"It's raining," Wedge Antilles complained. Leia smiled.
"And the pilot's prize for stating the blatantly obvious goes to Sub-Lieutenant Wedge Antilles of Red Flight. Luke, dear, you're going to catch cold."
Luke was standing a few feet out of the hangar doorway, his chin tipped upwards so that raindrops fell on his face. Wedge reached out and towed him back into shelter by the collar.
"They promote you when you don't have enough sense to come in out of the rain..." Wedge shook his head gently.
"But all that water," Luke said. "Just falling out of the sky. It's amazing."
"Oh, that's nothing. Just you wait," Leia said, unable to suppress a smirk.
"Wait for what?"
"That would be telling," Leia teased. Wedge sneezed.
"What horrible weather," he groaned. "Hudsart was cold and here's wet. What next, a desert?"
"I hope not," Luke said. "I've seen enough desert to last me a lifetime."
"Yavin had lovely weather," Wedge said regretfully. "Pity we had to leave."
"I find Imperial stormtroopers don't tend to improve the climate," Leia retorted. Luke pointed out the hangar door.
"Leia, look. Isn't that the Falcon?"
Leia swung round and squinted through the curtain of falling rain. That disc-shaped craft being flown too fast certainly looked like the Falcon...
"Better get out of the way," Wedge said with a grin. The three of them stepped back among the snubfighters as the Corellian stock freighter roared into the hangar on its edge, spun around and lowered itself onto what had become its accustomed landing space.
"Show off," Leia said, more scathingly than she felt, because she saw a desire for emulation in Luke's blue eyes.
"I wonder if an X-wing would do that," Wedge said thoughtfully; Leia groaned.
"Yeah, it would," Luke said "but because of the stresses-"
"I'm going to say hello to Han," Leia interrupted, "even if you two are going to talk pilot all day."
She set off up the hangar, and Luke followed, as she had known he would. Wedge came with them, which defeated Leia's purpose of stopping the pilot talk.
"...surely with the S-foils locked-"
"But remember you're trying to manoeuvre in a hangar," Luke interrupted. "You've got limited space. An X-wing has more sticky-out parts than the Falcon. Whack one of your laser cannons against the wall-"
"-And the price will be docked from your pay," Leia contributed, sotto voce, as the group came level with the Falcon.
"Yes, Grand High Admiral Organa, sir," Luke said, grinning. Han, together with Chewie, was helping the technicians and a droid or two to empty the hold of his ship, but he turned around at the sound of their voices.
"Hey, kid!" he said, crooked grin firmly in place, and slapped Luke on the shoulder. Luke smiled up at his friend, his eyes glowing. Han nodded greeting to Wedge, then looked at Leia, his head cocked at an angle.
"How goes it, Highnessness?"
"The same as usual, Han."
"Oh, oh, that's bad," he said, waggling his head gloomily.
"Don't be ridiculous," Leia said, torn between annoyance and laughter. "You're such a pessimist!"
"Nah, I'm a realist. You and the kid are just incurable optimists. Expect the worst, and you'll never be disappointed."
"Maybe if you stopped expecting the worst it wouldn't happen," Luke said. "I mean, perhaps if you expect people to be-"
"Nope, people will screw you over at every opportunity, and the weather is a nerf," Han said. "Thought you were learning that by this time."
Luke's face fell, but he covered for it by sticking his tongue out at Han.
"Ah, leave it, Han," Leia said, irritated. She had worked out some time ago that Han talked more cynically than he acted, but Luke was so candid himself that he had trouble detecting this dissimulation. Chewie came ambling over and hugged Luke and Leia, a fate Wedge managed to avoid.
"He's glad to see you," Han translated somewhat unnecessarily.
"I-uff, careful, Chewie-I gathered that, Han," Leia said as she freed herself.
"Look!" Wedge exclaimed. "The sun's out!"
"Are we going for that walk, then?" Luke asked.
"Surely this hole has more interesting activities," Han said, raising an eyebrow. "I'm certain that you have spatball, for instance."
"But this is a special walk," Leia said with a smile. "A walk east." She rolled her eyes towards Luke, and Han suddenly grinned gleefully.
"A-ha. Is it the first time?"
"Almost definitely. I mean, think about it."
"What are you talking about?" Wedge asked.
"You'll see," Leia and Han replied in unison.
"I gotta see this," Han added. "Chewie, can you handle the rest of this here?"
Chewie's rumbled answer must have been affirmative, because when the group set off from the base a few minutes later, Han was with them. He was in the lead, shoving branches and thorns out of Leia's way, then came Leia with Luke at her heels, and Wedge in the rear, slightly bemused but ready to enjoy any fun that was to be had.
Leia reflected that what had originally been a quiet stroll with Luke had turned into a sort of school outing. In the mud. Well, that was an exaggeration, to be fair. The ground was soft, but not splashy.
"So where are we going? Is it much farther? What's the big secret?" Luke asked. He'd already asked that, in slightly different terms, three times.
"Are we nearly there yet?" Han mocked, glancing back at Luke over Leia's head, then dropping his eyes to hers. She bit her lip hurriedly. She didn't want to laugh and hurt Luke's feelings, but it was funny.
"I think I'm being had, Wedge," Luke remarked. Leia did laugh at that.
"You've been spending too much time with Han, Luke. You've gone all suspicious and untrusting."
"Are you suggesting that I'm corrupting innocent youth, Your Holiness?" Han said with a shocked face, while Luke muttered something like, "I'm young, but not that young," behind Leia.
"Don't tell me that wasn't your intention," she challenged Han.
"I admit it. Han Solo, corrupter extraordinaire," Han said, shrugging. "What'd you say to a bit of corruption in the Falcon, after lights-out tonight?"
From the boys came various choking and spluttering noises; indignation in Luke's case and amusement in Wedge's, Leia thought. She herself stood still for a moment, her mouth open, before rapping out, "You have a vastly over-inflated opinion of yourself, Han Solo, if you think I would touch you with a ten metre pole!"
Han, instead of snapping back, merely laughed. "You'll be the one missing out, Princess." He flashed her a grin, arrogant, insouciant and malicious. Half a dozen indignant retorts tried to get out of Leia's mouth at once, and almost choked her.
"Leave her alone, Han," Luke broke in, laying a protective hand on Leia's shoulder and glowering bluely at Han.
"It's okay, Luke," Leia said coolly. "I was just wondering how to break the news to the High Command."
"What news?" Luke asked obligingly; Leia smirked.
"We're going to have to expand the base to accommodate Han's swollen head."
Luke and Wedge laughed, and Han gave her a fake innocent look. Leia frowned at him to show she was still angry. Why did he have to be so aggravating? He had taken all the enjoyment from their walk. She slowed down to walk beside Luke and Wedge, but Han dropped back too.
"You avoiding me, Princess?" he murmured into her ear.
"I'm leaving room for your ego," she retorted. Han squeezed her arm.
"I'll repress it if it means I get to walk beside you," he said softly.
Leia, guessing that this was the nearest thing to an apology she was going to get, replied, "Deal."
Then she turned to Luke and began to talk determinedly about the smashball league. Luke, who never needled her the way Han did, who would never purposely humiliate her. Even if she had agreed to let the matter of Han's ego drop, it was more for the sake of peace and quiet than anything else.
The ground was sandier now, and sloped gently upwards. As they came to the top of the little rise, the trees thinned out, and a faint lapping and murmur of sound came from ahead of them. Leia stopped at the top of the bank to catch her breath, looking down at the little beach running down to a wide lake, its far shore invisible in a blue haze. Luke came to a dead stop, so abruptly that Wedge walked into him.
"What-what is that?"
Wedge gave Luke a long stare, and said very clearly, "That's the ocean, Luke. Or maybe a lake. You know, water."
"Lake, actually," Leia said, and laughed at Luke's astonishment, which fully realised all her expectations of it. Luke, recognising that there was no malice in her laughter, turned wide eyes on her.
"Really water? So much of it?"
Han, recovering from his own amusement, rumpled up Luke's hair in elder-brotherly fashion.
"Kid, you're priceless, you know that?"
Luke knocked Han's arm out of the way as Wedge challenged, "Race you down there!"
Leia found her hand seized, Luke tugging her after him as he started off down the beach. Leia pulled her hand free in order to run properly, resisting an unexpected impulse to turn a cartwheel. She hadn't felt so light-hearted in months, as though all her responsibilities had vanished instantaneously. And if she didn't think about Alderaan-
So she ran as though she were trying to outstrip a Death Star, and arrived at the water's edge just after the boys, hot and breathless.
"Wow! I...that's amazing!" Luke was saying, and Wedge, more prosaically, "I wouldn't try drinking that, Luke. You never know what's floating in it."
Leia doubted that Luke had even heard the warning. He stepped onto a flat-topped rock and stooped to dip his hands in the water. Leia smiled at the back of his head. She felt almost as though she herself were seeing a lake for the first time through his eyes. Han, having scorned the race down the beach, came stalking over to them.
"Desert rat, meet large body of water," he said, a light of mischief coming into his face. Leia yelped a warning, too late, as Han strode forward, took Luke by the belt, and tipped him neatly head-over-heels into the shallow water.
"Han!" Leia and Wedge cried together, and then began to laugh as Luke sat up, spluttering. He glared up at Han, water running off the end of his nose and dripping from his fingertips.
"That's what water does to you, Luke," Han informed him mockingly. "'Course, you wouldn't know-"
"Oh, shut it," Luke said good-humouredly, pulling off his sodden shirt and flinging it at Han. He was more muscular than Leia would have expected, his suntan fading to fairer skin at the base of his neck. Wedge, still laughing, waded into the water and held out a hand to Luke.
"You know, I think I'm going to have to teach you how to swim," he said, grinning.
"Thank you," Luke said, his tones pushing sarcastic.
Whether Wedge slipped or whether Luke pulled him down Leia never knew, but at that moment Wedge sat down hard with a yelp and a splash. Within ten seconds he was as wet as Luke, and the two of them were dunking each other happily.
"That's insubordination, trying to drown a superior officer!" Luke was yelling, when Leia received a dash of tepid water round the legs.
"Han Solo!" she shrieked at the offender, and scooped up a double handful.
"Can anyone think of a plausible story to tell everyone at the base?" Wedge asked, emptying water out of his boots.
"Attacked by a water snake, and only escaped by a million-to-one chance," Han suggested.
"A murderous attack by Captain Solo, which we beat off bravely," Leia said tartly, wringing out the cuffs of her trousers and hoping that her wet jacket hadn't gone transparent.
"Stop it, you two," Luke said. "Han, what did you do with my shirt?"