It always surprised Mary when she remembered how just how young JD Dunne actually was.
It was easy to forget the young man's age when one considered all the things he did for the Alliance ever since he stumbled inadvertently into its membership. These days, the fresh faced youth who was barely past his teenage years was co-pilot to Buck Wilmington's Rogue and spent most of his time learning how to fly under the expert tutelage of the best star pilot in the fleet. Since taking on that role, the young man had seen more action in the past month than most veterans did in a year. Although it was hard to imagine him as a farm boy who fancied himself a champion pod racer from the planet Odete, at moments like this when the atmosphere was calmer without the charge of some encroaching danger, it was possible to see just how green he was.
Mary saw him fidgeting in his seat and suppressed the urge to smile. He was wearing the mustard colors of the Alliance uniform and though it suited him well, JD did seem entirely comfortable with it. The young man kept pulling at his collar intermittently and Mary had the impression that part of his anxiety had to do with the fact that he was in private audience with her. She knew that like Chris, she had engendered some measure of hero worship from the boy and like Chris, Mary felt just as uncomfortable about it. However, JD was young and such infatuations would pass in due time.
In truth, Mary had asked JD here for a very specific reason. She had seen his prowess in a ship and though he lacked experience, he was a good pilot. Better than good actually, in a few years he would more than be capable of giving Buck a run for his money if not surpass his teacher entirely. However, he had to start gaining experience from somewhere and while Buck continued his teachings with JD being his co-pilot, Mary wanted to supplement that training with something more direct.
"Relax JD," Mary said easing back into her chair. "You're not in trouble."
"I'm not?" he stammered. Some of the nervousness in his eyes faded away.
"No," she shook her head. "Actually, I have something of a proposition for you."
"A proposition?" He sat up in the plasteel chair and tried to appear deliberate as opposed to just jittery.
"Yes," she stood up for her chair and started pacing the space between it and the window. "JD, since you've been here, you've been an invaluable help to us."
"Thank you Sir," he answered, truly shocked by the compliment. "It's an honor..."
"You've been a friend and a loyal member of the Alliance and I know it can't have been easy for you because you were sort of thrown in at the deep end of all this."
JD could not deny that at all. When he had left Odete, he was pursuing a career as a pod racer and supposed a tiny part of him would always wonder what he might have accomplished had he continued on that path. However, he had no regrets to the course he had chosen for himself. He was a member of the Rebel Alliance and co-pilot to one of the greatest star pilots in the galaxy, not to mention he had friends whom would have little hesitation dying for him if necessary. It was a good trade for his boyish dreams and one he could live with quite easily.
"It has been a little hard," JD admitted honestly. It would be foolish to lie when it was the truth. "But I don't have any regrets."
"Good," Mary turned to him and smiled, her hands placed behind her back and appeared very much like Commander Travis now. "I want you to head up a crack fighter squadron that I will be initiating. I've already spoken to Buck and he thinks you'll be ready in a few months to take it on. I'm just letting you know ahead of time, when I give you the commission."
"Me?" JD's expression was worth framing for its utter astonishment. "You want me to head up a squadron?"
"Yes," Mary nodded. "You're the best new pilot I've seen in a long time, JD. Buck knows it and I know it. I've seen what you can do in a gunnery turret and I don't think there's anyone in this base that can match you for sheer speed in that department. You're green, I know that and that's why we're having this discussion but I would like you to head up the Outrider squadron."
"Outrider squadron?" JD stammered although he liked the name a lot.
"It was Buck's suggestion," Mary informed promptly. "The nature of what that squadron will be required to do will be very much out of the norm. More and more, the Empire is solidifying its position on the non-human worlds. We cannot right all the wrongs it carries out but we may be able to help on a smaller scale. Outrider squadron will be required to do that. Small, surgical aerial attacks and reconnaissance. You will be the leader of Outrider squadron to carry out such missions. Do you accept?"
JD was still too flabbergasted by the news but he managed a mute nod. "Yes Sir."
"Excellent," Mary accepted his answer and turned away towards the window, continuing to speak. "The position will come with a promotion of course. You'll be elevated from Lieutenant Second class to full lieutenant, with all the entitlements that come with that rank."
Mary looked over her shoulder and was certain that her words had become lost in the stars presently twinkling inside his eyes. She did not mind. There were not many days she liked her job or her command but today was an exception.
Vin took a deep breath and tried again.
The collection of metal parts in front of him were nothing out of the ordinary considering what their end result would look like once he was done putting them together. He was used to making repairs on his ship when the Tracker required it but this scattered collection of nodes, crystals, steel casings and power cells made him question his ability to do fine work. Of course, there was no question of not doing it either, this was a test. He was now an apprentice.
Vin paused at the thought. Apprentice, at his age. If anyone asked him what he did and he answered apprentice only to have them point out he was a mite too old for that, he would shoot them with no difficulty whatsoever. There was a part of Vin Tanner that still could not understand how he had come to be in the position he now found himself. A month or more ago, he was a bounty hunter and a rather good one at that. Now weeks down the track and he was calling himself a Jedi Apprentice.
Sometimes, he wished his life were simple again.
Simple but lonely, an inner voice reminded and Vin had to begrudgingly admit that though he missed the sanity, he did not miss the loneliness. He had friends and to his greatest surprise, he had discovered that he was an idealist at heart even though the years a bounty hunter had eroded much away. He believed in the Alliance and what it was doing to fight the Empire. He had discovered he was a part of an ancient and noble tradition and from his humble beginnings, Vin could not deny that it was a nice feeling to be apart of something greater than himself. He had undergone the rigorous training under Master Yoda's tutelage and Chris had taken him on as a padwan learner or in short, apprentice. However, to really begin his life as a Jedi apprentice he would have to accomplish one more test.
The construction of his own light saber.
Thus Vin found himself in the middle of the a work bench in the hangar bay where Alliance technicians often used the space to build things, repair parts and other varied personal projects. At this time of the day, it was rather quiet and the more complex tools required to build the device were available for use. He remembered the construction as implanted in his head by Yoda and retained there by disciplines older than time before preparing to pick up the first instrument to begin. Taking a deep breath, Vin told himself to do, not to try, Yoda's words echoing in his mind even while he repeated the thought. Breathing out, he remembered the exercises that Yoda had drilled into his head. He felt calm seep into his body and was prepared to begin, extending his hand towards the tool waiting for him.
"Aw hell, is it your turn now?" Buck Wilmington's voice boomed in his ear and shattered the calm with the same effect of a rock being flung in the center of a serene pool.
Vin groaned inwardly and looked up that the pilot whose expression and manner indicated he was not happy when he sat down at the bench and slammed a huge chunk of finished metal on the surface. Vin recognized the part as one fitting the ignitions systems for a Corsair model freighter and ascertained quickly that the Rogue might need some maintenance. Still Buck's manner indicated that it was not just his ship that was responsible for his foul mood.
"My turn to what?" Vin asked with a drawl, certain he was going to get nothing done with Buck in this condition and in such close proximity.
"To build one of those things," Buck muttered as he produced his toolbox and started taking apart the damaged component. "I remember when Chris had to do it. I don't think I ever heard a man cuss and swear that badly. The Jedi he was learning from at the time, Jan Pallas almost took to him with his own light saber."
"You're kidding me," Vin chuckled, unable to imagine Chris as an impatient youth.
"Thanks a lot Buck," Chris Larabee declared as he joined them. "Remind me to tell JD embarrassing incidents from your past." The Jedi gave his friend a look.
"So your master didn't want to kick your butt?" Vin asked Chris with a little smile.
"No," Chris shrugged and knew Vin could tell that he was lying, especially when a little smirk crossed his face, indicating otherwise. "Maybe just a little," he laughed before regarding Buck's whose emotions were intense enough for Chris to read very clearly. "You trying to fix that?" Chris glanced at the part in his hands the pilot was busily trying to take apart.
"Yeah," Buck grumbled. "I'm trying to fix it."
"It might be easier to just go get a replacement," Vin pointed out.
"Well maybe I just don't want to throw it out," Buck snapped. "Sure its old and its not what it used to be but is that any reason to just throw it out and start again? I mean what is it with people today that they're just so used to discarding things instead of trying to make it work again."
Vin and Chris exchanged brief glances.
"Hey take it easy," Vin retorted. "It's just a power converter."
"It's not just a damn power converter!" Buck roared. "It starts with a power converter, next thing you know, you're moving onto the whole ship, then people. Friends, husbands and then ex-husbands, and then you end up with some new guy who is nothing like what you ought to be having in the first place."
"We still talking about a power converter?" Vin looked at him quizzically.
"You two aren't married any more Buck," Chris said with a sigh, knowing perfectly well what was eating at Buck Wilmington so. In his entire life, there were only things that could get to Buck with such intensity. One was any harm coming to his friends. The pilot would react like a rancor protecting her cubs when it came to the safely of those he considered his friends. The other reason and the one most pertaining to Buck's present mood, was Inez Recillos.
"Ah," Vin nodded suddenly understanding and muttered under his breath at Chris. "Sorry, I missed that one."
"Who's talking about Inez?" Buck barked back but his response was defensive and therefore very telling. "I wasn't talking about Inez! I mean so what if she wants to shack up with an Imperial officer? I mean Ezra is all right of course, if you like that smooth as silk, all gentlemen and charming kind of guy. I mean if that's what she wants, I couldn't care less."
"Obviously," Chris drawled skeptically.
"Come on Buck, you haven't been married to her for a long time and she's a beautiful woman. How could you think that she wouldn't have callers? And she could do worse," Vin pointed out. "Ezra's an Imperial officer. She's in danger enough as it is with what she does with the Alliance, he could really take the heat off her."
"It's his putting it on her I'm afraid of," Buck growled.
"Buck," Chris stared at his friend critically mostly because the Jedi cared about Inez too and what he sensed in Ezra Standish for the woman was not some sordid tryst. The Imperial officer genuinely cared for Inez. "You have no right to feel this way. You certainly have not been celibate while you've been a single man again, you cannot expect Inez to do the same and Vin's right, she could do worse than Ezra."
Buck said nothing for a few seconds but Chris could tell that his words had sunk in even thought it was not voluntarily. In truth, he suspected that a part of Buck would always remain a little in love with Inez. While they had been married, their relationship burned hot like twin suns. Theirs was always an intense relationship, Chris recalled, hot torrid and definitely the kind that kept a man on his toes. Before Sarah, even Chris had found himself envying his old friend a little and could well understand how it had been so easy for Buck to remain faithful to Inez even though he was a consummate ladies man for as long as Chris had known him. It was easy when Inez took Buck's breath away literally. For a man who was accustomed to being swept off his feet, it was Inez who had done most of the sweeping when they first met and Chris had been amazed to see his friend fall completely and utterly in love with the woman, like she was his first love.
In some ways, Chris believed she was his only love.
"I know you're right," Buck responded softly. "It just feels strange to see them together." What he did not say was that it hurt to see Inez looking the same way at Ezra that she once used to look at him.
There was a gentle pause when suddenly another voice entered the mix, full of exuberance and that the unfailing quality to pick up any grim mood he might have had.
"Buck!" JD Dunne hurried towards the men at the table wearing a wide grin on his face.
Buck did not have to guess but assumed that the boy had come from his meeting with Mary. Despite his ill feelings about Ezra and Inez, the smile of happiness on JD's face was enough to lift his mood considerably. "Hey there kid."
"You dog!" JD punched him in the shoulder playfully. "You knew! You knew all this time and you didn't tell me!"
"Hey I'm only a apprentice Jedi, I don't know, tell me," Vin spoke up.
"You aren't an apprentice until you build your light saber," Chris turned to Vin and remarked playfully. "Best get to it."
"Real funny," Vin gave Chris a defiant smirk before returning to JD who was bursting to tell everyone his news. "What's up JD?"
"Mary offered me a commission," JD exclaimed as if that ought to explain everything and then realised that only Buck knew about the yet to be formed Outrider squadron.
"We knew that," Vin remarked. "2nd Lieutenant right?"
"No," JD answered eagerly. "First Lieutenant and my own squadron!"
"Your own squadron!" The former bounty hunter exclaimed. "Aren't you a little young?"
"For now yeah," Buck responded before JD could, ruffling the boy's hair like a proud father. "But its going to take some time to build these ships for the squadron and by then I think we can keep counted on to see to it that JD here gets a fine education."
"Just don't ask Vin to teach you how to build light sabers," Chris deadpanned.
"I'm going to build this thing to kick your ass with it," Vin retorted before both men chuckled.
"I can't believe it," JD sighed with pleasure even though his ears were still ringing from the news. "I'm going to be a squadron leader."
"Sure beats pod racing huh?" Buck grinned. "You deserve it, JD. Congratulations."
"Yeah," Vin responded. "You're gonna give those Imperials a run for their money."
"You'll do good JD," Chris added and JD smiled bashfully, unaccustomed to the outpouring of compliments from such accomplished men. He never believed his life could change so drastically the minute he decided to leave Odete. It was more than a dream come true.
"Ship's coming," Buck remarked as a small Y wing flew into the hangar bay, cruising leisurely into the landing pad, the roar of its engines having lowered to a slight hum whilst inside the confined space. With the termination of its engines, the ship was seized by power internal tractor beams and brought to rest on the floor of the hanger.
"That's the new Y-Wings?" Vin asked no one in particular. "Nice little fighter. Look at the armaments on the front of that thing. It's been modified beyond specs."
"Engines has been tampered with too. Look at the extra booster. That baby is fast," Buck said with more than a hint of admiration.
"I didn't know anyone important was coming in," JD muttered.
The canopy of the small craft slide backwards and a little figure clothed entirely in black leather emerged from the cockpit. The figure hugging body suit left no question as to the gender of the occupant and when she pulled off the white helmet covered with the rebel insignia, jet colored hair spilled over her shoulders. The woman was beautiful with exotically bronzed skin. She dropped down the ladder onto the floor like shyla cat landing on the soft pads of its feet. She stood up straight and shook her hair back; lustrous waves of it cascaded around her slender neck.
"Wow," JD responded.
"Oh please say she's joining up here," Buck remarked already forgetting all about his earlier discussion regarding Inez.
The woman's gaze swept around the room searching and came to rest in their direction. Her soft brown eyes came into contact with JD Dunne's. Upon catching sight of him, she strode towards them, allowing them to admire the fluid motion of her perfectly form body coming towards them. Vin Tanner found himself swallowing thickly while JD was gawking. Buck was already preparing to go into charm mode while Chris was able to admire her without looking like a complete idiot.
"Well hi there darling," Buck greeted smoothly. "What brings you here?"
She noted him with an amused expression before turning to JD. "Lieutenant?"
"Yes ma'am?" JD reacted instinctively, stunned that she had chosen him to speak to instead of the others around him but more then that, recognizing the air of authority in her voice.
"I am Commander Alexandra Styles, I want to see Commander Travis immediately. You will take me there." It was not a request.
"I can take you," Buck spoke up, not about to let a tasty morsel slip past him.
She let her gaze run over the pilot and then took a briefer study of Vin before responding to Buck's invitation. "I seriously doubt it, Captain."
"Well you never know until you try," Buck returned, always liking a challenge.
"I'll just live with the mystery," she said aloofly and then looked at Vin once more, again with the briefest hint of contact. "Lieutenant," she raised her voice again. "I am waiting."
"Yes Sir," JD swallowed and gave his three friends a look to pray that he returned safely. "Right away."
As she strode away, Chris Larabee could only stare after her, sensing dark emotions and even darker thoughts regarding Mary Travis and though he refused to pry any more than that, he sensed that they were standing on the periphery of disaster.
And Mary had already gone over the edge.
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