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Hobbie opened his eyes when the door chimed. He stood up from the couch, walked over to the door, glanced out the viewport, and saw Princess Leia standing there with her bodyguards, the stealthy little gray aliens who accompanied her sometimes. Hobbie suspected they were always present wherever Leia went, but he only saw one occasionally. He slid the door open. "Princess Leia. Hi. How can I help you?" Hobbie smiled. "What are you doing here?"

Leia smiled. "Can I come in?"

"Yes, absolutely. Sorry. Would you care for something to drink? Please, take a seat," Hobbie offered as she stepped in. One of her guards followed her and the other stood ready at the door. The one that entered stood by the couch as Leia sat down.

"Yes, please. Do you have some turbofizz?" Leia asked.

Hobbie nodded and went to his kitchen, pouring them some drinks. The fizzy green drink settled in the glass while he carried it to her. Hobbie handed the drink to her and took a seat. "So, how can I help you?"

Leia took a drink and glanced at him. "Before we get into that… How have you been?"

"Good. Things are good. How’s the kids? Han? Luke?" Hobbie asked.

"Jaina took apart the washer the other day… and now it works so much better. I’m actually really impressed. Jacen, however, keeps bringing in strange animals, and while I understand he loves them so much, it’s not a great idea," Leia confided with a grin. "Han is good and Luke is…" She made a face and Hobbie snorted. "Luke is Luke."

"I’m familiar," Hobbie told her. "So… What can I help you with?"

Leia put down her drink. "I have a favor to ask you."

"Anything," Hobbie responded immediately.

"Maybe you should hear it before you say that," Leia told him with a wry look. "So, we have a treaty with Ralltiir." Hobbie stiffened at her mention of his homeworld. "The treaty itself is a neutral, we’ll trade and use your currency along with others. But we won’t join your New Republic. It’s time to re-negotiate and I’m hoping I can bring them in."

He gave her a dubious look. "Alright, how does this involve me?" Hobbie asked.

"When we reached out, the Council requested something for the preliminary meeting. It turns out your siblings asked to speak with you before we meet. I'm not trying to pry, but frankly, I was surprised to learn you have siblings," Leia told him, giving him a dubious look.

Hobbie winced. "Well, there is very good reason that no one actually knows. We do not get along. Why do they want to speak with me? They despise me."

"Mr. Klivian didn’t go into specifics. They made it seem like a private request but one that they did insist on. When I spoke with them over the holocomm, I got the sense that they really want to meet with you."

Hobbie looked at her in disbelief. "Not to sound like a dysfunctional droid, but they really hate me. It doesn’t make sense that they’d want this."

Leia frowned and touched his arm, gently. "I’m sorry. But they definitely insisted and won’t go to the table without speaking with you. The New Republic really needs this, Hobbie. If we can get Ralltiir to align themselves with us, it’ll deal a huge blow to the Empire."

Hobbie nodded, then leaned back on the couch and frowned deeply. He couldn’t conceive of a reason why his siblings would want to meet with him. Why the hell were they doing this? This treaty was vitally important, but he had no idea why they would demand to see him. "Are you aware of upper class Ralltiir culture?"

"A small bit. Birth order is very important. But I’m not sure what it all means," Leia commented. She glanced at him. "Would it be rude to ask what your birth order is?"

Hobbie hesitated. It would be best to be honest. "I’m fairly certain that it won’t be hard to guess. But I’m a Thirdborn," he said as he gestured towards himself. "My culture… Thirds are seen as a waste of resources. I’m a twin actually. My sister was born first. The only reason I survived was that my siblings were very sickly during our youth. So I was groomed to be both a Firstborn and a Secondborn just in case one of them died."

Leia looked vaguely horrified. He could see her open her mouth to say something. Hobbie met her gaze and realized what that must sound like to her. "I’m sorry. I’m so used to it that I don’t consider how it must sound. It’s alright. I know it’s horrifying but you don’t have to be polite."

"Thirdborns being, what, killed… is normal practice?" Leia asked.

"I hesitate to say yes because it’s so rare that one is born," Hobbie told her. "Every family has two children. The Firstborn continues the family line. The Secondborn has a dowry, marries into another family and makes a connection to make both families stronger. There’s no room for another child. So it tends not to occur among the ranking Families except in cases like mine. Even then, there were consequences for me being alive. It set us back quite a bit socially. Which may not sound like an issue, but it’s vital to everything we do. Things are less strict among the lower classes, of course, but it’s an open shame. My mother was quite pleased when I left."

Leia frowned and shook her head slightly as if to clear her mind. "Where does that sort of tradition come from?" she asked.

"I’m not sure, to be honest. It’s not recorded, but there may have been a famine or something similar that drove them to adopt that sort of a social convention. But it’s been a part of how we do things for millennia. The Empire didn’t even try to do away with it, and in some ways strengthened the reason for doing it. It’s good for population control."

"Very true. So, birth order is the foundation of how everything is done socially? Hobbie, be honest with me… Ignoring how this may help the New Republic, should we ally ourselves with a society that oppresses its people?"

Hobbie looked at her, surprised she would ask that. "Princess… It’s an opportunity that we’ve never had. If you ally with Ralltiir, it will expose the Thirds to New Republic culture and they may see that there’s options. That they don’t have to remain where they are. Either by rising up or leaving. They will have it better. It’ll take awhile. But it will happen." He paused, lowering his gaze thoughtfully, then looked up again and met her eyes. "It’s so important. I would ask that you do this. Please, give them a chance."

Leia studied him and nodded. Hobbie exhaled in relief. Leia had his back. It just seemed very suspicious that his siblings would insist on seeing him before they would talk to the New Republic. "Thank you. But I have to admit, them wishing to see me is concerning."

"Perhaps time has mellowed them?" Leia suggested, her eyes worried.

Hobbie laughed out loud. "Sorry, your Highness, but doubtful."

"Only one way to find out," she said with a brief smile.

He nodded. "I’ll do it. But I want to bring some people with me. I refuse to meet them alone."

"That’s understandable. Would you like me to come along? I promise I didn’t know it was like that."

"Why would you know that? We don’t really share our culture with outsiders. It’s ok. We need them." Hobbie sighed and shook his head. There was no way they weren’t going to use their status as his older siblings to get information out of him. They wouldn’t talk to him if he were with a diplomat. "You can’t come. Sorry, but that won’t work. Since this is a preliminary meeting, your presence would be seen as rude. I was thinking Wedge, Wes, and Tycho honestly."

"Is that wise?" Leia asked with a grin.

"Yes. If all else fails, Wes will make them leave early and I won’t have to actually speak with them," Hobbie joked.

"Hopefully?" Leia said with a shrug. "I’m fine with it. Are you sure you’re ok with seeing your siblings again?" she asked once more.

Hobbie nodded, appreciating that she was concerned. "Yes. I’m not pleased with it, but it might actually be good. For closure, maybe?" Hobbie said.

"Let’s hope so. Thank you. I really appreciate that you're willing to do this," Leia told him warmly.

"Of course. It’s vital. If they join, it’ll be good for Ralltiir. I honestly think that exposure to the New Republic might stop some of the bad aspects of my culture."

"One hopes so," Leia told him and reached up, patting his shoulder. "I’ll set it up, inform them of your acceptance and that you’re bringing Wedge, Tycho and Wes. I’ll make sure you have access to whatever you’ll need."

"Much appreciated." He paused a moment and looked into her eyes. "Leia, it’s good that we’re doing this. I really believe that. The way Ralltiir is..." he trailed off. "It's been that way for so long that any sort of quick change will destroy us. If they join us, that change will happen slower and allow people like me a chance. So, not only will a blow be dealt to the Empire, Thirdborns will be given opportunity," Hobbie told her. "I’ll do whatever it takes to get them to you."

Leia smiled and opened her arms for an embrace. Hobbie leaned in, gently hugging her. "Thank you, Hobbie," Leia told him with a smile. He pulled back and smiled back at her. "I’ve got to get going."

Hobbie stood and offered her a hand so she could stand.

"Charmer," Leia teased him, letting him help her up.

"You know we all adore you, Leia."

She laughed and gave him one of her wicked grins. "Of course. We’ve all shared far too much not to be enamored with each other."

Hobbie burst out laughing. The remaining Rebellion-era soldiers were all connected by something that few could touch. "True. Have a great night."

"Bye, Hobbie," Leia said and left with her bodyguards. Hobbie frowned and sat down on the couch, wondering how he was going to get this done.

***

"Alright, so you’re saying that your siblings want to see you and they’re forcing the New Republic to make you do this or they won’t sign a new treaty? You’ve never mentioned you even had siblings," Wedge asked, vaguely hurt, as they sat around Hobbie’s living room.

Hobbie grimaced. He knew how close Wedge kept the secret about his sister. With Hobbie being one of the very few to know that, learning that they shared having estranged siblings was probably quite a shock. "It’s not like I wanted to hide it. It just wasn’t important to talk about. When I defected, I ruined my family’s social status. I honestly thought they wrote me off. On Ralltiir, social status is very important so disowning me or pretending I perished would’ve helped. I just… I’m not sure why they want to see me. We weren’t close."

"Do you think they want something? Maybe time and distance changed their minds? Or maybe something happened…" Tycho suggested with a cautious look.

"My parents might be dead. But probably not," Hobbie said with a shrug. "I wonder if they want to make sure I’m dead. If I hadn’t agreed already, I could’ve faked my death. Damn."

Wes gave him an unusually serious glance, studying him. "Why did you agree? No offense, but by your own admission, they kind of hate you. Why did you agree to this?"

Hobbie sighed. "The New Republic vitally needs this treaty. This alone could deal a huge blow to the Empire. With Ralltiir giving preferential treatment to our credit, the Imps would have to pay much more to continue fighting. They could even run out of funds and have to give up," he explained. "So, will you come with me? Like I said, I would prefer to have some backup."

"Of course, Hobbs," Wedge said. "So, what should we know?"

"We should look over the treaty. We’re not there to negotiate exactly, but we might be called upon to do the preliminaries. My brother won’t allow this chance to pass him by."

"So, your brother?" Wes asked.

"Darren. He’s probably head of the family by now. Darren will run the Klivian Group. Our planet is ruled by the Families. My family is a part of that group. There’s a board and they decide things for the planet. They all have their own holdings…" He trailed off, deciding against going into that much detail. "That’s not that important." Hobbie paused. "My twin sister Darla will likely come along. Leia mentioned that my siblings wanted to see me. It’s customary to share duties between our birth and married families. She’ll have married and likely had children by now. Huh. I may have nieces or nephews. Anyway, my father, if he’s still alive, will have retired with my mother."

"How old is your father that you’re worried he might be dead?" Tycho asked.

"Not that old. He should be in his 50s, I think." Hobbie frowned thoughtfully. "I’m not sure actually. My father was always so busy when I was growing up." He shook his head. "Huh. I suppose I’ll find out during all this."

"You have a twin sister?" Wes asked. "Hobbs… you’re throwing a lot at us. When was the last time you saw them?"

"When I left for the Academy. I really don’t know how they’re doing now. Other than they’re likely married and have children of their own. Probably. Hope they don’t have twins," Hobbie said, crossing his arms and slumping into his couch. He saw the expressions of worry on everyone’s faces and realized that he'd revealed too much. Hobbie met Tycho’s eyes and Tycho cleared his throat, drawing Wedge and Wes’s attention.

"How about we look at the treaty so we’re at least familiar with where we stand with Ralltiir?" Tycho suggested gently as he pulled out his datapad and started looking things up. Hobbie closed his eyes, relieved. They might ask later but at least he had time to think on what to tell them. He had almost blown his cover. Hobbie let out a heavy sigh. He knew he could trust his friends, but Ralltiir birth order customs were very upsetting to offworlders. Then there was the fact he was a Third and scum in the eyes of his world. He had to give them just enough to be able to handle it when it came up.

"Am I being pessimistic about all this? Like thinking that they only want to see me to get something? Do they really hate me that much or was that just something I’m remembering wrong?"

Wes snorted. "Hobbie. If you’re not being pessimistic, I’m checking for brain slugs."

"You’re an ass."

Wes chuckled. "I’m ready when you are, Tycho."

"This is going to be pretty hard on you, isn’t it?" Wedge asked. There was a rustle and Hobbie felt the couch move as Wedge sat down beside him. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

Hobbie opened his eyes and glanced at Wedge. He frowned and sighed. "It’s important. They’re being assholes, giving us just a week to prepare. This is just another way we can ultimately win."

"We only have a week?" Wedge asked.

Hobbie nodded.

"We’ll get it done," Wedge promised. "Have you two gotten the treaty yet?" he asked, turning his attention to Wes and Tycho.

"It’s pretty straightforward. Princess Leia does such good work…" Wes said with an admiring sigh. "They have a state of neutrality towards the New Republic. They’ll trade with us, are promoting our currency as an option, but they also exchange others. I think we’ll have to look into what exactly we trade a bit closer. The Imperial credit is illegal in the New Republic but there are still a lot of worlds that use it. Ralltiir banks allow and maintain exchange rates. The banks get a certain percentage and you can do business everywhere. Ralltiir runs most of the galactic stock exchange as well. There’s a lot about that."

"That’s probably not a thing we should be trying to deal with. Leia knows what the New Republic needs on that front more than we ever will. Do we want to try to sell them on the New Republic?" Tycho asked.

"If I understand right, pretty much. But it has to be… natural," Wedge told them.

"So, like ‘Hey, so the New Republic is so good.’ and not ‘Join us or die.’ Right?" Wes asked.

"Correct." Wedge said, glaring at him. "We’re not the Empire, laser brain."

"They might respect the ‘join us or die’ a bit more actually," Hobbie said dryly. "The Families were very pro-Imperial. But like all things, it’s just business."

"Let’s do the soft approach first. Leia can get them if we don’t," Tycho suggested. "Do we want food?"

"Yeah, that might be for the best. I’ll start some delivery and we can get an action plan," Wedge told them. He pulled up a delivery service on his datapad and tapped in his order, then passed it to Tycho.

"Well, we kind of already have one. Sell them on the New Republic. Right?" Wes pointed out as he took Wedge’s datapad from Tycho and picked out his food order.

Wedge frowned. "That… That seems kind of… It doesn’t seem like it’s enough."

Tycho nodded. "It’s a bit out of our usual duties. We’ll cut Wes’s intake of sugar before we go."

Hobbie laughed out loud. Wes gestured rudely. This was normal. Hobbie felt himself relax a bit as his eyes slid shut. It was too much, his siblings wanting to see him. But this? The four of them? This was normal. He was allowed to be here. "I’m sorry that I can’t be more clear about how they’ll act. I was barely 18 cycles when I left. But Darren will probably be really arrogant. Feel free to push back a little though. I mean, I know you’re all arrogant as kriff so that shouldn’t be too hard."

Wes let out a surprised cackle while Wedge gasped then snickered. Tycho snorted then scoffed loudly.

"Darla will be friendly and effervescent. You know, all the things I’m terrible at." Bitterness laced his tone. He needed to watch that. "You know me, I can only be sarcastic. That has only sharpened with time." Hobbie refused to open his eyes. He had a feeling they were worried. Maybe they hadn’t noticed. Maybe he was being an idiot. "Just be your charming selves. Maybe they won’t notice me."

"Aww, Hobbs, you know we love you in all your sarcastic glory," Wes told him, ruffling his hair. "But they’re here to see you, buddy. I don’t think that’s going to happen," he countered gently.

Hobbie nodded, agreeing with the statement. "But I can try. I mean, I have Wedge Antilles, Hero of the New Republic and Tycho Celchu, tragic and lovely on my side."

Hobbie felt two hands smack his chest and Wes started chortling. This was good. It felt good.

"Ok, but what about me?" Wes asked. "I’m coming."

"What about you?" Hobbie asked.

"I just think Wes Janson, Hero of the New Republic should be in that sentence."

"Wedge already has that title," Hobbie countered, turning his head towards where he knew Wedge was seated. "What should his title be?"

"I’ll gladly give him mine," Wedge remarked. Hobbie shook his head no.

"What about ‘His Magnificence Wes Janson, Liberator of Ewoks’?" Wes suggested in a grandiose voice.

"No."

"Absolutely not."

"Kettch doesn’t count, Wes."

"You all are terrible wingmates. I’m going to Ackbar for a transfer," Wes told them.

"You’d be back in a week," Wedge responded dryly.

There was the sound of a scuffle. Hobbie kept his eyes closed.

"What about Wes Janson, dear friend?" Tycho suggested.

"Aww, Tych. I love you too. But we’re supposed to exaggerate our awesomeness," Wes objected.

"Wes Janson, pain in the ass doesn’t apply then," Hobbie drawled.

"I hate you, Hobbie."

"Join the club. I hear there’s benefits," Hobbie replied.

Wedge sighed. "What about Wes Janson, hero of Taanab?"

"You’re such a great boss," Wes cooed. "I still like His Magnificence Wes Janson, Liberator of Ewoks."

"I’ll think of something good for you. I promise," Hobbie told him. There was a beat of silence before Wes spoke again.

"Did you order anything, Hobbs?" Wes asked. Hobbie finally opened his eyes.

"No. Let me see it." He reached out to take the datapad and ordered his favorite noodles. Hobbie passed it back to Wedge, who checked the order and sent it off. "Let’s see… I’m not sure how much they know either. I mean, that’s one thing in our favor, I think. They might know our names and reputations but not who we are. That might be useful."

"So, just be normal?" Tycho asked.

Hobbie hesitated. "Yes. Be normal but… don’t be afraid to play up your reputation a little. Our social status will be very important here and as four of the Rebellion, that has a lot of merit in their eyes. I know what it sounds like, but it’s like… mentioning that we used to fly with Luke and that Princess Leia asked us personally to do this… that sort of thing. You don’t have to talk about the details."

"What sort of things does the Klivian Group handle?" Tycho asked.

Hobbie thought about it. "We… They may have changed their focus. It was mostly currency stability, controlling inflation and monetary policy, and overseeing money supply when I was younger. Each family has a sector and a focus."

"This is going to be fascinating." Wes remarked, bouncing a little. "All I really know about your family is you were so happy when you ruined their status, way back on Yavin. Now we get to actually meet the people that you hate so much."

Hobbie stilled and looked at Wes. Oh. Right. It wasn't untrue but... they were family. Hobbie had a certain loyalty to them, a helpless urge to please. They had sent him away and he had been so angry. He had gotten free of the Empire, of Ralltiir, and for his efforts, lost his arm, yet now they were near, he was hurrying to do whatever it took to please them. No wonder Wes was curious.

The door alarm went off and Wes rose to his feet to get their food. Hobbie wondered if this was a good idea. There was no getting out of it now, of course, but could he really handle seeing his siblings again?

He could. It would be miserable, but he could deal with this. Wedge was already opening his container at his side. Wes kneed his leg.

"Food is here."

Hobbie sat up. "Thanks for getting the door."

Wes grinned and sat down beside him. "Tych… come sit with the cool kids."

Tycho rolled his eyes and gave them one of his rare smiles. "Only because you asked so nicely," he said as he joined them on the couch. The room was filled with the sound of them eating.

"Hey…" Wedge started as he took a drink. "What should we wear? I know this isn’t quite official… but should we wear our dress uniforms?"

"Nooooooo!" Wes moaned. "Why do you hate me, Wedge?!"

Tycho balled up a napkin and tossed it at Wedge’s head. Hobbie glanced at him and shook his head.

"How much do you trust me?" Hobbie asked them.

"Absolute to the point of stupidity," Wes replied. Hobbie smiled and his ears flushed a bit.

"Same," Wedge agreed.

"Precisely," Tycho said with a smile.

Hobbie never loved them more. "I can help you pick out something. On Ralltiir, we have a certain sense of style so I want to make sure you don’t accidently insult my siblings. It won’t look terrible. I promise. Since Princess Leia asked, I’ve been doing some looking and figuring out how things have changed."

"I’m holding you to that," Wedge told him.

"Thanks, Wedge," Hobbie told him. Wes got up and went into the kitchen, bringing back some lum. Hobbie took the offered drink and tried to relax. Things were going to be fine.

***

Things were not going to be fine. Hobbie stood in front of the shop as he waited for them to open. For the sixth time that morning, he considered how much he hated his family, his planet, and their customs. He sighed and drained his caf, tossing it into the trash, and stepped inside as they opened. Hobbie nodded a greeting at the shopkeepers and went to the formal wear section. He had gotten Wes, Wedge, and Tycho’s measurements, and instead of trying to take them shopping, he’d just get them clothing and explain how it worked.

Hobbie looked at the shirts, going for a green with gold trim for Wedge. He did favor green quite a bit and he’d be more comfortable with the color. Hobbie folded it over his arm, then stopped, struck by the fact he was acting like their underling… he was acting like a Thirdborn already. Horror rocked his body as he took a moment to breathe. He… he had to do it this way. It was too difficult to explain and they’d be horrified. Then things would go bad. Hobbie had to be his role. He took a fortifying breath and looked for a suitable shirt for Tycho.

After a few hours of looking and picking out things in different stores, he had their outfits all sized and fitted to their measurements. He sent messages out to get them to go over to his apartment. Hobbie let himself in to see Wedge messing with his holocomm, Tycho drinking a drink on the sofa, and Wes straddling a chair.

"Did it update?" Hobbie asked as he glanced towards the holocomm.

"Yeah," Wedge replied with a frown. "Looks like it."

Hobbie rolled his eyes. "I’ll fix it later. I wish they wouldn’t update those so often. I have to reset everything. Anyway, I have your clothes."

"Did you go and buy us new clothing?" Wedge asked, alarmed.

"Of course I did. You didn’t think I was just going to let you dress yourselves? I said I would handle it. What did you think I was going to do?"

"Come over and help me pick out something with the clothes I already own!" Wedge told him. "What do I owe you?"

Wes perked up and leaned back, bending backwards towards Wedge. "If you're trying to actually pay for your clothes, Wedge, can I possibly get some compensation for all the underpants you've stolen from me?"

"I borrowed them. You can get them back anytime," Wedge said with a shrug.

Wes started laughing. Wedge rolled his eyes.

Hobbie looked at him like he was stupid. "Wedge, how many of your outfits are either poached from the rebellion or stolen from one of us?"

Wedge furrowed his brow. "Borrowed. Anyway, I have duty uniforms…"

"You’re not showing up to meet my siblings in your duty uniform, or whatever you grabbed from the free clothing stash or from us. How does that stuff even fit you still?"

"I don’t know. I mend it when things rip but other than that..." he said with a shrug then frowned at Hobbie. "They’re perfectly serviceable clothes!" Wedge argued.

"Not for this." Hobbie told him point blank. "It’s not like it’s a big deal. There’s an entire language to what we--" He let out a huff and closed his eyes, despising how much he was thinking of himself as one of them again. His entire world hated him and he still clung to that identity. He opened his eyes and looked at Wedge. "What Ralltiiri wear. I had to buy new clothing anyway." Hobbie rolled his eyes. "You don’t owe me anything. It’s fine."

Wedge frowned and opened his mouth to argue. Tycho sat forward, interrupting him. "Well, I appreciate you. Please explain what you got for us and what it all means so we don't act like idiots."

"Sure," Hobbie said as he put the bags down. He pulled out clothing and handed it to each of them. "I chose these colors because they denote your status. It tells my siblings a bit about you and they’ll respect you, wearing these. I had Wes grab your measurements but if it’s uncomfortable, I’ll forward you the location of a good tailor to alter them."

"Do you want us to try them on?" Wes asked.

"If you would," Hobbie suggested. "Just so I can see how it looks."

Wes started taking off his shirt, undressing in the middle of the room. Tycho stood up and shrugged, starting to strip down. Hobbie sat down on the floor, crossing his legs and waited for them to change.

"Aren’t you changing?" Wedge asked.

"No. I know my clothes fit," Hobbie replied.

Tycho made a face. "But we want to know how you look," he told him.

"Too bad," Hobbie said, making Tycho roll his eyes. "My outfit fits my status. Now change so if I need to send you somewhere, we can get that taken care of now."

"Why is it so important that our clothes have all this coding about our status built in?" Wedge asked, starting to take off his shirt as well.

Hobbie frowned as he considered how best to explain it. "It simplifies things. You know how I said status is everything?" he asked. They nodded. "Our clothing serves as a symbol of that status and just where you are. When we make connections, it’s to strengthen our status and family. So with one look, I need to know your status, who you are, and why I should talk to you. When we meet my siblings, they can tell what your status is and once I introduce you, they’ll know everything that’s necessary for them to have a conversation with you and what you can converse about. It’s a tradition that’s stretched back since the Council of Families system was developed."

"The Council of Families is the ruling body," Tycho confirmed.

"Exactly. Each of the Council families has a seat on the board. They meet to discuss how the planet is run and plan the future," he told them. He hoped they didn’t ask about how status was awarded. "Our connections, like marriage and other business arrangements, make each family stronger, and we want the strongest alliances, otherwise it will ruin the next generation."

"How many are on the Council? Do you only marry within those people?" Wes asked.

"There are ten seats. When we marry, it’s usually to non-member families, but people who are in positions to increase our status. It’s kept under pretty strict control so no one family gets more powerful. Adoption is rare but also happens if you’ve already bonded lines. For example, an adoption will allow a marriage to exist if you wish to renew a connection to a group that your family married into long ago but you still have blood relatives in the other group. You adopt and inbreeding is no longer an issue," Hobbie explained.

There were some wary looks around the room as they finished dressing. Hobbie looked them over, making sure the clothing fit the way he recalled from childhood and his research. Wes was dressed in gray trousers with a navy collared shirt, a well fitting gray vest, and a flattering gray jacket over the vest. Hobbie was struck with how he looked completely different than his usual self. Wes met his eyes and winked. Hobbie rolled his eyes. He forced himself to move on. Wedge wore his outfit well, the brown trousers and jacket going well with the collared shirt, green with gold accents. He looked vaguely guilty. Hobbie frowned, wondering if it was about the fit or if something was wrong. Tycho was in a flowing white collared shirt and light blue trousers with flowers across his right thigh. Hobbie thought that would best represent Alderaan and remind his siblings just who was in the room with them. They should appreciate that. Another planet’s nobility, and them, one of the leader families of his world. Of course, he was unwanted and unneeded but it was still… interesting.

"How does it feel?" Hobbie asked after looking them over. They seemed to be waiting on him.

"Comfortable enough for a meeting. I actually kind of like it. Thank you, Hobbs," Wedge told him, smiling at him. Hobbie tilted his head, wondering if he had read his face wrong.

"I look so good. Hey, Hobbs, I’m wearing this the next time we go out," Wes interjected.

"Why? You know it’s not going to help you," Hobbie retorted.

Wes gave him a rude gesture. "You’re a liar and you know it. Everyone loves me. I’m adorable."

"I thought it was that we just couldn’t get rid of you," Tycho chimed in as Wedge chuckled.

"You can’t get rid of me because I’m adorable. You’d feel bad."

"That must be it," Hobbie said dryly. "Anyway, Tycho?"

Tycho smoothed a hand over the fabric. "I like the details. They’re very nice. You did really well."

"I have a certain eye for sizing. I’m almost never wrong."

Wes perked up. "Hey, we could turn that into a way to score credits."

"You know we pay you, right?" Wedge drawled.

"Yeah, of course. Hobbie set it all up for me, along with most of the other Rogues. But still. Bar credits," Wes said as he spread his hands wide.

Hobbie grinned at the mention of setting up accounts for the majority of Rogue Squadron back when they became official and started earning regular paychecks. They had all been kids or barely on their own when they joined the Rebel Alliance, and had missed a few things. Only one or two of them had actually held jobs before going to fight. Hobbie had been the only one with any money management skills, due to his family’s banking interests. It had been nice to use those skills for something like that. He shook his head, not wanting to go down that path and remember those they had lost. "You need bar credits like you need a hole in your head."

"Lies. I need bar credits way more than I need a hole in my head."

Wedge reached out and ruffled Wes's hair. "I need you to not try to con people out of credits. Are we ready for tomorrow?"

"I am," Tycho told him.

"Yup."

Hobbie hesitated. "I’m going to say no and show up anyway. We should meet up before we’re to meet them."

"Definitely. How about an hour ahead of time? We can go over some last minute stuff and get there early," Wedge suggested as he started gathering his clothes and shoving them into the shopping bag. "This should be ok to go home in, right?"

"Definitely. You guys look great and I’ll see you tomorrow. Try not to spill anything. If you do, I have a backup plan."

"Good old Hobbie," Wes teased him and gathered his own clothes. Tycho picked up his bag and they said their goodbyes and left. Hobbie sighed and took the last bag into the bedroom so he could lay things out and be ready for tomorrow.

***

Hobbie’s eyes opened as he registered an insistent beeping. "Muh?" he grunted, glancing at his chrono. He didn't have to be up for another hour. Why the hell was… wait, that wasn’t the chrono. What was beeping? Fumbling around, Hobbie found his comm and finally identified the source of the noise. "Klivian," he answered, his voice tired. Who was calling this early? That didn’t look like a normal connection. He hoped… he hoped it wasn’t who he thought it was.

"Your presence is required by the Head of the Klivian family, per their request. Please make your way to where your transport awaits," a robotic voice informed him.

He rolled out of bed immediately, terror surging through his system, already pulling on his underclothes in automatic obedience to the order. Damnit. "Wait, no. It's scheduled for later," Hobbie argued. Despite his resistance, he continued dressing, pulling on the tight black trousers.

"The head of the Klivian family believes that now is best. They are waiting at the agreed-upon place for you to join them. Please comply."

"O-of course," Hobbie stammered. His heart was pounding out of his chest. He put on a high-necked black shirt, fastening the asymmetrically placed buttons down the front that pulled it skin-tight. His hands trembled just slightly as he pulled on the black jacket and fastened it up. Hobbie stood up straighter as the upright jacket collar closed around his throat. He hated this style of clothing: he felt like a child again, constricted and trapped and unable to get a deep breath. Why were they doing this now? They had an appointment scheduled already!

Hobbie sent a quick message, flagging it priority, hoping that his friends would get it in time to help. The meeting has been moved to now. Please come as fast as you can, same location. He pulled on his shined black boots, then a pair of black gloves. Thirds should be quiet and unnoticed at all times, not even leaving fingerprints to signify their presence.

Kriff, he was going to be alone with his siblings. He didn’t want to face them alone but he couldn’t defy the Head of his Family. Hobbie half-ran down the stairs and made his way out to where a very nice transport was waiting. He slid into the backseat and sat upright silently as they made their way across the city. They were doing this to prove a point. Hobbie scowled, knowing he should’ve considered they’d do this. But point made. His siblings were the important ones and he was not.

He hoped they weren't just here to kill him. It would be so inconvenient. They wouldn't just crassly shoot him, of course, but perhaps poison. He’d have to watch what he ate. Would they allow him to eat? He should’ve eaten before he left. Damnation. He really hoped they weren’t just here to kill him to regain status. Wes, Tycho and Wedge would want answers and be upset. Maybe he could ask nicely? Surely they’d realize how much of a mess it’d be if he died after their visit. Unless they wanted him to go home with them. He felt the terror rise in his chest again. He couldn’t go to Ralltiir. They could probably make him, though. This… this was not ideal.

The transport reached a stop and he opened the door, glancing at the luxury hotel his siblings had decided to stay in. Hobbie looked around, hoping that maybe Wes, Tycho, and Wedge had gotten here, but it didn’t look like it. He closed his eyes, took a fortifying breath and walked inside. Hobbie strode through the lobby and went straight to the lift, wishing his friends were with him. He had been planning on giving them some more tips. Hobbie hoped this would go well. Maybe it really just was his siblings wanting to see him again. Also the sun could explode in the next few moments.

The lift opened and he strode out, walking towards their rooms. Hobbie pressed the chime as his heart thudded in his ears. Maybe it wouldn’t be bad. Maybe the two of them had changed. Maybe he'd changed. Maybe he’d be accepted by his siblings. The door opened of its own accord and Derek entered the suite. He walked forward, the hall opening into a living area.

His heart pounded as he saw them for the first time in over a decade, feeling time reverse. Darren looked more like their father than ever, tall and imposing. He was dressed well, looking comfortable in a gray formal jacket and trousers with a navy tunic. With the Klivian family ring prominent on his hand, he seemed every inch the Head of their Family.

Darla looked much like their mother, meaning he himself must as well. He and his sister had always looked so close. Huh. He hadn’t realized… She was intimidating, as slim as Derek but far more poised. She wore a bright red dress, asymmetrically draped with flowing lines that left one shoulder bare, and her dusty-blond hair was slicked back into a tight ponytail. Derek took stock of their changes and knew they were doing the same. Except he was found lacking. As usual. He quickly glanced around the room. There were five seats on his side of the living area -- two for his siblings, three for Wes, Wedge, and Tycho -- and he thinned his lips, knowing that things hadn’t changed after all. "Hello."

Darren raised an eyebrow. "So rude, Derek." He clucked his tongue, looking at him with distaste. "You haven’t seen us in years and that’s how you greet us?"

"I apologize," Derek said quickly, while he adopted a formal pose, crossing one hand over the other in front of himself. He opened his mouth to speak but Darren cleared his throat, holding up the family ring. Derek swallowed, his eyes going wide. "Brother…"

"Derek. You know it’s far past time you show your pride in your family," Darren said, his voice hard.

"If I may be so bold, it would look terrible for the family if I were to be poisoned," Derek said to him, shrinking back slightly.

Darla sniffed. "How gauche. If we wished you dead, we would’ve taken care of it from Ralltiir and not come all this way. You’re wasting time."

Derek nodded and came forward, walking around the small table in the middle of the room. He stopped near his brother and leaned down, kissing the symbol of their family’s power. "I pledge my loyalty and devotion to the Klivian family. I’m so sorry for my rudeness." He stepped back again. "It’s… it’s really so wonderful to see you again. Are we doing well?" Derek asked. "My well wishes to the Klivian family and of course, your family, sister. Did you marry well?"

"No thanks to you, but yes," Darla said, looking at him like he was scum. He kept his face level and tried not to show his fear. "I married into the Velsper Group. You remember Niall?"

"I do." Darla’s husband had been very bland during their childhood. She must have hated having to marry him. Darla had to know Derek was aware of the Velspers’ lower rank, but this subtle dance of lies and insults was all part of Ralltiiri high society culture. "I’m glad, Darla. You did very well for yourself and the family," Derek complimented her. Darla gave him a dirty look.

"And you? What have you done?" Darren asked. "The last thing we heard about you was you gave up a promising military career and defected to the Rebellion. Then actually won against the Empire."

Well, that wasn't entirely wrong. "If it helps, I have an excellent military career in the New Republic," Derek said as they glared. He lowered his gaze, knowing he was being disrespectful to them.

"A founding member of Rogue Squadron, personal friend to Chief of State Leia Organa Solo and Jedi Master Luke Skywalker." Derek raised his head to see Darla as she smiled at him, looking impressed. Too bad it didn’t reach her eyes, as they looked at him coldly. "Not bad for a Thirdborn." Derek felt his face flush. "Those injuries though. It must be so difficult."

"Well, they did give me replacements for them, so it’s not too bad," Derek responded with a tight smile. He knew that most high-ranking Ralltiiri didn’t like artificial parts, thinking that they made you less. His siblings knew a lot more about his personal history than he'd expected they might.

"What about you? Did you end up with a love?" Darla asked. "These people marry for love, correct? I mean that has to be why such an obvious Firstborn like Leia Organa married that most likely Thirdborn Solo. Their children are beautiful though. So it’s not a complete waste."

He didn’t even know what to say to that. "No. I don’t have a love. Love is merely a diversion," Derek answered her question, using a lesson from their childhood.

"True. I guess it’s difficult to meet a person whom you strengthen when you’re… well, how you are," Darla smiled and shrugged a little.

Derek glanced at her and thinned his lips, exhaling. He could not defend himself here and she knew it. "I am indeed busy," Derek remarked, forcing pleasantness into his tone.

"As interesting as this always is, our other guests have arrived. You’ll have to introduce us properly, Derek," Darren interrupted. "How about you stay with your friends? That’s a nice treat for you, isn’t it?"

"Of course, Elder Brother. Thank you," Derek said, trying to be respectful. He turned to face the entryway, relieved they were there. Wes entered first, looking rumpled, his carefully tailored suit jacket slung casually over one arm. Derek frowned. Had they not had time to dress correctly in the unfamiliar clothing? But Wes was making the messy look work for him. His shirt was open at the collar, emphasizing the strong lines of his neck and his broad shoulders, and its sleeves were rolled up past his elbows, showing off his muscular forearms. The neatly buttoned vest and trimly fitting trousers accented his athletic build. Derek paused, surprised at how much better the outfit looked than yesterday -- far less Ralltiiri, but better. Wes gave him a crooked smile, half apology and half like he was getting away with something. He held a bag up and handed Derek a takeaway cup of caf.

"I figured you hadn’t eaten."

"Uh… no. Thank you," Derek said, unable to hide his shock as he reached for the food and caf. He glanced back to check his siblings' reaction. Darla looked startled; Darren gave him a thoughtful, measuring look. Derek lowered his hands to his sides, half hiding his breakfast. Wedge and Tycho walked in, looking well dressed and much as they did last night. Wes was just being Wes. It eased some of the worry in his chest. They hadn’t abandoned him. It was going to be fine.

Darren, who looked very smug, cleared his throat; Derek nodded in acknowledgement, feeling slightly ill, and a stab of fear nestled itself in his chest.

"Derek. Don’t be rude. Introductions are in order." Darren admonished him. They stood and came around the table to welcome their guests.

"Yes, Elder Brother," Derek told him. He placed the food and drink on the floor and stepped forward, turning to face his friends. This was deliberate. He was establishing that they were more important than his siblings, presenting his siblings to them almost as if to royalty. "Major Janson, General Antilles, Colonel Celchu, allow me to present the Klivian family representatives. This is Darren Klivian, Firstborn with extensive family ties and my elder brother. He hails from Ralltiir and controls the Klivian Group. With his guidance, the Group has grown leaps and bounds since his accession." Darren reached out and they all shook hands. "This is Darla Klivian-Velsper, Secondborn with extensive family ties and my elder sister. She hails from Ralltiir and is a part of the Velsper Group. Her skills lend strength to the Velsper family and our connection strengthens us as well." If he knew her like he thought he did, Darla would be giving them a charming smile. Derek turned to face his siblings.

"Elder Brother, Elder Sister, this is Major Wes Janson, Firstborn with extensive family ties. He hails from Taanab and has fought valiantly in many battles for the New Republic," Derek introduced him. "Janson is deeply committed to family and honor," he said as he gestured Wes towards the first chair. Wes gave him a studious look and remained standing. "This is General Wedge Antilles, Secondborn with close family ties. The only survivor of both Death Stars. He hails from Corellia and is a shining example of leadership within the New Republic Forces." Derek watched as Wedge immediately moved towards Wes. "And finally, this is Colonel Tycho of the noble Celchu house of Alderaan, Secondborn with close family ties. He is a brave soldier with unquestionable loyalty to his allies," Derek said while Tycho joined the other two, everyone still standing.

"Shall we be seated?" Darla asked, being a good hostess.

"Where's Hob- Derek's seat?" Wes asked, not having taken his seat yet as he glanced towards where Derek was still standing.

Derek risked a glance at his brother, who looked at him annoyed. He lowered his gaze immediately as he made himself smaller.

"We don’t allow Third-borns in meetings like this, usually," Darren patiently explained, his expression changing to a polite smile. "They tend to be so unreliable, after all. It’s just better for them to not be troubled by things out of their station." He gestured towards Derek. "But because he’s our brother and we did invite him, we thought it best if he were to stay. We are here to see him after all."

Derek nodded, a sour sensation on his tongue. "Thank you for this allowance, Elder Brother."

"You're very welcome, Derek. You've done well here," Darren said. The unstated ‘for a third’ was heavy in the air.

He turned to look at his friends. "My apologies for the confusion, gentlemen. Please be seated?" Derek asked them. "I will eat and stay right behind you."

"As you should," Wes commented dismissively as if that was obvious, taking charge of the situation. Derek felt a small flutter of hope. Did Wes get it? He lowered his head in an accepting nod and walked behind them as they finally took their seats. Derek reached down to where the caf was sitting, lifted it to his mouth, and took a silent drink, being seen and not heard.

"It’s very nice to finally meet you. We looked into you when it was brought to our attention that you’d be here. You all have very prestigious careers," Darren told them.

"Thank you very much," Wes replied. "We hadn’t realized that Derek was related to such elites."

Darren smiled. "Honestly, I have to thank you. Derek has always been so difficult and you’ve made good use of him. That’s commendable."

Derek swallowed his drink as shame filled his chest. Oh. Oh dear. His siblings thought he was their Protected. This could be bad. Please. Please don’t ruin this.

"Derek has proven his worth for us," Wes said politely. "How about we get to more important matters?"

Derek felt relief flood through him when Wes deftly changed the subject.

"That would be wonderful. Ralltiir has enjoyed our relationship with the New Republic. But I understand that you would like us to join as full members."

"Yes. We feel that as a full member, Ralltiir will be better protected from Imperial aggression and will have a say in how we move forward."

"That does sound reasonable. This is just preliminary so we’ll save the harder elements for our actual meeting. What benefits do you believe Ralltiir will see by joining? We’re very concerned about the Empire’s reaction as you can likely guess, but we’re also very protective of our home and while the New Republic is a wonderful body, we appreciate our status as neutral allies to both sides."

"If I may?" Tycho asked. Darren nodded, looking at him attentively. "We never want to change a planet. The New Republic isn’t the Empire. We don’t ask you to adapt to us, we try to embrace our differences and find common ground. The things you’d gain would outweigh the negatives. We also protect our own and our track record is very good."

Darren made an appreciative noise. "Oh yes, we were very impressed with your records."

"It’s also very nice that you do that," Darla said. "When the Empire blockaded our planet, it took quite a bit to make them see how they could work with our customs, which are vital to the very core of our people. They’ve worked for our world for centuries. We’re just concerned that some might try to change our ways, not understanding why they’re so important."

"One could argue that change is inevitable," Wedge pointed out. "I’m sure things have changed slightly from when your traditions started. A little change is good for all."

Darla smiled, charmed. "I suppose you’re correct. I know things changed when I joined the Velsper family."

"You’ve been a wonderful addition to the Velsper Group, Darla. Perhaps we could look at this like a marriage. Bring them into our sphere and share our ways. Our status grows when we make connections," Darren said to her casually. He looked at Wes. "What benefits has it brought to your planet?"

Derek watched them as Wes shifted in his seat, getting comfortable. He had been doing so well thus far. It was working. Derek started eating the breakfast roll that Wes had brought him. He listened carefully, searching for the thing that Ralltiir needed, what the New Republic could offer them.

"Well, I imagine you're aware Taanab is a major supplier of food to the Core Worlds," Wes said, his accent gently coloring his words. "Breadbasket of the Inner Rim and all that. We account for something like eight to ten percent of Coruscant's food imports in a given year, and I believe twenty-five to thirty percent of Ralltiir's?"

When Derek had asked about what Taanab gave to Ralltiir, Wes was quick to confirm. It was good that he was using that info. He was the only one to really be able to do the First role. Not for the first time, Derek thanked the Universe for Wes Janson.

Darren nodded. "I particularly enjoy a nice cut of Taanabian roba steak. But yes, your crops contribute quite a bit to our needs."

Derek kept his face blank. More like a major chunk of their needs. But his brother was never one to acknowledge that.

"Right. So for a planet with that kind of major economic significance, the Empire really didn't put much effort into defending us against attacks. The most Imperial patrol presence we ever had was a couple of small refitted gunships. They couldn't even spare us a Star Destroyer," Wes said dryly. "The New Republic has been a lot more proactive. And, I don't know if this is an issue you have on Ralltiir since your assets are mostly digital, but on Taanab the Imperial assessors used to skim a lot of... 'pre-tax gratuities' off the crops. The New Republic actually pays us what they owe."

The conversation reminded Derek of nights spent undercover or just hiding from the Empire, talking about homes that weren’t reachable because of their choice to rebel. Wes bitching about Taanab and pirates had dominated a lot of those conversations. Derek had never spoken up back then, no matter how much his fellow Rebels tried to pry. Would it have changed things, he wondered, listening to them go back and forth as he ate his food.

"That sounds much better," Darren told him. "It was absolutely criminal what they used to skim. I saw some figures from Henrik and they took a simply rude 18%. Our marble providers had it much worse."

Wes made a shocked tut-tutting noise. "Physical goods, of course, always harder-hit. But you’ve seen it yourself, less Imperial interference equals more profits. And New Republic protection, of course," he finished with his most dazzling grin, "equals no more Imperial meddling."

Darren nodded thoughtfully.

"Of course, the New Republic’s relationship with Alderaan is well known," Tycho chimed in. "Our tragedy hasn’t been forgotten. We have colonies for our survivors and we are represented. I understand your feeling that Ralltiir’s isolation helps preserve your traditions," he said, turning to address Darla more directly. "That’s a conversation the Alderaanian remnant continues having to this day. My own feeling is that, far from diluting our traditions, our engagement with the wider galactic community strengthens us and helps our culture survive. We’re building a republic that will last, and we need everyone."

Darla nodded. "That is a very good point, thank you." She leaned forward slightly. "If I may?" Darla asked. "Major Janson, Colonel Celchu, you’ve both expressed a strong confidence that your New Republic will win this war. General Antilles, the Corellian Diktat is still firmly aligned with the Empire, isn't that true?"

"Yes. For all the harm the Empire has done to our system, the Diktat is determined to stay the course. I'm sure he sees some good, but I can't help but look at all the problems," Wedge said. "One of the major shipbuilding facilities is on Corellia proper and the waste from that is in the air and on the ground. The Diktat doesn't concern himself with the effects this has on my world. The other planets have their own issues. Pirates, gangs, and criminals find it very easy to hide there. It's tough to survive there but if you escape? Almost everyone that's gotten out comes to the New Republic with the desire to improve things."

"And the New Republic would do this?" Darren asked.

"Yes. Obviously, I am biased. I've been at this a long time," Wedge admitted. "But I've seen with my own eyes what we can do for worlds that have aligned themselves with us. More often than not, it's much safer, much cleaner, and everyone gets a bit more of what they need. I know the Old Republic had its issues and there's some valid critique, but under Chief of State Organa-Solo's leadership, we've made a concentrated effort to learn from their and our own mistakes."

"This is a lot to consider," Darla told them. "I'm sure you'll understand if Ralltiir chooses to remain neutral. We have to consider what choosing a side would mean."

"It's a very big decision. You're taking a risk even talking to us and we appreciate that. But the time to choose may be sooner than you expect," Wedge commented. "The Imperial fleet is not as strong as it was."

"But one could say neither is the New Republic fleet," Darren pointed out.

"I'd soundly disagree with that assessment. But I do have a different viewpoint than you may be able to access," Wedge said coolly. "The Imperials are losing."

Darren and Darla glanced at one another when Wedge said that, sharing a significant look. Derek wondered if that might be the reason they were here. Ralltiir, and by extension Darren, had access to more information about the Empire's finances than the entirety of New Republic Intelligence. Was the Empire definitively losing? Was Ralltiir seeking an alliance with the winning side?

He watched as Tycho shifted in his seat and turned slightly to Wedge. "Take a breath, Wedge. We’re all friends here." He smiled quickly and turned back to look at Darla and Darren again. "We're all a little passionate about the New Republic’s goals. I'm sure you understand."

Darla smiled back. "Oh, completely."

Darren nodded. "It's very nice to see how balanced the relationship between the three of you is. It reminds me of how each of the Families brings something to the table."

Wedge tilted his head. "There are four of us."

Darren and Darla briefly looked surprised, exchanging a look then smiling like they found him charming. "Of course. It's really nice how you include Derek," Darla said kindly, keeping her gaze on Wedge. "It just goes to show that even difficult people can be a part of something."

Tycho nodded to Darla's assessment as he put a hand on Wedge's thigh.

Darren glanced at Derek then to Wes. "Now that your Protected has finished his meal, would you mind sending him to get refreshments for the rest of us? I'm feeling a tad parched and I'm sure Darla would like something."

Darla nodded, glancing at Wes. "I would really appreciate it."

"Of course, I was just thinking Wedge and Tycho might need some snacks, since we did find ourselves in something of a hurry this morning," Wes said, slightly sweetly. Derek knew he was mocking his siblings a bit. "I’d be happy to have him go out and fetch something. For you two as well; I certainly wouldn’t want you to go without."

"Oh, well, that's unnecessary. We had something prepared," Darla said with smile. "All he has to do is go fetch it from the kitchen area."

There was a pause as Wes opened his mouth. Derek moved quickly. "My First. I would be happy to do this for you," he told him politely, his full attention on Wes.

Wes looked up at him with apology in his eyes. He sighed harshly, resigned, and waved a hand dismissively. "Ok. Go ahead, Hobbie."

Derek looked at him and something inside of him eased. He smiled at him briefly. "Thank you, My First," he said softly, reaching down and pulling Wes's hand up, kissing his knuckles gently to show his respect and loyalty to Wes. Then he turned, gathered his trash, and left the room.

Derek paused just inside the kitchen area and shook his head. Of course they’d pull some sort of power move. Of course. He crossed the room, tossed his garbage in the disposal, and saw the prepared tray. There was food, cups for drinks and a large teapot. Derek looked at the food. It was Barina. His favorite. And there were only five dishes. Of course. He opened the teapot and smelled the special blend of his family. Message received. Derek wasn’t worthy. He sighed heavily, ignoring the feeling of rejection that welled up, and lifted the tray, carefully walking back to the living room. Derek brought it to the small table between them, placing each dish, utensil, and cup within reach, and finally settling the teapot in the center. He placed the tray under the table so it could be used later, then poured their tea.

Derek glanced at Wes, Wedge and Tycho, seeing the looks in their eyes. He mouthed ‘it’s ok’ then spoke up. "Please enjoy the Barina and the Klivian tea." Derek went back to standing behind them, waiting patiently as they started to eat. He silently sighed and watched carefully.

"This is really good," Tycho told them. "Thank you for sharing this with us. I especially enjoy the tea. It reminds me of an Alderaanian blend."

"Oh?" Darla said, looking pleased. "I’d be happy to send you home with some. I think this could be the start of a wonderful connection between us," she said, glancing at Darren, who nodded, agreeing with her. "The Barina is a good breakfast or, with a little extra juice, a sweet dessert. I can forward you a recipe as well. I’ll give you my comm information."

"That would be lovely. Thank you. I’m sure we’ll enjoy that. I can’t say that we’ve eaten Ralltiiri dishes before this so that would be very welcome," Tycho told her.

"That makes sense. I’m sure you stick close to the local flavors. Although I’m surprised Derek hasn’t made an attempt."

Tycho paused. "Well, it’s often that we’re eating in the Mess. It hasn’t actually been that long since we’ve been regularly stationed off-base."

Darla nodded. "Of course, makes perfect sense. We don’t really have troops exactly. Your day to day must be so different."

"Oh absolutely," Wedge weighed in. "Derek does fine cooking though. I’m a bit of a hazard personally but he’s fairly good."

Derek wanted to die. Could they not talk about him? Maybe he could light himself on fire through the power of the Force. Maybe Luke would do him a favor and just make that happen.

"You know, you mentioned how the New Republic protects its planets. Would you mind telling us a bit more about that, Major Janson?" Darren asked once he was finished.

"Uh, of course," Wes said. "We send patrols pretty regularly through our systems and if a planet mentions a need, someone goes to investigate and the missions get passed around based on importance. No one is left to their own devices unless they wish to be. We protect each other. Some planets have their own forces but the New Republic services coordinate with them. Of course our main aim at the moment is protecting against Imperial aggression, but we also try to protect worlds from pirates, warlords, and others that would terrorize them."

Derek saw his siblings share another significant look. Oh. Ohhhh. Ralltiir didn’t have a defense force. They needed military aid of some sort. But they’d never actually say anything. Either they didn’t want to give away their ground or it was just becoming an issue. But Derek was pretty sure he had just found what Ralltiir needed. He could tell Leia. Derek was careful to keep his face expressionless as satisfaction filled him. Ralltiir needed a side. They just had to be sure to get them on theirs. Derek didn’t have a voice here but he had to let them know. Wes, Tycho, or Wedge might’ve caught it, they knew his body language, but what if they didn’t? He watched Wes put his plate on the small table and moved, going to the table and knelt down at the end. Derek silently moved the plates and utensils onto the tray, glancing up and catching Wes's eye as he shot him a look that said this is it.

Darla tapped her nail against her cup, just like their Mother did when she wanted him to do another chore or when she demanded he please her whims. Derek immediately stopped what he was doing and looked at her. "Yes, Elder Sister?" he asked in a low tone.

"When you take that, be sure to bring your Second some of the tea sachets," Darla ordered him.

"Yes, Elder Sister," Derek told her, bowing as he acknowledged her decree. It was humiliating but it would be worth it.

Wes coughed pointedly and Derek immediately turned towards him, seeing him raise an eyebrow and give Darla a scathing look. She lowered her head in apology. Derek fought hard not to smile.

"Is that something your unit does often?" Darren asked, cutting through the sudden tension. "I know Rogue Squadron is very elite… but are you often asked to assist planetary defense?"

"In a sense, that’s all we do. But on a larger scale. Wouldn’t you agree, Wedge?"

Derek refilled their cups with the tea as he kept his face down, still trying not to smirk as they followed through. He stood, took the tray, and made his way towards the door.

"Definitely. Rogue Squadron is supposed to be the shining lightsaber of the New Republic. Our missions tend to be more about making the entirety of the New Republic safer and we’re very good at our task. Our military is made up of decent beings, all trying to protect the galaxy."

Derek took the dishes down to the kitchen area. He glanced at Wes’s plate and saw the bite that he left. Did Wes mean to do that? Hobbie hated himself a bit but picked up the utensil and ate the first bite of home he’d had in years. It tasted just like he remembered. He closed his eyes, letting himself have this moment, then quickly put the dishes and utensils into the cleaner. Ha. He’d still had some. But finally. At last, they knew what his siblings needed. He might be humiliated, he might be considered nothing more than a Protected, but his siblings just exposed a weak point. They could and would bring Ralltiir in and Thirds would have options.

Hobbie kept his face impassive as he searched around and found the tea caddy. He looked around for something to carry the tea sachets out in, and finally just started shoving them into his pockets. He took all but one sachet, setting the last one tidily in the exact center of the caddy, and replaced the lid before setting the caddy back on the shelf precisely where he had found it. Then he turned and made his way back into the sitting room, seeing Tycho and Wedge standing with Darla near the window and Wes with Darren, still seated. He made his way over to stand behind Wes and his brother as they continued speaking.

"Absolutely no offense, but it would be a good idea to be more firm with Derek," Darren told Wes. Derek stilled. How did they get on that topic? "I realize Derek was your guide but it’s important to understand that he's very manipulative. It's a trait common for his sort but it's especially bad with him," he said, glancing up at Derek.

Derek lowered his head, looking to the floor so that his brother would think he was adequately admonished.

"I had noticed that," Wes agreed, his voice thoughtful. "I'll keep it in mind." He glanced over his shoulder, not meeting Derek's eyes, just indicating for Darren his awareness that Derek had come back into the room, then turned back to Darren. "And I'll get the rest of that sage advice from you another time," he said more lightly. Derek couldn't see Wes's face, but he knew his wingman well enough to know that he'd winked at Darren. "Now, if you don't mind, Mr. Klivian, perhaps we could return to the formal topic of this meeting. Correct me if I'm wrong on any of this, I know my understanding of your culture is... incomplete, but I get the impression you don't really have any way to maintain a standing planetary defense force. You and the other Firstborns have responsibilities to your respective Families that don't allow you to take enough time off to command an army, and your sister and Secondborns in general have duties to both their birth family and the one they marry into. The Empire used to protect you, more or less, so far as Imperial protection ever went, but now that you're neutral you find yourselves... in a slightly difficult position. Am I about right so far?"

There was a pause. Derek, still looking at the floor, guessed that Darren had nodded to confirm Wes's remarks.

"Plus, you wouldn’t really want to arm the Thirds, I imagine," Wes continued. "On other worlds that have had... servant classes, when they try to convert the servants into a fighting force, it almost always leads the servants to rise against their masters instead. Now, I trust Derek in combat with my life," Wes said as Derek felt a bit smug. Everything was going to be ok. Wes was playing the game much better than even he had hoped. "He’s loyal. I don’t know if you can be sure every one of your Thirds is as loyal. Personally, I wouldn’t want to risk it."

"No, I can see where you would not. Our Thirds know their place, though. Arming them would give purpose to the purposeless. But it would be difficult if there wasn't a First or Second around," Darren said, sounding stymied. "They're just not suited to making major decisions. Although, Derek is a bit more able. Our parents raised Derek as a replacement should my sister or I die from a childhood illness on my world. Ralltiir discovered a cure once we were almost of age, thus making him completely unnecessary. Which was good for you, considering your connection," he said with a welcoming tone.

Derek studied the floor, not daring to look up as he listened to Darren talk about him and other Thirds. He was able to maintain a blank expression but it was the same nonsense as always. All he had to do was just stand here, be quiet. No matter how hurt and irritated he got.

"The Imperials did take many of our Thirds," Darren continued, "which is another reason my Father decided Derek would be well suited for their military. Those Thirds never actually returned, so we have no access to their experience." Derek knew what people whispered about those Thirds. He had heard they all died. Or that they were all a part of Imperial Intelligence. Fanciful stories, most likely, but no one knew and it was wasn’t like Ralltiir cared. "I suppose it would be preferable to work with the New Republic instead of building our own force. But what I don't understand is why you're not already taking an active interest in our protection needs. We do so much already for the New Republic because of our status as the galaxy's banking hub. It's not unlike how Taanab was under the Empire, wouldn't you agree?"

Wes laughed dryly. "You make an excellent point, Mr. Klivian. The protection of both Ralltiir and Taanab needs to be a major priority for any government that hopes to maintain power in the galaxy. However, if the New Republic were to commit the kind of resources that would be necessary to truly defend Ralltiir, I’m sure you understand that we’d expect a few... favors in exchange."

"Ah, yes. Favors are always a necessary evil. Do you have a guess as to what we might have to do to maintain our neutrality?" Darren asked.

"Oh, nothing too onerous, I imagine. We’d like to have a conversation about the way Ralltiir sets exchange rates for our currency, of course. Negotiate a... preferred trading status for New Republic credits, if we can. Maybe one or two other little favors, but I believe that’s the main one we might be interested in arranging."

"And if we joined, I imagine that would occur anyway. But perhaps at a better rate for us..." Darren said thoughtfully. "So, possibly, a better rate of exchange for Ralltiir and an improved defense versus a worse exchange rate and a thin defense unless we supplemented with our own. Which, with no one to train them," he paused, "would be a tad more difficult. Perhaps you could loan Derek to us, though. Did you two not train pilots together?"

Derek felt a stab of fear. They wanted him to go home. This was the worst possible thing.

"We did indeed. We were very good at it, if I do say so myself," Wes said, full of pride. When he said that, Derek relaxed. Wes wouldn’t let them take him. "But borrowing Derek gets into a territory of… personal favors, Mr. Klivian. And to be terribly blunt..." There was a deliberate pause and Derek felt his ears flush as he realized what Wes was about to say. "I’m not sure there’s anything you could offer me on that front."

He heard his brother gasp and chuckle. "How bold of you. I can appreciate that in a person such as yourself," Darren said. "You'd do well on Ralltiir, Major Janson."

"I like to think I’d do well anywhere I choose to go," Wes said cheerfully. "But thank you."

Darren laughed again. "I believe it. It's a good thing my sister stepped away, she would've blushed," he joked. "I really must thank you for agreeing to meet us and allowing us to see our brother. After speaking with you and seeing how the New Republic is run I can safely say that the New Republic seems like a very good option for our world. There will be things that need discussing but I believe that might be best left to when we return later."

"I agree completely," Wes said. "I’m confident that the official negotiations will go smoothly, based on what we’ve discussed here today."

Derek chanced looking up when Darren stood up and offered his hand to shake.

Wes took Darren’s hand and shook it warmly. "I hope you enjoyed seeing your brother again today, as well?" he asked.

"Of course. But the true pleasure was meeting you and your Seconds. You did well for Derek. It's a relief to see him taken care of," Darren looked at Derek and their eyes met as his elder brother gave him a nod. Darren looked back towards Wes. "You have my apology for taking him from you so early. We weren't aware."

"Well, don’t do it again," Wes admonished him cheerfully. "Hopefully if you do visit again, you’ll reach out to me if you’d like to see my Third."

"Oh, yes, absolutely," Darren told him. "Here is my business chip. My information is coded to it," he said, pulling a small, thin card and handing it to Wes.

"Thank you. I’ll get it uploaded to my contacts," Wes said as he slid it into his pocket.

"Darla? Finished gathering your gossip?" Darren called to her.

Darla laughed. "Oh no, I don’t believe I have," she said when they walked over to rejoin them. "Unfortunately they’re much better at getting information than I am. But I did make a case for visiting Ralltiir. It would be lovely to unleash them upon the Jamesons."

"Your feud with them is endlessly entertaining, Darla, but don’t be crass," Darren told her as she rolled her eyes.

"Never, dear brother," Darla told him. She smiled at the three of them. "Thank you again for coming. We really enjoyed meeting you. The care you show our sibling is a wonderful example of how you must treat your close allies."

"Thank you for your kind words, Mrs. Klivian-Velsper. It was excellent learning so much," Tycho said, inclining his head. He turned to Wes. "Shall we be off?"

"Of course, Tych," Wes told him. They turned to go.

Derek looked at Wes. "My First. One moment, please?" he asked.

"Of course," Wes said, giving his permission.

Derek stepped forward, going to his Elder Brother. He had to show his respect. Darren looked at him while he approached, then put his hand up between them, touching Derek’s chest. Their eyes met for a brief moment and Derek lowered his gaze.

"It’s no longer necessary to show your loyalty, Derek. Your First awaits."

"Thank you, Elder Brother, Elder Sister. May you live well and bring power to our name."

"May your connections always be without strife," Darren said.

"Live well, baby Brother," Darla told him mildly.

Derek bowed to his siblings, then turned on his heel in a military pivot, joining his friends as they left the room. They were silent going into the turbolift and Derek stared straight ahead, not wanting to see their faces. The turbolift slid open and he strode out ahead of them, already pulling off his gloves with his teeth. They left the lobby of the hotel in a tense march and clustered uneasily at the foot of the hotel stairs as the city roared around them. Hobbie shoved the gloves in his pocket.

"Hobbie, are you ok?" Wedge asked, concern halfway edging into horror in his voice.

Hobbie scowled. No. No, he was not ok. He was just severed from his family and he shouldn't even care. "I’m fine. Can we start moving? I don’t want to be here any longer," Hobbie snapped. "There’s a park nearby, we can have this out over there and not have to worry about people talking."

"That's fine," Wedge said, slipping into the endlessly understanding expression he used with difficult personnel issues. Hobbie hated that he was being a difficult personnel issue, but he turned and strode briskly toward the park, hearing the others trail after him.

Some way inside the arched entrance to the park, in a deserted area where the thick vegetation muffled the city noise, with only a few distant beings visible walking or riding on the park's trails, Hobbie paused and turned back to face the other three.

"Hobbie, what was that?" Tycho asked, his face more neutral than Wedge's but his voice just as concerned.

"That," Hobbie stated, "was us convincing Ralltiir and the Klivian family that it’s in their best interests to join the New Republic."

Wes gave Hobbie an odd, guarded look, as if he wanted to ask something but wasn't sure how, and then just shook himself like a furry animal emerging from a lake. "That was not ok," he said bluntly.

Hobbie drew back, bringing his hands together in front of himself and adopting the same formal pose he had been in during the meeting. "Of course," he said, looking at them. "I’m sorry. I should’ve been more forthcoming with information. I did try," Hobbie defended himself. "I tried to give you the important things. The information that was necessary. I just… I was so sure you’d be able to adapt. And you did! You did wonderfully. Exactly how Firsts and Seconds should comport themselves," he said, rapidly looking between them. "I’m sorry."

Wes took a half stride forward, reaching out impulsively as if to gather Hobbie into a hug. Hobbie flinched, and Wes drew back awkwardly.

"Sorry," Hobbie said, looking down at the ground. "I’m- I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. This is just how things are there."

Wes shoved his hands into his trouser pockets. "Do I need to work up a mission profile?" he asked, addressing the question mostly to Hobbie.

Hobbie’s head jerked up as he looked at Wes, shocked. "What?" he asked, feeling absolutely confused.

Wes shrugged one shoulder, obviously trying to play it casual. "We're Rogue Squadron. We free oppressed and subjugated populations all across the galaxy," he said, one corner of his mouth quirking slightly at the pompous phrasing. "I had no idea your planet was like that, Hobbs. Do we need to do some kind of rescue mission?"

Hobbie looked at him like he was speaking Gamorrean. He scoffed and gave him a look like he thought Wes was stupid. "No! Wes, are you… No! This is a tradition that goes back… almost as far as Ralltiir's written history! You can’t just shoot things and expect everything to be fine!" he told him.

Wes stepped back a little at Hobbie's vehemence, giving him room to rant. Like Wedge and Tycho, he watched and listened attentively, not interrupting.

Hobbie shook his head and took a breath. "Wes… Thank you. Thank you so much. But it won’t work," he told them point blank. "We do that, the Thirds either get put down or they completely refuse outside intervention. Either way, everything goes back to the way it was and we’re considered worse than the Empire for meddling. It would put relations back decades. This treaty is the best opportunity Thirds have. It gives us options. If we make it to adulthood, we can leave. We can find out there's somewhere else to go. Just introducing New Republic culture to Ralltiir? Is the best option. It’s a long game. But there's no other way to bring freedom in this case."

"I think we’ve had a very difficult time. That’s not your fault, Hobbs," Tycho said. "It might be best if we just take a breather. Debrief tomorrow?"

Hobbie nodded. "I’m going to go home. I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early," he said, walking towards the entrance of the park. The loud cacophony of the city hit him as he pulled out his datapad to call for a speeder pickup.

***

Hobbie forced himself to slowly breathe in and out while the speeder took him home. He paid the driver and walked into his apartment. Hobbie sagged as the stress of the day made itself known. Hobbie immediately reached down, pulling off his boots and tossing them on the floor. He rolled his eyes as he realized he'd forgotten to give the tea to Tycho. Kriff. He crossed the apartment, unfastened his jacket, and pulled the tea out of his pockets, putting it in a pile on the counter. Hobbie was finally able to suck in a deep breath, and peeled the jacket off and tossed it on the ground. Hobbie hated it. He hated that he spent that much on that jacket and sized it like he would’ve on Ralltiir. Damnit, why hadn’t he just gotten it a little bigger? Hobbie unbuttoned his shirt, flinging that on the floor as well, and stripped off his dreadfully uncomfortable pants, adding them to the pile. He would deal with that later. Hobbie went to his bedroom. He wasn't tired but he didn't know what else to do. With a loud sigh, Hobbie sat on the bed in his underclothes and cradled his head in his hands.

His family had severed ties. No one knew it, but since his siblings thought he belonged to Wes, they let him go.

Hobbie didn't even understand why he was upset. This should have been welcome. He was no longer beholden to his family. They couldn't force him to go home.

Home.

Ralltiir hadn't been home for a long time but now it was like he wasn't allowed. He didn't know why he cared. It didn't add up. Why did it hurt so bad? Hobbie shook his head. "This is absolutely stupid."

Ok, fine. Ralltiir didn’t want him. Ralltiir never wanted him! He was done with them. It was wrong the way they treated him. He was a Rogue! He had more than proven his worth, over and over. But he had created an opportunity for the other Thirds. For Ralltiir. Hobbie had to be satisfied with that. He had to.

So, he couldn’t go home. Well, neither could Tycho or Wedge. Or Corran, or all the Corellians he knew. All the Alderaanians he knew. Princess Leia herself. Hobbie had to just deal with it. At least they couldn’t poison him! If they hadn’t already. Oh, he knew what Darla said but if he were in her seat, he would’ve lied about it. It would probably be something really slow acting so he’d die in six months, too. Great. He’d just go in a bit early and get a tox screen.

***

"You look like you’re going to fight someone. Should I go get some gear on?" Tycho asked, breaking the silence in the locker room.

Wes finished fastening the wrist straps on his padded gloves, then stretched a bit. Tycho had a point: in his bright blue exercise shorts and matching shoes, with short-fingered gloves over his handwraps and no undershirt, he looked ready for a competition fight. Tycho himself, still wrapping his hands, looked much more casual in faded shorts, battered shoes, and a regulation undershirt, more appropriate to the casual gym session they had planned.

"Not yet," Wes said, quiet, detached. "I want to kill somebody." He'd take out some of his aggression on the heavy punching bags before he tried sparring with anybody more fragile.

Tycho sighed heavily. "Can’t say I blame you. I’ll hold the bag until you’re calm enough to spar, ok?"

Wes nodded tautly. "Thanks." He checked his gloves one more time, then headed out into the gym proper. Tycho followed him.

Once they were set up, Tycho bracing the tall fifty-kilo bag, Wes threw his first punch -- open, unguarded, all the power he could put behind it. Without Tycho there, the bag would have spun out of control. Even with Tycho bracing it, Wes drove the bag clear back toward him, a good third of a meter or more. Tycho rocked back slightly, shifted his stance, and took a better grip on the bag. Wes threw another punch, just as hard; the bag shifted again, but not as much. Tycho had control of it now.

Now he was sure of that, Wes flung himself into a series of attacks - kicks, knee strikes, elbow jabs, more punches with his whole hundred kilos of muscle behind them. He let his focus narrow to just the bag, the fight, the overwhelming flood of hatred and anger and frustration that needed an outlet. Conscious thought seemed to stop. All that mattered was killing, maiming, destroying -- the bag and whoever the bag stood for. Wes threw a vicious palm-heel strike that jarred the bag upward, a swift knee and elbow combination that would have disabled most sapient beings, then another full-body punch that would have laid him out on the floor if he'd missed the bag. Tycho matched every movement, reacting almost before Wes could strike, letting Wes stay focused, letting him work off his feelings without having to be in control.

Finally Wes slowed, then stopped. He leaned one hand against the heavy bag to keep his balance, breathing deeply. He could feel sweat trickling down his back and chest. He wiped his hair off his forehead; it was soaked and dripping.

Tycho gave a half smile, looking a bit grim. "Feel better?" he asked.

Wes drew in a few more deep breaths, steadying himself, trying to figure out how he felt. "A little," he admitted with a wry half-smile of his own. "I could spar if you want." But he didn't move. After a few seconds, he added, "We did that to him, Tych."

Tycho nodded, exhaling sharply. "It’s… I never realized… I’ve known him since we were both 18. I knew it hadn’t been easy but while I was speaking to Darla, I found out a bit more." He paused, changing tracks. "Wes, we did what was necessary."

Wes dug his fingers into the bag, needing to anchor himself. "He flinched," he managed, his voice small. "You saw? I went to hug him and he flinched." He shook his head, unable to find any words for the huge empty chasm opening in his heart. "Tycho… please."

~

Tycho felt his stomach drop. Force. Wes looked up at him, childlike, lost, searching for support. "I know. I know," Tycho said, closing the distance between them. He wrapped his arms around Wes and hugged him close. Hobbie never flinched. They were both shocked and worried about that. But Wes needed Tycho to be strong for him right now. "It wasn’t because of you. It wasn’t your fault. He had a hard time and we had to do this. But we made things as easy as we could," Tycho told Wes, trying to comfort him, not sure if he truly believed it.

Wes crumpled into his arms, clinging. Tycho squeezed his eyes shut as he held the younger pilot close. "Hobbie warned us. Not… exactly, not bluntly like we’re used to, but he warned us. We had to adapt and go along with this. You did your best."

"I was horrible to him," Wes murmured, still clinging to Tycho. "I said all these terrible things. I treated him like a, an object. Not even like a droid or an animal. Worse."

Tycho gently rubbed his back. "Apparently that’s how things are done there," he observed. "Wes, you were mirroring what his brother and sister did. He knew this would happen. That’s why he asked for us to come with. He trusts us."

Wes hugged Tycho tightly for a minute. "He trusted us," he corrected, and Tycho could hear the thin thread of fear running through his voice, that they might have taken the masquerade too far and lost that trust.

Tycho stiffened, the scene from the park replaying in his mind. It was so unlike Hobbie but with everything that had happened… What if they did lose that trust? Hobbie had always been quiet, even back in flight school, but angry. He had only mellowed upon being in Rogue Squadron for awhile. Tycho hadn’t known. He suddenly felt like he didn’t know his friend. "We have to assume that he still does until he lets us know otherwise."

Wes nodded quietly, clearly not happy with Tycho's assessment but accepting it. "Hoth Protocol?" he asked, relaxing a little and snuggling into Tycho's embrace. Tycho held him steadily, making sure he felt safe. Back on the ice world Hoth, the Rogues had piled into each other's beds, sharing both warmth and friendly companionship. Since then, the survivors -- well, mostly Wes, to be honest -- had kept the tradition alive.

"I think we could use it," Tycho told him. He felt tired suddenly, a little uncertain and not sure if they would all be ok. "We should find Wedge."

***

Tycho raised his hand and rang the door chime outside of Wedge's apartment. While he waited for an answer, he glanced over at Wes, who was still uncharacteristically quiet. Wes seemed huddled in on himself, big shoulders hunched inside the set of spare clothes Tycho had found for him at the gym; his black hair was still fluffy and damp from his hasty shower.

Wedge opened the door, appearing surprised to see them. "I thought you went to the gym? But I’m glad you’re here. I did a little checking on Ralltiir," he said, stepping aside so they could walk in.

"Isn't it a little late for that?" Wes grumbled. He headed past Wedge through the living area, into the kitchen, then came back, opening a bottle of bright blue mineral drink, and flopped down crankily on the sofa.

"Not for me," Wedge told him. "I was checking on their defenses. A few ground ion cannons is it. No one attacks them because they’re so close to us. We could launch an attack and it would be over in almost no time," he said, anger in his eyes.

Wes had his head back, finishing half his drink in one long pull. He stopped, set the bottle down on the side table, and looked at Wedge, confused. "I thought Hobbie said we weren't doing an attack," he said.

"Yeah, he did. But what they’re doing to their own people is repugnant and needs to stop," Wedge told him. "They treat them like objects. Not even like droids. Which is another issue, but they can’t be allowed to do that. I get that he wants to do this slow revolution thing, but is that really going to help? I don’t think so."

Tycho gave a mild little cough, getting Wedge's attention. "Historically, when an oppressed group is being subjugated by members of their own species, the chance for persistent social change is drastically higher when the revolution is led by members of the group itself, not instigated by outsiders," he pointed out. "It's when you have humans enslaving other species, like the Vratix back on Thyferra, that Rogue Squadron sometimes needs to step in and create the space for that social change to occur."

Wedge glared at him. "I know you’re right, but this is stupid. Why are we even negotiating with Ralltiir at this point? Why are they the only option we have? We shouldn’t be doing anything with them until they get their heads straight! Objectifying an entire group of people just because they were born? It’s sickening," he said then looked at Wes. "I’m sorry, but I can’t trust Hobbie to be objective in this matter. He’s ok with it."

Tycho looked over at Wes too. Wes met Wedge's gaze for a few seconds with a steady, even stare, then deliberately turned away, pulling his booted feet up onto the sofa and hugging his knees to his chest, scowling at the wall by the other end of the sofa rather than looking at either of them. Tycho had seldom seen such a clear expression of "we're all going to pretend I didn't just hear that".

Wedge stared at him, looking furious with his arms crossed, and fumed for a few minutes. Tycho waited patiently for one of them to break the silent standoff. Finally, Wedge exhaled sharply, breaking his gaze. "Sorry, Wes. I didn’t mean it like that. I trust Hobbie, I just… how could they treat him like that?" he asked them, looking back at them. "Why did he take it?!"

"How do I know?" Wes snapped, turning to face Wedge. He slammed his feet back on the floor and spread his hands wide in helpless confusion. "Forget about them, Wedge, why'd he take it from me? I don't know. All I know is, we've done too kriffing much today that he didn't have any chance to say no to. The absolute least we can do is honor his wishes on the one thing he did say no about."

Wedge dropped his arms and went still, emotion draining off his face. "Kriff," he said softly. He seemed to realize what he had been saying and flushed slightly. "That was unfair of me. I was… he’s my friend too and we went along with something pretty terrible today."

"Yeah," Wes said simply, folding his hands in his lap. Tycho could see him starting to shake slightly from the physical and emotional exhaustion of the day.

"Because he needed us to," Wedge continued, measured and calm. "I’m sorry, Wes. I know it doesn’t make today better but you’re right. I just…" he shook his head.

"You just wanted to help," Tycho said softly. He stepped forward and pulled Wedge gently into a hug.

Wedge sagged against Tycho. "Today was terrible," he muttered, wrapping his arms around Tycho's waist. "And we can’t do anything to help at the moment."

Tycho heard Wes leave the sofa, then felt Wes wrap his arms around them. "We did-" Wes said, his voice wobbly. Tycho shifted, wrapping one arm around Wes's broad shoulders, and felt Wedge reach out to include Wes in the hug as well.

"We did what we could," Wes said, still unsteadily, but clearly trying to believe the words he was saying. "They're joining the New Republic. Like Hobbie said, adult Thirds can seek asylum."

Tycho nodded. "And then, eventually, some of them will go back. They'll fight the system, not just the people in charge. I have faith that they'll win. But what we did today was the first step. We opened the door for them to find out there's any other way for things to be than the way they've known."

"By treating Hobbie like shavit," Wedge muttered, still clearly uncomfortable.

"By treating Hobbie like he wanted us to," Tycho pointed out. "He set up that meeting. He introduced us. He knew exactly what was going to happen. He decided that this opportunity was worth it, that he could go back to being mistreated for one day in order to give others a chance. We don’t have to like what happened but we need to respect his choices."

"You bet I don’t like it," Wes grumbled while Wedge nodded sullenly.

Tycho silently agreed. "You need food," he said, letting go of Wes with a friendly pat on the shoulder. "Wedge, we’re all worn down by what happened. I suggest we enact Hoth Protocol."

Wedge huffed, easing out of the hug, and gave him a half smile. "I thought you might be over for that," he said wryly. "I know we can’t liberate every terrible place we see. It’s just a nice thought exercise. But I am sorry."

Wes bumped his head into Wedge’s arm. "It’s ok. Just… Hobbie asked us."

"I know," Wedge told him, wrapping a hand around the back of his neck. Tycho smiled at the two of them.

"Wes, go get something to eat," Tycho told him again. As Wes nodded and headed to the kitchen, Tycho and Wedge shared a look of frustration. Tycho knew he hated feeling powerless like this. He couldn’t blame Wedge, but Hobbie's plan was a better way. He had to believe that.

Tycho nudged Wedge gently toward the bedroom. Wedge sighed and headed there, pulling off his shirt as he went. Tycho followed him. By the time they were stripped down to their underclothes and climbing into the bed, Wes showed up in the doorway, stuffing the last of a sandwich into his mouth with one hand and carrying the half-finished bottle of blue mineral drink in the other. "Mm mphm m middle," he complained stickily.

Tycho rolled his eyes. "I remember the great battle of big spoon. I'm in the middle."

Wedge gave Wes a smug look. "I won."

Wes, still trying to finish his mouthful, just offered Wedge a rude gesture with his free hand while he finished his drink.

Tycho rolled his eyes. "I refuse to listen to this argument again. You both won. Case closed."

Wes grinned cheekily at Wedge, tossed his empty drink bottle accurately into the rubbish container, and started undressing.

Once they had gotten comfortable with him in the middle, Tycho let out a tired sigh. "You know, you two did a lot to shield him. I couldn’t see him but I know that he realized that. That’s why he had us join him. We’d watch his back."

"Not enough, Tych. I barely did anything," Wes told him wearily, laying his head on his shoulder.

"You two wouldn’t let me do more," Wedge pointed out. Tycho sighed.

"We had to maintain the act. For my part, I’m sorry. But we needed them to like us and they do. They’re coming to the table… hopefully Hobbie’s plan works."

"We need to apologize to Hobbie," Wedge told them. "Tomorrow."

"He might not let us," Tycho said. "Things are strange right now. But hopefully he will." Tycho felt the two of them nod and he closed his eyes, the exhaustion of the day finally catching up with him.

****

"I can’t believe you left me with bruises, Tycho," Wedge was griping when Hobbie entered the room, caf in hand, stick candy firmly in his mouth.

He waved pleasantly. "Aww, Tycho, are you the abusive husband?" Hobbie teased him. "Guess that answers who disciplines me then."

They all turned to look at him. Wedge did a horrified double take, Wes went pale, and Tycho looked sickened. Hobbie lost his wry grin. "Oh. I guess that’s much funnier to me then."

"Just a bit," Wes said, giving Hobbie a calculating look. "So how do we all feel about yesterday? Do we think we won?"

Tycho gave Hobbie a look that spoke volumes. He ducked his head in apology to Tycho. "I think we got a lot further than we believe," Tycho commented while Wedge nodded his agreement.

Hobbie took a seat and leaned back in his chair. "I already spoke to Leia. They've already reached out for the next meeting. We won." He saw Wes's big shoulders sag in a sudden, obvious rush of relief.

Wedge scowled. "We won by treating you like an object, Hobbs."

Hobbie tilted his head and looked confused. "That's the culture. We won, who cares?"

Tycho frowned heavily. "Hobbie... that's not alright. We feel bad. I'm glad it worked. I'm glad you gave us enough information to do this, but we're allowed to feel bad."

"Of course you are," Hobbie replied. "But it was worth it. They were satisfied, they got their worldviews validated and I didn't actually have to talk to them that long. Now, I never have to do a show of loyalty again."

Wedge scoffed. "They made you do a show of loyalty?" he asked then shook his head. "Well, that's good that it's done with, anyway."

Hobbie stilled and quickly nodded. "It's traditional. We must all swear our loyalty and show our respect."

"I take it 'all' means Thirds, there," Wes observed dryly. Hobbie gave him a curious look. Wes was acting odd, much less boisterous than usual. Hobbie supposed they were all acting a little off kilter right now though.

"Well, yes. Thirds must show loyalty and respect to their families. For taking care of us," Hobbie explained carefully.

Wedge raised an eyebrow. "Isn't that... what family does?"

"Typically," Hobbie replied primly.

Tycho and Wes seemed to have a conversation with pointed looks at each other. Then Tycho glanced over and their eyes met. "Hobbs, what did you mean by abusive husband? Were we all supposed to be married?"

Hobbie's ears flushed red. "Ah. Yes. They assumed that you were married. Most Ralltiiri are all married by the time they're in their 20s. They saw a First, two Seconds, and a Protected, so they guessed you were all connected. None of that is uncommon among Elites." He paused. "Well, except my continued presence. But that was a favor."

Wes considered this for a few seconds, tilting his head thoughtfully, then turned to Wedge with his most devilish troublemaking grin. "So, husband of mine!" he announced cheerfully. "Since I'm a Firstborn and you're not, that report you were bitching about is no longer my problem." He blew Wedge a mischievous kiss.

Wedge rolled his eyes. "Ah, but apparently I’m the bitchy spouse, so you’re going to have to do that datawork for me anyway, husband," he said, blowing a kiss right back.

"What a joyous marriage we have," Tycho said slyly.

"Well, you are the prized spouse. Wes married up to get you," Hobbie said with a wink.

"You're all our favorites, Tych," Wes said. "And I suppose I married you to do my reports for me?" he suggested, smirking at Hobbie.

Hobbie froze then quickly smiled to cover. Wes didn’t quite understand what a Protected was. He scoffed a little and shook his head no. "Sorry, Wes. I’m not your husband, I’m merely your Protected. You and your lovely spouses allow me to serv- help you," he explained delicately. "Thirds don't participate in business or anything a First or Second does. It's too hard for us to truly understand what to do. Guess you're on your own there, my First," he said, mockingly bowing towards him.

"Aw," Wes said, conceding the point. "Tycho, pretty please, will you do my report if I ask you really, really nicely?" He gave Tycho a pouting, pleading face.

Tycho smiled charmingly. "Ah, but Wes, as my wonderful husband, shouldn’t you be keeping me in the life to which I’ve become accustomed and do the important work that is simply above my station as the elegant spouse?" he said, fluttering his eyelashes.

"Nobody here loves me," Wes complained. "You all just want to use me for my datawork skills. I need to find another husband who will truly appreciate me. Do you think Pash Cracken's looking?"

"Your marriage bed is getting very crowded, Wes," Hobbie said dryly.

"Ha, he couldn’t love you like I love you," Wedge told him at the same time.

"That's only five people," Wes retorted to Hobbie. "Four, sorry. That's nothing. We could make it work." He changed his focus to Wedge. "If you really loved me you'd do my datawork for me, my bitchy, loving husband."

"Still five if you’re being generous," Hobbie told him. Wes blinked a couple of times, a little thrown off by the numbers, but apparently decided not to press the issue. "But that is true," Hobbie continued. "How many did we have on Hoth? Three whole squadrons on the regular?"

"Ah, but I’m a General so you need to do what I tell you," Wedge told Wes.

Tycho nodded at Hobbie. "Sounds right. That was a weird time."

"Weird but fun," Wes said, pointedly ignoring Wedge. "Damn. I don't know if I'd marry three whole squadrons, but I wouldn't mind cuddling with them again. Everybody's all split up now and it's annoying."

Wedge sighed. "It’s definitely a change," he said then shook his head. "Anyway, we were successful, Ralltiir likes us, and we won. But Hobbie," Wedge said, grabbing his full attention. "I’m sorry that we mistreated you."

"Me too," Wes said immediately to Hobbie. "Especially me. I'm really sorry, Hobbs."

Tycho nodded, looking apologetic. Hobbie blinked, surprised.

"That’s… That’s really not necessary. Like I said before, we sold it to my siblings. Frankly, you were being very nice to me."

Wes shook his head. "If that was nice… well. At least we won. Like you said, the other Thirds have a chance now."

"Precisely. It’s going to take some time but change is coming. Ralltiir being allied with us is a start," Hobbie told them.

"Ok. If that’s all, let’s adjourn. Wes has a lengthy report to finish," Wedge said, smirking at the younger pilot.

"More like start," Tycho added.

Wes stuck his tongue out at both of them. "You're so mean. I'm going to see if I can bribe Emtrey to help me." He turned to Hobbie. "If I'm not crushed under an avalanche of datacards, you want to hang out after work? I have a new Tully Zaphot holocomedy," he said cheerfully.

Hobbie nodded. "Sounds delightful. Would you like me to pick up anything before I arrive?"

Wes crinkled his nose thoughtfully. "Yeah, if you don't mind. I'm probably going to be working late on this thing." He shot Wedge a dirty look. "Bring along a Gralax's double deluxe and some of their little twisty rolls? And some beer, I'm pretty sure you drank all of mine."

"Like you didn’t drink all my drinks?" Hobbie retorted. "I’ll get it, don’t worry."

"Thanks, Hobbs," Wes said. "Ok, shoo, everybody go have fun while I work on this endless report." He flapped his hands at Wedge as if shooing him away.

Wedge laughed and Tycho nudged him when they stood. "We chose our husband well, even if he complains too much."

Hobbie snorted. "Hey, Tycho, hold up. I have that tea for you." He clapped Wes on the shoulder. "Be seeing you," he said and rushed to join Tycho.

***

Hobbie walked into Wes’s apartment as the food warmed his hands. The neural connections in his prosthetic left hand always made heat feel just a tad different than in his organic right hand. He set the beer down first, then spread out the food containers on the low table by the sofa. Hobbie stole a piece of the meat and cheese flatbread while he set up the holo, then sat down and waited for Wes to arrive.

Maybe he should tell Wes. About the severing. He’d be sympathetic at least. Hobbie hated to lean on him like that but if he said anything Wes would just tell him that’s what friends did. Wes was good at understanding him.

Hobbie glanced at the holoscreen and noticed that Wes hadn’t updated it. Shaking his head and finishing his slice, he rose to his feet and went to the control panel, kneeling down instead of grabbing a nearby seat. It was just easier than having to bend over awkwardly from the seat to get anything done.

Just as Hobbie finished working on the holoscreen, the door slid open and Wes walked in. He looked as untidy as he always did after a long day of datawork, his dark hair fluffed up like a startled woodland creature trying to scare away predators. As he came in the door, he had the beige jacket of his duty uniform already unsealed and was starting to shuck it off, showing the white undershirt beneath. Seeing Hobbie, he stopped in the doorway and blinked a few times, not even moving to finish taking off his jacket.

Hobbie looked at him with a raised eyebrow and rose to his feet. "Are you alright?" he asked, walking over to him.

Wes straightened his shoulders. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine," he said, taking off his jacket and looking past Hobbie at the boxes of flatbread. "I'm starving is all. How's it going?" He headed over to the sofa and sat down.

"Your holocomm was out of date. Was Wedge not over the other day? I know how he gets about it," Hobbie told him as he settled next to Wes and took a twist. He bit into it and chewed, swallowing before he opened a beer and handed it to Wes. "How was your report?"

Wes leaned back, dropping his head back toward the wall. "Long," he said, looking incredibly weary. He took the beer and finished most of it in one long drink. "It could have been shorter, I guess, but knowing Princess Leia is going to be using it as her primary source on what we discussed today… I wanted to get it right."

"I’m sure she appreciates your attention to detail," Hobbie said with a smile. "The holo is ready if you are."

Wes leaned forward and picked out a slice of flatbread. "Yeah, hit it," he said, settling back into the sofa cushions again.

Hobbie pressed play for the holo and reached out for another slice. The comedy was par for the course, but at least it wasn’t as awful as the last holocomedy they’d watched. He settled in once he finished eating, laying down and putting his head on Wes’s thigh, letting Wes start absent-mindedly petting his hair as he often did.

Hobbie mostly tuned out the twists and turns of the holocomedy and just tried to relax. Wes was still quieter than usual, laughing occasionally but not calling out advice or criticism to the characters as he usually did. Still, he seemed to be enjoying himself. As the holofilm continued, Hobbie found himself considering again whether to tell Wes he had been severed from his family. It would be ok to admit it to Wes. Then he could move on. That part of his life had been over for a long time anyway.

Just as Hobbie gathered his courage to speak up, Wes leaned forward, picked up the holocontroller, and paused the holo. Tully Zaphot, caught mid-pratfall, froze halfway to the ground in a swirl of fancy skirts.

"Hobbie, I have to know," Wes said, his voice taut. He nudged a little at Hobbie's shoulder; Hobbie sat up and turned to face him. "All this time. Has it been…" Wes trailed off, seeming to fumble for words. "Ever since Yavin. This weird status thing. You knew I was a Firstborn. Has it been… like that?" He scooted a little farther away from Hobbie, squaring his shoulders uncomfortably.

Hobbie stared at him as white hot rage filled his brain. He exhaled sharply from his nose, his eyes flinty as he glared at him. "How arrogant of you. You think just because I’m able to use the very culture of my planet as a tool that I’ve been degrading myself for you this entire time? Do you truly think I would be that weak?" he asked. "I stepped away from my status long before I even met you on Yavin. Ask Tycho. Our friendship, everything that we’ve been through together? Has been me, trying to be my own person. Why would I degrade myself for you? Being born first means nothing."

Wes sat still, listening, squeezing his brown eyes shut as his round face flushed darker with shame. When Hobbie stopped talking, he waited a few seconds to make sure he was done before starting to talk.

"I'm sorry," he said in a small voice, his eyes still shut. "I'm sorry. I should have trusted you more. I was… you're right. It was arrogant of me. Your culture doesn't mean more than, than me knowing you as a person." He hunched his shoulders, still looking humiliated. "I'm sorry, Hobbie. I got scared. I- you-" Wes started turning the holocontroller over in his hands, looking down at it rather than meeting Hobbie's gaze. "Why would you spend all this time with me if you didn't have to? You watch stupid holocomedies I know you hate. You let me cuddle with you when I know you don't like being touched. You fix my holoplayer and bring me flatbread and…" He shook his head. "I'm sorry. You said it's not like that, and I trust you. I just… I got scared."

"Because I want to!" Hobbie told him. "I don’t particularly like the holos, but I like you. You’re all I have." They'd been all he had for a long time, but now... "I mean, you, Wedge, and Tycho are it. So why shouldn’t I try to be flexible? You do it for me." He held out his hand, wanting to be close to Wes, not wanting to push too hard. "I don’t mind it if it’s you touching me," he said truthfully. "You need that, and I’m glad to be there and a part of it."

Wes looked at the offered hand for a second, glanced up as if studying Hobbie's face, then took his hand and scooted back to his original position on the sofa. Hobbie scooted closer, settling in next to him, leaning their shoulders against each other.

"You know, I like bringing you flatbread and fixing your holoplayer," Hobbie remarked casually, reaching for another slice of flatbread. "If I didn’t want to do something, I’d tell you."

Wes pulled in a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and then let it out in something more like a snort than a sigh. "I know," he admitted. "I should have- I should have trusted that. I just let myself get so scared that I'd been… taking advantage of you this whole time, somehow. That we weren't really friends at all." He hunched his shoulders and shook himself a little, then sprawled back, leaning against Hobbie. "I had to know. But I'm sorry I doubted you, Hobbie, I really am. Are we good?"

"Of course we are," Hobbie told him. "You’ve never… I left that behind me," he said with a note of finality. Hobbie sighed and leaned back on the couch, looking up at the ceiling. He was so relieved that Wes wanted to still be friends. "Wes, I don’t mean this unkindly but you’re the least likely First I’ve ever met in my life. I’m just glad you were quick enough to catch on and fool them."

Wes cackled happily. "I was so worried I was going to say the wrong thing and ruin the whole masquerade. But Face Loran told me once that you can get away with pretty much anything if you act important and carry a datapad. And I guess it worked," he finished, snuggling a little closer against Hobbie's arm with a sigh of still-surprised relief. Then, tilting his head, he added, "Is it just me, or was your brother cutting me some slack there, somehow? I got the impression he really wanted to get on my good side, and I don't know why."

Hobbie nodded. "He was cutting you some slack. Number one, you’re an offworlder, and while you seem to know our ways, I was the only one who could’ve taught you and obviously I wouldn’t tell you correctly. Number two, he took your Protected away. He was apologizing a bit for your inconvenience."

Hobbie felt Wes shift a little beside him, nodding thoughtfully. "My... Protected," Wes said slowly. "Can I ask? I mean, I've kind of guessed some stuff about what that might mean, but-" He huffed a sigh. "What-all does it mean, really?"

After a few moments of contemplation, Hobbie sighed softly, feeling the fear well up again. This might not go well. He didn’t know what to expect when Wes learned what a Protected was… and that they thought he was Wes’s. "What do you think it means? I’ll tell you everything but I want to know what you think first."

"You don't have to tell me anything you don't want," Wes pointed out. "But I was originally thinking it was some special kind of a servant, like in holodramas where nobility have personal servants that go with them everywhere. It couldn't be a bodyguard with a name like Protected, but somebody to manage my calendar or help me put my pants on or just…" He chuckled a little. "I read a book a long time ago where a man who inherited a lot of wealth and didn't want to be bothered about acting dignified, hired a servant just to stand around at garden parties and look snooty. Just to provide the dignity appropriate to his station. I don't get the impression that's actually your role as my Protected but it would be funny." Wes moved, half raising his arm as if to put it around Hobbie's shoulders, then seemed to change his mind and lowered it again. "But then there's some other stuff. Darren hinted at it. So have you, a couple times. I get the impression that your job as a Protected may have a sexual component to it. Am I just being dirty-minded there? Or do you shine my boots and also suck my dick?" he finished lightly.

Hobbie lowered his gaze for a moment, taking a steadying breath then turned to Wes, seeing how awkward he looked. "If that’s what you wanted me to do, then yes," he confirmed. "A Protected serves the needs of their First. Sometimes it’s just a personal assistant that runs your schedule, your wardrobe, your social responsibilities, and lives with you. More often than not, they give sexual service as well. A Third is approached by a First, they sign a contract, then the First provides for the Third and the Third gives them exactly what they want, whatever they want, when they want it."

"Provides for them and beats them up, from what you were saying to Tycho," Wes observed wryly. Hobbie could tell he was trying to sound more casual than he felt, covering up his discomfort with the topic.

Hobbie nodded. "Order must be maintained in a household. Without discipline, a Third won’t know its place or how to act," he recited by rote. "Any Third is happy to be Protected. It’s an honor to be chosen…" There was a brief pause. "It’s sold to us as a great honor, that is." Hobbie grimaced, showing how he felt about that. He felt vaguely ill and suddenly didn’t want to be there. What did Wes think of him now?

Wes twisted around next to him and reached out, offering a hug. Hobbie met his gaze for a moment. Wes looked concerned, unsure whether the gesture would be welcome, but there was no disgust or repulsion on his face, only affection and the wish to comfort a friend. Hobbie leaned in and pulled Wes to him. Wes's strong arms wrapped around him, holding him close. He felt Wes wiggle into a more comfortable position and half-sprawl across him, pinning him to the sofa, as if trying to shield Hobbie with his own broad frame from any danger or harm.

Hobbie wrapped his arms around that stocky, muscular chest and let himself draw comfort from his wingman's closeness. Wes wanted to be with him, wanted to give him this; Wes wouldn't leave him. Hobbie closed his eyes. "I wasn’t… I was never approached. I think my Father had more far-reaching plans when it came to me," he admitted quietly. "I was meant to be a good soldier, go on the Command track, become an Admiral and bring glory to the Klivian name. I’d be a testament to their rearing and finally no longer a blight on their name. Now, if he’d actually told me any of this beforehand, I may have actually tried harder to do that. But I tested well for TIE training." Hobbie sighed.

"Lucky us," Wes said with a warm smile. "But yeah, telling you would’ve helped. Can’t say I’m not glad he didn’t though."

Hobbie smiled back then went serious as Wes drew back, resettling on the couch, leaning their shoulders together again. He should apologize for getting them into this mess. "I’m sorry for involving you. I should’ve been stronger and just faced them myself. But I’m glad you came."

"Hutt spit," Wes retorted. "You needed us running interference. They wouldn't have taken you seriously. Strength has nothing to do with it." He shifted, elbowing Hobbie a little, fondly. "You made the smart call. You brought in backup, and we were happy to help. I'm just glad you're ok."

Hobbie nodded. "You're right. It doesn't happen often but when it does..." he said with a grin as Wes elbowed him again. "I... I'm not sure I'm actually ok yet. But I am safe."

"You bet your ass you are," Wes replied. "Can I ask -- why did you agree to go in the first place?"

"You already did once," Hobbie told him. Wes gave him an unimpressed look. "Alright." Hobbie considered it for a long time. "None of what I said before was wrong but the very idea of saying no, especially to my family, is almost impossible. Saying no to someone whom you’re wired to want their approval is the same. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you three hadn’t been there and they asked me to leave with them." He shook his head. "But at least it never came up."

Wes hugged him again. "I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry."

"Thank you," Hobbie told him. "There’s nothing that can be said. Not really." He leaned into the embrace and just let himself feel sorry for himself. "They severed me," Hobbie admitted. "Since I’m your Protected, I’m no longer considered a Klivian. At least on my homeworld. But that saved me from having to go home and train pilots."

"I'm glad they didn't take you away, but disowning you is a bit drastic. Are you ok?" Wes asked.

Hobbie shook his head. "Honestly, I have no idea how to feel. I can’t get over this desire to please my family, to actually know that they want me. That doesn’t go away even though they don’t want me. I’ve done stupid things in hopes that perhaps, just perhaps, they’ll decide that I’m worthwhile after all. Even with knowing that it’s not going to happen and they’re just using me."

Wes looked at him. "Hobbs… You know we," he paused. "We need you. Like I know what it sounds like, but we need you. We’re not going to just use you."

"I know. Thank you for saying it though," Hobbie told him. "I needed to hear that."

"You know me, I always need you watching out for me," Wes told him. "Who else would put up with me this long?"

Hobbie smiled. "It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to keep making."

Wes burst out laughing. "Love you too, Hobbs," he told him and frowned thoughtfully. "Do you really think they would’ve forced you to return to Ralltiir?"

"To keep themselves neutral? Likely so. They need help stopping the pirate raids, but the Empire is getting weaker and they have no reason to help Ralltiir. But if we were to look a little deeper, it’s likely that we’d find that they were putting out feelers for fighters." Hobbie sighed and hugged Wes tighter for a moment. "But you three were able to convince them that this is the best option."

Wes paused a moment. "There were four of us."

Hobbie burst out laughing as Wes grinned, looking satisfied with himself. "You’ve got to start working this into conversations with Wedge."

"Oh, trust me, it’s happening," Wes told him. "You know, maybe you should talk to Wedge and Tycho. About not being able to go home."

Hobbie shook his head. "No. How could I?" he asked. "I didn’t lose my home and no one is keeping me from going home. I’ve just been…"

"Severed? Which sounds like from the way you’re explaining, they won’t allow you to go home. Not really."

"Just because they won’t allow it. I’m not going to get arrested or something… my planet isn’t gone."

"It might be different but you still can’t go home. They know how it is. You should talk to them," Wes told him.

Hobbie looked at him and sighed. "Ok. Ok. I will."

Wes patted his shoulder. "Hey, you want to pick the holo? It’s not like I won’t watch this another time."

"Are you certain?" Hobbie asked.

"Yeah. You’ve had a bad few weeks," Wes told him with a shrug.

"I really have," Hobbie agreed. He leaned forward, getting the remote, and backed out of the holocomedy. "Thanks, Wes."

"Stop acting like it’s some big deal. It was probably your turn anyway."

Hobbie shrugged. He didn’t remember. After going through their shared library, he selected one of his favorite holos and started it playing. Hobbie got comfortable as the intro began with an explosion, moving so that his head was in Wes’s lap.

He felt Wes’s fingers tangle into his hair, gently petting. There was a pause, then Wes pulled his hand away.

"Sorry. Is this ok?" Wes asked, looking down at him.

Hobbie nodded and grabbed his hand, putting it back on his head. "Wouldn’t have laid here if it wasn’t." He smiled up at Wes. "Also, I'm staying the night. Hoth Protocol."

"Yes, Boss," Wes told him, a smile dancing on his lips. Hobbie finally felt like he was home.

 

FIN