This is a work of fan fiction. No monetary profit has been gained from its production and no copyright infringement is intended. The Star Wars characters and events used in this fan fiction are the property of George Lucas. Mike Stackpole and Aaron Allston invented or shaped most of the characters with whom I'm playing, so my special thanks go to them for writing such great novels and comics. If you would like to republish the fanfic, please ask me. Any comments are very welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Wedge is right. We are crazy*, Wes thought as he watched teenagers in uniform leave a large building on the other side of the street. *Or stupid. Or both.* He avoided looking at Hobbie who leaned next to him at the bridge-railing, pretending to observe a few kids playing down at the stream.
Wes didn't need to look at his friend to know that he was pale and tense. *I don't think he slept last night.* Instead Hobbie had come to a decision that might prove fatal for all of them. He'd decided to talk to his brother before they left. Wedge had outright rejected this idea, but Hobbie had insisted, and Tycho and Wes had supported him.
Wes smiled slightly as he remembered the argument they'd had in the morning. Certainly Wedge was right that it was an unnecessary risk to take, but it was Hobbie's brother, and Wes could fully understand that Hobbie longed to talk with him. Wes missed his family, too, and wished he could see them again, visit them for just a day or two. And he'd seen the same feelings in Tycho's eyes. *Only he knows for sure he'll never see his family again.*
And Wedge had understood, as well. Wes had never heard him talk about his family, or siblings, so maybe he was an only child, but he certainly understood Hobbie's emotions. But he was responsible for his pilots, and now, with their mission completed, it was stupid to contact someone who most likely had no Rebel sympathies at all, and who might betray them to the authorities. *And who, to boot, is the son of the local head of security,* Wes thought with a grim smile. *As is Hobbie. Life is strange.*
Hobbie had planned to wait until the others had left town and reached their hidden X-wings so that if anything went wrong they could still escape. But Tycho and Wes had vehemently refused to leave him alone, and finally Wedge had decided that Hobbie should talk with his brother tonight, before they would leave tomorrow morning.
So now they stood opposite to the meeting hall of the boy troops and waited for Hobbie's brother to leave the building. It was already past seven, and more and more teenage boys streamed out of the hall. All of them wore very military-looking uniforms, and Wes couldn't help but feel uncomfortable about it. He'd thought it to be a very Imperial invention, but Hobbie had explained to him that boy and girl troops had already existed -- and had been quite popular -- on Ralltiir long before the rise of the Emperor. Now the Empire utilized them for their own goals, for propaganda and military drill. Well, the troops might have had a civilian origin, but Wes thought it to be very wrong to put children in uniforms, for whatever reason.
Suddenly Hobbie tensed and lightly touched Wes' hand. He followed his glance to a boy who'd just left the building and was now striding toward the town center, alone. He was lean, with short-cut light brown hair, and he had his hands buried deep in his pockets.
"Your brother?" Wes whispered.
Hobbie nodded slightly as he began to follow the boy. Wes went along, trying to look as nonchalant as possible. But he didn't need to worry. The boy didn't look back, his eyes were fixed at the duracrete before him. He'd pulled his collar up, and he looked as if he was freezing. Small wonder. A cold wind was blowing from the ocean, and he, as all the other boys, was wearing shorts.
While they quietly followed him, Wes scrutinized the boy. Hobbie had said that he was fourteen, but he looked younger. He was lean, and his uniform seemed to be two sizes too large for him.
After ten minutes, they reached a small park. The boy hesitated briefly, and Wes doubted he would take the shortcut through the dark park, thus destroying their plan. But after looking around worriedly, he eventually entered the park. Hobbie and Wes hurried to reach the spot they'd picked earlier. It was a small clearing where two paths met, with no holocams in its vicinity and only sparse illumination from a distant streetlight.
The two Rebels waited silently in the shadows. Nervously Hobbie turned to Wes. "Let me talk with him alone, will you? I don't want to scare him."
Wes hesitated. This wasn't a good idea. But Hobbie looked at him pleadingly, and it was his brother, after all. Besides, there was no time for discussion, as the boy had already entered the clearing. So Wes just nodded wordlessly.
Kolya had stopped suspiciously, apparently sensing the two men. Before he had a chance to react though, Hobbie quickly approached him and grabbed him from behind, covering his mouth with his left hand. He dragged the struggling boy through a few bushes onto a small patch of grass, sheltered from the eyes of any casual passerby. Wes remained standing in the shadows, his hand on his blaster.
Hobbie forced his brother to kneel down. "Pssst, Kolya, be quiet. It is me, Hobbie." The kid looked around frantically, but wasn't able to see the person who was holding him tight. "Stop fighting. I won't hurt you."
Finally Kolya calmed down a bit, not struggling anymore, but Hobbie could clearly detect panic in the way he moved. Carefully he loosened his grip, and his brother immediately turned around to look at him, and quickly crawled backward, away from the man who had assaulted him. He was stopped abruptly by a tree.
Hobbie slowly raised his hands, palms toward the boy. "Stay here. I won't hurt you, Kolya. It is me, Hobbie. Don't you recognize me? I only want to talk with you."
The boy continued to stare at him as if he were a ghost, but after a moment he'd regained his composure enough to answer. "Hobbie? What...? How...? Father said you are with the Rebels now."
There was a lot of uncertainty in his voice, a bit of accusation, and Hobbie thought that he detected some hope in it as well. *Hope?*
Hobbie nodded slightly. "It is true. I defected and am with the Rebel Alliance now."
Obviously digesting this news, Kolya hesitated before he answered. This time his voice was full of accusation. "How could you betray the Empire and join those terrorists? They killed Sid, did you already forget about it? Or don't you care? He fought and died to protect the Empire, and you're betraying him!" He struggled back to his feet.
Hobbie quickly crossed the grass and put his hand on his brother's shoulder, to keep him from running away, but the boy shrank back from him. "Kolya, please, let me explain."
"Leave me alone. I don't want to talk to you. You're a traitor!"
With that, he turned around and ran away. Shocked by his brother's reaction, Hobbie didn't even try to follow him. He was still standing in the clearing, his shoulders slumped and his mind frozen, when Wes crashed through the bushes, blaster in hand.
"What happened, Hobbie?" he demanded urgently.
The Ralltiirian stared into the darkness where his brother had vanished and shrugged helplessly. "He ran away. I can only hope that he doesn't run straight to Father to report us."
"Great. Wedge will be delighted." Wes said angrily. But then his tone became gentler again, and he put his hand on his friend's shoulder reassuringly. "C'mon, Hobbie, let's go. We can't do anything here anymore."
With a sigh, Wedge resisted the urge to close his eyes again. It was still in the middle of the night, and he'd slept for barely three hours. He sat up wearily and started to dress. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that Celchu was already -- or still -- sitting at the room's only table, hacking words into his datapad.
Wedge put on his boots and tiptoed to his wingman, trying not to disturb the sleeping Wes and Hobbie. Not that he really needed to be careful. One of the first things every Rebel -- probably every soldier -- learned was to sleep at any possible time and in any possible place.
"Are you ready?"
Celchu looked up briefly, then turned his attention to the datapad again. "Almost. I just wrote an explanation, how we got Fenja, and why we can't keep her. Nothing explicit," he hurried to add. He removed the datacard from his pad and put it into a small bag. "I want to add some money, too, to pay for any expenses, but I don't know how much. Do you think 5000 is enough, or should I add more?"
*What?* Wedge stared at him open-mouthed. "5000 credits? Are you crazy?"
The Alderaanian looked at him puzzledly. "Why? You think it is too much? Animals are expensive to keep; feed, doctor, and so on. And 5000 isn't very much."
*Not much?* Wedge sat down at the table. He had to try hard to keep his voice low. "It isn't much? Maybe for you. I never had 5000 credits ready to spend just like that. Actually, I never owned that much money except when I got my parent's insurance money, and that I immediately spent to buy a freighter." For a moment he was lost in the past, remembering his hard-working parents who had always admonished him not to spend his money lavishly. "Just how much money do you have, Celchu?" Wedge hadn't really meant to ask it aloud, but his wingman's casual way with money upset him.
Celchu didn't answer immediately; instead he carefully placed several credchips next to the datacard. "Enough to give this woman an amount that will allow her to take good care of Fenja." He sounded annoyed, but then suddenly his mood changed, and he continued in a quiet and sad tone.
"I had access to all of my family's accounts, you know. My parents gave it to me in case something happened to them. And to show me their trust, I guess. Well, something did happen to them." He rubbed his eyes wearily. "I needed money for my defection, and I didn't want the Empire to confiscate it. So I used the first opportunity I had to access the accounts and get the money. As you might know, its money didn't vanish with my planet, because of the structure of the Imperial economy." He snorted. "Alderaan was so proud of its philosophy and culture, and now it looks as if its wealth is all that remains.
"Anyway, my family was wealthy. My father was the CEO of Alderaan's largest holonet provider, my mother was the director of a museum in Aldera. So, to answer your question, I have about three million credits. Not all with me, of course, mainly stashed in hidden accounts."
Wedge felt his jaw drop. "Three million?" He couldn't believe it. "And you didn't hand it over to the Alliance?" When he'd joined he had only possessed his old freighter, but he hadn't hesitated for a second to place it at the Alliance's disposal. That went without saying.
"No, I didn't." Celchu clearly had noticed the accusation in Wedge's voice. "It belongs to my family. And I don't know if they'd want it used to finance a war. Not even after what has happened. My parents were pacifists through and through." He bit his lower lip. "To be honest, I don't want to give it away. I'm responsible for the money, I want to decide what to do with it. I will use it to support the Alliance, don't worry, but I.... It's all that is left." He shrugged and looked at his commander almost apologetically.
Wedge stood up. He wasn't sure if he understood, but it wasn't his business anyway. And right now they didn't have time for a discussion. "Well, it is your business. Let's hurry now, I want to be back before dawn."
Celchu took the bag and followed him wordlessly down to Fenja's provisional stable.
They reached the house where they wanted to leave Fenja about an hour later. Celchu had already been there in the daytime, so he had no trouble finding the safest and most hidden way in the darkness. It was overcast, and only a few stars were visible through occasional breaks between the clouds.
Celchu stopped in the cover of the last bushes. The small farm lay in front of them, quiet and dark. None of the windows were lit. He half-turned and petted Fenja's snout.
"There is a small paddock near the stable at the right side. I think we'd best leave her there."
Wedge nodded, and they quickly strode toward the building Celchu had indicated, with Fenja following trustfully. They reached the paddock without incident. The house still lay completely quiet. Wedge was glad that there were no dchi'ens on Ralltiir, small, but very noisy animals many Corellians kept to guard their houses and farms.
He opened the paddock gate, and Celchu let Fenja in. When he unfastened her halter, he whispered something to her Wedge couldn't hear. *Probably an explanation. Or an apology,* Wedge thought half amused, half understanding. Due to his upbringing, he never got very sentimental about animals -- that was something a farmer just couldn't afford -- but in the last days he too had grown fond of the gentle, intelligent animal.
Fenja curiously followed the Alderaanian as Celchu went to a small canopy at the stable building where he fastened the bag with the datacard and money and Fenja's halter and rope out of reach of the animal's long neck. He then returned to Wedge and thoughtfully leaned against the fence. Fenja gently nudged him, trying to get her snout under his arm, to indicate to him that she wanted to be petted. With a sad smile he did, and Wedge also stroked along the thick, soft fur of the chevruh's neck.
"We need to go," Wedge finally urged.
"I know." Celchu started to massage Fenja's forehead, and the animal closed its eyes delightedly. "We need to go now," he whispered. "The people here will take good care of you. Farewell." He slowly slid his hand down along the chevruh's long nose, then turned around and quickly left the paddock, followed by Wedge.
Fenja went after the two men as far as the fence allowed, then stopped and whinnied. It sounded sad, and Wedge could see Celchu tense beside him. But he didn't look back.
They walked in silence for a long time. The Alderaanian had buried his hands in his pockets, and he grimly stared at the path before him. Wedge felt his thoughts return to Fenja and her uncertain fate again and again. He shook his head angrily. This was so stupid. There really were much more important things to worry about. Their safety, their mission, the squadron, the Rebellion. And yet they were wandering through the outskirts of an oppressed town in enemy territory worrying about an animal they'd only known for three days.
He looked to his wingman. Never since Celchu had joined Rogue Squadron about half a year ago had he seen him show any emotions. Stop, wrong. The Alderaanian had shown strong emotions: anger and impatience. He'd started two fistfights within his first month with the Rogues, and he was still known for having a temper. But Wedge had never seen any signs of pain or sadness. Not about his lost home, nor when one of his fellow pilots died. It had seemed to him as if Tycho had lost all sympathy when the Death Star destroyed his life, and that it was only hate that kept him going.
Until he'd showed up with the animal at the market. Strange, really. That was a side of the Alderaanian Wedge had never thought existed. And not just Tycho. They all had enjoyed the company of Fenja. Tough Rebels who in their young lives had seen more death than any being ever should in a lifetime, caressing and joking with a chevruh. Wedge shook his head again, but he had to smile. Maybe they'd needed it. The animal didn't care about the Rebellion, or about appearances, and no one had felt the need to hide his feelings from her.
He glanced at Tycho's hunched shoulders, and gently put his hand on them. Startled, the other flinched. "I'm sure they will take good care of Fenja, Tycho. And Hobbie's sister promised to look after her. She'll enjoy some nice, peaceful years."
"I hope so." Hastily Tycho added, "It's stupid, I know. I mean, we really have other problems, and so many people die and suffer every day, it's just..." He bit his lower lip and fell silent again.
Wedge carefully squeezed his shoulder. "It's okay. I feel sad, too. I think it is easier for all of us to show our emotions about an animal. It is more normal."
"What do you mean?" Tycho looked at him, clearly confused. And certainly not only because of Wedge's last statement, but because of his whole demeanor. Wedge couldn't recall that he'd ever talked with Tycho in private. As their superior officer, he tended to keep a distance to the new pilots, and Tycho had never tried to cross the gap. He seemed glad to be left alone.
"I mean it is a rather normal thing to lose an animal. The life expectancy of most pets is a lot shorter than ours, so we know that we'll lose them one day. It's not nice, but it's the way of life, and we can deal with it. Losing our homes, our families, fighting in a war, seeing our friends die around us, that is something we aren't prepared for. No one should ever go through it, and we all just don't know how to deal with the pain and despair and fear. How could we?"
"I understand what you mean. And I guess you're right." Tycho looked Wedge square in the eyes. "Thank you."
Wedge smiled, suddenly feeling a lot better. He glanced at his chrono. "We'd better hurry. I want to be back before dawn, and leave town as soon as possible. Especially after Hobbie's encounter with his brother last evening."
"I'll feel better when I'm back in my X-wing, too."
The two pilots jogged back to the hotel.
Wes stopped dead in his tracks as he turned around the corner of the hallway and quickly retreated a few steps. Reaching for his hidden hold-out blaster, he carefully peeked around the corner again. A boy stood in front of the door of their room, his left ear pressed against the durasteel, his back to Wes.
*Damnit!* He'd immediately recognized the boy: Hobbie's little brother. *But how the hell does he know where we are staying?* As he checked his blaster Wes tried to calm down again. *No need for panic. If he had reported us, there would be stormtroopers standing at our door now.*
Noiselessly, Wes strode across the short distance, grabbed the boy with one hand while he opened the door with the other, and roughly dragged the struggling kid into the room. He pushed him onto the nearest bed, pinning him down with an arm twisted behind his back in a firm grip. Kolya tried to free himself, but Wes held him tight.
"What are you doing here, Kolya?" His voice was full of anger. This kid caused way too much trouble. He loosened his grip a little to allow the boy to answer.
"I want to talk with Hobbie."
"Yesterday you couldn't get away from him fast enough. What made you reconsider?"
"I... I changed my mind. I was surprised, I hadn't expected to see him. But now I want to speak with him. Where is he?"
"Away." Wes strengthened his grip again. "How did you find us?"
"I followed you yesterday evening," Kolya uttered between clenched teeth.
The position he held the boy in was painful, Wes knew, but he didn't care. The brat had secretly followed them. He couldn't believe it. How could he have been so careless? He should have paid more attention, but somehow he hadn't imagined that the boy would try to follow them. *Stupid.* Wedge would become mad when he learned, and rightfully so.
What now? The three others ought to return any moment, and Wes had no means to contact them anyway. Using a comm on an open frequency was out of the question. And what to tell them? He was inclined to believe the boy was telling the truth when he said he hadn't reported them; otherwise Wes would be in Imperial custody already. It wasn't Imperial style to wait. So all he could do for the moment was wait.
Wes scrutinized the kid lying before him. He wore a uniform again, but a different type than yesterday, a school-uniform as far as Wes could tell. Though it was tailored similarly, it looked less military than the other. His gaze slid along Kolya's bare legs, and suddenly he stopped short. *What the hell...* Carefully, he pushed up the leg of the shorts to examine the nasty weal that he'd discovered, and he felt cold anger rise up in him. With slight pressure he slid his hand along the boy's backside, and in result the kid winced and whimpered, trying in vain to get away from him.
He turned Kolya around, still pinning him onto the bed. "Who's beaten you?"
The boy struggled to get free, but didn't answer. "Who?" Wes' rage was clearly showing in his voice now, and he could see the rising panic in the boy's eyes. "Answer me!"
"That's none of your business," Kolya finally replied stubbornly. As Wes moved, the boy closed his eyes and flinched, obviously expecting a slap in the face.
Careful not to move his free hand hastily again, Wes said, "You're my friend's kid brother, that makes it my business."
He couldn't tell what exactly, but something changed in Kolya's expression, and the boy eventually answered. "My father. I came home late yesterday, and I was punished."
Wes let him go. The boy immediately crawled away from him, to the other end of the bed, as the way to the door was blocked by his captor. There he knelt down, his back pressed against the wall. To Wes he looked like a cornered animal.
"Your father thrashed you because you were late?" Wes tried to keep some of his fury out of his voice. It wasn't the kid he was mad at, and he didn't want to scare him even more.
"Yes." Kolya stared at Wes defiantly. "Didn't your father punish you when you were disobedient?"
"Not like this." Wes closed his eyes briefly while he remembered his father's gentle manners. "He would have never beaten me."
"No wonder you ended up as a terrorist."
*What?* Wes leaned forward and grabbed the kid by the collar. "We are not terrorists, no matter what you were taught. And you can solely blame it on this criminal Empire that I became a Rebel. My parents are only responsible in so far as they raised me to think by myself, to be critical, and not obsequious."
"I'll proudly serve the Empire. It isn't criminal," Kolya insisted stubbornly. "The Emperor is a responsible leader, and without him the galaxy would fall back into chaos."
"You'll serve the Empire? Do you want to join the Imperial military?" Wes leaned back again, regarding the boy intently. He didn't look like a fighter.
"As what? A pilot like your brothers?"
"I don't know. Father will decide." Kolya pressed his lips together.
"So it is your father's wish that you'll join the military, not yours?"
"I want to serve the Empire. And Father knows what is best for me."
"He does? And you don't?" Wes shook his head in disbelief. The boy was fourteen-year-old. At that age Wes had already had his own plans for his future. He'd appreciated his parents' advice, but it was his life, and he had to decide about it, no one else.
"He has more experience."
"So he'll send you to the academy on Prefsbelt, like he did with your brothers?" Suddenly it had become clear to Wes why Hobbie had attended the Imperial academy.
Kolya shook his head. "No, I don't think he will. I'm not good enough." He sounded sad.
"Not good enough? What do you mean?"
"My marks aren't good enough," Kolya admitted. "I really try, I work as hard as possible, but I'm just too dumb. And I'm not very athletic, either. I workout regularly, but still I'm not very good. Whenever we go hiking with the troops, at the latest after one day I'm completely exhausted and can't go on." His shoulders slumped. "Father always gets furious about it. But I can't help it. I wish I were more like my brothers."
"Well, there are worse things than that," Wes tried to cheer him up. "Everyone has strong points and weak points. I'm sure there are other things you do very well, probably better than your brothers."
"No, there aren't."
"I'm sure there are," Wes reinforced. He looked at the boy seriously. "What would you do after school if you had to decide?"
"I'll do what Father wants me to do."
"Yes, I know. But what if he asked you what you wanted to do?"
"Yes, but what if he did?" Wes was close to losing his patience. "Isn't there anything you want to do? Something you have dreamed of since you were a child? When I was little, I wanted to become a famous explorer one day, and later I dreamed of becoming a reckless pilot, like the ones in my favorite holo series." He smiled slightly.
Kolya hesitated for a while, and Wes decided not to push him but to let him think. Finally the boy answered. "Once I saw a report on the holonet, about a man who explores the unknown lands on various remote planets, and takes holos of them. Still holos, not films. He later exhibits his holos in museums and the like so that the people will know how beautiful our galaxy is. That's something I would like to do." He shrugged. "But it is just a childish dream."
"No, it isn't. That's a great job, and why shouldn't you become a holographer one day? Do you own a camera to take holos?"
The kid nodded proudly, smiling for the first time. "Yes, I have one. My grandmother gave it to me for my twelfth birthday. Father and Mother were angry, but Grandma insisted, and finally they allowed me to use it. Only in my spare time, of course. Which isn't much. But sometimes when I don't have school I wander around in the forest, and take holos. They aren't very good, though."
"Do you have some with you?"
"Yes." He pointed at his bag. "A few. They are for my art class this afternoon."
"Can I have a look?"
"Sure." Kolya looked at Wes, surprised. "But they really are nothing special."
Wes reached for the bag. He found six holocards and activated them. He whistled quietly. "They are good, Kolya, really good. You have a great eye for details."
The corners of Kolya's mouth quivered slightly as he tried not to show how happy he was about the praise. "It's just a waste of time."
"That's your father talking again, isn't it?"
"He's right." Kolya shrugged. "I should concentrate on useful activities."
"No." Wes tried to stay calm. He felt like grabbing the boy and shaking him until he understood that he should start to live his own life, but that would hardly work. "You should concentrate on the activities you enjoy. That's most important. It is your life, not your father's."
"But he knows what is important much better than I do."
"No, he doesn't. There are certain things he considers important, and some of them probably really are, but if you don't like them, or aren't good at them, then he shouldn't force you to do them. Look, I was always bad at sling-ball. The sport just doesn't suit me. I could have spent a lot of time working on my weak points, and perhaps I would have become a decent player, but what for? I played zone-ball instead, that I liked much better, and I'm more talented in it."
"But I want to please Father. I want him to be proud of me."
Wes sighed. "He's your father, Kolya. He loves you, no matter what you do, or how good you are at something."
"No, he doesn't. He doesn't love me. He's ashamed of me. I'm a disappointment." The boy's voice quivered.
Wes stared at him in disbelief. He couldn't imagine that the boy was serious, but the expression on his face clearly showed that he believed what he'd just said. Slowly he reached out with his left hand and touched the kid's shoulder. "Listen, Kolya. Love, especially a parent's love, is unconditional. It doesn't depend on how fast you can run or how good your marks are. People love you for what you are, not for what you can do. Either your father loves you -- and I'm sure he does -- or he doesn't. You can't buy his love. But you can gain his respect by being yourself and standing your own ground. Show him that you are strong and independent."
"Do you want me to oppose him?" Kolya asked, disbelief in his voice.
"You should listen to your own feelings, Kolya. You shouldn't oppose him for the sake of opposing, that's no use. But you have to find out what you -- you -- want to do, and tell him about it. You can't run after your father forever. Start living your own life."
"I can't. He won't allow it. And I don't want him to be even more disappointed of me than he is anyway."
Wes sighed. What was he doing? He didn't know the man, and the glimpse he'd gotten of his educational methods painted a grim picture. Should he really encourage the boy to rebel against his father, at the risk that he would be punished severely?
"I know it is hard. And I don't expect you to go to him tonight and tell him that from now on you'll do what you want. But you have at least to +know+ what you want. I get the impression that you spend so much time trying to please your father that you forget to think about yourself, about your opinions, your feelings. Change that. Then tell your father what you think is right for you and what is not. Try to reach an agreement. It is your life, you have to be happy with it."
Kolya didn't get to finish his sentence, as suddenly the door opened and the three other pilots came in, staring in disbelief at Wes and the boy. Wedge and Tycho immediately reached for their blasters.
Hobbie stopped short underneath the doorframe, staring in complete disbelief at the scene before him. Wes was sitting on one of the beds, and Kolya was with him. Kolya. What the hell was his brother doing here? He should be in school, he shouldn't even know which hotel they were staying at. He had run away yesterday, what was he doing here now?
"Close the door!"
Wedge's sharp voice awoke Hobbie from his numbness. Reflexively he pressed the door button, then approached the bed. Tycho and Wedge still had their blasters in hand, but they pointed at the ground now. Apparently both had realized that Kolya posed no immediate threat to them. Nevertheless Hobbie saw panic in Kolya's eyes as the boy stared at Tycho's and Wedge's weapons, and he quickly stepped between them and his brother.
"What is going on, Wes? Who is this boy?" Wedge demanded to know, glancing from Wes to Hobbie to Kolya.
"He's my brother," Hobbie answered instead of Wes.
"He came here looking for Hobbie," Wes added.
"How did he find us?" Wedge's voice was still sharp, and his glare made Kolya shrink away from him as far as possible.
"He followed us yesterday evening." Wes sounded as if he wished that the ground would open and swallow him. Completely perplexed, Hobbie stared at his brother. Kolya had secretly followed them? He couldn't believe it.
"He followed you?" Without doubt, Wedge was really angry now.
Tycho calmingly put his hand on Wedge's shoulder. "Did he bring anyone else? Or did anyone follow him?"
Wes shook his head, as did Kolya. "No, no one followed him."
Wedge turned his attention to the boy. "Why did you come here?"
"I want to talk with my brother," Kolya whispered.
"As far as I can tell, you didn't want to yesterday."
Kolya fidgeted nervously under Wedge's glare. "I want to talk with Hobbie."
"Wedge, please, let me talk with him." Hobbie extended his left hand toward his brother and his right toward Wedge, trying to soothe Kolya and calm his commander.
Tycho reholstered his blaster. "Let them talk, Wedge. He is his brother."
"Okay." Still looking grim, Wedge reholstered his blaster, too. "But hurry. We have to leave."
"Thanks." Smiling gratefully, Hobbie sat down on the edge of the bed. The three others retreated to the far corner of the room, speaking quietly with each other.
"Why did you come, Kolya? I can't believe you followed us yesterday." Hobbie looked at his little brother sternly, which caused him to cast down his eyes.
"I want to talk with you. I'm sorry that I ran away yesterday, I was so shocked... I mean, all the time I had hoped that it wasn't true, that you didn't join these Rebels, that you were on a secret mission or something, and when you confirmed your defection, I just had to run away." Shrugging apologetically, he looked up briefly. "But then I thought about it, that I hadn't seen you for so long, and that I might never see you again, and that you are my brother, and I couldn't let you go without talking with you. So I followed you secretly, but I didn't have the courage to come upstairs to your room yesterday. Besides, it was late and Father was already furious. So I returned home. But I couldn't sleep the whole night, and in the end I decided to come here again this morning and talk with you. I... I..." Biting his lower lip insecurely, he fell silent.
With a smile Hobbie reached out and gently touched his brother's arm. "I'm glad you came. I would have hated to leave Ralltiir again without talking with you. I had wanted to contact you and Lahika and Kessy much earlier, to tell you that I'm alive and to explain the reasons for my defection to you, but I didn't get the chance. I'm sorry."
"Explain your reasons? I won't understand them, Hobbie, I won't ever understand them. These terrorists brought war to the galaxy, they killed Sid, how could you ever just think about joining them, let alone actually do it?" There was still accusation in Kolya's voice, but less so than yesterday. He sounded mainly sad and confused.
Hobbie climbed onto the bed and sat down cross-legged next to his brother. "I know it is hard for you to understand, and please believe me, I didn't do it lightly. I thought about my decision for a long time. You know that I've always been critical of the Empire--"
"Because of Yegori," Kolya interjected. "Father always said that he was a very bad influence on you."
Hobbie inhaled deeply, trying to stay calm. "Yes, he certainly had a strong influence on me, but not a bad one. He taught me to think by myself, to question whether the things I had been told were right. But he always believed that you could reach reforms peacefully, with courage and persistence. He was no Rebel, Kolya, would have never been one. And still the Empire killed him, tortured him to death."
"I... I know. And I'm sorry. Despite his weird ideas I kind of liked him. But he opposed the Empire. You say he was no Rebel, and maybe he wasn't by your definition, but Lord Tion's forces wouldn't have killed him if he hadn't been an enemy of the Empire."
"And you think it is right to kill someone just because he isn't happy with the current government, because he opposes it?"
Kolya shrugged, not daring to look at his brother. "Sometimes it is necessary to resort to drastic measures to ensure peace and stability."
"No, it isn't." Hobbie quickly lowered his voice again as his fellow pilots glanced at him. "Kolya, it isn't. Everyone should be allowed to voice his or her objections without punishment. But the Empire oppresses every possible resistance, even if it is peaceful, even if the people are only asking for slightly better living conditions. All of them are mowed down immediately, without mercy. And it is getting worse and worse. Think about Alderaan. Millions of innocents! There is no peaceful way anymore. We have no other choice but to fight. It wasn't us who started this civil war, it was the Empire."
His brother remained silent, but Hobbie could read very well in his expression that he hadn't convinced him at all. Not that he'd expected to. Kolya had grown up with nothing but Imperial propaganda around him. Hobbie reached out and gently cupped the boy's chin in his right hand, forcing him to look him square in the eyes for the first time. "I know you don't believe me. That's okay. I don't want to convince you, don't want to recruit you for the Rebellion. But please, think about the things I've told you. And then find your own way, your own opinion. Don't believe everything you hear, whether it comes from me or from Father or from your teachers and instructors. Promise me that, Kol. Please."
"I... I'll try." Kolya's eyes flickered left and right as if he was looking for a way out. "It's hard. How do I know who is right and who is wrong?"
"Listen to your heart." He let go of his brother's chin. "To your gut feeling." *As if that were so easy.*
Kolya's nod was hardly noticeable, and he didn't look very convinced. Hobbie sighed inwardly. There were so many things he wanted to tell his brother, so many things Kolya needed to understand. He should have discussed these things with him when he'd still been at home, had had the opportunity to talk with him every day. But he never had. Kolya had been so young, and he himself had been so wrapped up in his own problems. Of course Kolya and he had talked a lot, but never about politics, about conscience, about finding your own way.
He looked at his brother, and a lump formed in his throat. Kolya still knelt beside him, nervously rubbing at a dirty spot on his left hand, not looking at Hobbie. Formerly they had been so close, and now they were sitting here like strangers. It shouldn't be like this, it shouldn't.
With sudden determination, Hobbie enfolded the surprised boy in a firm embrace. *Let the others think what they want.* He felt his brother's body tense first, but then Kolya returned the hug, clutching his older brother tightly, burying his face in the rough fabric of Hobbie's tunic. "I love you, Kolya. Whatever happens, please remember that I'll always love you."
"I love you, too." When Kolya glanced up, Hobbie saw tears glittering in his eyes. "Why did all this happen? Can't you just come home again, Hobbie?"
Wordlessly Hobbie shook his head. Of course Kolya knew, as well as everyone else, that there was no way back for him. "I'm sorry," he whispered, not entirely sure what he was apologizing for.
They held each other tightly for another minute, then Hobbie gently pulled away. "How are you doing, Kolya? Do you get along with Father? Are you coping with school and the troops?"
"Yes, I'm okay." But his eyes told a different story. Obviously noticing his brother's disbelief, Kolya added hastily, "Really, Hob. I mean, you know Father. I try hard, really, and I'm better now than I was four years ago, but he's never satisfied. I wish I were as smart and athletic as you and Sid. But we get along, really. I'm just sad that Lahika and Kessy left home. Lal is married now, and they have a baby boy. At least she's still in Nitanlo, and I can visit her sometimes. Kessy left for university in Grallia a few weeks ago. Mother and Father didn't allow her to go away, they wanted her to stay in town, because they are afraid that she might get into bad company in the capital."
As he continued, Hobbie thought he noticed a strange mixture of admiration and lack of understanding in Kolya's voice. "Kessy wouldn't give in. She wants to study geology, and you can't do it here in Nitanlo. And I'm sure she wanted to leave home anyway. Father was so mad, but she stood her ground. I can't really understand why she didn't listen to him, but she was very brave. I would have never dared to oppose him like that, never."
"Neither would I," Hobbie whispered.
Kolya looked at him perplexedly, but didn't comment on the remark. "In the end, one morning Kessy packed her stuff and left. Just like that. She calls Lahika from time to time, so we know that she's okay. She even has her own flat and a job in Grallia."
"She'll make her way, I'm sure of it."
"Yes." Kolya nodded. "I just hope it doesn't lead in the wrong direction." *Like yours.* He left it unsaid, but Hobbie knew very well what his brother was thinking. "I wish her well, I really do. It's just that it has become so lonely at home with all of you gone away."
"I can imagine." Gently Hobbie tousled the boy's hair, and Kolya leaned his head against his shoulder.
Hobbie was so lost in thought that he jumped when a hand lightly touched his arm. Wedge stood beside him, regret on his face. "I'm sorry. We have to go."
Hobbie nodded. "Go ahead, please. I'll come down in a moment."
Wedge hesitated briefly, but then he nodded. "Okay. Please hurry."
As he watched his friends leave the room, a sick feeling rose in Hobbie's stomach. He had been scared to come to Ralltiir, but now he almost wished that he could stay. Slowly he stood up. Kolya stared at him afraid, then jumped up, too.
"Do you really have to go, Hobbie?" The boy's voice quivered.
He nodded. "Yes. You know that I can't stay." Forcing a smile to his face, he embraced his brother. "Take care, Kolya."
"You too, Hobbie. Will we meet again?"
"I hope so." As unlikely as it might be, during his time with the Alliance Hobbie had learned that sometimes the ways of the Force were very strange. He grabbed Kolya by the shoulders and held him at arm's length away. "Kolya, I know you don't want to hear it, but I'll tell you anyway. You'll have a few years to think about it. Don't join the military. If Father wants you to, oppose him. I know it's hard, but please try. I don't want you to become entangled in this war. And you're just not suited for military life."
As Kolya started to protest, Hobbie quickly closed his mouth with his fingers. "Don't. Believe me, I meant that as a compliment. The talents that make you a warrior aren't fit for civilian life." He let his hands sink again.
"But I +want+ to serve the Empire. Whether you like it or not. I won't become a Rebel, never," Kolya stated vehemently.
"I'm not talking about being Imperial or Rebel, Kolya," Hobbie replied calmly. "I'm talking about being a soldier. I don't want you to experience war. You shouldn't have to fight, and to kill. And I certainly don't want you to be killed. Kol, I was at the academy, and I've been fighting in a war for two years now. I don't want you to experience that. You're my little brother, and I love you. I want you to be happy." He couldn't tell if the boy understood. When he was his age, he wouldn't have, that Hobbie knew for sure.
Kolya stared at the ground for a while that felt like an eternity to Hobbie, then suddenly the boy looked up and flung his arms around his brother's neck. "I will be careful, Hobbie, I promise. But you have to be careful, too. I'm so scared that you'll die like Sid. Please be careful. I want to see you again."
Instead of an answer Hobbie hugged Kolya closely. Reluctantly, he let go again. "I have to go now. Take care. I love you." He tousled his brother's hair one more time, then turned around quickly and strode to the exit.
At the door Hobbie turned around again. Kolya still stood in the middle of the room, his shoulders slumped, fighting with tears. "I love you too," he whispered.
His heart ached, but Hobbie managed a last encouraging smile before he quickly left the room.
Wes stumbled over the edge of the pallet as he entered the small room. Well, room was an exaggeration. Closet would be much better. Even considering that space on a ship was very limited, this bunking room was extremely tiny. There were two single pallets in it, with about fifty centimeters space in between, and that was the whole spare space in the room. Even the door didn't open completely because of the pallets.
As he had chatted with two other pilots on his way to his quarter, Wes wasn't surprised to find Hobbie already in the room. He was sitting on one of the pallets, looking at a holopad that he quickly hid when Wes entered. His behavior surprised Wes. Usually he and Hobbie had no secrets from each other.
"What a nice room." With a sigh Wes let his duffel bag fall to the ground and kicked it underneath one of the pallets.
Hobbie chuckled. "When we were told that each wingpair would get a room of its own, right away I wondered what would be the drawback."
Wes let himself fall onto the empty pallet. "Well, at least we have a pallet to sleep on. I hate sleeping in the cockpit."
"You're getting old."
"No, I'm not. But after five consecutive days in an X-wing anyone would feel like sixty." He rolled onto his side and watched Hobbie intently. "What were you doing when I came in?"
"Nothing special." Hobbie evaded his friend's questioning look.
"You were watching holos, weren't you?" Wes hesitated. He knew he shouldn't press the subject, but their mission to Ralltiir was still occupying his thoughts, and he wanted to talk with Hobbie about it. "Of your family?"
The Ralltiirian stared down at his blanket, not answering.
"Yes. Of my family." He took out the holopad he'd hid underneath his blanket when Wes had entered the room. He watched it for a while, then handed it over to Wes.
"You miss them?" Curiously Wes activated the pad. The first holo apparently showed the whole Klivian family, with the children in their boy and girl troop uniforms, and the father wearing an Imperial uniform, with a stick in hand. None looked happy.
"My siblings, yes."
"Not your parents?" Wes intently examined the features of Hobbie's father, the way he held the stick in his hands, and an icy knot formed in his stomach as he remembered the weals on Kolya's legs.
"No." Hobbie pressed his lips together, and it was obvious that he didn't want to talk about it. But Wes couldn't let it go. He needed to know.
"Did your father beat you, too?" He held his breath. This was a very personal question, and Wes half expected Hobbie to storm out of the room.
But his friend remained sitting, motionless. "What did Kolya tell you?"
"Not much. But the weals spoke bluntly."
Hobbie sighed. "Yes, he beat me, too. All of us."
"And you just let it happen?"
"What could I have done?" Hobbie snapped. "You don't know him. We had to be obedient. Period. To oppose him openly..." He bit his lower lip.
"I'm sorry." Carefully Wes reached out and touched Hobbie's shoulder. "I didn't mean to attack you. When I talked with your brother, I got so mad. I would have liked to pay your father a visit and tell him some harsh words about his educational methods. Not just the physical abuse. Your brother has no self-esteem at all. All the time I was talking to him, he told me 'Father will decide,' 'Father knows what's best for me,' 'Father says it's a waste of time,' I was close to grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him to make him think by himself. I couldn't believe it. What is going on?"
Hobbie closed his eyes. "It has always been like that. Father wants to press Kolya, all of us actually, into a pattern. My older brother fit his ideas of how his son has to be, and to a certain degree I did, too, but Kolya doesn't. Not at all. He is quiet, gentle, very patient and very thorough, and a loner. He always tried to please Father, always looked for the faults in himself, never in Father. But as hard as he tried, Father was never pleased with him. Never."
Hobbie rubbed his eyes wearily. "One day, a few weeks before I left for the academy, Kolya got a 2 in math. On Ralltiir, students are given marks from 1 to 6, with 1 being best. Kol was always bad in math, even though he worked hard, but this time he had managed to score a 2 for the first time, usually he got only 3s and 4s. He was so proud and happy. And what did Father do? He looked at the mark, said 'next time I expect a 1,' and dismissed him.
"When I came up to our room, Kolya was lying coiled up on his bed, crying bitterly. If he had gotten a 3 and Father had thrashed him soundly for it, he wouldn't have hurt Kolya as much as he did with his casual dismissal. I tried to comfort Kolya, told him that Father was certainly proud of his result, that he just isn't the type of person who shows it openly, that the absence of punishment had to be taken as a praise." He sighed. "He didn't believe me."
"Did you believe it?"
"No." Hobbie shook his head slightly. "Not at that time. Now, looking back, I'm not sure. I don't think anymore that it was cruelty that made Father act like that, he certainly thinks it is the right way to raise children. But in the end that makes no difference."
"Your brother told me that your father doesn't love him." Wes looked at Hobbie very seriously. "He was really convinced of it. He thought of himself as a disappointment. I was so shocked. I tried to tell him that parents love their children unconditionally, but I don't think he believed me. And with the things I have learned about your father, I'm not sure if I believe it myself."
"I wish Sid -- my older brother -- were still alive. Kolya adored him, and Sid always knew how to comfort him, always found the right words to encourage him. If he were still here..."
*His brother.* Wes had been shocked to find out what had happened to Hobbie's older brother. "Why did you never tell me that your brother was killed by Rebels? I mean, we... I could have... I..."
"You could have been the one who killed him, Wes? Well, you didn't. He died before you joined the Alliance. But even if you had been involved...." He fell silent and closed his eyes. When he opened them again and looked at his friend, Wes saw a determination in Hobbie's face he'd rarely seen before. "I'm a Rebel myself, Wes, and I believe in the Rebellion. It is the only way, but no one said that it was easy or painless." That pain was evident in his voice. "Sometimes, when I vape a TIE, or when I look at the TIE silhouettes on my X-wing, I wonder who that pilot was, and if he has a family who mourns for him now."
Wes nodded, but remained silent. He didn't know what to say. Feeling hollow, he stared at the holo in front of him, and at the teenager who would die for the Empire a few years later.
After a while he switched to the next holo. It was much more cheerful than the first one. Sid -- Wes easily recognized him from the first picture, although he seemed to be a few years younger on this holo -- was playing with a very young boy, probably Kolya. Both boys laughed, and looking at the picture, Wes had no trouble believing the things Hobbie had told him about their relationship.
Slowly, Wes went from holo to holo. The next holos all showed some or all of the siblings, and most of them seemed to be taken at one place. Wes couldn't help but grin at a young Hobbie in shorts. He looked up at his friend, who seemed to be lost in thought.
"Where were these holos taken, Hobbie? It seems to be the same place, but at different times. Your garden?"
"No. We didn't have a garden. And no holo camera. Except the holo that was taken each year at Remembrance Day, there were no pictures taken at our house. But we visited my grandparents each summer, and Grandma loved to take holos. Except the first one, which I brought with me because it is the last one that shows all five of us together, all the other family holos were taken by Grandma."
"Your grandmother gave Kolya a holo camera for his birthday. Did he tell you?"
"No." Hobbie sounded surprised. "Did Father and Mother allow it?"
"They didn't like it, but he was allowed to keep it. And he's very good with it, he really is, Hobbie. I asked him to show me some of his holos, and they were excellent. They showed very common things like trees or rocks, but he managed to make them interesting, by concentrating on a detail or using an unusual angle. But he said your father doesn't like them and thinks they are a waste of time." Remembering the boy's sad eyes, anger boiled up again in Wes and clearly showed in his voice.
"As usual." Hobbie sighed deeply. "I just hope that Kolya will find his way. And that Father doesn't send him to the military. In that case Kolya will probably die before he has a chance to start living."
"I hope so, too."
Silently, both watched the next holos. Suddenly, the scenery changed, and there was a boy with Hobbie who Wes hadn't seen in the pictures before. "Who's that?" As he looked up and saw the expression on his friend's face, he knew the answer even before Hobbie replied.
"Yegori," Hobbie whispered. The shock about his friend's fate was still clearly noticeable in his reaction.
Wes examined the picture and the face of the young man of whom he only knew how horribly he had died. He looked happy, and full of life. It was hard to imagine that he was dead now. And still it was only one fate among many, only one victim of the Empire among countless others. It was moments like this that brought back to Wes very clearly the reasons why he was fighting for the Rebellion.
Yegori's picture was the last holo, and Wes gave the pad back to Hobbie. His friend stored it carefully in his duffel bag.
The two pilots laid down on their pallets, and both wordlessly stared at the low ceiling. After minutes that seemed to be endless Wes couldn't stand the depressing silence any longer. "Let's have a look around, Hobbie, and see if the downtime section of this ship is any fun." He grimaced. "Unlike the last one. Sullustan music and drinks are hard to get used to."
Hobbie chuckled. "You've got that right. But this is a Corellian ship, so we should be okay. Let's go." The Ralltiirian seemed to be glad to get out of their room, too.
Downtime wasn't hard to find, and very crowded at this time of the day. The two pilots stopped at the entrance, searching for familiar faces. "There are Wedge and Tycho, at the far table to the right." Hobbie pointed in the direction.
The Corellian and the Alderaanian were sitting at a table in the back of the room, drinks before them, and apparently absorbed in a lively discussion. Discussion, not argument, that was easy to tell from the smiles on their faces and the occasional laughter. Wes and Hobbie exchanged an amused glance.
"I don't know what has happened, but it looks like those two are finally getting along."
"Yes, it looks like it." Hobbie smiled. "But remember my words. We will regret this day very soon. Wedge alone can be bad enough, with his relentless discipline and diligence. And Tycho isn't much different. With the two of them working together, hard times are approaching. Mark my words." But despite his prophecy he was grinning broadly.
Wes laughed. "Fine prospects! Well, c'mon, let's join our two coming slave-drivers!"
Fetching a bottle of whiskey and two glasses from the bar, Wes and Hobbie strode across the room to join their two friends.