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Ties That Bind

By Frosty, Lock and Gremlin

Space, some distance from the location of the Battle of Endor

It was easy to forget how big space is. Impossibly vast, impossibly cold and darker than most human eyes could ever adjust to. From this point, the closest planetary body was the gas giant Endor and its famous forest moon, but this far out they were practically microscopic. The only sign of life was the small spacecraft drifting slowly towards a larger chunk of spinning debris.

A young horned figure peered out of the viewport with wonder and just a little fear. "How did it even get out here?"

"Hrm?" The craft's pilot seemed disinterested in Zak's curiosity. "How did what?"

"The wreckage! We're so far from where the battle was."

"Big explosion. If it didn't get caught in a gravity well, then it would just keep drifting."

Zak's sharpened teeth drew into a grin, a devilish twinkle in the Devaronian's eyes. "I would have loved to see it. The Emperor, his fleet, just BOOM!" He threw his arms up excitedly. "Force take him. You see Mon Mothma's declaration? Loads of planets have already pledged allegiance to the Republic ..."

The conversation ended abruptly as the older man pushed a full-face helmet into the kid's hands. "Triple check your seals. There's no one else out here but us."

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They floated carefully, tethered still to their anchored ship, as their feet made contact with the slowly spinning metal of what was formerly a star destroyer turbolaser. The older man, Zak only knew him as Frosty, moved forward cautiously with welder in tow.

The helmet comms crackled to life. "What are we looking for?"

"Batteries, mostly," Frosty said, passing a scanner over the surface metal. "A good power cell is both light enough and valuable enough for us to take. We'll leave the scrap metal to the trawlers. Here, see?"

His hands were pressing on a small flap, a circular covering. A piece of debris had pierced the top but no gases or liquids vented into the cold of space, leaving a perfectly good power cell inside. The durasteel shard would not come away from the vent with a simple tug and he turned to his companion, scowling beneath the visor. The kid was looking elsewhere.

"A ship! Out this far!" Zak sounded excited. Frosty thought he sounded excited about everything.

"It's search and rescue. Alliance."

"Republic," he was speedily corrected. "It's been a few days now - they're still looking?"

"Pointless," Frosty grunted. "No one survives that long."

Zak rounded on the callousness of his tone. "Have some respect! Those men and women died so me and you can be free!"

It sounded like Frosty was laughing, but Zak couldn't tell. Either way Frosty shook his helmeted head: "They knew what they were doing when they signed up. They made their choice, we've made ours. Now help me with this shrapnel."

It took a few good tugs to get it free but when it did come out, Zak turned it over carefully in his hands. "Looks newer. B-Wing colouring, I think? There's some words here..."

Frosty already had the welding torch on to cut out the power cell and was barely listening.

"Gremlin? What kind of name is that?"

Zak felt a little shiver down his spine as he stared at the starfighter's nameplate and realised it wasn't because of what he held, but the way his boss had suddenly shut off the welder and was staring at him.

"What did you say?" Frosty sounded distant, even though he was now closer than before.

"The name on it. Gremlin." He was keenly aware of the larger man looming over him. "Here," he handed it over, "look!"

Jack McCauley turned the nameplate over carefully, staring at it intently. Zak couldn't read his facial expression behind the helmet faceplate but something felt wrong. Eventually he watched McCauley let go of the nameplate, letting it drift slowly away from them, deeper into the black. Jack watched it for a while and then turned back to his companion. "Let's hurry this up. I don't want to hang around."

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Captain's Rest Cantina in Portway City, Portway

The numbers didn't add up. No matter which way he looked at it - upside down, back to front, drunk or sober - they didn't add up. Once he deducted the equipment expenses, ship rental, processing fees, seller's fees and so on, there was barely enough pay to cover the week and it had been a four-day trip.

Well. Maybe they did look better drunk. Or at least, they looked less worse.

"You won't believe what he said next," Sani was banging her fist on the table, her large Sullustan ears burning a hot red in rage. The crowd of compatriots nodded their heads in rapt attention. "He said, 'Well, I need an invoice. For tax reasons!"

The mention of the word 'tax' led to furious shouts; even McCauley had to look up from his datapad and listen in properly. Ke'pal, a gangly Rodian, laughed. "You're a smuggler. How does a smuggler pay taxes?"

"That's what I said!" Sani had knocked her drink over now, waving her arms around enthusiastically. "I said, I've been with you through thick and thin. I got you the proton torpedoes when you were cut off in the Selitan system. I got your boys out when the Empire had you cornered in Rezla. Now you want me to start paying tax?"

The table roared with laughter at her incredulity but one of the group stayed silent. McCauley eyed their Bothan friend. "What's the matter?"

Tr'aq smoothed his fur down, frowning. "I get it. Times are changing. The Alliance is a Republic now. Republics have taxes, offices, Senates."

"I've stuck by the Alliance for more than ten years." Sani shook her head bitterly. "He told me that the Republic would reward people like me. Probably offer us good rates on transport contracts. But I don't want to build a transport business!"

Tr'aq frowned. "I do! I'm not like you, Sani - I didn't get into this work because of a love for the thrills. My parents owned one of the largest cargo hauler groups in the core. Then the Empire took it apart, piece by piece, giving it away to human-owned companies. My parents died, crushed under the remaining debt. Well, now I reckon it's time I rebuilt it with the Republic by my side. I owe it to them."

The table fell silent for a while, as everyone took a sip of their drinks and pondered what had been said. Eventually McCauley shook his head. "This is madness. They win one fight and now they reckon they can be the next galactic government? Who's gonna pay for all this? Where are they going to get the people?"

Ke'pal opened up his green hands, spreading his arms wide. "Everywhere, man. Yeah, they lost a lot of people at Endor but have you not seen the news? With the Emperor and Vader dead, people aren't as frightened anymore. Systems all over the galaxy are declaring fealty to the Republic. You remember Moff Yulta?"

McCauley nodded, wincing. That man was cruel, even crueller than the usual Imps. He hadn't enjoyed working with Ke'pal on that job, smuggling refugees out of there. "Vicious slug of a man."

"Well, they had an uprising. Strung him up outside his palace like he was suddenly nothing. It's happening all over, like wildfires. People suddenly got hope and they are fighting back."

"I see why Mon Mothma made her announcement," Tr'aq nodded calmly. "The Republic has momentum but all those individual rebellions could fall apart just as quickly when the Empire starts to recover - and it will! A state that all these places can come under, give resources and troops to ... well, that just might be enough to really stop the Imperials once and for all."

"But where does that leave people like me?" Sani looked like she might burst into tears now her anger had subsided. "I gave them my best years and now I have to incorporate as a business? Buy uniforms? Just be another space trucker?"

"We're dinosaurs, Sani," Jack said, not without kindness. "They don't need us no more."

She looked at him with disgust, "Yeah? How's business?"

He handed her the datapad. "The value of all these parts has crashed. I barely made a profit this run and we got a lot."

Ke'pal's mouth parts drew into the Rodian approximation of a smile. "Republic has new suppliers now. Whole factories declaring themselves to the cause. Salvage isn't going to be a good credit spinner no more."

Sani slapped McCauley on the back. "Sounds like you need a new job. Maybe you can join the Republic properly! How about it, guys - you see McCauley as a soldier? A jock flyboy, maybe?"

This time the table dissolved into more shouts of laughter as the man scowled.

"Him? There isn't a fight he wouldn't run from!"

"Fighter pilots don't get paid enough! The only thing that motivates him more than credits is the discount at the bar!"

But Jack just sat back as they continued their good-natured ribbing, thinking carefully.

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Apartment building in Portway City, Portway

"I got Cheeznoes," he called as the front door of his apartment slid open. Carefully balancing the boxes in his arms, he kicked off his boots. "That kid Zak might not be the smartest, but the discount we get from his dad is well worth the trouble."

He rounded the corner into the small kitchenette and saw his mam sat at the table, chatting with a man he didn't recognise.

"Ma?"

"Oh, there you are - you've kept us waiting! Jack, your old squadmate was in town and thought he'd drop in and say hello."

The other man was dark skinned, hair shaven on the sides with the rest curling out the top of his head. He smiled sweetly. "Your mom's had a lot to say."

Jack placed the hot food cartons down carefully, his guts like ice. "Ma, could you just go check that Dearbhail is all right?"

"Honestly, Jack, she only just went to her room and ..."

"Please, ma." His tone was cold. "Please."

She left, fussing and chattering away, taking the food boxes with her. Jack turned slowly to the cutlery drawer. "So. You're just dropping in?"

"Yes. Honestly, I was just going to send a message over the holonet but I had other business in this system and you weren't very .... reachable. Your blaster is here, by the way." He lifted the bag which had been placed over it, covering the armament. "I'm unarmed."

Jack spun round and grabbed the laser pistol, sitting carefully. "You're not Imperial. That much I can even see." His eyes narrowed. "I'm not going back, you know."

"No, you're not." The man placed a datapad on the table carefully and pushed it across to him, although Jack couldn't help but notice that he didn't seem at all fazed by the blaster pointing at him. "It was fascinating doing some background reading on you. Noticed you'd freed your mom. Expensive job, getting her record sliced like that. Risky, too, sneaking into Coruscant to extract her."

Jack kept staring. "You do what you can for your family."

He nodded, smiling. "You do. You were hard to track because you were pretty good at moving around. Been here a while though."

"Yeah. Six months." He growled slightly, "I didn't want to move again so soon. Mam was only just getting used to everything and Dearbhail was getting upset by all the changes."

He'd revealed more than he meant to and they both realised it. Jack lowered the blaster to the table slowly. "What do you want?"

"I did hand you the datapad. I know you can read." They both smiled as the tension eased. "Your status within the Alliance has been re-evaluated. It's been decided that listing you as a deserter was a mistake. From a few weeks ago you're now honourably discharged, having to leave due to emergency family circumstances. You'll qualify for the pension and all that, if we ever see one."

"I don't believe you." Frosty shook his head, "Zeno ..."

"Has retired." The man smiled again. "She did her time and is ready to move on with her life. I suggest you do too."

"So we're safe, then?"

The agent laughed a little. "Well, safe from us, I guess. The Imperials still want you but, let's be honest, they have bigger things to sort out then catching someone accused of murder five years ago."

He realised that Jack hadn't heard him; he was staring off at the wall. He reached over and touched Frosty's hand gently. "You know, I was quite impressed by you."

"What d'you mean?"

"I looked at your salvage business. Always sold what you got to the Alliance. Even when you knew we were after you."

There was a look of discomfort on McCauley's face as he shifted in his seat. "I never sold to the Alliance, just to some distributors."

"Yes, but you always seemed to sell to those who gave to us. Not to mercs or pirates. Even when their prices were higher."

A small figure erupted into the room. "Da, you got gherkins in mine! You know I hate gherkins!"

Both men turned to look at Dearbhail, picking through a half eaten burger with great upset. "That's mine, D - yours is in the bottom box."

"Oh!" Jack's now half-eaten burger was pushed into his hands as she grabbed her box and started tearing into it.

The agent stood, smiling, motioning to the door. "Well, I really should get going. As I said, I was just dropping in."

"You can't go now!" Mrs McCauley had returned and started fussing over the man. "You haven't had a bite to eat and it's getting late. You must be hungry!"

"No, thank you for the offer-"

"No, no, come on now, you're all skin and bones. Sit down."

"That's very kind," he tried to say but she forced him back down into a chair and Jack chuckled at the man's reddening face. Relaxing, the agent reached out a hand, "I'm Tito, by the way."

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McCauley awoke with a start on the fold-out sofa bed, confused by how empty it now felt. Just above him Tito was standing, fully dressed, a couple of empty beer bottles in one hand and his boots in the other. "Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."

"S'okay," Jack slurred sleepily. "What time is it?"

"Early. I have to go attend to this other business." He took McCauley by the chin gently and gave him a quick kiss, "Thanks for the bed. Thank your mom and kid too - they were very sweet about sharing the food."

"S'alright."

They smiled at each other and Tito started towards the door, one boot already on. He turned back to give the sleepy man a little wink. "Be seeing you, McCauley."

A few hours later, Jack rolled out of bed properly, heading for the refresher. He was sitting down, trying to stop the world from spinning, when he first heard her voice. "Well, that's new."

"Come on, not now."

Red skin, purple hair, devilish grin. Gremlin's eyes twinkled mischievously. "I guess you've been expanding your horizons?"

He staggered to his feet and switched on the small shower, waiting impatiently for the limited hot water to come on. "I'm losing it ..."

"Congratulations on the good news, by the way." The imaginary Gremlin stood next to him, her warm skin in the quickly steam-filled room cutting a very different figure to his hungover, sagging frame. "You're finally out. Free, just like you always wanted."

Soap suds in his eyes, he couldn't see her anymore but even above the fragrant budget shampoo he could smell her. Spices and Zeltron wine. His ear felt warm as she whispered, "I never did get the chance to thank you in the end. You taught me the most important lesson of all. Always look out for number one."

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Portway City, Portway

After dropping Dearbhail off at her school, Jack found himself taking a different route home. He walked without conscious thought, taking only a quick stop to pick up some warm breakfast food from one of the many market stalls set up near the port. It was a busy planet, compared to the real backwaters of the outer rim, but not as busy as he was used to. Initially he'd tried hiding in the pastoral planets at the edges of the galaxy, but that hadn't lasted long. Strangers there stuck out like sore thumbs and led to much - and dangerous - gossip. Plus McCauley, a lower-level Coruscant native, never got used to the open expansive ranges. Without the towering buildings, he always felt that danger was ever present, able to see him from miles away. When you could see the horizon, it could also see you.

Portway was a perfect match-up. Nestled between mid and outer rim it saw decent amounts of traffic, with relatively few people choosing to settle there. It was too far away from any military targets to be of practical use to the Empire or Rebellion, but close enough to trade routes that it had plenty of work on offer. The city was busy; no-one paid attention to all the various faces they saw every day. Here he'd found a safe haven and, with Tito's recent news, maybe even a home.

This isn't home. This isn't where I want to be. But where do I go?

Jack continued to walk, the motion helping him work through his thoughts. Further down the alleys, nestled between a cargo insurer and a budget holiday company, sat a newly-decorated office. A line straggled out of the building and curled round the street; by the door four local toughs stood with equal amounts of pride and confidence. The few port cops who passed by scrupulously avoided their gaze, not wanting to get drawn in. Technically Portway was part of the Empire but, like the planetary governor, none of the residents were committed to it. You just said, "Sure, yeah, we're Imps" to avoid them coming to crush you too."

"Our New Republic needs you to build a better galaxy." Mon Mothma's gentle voice drifted from the open door, coaxing people in. The holoprojector above the door flashed and suddenly Princess Leia stood arm in arm with the dashing Han Solo, his smile clearly coming less easily than hers. "This is just the beginning. Join us today and make the difference."

A snort around his elbow made him turn to face Sani, who stood there with her hands on her hips. She gestured at the office angrily. "You see this? A recruiting office! Time was you couldn't even say their name and now they have a recruitment office? Out here?"

He took a bite of the wrap and chewed thoughtfully. "Yeah, it's weird. When I joined, it involved two different spies and a shoot-out."

Sani looked at him carefully. He'd never mentioned he'd been in the Alliance before. Heck, he never said much: he'd just showed up six months ago in the cantina, bought some drinks and fit right in. She knew he was at least an Alliance sympathiser, but this was new info.

"Huh." She watched him walk towards the back of the line. "I was joking about the new job thing before!"

"I just want to find out what they are telling them!"

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He was walking quickly down the street, trying to ignore the figure beside him. Blonde shaggy hair, trimmed goatee, youthful complexion. But no matter which turn he took he was always there, right beside him.

"What are you doing,brother?"

Past block seven, just another few to go.

"You got it all, man! All of it! What we always wanted. Freedom. Real freedom. No Empire here. Your own business. Credits in your hands. You got it all."

"Leave me be, man."

Connor poked at him, but his brother didn't even notice the ghostly digits. "You remember when we were fifteen, Jack? I started with that gang, Grizzo's lot? Talk of revolution, chopping of Imperial heads. You pulled me out, talked me out of it. Said 'no causes'. Nothing but us and deep space. You got out - and now you're going back?"

Jack arrived finally at his apartment block and struggled with the keypad at the main door. Connor appeared in front of him, a small red spot in his chest steadily growing larger as the laser mark became charred flesh. "I died, so you could do this. I died, when we promised each other we'd always be the one person we could rely on. I died, so you could go and die in some stupid war?"

He slammed the door behind him, waking a baby two floors up as he sprinted up the stairs, leaving the ghostly figure below.

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Apartment building in Portway City, Portway

His mam had been easiest to tell, in the end. She was upset initially, in much the same way as she was when he'd first had to tell her about Connor. But as she listened to his reasons, as well as his reassurances that she and Dearbhail would be safe here and able to live comfortably enough, she had come round to the idea. Embracing him in a hug that hadn't failed to bring tears to his eyes, she had said, "I don't want you to go, but I'm proud to say that you are."

Dearbhail was a different story. She sat on the floor of her small room, drawing, but Jack could tell she was upset. "So I'll stay here with Nana? I can't come with you this time?"

He sat opposite, cross-legged. "No, kiddo. Things are a bit different now. You're not allowed to come aboard the big ships anymore."

"Will you come back?"

"As often as I can. I'll send holos every week too."

The child got up and started rummaging through her chest of drawers before coming back to him triumphantly with prize in hand. "Nana has been teaching me to stitch, when you do the long runs. You should have this - it's meant to be good luck."

He took the patch from her, a beautiful emerald green four-leafed clover, and closed it tightly in his fist. "I'll keep it safe."

Dearbhail's eyes suddenly widened. "Will you see Gemi?!"

Jack tried to hide his wince. "Well, kiddo, look ...."

"You have to give her the friendship bracelet! We started making them, but I left before I could give it to her."

He took it from her and nodded slowly. "I'll make sure she gets it," he lied, remembering a battered nameplate spinning away into the vastness of space.

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Shuttle Rockhopper, hyperspace

The cool blue tunnel of hyperspace mesmerised the two pilots at the front of the shuttle as they sat, passing a flask full of hot caf between them. Ideally, flying the shuttle was a two-person operation; the pilot had readily accepted McCauley's help when it became clear the man was qualified and experienced, unlike the rest of the new recruits in the passenger compartment behind them. Jack, in turn, was keen to keep some distance from the rookies. Old habits came back quickly and he found himself immediately making it clear that he'd chat with them, but wasn't about to become friends.

The pilot took a long sip of the dark brown liquid, sighing in satisfaction. "They moved quickly, then?"

McCauley shrugged as he triple-checked the hyperdrive coolant readout. "Recruiter said an experienced pilot was worth a tonne of credits. Had some pretty depressing statistics about how many make it past the first month, let alone two years."

"It's a meat-grinder all right. Don't you want to rejoin your old squadron?"

"I don't think they exist anymore. Got torn apart and then put back together for the big one at Endor, apparently." He grinned, hiding his true feelings behind a cocky smile. "Besides, it's better this way. Got more runway before my CO figures out how much trouble I am."

The shuttle pilot snorted and leaned back in his chair. "So why come back?"

Frosty went quiet for a while, swilling the caf around his cup. "I could feel things changing, you know? My old life, old dreams getting swept away. The wave of the future came crashing down and I felt like I was drowning." He took a sip from his cup. "I kept thinking about a friend, died at Endor. Committed, you know? Not out for revenge or for thrills. Not some Imp academy dropout who got the boot. Somebody who really cared, really wanted to make a difference."

The pilot sighed. "We lost a lot of good people that day."

"Yeah, we did." Jack shrugged. "It's funny, isn't it? We never lose the bad people. Only the good ones."

There was a lull in conversation as the ship's computer beeped at them to run the mid-flight checklist. Two minutes later, McCauley found himself talking again: "There's this thing that an old CO once said ..."

"Hrm?"

"Said eventually you stop fighting for yourself. You just keep going for everyone else you knew. That it's their hopes and reasons for being there that you keep flying. I used to think he was being stupid, all mouth; it's war, people die, get used to it. But nowadays. When I think of her ..." he trailed off.

The shuttle pilot looked at the nav computer. "It's an overnighter at the next stop. I know a bar - want to catch a drink?"

"Like you wouldn't believe."

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Razorback bar, Corusca, Ord Cantis

The first drink led to a second drink, the third drink led to more drink and soon Frosty was all drink. The shuttle pilot had disappeared, wanting a few hours of sleep, but McCauley stayed awake in the bar, his back to the other customers.

It was on his fifth time of glancing across that he staggered over to the table where a white-haired man sat, toying with a bottle of beer. McCauley threw himself into the seat opposite heavily, before pointing a finger at the new patron. "Honestly didn't think you were dead yet, man. I like the white hair - don't know what it symbolises yet but I'll be sure to figure it out with my therapist, when I get one in ten years' time."

The white-haired man looked up at the newcomer. For a moment there was genuine surprise in his eyes, which quickly evolved into a much darker expression. He remained silent, letting him speak as much as he wanted.

Frosty finished his glass of whisky before slamming it onto the table and waving to the bartender for another. "So what are you doing here, huh? Another one come to admonish me? Guilt me for abandoning you, too?" He pointed a finger accusingly. "Naw, you're always silent. Here to judge, hmm? So? Am I guilty?"

"Judge you?" Captain Roy "Lock" Callahan answered finally, meeting Frosty's green eyes. "That would imply I gave a kriff." It was a lie, of course, meant to be hurtful - though it wouldn't hurt as much as being left behind. Lock brought the bottle of beer he'd been nursing to his lips and drained it before abruptly standing, allowing the chair he'd been sitting in to fall back. "You're going to wish I was dead, though."

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Shuttle Rockhopper, arriving at CRS Vigilant

Hungover. Swollen black eye. Really nailing these first impressions. Jack McCauley winced as he straightened up in the shuttle's copilot seat, feeling the faint hum and lift of his body as it passed through the magcon field into the hangar bay of the large cruiser.

"Ah, that's sweet - looks like you got a little welcome party." The pilot nodded to a group of personnel waiting nearby as he settled the shuttle into the area indicated by the flight controller.

Jack winced again. "How do I look?"

"Worse than the captain in the back."

"Great."

He waited a minute or so, hoping that Lock would step off the shuttle first so he could maintain as much separation from his old wingmate as possible. Breathing heavily, he stepped down the ramp and into the brighter light of the hangar, shielding his eyes as he smiled his most charming smile. "Hi, folks! Name's Jack McCauley, although you can call me Frosty - everyone else does."

"Frosty?"

Lieutenant Gemilan "Gremlin" hadn't intended to be there to welcome the new recruits, but Angel had persuaded her, saying that the newbies would be more likely to stand them a drink at the SSD than their squadmates. Which was true. And Lock was due to be on the shuttle, white hair and all - she'd missed teasing him, so that was another good reason to be among the loose huddle of maintenance crew and pilots milling around the flight deck.

But never, never had she imagined she'd hear that voice again.

Moving slowly, as if in a dream, she turned. The smile. That was the same. The beard - that wasn't. But the name, Jack McCauley ... "Jack? Jack?"

His eyes focused slowly, screaming from the bright lights of the hangar. Red skin, purple hair. It couldn't be. Right?

"Gemi. Sithspawn, Gemi! You're alive?!" He stepped towards her, his bag fell to the floor with a heavy thump as he opened up his arms. "Force take me, girl, I thought you were dead!"

She had turned pale, her violet eyes huge as she took in his appearance. The chatter in the background faded; all she could see was him. Shaking her head slightly in disbelief, she took a step closer .. then her skin flooded red with anger and she slammed her fist into his face, following up with a second punch to his gut.

"YOU KRIFFER! YOU SON OF A SCHUTTA! YOU ... YOU ......"

He collapsed to one knee, wheezing hard. It was a pathetic sight, really; he was taller and broader than her but in the intervening years, whilst he'd got soft, she'd continued to train. He felt a flash of anger, which he would realise later was probably her own reflecting back on him. Trying to fend off her blows, he did his best to grab her wrists.

"I .... deserve .... it .. I .... know .... just ..... WAIT ... WAIT A SEC!"

She freed her wrists with a twist that Gnoizic had taught her, back in the days when the Rancors had joined Red Squadron, when she and Jack had been friends. More than friends. Before he'd abandoned her - and his squadmates - and disappeared, taking his daughter with him. She had never felt rage like this before; she stood over him, pounding him with her words, her fists clenched in case he tried to fight back.

"Don't you tell ME to wait! I waited, Jack! We ALL waited! Where the kriff have you been, eh? Years! Years, you've been gone - and now you turn up, all smiles, like nothing's ever happened?" She glanced around, taking in the shocked faces, the open mouths; nobody had ever seen her react like this before.

"This ... this man," she invested the word with all the disgust she could muster, "abandoned us. Abandoned Red Squadron." She turned back to Frosty. "You mean to tell me you're back? Really? Back here? Why?" She didn't know whether she was asking why he'd returned, or why he'd left. "Why?"

I've made a mistake. I've made a terrible mistake. Instinctively McCauley was searching for the exits, metaphorical and literal. But the shame, guilt and fear mixed together with her own anger. He felt drunk. He pointed a finger at her accusingly. "Now that ain't fair! I left to protect you! All of Red!" The lie felt powerful in his mouth.

His next words were meek, but he spat them with venom. "Yes, I'm back. I'm here because they asked. They said they needed pilots. So I'm here."

Gremlin dragged in a breath, shaking her head in denial. "I can't believe they'd need you that much." Tears were prickling her eyes; her empathic senses, momentarily overwhelmed by her own anger, were picking up a mixture of shock and amusement from the crowd of onlookers. And from Jack, she could feel a blend of emotions - which was unusual; he had always been able to hide his true feelings, most of the time.

"I ... I can't - I can't, not now." If she didn't get away, she'd start to cry, and she hated crying, especially in front of others. Trembling, she took a step backwards, then another. Her voice no longer held raw anger, but something deeper.

"You didn't protect me, Jack. You left me with her. With Zeno. And you took Dearbhail. I loved ...." Gemi stopped, eyeing him, then said quietly, "I loved her."

He felt like he was unravelling. In his pocket he gripped the friendship bracelet tightly. He shouted after her as she left, his voice breaking. "She loves you too!"

His voice echoed. She stopped, turned and ran back towards him, her feet thudding on the deck plates. Gremlin dropped to one knee, bringing their faces level. Her voice vibrated with sincerity. "She'd better be safe. Promise me she's safe!"

He looked her in the eyes for the first time. "Safer than she's ever been. Safer than she's ever known." He withdrew his hand from his pocket slowly, unfurling his tight fist. The friendship bracelet was crushed tightly, the bands fraying from his grip. "She said this was for you."

Gemi took the brightly-coloured twisted cords from his hand, purple and red intertwined with green. Anger fought with grief; she bowed her head for a second, then met his eyes, struggling to contain her tears. Her voice was low, her words only for him.

"I think she was safest with you. I'd forgive you, if you'd left for her. But you didn't, Jack. You left for you. And you never sent a message, to say you and Dearbhail were safe - you couldn't even do that."

"I'm sorry," he mumbled, his face turned away. "I'm ... sorry."

"So am I," she whispered, her breath soft on his cheek. And then she left him, the crowd parting to let her go for a second time.

After an eternity, someone slapped him on the back: "Your entrances always this dramatic?"

The tension was cut and the hangar burst into awkward laughter. Jack's face was as red as Gemi's had been. "Yeah. Um, can someone show me the way to my cabin?"

vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

Corridors of CRS Vigilant

As soon as Gremlin left the hangar she'd started running, but she couldn't escape the memories. Not only the distant past, when Red Squadron had been her family, but the sights and sounds and sensations of seconds ago: the meaty thump as she'd punched Jack in the face, the throbbing pain in her hand and her head, the brilliance of his green eyes, the metallic scent of blood as she'd leaned in close at the end.

She couldn't go to her cabin; Angel might look for her there. She couldn't go to the Ready Room - everyone would want to know why she'd attacked the new guy. She'd have to face them eventually, but not now. Gremlin slowed and came to a stop, breathing heavily. There was moisture in the air and the scent of greenery: she must be near the lake which was an essential element in most Mon Calamari-designed capital ships. It held the promise of peace, for a time at least. And if she pushed through the vegetation, towards the bulkheads, she'd be alone.

Afterwards, once her tears subsided, she tipped her head back against the metal wall and looked up through the canopy of leaves to the solar-replicating panels overhead. She had to talk to someone. Angel? Yes, but later. For now, it had to be somebody who'd been there. Gremlin palmed her cheeks dry and lifted her datapad to record a short message, trying to keep her voice steady.

Lock. I need to speak to you urgently. Can you come to the lake?

vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

CRS Vigilant - Lock's quarters and the SSD

The entire return trip to the Vigilant, Lock had kept to himself, hiding away in one of the many compartments in the Lambda-class shuttle. He knew the pilot of the ship so it wasn't hard to get access to his private cabin where he spent the journey listening to music and playing on his personal datapad, doing his best to ignore the thoughts that threatened to creep into his mind. He felt the machinery of the ship rumble as its repulsors activated, positioning and landing the shuttle in the hangar bay of the Vigilant.

Lock remained in the cabin, listening to the shuffle of passengers and their excited, muffled voices as they disembarked, waiting till he was the last one left. Unfortunately, the white-haired Corellian opened the hatch just in time to hear the exchange between Frosty and Gremlin outside. Exactly the kind of thing he was hoping to avoid. He entered the cabin again and shut the door behind him.

It wasn't until the shuttle's pilot came to oust him from their personal space that Lock left, warily venturing out into the hangar bay and scuttling away before he could be seen or stopped by anyone else.

His datapad began to emit a sound, pleading for his attention. Groaning, the pilot pulled himself from the nest he'd made in his bunk after fleeing the hangar and groggily glared at the name of the being who'd dared to summon him from a well-deserved nap. Gremlin. What did she want? He knew what she wanted. Oh, kriff no.

He groaned again and returned the pad to his table, face down this time. He had not put all his effort into avoiding the subject only to run headlong into it now. Plus, his head hurt and he wasn't sure if it was from the hangover or from the uppercut Frosty had delivered... kriffing Frosty. Suddenly, he felt much too awake to be laying in bed.

A third groan escaped Lock as he stood up and threw on his flight suit, grabbed his jacket and left his quarters, making his way towards the SSD. There was only one reliable cure for hangovers, after all, and that was more alcohol.

By the time Gremlin found him, Lock was sitting in a dark corner of the bar, two empty bottles of beer before him and a third half on its way.

She had given up waiting some time ago and returned to her cabin, ignoring everyone she met along the way. Her right hand still throbbed from its contact with Frosty's face. She'd spent time in the fresher, washing away her tears, and bundled her distinctive purple hair under a mechanic's cap before setting out to hunt down her former OC. It wasn't hard to guess where he'd be.

She sat down opposite, her jaw clenched, bruised knuckles clasped around a lomin-ale - this was not a day for her usual Zeltron spiced wine. Rather than call attention to herself again, she kept her voice deliberately low, but her anger was all too clear. He may outrank her, but she was going to speak her mind.

"You must've known he was on that shuttle. It's not so big that you could hide from each other. But you didn't think to call ahead, let me know he was coming to the Vigilant?" She shook her head, a brief, definitive motion. "You knew what his leaving did to me - did to us, to everyone in Red. I know we're not squadmates any more, Lock, but kriff it, you could have warned me!"

Lock's eyes remained on her, his face expressionless, as she took a seat and began to berate him. Silent, the older pilot watched the red-skinned Zeltron. After a few moments of silence he simply asked, "What do you want from me?"

It wasn't the response she'd expected. "I ... I want ...." she floundered for a couple of seconds, before her thoughts fell into place. "I want to know why you didn't tell me he was coming. I want to know what he's been doing for all those years. I want to know why he left. How am I going to be able to work with him if we're in the same squadron? And even if we're not, every time I see him I think back to her .. Agent Zeno ... how can I ever trust him again?" She sat back against the banquette seating, breathing heavily as if she'd just gone head-to-head against an Imperial ace and survived.

"Why's he even here, Lock? How can any of us trust him?" She half-turned away, not wanting him to see the gleam of tears in her eyes, and took an angry swallow of her lomin-ale.

There was silence again from Lock as he absorbed her stream of words, questions and doubts. For a moment he tried to convince himself that he should let her unleash, cry, whatever, but as he considered it he felt anger rise within him. He couldn't help but feel impatient and frustrated - she was throwing all of this on to him. How the feck was he supposed to know how to help her if he didn't know how to help himself?

He shook his head, keeping the first words that came to mind from escaping his lips, censoring himself with a sip from his beer. "I wouldn't worry about any of that. He'll either get vaped by a TIE or run away again. Haven't you learned anything in this war? You're not a little girl anymore, Gemilan," he stressed her name, her real name, which he rarely ever used. "As for trusting him? You're a grown woman and you have to figure it out on your own, like the rest of us adults."

Perhaps it was too harsh, but it was to the point. She'd sought him out, dropped all of this without even a moment to consider how he was feeling - not that he'd expected that. Most assumed that he was too aloof to care about anything and in most cases they were right, but he'd expected Gremlin to know better.

If she'd ever wondered whether her feelings for Jack were still strong, Lock's casual reference to him dying brought an almost visceral reaction. Her gaze snapped back to his, just in time for his next words - and his deliberate use of her full name - to strike home.

She remembered, briefly, a similar moment in the aftermath of her first battle as a fighter pilot, four years ago, when Bantha Squadron had been decimated and Lock - then its XO - had stumbled upon her mourning the losses of her fellow trainees. He hadn't cossetted the 18-year old Gremlin then, any more than he'd pampered her now, but he'd been right.

After a while, you didn't fly for yourself, or for a cause. You flew for the people you loved. And if they hurt you and deserted you, even if you felt couldn't trust them again, the old links were still there: buried perhaps, but there.

A lot had changed in these intervening years, but a lot had remained the same too.

Gremlin stayed silent for a long time. When she took a gulp of ale, her hand trembled slightly, but she set the glass down again and met Lock's gaze. Her empathy, clouded by her surge of anger since seeing Jack, was making a slow return but it couldn't clue her into Lock's thoughts - the Corellian always had been hard to read.

"I think you're wrong, you know." She spoke slowly, sounding the words out in her head before giving them a voice. "Some of what you said was right, I'll give you that, but I don't have to 'figure it out on my own' - I have friends. People I can turn to, who'll help me and listen to me - and, yes, tell me when I'm behaving like a little girl, if I need to hear it. But even saying that means you're here for me, Lock. I'm not alone." She stood, pushing the half-empty glass of lomin-ale across the table towards him.

"I'll figure it out, with help from my friends. And I'm here for you, whether you want it or not," she finished, adding with a mocking half-smile, "sir."

"You need to stop quoting children's Saturday morning holo-toons," Lock answered, draining his beer and standing up too. As nice as her words were, the veteran pilot really wasn't looking for company of any sort. He needed to figure things out on his own, as he'd always done. "Wingmates are essential for survival," he told her, leaning over the table, adding in a few last words. "But each of us is responsible for piloting our own craft."

With that, he shoved his hands in the pockets of his flightsuit and started walking away, heading straight for the exit and then who knew where. He needed to find a better hiding spot, anyways, or so he was thinking.

Gremlin was torn between shouting after him or throwing her lomin-ale at his retreating back, but that wouldn't be as satisfying as seeing it drip off his face. She did neither, just subsided onto her seat again and tugged the ale towards her. He thought she was acting like a child? He couldn't even stick around to have a conversation!

"Sometimes you're a right pile of bantha poodoo, Lock," she muttered to herself, twisting the strands of Dearbhail's friendship bracelet where they wound around her wrist. Green - Dearbhail's favourite colour - entwined with purple and red, the tones of Gremlin's hair and skin. It had been a struggle to tie it on one-handed, but she'd managed it somehow. It would have been so much easier if someone had been there to help.

Gremlin's datapad buzzed in her pocket and she took it out, glancing down to see what was so important. It displayed a message from Frosty:

Comm: 212-570-55472

She gets home from school daily around 3AM our time, but please don't call after 8AM as she's a nightmare to settle for bed. If you want the address to send anything to, just ping me.

I promise I won't make it more difficult than it already is.

Her datapad clattered onto the sticky tabletop, face-down, as she slumped back into her seat. I need to talk to someone who was there. Lock's no help! I wonder ..... Gremlin bit her lip, thinking through her options, then tossed back the remainder of her lomin-ale and stood. The Reds were dispersed into various squadrons, but there was one place - other than the SSD - where they were most likely to be.

vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

CRS Vigilant - Frosty's cabin; pilot's lounge; mechanics' hideaway

After arriving at his cabin, Frosty quickly came to the conclusion that he couldn't stay there. He was going to be sharing the room with another male: a human male, judging by the picture on his beside table of him and his family, not to mention the size of the old, dirty flightsuit laying on top of a pile of wrinkled socks and underpants. Jack couldn't help but be reminded of when he'd shared a room with Connor back on Coruscant. Forever ago.

It didn't take long for him to put his things away. Within fifteen minutes he found himself sitting on his assigned bunk.

Waiting.

Waiting for Gremlin or Lock to burst through that door. It wasn't hard to find out which cot he was in. Waiting for New Republic Intelligence to come and pull him away. He became attuned to every sound coming from outside his door - it could swoosh open at any moment. Waiting for his new roommate to appear, someone he would be forced to co-exist with for the foreseeable future. The future that was once hanging by a needle - the life of a fighter pilot. The life he'd given up already once before.

I've made a terrible mistake. I never should have come back.

He needed to get out of this room or he was going to go insane. Seeing as there was still an hour before his meeting with his new CO, Frosty decided to head over to the pilots' lounge and get a drink to calm himself.

It did mean that he had to make his way past nearly the entire barracks. Not a problem really, just an obstacle. Those few minutes it took to reach the lounge were an eternity but when he reached his objective, a new challenge emerged. The first thing he saw in the viewport alongside the door was a Mandalorian helmet, a red head, a square head and a purple-haired head, all together. He recognized all of them.

Jack watched through the viewport for a few seconds. They were all sitting around a table: Gremlin was explaining something; Gnoizic was as unreadable as ever with that helmet on; Rev's arms were crossed, his face an unmasked scowl at whatever he was hearing. Rogue seemed more interested in the sandwich he was eating but Frosty knew him well enough and was all too aware that very few details escaped the former Imperial operative. Part of him wanted to run in there and order a drink, but he knew the former Reds wouldn't be keen to see him.

Frosty turned away, walking towards the hangar. If he knew mechanics - and he knew them well enough - they would have their own hideaway, somewhere they could escape from pilots but stay near the snub fighters they tended.

It wasn't hard to find. At the far end of the hangar, past the U-Wings and a few broken-down Y-Wings that were being scrapped for parts, Frosty discovered the chassis of an old troop carrier. A sign above the door gave it away: "Deck crew only: no flyboys." Someone (probably one of the female mechanics) had added, "Flygirls welcome!" in Rogue-red paint. Frosty looked to either side of him to make sure the coast was clear and popped inside - just to check it out.

Maybe there were some beers. Maybe some privacy.

It was not to be.

He heard the holoplayer before he entered the main space of the abandoned chassis, its blue glow illuminating the half-lit room. Old ejection seats salvaged from wrecks were littered around the space, most of them in small circles, except for the centre where a large circle orbited the holo player ... and sitting there, watching it, was one of the last people Frosty expected to see - kriffin' Lock.

For the moment Lock seemed to not have noticed him. The captain was sipping on a beer as he watched some news story about protests on Hosnian Prime against the New Republic's government. "The new protest group were once again marching in front of the New Republic Senate building, protesting, as they say, a racist government that preaches peace and equality but continues to be led by humans such as Mon Mothma and the Princess of Alderaan ..."

Jack watched the holo for a while too, trying to avoid eye contact with his former best friend. "Things are different now. It's not going to be as easy as any of us might have thought." He bit his lip, feeling his new black eye throbbing in time with his pulse. He extended a hand carefully towards Lock. "Listen. About yesterday ... and today, I guess - can we call a truce?"

If Lock had noticed his arrival, he couldn't tell, but the Corellian didn't react until spoken to. It was only then that Lock gave him a tired look, rolled his eyes and returned them to the holo, concentrating fiercely on the report. "Do whatever you want. I'm trying to watch this."

Frosty withdrew his hand and went to the small fridge, pulling out a bottle. For a moment he allowed himself to relax into old habits as he rolled a cigarette, placing it behind one ear. Their friendship had once been like this: two men who didn't want to talk about their feelings or the things they'd seen, but who liked just being present in each other's company.

But things had changed. He couldn't stay silent for too long. "I didn't expect you to be as angry."

Lock snorted and lifted his beer to take a sip, but stopped. "Right. I'm perfectly fine that you bailed on us right before a mission. Not a word, not a note." Shaking his head, he finally took that sip. "And you expect me to be happy? They tell me I have an ego! Why don't you frak off and let me watch this in peace?"

Frosty's blood ran cold as he stared at the man. "You don't get it. I was never like all of you. I didn't choose to join the Alliance - I was forced to! I left to protect all of you from being strung along by the person who controlled me. If I'd let you in on it, you'd have been in danger too. I had to take the opportunity when it arose." He shook his head, feeling the determination in him rising. Even Lock thought he was a coward. "I'll stay out of your way. But you should know - this time is different. I chose to be here. I'm here for the long haul."

"Look at you, explaining after the fact," Lock smirked, though it lacked any joy. "Two years too late. Do you even know what happened to us?' He drank from his beer again, draining it this time. "Of course you don't. Trick died and didn't get to hear your explanation. So did Boar - and Sunshine. You can't even apologize. So, yeah, stay out of my kriffin' way." He went to drink again but his bottle was empty. Lock looked over at the minifridge behind Frosty. "After you grab me another beer," he added quickly.

Jack walked to the fridge and got out another beer, popping the lid off and handing it over wordlessly. Either Lock was too lazy to get his own or he was offering the smallest of potential pathways to peace. McCauley took the opportunity with both hands, staying silent as they drank together, albeit sitting some distance from one another.

After a few minutes of silence Jack piped up again, examining the sticky label slapped on the beer bottle. "Who's Wakachangi?"

"Hm? Oh. Just the deck boss," Lock answered, his interest focused on the holoprojector, which was showing various aliens holding up signs as they demonstrated in front of the New Republic's senate building.

"Lock!" a female voice interrupted. A short woman with shorter hair entered the mechanics' lounge. "How many times have I told you - no flyboys allowed!" She shot a look at Frosty and frowned. "You are definitely not welcome here, after what happened with Gremlin earlier."

"Come on, Angel, just let me finish this ..." Lock's attempts at convincing the woman were cut short by a roar from the hangar. A very angry, very Wookiee roar.

"Welp, never mind!" Lock sprang up from his seat and slipped out through the back exit, hopefully avoiding the soon-to-be enraged Wookiee.

Angel put her hands on her hips, looking expectantly at Frosty. "This lounge is for mechanics only, pal."

Frosty's head whirled around as he watched Lock run for it, his mind putting it together as he heard the Wookie roar. "But you're a pilot!"

"I'm an ex-mechanic. I'm welcome," she said with some pride. She pointed at the exit Lock had run through. "I think you've taken enough of a beating today - I don't really want to see the chief turn you into paste."

Jack beat a hasty retreat, his momentary peace evaporating. There was nowhere to hide any more; it was time to face his new boss.

vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

Syntax's office, CRS Vigilant

Frosty was miserable. Two black eyes adorned his normally handsome face while he held an ice pack on the most recent wound where Gremlin had hit him with all her might. His beard looked unkempt, his clothes slightly tatty. This was his first time meeting his squadron leader and he had made little to no effort to impress.

Not that he didn't respect his commanding officer; he'd heard from many that he was a brilliant pilot and great leader. What he didn't respect was the decorum and fussiness of military life. He'd always hated saluting, rank insignias, dress uniforms and the constant needless amounts of 'sirs'. As far as he was concerned, 'sir' was an insult you held for those who loved to feel like they had control over you. The first person in his life who had insisted he'd be addressed as 'sir' was his stepfather.

In the early Rebel days it was easier to get away with ignoring all that stuff but, just like everything else, the rules were changing. He'd seen more people saluting over the past day then he had in his previous two years with the Alliance.

His commanding officer was a droid, which Frosty struggled with; he'd always found it easy to read officers but with this one's unchanging face he was totally stumped. The droid's voice modulator kicked in: "An eventful first day, Flight Officer."

"Yes, boss."

"Fought two of your old squadmates."

"Yes, boss."

There was an uncomfortably long pause. For the first time in his life, Frosty was the one to break it. "Do you think I should be transferred, boss?"

"If all groups involved could work together, that would be the logical best outcome." Syntax placed a datapad down on his desk, facing Jack. "If you wish to move, the paperwork is right here. You just have to sign."

Jack eyeballed it a long while.

"Speak up, flight officer."

"Thing is, boss, I was looking forward to a fresh start. I know it's going to be extra difficult here now; no bugger is going to trust me."

Syntax gestured to the datapad. "So, a transfer?"

"Right." Jack's arms didn't move. "But I came back of my own free will. I'm here now and I want to make things right." He squinted, trying to remember what he had read when he searched the holonet earlier for how to apologise. "I need to show Gremlin I understand the hurt I caused, that I accept my own behaviours and will be reflecting and learning from them."

The droid tapped the datapad slowly. "I need an operational squadron, flight officer. So do the other OCs. Your squadmates need to be able to trust you. Lieutenant Gemilan is very popular and her words have made it clear that you cannot be trusted." Syntax raised a metal hand slightly. "I'm sure someone, somewhere is also upset about the fight with Captain Callahan."

"Please, just give me a chance. I can prove trustworthy to all of them."

Syntax nodded slowly. "Captain Callahan said you should be given an opportunity."

Jack lowered his ice-bearing hand from his newest shiny eye. "He did?"

"Yes." Syntax looked his newest pilot up and down, servos whirring as his joints moved. "One other thing, flight officer. This is the military. You may not like that you are led by a droid, but you will respect my rank by maintaining a professional demeanour at all times. Are we clear?"

Jack straightened into a full salute, possibly the first in his life. "Yes, sir! Sorry, sir! No disrespect meant to you, sir! I just ... uh ... back home, 'sir' was only reserved for the boot on your neck. You know what I mean?"

"I used to be a protocol droid, officer. I know what you mean."

Jack saluted again before leaving the room at a march.

vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

Four years ago, at the Rebel training facility on "Rainworld"

The freighter Rimward Liberty wasn't a classy ship, inside or out, but even its messy crew cabin was more comfortable than the austere barracks a little further in. A few empty bottles rolled around on the floor; a red foot emerged from the blanket, kicking at one playfully. Overhead, the constant drum of rain rang on the armoured bulk of the ship. Jack McCauley breathed deeply, inhaling his spiced cigarette and offered it to his companion under the blanket on the floor.

"Force take me, Gremlin, I was an idiot."

"You, Jack? An idiot? There's a surprise!" She laughed, rolling onto her side, and waved aside the death stick. "No, thanks - if I have that, I'll be sleepy and ...." she finger-walked up his chest, "the last thing I want to do right now is sleep. Especially with all today's news."

The twin announcements - the shock of the destruction of Alderaan, immediately followed by the Rebels' incredible victory over the planet-killing Death Star - had led to a night of celebrations among the pilot cadets on the training planet known as "Rainworld". One cadet, however, had slipped away from the impromptu parties to find someone she'd known before joining the Rebellion.

A lock of purple hair fell over her bare shoulder as she leaned towards him, propping her head on her hand. "So how were you an idiot, then, Jack McCauley?" Gemilan had her own ideas, but she wanted to hear his viewpoint first.

Grinning, Jack stubbed the death stick out. He brushed the lock off her shoulder, leaning forward and kissing her neck. He spoke between kisses, "I was an idiot to tell you I was leaving and that I never wanted to see you again."

He looked her in the eyes, her violet a reflection of his sad green ones. "I was upset about Connor; thought I could forget about him. Was angry that I had survived, partially because I met you in the firefight. Like an idiot I tried to throw you away, but I couldn't stop thinking about either of you."

He lay back down, having soured his own mood slightly. "I should have taken that offer of yours. Me and you, the Dropkick Murphy. Running the outer rim. It could have been great."

She sighed and snuggled against him, her cheek pillowed on his shoulder. "It could've, yes. I think we'd have had a good time. Made money, too, though that's not the most important thing." Gemi tilted her head to glance up at him. "I missed you when you left, you know? It's lonely, being in charge. Even though there were two others in the crew, I couldn't talk to them the way I can talk to you."

She chuckled slightly, giving him a gentle punch with her free hand. "But at least they never called me 'Gremlin'! That's my callsign now, did you know? I told someone about it, Lock overheard and next thing I know, it's on all the pilot rosters. I'm blaming you for that!" The kiss which followed was a hint that she wasn't being entirely serious.

Jack grinned widely after the kiss had finished. "You earned that name! Every time I meet you, something breaks on my ship. Before I got here Liberty was running smooth as Hutt slime and then I see you and suddenly I have so many technical gremlins that I have to extend my stay here for a few days instead of leaving."

She laughed, then gave him a mock-suspicious look. "Are these real gremlins - or imagined ones, so you can stay a little longer?"

"All I know is that a Gremlin is aboard my ship and now I'm staying." His fingers ran down her back slowly, tracing patterns along her shoulders. He gave her a deep kiss and pulled away suddenly, much quieter. "Although ... we could still do it, Gemi. Fly away right now, grab the Murphy. Leave all this 'Alliance' frak behind. Galaxy's a big place, there's planets where no one knows or cares about any of this."

He wrapped her in a hug, rolling across the floor laughing. "Come on, if you're picking between a life of danger and debauchery with me or a lost cause with Lock, who's going to win?"

They came to a halt with Gemi on top, looking down at Jack as if she'd never seen him before. "Really? That's what the Rebellion is to you - a lost cause?" Shaking her head, sending her purple hair flying, she started to disentangle herself from the blanket as she looked around the cluttered cabin for her uniform, discarded some time earlier. The words poured from her: "You were the ones who were looking for the Rebellion when we met, Jack! You and Connor ... I thought you both hated the Empire, that's why we ended up on Pantolomin." She spotted her cadet's jacket on top of the auxiliary control panel and scrambled across the cabin for it.

"The crazy thing is," she flung over her shoulder as she looked for her trousers, discarded some time ago, "at the time, I wasn't even aware of how dangerous the Imperials were! It wasn't till I was captaining the Murphy and I saw stormtroopers literally ripping a family apart - dragging the parents away from their children - that I realised what was going on. That my family could just as easily be targeted by them." Gemi stopped searching and turned to face Jack, looking distressed.

"I realised that the best way I could help was to sign up, so that's what I did. I thought you felt the same - you're here, after all ... " she spread one hand, indicating the Rebel training base outside.

"Hey hey ... no ... wait, look ...." Jack stood buck naked as she searched for her jacket. Of course she doesn't want to go. She signed up. They all did. It was true that he hated the Empire; he'd grown up under its oppressive heel, an underclass citizen of Coruscant. But to his mind it was inevitable, undefeatable. The Empire was like a storm, it'd destroy things wherever it went and everyone hated it, but you couldn't stop it. It just was. He was only here because he had no choice; Agent Zeno had made that clear. Either fight for the Rebellion (and work for her as an Alliance agent) or be thrown to the Empire with the death mark on his head. Certain death and torture versus near-certain death: he had begrudgingly chosen the latter.

His mind raced as he figured out how best to get Gremlin back on side, eventually settling on telling a half-truth. "Look. There's days when I don't want to be here - because I'm scared, all right? I ran two Imperial blockades to get here yesterday and I spent most of the time in that pilot seat absolutely bricking it."

There was sincerity in his tone; her empathic senses told her he believed what he was saying. The Zeltron stood in the cluttered cabin, her uniform jacket clutched to her, watching silently as he continued, "I don't want to die, Gemi. But the best way I have found of keeping myself sane is just to try and convince myself that I am in control. That when the ride gets too scary I can just throw my arms up and get off. Of course I'm not actually going to run away, but knowing I have an escape route is how I have lived my entire life and it's kept me from ever getting crushed under it all."

Gemi glanced down at the grimy deckplates, struggling with her emotions. She knew how it felt to be scared; her trainers emphasised every day how few Alliance pilots survived more than a handful of missions. At least she had her fellow cadets, particularly the Xexto, Sensei, to support her when she was terrified. Jack was stuck on this ship running supplies to and from Rebel sites, all alone. She looked up, feeling guilty.

He glanced around as he realised just how completely ridiculous he looked. Grabbing the blanket, he grinned wildly as he tied it round his neck, a disreputable cape. Hands on hips, he winked at her. "Do I not look the part of a dashing Alliance hero? You reckon we should take a holo and send it to Mon Mothma for the recruitment effort?"

That made her laugh - a reluctant chuckle at first, then more strongly as her gaze swept every last inch of him. "We could just send that holo to the Imps - they'd run away, screaming!" she teased, taking a step towards him. "Maybe you'd look better in this, flyboy?" She held out her cadet's jacket as she moved closer still.

He looked at the small flight jacket, his focus on the Starfighter Corps insignia. There is no chance they'll get me in one of those deathtraps.

Gemi grinned, misreading his look. "Nah, it's the wrong size. Maybe you'd look better with ..... nothing?" She tossed the jacket aside and reached out to untie the blanket from around Jack's neck.

The blanket fell to the floor and she into his arms. For at least the next few hours the Alliance life didn't feel so bad after all. But later on, when the night started to become day again, he'd find himself awake staring at the ceiling and listening to the constant drum as she slept.

Run away with me, Gremlin.

Run away.