Evidence

Evidence

by Karen Winter

Luke sat up in his bed, breathing heavily as Massassi's thick early-morning air pressed in on desert-bred lungs. He was soaking wet. The acid smell of his own sweat, mingled with another, sweeter odor, hung in the darkness around him. He rolled over, untangling from clammy sheets, brushing away the damp hair tickling his face, tapped on the lights, and released an explosive sigh. Damn, he'd been dreaming about Biggs again.

It was a wordless dream, formless and disturbing; there was no word he was willing to accept in the lexicon of Toshi Station for what he and Biggs had been to each other, no definition except in his own body's memory. Luke rested his forehead against a patch of sheet that seemed a little less damp than the rest, wishing vainly for dry, cool air.

Biggs was dead.

The realization struck Luke with a sudden shock, as it had every morning for the past three days since the battle over the Death Star. He bit his knuckles. Pain prevented the burning pressure in his chest from becoming tears as he saw the brilliant shower of sparks against his closed eyelids. The dream had been so real: memories of their last conversation on Tatooine before Biggs returned for his final semester at the Academy. Luke's mind kept coming back, with bitter regret, to that sharp exchange of words and to the unfinished business they had not resolved then, that would never be resolved now.

"It's going to be like old times, Luke. They'll never stop us!"

They had had no more than minutes together before the Death Star located the Alliance base. In painful flashes, Luke remembered their brief meeting in the hangar before the attack, laughing, gesturing, tripping over each other's words in their breathless hurry to tell everything that had happened to each of them since they'd parted on Tatooine.

"I'll hear all your stories when we get back,"Biggs had said. It would never happen now. All he had was the quick, jumbled memory of their eager voices: "...the Academy. On my first flight out after graduation, I jumped ship at Carradinae, looking for the Rebellion, and"

"...the Princess. When I saw her in the holo, heard that she needed help, I had to–"

"...always were a romantic idiot, Luke. Come halfway across the galaxy to rescue a holo–!"

"Look who's talking!" Luke laughed. "Remember all those recruiting speeches you used to give me? Excitement, adventure, join the Rebellion and see the galaxy... boy, were you right!" He looked around the hanger. "Well, I guess we both found it and joined up." "I heard you got here in that beat-up old crate with the hot-shot Corellian pilot. How'd you ever get mixed up with him?"

"Yeah," Luke said. For some reason, Biggs's mention of Han made him uneasy. "Ben Kenobi hired Han to take us to Alderaan, then after Ben was killed on the Death Star and we got the Princess out of there–"

Biggs looked suddenly stricken. "Hey, that's right; I heard about Ben getting killed. Uh, Luke, look. I'm sorry about Ben. About your aunt and uncle, too, honest I am. Your aunt was a wonderful lady. You know how much I liked her. If there's anything I can do... I mean..." He fidgeted and fell silent. "Thanks, Biggs." Luke's eyes fell and he sobered, seeing the charred bodies again in memory. "There's been so much happening, I haven't even had time to think about it myself."

No time, Luke thought, war never gives you any time. Maybe because if we had time to think, to mourn our dead, none of us.... He pushed the idea aside and forgot it. The deck officer strode by, throwing them a word as he passed. "Get to your fighters, men." "Yes, sir," they chorued, and Biggs ran toward his plane as Luke climbed into his own cockpit. Luke came back to the present. That was it. They had never had time to discuss anything else, or clear up the misunderstanding Biggs had taken with him when he left Luke on Tatooine. Luke wondered if Biggs had forgotten all about it, or if they both had buried it because it was too difficult to talk about. He felt another stab of discomfort at the thought. He swung his legs over the edge of his bunk and stood up to shed the sticky pair of briefs he had slept in. He grabbed a clean pair, then went over to the sink in the corner of his room to sponge himself down sketchily with tepid liquid from the tap. It still seemed almost a criminal waste to use precious water instead of sonics for bathing. Uncle Owen could have made a fortune off the water these people at Massassi wasted every day. You're not a moisture farmer any more, Luke, he thought. He glanced around the small, high-ceilinged room that served as his quarters on Massassi. It was windowless, walled in stones carefully fitted together without mortar, with a floor of uncovered poured plasticreet, and held a regulation-issue military cot, a wall shelf scattered with the few personal items he had accumulated since he arrived on this planet, and a metal footlocker which served as both table and chair. Luke reflected that with a coat of white plaster, the room would look very much like one of the underground buildings on his home world. In fact, the bare little space could almost have been Biggs's old bedroom in his parent's house in Toshi Station, where the two of them had spent so many hours talking about Life and their hopes for the future. Luke looked down, pushing a discarded shirt out of his path with a foot as he walked back to his bed and lay down on it, thinking back to the last time he had seen Biggs's bedroom. His friend had been home for semester break, leaving the next day to return to the Academy. Luke had stopped by to say goodbye.

 

"Hey, Biggs, take care of yourself out there." He put his hands on his friend's shoulders. "Will do, Luke." Biggs returned the gesture.

The moment stretched uncomfortably, threatening to become sentimental. Breaking the mood with a laugh, Luke ducked under Biggs's arm and bent it behind his back in a wrestling hold. Biggs took up the challenge instantly, spun out of his grip, and minutes later they were sprawled on the cot, panting with laughter as Biggs pinned Luke, who struggled furiously but futilely beneath him.

"I give! Let me up!" Luke's voice was muffled by the blanket in his mouth.

When Biggs relaxed his hold, Luke gave a mighty heave and squirmed over onto his back, then shoved Biggs down beside him and pinned his friend in turn by falling across him.

"You said, I give!" Biggs accused.

"So I lied. Now I've got you!" Luke ripped apart the pressure fastenings of Biggs's coverall.

Undefined excitement rose in Luke as he moved into a familiar pattern, feeling his friend's chest under his hands as he tickled Biggs ferociously, feeling the hard bulge of his crotch grind rough cloth against Luke's own groin. Biggs twisted under him, lunging against Luke's straddling thighs as he tried to escape the tormenting fingers.

Luke breathed faster, flushing, giving himself up to the situation, muscles tensing in unconscious response to Biggs's movements.

"Luke!"

Luke was totally absorbed, almost lightheaded with concentration. ...just like old times... He felt warm pressure building in him, felt his body straining toward some unacknowledged fulfillment, growing slick and sticky with sweat. His attack moved relentlessly down Biggs's ribs, the damp wiry hair rasping his fingertips. He felt Biggs's hip sharp against his forearm, felt himself responding as his hands moved downward....

"Luke, stop!" Biggs's grip clamped around his wrists.

"Come on, Biggs!" Luke pushed at the restraining hands, impatient, half-angry. He was tingling all over with an electric-shock urgency. "Let go, blast it!"

"No, Luke." Biggs wrenched himself free and sat up.

"What's the matter with you?" Luke reached out to renew the touch.

Biggs fended him off with a forearm until Luke's breathing slowed and he felt his glazed intensity fading. "What's wrong?" Luke asked in a calmer voice.

Biggs's eyes slid away from him, and the other boy shifted uneasily, as if reluctant to come to grips with the subject he'd opened. At last, gaze directed firmly at the far wall, Biggs licked his lips and mumbled, "I've... I've learned about some, ah, stuff since I went off Tatooine. Guys don't fool around like we used to out there. They think... you know..." He squirmed.

Luke backed off and stared at him, puzzled.

"I mean, guys who do that... out there, everybody thinks that means they're... they're... you know..." Biggs trailed off into an embarrassed but unmistakeable gesture.

It took several seconds for his meaning to filter through to Luke through layers of confusion, to slowly dawning comprehension, to disbelief, and then to anger. The muscles of Luke's jaw tightened. "What do you mean by that, Darklighter?"

"Now hold on, Luke." Biggs held up a hand. "I'm your best friend. I've been your best friend for years. I know you're not..." There was the barest hint of a question even in that positive statement. "It's just–"

Luke made his voice low and dangerous as he said, "It's just what?"

"I mean – people don't think the same way out there that they do at home. They're liable to get the wrong idea–"

"It sure looks like you've got the wrong idea!" Luke bounced up, jerking his wrap-top back into a semblance of neatness. His fists clenched over the belt. "And if you've been spreading it around, I'll..."

"No, Luke! No, I wouldn't–"

"Good." Luke saw Biggs retreat, intimidated, from the hard note in his voice, as he turned away from the older boy.

"Luke, wait!"

Luke continued to the door.

"You can't just leave! We've got to talk about this."

Luke didn't even look back.

"Luke, wait, I said! Now, look – Luke, I'm sorry..."

His friend's desperate voice followed Luke out of Biggs's bedroom, until the slamming door cut it off behind him.

Now Biggs was dead, and he had never had the chance to repair the rift between them. Their meeting in the hanger had been much too brief and crowded, and they had both avoided the uncomfortable subject, Luke thought, by mutual consent. Was it all just Biggs's imagination? he wondered. Or was there something... He stifled the thought. No.

Luke lay with his hot face against the elusive coolness of the sheet, miserably recalling the final battle over the Death Star and Biggs's worried protectiveness, hovering at his vulnerable flank position and blurting out unmilitary phrases of concern at every threat to him. Biggs had been the only pilot to stick with him all the way down the final run, covering him against the Imperial TIEs. Luke pounded a fist into the bed.

Biggs had died defending his back, and Luke had let him go with a churlish, ungrateful grumble – "Blast it, Biggs, where are you?" – without a word of friendship. It was too late now to do anything about it, except carry on for Biggs's Alliance.

 

Luke stifled a curse as the base intercom crackled and a voice dull with the universal weariness of Massassi's evacuation effort announced, "Attention all personnel. Attention all personnel. First watch in thirty minutes."

He was due back at Maintenance by first watch to help the ground crew check out X-wings. Everyone on base was pulling double and triple duty, and the Alliance had found a use for his experience with balky antique engines. After struggling with them for three days, Luke was convinced that some of the ships were nearly the same vintage as his old skyhopper and had been cobbled together out of the same combination of junkyard spare parts and ingenuity.

In response to the intercom's nagging, he levered himself upright, sandy-eyed with fatigue, shrugged into his regulation grey coverall, and trudged towards the mess for some caf and hot grainbread to hold him together until daymeal. He hadn't been really hungry for days.

He was staring absently into his cup of tepid caf when a babble of greeting drew his attention to the mess-hall door. Han and Chewbacca had just come in.

Luke's eyes followed the Corellian across the room, drawn to him almost without volition. Something in Han reminded Luke of the older brother he'd always wanted, of Deak and Windy with their off-hand, faintly condescending air of superiority, of Biggs. But Han had an arrogant, easy grace none of Luke's friends on Tatooine had ever achieved, and where Biggs had been dark and awkward, the Corellian glowed topaz-and-tawny, self-assured, his walk eloquent with power, beautiful and dangerous as a hunting cat. Luke's belly-muscles tightened, and the unease he'd felt when Biggs had mentioned Han returned, stronger now, half-identified but hardly more defined. If only Han would stay with the Alliance, Luke caught himself thinking. They needed good pilots like him so badly.

Han slid a loaded tray onto Luke's table and folded himself smoothly into a seat with his back to the wall. Even here, the Corellian moved with the ingrained animal awareness of the hunter and the hunted, body poised for action, eyes never lingering too long on one spot. It gave him a charged air of almost sexual tension, and Luke's unease deepened.

"Hi, kid. How's the used X-wing business?" Han opened.

Chewbacca joined them at the table, flanking Han at an angle where the Wookiee could keep an eye on the mess-hall's other door. It had the look of a practiced routine, automatically setting the pair up as a defensive unit against any potential threat.

"All right, I guess," Luke muttered and returned his gaze to his mug of caf.

"I finally found where the bedamned Imps hid the homing beacon and dismantled it. Got the rest of the wiring Threepio screwed up repaired. I'm about ready to take off." Han swallowed a few mouthfuls of flatcake, took a sip of caf. "The offer's still open, Luke. Like I said, you're pretty good in a fight, and I've been hearing you've got a touch with machinery, too. I could still use you. Why don't you come with Chewie and me?"

"Why don't you stay with the Alliance?" Luke countered. "They need you, need you bad. When you came back, over the Death Star, I thought that–"

"Forget it, kid," Han cut him off hastily. "You might as well give up on that line. It ain't gonna work this time either. Look, you were lucky, that's all. It can't last forever. The Emperor's not going to be happy about losing his little toy, and everybody in this outfit is going to end up real dead when the Imps finally come down on this bunch of brainburns."

"Luke," Han's voice softened slightly. "You're not too bright sometimes, and you're still dusty behind the ears, but I'd like to see you get out of this damnfool mess alive. You've done your tour. Stay on here, and you're volunteering for a suicide run. That's just plain stupid. Why don't you come with me?"

Luke hesitated for a long moment, opened his mouth and closed it again, then, with a final uncomfortable glance at Han, picked up his tray. "I have work to do."

He shoved back his chair abruptly and walked out without looking back, his spine rigidly upright.

Han watched Luke disappear through the door before he put down his forkful of flatcake and turned to his partner. "Now what's eating him? Last time I turned him down on joining his overeager buddies, he got mad. This time, he just gives me a weird look and runs away. There's something funny going on with that kid. Can't you smell what it is, Chewie?"

The Wookiee twitched his nose, analyzing pheromones. In the tricky underworld of smuggling, his partner had learned to rely on Chewbacca's ability to 'read' the emotions of others by scent.

//He is much like other humans – like you, Hansolo,// Chewbacca answered. //Now, he is confused, a little angry, a little frightened... hmmm, there is something else there, too.// The Wookiee's nose twitched again, consideringly. //Hah! He wants to mate with you.//

"What?" The Corellian stared at Chewbacca in surprise, then frowned.

Gradually, it came to him why the expression of numb pain on Luke's face had seemed so elusively familiar, and his slow smile spread into a chuckle. Han remembered his own first deep space run, and the navigator who had seemed so romantic and exciting. Embarrassed, Han recalled the way he'd followed the other man around for a tenday, mooning over him like a bantha with indigestion, until Llele noticed and took pity on the smitten kid. Lucky for him, Han thought, that most Corellian spacers were cheerfully easygoing about sex with almost any gender and species. Provincial prejudices didn't last long in the downports of half a hundred worlds. But Luke...

"Chewie, are you sure? You know what Tatooine's like. They're so uptight in the back-country, they take a bath with their pants on! I didn't think the kid even knew about–"

He broke off at the Wookiee's chuff of agreement. "Gods, you don't mean you think..." Han looked from his partner to the door through which Luke had vanished and back again. He raised his hands, palms out. "Oh, no. Forget it, not me. No nervous virgins. I turned in my instructor's warrant a long time ago." He slowly wilted under Chewbacca's steady gaze. "Chewie? Aw, come on. You are kidding, aren't you? Why me?"

The Wookiee gave a whuffle of amusement. //Why you I do not know. Probably lack of taste, Hansolo. Nevertheless, it is you Luke wants, and are you not his friend? Who else?//

"Aw, shit," Han grumbled. He gathered up his dishes. "Let's go see if we can get the rest of the navicomp rewired before daymeal. Maybe it's all your imagination."

***

Daymeal came and went to find Luke still buried up to his elbows in the interior of an ailing X-wing, oblivious to everything outside himself and the intricate machinery in front of him. Occasionally, other presences impinged vaguely on his concentration. He snarled at them to leave him alone, and after a while they went away again. His mind gnawed and worried the same question.

A childish part of him insisted he should chuck the whole thing and go with Han on the Falcon. He had come to the Alliance as much for his loyalty to Biggs as anything else. Biggs had filled his head with stories of the Empire's tyranny and Biggs's own dedication to the Rebellion's fight for freedom. The Princess had been the catalyst, and Kenobi, who'd promised to make him a Jedi like his father. But Kenobi was... dead? Gone? The answer to that question seemed beyond him at the moment. He would worry about Ben later. For now, Ben was gone, and the Princess was a bright dream here at Massassi. The Lady of the Alliance was no more real among all these deferential generals and starry-eyed subalterns than the Lady in Distress had been in the hologram on Tatooine.

And Biggs was dead. It all came back to that.

Luke threw down the hydrospanner in frustration and rummaged in the toolbox for something to replace it. Did he owe it to Biggs's memory to stay with the Alliance? The ideal to which he and Biggs had pledged themselves was increasingly hard to remember among the oil and grime of shabby X-wings, the petty ideological arguments in the mess-hall, political bickering between supporters of one general or another, tactical squabbles at the briefings, mangled bodies in the infirmary, and the dead, always the growing list of the dead, Alliance and Imperial alike. Surely, Luke thought, he had done his share of killing in the Death Star trench. The thought of more of it sickened and wearied him. The Rebellion wasn't glamorous any longer.

But Han, the Corellian Free-Trader, the Pirate Captain of the Spaceways.... Luke saw the capital letters in his mind like the titles of Biggs's collection of adventure tapes. Han was facinating and alluring, drawing him with promises of adventure. But that wasn't all of it; he couldn't go on pretending there was nothing more. Biggs had said...

Luke straightened from tightening a connection and leaned on his tired arms for a while, bending his neck down to get the kinks out of his shoulders. He circled and crept up on the idea like one of the sandpeople stalking a landspeeder, nudging it and tugging at it, and turning it over and over in his tired mind. What if Biggs had been right? Or rather, what if Biggs had been wrong?

He'd never had a real girlfriend. He'd always been the shy, polite boy whom parents trusted – and girls scorned – as 'safe'. His life had been his buddies down at Toshi Station, his uncle's farm, and Biggs. He had never done more than kiss a girl on a dare.

The memory was still humiliating. The dark, breathless heat of the X-wing hangar, the smell of machine oil, the heavy metal shapes around him brought it all back clearly: the room behind Fixer's shop that afternoon, when Fixer had been in Mos Eisley, and the girl. She had been willing enough, and he had tried, he really had. He could still feel the damp stickiness of her bare breasts under him, her wet tongue invading his mouth. He remembered her hot smell of sweat and dirt and woman. The idea of surrendering himself to that revolted him. The whole business was impossible.

Later, he'd made a good story of it to his buddies down at the garage, but Camie knew better. She never said anything in public – Luke suspected she was as embarrassed by her failure as he was by his – but she never missed a chance to make him look like a fool in front of his friends. Luke still felt a murky, sullen resentment, a dull loathing, every time he thought of her.

He'd never had the courage to try again. No, that wasn't it. Luke retrieved the hydrospanner from the toolbox and hefted it in his hand, staring at it absent-mindedly for a time before returning with it for a new attack on the recalcitrant engine.

You never wanted to try again, he admitted to himself.

And Biggs was dead. There was no going back.

But to leave the Alliance and go off with Han as a Corellian independent... Luke thought back to the words he had overheard on the Falcon – "I'm in it for the money" – and Han's words just before the battle: "I've got some old debts to pay off." It was all money with Han. Luke grimaced with distaste.

No, Han's life as a smuggler wasn't carefree and glamorous at all. He was as much a slave to the grinding, weary pressures of economic survival as Uncle Owen had been. Only the product he sold was different.

No! Luke thought. He had turned his back on that life, on the soul-killing scrabble for money and mere survival, when he left Tatooine. With a wry half-smile, he contemplated his greasy hands and the ancient engine under them. No, the Rebellion wasn't quite what Biggs's recruiting speeches had led him to expect, but nobody who risked his neck flying this decrepit piece of junk against Imperial TIEs was doing it for money. All of them were a part of something more important, something worth giving one's life to, something he still believed in, in spite of all that had happened. If he had to face death – his own death, the deaths of others – he would face it for an ideal of freedom and not for a cargo.

By painful fits and starts, Luke crept up on the idea which had been eluding him, which he had been eluding since he left Tatooine on the Falcon. He didn't want to leave the Alliance and go with Han. What he wanted was Han. Han and the Alliance, together. Here.

Where did that leave him now? Luke dug further into the X-wing's uncooperative interior and brooded.

***

It took some time for Han to realize that Luke had not reappeared since breakfast, even though the kid's strange exit nagged at the back of his mind off and on during the day. He'd finally found and corrected the basic foul-up in his navicomp, an involved, tedious, and irritating process requiring several hours and a considerable amount of profanity.

He decided to celebrate by leaving Chewie to play holochess with the ship's computer while he stopped by the rec area to allow the hero-worshipping public to rehash his nick-of-time rescue over the Death Star and buy him a few free drinks. After a couple of rounds, the rebels went off to sleep or on watch, and, having lost his audience, Han took his last drink over to a corner table, propped his boots up, and let his mind wander.

If it hadn't been for the kid, he wouldn't have come back, he thought as he watched the stragglers in their patched-together attempts at uniform at the other end of the dingy room. Idiots, idealists and children they were, all of them, too young to know what they were getting themselves into, and too full of fancy slogans to care. Half of them didn't look old enough to shave yet, and there wasn't one who looked like he'd made it all the way through the Academy. And as for their officers – the only thing worse than a fanatic young subaltern was a political general. Sending this bunch of fools up against the Imperial professionals was like sending herdbeasts to slaughter. What was he doing here?

He'd meant it when he told the Princess he wasn't in it for her or her revolution. The gods knew that lady could take care of herself without his help. Plenty of spirit she had. Pretty, too; damned pretty, in fact... Han played with the idea for a moment and reluctantly shelved it. He knew her type. For now, she was all the revolutionary, all that fire and passion given to The Cause. She would take a major siege before she surrendered. Just for the challenge, he'd almost be willing to try it, – he wouldn't be here that long – but heaven help the poor man she turned all that intensity on. She was as deadly as a malfunctioning reactor core. She'd take a man, thinking she loved him, and feed him to her Rebellion without even blinking if it became necessary, no matter what it cost either of them. She was an idealist.

He hadn't been an idealist, not for a long time. Not since... Han dragged his mind away from dangerous territory.

And Luke, Luke was just the same, Han thought. But maybe there was still time to get him out of here before this death-trap Rebellion ate him alive. Luke wasn't that different from what he himself had been, once.

Don't think about that...

The kid was green, but he was sharp and smart and a fighter, and he'd make a first-class mech someday, if Han knew the signs. Damn it, Luke was as cute and full of bounce as the cubs of Chewie's hunterpack back home. He deserved the chance to survive. Han thought back to what his partner had said that morning. Well, maybe he wouldn't mind if Chewie was right. He'd always had a thing for blonds. Han let his mind linger on the good-looking face and athletic young form. Once he figured it out, Han thought, he'd bet the kid would be great in bed. He remembered Luke skinning out of his 'trooper armor after their dip in the garbage masher on the Death Star, remembered the way Luke's soaking-wet undersuit had molded itself around his attractive body, Han hadn't been able to appreciate the sight at the time, but he had noticed. He considered. Luke was a pretty fast learner, after all. Enthusiastic, too. Han contemplated the prospect of reactivating his instructor's warrant and smiled to himself.

Come to think of it, he hadn't seen Luke all day. He wondered if the kid was more upset than he'd thought at breakfast and decided to check out the situation. Maybe Luke really was in trouble. He had saved the kid's ass once over the Death Star. He guessed that left him stuck with the job for now. No help for it.

"Anybody seen Skywalker?" Han asked the little knot of die-hard drinkers at the other end of the bar.

"Last time I saw him, he was working on an X-wing," one of them answered. "Said to leave him alone. Way he said it, I wasn't going to argue with him."

"Right. Thanks." Han shoved himself to his feet and sauntered out of the rec area toward the docking bays.

At this hour, they were deserted, a warren of alleyways between vague, bulky shapes half-seen in the dim off-watch illumination. Han picked up faint mechanical clanks and followed them through an organized confusion of tools, spare parts, lockers, fuel outlets, hoses, workdroids, to the end of a side bay. There he found Luke in a small puddle of light among the shadows, bending over a stripped engine.

Luke put down a wrench and straightened, rubbing a grimy arm across his forehead. "Blast it, what do you want? I told you–" There, he stopped. "Oh, it's you, Han. Sorry. I didn't mean to yell at you. It's been a long day."

"Looks more like a long tenday, kid," Han blurted.

For the first time, he noticed how exhausted the kid really looked. Luke was thinner, his face fine-drawn, his eyes dark with fatigue, his rumpled coveralls filthy with grease. There was a smudge of the same grease on one cheek, and a dark smear where he'd evidently run a hand through his untidy blond hair. He had the look of the survivors left behind on every battlefield lost or won, the dull, accepting look of absolute weariness greater than either victory or defeat.

"Hey, you gotta knock off this all-night overtime, Luke," Han said, "Get some sleep."

"We have to get everything ready to go off Massassi." Luke's voice was dull and expressionless with fatigue. "They'll be back. Soon."

"Try again, kid," Han said impatiently. "Everybody in this lunatic asylum is trying to get offworld as quick as they can, but they're not killing themselves doing it. You're driving yourself into the ground. If you don't get some sleep, you won't be in any shape for the job when they do need you." Han leaned back against the X-wing fuselage and folded his arms. "Now, what's really wrong with you?"

"Nothing." Luke turned away. "Leave me alone."

Han began to feel genuine alarm. This wasn't the eager, adventurous boy he'd flown from Mos Eisley to the remains of the Alderaan system. This wasn't the little firebrand who'd taken on an entire Imperial battle station almost singlehanded and flown the Death Star trench. All the life seemed to have drained out of him. It had to be something more than overwork.

"What is it?" Han repeated, more gently. When Luke remained silent, the Corellian put a hand on his shoulder and turned him around. "Hey, it's me, remember? You owe me one, so spill it. I won't take your head off, whatever it is."

Luke bit his lip and shrugged away. Han could tell the kid was damned sensitive about whatever it was he wasn't saying. "Don't worry; I'll keep it quiet," he added.

Luke's eyes shifted nervously, and Han wondered if he was going to get any answer out of the kid at all. Luke evidently decided he would have to face it. He drew a breath and said, "It's Biggs. I... we were... Uh, he was my best friend, and he's dead."

We were...? thought Han, were what? Ah, so Chewie was on target. Of course the kid would be broken up over losing his best friend, but he wouldn't be so touchy about admitting it to me otherwise.

Here goes nothing, flashed through his mind. He hoped it wouldn't just make things worse.

"Were you and Biggs... uh..." Han groped for the right word. The casual downport ones he was used to, he suspected, would either baffle Luke or shock him into retreat. "Were you lovers?" Well, that was the best he could do.

Luke flinched. He looked close to panic flight, and Han silently cursed his inept tongue. He should never have gotten involved in the whole thing.

But you're already involved, Solo, crossed his mind.

 

"No, not really," Luke fumbled. "Sort of, I guess. I... I don't know. I don't know."

Shit. Now what, bigmouth? Han thought ruefully to himself. He said clumsily, "Hey, kid, it's all right. Don't worry about it."

"Don't worry about it?" Luke shouted. "Don't worry about it? That's it? Thanks. That's a big help." He lowered his voice, staring blankly into the darkness of the hangar. His arms hung limply at his side. "What am I going to do?" It was a cry of despair rather than a question.

Han shifted uneasily. Downport jokes about the back-country Tatooinians had not prepared him for the anguish of Luke's reality. "What's the problem?" he asked. "So you got it on with Biggs. So what?"

"So what?" Luke gave a bitter little snort of laughter. "If anybody guessed..."

"Kid, I've got news for you: this ain't Tatooine. Nobody cares. Take my word for it," Han's impish sense of humor asserted itself, "out here in the big galaxy, nobody's going to care if you make it with banthas, as long as you don't do it on watch and gum up the 'drive."

There was a moment of stunned silence while Luke tried to avoid looking embarrassed. Han was pleased that the shock treatment seemed to have worked.

"What?" said Luke, weakly.

"Minding other people's business ain't a healthy occupation in downport, Luke." Han smiled and added lightly, 'It's not like you invented something new, y'know."

Luke simply stood looking at him for a long moment, then his desperate rigidity dissolved, and he slumped. Han reached out a hand to steady him before Luke hit the X-wing's sharp-edged side. Luke stiffened for an instant, then relaxed as Han shifted to put a comforting arm around his shoulder. "It's all right, kid."

Luke sagged against the Corellian in the limp reaction of total exhaustion, all his barriers down. After a minute, Han felt dampness seeping into his shirt, and realized Luke was weeping silently. Han put his other arm around the kid and patted Luke awkwardly on the back. He couldn't think of anything else to say.

The wonder is he's held up this long, Han thought. Lost his family, the old man, and his friend; been under fire for the first time and done his first killing. Then this. No sleep for days, either. Han felt a dull anger. Damn Tatooine and their stupid ideas, damn the Rebellion and the Imperials and the whole bloody war. He was getting out of it all, and taking the kid with him.

Han felt something like a shudder run through Luke, felt him tense again. Han didn't move. What Luke needed now was to know it was all right to be held. With Luke's strong, warm body pressed against him, desire stirred under Han's concern, and he felt himself responding, stiffening against the pressure of Luke's thigh. He held himself back, concentrating on not spooking the kid by moving too fast. Soon.

"Han..." Luke said tentatively into the Corellian's vest.

"Go on." Here it comes, I'll bet.

Luke's voice was muffled by cloth and what Han thought was embarrassment. "I don't know how to say this. I..."

"Don't worry, I think I can guess." So you were right, Chewie. Come on, Luke, let it out.

"When I said that, after we got away from the Death Star – you know," Luke plowed on grimly. "When you said that about 'a princess and a guy like you', and I said 'no', I–" He gulped.

"You weren't interested in the Princess," Han finished for him. "Right?"

Luke nodded wordlessly against the Corellian's shoulder.

"Is that what's been bothering you?"

"I didn't really know that was it until today, and I was afraid to say anything. Are... are you angry, Han?"

It's going to take a while to get Toshi station out of this kid, Han thought. Might be fun doing it though, added the irreverent part of his mind that refused to take anything completely seriously. "Why should I be mad at you?"

"But I thought you – the Princess–"

"Did you hear me asking Leia to come with me, before or after the Death Star arrived?" Han asked.

Luke's face broke into radiance, and Han felt the sudden, cold grip of something like panic.

Now I've done it. I should have known. He is just like the Princess – never goes into anything halfway. All I need is a death-or-glory romantic with a crush on me, who thinks I'm in love with him.

Han retreated hastily. "People don't fit into neat little boxes, Luke. They don't have to be all one thing or another, or want just one–" He broke off with a twinge of guilt at the look in Luke's eyes.

"Then will you stay with the Alliance?" Luke asked in a stiff, controlled voice.

"Stay with the Alliance! Now wait a minute, who said anything about staying with the Alliance? I thought we were talking about me asking you to sign on with me on the Falcon."

There was a silence. Then Luke took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "I'm staying, Han. I'd like you to stay, too, but I'm staying with the Alliance anyway. They need me. The Princess needs me. And a lot of people I cared about suffered because of what the Empire's done. I can't turn my back on that."

"Now, look, Luke, I'm telling you–"

"No, you're not," Luke interrupted calmly. Han opened his mouth to protest, but Luke continued, "Not you, not anybody, anymore. I'm through with doing things because somebody else tells me it's right. I'm going to stay with the Alliance because it's what I believe in and what I want to fight for."

Han stared at him, momentarily at a loss for words. This was a new Luke, the eager idealism steadied now by self-confidence and the certainty of one who had found himself by giving himself absolutely to something he had chosen. As he stood with the lamplight gilding his bright hair and the luminous purity of his face, Luke was suddenly a figure of such ethereal beauty that Han's breath caught in his throat, and he was filled with a strange, wrenching combination of awe and irony.

Watch it, Solo, you're about to buy the hero bit again.

Once, long ago, there'd been a young cadet at the Academy who'd worn that expression. The Han Solo he'd become had almost succeeded in forgetting him.

Pretty, isn't it? Han's inner voice jeered at him, very pretty. Too bad it isn't real. You'll find that out soon enough, Luke, when this damned Rebellion of yours does eat you up. I wanted to take you with me, try to keep you alive for a little while at least, maybe delay the inevitable a little bit. But if you won't go...

He studied Luke's determined face, and thought he saw there the contempt of the passionate visionary for the realist. Or perhaps it was his own imagination.

You want adventure and heroism and True-Love-Forever, don't you, Luke? You won't get them, not from me. I can't give you what I don't have to give. And nothing is forever, least of all love.

But for now... Han admitted to himself that he had already made his decision when he came back to rescue this young man over the Death Star. ...for now, if you won't go, I guess I'll have to stick around and try to keep you from bouncing too hard when you come in for that crash landing.

A vagrant thought tickled his cynical sense of humor. He might be here for a while; maybe he'd have time to see about defrosting that Ice Princess after all. Han was too honest to have many illustions about himself.

Like I said, nothing is forever. Least of all love.he thought with a sort of bitter self-mockery. You'll find that out for yourself, Luke, soon enough. But it'll be an exciting ride, for both of us, 'til we cut the drive, downport.

He gave a mental shrug and smiled wryly at Luke, thinking to himself, You really are a bastard, you know that, Solo?

"Well, I guess I can stay for a little while then, kid," he said. "That's all I'm promising though, just for a little while. You understand me?"

Luke faced him squarely, and his chin lifted. "I understand, Han."

I hope you do. I just hope you do. The Corellian put an arm around Luke and gave him a rough hug. "Come on then, Luke, let's both go get some sleep."

 

Winter's Tales