The author would again like to thank Shanon and Diana for critiquing the work in progress. Their help, as always, has been invaluable.
This is the third story in Hobbie's Saga and follows The Rescue. It begins shortly before the Battle of Endor.
"I'm going to do it, Wes."
The two Rogue Squadron pilots had just left a pilot briefing and were walking down a corridor of the huge Mon Calamari ship, Home One, the flagship of the Rebel fleet.
Hobbie looked over at his friend. "I'm going to ask Nia to marry me as soon as this battle is over."
Wes Janson stopped in his tracks; he was stunned. He and the rest of the Rogues knew how Hobbie felt about Nia Ponsed, the nurse he had met shortly after Hoth. They had teased him about it often enough, although not in a hurtful way. Just yesterday, they had even bet that Hobbie would be the first member of the squadron who would get married -- assuming that they lived through this upcoming battle. "Hobbie, this isn't because of that stupid bet, is it?"
"You didn't hear me try and deny it, did you?" he asked smiling at the expression on Wes's face. "No, it isn't because of that stupid bet. I've been thinking about it for a while, but Sela's last letter helped me decide."
Sela Milson was a little girl, six years old now, whom Hobbie and Nia had met during a medical rescue mission several months earlier. The three of them had become very close friends and both Nia and Hobbie looked on her as almost a little sister. Despite the necessity to maintain security, they carried on a lively correspondence. Sela asked lots of very perceptive questions about what was happening in the galaxy and Hobbie's and Nia's roles in the Rebellion. Hobbie had very much enjoyed receiving Sela's letters, but at first, he had tried to keep his responses at a level he thought a six year old would understand. Nia had been the one to tell him that Sela was capable of comprehending much more. After that, he had written as if to another adult, although he continued to include funny anecdotes about the Rogues.
"Are you sure? I mean ... you were the one who thought that the middle of a rebellion was no time to fall in love."
Hobbie looked at the floor for a moment before meeting Wes's gaze. "And you're the one who told me that regretting 'might-have-beens' is no way to live. I wasn't sure that this would be the right time to ask her, but when would be? Life can't stop because of the Rebellion. I want a life with Nia. Sela's letter just sort of put it into focus for me."
Wes shook his head slowly and smiled. "She is some kid." He was silent for a moment. "I'm happy for you, Hob. Nia's a great girl," he said then added with a grin, "So, when should I start planning your bachelor party?"
Hobbie's dark blue eyes held a sober expression. "Not yet. I haven't asked her yet." He paused for a moment, then added, "And don't say anything to the rest of the guys. Let's just get through this battle first."
They both knew that the next few days were going to be pure hell. The Alliance was strong and had grown stronger with the addition of the Mon Calamari fleet, but they still had only a fraction of the resources that the Empire had at its disposal. And knowing that the Emperor himself would be aboard the second Deathstar increased the dread everyone felt. Still, Luke, the Princess, Chewie, and Lando Calrissian had managed to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. Everyone took that to be a good sign. "All right, Hob, but after the battle ... look out!"
Both pilots laughed and continued on to their quarters.
Nia had just finished writing a short letter to Sela and reflected on the unusually close friendship she and Derek had formed with the little girl. She was constantly amazed at how perceptive and aware young Sela was. Their young friend understood the nature of the galactic conflict they were all involved in all too well. She had been directly exposed to the dangers of the war, but still maintained her optimism and passed it on to them in the letters she sent. Nia knew how much the letters Sela wrote meant to her and to Derek. Those letters kept a human face on the reasons they were fighting this war, but also let them know that life continued in the face of adversity.
Sela was also very much able to pick up on feelings. Nia was well aware of how Derek felt about her. She and Derek had grown close during the rescue mission to Atrivis and their relationship had continued to become closer after they had returned to the fleet. Sela had come right out in her last letter and asked her if she and Derek were going to get married, even saying they belonged together and that nothing should stop them from getting married. She had always shown Derek the letters that Sela had written and he had done the same, but this last one, she had not shown him. As much as she loved Derek, she could not bring herself to think or hope very far into the future. Now just didn't seem to be the time to make that kind of commitment Nia thought as she began rereading the letter to her young friend.
I wish I could answer your question, but I can't. I do know that Derek loves me and that I love him, but this is a very difficult time. We are about to go into a very dangerous battle and to be perfectly honest, we just don't know if we'll even survive. I hope we do and that we succeed in what we're trying to do. The Empire is evil and inflicts pain and suffering for its own sake. We must defeat its tyranny, even if it is at the cost of our own lives. At least for now, that has to be our priority; our personal lives can wait. You're still very young, but I know you understand. Remember that no matter what happens, we both love you very much.
PS Keep Derek in your thoughts and prayers. He's the one who will be in the most danger.
It wasn't a long letter, but it said what she wanted it to say and she knew that Sela would understand. She pressed the save key on her datapad and then sent it to Redemption's comm section for encryption before it was transmitted by a circuitous route to its destination.
Wes came banging into the quarters he and Hobbie shared startling Hobbie, who had been sitting on his bunk with Sela's letter in one hand and a small holo of Nia in the other. "Hey, Hob. If you're going to see Nia before we go, you'd better move." He had a sticky pastry in his hand and licked the glaze off his fingers as he spoke.
"Huh? Oh, right. Thanks." Hobbie got up and put the datapad and holo back on the shelf above his bunk. "I'll see you in the hangar later."
"Okay. Give her a hug from me and tell her I won't let anyone else look after me if I get banged up."
Hobbie smirked. "You get your own nurse," he said as the door slid closed behind him.
He had taken an intership shuttle from Home One over to the medical frigate, Redemption, where Nia was assigned. He tried to find her in her quarters, but her roommate answered the door when he knocked.
"Hi Derek. Nia's not here. Doctor Telsan called her and asked her to go on shift early. I'm just on my way to the Medcenter. Why don't you come with me and I'll help you find her."
Nia's roommate was also a nurse and Hobbie had gotten to know her pretty well as his relationship with Nia developed. She and Wes had even had a short-lived fling, which had helped him and Nia be able to have time alone together when that was a very precious commodity. Neither Jenan nor Wes had become seriously attached to each other, but they had remained good friends and both had encouraged the blossoming romance between Nia and himself.
"How's Wes?" Jenan asked as she and Hobbie walked toward the Medcenter.
Hobbie smiled. "You know him. Nothing fazes him." He looked over at the vivacious brunette. "How come the two of you didn't work out? You seem like a perfect match to me."
She shrugged, "I don't know. I guess there wasn't enough here to keep his attention for very long. We can be pals and have a great time together, but long-term? Not meant to be."
"You're selling yourself short, Jen."
"We'd just burn out and end up hurting each other." She smiled and added, "We'd rather stay friends. Now, you and Nia ... you belong together." She nudged him with her shoulder. "So, what are you going to do about it?"
Hobbie was spared the need to answer because they had arrived at the Medcenter.
"Come on," Jenan said taking his arm. "Let's find your Lady-love."
They found her a few minutes later at a nurse's station speaking with Doctor Telsan.
"Hey, Nia. Look who I found lurking outside our door again," Jenan said with a grin.
"I was not lurking," Hobbie said with mock indignation as he tried to breathe normally. His chest felt tight when he saw Nia, and he knew that his reaction to seeing her was because of his decision to propose to her after the battle. They had expressed their feelings for each other, but they had concentrated on the present. Asking her to marry him was to look to the future. It was a daunting, but exciting prospect.
Nia had turned at the sound of her roommate's voice, but her face lit with a smile when she saw Hobbie. "Derek. What are you doing here?"
"What else? I came to see you."
Doctor Telsan couldn't help but smile. He had watched their romance develop and done his part to help it along as well. "I think it's time you had a break, Ms. Ponsed. Ms. Varnis can start earning her keep around here till you get back."
"Earning my keep?" Jenan said indignantly scowling at the doctor.
Hobbie grinned. "At least the good doctor can keep you out of mischief."
When Jenan and Wes had been together, they had been responsible for more than one practical joke that had gone awry. Doctor Telsan had become friends with the Rogues on that rescue mission they had all gone on and had occasionally covered up their misdeeds if they occurred aboard the medical frigate. He was very fond of Nia and, by extension, Hobbie, although he maintained a formal facade, always addressing her as Ms. Ponsed.
"Mischief? Well, as long as her usual partner in crime isn't around, I think I can manage," Telsan said smiling. "Go on now. There isn't much time before we go into battle."
"Thanks Doc," Hobbie said taking Nia's hand and heading for the door.
They went back to Nia's quarters and just stood holding each other not saying anything for a few minutes. Then they sat down on Nia's bunk, and Hobbie got the oddest feeling of deja vu. They'd sat just like this right before they had gone on the rescue mission during which they'd met little Sela. On that occasion, Hobbie had tried to convince Nia not to go on the mission because of the potential danger. This time, there was no avoiding it. The entire fleet was committed to the engagement at Endor. If the Alliance did not destroy the second Deathstar, the Rebellion was doomed.
"I wish there was some way for you to stay out of this fight, Nia," Hobbie said kissing her forehead. "I've got a horrible feeling that it's going to go badly."
"But that's why I have to be here," she answered. "We all know that there will be heavy casualties, but this is where I can do my part." She tightened her hold on him and went on. "We've talked about this before, Derek. I have to do everything I can to help heal the people who take the fight to the Empire. And don't forget, that's how we met," she said smiling up at him.
He kissed her. "I could never forget that, Nia. That was the best day of my life."
"And what kind of an example would I be if I tried to avoid the battle?" she said meeting his gaze.
Hobbie smiled. "You got another letter from Sela, didn't you?" Nia nodded, but didn't say anything. "So did I." He was quiet for a moment, but then went on. "It's the strangest thing, Nia. I was convinced that the Rebellion was a just cause and committed myself to it even before I graduated from the Academy, but ever since I've known you and Sela, it feels like I'm fighting for both of you now."
Nia looked down, troubled by his words.
"I'm sorry, Nia," he said gently brushing a lock of titian hair off her cheek. "I know how you feel about fighting even for a just cause, but it's true. Sela deserves to grow up in a galaxy that is free and at peace. And you. I want to be able to live in that peaceful galaxy with you."
He was about to forget his resolve to wait until after the battle to propose to her, but just then, a claxon sounded loudly throughout the ship. "Attention. All Personnel. Report to duty stations. Departure in 45 minutes. Repeat ..."
The claxon had startled both of them. Hobbie stood drawing Nia to her feet with him. "I have to go, but I'll come and find you as soon as the battle is over." He pulled Nia into a fierce embrace and kissed her. "I love you, Nia. Please, please, be careful."
"I love you, Derek." Nia took his face in her hands and kissed him as hard as she could. "Just come back safe."
They left her quarters and went their separate ways, both swallowed by the crowds of personnel racing to their stations.
Hobbie made it to the Rogues' hangar with twenty minutes to spare, but not one of his squad mates begrudged him the time he'd taken to say goodbye to Nia. He was still preoccupied with the odd feeling that had assailed him in Nia's quarters.
Wes noticed his distraction. "Hey, Hob. What's wrong? Is Nia okay?"
Hobbie shook himself trying to dispel the premonition. "She's fine, Wes. I just have this awful sense that something terrible is going to happen."
Wes did not like the sound of that. When other pilots had said similar things, often they'd been the ones who had been shot down. "Oh, come on, Hob. Don't get all morbid on me now. Everything will be okay."
Hobbie tried again to dispel his sense of impending doom. "You're right. I'm sure it will," he said still trying to convince himself. Then he summoned up a genuine smile. "Oh. Jenan sends her love."
Wes grinned. "Well, that's all I need to win this fight. Hey. We can make it a foursome to celebrate when the battle is over."
The ship's PA system blared, "Pilots. Man your ships. Departure in five minutes. Repeat..."
"This is it, Hob," Wes said clapping a hand on Hobbie's shoulder. "Fly fast and shoot straight."
"Yeah. You too, Wes. I'll see you after ..."
The battle had been worse than they could possibly have imagined. The Emperor had laid a trap for the Rebel fleet and had neatly snared them in it. The commando team had not been able to destroy the shield generator on the forest moon on time and the fleet had arrived at Endor to find that the Deathstar was still protected. Even worse: the Imperial fleet had been hidden on the far side of Endor when they arrived, but came around to cut off their escape. And worst of all: the Deathstar's superlaser was operational. The gigantic laser, which could blow a planet into rubble, had targeted the Rebels' capital ships and vaporized them.
General Calrissian had told Admiral Ackbar to order all Rebel ships to engage the Imperial fleet in close. If the superlaser were fired again, it would also take out Imperial ships. It was a plan born of desperation, but it had bought enough time for the commandos to complete their mission to destroy the shield generator. Once that had been done, the Rebels had returned to their original plan to fly into the superstructure of the Deathstar to fire their torps at the main reactor. Wedge and Calrissian had done that while the rest of the Rogues had done their most virtuoso flying, leading their Imperial pursuers on a heart stopping chase through the half-completed Deathstar's superstructure.
When Hobbie had seen the Deathstar's superlaser hit one of the Rebels' cruisers, it had been all he could do not to take his fighter screaming over to shield the medical frigate, single-handedly if necessary. Wedge had ordered fighters to fly cover for the Redemption until they could return to their original mission objective, but he had not been in a position to be one of them. Later on in the battle, Hobbie could see that the medical frigate had been hit. His heart had leaped into his throat and he prayed that Nia was still safe.
The Battle of Endor had actually been won on several fronts. The commando team had belatedly taken out the shield generator. That had allowed the Rebels' capital ships to concentrate their fire on the Superstar destroyer, which had annihilated itself colliding with the Deathstar. Wedge and General Calrissian had delivered their destructive payloads, which destroyed the Deathstar itself. Word had even filtered back that somehow Luke had managed to destroy the Emperor. The price of victory had been high, but it had been achieved.
After the battle was over, Rogue Squadron was required to fly cover over surrendering Imperial forces to make sure that they did not cause further trouble. It wasn't until the morning after the battle that the squadron returned to Home One. Hobbie had tried to reach Nia all night. He knew that she would be needed in the Medcenter, but he had to know if she was safe. Wedge had already given him permission to go over to the Redemption to find her.
He landed his ship in the Rogues' section of the huge hangar and climbed down the access ladder. As he turned to head over to the intership shuttle, he saw Jenan and Doctor Telsan coming toward him. The looks on their faces told him that what he had dreaded was true; Nia was dead. He collapsed to his knees. "No, Nia! No!"
Jenan and Telsan ran over to him. Jenan was crying as she put her arms around him. "I'm sorry, Derek. I'm so sorry."
Telsan could not even speak when he saw Hobbie break down, but he did what he could to support him.
Wes was the first of the other Rogues to reach him, but the others weren't far behind. He knelt down beside Hobbie and put an arm around his shoulders as Jenan moved aside to make room for him. "I'm so sorry, Hobbie." He didn't know what else to say.
The others remained silent and watched as Hobbie shook with wracking sobs of grief. Wedge silently waved the others away to give Hobbie some semblance of privacy, but he stayed close until he caught Wes's eye. He knew what Wedge wasn't saying: he was to stay with Hobbie for as long as necessary. He nodded his understanding and Wedge left to look after the rest of the squadron.
After another few minutes, Wes and Doctor Telsan got Hobbie to his feet. "Come on, Hob. Let's get out of here." They supported him as they walked and Jenan followed them.
When they reached the quarters that Wes and Hobbie shared, they put Hobbie on the bunk, pulled off his boots, and got him out of his flight suit. He had stopped sobbing and withdrawn completely inside himself. Telsan gave him an injection. "It's a sedative," he said when Wes asked. "What he needs right now more than anything else is sleep. Tomorrow will be worse because then he will have to begin to accept what has happened. We have counselors who can help him with this, but ..." The doctor's expression was bleak. "I have to get back to the Medcenter now, but I had to be here. Nia would have wanted me to do this for him ..." It was the first time the doctor had ever called her by her first name and he choked up as he said it.
"Thanks Doc." Wes could barely control his own voice.
"I'll be back to check on him tomorrow. Je-... Ms. Varnis, stay with Mr. Janson to watch him. I'll clear it with your supervisor."
"Thank you, Doctor Telsan." She stood to see him to the door and then turned back to Wes. She took the two steps back to him and buried her face in his chest as she began to cry again.
Wes wrapped his arms around Jenan, but he was seeking consolation from her as much as he was offering it. Jenan had lost her roommate and closest friend. Friendships formed under the trying circumstances of the Rebellion were either superficial or very strong. He and Hobbie were already almost like brothers to each other, and Wes had grown close to Nia through Hobbie and Jenan and felt just as devastated as they did.
"Why Nia? Why them?" Jenan asked between sobs. "They had everything going for them."
"I don't know, Jen," he answered. His heart was especially heavy because he knew something that no one else did. He was the only one Hobbie had told that he was going to propose to Nia. He wondered if he should tell Jenan, but decided to wait, at least a little while longer. "Can you keep an eye on him while I get out of this flight suit and grab a shower?"
Jenan nodded wiping the tears from her eyes and went to sit beside Hobbie gently adjusting the blanket covering him.
After he'd gotten cleaned up, Wes and Jenan sat quietly watching Hobbie sleep. They knew that it was only a temporary reprieve and tried to decide what else they could do to help Hobbie deal with this terrible loss. Both of them were having a very difficult time accepting it themselves.
"Wes," Jenan said sitting up from the bulkhead she'd been leaning against. "Do you think I should bring Nia's personal things here? Do you think he'd want to have them?" Her voice was hoarse because she kept breaking down in tears.
Wes rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "I don't know, Jen. I can't believe this happened. It's so unfair."
Jenan looked at him. She knew there was more to what he'd said than the obvious.
He had already realized that Hobbie would not want anyone to know now that he had planned to propose to Nia, but he decided that he had to tell Jenan what Hobbie had told him. She was Nia's roommate and closest friend; she was the one other person he thought should know. Rubbing a hand over his face, he told her. "Hob told me just before he went over to see her that he was going to propose to Nia right after the battle."
Tears welled up in Jenan's eyes. "Oh, Wes ... no." She started to cry again and he gathered her into a comforting embrace. That revelation felt to him as if he had ripped open a barely beginning to heal wound.
After a few minutes, Wes pulled back enough to see Jenan's face. "I have to go and talk to Wedge. I'll be back in a little while. Will you be okay here?"
Jenan took a deep breath and wiped her tears away again nodding.
He kissed her forehead and left.
Walking along the corridor, Wes flicked his comlink. "Wedge. This is Wes. Come in."
To his surprise, Tycho answered. "Wes. It's Tycho."
"Tych? What's up? Where's Wedge?"
"He's in the Medcenter, Wes. We went out on another patrol after you took Hobbie to your quarters." Tycho went on to explain that Wedge had been injured when he had intercepted an old long range Imperial message drone ship and accidentally initiated a self-destruct sequence. He quickly reassured Wes that Luke had rescued Wedge and that he would be fine after a dunking in Bacta. "How's Hobbie?" he asked.
"Telsan gave him a sedative when we got him back to our quarters. He said that sleep is the best thing for him right now. Jen is sitting with him till I get back. Tych, I don't know how he's going to handle this when he wakes up."
There was a long silence, then Tycho answered. "We'll all do whatever it takes to get him through this, Wes, but it will mostly be up to him. You go on back and look after him. I'll fill Wedge in when he gets out of the Bacta."
"Okay, Tych. Talk to you later."
When Wes got back, Jenan decided that she would go back to the Redemption to the quarters that she and Nia had shared to collect some of the things she thought Hobbie would want to have: Nia's personal datapad and cards, a few holos of the two of them together and with their friends, and a bracelet with a small gold charm on it. Hobbie had given the bracelet to Nia only a month before for her birthday. She returned to Wes and Hobbie's quarters and broke down in tears again.
Wes took the small box from her to place on the desk, but choked up himself as he saw the holo that laid face up in the box. It showed the four of them smiling happily as they toasted Nia with caf for her birthday. Finally, the stresses of the day had caught up with them and both Jenan and Wes broke down. Exhaustion eventually claimed them and they fell asleep on top of the covers of Wes's bunk.
The sedative Doctor Telsan had given Hobbie had immediately sent him into merciful oblivion. For a long time, nothing penetrated the warm darkness, but as the sedative began to wear off, sounds, voices, and images began to invade his memory.
"Happy Birthday, Nia" ... "It's beautiful, Derek." ... "Come on, Hob ... When are you going to give her some serious jewelry?" ... Nia's green eyes sparkling like emeralds ... Sela's last letter ... I wish all the Emperor's soldiers would just all go away so you and Nia could be happy ... "I'm going to do it, Wes" ... "I'm going to ask Nia to marry me" ... "feels like I'm fighting for both of you " ... "deserves to grow up in a galaxy that is free and at peace" ... "I love you, Nia" ... "I love you, Derek" ... Endor ... the Deathstar ... the laser firing ... Telsan and Jenan ... the looks on their faces ...
"No, Nia! No!" Hobbie woke to the horrible realization that his beautiful, gentle Nia had been taken from him.
His anguished cry instantly woke Wes and Jenan and they jumped up to go to him. Jenan sat beside Hobbie and pulled his head to her shoulder as he clutched at her and sobbed out his grief again.
"Oh, Derek. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," she said over and over as she rocked him gently and tears rolled down her cheeks.
Wes just knelt in front of Hobbie with a hand on his arm saying nothing. Eventually, Hobbie pulled back from Jenan. "Tell me ..." he said with a catch in his voice. "Tell me what happened."
Wes tightened his grip on Hobbie's arm. "No, Hob. You don't need to know that."
Hobbie looked at him with an intensity he'd never seen before. "Wes, I have to know." He turned back to Jenan. "Please, Jen? Tell me what happened. I have to know."
She looked at Wes, who nodded slowly. She took a deep breath. "We were moving patients. The outer hull had been breached by a hit. Alarms were going off and smoke was everywhere. We'd been ordered to move patients to the more protected parts of the ship. Nia was next to an outside viewport getting the next patient ready to move. A TIE fighter came screaming in and fired its lasers right at the viewport. It shattered and that whole section went through explosive decompression. She was killed instantly..."
Jenan's voice trailed off as Hobbie buried his face in his hands. "Dammit!" he spat sitting up again. "Dammit! I should have been there to protect her!"
Wes gripped his arm again. "Hobbie, this is not your fault! You are not to blame for her death. Put the blame where it belongs, Hob. The Empire killed her."
Hobbie ran his hand over his face. "And the Empire is going to pay," he said, his voice cold.
Jenan looked at Wes. She was disturbed by Hobbie's sudden change in demeanor. Wes nodded at her silently indicating that she should go. Taking the hint, she got up to leave. "Derek, if there is anything you need, anything, you call me. All right?"
"I'm okay, Jenan. I'll be all right," he answered.
Wes stood up to walk her to the door. "I'll call you later," he said quietly as he went out into the corridor with her for a moment. "He's not okay, but I don't know what we can do yet."
"Just keep me posted."
When he stepped back into their quarters, Wes saw that Hobbie had found the small box on the desk. He had the holos in one hand and the bracelet he'd given Nia in the other.
He went over to take them from Hobbie, but Hobbie pulled away keeping hold of the few mementos he had of his beloved Nia. "No, Wes. I have to look at them. They're all I left of her." He sat down on his bunk and began looking at the holos.
Wes sat down next to him and looked at the pictures as well, a lump forming in his throat. He had been the one who'd taken many of the holos of Hobbie and Nia together. Then Hobbie flipped over the next picture. It was a holo of Hobbie, Nia and Sela on Atrivis just before they'd left to escort the refugees to their new home. Wes was startled when Hobbie spoke.
"Oh Gods, Wes! How am I going to tell Sela?" The expression on his face was just as devastated as when he realized that Nia had died.
Wes understood instantly why Hobbie asked the question. Everyone who had been involved in that medical rescue mission had become very attached to the children they had rescued. He and Tarrin were both carrying on their own correspondences with the four brothers they had rescued, but the bond between Hobbie, Nia, and Sela was something very special. The letters she sent to him always buoyed his spirits up and somehow had a knack for arriving just when he needed a lift.
"You don't have to, Hob. I'll do it or Jen will. It's too painful for you."
"No, Wes. I have to do it. Oh dear Gods! How am I going to tell her?" he repeated. His voice became quiet, almost as if he were talking to himself. "Nia didn't have a family; her parents died just after she finished school. Sela was like a little sister to her; they told each other everything. This is going to break Sela's heart." He stood up to move over to the desk.
"Hob, you don't have to do this now," Wes said hoping to give his friend a reprieve from another painful task. "Wait until morning."
"No. I have to do it now, or I'll never be able to." He reached into the box on the desk and pulled out Nia's datapad. Pulling the desk chair out, he sat hitting a button on the datapad. The button pulled up the last document that had been written on it: Nia's last letter to Sela, transmitted just before the battle. Hobbie read the letter in silence and handed the datapad to Wes; then rested his elbows on the desk and his head in his hands.
Wes read the short letter and a lump formed in his throat again. "I'm sorry, Hob." Then after a moment he asked, "Are you sure you don't want me to do this for you?"
Hobbie took the datapad back from Wes. "No. This is something I have to do." He turned back to the desk and began to write.
It had taken him hours, but he had finally finished the hardest thing he had ever had to do: writing to his young friend that their beloved Nia was gone. Wes had sat silently on his bunk watching him the whole time. He'd been grateful for his friend's presence and quiet support. He'd had to stop several times when his emotions had threatened to overwhelm him, but the letter was done at last. He pressed the save key on the datapad and then rubbed his face with both hands.
"Are you okay, Hob?" Wes asked as he stood up to stretch.
"Do you want to go get something to eat?"
"Hob, you've got to eat something."
"You're nagging, Wes."
"What time is it?" He looked at his wrist chrono. "It's late. Good. Maybe the mess hall will be empty."
"You want me to bring you something?" Wes asked him.
"No. I have to leave this room sometime. I just don't want to talk to anyone right now. You go on ahead and I'll be there in a few minutes." He saw Wes's dubious expression. "Go. I'll be there in a little while."
After Wes left for the mess hall, Hobbie turned back to the desk to reread the letter, or rather, letters he'd written. The first was actually addressed to Sela's mother. He felt it was only fair to warn her that the letter to her daughter contained distressing news.
Dear Mistress Milson,
I'm writing to you like this because I'm very sorry to have to tell you some very sad news. I'm sure you have already heard by now of our victory at Endor. Unfortunately, it came at a very high price. Thousands were killed, but in the most heart wrenching irony of all, Nia was killed as she tried to save helpless patients aboard the medical frigate.
I am attaching a separate letter to Sela to tell her about Nia and I ask that you please let her read it. Sela has been very special both to Nia and to me, but Nia loved her as if she were her little sister. With this warning, you may be able to cushion the blow somewhat, but I have to be the one who tells her, even if it's indirectly in this letter.
Forgive me for dropping such devastating news on you like this. I wish there were some way for me to be able to tell you both in person -- not that that could possibly make the pain any less. I want you to know that I would give anything for Sela not to be hurt by this terrible thing that has happened.
Very truly yours,
The letter to Sela was even harder for him to read again because every word he read renewed the anguish he felt and he knew that this shattering news would break his sweet young friend's heart.
I have some very sad news to tell you. I wish there were some easy way to tell you this, but there isn't. I just have to come out and say it. Our Nia was killed in the battle at Endor yesterday.
The battle was worse than any of us could have thought possible. We weren't prepared for the opposition we faced, but we fought as hard as we could because we all knew that it was our last chance to hand the Empire a significant defeat. Thousands of good people were killed because the Emperor held us in contempt. He did not care how many he killed as long as his forces won the day and kept him in a position to inflict pain and suffering throughout the galaxy wherever and however he saw fit. He even permitted his forces to fire on our medical ship.
We tried, we really tried to protect the medical frigate. Many of our fighters did their best to screen it from enemy fire. I keep thinking that if I could have been in the right place, maybe Nia might not have had to die. Maybe I could have saved her. One enemy ship did get through the screen and landed a shot right where Nia was trying to save her patients. I suppose the only thing we can be grateful for is that she didn't suffer.
When I found out that Nia had been killed, it felt as if my heart had been ripped out of me. I'm nothing but a hollow shell without Nia and I don't know how I'm going to be able to go on without her. It hurts so much.
Sweetheart, I read the last letter Nia sent you just before she was killed. She asked you to keep me in your thoughts and prayers because she thought I would be the one in danger, but she is the one who has been so cruelly taken from us.
I know how much you cared about us both and how much you wanted us to be together. I want you to know that I had planned to ask Nia to marry me after this horrible battle. I knew that you would be so happy for both of us. In fact, it was your last letter to me that helped me to decide. That is why this is so painful. I thought we would have a chance to be able to have a normal life someday, but fate has taken my chance at happiness away. Somehow, I have to learn to survive on my own. That way, I can never be hurt like this again.
I want you to have something of Nia's. It's the bracelet I gave her for her birthday. She loved you so much and I know that she would want you to have it. I am sending it with this letter. Please wear it and remember her always.
The letters to Sela and her mother couldn't begin to express his grief, but he felt that writing them had begun to help him accept that Nia was truly gone. As he'd said in the letter to Sela, he had to learn to survive on his own now. He placed Nia's bracelet into a small envelope and put it and the datacard with the letters into a special comm packet and addressed it to Sela's mother. He stood and took a deep breath and left to drop the packet at the ship's comm section before going to meet Wes.
Wes had gone to the mess hall and found Tycho and Tarrin sitting and drinking some caf. "How's Wedge?" he asked sitting down to join them.
"He's going to be fine," Tycho answered. "Doctor Telsan is keeping us posted. He says Wedge lost a lot of blood and his hand got mangled, but it's nothing that a transfusion and an overnight dunking in Bacta can't fix. He'll be released in time for the mission briefing in the morning. What about Hobbie? How is he?"
"Telsan knocked him out with a sedative when we got him back to our quarters. He said that that was what he needed most right then. He slept most of the day, but then woke up a few hours ago. He insisted that Jen tell him about Nia." His voice caught for a moment. "Since then until just a little while ago he's been writing to Sela to tell her what has happened."
Tycho and Tarrin's faces mirrored his own in the sorrow they felt for their friend. "He did that now?" Tarrin asked, surprised. He felt particularly awful for Hobbie because he'd been the one who teased Hobbie the most about his relationship with Nia and his friendship with Sela. "Couldn't Jen or Doc T write to her?"
"I told him I would do it or Jen would, but he insisted that he had to." Wes took another sip from his caf. "I did talk him into coming down to get something to eat, I think. He said he'd be down in a few minutes, but he doesn't want to talk to anyone right now."
"That sounds like our cue to clear out, Tarrin," Tycho said tipping his mug up to finish off his caf. "Come on. Let's get out of here."
"Wait a minute, Tych. What was that you said a couple of minutes ago about a mission briefing?"
"Eleven hundred tomorrow. You've been out of it looking after Hobbie. The Imp message drone ship that Wedge caught one-handed -- the message was that an Imp system, Bakura, was being invaded from outside the galaxy. The Provisional Council has decided that whatever ships we can spare from here, and that includes us, will form a task force to go and help them. They hope that our help will convince the Bakurans to leave the Empire and join us. Wedge will excuse Hobbie from the mission."
"No, Tycho, he won't." They hadn't noticed that Hobbie had come into the mess hall during their discussion and were startled.
"Hobbie. I'm so sorry about Nia."
The muscles in his neck and shoulders were tense as he forced himself to stay in control. "I'm okay. I'm going."
Tycho searched his face, then glanced at Wes. "Hobbie you don't have to do this. You need some time ..."
"No." Hobbie's voice was flat. "What I need to do is work." He turned to go and get himself some caf.
Tycho started to protest, but Wes stopped him. "Leave it, Tych." Then he added quietly, I'll watch him."
Wes was relieved that the mission to Bakura was behind them at last. The encounter with the Ssi-ruuk had been harrowing enough, but his greater cause for concern had been Hobbie. He had gone over to the Redemption as soon as the task force had rejoined the main fleet to speak with Doctor Telsan about Hobbie, and Telsan had called Jenan Varnis to his office at Wes's request.
"Doc, there's got to be something you can do. If he keeps going like he has been, he's really going to crack."
"What's he been doing, Wes?" Jenan asked.
He took a deep breath and sighed before answering. "You saw what he was like at the memorial service before we left for Bakura. It's gotten even worse since then. It's like he's not even the same person anymore. You know how close the gang is. We kid around, crack jokes, play cards, work out, all that stuff pretty much as a group. Hobbie has cut himself off from all of us. Every one of us has tried to talk to him to get him to talk about how he's feeling, but he won't. Except when he has to be at squadron meetings or briefings or flying missions, he stays completely by himself. He works out by himself, he eats by himself, he's running himself ragged to the point of exhaustion, but he isn't sleeping nearly enough, and if anyone even tries to bring Nia's name up around him, he shouts at them to leave him alone."
Wes looked at Jenan and Telsan. "We know he's hurting, but none of us has been able to reach him. You know that Tycho had been through this when he lost his entire family and his fiancée when Alderaan was blown away. When he tried talking to Hobbie, Hob nearly took his head off."
Telsan considered what Wes had told them. "What is he like when you are on a patrol or in combat situations?"
Wes suppressed a shiver. "He's like ice. His voice is flat. He's a very good pilot, but even the way he flies has changed. Every maneuver is precise and every single shot he takes is lethal. It's like he's a machine when he's in the cockpit. I'm telling you, it really is giving me the creeps. I've given up trying to talk to him while he's like this, but he's got to get some help."
"Grief counseling has not been my specialty, Mr. Janson, but I've seen enough to know that you are right. He does need help. The problem is that he has to want to be helped."
Jenan had been staring at a small package in her lap, but then she looked up at the two men. "I think I know what he's doing."
"Go on, Ms. Varnis."
She dropped her eyes for a moment then looked back up at them. "I have a friend in the comm section over on Home One. She sent this package over to me. It arrived while you were away at Bakura. She knows that we're friends and thought that I should hold it till you got back." She handed it over to Wes. "It's for Derek."
Wes looked at the package and then back up at Telsan and Jenan. "It's from Sela."
"After I left you and Derek in your quarters that night, I thought about Sela. I thought I could save Derek the pain of having to write to her. It took hours for me to write that letter, but I did it. I called my friend to ask her to send it to Sela." Jenan stopped for a moment to take a deep breath. "Wes, you know that because of security, there is no privacy when it comes to personal mail. My friend told me that the first death notifications had just gone out by courier and that Derek had insisted that a small packet, which included a letter to Sela from him, go with the first courier. I convinced her to let me see a copy of the letter."
She put her face in her hands. "Oh, Wes. I felt so awful. He said in the letter that somehow he had to learn to survive on his own so that he could never be hurt again. He's thinking that if he cuts himself off from everything and everyone, he can't be hurt anymore, but all he's doing is hurting himself."
Wes said nothing as he thought about what Jen had told them.
"I'm sorry, Wes. I know I shouldn't have done it, but I couldn't just sit and do nothing."
"It's okay, Jen," he said reaching over to squeeze her hand. "I was afraid it might be something like that, but I'm no counselor so I didn't know how to handle it. Under the circumstances, I think you did the right thing" He looked over at Telsan. "What do you think, Doc?"
Telsan had been surprised at Jenan's admission, but he was so concerned for Derek's welfare that he was willing to overlook it, especially since he himself was guilty of the very same thing. "I think I may have to recommend you for psychiatric nursing, Jenan." The doctor caught himself. "I beg your pardon; I mean Ms. Varnis. No. In all seriousness, I believe Derek's letter to young Sela is the key. He poured out his feelings of loss to his young friend and vowed that he would never let himself be hurt by such feelings again. He was saying his final goodbye to her."
Wes and Jenan stared at him. "You too?" Jenan asked, stunned.
Wes also wondered to himself about Telsan slipping and calling Jen by her first name, something he had never done before, but decided that that was between them. He smiled inwardly when he realized that Jen hadn't picked up on it.
"No wonder Barrie said that her comm board was burning up with letters to one little kid." Jenan and Telsan turned to stare at Wes. "Yeah, me too. So, now that we've all discovered that we're all guilty of conspiracy to tamper with the mail, what are we going to do?"
"Ms. Varnis, have you read Sela's reply?" Telsan asked.
"No Sir. I felt terrible enough reading Derek's letter."
"Very well. Mr. Janson. I suggest that you give Derek the package and then watch him as closely as you can. He may think he has cut himself off from everyone around him, but he cannot cut himself off from young Ms. Milson. When he reads her letter -- and he will read it -- that may very well crack the wall he has tried to build around himself. You will have to be there to pull him out of the emotional rubble." He stood up and Wes and Jen followed suit. "You have my comm code. Call me at any time if you need my assistance, and ... Good luck."
Wes got off the intership shuttle inside Home One's enormous hangar and immediately spotted Wedge and Tycho standing next to Tycho's now repaired X-wing. He walked over to them. "Hey, Tych. Are you sure you'll be able to stay awake in this baby after getting used to zipping around in a flying pancake?"
Tycho laughed. "You're just tired of me dusting your tail in anything that flies."
"In your dreams, Tych."
"Enough you," Wedge said suppressing a grin. He was used to the friendly rivalry within the squadron, but he had other more pressing concerns. "Wes, did you talk to Telsan?"
"Yeah. He agrees that Hob needs help, but he's got to want it."
"That's what I said a month ago," Tycho said.
"Isn't there anything we can do to get him to that point?" Wedge asked.
"We've done everything we can, Wedge. It's not up to us anymore." He tossed the small package Jenan had given him up in the air and caught it again. "Let's just hope a little kid can do what the rest of us couldn't."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'll keep you posted." He turned and left Wedge and Tycho staring at each other in confusion.
One thing Wes had discovered about Hobbie's self-induced personality change was that he had made a habit of running himself to the point of complete physical exhaustion. When he returned to the quarters they shared, he would literally fall into his bunk to sleep. The problem was that he could not stop himself from reliving the nightmare of Nia's death, so he would get up, go to the gymnasium, and work out till he was exhausted enough to fall asleep again.
Wes found Hobbie on his way to the gymnasium. His face was pale and haggard, but his eyes grew cold when he saw Wes coming toward him. Wes resisted the urge to grab him by the arms and shake him. Instead, he asked as calmly as he could, "Hey, are you okay?" and got the expected snapped answer.
"Okay, Hob." He maintained a studied nonchalance. "Oh ... here. This came for you while we were away." He handed Sela's package to Hobbie. "See ya." Continuing down the corridor only as far as the next cross passage, he went around the corner and stopped to look back.
Hobbie held the small package and slumped against the wall of the corridor staring at it. His eyes closed and his chin dropped to his chest. "Oh dear Gods! What did this do to you, Sela?" The anguish in his inner voice tore at the fragile wall he had managed build around his devastated heart. The little girl who had meant so much to him and to Nia had reached out to him. He could not help but respond; he knew he had to read whatever she had to say. Taking a deep breath, he turned back toward his quarters.
Wes was relieved when he saw Hobbie head back. "I sure hope you can get through to him kid," he said to himself.
Hobbie didn't bother to turn on the overhead lights when he got back to his quarters. He sat down at the desk, flicked the desk light on, and slowly opened the package. Inside, he found a datacard and a small tissue wrapped bundle. He rolled the tissue off the small roundish object and the breath caught in his throat when he saw what rolled into his hand. It was a seashell. He and Nia and Sela had found it on one of their beachcombing excursions before they had left Atrivis. He closed his eyes to try to hold back the tears that came with the flood of memories, but he couldn't.
When he had taken himself somewhat in hand, he put the datacard into his datapad. It contained two letters: one from Sela's mother and one from Sela. He called up the letter from Sela's mother first.
I can't tell you how sad I was to learn of Nia's death and how sad I feel for you. The love you shared was a golden beacon of light and joy and hope that can never be extinguished in the hearts and souls of those who knew her.
You were under no obligation to even inform us that Nia had been killed, especially because your own anguish must have been and must still be so great. It meant a lot that you gave me the opportunity to prepare Sela for the news that Nia had been killed, but she had already sensed it before she read your letter. She feels so close to both of you that she could not help but sense that something terrible had happened. When your letter confirmed her fears, she was devastated, but her first thought was for you.
I will let Sela tell you in her own words how she feels. For my part, I want you to know how grateful I am that Sela had the chance to meet and get to know the two of you. She is my only child, but if I could have wished for an older sister for her, I would have wished for Nia. Both of you will always be in our hearts.
I know that the struggle to free the galaxy from the tyranny of the Empire will be long and dangerous. I hope that if or when you have a chance for respite from the fighting, you will come to us. You will always be welcome.
My prayers are with you.
Hobbie was very touched by Dareen's letter. He had not realized that she too felt so close to Nia and himself. Taking a deep shuddering breath, he called up Sela's letter.
I was so sad when Mommy gave me your letter. I had a bad feeling that something awful happened, but I didn't know what it was. Then I read your letter and I knew that it was because Nia was killed in the battle and that your heart was broken.
I cried a lot, but it wasn't only because Nia died. I cried because of the other things you wrote too. You said that thousands of good people were killed. So many people are sad because their family and their friends are dead. That makes me sad too.
I think what makes me the saddest of all, though, is that you are afraid now. You are afraid to care about people. It hurts so much to care about the people the Empire hurts that you don't want to care about them. It hurts so much when your friends get hurt or killed that you don't want to care about them either. You want to be alone so you don't have to care about anybody so you can never be hurt again.
But you do care. You have always cared that people are being hurt and you always will. And your friends will always care about you. You can't see or maybe you just don't want to see how much they care about you. I know they care because Nia's friend, Jenan, and Doctor Telsan, and your friend, Wes, all wrote to me. They told me how sad they were about Nia, but they are all so worried about you. You might think you want to stop caring, but you can't. That is why you hurt so much. Nia would be so sad to see you hurting like this. If I could have just one wish, it would be that somehow I could make all your hurt go away.
I am glad you told me that you did want to get married to Nia. She loved you so much. You would have been so happy together. Thank you for sending me her bracelet. I will wear it and I will never forget her because I loved her too.
I want you to have something too. Remember when we went hunting for seashells with Nia? We found a beautiful pink and white seashell and you said that I should keep it to remind me of that day. I think you need to have it now so that you will be able to remember the happy things.
I know you miss Nia and that it hurts so much that she is gone. I really miss her too, but she would not want either of us to curl up into a little ball and give up on everything. Someday, I will find a way to do the things that Nia can't anymore. I hope you will too.
I will always be your friend.
Hobbie dropped his head into his hands and felt tears well up in his eyes. He felt so ashamed of himself. A six year old little girl had shown him just how selfish and self absorbed he had become. He thought about how he had behaved toward his friends, the people who really cared about him. How could he have pushed them away the way he had? They felt Nia's loss as much as he did and had tried everything they could think of to reach out to him.
He picked up the seashell and held it against his cheek. The ache in his soul that Nia's death had left would be with him forever, but he could not allow himself to wallow in self-pity any longer. He needed to reach out to his friends to let them help him really accept what had happened and begin to move on with his life alone. But he knew that he would not really have to be alone as long as his friends and a very sweet and very wise little girl cared about him.
He heard the door slide open and turned to see Wes come into the room. Real concern was etched on his best friend's face. "Hobbie, are you okay?"
"No, Wes, I'm not," he answered. "I don't even know how to tell you how much it hurts, but I have to. I can't go on pretending that it doesn't hurt anymore."
Wes was actually relieved to hear the pain in Hobbie's voice. He realized that little Sela had gotten through to him. "I know that, Hob. We all do. We just didn't know how to help you because you wouldn't let us."
"Well, I'll let you now. I can't do this alone." He looked up to meet Wes's gaze. "Do I even have any friends left who'd want to help me after the way I treated all of you?"
Wes smiled. "Of course you do, Hob. Come on. Why don't we go find them?"
Hobbie let out a heavy sigh and stood and walked past Wes out the door.
Wes looked at the datapad with Sela's letter still on it and the seashell she had sent sitting on the desk and smiled again. "Thank you, Sela. Whatever it was you said to him, it worked."
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