Wes devoured the soup a medtech had brought him, pausing just long enough between slurps to ask, "How come you look so miserable? I'm the one who spent a day and a half in bacta."
"Twenty hours is not a day and a half. It's not even a day." Hobbie sat slumped in the small hospital room's only chair. His hair was back to normal, no longer that shade of unnatural black. It was much easier to look at him without bursting into laughter this way.
"Do you have to wear that hat?"
"You bought it for me." Wes smiled up at the orange brim. He hadn't taken off the fantastically horrid hat since Hobbie had presented it to him that morning. It matched the X-wing flight suit perfectly, and he'd decided that one of his new hobbies as a civilian would be campaigning Starfighter Command to incorporate it into the uniform. "Answer the question. What's got you so miserable?"
Hobbie shrugged and fiddled with the cuff of his jacket. "I don't know."
Wes looked at him, then set his soup bowl on the table beside his bed. "Yes, you do. You have your specific gloom face on, not the general gloom face you usually wear."
The other pilot tried to glare at him, but the gloom swallowed it before it fully formed, and Hobbie turned his attention back to his cuff. This was serious.
"Well," Wes said, "I'm not dead, so it can't be that. I suppose it could be residual guilt from letting me get kidnapped in the first place, but that's a different face. You hate Soler, so you're not upset about your vacation getting cut short. So unless another catastrophe happened while I was in bacta that you haven't told me about, there's really only one cause for it."
Hobbie gave him a familiar look, one of mixed wariness and resignation, and Wes knew he'd won.
He smiled. "Karoly."
A queer spasm Wes had never seen before crossed his friend's face. "She's gone," Hobbie said quietly.
Wes stopped in the process of reaching for his soup. "Oh, come on. She's not dead."
Hobbie frowned. "I know that. But I went to her apartment while you were under, and it was cleaned out. The furniture was still there, and my stuff, but everything of hers was gone. The only thing left was a bottle of dye remover in the 'fresher with a note that said, 'For your hair.'"
Hobbie straightened in his chair, his jaw tightening. "It's not funny, Wes. She just left. Without—" He dropped his gaze to the cuff of his jacket and started fiddling with its button.
"Without saying goodbye?" Wes asked. "Without pledging her undying love for you?"
"Stop it." Hobbie pushed himself out of the chair and began pacing the room.
"Hmm. You're right. It's not funny at all. But it is fixable." Wes put his arms behind his head and leaned back against his pillows.
The suspicion in Hobbie's face did more for Wes's spirits than any number of gallons of bacta. "You're not setting me up with any of your nurses," he said.
"Definitely not," Wes replied. "I'm keeping them for myself."
He waited for curiosity to win out. It took twelve seconds.
"Then how are you going to fix it?" Hobbie crossed his arms and looked defiant.
"This is the high security ward, you know. Comes with being famous. It also comes with the right to approve or reject guest requests." He watched with a smile as the hope swamped Hobbie. "I only recognized two of the names on my list, and one of them was you. I imagine the rest are reporters dying to interview me."
Karoly had great timing, Wes gave her that. He'd barely finished his sentence when the door to his room swished open and she walked in. He settled back to watch the show.
She smiled at him. "Janson. Nice hat."
He grinned. "Hi, Karoly. Good to see you again. I like your hair. Didn't get to say that yesterday."
"Thanks." Her eyes drifted toward Hobbie, who'd frozen when the door opened and stood gaping at her. Karoly's smile widened, and Hobbie recovered enough to return it.
"I thought you'd left," he said.
Karoly pushed a strand of hair across her forehead. "I had some final details to wrap up, a report to make. Then I spent some time in the Imperial Embassy's bacta tank. I just got out last night."
"Me, too," Wes said. Neither of them paid him any attention. His eyes moved from one to the other, and he felt his smile become a grin. This was so much better than he'd hoped.
Hobbie frowned and took half a step toward her. "Bacta? You got hurt?"
"They weren't interested in stunning me, and the range on my detonator wasn't as much as I'd have liked, considering the amount of explosives they'd accumulated."
"I thought, when your comlink cut off—"
"Sorry about that. The explosion fried it, cheap as it was."
They stared at each other for a moment, and Wes stayed very still.
Karoly snapped out of it first and turned toward him. "How are you, Janson? Everything put back together?"
"Mostly. A few places are still sore. You can kiss them better, if you'd like." He winked.
She didn't even roll her eyes, as they were too busy slipping back to Hobbie and then to the floor. Wes wanted to crow.
"Well, I should probably go. My ship leaves soon." She backed toward the door, and Hobbie took a jerky, involuntary step forward. "It's good to see you looking well, Janson," she said, her voice brisk and professional. "And you, Major Klivian."
The door opened behind her, and she turned.
"Will we see you around?" Hobbie asked, unable to hide his desperation.
Karoly paused halfway through the door and looked over her shoulder. Her gaze flicked over Wes and stopped on Hobbie. "I'm sure."
And then she was gone.
Wes watched Hobbie stand in the middle of the room for several seconds, then back slowly to his chair and sink into it.
"You slept with her!" he declared, wriggling with glee.
Hobbie's entire body twitched, nearly knocking the chair over. "What? No!"
"Then what was all that awkward teenage posturing a moment ago? That was a classic post-pre-combat sex encounter. I've lived through my share, though I handle them a bit better than you. You just need practice."
"I didn't sleep with her!"
"I might have kissed her a bit."
"Just a bit?"
"Yes," Hobbie said, obviously lying.
"So no pre-combat make-out sessions in her apartment?"
Hobbie looked appalled. "How much have you thought about this?"
"It's boring here."
"I'm going to leave now."
When Hobbie exited the hospital, Karoly leaned against a square pillar a few meters from the entrance. He paused when he saw her, nearly getting run over by a repulsorchair carrying an elderly woman. After apologizing to the woman for blocking the exit, he walked toward her.
"I thought your ship left soon," he said.
"It does. In about thirty minutes. I wanted—" She stopped. "I should have left ten minutes ago, but I was hoping…I guess I was hoping you'd follow me out."
Hobbie nodded, trying to sort through the mix of disappointment and elation. "What did you mean by 'nice'?"
Her eyes cut away from his for a second. "If you don't know what 'nice' means by this point, Hobbie, I'm not sure I can explain it to you."
"Come on. You're leaving in a minute. You never have to see me again if you don't want to. Just tell me what you meant."
"I never said—" She stopped, took a breath. "I meant this."
She stepped forward and kissed him.
He pulled her closer, glad Wes's window looked out the back of the hospital. She pulled away after a long moment and looked at him.
He kissed her again. "If," he agreed.
She smiled and stepped back. "Bye, Derek."
She turned and walked away. He watched her go.
Coruscant. Galactic Peace Day.
Hobbie tugged at the collar of his dress uniform and watched the diplomats and politicians mill about the state ballroom of the former Imperial Palace. The room sparkled with jewels and military insignia, and his eyes skipped over the crowd, hoping to land on a familiar face.
He jumped and turned to Wedge, who stood next to him. "What? Yes. What?"
Wedge smirked. "I said at least we'll never have to wear these uniforms again. Where were you?"
"Here." Hobbie winced. If he couldn't be more convincing than that, he deserved what came next.
"Well, obviously." Wedge's smirk grew and took on a distinctly wicked twist. Hobbie hated when Wedge got Corellian. "I meant, where was your head?"
Wes bounded up, holding a plate in one hand. He seemed to have piled three of everything from the buffet onto it in a massive mound of food. "Hobbie lost his head? And you're surprised?"
Hobbie glared, but before he could say anything, Wedge continued.
"He's been staring into space for five straight minutes. I haven't been so thoroughly ignored in years."
"Except by Iella," Wes added.
Wedge lifted an eyebrow. "I'm magnanimously choosing to make fun of Hobbie right now, Wes, instead of you, despite how easy it would be after falling off a building and getting yourself kidnapped."
Wes raised the hand not holding his plate. "We're not using the word 'kidnapped.' It implies that I'm a six-year-old."
Wedge blinked at him.
"Which," Wes admitted, "probably wasn't the strongest argument I could have made. Weren't we talking about Hobbie's wandering head?" He popped a cream puff into his mouth.
"What about Hobbie's head?" Tycho asked, walking up to stand next to Wedge. "What'd I miss?"
"Hobbie's acting distracted." Wedge gestured toward the ballroom. "Crowd-gazing rather than acknowledging my scintillating conversational skills. I want to know why."
"Oh, I can answer that," Wes said around a mouthful of meatballs. Hobbie shot him a warning glare, but it bounced off. "He's looking for his girlfriend."
"Girlfriend?" Wedge and Tycho echoed, identical looks of surprise on their faces.
Hobbie said, "Wes, I'm going to dump that plate of food over your head, and everyone will believe me when I say you did it yourself."
"You have a girlfriend?" Tycho asked. "Since when?"
"Thank you for acting so surprised," Hobbie grumbled. "And I don't have—"
Wedge held up both hands. "Wait — is it that mystery woman from Soler?"
Wes nodded. "She's hot. Scary, but hot."
Hobbie said, "Please—"
"Not super hot," Wes continued, "but a solid seven-point-five on a scale of ten."
"Scary how?" Wedge asked.
"She could destroy all four of us with her eyes closed and the use of only one of her limbs." Wes held out his plate. "Food? I recommend anything on a stick."
"You should have seen them at the hospital." Wes wiped a spot of sauce from the corner of his mouth with his thumb. "They were so cute. Like little teenage Ewoks trying their mating dance for the first time behind the treehouse."
Wedge groaned. "That is not an image I wanted in my brain, Wes."
Tycho whistled. "And he's this far gone in only, what, a week and a half? Two weeks? That's fast." He looked impressed, which was somehow worse than looking surprised.
Hobbie buried his face in his hands. "I hate you all."
"What?" Wes poked his arm. "Was she supposed to be a secret girlfriend or something? Because that never goes over well. Trust me."
Hobbie lifted his head and shouted, "I don't have a girlfriend!"
A dozen people in the area turned to look at him with startled expressions on their faces. Wes started laughing and choked on a piece of fruit.
Hobbie closed his eyes. "Someone shoot me."
"I can, if you'd like."
"You might want to hold off killing yourself," Wes said. "Karoly's here."
Hobbie's eyes snapped open. Wes pointed, and Hobbie looked toward the entrance of the ballroom. At the top of the stairs, President Gavrisom stood next to the man Hobbie recognized as Admiral Pellaeon of the Imperial Navy. Leia Organa-Solo stood on Gavrisom's other side, and next to the Admiral stood three men Hobbie took to be Moffs.
Behind and slightly to the left of Pellaeon stood Karoly.
Gavrisom was talking, but Hobbie wasn't paying attention. He watched Karoly's eyes flick around the room, alert and watchful. Jewels sparkled in her hair, and her dress was demure, meant to blend in rather than stand out.
Behind him, his friends held a whispered conversation, which Hobbie tried to ignore.
"Where is she?"
"There — in the brown dress behind the admiral."
"What's her name?"
"Solid eight. Wes judges too hard."
"I judge conservatively because you never know when you're going to meet someone hotter."
"I can't believe the Taanab air fleet wants you to train their pilots. Those poor kids."
"How does my caution in handing out tens to every woman I meet translate into bad teaching skills?"
"It does, somehow. I'm sure of it."
"Maybe it'll make me a better instructor. Ever thought of that? And I've taught before."
"An assignment you didn't keep long, as I recall."
"Knock it off, you two. We have more important things to worry about, like this mystery woman. Why is she up there? Is she supposed to be?"
"Sithspawn. Look where she's standing, just behind and to the side of—"
"She's the admiral's bodyguard? What was she doing on Soler?"
"Hell if I know. I was unconscious for most of the trip. Ask him."
Karoly's eyes moved across the crowd, and Hobbie waited, hoping she'd see him. He wished he were taller, that he wasn't one uniform among many, that there were less people in the room. Her gaze brushed against him and hovered for an instant. She inhaled, gave him a small smile, and then moved on, doing her job.
His friends' whispers, which had quieted for a moment, burst back into frenzied being. Hobbie realized he was smiling.
"Did you see that?"
"All right, Hobbs!"
"How do you think that'll work? I mean, if she's an Imperial—"
"I don't think she is. I gathered she was more of a work-for-hire type."
"I told you she was scary."
"But still — how does that work?"
"They'll get themselves sorted eventually. Iella and I managed it."
"Yeah, and it only took six years."
"Shut up, Wes."
"Hobbie'd better not take that long. I can't handle the moping."
Speeches done, the figures at the top of the stairs moved down into the ballroom, Karoly sliding forward to take the admiral's arm. They dispersed into the waiting crowd, shaking hands and smiling.
Hobbie turned and faced his three friends, who grinned knowingly at him. "Go vape yourselves," he said. Then he turned and moved toward the front of the ballroom.
Wedge's voice followed him. "Wow, he does have it bad."
Hobbie navigated through the conversational groups, shaking off a few well wishers who wanted to congratulate him on his forthcoming retirement. A small orchestra seated in one of the balconies began to play, and a portion of the room filled with twirling couples. Hobbie skirted the edge of the dance floor, his eyes focused on his goal. Admiral Pellaeon was tall, his white hair easy to track through the crowd. As Hobbie moved closer, Karoly's short, dark hair came into view.
He stopped a meter away and waited for the admiral to finish his conversation with a New Republic senator, then cleared his throat. The admiral turned, bringing Karoly with him, and looked at Hobbie with polite interest.
"Sir," Hobbie said automatically. Something about Pellaeon made him want to salute.
Karoly moved slightly forward and placed her other hand on the admiral's arm as well. He inclined his head toward her, his gaze still on Hobbie. "Admiral, this is Major Derek Klivian. Major, Admiral Gilad Pellaeon."
Recognition flashed in Pellaeon's eyes, and he extended his hand. "Major. Karoly's told me about your part in the events on Soler. Thank you for your assistance."
"My pleasure." He shook the admiral's hand, but he couldn't stop his gaze from sliding toward Karoly. "I wondered, sir, if I might ask your associate to dance."
A hint of a smile touched Pellaeon's face. "I have no objections, Major, but you will have to ask her permission as well."
Karoly looked at Pellaeon, suddenly tense. "Admiral, I'm not sure that's wise. My purpose in being here—"
"Can be adequately filled by Captain Lund for a few hours," the older man interrupted smoothly. "After your work on Soler, I think you deserve a night off. Wouldn't you agree, Major?"
"Yes, sir." Hobbie suppressed a smile.
Pellaeon turned toward the corner of the room, lifted a hand, and a young man in an Imperial uniform moved their direction. The admiral gently removed Karoly's hands from his arm and faced her. "Your concern and dedication to your job are touching, Miss D'ulin, and I have no doubt you will keep half an eye on me all evening anyway, but I'm relieving you of duty for the night. I'll see you at 0900 tomorrow morning."
"Thank you," Karoly said stiffly.
Captain Lund appeared at the admiral's side. "Sir?"
"I wondered if you'd be willing to take Miss D'ulin's post this evening, Captain."
"Of course, sir."
Pellaeon nodded and turned to Hobbie. "Delighted to meet you, Major."
Hobbie straightened to attention. "And you, Admiral."
Pellaeon moved away, Lund at his side, and Hobbie looked at Karoly.
"You know that wasn't about you, right?" she asked.
"I figured, but confirmation is nice."
"Lund's a good kid. He's got good instincts, but he doesn't—" She closed her eyes, then opened them again. "I'm sorry. You don't want to hear about this."
He moved half a step closer. "I don't mind. But I'm more interested in knowing if you'd like to dance."
Karoly turned her head, her eyes following the admiral. "Nothing's changed, Hobbie. I leave tomorrow, go back to work. And after this job I move to another job, and after that job, another. And you—"
He reached out, turned her face toward him, and kissed her. From somewhere behind him came an exultant, "Ha!" and Hobbie made a mental note to hide every last pair of Wes's trousers the next day.
He pulled back and held Karoly's face in both hands so she couldn't look away. "And I'm supposed to buy a cabin in the woods on some remote planet and write my memoirs. I know all that. And I don't care."
"Apparently," Karoly said, the word half gasp.
"All I'm asking is to see you again after this. That's it – I just want to see you again." He paused and searched her face. "Okay?"
Her smile came slowly, but it didn't stop until her entire face shone. "Yes. I'd like that."
"Okay." Hobbie stepped back and held out his hand. "Dance?"
She slipped her fingers through his and followed him to the dance floor.