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Closing the Distance
By: Frosty and Gremlin

0 days since Frosty's return to the New Republic

It started as a low hum, a small vibration somewhere around the middle of the back. There was a relaxing, reassuring feeling to the way the hum travelled throughout. Then came the whine, the high pitched squeal of metal on metal as vanes turned and spooled up. The whine continued, raising in pitch and volume higher and higher and higher. Then, as if all the hundreds of engineers who had worked together to achieve it roared in triumph, the sublight engine fired up, belching a cloud of flame before settling into the yellow white-hot glow of restrained potential.

"Corsair 3, standing by."

Jack McCauley flexed his arms, trying to expel some of the nervous energy he felt. It had been two years since he last flew a Starfighter in anger and he had worried that he'd lost it all. But as soon as the little A-wing's auxiliary power came online he had a frighteningly lucid thought.

I'm home.

He barely fit in the A-wing cockpit, his legs right up against the pedals and his somewhat enhanced rear end now found the narrow seat a little tight. But he knew with enough patience the A-wing would mold around him and he into it, that was why it was the best ship he'd ever flown. Give yourself over to it and you would become one, no difference between pilot and machine. To fly an A-wing was to dance in space.

As he waited for the all clear from flight control he glanced around the hangar. There, also running to the X-wings on the opposite side of the huge space, was Gremlin. She shouldn't have been here. He'd come back because he was certain she wasn't here. He'd long ago allowed himself to believe that they'd never see each other again, that he didn't ever have to worry about what she might think. She could live in his head instead, a shapely red figure of happy memories. Instead, as they met again for the first time in years just earlier that day, she had given him a black eye and declared him a coward to a crowd of onlookers.

He felt sick. His vision was blurring. He started to breathe rapidly, gulping in the air like a fish out of water. Calm yourself, calm yourself. This was it, he was going to die. He was going to get out there and get vaped. Just another frakking casualty.

Throttling out of the hangar he struggled to maintain consciousness. He'd hoped the time away would have fixed this, that just like that he wouldn't feel the walls closing in. They'd called him Frosty since he was a teen because of the way he could just switch off and handle the pressure. Ice cool. But no one knew that this came first, he hadn't even ever told Lock and he knew he would understand.

Go dust off the cobwebs, his OC had said. Take Wolf and stretch your pilot legs. But no sooner had they done pre flight checks on their ships had the alert rang out. Contacts. Just like that he was about to be a fighter pilot again, racing out in the interceptors to engage their enemy until the slower but more powerful craft could catch up.

"Contact, four o'clock low. Three, no four, bombers."

Like a light switch the anxiety went away. Danger was here and so was Frosty. Every ache, every worry, every thought that wasn't about this moment right now evaporated. There was no drug better, nothing more potent and he'd tried them all. His last conscious thought before instinct took over was unsettling. What if he didn't come back because it was the right thing to do? What if he hadn't come back for her? What if he'd come back, to kill and possibly die, because it made him feel good?


Five days since Frosty's return

"Okay, okay, fine. How's this?"

The datapad was passed over, from one patient sat in a hospital bed to the other, currently sat in the chair. The one sat in the chair was small with dark auburn hair. A drip fed into her arm but she still looked exhausted. The man laying on the bed also looked drained, small curls of hair poking out above the bandage that was currently wrapped around his head. Both individuals were passing a pack of savoury crunch treats back and forth as they took turns to write on a datapad.

"Frosty ... this is ... ugh. How do I describe this?" Angel sat up a little in her chair, poking at the tablet. "It's a little ..."

"A liffle fwhat?" Frosty asked, his mouth full of snacks.

"It's just really obvious you're lying, you know? You sound like a cool-guy action hero."

Frosty snatched the datapad back and Angel rolled her eyes as she took the snack packet in return. Frosty scrutinised the tablet carefully. "I don't get it. I'm not boasting or anything, I don't mention combat at all. I'm just telling her I'm okay."

"That's my point!" Angel motioned with her hands. "It's really obvious that you're just hiding stuff, trying to be a cool tough guy. She's your kid, she's not stupid. You haven't messaged her for a week because we were shot down and lost but you're acting like nothing happened."

Frosty tapped the datapad lightly against his hand, "Well, I can't tell her I nearly died. She's a child."

"Yes," Angel nodded. "But you showed me the messages she has sent. She's smart, she realises more than you let on. I'm not saying you tell her how close it got, but don't lie to her."

Frosty looked at the datapad carefully and nodded slowly, before putting it back down on the bedside table. He clutched at his head, a new headache forming. "Dank farrik, those stims messed us up real good."

Angel shrugged and ate another snack. Frosty's eyes narrowed. "She got them for me you know."

Angel grinned, "She got them for all of us, actually. Docs told her some salt would do good to replenish what we lost and we'd only be eating small amounts because of how our stomachs hurt."

"Oh." Frosty looked a little crestfallen. Angel noticed and threw a snack at his face, which arced perfectly and bounced off his cheek. "Hey!"

She shrugged. "What? You were drifting away there."

"It's just, I thought. I don't know. I figured the snack was a kind of peace offering."

"You figured you nearly die and she's suddenly cool with everything that happened?"

Frosty shook his head, "What? No, of course not. I just ... I don't know."

"Friendships take work, Frosty. You got to do that work before she's going to be willing to let it all go."

He thought about this for a moment, then snatched the packet away from Angel. In turn she shouted and, on unsteady legs, did her best to wrestle the packet back away from him. He yelped and they both started to laugh, even as Angel dragged the packet from his hand. He only stopped trying to grab the bag when he heard a cough from the doorway.

Gremlin stood there. Her face was ... unreadable. He could swear there was some sense of relief at seeing him conscious but also something else. "I came to see Jeni."

There was something about the way she said Jeni. A sense of ... possession. He found it strange, Gremlin was never one to be possessive. He knew Angel was her friend but that didn't mean ...

Oh, he thought to himself. Here he was, back in her life. Bringing back memories she didn't want or need. Now, even amongst her friends, he was there.

"Me and Angel were just ...uh.."

"He's a snack thief!" Angel declared but Gremlin didn't crack a smile.

"Want to stay and make sure we share properly?" Frosty said, trying not to look in Gremlin's eyes.

Her response was immediate and terse. "No, thank you."

After a moment of silence Angel stood unsteadily and Gremlin took her arm, helping her out of the room. Frosty watched them leave and just as they got to the door he spoke up again. "Thank you for the snacks."

"The doctor asked me to get them for all of you." Gremlin didn't turn around. "Think nothing of it."


Twelve days since Frosty's return

The A-wings of Corsair Squadron were far ahead, pinpoints against the depth of space as they headed for the target. Spectre's X-wings were chasing, holding formation as Krayt rapped out orders about how to respond when they reached the enemy.

Gremlin checked the position of the X-wings in her flight, but her attention was constantly drawn to her viewscreen where Corsair's formations were clearly marked. One craft, Corsair Three, caught her eye—always a dangerous situation for a pilot. Gremlin silently cursed to herself every time she noticed the tiny icon.

Dank farrik, why did you have to come back? I was doing fine without you!

Since Jack McCauley's return, Gremlin had noticed she was less focused, more preoccupied. Every time she turned a corner, walked into the mess, joined the crowds in the SSD or the ready room, he could be there. The knowledge was having an impact on her in other ways: she was finding it harder to fall asleep and when she did doze off, the Endor nightmares—which had been fading—were now joined by ones featuring Agent Zeno.

She'd never forgive Zeno for what she'd done. Not just to her, but to Frosty... she quashed that thought as soon as it arrived. He deserved what happened! The kriffer deserved it all!

Krayt's voice crackled in her headset, making her jump. She'd tuned out momentarily—a tiny distraction, but one that could be lethal in a dogfight—and to her embarrassment, she couldn't remember what Krayt had been saying. "Say again, Lead? I'm... having some comms issues."

Fortunately, her lie was accepted. Krayt repeated his instructions, adding, "Get your comms checked out once we're back at the Vigilant, Five!"

"Copy, Lead. Two Flight, on me!" Angel, Talon, and TP followed her swooping dive as they approached the furball where Corsair had already engaged the enemy. Gremlin focused on the capital ship, ignoring Corsair Three's icon in the thick of a group of TIEs. It was easier in the cut and thrust of combat but as the Renegades returned to the Vigilant, having reduced the Imperial capital ship to a hulk, she noted that Corsair Three was still showing on her screen.

Ignore him. That's all you have to do. Just ignore him and you'll be fine. Even as she registered the thought, an image of Agent Zeno intruded and she winced.


Fourteen days since Frosty's return

Gremlin was waiting for him.

There were only two places he was likely to go: his quarters, or the SSD. She doubted he'd choose his quarters as Junior was already there, having been chewed out by both his OC, Syntax, and then his father, Rogue Leader, for the inane prank of running naked through a parade on the Vigilant's flight deck. Frosty had made it worse by projecting a risqué holonovela—her holonovela—on the flight deck screens. Unfortunately, command staff had thought she had been part of the prank, at first. Her cheeks flamed at the memory.

At least Frosty had owned up... eventually. Admiral Tolden, the guest of honour at the parade, had accepted that both culprits would be dealt with appropriately, but Gremlin had her own plans. Knowing Frosty as she did, she guessed he'd probably head to the SSD to face the inevitable ribbing from the Wing, not to mention taking advantage of his situation to cadge a few drinks off unwary squadmates. She intended to say her piece first.

He came round the corner, hands in his pockets, eyes down. He must have been preoccupied because she was able to grab one arm and pull him into the cross-corridor, shoving him against the wall before he started to react. She was ready to block any instinctive punches but he controlled himself when he realised who it was.

Not that she cared about that. Dropping her hand from his arm, she used words to pummel him instead. "You kriffer! D'you know what happened? They thought it was me! I've just been made XO and they thought I'd risk it by doing that? You could've taken my name off the holonovela, at least! What the foito was going through your head, Frosty?"

He hung his head and mumbled something which included the word "sorry".

"I should kriffing hope you're sorry! But how d'you think I feel, knowing that the OC's think their newest XO is so naive, so unprofessional that she's capable of something as... as..."

"Is there a problem, Captain?"

Oh, she knew that voice. She'd heard it often enough over the past four years. Gremlin took a deep breath, stopped glaring at Frosty and turned to face Lock with a sweet smile.

"No problem at all, Captain. Frosty and I were just having a little... conversation. I think I've said everything I need to." She took a step backwards, giving the hapless Frosty space to escape. He had taken a couple of steps towards the main corridor before Lock spoke again, his words like a whipcrack.

"Shouldn't you be more respectful, Flight Officer?"

Frosty glanced from one to the other then snapped to attention, throwing a salute that was so precise it bordered on perfection. "Yes, sir! Sorry, Captain Gemilan. No disrespect intended. Permission to leave, ma'am?"

She wanted so much to tell Lock to butt out, to take his rectitude and stuff it right up his Corellian ass—and now they were the same rank, she could actually do that. But not here, not now. Returning Frosty's salute, she muttered, "Permission granted."

Lock's expression was austere beneath his shock of white hair. "Carry on," he remarked to Frosty and strode off down the corridor.

Thanks to the interruption, Gremlin's anger at Frosty had abated slightly, allowing her empathic senses to stir into life. She could feel a mixture of emotions from him, chief among them shame—a feeling so unexpected that she hurried after him as he stepped into the main corridor, his head down.

"Frosty—wait..." What she would have said next, though, she had no idea. He turned, his face set into hard lines, very different from the jokey exterior he usually presented to all aboard the Vigilant.

"You gave me permission. I'm going. Ma'am." There was ice in his tone, as befitted his callsign. He turned away; the doors to the SSD snapped open and a chorus of cheers and catcalls came from within as Frosty stepped inside, waving jauntily to his audience.

Gremlin was left in the corridor, silently cursing to herself.


Fifty days since Frosty's return

They reverted to realspace at the site of a traffic jam. Countless civilian ships and cargo cruisers were lined up, waiting for their turn to pass through the imposing shield gate. Jack McCauley had seen shield gates before in his life but this one was beyond what even he was used to.

His comm crackled to life, a broadcast from Captain Quelle aboard the Vigilant. "All fighters, this is the Captain. Engage as per your orders. And may the Force be with you."

Five A-wings peeled off from Corsair, Syntax leading a group that was going to join Rogue on an initial strike beyond the shield gate. "Corsair group Bravo, TIEs on intercept with group Alpha. Give them cover!"

Frosty watched Wolf's A-wing dive towards a group of TIEs that were on intercept with the strike group. The shield gate was closing rapidly, and the mixed Corsair and Rogue group were boosting towards the opening. Just a few TIEs in an intercept could cut them to shreds.

"Engage at will! Break by wingpairs!"

Frosty stayed close to Wolf, dialling in on a target Wolf marked. A TIE Interceptor burst open from their combined firepower and as he flew through the debris he watched the X-wings of Spectre swoop overhead.

Gremlin gripped the stick of her X-wing tightly, setting herself on an attack run. Vigilant's orders had been clear: Buccaneer and the fleet would take care of the cruisers whilst Spectre struck at the shield gate. Rogue and the smaller Corsair group had just got through but the sooner they could reinforce them, the better. She depressed the trigger and let loose with the torpedo, watching it impact against the colossal structure.

"Corsair 10, where are you?"

Yet again, Gremlin felt her attention drawn from the shield gate and looked across the battlefield to a lone A-wing, twisting in the dark.


Forty-nine days since Frosty's return

It was very late, or perhaps very early depending on your perspective, when Frosty entered the ready room. Decked out in his full flight suit, helmet under one arm, he sat heavily in one of the lounge chairs marked out for the officers aboard. Slapping the controls on the largest holo projector screen in the room, he watched as it fizzled into life, showing images of a stadium full to the brim as Imperial flags waved in the air. Over the crackly speaker a childlike voice sang the anthem of the Empire as a TIE flew overhead, fireworks erupting as it passed by.

"Welcome, my friends, to this afternoon's network special. It is the 200th anniversary of the Imperial Centre All Star League Grav-ball final! After months of incredible play by the best twenty teams that Imperial centre has to offer, we are down to our two finalists: the Coruscanti Skyriders versus the Southside Steelers. Before we begin our highlight reel of how these teams arrived, please join us and the players in observing a minute's silence in remembrance of our fallen Emperor."

Frosty checked his chrono. For the next three hours the single most important game of Coruscant grav-ball season was live. For the next three hours he was also still on stand-by, one of the four pilots on shift who had to be ready to scramble and launch in a few minutes should the red alert be raised. It had been quiet for the past few days and he offered multiple prayers to every god he knew the name of, hoping the next few hours remained silent too.

As he adjusted the battered Southside Steelers cap on his head, he threw a few nachos from the bowl in his other arm, passing harmlessly through the holo figure of the Emperor's hooded visage.

"Steelers say frak off! Show me the game!"

It was the shout which alerted Gremlin to Frosty's proximity. Halfway into the ready room, she froze, debating quickly whether to continue her quest for a glass of blue milk to help her sleep or just head back to her bunk and try to drop off the hard way. The large holo-projector was on the opposite wall from the door that led to the Spectre pilots' quarters, so at least Frosty hadn't seen her arrive; he was fixated on whatever sport he was watching. Gremlin rolled her eyes as she realised what was on the screen. Grav-ball—really? Now Zeltron naked wrestling, that was a sport!

She watched for a few seconds as the Corsair pilot juggled his bowl of food. Gremlin knew Frosty was on standby; she'd noted his name on the list of pilots on duty that evening, plus he was wearing his full flightsuit. Since his arrival on the Vigilant, she'd tried to avoid him as much as possible—it meant she didn't have to force herself to be civil. Apart from the time when she'd sought him out after he'd inadvertently dragged her into that prank between him and Junior... but then, she hadn't gone into that intending to be polite.

Kriff, it was frustrating to see him sitting there watching the viewscreen, looking comfortable and at home while she skulked in the shadows! Gremlin closed her eyes and shook her head briefly, trying to scramble her memories. Zeno was all his fault! And he's just sitting there watching kriffing sport while I can't sleep because of him! A loud cheer from the crowds on the viewscreen brought her back to the moment.

All at once, her plan fell into place: simple, plausible, perfect. If she couldn't sleep, he shouldn't get to watch his sportsball show—at least for a bit. The Zeltron took a stealthy step sideways, allowing the door to close behind her, and made for one of the electrical panels which Talon had rewired as part of their ready room remodelling project.

The panel hid a comms system for the ready room; it could patch into the ship-wide network if required, but was primarily intended to be used for briefings, alerts or other announcements to occupants of the large space. Gremlin double-checked that the message would only be broadcast to the room then spoke into the commlink, affecting the clipped tones of a bridge officer.

"Flight Officer McCauley to the flight deck, immediately! Scramble!"

"Dank farrik!" Grabbing his helmet McCauley threw the nacho bowl to one side, angry and distracted. "Sithspit! Kriffing Imps! Every time—EVERY TIME!"

He ran the long room, a tirade of swears following him. He punched a wall with anger, his knuckles smarting from the hit, pouring fuel on the fire internally. "Just one day! I just wanted one normal day!"

It was for this reason that it took him so long to realise there was no alarm siren, no flashing lights on the flight deck. The Mon Cal cruiser remained remarkably calm for a ship about to scramble fighters.

There, standing in the entranceway to the hangar, she stood. She was laughing. She was in her pyjamas.

"There's... there's no scramble, is there?" His face was flushed red and sweaty from the run in full flight gear. "Dank farrik, is nothing sacred to you!"

"Language!" Gremlin wagged one slim red forefinger at him, heedless of the gazes from the mechanics and flight crews who weren't used to seeing her clad in a skimpy vest and shorts, her normal night-time attire. Not that she minded: if she had to be awake, she might as well get a bit of attention, even though the hangar deck was karking cold.

She'd sprinted through the ready room, light on her feet compared to Frosty in his flight kit, and arrived barely out of breath while he was still looking around and realising that he'd been had. So when he turned to spot her watching, she was perfectly placed to get her revenge. Petty? Oh, yes. And worth every second.

"Sacred?" she repeated, taking a step towards the sweaty pilot but keeping her voice low. "I hold a lot of things sacred, Frosty. Family. Friends. Trust. Honour." She stopped just in front of him, offering a sweet smile that completely failed to reach her eyes. "Not grav-ball. But I guess that's just one of the differences between us, yes?" With a toss of her head that sent her long plait of purple hair flying, she turned and walked away from him, back towards the ready room.

Okay, maybe that was a bit much, she thought, mentally replaying her little speech, but he kriffing deserves it!

He let her go, biting his lip as his ears burned. Grav-ball, as his step father had drilled into him, was all of those things. It was family, friends, trust and maybe sometimes honour. It was also just a stupid sport that was mostly mired in stim-cheat allegations.

As he re-entered the ready room he picked up the nacho bowl, half its contents on the floor, and sank back into the chair. He watched Gremlin move to the fridge to get some blue milk. Frosty fought a brief battle with himself and lost. He spoke to the holoscreen.

"You know, back home, the final is a moment to get together with family and friends and celebrate. It's an event me and Connor would make time for every year. I can't say much about trust. Or honour." He offered the nacho bowl in her direction, choosing to focus on the screen so he didn't have to see her face.

She understood those special occasions all too well. She flinched at the mention of Connor, her hand trembling slightly, but the blue milk didn't spill. Stowing the container in the refrigerator, she picked up her glass but as she turned around she was faced with the bowl, half-full, held towards her. Frosty's gaze, however, remained firmly fixed on the holoscreen.

Gremlin had known Frosty for some time. Back in the days of Red Squadron, she would have understood his mute apology. Would, probably, have accepted it and then spent the next few hours arguing about the relative merits of grav-ball and Zeltron naked wrestling. But those days had ended when Frosty had abandoned them, taking his daughter and deserting from the Rebellion. Even though she knew he had re-enlisted with a clean slate, she couldn't wipe the past away as easily.

Neither could she ignore him completely, not in these circumstances. Like it or not, Frosty was back in her life and she'd have to adjust to that.

The spark of anger which had caused her to tease him had blown out. She wasn't tired anymore#8212; just cold, following her brief visit to the hangar deck. There was no point going back to bed until she'd warmed up; she might as well stay in the ready room for now. Taking a deep breath, she leaned forwards and selected one of the snacks, placing it in her mouth and savouring its crunch as she chewed, then swallowed.

After a short hesitation, she spoke again, her voice determinedly light. "So ... why was this," she waved one hand at the holoscreen, "so important to you, back on Coruscant? I thought you couldn't wait to get away from there."

He felt a lump grow in his throat as she took a snack from the bowl, but didn't dare to turn around. "So, it's like. Coruscant sucks, right? That place was awful to us. I didn't feel real rain until I was twenty years old. But it's all we had. And the Steelers. Well."

He pointed at a few of the players on the pitch. "That there's Ozmol Grander. Next to him is Reese Tallin. They're both from where I came from. You don't see many like us, on the holonet, you know? It's all classically trained actors from the topside who put on fake accents when they're playing us on shows. Mocking us."

As he spoke—or, more accurately, rambled—she trailed around the ready room, picking up a tie-dyed cushion and a couple of blankets from the chairs near the sprint shift bunks. Wrapping one round her shoulders to stop her shivering, she chose a seat that was within earshot, but far enough away from Frosty to indicate she was still displeased with him. She curled into the couch, which was once part of a Y-wing, and wrapped the second blanket around her legs and feet before reaching out for the blue milk.

Frosty was still talking. "It's hard to explain, Gremlin. When you don't like where you are, hells—you hate where you are. But it's still yours. It still belongs to you. You'll always have some love for it, because you don't spend your entire lifetime getting beat down. If you're real lucky, you only end up remembering the good stuff."

On the holo-screen, the Coruscant Skyriders scored first, sending their fans into a frenzy of screaming and chanting. The Steelers, shoulders slumped, returned to their starting positions to resume the game. The holo-scoreboard flashed with the name of the scorer and her playing position: center striker. Frosty shook his head.

"The Steelers are losers, down to the core. They reach the finals every five years or so and every time they kark it up. Every time. But, there's something I admire there, you know? Every time they try again. We cheer 'em on every time. Even though we know how it's gonna go, maybe—just maybe—this year it'll be different. This year they'll learn something and they'll change."

She listened, her gaze on the screen, feeling more than she heard. Her empathic abilities were chancy, but occasionally they worked overtime. This was one of these moments. Gremlin blinked back tears that weren't hers.

Frosty placed the bowl down carefully, trying to pull his hat over his eyes, but it was to no avail. There was no escape from her here. Eventually he turned to her, eyes red. "Do you believe that, Gemi? Do you think people can learn and change? Do you think... me and you... that I..."

He whipped his head back round to the holoprojector and started to stand. "You know, it's just a stupid game. A propaganda machine. Just old-fashioned tradition. I should go do something else."

"Sit. Down." Gremlin locked her gaze on Frosty. She was trembling now, not from cold, but from their combined emotions.

"We need to talk, you and I. I'm fed up trying to avoid you whenever I can or shutting my mouth and staying quiet when I can't. The Vigilant is newly commissioned so we're not likely to be posted to another squadron any time soon. We have to get this—stuff—between us sorted out," she waved her free hand to indicate the near-visible tension between them, "because I can't keep having nightmares about her again. I just... can't."

He looked her over, her eyes fierce. How much had he missed in the intervening years? Two years ago he'd left. Two years of fighting. Of death and destruction. When he was there each day had aged him years, eating away at him until he felt hollow. Yet here she was, still somehow doing it. Being honest, demanding honesty back. He hated it, he hated her for it because there was nothing more terrifying than being honest, especially with yourself.

The Steelers hat was removed carefully, placed on the holoprojector controls as he switched the feed off. "I'm really sorry. For everything. Zeno. For the things I said when I got back here. You got to understand, I really thought you were dead. Hells, I rejoined because I thought I owed it to you somehow. Thought I had to be better than I was, than I am." He shifted, his body full of anxiety. "Is there... something I can do? A question I can answer? I can't pretend the answers I have are any good..."

She was still processing his first few sentences. "You thought you... you owed it to me to come back? Because I was dead?" With a huff of exasperation, she leaned back in her nest of blankets, shaking her head. "Kark it, Jack, the time to come back was just after you'd left! Once you'd got Dearbhail to safety, of course—I'll never know how you persuaded Captain Mii'sui to let her stay aboard the Star." Memories of the Mon Cal cruiser, so like yet unlike the Vigilant, flooded her mind, including the last glimpse she'd seen of the ship: in flames, dying, sinking slowly towards a blue planet as the remnants of Red Squadron were ordered into hyperspace.

"But I guess you couldn't come back, not to the Star anyway, 'cause she was gone." The old ache was still there, albeit overlaid by fresh losses. Absently, she sighed and reached for the blue milk. "Here's something you can answer, then. What did you do while you were... away? And what made you come back? Other than thinking I was dead, of course." She watched him steadily through violet eyes as she took a sip of her drink, then cradled the glass while he replied.

He thought about it a little, the idea of the Morning Star being gone. That wasn't news to him, he'd heard through the rumour mill a few months after he'd left that she'd gone down. But that was after his time, nothing he could do about it. For the briefest moment he saw an opportunity to lie, to say he'd tried to find them all again but with their home destroyed he hadn't been able to track them down. It was a good lie, it would help her like him more.

He hated the truth. "Mostly we ran. We never spent more than a month in a single location. Zeno wouldn't give it up. We drifted from system to system, hitchhiked mostly. Dearbhail was good for the hitchhiking, takes a cold heart to say no to that kid."

His mind cast back to the stressful year and a half they'd spent on the road. He wasn't sure either he or his daughter had fully worked through everything they'd seen. "I took lots of jobs where they don't ask questions. Semi-legal mining operations, piracy, smuggling, deep space salvage, planetary scouting for mineral companies. Even tried farming once, on Toprawa where my Ma comes from, of all places."

He rubbed his eyes as it started to come back to him. "It leaves you very... vulnerable, living like that. Paycheck to paycheck, never being able to let anyone in. Didn't have a ship of our own, too easy to track that way. Some of the smarter ones, they realise that you don't have any other choice. That you'll do everything they say for little in return."

His gaze was distant now whilst he spoke slowly. He remembered the factory on Eskil, way out on the rim. Remembered leading the uprising when the manager said Dearbhail would be staying in his office. It wasn't the violence Frosty did that worried him really, it's that Dearbhail saw all of it. Saw what he was good at. "Things got... difficult. Dee was unsettled."

One day she had just started crying. In the middle of nowhere, broke down and hadn't stopped. He'd tried everything but she wouldn't stop. She just kept asking for Gremlin. For home. "I realised I needed help. So we went to Toprawa. I found my cousin and she looked after the kid whilst I went to Coruscant. Broke my ma out."

He said it like he was ticking off a checklist but breaking into Imperial Centre at the height of the Emperor's power to free his mother from an Imperial prison was probably the closest he'd come to death. "Found somewhere new. Settled down. Spent half a year there, found regular work. Found Dearbhail a school. She was happy." Still kept asking about you though.

Jack smiled faintly at the memory of Tito, the agent who had paid him a visit. If the galaxy was kind, that man was still alive out there somewhere. "I got paid a visit by a New Republic agent. Thought that was it, thought Zeno was going to drag me in and have me shot. Or worse. But somehow, apparently with the death of the Emperor, she'd given up. Retired. Can you imagine? Her, retired?"

She drew in a shaky breath. No, she couldn't imagine it. But somehow, it had happened... did it really mean Zeno was out of their lives?

He looked at her earnestly. "Gemi, I did rejoin because of you. Not just 'cause you were dead but... I could feel the galaxy changing. Everything was going to be different. When you first met me, my care for people was narrow. There was me and my brother. Everyone else got what they had coming. Then, eventually it was me, my brother, and you. Then I joined the Alliance."

He picked up the hat and started to fiddle with it. "Eventually that circle grew and I cared for Lock too. Then, little by little, even as I did the things I did for Zeno, you showed me a different way. You made caring for people in this galaxy seem as natural as breathing. You could always see the best in people, always did good by them, always believed in them. I thought the Alliance was foolish, you can't defeat the Emperor. He's always going to be there. All you can do is run away."

He put the hat down carefully again. "Eventually, Gemi, you made me believe, in all of it. In each other. I grew to care for all of Red, for the Alliance, for everything. I loved them."

Against her will, driven by her empathic link with Frosty, she smiled—a proper smile, not a cynical twist of her lips. These were genuine words, genuine emotions. They brought back memories of Red Squadron, of friendship and family and trust. Feelings that had been rekindled since the squad joined Renegade Wing and became part of another community. Another family.

But even as she shared his thoughts, Frosty's mood turned darker. "I became frightened. I believed but I didn't think we would win. How could we? You can't beat the Empire. It's everything, everywhere. I couldn't bear the thought of it, of seeing everyone I loved... die."

She shivered at the pain in his voice and in his mind, knowing what was coming next.

"Zeno and me and you... happened. I knew after that I couldn't come back. I'd hurt my family, there's no return from that. So I ran. But then, years later on a scrap run, I found your nameplate from a B-wing. From Endor. It was like... like there was this crack in my foundations. Slowly, over days, it grew bigger and bigger and bigger."

He looked at Gremlin again, his eyes completely bloodshot, tears rolling down. "I thought that I'd lost you. That it could have been different if I was there. I'm a damn good pilot and Dearbhail deserved to live a life free of the Empire and now with the Emperor and Vader gone it could actually happen. I could make that difference, that I should have been there to make that difference all along."

He leaned back in the chair, exhausted. A faint smile crept on his lips. "Or maybe I just came back cause they started paying us properly."

She used a corner of the blanket to swipe tears from her cheeks. They were not sparked by Frosty's emotions, but hers—or at least, she thought they were hers. Empathy was a tricky beast at times. She didn't want to speak Zeno's name; retired or not, the woman still retained too much power over their memories. Eventually she met Jack's gaze, her own eyes still damp from tears.

"I wish you'd told me that earlier, Jack. Told all of us, all the Reds. A holomessage, a comms call—anything! Just so we'd know you and Dearbhail were safe and you hadn't abandoned us because you didn't believe in the Rebellion any more. Yes, you'd hurt your family, but we could have worked things out together. It was not knowing that was the worst." She sighed, reaching out to put her half-drained glass of blue milk back on the table. "And then, after Endor, when we all ended up in Renegade Wing, you came back as if nothing had happened..." she shook her head, wisps of hair escaping from her loose braid as she re-lived the moment. Zeltron pheromones transmitted her emotions to Frosty. "I'm sorry I gave you another black eye. Lock's one was enough. I should've kicked you in the balls instead—like I almost did that night on Rainworld, remember, when you said I should run away with you?"

He felt his shoulders relax. He'd forgotten how good it felt to talk to someone, especially to her. He lost focus for a second thinking of a different life, if she'd taken him up on his offer that rainy day. Perhaps they'd be halfway across the galaxy now, rich and in better shape. Less traumatised at least. But at what cost? Gremlin and he were good at what they did, even if it did cost them personally. How many operations could have failed, who of his friends might now be dead in their stead?

He shook his head to clear the thought. He had learned to accept this part of himself, always looking to another horizon, to run from his problems. It was part of who he was, part of his survival system. But that didn't mean he was going to give in to those impulses anymore.

"Aye, you're right, I should have contacted you. At the time I told myself it was too dangerous, with Zeno. But really... I was ashamed. I couldn't face what I'd done. Feels like a different life now." Placing the ragged cap on his head he stretched, tension leaving his body. "Maybe in some ways I ain't changed that much."

A reluctant smile crept across her face. "I hear things have changed, though. You've got a boyfriend now?" The smile grew as Frosty shifted in his chair, discomforted by the sudden switch of subject. "Yes, Jado and I talk. He's a sweet boy, Jack. Please treat him well. He doesn't deserve to be hurt by you." Her voice caught as she added, "Don't make the same mistake twice."

Those words stung him more than any other she had ever said. "Aye, well. Maybe I am changing. You're right about Jado, he deserves better than I have been."

It had been so long since they had talked. Almost she could imagine they were back in Red Squadron again, the shared sense of camaraderie binding them together, or—fast-forwarding to present time—sharing a drink with their new squadmates of Renegade Wing in the SSD. Change could happen, yes—in time. A sense of familiarity crept over her, reinforced by the emotions spilling from Frosty, and she finally felt safe enough to relax in his presence. Slowly, imperceptibly, her eyelids drooped and sleep, much-needed, claimed her at last.

Leaning forward again Frosty switched on the holoprojector; the match springing to life again. One of the Steelers had broken into a run and was getting closer and closer to the scoring line. Leaping to his feet, the nachos falling to the floor, Frosty punched the air before immediately sinking back to his seat as the player was tackled to the ground. "Shavit, did you see that? They nearly made it!"

Gremlin didn't respond and Frosty turned, realising she was asleep. Smiling, he knocked the projector volume control knob down a couple of notches. "They nearly did it, Gemi. Nearly."

He loved her, he realised. He had for a long time. More than in a romantic sense. She might never see him again in the same light but he wouldn't ever be able to break that bond. Tonight was proof of that.

Frosty looked towards the holoprojector again. The Steelers seemed different today. They carried themselves with pride, their shoulders high. The score was different today too, dead even. The referee signalled, the match began again and Frosty leaned in, watching eagerly. "Come on, you bastards. You can do it this time.

"This time it can be different."


Back in the battle

Frosty activated his booster, rocketing past the control tower of the shield gate, rattling the structure with his proximity. Inside his cockpit he was drenched in sweat, his fingers starting to numb from where he gripped the control stick so tightly. For the longest time he'd known he was good at this, real good at it, good enough to get himself out of most scrapes. But right now, as he shunted energy back into his shields leaving his laser cannons empty, he was up against it.

He hugged the gigantic ring structure, diving in and around the towers, power modules and defensive blaster cannons that littered the surface. As he moved around one tower, another immediately reared into view. Frosty cut the throttle and hauled back on the stick, feeling the bottom of his craft scrape against the metal structure. A wailing siren started in the cockpit as his view filled with the chasing TIE that now had him head-on. No shields, hull damaged, head to head with a TIE Fighter in an A-wing... he wasn't getting out of this one. Time slowed as his hands flew down to the ejection lever, a life-saving impulse that had kept him alive when so many other similarly skilled pilots had lost theirs. But he knew, in this instance, he wouldn't reach it in time.

The TIE exploded and a neon blue and black X-wing flew through the wreckage. Frosty let out a breath of relief as he sagged in his seat, his comm coming alive. "Come on, Frosty, you're no rookie. Don't ever leave your wingmate behind!"

Gremlin smiled inside her X-wing at the embarrassment she could feel radiating off Frosty, even in the middle of battle. She shook her head, keying her comm again. "Stick with me for now."

Frosty double clicked his comm in response but Gremlin was elsewhere, listening in to the Vigilant comms officer. Grimacing, she opened her comm. "Spectres, Vigilant is having problems with shield gate. We need to hit the north side power regulator—her laser cannons aren't accurate enough."

"It's no use!" Talon sounded under pressure. "Their anti-starfighter cannons in that area are too fast. We need the Corsairs to sneak in with their targeting jammers."

"No good." Wolf's voice was distinct even through the comm. "Armour on that thing is tough. It needs to be proton torpedoes."

Gremlin vented her frustrations on a TIE Interceptor that was trying to lock on to Frosty. But instead of offering thanks, he sounded as if he was thinking. "We could piggyback it."

Wolf laughed a little nervously. "Frosty, you hit your head? What the heck is 'piggybacking'?"

Gremlin felt trepidation fall over her as she answered, "The A-wing goes first, masking the X-wing's radar presence. The A-wing slash, but in reverse."

No one answered for a while but eventually Krayt filled the silence. "To make that work the X-wing would have to be really close to the A-wing's stern—practically nose to tail. Impossible to pull off."

"Not impossible," Frosty answered, matter-of-factly. "Very difficult, but possible if you've practised the move before. Just requires coordination and good—"

"—communication," Gremlin finished his sentence, already goosing her throttle forward. "Okay, lead the way."

Wolf again spoke up. "Wait, you and Frosty? Are you sure about this?"

"Yes!" Frosty and Gremlin answered in unison. Gremlin smiled a little as Frosty took the lead and she carefully tucked her nose in behind him. "We've done it once before. A few years ago..."

Krayt sounded confident again. "All right. Corsair 9 and Spectre 5, begin your run. We'll keep the TIEs busy. Good luck."

In unison they dove down, down, down, down towards the blazing towers of the shield gates defence cannons. All it requires is good communication. Good communication and a lot of luck...

Frosty spoke first. "Okay, here we go..."


After the battle

That battle was over, but there would be another one soon. For now, the pilots of Renegade Wing used their downtime in the way that suited them best. Shadow and Rogue sparred in a corner of the gym, surrounded by Marines who cheered them both on. Gnoizic sat on his bunk, methodically stripping down his favourite blaster for cleaning; Talon was in the ready room, playing hologames with Dragon as Silence gave them both pointers on how to win—she was always right. Wolf locked the door to his quarters and settled down to write another page or two of his novel. But most of the pilots gravitated to the SSD, to drink and talk and relive the battle, celebrating their own survival while remembering those who were no longer there.

The party was well underway by the time Gremlin arrived. Her new role as Spectre XO meant she had duties after action: damage reports to review, injury lists to tally, information to pass to Krayt so he could complete his own set of tasks. She ordered a Zeltron spiced wine from Iggy and took a seat at the end of one of the larger tables, exchanging smiles with Angel as they raised their glasses in a silent toast to their continued existence.

Frosty felt warm and expansive as he returned from the fresher, Bulldog's finest bourbon aglow in his stomach. The clientele had shifted in his absence; BattleDog had taken the seat at his previous booth but he thought he spotted a gap at a table populated mostly by Spectres and Rogues. Not that it mattered who sat where; he had friends in all the squadrons—and beyond.

Claiming a whisky from Iggy and charging it to Junior's tab—he was sure his friend wouldn't mind—Frosty swaggered up to the group. "You got space for a speed freak here?" he began, but as people glanced up at his arrival he realised that she was there, sitting in a corner next to Angel, half-hidden by the others.

For a horribly long second there was silence.

The tension between Gremlin and Frosty was well-known; it had publicly exploded on the very day he returned, when she had felled him with a well-aimed punch. Since then, everyone aboard the Vigilant knew that they avoided each other where possible and stayed coolly polite when they could not. Sure, they had cooperated earlier during the shield gate battle—that was different; everything was put aside for a furball. But nobody else knew about their conversation in the ready room the previous evening.

Frosty managed a convincing smile. "Eh, maybe another time. Looks like there isn't enough room after all."

Gremlin had been staring at her spiced wine, the heat from the drink warming her hands, Frosty's phrases from their last meeting filling her mind. I should have been there to make that difference, all along... I grew to care for all of Red, for the Alliance, for everything. I loved them... Do you think people can learn and change? As he started to leave, she spoke. "Frosty..."

Slowly, he turned to meet her gaze. The onlookers were silent witnesses to whatever happened next.

She took a breath. "There's a space here." Gremlin nodded to the empty seat on her right-hand side. "You might as well stay and find out what real pilots do for a living."

There was a chorus of ooohs and teasing comments as the others followed her lead. Frosty gave as good as he got, taking his seat as the banter continued. He glanced sideways at Gremlin, who gave him a small smile and raised her wineglass towards him. "To change?" It wasn't her normal infectious grin, but at least it was a start.

Frosty remembered the expressions on the faces of the Southside Steelers players and for the first time in months, he felt optimism start to stir.

"To change," he agreed and touched his glass to hers.

The End

A Timeline of POVs that took place in the background of this POV: