"She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid." - Han Solo
"Make Do and Mend" - pamphlet issued by the British Ministry of Information during WWII with instructions for repairing and re-purposing rationed materials
"We're out of underwear again." Weary, Leia slumped on the Falcon's couch. She idly picked at a dried clump of something stuck to the dejarik table.
Han tossed her a rag. "It's probably just pulp from Chewie's blomfruit," he offered. Clearly still half-expecting a princess to be offended by filth. Hadn't he been in the garbage chute with her? Hadn't he seen the rubble remains of the planet she was no longer princess of?
Leia fingered the rag. Maybe a campaign to reuse spare cloth...? No, shipboard rags like this were too oily. It would never work.
"Did you say underwear?" asked Han. "Again?"
Leia waited for the inevitable off-color joke. It never came.
Han rubbed his jawline. "I guess most people don't join a Rebellion with a full wardrobe."
"Many arrive with only the clothes on their backs," affirmed Leia. "With the Empire clamping down on trade and controlling the hyperspace lanes, our supply lines are seriously curtailed. And now the evacuation..." Leia made a face. "Well, let's just say it's not as organized as it could be." She sighed. "The critical supplies are well-marked and pretty evenly divided across waves of evacuees... water, fuel, bacta, blasters. So no one runs out before our next rendezvous."
Han nodded. "Smart. But I take it underwear didn't make the short list."
"No one thinks of the little things," sighed Leia. "Power cables. Datapads. Clothing." She rubbed her eyes.
"And it all becomes your problem," guessed Han. "To think of the little things."
"Someone has to." And it was so frustrating, because there were so many vital things that needed to be done. Reconnaissance for a new base. Strategy to press their advantage in the wake of the Death Star's destruction. Recruitment and public awareness would be key; hers was a well-known face, and she was a first-hand witness to the Empire's evil. So many things, and she was worried about undergarments. It would be laughable if it weren't so appalling.
"You know," said Han, startling Leia out of her reverie, "most Imperial officer uniforms are manufactured in the Core. Fancy wool, fancy linens, fancy silks for the fancy mistresses... but the regular troopers gotta wear something under all that armor, right? And off-duty?" He leaned against the table and nudged her elbow with his hip. "Bet you caf to credits they outsource that to the Rim."
"Cheap. And that means minimum security." He raised his eyebrows meaningfully.
Leia sighed. "I can't organize a strike force to get underwear, Han. We're also low on munitions, low on rations for the Mon Cala, Quarren, Shistavanen and a dozen other species with non-standard-omnivoric diets, not to mention low on replacement S-foils and astromechs and hydrospanners and—"
"Hey." Han took her gently by the shoulders. Leia half-expected him to shake her. Instead, his thumbs only rubbed up and down, up and down. It was... soothing. Her shirt felt thin under the warmth of his hands. She shivered. "—and blankets," she finished weakly.
The thought sent her pulse racing again. "We can't afford to linger on Yavin, and who knows where we'll find the next safe haven. It could be freezing, it could be a corrosive atmosphere, it could—"
"Leia," he interrupted, and her thoughts stuttered to a halt. Had he ever called her by her given name before? With no sarcastic honorific?
"No strike force," said Han. "Just me and Chewie. Maybe the kid, if you can spare him. He's good in a fight. Not so good at sneaky, but he'll have to learn that sooner or later, you know."
Leia nodded wordlessly.
"Me and Chewie — this is what we do." Han shrugged uncomfortably. "I know you may not like it, but... use it. Give me a list. We'll get you some spare parts, blankets, blackmarket foodstuffs, you name it." He smirked. "Starting with underwear. You like Lashaa silk, Princess? Or do you prefer Ottegan?"
Now she was on familiar footing. "Plain cotton will do," she said. Leia straightened her shoulders and Han's hands fell away. She told herself firmly that she did not miss the warmth.
"You got it," said Han.
Leia smiled sweetly up at him. "While you're at it, don't forget bras for the female humanoids. A range of bust and cup sizes, if you please."
Han blanched. "You want... bras? For the Rebellion?"
"Never underestimate the value of support." Leia kept her face straight with effort. "Also, we'll need nonstandard variants: one, three and six-breasted."
Han tugged at his collar and chuckled nervously. "Six? You have a lot of Askajian in the Rebellion?"
"Not yet," said Leia earnestly, "but if one joins, we want to be hospitable."
Han gaped at her. She laughed. A slow grin broke across his face. "Sure you don't want to come along? Supervise my, uh, bra fitting skills?"
Leia arched an eyebrow.
Han winced. "That's not how I meant it."
"I know." Leia patted his knee. "But I'm needed here."
"What about what you need?"
Leia opened her mouth, but words failed to materialize. No smart retort. No polite rebuff. Certainly no heart-to-heart with a man who, despite all they'd been through together, she hardly knew. And yet... he was the only one who didn't look at her all starry-eyed, patronizingly or worse — with pity. Even Luke couldn't do that, not entirely. She'd found she could talk with Luke about almost anything — hopes, dreams, regrets, on a personal or galactic scale, but he still looked at her with a touch of awe. His view of her was tinged with the blue shades of a hologram that drew him off a dusty planet and into the stars.
Han just... looked at her. Met her eyes square.
She'd been captured and interrogated, watched the destruction of her entire homeworld, helped organize a last stand against the Death Star, then organized the combined memorial and celebration in the battle's aftermath. Just now she should be running all over the base trying to make the evacuation run more smoothly. Instead, she stared blankly at Han. The only person who hadn't asked Leia how she felt, but rather what she needed.
"I need a nap," she blurted, and almost immediately blushed. She could only imagine the look on her father's face if he could have heard...
To her shame, Leia felt tears prick her eyes.
"C'mon," said Han gruffly. "You can take my bunk. Chewie's is full of hair."
Leia stiffened. "Is that a proposition, Captain Solo?"
"It's a nap. You said you need one. And you look like you're ready to fall asleep on your feet." He hoisted Leia to her feet. She lurched against him, off-balance, and he spun her around and marched her down the curving corridor. "Fortunately, unlike your Rebellion, I've got blankets. Not enough to go around, but they'll do for you."
"That's not an answer." Still off-balance, Leia cursed herself for speaking.
Han tugged her to a stop. "Do you want it to be?" he asked seriously.
He ran a hand through his hair, leaving tufts standing on end and giving Leia the strangest urge to smooth them. "When you figure it out, Princess, you tell me. Until then, I'll be in the cockpit. Just get some sleep."
Leia stared at him. He's serious, she thought. He wasn't just making fun — he actually thought the galaxy could just stop spinning for a few hours while she slept. It was unimaginably self-indulgent. It was... sweet. Leia searched his eyes. Sometimes she wanted to strangle him, and sometimes she could hardly fathom the man. "Someone will come looking for me sooner or later."
"I'll say I haven't seen you." He winked. "We smugglers have been known to tell a lie or two."
A smile tugged at her lips. "And if they want to search the ship?"
"I'll tell them Chewie's sleeping. Trust me, no one wants to wake a Wookiee."
Leia blinked. That... actually sounded like a workable plan. "Where is Chewie, anyway?" And will he mind my intrusion in his home?
"Hunting, probably. He took his crossbow. It's his way of discharging the adrenaline." Han rummaged in a storage cube and tossed a blanket at Leia. It nearly hit her in the face, and she glared at his back. Did the infuriating man have some kind of quota for being nice, and reverted to form when he'd reached it?
"Trust me, Princess, whatever's on the menu tonight will be fresh and delicious. Just don't ask what it is. Want an extra pillow?"
"Uh, no. Thank you."
"Eh, take one anyway. The bed's comfy enough but the pillow's none too thick." Han steered her to a doorway and gestured. "All yours. Sweet dreams, Your Highness." He turned away and started back down the corridor without another word.
He glanced back warily. "Yeah?"
Han's lopsided grin should have warned her. "You're welcome to my bed anytime, sweetheart."
Leia rolled her eyes and refrained from throwing the pillow at his head in a childish gesture. Han's whistle echoed down the corridor as he disappeared around the bend.
Leia hugged the blanket and pillow to her chest as she entered the cabin. It was small, spartan and surprisingly tidy. What did you expect? she chastised herself. A smuggler's den of iniquity? Han would laugh long and hard over that. When would she learn to stop blinding herself with the same preconceived notions she so despised when she was on the receiving end?
Leia peered at the top bunk, assuming the larger Wookiee would take the bottom — but no, the top berth was full of hair, and the ceiling above it was painted with stars half-hidden by dark leaves. She supposed it was as close as Chewbacca could get to sleeping in the treetops while aboard ship.
Mechanically, Leia tucked the blanket into the corners of the bottom bunk. Firm mattress, soft blanket. If Han could magically procure materials like these in bulk, he'd singlehandedly raise the moral of half the navy.
A sigh escaped her as she sank onto the bed. She'd thought she might lie awake like she did so often, mind spinning with all the decisions to be made, all the important details to remember. Or perhaps, her traitorous brain whispered, she might lie awake distracted by Han's scent lingering on the pillowcase. Instead she was only barely conscious of swinging her feet up and curling onto her side around the spare pillow Han had insisted upon giving her. Sometime later, she thought she heard him — or someone, maybe it was Chewie, although no hair tickled her cheek — but someone must have come in and tucked the blanket up around her chin.
But whoever it was never spoke, and Leia drifted back into a dream of Alderaan's clear skies.
Han swung his feet up onto the control panel, gently toeing off the overhead lights. The gas giant Yavin illuminated the night sky, bathing the cockpit in a faint orange light. Han thumbed on his comlink.
"Hey pal," he said quietly.
A single click answered.
"Can you talk?"
The com clicked twice.
"Well, just listen then. Leia's bunking on the Falcon tonight, so try not to wake her when you come in."
A low grumble echoed over the com.
"No, not with me — I'm here talking with you, aren't I?" Annoyed, Han shook his head.
"Anyway, how long do you think you'll be out there? How's hunting?"
A louder grumble.
"That bad, huh? Well, I don't think the Rebel higher-ups picked this jungle for the game."
Chewie grunted agreement.
"Just give me a heads-up when you get in, will ya? And check in every once in a while. We don't know what's out there."
Han could hear Chewbacca rolling his eyes.
"Anyway, when you do get back, we need to talk. We got ourselves a job."
Chewie growled a question.
"For Leia. I mean for the Rebellion. Supply run with a side of black market deals. I'll tell you about it later."
The com clicked once.
"Good hunting, pal." Han clicked off. He dug a datapad out from under a hydrospanner wedged beneath his chair. "Now let's see... who do I know who knows everything about clothing and textile imports?" He scowled. "I don't care what Chewie says, I am not calling Lando. And Leia thinks I'm a scoundrel, hah!" He drummed his fingers on the console. "I refuse to owe Karrde another favor. Umm... Edel? Nah, she still probably holds a totally unjustifiable grudge for something that was not my fault." He could just hear what Chewie would have to say about that.
Then he brightened. He had one contact no one could cast aspersions on — not Chewie, not Leia, not even the blabbermouth protocol droid he was sure would wind up tagging along no matter what he had to say about it.
Han knew he should wait for Chewie. But his partner would make him run it by Leia first, and that meant the decision would go to committee, and that meant too many cooks in the kitchen. So he placed the call. "After all," he reasoned aloud, "everyone trusts a Selonian." Even if Veleth Irriduun was a little... unconventional. What could go wrong?
Leia woke to the thunderous snores of Chewbacca, who had somehow entered the cabin and climbed into his bunk all without waking her. She tried to do the Wookiee the same courtesy, but he warbled a greeting before she could so more than swing her legs out of bed.
"Good morning," she answered, wishing she understood more than a few words of Shyriiwook.
Wishing she had the time to ask Han to teach her.
"Thank you for your hospitality," she said formally, folding the blanket.
Chewbacca growled a question, and Leia shook her head.
"I'm sorry, I don't—"
"He asked if you like eggs," Han interrupted from where he lounged in the doorway.
Leia whirled, irrationally clutching the blanket to her chest despite the fact that she'd slept in her clothes. Han noticed, of course. He smirked. "Chewie found a clutch of something. Don't worry; it's edible. You can trust his nose better than a droid's scanner. Anyway, breakfast is in the galley."
He left, and Leia breathed through her nose, seeking the calm that she'd felt upon waking only moments before. Chewbacca rumbled something that sounded vaguely apologetic. Leia summoned a smile. "Thank you for the eggs," she said sincerely, "it was a lovely thought. But I should be going."
The Wookiee howled mournfully, and Leia felt a brief twinge of guilt.
"Well... maybe just a quick bite."
Chewbacca ululated in triumph.
Han Solo was wearing an apron. It had a few stains, burn marks and holes, and a short phrase in a script she thought might be Shyriiwook.
Leia stifled a grin. "If that says 'Kiss the Cook,' you may as well give that to Chewie."
The Wookiee whuffed a laugh and grabbed the frying pan from Han.
"I wasn't going to burn 'em!" Han protested.
"I do not always burn them."
No longer hiding her smile, Leia leaned on the counter. Honestly, they sounded like an old married couple. The apron only added to the aesthetic.
"Rrrrugh arah-ah-woof?" Chewbacca looked expectantly at Leia.
"How do you like your caf?" Han translated.
"Strong, thank you."
Han smirked. "I thought you'd say that. But you've never tasted Chewie's caf before. How strong are we talking here — pot-scrubber or plasma-manifold cleaner?"
"As long as the spoon doesn't dissolve, it's good enough for me."
Dubiously, Han poured her a cup and watched with raised eyebrows as she took a sip. He scratched his head. "Huh."
"What? Just because it's blacker than Vader's boot polish, you thought I wouldn't drink it?" Leia knew she sounded smug, but knew Han of all people wouldn't hold it against her.
In fact, he looked impressed. "First time Chewie made me his home brew, I wound up in the lavatory almost all the way to Commenor."
"Lovely topic for breakfast." Leia made a face.
"It came out all right in the end." Han ducked as Leia threw her spoon at him. "Careful, Princess, you'll scratch the paint."
Leia glanced at the battered wall. "Heaven forbid."
Chewbacca proffered a large, beautifully whorled wooden bowl filled to the brim with some kind of scramble. Leia recognized eggs, despite the odd blue hue to the yolk, peppers and some kind of tuber.
"Hrrunggh-oor-rrgh." The Wookiee thrust a spoon at her.
Han already had a mouthful. "Dig in." He had the grace to swallow before finishing. "Wookiee meals are communal — one big bowl to share. Most eat with their hands, but Chewie's not fussy. So we use spoons. Go on, dig in."
Leia settled herself more comfortably on the stool that must have been scrounged from a classier dive than she would have credited Han for frequenting. At the first bite, her eyes grew wide. "It's delicious!" she exclaimed.
Chewbacca puffed out his chest, and Han grinned. "Welcome to the good life, Princess."
"Welcome to the good life." Wedge smiled wryly and tapped his flask against the hull of Luke's X-wing in a toast. "Where we drink to the dead with stuff they wouldn't be caught dead drinking."
Luke opened his mouth, but Wedge cut him off.
"And so help me, Skywalker, if you say anything like 'I used to drink caf stronger than this back home,' I'm going to—"
"Strongest swill I've ever swilled, I swear." Luke hastily interrupted before the other pilot could finish. For someone who seemed so serious all the time, Wedge Antilles had a wicked sense of humor. Problem was, Luke couldn't always tell when the other man was joking.
"Not strong enough if you can still pronounce all your words right," grumbled Wedge. "Have another, Starkiller."
Luke winced. "Please don't call me that, Wedge."
Wedge appraised him. "I'm glad to hear you say that, actually. But out of curiosity — why not?"
Luke shrugged uncomfortably. "It'll catch on, and I... there were a lot of people on that thing when it blew. It doesn't feel right to brag about."
"You did single-handedly save the Rebellion," Wedge pointed out. "Most people would say you earned it."
"Not single-handed," said Luke solemnly. "I'd be dead if not for Han and you and Biggs. Even Artoo." And Ben, he thought to himself. He couldn't quite bring himself to say it aloud, though. Who aside from Leia would believe him?
"I wasn't much help," Wedge commented. It sounded offhand, but Luke heard the underlying bitterness.
"You got that TIE off my six before," protested Luke. "It was all I could do to stay alive and wait for Biggs, but you were the one who saved my hide. I owe you one."
Wedge raised his flask. "I'll drink to that."
"And to Biggs," Luke added.
"And Porkins. Dutch. Dreiss. All of 'em." Wedge clunked the flask against the S-foil again. He almost missed.
"Why aren't you drunk yet?" Wedge demanded peevishly. "I'm Corellian, and I'm almost drunk."
"Sorry." Luke shrugged. "Not much else to do on Tatooine."
Wedge's jaw dropped, and Luke burst out laughing. "I'm just kidding, mostly. Though there really isn't much to do."
Wedge nodded. "Biggs talked about it some. We all do. Home is something you never really get away from, no matter how far you go." He looked at Luke. "Am I making any sense?"
Luke nodded slowly. "You're saying I'll always carry Tatooine with me."
The corner of Wedge's mouth twitched. "Well, yes, but I wasn't talking about the sand."
Luke rolled his eyes.
"What I meant was that we all come from somewhere. And even though we all wound up here, the reasons are different." Wedge gave up leaning on the X-wing in favor of something more solid. He slumped against the massive temple wall and rested his elbow on a vine that was thicker than Luke's middle. "Take Hobbie 'n me," Wedge continued. "We defected from the Empire because they were ordering us to do things we couldn't justify. And Alderaanians are coming in droves now, but your Princess was fighting for the Rebellion long before the Death Star showed up. Or look at Pyr Wryvel, see the Shistavanen over there?" Wedge nodded at the opposite side of the hangar. "She told me once her people aren't joiners. And she doesn't play well with others; it's a special sort of hell, being her wingmate. But she chose the Rebellion because the Empire didn't give her a choice. Said she's no one's hunting dog. And we all carry those... reasons and histories and prejudices with us. Crammed into a small space like this, sometimes it can boil over."
Luke frowned. "What is it you're trying to tell me, Wedge?"
The other pilot ran a hand through his dark hair. "That some people — Command, mostly — will try to make a myth out of you. 'Starkiller,' the farmboy from the Outer Rim. Like where you came from is somehow more important than what you've done. Or maybe it's the other way around." Wedge gestured vaguely at the surviving squadron pilots still clustered around their battle-scarred fighters. "I just don't want to see you buy into that. We all come from somewhere. No one's home is more important than anyone else's. No one's past can be weighed and measured against another's."
Luke nodded thoughtfully. "That's pretty deep for someone who's been drinking paint thinner all night."
"It's not paint thinner." Wedge objected before admitting with a smile, "It's worse. Think your friend Solo could smuggle us some Whyren's Reserve?"
"The Alliance probably has higher priorities." Luke raised his eyebrows. "Or are you not the same guy who was complaining about the shortage of power couplings an hour ago?"
Wedge waved a hand. "He can get those too."
"Generous of you."
"I can afford to be. Trading in wishes and what-ifs isn't exactly expensive."
Luke took a swallow and almost managed to hide his grimace. The stuff Wedge had scrounged may have tasted like something scraped off a Hutt's hide, Luke mused, but at least it dulled the higher brain processes for a while. The last thing Luke needed was to dwell on more what-ifs.
Wedge must have been thinking along the same lines. "Less thinking," he declared. "More drinking."
Luke cracked a smile. "I'll drink to that." After all, if they had one thing in abundant supply, it was the paint thinner Wedge had procured. At least it tasted better than Wuher's brew back in Mos Eisley. The next swallow hardly even burned. "But we'll make do with the stuff you're swilling instead."
Wedge laughed aloud. "You'll do, Skywalker. You'll do."
The next morning, Luke woke to a decidedly disapproving stare from Artoo. The little droid beeped and booped and rocked back and forth until Luke groaned, put on his helmet and flipped down the blast shield. "Not now, Artoo. I'm still off-duty."
The astromech whined. Luke thunked his head against his landing strut and winced at the noise. Across the hangar, a low murmur of conversation ebbed and swelled like shifting sands down a duneslope, answering not to the wind but to some invisible and inexorable force.
The irony was not lost on him.
The Force is strong within you, Ben had said. What did that even mean? Was he a grain of sand in the grip of that same Force? Had he ever had a choice? Or was Han right after all, and Luke had determined his own destiny?
Under the blast helmet, Luke squeezed his eyes shut. This was what came of drinking with a Corellian, he told himself. It had started in celebration, passed through mourning, and wound up in the wee hours of the morning as something like a last hurrah before the evacuation. Before all his newfound friends were scattered to the stars once more.
Luke stared at the blank gray of his visor and willed the tide of self-pity to recede. He knew he didn't have the right to be feeling this way. The other survivors had all lost friends and squadronmates. Save Biggs, Luke had only known the other pilots for a few short hours. Yes, Luke had lost his home, Uncle Owen, Aunt Beru... and Ben. Sure, his whole world had been turned upside down. But Leia had lost her whole planet.
What right did he have to inflict his smaller griefs on anyone else? No matter what Wedge said. Not that Luke could clearly remember anything either of them had talked about, he reflected ruefully. He'd been too intent on finding a way to send his brain to sleep without closing his eyes first.
Because every time he did close his eyes, Luke saw a billion brilliant pinpricks of light, the halo of the explosion and the deeper afterimage of the Death Star against the black of space. And Luke felt, or imagined he felt, what Ben had after Alderaan's destruction — millions of voices crying out in terror. And then silence.
An afterimage of horror haunting the jubilant dawn.
Luke took off the blast helmet and threw it across the hangar.
Artoo warbled a mournful query. The few mechanics who had been chatting across the hangar fell silent. Wedge was right. They all looked at him differently now. Like something more than what he really was.
Luke left without meeting their eyes.
"C'mon, Artoo," he muttered. The droid whistled. "I'm fine," Luke answered automatically. "It's just that..." I'm not qualified for this. "I have a headache."
Wedge had a headache — and it wasn't just the hangover. "I don't have the qualifications for this," he objected.
"Sure you do," Han chipped in. "You're Corellian."
Looming behind him, Chewbacca chuffed a laugh.
Wedge rolled his eyes. "And my family had a fuel station. That qualifies me to haggle over the price of fuel and spare parts. Not clothing." Wedge shook his head in disbelief. He spent one off-duty shift out-of-action and everyone around him suddenly lost their minds.
He'd blame Wes Janson if the other man wasn't still in the infirmary. Wedge might just blame him anyhow. Janson's particular brand of insanity was likely contagious.
"Why do you want us to go with you?" Luke spoke up from his restless perch in the corner. "Won't more people be more conspicuous?" He picked at a root that had broken through the crumbling stone walls.
Wedge watched Artoo extend a tool and poke one of the gnarled roots in imitation of his master. At this point the trees likely held up much of the ancient temples that comprised their base. Wedge couldn't think of a better metaphor for how the Rebellion had spread throughout a decaying Empire — one creeping tendril at a time, clinging to the unyielding stone and finding a way through the cracks.
Leia leaned on her elbows. "I've been talking with Han about the logistics of this. I'm not asking you to be the lead negotiator on the supply run, Wedge. I'm asking you to be a spoke in the wheel — and a diversion. If you come back with condenser units and alluvial dampers, so much the better."
"I'll do the condenser units," Luke volunteered, looking brighter than he had for days. Good. The kid (hah, like I'm any older, Wedge laughed at himself) needed something familiar to latch onto. Negotiating over condenser units might be just the thing to bring him back out of the brittle shell he'd developed since the Death Star. Because the Luke Skywalker hunched over the opposite end of the table was a far cry from the bright-eyed farmer who'd shown up with a stubbornly optimistic streak a parsec wide, claiming the Death Star's defenses were no tougher than womp rats.
"I've given you each a list of supplies," continued Leia. "Get whatever you can for the best price, as discreetly as possible."
Wedge frowned at his datapad. "There must be some mistake. This looks like cold weather gear."
"Mine doesn't." Luke hopped up to compare his datapad against Wedge's. "Sand filters, moisture condensers, desert armor — I don't get it. Do we even need half this stuff? Or is it just to throw the Empire off the track?"
Impressed, Wedge nodded. "If their intelligence network is up to scratch, they'll be tracking our credits and trying to narrow down our location based on what we buy. We can screw up their statistical sampling while getting the goods we need."
"And while planning ahead." Leia tapped her screen. "I can't tell you where our next base will be for the simple reason that we don't know yet. So we plan for all contingencies: different environments, defenses, available resources. Captain Solo will be in charge—"
Wedge's eyebrows shot up. The smuggler who'd almost deserted them all, in charge of a mission?
Leia's stare dared him to contradict her. Wedge swallowed his protest. "This is his area of expertise," she declared, "and we shall all defer to it. Captain?"
Han tugged at his collar. "Uh, right. We'll take turns taking point with different contacts. Makes the Empire work harder to connect the dots, harder to ambush us along the way. Luke, Wedge, you'll need something less easily identifiable than your fighters."
"There's a Headhunter in the hangar, and one of the Howlrunners could be ready to fly in short order," offered Wedge.
"That'll do fine. Chewie, Leia and me will be in the Falcon. We'll split up when we enter a system, rendezvous after jumping out. The less our ships are seen together, the better. Luke, you'll be dealing with Edel. She's human, or near enough, and has a soft spot for heavy machinery and lost lambs. She'll love you."
Luke looked like he didn't know whether or not to be offended.
Han smirked. "Wedge, you know Booster Terrik?"
"Oh yeah, we go way back."
"You take point with Booster, then. He'll be our last stop, 'cause he'll be able to get his hands on anything we can't track down for ourselves." Han glanced at Leia. "Her Worship will meet with a Selonian, Veleth Irriduun. She specializes in armor, textiles, personal gear and the like. You've got the best feel for what we need there."
He said 'we,' Wedge noted. Maybe Solo really was in this for the long haul.
"Chewie has a Bothan pal who'll hook us up with any of the fancier electronics on the list. The guy's a cheat, but he has a healthy fear of getting his limbs ripped off, so we should come out okay." Chewie grunted and smoothed his fur.
"Who does that leave you with?" asked Wedge.
Han made a face. "Ixcht."
"Cover your mouth when you sneeze, Solo."
"Funny, Antilles. Ixcht is a Verpine. I hate dealing with them, but no one has their claws into shipyards like those buzz-bugs." Han shook his head in reluctant admiration. "Ixcht runs one of the biggest blackmarket warehouses outside the Corporate Sector. That'll be the most delicate portion of the trip... Ixcht is known for dismembering anyone he feels hasn't given him a square deal."
"Charming," muttered Leia.
"What about the evacuation?" asked Wedge. "Shouldn't we be helping somehow?"
Leia shook her head. "You can help best by outfitting us for our next base."
"Wherever that is," muttered Luke. "Sure seems like we're putting the bantha before the herder, but no one asked me."
Wedge looked at him in surprise. Note to self, he thought. Hungover Luke is sarcastic Luke. And wouldn't that be a great start to a fun trip.
Note to self, thought Luke. Hyperspace and hangovers don't mix well. The swirling colors visible through the cockpit canopy weren't helping. "Great start to a fun trip," he muttered to himself, too quietly for Artoo to hear. The last thing he wanted was his own droid fussing over him, asking what was wrong. Luke needed action, not quiet reflection.
Unfortunately, hyperspace provided a plethora of opportunities for self-reflection — and little else.
What Luke wanted to do was grab onto the little irritations — anything to keep the larger, looming thoughts at bay. But that wouldn't do anyone any good. Time to face it, he thought glumly. Uncle Owen was right. Once you get involved, there's no getting out. You bring the war to your own doorstep.
The Rebel Alliance needed a hero. In his naiveté, Luke had thought he could be it. He had swooped in and saved the day — with plenty of help — but at what cost?
Uncle Owen. Aunt Beru. Ben. Biggs.
The Death Star.
How many deaths was he responsible for? And just how was he supposed to learn to live with that?
Trust your feelings, Ben had said. Luke didn't think he was hallucinating the voice. He'd watched Ben's body disappear into thin air, and he'd felt... something... when he reached for the Force. Hadn't he?
Let go, Luke.
Luke settled into the pilot's chair with a grimace. Han would probably say this was a colossal waste of time. Leia would probably tell him to follow his heart. Which sounded an awful lot like trusting his feelings.
Luke sighed. "Artoo? Wake me when we're half an hour out from the first rendezvous." He closed his eyes and tried to slow his heart rate.
Okay, Ben, I'm listening.
"Okay, Your Worshipfulness. I'm listening." Han folded his arms and frowned at Leia.
"What?" she asked testily.
"What are you doing here?"
"You invited me." Laser-brain. She tactfully omitted the insult, but Han's wry look implied he'd heard it anyway. "You even gave me an assignment, if you remember."
"But why did you come?" he pressed. "Why didn't you... you know... delegate?"
Oh. "I was angry," she said finally.
"And what, you needed someone to yell at?" Han scowled.
"No, I mean—" Leia sighed. In for a credit, in for a thousand. "Since... Alderaan... everyone at base either treats me like I'm made of glass or duracrete. I can't stand their pity, but at the same time they're asking more than I can give. So when General Dodonna said he wanted to send someone to supervise you—"
Han opened his mouth to protest, and Leia cut him off.
"—I volunteered. I know what the Alliance needs, you know how to get it, and this way neither of us have to put up with anyone breathing down our necks."
A slow grin unfolded across Han's face. "Good."
"That, and I want to keep an eye on you," she added with a slight smile. "Make sure you don't corrupt Luke."
Han snorted. "Tell that to Antilles. I wasn't the one filling the kid with stories of dogfights and flasks of rotgut, Princess."
Leia's eyebrows rose. "Wedge got Luke drunk?"
"I'm not so sure it wasn't the other way around, but yeah."
Leia's brow furrowed. "It might not be the healthiest coping mechanism, but he probably needed it."
Han dropped onto the couch and ran his fingers over the faded Dejarik squares. "Kid's been through a lot in just a few days." He met her gaze. "Holding up pretty good, too. Kind of like someone else I know."
"Shouldn't you be flying this bucket of bolts?" Leia tried to deflect his unasked question.
"Nah. Chewie's got it. Though Threepio is probably driving him up the walls by now. That droid could talk the ears off a Gundark." Han nudged her elbow. "I've got a bottle of Whyren's if you wanna follow Luke's lead."
Leia scoffed. "Get drunk before a mission?"
"Yeah, stupid idea," he mumbled. "Forget it."
Leia studied him for a long moment. "Maybe afterwards," she allowed. "When we can keep Threepio busy with the inventory."
It really was hard to resist that grin of his, Leia thought with an inward smile, but the stunned look of disbelief on his face was even better.
"I'll hold you to that," Han finally managed.
"I'm sure you will. In the meantime, tell me about my contact," she said, curling up onto the couch so she didn't have to twist to look at Han. "Veleth Irriduun?"
Han shrugged. "Not much to tell. Selonian, a bit tetchy, good at what she does."
"Is she trustworthy?" Leia asked.
"Sure. Everyone trusts a Selonian."
Leia sat up straighter as C-3PO tottered around the corner. She pinned Han with a look. "What do you mean, 'everyone trusts a Selonian'?"
Ham spread his arms ingenuously. "They can't lie."
"You mean they are culturally conditioned not to lie," she countered.
"It is not—!" Leia pinched the bridge of her nose. "That's an asinine saying," she muttered.
"Oh, you'll get along great with Veleth. They call her Irritable Irriduun," he explained to Threepio in an aside.
"That's not very complimentary," fretted the droid.
Han laughed. "Trust me, Irriduun wants to be insulted."
"Oh, I can't wait to hear this." Leia folded her arms and waited.
"So the first time I met her, I treated her with utmost respect, the way you're supposed to. Don't look at me like that, Princess, I grew up around Selonians. I know how to behave when the occasion calls for it."
Privately, Leia wasn't so sure. But Han had made it possible for her to escape the glass bowl that was life in the Alliance High Command, so she supposed he'd earned the benefit of the doubt.
"Anyway, the more deferential I was, the snippier Veleth got." Han chuckled. "She had her hackles up, literally — her fur was sticking out all around her ruff. She called me a bootlicker, so I lost my temper a little." Han stole a glance at Leia. "Just to see what would happen, of course."
"Of course," she parroted.
"That doesn't sound very wise," interjected Threepio. "Selonians find human displays of temper most distressing—"
Han glared at the droid. "You'll find it even more distressing if you don't let me finish. Anyway, I blew my top, just a bit, and Veleth started laughing. Slapped me on the back so hard my teeth rattled. And then she went and gave me a discount." Han looked positively smug. "Turns out Old Irritable Herself hates being treated like a stereotypical Selonian. Told me she's never been polite to anyone and never asked anyone to be polite to her."
"Remarkable," said Threepio. "A statistical outlier!"
Leia and Han both ignored him. "So I need to lose my temper?" Leia smiled wryly. "You do remember I'm the diplomat, right?"
Han grinned. "Sweetheart, the day I see you negotiate without getting your dander up is the day I turn in my blaster."
Leia knew she should be offended, but somehow Han's words felt more like a backhand compliment. Maybe they were more alike than she'd cared to admit.
"When you meet with Veleth, go ahead and do your diplomacy dance," said Han. "But don't let her push you around. Come up with a few insults ahead of time — she appreciates creativity. If you don't ruffle her fur a bit, she'll think less of you."
"And then the prices go up," concluded Leia.
"Exactly. And be prepared to haggle. She won't respect you if you don't."
"And then the prices go up," Leia repeated.
"Now you're getting the hang of it."
"There's only one problem, Captain: a princess does not haggle," Leia said archly. When Han looked ready to argue, she added smoothly: "A princess negotiates."
Smiling wryly, Han leaned back and appraised her. "I have the feeling you two are gonna get along just fine."
"It looks like they're getting along just fine," said Wedge, sounding mildly surprised.
Luke's first reaction was relief. He'd always liked it best when his friends could get along without his help. If his second reaction was a little worm of jealousy, well. No one else had to know about that.
They'd convened on Mindrin VI from different vectors, landing in different spaceports at straggling times so no one could connect their arrivals. Artoo had chosen the painfully named Out of Sight, Out of Mindrin Cantina (dubbed simply "Outta" by the locals) at random. That or the little droid had an unaccountable fondness for terrible puns. Luke and Wedge had been waiting in a poorly lit booth for hours by the time Han and Leia walked in. The pair were dressed as mechanics. Leia wore overalls and a short blonde wig; Han looked much the same. The grease stains lent an air of authenticity.
Luke's eyes narrowed as Han slung an arm around Leia's shoulders. She shrugged it off and elbowed him in the side for good measure.
"I take it back," said Wedge.
Luke suppressed a smile.
"Hey, kid, you look... calmer," Han said in greeting.
Leia rolled her eyes. "He means well rested," she said.
"I said what I meant. Don't put words in my mouth, Your— uh." Han cut himself off before he could blow Leia's cover. Exasperated, Leia shoved Han unceremoniously into the booth. He grunted when he hit his head on the overhanging lamp, little more than a bare bulb in an aluminum sheath.
Leia took a deep breath and smiled at Luke. "You do look better."
"Guess I just needed a nap," he said.
Han grinned. "Yeah, there's nothing like a good nap." Then Leia blushed and Han's grin grew wider.
Luke's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
Before he could make a fool of himself, a bartender droid rolled up to their table. It was decorated in the swirling gradients and earth tones favored by the 'Sixers, as the Mindrinese colonists called themselves. During their planning session, Han had scoffed and called the term provincial, earning a surprised look from Leia. Luke just wondered how many of the Sixers dreamed about traveling offworld to a system with more exciting landmarks than six rocky moons.
"Good day and good cheer, friends," recited the droid. "What for have you may beer cheer dear fear gear here—"
Han reached across the table to slap the droid's central processor.
Luke slapped his arm away and reset the malfunctioning vocabulator, flipping the toggle back and forth rapidly. "A little bit of grime and they get stuck," he explained. "Happens all the time back home."
"Hey, I'm supposed to be the mechanic," complained Han.
The droid thrummed happily. "Thank you, kind sir! Spur. Stir. Whirrrr... ahem. In recognition of services rendered, drinks are on the house. One drink per member of your party, with a total not to exceed fifty-seven Imperial credits."
Han whistled. "Is that the going rate for droid repair? Not bad, kid, you could set up shop." He turned to the droid. "Four lomin ales, one chaser."
Leia fixed him with a disapproving look that Han shrugged off.
"Ch— my furry friend and, uh, Goldenrod are back at the ship. Trying to drum a little business at the spaceport, get a feel for the going prices of... stuff." Han scratched his chest. "We're supposed to meet Veleth in an hour."
"Here?" asked Luke in surprise.
Wedge frowned. "Seems too crowded for a confidential business deal."
"Some of the best confidential business deals go down in places like this, hotshot." Han grinned wryly at Luke. "Had pretty good luck in cantinas lately."
Luke smiled down at his ale.
Leia leaned forward. "I'd still prefer a back room."
"You'll get one," Han promised. "This is just the meeting point. Veleth doesn't like crowds of sweaty humans. Makes her itchy. Not sure if she meant that literally or not, now that I think about it. Speak of the devil." He nodded towards the entrance.
A slender shadow wrapped in a dark cloak hesitated in the doorway. It motioned impatiently.
Han stood. "We're up, sweetheart."
"Don't call me that," Leia muttered through gritted teeth.
"Should Wedge and I follow you?" Luke asked quietly. It wasn't the plan, but suddenly he had a bad feeling about this.
"No," Leia and Han answered simultaneously, then looked at each other in surprise.
"Stay here," said Leia. "The point is for us not to all be seen together for the negotiations."
"But keep your comms open," added Han, "in case there's trouble."
Folks on Tatooine weren't generally the superstitious sort, but Luke couldn't help but think that Han had just jinxed their trip. After Han and Leia left to join the shadow in the doorway, Luke said as much to Wedge. "When Han expects trouble, it usually follows."
"Well," said the pilot philosophically, "that's what we're here for. After all, they didn't bring us out here just to look good."
"C'mon, Princess, I didn't bring you out here just to look good." Han murmured in her ear as they entered Veleth Irriduun's warehouse.
"No," Leia retorted just as quietly, "that's your job."
He smiled slightly in acknowledgement, for it was his own plan to introduce Leia and step into the background as the middleman — for a small percentage of the proceeds from both seller and buyer. He had every intention of collecting from Veleth. But Leia? He'd have to talk with Chewie, of course — their partnership came first — but he was seriously considering waiving that portion of his fee.
Han shook his head at himself. If he didn't watch it, he might just turn into as big a softie as Chewie.
"So Veleth, how's business?" he asked as the Selonian worked a complicated locking mechanism on a nondescript door. It opened with a whine.
"None of your business, except where it concerns our business, Solo. Enough idle speak-speaking," proclaimed Veleth, tossing her cloak onto a stack of crates. She was a handsome, sleek-furred creature, a sterile female like most offworld Selonians. Her coat was a blend of seal gray and dark blonde, dappled like sunshine through the broadleafed trees in the Evermorn Forests of Corellia.
It made Han think wistfully of home.
"Han Solo, you are normally trying to sell me slip-slop of goods that do not interest me." Veleth idly combed her fur. "Today you bring me a buyer. Are you changing your clothes?"
"Coat," Han corrected her. "Or spots."
She waved a wickedly clawed paw impatiently. "Don't be silly, humans have no spots, and you wear clothes instead of lovely fur. That is what we are here to be speaking about, no?"
Han rolled his eyes. "Yeah, sure. Clothes. Whatever." He motioned Leia forward. "Veleth Irriduun, I present Ellayna Fourmoon, whom I bring to you as a buyer to the merchant." He made the formal introduction in the traditional style, both hands tucked behind his back, one foot a step forward.
Leia took her cue and bowed.
"That means she's the one with the pockets," Han added.
"And the brains," Leia finished cheerfully.
Veleth barked a laugh. "Ellayna Fourmoon, your name is false and your face is flat but I like you." The Selonian's thick, powerful tail slapped the floor.
"Han told me you liked insults," Leia said carefully.
"He is male," retorted Veleth with a toothy smile. "I speak the language he understands."
Now a step behind Leia, Han snorted in half amusement, half annoyance.
Leia hid a smile. "I think we understand each other, Honorable Irriduun."
"Good. Sit." With a swipe of her tail, the Selonian shoved a crate towards Leia. "If not-so-honorable Solo had told me he was bringing civilized companionship, I would have picked pretty tables. Blame him for any splinters in your thin skin."
"I'll do that," promised Leia. "Shall we get down to business?"
Han leaned against a stack of pallets. He'd been looking forward to this since he first cooked up the whole scheme.
"Show me your list," commanded Veleth.
"Show me your inventory," Leia countered, "and I'll share my list."
Veleth's nostrils flared. "You have strong vertebrae. I will tour you in my textiles, because Solo is saying you need undergarments. Tell me, how did you lose them? Was it overuse?"
Leia turned to glare at Han. He tried to look innocent.
Veleth rose gracefully. "In my warehouse you will be finding none of those inferior materials."
"Of course not," said Leia. "I trust in the quality of your wares, or we would not be here."
Veleth waved a dismissive paw. "Trust, trust, yes, yes. Everyone trusts a Selonian, no?"
Leia started to nod.
Veleth whipped her tail against her crate with a resounding smack. "No!" she snapped. "Never be trusting! Always inspect the goods. The quality of the wares reflects on the seller. Stupid buyers deserve what they get, perhaps, perhaps. But stupid buyers who complain to other buyers reflect ill on the merchant. That is me. I will not let you say these things of Veleth Irriduun!"
"But I—" Leia tried to protest, looking helplessly at Han. He tried to keep a straight face, he really did. Leia's eyes narrowed, and Han knew he'd pay for this later.
It was worth it.
"No!" Veleth snatched the datapad out of Leia's hand. "You show me your list, I show you my warehouse, and we watch each other like fen-weasels. Then after business, we can be good friends, no? Yes."
The Selonian stalked down an aisle of teetering twine-bound bolts of cloth. "The good things are here," she called in an echoing voice, "but do not be trusting me! Send your Solo to snoop. Even though he has a small nose, he is good at poking it where it should not go."
"Now that I believe," muttered Leia.
Han waved cheerfully at her as she trailed after Veleth. Then he stuck his hands in his pockets and sauntered down the next aisle, looking for the things that weren't on the Princess's list. That's where the best bargains would be found, after all. By the time they got back to the ship, thought Han, Leia might just have learned to appreciate him a little more. Either that or she'd throttle him. Okay, so the odds were fifty-fifty.
Good thing Corellians never played by the odds.
"First rule of sabaac," said Wedge. "Never play the odds. It's a sure way to lose."
Luke frowned. "That doesn't make sense."
"Play your opponent, not your hand. That's what Han's doing, you know."
"You lost me." Luke drained his glass and made a face. The lomin ale had more water in it than the so-called fizzle-water, which tasted more like condenser run-off and had about as much fizzle as a wet rag. "Are we talking sabaac or trading, here?"
"Both. Do you know why Han divvied up the inventory we need among all the different merchants?"
"Because they each have their specialties. I'm not that green, Wedge. I haggled all the time—"
"Back home, I know." Wedge rubbed his eyes. "I'm not trying to be condescending, Luke. It's just that the stakes are higher — this is a whole different game than you're used to. In addition to supplying our... organization... we have to hide who and what we're buying for." Wedge lowered his voice. "That means getting enough clothes for an army, but not all in one place. Or acquiring the firing mechanisms for proton torpedoes separate from the casings, separate from the guidance systems, so no one knows what we're building, how many, and where."
"So Han's list isn't complete," surmised Luke, "because he doesn't want the merchants to know everything we're interested in."
"And because he'll get a better buy on things that Veleth doesn't specialize in—"
"Like guidance systems," supplied Luke.
"— if she doesn't know we need them. Right."
Luke frowned. "It sounds like we're out to cheat her."
"If we are, then she's out to cheat us too." Wedge shrugged. "The art of compromise — everyone gets something they want, but not everything. Don't tell me you never drove a hard bargain with a Jawa."
"That's different," Luke protested. "Everyone knew they were selling stolen goods, so why should we pay factory prices?"
"And where do you think Veleth gets her inventory? And why does she know a smuggler?"
Luke fell silent.
"The whole galaxy isn't black and white like the Empire would have us believe. Some things are always right or always wrong, but a lot of things just are. What they should be is irrelevant, at least right now." Wedge looked away. "Maybe someday we'll live in a galaxy where honest people can make an honest living without making hard decisions about it. Right now it means supplying our... organization... with what we need, however we can get it, without hurting honest people."
"And Veleth isn't honest?"
Wedge shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "She's Selonian, so she's probably more honest than most, in her way."
Luke traced a meaningless pattern on the table. Across the room, a Chadra-Fan pounded the bar and squeaked, abusing the bartender in pidgin Basic. Something about watered-down drinks.
"I guess I thought offworld would be less like Tatooine," Luke said in a low voice. "Uncle Owen never liked going into the cities much, even Anchorhead. He always said that farmers would treat each other like decent folk but not to expect that in a city. I always thought he was just... I dunno." Provincial, he thought to himself. "But I guess he was more right than he knew."
Wedge remained silent for a long moment.
"Don't judge us all too harshly, Luke. I don't just mean our... organization. A lot of people in the galaxy are just trying to get by the best way they know how." Wedge drained his drink and smiled at Luke. "That's not cynicism. It's just life."
Wedge flipped a few credits at the bartender on the way out, then squinted in the sudden blast of sunlight. It didn't bother Luke; Mindrin VI only had one sun, after all.
"How do you do it?" asked Luke.
"See the good in people after all the bad you've seen." And after all the people you've killed, Luke thought with a twinge of his conscience. Was this really what Ben had had in mind for him? Was this his destiny?
Wedge clapped him on the shoulder, shaking Luke out of his reverie. "By looking for it. One person at a time."
Once Luke might have scoffed at that. It sounded awfully nerf-herder-idealistic, like something Aunt Beru might have said. Now, though, it buoyed his spirits — maybe for the same reason. He watched a grizzled old man shuffle down the street next to a spiky-headed Rodian, so young his skin was almost aqua instead of full-grown green. The man gestured at a passing GNK droid and the Rodian brayed a laugh.
There was life here. Happiness.
And as long as it remained somewhere, well, the galaxy couldn't be such a terrible place, could it?
"I think I understand, Wedge." Luke waved at the old man, who called out a cheerful curse to the Rodian's evident glee. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it. Especially to Solo — he'd think I'm a milksop."
Luke laughed aloud. The sun was warm on his face. "Han's more of a milksop himself than he'd like people to believe."
Wedge grinned. "I'd like to see you tell him so to his face."
Luke shook his head. "I like my nose where it is, thank you."
It was only fitting, then, that the first blaster bolt flashed right in front of his face.
The first blaster bolt took Han by surprise. He ducked out of sheer reflex as it ricocheted off a magnetically sealed trunk. Han made a note to check it out later; that didn't jive with Veleth's normal inventory.
Somewhere across the warehouse, the Selonian bellowed. "If my goods are damaged, Solo, you are being liable!"
"Don't get your snout outta joint!" he yelled back.
"My nose is good where it is! But when I see yours, I will flatten it more!"
Han hunkered down behind a drum of dye. Where was Leia? Who was shooting at them? And where the devil was Luke when you needed him?
Han inched around the barrel, blaster held loosely at his side. He felt better with a solid wall of packing crates at his back, until they started to shift and groan. Uh-oh. He dove out of the way just as the entire stack buckled outward. A forklift punched its way through, a leather-skinned Weequay pinned between its forks. "What the—"
Han rose to a crouch, not sure whether to shoot the Weequay or the driver.
Then Leia leaned out the driver's window, stunned the Weequay between the eyes, and motioned to Han.
Well, that answered one question. He jumped through the open window, his limbs tangling awkwardly with Leia, before landing on the furry seat.
Furry? Oh no...
Veleth sounded almost cheerful as she extricated him from her lap. "Your nose is longer than I thought, Solo!" she exclaimed.
Leia snorted and slammed the forklift into a shaggy Whiphid. His blaster went spinning across the warehouse floor.
"Who are these guys?" Han yelled. He squeezed off a shot at the Whiphid, who had pulled a smaller blaster from somewhere in all that fur. Neat trick. He wondered whether Chewie could pull that off.
"Does it matter?" snapped Leia. A blaster bolt pinged off the roof of the forklift as if to underscore her point. "They're shooting at us. I would have thought even you could figure this one out."
Han normally would have risen to the bait, but Veleth looked almost embarrassed. Her scent glands were working full-thrusters, and her thick tail was quivering. "Friends of yours?" he asked pointedly.
It was hard to be accusatory when seated in a Selonian's lap, but he must have done a good job of it. Veleth's sharply clawed paws twisted around each other. "The good news is you are not being liable," she offered.
"Who are they?"
"It is possible they may be... business rivals," Veleth muttered.
Leia twisted to look at them in surprise. The forklift veered into another Weequay, or maybe the same one. They never did stay stunned long enough. "So we aren't compromised?" Leia asked.
"We will be if we don't get outta here before stormtroopers show up." Han glared at Veleth. "Because somebody wasn't straight with us."
Veleth sat up straighter, squishing Han against the window. "And somebody changed his clothes to the Rebellion! That is not being straight with me, Han Solo."
"I'm not—" Han protested weakly. The forklift shuddered violently.
"Is your mate trying to break my warehouse?" Veleth demanded.
"She's not my mate," growled Han, "and she knows what she's doing." I hope.
Then Leia rammed the wall again and one of the Weequays slid off the roof of the forklift.
"See?" Han smirked at Veleth. "I told you so."
"Shut up and make yourself useful," Leia snapped at him. The forklift careened around a corner and into the next aisle towards the exit.
"Hey, I'm on your side here!" Affronted, Han blasted a hole through the support struts of a shelving unit. He watched in satisfaction as it toppled onto one of their pursuers. Thousands of ceramic alloy bearings spilled in their wake. The Whiphid slipped, stumbled and fired — a random, lucky shot that hit Han's blaster. He watched helplessly as it spun away amid the scattered bearings. Leia spared a second to glare at him.
"It's not fair," he complained. "And it's not my fault!"
"It's not fair!" protested Luke even as he dodged another stun blast. "We're on their side! Whatever's going on here isn't our fault!"
"You want to step out there and convince them of that?" Wedge pulled Luke deeper into an alley. They'd been chased into the warehouse district first by the stormtroopers, and then by the burgeoning riot. Placid Mindrin VI had inexplicably boiled over — and they were caught in the middle of it. "This place is a spark away from igniting a full-scale riot. We should collect Leia and Han and get out of here before the Stormies lock the whole city down."
Luke frowned. "Something doesn't feel right," he said.
Wedge had the unsettling impression that his friend was looking at something other than the visible spectrum. "Does it matter?" Wedge glanced nervously back down the alley. "We've got to move now."
His urgency finally penetrated whatever fog Luke was lost in. "Yeah. Leia and Han are this way."
Wedge frowned at the map on his datapad. "Are you sure? This says we have to cross Imperialis Avenue."
"We can get there this way," Luke said more confidently.
How do you know? Wedge wanted to ask him. He was pretty sure Luke had never been off Tatooine before all this, let alone to Mindrin VI. But he had seen his friend hit an impossible target with no scanner, almost as if he could just... see it. Who was Wedge to argue with that? "Lead the way, pal."
The alley twisted and turned like a stone-skinned snake, quite unlike the city's broad, Imperial avenues. Not even the walls were straight: boulder-faced homes and curved, sloping storefronts meandered down the narrow street, hiding the next bend behind outcroppings of rock or low-hanging trade signs.
Which explained why, when the battered forklift sped around the corner, it caught Wedge completely by surprise.
Not Luke, though.
Wedge was a pilot — he survived on finely honed senses and split-second reaction time. But it was Luke who sprang into action before Wedge could move, Luke who shoved him out of the way and jumped over the forklift's prongs just in time, Luke who had his blaster out and shot the charging Whiphid who came pounding after. The Whiphid went down hard; Luke landed in an awkward crouch on the other side of the forklift as it screeched to a halt.
"Nice timing, kid." Han clambered out of the back over a disgruntled looking Selonian.
"Yeah," echoed Wedge, still staring at Luke, "thanks."
Luke shrugged off the praise. He had no idea, Wedge realized. No idea that hard-trained, battle-tested men and women couldn't replicate the uncanny reflexes the kid had just demonstrated. Wedge exchanged a look with Han. The smuggler recognized it too, Wedge noticed. It was only Luke who was oblivious. And maybe Leia, but she had high expectations of everyone, herself included. And she had seen Luke in action before, on the Death Star — maybe she took his abilities for granted by now.
Whatever they were.
"We need a less conspicuous transport," the princess declared, jumping down from the forklift.
Han pulled out his comlink. "I'm calling Chewie."
"No, wait!" The Selonian extricated herself from the cab hurriedly, nearly tripping over her own tail. "There is no landing place in Oldtown. You must follow me."
Han crossed his arms. "And why should we trust you?"
"You came here to trade with her!" Luke looked at Han incredulously. "And now you don't trust her?"
"Yes, Han," said Leia, so sweetly that it set off Wedge's mental alarm klaxon. "You said everyone trusts a Selonian."
Veleth drew herself up to her full height — towering over the humans — and growled. "I told you to be trusting nobody, Han Solo, and you pick the worst time to be listening! I will get you to your Wookiee and your ship, and I will get the goods for your Rebellion-that-you-are-not-part-of, but not here. This is bad place, bad time, and we must be moving now."
Han glanced at Wedge, who shrugged. "I don't think she's lying," he offered.
"Then let's go!" exclaimed Luke. "But not the way we came, there's stormtroopers everywhere."
Veleth hissed. "They are steaming piles of bantha fodder in little white helmets."
"Now that I believe." Han hurried to catch up to Leia. She and Luke had already disappeared around the next boulder-house.
I'm the rearguard, thought Wedge. Read: babysitter. That was all right by him. Maybe someday he'd get tired of following other people's lead, but just now he felt better staying where he could keep an eye on everyone.
After all, some people needed more watching over than others.
"Hold up," called Han. He jogged to catch up. "You know, you two should watch where you're going—"
"I don't need a babysitter," snapped Luke. "I think I just proved that."
Han looked genuinely startled, a far from his habitually unconvincing who, me? response to accusatory statements. "Listen, kid, just because you know the stormtroopers are behind us doesn't mean they aren't ahead of us, too."
"Don't mind Han," Leia said. "He's just irritable because someone shot the warehouse out from underneath us."
Veleth dropped to all fours and caught up to them with a few bounds. "If anyone is being irritable, it is I." Her wide nostrils flared. "They shot out my warehouse."
Luke suppressed his own irritation at always being the third wheel. Or fourth, or fifth. For a fleeting moment, he wondered whether Han ever felt the same way. "What happened?" he asked instead.
"Business rivals," answered Veleth.
"Imperial mercenaries," said Leia at the same time. "Same as the ones who started the riot."
Han and Luke gaped at her.
Veleth's fur bristled. "You do not know that. You are not Sixers, you know nothing of this place!"
"But I know the Empire," Leia countered.
They winding street abruptly split into four tributaries. Luke automatically started down the leftmost branch even before Veleth motioned to it. His gut clenched. Is this what using the Force is supposed to be like? Ben never mentioned it being so... out of control. It was like running down a sand dune — he could stay on his feet, but he could no more stop or even turn than he could still the rolling slope beneath his feet.
"I've seen it before," continued Leia after giving Luke a strange look. He smiled back weakly. "The Empire hires out mercenaries to start a riot, sends in the troops to quell the uprising, and conveniently stays in control to 'ensure the peace.' They've taken over more worlds that way..." She trailed off and halted, for Veleth had stopped in the middle of the alley, blocking her progress.
Luke's eyes widened in alarm. Han was right — the stormtroopers were ahead of them. He reached for his lightsaber, hesitated, and drew his blaster instead. Luke wasn't confident enough with the Jedi weapon yet. The danger of wounding one of his friends was too high.
Trust your feelings, Luke.
The echo of Ben's voice was swallowed by a growl.
Veleth flexed her claws and growled again — higher-pitched than Luke was used to after spending so much time around Chewbacca, but nonetheless menacing. "They call me irritable, yes?" Veleth bared her teeth. "Irritable Irriduun. I know they do. But they know nothing. Now I am being irritable!" She wheeled and charged the stormtroopers, her lean body low to the ground. Her tail swept and knocked the first trooper off his feet even as Han's blaster burned a hole in the second's chestplate.
It was over so quickly, Luke never even had a chance to fire his blaster. Flanked by Wedge and Leia, he stood back as Veleth took care of the stragglers. Han watched in something approaching reverence as the Selonian knocked the remaining troopers' helmets together. The men clattered to the floor, unconscious.
"Impressive," admitted Han.
Veleth bared her teeth. "Remember that next time we meet."
Han swallowed. "I think I'll go back to being polite," Luke heard him mutter to Leia.
Han, polite? Luke smiled inwardly. That was something he'd like to see.
"Let's move," urged Wedge from behind. "The fighting is moving this way. I can hear it."
Luke could almost feel it — a seething turbulence of equal parts fear and fury. He recoiled. Okay, Ben, I reached out with my feelings. Now how the hell do I turn them off?
"The fighting is moving this way!" Threepio worried aloud. Again. Chewie wished fervently he could just switch the droid off. But as much as he hated to admit it, he needed another set of hands.
And as his father had been fond of saying, luckless hunters couldn't turn their noses up at rancid carrion. And Threepio wasn't that bad. Most of the time.
"Chewbacca, I insist you listen to me!"
Chewie growled and continued his preflight checks.
"No, I will not be quiet! If we stay here, we are almost certainly doomed. The crowd will be on us in moments, unless the Empire gets here first of course. I could tell you the odds—" Threepio wisely broke off when Chewie bared his fangs. "But if we fly over the city, we will almost certainly be shot down. We're doomed!"
Chewie grunted and flipped a switch. The sudden roar of the engines almost drowned out Threepio's next alarmed query.
"What do you mean, you're not going to fly over the city? Chewbacca, pull up! That mine shaft can't possibly be big enough to hide in. What are you — you can't possibly mean to go under the city? Oh! Oh my. I can't watch!"
Howling with exhilaration, Chewie took the Falcon into a steep dive.
"What do you mean, go under the city?" Leia halted in her tracks in front of the open sewage pipe. She exchanged a look with Luke. Haven't we spent enough time crawling in garbage? She didn't dare to look over for Han's reaction.
Veleth was already scrabbling on all fours. "It is drier farther in!" Her voice echoed back at them, punctuated by splashes.
"What a wonderful smell she's discovered," muttered Han, materializing at her elbow.
Leia almost smiled. "This is some rescue."
"Does that mean I'm still the brains?" quipped Luke, and for a foolish moment the three of them stood still in a puddle of sewage, grinning at each other in inexplicably fond reminiscence of what had in all honesty been one more terrifying moment during their escape from the Death Star. Leia wondered if this would turn into another one of those adventures — heart-pounding, irritating, uncomfortable, frightening, exhilarating — that they'd look back on later with mystifying nostalgia.
Likely so, she admitted to herself. Unless, of course, they got killed first.
Wedge, Leia noticed, was eyeing the three of them in obvious doubt of their sanity. She couldn't blame him.
"Are you coming or am I knocking you further senseless and dragging you through the stinking water by your boots?" Veleth swung her tail impatiently, sending a wave of cold water (and other things Leia would rather not think about) over the tops of their boots.
"Thanks." Han glared at the Selonian. "We're coming, keep your fur on."
Veleth sniffed. "It gets wetter before it is getting drier." She splashed back down the pipe, far faster on all fours than the humans could follow on foot.
"I'm not crawling in this," declared Leia.
"We'd never keep up that way, anyways." Han shook his head. "Selonians usually go bipedal in mixed company. I never realized they were so fast."
"Where is she taking us?" Wedge asked.
"I bet it's into the mines," Luke offered. "Most of the protesters were miners. The mines must pretty empty right now."
Veleth waited for them where the sewer branched into two smaller pipes. "The sewer dumps into mining sludge," she confirmed. "From there it goes up, up to treatment ponds, but we go down, down into tunnels under the city. There are many tunnels here, old, no more being used except by Selonians. It is why we are being comfortable as Sixers." Reflexively, her digging claws flexed. "Some of the tunnels are cavern-big, big enough for your ship and your Wookiee."
"Ships," corrected Luke.
Veleth pulled up short. Her eyes narrowed. "What else are you not telling me?" she demanded.
"Luke and I have starfighters," Wedge explained. "And droids. We can't afford to leave them behind."
"I'm not leaving Artoo!" Luke sounded horrified at the thought. Leia couldn't blame him. In the grand scheme of things, a droid was nothing compared to a life, or even the value of a working ship when it came down to the Rebellion's most dire needs. But it was hard not to see the little astromech as a friend, after all they'd been through together.
And if Leia ever made important decisions based on nothing more than the numbers, she'd likely be dead by now. Or a slave of the Empire.
"We're not leaving without all our friends," she said firmly, "and our property."
The Selonian tipped her head to one side, pondering. "I do still have goods to trade," she allowed, "in other hidey-holes. But do you want to go sniffing around them now?"
I meant the ships, Leia was going to say, but Luke of all people cut her off. "It's down here, isn't it?" he asked. "Your cache. It's in the tunnels."
Veleth's eyes widened. "How...?"
Leia wondered the same thing. A lucky guess, an insightful extrapolation, or — could Luke learn people's secrets through the Force?
"It's pretty obvious," Han winked at Luke. Han being Han, the unsettling philosophical question of how didn't seem to occur to him. "You know the territory, you move in it like it's yours. And you'd be way more upset about your warehouse if all your inventory had been destroyed. It just makes sense."
"And you're comfortable down here," added Luke. "It feels like home to you."
Veleth shifted, the muscles in her haunches twitching nervously. "Are you taking my goods in forfeit for your ships?"
"Of course not!" Luke and Leia spoke at the same time — his tone indignant, hers soothing.
Han crossed his arms and appraised them both thoughtfully; Leia flushed under his scrutiny, giving Luke the chance to speak first.
"We're not out to cheat you," he said earnestly. "We came in good faith to buy goods on behalf of the Rebellion. If you're still willing to sell, we're still willing to buy. But we need your help to get back to our ships."
The Selonian straightened as much as the tunnel would allow. "That will be a fifteen percent surcharge."
"Five," Leia interjected, "and we'll help you get offworld whenever you need."
"Twelve," countered Veleth, "and you get me and my wares past the blockade today."
"We don't have that kind of cargo space," objected Han.
"Quiet," ordered Leia. "Eight percent surcharge and half our cargo space, take it or leave it."
"I accept your bargain, Leia Organa of Alderaan," Veleth said with a toothy grin, "and I will give you one thing more: a better disguise. With no surcharge. Because I still like you and your flat face, but it is being very recognizable."
Leia turned to glare at Han, who only shrugged. "Most people only look at the clothes," he defended himself, "and the hair."
Veleth slapped him on the back, nearly shoving him head-first into the sewage in the process. "Now you are thinking like a Selonian!" she said in approval. "And you can all stop worry-worting. I have confirmation from my den-sister that your ship and your Wookiee and a very bothersome droid are here. Now we bargain, no? Yes."
Chewie howled mournfully.
Han reflexively reached out to pat his copilot's arm, and then thought better of it. "I know we smell, pal. Sorry. I'd stay downwind if I could, but there isn't much airflow down here."
"I don't smell anything," offered Threepio helpfully.
"We have olfactory sensors," a slight, sandy-colored Selonian said eagerly. Veleth's sister, it would seem. "I am Voska, and as I am coming with you, I can install it for a ten percent—"
"We already have a droid mechanic," interrupted Han. "And what do you mean you're coming with us? Veleth never said anything about a whole den!"
"The den is being only me and my sister," said Veleth, "and your princess-in-not-very-good-disguise said we have half your cargo space. Voska will be part of my half." Her eyes turned pleading. "She is my den-sister, Solo. Wares are wares, but I cannot leave half my self behind!"
Han deflated. "Of course we won't leave your sister behind," he said gruffly. "But you'd better not have a whole den tucked away down here," he warned. Veleth grinned at him as if she knew it was an empty threat.
Damn. He really was going soft.
"Pardon me, sir—"
Han groaned inwardly. "What now?"
For once, Threepio dispensed with the dithering. "We won't leave Artoo behind either, will we, Captain Solo? I know he can be a bit obstreperous, but—"
Han clapped the protocol droid on the shoulder. Threepio staggered. "Of course we won't leave him," Han promised. "Luke and Wedge are getting ready to go out there now." He turned to the Selonians. "I don't suppose one of you would be willing to go with them as a guide?"
"That is the bargain." Veleth straightened. "My den-sister will go with your small pilots." Voska bobbed her head in eager assent. "I will be negotiating with your princess-who-is-not-your-mate."
"That's a most curious phrasing," commented Threepio when the sisters were out of earshot. "However accurate it may be."
"Shut up, Professor."
Chewie chuckled, the big furry traitor.
Negotiations were already underway by the time Han finished checking over the ship. He gravitated towards Leia, and told himself it was just to watch the fireworks. But things were going surprisingly smoothly, and Threepio was making himself useful as a walking, talking inventory. The droid made a few suggestions of his own, and Han reluctantly revised his estimation of the droid upwards. Goldenrod wasn't so bad, once you learned when to tune him out.
"De-icing equipment, anti-corrosion paint, condenser systems," Threepio was saying, "and I have considerable expertise with the latter, if I do say so myself."
Veleth frowned. "That is a very strange combination," she said.
"Yes, but you have them?" Leia asked patiently.
"Yes, yes, agreed. Next?"
"Harpoon guns!" called Luke, jogging up to them. "Saw some in the back while Voska was getting my disguise. How do I look?"
He looked ridiculous, Han decided. It wasn't the drooping hat or the garishly colored shirt that was more patches than shirt, so much as the facial hair. "Nice mustache," Han limited himself to commenting.
Leia hid her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook.
Luke grinned. "That's what I thought. See you at the next rendezvous!"
Han nodded. "Hey Luke—" he broke off. Without the Death Star looming overhead, the words should have been harder to say. But they weren't. "May the Force be with you."
Luke's smile grew even wider. "You too, Han. See ya." Then he bent to kiss Leia on the cheek, which made Han scowl. Smart of the kid to do his goodbyes in that order.
Luke wasn't as dumb as that mustache made him look.
"That takes care of the maintenance equipment," summarized Leia, returning to her negotiations as soon as Luke and Wedge had departed. "And we've already finished with the clothing," she added for Han's benefit. He wisely chose not to inquire about the specifics. "Now for foodstuffs — what's this patoya-plant you listed?"
"Prolific!" enthused Veleth. "One plan will grow and fruit, grow and fruit. Ten could feed a colony."
"How many do you have?"
"Oh no," Han broke in. "Chewie's allergic to those things. I can't let those on the Falcon."
Leia frowned. "I'd hate to pass up something that could feed so many people. How allergic is he? Is it dangerous?"
"It won't kill him, if that's what you mean," drawled Han, "but his skin will itch all over and he'll scratch until he bleeds and then he'll be dangerous."
"It's not wise to upset a Wookiee," Threepio advised.
"Well," said Leia optimistically, "maybe we can send a couple plants with Luke and Wedge. Veleth, can you get a message to your sister?"
"Oh yes, I will tell her to be stopping at the hydroponics vault." Veleth fumbled with her comlink.
Han knew better than to ask. Unfortunately, Leia didn't. "Vault?" she repeated.
Veleth nodded vigorously. "So the plants are not escaping."
Leia's eyebrows rose, but she said only: "Threepio, make a note of that."
Han smirked. He should probably warn Luke and Wedge, but the plants were essentially harmless. Besides, if Luke was going to be a starfighter pilot, he'd need to learn to shut out distractions in the cockpit. And those damn patoya-plants were as distracting as they came.
A Rebel pilot. That suited Luke.
But that thought begged the question: what about Han?
The Rebels were a bunch of dreamers. Han didn't believe in their fool crusade. Not now, maybe not ever. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Leia haggle — okay, negotiate — with Threepio hovering at her shoulder.
No, he didn't believe in her cause. But maybe it was enough to believe in her, and in Luke. It had worked out pretty well for all three of them so far.
And if the Empire put a bounty on him, so what? They'd have to outbid Jabba for the rights to his hide. And that had to mean something in itself, right? If Han was going to be dragged off in shackles, better for people to say it was for doing something important, not just dumping cargo and running. Something that mattered.
Huh. Maybe that did make him a bit of a Rebel after all. Now there was something to think about, at least until the shooting started again.
Space travel was less exciting than Luke had always thought it would be, at least when no one was shooting at him. Wedge would probably say that's what being a fighter pilot was like — part boredom, part terror.
Luke was a pilot now. A real one, not just a canyon-hopper. Not just a pilot, either, but a Rebel too.
Uncle Owen had once told Luke that his father had been a rebel. Oh, he hadn't meant the Rebellion, but the thought still seemed to count. Maybe Luke could even find someone in the Rebellion who know his father back from the Clone Wars. And if he never learned anything more, well, that was a problem for another day. For now, it was enough to be in the cockpit, his friends as his wingmates, fighting for something he believed in.
A creeping tendril from the patoya-plant snaked up from behind the pilot's couch to tickle his neck. Luke jumped and hit his head on a toggle switch. An alarm blared while Luke flailed. "Blast it! Artoo, I don't care if these things do give Chewie hives. Han's taking this blasted plant back at the next rendezvous or I'll shove it up his sensor array. It may grow enough food to feed an army, but I'm not traveling another parsec with this thing!"
Artoo blatted a reply, and Luke didn't need to look at his screen to know it was even ruder than his own complaint. He glanced at the screen anyway and laughed aloud.
That was a much better place for the plant than the Falcon's sensor array.
"What'll we do if we can't grow these things at the new base?" Luke wondered aloud. Artoo whistled a reply, but Luke answered his own question. Really, the same answer applied to all his worries — learning the ways of the Force, carving a space for himself in the wider galaxy, finding a home away from Tatooine, living up to his father's legacy.
He was with the Rebels now. Whatever came their way, they'd handle it together... or at least they'd make do.