reina's head. Normally, Wedge would have simply surrendered in exchange for her life, but he'd been thinking about Fel's admonishments, and realized that surrendering would only get her killed. Once he got Wedge into custody, Mooristhe would kill Reina and dump her body -- there was room for only two on that ship. Wedge knew he had to do what he could to not to get onto the ship. On the other hand, if the Imperial agent were forced to kill Wedge, he would take Reina alive as his hostage, to keep the Alliance fighters from shooting him down. Wedge looked at the terror and fatigue in Reina's face and the cruel nature of the illegal shackles that bound her. His gut churned, and he fought the throbbing pain in his chest from where the Imperial had kicked him. He tried to keep his expression even, his thoughts from betraying him, Fel is right. He is evil.
Mooristhe gestured for Wedge to drop his weapon. Rogue Squadron's commander slowly leaned down and placed the blaster at his own feet, never taking his eyes off Reina or the man who bound her. His hands came up slowly above his head, "You have me. Let her go."
The bigger man chuckled, without any hint of amusement, "Really, Captain. I can't think that you are so naive... Oh, I admit, I do have incredible feelings for this girl, but she'd become an obstacle if I leave her here. Or at least if I leave her here alive." He shook Reina, and the mocking tone he used on her in the abandoned passageway returned, "But she's a good girl, and she understands my mission and responsibilities. I'll miss her, of course, but there is no room for sentiment in this business, isn't that right, honey? You won't hold anything against Fiim, would you, after all I've done with you?" Mooristhe tracked Wedge with his blaster, keeping Reina between them, as Wedge moved slowly toward the ship. And for one desperate moment, Fiim's back was exposed to the gully wall. Now, Wes!
On cue, two blaster bolts came out from high above them, from the lip of the ravine. They landed precisely, one in the upper part of Fiim's gun arm, the other in the back of his thigh. Mooristhe's body jerked downward, causing him to fall onto the forest floor. Not letting go of the collar around his former lover's neck, he wrenched Reina's body violently backwards, causing her to fall onto him. He saw Wedge running forward, trying to reach for her.
Almost... close enough, Wedge thought, trying to grab for Reina, to try and save her.
Mooristhe, fighting the injury to his arm, drew his blaster quickly upwards, nearly butting Wedge's face with the nozzle, "I wouldn't get any closer, Captain."
Wedge stopped abruptly, and stepped back, staring past the blaster to Reina. She was blinking away tears of frustration and pain. As Mooristhe slowly rose from the ground, he pulled Reina away from Wedge, placing her between him and Wes Janson's position over the gully wall. The blaster stayed leveled on Wedge's head, and the Imperial quickly limped away, his back hugging the ship. "Very good, Captain. One for you, but you might like to know that it is also acceptable to this mission to simply kill you. Not the desired resolution, of course, and not the elegant solution I had hoped for. But acceptable."
Wedge stepped back from the fleeting pair, trying to reach his blaster. He realized Mooristhe was trying to get the ship between himself and Wes's sniper rifle; the spy discharged a barrage of shots toward Wedge, who was forced to duck for cover. The leader of Rogue Squadron ground his teeth in frustration, vainly trying to reach his blaster before Mooristhe could get into or behind the ship.
* *** *Reina's mind was surprisingly clear and she felt remarkably calm. She'd been consumed with terror since Fiim had taken her away from Wedge. She'd seen part of a wall crumble onto him when the air raid started and thought her lover had been killed, and seeing him before her filled her with hope and relief.
But the hope was quickly dashed as a new fear filled her; Fiim had told her that if he could get Wedge, he'd take Captain Antilles away, and she would die. Fiim had even been apologetic about it, telling her how much he'd miss her and he stroked her body. She thought then that dying didn't bother her; she had been hoping to die so that she wouldn't have to betray the Alliance anymore, and her family would be safe again. In a sense, she'd been preparing for it. But she wasn't prepared to let Fiim have Wedge Antilles. And she knew that her dying wouldn't prevent it -- in fact, it might even enable it -- and Reina's mind saw, clearly, that she needed to stay alive long enough to guarantee that Wedge would be absolutely safe.
Held between the position of the sniper and Fiim, she saw that they would soon turn past the cliff and slip behind the protective cover of the ship, and the sniper would no longer have a shot at them. Wedge trying to follow them distracted Fiim, and Reina knew what she needed to do.
All her adult life, she had understood the value of sacrifice for others; as a traitor, she tried to protect her family. All of that would mean nothing if Fiim managed to accomplish his mission and abduct or murder the man who would be her husband. Love makes you do things, it was a mantra she repeated often during her luckless life, that you would otherwise never consider.
He was pushing and shoving her forward, and instead of resisting, she pulled in the same direction. Taken by surprise, Fiim stumbled forward, the force of his vector adding to hers, and they came to the very edge of the cliff.
He tried pulling back on her, snapping her neck toward him. She grabbed his tunic with her fingers and twisted her body so he was forced to swing around her. She kicked his injured leg so that it collapsed beneath him, providing further momentum as his body rolled and teetered on the cliff edge.
Reina's fingers and wrists were probably broken as the fabric of Fiim's tunic twisted and pulled at her. She didn't much care; they were so numb from the shackles that she hardly felt anything.
Her body was being dragged down. She put what energy she could muster into the spinning motion of his body, and was satisfied to see Fiim's body fall off the lip of the cliff, as he screamed and swore at her. For a second, she thought she saw Wes Janson jumping down the ravine wall toward her, and understood that he was the sniper.
She kicked away from the embankment, giving a final push to Fiim to make sure he didn't get caught on anything as he plunged down to his death. Her whole consciousness was wrapped around extinguishing her former lover.
I love you, I love you, forgive me; farewell, Wedge. She heard him calling to her. Reina turned her head as her body flew over the edge, and she looked at Wedge for long seconds.
* *** *"Reina! Don't! No, Reina!!" Wedge was screaming out her name, running toward her, trying to save her. He saw her cleverly using the momentum Fiim was generating, spinning to force the energy toward the cliff face. And he knew that she intended to die. She was making the mission sacrifice.
She launched Fiim over the cliff and ran off herself, pulling Fiim away from any handholds or tree limbs that might save his life. In the final seconds before she fell away from view, she locked her deep, dark eyes onto Wedge's, and she communicated her sad, but triumphant, farewell to him.
Wedge tried to launch himself out into the air, to catch her. Instead, he felt himself being pulled back, away from the danger of falling, away from following Reina.
He recalled very little after that, but when he finally came to, Wes was holding him tightly, to prevent him from jumping after her. Wedge was being rocked like a child, and he finally heard Wes's breaking, choked voice, "... I know you love her -- I saw your face when you bought that ring for her. You know that day you spotted me coming out of her place? I was going to ask her out, but she told me to back off because she loved you. She killed Mooristhe for you. Don't ever doubt what a great guy you are, that a wonderful lady like Reina would do this for you. You're luckier than you'll ever know..."
Wedge realized he was holding onto Wes so tightly that he shook. He released his squadronmate and sat up, wiping the tears from his face, "Thanks, Wes... Intel?" Wedge coughed.
Wes nodded, "They were waiting for the bodies as they came down. Fiim Mooristhe is pretty broken up, and they don't think he'll survive for more than a few minutes. And, I'm sorry, Wedge, but Reina, she's..." Wes's eyes grew wet and streams of tears fell down his face. His voice caught as he tried to explain Reina's death to his friend.
Wedge put his hand on the younger man's shoulder, "Thanks, Wes. I, I appreciate..." but the reassurance he tried to give his old friend dissolved into tears and wracking sobs.
* *** *Wedge was in Cracken's office, trying to control his temper. "With all respect that is due to you and Intel, sir, I don't see why I can't have access to her files. If you will recall, sir, I betrothed myself to her, right here in this office, right in front of you! I think I should get more consideration than this, and I should be the one to tell her family how she died. I was there, General!"
General Airen Cracken did not normally take any sort of abuse from subordinates, but then again, he wasn't the type of commander who hid behind protocol when it was inappropriate or unnecessary. Besides, he had a great deal of respect for this young officer. "Captain, lower your voice. This has been explained to you before," he said, sternly. Then, more quietly, his voice tight with emotion, he instructed, "Wedge, sit. This is bad."
Wedge accepted the order, and took the indicated seat. It was strange to hear the General addressing him by his first name, and unsure of what it meant, Wedge settled for sitting at attention.
Cracken's rigid demeanor softened and he grew suddenly older and much sadder. "Several attempts were made to contact her family, as is usual when any one of us dies. Depending on how that initial meeting went, I was going to decide how much more to tell them. But they haven't been found, Wedge."
"They're dead?" Wedge paled at the thought that even with Fiim Mooristhe's death, the Faleurs were not safe from Imperial retribution.
"No," quickly replied the General, "just gone. The house has been sold, and the new owners know nothing of the Faleurs. There is no recorded destination for any members of the family, and the house payments were made with cash credits. We've searched the grounds and the house. Records that describe the family, based on the holos she turned over before the mission, have been circulated within Intelligence, but we've come up with nothing.
"I think it's safe to assume they know about her death, and whatever happened to them, they don't want to be found. I am prepared to respect their wishes."
Wedge's body lost its military bearing as he slumped forward, the heels of his hand pressed hard against his eye sockets, his elbows on his knees. He had hoped to let her family know how much he had loved her, to give them the ring he'd never had the chance to give her. He even hoped to try to make some contribution to Corgal Faleur's life. But this news meant Wedge was to be denied everything he'd hoped to do in Reina's memory.
The General tried to comfort him, "Wedge, it's hard. It's always hard. And sometimes, it never comes around to making any sense. We may never find them, and I'm sorry -- I've had to recall the agents. We simply can't afford to spare them on this search. But if we find anyone, anything, I'll let you know. You have my promise."
* *** *EPILOGUE -- nearly ten years later...
Pash Cracken's carrot-topped head came around the doorway, "Hey, Wedge! My father has designated me 'special messenger' and says you are to get your tail to Ackbar's office, pronto. Dad said, 'In no uncertain terms is General Antilles to not come. He's been waiting for a long time.' No, I don't know what it's about, so don't ask me." Then, his message delivered, the young man disappeared.
Wedge put on his dress uniform jacket with the General's insignia on it and walked over to the Admiral's office. The door drew open and the aide smiled warmly at him, gesturing him through to the inner office.
Inside were Ackbar, General Cracken, Colonel Tycho Celchu, Rogue Squadron pilot Major Gavin Darklighter, and a vaguely familiar-looking woman. Gavin's face lit up upon seeing his former commander, "Wedge! Okay, you're all here, and I can say this to you all at once! I want to get married!"
Wedge smiled at the big man, slapping him on the back in congratulations. He recalled Gavin coming into the squadron as a gangly, lanky 16-year old, following in the footsteps of his cousin, Red Squadron member Biggs Darklighter, who had died in the final trench run on the first Death Star.
General Antilles was particularly happy for his former squadronmate, for Gavin had suffered from the fighter pilot's curse: happiness would be denied as soon as you made plans for it. Gavin had been engaged to Asyr Sei'lar, a Bothan woman who had died at the battle of Distna, just as she and Gavin announced their engagement and their intent to start adopting children of various species. Since Asyr's death, Gavin had gone ahead with the adoption of two orphaned human boys, but had not really seriously dated anyone that Wedge knew about.
Wedge felt a growing discomfort, and he found himself staring at the woman sitting beside Gavin. He felt inexplicably drawn to her. She was familiar to him, as if he'd met her in a dream or might have known her long ago, but her identity eluded him. Wedge himself was recently and joyfully married to Iella Wessiri, who was pregnant with their first child. He was deliriously happy, so he just couldn't explain his sudden attraction to Gavin's fiancée. It was a strange and unwelcome feeling, but again, somewhat familiar. He couldn't shake it. Who is she?
The dark, tall, slender woman noticed Wedge's stare. She smiled and prodded Gavin, "Introduce me, please."
Gavin blushed at the reminder, "Wedge, Admiral, General, Commander ... This is my fiancée. I know I need the military's permission to marry her, so let me tell you about her! She's a social worker, and I met her when she helped me adopt my boys ..."
"And my name," the beautiful woman smiled as she put her hand on Gavin's arm, "is Sera Faleur."
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