"Lieutenant Naffi?"

"Sir." Kail Naffi saluted, snapping smartly to attention.

"Was there a problem?" The officer's eyes were cold, disinterested. He didn't care if there was a problem, or what it was.

Kail didn't care, either. So what if Captain Pierse was disinterested; he still had to do his job. "There's been some kind of mistake, sir."

"Has there, now." Cold blue eyes regarded him unblinkingly.

"There has. Someone's made a mistake with my assignment. Sir." Kail kept his back ramrod straight, eyes focused on a non-existent spot, an old habit from his early cadet days.

"Very well then, suppose you tell me of this mistake." Pierse leaned back in his chair and put his hands together.

"I just graduated from the Academy, sir, with a commission on the Devastator. I shouldn't be here. Sir."

"Perhaps you're right. Orders?"

Kail held out the chip with his first posting, a direct contradiction to the written orders he'd received at the Academy upon graduation. Pierse took the chip and slipped it into the reader without comment.

"No mistake," Captain Pierse said briskly. "This is perfectly in order." He withdrew the chip and returned it to the lieutenant, who pocketed it automatically.

"But how can that be?" he blurted, then stopped before he could get himself in trouble.

"Is this what they teach now in the Academy? To question orders?" Pierse glared at him, icy disdain replaced by contempt. "All inexperienced pilots assigned to duty on SSDs have been reassigned. Now get to your quarters and do your duty. I don't want to see you in here again unless there is a legitimate concern."

Blast. Kail saluted woodenly and turned, precise even in his disappointment. How in the stars was he supposed to make a name for himself, trapped on this hulking behemoth of a battle station? Everyone knew the SSDs were where you advanced, and Devastator was the flagship, the best of the best, the Dark Lord Vader's own. This battle station, this Death Star, was an unknown factor. How was he supposed to advance here? He wasn't even certain who was in charge over the thing.

Despite his disgruntlement, Kail settled in to life on the Death Star readily. After all, it wasn't like he had much say in the matter—orders were orders. Not much sense in making a fuss over them. So life became a routine, flying, studying, and trying to fit in with his squadronmates.


Kail was sitting in the bar, hunched over a glass that was more for show than for any real serious drinking, trying to figure out where his life was going. He'd been here months now, and hadn't had any opportunities for advancement come his way. He'd probably be stuck as a lowly fighter pilot forever. And not even a very good one, at that... Tanner could fly rings around him, and made sure he knew it at any opportunity. Not that that hurt as bad as having his so-called girlfriend run out on him, in favor of appearing on Tanner's arm.

It took a while, but the disturbance eventually penetrated Kail's preoccupation. Tanner and his gang had someone cornered and were raising hell. Kail stretched to see who it was, then sighed. Jayce Tibbins, not really a friend but definitely not deserving of Tanner's abuse. He rose from his stool, abandoning his blue liquor at the bar and threading his way through the crowd.

"That's what it is, isn't it," Tanner jeered. "You're one of them girlie-boys, aren't you. Real woman not good enough for you, huh?"

Oh, starfire, Kail thought. So that was what Tanner was off on again, hmm? He'd gotten reprimanded just last week for jumping another pilot on similar grounds. Not that Captain Pierse hadn't approved, but he couldn't openly allow fighting within the ranks...

"Leave it, Tanner," Kail said, inserting himself into the crowd. Tibbins shot a startled glance at him.

"What's this, Naffi? You one of them too?" Tanner was willing to switch his antagonism away from Tibbins without even missing a beat. "You all stick together, eh? No wonder Ell came running to me with open arms... and legs."

Kail snarled silently, but let it slide. "You know better than that. And just because Tibbins doesn't screw anything with a hole between its legs doesn't make him a pervert. At least, I've never heard tell of him bedding anything outside of his species."

Several members of the crowd, gathered to watch the conflict, snickered. Tanner's exploits with inferior species were well known. The other lieutenant flushed a dusky red and lunged for Kail, who simply stepped aside and let Tanner crash into an observer.

"You lousy cocksucker, stand still and fight like a man!"

Kail put on an exaggerated expression of shock. "Oh my. Where I come from, real men don't use such language." Someone snorted. Kail waited tensely, trying to judge just how inebriated Tanner was. "And we also don't allow drunken idiots to harass people who prefer to be alone come shift's end."

Before Tanner could do anything else, someone called out that stormtroopers were coming to investigate the disturbance and suddenly Kail and Tibbins were left standing alone.

"Thanks," Tibbins said, with an uncertain smile.

"Don't mention it." Kail scanned the crowd, looking to see where Tanner had gone. "Mind if I hang around for a bit? Looks like Tanner isn't going anywhere, and he might be in the mood for more trouble once the troopers move on."

"Of course I don't mind," and he indicated the table where he had been sitting. "Do you mind if I ask why you did it?"

Kail smiled and sat down. "Like I said, where I come from we don't allow such harassment. You weren't causing any problem, so they had no cause to be bothering you."

The two pilots chatted amiably, until Tanner finally left. A short while afterwards, Kail headed back for the barracks as well, still worrying about his own problems.


The assembly sounded midshift, while the fighter squadrons sprawled at leisure in ready rooms or hunched over desks, studying specs and tactics. Kail was glad enough to leave behind the tech manual he'd been studying, but was rather annoyed. This was the third assembly this week. Having Lord Vader aboard really had High Command nervous. He raced along with the others to form up for inspection on the main fighter deck for Alpha Quadrant, standing in a precise line overlooking the ranks of TIEs.

"Gentlemen," Captain Pierse's voice rang out. "You've been called here to witness a demonstration, ushering in a new era of Imperial glory. Observe the forward viewscreen."

As Pierse spoke, the cover rolled back from the enormous viewscreen above the exit portal, exposing a view of a planet. Kail couldn't prevent a slight sound, not quite an exclamation, when he recognized Alderaan, earning him a glare from Pierse.

"This planet has been identified as a hotbed of Rebel activity. It has been selected to demonstrate the full power of this battlestation. Observe, gentlemen, and be proud that you serve the Empire."

Pierse flipped a switch and a countdown became audible: ...within range in five. Four. Three. Two. One. Target acquired. Main system charged. Auxiliary systems charged...

Kail frowned, the slightest twitch of facial muscles. What were they up to? He didn't much like the sound of this.

And then he heard it, or maybe felt it, he wasn't sure which. A hum, nearly subliminal but resonating through the entire station, resulting in an intense green beam and an explosion fit to dwarf anything ever seen before.

It took a moment to register what he was seeing. The planet expanded in a glowing ball of gas and debris on the viewscreen, and Kail thought of his pet. Just a fuzzy little thing, harmless and friendly, probably laying in a patch of sunlight taking a bath down there on the surface, while his mother fussed at it to get off the Vindarian satin couch... Time slowed to a crawl and he watched pieces of his homeworld flying towards them, impacting with the Death Star's shields and being reduced to even smaller fragments.

"Noooo!" It finally sank in. Alderaan had just been destroyed. The Empire had just destroyed his homeworld. He nearly blacked out, found himself on the deck. His fellow pilots ignored him, still rigidly at attention, but Pierse stood over him.

"Is there a problem, Lieutenant Naffi?" The gloating tone of Pierse's voice registered and Kail lurched upward, wanting only to get his hands around Pierse's neck. But Pierse stepped back, evading the attack effortlessly, and Kail was caught by Kaj and Jayce, restraining him from either side. "Oh yes, that's right, I'd forgotten. You hail from Alderaan, don't you? But," and his voice hardened, losing its gloating, satisfied sound. "You serve the Empire now. Best remember that. Now get yourself to quarters until you see fit to behave befitting your rank in the Imperial Fleet."

Kail was peripherally aware of someone hauling him away, but all he could see was his little pet, exploding into glowing oblivion.

"Come on, Naffi," a voice was saying. "Let's get you back to quarters. It's okay—"

"Okay? How can you say that? Puffer was just trying to take a bath, she didn't deserve to get blown to bits. How can it be okay? That was my home!"

Jayce caught at him, wrestling him down to a bunk, then practically sitting on him to keep him there. "Tell me about Puffer. What is she?"

"A feline," Kail replied, taken offguard. "I've had her for years, since I was just a little kid..."

Jayce kept him talking, kept him recounting countless tales of Puffer and her antics. And then, when he couldn't avoid it any longer, Jayce kept him talking about his family. That was when things got worse, because he kept seeing it again and again and again in his mind, how the green beam had obliterated the lovely globe floating before them, destroying everything he'd known and loved. He shivered. Arms wrapped around him, trying to offer him comfort, and he was cold, so very cold... But he pushed at Jayce, trying to get away, trying to run from his grief. Jayce only tightened his grip, until Kail gave in and clung desperately to him, deep in the sea of pain which had finally penetrated the numbness of shock.

"Aww, isn't that sweet," a jeering voice sounded somewhere overhead.

"Back off, Lasco," Jayce said, sharp and vicious. "He just saw his fucking world destroyed. You got a problem with him losing it, then you got a problem with me."

Other voices came and went, a background murmur, then were gone. Jayce stayed with him. Jayce held him, wouldn't let him go, wouldn't leave him be...

It was a long time later. Kail finally came back to himself, recognized that he was clinging to somebody who was stroking his hair comfortingly. He raised his head from a shoulder, blinking sore eyes. Jayce Tibbins looked back at him in the dim light of the barracks during sleep shift.

"Jayce," he said blankly. He sat up, pulling away. Jayce let him go, but kept a careful eye on him. "I—I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"

"It's okay," Jayce interrupted. "You needed a friend. Still do, unless I miss my guess."

"What?" Kail had an actual blank spot in his mind for a moment. An irrelevant detail took up his attention for a moment—somehow, he'd gotten stripped down to the grey shirt and shorts that underlay every Imperial uniform from the Emperor's personal guard down to the lowest sanitation tech. How had that happened? Last he remembered, he'd been studying in the ready room, and certainly not in his underwear. Then— "Oh, sweet and holy gods. It wasn't a nightmare."

Slowly, Jayce shook his head. "Get back here. " He tugged on Kail's arm, pulling him back down against the propped up pillow.

"It wasn't a nightmare," Kail whispered again numbly. The whole hideous cycle of events replayed again before his mind's eye. He leaned up against Jayce, needing the reassurance of human contact. "Why are you here, anyway?"

"I owe you one, remember?" Jayce chuckled softly, then became serious again. "But even if I didn't, no one should have to go through anything like that, much less alone. And even more... I think, now, I can tell you something."

Jayce shifted, looking around. The faint light, provided by a glowstrip along the ceiling, showed the other bunks occupied by sleeping bodies. He put an arm around Kail, leaned in until his lips nearly brushed Kail's ear. "I'm leaving," he said, a mere breath of sound. "I can't take it any more."

Kail's breath caught and he looked around reflexively. "Defecting?"

"Shh, not so loud... yes." A pause, then, "Want to come?"

The Rebellion against the Empire... "Maybe. How?"

"A planet," Jayce whispered. "Hevron, on the Outer Rim. Place called Hando's Hideaway. Say you came in on the Tantive IV."

"When?" Suddenly, betrayal of the Empire didn't seem unthinkable. It was, in fact, strangely appealing. Again the green beam destroyed Alderaan. Yes, very appealing indeed. Far more so than continuing to serve an Empire that would destroy an entire planet on a whim.

"My next shore leave. You in?"

"Quite possibly. Let me think, adjust... gods." His voice caught on a sob. "They're gone, Jayce, all of them..."

Jayce held him close again, as he gave in once more to tears. At some point, he dropped into a heavy, exhausted slumber, but the pain never went away.

* * * * * * * *

Little Tylla was in the swing, holding Puffer. Puffer didn't look very thrilled, but wasn't struggling. Tylla was swinging, her hair blowing in the wind, but then a shadow fell. She looked up, sheer horror transforming her face, then she screamed. Puffer hissed, then they both exploded.

Kail woke with a cry. He tried to sit up, but someone was there, someone was holding him down and he couldn't move, couldn't go to save Puffer or Tylla or—

"Kail! Wake up, it's okay. Kail!"

"No, oh no," and he remembered again. There was no more Tylla, no Puffer, no Alderaan. He was on the Death Star, the thing that had killed his sister and everyone else in his family. That was Jayce holding him down, making sure he didn't hurt himself or anyone else. "Why..."

"I don't know, man. I just don't know."

Silence fell again, broken only by the sound of harsh breathing as Kail tried to calm himself down. He concentrated fiercely on physical reality—he was warm. Jayce was holding him, which probably should be rather alarming. But who cared... at least Jayce was trying to be supportive, unlike the unfeeling monster in charge. That cold, gloating smile Pierse had worn was enough to make his blood boil. But Jayce was there, wouldn't let him go, not for anything. Why did he care, anyway? Why was he here? It wasn't like they had been all that close or anything, before. A few words exchanged here and there, a wave in the hallways, saving each other's hides in action a few times, just like anyone else in their unit. But he wasn't going to argue, because it beat being alone.

Not that he could ever be anything but alone now, with his entire world gone...

Tylla was back. But she was bloody and torn, and Kail cried out again and tried to grab hold of her, to carry her off to medbay, but it wasn't any use because she slipped through his fingers.

"Why? Why did you let this happen? You said you'd protect me."

She came closer, blue eyes accusing, blood dripping from her hair. "You did this to me, Kail. You are part of the Empire. You killed me, you killed my mommy, you even killed Puffer."

Not me, not me, notmenotmenotme...

"You should be dead too. Why are you alive? It's all your fault."

"Should be dead... dead."

"No, you shouldn't."

Kail jerked awake again. "What!"

"You shouldn't be dead. It wasn't your fault. It was the Empire's fault. You couldn't do anything to stop what happened."

"They're dead, all of them, and I should be dead too."

"No you shouldn't."

But Kail continued to insist, getting more and more frantic, until Jayce just gave in and kept quiet. Finally, Kail slipped back into sleep and didn't wake again until the buzz sounded.

"Now that's just precious."

Kail raised his head groggily. His eyes didn't want to focus and his head was pounding.

"You'd think they'd go somewhere else. They know their kind isn't wanted around here."

Kail sat up, finally identifying the source of the voice. "Out of my face, Tanner," he croaked, then rubbed his throat. He shot a glance down at Jayce, who looked back at him with an unreadable expression.

"Pussy boy," Tanner muttered, but didn't seem inclined to pursue the matter. Instead, he returned to his bunk and began putting on his uniform.

Kail rubbed his head, then looked around to get his bearings. Just as he'd thought, he was on Jayce's bunk. He stood up, unsteady but determined. "Thanks," he said, trying to summon a smile. It didn't happen. He gave up the effort and sought out his own bunk and locker, finding the previous day's uniform in an untidy heap at the foot of his mattress. He stuffed it in the laundry bag, pulled a clean uniform out of the locker, and suppressed the stab of revulsion he felt at the symbol of the Empire he'd once loved.

But he put it on anyway, and presented himself along with the others for inspection. Routine just might save him. If he could not-think for long enough, bury his pain in duty, then maybe he could get over the loss. As if anyone could "get over" the loss of an entire planet.

For a wonder, Captain Pierse didn't make too big of a fuss over Kail's breakdown the previous day. After a few cutting remarks failed to draw forth any response, he gave up and returned to the day's briefing. the Death Star was following a freighter to the secret Rebel base, exact location unknown. All fighter squadrons were on full alert, ready to scramble at a moment's notice whenever the base was located.

* * * * * * * *

The call came sooner than expected. It was barely more than a full day since Alderaan had been destroyed. Kail was feeling distinctly unstable; the slightest thing would set him trembling on the edge of madness. The sound of an announcement, the way a fellow pilot moved that reminded him of someone at home, even the cover rolling back from the viewscreen... anything was likely to remind him of his loss. But the prospect of action distracted him from his pain.

The Rebels were attacking. Kail couldn't believe it, couldn't comprehend the sheer guts of these people, throwing their lives away with reckless abandon against the monstrosity which had destroyed Alderaan. The alert had sent all Alpha's fighter pilots running for the deck, and almost to a man they had gawked at the viewscreen in disbelief before scrambling for their TIEs. Kail caught Jayce's eye for a moment as he was climbing in his ship, receiving a tight grin and a thumbs-up. He wondered if they would ever meet again, then he was in his ship and getting clearance.

Kail's squadron dropped into formation behind Captain Pierse, then dove into the battle. Rebs were everywhere, causing an inordinate amount of damage in their little Incom fighters. Kail held back, not firing, listening to the battle channel and hoping no one noticed he was flying a strictly defensive pattern, apart from the rest of his squadron.

Rebels. The scum of the inhabited systems, the insignificant fools who dared oppose the Empire... the people who believed in freedom, and who were spending their lives recklessly to fight the evil which had destroyed his homeworld. How much worse than the Empire could scum possibly be? He'd be willing to place a wager that none of the Rebs would ever destroy a peaceful planet.

"There's a mean one on me, can't shake it!" Lasco's voice cried out.

"I'm on it," Jayce replied. His TIE dove for Lasco, then shot past and flipped around, laser cannons blazing. Lasco went up in a spectacular flare, then Jayce tore into the Imperials like a vengeful demon, keeping pace with the Rebel craft.

"Tibbins! What do you think you're doing? Traitor!" Pierse's voice was filled with rage. Kail spotted the Captain's fighter approaching Jayce's and smiled with unholy glee.

Laugh at me, will you? Make me watch my world get blown to bits—

And then Captain Pierse was no more.

Jayce's triumphant whoop echoed across the battle channel, then was cut off abruptly. But his ship was still there, so Kail guessed his friend had simply cut off transmission.

"Naffi, you moron!" Tanner howled over the radio. "That wasn't the traitor, that was the Captain!"

"Oops," Kail said mildly, taking out another anonymous TIE and trying to spot where Jayce had gotten off to. But then he felt a lurch. He checked his instruments and bit back a curse. Someone was winglocked with him.

"You turncoat son of a rancor, I'm taking you in," Tanner's voice snarled in his ear. Frantically, Kail tried to break free, but it was no use. The wings were designed so that once a lock was established it had to be released manually, a nice feature for hauling in disabled craft but a bit of a hassle when one was engaged in a defection attempt.

Kail closed his eyes and tried to breathe. He hadn't planned on getting caught. In fact, he hadn't planned on making a run for the Rebellion today at all, it had just been a spur of the moment thing to jump in and join Jayce. Now what? Blast.

The Death Star blew before Tanner could wrestle Kail's TIE close enough for approach into a landing bay. Kail was filled with vindictive joy, and was actually able to wrest control of the winglocked pair of TIEs away from Tanner for a long moment. But then, just when he thought he was going to reach the Rebels in safety, Tanner recovered from his shock and regained control. His ship had initiated the winglock, and so had automatically usurped some of Kail's power, along with primary directional control. No hope for it, he was stuck, unless Tanner lost it again. Then a call came over the radio for all survivors to report to the nearest SSD. Kail felt the ship turn and knew he was lost.

The same quirk of the mind which had transmuted horror over the death of Alderaan into worry for his pet kicked in and saved him. Tanner turned him over to the stormtroopers gleefully, telling them how he was a traitor and had deliberately destroyed the Captain, while Kail retreated into himself and grew quieter and quieter, as his thoughts scattered and darkened.

But the probe droid didn't care how quiet he was. All it cared about was that his responses to its questions were incomprehensible. The desperate need to conceal the precious contact information for the Rebellion vanished underneath memories of the Academy, of home, of his father's merchant fleet, of Puffer as a kitling. When the probe droid failed, a human interrogator attempted to make sense out of what Kail was saying, but gave up in disgust.

"Mind's totally gone," he reported. Kail heard him on some deep level, using his commlink right in front of the detention cell. "I've no idea who cleared this boy to fly, but whoever it is should be under investigation. Half the time he can't even identify my uniform, and that's after the droid was at him."

Somewhere beneath the mindless chatter in his head, Kail felt a small shred of hope. He might come out of this luckier than he deserved...

But then the second level interrogation droid came in, the one reserved for breaking mindblocks. Even behind his screen of dissociation, Kail recognized that it was there, and that he was being questioned far more thoroughly about the Rebellion. He wasn't even sure if it got the information it wanted from him or not—all he knew was that after a little eternity it left, and his thoughts were more fragmentary than ever.

Sometime later, whether an hour or a day or a week he couldn't have said, Kail's thoughts came creeping back into a coherent whole. He came to himself staring at a blank wall, laying on his side on a hard, narrow bunk. His head hurt, his stomach felt sick, he ached all over... in short, he felt like he'd been put through hell. Fleeting memories of pain, drugs, and questioning flitted through his head, leaving him with a burning question: what had happened to his mind? Was he insane? Was he doomed to have his thoughts split into thousands of fragments under stress forever?


The official Board of Inquiry determined that Kail Naffi was not in control of his own actions. He was stripped of his rank and put off on the nearest planet.

Kail watched the shuttle blast off, standing in mud up to his ankles and wishing the Imperials had seen fit to leave him with some money, or even some clothing other than the utilitarian grey jumpsuit he'd been given while a prisoner. But he was alive, and with his thoughts intact... a definite good thing, after an intense Imperial interrogation. But now what?

He settled for taking a look around. He wasn't even sure what planet he was on, or how he would get off of it. All he knew for certain was that he had to reach Hevron. He couldn't see much of anything, just that he was on a muddy road, lined with trees. He picked a direction and started walking, hoping it would lead to a town.

There was a mechanical whine behind him, then a voice called out. "Yo! What do you here? You Imp?"

"Been in an Imp interrogation chamber," he replied, avoiding the question. A tentacled blue and green alien leaned down from a hovercraft, peering at him from eight suspicious purple eyes. The creature's head tentacles snapped, then it made a beckoning gesture.

"Closer come. You no Imp?"

Kail obliged, moving closer to the hovercraft, which lowered until he was face to face with the alien. It had two rings of tentacles, sprung from a short thick stalk, which was a deep and iridescent green. The lower row of tentacles was thick and long, serving as hands and arms, while smaller tentacles grew from the blue upper portion of the stalk, above the eyes. Kail didn't recognize the species, but at least it spoke Basic and wasn't a friend to the Empire.

"I'm no Imperial," he said. "Trying to get to Hevron. You know it?"

"Hevron? Pah!" The creature cracked a tentacle, giving an impression of disdain. "No star-walking for this person. Not know worlds beyond. You come now, meet other star-walkers. Curious. Sent this one checking if Imps come here."

Kail climbed warily into the hovercraft, hoping he'd interpreted that right. Evidently he had. Once he was in, the creature took off with careless abandon, flinging Kail down into a seat which hadn't been designed for humans. He watched the tentacles warily, not wanting to get in the way. They seemed to move independently, unless the creature was using one.

A bend in the roadway revealed a shabby town. Kail resigned himself to dirt and poor accomodations, trying to be grateful that at least he was free of the Empire.

The alien parked the hovercraft outside a bar and hopped out. It moved by putting two or more tentacles on the ground and swinging its stalk forward, rather like a human on antique crutches. Kail followed, trying not to stare at the creature too openly. Even in a lifetime of dealing with other species, he hadn't seen anything quite like this one.

The inside of the bar was dimly lit and smoky. Kail coughed a bit, then realized he'd almost lost sight of his guide and hurried to catch up. The creature made its way to a back table and spoke to a human seated there.

"This one say no Imps. Say was prisoner, need to star-walk. Know you a place called Hevron?"

"Hevron?" The man was Corellian, unless Kail missed his guess. Great, just what he needed—a Corellian, probably a smuggler. "I might have heard of it. What's it to you?" He turned his sharp gaze on Kail.

"Only place I have left to go," Kail replied bleakly. The Corellian blinked.

"You're Alderaanian, aren't you," he said. "Heard what happened. Sorry about that."

Kail nodded, unable to reply around the sudden tightness in his throat.

"What's your name, kid? You look familiar, for some reason. And sit down. I'm getting a crick in my neck, staring up at you."

"Kail Naffi," he replied, sliding into the booth opposite the Corellian.

"Naffi, Naffi... as in Coreward Express Shipping and Imports?" The man's eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline.

"Yes. My father owns the business. You've heard of it?"

"Heard of it!" The Corellian laughed. "Biggest shipping company that's still clean, and the kid wants to know if I've heard of it... yeah, I know it well. Never run anything for them, but I know people who have."

"Still clean? How do you mean?" Kail cocked his head to the side, curious.

"Not on the Imp payroll, not running spice or glit, still totally independent." He shook his head sadly. "Too bad most everyone was lost. That make you the new owner?"

"Uhh..." Kail leaned back against the backrest. Beneath the indignant protest within that of course his father's company was clean, he was badly shaken. "Company's supposed to go to my older brother, Arlen. And he should have been away when... it happened. Was supposed to be on Coruscant, at a business school there." Suddenly, it occurred to him that perhaps others of his family had survived, had perhaps been scattered across the galaxy instead of on Alderaan.

"Huh. Too bad for you. But you've still got the credits, anyway... okay. We can work something out."

During the bargaining process, Kail found out that the Corellian's name was Darvo, and that he was indeed a smuggler. Kail tried not to let that bother him too badly. After all, he was on the wrong side of the law himself now, or would be if he made contact with the Rebellion.

"Oooooo," something crooned down by his feet. "Oooooooo!"

Startled, Kail looked down. There was a fat little alien sniffing around his boot.


"What is that thing? What—get this thing off me!"

The little creature, not much more than a blob with arms and a kitling-ish face, hopped onto his boot. Kail jumped up, trying to shake the creature off.

"Oooooooooo," and it rubbed its face adoringly against his leg.

"Looks like it likes you, kid," Darvo snickered, looking down. The little alien was making rapturous sounds and clinging tightly to Kail's leg, gyrating its fat little body.

"I don't care if it likes me, somebody get it off my leg!" Kail tried to pry the creature off, first bending down, then propping his leg up on the bench seat. Nothing worked. The creature only cooed louder and clung tighter.

"Now, now," another alien puffed, hurrying forward. "Be nice to my little friend. She just likes you. It's not her fault she can't restrain herself. She's just overly affectionate."

"I. Don't. Care," Kail said, through gritted teeth. "Get her off of me right now!"

Evidently something in his tone warned the fuzzy bluish alien that he was not worth messing with, because the blue guy bent down and rapped the amorous pink blob on the head sharply.

"Hey! Knock it off! You know better than to go mating with strangers."

"Oooo," the female alien pouted, not letting go. The blue alien pried her hands free and removed her from Kail's leg, carrying her away, scolding all the time.

"Yuck," Kail said, checking his rather damp pantleg for damage.

Darvo laughed at him, loud and long. "Good one, kid," he managed to gasp. "Always great to have a way with the ladies. Just might want to stick to your own species in the future..."


Hando's Hideaway. What a strange name for a restaurant... was this really the right place, anyway? Kail looked at the elegant front of the building, the finely garbed guests entering, and shrugged. At least it was clean. And if Jayce's information proved wrong, well, at the very worst he would wind up with a good meal. He went in.

The doorman stopped him, with a disdainful lift of the eyebrow for his less-than-elegant appearance. "Can I help you, sir?"

"Yes, you can." Kail drew himself up, speaking in the same formal Basic the doorman had used, drawing on every ounce of his proper upbringing to convince the man that despite his appearance he really did belong here. "I'm here for a meal. I just came in on the Tantive IV."

Well, there it is, Kail thought. Code sign given, now to find out if it was effective, or even if it was an Imperial trap.

"Very well, sir," the doorman said. He gave no visible sign that he'd recognized the code word, simply bowed and indicated that Kail should follow him.

So Kail followed, into a world of elegance he'd been away from for far too long. The doorman seated him at a small table, then disappeared. Before Kail really had a chance to look around, a waiter appeared.

"You came in on the Tantive, sir?"

"The Tantive IV, correct," Kail nodded.

"Most excellent. Perhaps you'd care to visit our wine cellar, where you'll have free choice of our fine selection?"

"I'd love to." Kail rose. He'd caught the emphasis on free, and hoped that meant he was being taken to a true contact person. He followed the waiter through the dining room, down a narrow hallway, and into a tiny elevator, which opened out on an entirely different view than he expected.

Gambling must be illegal in this sector, he thought, trying not to gawk at the richly appointed casino surrounding him. Why else would they hide it away underneath the restaurant?

The waiter didn't give him much chance to look around, but led him quickly to a small office and left him there.

Kail found a chair and sat in it. No sooner had he gotten settled than a man walked in, talking on a handheld comm. He ended the conversation and signed off as Kail rose.

"So you're a would-be Rebel, hmm?" The man smiled and extended his hand. "I'm Randalen. Want to tell me how you found out about the Tantive?"

"Kail Naffi," Kail said, shaking Randalen's hand. He sat when the other man took the chair behind the desk. "A friend of mine gave me the contact information. We were supposed to go together, but... there was a problem."

"Which friend?" Randalen watched him closely.

"His name is Jayce Tibbins. Do you know him?"

Randalen shook his head. "And do you know where he got the information?"

"No, I don't. So do you know how I can reach the Rebels?"

Randalen laughed. "Of course I do. But I'd like to know who's still giving out my place as a contact, since I don't have much to do with Rebs anymore. It was getting too dangerous, between the Imps breathing down my neck and the blabbermouth Rebs shooting off about my little operation down here." He pressed a button on his desktop. "Delfan, send in Kiri, would you? She should be out there somewhere."

Kail waited tensely, uncertain about whether Randalen intended to help him or not. He had the feeling there was more going on here than he really wanted to know about.

The uneasy silence was broken by a new arrival, presumably Kiri. A youngish woman in tan pants and a cream tunic that suggested Outer Rim fashion, wearing a blaster as though it were an extension of her body, burst into the room energetically.

"This better be good, Rand," she said, coming to a halt nearly on top of Randalen's desk. "I was busy."

"Flirting with the patrons again, I suppose?" Randalen lifted an eyebrow sardonically.

"Actually, I was loading up a cargo, so you'd better be quick. I've got a deadline on this one." Kiri perched on the edge of the desk, swinging one leg impatiently.

"What are you running this time, girl?" Randalen sighed.

"Now, you really don't want to know that, do you?" Kiri grinned unrepentantly.

"Maybe not. But this time I've got a run for you, and you'll probably like it, since you'll get to see your old friends the Rebels."

"Friends? Ha!" Kiri snorted. "They owe me money. Bet they don't want me coming round, any more than you want them hanging about here. So what's the deal? Whatever it is, gonna have to wait until I make my deadline."

"Great. That's fine. I just need you to deliver a person to the Rebel base." Randalen smiled sardonically at the brief expression of surprise that flickered across the woman's face. "Kiri, meet Kail Naffi. Kail, this is my sister, Kiriadalen."

"Call me Kiri," she corrected automatically, finally taking notice of Kail where he sat watching the exchange with a rather bemused look on his face.

"Kiriadalen was the name you were given at birth," Randalen said. The corner of his mouth twitched, and something in his manner suggested that this was an old, old topic of debate.

"Yeah, and that was only because father was so dead set on keeping that blasted Amberite tradition. If he'd given in to mother, I could have had a proper name, instead of getting stuck with a guy's name." She grimaced.

"Just be glad mother was able to overrule him enough to save you from being named Kiriaouisa."

"Bleah." Kiri shuddered with elaborate disgust. "So, is this Naffi guy the one you want me to haul away to Johnny Reb?"

Kail watched them with wide eyes. So he was supposed to ride along with this madwoman? He hoped he survived the experience.

"Yes, he is. Would it hurt to be a bit more polite? He is, after all, sitting right here, remember."

"Sorry," Kiri grinned, not sounding sorry at all. "Well, I'll take him, but with the understanding that he's second priority. I really have to beat this deadline. There's a lot riding on it."

"Have you been gambling again?" Randalen frowned. Kail thought his disapproval was rather odd, considering that he ran an illegal casino.

"Sunfire, no! Not this time. But there's a question of honor, you know."

"No, I don't know. And I don't think I want to know. Just don't get yourself killed until after you drop Naffi at the base, okay?"

"You got it!" Kiri hopped off the desk and started for the door. "Coming, Naffi? No time to waste."

Kail scrambled to his feet and followed Kiri. "Thanks," he said over his shoulder. Randalen waved him off.

"Don't mention it. And better hurry, she really will take off without you."

Strange people, Kail thought. But at least something was happening finally. He was on his way to join the Rebellion.

Kiri's ship, the Skydancer, looked like a derelict. Kail halted on the dock, shocked. "You expect to fly that thing?"

Kiri laughed at him. "Sure do. Don't worry, we designed her that way on purpose. Skydancer's fast enough to take the skin off any Imp patrol."

Possibly, but will it keep its own skin? Kail wondered, but didn't say anything. Instead, he went inside the ship and looked around, while Kiri checked over her precious cargo, whatever it was, and ran a rapid preflight.

Inside, the Skydancer was nearly as scruffy as its outside, but was moderately well-appointed. The main cabin was set up almost exactly like civilian living quarters, which was odd but not worth worrying about. The furniture was all securely bolted down, though, and the couch had acceleration straps. Kail sat down and strapped himself in, conscious of being nervous about a spaceflight for the first time since he was a small child. He hoped the dilapidated craft would hold together long enough to get him to the mysterious Rebel base.

Kiri slammed into the cabin, passing through like a whirlwind to the cockpit. "Hold on," she called back to Kail, then started up the engines and strapped herself in.

The hum of powerful engines was both startling and reassuring. Kail blinked, identifying the sound as a modified Seinar Fleet Systems GAT, probably powerful enough to shake this pathetic heap of junk to bits. The Skydancer lifted off with a minimum of vibration, another startling achievement. Kail had to admit, when the speed of acceleration smashed him back into the couch, that there must be more to this ship than met the eye. If it had truly been as pathetic as it looked, the full thrust of the Seinar would have just shredded the hull.

Up front, Kiri locked in the coordinates for who-knew-where, then sent the ship into hyperspace—far too close to Hevron's atmosphere for Kail's comfort, but nothing untoward happened. She came back into the main cabin, attention finally focused on Kail.

"So, Rebel—you any good around a ship?" She leaned against a bulkhead, apparently casual, but with a shrewd light of assessment in her eyes.

"I've been flying half my life," Kail replied, stung. "Graduated the Academy with honors."

Kiri made a rude noise. "Then you can fly... after a fashion. Textbook maneuvers and precision, no doubt. Can you work a laser turret?"

"This thing's armed?" Kail was rather dubious about that.

"No," Kiri drawled, heavy on the sarcasm. "Of course she's not armed. I just wave at the Imp gunships and let them board. Of course she's armed!"

"Then yes, I can work a laser turret quite well. Do you anticipate any trouble?"

Kiri favored him with a sardonic look. "Given that you're probably fresh out of Imp service, likely your first assignment from the Academy, I'll make allowances for ignorance. Yes, I expect trouble. Weren't you listening before? If even my own brother doesn't want to know what cargo I'm running, shouldn't that clue you in to something? Like, this trip is illegal by anyone's standards?"

Kail wasn't sure—either Kiri was really beginning to annoy him, or he actually liked her. He decided to reserve judgment on that count for later. "Okay, granted, the cargo's illegal. So am I, as far as that goes. But how much trouble are you expecting? And what exactly is this run of yours, anyway? Spice?"

"Spice is just a cover, dear. This load's a bit more valuable. Got a load of goods for a wannabe Warlord that fancies himself a collector, among other things. And trust me, you really don't want to know more than that."

"Okay, I can go along with that." Kail wondered what he was getting himself into this time. "But this ship... tell me about it. How'd you keep it together? The thrust from your engine should have torn it apart."

Kiri grinned proudly. "Ah, but you're only supposed to think that! I can't tell you how many times my hide's been saved because the Imps can't see past the falling-apart exterior. My brother and I designed this baby clear back on Tatooine, long before either of us was lucky enough to get away. Made her out of a durasteel frame, welded bits and pieces of shit every which way to make her look like hell, but she's solid. Whole ship's my way of laughing at the Imps, you know? She can blow most anything they throw after me clean out of space."

"Great," Kail said. "How fast is she?"

That was enough of a cue to set Kiri off on a detailed technical analysis of her ship. Kail only partly paid attention, but he had to admit that the Skydancer was some ship, if it was carrying even half of the modifications Kiri described in such loving detail.

* * * * * * * *

Kail was dozing on the couch when he heard the hyperdrive disengage. He rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, only to be interrupted by a shout from Kiri.

"Hey lazyass! We've got trouble."

Kail sat up, rubbing his eyes. He'd been drifting in and out of a nightmare again, as usual, and didn't feel particularly rested.

"What trouble?" He made his way to the cockpit.

"The same trouble that makes this run such damn fine pay, even under normal circumstances," Kiri said grimly, fingers dancing over the keypad. "Fly or shoot?"


"I said, fly or shoot! And make up your mind quickly, we're almost there."

Kail bit back on some choice profanity when his nightmare-clouded mind made sense out of the readouts: an Imperial blockade. "Shoot," he said. "And I might have something for you, unless they've broken with procedure and changed codes early... got something to write with and on?"

"Yeah." Kiri fished a scrap of paper and a graphite stick out of a pocket. "But be quick. We're almost on top of 'em. You're not gonna freeze, firing at Imps, are you?"

Alderaan exploded in front of his eyes. "Not likely," Kail said bleakly, then finished scribbling the decryption code that should still be current for the combat channel. "Here. Put this in. Should let you access their radio, so you can listen in to their plans. Now where's that turret?"

"Hot damn!" Kiri snatched the paper from him with a cackle of glee. "Straight back, peel back the carpet, hit the button says 'open.' That's the turret. Now go kick some ass, 'cause they just launched."

Kail saw a wave of fighters approaching and ran for the back. Carpet on a starship, his mind grumbled, but he paid it no heed. Instead, he punched the button and waited tensely for something to happen. There was a hum, then part of the floor slid aside, revealing a hatch into a ball turret. He dropped inside and closed the hatch behind him, which triggered a mechanism that dropped the turret out of the protected belly of the ship, even as the Skydancer began evasive actions which proved that she deserved her name.

"Where the hell are you?" Kiri howled over the radio as Kail found a headset and settled it on his ear. He didn't bother to answer, just activated the heavy laser and started firing at the nearest target. A TIE went up in an explosion that mimicked that of Alderaan on a much smaller scale.

"It's about damn time! Keep it up, they're scrambling another wing."

Kail put his knowledge of Imperial tactics to good use. He recognized the evasive/attack pattern the TIEs were using instantly and knew right where the ships would be, as long as they held to the pattern. They did. The six fighters were nothing but glowing fragments long before the second wave reached the Skydancer.

With a wild whoop, Kiri hit the aft thrusters, sending the scruffy ship into a run nearly as fast as the top speed of a TIE. Theoretical top speed, that was—Kail had never once encountered a TIE that was operating truly up to spec. So much for Imperial efficiency, the pilots used to joke, whenever a TIE let them down.

The bleep of the targeting computer jolted Kail from the past. The second wave of six TIEs was nearly on top of them, firing and forcing Kiri to cut forward thrust in favor of evasive maneuvers.

"Can you just disable this crowd?" Kiri called over the radio.

"Maybe," Kail replied. Attack pattern alpha-seven, standard wave variation... disabling would be a tad more challenging, but was possible.

The first fighter was a hair out of position, resulting in complete disintegration. "Oops," Kail said. "Sloppy piloting."

"Hey!" Kiri protested sharply.

"Not you, him."

A TIE lost a wing and spun from the field of conflict, out of control. Two more followed, then the pattern shifted.

"Got a real reason for leaving them alive?" Kail called. He missed two easy shots and bit his lip.

"Nah, smoke 'em if you have to. We're almost through."

"Aye, aye," and Kail got off a shot that counted. The Skydancer shot through the remains of the TIE and all Kail could think was this thing's got shields? as the flaming metal skimmed just short of the turret. But there were two more fighters still active...

"They're bugging out. We going to pursue?"

"Damn, boy, you're bloodthirsty," Kiri laughed. "No, we ain't gonna pursue. Now hold on to your guts, 'cause we're going through."

Kail heard the Seinar kick up a notch, then the Skydancer was going full throttle, straight for the final blockade craft. It was a heavy cruiser, with full armament. Kail got a closer view than he would have liked of Imperial guns blazing directly underneath him. He knew it was futile, that the Imp shields were way stronger than anything this laser could manage, but he couldn't resist taking a few shots at the artillery towers as they shot by.

And then they were clear. Kiri whooped, sending the Skydancer hurtling towards the atmosphere in a tight spiral. Kail looked around frantically and located a button marked "Exit" just in time. He scrambled out of the turret and got the thing locked away just as the Skydancer hit the atmosphere.

He made a dash for the front, sliding into the copilot's seat. "They sending any atmospheric craft after us?"

"Nope. Can't. We're clear now, under Kimbaari's jurisdiction. They can set up a blockade, but not even the Empire wants to take on Kimbaari."

She flew through the atmosphere at a reckless speed that had Kail's more cautious nature very concerned.

"Why'd you want some of them left alive?" he asked, to distract himself from the speed and the proximity of tall rock outcroppings. But he couldn't help gripping the armrests of the chair tightly.

"Kind of a signature thing," she said, with an amused glance at his white knuckles. "Anyone can blow Imps out of the sky. It takes real talent to get past live, armed, pissed off Imps."

Kail shook his head. She was crazy. No doubt about it.

"There—see that white cliff up ahead? That's where we're going."

Kail could see that a massive dwelling had been cut out of the smooth ripples of the cliff. Kiri set the Skydancer down in a vast paved court, talking to someone on the radio in a language Kail didn't recognize. While he was trying to puzzle out what language it could possibly be, Kiri unhooked her harness.

"Come on," she said, "time to unload."

"So I finally get to see what this mysterious cargo is, that was worth running a blockade for." Kail followed her out of the ship.

There were cleverly concealed releases on panels outside, which pulled away to reveal shielded cargo space. Kiri started pulling out unmarked bales of stuff, passing them to Kail. He wondered what was in them, but before he could ask, other people arrived.

"Captain! Did you bring it?" A tall man, dressed in luxurious silk robes, rubbed his hands together and all but danced with impatience.

"Have I ever failed you, Lord Kimbaari?" Kiri emerged from inside the cargo space, cradling a tube about a meter long.

Kail blinked. That looked like the smallest cryo chamber he'd ever seen. Kiri handed it over to Kimbaari, who took it reverently.

"And now, perhaps, you'd like to settle the account?" Kiri asked, folding her arms across her chest.

"In a minute, girl," the Lord snapped. His hands caressed the tube. "Payment is only for a live delivery. You know that."


"So open it," Kiri snapped right back. She turned her back on the Lord, replacing the panels on her ship, irritation clear in every line of her body. "It's live. My word on it. You know it's only a six hour run here from my brother's place."

The Lord pressed buttons on a keypad in careful sequence. The seal on the tube cracked with a hiss, letting out a billow of cryo gas.

"Come on out, little one," Kimbaari crooned. "Come to papa."

What under the stars... Kail strained forward, trying to get a better view. A green talon emerged from the tube, groping blindly forward. Kimbaari helped the creature emerge, and Kail found himself looking at a brilliantly green, if rather groggy, lizardlike creature.

"He's beautiful," the Lord breathed, helping the little creature stand upright on its four feet. It flexed its wings, shaking its head with an almost human gesture.

"As you can see, the dragonet is alive," Kiri said, with that sardonic drawl calculated to annoy anyone within earshot. "My payment?"

"Here. You've earned it." Without looking away from his new acquisition, Lord Kimbaari pulled a thick packet out of his pocket and tossed it to Kiri, who caught it with practiced ease.

"Thanks," she said. "Coming, Naffi?" She started for the front of her ship. Kail followed, stealing another disbelieving glance over his shoulder at the Lord with his little green pet.

"What was that all about?" he asked, once the door closed behind them. "Was that thing really worth running a blockade for?"

"Sweetheart, for that kind of money, I'll run three or four blockades. Kimbaari needed a stud for the nice little underground breeding population he's got going. No one else was willing to take the risk, so the price kept going up until I couldn't resist. Now he's happy, I'm happy, and I've got enough credits to last at least a galactic year, maybe more. Now are you going to sit down and shut up, or were you planning on riding out the escape plastered to the roof?"

Kail let out an exasperated breath. "Just so you know, on a typical blockade procedure, alternating ships on polar orbits will have sensors facing spaceward only. If you want to get out relatively easy, shoot for a blind spot."

"That's nice to know," Kiri grinned. "Now sit down and hold on, because you're about to see what my Skydancer does best."

I have a very bad feeling about this, Kail thought, as he buckled himself into the unconventional couch.

The bad feeling was justified ten times over as Kiri sent the Skydancer racing across the planet's surface at an unbelievable speed. The engine hummed and the acceleration plastered Kail flat against the back of the couch. Skydancer made a complete circuit of the planet, accelerating all the while, at such a low altitude that Kail was certain they were tearing off tops of trees. Then, on the second circuit, Kiri pulled the stick back smoothly and sent the ship into a steep climb. Atmospheric resistance diminished the speed a trifle, and the engine hummed all the louder with strain, but the Skydancer climbed for the stratosphere at a rate that left Kail's stomach wrapped around his backbone and complaining bitterly.

Then the tremendous g-forces of the climb were abruptly gone, leaving them in the half-grav Kiri preferred on her ship, but still traveling forward at an incredible rate. Kail picked up a confused impression of heavy cruisers, then they had jumped to hyperspace, again dangerously close to the planet.

"Whoooeee!" Kiri whooped, then peeled off her harness. She laughed when she saw Kail, still plastered against the back of the couch. "What's the matter, flyboy? Don't like living on the wild side?"

"I have never," Kail said, unbuckling his harness with shaking hands, "seen anything like that. It's a wonder you didn't get us killed."

"Ah-ah-ahh," Kiri shook her finger at him playfully. "Read your history, dear. That's a time-honored maneuver, practiced for hundreds of years by the earliest pilots. Not my fault they don't bother to teach you fancy hi-tech flyboys how to do a slingshot."

"Whatever. Have you seen my stomach anywhere? I think you left it on the planet..."


"Kail!" A voice hailed him from across the crowded hangar. Kail jumped, startled, then looked for a familiar face.

"Jayce? Is that you? Where are you at?"

"Over here!"

Ah, there he was. Now he could see Jayce waving, in a small group of people trying to stay out of the way of an incoming flight of X-wings. Kail looked at Kiri, still deep in conversation with one of the Rebels, then shrugged and made his way over to Jayce.

"So you made it," Jayce said, grinning widely. "I was wondering. I'd given you up for lost—bastard over there said you were a goner."

"Who said that?" Kail frowned, trying to make sense out of that. "And yeah, I made it. They decided I was insane."

"Great. And it was Tanner, over there," and Jayce pointed out a miserable-looking crowd of prisoners, awaiting transport.

"Great stars... he got caught? How'd that happen?" Kail was startled into a laugh, a real laugh, the first since what had happened to his home.

"Not sure, really. I've been barely better off than them—they weren't too sure what to do with either prisoners or defectors. And there were plenty of those. After the Death Star blew, a lot of people came over to the Rebels that might not have had the guts otherwise. So they've kind of shoved us off to the side, kept a watch on us in case some were really spies... had me help ID people, since they were relatively certain I wasn't a spy. After all, it was rather obvious when I switched sides."

"No kidding," and Kail laughed again. "Me too... tell you what, it felt really great to take care of Pierse. I just wish I'd been a hair quicker—getting caught was no picnic."

"What happened, anyway? Obviously it worked out okay..." Jayce raised an eyebrow in a silent question.

"Board of Inquiry," he said shortly. "Like I said, they decided I was insane and put me off on some planet."

"I'm sorry," Jayce said, eyes filled with sympathy. "But you're not insane."

"No. I just was a bit—unstable." Kail shifted uncomfortably. He really didn't like thinking about how he'd been, a few short days ago.

"I remember." Jayce was quiet for a moment, then changed the subject. "Anyway, you have great timing. They've finally gotten everything sorted out now and are making assignments."

"Good," Kail started, only to be interrupted by a harried-looking Rebel.

"Hey! You just in?"

"Yes, I am." Kail was suddenly stricken by the realization that the Rebels had very few uniforms, and those that they did have were so varied he wondered if he'd ever get them sorted out. Take this man, for example: tan jumpsuit, a black hat unlike anything anyone else was wearing, and a clipboard. Military? Civilian? And how was he supposed to figure that out?

"Great. Came in with Kiri, right?"


"And what can you do?" The man pulled a stylus out of his pocket and waited expectantly, with the tip poised over his clipboard.

"I'm a pilot," Kail said. "I used to fly in the same unit as Jayce here did."

"Pilot, right," and he scrawled something on the board. "So seeing as you know this guy already, got a problem with sharing a room? We're a bit short on space."

Kail looked at Jayce, who grinned and gave him a thumbs-up. "Not a problem." After all, what was sharing a room, after they'd already shared a bed... Kail didn't want to go there. That night was not one of his favorite memories.

"Great. Then pending both of you getting flight clearance, you're assigned to Orange Squadron, under Captain Felt. Got it? Good. Take this with you," and he tore a sheet off his clipboard. "And may the Force be with you." He left, moving on to the next ex-Imperial.

"Orange, eh? Damn. I'd hoped for Rogue." Jayce looked at the sheet the man had left behind. "But it could be worse. He could have split us up or something."

"That would be worse," Kail agreed. Having a familiar face around was definitely helping stave off the loneliness he'd felt for the last week. "But what's Rogue?"

"Rogue Squadron, officially known as Red, but full of Imperial defectors. Haven't you heard of them?"

"Not really, no," Kail admitted. He looked around. "Any idea where we're supposed to go now?"

"Probably over to the barracks. At least, that would be my guess."

Kail followed Jayce, noting carefully where everything was, although it was all so disorganized he doubted the details would stick with him for long. They presented the sheet to the Captain, who merely grunted and told them to find an empty room. They'd be making sim runs tomorrow or the next day.

"Real friendly character," Jayce observed, as they left the chaotic closet that passed for Felt's office.

"At least he didn't shoot us on sight," Kail shrugged. "It could be worse."

"Good point. So how are we supposed to find an empty room? And do you have any stuff?"

"Only what I'm wearing. Everything else of mine is gone."

"Oh, hell. I'm sorry. I didn't really forget, I just wasn't thinking."

"It's okay. Look, there's someone packing. Maybe she'll know—" and Kail stopped abruptly, realizing the significance of a woman in fighter pilot's quarters.

"Yeah, maybe. Let's ask. And I should have warned you... they let women fly."

Kail just shook his head. "Women in the military. That's just asking for trouble."

"Excuse me," Jayce said, knocking on the open door. The woman looked up.

"Yeah? What do you want?"

"Could you tell us which of these rooms is available? We're new here."

"No kidding," she muttered, but straightened from cramming uniforms into a carryall. "Those three over there are empty. Or you can take this one, for all I care—I finally got my transfer."

"Thanks, but no thanks," Kail said, before Jayce could even mention the possibility. He just didn't find the notion of inhabiting a woman pilot's vacated room all that appealing.

They picked the one farthest from the others, both intrigued by the possibility of privacy. In the Empire, there was no such thing as privacy, at least not until you'd made a high rank. It was always barracks, shared facilities, people constantly around you at any time of day or night. Even sharing a room with a single roommate was a vast improvement as far as privacy was concerned.

Kail was very glad of the privacy that night, when he woke from a nightmare shaking and sweating, but with Jayce there offering comfort.

"Not again..." he whispered harshly, throat sore from calling out in his sleep.

"Shh, it's okay," Jayce said, catching him up in a hug. Kail clung to him, suddenly very glad he'd met up with a friend again.

"Sorry," he said, but didn't move away. Instead, he held on to Jayce until the shaking eased.

"Don't be. Want to talk about it?"

"Not really," he said truthfully. It had been the same dream as was becoming usual, these days, the one where he had to witness Alderaan's destruction repeatedly, again and again until he finally woke up.

"Might help, you know," Jayce suggested, rubbing Kail's back.

"It might, but I'd rather not."

"Your choice," Jayce shrugged. Kail finally let go and laid back down. "You going to be okay now?"

"Hopefully." Kail yawned. "Sorry to wake you."

"You didn't, really. I wasn't asleep. But if you had, it would still be okay."

"Why is that, anyway? Why are you so willing to sit up with me in the middle of the night?" Kail was honestly puzzled. He really didn't know why Jayce didn't just yell at him to shut up and go back to sleep, like most of his friends or even his brothers would have done.

"Maybe because I know what it's like being alone," Jayce said softly. "I don't much like it, and I'd rather not put a friend through trying to cope with problems alone if I don't have to."

"Thanks," Kail said. He felt himself starting to drift again, back towards sleep.

"Get some rest," Jayce said, then rose and went back to his bed.

But not for long. He'd barely gotten his chaotic thoughts quieted down when he heard Kail moaning, trapped in another nightmare. So he sighed and got back out of his warm bed, sitting on the edge of Kail's bed instead and stroking his forehead.

"It's alright, t'shiri," he murmured, glad Kail couldn't understand Malanari. Otherwise he'd probably have some explaining to do... "Relax. You're not alone."

Kail clutched at his hand tightly and wouldn't let go. He sighed and quieted down, no longer sounding like a dying thing. Jayce looked at him, a barely visible dark lump, then looked towards his bed. Probably not much use going back there, but what would Kail say come morning?

No matter. Jayce wanted to sleep, and he couldn't do that if Kail was waking him up every few minutes. So he curled up on the edge of the bed, using Kail's shoulder as a pillow, and stole some of the blanket for himself. If Kail wanted to be upset, well, he'd deal with it in the morning.


They didn't get a chance to get cleared on the simulators the next day. Instead, they were drafted to help pack up equipment, in preparation for moving on. Everyone was nervous, aware that they only had a finite time on Yavin IV before the Empire returned in force. Well, at least everyone with battle experience was nervous... most of the younger Rebels were acting as if the war was already over. But fortunately, the command staff knew better, and was making preparations.

Kail was glad for the chance to work hard and not think. True, he wanted to get his clearance and get in a fighter, but anything was better than sitting around doing nothing. Jayce worked by his side for most of the day, talking cheerfully, keeping Kail from falling into brooding silence as he had been prone to do ever since the Imp shuttle had dumped him on that muddy backwater world, whatever its name had been. Kail was tired, worn out in a good way. Maybe, with luck, he was even tired enough to sleep without dreaming.

* * * * * * * *

A sound woke Jayce up, a short, sharp cry that had him wide awake in a heartbeat with adrenaline pumping frantically through his system. Across the room, the cry was repeated, and Kail thrashed about in his sleep. Had to be another nightmare.

Jayce sat up and stumbled across the three steps that separated their beds. He sat down on the edge of Kail's bed and caught one of his hands, holding it still. Kail whimpered. His head tossed back and forth and his fingers nearly bruised Jayce's hand, clenching tightly.

"Kail, it's okay," he said, stroking his friend's short, damp hair. "You're safe. I'm here, Kail. It's okay."

Kail woke with a gasp, lurching upright. "No!"

"Kail! It's okay, you're safe!" Jayce pulled him close for a moment.

"Jayce... it was awful." Kail was trembling, but was trying to calm down, breathing deeply and hanging on to Jayce tightly.

"I'm sure it was, but it's over now. You going to be okay?"

"Think so." Kail took a few more deep breaths, then pulled away and laid back down.

"Going to let me go back to sleep?" Jayce smiled, knowing it was invisible in the blackness, but unable to stop himself. He didn't mind, truly he didn't, when Kail woke him in the night needing comfort... A hand locked on to his arm.

"Don't go... please?"

Jayce closed his eyes for a moment and tried to steady his nerves. He didn't mean that the way it sounded, really he didn't. "Of course," he said aloud, then tugged at the covers. "But only if you let me in. It's freezing out here."

Without a word, Kail moved over and held the blanket up for Jayce, who took a firm grip on his self control and lay beside his friend. "Thanks," Kail whispered, when he was settled.

"Any time," Jayce replied.

Kail fell asleep again quickly, nestled snugly against Jayce's side. But sleep eluded Jayce. Instead, he rubbed Kail's hair, laughing softly when Kail sighed in his sleep and burrowed closer. "Ah, t'shiri," he murmured in his native language. "Would that you weren't quite so straight. Poor baby, lost everything—world, people, even your job. How can you hold up? It's no wonder you have nightmares. It's a good thing you don't know what those nightmares do to me, with you all scared and alone and needing comfort so desperately... You'll never know, because I'm not going to tell you, at least not so you'll understand what I'm saying. You've always been so blasted straight, and worse than that, so distant and superior, with that aristocratic air of yours... so typically upper-class Alderaanian. Poor, poor Kail, with no world, no family, nothing but me... and here I am, wishing that you were clinging to me out of a different kind of need altogether. It would be so wonderful, so beautiful, but it just won't happen, will it. And I'll be here, by your side, watching you adjust to the way life is now, and probably seeing you find some lovely lady and settle down to raise a whole bunch of little elegant children..." His voice caught, and he swallowed hard. He pulled Kail a little closer, rubbing at his side gently. "And I don't even know why it's like this, Kail. I wish I did, I'd try to stop it, but I really don't know what it is. I just know that I'd wished for weeks that you'd lay off the girls come shift's end and talk to me. And then, that night in the bar, you jumped in and chased Tanner off. That worthless prick. But even then, when I was sitting there talking to you, I knew it wouldn't work, it was no good, no use at all. Holding you while you mourned for Alderaan was such pain, but so good... I could pretend." He yawned. "Like I'm pretending now. I can pretend that you're mine, that you're hanging on so tightly because you love me... oh, sweet friend, why does it have to be this way?"

The sleeping man had no answer for him. Jayce finally drifted back into uneasy dreams, still followed by the ache of longing.

* * * * * * * *

Kail lay quietly, on the verge of sleep, secure in Jayce's arms. He supposed it should bother him that the only way he could find peace was if he shared a bed with another man, but somehow that didn't seem important. What was important was that he felt safe nestled up against Jayce, and like someone actually cared about him. Forget proper behavior; who cared anymore, anyway? Alderaan was gone. His eyes prickled at the thought, and he ruthlessly steered his mind away from the subject. Think of anything but that.

He slept for a while, but heard a low voice murmuring something on the verge of his understanding. Jayce was saying something in his native tongue, and the words were mostly incomprehensible, but the tone was not. Sad, so sad... he caught the word for "friend," followed shortly by "you" and "you'll never know." But trying to understand a dialect of Malanar was beyond him at the moment. He drifted off again, comforted by the sound of Jayce's voice and knowing that he was not alone.


Kail climbed out of the simulator, well pleased with his performance. One time through and he'd done well enough that they cleared him for practice in a real fighter. But Jayce wasn't so lucky.

"I just don't get it," he groaned, holding his head. "Dead twice."

"Hey, you know what the problem is?" Kail pulled him off to the side, away from the others waiting their turns.

"What's that?"

"You're too tense. These 65s need a light touch, not like the TIEs we're used to." He put his hands on Jayce's shoulders, rubbing lightly. "Just relax, go easy on it."

"Easy for you to say, you're one of the best pilots around," Jayce grumbled. "And if you don't watch out, you're going to get roped into giving me a backrub. That feels damn good."

Kail chuckled. "Turn around, then." He continued rubbing, feeling even through the thick flightsuit how tense his friend was. "And as far as being the best... well, I'm not."

"You're better'n I am, at any rate. And so are all those little runts out there." Jayce jerked his head in the general direction of the simulators.

"Funny, isn't it? They'll let all these kids fly for them. But then, I guess they can't be too choosy. After all, how else can they find fighters, except to take anyone that volunteers."

"Yeah." Jayce sighed. "So... relax, you said. You really think that's the problem?"

"I wouldn't have said it if I didn't. Now are you ready to get back out there and blow them all away?"

"Guess so. Thanks." Jayce went back to take his place in line for the simulator.

Kail watched him go, smiling fondly, then found a seat on a bench by the wall.

This time, when Jayce flew, it went much better. Kail kept an eye on the readout on the back of the module, keeping track of Jayce's score. He completed the run successfully, beating most of the younger pilots soundly.

"Oh, that was good, t'shiri," Kail said, grinning as he joined Jayce, when he climbed out of the simulator. Jayce lost his smile and turned quite pale.

"Um... what did you just call me?"

Kail frowned, puzzled. "Friend, right? Unless I've forgotten something, and inadvertently insulted you..."

Now Jayce was turning a bit pink. "No, not an insult. But t'shar means friend. T'shiri indicates someone a bit closer than that... you know Malanari?"

"Only a little bit," Kail admitted. "Remember, my father owned a very wide-ranging business. I picked up bits and pieces of many, many languages... why is your face so red?"

"Nothing," Jayce muttered, ducking his head down.

Kail smiled and restrained a laugh. "Hey," he said, moving closer so no one else could hear. "No need to be embarrassed, whatever it is."

"That's what you think," Jayce grumbled, but looked up, away from the floor. He grinned. "Just remind me not to say anything I don't want overheard in the future, okay?"

"Sure thing. But I..." Kail wasn't sure what he was going to say. He searched for words for a moment, then shook his head and gave up. "Never mind. Come on, let's go grab some dinner."

"Okay. I guess you were right, after all."

"I know I was right. You were just too tense."

"Huh. If anybody has a right to be tense around here, it's you."

"Maybe." Kail's stride faltered for a moment and he fought off the pain, never far from him and always ready to reach out and grab him by the throat. But he had to move on, couldn't mourn forever...

"Hey, I'm sorry, Kail. I didn't mean—"

"I know. Don't worry about it."

* * * * * * * *

Kail started for his bed, then hesitated. He looked at the bed, then looked at Jayce, then back at his bed. He shook his head abruptly, then picked up his pillow and went over to Jayce's bed.

"Move over." He tossed the pillow down, then followed after it, perching on the edge of the bed..

"Huh?" Jayce blinked, startlement clearly visible even in the dim light.

"I said move over. I don't feel like having any more nightmares tonight."

Without taking his eyes off Kail, Jayce made room for him. Kail settled in as though there were nothing unusual about climbing into another man's bed, although he avoided Jayce's eyes.

"Kail," Jayce started, then broke off and swallowed nervously.

"Hmm?" Kail finally looked at his friend, then reached for the lamp and shut it off. "You don't mind, do you?"

"Mind? Hardly." Jayce swallowed again. "But there's something I think I should tell you."

"I'm listening."

"You remember how Tanner was going after me that night? Well, what he said—some of it's true. And I don't know, but you might not really want to be here."

"Hey, if I didn't want to be here, I'd be over there, now wouldn't I?"

"You mean, it doesn't bother you?"

Kail laughed. "Look at it this way. A week and a half ago, my planet and everything I've ever known was destroyed. I've been through an Imperial interrogation, lost my mind on at least two occasions, been chased around by an amorous alien, and am stuck with horrendous nightmares. You think it bothers me if the only friend I have left in the galaxy finds men attractive?"

"No," Jayce said. "But I think it would probably bother you a lot more if you knew how attractive I find you." He rolled over quickly, stealing a good portion of the blanket in the process.

Kail wasn't surprised. He looked within himself, pleased to find no ugly prejudices or fears, then rolled onto his side and rested a hand on Jayce's shoulder, hunched over and tense. "Don't you think you'd better let me decide what bothers me? Really, Jayce, you should know me better than that by now."

"You mean..." Some of the tension eased and Jayce uncurled a bit from his defensive ball.

"I mean that this is a rather new concept to me, and I don't think I know you well enough to judge yet whether you bother me or not, or if so, in what way." He smiled. "And I'd like to get a chance to know you for yourself, rather than just cling mindlessly to you because you chase the nightmares away. You know practically everything about me, and all I know about you is that you went to the Academy and flew in my unit on the Death Star."

Jayce relaxed, finding Kail's hand where it rested on his shoulder and twining their fingers together. "You really mean that, don't you?" he said wonderingly. "And here I thought you'd be disgusted, or offended, or something..."

"Not likely," Kail said. He moved a bit closer, reclaiming a bit of blanket as he did so. "Somehow, when you've lost everything, the universe looks a bit different. I've no more room in my life for prejudices. And who am I kidding... even if I've never acted on it before, well, I've wondered about... you know."

"Good," Jayce breathed.

"So tell me about yourself," Kail said. For some reason, that struck him as funny, and he smothered a laugh.

"What? What's funny?" That defensive tone was back in Jayce's voice.

"Nothing, it's just..." Kail snickered again. "You've been keeping me sane ever since what happened, and you know everything about me, and I can only feel safe if I'm hanging on to you, but I don't know you at all. Doesn't that seem rather amusing to you?"

"Now that you mention it," Jayce said, stretching and moving onto his back, "it does. Especially the bit about feeling safe with me... Just kidding, you know," he added.

"I know." Kail smiled again. He settled an arm around Jayce, head on his shoulder. He did feel safe, secure, warm... good. "So tell me, please—I'm curious. Where you're from, who you are when you're not a fighter pilot, what color are your underwear..."

Jayce laughed. "As if you don't already know that, considering that they're just the same as yours. And you already know I'm from Malanar, right? Not much else to tell. I grew up on a farm, I went to school and did okay but not spectacular, I decided to join the army. When they tested me, they put me into flight school, which was fine with me because I like flying. And then I had a few problems, heard about the Rebellion, and, well, here I am."

"Nice, Jayce," Kail said, around a yawn. "You just managed to compress an entire lifetime into less than a minute."

"Yeah, well, that's because the life of a farmboy isn't nearly as interesting as the life of a rich merchant's son."

"Don't be too hard on farmboys. Remember, that Skywalker kid that took down the Death Star was just a farmboy."

"Yeah, but he's got the Force. I don't. I'm just a nobody, nothing special."

"Don't say that." Kail squeezed, and sighed when Jayce's hand found its way into his hair. "Mmm... I definitely wouldn't say you're not special."

"Thanks..." Jayce didn't say anything more, and after a while, they both slept.

* * * * * * * *

This time, the dream was different. Not as sad, not filled with despair... instead this dream offered a fragile promise of hope. Jayce was there, smiling at him in the sun dappled pocket of trees behind his family's home on Alderaan. Kail knew it was wrong, that the trees were gone, but he didn't really care. All he cared about was that Jayce was there, smiling at him.

This time, when Kail woke, it wasn't with a cry of pain or terror. He woke to the quiet sound of Jayce's breathing beside him in the darkness. He rolled over until he was resting on one elbow, looking down at the lump in the bed he knew was his friend. He reached out, found Jayce's shoulder, traced his fingertips along the line of his shoulder and up his neck. What am I going to do with you, friend? he thought, as his fingers explored lightly, slipping across Jayce's face, into his hair, drifting back across a cheekbone. I wish I knew...

Then he realized that Jayce was awake. Uh-oh...

But he could feel his friend smiling. Then Jayce caught his hand, brought it to his lips. Kail closed his eyes, shivering, then felt Jayce drawing him closer. They kissed, a sensation that was enough to break through the wall of pain around Kail's heart and make him think that everything truly was going to be just fine.

"No more bad dreams?" Jayce whispered, one hand curving around the back of Kail's head.

"Not now, no," Kail replied, smiling. "Maybe not ever again..."

"We can hope, anyway, t'shan," and they kissed again.

"What was that word?" Kail murmured, when thought returned. "Don't think I've heard it before, but it sounds familiar."

Jayce chuckled a little. "You probably wouldn't hear that one in trading at all. In fact, I'm surprised you knew t'shiri, even though you were a hair... off, shall we say, in your definition."

"So tell me," Kail insisted. But then he prevented further speech by kissing Jayce again.

"It means lover," Jayce gasped, after a long moment of silence. "T'shar is friend, t'shiri is sweet friend or sweetheart- same thing. T'shan is lover. Happy now?"

"You know, I think I am," Kail said, surprised. He wrapped his arms around Jayce, squeezing tightly. "Thank you so much..."

"Oof! You're welcome, but I need to breathe."

"Sorry," and Kail relaxed his grip a bit, but didn't let go. "I feel... alive again. Ready to live. Ready for anything, in fact."

"Anything?" Jayce breathed, in a frankly sensual tone that sent little shivers dancing up and down Kail's spine.

"Anything," Kail replied firmly, before rational thought became impossible.

Life was becoming very interesting, when the moment was suddenly destroyed by the shrill scream of the alert siren.

"Son of a bantha!" Jayce swore, then stole a hurried kiss before flipping the light on. Kail buried his face in the pillow.

"No. Don't want to go," he mumbled, only somewhat audibly.

"Come on, come on, do your duty." Jayce crawled over him and sought out their underwear, which had been flung every which direction mere moments before.

"Why now? Of all the lousy rotten timing..." Kail sat up and caught his shirt when Jayce flung it at him. "They could have waited a couple more hours. I swear, they did it on purpose."

"Yeah, that's right," Jayce said, scrambling into his flightsuit. "They had a little detector that picked up on the worst possible moment to attack."

Kail continued to grumble, but got dressed. Then, just before they left to join the rest of the squadron, Kail caught hold of Jayce.

"Later, right? We've got unfinished business."

Jayce smiled and kissed him, holding him tight for a brief moment. "Later, t'shan. Not even a war can stop me forever."

And then they were running, down the corridor and to the fighter launch bays, meeting up with the rest of their squadron to launch into the battle.

* * * * * * * *

The explosion was small, nearly insignificant against the glittering backdrop of space, but it had a profound effect on one particular pilot.

"No... Jayce! Not him, oh please, not him too..."

But the flames died out, leaving nothing behind of Jayce Tibbins except memory. Kail felt the madness threatening again, but this time retained enough sanity to control it, to turn his pain into a vicious attack on the Imperials, the people who had now taken everything from him. Home, family, the chance for love and happiness... it was all gone now, destroyed by the Empire. What did it matter anymore if he died, so long as he took Imperials with him.

But the universe was laughing at him, because he lived. He came back to himself at the end of the battle, when the last surviving TIE was making a run for its departing transport and Rebel pilots were cheering over the radio. But the one voice he longed to hear was not there, would never be again.

Nothing mattered anymore. Kail considered giving in to the madness he felt welling up inside, but he felt too numb to even summon up the energy to let go. So he went back to the room they'd shared, all his now, and tried to pack up Jayce's few belongings. But it wasn't any use, even though he knew it was necessary, because he just couldn't do it. He sat on Jayce's bed, the one they'd shared only hours ago, hands clenched around one of those ever-present Imperial grey undershirts. It just wasn't fair.

Sure, he knew that life was never fair. But if someone had to die, why couldn't it be him? All he'd had left in life was Jayce. No other friends, no family that would speak to him, just one special person who'd offered love in a world gone empty and dead...

Regret washed over him for all the missed opportunities. Why had he never bothered to tell Jayce how important he was, how much his presence there made a difference, made sure that Jayce knew how much he cared... It wouldn't have been so hard, to say three little words: I love you. But now it was too late.

And why couldn't he even feel anything more than numbness and regret? Kail laid on his side, curled around the soft material of the shirt, staring into space. Eventually, he must have fallen asleep, because he woke from a nightmare of flame and terror, reaching for Jayce, only to remember that Jayce was gone. Then it finally caught up to him and the tears fell. But there was no one there to comfort him, no one who cared, no one who ever would care again.

* * * * * * * *

The pain was different this time. Kail didn't break down completely, although he did become silent and withdrawn. The battle that had taken Jayce away from him had utterly devastated his squadron, leaving only three of them alive, so it came as no surprise when Orange was disbanded and the survivors placed in other wings. By some ironic twist of fate, Kail was assigned to Rogue, the squadron Jayce had wanted to join. But not even that was able to affect Kail. He met the executive officer, since the Captain was off somewhere doing who-knew-what, and received his room assignment and a new wingman, but that didn't shake him out of the depression either.

The only thing that was able to rouse him anymore was combat. The Imperials were attacking hard and heavy, chasing the Rebels from outpost to outpost as though they knew where they were going before the Rebels did themselves. Kail welcomed the action, hoping that each firefight would be his last. But somehow, he continued to survive.

Then one day something almost broke through his depression. Wedge Antilles, the exec, called him into his office in between patrols.

"Kail, have a seat," Wedge said, looking up from a heap of paperwork when he entered the small room.

"You wanted to see me?" Kail sat on a battered chair opposite Wedge.

"Yes. I know it's been a few days since you joined us, but I haven't had a chance to talk to you." Wedge shoved his papers into a cream-colored folder and leaned back in his chair. "I heard about what happened to Orange, and I know you're from Alderaan. How are you handling it?"

Alderaan exploded. The Death Star followed. Jayce's fighter... Fire swept through his mind, and Kail grasped the arms of the chair, straining to focus on his new officer through the flames. "As well as can be expected," he managed to say.

"Dead stars," Wedge muttered. "Look, I'm sorry, I'm not handling this well. It's just—I know how hard it can be to lose everything, and I want to be sure you're okay. So if you ever need a friend, need anyone to talk to... you just let me know, okay?"

For a long moment, Kail wasn't seeing Wedge. He was seeing a shy smile on Jayce's face, hearing his quiet voice... You needed a friend. Still do, unless I miss my guess... Then, later, I know what it's like being alone.

But Jayce was gone now, taken by the Imperials, and this Wedge wasn't even a poor substitute for what he'd lost. "Thanks," he said, surprised his voice didn't shake. "But what I truly need is a chance to kill Imperials. That's all that can help me now."

Wedge looked at him sharply, took a breath to say something. But then he changed his mind. "Well, you'll get that chance," he said lightly. "Are you sure? I mean, I'm always here if you need someone to talk to."

"I'm sure." Kail rose, feeling himself teetering on the knife edge of sanity yet again. "Was that all?"

"Ah... yes, I guess so." Wedge watched him leave, but didn't say anything more.

Kail made his escape to his room, a private one at the moment, before he could fall apart. But even the luxury of tears was denied him—his traitorous emotions had locked down again, refusing him the opportunity to mourn his loss and perhaps begin to move on.


The next Imperial attack was bad, far worse than previous engagements. Kail tore into the Imp fighters with fierce and vindictive joy, feeling truly alive again as he only did behind the controls of an X-wing. He lost his wingman, but that didn't really matter. What mattered was that these TIEs were based on an SSD, not just a smaller frigate, and the SSD was wreaking havoc on the Rebel fighters.

A laser blast clipped his wing, taking out one of his port guns. But the instruments were giving an interesting reading—the forward shields on the SSD were down. Forward, where the comms and navcomps were located, where the attacks were coordinated and all the officers would be...

In a split second, Kail made up his mind. He laughed wildly, turning his fighter towards the SSD and hitting the accelerator. Part of him could hear Wedge's voice in his helmet, telling him to break off, to turn away, but the rest of him was finally at peace.

The explosion lit up the battlefield like a miniature sun. Everything seemed to stop for a moment, frozen in space and lit by the harsh light of the SSD going up in flames.

After that, the tide was turned in the Rebels' favor. It was a relatively simple matter to clean up the remaining opposition and return to base.

Wedge was the lucky one that got the task of boxing up Kail's belongings. So little left, hardly anything to prove that Kail Naffi had once existed, and even less to give a clue to the person he had been. But perhaps it was better this way, given the bleak look in the man's eyes the last time he'd seen him—the look of a man who'd lost everything and didn't want to live anymore.

"Maybe you've found peace at last," Wedge said aloud, then closed the lid of the box.


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