Luke supposed that—at some point—Zeba could have been a real beauty to look at. As it is, the planet had long since descended into disarray; the stratosphere polluted by the industrial surface until it had turned into a resolute shade of green. Occasionally there were elongated spots of sickly yellow where the atmosphere had grown thin and worn, and a formidable purple where the moon hovered largely to the east; a constant, indomitable presence in the sky.
The interior wasn't any more favorable.
Zeba was a factory planet: long ago, perhaps even as far back as the Clone Wars, the planet had fashioned itself as an industrial planet and had long since lost whatever vegetation it had. Ever inch was carved in stone, populated with dense cities—aside from the oceans; a watery , indeterminable gray surface that besieged most of the planet.
Definitely not Luke's idea of a vacation.
And, when he voiced this thought aloud, Wedge immediately replied with, "I'm not sure if you noticed, but this isn't a vacation."
Wedge, like Luke, was currently employed by Squad Venetus: a conglomerate of bounty hunters fashioning themselves as something like a mercenary group. With the Squad, Luke had taken on a truly alarming amount of missions; ranging from subterfuge, to blackmail, to bounty hunting, all the way to delivery boy. And with such a prolific amount of jobs came an even greater clientele.
For the most part, the Squad as a whole scorned the very idea of the Empire—but that was more personal than anything.
That being said, they were one of the few for hire that straddled the intimate line between the Alliance and the Empire, resolutely declaring themselves neutral to any galactic wars.
Still, for the most part they took the jobs they wanted. And, considering that the majority of the Squad was made from ex-Rebels, quite a few of those jobs came from the Alliance.
Like this one: blow up the Imperial factories in district 29 of Zeba, which as of last year had spat out fourteen times the quota the Empire made for TIE fighters. Luke was utterly fascinated at the prospect; quite interested in divulging the factory of its secrets. The Alliance, who usually faced the brunt of the surplus of fighting machines, certainly did not find it all that fascinating.
Either way, there were very few things that truly motivated anyone in the galaxy; almost all of them leading back to one thing—money.
Luke was not immune.
"Luke," Wedge called through the comm. "We were supposed to leave an hour ago. Where the hell are you?"
Luke made a noncommittal noise. "I'll be there soon."
Wedge peered down into the scoured surface of the planet anxiously, as if he could find his friend among the network of warehouses. He switched his plane into neutral, coasting quietly in the sky. There appeared to be some kind of interference in their reception—the thought made him anxious. Was there some sort of interception of their transmission?
"Luke," Wedge began again, uneasily. "Do you hear that? I think someone's trying to jam our transmission."
"Ah, that's not jamming." More noise—this time it sounded as if Luke was coughing up half a lung, in some kind of fatal condition, even quite possibly on the brink of death—"I'm brushing my teeth."
"Are you serious?" He deadpanned.
"I didn't have time this morning!" Luke protested. "It was really bothering me!"
"Luke—do you have any idea of the meaning of the word haste? What part of incoming enemy TIE fighters is confusing you?"
"It'll be fine." The blonde waved him off, eying the bitter sea with an ineffectual nostalgia. There was a time in his life when he would have given anything to see a view like this: the glittering water, the sun tumbling across the waves, the sparkle as the ocean collided with the rocks.
Wedge made a good point, though. Luke turned around, starting up his x-wing. The custom craft hummed to life, hovering a few feet off the ground. Best to get going.
As he started the engine, the world around him shook alarmingly, and he looked up to see a fleet of TIE fighters flying above him, shooting off into the distance. Luke wasn't a fool, though, and pushed it straight into the highest gear and lifted off, just as the squad looped back around for him.
"Shit, Luke." Wedge cursed, finally finding his friend on the surface—as he proceeded to blow up half a block in the ensuing dog fight. "Get out of there!"
"I will!" Luke retorted. "Why don't you start for the ship? This won't take long."
"Are you crazy—
"Go! Before they spot you too!"
Wedge didn't need to be told twice, reversing and then plunging into the sky. Behind him, he could see the blinding glimmer of Luke's x-wing as it soared into the light. He could make out Luke twist and dive around the pursuit curve, weaving through their shots like child's play. Typical. He rolled out of the way as the fighters fell into a combat spread behind him.
He felt his breath catch. "Luke—
But the boy maneuvered into an s-split, and the paradigm behind him fell apart as they flew in disarray to catch him.
Wedge shook his head, mesmerized. He would never know how Luke managed to make manipulating TIE fighters look so easy.
"Don't die, okay?" He called over the comm, as he sped off into space.
Luke laughed. "I make no promises!" He called merrily, as he used a displacement roll to gain momentum and fall out of the lag's range, effectively turning the tides.
Wedge shook his head again, as he watched Luke blow up two of the five in a well-timed shot—the only shot he'd made thus far, even.
THE REAL FOLK BLUES
Leia took one look at his face and smiled roguishly. "Annoying, isn't he?"
"Annoying?" Wedge heaved, rubbing a hand wearily over his brow. "The kid nearly gave me a dozen heart attacks—in half an hour! Taking years off my life with those stunts!"
Leia shook her head, leaning over the command desk and resting her elbows on the counter. "Well, that's just how he is, I suppose. Always disregarding everything anyone says."
"I'll say." Wedge agreed. "Him and Han: two peas in a pod."
"Oh, Han." Leia digressed, as if that could encompass all the irritation one man could give her.
Honestly, Wedge was surprised the princess had yet to fish out their wayward resident smuggler out of whatever dive he'd found himself in. Leia, ever since she had deigned them with her presence, had imposed herself as den mother, team manager, and the most beautiful girl on the ship to boot. To be quite honest, Wedge had no idea why Leia spent such a significant amount of time here. The way he'd heard the story—which was thirdhand, and told by a drunken Wes—Leia had formed a close relationship with a lot of the ex-rebels who'd joined up with Squad Venetus; Luke in particular.
Wedge wasn't so sure of that, though. For the most part, it appeared the two had no relationship at all to speak of. That said, Wedge was not the most subtle of men, and perhaps he was simply overlooking something.
Still, he was glad she was here. Even if the fact that she was here at all probably signified some greater meaning.
"What are you doing, manning the front anyway?" Wedge asked, holding out a datapad with their mission report.
Leia took it, entering it into the system. "Ru's busy."
Ru being Ru Murleen, the infamous pointman of the Alliance's Gray Squadron. Normally, she'd be out there with the boys enjoying a dog fight or two, but as it was she was actually pregnant—not just pretending whenever a curious Imperial ship poked around. Leia shook her head. She had no idea who had decided to commandeer a cruiser with tags for a medical facility for pregnant women as their base of operations (that had Han written all over it, she thought derisively) but, as it was, it appeared there was nothing the Empire feared more than a ship full of hormonal women; without fail, the moment the Imps set foot on the ship, they quickly retreated.
Wedge shrugged. "Alright. You need anything else?"
She shook her head. "Payment already came through."
He threw her a thumbs up as he headed off, presumably to the mess hall.
Leia sighed, brushing wayward hair out of her face. Not for the first time since she arrived on the ship, she wondered why she was here. Sure, it was no secret that she was quite close with the majority of the squad members (considering the majority of them had come from the Rebel Alliance) but it was just as obvious that she had made it her life's work to see the Alliance to fruition. For as long as she could remember, the only thing that took up even a fraction of her attention was her desire to single-handedly saving the galaxy. As she grew older, it became clear that her best bet would be to join the Alliance.
She didn't know why she had headed out here the first opportunity she had.
She didn't know what that meant.
Perhaps the crux of the matter was—Luke was here.
Leia had met Luke some years ago, when the lanky, exuberant youth had wandered his way into the Alliance. She wasn't sure how anyone managed to wander into a place like that, but Luke was quite capable of accidentally finding his way into something like the Rebel stronghold.
It didn't escape her notice that he was Luke. Just Luke. It was common for rebels to 'unintentionally' misplace their last name; mainly to stop retaliation to their families from the Empire—so she couldn't exactly ask him for it. But it felt a little disconcerting not knowing all that much about the boy who was quickly becoming her best friend.
He'd just… walked in one day from thin air, and risen through the ranks at an alarming rate. He had a habit of hiding elusively behind his broad smile, the cockpit of his ship, or the underside of an x-wing. Any attempts to wrangle any personal details from the boy had as of yet been mostly in vain. What she did know came from his time in the Alliance; he was the Rebel's number one dog fighter, the best pilot by far, could have had almost every girl in the whole organization, and could even go one to one with Lord Vader himself, if the rumors were to be believed.
He could have had everything.
But he didn't.
He dropped from the Alliance as quickly as he had come, taking with him some of the best the rebellion had to offer.
Leia rubbed a hand across her forehead warily.
And here he was—here she was—in what was starting to be the most notorious mercenary group in the galaxy.
"You've got this really strange look on your face, Leia." Her eyes snapped up. "What are you thinking about?"
As if breaking out from her musings, the very object of her thoughts appeared in her line of focus, hair askew and helmet tucked under his arm.
"You're late." Was all she could think to say.
He chuckled, rubbing the back of his head. "Sorry about that. After the mission, Han and I went down to try the local dining."
He must mean Bareillye, the crowning jewel in the otherwise dilapidated Zeba system; a manifestation of every boy's dream. Good beer, limitless shots of Corellia Grand, fine women and a club down every block. No doubt he and Han had stirred up some trouble.
The thought made Leia's brows crease. "No trouble, right?"
Luke snorted. "None, unless you count Chewie almost stirring up a bar fight."
Both the Wookie and their resident space smuggler took the opportune moment to emerge from the elevators.
"Hey!" Han protested. "That was all you, buddy!"
"Me?" Luke echoed, scandalized.
"Yeah!" Han pointed an incriminating finger at him. "That dude thought you were all over his girlfriend!"
Luke sputtered. "She was all over me!"
Chewie growled his agreement. Luke waved towards the Wookie. "See? Even Chewie agrees with me!"
"Chewie didn't see it." Han dismissed. He turned to the Princess. "Leia, you should have seen this girl. Total closet case." He snickered. "She kept coming on to him, and Luke looked like she was some kind of sarlaac trying to eat his intestines."
"You even agree with me!" Luke sputtered in protest.
"Yeah," Han scowled. "But you could have tried a little harder!"
"What did you want me to do—shove her off?"
"That's no way to treat a woman." Luke returned, looking vaguely horrified. Leia would have been rather touched by his chivalry, if she hadn't been more concerned over this 'boyfriend'.
She frowned, cutting into their conversation. "He wasn't an imp, was he?"
"In this system?" Han balked. "No need to worry, princess. He was chump change. Luke coulda taken him."
Leia could silently agree with this.
Luke could take on anyone.
Chewie made a hungry noise, before changing direction and heading towards the mess hall. Both Han and Luke watched him with varying degrees of disbelief.
"More food?" Han said, disturbed. "How can you want more?"
He followed the Wookie either way, rolling his eyes. "Well, I guess I could go for another drink. You coming, Luke?"
The blonde waved him off. "No thanks. I'm gonna look for another job."
The smuggler gave him one last wary look, before shaking his head, following the Wookie down the hall and around the corner. Their raucous voices carried on for some time, before eventually disappearing down the corridor.
Luke turned back to her.
"Got anything good?"
Leia scanned the job list. It never ceased to amaze her just how many there were. Then again, almost everyone in the Squad had their own network of clients—and pooling them all together had only doubled the size.
"Depends on what you want." Leia hummed.
Luke shrugged, leaning over the counter. "Anything that pays well would be nice."
Leia gave him a deadpan look. Everything on this list paid well. Most of them were even illegal.
She chanced a glance at his face once more; the effortless smile and the blue of his eyes beneath the fringe of his hair. He could have had everything. She wasn't lying when she said Luke could take on anyone—in a fist fight, in a bar fight, in the air or on the ground… maybe he didn't want to be a rebel, but he could have been a damn good Imperial. She didn't want to know how difficult it would be to face down the boy in combat, had he decided to join the other side.
Something compelled her to ask, but the words wouldn't make their way out of her throat.
It wasn't her place, she reminded herself. It was his life; he could chose to do what he would with it.
"Of course." She said, instead, bottling up all the words she couldn't say. "Take your pick."
Luke slid out from under the craft, his soot covered face beaming. "There's your problem!" He cried, gleefully, holding up a smoking part.
Next to him, R2 beeped appreciatively, and Wes whistled low.
"The hell happened to that?"
"You tell me." Luke laughed, putting the part aside. "What have you been up to?"
"Flying?" Wes shrugged. "I'll never understand how you can fix everything without ever taking a mechanic class. Are you sure you're not secretly some Imperial engineering grad?"
Luke shook his head, smiling. "No, no. Could you image me as an Imperial?"
Wes appeared to ponder this seriously for a moment, before erupting into laughter. "Krith, no. You'd be the worst Imp in history! You're absolutely incapable of following rules!"
"Got that right." Luke grinned at him, and then gave R2 a high-five when the droid raised a mechanical arm. "Rules are for chumps." He got a high-five from both Wes and R2 for that.
"I mean, I bet you don't even know what this is!" He ranted anew, holding up one of the items he'd plucked out of the toolbox. "What kind of crazy genius are you?"
Luke swiped it back, rolling his eyes. "That's a hydrospanner, Wes. And it's not crazy genius, or anything like that." And then, after a moment of thought he added, "And it's not witchcraft either."
"I wasn't going to say it was!" Wes retorted, with a look that clearly said he was.
It was one of their favorite jokes to pull on Luke—just in jest, really. It was true, though, half the things Luke did appeared to have no logical justification. Like how he knew when they should skip a system, or when to pull out from a mission. Time after time they'd escaped everything from broken ankles to total destruction because of Luke's seeming ability to predict the future. Luke insisted that he was just being observant. And well, that may be true. Wes was hardly the observant kind of guy.
"I've always been good with machines." Luke continued, grabbing a towel off of one of the benches. He looked away, rubbing his hair. "… My father was good with machines."
He'd never heard Luke talk about his parents.
He turned around then, with a narrow look. "That's called genetics, not black magic."
Wes held up both hands. "Right, right." And then, grinning roguishly, "You're some piece of work, kid."
"Thanks." Luke returned, sardonic.
"And you stink."
"That's just uncalled for."
But he was definitely due for a shower either way. He pulled at his tunic; there was no way in hell these oil stains were coming out in the wash. He turned back around for R2, but the droid appeared to have rolled off. He scanned the Hangar bay; lines of standard x-wings held the majority of the space, though he wasn't even remotely abashed to say that there was a good part of the bay dedicated to his ships alone. Luke's were always the ones that entertained the most attention when anyone came aboard.
The glory of his collection was the heavily modified Incom T-65 x-wing, remodeled until it was almost indistinguishable from the standard models; it's dark, sleek hull gleamed in silent brooding from behind an array of b-wings.
Luke followed Wes' gaze towards his x-wing, some feet away.
"I put in some new Novaldex cells—but now the fusial thrusts have burnt out. I'm probably going to have to go down to whatever planet we're orbiting and see if they've got any junk shops."
Though Wes was unabashedly unable to tell a screwdriver from a hydrospanner, let it not be said that he didn't know his planes. He may not be able to make the plane itself, but he sure as hell knew what it took to build one.
He did the math quickly in his head. "You're looking for a K4 particle accelerator?" He asked, incredulously. That was the most logical issue, anyway; of course he blew out his fusial thrusts if his particle accelerator couldn't keep up with the energy.
"Yeah. Think they'll have any?"
"In this system?" Wes scoffed. "Doubtful. It's a pretty large black market but I don't think they'll have new parts like that. Might as well take a look though, this place sure as hell is a junk shop. Maybe we'll find something of value."
Luke shrugged, heading for the corridor, probably (hopefully) going to make his way to shower. "I'll take me chances. I don't want to fry my engine before I even have the chance to get into a real dog fight with this baby!"
Wes rolled his eyes.
Only Luke would get excited over the prospect of a lethal space fight.
The blonde maundered back to his apartments, digging around for shampoo and conditioner and a spare set of clothes. And his toothbrush. He frowned when he noticed it was mysteriously missing. He didn't leave it on that shithole planet, did he? He shivered at the thought. That would mean he'd have to ask to borrow from someone, and stars forbid he had to ask Han—
"Is this you?"
Luke whirled around, surprised to see Leia peering over a photo in his sitting area. He accidentally dropped his shower and hair bottle, and cursed quietly as he picked it up, drifting over towards where Leia was perched on the edge of a chair.
She was pointing to a significantly small blonde boy in a bright, over exposed hologram. Next to him was an older looking man, smiling down fondly at the boy.
"Oh? Yeah. That is me."
"Who's Ben?" She asked curiously, reading the bottom; written in the sloppiest Basic she'd ever seen was, 'May the force always be with you' –Ben. What a strange thing to say, Leia thought. Maybe that was some sort of saying back on whatever planet Luke was from.
"He was… a close friend."
"Where is he now?"
"I'm so sorry." Leia choked out, subdued. She hadn't meant to pry—but it was just so rare to find anything about Luke. She still couldn't quite wrap her mind around the idea of Luke being related to anyone; that he wasn't just some elusive character from deep space.
"Don't be." Luke smiled, shaking his head. "It was his time."
She chanced a glance back at Luke, before figuring she should just go for it. "Was he…" She looked back down at the man. "Was he your grandfather?"
There was a moment, before Luke descended into sputtering coughs. For a horrifying moment, Leia thought he had erupted into tears. He threw his head back then, and Leia could see he was laughing uproariously. "Ben? Oh, man… that's ironic. No, he wasn't. He was a good man, and taught me a lot though."
"You must miss him." She observed.
He shrugged. "Sure." A wistful look crossed his face, before he shook his head, a soft smile playing on his face. "But, you know, he's not all gone."
Leia tilted her head. "What do you mean by that?"
But Luke wasn't look at her; he had opened up some drawers on the far wall, rummaging around for a shirt and sweats and then digging for socks. "The galaxy we live in is pretty strange."
Leia could have palmed her face. Typical Luke response. Getting anything out of the guy that wasn't ambiguous or metaphoric was a task indeed. That said, perhaps it wasn't her place to. Her eyes drifted across the room as the blonde moved about; the entire apartment was fairly Spartan, but she had always assumed Like didn't have the time nor the talent to pick out a coordinating color scheme, let alone actual furniture. Everything looked exactly as it had when they'd first bought the ship. She was fairly sure there was even still a pregnancy brochure on the welcome desk.
She peered down into the room adjacent—but aside from a bed and desk, there was nothing of interest to report. The princess pursed her lips.
How was she supposed to find out anything about him when, as far as she could see, the trail lead to nowhere.
She lifted herself off the edge of the chair with another look around. Her eyes caught on the large, long windows across the far side of the room; Zeba hung low in the breadth of it, the spinning galaxy a distant glittering of lights behind it. "Sorry for bother you; I'll get out of your hair."
Luke peered back at her from where he had finally commandeered a pair of socks. "You're never a bother, Leia." He said, sincerely.
She didn't know what to say to that; too touched to respond. Instead, she only smiled, drifting off as quietly as she had come.
Luke emerged from his shower feeling—and smelling—significantly better than he had prior.
Han caught sight him almost immediately, ushering him over with a flap of his hands, though his attention was fixated on the comm in his hands. As Luke neared, he couldn't quite remember who it was.
"Sure, sure—wait, what do you mean—?"
He seemed pretty engrossed in whatever it was, so Luke popped his water and leaned against the far wall, figuring it might take some time.
"Seriously? She wouldn't—no way—"
Han had started making a fairly legitimate imitation of a fish, gaping widely with no words coming out his mouth for some time.
"Well, no shit huh?" He said, finally, when it appeared he had gathered himself enough. "Thanks for the update man."
He shut the comm, turning back towards Luke.
The blonde raised a brow curiously.
"Sorry, buddy from the Alliance." He hedged, and then, "Have you seen Leia?"
"Uh?" Luke blinked, taken off guard by the question. "Sure. Saw her about half an hour ago I think? Why? Is she okay?" The thought suddenly took hold of him with great fervor.
"No, no." Han allayed his fears. "She's fine. She just…"
He blinked stupidly at Luke. Luke blinked back.
When it appeared Han wasn't going to finish that sentence, he took a sip of his water bottle.
"She resigned from the Alliance."
And promptly spit it back out.
He coughed, sputtering. "What?"
"Yeah." Han agreed.
Luke shook his head, attempting another sip. "That's crazy!"
"I know right?" Han agreed again. "And she's coming to work with us. Who would have thought?"
He ended up sitting that one out too.