Chapter Seventeen

After completing their thirty-second micro-jump out of the system, Hobbie and Ecla came out of hyperspace in the middle of nowhere; Essen's star was a distant orange pinprick of light somewhere behind them. While Argh plotted the next leg of the trip back to their rendezvous point, Ecla tried to make herself a little bit more comfortable. It required a bit of movement and coordination on both their parts, but eventually she was able to find a little space to stretch, before settling down on his lap again.

Hobbie removed his gloves and shoved them between his seat and the panel to his left. He shifted his legs slightly beneath Ecla, trying to find a more comfortable position of his own. He also found the silence a little uncomfortable; now that they were relatively safe, he wasn't sure what to say to her. Ecla smiled over her shoulder at him as he moved behind her and his face flushed with heat, which spread quickly through the rest of his body. He took a deep breath.

"Uh...Kinda cramped in here, isn't it?" he said, silently berating himself for stating the blatantly obvious.

"Rather be here than facing an interrogation droid. Or dead."

"You have a point there. Are you feeling okay? How's your head?"

"Pounding nicely, thanks, especially after that wild ride." She reached up with her hand to tentatively touch the gash on her forehead, which had finally stopped bleeding. "By the way, that was the best evasive flying I have ever seen."

Hobbie managed a smile. "We got lucky, that's all." He leaned to his left and saw that the cloth tied around her arm to stop the bleeding has been shoved further down her arm with all of the movements during the battle. He loosened it to move it back up, and she gasped and bit her lower lip as a piece of the fabric caught, pulling at the torn flesh. "Sorry," he murmured, getting the makeshift bandage back into place.

"S'okay," she replied, releasing her bottom lip as she twisted, managing to partially face him.

Hobbie raised his left hand and wiped away the tear starting to roll down her cheek with his thumb. He fingered the contours of her face, a face lingering close to his own. He could feel her breath warming his cheeks every time she exhaled, and he found himself waiting for each breath. Get a grip, he thought. It's the after-effects of the rescue. All that adrenaline... But he couldn't help it. Here, in the tiny confines of the cockpit, he felt closer to her than he'd been to anyone in a long time. He wanted to be in this place with her more than anything else at that very moment.

He remembered that his hand was still on her cheek. With or without conscious thought, he couldn't be sure, it slipped down to her shoulder as her hand moved up his arm. Slowly, he pulled her towards him, her lips tantalizingly close to his-

Argh blatted at Hobbie, startling him. Ecla pulled away and untwisted to face the nose of the fighter, studiously watching the main screen. "What is it, Argh?" Hobbie sighed, trying to gain control of the heat pulsing through his body, mingling with the intoxicating rush that adrenaline always brought. The droid hooted a curt response, which he could just read over Ecla's shoulder. "All right, I'm bringing us around."

Reaching around his fellow Rogue, Hobbie took the flight stick and proceeded to make his run to lightspeed. He thought that it was strange how the stick felt different in his bare hands. He shook his head slightly, trying to focus his thoughts on the task at hand.

Ecla leaned against him again, the back of her head leaning on his left shoulder. As he leaned forward to look at the fuel and pressure readings, her hair brushed against the bare skin of his cheek. By the time the stars elongated into the long tunnel of hyperspace, Ecla had fallen asleep is his arms.

Hobbie sighed contentedly, wrapping his arms around her waist, and settled his cheek against the side of her head for the forty-minute flight.

Hobbie was startled awake by Argh's loud whistling. He felt a weight leaning against him and it took a couple of heartbeats to remember that it was Ecla. Then he remembered where he was.

"What is it, Argh? Are we coming out of hyperspace soon?"

His droid whistled an affirmative, doubling the size of the numbers slowly scrolling towards zero on the main screen. Hobbie shook his head to clear it, and waited to release the hyperdrive and cut in the sublight engines.

The tunnel of swirling light before him collapsed as they returned to normal space in the Noadd System. To his right was their small fleet, waiting at the rendezvous point for any stragglers. Since his comm unit wasn't working, he would have to rely on Argh to contact fleet control. "Argh, use your comm gear to get in touch with control and ask for permission to land as soon as possible. I'll get us as close as I can so you can reach them. Tell them there are two of us on board and one needs medical attention."

"Humph...medical attention?" Ecla mumbled, sitting up a little. Hobbie noticed from her profile as she glanced around that she was paler than before, her eyes still cloudy from sleep. "I think I need a whole new head."

Hobbie chuckled, tucking a strand of loose hair behind her ear without even stopping to think or worry about the action first. "We'll get you fixed up, good as new. I know for a fact that Starlight carries top quality bacta." He moved the X-wing towards the Mon Calamari cruiser, cautiously since his IFF was among the many systems still malfunctioning. His lower starboard engine was fluctuating wildly so he shut it down altogether, adjusting the power flow to the remaining three engines to compensate.

Argh tootled and beeped, and then instructions for landing scrolled across the screen. Hobbie turned the nose of his fighter towards the cruiser and began his approach to its main hangar. Ecla leaned heavily against him, and he couldn't tell if she was still awake or not. All he knew was that his legs had gone pretty numb from lack of movement, and he was looking forward to stretching them out. Although, he realized with a touch of embarrassment, he didn't really want to separate himself from Ecla.

He tried to push that thought aside and keep his eyes on the hangar as it loomed up before him. The small fighter passed through the magnetic containment field, and Hobbie cut in his repulsors, decreasing the power to the three remaining engines. He hovered for a moment, making sure the repulsor coils were still in working order, and then moved slowly forward towards the area set aside for him. A tech on the left side waved glowing batons, directing him to his landing spot. There were emergency personnel spread throughout the hangar, waiting for the two latecomers and the obviously impaired craft.

As his fighter settled to the deck with little more than a shudder, Hobbie saw Wedge and Tycho make their way towards him from where they had been standing to one side. He already knew that he was going to get in trouble-he'd disobeyed a direct order from not only one, but two superior officers-but Ecla was safe and alive, and strangely that was all that mattered to him at the moment. He'd take whatever punishment came because of his actions.

The canopy cracked and hissed as it opened, sending cool air and the sounds of the hangar flowing over Hobbie. "Ecla?" he said, giving her a slight shake. She sat up slowly, glancing around groggily. Her head drooped again, and Hobbie held her upright. There was a thud as a set of stairs with a small platform at the top made contact with the side of his ship. A medtech clambered up, knelt on the platform, and helped support Ecla. Techs and fire control personnel moved over the rest of his ship, spraying fire suppression liquid onto the smoking engine he'd been forced to shut down.

"I think she got a pretty nasty knock on the head and her left arm is injured," Hobbie told the medtech as he helped lift her from the cockpit. Other medics and droids gathered around with a repulsor bed and other various pieces of equipment, ready to take her to the medical bay.

Hobbie pulled off his helmet and let it drop towards his feet. He placed a hand on either side of the cockpit and levered himself up. Although a little unsteady, his legs took his weight. He inhaled a deep breath and clambered over the side and down the ladder, every step tingling agony as the circulation started to return.

Wedge and Tycho were waiting for him, arms folded across their chests, obviously upset.

"Upset? Of course I'm upset!" Rozrrom thundered, his voice magnified and echoed a dozen times by the acoustics of his cave-office. Larrdin sank a little lower into his seat.

"But sir, we did manage to-"

"If you value your life, you won't complete that sentence." Rozrrom held up a weary hand before blowing out a long sigh. "We were going to get them this time, Gherr. This was supposed to be the day Iwiped out Rogue Squadron. Why didn't that happen, hmm? Tell me why that didn't happen."

"Um, well..." Larrdin went through several possible answers in his head, pretty sure that all of them could get him shot. "Sir, they fled before your mighty display of power, like children afraid of-"

"Don't make me kill you instead, Gherr," Rozrrom warned sternly. He picked up a knife that had been sitting on his desk, the very one that Rends had been forced to sever his own ear with weeks before. It was still crusted with blood.

"Sir, I don't know why you didn't get to crush Rogue Squadron," he finally said. If Rozrrom really had his heart set on killing him, nothing he said now would prevent that.

"Finally, an honest answer," Rozrrom replied, stabbing the point of the blade into the surface of his desk. "I'm not sure I know what happened, either. There was obviously at least one team on the ground that I didn't know about, which caused considerable damage to the base, but without significant military losses. My guess is that they would have been much more of a hindrance if given more time. It was also obvious that the fleet hoped, as our spy told us, to catch us off guard here. Hmm..."

"Sir?" Larrdin asked, when Rozrrom remained silent.

"I can't help but think we would have been much better off if Querulous had been with us," he finally said, and Larrdin thought he looked almost...sad. Rozrrom didn't like to lose, and for him, this was very much a loss. That's why he had invited Larrdin into his office-he could console.

"Sir, need I point out that most of Querulous's TIEs were with us? If the fleet and Rogue Squadron had been determined to flee, they would have fled regardless."

Rozrrom nodded, but still looked dejected. "Yes, I suppose. But I can't help but feel that I made a tactical mistake by not having her here with us."

Larrdin shrugged slightly. "Querulous desperately needs the repairs she's undergoing, sir, not to mention that the forces we had were sufficient for the task. Also, we learned something about their tactics today, which we can apply to future battles. And, sir, I also needn't have to point out that fifteen of their craft were destroyed, as well as the fact that we still hold Essen IV. Not to mention that we ambushed them again, and that has to wreak havoc with their morale." He smiled, a predatory one. "They'll spend more time looking for that spy than planning what to do with us, sir. You can take advantage of that."

Rozrrom smiled, an echo of his Colonel's. "We'll crush them yet, Gherr. From outside or inside..."