When he opens his eyes, the first thing Poe notices is the halo rung around Finn’s head. It looks good there, natural. More often than not, his nightmares would wind around dark, fiery reaches of space and end up here, a smoking X-wing behind him, vague unplaceable injuries he knows of but can’t feel--and then Finn would inch in from the periphery. Glowing. This is a rescue.
So he can’t really be blamed when he squints against the light and mumbles a plea for five more minutes, or two even, just save him a cup of caf--
“Poe, this is not the time,” Finn says, jostling his shoulder. “You’re lucky I even managed to find you out here.”
Then it hits him: the sharp throbbing pain along his brow, a mouth drier than a Jakku sandstorm. One of his shoes is missing, the sock there with a hole big enough to fit his first two toes. “Wait,” he says. The sun is glaring right into his eyes and his head is ready to split apart. “Wait, Finn--come back, you gotta block the sun--”
“I’m right here--” The rocks beside Poe’s head crunch as something lands on top of them, and then again when Finn sits. The sun falls back behind his head and the halo brights up, not the least bit dimmed by the tired scowl gazing down at him. “See?”
“I do see, thank you,” he groans.
“Last time I saw you--uh… you told me you were going to find Karé up by that central bar. You know, the one with the Ithorian bartender? How did you get from point A to point B?”
“You’re asking a lot of me right now,” Poe says. “I was taking this for what it is. Not really questioning it.” He’s become aware of the rocks digging into the back of his head and the bruises left in their place when he moves--he wants, no, needs to sit up at this point, jostle the blood pounding behind his eyes to someplace more useful. Sighing, he rubs his hands over his face. Sits up, blinks away the dirt he’s apparently smeared on himself--at least it’s pushing Finn to drop the whole disappointed act.
“You look ridiculous,” Finn says once he sits up.
“Thanks.” He tries to crack a smile, but it likely comes across as more of a pained grimace than anything. Which wouldn’t be for nothing, anyway, with the state of his head and his joints joining the party just in time to add their own complaints.
Not far off in the distance sits the massive, windowless wall of Praxxa--an entire city contained in a building, the surrounding landscape sapped of its resources and left neglected to bake as an expanse of gravel under the heat of high noon. Half a day’s speeder ride east would land them in the middle of the capital of Zeltros and the spiderweb of roads linking the more traditionally-planned cities, the ones General Organa said at least pretend to sleep at night.
“Once you step inside Praxxa,” she said, “there’s no reason to step back out unless you’re leaving for good. Just keep that in mind.”
Which Poe clearly had not.
“Where’s everyone else?” he says. Finn has a water canteen strapped to his pants leg--Poe tries to look anywhere else but the sunlight gleaming from the tiny bits of condensation still clinging desperately in the heat. “I mean, I guess I didn’t find Karé--”
“No, you didn’t,” Finn says. “I rented a pod on one of the basement levels and caught a few hours of sleep after I realized I couldn’t find anyone. Now here I am.”
The sight of the canteen is too much; he wrenches it free from the leather belt securing it against his thigh and tips it all the way back if only to get something to smooth over the rawness at the back of his throat. Just as the burning registers in his sluggish head, he’s spewing the contents across the gravel in what’s probably the first precipitation it’s seen in ages. “Stars, what is that--”
“Whatever Snap fixed up for himself the first hour we were here,” Finn sighs. “He and Jessika were concerned I wasn’t having a good time.”
He remembers, almost out of nowhere: flashing neon yellow and crimson, old remixed cantina music rattling against his ankles with bass, their mouths stretched open by shouting smothered into silence with the slightest bit of distance. Finn was closer, though. Finn could hear them as Snap and Jessika held the canteen between them.
But Poe’s memory blinks and bubbles. The effort to focus only makes his temples pulse harder.
“General Organa wanted that first status report at 1500 standard hours today,” says Finn. He takes the canteen from him, straps it back to his leg with a kind of care that implies it’s still useful to them like this. Somehow the curved edge catches the sunlight and lobs it back into Poe’s eyes. “Can’t send a holovid back to base with just the two of us.”
“The--wait.” Poe climbs to his feet. Swings his arms--it’s something to focus on, to ground him when his thoughts are spinning and the world around him is threatening to start back up again. “The two of us? What--”
“I already told you, I rented a sleeping pod when--”
“I remember that,” he says. “But you didn’t say that you still couldn’t find them!”
“Well now I am--”
“Stars, do you have to yell--”
“Sorry,” Finn says. Quieter. Thank the Force he’s quieter. “But look, it’s 0800 standard hours now. We can find them.”
He doesn’t even sound like he’s trying to convince himself, something Poe’s become so used to around D’Qar that he didn’t realize how far it had sunk into the air around them until Finn arrived, all earnest optimism and a quick grin. Poe looks at him now, still sitting on that stone, and it’s enough to make him believe that they can track down a handful of people in a couple million.
The feeling doesn’t last long, but it gets his sore muscles walking him back to Praxxa.
TWO DAYS EARLIER
“Sinjir Rath Velus.”
General Organa pressed a button at the holotable in the center of the situation room, bringing up a headshot of an older human man caught mid eye-roll--not the best image for a briefing, and the General knew it from the look she shot toward Ackbar and Statura in the corner. From the blurry quality, Poe guessed that it was a candid or something captured in a hurry moving through a crowd when the subject wasn’t looking to be found otherwise.
Twenty or thirty years ago, he would have been quite handsome.
“General, could I ask--”
“Hold your questions, Wexley,” she said. Didn’t even bother to look at him.
Snap sank back in his seat and sighed into his hand.
“Rath Velus has a complicated history--former Imperial loyalty officer who defected after the Battle of Endor. By the Battle of Jakku he was working with the New Republic as Chancellor Mothma’s right hand, but no sooner did she step down from her post did he disappear. We all know the First Order has been mining old Imperial records for strategy lately,” she said. A couple more taps on the holotable and two maps replaced Rath Velus’ face: an annotated map from the Battle of Hoth beside the latest land skirmish in Smuggler’s Canyon on Gall. The First Order’s tactical maneuvers were almost a perfect match.
“Despite the fact Rath Velus did not occupy an Imperial combat office,” Ackbar said from across the room, “we believe he may still have key intelligence that could give us an edge the next time we face them with boots on the ground.”
“At the very least, he might be able to tell us how to train you all in case you’re captured,” the General added. She was staring pointedly where Jessika’s boots were propped up on the table in front of her chair, the furthest point in the collection of squadron pilots from Poe. “Loyalty officers did most of the interrogation for the Empire, after all.”
Snap’s hand flew back up to be ignored once more.
Statura stepped up beside the General, pulled up a diagram of a planet just outside the Stenness Node: Zeltros, where each city of millions specialized in its own brand of debauchery. They had been digging through networks of contacts old enough to have disappeared behind inches of dust and spiderwebs, one-time contract hires from the Bothans, taun-taun handlers, bounty hunters that had toed closer to the side of the Rebel Alliance than not; and finally they’d gotten word that some insufferable, snarky bastard had nearly gotten into a bar fight with a Kel Dor who had tried to pull a knife on him, of all things.
“Sounds like our guy,” Ackbar had said. And then the holophoto confirmation had come.
“Are you all right?” Poe muttered to Snap.
He clearly wasn’t. Not much tended to phase Snap, at least in the time they’d been flying together. Starkiller? Never broke a sweat. Breaking Grakkus the Hutt out of prison? Sure, he’d gotten a little beaten up, but that never even managed to leave a scar. Now though: his hands attempted to swallow his entire face and he was whispering to himself so lowly that Poe couldn’t be sure Snap knew himself what he was saying.
“Rath Velus is somewhere in the city of Praxxa. Track him down. Bring him here. Remind him what it means to be on the right side of history,” the General said.
“Me too, right?” Finn said just as the General turned to leave.
“Called you to the briefing, didn’t I?”
The door to the officers’ wing slid shut behind the General, Ackbar, and Statura; there was a beat, and then Jessika was dragging her chair in front of Snap. Sitting in it backwards and staring at him like he was a curious foreign species at the Coruscant Galactic Zoo--or any one of them after they’d said something particularly stupid. It wasn’t a look they weren’t used to.
“You’re going to have to share with the class eventually,” she said.
“Sooner than later, preferably.” Jessika pulled a couple of his fingers back that were still obscuring his eyes. “You know what Major Ematt’s been saying… ‘The First Order nor the galaxy at large waits for no being,’” she said, imitating his deep voice. Karé and Iolo mouthed along behind her.
While it was clear Jessika was joking, Ematt’s new catchphrase sat uneasily at the front of Poe’s thoughts--none of them needed to be told that the galaxy would never spare their well-being a moment of its infinite expanse of time. The Empire’s legacy, the shadow it cast in the shape of the First Order, that was proof enough if they decided to ignore the faded scars on their skin and the empty chairs at family gatherings. Or even just at meals in the mess hall.
The First Order would not and did not wait to strike back at the Resistance if the opportunity presented itself, and sending a corps of the best pilots and strategists away in bulk was an opportunity if Poe had ever seen one. They had a land crew, sure, and a smaller band of A-wings a few of the General’s old allies from the Senate were able to deliver some months back, but nothing that could stem the flow of a TIE fighter invasion.
“You already know about Rath Velus,” Poe said.
“We all have histories,” Snap sighed. “He’s a part of mine.”
“Never heard you mention him before.” Karé caught Snap’s eyes, and something passed between them flew far over Poe’s head.
“Look, it doesn’t matter,” Snap said. “I knew Sinjir when I was a kid and that part of my life is over, all right? Let’s just--get ready to go.” He looked over at Poe. “What’s the word, Commander?”
Taking off at first light the next day. Himself, Snap, and Jessika planning out the route and initial protocol, Finn sitting in to observe. It was his first mission of the sort without the urgency of Starkiller, and he could sense the squirming nervousness that he had been trying to hide since the top brass made their exit.
“This might be the most fun mission we ever get,” Jessika said. She tossed her holopad at the center of the table, and they craned their necks to look at the intel she’d dug up. “Zeltros as a whole is a ‘den of sin,’ as some of those uptight cult Force fundies say, and Praxxa is one giant club scene.”
“So it’s going to be the most difficult mission we ever get,” said Snap.
“You think it’s going to be easy to keep the squadron focused on the mission in a setting like that?”
“He has a point,” Finn muttered, half under his breath.
Last week Poe had overheard him recording a holovid to send to Rey while she was training on Ach-To; the rager Bastian and Iolo had thrown together after the Gall mission had edged as close to out of control as their drunken consciences would allow. Not a great first impression of the types of parties the Resistance hosted, no matter how accurate it had been.
“If anything, we’ll be in our element,” Jessika said. “It’ll be fine, okay?”
So they’d planned: taking a ground crew shuttle with air support standing by on base, and once they arrived at Praxxa, they would find the bars at the edges of the city, the quieter ones that didn’t try to blast the stresses and worries of patrons away with designer drugs and hyperpowered amps.
“I don’t know why you’re worrying,” Jessika said as they headed to their bunks that night. “We’re going to find your friend--”
“I wouldn’t call him that--”
“--we’ll take a couple shots, and we’ll pop back home. Easy.”
Snap and Jessika peeled off toward their own rooms, and Poe felt Finn’s eyes on him as he punched in the code to unlock the door to theirs. The weight wasn’t as heavy as the night before Gall, when their mortality pressed down on them like it would never have this chance again; but it was expectant, waiting for some specific explanation Poe wasn’t sure that he could provide. He stared back as the door creaked open, and Finn offered a tiny grin.
“Nothing,” Finn said. He shut the door behind him and made careful work of straightening the pillows and sheets on his bed while Poe changed into his sleep clothes. “You just seem so unconcerned about all this.”
“So it is something.”
“I heard talk about Zeltros, you know… back when I was…”
“Yeah?” Poe pulled the tank over his head, found Finn’s eyes darting away just as his head cleared the collar. “You didn’t mention that.”
“It wasn’t anything useful,” he said. “More like a warning. Every year a couple mid-ranking officers would get caught shirking duty over there. Zeltros was where you went if you wanted to get discharged, they said.”
Poe never asked him what the discharge process was like in the Order. Likely, he didn’t know. Just as likely, it was unpleasant and meant nothing close to what it did in the New Republic Air Fleet or the Resistance. “So why’s that talk got you worried?”
“Those officers never meant to get caught, obviously. But they always did. I just…” he sighed. “I just don’t want us to wind up in trouble because we didn’t take this seriously.”
Poe offered a couple banal platitudes to help him try to shrug off the worry, looking to BB-8 for backup. They wobbled encouragingly on their charger, beeped slowly so Finn could exercise his new Binary skills; but Finn shook his head and crawled on top of the bedspread on his cot fully clothed, boots and all.
The trek back to Praxxa is longer than it looks. Poe is reminded of the stories his father told him at bedtime after his mother died, how the tales that took him to places like Tatooine and Abafar would find the hero, at some point in the dawdling center of the plot, thirsty and desperate and crawling toward a lagoon that would slide away the moment they stretched their finger toward the water lapping the sand. He knew it was coming when the desert planet appeared, knew the beats of it by heart, cozied down into its familiar path while he waited for the hero’s lost companion from the onset of the story to find them again.
Praxxa is no mirage, just enormous enough to appear the size of a normal building if you’re foolish enough to wander a distance away, and nothing bothers to exist for long stretches of time on the outside of the city if they can help it. This isn’t a Kes Dameron original: it’s just the epilogue of an embarrassing blackout with a few more dire consequences.
Finn is walking a few steps behind him. He hasn’t rubbed it in Poe’s face that he was right after all. Treated the mission like a vacation, didn’t they? Yet not a peep from him--unusual, if the nightly games of sabacc were any indication, the way he swept his winnings to his side of the table after convincing even Ackbar of his bluff.
He does ask after a few minutes, “What’s the last thing you remember?” and Poe wishes it were an easier question.
It should be an easier question.
“Gimme a second.”
“Do you want an answer or not?” He pauses long enough for Finn to catch up with him. A moment passes when a half-smirk is paused on his face, spreading, but then he turns away. “Okay, so… I left to go find Karé…”
The memory pauses, rewinds. The crowd of them pressed together was small, smaller than it was at the outset. Finn was there, Nien Nunb too. Jessika’s been half-absorbed into the throng of people surrounding them, chatting up a female Cerean whose tall, conical skull was covered by even longer blonde hair. Poe searched for the rest of them in the scene and came up empty.
But the bar: he thought Karé was at the bar staffed by the Ithorian, and he stumbled his way up the short set of steps, gripping the hand railing like he would float off into the dead of space without it. What had he been drinking? He had nothing in his hands, not a mug or a flask or residue from one of the crumbly pills passersby liked to press into their palms. No clues to study in the hazy light held close to his eyes. His mouth tasted funny, but it always did at that point in the evening.
The Ithorian’s bar was emptier than the others. A blessing, not having to pry an elbow between bodies to claim an inch of sticky polished wood in search of something to take you further down the spiraling rabbit hole. An older man with sun-bright white hair stared at him from the opposite end, his face fuzzy through the wispy smoke and the booze.
“What’ll you have?” the Ithorian was saying, and Poe remembered something about Karé liking the hot specialty rum from Bespin’s smaller cities. He blinked and there were two shots gripped at his knuckles and no Karé to be found, and his throat rubbed itself raw as he slid the credits into the bartender’s scaly fingers--
“Got two shots of Ember Breath, and now we’re here.”
“That’s useless, by the way.”
“I kept track of Nien Nunb and Jessika for at least another couple hours after you wandered off,” says Finn.
“How’d you lose them, then?”
“Nien and Jess aren’t with us now, are they?”
Finn holds up his hands in concession. “Got me there.”
“So tell me what happened.”
The wall of Praxxa has grown--it’s looming now, and a darker smudge toward the center hints at a door back to the raucous insides. Finn takes a moment to arch his neck up toward the roof of it, squinting at the sun, and Poe wants to press him again for the explanation. He holds back; the way Finn’s shoulders droop keeps his tongue still.
“I had them for a few hours, like I said. And then,” he shrugs. “The girl Jessika was with--Nien had gone to talk to some other Sullustans, and the girl reached into her knapsack and pulled out a couple packets of… I don’t know. It was shiny and I was tired, so I had some. And then I was alone.”
Poe frowns, and more sharply than he means to show. “What was it?”
“I don’t know!”
“So you just took it? You didn’t think to ask?”
“It wasn’t like the answer was going to mean anything to me,” Finn says. “That wasn’t exactly the kind of contraband we had in the First Order.”
Poe’s fists clench at his side, digging a knuckle into this muscle of his thigh until the beginnings of a bruise start pushing back. Holds his tongue. Why did he need to find Karé so badly that he left Finn alone with the squadron’s most notorious disappearing acts? The chunk of time between taking the shots and waking up to Finn’s face--every time he reaches for it, the absence rushes up like he’s missed a step on a staircase, stumbling blindly in an palpable nothingness.
“Just--next time,” he sighs. “If you don’t know--”
“You don’t have to tell me. I learned.” He pinches the bridge of his nose, massages there at the corners of his eyes. “Nightmare material.”
He wants to ask but he doesn’t.
“Who should we go after first?” he asks instead.
They should figure out at least an outline of a plan before they venture back into the thick of it, that much is clear; but that is where the clarity ends. With no way to guarantee that anyone was still in the vicinity of where they disappeared, creating systematic checklist the follow would be a useless exercise.
“Especially,” Finn says, “since no one noticed that Iolo had gone missing for what, half an hour?”
Iolo wasn’t the first to go, but it could be argued that he should have been. Jessika said something about Niv wandering off to try to find a ‘fresher just after they arrived, so maybe Iolo had gone to find him, save him from the piss-poor street sense growing up in the farthest reaches of the Outer Rim gave a person.
“I’m kind of worried about Niv, though,” Poe says. “Considering--”
“I mean, who gets lost on D’Qar of all places?”
“I know, Poe.”
So Niv and Iolo are at the top of the list to get their hands on, tuck away in one of those rental pods so they can sleep off whatever concoction they have running through their veins, hopefully avoiding the hangover barreling down on them like a runaway rathtar. They’ll be safe there while they track down the others, right? They should be. They better be. Finn’s muttering to himself and Poe lets his mind wander; the night Niv got lost back at base, Snap had brought a couple handles of some terrible grog to the gathering, something with a strong enough reputation to get a muted rise out of General Organa, and Niv could get competitive. When Snap and Jessika each threw a shot back, spluttering as it sizzled down their throats, Niv downed two. And then another when Nien Nunb pointed out his eyes were red and watering.
Four hours later, they found him passed out a quarter mile into the surrounding woods. A couple twigs tucked into the thicker parts of his beard. Half naked.
“Good gods,” Statura grumbled, and Dr. Kalonia took care of the rest.
There’s a lot worse to be found in the tamest parts of Praxxa.
The door back into the city is even closer now. Poe is aware that he looks even worse than he feels, but he scans Finn in a couple quick glances. Just to run down the usual list--bruises of unusual size and color, cuts that announce their presence when the dribble of blood hits a hem, anything else out of sorts. Thankfully nothing catches his eye, though a patch of lavender glitter is stuck to Finn’s left ear and the hair on that side of his head and it’s throwing the sunlight his way at the perfect angle to make his head try to explode.
“I’m okay, you know,” Finn says.
“You don’t need to look at me like that.”
“You know like what.”
Poe snorts, tries rolling his eyes. Finds his heart’s not all the way in it. “Can you blame me?”
“You’re the one who was lying out in the middle of nowhere.”
Waking up somewhere he has no recollection of coming to isn’t a new experience for him, though, under a number of circumstances, and Finn knows this, the outline of it. The squadron’s pressed up against the borders enough for him to tease out the shape, and somehow this only makes the concerned frown even deeper.
The door is before them, suddenly, as if they’ve missed the last thousand yards of gravel they had to trudge through. Wooden, with an old form of paint that never figured out how to keep from peeling after a couple centuries, and a heavy knob grown dull with a thousand hands--it’s not much, never been much. But they hesitate.
“There’s a bouncer right on the other side,” Finn says. “He should know something.”
“What makes you say that?” Poe’s hand rests on the knob, and its sticky film is nothing he wants to follow up on.
“He knew where you were,” he shrugs.
At least one piece of the map from last night has been illuminated: he made it through the door, not through a one-story fall from some hidden window or ferried in secret through a hidden back passage. The thought is comforting, that and the image of Finn searching after him even with the rest of their group long gone.
“So are we going?” Finn asks.
Poe nods. Pulls the door open so they can slip inside.
The darkness that envelops them is murky with smoke and thick with the heat of too many bodies. As the door closes, the click of it bumps against his fingers but he can’t hear it over the thudding bass and underlying chatter along the bar. Finn accidentally steps on his foot and Poe moves back, straight into the bouncer--a Gamorrean dressed to the nines in a leather ensemble the historic guards of Jabba the Hutt would never have dreamed of wearing. There’s drool dripping down the tusks protruding from his bottom jaw and spots on the lapel of his jacket where it’s dried, visible even in the dim flashing light of the nearby dance floor.
The breath the Gamorrean huffs in their faces smells of rotting meat.
“Trarg,” Finn says. “I need your help again. You seen any other, uh… rebel scum?”
Trarg snorts and the odor is somehow worse.
“C’mon, are you going to make me bribe you every time I got a question?”
Poe starts to think he maybe didn’t need to be so worried about Finn being alone here--everyone trips up at first until they find their footing, right? That’s all that drug mess was. A trip-up. Because he’s fine now, almost as good as Poe, talking his way out of a situation that’s balancing on uneven factors as wobbly as a bad table.
Finn nods impatiently as Trarg rolls his eyes, wipes a thin film of mucus from his snout. “Thank you. So,” he says. “We’re looking for a human, light skin, kind of short… he’s got a beard, if that helps? And a Keshian, too. Haven’t seen many around, so…”
Trarg is the first Gamorrean Poe’s met in person, which is maybe the reason he’s taken so aback when he speaks and it’s not a series of high-pitched, throaty squeaks. The accent is there, but it’s still Basic.
“Heard a Keshian had a bearded friend up on the sixth floor about an hour ago,” he says, turning back to the crowd like Finn and Poe have disappeared.
“Sixth floor,” Finn says. Taps Poe’s chest with the back of his hand. “A lead!”
“I mean, technically--”
But Finn is grabbing at his elbow and pulling him through the pulsating mass of Core-world tourists toward the lighted sign to the stairwell, and there’s no time to argue. His fingers are strong, grounding, and the lights dig into the cleaner patch of leather C3PO used to mend the jacket.
When the stairwell door closes behind them, it takes most of the white noise with it. Their voices echo against the grimy steps and handrail as they catch their breath, stare up the winding steps in some vain attempt to gauge how high they really go.
“You’ve been here before, right?” Finn asks.
(Post graduation from the Academy, before their assignments came in. Iolo bought their whole training squadron rounds of this liquor from a planet deep in Wild Space, and two shots of it was enough to push Poe and Muran into a corner, clinging to each other desperately as they kissed, mouthed at each other’s necks. As the rest of their squadron settled long-standing bets.)
“So what’s on the sixth floor?”
“I think…” What did they say was up there? The quiet Togruta from another training squadron had gone up that way and come straight back. “Dancing?”
“So more of the same?”
“No, no--it’s…” Iolo always said Muvraas was a prude, but what Poe could get out of him when they were both at the bar later that night, he could understand why anyone would want to turn on their heel at the doorway. “Performative. And--erotic?”
Poe waits. He waits and hopes Finn gets the picture--hasn’t he spent enough nights around Jessika or Bastian when Poe’s been away on missions to learn about this facet of galactic living? He doesn’t want to explain it, though he could. He knows he could. But something in his gut is tugging toward reluctance and forcing the words to stumble as they line up on his tongue, and his head is throbbing again.
“The sixth floor is strippers.”
“A step further, but yes,” Poe says. “You got the idea.”
Finn squints but shrugs it off. “Better go get them before they move, right?”
ONE DAY EARLIER
Pregaming was a mistake.
A mistake against orders, even.
“I don’t care that we’re going to Zeltros--this is a mission, not a party!” Poe had repeated himself so many times that the words were stripped of any meaning, a jumble of sounds sapping his tongue dry, and Snap’s backup hardly helped. Jessika’s was nonexistent, if only because there wasn’t room to sneak a word in edgewise--but when Snap left Poe in the cockpit of the shuttle to check on everyone else back in the cabin, hers was one of the hands wrapped around the neck of a bottle of beer.
She’d stared at him her entire next swig, and Finn had sighed.
At least Finn had sense.
The group’s buzz was already sparking headlong into something more full-blown when they hit the entrance to Praxxa, hardly copping the usual attitudes when the bouncers had to pat them down for blasters and any other weapons. Zeltrons were a people committed to love over war, the signs along the wall said, and any hints of intergalactic conflict had to be checked at the door.
Outright conflict, yes--gathering intelligence was an entirely different matter, and Poe doubted that they were the only ones within the walls of the city with an ulterior motive.
Not that the subtlety it required would come naturally to the rest of the crew by now. Bastian had an arm slung around Jessika’s shoulder, a move that would have normally earned him a swift elbow to the ribs, but not tonight. Whatever they’d stashed in the shuttle was fast-acting and longer-lasting than the usual brew.
“All right, Commander, where’s the first stop?” Jessika called. “I hear they have some killer moonshine from Naboo, like OId Republic recipe shit--”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Bastian said. “I vote we find that.”
“Stars,” Snap muttered. “No, we’re headed to the dive bars along the periphery of the second story to find our guy--”
“Your guy, you mean,” Jessika said with a smirk.
“Will you stop with that already?” The hallway leading into the main atrium of the city was wide, but their group was starting to sway apart into an obstruction; Snap herded them to the side and up against the wall. “First of all, just because I’ve met him doesn’t make him my guy, Testor. Second of all, this is still a mission and you’re all getting official demerits back on base for drinking on duty--”
“Come off it, Wexley,” Iolo sighed, rolling his large eyes. “It’s camouflage. You think anyone here is stone-cold sober? Bunch of people like that in here would be obvious as hell.”
So they wove their way in a clumsy snake to the first bar in the atrium: flashy, shelves upon shelves of booze with labels in Basic and Huttese and Geonosian, two six-armed bartenders mixing multiple drinks at a time for customers whose carefully chosen ensembles had not yet started to droop. Nine shots of generic Corellian grain liquor, and with one in every hand, they still had an extra.
“Who didn’t get one?” Karé asked, looking over at Finn; but he grimaced at raised his shot for her to see. “So why--”
“Niv said he had to piss,” Jessika said.
“He’s old enough to know about breaking the seal,” Nien Nunb grumbled in his native tongue. “If he’s already that far gone--” He reached for the ninth shot but Poe took it.
“I have a better tolerance than all of you,” he said to a chorus of booing and fuck offs.
The shots went down with minimal coughing--Poe slid a glass of water to Finn that he’d gotten for this very purpose--and with a quick head count they wandered up to the first stairway they could find, curving up and around toward a darkened arch that would lead further into the bowels of the city. It was the route they’d discussed on the trip over; Niv would catch up.
Poe wasn’t as young as he used to be; the two shots brightened everything in his vision and under his skin. And on top of it. A warm hand pressed at the spot between his shoulder blades, and he looked to his side. Found Finn there, blinking forcefully. “You okay, man?”
“Yeah, it’s fine,” he said. “First time for everything.” The room on the other side of the arch was nearly pitch-black save for the blue-lit teeth and eyes of the others there with them--a map of the galaxy stretched across the ceiling, twinkling bits of star systems from the Deep Core to the Mid Rim. “This is different.”
Even in the lighting, Poe could tell his brow was furrowed.
Was this their place? The rest of the squadron was tapping at his elbow, trying to whisper as quietly as they could to get his attention. It wasn’t loud, nor was it crowded; but it had the aura of some new-age club from the depths of Coruscant, not something Rath Velus would have been interested in. According to Snap, at least.
And Poe wasn’t about to trust the contents of whatever was misting down from the lights of the Deep Core.
They kept moving, avoiding the center of the floor where the mist blazed green under the lighting and the Twi’leks swayed at deeper angles as more of the concoction splattered against their skin.
More thumping club rooms followed. Somewhere along the line, two more rounds of shots were pushed into their hands with enough left over for two. So Niv hadn’t come back, and Snap’s scan of their group twisted his mouth into a grimace.
“Frag, not Iolo, too--”
Poe doesn’t want to insult Finn. Not now, not ever. Out of all the items that he can have on a to-do list, insulting Finn is the farthest down it can be, within reason of course. So at the door to this sector of the sixth floor, he wants to tread lightly.
For once, he’s actually edging on nervous. Hadn’t been nervous facing down Kylo Ren on Jakku, but here, staring at Finn’s increasingly confused face--getting there.
“I don’t want you to feel like you have to come with me up here,” he says slowly.
“I know I don’t,” he says. “But I want to help, which I can’t do here on the landing, can I?”
“But what? Are you worried I can’t handle strippers?”
Kriff. “No, no, not at all!” Poe says. “I just--”
“Because I’m not some innocent clueless child or anything.” Finn frowns, puts an indignant pair of hands on his hips. “I know things. My bunkmates nicked old holopads all the time with that stuff, so--”
Kriff kriff kriff--“That’s not what I’m saying, Finn! I know you’re an adult, but I don’t want you going in there expecting strippers when--they’re not--they’re not strippers!”
Finn stares at him, hands still on his hips. It’s not the right time for the thought, but Poe’s always thought of him as an arms-crossing kind of man, and the image before him is--it’s not cute, no, that would be rude to say when he’s upset. But it’s something like it.
“Fine,” Finn says after a few moments. “Let’s go, then.”
They open the door. The carpet is a grimy sort of red that may have once been a more vibrant crimson before the foot traffic and the spills, and Poe strides toward the open room just beyond the foyer of the stairwell. Finn stays beside him, still grumbling, but then they round the corner.
At least it’s mostly empty--as he would expect at the apparent hour of the morning--but it’s not abandoned, and Finn’s figure in his peripheral vision slips away as he stops.
“What’s going on?” he says, turning back around.
Finn won’t meet his eye; his gaze drifts up to the expanse of the room behind them and then back down at his feet, the edges of the wall, the odd dark stain under one of the abandoned chairs, but never at Poe. Or: if he does look at him, it’s too quick for him to notice.
“It’s just, uh--”
“That’s what you were trying to--”
“That I was.”
Praxxa doesn’t have strippers. The capital city of Zeltros, maybe, but not Praxxa, where the galaxy comes in search of whatever they can’t find anywhere closer to home. And here on the sixth floor is something one can only find in the most expensive clubs on Coruscant, where the cover charges soar high above what most make in a month.
The room is lined with stages, most without an audience--but at the far corner where the room starts to bend around the shape of the building, two members of a species Poe doesn’t recognize artfully prop themselves between the center pole and the wall. The specific biology is a mystery but the movements are unmistakable: they’re fucking and it’s loud in the unpleasant sort of way, not like the other species on the slate at primetime.
“Finn,” he says, “if you want to wait by the stairs--”
“No, nope. It’s fine. I’m fine.” He’s still not looking at Poe. Straight ahead, instead, right beyond where the performers’ bodies were joined together. “Look, it could be them right there.”
The back of two heads peeped over the top of one of the lounge chairs around the stage--they have the right hair colors for Iolo and Niv, even if the two of them aren’t likely to be found lolling together like that at all, much less at a venue like this. But Poe checks. He has to when Finn’s lost to the halting, jolting movements as he tries to make up his mind on where to go. What to look at. One of the beings on the stage makes a noise that probably sounds pleasant wherever they’re from, though it only forces Finn’s eyes further away from him.
Iolo and Niv are asleep on the chair. Niv’s even snoring, and Iolo is cradling the empty bottle of Rylothian rum snug against his chest. Poe knows he should be more surprised that Iolo’s pants are missing, leaving him in his undershorts, but he isn’t. He can’t bring himself to be. Beside him, Niv is sporting a thick black eye and the questions keep coming.
“Hey. Hey.” Poe taps at Iolo’s shoulder; and when that doesn’t work, he tries to pry the bottle of rum from his arms. Strong grip for a noodle-armed man, Poe’s heard Jessika say, and until now he’s suspected that she lost a bet, was forced to say it after betting credits on the wrong ship in a Five Sabers race. “Arana. Lek. Frag, you two, get up!”
“Maybe we should let them sleep it off?” Finn says, and he’s right beside him, a finger poking at Niv’s cheekbone. Still not looking at Poe and then squinting his eyes shut when the performers switch positions--a smart move, given that Poe doesn’t look away and learns more about their anatomy than he wanted to know. “Not like they’re going anywhere.”
“What if they wake up before we get back, though?”
“You think they’re going to want to move after drinking this whole bottle?”
Considering how Poe’s head feels like it got sucked out the back end of a sarlacc, he concedes the point. “Fine. I just--”
“You’d feel better if we left them someplace more secure. I know.” Finn blindly reaches for Poe’s arm, grabs at his elbow, and starts pulling him back from where they came. Their arms loop together for a moment and the performers’ muffled shrieking intensifies and Finn pulls away, all at once. “But the pods where I slept are across the city and we can’t carry them there.”
“Proved your point, y’know.”
Back in the stairwell: Finn glances at him finally, heavy, before rubbing his eyes. The dirt on the floor has been pressed into the makeup of the stone from the many feet passing by, leaving a persistent grunge no matter how many times it’s been cleaned, but Finn slides down the wall to sit on it anyway. And Poe joins him, because that’s what Poe does--he climbs into the trenches after people--and he waits.
For a bit, at least.
“This floor can be overwhelming if you don’t know what’s on the other side,” he says.
“How did you know, then?” Finn half-laughs. “Experience?”
“Well.” Poe shrugs. There’s a story there, not one he ever means to tell outside the cockpit of his X-wing in the depths of space when only BB-8 can hear him. BB-8 is a good listener, never complains when he tells the same stories over and over.
(Round two more corners from where Iolo and Niv are snoring and they’d find a row of private booths, and Muran’s home world is closer to Zeltros so maybe he’d been there, but escaping the hovering eyes of the rest of their class--priority one. And Muran was bright. Led him past the packed halls of sex on display and pulled the door to a booth closed behind him--)
Finn nods, unconvinced.
(And it’s not that it’s nothing, no, because it was definitely something. Something cut short and now Poe’s here and the whole lot of his circle from the Academy is here. With the Resistance. Like Finn is, like Rey and Skywalker will be when they return, and Muran’s absence hurts but it doesn’t hurt like an open wound anymore. Muran is the broken bone that has healed but still twinges with the weather. When it pulls at the wrong angle.)
“If that’s as far as we’re getting there,” Finn says, “who are you most worried about next?”
“I’m not sure if ‘worried’ is the best word--”
“Oh, yes it is.” Finn knocks his knee into Poe’s. “And you know it. My vote’s on Bastian but I’m also not sure about Snap because--”
“What do you mean, ‘why’?” Finn asks. “You were there! You, um… encouraged him, remember?”
“Encouraged?” He could ask Finn to be more specific, but more than likely this is an event that shouldn’t need the extra help to spring from his memory. So he blipped in and out, it seems. Fair enough. “I encouraged him?”
“Goaded, even,” Finn says, standing. He holds a hand down to help Poe up.
They check the time: barely past 0900 standard hours, more than enough wiggle room to pin the rest of the squadron down if they figure out where to look. Right?
Poe keeps the second-guessing to himself. Swallows it down with a couple extra pushes of his throat as he searches back against the empty pockets from last night. Murkily he hears Finn debating the merits of the third versus the eighth floors given what they encountered, and does Poe have any idea which one might have more of a competitive flavor?
They’ve halfway down to the landing and Poe nearly steps right into him. “Not sure that’s a thing. But,” he adds. “The eighth is closer, anyway.”
The eighth isn’t anything special, just an endless bar running along the outside walls smothered by discordant rhythms falling down from the sound system. Poe goes to say something along those lines, but Finn smiles--honest to stars smiles for the first time since he found him this morning--and that halo kind of comes back, too. Luminous and lighting up the rich dark of his eyes.
“Come on, then.” Finn hops around him and back up to the landing of the sixth floor--keeping Poe under the glow.
ONE DAY EARLIER
Poe was drunk. He was teetering on the crest of the perfect amount of drunk, where one foot over the line meant staking out the locations of the nearest ‘fresher in case of a surprise emergency, the sudden lurching deep in the stomach that was overshadowed by a bright surge of panic. But that, his liquor-logged brain deduced, was a problem for a later hour, if at all.
Hours had passed since Niv and Iolo were separated from the group and they’d chalked it up to something they would have to solve in the morning. Rath Velus was still out there, wasn’t he? There was still the mission.
“Oh, this was not how this was supposed to go,” Poe said into Jessika’s shoulder.
“Buddy… buddy. You didn’t have to take those shots. You really didn’t.” Her voice said comforting mother but every ounce of his common sense said not taking your shit today.
“Nien and Bastian were trying to give them to Finn, and Jess… Jess, I couldn’t let them do that! I couldn’t. I’m a responsible commander and--”
“Kriff, Commander.” Something clattered against the table, glass on wood, and then she was yanking him up with one hand on each of his shoulders. Briefly there was three of her, and it quickly climbed the ranks of terrifying sights Poe had encountered in his brief life. “You have to lock this down, okay?”
“Don’t ask me what. All of it,” she said, giving his shoulders a little shake. “Some of that neon shit got into my system so I can’t help you. It looks like you have six heads and one of them has a dick for a nose.” She grinned, which was not at all what he expected. Not at all. Maybe it was a defense mechanism--a sluggish thought reminded him that she had a lot of those.
“Is it a nice dick, though?”
“Sure, Poe. It’s beautiful.”
“Don’t mention it,” she said. She turned him around to face the small crowd that had gathered around Snap and Bastian--the rest of their squadron and a collection of Neimoidians and Grans. “Don’t mention it ever again for the rest of our lives.”
Poe’s gut started to churn, but he was sure it had less to do with the booze in his system than with the assortment of bottles two of the Neimoidians were shoving to the center of the table and the bags of unidentifiable substances a passing Dug tossed up with their foot. The duties of commander were so ill-defined when they were grounded, but stopping whatever this was--that had to be among the more concrete of the list. Even when he was more wasted than the rest of them.
He strode up to an open spot around the table as confidently as his uneven feet could manage. “Hey, fellas.” One hand on Snap’s shoulder--or his ear, wherever it wanted to land, really--and the other on the stiff padding of a Neimoidian’s cloak. “So what do we have here, hm? What’s happening?”
“Uh.” Bastian coughed. Gestured around to what they’d gathered. “Drinking contest.”
“Really?” Snap said. “You’re not even going to try to make something up?”
“What would I say? We had all this stuff here just to look at it? He wouldn’t believe that.”
“To be fair, though,” Poe said, gripping the Neimoidian tighter--the room had shifted slightly under his feet and the only part of him that got the message was his stomach. “I might’ve bought it. Considering. But too late now,” he added quickly. “I’m aware of the ruse. I’m in on it.”
Sometime in the last thirty seconds, the noise in their section of the bar cranked up another couple notches, kicked the whole room into sensory overload; otherwise Poe might have spared a moment to wonder how he and Snap ended up at the same place, plastered, when they had vowed to head forcefully in the opposite direction. Rath Velus--did it have to do with Rath Velus? Oh, it probably did, didn’t it? Considering--yes, considering his reaction back on base. There’s those deduction skills, Dameron, he thought to himself. Damn straight.
“These humans thought they could out-drink us,” the Neimoidian beside him said. “We found that preposterous--”
A bark-like laugh startled Poe, but then he realized it came from himself. “Oh, my apologies, um…”
“My apologies, Mr. Munno, but you haven’t seen these men drink.”
“And you have?” Tuidol’s green face contorted into a bizarre frown.
“At least until I’ve blacked out.”
Bastian snorted, a good sign, but Poe was quickly hurtling to the point where every blink was a squeezing effort to refocus the scene before him and kriff, he was pretty good if he could be this close to tipping over and still talk his way out of anything.
“You have my word,” Poe said. “You don’t want to start this with them.”
The Gran on Tuidol’s other side laughed and it turned into a cackle--an actual cackle--as one of Tuidol’s underlings poured two huge shot glasses full of a thick black liquor. So maybe Poe wasn’t as good as he thought at this exact moment in time, and maybe he wasn’t able to talk this gathering--a mob? Was this close to becoming a mob?--out of serving two of his best pilots what might as well have been poison.
To be fair, a slurring voice said in his head, every pilot here is one of your best pilots. They’re all great and you love them very much.
“So true,” Poe murmured.
“What was that?” Tuidol said.
“Nothing. Are you sure about--”
The underling slammed his fist on the table. “Bottoms up, boys!”
Bastian and Snap toasted, tapped the underside of the shots on the table before heaving them up to swallow. Even in the low lighting the regret was clear. The effort to keep the regret off their faces was even clearer, and the frustration that they were failing to simmered just below it. The liquor slid out of the glasses like syrup and sat on their tongues long enough for the taste to sink in and stain it.
“What the frag is that shit?” Snap spluttered.
Bastian still had about a third of his shot left in the glass but he was doubling over as his body tried to push whatever it was right back out, a hand splayed over his mouth.
“Specialty from Malastare,” Tuidol said.
“Round two!” The underling was downright gleeful as he poured two more with one eye on Bastian as the last of the first finally slid its way down his throat.
“You don’t--they don’t need to do this,” Poe muttered in Tuidol’s ear--or where the ear should have been. There was a hole on the side of his head, and Poe was going to run with it. “Look, do you want--I got some credits here if you--”
“What?” Tuidol pulled back from him so suddenly that the back of his head knocked into his companion’s front teeth. “Just because my people headed up that corrupt Trade Federation in the Old Republic doesn’t mean we can be bought or bribed!”
“Uh, uh--” Tuidol’s Neimoidian consort was larger than he had pegged it for, more and more of them emerging from the crowd that had gathered around Bastian and Snap. They were glaring--or their faces just looked like that, Poe couldn’t tell. And he couldn’t get words out: too many bodies and lights and sounds and the floor was starting to tip against his feet again. “I could’ve sworn the Hutts were behind that--”
“Round two down,” Snap croaked behind them, slamming the shot glass down. Bastian hadn’t even made the attempt.
“Mr. Munno, I sincerely apologize, I had no idea. Really!” he added. “My Old Republic history is--it’s awful--” And he would have said more were it not for the thick black braid slapping him across the face. Jessika, squeezing herself between him and Tuidol with who knew how many heads she had to have been seeing.
“None of these dumbasses are worth this much effort,” she said. “Look, someone’s won your silly contest.” She pointed over Tuidol’s shoulder where the underling was pouring Snap a third shot and Bastian was trying not to retch into his second, still full. “So give it a rest already.”
“Or what?” Tuidol was not tall but he still had a couple inches on Jessika, setting his shoulders in an attempt to tower over her.
A vain attempt.
“Or I’ll kriffing fight you right now, laserbrain--”
The loud, alcohol-soaked part of Poe’s brain wanted to see that. It really wanted to see that, made him hesitate for a solid half-second before he reached out to hold her back. And he only managed to get a hold of one of her arms as she dug her heels in, ready to lunge at Tuidol with fists bared, but she slipped out. Not toward the Neimoidians, but with a forceful yank from Karé back to a table Finn and Nien had scoped out to rest their feet.
In some way, Poe was relieved he didn’t have to struggle against Jessika’s desire to punch someone’s face in: bigger and stronger members of the squadron had tried and failed spectacularly when the stakes were much lower, and they were creeping higher by the second.
Especially with the blaster head digging a bruise into his hipbone, right along the line of an old childhood scar.
“Okay…” Poe said slowly, staring up at Tuidol. Nearly chest-to-chest, his nose still only came up to the Neimoidian’s chin. “We really didn’t want this kind of trouble. Or any, to be honest--”
“Your comrades gravely insulted my wife before bragging about their drinking,” he hissed. “What would you have me do?”
Were the blaster not a factor, he would have had six snarky replies to choose from; but it was a factor, and Poe had been the one to tell everyone not to try to sneak weapons past the bouncers, and even the drunk part of his brain was encouraging reason. Gamorreans are kriffing flying, I see, General Organa’s voice said at the back of his head.
“And I do apologize, Mr. Munno,” he said. Took a step back, a small one, but the blaster followed, digging in harder. “I assure you that wasn’t their intention. You’ve made your point, though, haven’t you?”
Poe glanced back at the table: Bastian was gone, as was the Gran, and the underling had swapped out the handle of black liquor for something else, a clear bottle of something brown with a rustic, peeling label on the front.
“Where’d you take the other guy?”
“You should not worry about that--”
“But I am, because he’s one of mine and therefore my responsibility--”
“He’ll be fine. You won’t leave Praxxa without him.”
Was that a threat? It could have been. Or just a reassurance getting lost in translation and the menacing tone. Tuidol put his free hand on Poe’s shoulder and steered him back toward the table; Snap met his eye, trying to communicate something across the space between them, despite the lack of anything he could latch onto for a scrap of meaning. Poe fell into Bastian’s old seat, still warm, and the underling showed him the bottle of booze.
“Port in a Storm,” he said. The shot glasses had disappeared in favor of the stouter ones found in holodrama bar scenes, when the two opposing mobsters attempt a civil public meeting over an aged Deep-Core whiskey. “Only Pamarthe’s finest.” He said it with the hint of a snigger, and Poe’s stomach flipped again. “You drink three of these,” he said to Snap, “and we’ll forget this ever happened.”
“And what if he doesn’t?” Poe asked.
Tuidol angled the blaster away from Poe and toward Snap--not at his forehead, but still at a vague enough spot on his chest where they wouldn’t want to risk whatever would come of him taking the shot. The end of the mission at best, and some kind of organ failure at worst.
“I’ll be fine. Seriously Poe,” Snap said. “Three is easy.”
“Port of Storm is only tolerable for locals,” Tuidol laughed. “How can you be confident?”
“Trained under a local. Haven’t you heard?” As soon as the underling finished pouring the first glass, Snap snatched it out from under his fingers and tossed the whole thing back in one gulp. When he set the glass back down, the tears that had sprung to his eyes caught a glare from some colored lights that had fired up in the corner. “Worse than I remember--”
Tuidol’s grip had gone slack, the blaster drooping toward the floor; but it jump back upright as Snap coughed, wiped at his eyes.
“You got this,” Poe said. “I know you do. Acting like you didn’t out-drink me the last three times someone threw a party…” The glass had refilled itself, the sides sloshing with deep burgundy, and he slid it across the table. Tapped at Snap’s elbow to get him to take his face out from behind his hands.
“I feel like it scraped a whole layer of skin off my throat,” Snap croaked. “How did Greer do it--”
“You’re going to have a blaster do that for you if--wait. She was Pamarthen, wasn’t she?”
Snap glared at him over the table--like he was saying, took you long enough, with the sighing sort of exhaustion that was always biting at his heels. He picked up the second glass, swirling the wine and staring at the circles of current that remained when his hand grew still, and there was a conversation that maybe needed to be had. A short one, but not here.
Back went round two. Snap’s movements slurred as he carefully directed the glass back to the table, and it still wound up upside down. A shudder ran down his spine and the smell of the wine drifted over towards Poe’s side of the table, fruit drenched in the kind of engine cleaner that tried to burn the inside of your nose if you breathed too close.
“Nicely done, my man!” Poe said with a clap. Snap’s glare had only deepened and if his head wasn’t flailing in the booze, there was a chance he might have tried to kill him, which: okay. Understandable. Jessika had threatened all of their lives over less. But the blaster was close to Snap’s temple now and this was still the mission and he would let Snap punch him in the nose later to repay him. “Just one more now--”
“And then you’re done. Kriff, go back to the shuttle for the rest of the night--”
“You need me, Poe.” He pulled the last glass close to the edge of the table but didn’t lift it. Not yet. “Sinjir’s not likely to come with someone he doesn’t know.”
“Why’s it taken me so long for me to realize I don’t actually know that much about you?” He said it before his drunk brain could catch up to his mouth. The sharp tinge of the mistake stung for a lone second but the momentum overtook it, barreled onward. “Was Greer Sonnel one of those original members of the Resistance? I mean--”
“How did you know her?”
“In passing, really,” Poe said. They stared at each other as Snap lifted the glass to his nose, testing the waters like it could possibly be something new. “When I was with the New Republic we had a rest day and went to watch some races. Muran and I, we--uh,” he said. A cough was clawing up his throat but he didn’t want to give it the time of day. “After she won, we got… I don’t know, thirty seconds to say hello?”
Snap nodded, mostly to himself. “She had bloodburn, you know.”
“It’s why she stopped racing. But in the Resistance--”
“It’s funny,” Snap said. He brought the glass of Port in a Storm up to eye level. “She flew an old A-wing as long as she could bear it, consequences be damned, and when she passed, Solo came for the funeral. He insisted on pouring out some of this beside her pyre.” And he laughed--or, not so much laughed as tried to clear something from his throat that was trying to close up the gap, fighting against choking in the thought. “You know the spot. It’s that little patch of dead grass.”
“And here you are drinking it.”
Tuidol shifted beside them, impatient. Readjusted the blaster so it was aimed more directly at Snap, a closer shot than what he’d threatened before. The dread was there, surely, spreading out from Poe’s stomach and up to his throat but he had to take a moment--or two moments, if he could spare it--because this was typical. How could he be surprised that they were here, pressed between a drinking game and a loaded blaster? They were likely headed towards it the first time one of the mechanics woke up nude and cuddling up to R2-D2’s powered-down husk after New Year’s.
“If I got the rest of the squadron to start a chant, would that make this easier?” Poe asked.
But his fists were already slammed against the table. “Snap! Snap! Snap!” He motioned at the rest of them across at the other table, and it didn’t take long to get Jessika and Nien to join in. Karé was next--and then Finn, to a degree. Just a light tapping of his fingers, enough to show Poe that yes, his hands were moving but no, he didn’t quite approve of whatever was going on.
“It doesn’t make it harder, does it?” Poe offered a grin but Snap rolled his eyes. Threw back the wine, thankfully getting it all down, then dropping the glass to the floor where it cracked.
“I’m never drinking again,” Snap groaned into his hands.
Tuidol’s lip curled. “Incredible,” he muttered.
But Poe’s attention had turned back to the rest of them, their relief as palpable at his feet as the sticky remnants of spilled booze. A miracle, they were saying. Even Jessika on her best day couldn’t handle half of what Snap had managed--so celebrate, the night was still young even if it was crawling into adolescence, and then Nien was shouldering his way in with another round of ale and a huge jug of water for Snap.
“Um, where is he?” Karé said.
“‘Fresher. I mean, wouldn’t you?” Jessika eyed her over the lip of her glass. “Stars, I’m amazed he didn’t pass out.”
“Shouldn’t we go check on him? The last time someone went to the ‘fresher without telling anyone…” Finn glanced over at Poe. Alcohol sat on his breath but otherwise his senses were clear, and he was leaning into Poe’s shoulder even more than their small bench pushed him to.
And it was already a close kind of warm in this corner of the bar, fanned by the ale slipping into his system, but it crackled up another notch even with the way Finn was looking at him. Half-frustrated, maybe. Nothing--nothing that would explain the line of sweat creeping at his hairline.
They all threw back the rest of their drinks and slid through the crowd toward the narrow hallway. Not a soul lined the walls, and the ‘fresher itself was somehow even emptier.
“We really aren’t good at this,” Nien said.
Poe sighed into his hands. Pushed at the corners of his eyes until the bursts of color rushed into the black. All wasn’t lost--he tried to explain this, but the ale was strong or maybe just compounding with everything else in his bloodstream, and his sentences tripped over each other on the way out of his mouth. All wasn’t lost, because there was still everyone here, and Snap knew how crucial his role was with Rath Velus, so he just got turned around. He was probably right around the corner, sitting at a bar stool and waiting impatiently for them to catch up.
Or maybe he wasn’t.
Four down in almost as many hours. But the city was only so big, they couldn’t have gone far--
The eighth-floor bar they step into from the stairwell is nearly as abandoned as the sixth floor was. An older man halfheartedly pushes a grimy mop against a smudge on the tile flooring but it doesn’t seem to do much of anything.
And at the bar: Snap, both hands wrapped around a pint glass of water.
“I was hoping to find you like this a little sooner than now,” Poe says. He hops up on the stool beside him, and Finn follows suit.
Snap snorts to himself, takes a couple gulps of the water. He looks too put-together: no bags under his eyes, no wincing at the light or the noises or even the smells coming from the mop bucket at the old man’s feet. The smells, that’s what’s pulling at Poe’s gut. Chemical and tangy and nothing that he needs right now.
“So?” Finn says, leaning over to look past Poe. “Where’d you go? We looked for you after--whatever that whole thing was.”
“I was aiming for the ‘fresher but I got turned around. Woke up behind the bar here when Dane started his rounds.” He jerks his head to the old man who acknowledges them with a wave of his hand. Doesn’t look up from his mop or the mark persistently fighting the water and suds. “The grog I make is strong, but nothing like… stars, if that’s the Port in a Storm, I hate to think what the storm is.”
It’s eerily silent. The squeegee of the mop and distant clinks of glasses sliding back onto their shelves after the long night--background noise, that’s all they’re meant to be, but here in the vacuum they shine bright. Not only in their ears, but their faces too.
Poe’s known Snap long enough that he’s got a good handle on how to tell when the quiet among them is the goal and when it’s stepping on Snap’s throat. Now is somewhere in between the two, closer to the latter but not quite enough that Poe needs to step in to let him breathe. The middle ground is tenuous but he’s walked it before, and this is a time when he should try to guess what’s delayed at the back of Snap’s tongue.
“We didn’t find Rath Velus last night,” Poe says. “In case you were wondering.”
Snap was wondering--Poe can tell from the way he shifts in his seat.
“Where’s the rest of us?” Snap asks. It’s easier to speak with the first obstacle tossed out of the way, after all.
“Iolo and Niv we have answers for. Everyone else…” Poe shrugs.
“I think Ackbar tried to warn the General against sending us on this mission,” Snap says. “Is Mon Cala known for premonition in its native species? Someone ought to look into that.”
“Ackbar’s seen a lot,” Poe says.
“I wonder how often he wishes he didn’t come out of retirement.”
It’s a fair point.
At the same time, Poe wonders if the way he knows Snap is reciprocal--can he sense the question Poe’s been dying to ask since the briefing, since they were alone in the cockpit together as the surface of D’Qar rushed away from them?
But now--it’s not the right time. Snap looks better than all of them, but there’s an exhausted, sluggish push behind all his movements. Calculated, too, like he’s acutely aware of how much fuel is left in him and he can’t spare an iota of anything extra.
“So you’re trying to round everyone up before calling the General, I take it?” Snap says.
“Unless you want to be on the receiving end of that disciplinary lecture.”
Snap sighs, takes another deep swig of water; on Poe’s other side, Finn’s started to get a bit fidgety.
“If it matters,” Finn says slowly, “my vote is not having to do that?”
“So it’s unanimous.” Snap’s thumbs rub along the thick rim of the glass, and he’s squinting like he needs another hand to massage away a headache at the same time. “Just give me a minute. My stomach still feels like it’s shooting through hyperspace.”
Poe catches Finn’s eye and is met with a grimace mirroring the one he’s been trying to keep at bay since his own nausea ebbed and the grim reality of their situation found a place to settle down in his attention. It’s not ideal, no, not with the hangovers and the far-stretched space between them all, but at this moment Praxxa is quiet and that’s a victory in itself.
“Are you going to ask me how I know Sinjir?” Snap says after a couple quiet beats. “I know you’re dying to ask. And I know you’re wondering if now is a good time.”
All true. Snap is more observant about people than is is really good for him, in Poe’s opinion, and he’s said as much more than once. It’s saving him the trouble of stumbling over the question himself, though, so now he tries to be grateful.
So Snap outlines the whole saga: rolling back the years, shaving inches off his height and a nickname from his records. A brief glimpse into a lonely adolescence surrounded by scrap parts and a nasty gang of Sullustans--
“Is that when you made that souped-up demon droid?” Poe says before he can stop himself.
“If you want me to finish explaining this, you can stop insulting him.”
“I’m not insulting him!” Poe holds up his hands. “I’m only committed to accurate description and Mister Bones looked like he came straight from Chaos.”
“Who is Mister Bones?” Finn murmurs behind him, softly enough that he could easily just be talking to himself.
Snap clears his throat and pulls them back to the main thread of it all. Fragments of the wounded Empire making last stands on Akiva, Kashyyyk, Chandrila, Jakku--and a group clumsily stitched together to push back when the Rebel Alliance had curled into the arms of the fledgling New Republic. And Snap was there for all of it.
“You said your first combat mission was the Battle of Jakku,” Poe says.
“No,” Snap sighs. “You assumed it was because it was the earliest one I said anything about.”
Snap’s head ducks toward the empty end of the bar, effectively slamming up a do not enter sign in a glaring Coruscant neon in front of his face. Poe knows the sign well, has a few of his own. “You were also pretty young already at Jakku. Made sense to assume.” Poe claps a hand on Snap’s shoulder. Squeezes like it’ll pull him back toward them instead of holing up in himself even further. But it’s a gradual process--with Snap, with any of them when they have to dredge up the boot prints left on their lives by the Empire.
When Snap does meet their gazes again, he empties the rest of his water with a bitter grin. “Sinjir was part of that group I was in. Spent a lot of time together. Didn’t see him much after that, him working with the Senate and me at the Academy. And then after the Chancellor retired, he was just…” He waves his hand. “Gone.”
“He didn’t say anything to you?” Finn says. The question lays heavy in the air with something old in his voice, something Poe can’t quite pinpoint. “Before he left?”
“Not to me, no,” Snap says. “Not to Jas either, apparently… stars, was she angry--and they were--”
“Together?” Finn supplies.
“Frag, no.” And Snap actually laughs. “Not in the least.” He squints at some imagined scene behind his eyes and the smile cracks wider, falling into a snort. “They were just… closer than the rest of us, I think.”
Snap taps his elbow against Poe’s ribs and there isn’t a shift in how he looks at him, but the sense is there that he has all the same. The clarification is a familiar path worn down until the grass won’t grow any longer: the third month of academy training, Iolo teasing Poe over breakfast about the affair he was supposedly hiding with Suralinda Javos. Why else do you two disappear for hours on end before lights out some days? he’d say, surly and frowning into his juice, and Jessika was always toeing the line of choking on her toast keeping a straight face.
“Do you miss him?” Finn asks, and the overbearing silence is back.
“That’s not a question I try to dwell on for too long.” Snap slides the empty glass to the inside edge of the bar, nodding to Dane to tell him they’re leaving. “It was a whole other war ago. Or so they say.”
When he gets to his feet, he pauses to stretch out sore legs and knees, the hidden bruises from sleeping too long on a hard surface--and then he’s marching past them, away from the stairwell. Finn and Poe jump to their feet to catch up, at a slight jog, even, the way Snap’s suddenly moving his feet.
“Snap,” Finn says once he gets to his side. “Snap, I just--one question--”
“We’re going this way because I think I might know where some of our people ended up--”
“Okay, good! That’s good!” He’s treading lightly. “But what I was going to ask…”
They’ve come to a three-way split in the hall between sections of the floor’s bars. The carpet soaks up the sound more than the first bar’s sheer vacuum did, and the pause holds longer than than it ought to, Snap turning to stare at Finn’s expectant bright eyes.
“It’s…” Finn sighs. “They taught us about everything that happened after the Battle of Endor. It’s an admirable thing to have been a part of.”
Finn doesn’t know how to be anything but frank. Poe loves that about him, but this one time he wishes he would let it drop until later.
“Not something to keep a secret, right?” Snap says, and Finn nods. “I’m not proud of some of the things I said and did back then. So I don’t bring it up. We all have shit like that--I’m sure you do too.”
Finn’s feet shift against the carpet but he says nothing. Snap is wrong but Finn’s realized it’s not the time to argue or pull the open book from his back pocket to hold before them, running a finger along the creases where Poe’s hands handled the pages too clumsily.
(“You had reason to hide things in the First Order,” Finn said one night. They whispered to each other in the dark from their cots, keeping their voices on their side of the thin walls. “Anything, honestly. You didn’t have any reason to trust them. But here…”
He sighed, and Poe grinned at the one he could sense there across the room.
“You know, there was one time one of the other FN stormtroopers threw something at Captain Phasma’s head during training when we were younglings? He already had a couple demerits, so I said it was me--”)
Poe clears his throat, raises his eyebrows expectantly like he has since they flew together for the New Republic. And Snap gets the hint, as conspicuous as it was. Not that he’s ever missed it: across a cavernous Hosnian Prime hangar or a crowded common area sticky with spilled grog. If Wexley was into men, you two’d be at the top of my fuck-pool, Bastian said once. Just the once. Maybe it’s the last dregs of a hangover, but when Poe traces back to the beginning of their easy years of camaraderie under fire, under the banner of the New Republic, it rubs up foreign beneath his fingers. The scenes don’t look any different--the angle, though, that’s new. He just never thought to turn his head until the mission forced their hand.
“Right,” Snap says, and Poe is jerked back out of his head. “Praxxa’s security office is up this way. Figured there was a chance at least one of us got belligerent and slept it off up here.” He pauses--“Bets on who?”
“Maybe not the time,” Finn says pointedly.
“It’s got to be Nien or Jessika,” Snap says.
“Well, it’s a little hazy but I think she was about to fight those Neimoidians for your honor,” Poe says.
“I don’t remember that in the slightest--okay, Finn. Okay.” He jerks his head down the far left prong of the hall and leads them in silence, occasionally letting a hand wander up to one of his temples to rub circles. Futile ones. Doctor Kalonia’s told the squadron a hundred times that doesn’t help after booze.
After a few moments, Finn tugs on Poe’s sleeve, whispers close in his ear--and subtle, too, even with Snap’s back turned to them. “You okay?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Just seemed off.”
“I’m pretty on, though.” Poe cracks a smirk even as it comes a little close to the grey area bordering a lie.
And Finn isn’t ready to buy it. Poe isn’t convinced either, and he’s the one starting to push his replies through his teeth.
“You hide things too.”
“Finn…” The hall is long enough to start to answer but nowhere near long enough to finish it, not in any meaningful way. “Not actively, no. But--”
Finn’s eyes fall to his chest and quickly glance away as he bites the inside of his cheek.
“--it’s just… everyone has stuff they just don’t talk about.” Poe watches the subtle movements of Finn’s face, the twitches and tics as he tries to keep facing forward toward the back of Snap’s neck. “There something on your mind?”
“Mm… I…” He sighs, runs a hand over his face. “No. No, it’s nothing.”
But at least then he looks at Poe and the smile he offers, even if it’s forced, is a small comfort in their whole debacle.
“Frag, you two,” Snap says suddenly; he’s stopped and they nearly run into the back of him, standing between them and the closed door to the city’s security force. “The office doesn’t open to the public for another half standard hour.”
Poe’s chest lurches at the idea of time wasted, but there isn’t anything they can do in the meantime except sit and plan: guess at who could be on the other side of the door, if anyone. While he and Snap debate, Finn quietly asserts that easily no one could be here--the squadron is a competent lot, after all, and even if it got out of hand, they still know it’s a mission. They wouldn’t take it so far as to land here overnight.
“In an ideal world, sure,” Snap says. “You think this is anywhere close to that?”
ONE DAY EARLIER
Another floor, another bar--this one at least had a theme, an underwater something or other. Times like these, Poe wished he paid more attention in biology class. The school system on Yavin 4 wasn’t galaxy renowned, much less renowned in that section of the Tingel Arm, but it did the job as best as they needed it to, and there had been a lesson on whatever beings were painted along the walls. Enormous water-lizard bastards, a gaping maw filled with rows and rows of teeth. It wasn’t exactly giving the kind of vibe Poe expected from a bar--sure, let your guard down, send the room spinning, not as if there was some semblance of a beast waiting to swallow you whole.
“I think this is supposed to be Naboo,” Nien said, throwing back another shot. “Look. Itty bitty Gungans are swimming away from that thing along the bottom.”
Long orange and brown blobs ran down by the floor, but at that point enough alcohol was coursing through Poe’s veins to cut short whatever argument he would’ve put up on principle. Of course those were Gungans. Sure. He was pretty sure he slept through his grade-school lesson on the Battle of Naboo, anyway.
But this bar, it was somewhat quieter than the others that they had wandered through, so Jessika put her foot down and said they would set up here for a while--“You all finally have the right amount of heads again,” she said, signaling the bartender for a round, “and we have more of a chance to find the idiots who wandered off if we stay in one place.”
Jessika had snagged the last stool around the bar and was trying to wave down the lone protocol droid behind the counter. Films of dried stains lined their chrome plating, another couple drops adding to the collection as they poured Jessika an extra shot to dump in her ale.
Poe tried to assess his level of inebriation--self-awareness had only ever done him good in situations like this. Currently, he was at the point where Jessika’s shoulder looked like the most comfortable spot in the galaxy, and without a moment’s hesitation he laid his head there.
“Staying put… you’re so smart. I love you, Testor, you know that, right?”
“Gross.” She shrugged him off, nine parts eyeroll to one part affection, knocking back half the concoction in her glass. “I think Nien stole the drink I ordered for you. Or--nope, gave it to Finn--”
“--want the rest of mine?”
His body swiveled around so fast that it took his brain a couple seconds to catch up. The room tilted and shifted, unbuckled its layers and swayed, until the scene settled into his frame of vision again. Nien Nunb held two glasses in front of Finn, one near-empty, and Karé looked like she wanted to stop whatever was going on--but her hands were gripping the edge of the tall table even harder than Finn’s was. Still the table wobbled, an unreliable anchor, and then his own foot was pressing down on the base to keep it steady.
“You should try to move a little more slowly when you’re this drunk, Commander,” Nien laughed.
“I am perfectly coordinated, thank you very much.” He hoped he was. He hoped Karé had overheard the insistence in his voice--which was very much there, it was so there even if her eyes had wandered over to where Jessika was now sitting alone. Karé always knew that Poe was telling the truth when he got this insistent. “So what do you three have going on over here?”
“You can keep the second drink, Nien,” Finn said. He threw back the remaining dregs of the first and pushed the other glass back toward Nien’s side of the table. “It’s--” With one hand still on the table, Finn reached out with the other for balance. Found Poe’s shoulder as his hand wandered in the empty air.
“You all right?”
“Yeah, yeah.” He blinked a couple times, eyelids squeezed as tight as they’d go. And then they were staring right back at Poe with the teeth of a grin holding down on his bottom lip--his complexion was too dark for Poe to see the flush, but he could sense it, a warmth in how his hand held his shoulder muscle and his thumb sat right up against his collarbone. “I’m definitely all right. Are you?”
The lights screwed into the ceiling pivoted and dimmed, submerging the room in something approximating the hazy smoke of an Old Republic cantina in the heart of Coruscant. On the wall--they’d moved from the central table, hadn’t they--the leviathans of the Naboo seas almost cast shadows at their feet. Finn’s hand at his shoulder was where it ought to have been, a weight to keep the room steady. That, and the wall they were both leaning against.
Finn’s other hand splayed on Poe’s chest, his brow wrinkled in concentration. Each finger pushed into his breastbone, one by one, and finally they found the slim line under his shirt. Not far from the collar’s edge, either, and his little finger hooked inside, latched around the worn leather and tugged. The thud of metal hitting against his chest echoed like a drum in his ear.
“You always wear this,” Finn murmured. He rolled the pewter ring at the end of the necklace between his fingers. “Or--after I woke up you did. Not before. I would’ve noticed when we first met, I think…”
“Jakku was a mission off-the-books,” he said. He’d felt naked without the weight of it under his shirt, tapping at the thin layer of skin on his chest as he ran on the sand. General Organa had said to leave it behind because--not to keep himself undercover, or else the jacket would have stayed too, but she recognized it from his father’s hand on Endor, and if something had gone wrong on Jakku, well.
“Not the usual circumstance.” They were closer now. Finn’s fingers had latticed around the leather, tilting the ring up so it could catch the dim lights and toss the shine right into his eyes for a better view. And with the grip the way it was, he’d pulled Poe closer. Their noses almost touched and he could taste the remnants of the ale on Finn’s breath. “Why are you so curious?”
“Because it’s you.”
“There’s a story here.” Finn’s other hand had come to rest on Poe’s waist, and lightly. The bone stuck out at an odd angle, almost visible through his trousers, and the hand had landed there on the first try, as if it had been taking careful aim for the last hour.
The rest of the room wobbled in an orbit around Finn’s face. There was the constant. Somewhere under the grog-soaked thoughts was the certainty that if his eyes drifted from Finn’s he’d spin out into Wild Space. “The ring doesn’t belong to me, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“It is now.”
He laughed, and Finn echoed it. “My dad picked it out at a Corellian market during the war,” he said. “When he and my mom eloped. And--”
Out of the corner of his eye, Poe spotted the protocol droid teetering back toward Jessika at the bar. On the far wall behind him were the controls to what looked like a speaker system, which explained the sudden onset of the throaty, bass-laden tune blaring from the ceiling.
This was exactly the type of music Muran loved to hate. Some Geonosian had pulled an album of it out of the jukebox on Hosnian Prime on their third official date and the diner was ready to vibrate off its foundation with it. “Oh, this one,” Muran had said in his ear, “this one might be worse than ‘Jedi Rocks.’ Might. It’s just so--”
“So terrible. Beyond awful.” In the memory Poe’s drunk brain dug up, Muran was so happy about trashing the song that a tear had come to his eye.
(Right, that was where that bruise went.)
“Hm? Yeah,” he said. “Yeah.”
“What were you going to say?”
Finn’s eyes were always so earnest, digging so deep when they stared him down. Somehow they had found those old heartstrings that Poe had left to grow stiff after Muran’s ship collapsed into fire, and each time they locked gazes, he’d feel the tug a little more as they were stretched. Little by little. Until finally the stray smirk in the mess hall at breakfast could send them vibrating loud enough to loosen the screws holding the table together.
But Finn wasn’t asking about himself. He was, unknowingly, peeling back a shroud.
Poe’s cheeks glowed, or--no, Finn’s hand at the ring had moved up to his face, hovering almost, and as light as the hand that was still at his waist. His own hands, what were they doing? He searched, found them with his fingers woven around Finn’s belt loops, and then his lungs hollowed out, breathing shallow, and he had to answer the question, didn’t he--
“I had a fiancé, once,” he said. “Almost.”
Finn cocked his head, pressed his hand into Poe’s cheek tighter.
“Died a couple days before I could ask him.”
(One moment an X-wing slid across the tapestry of stars, and then next was white-hot fire and orange fingers curling up around a body that had kept him warm at night when the blankets were too thin. He hadn’t remembered his own reaction but sometimes he could still hear Karé and Iolo in his ear--not their words, but everything else around them in that moment that was able to keep his hands on the yoke and away from whatever knobs that would have ejected him into space.)
“Probably not what you wanted to hear,” Poe said.
“I wanted to hear whatever you were going to tell me,” he said. “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
“It’s…” What was he supposed to say? That it was nearing on two years, no big deal, he should have been used to losing people close to him by that point anyway? “It’s in the past.”
Again Finn’s hand pressed against his face, his thumb tracing the line of his cheekbone. The smile he wore warmed the thin space between them--“I need to find a ‘fresher, stars, sorry--”
Poe watched as he slid his way through the thickening crowd toward the door at the back corner; and while the worry pinched, it quickly faded. They weren’t leaving, they weren’t going to lose him if they stayed here just a few minutes longer; and judging by the way Jessika was leaning into her glass up at the bar, Finn had more than enough time to solve whatever problem the ‘fresher would help him alleviate.
“What in the frag was I just watching, Commander Dameron?”
Karé. She was a little more put-together than he would have banked on at this point in the evening, given the state of the rest of the squadron, but the bright flashing white of her smile indicated that enough grog had made its way into her bloodstream to loosen up the careful hold she kept on her thoughts.
“Not sure what you mean?”
Her snort turned into a hacking cough. “Excuse me,” she said. “I thought you just tried to tell me you didn’t know what I was talking about.”
“I can count exactly one former stormtrooper in this room that was ready to climb you like the oak trees behind base.”
“That wasn’t--Karé, I think you misunderstood what was going on--”
“Do tell. Do tell what was going on, then.”
“Fine.” So he reeled back the past couple of minutes and flipped through the flashes of memory before the booze sizzled them up into nothing: Finn holding his face, his hips, and the warmth those thoughts sent up his neck and into the corners of his lips and maybe Karé was onto something--for him. Not for Finn, no, that was the ale talking. Oh no, Finn was just drunk and Poe was just projecting and this was where he always stopped himself when everything started barrelling down this way. There was simply no need to consider the idea of them holding each other’s faces tight between their hands, closing the gap until--
“Whatever it was,” Poe said finally, “it wasn’t that. Okay?”
Karé sighed, chewed at the inside of her lip. She didn’t used to do that, did she? When did he stop paying attention?
After a moment her eyes fell to his chest and she jerked her head there. “He was looking at Mu--the ring, wasn’t he?”
“Is that why you gave up trying to stay even a little bit sober?” she said. “Because we’re here?”
The floor was tilting again, first toward the wall of Gungans and then back toward the bar where Jessika had taken the protocol droid’s hand almost affectionately. And Finn was emerging from the far corner where the hallway rounded away from the noise, Karé was nudging at Poe’s elbow, and the ring against his neck was about to burrow through his breastbone and straight into his heart. The weight pressed against the outline of an old bruise that bloomed when Muran took his hand after their fourth round, and when Finn smiled at him across the room it was evident that same bruise was coming back from the dead.
“I miss him too, you know. We all do,” she said, but he wasn’t looking at her. “It’s okay if you still--I know you still do, Poe--”
Poe knew how this would pan out in a holodrama: Karé would cut herself off when she saw him start moving toward Finn with a mission thrumming under his skin, and Finn would still be smiling when he brought their faces together. Music swelling dramatically as the camera circled around them, and the end of the story would be near. That would be it. There wouldn’t have to be a war to come back to.
“First person to come back from the ‘fresher and not get left behind… do I get a prize?” Finn planted his elbow on Poe’s shoulder and grinned at them both while his footing wavered.
Karé had returned to her perpetually-exhausted stare. Not that Poe could blame her.
“I think that is the prize,” Poe said, and Finn smiled.
At that point Karé walked away--again, not that Poe could blame her.
They both watched her as she trudged back toward the bar, pulling Jessika’s hand away from the protocol droid and catching the back of Nien’s collar before he wandered off after a group of Twi’lek women dressed to the nines with boots laced artfully up past their knees. In this state, even if they managed to find Rath Velus, convincing him to come back with them to D’Qar would be a miracle.
“What was he like?” Finn asked.
“Oh.” Poe rubbed at his temple, careful not to turn his head to watch as Finn’s arm moved from his shoulder, uncurling to wrap back around to his waist. “Good pilot. Not quite tall, but not short either. From a moon on the Outer Rim that he loved to hate, and if--Iolo tried to complain about that entire system once, and I’d never seen Muran so mad.”
(“I grew up there. I’m allowed to shit on it,” he’d fumed to Poe later that night as he tried to string his sentences together--Poe kept trying to kiss the anger out of him and there was only so much he could do as a lone person, small and impertinent against everything else in the cosmos.)
“His name was Muran?”
“Yeah,” Poe sighed. Finn’s fingers clutched against his hipbone. “He was a holodrama snob. Ate vegetarian when he could. Made friends with all the gonk droids at the Academy.”
“Just like you do back on base,” Finn said, half-laughing.
Only because he taught me how to talk to them--but Poe just nodded, kept that part to himself. Karé’s eyes laid heavy on him across the room, expectant and knowing, and then the music was cranking up louder with a rumbling bass that managed to drown out even the argument Nien had gotten himself into with a hooded figure in the corner.
“I don’t think our guy isn’t going to show up now,” Poe said. “Should probably--”
Jessika elbowed her glass off the bar and it shattered, dark green ale fizzling against the woodwork; Karé grabbed her arm and motioned for the two of them to follow.
“Yeah,” Finn said. “Seems like a pretty good idea.”
They each grabbed one of Nien’s elbows on their way out, ignoring his protests as Poe led the way on his tiptoes to keep an eye on Karé’s electric blonde head weaving through the crowd outside. The swirl of different colored cloaks and skin jostling against them was almost too much for his head to handle, a hard knob of nausea climbing slowly up his throat.
“He had information!” Nien grumbled. His arm wriggled in Finn’s grip, which was clearly stronger than he had anticipated. “I was negotiating the price down--”
“He was also reaching into his cloak for a blaster,” Finn said. “In case you didn’t notice.”
“It was his wallet, you’re just drunk--”
“So are you!”
“Can you both just stop?” Poe shouted. Karé’s head was bobbing between two tall Pykes and the time it was taking him to spot her again was steadily increasing. “Nien, did he give tell you anything important before we left?”
Ahead, Karé and Jessika rounded a corner away from the flow of the crowd, taking some of Poe’s churning stomach with them. They weren’t going to lose them.
“He did mention the ground floor--”
“Great. Great,” Finn said. “At least narrows it down a little bit…”
When they finally caught up with Karé, she had sat Jessika on the floor with one foot pressed where her legs crossed. It was enough to keep a drunk Jessika from hopping up and chasing the latest idea that had floated to the forefront--so at least someone had learned from that Life Day party and remembered amid their own inebriation, even if it wasn’t Poe.
“If we keep going like this, I know one woman back on base who will not be happy,” Karé said.
“Nien got a lead, though.” Finn grinned at her like the right curve of his lips would defuse the bomb--and they were nice, weren’t they? And no, no, he wasn’t staring, no. He was just taking the scenic route to double checking Jessika wasn’t about to try and make moves.
“Half a lead,” Nien muttered.
“Better than nothing.” Karé glanced down at Jessika, who gave her a sloppy thumbs up. “Exactly. Let’s give this one five minutes and we’ll head that way.”
Nien coughed and they finally let go of his arms; as soon as they did, a warmth spread at the top of Poe’s spine. Finn’s hand there, inching up to curl his fingers over his shoulder. Another grin--confident this time--to greet him when he turned to look, and the weight of Karé’s stare sank deeper.
One hour on the nose from when they arrived, the door to the security office swings open to reveal a desk manned by a small man dressed in a cloak he easily could have nicked from a Jawa. His grin is far too bright for a Praxxa morning and he seems to know this, his mouth spreading wider as they stare.
Poe’s temple throbs from the whites of his teeth. “Morning--”
“How may I assist you three this fine morning?”
Snap turns his entire body to stare at the two of them, but Poe can’t enable his frustration now. Waiting for the time to tick away outside the door left too much room to work out all the ways that the rest of their day could go, all the terrible and tragic ways, and each seed of worry germinated into a rotten weed. Snap’s face would only provide more sun to help them grow.
“Just wanted to see if some friends of ours ended up here after last night,” Finn says.
The man tsks under his breath, swipes through some pages on the holoscreen embedded at his desk. “Had a little too much fun now, did we?” he says.
“Not quite,” Snap mutters, but the man barely recognizes he’s said anything.
“If you could give me last name and species of whom you’re trying to locate, I can see if they’re in our system. If the species does not customarily have a last or family name--”
“Wait a second,” Poe says.
The man keeps on like he’s switched on a script. “--a first or given name may suffice. In the case of native languages such as Geonosian or Tusken not supported by the Aurebesh, one of your party may be accompanied to the holding area to identify them in person. To protect vulnerable parties, this identification must be mutual and they must accompany you from this facility of their own volition. Furthermore, anyone held may release themselves at any time upon passing a sobriety test. Any questions?”
His grin grows wider almost imperceptibly the longer they hold the silence, and the stark lighting starts to catch on the points of his sharp canine teeth.
On either side of Poe, he can feel Finn and Snap shift warily, waiting for him to take stock of the situation.
“A few,” Poe says slowly. “This system of yours…”
“State of the art!”
“He wasn’t asking about that,” Snap says. The bite is there for anyone looking for it, subtle and tense and holding back just enough that no one outside the squadron could accuse him of an attitude problem. A practiced art, and Poe’s failed enough at it for one lifetime.
“You must get a lot of patrons too far gone to tell you their name. How do you get it in that case? And how secure is this system?” The sudden grip of anxiety has set his heart thrumming hard against the inside of his breastbone.
“We have access to a central store of biometric data from all the different governments across the galaxy,” the man says. And he prattles on about security, too, how Praxxa fits into Zeltros’ overall philosophy in the face of the brutal wars of the past decades, but Poe isn’t listening. Not to him. His heart rattles all the way up to his eardrums and he wants to reach back to the night before and slap sense into all of them. Himself, mainly.
Snap is feeling it, too. And Finn is feeling both of them.
“Can’t do much about it now,” Snap says under his breath, then adding: “Fine. Can you check if you have three humans under Kun, Bastian, or Pava, plus one Sullustan under Nunb.”
The pads of the man’s fingers tap away at the holoscreen as he whistles to himself, too calmly, really--and the calculations rev up in Poe’s head. Kaydel and Tabala had been working to determine the First Order’s data hacking capabilities since the run-in at Kamino, and while they hadn’t yet reached a solid consensus--no, he should be optimistic for once on this mission. How likely is it that one of their crew ended up here, anyway--
“We have a Bastian,” the man says. “Recovered from the sabacc tables where the locals from Malastare tend to congregate. Does that sound right?”
Malastare. There had been a Gran at the table where that drinking contest had taken place, right? Poe searches the hazy images floating around that moment and only finds the blank stares of Neimoidian eyes and the dark flow of whatever concoction had been shoved under Snap’s nose at the very end.
“Sounds absolutely right to me,” Snap says.
Half a minute later, Snap and Finn each have a tight hold on each of Bastian’s shoulders as the four of them head back down the hall. It’s quiet, unusually so, and Poe can’t help but wonder what is keeping Bastian from letting loose about what went down after they were separated. The drama should have been approaching one of its first peaks by now, the moment when they all stood on their toes waiting for the inevitable twist and they would fall back down to the flats of their feet with a rush once the dramatic vacuum had been filled.
The lounge where the service hallway emptied out is populated only by a few older couples sipping morning cocktails, and at the sight Bastian finally says something.
Or: he doesn’t so much say something as much as he breaks the silence with a nauseous groan.
“I’m never drinking again.”
It’s a common refrain Poe has heard many time since meeting him, but this time he sounds like he may actually mean it.
“Oh?” Finn says. “That so?”
“And Jessika will be happy to hear that I’m admitting my sabacc game is bad,” he sighs. “I’m not good at it. I lost all my credits and ended up in Drunk Youngling Jail.”
“That’s not what it’s called,” Finn says. He’s trying not to laugh, which only makes Poe want to.
“It’s sure what it felt like.” Bastian groans, trying to keep the bile in his throat as a personal matter, but it comes back up with a couple dry clenching heaves toward the sticky floor.
He can’t come with them like this, and it’s doubtful if he could have had the circumstances not flipped them all on their heads. Poe nods over to one of the chairs that doesn’t look as if it’s secretly made of duracrete and they lead Bastian there, draping him over the thin excuse for a cushion.
“Okay.” Poe grabs Snap and Finn by the arm and pulls them just out of earshot, still close enough that they can see if Bastian tries to wander off. (Which: Force forbid, and it’s unlikely, but Poe doesn’t want to take chances. Not with the kind of luck they’re having.) “His name is in the Praxxa security system and I may not understand a word of what Tabala tells me about over lunch, but--”
“Oh no.” Color drains from Finn’s face. “Would the First Order come here?”
“We don’t know,” Snap says quickly. The let’s think this over rationally voice comes naturally to him but something in it wavers now. “Bastian’s not exactly galaxy-renowned but he did quit the New Republic fleet pretty publically. Made the evening news on at least a couple systems.”
“If their intelligence has its act together, they’ll know who he is.” Poe’s hangover has lingered far past its welcome, extraordinarily past its welcome. It was never welcome, honestly, and that the terrible throbbing in his temple has decided on a resurgence adds another layer of pain.
They exchange glances among each other, heavy with the idea that if none of them were to say what they’re thinking that it couldn’t come true. But Finn’s breathing has gone shallower and Snap seems like he doesn’t know what to say to that. Bastian’s dry wretching over the side of the chair, though, can be managed, so he heads over to him without a word.
“Would you… would you say the First Order has their act together?” Finn asks under his breath. He’s staring at Poe’s chest again, making a half-hearted attempt at eye contact every couple moments.
“I, uh… well. You know what Ematt says--”
“‘The First Order learned from the Empire’s mistakes,’” Finn says. His Ematt impression is getting better. “Yeah. Not all of them.”
“They don’t keep all their records on one planet anymore, though.” That joke again, something to snort to yourself about with the rest of the squadron when sleep wouldn’t come to anyone and the only thing left to be done in the face of the adversary before was laugh. Ello had said it first, uncharacteristically nihilistic of him. They had just gotten back from a run on the secret archival base on a moon of Pakuuni, three new recruits shot down into smoke, and the first word on D’Qar upon their return was about another secret archival base a couple parsecs into the Unknown Regions.
(And Ello had said what he said to a room half-gaping that he would have even thought something like that so casually. “What?” he shrugged. “That battle had more than one consequence.”)
Finn’s mouth catches in a thin line. He doesn’t get the tone. The kneejerk reach for the reference. “Oh, good,” he says a tad too brightly. “Glad it’s funny that they’re more competent than ever.”
“I’m--hey, hey, I’m sorry,” Poe says. Hand on Finn’s elbow, gentle. “Really.”
“I don’t want to face them in a place like this--”
“I know. I know.” He sneaks a glance over to Snap, who’s taken to rubbing Bastian’s back. “I don’t either--I…” A lump hardens in his throat and his fingers absently reach for the ring under his shirt--he can’t make it claim any possessive now, not after everything, so it’s just the ring. Maybe he shouldn’t bring it up but he follows the circular outline of it along the cloth with his thumb and Finn was just talking earlier about hiding things, right? Actively hiding or simply failing to pull to the surface, doesn’t matter, does it? “They killed someone I loved very much, and we had come here together, so…”
“Muran.” Finn says, and his arm leans into where Poe’s hand is still at his elbow. His eyebrows knit together, pinched into an emotion Poe can’t identify despite the familiarity. It sits in the curve of the ring, weighty as it pulls against his neck.
“How do you…” Poe doesn’t like to say his name often, and the old band of Rapier Squadron’s picked up on that and kept it under their tongue the few times he’s come up. But here Finn is, wide open hands curling around the soft round middle of a name Poe only lets himself think of in silent abstract terms.
Both of Finn’s hands are on his shoulders now. “Poe. How much do you remember from last night?”
“Um.” The same walls from before haven’t moved and certain points of the night are still black and empty from where the booze ran at them with scissors. “Even less than I thought, apparently. I…” They squint at each other. “I told you about him?”
Finn’s staring at him and he feels like there’s something else he should say at this point. A reiteration, maybe, or summing up exactly what he does remember in a quick blurb to reassure him of whatever he needs, whatever it is. “You don’t remember the bar with all the water creatures on the walls? Jessika breaking the glass?”
“I wasn’t planning on asking before we got back--” Finn’s attention swerves over Poe’s shoulder, to Bastian trying to swat Snap’s hand away from his back. From what Poe can tell, his aim is about as terrible as it is on the grav-ball field. “Look. Before you went to find Karé--”
“Before I disappeared?”
“Yes.” The intensity of Finn’s eyes on him turns his stomach and he waits for the nausea to start burning. It doesn’t. It doesn’t, and he thinks he might be inclined to let it keep spinning. “We figured out what happened after. What do you remember before you went to go find her?”
He closes his eyes, gets the hazy image of that room before him. Hazy turns to blurry as the group of them in his memory moves over the threshold, and something is loud--and then he’s squeezing the life out of Finn’s hands as he pushes to find Karé at the Ithorian’s bar. Where she wouldn’t be. Which he had forgotten.
So he shrugs, and Finn sighs almost sadly. “Oh. Um, I’m sorry then. I didn’t know--”
But Snap’s shoving a shoulder between them. “Bastian’s not getting much better…”
They drag a table and chairs closer to where Bastian has taken his post to suffer, as he’s put it before, and try to outline the situation. Iolo and Niv incapacitated on the sex show floor, Bastian ready to spill whatever is left in his stomach on the shiny stone underfoot. Jessika and Karé and Nien still unaccounted for. A potential security gap leaking their location to their number-one enemy.
Finn’s distracted, his train of thought veering into a chasm mid-sentence as Snap brainstorms out loud. Poe adds the missing pieces to Snap’s ideas when he hits the wall, just as they always do, but every few moments dark eyes press against his chest, a tender spot on his neck--chased away when Poe tries to catch them. There’s something Poe should understand about this but doesn’t.
“We can’t leave Niv and Iolo up there forever,” Snaps says. “Keshians process alcohol faster than humans, so maybe if we dump Bastian up there he can get them all back to the shuttle to wait for the rest of us.”
“Someone back on base should, uh…” Finn rubs at the corner of his eye. “You know. Be aware of an incoming problem. Not the higher ups,” he adds. “Call Tabala. She can keep a secret.”
“There’s a difference between a secret and keeping intelligence from a superior officer.”
“Snap’s right,” Poe says.
“But.” He holds up one finger. “I also know that the General would want to send in that air support as backup, and if the First Order is already watching movement between our system and Zeltros, it could escalate and get ugly.”
Snap grumbles to himself. Some part of Poe complains as well but he stifles it, throws all his energy into helping Finn carry Bastian to the stairwell and back up to the sixth floor. Snap starts dialing Tabala’s number on his comlink, each button mashed a tad too forcefully, and Poe takes the moment to sneak another glance at Finn. Finding him already staring back.
“Hey Tabala--what? You’ve--look, we’ve had a long couple hours and he might have lost his burner… slow down, we might be talking about the same thing--”
The stairs are slow going and they let Snap jump ahead, take two at a time and leave them on a landing to catch their breath and give Bastian a chance to get the next couple dry retches out of his system.
“What were you talking about before?” Poe asks.
He expects Finn to look away, but he doesn’t. “Nothing,” he says after a moment. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s not nothing. You’re a bad liar.”
“Even if you were right, it doesn’t matter.”
“Finn--yes it does? It obviously does. You can talk to me,” he adds quietly.
He starts pulling them toward the next set of stairs. Biting at the corner of his mouth, a determination set in his brow after he’s looked away like he has to make himself not look back. “Let’s just catch up to Snap.”
He’s gone so far ahead of them that they’re well into the sixth floor by the time they spot him again--the stages are empty and the music muted, though a few Twi’leks mill about at the bar in robes picking at bar food and making conversation with the droid manning the station. Poe can’t tell if they’re regulars who haven’t gotten dressed for the day or the next slate of performers. (A bad stereotype, and he berates himself with a hazy memory of the Neimoidian from last night, and Finn still isn’t looking at him.)
Snap stops without warning, halfway between them and the chair hosting the top of Iolo and Niv’s heads; and Finn sees it as a good sign, he must, because there an extra tug on his side of Bastian as he speeds up, but Poe knows better. In a few moments, Snap is going to turn around and say something neither of them want to hear and it will still come as a complete surprise.
Poe counts to himself, backwards from five. At three, Snap shuts his comlink and slips it back in his pocket, and by the time one is on its way out, he’s pivoted on his heel to face them.
“So what did Tabala say?” Finn asks.
“Something is different between you two, isn’t there?” Snap narrows his eyes and they come to a shuffling stop--it’s about the right amount of distance for a normal conversation, Poe supposes.
(Graced by the groans of the hungover, which maybe does warrant the extra couple feet.)
“That’s, uh… that’s not an answer to my question,” Finn says quietly.
Snap doesn’t move.
“Not sure what you’re talking about.”
It’s only half of a lie and he holds his tone in a place where it would be difficult for Snap to tell one way or another. Lying has always been a clumsy art for him--there’s a reason he sits in an X-wing instead of the alleyways of trading posts tucked away in asteroid belts. Not that he hadn’t thought about himself in that position, an alternate reality where Poe Dameron followed in the footsteps of old Rebel legends that don’t trace back to his parents.
It’s only half a lie because Poe can sense the shifting under his and Finn’s feet but he can’t begin to tell anyone what it means. Not himself. And certainly not Snap.
Something gurgles at the back of Bastian’s throat and he weakly spits it into the carpet before he takes a moment to know better.
“What did Tabala say?” Finn asks again.
“That it was smart of us to check in,” he says. “She had been trying to reach you, Commander, but you haven’t been answering.”
Now that he mentions it, Poe’s left thigh pocket feels far too light. “Kriff.”
“I’d say so.” Snap does a thing with his eyebrows--they furrow and arch too quickly to follow, and it never seems to make sense unless you’re the one he’s looking at when he does it. This time it’s Finn. And as always, Poe is left in the dark. “Anyway. She said that there’s been some unusual TIE fighter activity the next system over since last night. The General hasn’t been alerted since it’s not actually here yet, but… not a good sign.”
“Not at all,” Finn says.
“So are you going to tell me what’s up with you two?”
“It’s nothing!” Poe says. And regrets saying almost immediately: Bastian’s weight pulls heavier on his shoulder the way Finn’s posture slumps. He’s right about one thing, at least. Finn’s a bad liar, though it provides no comfort.
Snap opens his mouth to argue the point but Iolo’s bulbous eyes peek over the back of the seat, bloodshot and laden with dark purple bags but open nonetheless. Open, and blowing his cover as a passed-out drunk in his attempt to glean the latest squadron gossip undetected. “No, don’t mind me,” he says when they head toward him. “I’m just another poor victim of Praxxa left to waste away by my friends who abandoned me--”
“Oh, can it.” Finn shrugs off Bastian until he can slump against Iolo and Niv’s knees.
“Can you get these two back to the shuttle?” Snap taps Niv on the shoulder, tugging at his ear when that fails to rouse him. “‘Cause you’re going to have to.”
“If I must.” Iolo wears the mask of the martyr well, if too often and at occasions far too inappropriate. But it’s familiar, and even though his clothes reek with the odor of dried liquor, he jumps up with a reassuring balance and hoists Bastian and Niv up to their feet. They sway for a moment before Iolo finds their collective center of gravity. “What’s the orders? Something’s happened, you don’t have to tell me that much.”
“Just…” Poe sighs. “Take them back. Keep an eye out for anything suspicious, okay? That means no naps--”
“Really,” Finn says, quickly looking to Poe to back him up.
“If you see anything, call Snap. Not me.”
“He lost his comlink,” Finn says.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Now Iolo is squinting at them, eyeing Snap like the two of them ever had a rapport that could communicate any sort of nuance over a breadth of silence. He’s bad at this and at the Academy they all knew it; the only reason Iolo had passed the intel-gathering portion of the final exams was because Jessika and Muran had stayed up with him the entire night before, armed with flashcards and highlighted notes and an illustrated copy of Andor’s Laws of Intelligence.
Iolo’s round eyes blink at them emphatically, a special kind of Keshian code if there ever was one, and he’s off dragging Niv and Bastian back toward the stairwell. It’s more of an effort than he anticipated from the sound of the labored breathing, and Snap shuffles after him, just to double check. Conscientious almost to a fault, Snap--Poe can appreciate it usually, but not now. Not when everything else is lying heavy on his shoulders.
“I have an idea where Jessika might be,” Finn says after a moment. He stares straight ahead as Snap holds the door for Iolo and the rest of them. His hands squirm into fists shoved deep in his pockets, tense, squeezing something everyone can sense enough to be aware of but not to know. And whatever it is starts to dig straight into Poe’s veins. “I’ll take us there once…” Halfheartedly Finn motions over to Snap, who seems to be shouting at Iolo down a staircase, at least.
“Good… good.” Finn’s face in profile, awash with thought, pulls stronger than the tug of a gas giant’s gravity. It was the kind of gravity his father would warn him about when his cruiser trips began to break through the moon’s atmosphere--Yavin’s dominated your skyline as long as you can remember but it’s not just a backdrop. It’ll suck you into its gravity before you know what happened, and then there’s no escaping.
“Finn,” Poe says after a moment, quieter. “Can you please tell me what you were talking about earlier?”
“I thought you said it was nothing.” But he doesn’t sound despondent, or he’s trying not to. Grins even, though it doesn’t make it all the way up to his eyes in a way that holds a careful pressure on Poe’s lungs. “Snap’s coming back.”
As Finn shares his idea, Poe doesn’t hear much of it. Words fuzz over before they reach his ears, snapping back into focus only when Finn calls his name to follow.
ONE DAY EARLIER
Nien’s lead took them back to the ground floor, and he led them with a tired confidence of someone who didn’t want to take up the mantle of herding the group but knew what would befall them should he refuse. A consequence of being a veteran of the first war, Poe thought, that it came so naturally--Ackbar had it too, some days, when the news stayed on the wrong side of discouraging.
The wrong side of discouraging was where their blood alcohol content sat. Behind Nien, they formed a careful knot of arms to keep track of each other and let Finn, the tallest, be charged with ensuring Nien didn’t slip away like the others. Poe kept a hand on Finn’s collar, let Jessika and Karé hold onto his elbow or shirtsleeve or whatever their fingers could wrap around while they linked their free arms together. A tangle of pilots, a ratking of mistakes and a mission curdling sour under their noses.
But they pushed on.
The atrium had filled itself with more people than likely would have been considered safe on other planets--fire code, emergency protocols, something of the sort regulating common sense--but it was pushed right to the line of where a crowd would turn into a frozen throng.
The bar where they’d first stopped for the night, before they had lost everyone, surprisingly had enough room for them to stand at the counter without accidentally elbowing anyone in the nose. The shift had changed, the old bartenders replaced by a couple frazzled humans and a male Twi’lek who winked at Poe over the headtail wrapped around his neck like a scarf.
“Did he just…?” Finn squinted after him. Twitched out a frown before burying it and motioning toward the closer human, a short woman with short electric-pink hair, for a round of shots with a side pitcher of water.
“Did he just what?” Poe propped his chin up on the bar and glanced at Finn. The frown had come back, the twitch a few moments longer than before.
“I--uh. He just… at you--nevermind,” he said quickly. As soon as the bartender set the shots down, Finn was throwing one back. “I don’t actually know what I ordered.”
Poe held his own shot up in front of his nose: clear liquor, innocuous enough. Over Finn’s shoulder, Snap shuddered one, two, three times as it went down, so maybe it could peel off a thin layer of paint with the right amount of scrub behind it.
His tongue nearly sizzled under the heat of it as he tipped the shot glass back, and the room split apart for a moment before settling back into place. Innocuous, his ass. But Finn--Finn was grinning at him, dark eyes bright with the lights overhead, and somewhere in his head Karé’s waterlogged voice was bordering on smug because the crowd around the bar had started to push and jostle them and Finn’s hand went right to his.
“C’mon, can’t lose you too.”
He pulled him to the far side of the bar’s arc. Nien was holding Jessika’s shot hostage until she finished the entire glass of water, and Karé hardly noticed they’d rejoined the group--she was deep in conversation with another patron at the bar, smiling wider than Poe had ever seen since he met her at the Academy all those years ago.
“Karsan!” She pulled them over. “Look, okay--this is Karsan. Ze and I both got sent to the same bantha fodder of a boarding school on Coruscant together. We haven’t seen each other in ages, what--how long has it been, Kar?”
“Not since you graduated the Academy, I think--”
“Just like what you snuck out of the biology lab and into Professor Cattros’ seat in tenth year--what was it again?”
“Something from a taun-taun, I don’t like to think about it--”
The two of them dissolved into hysterics and Finn squeezed at Poe’s hand, knit a finger along the inside of one of his own. Finn squeezed again and the warmth shot right up the thin skin at Poe’s wrist, through his arm and then to the rest of him, sending his senses buzzing, and could Finn feel this too? Was that why he did it again?
He was too sober for this. The realization that they weren’t going to find Rath Velus that night had already crept into the back of his mind and buried itself there, so what would the shot hurt? He snuck the glass from Nien’s hand while Jessika’s head was tipped back to get the last drops of her water and she didn’t appear to miss the booze when she looked back.
Where the first shot had left his mouth scalded the second paid extra attention, burning so hot that for a moment it went icy with pain. Finn’s hand tightened on his and the searing ebbed back to a tolerable level. He had to fight to keep his balance, to keep from leaning on Finn’s solid frame--because Karé was still with them and he couldn’t have her commentary or subtle smirks out for anyone to decipher, and because he was Poe kriffing Dameron and not being able to hold his booze this long was shameful.
“Your new friend,” Jessika sighed, rubbing at her eyes. “He said our guy was in that big rave room over there?”
Over Nien’s shoulder was an empty doorframe leading from the light airy aesthetic of the atrium into a deep black dotted with strobe lights and lasers. (And a thumping bass, but the chatter dulled that out to a subtle rumble under their feet.) “Couldn’t have been clearer.”
“Snap said he didn’t go to places like that--”
“Which is why he would be there if he didn’t want anyone to find him.” Nien signaled the Twi’lek bartender for another drink, and his bright pink eyes stayed on Poe as he pulled from the liquor cabinet and threw it all over ice. The smile, too, lined with pointed teeth--it had a time and a place, and both had long passed.
(Finn was on the verge of breaking a bone in Poe’s hand.)
“We should go before someone tips him off we’re coming. Because someone likely will.” Nien downed the drink in three gulps and set off, motioned for them to follow.
Jessika hopped up and grabbed Finn’s free wrist. “C’mon, Kun, reunion’s over.”
A path had opened up before them in the crowd--or maybe Nien knew how to shove people out of the way without causing a fuss--and then Poe blinked and the dark of the rave had enveloped them. Blue lights streaked by like stars smudging into hyperspace, bass pressing into his ears hard enough to spin the noise into a new form of silence, and before the room started to spin with it, Jessika pulled the rest of them until their backs were up against a wall. Solid and unmoving.
(And Finn’s hand was still there, in his, between them, thumb rubbing along his knuckle in a slow, careful pattern.)
On the wall, the scene was easier to scope: individual bars lining the facing walls all around the room, a sunken dance floor beneath a concentration of lights that wouldn’t have passed code in a club closer to the Core. Jessika’s face was in his ear just to make sure he heard was she was saying, that Rath Velus--sixty-some-year-old veteran of the war--would not likely be found on the dance floor so that was where they should look. Blend in, watch out for the out-of-place old man slipping between hips buzzed with every substance imaginable in the galaxy.
“Tell Finn and Karé,” she shouted, turning back to Nien.
He looked to Finn. Then beyond.
Karé was nowhere to be found.
Poe read Finn’s lips as he said oh no, lost to the music, right as Jessika started cursing over the screeching treble melody--each syllable as clear as a foggy morning, but audible regardless.
“--Force-fragging fly-brain kriffing Chaos-hole of a planet--”
Nien reached out to offer a calming hand at her elbow but smartly reconsidered.
“We’ll find her,” Poe said, unsure if Jessika could even hear him. “We’ll find her and everyone else. But we need to get our guy too.”
A few deep breaths later they fanned out into the crowd, not straying too far from each other’s sight. Jessika had suggested everyone blend in; she found a Cerean woman almost immediately, ran a finger slowly under her jaw until her knees turned to jelly and tipped her tall head down closer to Jessika’s height; and Nien had apparently long zeroed-in on a knot of fellow Sullustans in the corner involved in who knew what--so then he and Finn were alone.
“So what does ‘blend in’ mean?” he read Finn’s lips saying. “Do what they do?”
Poe shrugged, a last resort when his thoughts started short-circuiting: because yes, let’s do what they were all doing before he died from a lethal combination of anticipation and regret, but no he could kriff this up forever and smear mud on a memory he swore to keep close. Something was bound to spark and blow before too long.
Finn, though--Finn took a breath and acted. Pulled his hand free and placed them both on Poe’s hips, brought them together. Their noses touched, Poe’s breath loud in his ears, the bass from the speakers replaced by his heart punching against his ribs. And Finn smiled and they started to at least try to find the beat under the ruckus and louder than everything was an old memory of Finn’s voice when the thumping was blood pulsing behind an open wound.
This is a rescue.
Finn’s hands crawled up to his shoulders, the base of his neck, and Poe found his own arms hooked around Finn’s back.
Poe wasn’t sure if lore around the Force accounted for souls; at that moment, it didn’t quite matter, since he was sure he’d found the warmest one in the galaxy anyway.
His face split into a wide smile, and then Finn was kissing his front teeth and laughing, and then they got it right. Finally--finally--it was the only word circling in Poe’s head as they grappled at each other, keeping it all steady. Finn’s big warm hands tangled in his hair, his lips on his gentle and eager and still grinning into it. Still grinning as he nipped at Poe’s bottom lip, still grinning when he kissed a line down Poe’s jaw and onto his neck. He started to whine under Finn’s touch, wondered if the vibration buzzing his skin could be sensed as a separate thing from the pulsing music.
When Finn pulled back, Poe took his face in his hands, brought him down for an open-mouthed kiss--uncoordinated, teeth clacking, and something pricking at the corner of his eyes only made him hold Finn closer. But it grew: from a pricking to a burn set to leak, and another face sat behind his eyes, a dead one, and--
“What?” Finn leaned down to try to hear him--
“I’m sorry, I just--I’m going to get Karé a drink, I was just thinking she could use some water--”
“I’ll be right back, I’ll be right--” He squeezed Finn’s hand, walked backwards into a couple of Mirialans and stumbled into a semi-clear path leading up to a bar in the corner manned by a tall Ithorian. Karé liked the bars in the corners right? She did. Of course she did. And the second shot was starting to get to him, the room tilting dangerously back toward the exit to the atrium--and he did need to talk to Karé about this but he had a nagging sense that whatever he told Finn wasn’t quite right, just the first thing to pop into his head.
Where was Karé? He suddenly couldn’t remember.
He should buy her a drink anyway. Right? Right. That spicy Bespinian grog she saved up her credits for. She would appreciate that he remembered, would be less likely to gloat in her own special subdued way when she heard she was right, about this of all things, and she would be much more likely not to hold that against him when--
The ring pulled down at his neck like it weighed thirty pounds.
(He could still feel Finn’s mouth smiling into his own. If he kept going, layer upon layer, years back--)
He motioned to the Ithorian for two shots of Ember Breath. The tiny glasses were warm against his palms when they slid across the bar, and--oh. Of course. They’d lost Karé just like they’d lost Iolo and Niv, and Bastian and Snap, and now that he’d wandered away from the dance floor, they’d probably chalked him up as lost too. The panic dropped into his chest, splashed through the booze and sank slower than it would have otherwise. Otherwise, his breathing would have already turned shallow and quick.
The shots couldn’t go to waste. Bespinian liquor like this had been saved from before the New Republic amid cries that they didn’t make it like this anymore, that it was the pressure of the Empire that gave Ember Breath and its cousins that signature kick. Pouring it out, abandoning it--he could hear Iolo and Karé now--that was spitting in the face of their struggle.
One shot back and Poe understood why Karé was always going on about it. The heat hit the back of his throat like his father’s pepper bantha stew.
Two shots back and he wanted Finn’s hands back touching his hips and his teeth digging into the muscle on his shoulder and the bar was spinning and he couldn’t pick his head out in the crowd. Finn didn’t have that blond hair like Karé, didn’t shine like the beacon he was in a darkness like this. The closest thing to a beacon his hazy eyes could latch onto was the white hair of the man eyeing him from across the bar, the bobbing head as he nudged an empty ale glass back toward the Ithorian’s hand and dodged his way through the drunk patrons crowding the bar and demanding the Ithorian’s attention.
And then he was inches away from Poe’s face.
“You…” The man smoothed out the shoulders of Poe’s shirt. “You are a mess. You are an impressively gay mess.”
“Wh--what?” His thoughts dropped out of his hand and skittered across the floor. “Do I know you--”
“Dameron,” he said under his breath. “We’ve all got ourselves in a bit of a mess right now, you especially. I saw everything, by the way. I’m amazed you’re still standing given...what, the alcohol and your friend back there.”
Nothing Poe tried to look at came into focus. The wavering outlines of the man’s face poked at some memory he had flagged as important, and he squinted harder at him in the flickering lights as if that would give him the answer he needed.
“Should have assumed as much,” the man sighed, and he stuck out his hand in the little space between them. “The name’s Sinjir Rath Velus. I believe you’ve been looking for me.”
“I don’t know why it took me so long to put two and two together,” Finn says. He led them to the nearest stairwell and started down, winding around and around until the air took on a slightly damp, cool quality to it--relative to the rest of the facility, at least--and still he shows no sign of slowing. They might not be jumping down the steps two at a time, but the circles bolster the remaining dregs of Poe’s hangover with unneeded confidence.
He would ask if they’re almost there, but Finn hasn’t stopped talking since they started off on his lead, nor has he turned around to actually look at them as he does so. It’s only increased the frequency of Snap’s curious glances Poe’s way, because apparently everyone knows the one thing Poe has no idea about.
“I came down here when I realized I needed to sleep if I was going to find anyone after last night, and I realized--where was the last place I had seen Jessika? Flirting with that Cerean! And surely in a place like this, they would have places for people to… uh. You know. I mean--” He sighs and mutters to himself, hands worrying at each other. “If the sixth floor is the way that it is, of course they would have something like this. And I passed right by there when I left this morning.”
Fair point--though Poe doesn’t get to say as much. Finn sighs, “Anyway--” and trails off into some incident back on D’Qar where Jessika had regaled them with the story of how a giant sea creature had nearly eaten her as a child back on Dandoran. “I don’t think either of you were there--only half the squadron was sent on a mission, I think--but I’ve never laughed so hard in my life--”
Poe knows the story well: Jessika had used it as an ice-breaker as they stood in line together waiting for dorm assignments at the Academy, something about how if she had survived that then serving in the New Republic Air Navy only made sense. (A ten-minute recounting followed by a pause and hasty introduction, then two weeks without seeing each other before some misspoken rumor made it back to her ears and she popped him in the nose in the mess hall. Fast friends after that, but the bleeding had to stop first.)
At any rate: her old refrain has settled into the back of his head again. Didn’t get eaten then, shouldn’t have any trouble now. Something tells him that’s reason enough to get himself to ease the tension crawling into his muscles, the kernel of truth embedded there, but the First Order is a different beast in the throes of a hangover.
So are many other things, but the First Order especially.
Another couple flights down, Finn finally pushes through a door and into a plush lobby far quieter than even the abandoned bar where Snap had been. Two attendants tapped away at a desk in front of a set of large double doors with a light above the jamb, glaring red.
“We in the right place?” Snap whispers, but Finn shushes him and approaches the desk with a bounce forced into his step.
“Good morning.” Finn leans on the desk with one arm and while he may have seemed confident on the short walk over, his tone is already overdoing it. “How are--”
One of the attendants glances up at them briefly before turning back to her holoscreen. “Sorry, all of our threesome pods are currently booked.”
Finn splutters for a moment, Poe and Snap speeding over to join him.
“I’m sorry,” she continues, “but I don’t care how much all of you beg. It doesn’t make them any less full, and it’s Praxxa policy not to rent our higher-capacity rooms to parties of three or less--"
“We’re not trying to have an orgy,” Snap says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We just want to find someone.”
“Sir, I frankly don’t care what you call it. The rooms are full.”
“Stars--look. We think someone we know might be down here and we’ve been trying to find her for hours.” Snap’s hands have gripped onto the inside edge of the desk, knuckles starting to go white as all his frustration channels down there in preparation for his future arthritis. And while the attendants don’t unpurse their lips, they at least start to ask questions that could possibly help them.
Finn, meanwhile, is stuck looking at his shoes, and Poe stares down at his own mismatched problem. The hole in his exposed sock has grown large enough to stick two toes through; the soft carpet here is a nice change of pace from the sticky stained patches elsewhere in the city, as is the calmer air in the lobby, Snap aside.
But also: the tense coil of some unpleasant feeling around Finn pushes against Poe’s skin differently than what he’s known from Snap--not an extension from the curt exchange with the attendant but something else all his own, and he’s staring at his shoes, clenching his toes under the worn leather. Poe reaches to put a hand on his elbow but he shifts away. Almost imperceptibly, but just enough.
“Like I said, the last name is Pava--well… check ‘Testor,’ she’s smart,” Snap says. “She might not have--look, let me spell it. Trill, esk, senth--”
“Are you okay?” Poe asks Finn quietly. “Do you need to sit down--”
“Poe. I’m fine. I just…” he sighs. “I want to get out of here.”
“You and me both.” Poe instinctively reaches out again, this time toward Finn’s shoulder, but now he doesn’t move away. His hand lands, squeezing slightly, and while Finn leans into it, his jaw tightens. Teeth grinding.
Snap asks him for Jessika’s grandmother’s first name--the usual alias that she spoke of, when she would give the cops the run-around on Corulag, was always her grandmother tacked on to her nickname and Jessika is nothing if not secretly sentimental, so of course Fable Testor shows up in the registry. The pods don’t have public numbers, though, so they’ll have to find another means to track her down.
“We’ll manage.” Snap offers a halfhearted thumbs-up and grabs Finn and Poe by the elbows to lead them to the double doors. The light overheard blinks green, and once they’re through, something latches tight with a loud click, echoing as loudly as it can despite the carpet and low ceilings.
“How exactly are we supposed to manage?” Finn says. “This hallway is enormous and--”
Snap’s already tapping Poe on the shoulder. Keeping at it even as he gives him the attention he wants, a grumbling sigh--and he should have known Snap would expect this from him. We’ll manage. When has that ever led to a plan that didn’t involve turning to Poe and waiting patiently, as if he could read their minds for what they wanted?
(When? Poe can tell anyone who asks when. Once. Just outside Dathomir’s orbit. And no one brings that mission up for a reason.)
(So he can’t exactly turn Snap’s poor attempt at doe-eyes down.)
“I’m missing something,” Finn says.
“At least it’s a running theme for all of us,” Poe says quickly before taking a deep breath and setting his feet. “TEST-OR!”
Finn jumps halfway into the wall. “Force, man, give me some warning next time before you scream in my ear!” He looks to Snap for support and finds nothing but a shrug. Not even a whole shrug: half of one, a limp offering of a single shoulder. “I hope she heard that. Somehow. You know--I don’t know. This was a bad idea. There’s probably loads of Fable Testors in the galaxy and we’ve just wasted more of our time--”
Poe opens his mouth to stem the flow of doubts, the sound of squeaky hinges cutting him off. Twenty pods down the hallway, Jessika’s unmistakable bedhead inches past the door and it’s sticking up at angles he hadn’t known were possible for hair that long--still a calmer sight than the state of her tunic, the collar stretched out so it droops off her shoulder.
Snap murmurs beside them: “Three, two, one--”
She turns. Doesn’t jump--Jessika Pava does not jump from anything resembling alarm--but instead attempts to settle her tunic better on her shoulders, which only makes it droop the other way. She pays no attention to how it falls far up on her pantless legs, because of course she doesn’t.
Finn diverts his eyes, landing on Poe and then quickly shifting back to his own feet.
“Well then,” she calls. “‘Bout that time?”
“You could say that,” Snap says.
The Cerean Poe remembers from the night before shuffles around the door after her in a similar state of disarray--and a familiar blonde head follows after her.
Snap coughs on his words before he can get them out. “Wait--Karé?”
Everyone starts talking at once: Finn relieved to have found more of the squadron than they counted on, the Cerean woman casually backing into the pod and out of the fray while peppering the space around Jessika with flimsy excuses, and Snap and Karé shouting past each other.
Or--not shouting, but a version of it. The air is charged enough with the tension they’ve supplied to light up with volume but they keep it rolled up, hidden from view, and each sentence is wound so tightly interjecting would risk it all really erupting into something else entirely.
Jessika and Poe, they watch in silence. Exchange blank looks with each other, and he likes to think that they know each other well enough for her to understand that this ought to wait for D’Qar. But her nose wrinkles, a smaller substitute for a shrug. What do you expect me to do, Dameron? it says.
“Listen, Snap. We hooked up two times before--stars, that mission, and not once did you say we were exclusive, so I don’t know where this is coming from--”
“We’d been toeing around this for ages, but apparently it wasn’t as big of a deal as it seemed if you had… with them--you know--”
“Sex?” Karé says, hands on her hips. “Doesn’t surprise me you can’t say it since you’re acting like a kriffing child--”
“Hey, come on--”
“No, you come on. Whatever happened between us never came up after that, so if it was so important to you why didn’t you say something?”
Snap’s mouth hangs open, closes, then bites down on a couple unfinished thoughts that fall to his feet in silence. It comes out as splutters, and Karé’s impatience visibly grows. “I just thought--”
“You sure about that? You really think you thought this through?”
The bickering continues but now they step closer together to keep their barbs no louder than a hiss, and Jessika’s managed to pull her clothes on and tame her tangled hair in the messiest braided bun Poe’s ever seen come from the ends of her fingers--settling between him and Poe, she leans one elbow on each of their shoulders and sighs. “So, uh… I’m gonna go ahead and say this is my bad.” A beat, and she glances at Finn. “They’ll be fine,” she tells him. “One shouting match in this squadron means nothing--”
“I’m not worried about them,” Finn says quickly.
“What about, then? Something’s off with you--”
“Jess…” Poe says. “Our location here has possibly been compromised.”
Her head swivels between Snap and Karé’s argument and the spot on the carpet where Finn has taken to staring--Poe can’t decide whether it’s a good thing that he’s moved on from his shoes, on to the lone dark spot in the entire length of the soft cream color beneath them. When Poe looks closer, he sees it’s worn down a bit further than everywhere else around it, like the cleaning crew has been directed here time after time in a vain attempt to scrub it out for good.
“We need to get going, then, don’t we?” She sneaks one more look at Finn before doubling down into her knit-brow resolution Poe’s watched so many times on the other side of D’Qar’s situation room. “So is there a plan? Or is our plan just ‘get out as fast as we kriffing can’?”
They fill her in: the rest of the squadron is back at the shuttle except for Nien, and if they can track him down, getting out of Zeltros’ orbit would be easier than outrunning a pregnant bantha. And knowing Nien, he wouldn’t be far from the sabacc tables at this hour. Tracking down Rath Velus would have to wait until the next open window.
“General’s not going to like that,” Jessika says, grimacing.
“I… may have accidentally overheard her talking to our favorite Mon Calamari Admiral one night,” she says. “Late night tuning up Iolo’s poor astromech and bothering Tabala, as I do…”
Poe blinks a couple times, which she’s long known is his way of telling her to get to the kriffing point. (And if Finn hides a grin, Poe makes no mention of it--just holds the sight in his palm against the slick creep of worry knowing he could ease Finn’s own for a fraction of a second.)
“They’ve been trying to find this Sinjir guy for awhile,” she says quietly. “This is the first time he’s cropped up on our radar and we might not get lucky again.”
“I don’t know why you were expecting anything easier.”
“All right,” he sighs. “Well… we have to break up this whole thing, don’t we?”
Jessika holds up one hand and strides over to the epicenter of it all, wading through the ripples pushed forth from pointed fingers and accusations strained through gritted teeth. The Resistance’s local bomb diffuser, if bombs were people and well-placed winks were cutting the right wires. Within a couple moments, both Snap and Karé’s jaws relax and an extra six inches is further teased between them.
(You only need those “Jedi mind tricks” if you have no social skills, she said once. And Poe suspects there might actually be something to it.)
“We’re going to be okay, you know,” he says to Finn almost as soon as he finishes the thought. “We won’t let them--I just…”
Finn smiles, closed-mouth and tight against the shining reassurance that would split his face wide open. “I know. I trust the squadron… I trust you. Just thinking about something Karé said.”
He could press him for it. He could. And the question hurries to the front of the line sitting against his teeth, waiting. In vain, likely, even though most other parts of him are begging him to be upfront for once. Just this once.
Now Finn is staring at him, though not head-on--out of the corner of his eyes like he’s fighting it, like he doesn’t want to be looking but can’t help it. When Poe offers him a grin, he returns it, a reflex. It never reaches up to the whole of his face.
The ring around his neck tugs heavy and the specter of old warmth sits in his palm, the shells of his ears. There’s a line tied between them that’s new, that Poe can’t articulate. The text is there but smudged into nothing.
“The thing is…” Finn says, and Poe catches him biting his lip and their eyes meet and it’s uncomfortable, locking right onto his pupils like that without a hope of letting go. “I get what she’s saying. But I get him, too. Snap.”
Poe’s mouth goes dry. He should be able to parse something from this, shine a light into the dark of those pupils of Finn’s where he can’t stop staring and see the missing piece. But it doesn’t work that way. (--now does it? adds Muran’s voice in his head, not from any memory. The inflection isn’t right but the chiding is familiar in a way that hurts.)
(Not like it used to, no. Not like it used to at all.)
“Yeah?” Poe says finally. “How’s, uh… how’s that?”
Finn sighs. “Poe--”
“All right, you two--we’re going!” Jessika calls from down the hall. Both of her arms are looped in Snap’s and Karé’s, pulling them and their sheepish frowns back their way and towards the exit. “We find Nien, we find our target, we leave this stars-forsaken system before anyone nefarious can find us--that is the plan, Commander, right?”
He waits until the door to their pod clacks shut over her shoulder--tactically speaking, it’s smart to wait until the Cerean is out of earshot to confirm, but he also needs the extra time to ensure his head’s on straight again. Every thought takes a zig-zag corkscrew loop on the way to his mouth. “Yeah… yeah that sounds about right. But Nien--”
“Ati-Gor-Nulla mentioned there’s a gang of Sullustans that likes to hit the sabacc tables early in the morning,” she says, nodding back to the unseen Cerean.
“Not an actual gang, right?” Snap asks.
“Wh--I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t think there’s a specific way to refer to a group of them. Is there?” She glances at Karé, who shrugs.”Whatever. Sabacc is up where that drinking contest was last night, supposedly. Even if he’s not there, they might be the same group he was with last night, so… still helpful.”
Another tug and the three of them traipse to the door, Karé prodding at Snap why he was so concerned about literal Sullustan gangs (“It’s a long story, okay?”) and, of course--Jessika being Jessika, sensing too many odd vibes in the air and giving Poe a quizzical look over her shoulder before he and Finn have a chance to collect themselves to follow.
“This is such a mess,” Finn says to himself.
It’s quiet enough that Poe knows he shouldn’t say anything back, even to offer a simple nod; this hurt is new, the echo of Muran absent--his hands left cold and helpless and wondering how culpable they are in the mess that Finn sees.
Because it’s not a question of if. It’s definitively how, the kind of how that’s made it tempting to kiss to Finn’s temple laced with every apology and every rhyme of it he can think of. But all he can manage for the moment, at least, is to look back to his hands.
ONE DAY EARLIER
Sinjir Rath Velus was not at all what Poe expected him to be.
To be fair, his expectations hadn’t been anything too concrete. A name dropped here or there in the Academy’s tactical history lessons on the war, a backtracked tangent after Snap had far too much to drink, the briefing before they landed on Zeltros at all. Still: something told Poe to imagine a tall man with subtle muscles that had defied the pull of aging, eyes that glinted with the kind of faraway wisdom he often saw in General Organa, in Lando Calrissian the one time he stopped by D’Qar after Starkiller.
Sinjir wasn’t tall. He wasn’t muscular in any sense of the word, and the only concrete thing Poe could pin down in his stare was a fifty-fifty meld of hard liquor and fatigue. His dark skin held well-worn wrinkles that were re-creasing themselves in real time.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” Sinjir said.
“I, uh--what did you just call me? Something about me being a gay mess?”
“You and that tall good-looking boy over there were sucking face harder than a rathtar, were you not? Don’t answer that,” he said after a moment. “Not the point… which is I know that you’ve been sent to find me, and now you have.”
The spicy aftershocks of the Ember’s Breath had crawled up Poe’s sinuses and as his eyes watered, he tried to blink it all away. Sinjir only frowned at him and grabbed him by the elbow, pulling him around the bar into the far dark corner and through a door no one would have thought to look for. Another corner and they stopped abruptly--flickering war-era light fixtures and drab grey walls lined with pipes along the ceiling indicated it was likely a service hall.
“What was all that for?” Poe said.
“You think we could’ve had a productive conversation out there? Please.” Sinjir sighed, crossed his arms. Leaned against the wall opposite of Poe, the quirk of his eyebrows bored and curious at the same time. “They didn’t send you out here alone, did they?”
“No? No… General Organa--”
“Wait, General? Oh, right, you were answering my question. Carry on.”
“Yeah, uh…” Poe sighed. “She sent a lot of us out here but…”
“Praxxa being what it is, et cetera et cetera,” Sinjir said. “I know. Too much grog. Got lost. Fell tongue-first into another person’s mouth, as you seemed to have done.”
“Was that why you called me a ‘gay mess’?”
Sinjir shrugged. “It’s how you got separated from my search party, wasn’t it?”
“Wh--Finn is part of our group! He wasn’t a stranger--”
“Explain to me, then, why you were sprinting away from him as fast as drunkenly possible.” Faced with Poe’s silence once more, Sinjir took it upon himself to fill it, at least more than the buzzing lights overhead could manage. He groaned, assessing Poe’s appearance and the specific angle of his sway. “You need to get something other than booze in you before you pass out. Come on.”
For his build, Sinjir had a strong grip--that, or the alcohol had soaked so deeply into Poe’s bones that it left them malleable to an old man’s fingers wrapped around his forearm. He took them further down the hall, in the opposite direction of the red arrows with EXIT printed in their borders, and this time he didn’t try to address the quiet between them.
It wasn’t pleasant.
“I think I, uh… I panicked,” Poe said after a few moments.
“You what--kriff, the back door to that spa is supposed to be close, where is it--”
“I… panicked? When I kissed Finn? Look, look, I don’t have to explain my problems to you--”
“And I would rather you not,” Sinjir said brightly. “See? Same page.”
“--so I would, just… really appreciate if you kept the judgment to yourself, all right?”
Sinjir’s free hand gave him a thumbs up as they came to a fork in the hallway. A little further down the left passage was a sign pointing towards a ‘fresher, and within a couple hazy moments Poe found himself shoved in front of the sink and a steady stream of cold water. “Drink, please.”
“I don’t want anyone dying of alcohol poisoning on my watch, much less some rebel darling,” Sinjir said. “That’s not my title for you. You’re just very recognizable.”
Poe sighed and stuck his face under the faucet. The water was far colder than anything D’Qar managed to supply in the base’s old pipes and it sent a jolt through his system that cut through the settling fog of drunkenness like a hot knife--the situation was suddenly, alarmingly clear but the dehydration was louder. He gulped down several more cheekfuls of water before standing back up to face Sinjir with all the dignity he could have with the leftovers dribbling down his chin.
“--you knew we were here the whole time? I--why--what is your problem?”
Sinjir crossed his arms, leaned against the toilet stall, and waited. Made a face at him, too, and Poe couldn’t have been sure if it was the alcohol talking or a simple nib of truth hitting him square in the teeth, but it was a face he’d seen Snap make countless times over the course of their friendship. At Poe himself, at Jessika, at the questionable food they’d been served at the New Republic barracks.
“My--my problem? You think I have a problem?"
“You don’t disappear off the face of the galaxy with no warning if you don’t,” Poe said.
Sinjir blinked at him a few times. “I’m not sure you’re in the position to be accusing other people of problems, or did you forget you were swapping spit with your fellow rebel before running away from him?”
“That’s… that’s different.” He crossed his arms to reflect Sinjir’s own smug stance back at him, and by the frown he received in return, he must have noticed. “You’re missing…” The wave of sobriety ebbed and tried to take the thought with it. “Context! You’re missing a… uh, a lot of context.”
“And you’re absolutely positive you’re not missing any of this context on your end? Hey,” he added as soon as Poe opened his mouth. “I swear on the stars if you say ‘that’s different’ again I will leave you here. I might even lock the door.”
Sinjir motioned back to the sink again with a halfhearted wave. Poe snuck a closer glance at his face before putting his mouth back under the faucet--the man looked a kind of tired that was closer to bone-weary than normal fatigue, bags pulling at his eyes until the weight was too much and left them narrowed in a permanent scowl at the rest of the galaxy.
No, he was not what Poe had expected at all; even when the squadron’s briefing had included that Sinjir could be called “snarky” or “insufferable,” he assumed it had to have been an exaggeration. It didn’t make sense in his head otherwise--defectors weren’t known for their hostility. More than once he thought that was what predicated their leaving, the lack of it, the warmth rooted there instead.
(He thought of Finn. He thought of his Academy classes on the Battle of Scarif, the accounts of Bodhi Rook left by Mon Mothma and Admiral Raddus.)
Once he stood back up, Sinjir eyed him like he was waiting for something else to dig a knuckle into his side. And Poe stared right back. “Y’know,” he said, “I didn’t think I was going to get threatened by someone from the New Republic tonight.”
Sinjir snorted. “First of all, that wasn’t a threat. You’d know if I was threatening you. Second of all, I’m not New Republic… free agent, more like.”
“So you defected again,” Poe said. “Getting to be pretty good at that.”
Sinjir chewed at the inside of his cheek, dug the toe of his shoe into the grout lining the tile floor. Poe’s heart leapt up to his throat as Sinjir’s mouth pursed tight and his fingers caught themselves stuck halfway to a fist. “I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered to himself, gripping Poe’s elbow again. He took a couple steps like he was about to continue dragging Poe down the service hallway until he whipped back around. “If I had really defected, I wouldn’t be telling you that your group’s had a tail since you got here.”
“First Order,” he said. “Three of them. Plainclothes, but they’re not subtle. Don’t walk like normal people, don’t keep their voices down…” He shook his head, a deep frown pulling down the corners of his mouth for half a moment. “Anyway--I decided to follow them and not long after that did I find all of you. And all of you…” he sighed, “you’re not much better. Worse, actually.”
Poe blinked at him.
“Do you need me to say it all again, Commander Drinks-on-the-Job, or--”
“No, no,” Poe said. “I’m… processing. I’m processing it. I…”
“Process faster. We’re on a schedule, believe it or not.” He apparently reminded himself of that detail and quickly shouldered through the door with Poe in tow, retracing their steps in the hall--the bass on the other side of the wall swelled and faded as they passed the door they’d come through and ventured further into the bowels of the building.
Sinjir stayed quiet for a couple turns, a set of stairs here and there that connected various parts of the floors together; and while Poe knew, on some level, that it would have been smart to keep track of every left and right, his thoughts strayed back to the dark thumping room and the hollow inside Finn’s collarbone that he hadn’t gotten the chance to press his lips to before running like a spooked taun-taun. Liquor-logged and heavy, his mind’s eye trotted out the same images in a slow loop: Finn’s smile flashing green and blue in time with the music, the thin eclipse of his eyelashes when he turned toward the lights at the right angle--
“Can I ask you a question about this mission of yours?”
They’d stopped--for how long, Poe wasn’t certain, but Sinjir had released his arm to perch on the middle of three steps leading to another fork in the hall. Along the wall, a lopsided New Republic insignia tried to cover up the smattering of graffiti, but the text was still visible if he squinted--VADER LIVES.
“Only if I can ask you one back.”
Sinjir chewed at his bottom lip as he considered. “Fair enough,” he sighed. “Me first. Why are they suddenly so eager to have me back now? It’s been almost seven years since they went off on this little project of theirs--”
“The First Order was manageable before Starkiller,” he said. “But… c’mon, it’s not hard. We lost a lot of resources in that assault… a lot of good people. And we always had less than they did. We could really use you.”
Sinjir stared at him like he was trying to bore a hole through Poe’s head. Absently worried at a hangnail on his little finger until a glob of blood rose at the corner. “I’ve been out of that game a long time, far longer than I was ever in it.”
“They know,” Poe said. The laser focus it took to keep his speech from sinking into the booze in his system was starting to drain him.
“We were still sent here, weren’t we?”
Sinjir frowned and glanced up at the ceiling--maybe an eyeroll that he had second thoughts about halfway through. “Fine.”
“So…?” Any other time, with fewer drinks under his belt, Poe would have landed on his feet with a convincing closing remark. Now, he could only offer a hopeful shrug, all wit abandoned in the glasses he left at the bars, in the dried rings of liquor that never made it into his stomach.
“I’ll think about it,” Sinjir said. “Go on, what are you so kriffing curious about?”
“Can I sit down… uh, next to--”
“Not a lot of room, but we’ve come this far.” Sinjir slid closer to the wall, and barely an inch of space was left between them once Poe managed to settle himself after half falling onto the step. “We’re still on a schedule,” he said lightly.
“I know.” Poe ran a couple fingers through his hair just to give himself something to fidget with and a solid comforting pressure against his head. The same patterns that his mother--no, not now--“So if you didn’t defect from the New Republic, why did you leave?”
Sinjir had been trying to keep eye contact with his wandering gaze, but Poe watched it fall to his shoes almost immediately after he asked.
“General still doesn’t know. No one does.”
When Sinjir looked back up at him, a laugh was playing at the corner of his mouth, an odd mirth in the way his brow pushed into out-of-practice lines. “Oh, but they’ve guessed, haven’t they? They’ve talked. I know the Senate--sure, they might play the part of distinguished diplomats, but they’re all… they were--were a bunch of gossips at heart.” He coughed, cleared his throat. “‘Rath Velus hates all politicians, but hated Chancellor Mothma just a little less, couldn’t stand to serve anyone else,’” he said, a bad high-society Correllian accent rounding his speech. “Bantha fodder. I mean, don’t get me wrong. They needed me--don’t think I didn’t hear about that Populist and Centrist nonsense.”
“But what really--”
A certain inertia had taken hold on Sinjir--any remnants of the lightness he’d held had slipped away and from the grimace that replaced it, he knew the rate he was dumping details at Poe’s feet was picking up speed. “That had been stirring for two years before Mon stepped down and I had kept it in check, you know, because that was part of my duties. And then it wasn’t. Because Mon was sick and…” He glanced up at the two pointed tips of the New Republic emblem on the wall, the familiar wings of the Rebel Alliance starbird. Squinted at it. Searching for something, maybe, or just needing a place to rest his eyes somewhere pointing towards the sky.
“You look blackout-drunk,” Sinjir said. “So it doesn’t matter if I tell you all this or not, does it?” He didn’t wait for Poe to answer. “Mon got sick, and Conder had just told me--he too… was… I thought it would be better to get away from Chandrila, take him someplace like Scarif without all the bad blood.”
Poe must have made a face at the casual mention of the planet--Sinjir sighed and ran a hand over his face, continuing, “You know, away from that main command center, it was really a beautiful place--but… bad blood. It was sectioned off, anyway, and Conder wouldn’t have… he was… I wanted to make him happy and that wouldn’t have done it. Well.” He shrugged. “He’d always wanted to see those big lakes in the Naboo countryside. They were nice, I guess. He liked them well enough.”
After a moment, Sinjir glanced down at his chrono and before Poe could blink, his hand was at his elbow again, tugging him up the last stair and further down the hall. The lights had flickered themselves into a halfway state, buzzing louder than their counterparts he’d seen elsewhere, on the brink of shorting out for good. “Do you want to tell me what this schedule is?”
“You’ll know soon enough. Not that you knowing is all that important.”
“Well do you want to tell me who Conder is, then?”
Sinjir skidded to a stop, Poe stumbling over his feet to stay upright as his center of balance sloshed around on the dregs of booze left in his bloodstream. “I called you a gay mess, Dameron,” he said, “because I know acutely what one looks like.” He looked hard into Poe’s eyes, the solid hold that wanted to send the thoughts from pupil to pupil to save his mouth the trouble. Of course, that never worked, and Poe recognized the resignation falling over Sinjir’s brow. “He’s dead.”
“I’m…” Something in Poe’s chest twisted in on itself. “I’m so sorry--”
“You asked, didn’t you?”
The grip at his elbow adjusted itself, harder now, and they kept moving. Sinjir didn’t spare his chrono nor Poe another look, just murmuring to himself not much louder than the incessant buzzing of the lights overhead. And whatever had twisted in Poe’s chest kept at it, over and under itself, again and again until the pain sprouted white-hot. Peaked to a hard point and ebbed back--and when Poe blinked through it, he felt his cheeks go damp.
A number of turns later--five or six, Poe hadn’t bothered to count--Sinjir pulled them to a stop in front of a durasteel door, deep maroon paint chipped away in splotches to reveal the dull metal underneath. Dropping Poe’s elbow, he held a loose fist over one of the splotches. Sniffled just the once, cleared his throat.
“I have to meet them here at this exact time,” Sinjir said, “for security reasons. If I’m late, something’s happened. If I’m early, whoever I’m with made me take them here.” He knocked four times--c-clang clang clang--and within a few seconds two sets of eyes were peering at them through the crack in the door. “Come on, everything’s fine. This is who I was telling you about over the comlink.”
The two whispered to each other behind the door.
“One of them, I mean,” Sinjir sighed. “Please? I’m starving.”
Finally the door groaned open; Sinjir pushed Poe through with a solid hand on his shoulder and slammed it shut behind them with a kick. The room was sizable, comfortable enough for five people to live in without stepping all over each other: along the back wall was a jumble of cots and blankets with an old conservator in the corner, a long wooden table sat at the center of the room just after a minefield of cushions that must have been salvaged from a busted couch.
And at the table four human kids were staring Poe down--no, no, not kids, they weren’t small. Teenagers, likely. They couldn’t have been more than a few years younger than Rey, and they had that same look in their eyes that Finn described after first meeting her on Jakku. As familiar as it seemed, he didn’t know what to make of it, what he was supposed to make of it.
“You know what this planet is good for, Dameron?” Sinjir strode over to the conservator and pulled a bottle of ale from the door, yanked the cap off in his fingers. “Because it’s not much.”
“What, want one?” he said, shrugging to the line of identical bottles beside him. “Not a smart move in your state, but do what you want.” A few seconds passed before Poe could begin to think of a response, and Sinjir took the silence as a yes.
(And what could it hurt, really, just one more ale? It wasn’t as if he were taking another round of shots of the latest mystery liquor one of the squadron had drummed up, and his head was getting cotton-thick, anyway. All the hours up, the older booze seeping out of his system, the knot winding its way around his lungs--where was Finn, why did he leave him there? He’d panicked, he said: since when did Poe Dameron panic? And looking at Sinjir, these kids, it made him ache.)
Pulled from his thoughts as Sinjir pressed a sweating ale into his hand, Poe followed to sit beside him at the table opposite the others and drained half the bottle in a couple gulps.
“Should he really be knocking it back that fast?” the one the furthest to the left asked as he brushed floppy black hair out of his face.
The girl beside him shoved her elbow in his side. “Don’t be rude.”
“I’m not being rude! Since when is concern considered rude?”
The last two--who looked to be identical twin girls--exchanged eye rolls and stayed silent. Sinjir, too, didn’t say a word, watching the argument over the lip of his ale bottle as it heated and finally cooled into a bitter detente. “Well,” he said. He set the bottle down in the middle of the table as if to punctuate the entire exchange. “Are you through?”
“I guess,” the girl muttered.
“So…” The ale was zipping up to Poe’s head faster than he expected, and when he checked the label--Pamarthan Salt Lager. The same Pamarthe that brewed Snap’s near-downfall. Of-kriffing-course. “So…” he tried again. “Um… this set-up here--”
“Like I was saying earlier, this planet isn’t good for much,” Sinjir said. “People come here to drink the rest of their lives away--it’s very good for that. Sometimes the galaxy has other plans.”
The kids stared at him, at Poe, and then back to him. “You’re welcome,” said the twin on the far end. “By the way.”
Poe pointed between the two of them. “Uh--”
The same twin turned to him, stage-whispering behind her hand. “Zeltros is good for other things, too. Like hiding. From, say… the First Order--”
“Most of the time at least,” the other twin said.
“I--um, I’m sorry,” Poe spluttered. “What--”
“Proud traitors, buckethead dropouts,” the boy on the other side said. “You know. I mean--which one are you? Dameron? Of course you should know, come on.”
Maybe their earlier familiarity hadn’t stemmed from Rey at all. He took Finn’s words, laid it over the freeze-frame of a memory of a star destroyer’s cramped closet, and the gaps slipped away. And as the ale sank deeper into his veins, he found himself reaching for a hand that was on the other side of three walls and a misunderstanding. Coming up empty and waiting for it to hit his stomach, that swoop of missing a step on the staircase.
“You were stormtroopers,” he said quietly.
“Emphasis on the past tense,” the first girl said. She sniffed, wrinkling her freckled nose. “And now we’re here. With him.” She glanced over at Sinjir, who shrugged. “I’m Ralla. I’m the one who tipped Sinjir off about the First Order.” With that, she straightened her posture, clearly either proud or making a point whose context Poe was ignorant of, and somehow he was only getting drunker as time passed.
He hadn’t had any more of that ale, or--no, the bottle was in his hand, empty save for the last golden dregs growing warm at the bottom. Kriffing Pamarthe and its fragging alcohol. Ralla was introducing the rest of them, the twins with names that differed only by vowels and the boy called something straight out of the old Jedi Council archives. Hyphenated and choppy. Still they fell through his fingers, and bits of the last hour followed. Who had he been looking for when he left Finn? How did they get from the rave to that ‘fresher?
(And why had he thought leaving Finn there was the best idea, because that was the biggest mystery, the one his thoughts kept swirling back to--in the raucous pumping throng, Finn had been the one steady thing. Not an anchor, but close to it. Deeper, with roots through the duracrete and into the core of the planet itself.)
“--but at that point,” the boy was saying, “we just see this guy passed out before security came by to haul the casualties of the night up to the Shame Cells, and Ralla isn’t convinced he’s going to live long enough for that, so now we’re stuck with each other.”
“A good way of putting it,” Sinjir sighed, but the corner of his mouth twitched thinking about a grin. Or so Poe’s blurring vision assumed. “Hey--Dameron, are you all right?”
“‘M fine,” he said. Tried to say. Didn’t quite say.
“Shouldn’t have given you this, after all. Hm. Okay--”
At some point Poe must have shut his eyes because the outbursts that followed hung in the air untethered to anything. Chair legs scraping the floor. Ralla and the boy arguing about--no, the boy and one of the twins, or Sinjir and one of the twins, something about no one having to give up their beds or share, the ethics behind giving a drunk man Pamarthan beer.
“It’s irresponsible to not keep him here--”
“Juva,” Sinjir said. “I get that. I get what you’re saying. But--”
And Poe was being hoisted up by the armpits, his shoe catching on the bottom of his seat and tipping it over with a dull clunk.
“--considering the situation, he’s got to reconnect with his group. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not wake up tomorrow morning with a Resistance member pointing a knife at me because he can’t remember how he got here or who we are.”
The silence left his ears ringing. His balance was getting better and his eyes were open, and Sinjir really was very smart, wasn’t he? Getting him back to Finn. Thinking ahead. No wonder General Organa wanted him back with the Resistance so badly. Oh, and Poe wanted to get back there too, his bunk with the flat pillows he loved so much, and with the temperature on D’Qar starting to dip he could pull Finn onto the thin mattress beside him and they wouldn’t be tempted to wear the full fatigues to bed to keep warm.
That’d be nice.
“I’d remember you,” Poe said. “I don’t… I don’t even like knives.”
One of the kids laughed, stopped abruptly. Did Sinjir make a face at them to hush? Likely--very likely, seeing how he is and especially seeing how his grip under Poe’s arms was digging into his ribs now. With less grog in his system, it might have hurt.
“Superb delayed reaction, Dameron. Well done. Jevi, you’re in charge this time. Back in half an hour, set the clocks.”
The door groaned open and muted the chatter once it closed. Back outside in the hall, then, he realized--the buzz of the lights sat just inside his ear, amplified, and the duracrete wall was cool against his back. Sinjir held him there by the shoulders, arms extended--when he pried open his eyes, the snark he’d assumed to be typical was gone from his face, something invisible drooping behind his eyes. Like General Organa when she thought no one was looking.
“I’m sorry,” Sinjir said quietly. “I’ve been knocking back Pamarthan brews so long that I forgot they’re not typically light fare. I forgot it wasn’t like those watery ales in those Core worlds tourist traps. Kriff. Kriff. Now it’s all gone to hell--”
“I was going to help you!” he said. And loudly--very loudly, overtaking the lights and making him squint into the noise, wires in his head crossing and insisting that would help. “I’d figured out a plan! The five of us were going to get your group back together tonight and off this Force-forsaken planet--”
“Sin… Sinjir, hold on.” If he spoke slowly enough, his tongue wouldn’t trip over itself. “I can stay here, we can go in the morning.”
“No.” Sinjir’s hand latched onto his elbow to pull him up from the wall, sliding around his back for extra support as he led them back from where they’d came. “I don’t know you from any other lump of flesh in this galaxy and I’m not risking those kids.”
Questions lined up on Poe’s tongue, vague and amorphous, touching the ideas of life debts and guilt and a sense of responsibility; they never quite formed to the point where he could voice them. Nor would he have had the the chance to--every time the threads thought about coming together, Sinjir would open his mouth again and it would all pop loose.
“They certainly have enough to worry about. And so do you. So listen carefully, Dameron--we’re headed back to where we met. I’m going to find your man, point him out in the crowd to you, and you’re going to go to him.” Another small flight of stairs to stumble down, a couple turns, all following the exit arrows on the walls this time. “You are going to go to him--” And they were at the door now, bass pounding on the other side of the wall, and how had the trip back been so much shorter? “--and you’re going to not be a mess. Got it? There’s something sad in this that doesn’t fit with the rest of you.”
Sinjir paused, maybe waiting for him to say something, but Poe had all but given up on that. The ale had fully permeated his system and it was all he could do just to keep his balance, and when the door opened into the flashing pit of the rave it was like he had taken an extra shot of the stuff. Green laser beams as thick as lightsabers flickered overhead, dotted with shorter bursts of red and blue--too bright, far too bright for his eyes in this state, yet beyond that he couldn’t see a thing in the dark. After a couple larger flares, he spotted the outline of the Ithorian behind the bar, the mountain range of silhouetted heads on the dance floor. Sinjir pulled him to the edge of it and put his mouth next to his ear.
“There he is. See him? Just behind that Cerean.”
“I… um…” The Cerean’s tall head was unmistakable in the shifting lights and shadows but beyond that--
“Find the rest of your group and we’ll find you in the morning. You won’t be alone in this, Dameron.”
Two taps on the shoulder, and Sinjir was gone. Melted into the crowd behind him--when Poe turned around to check, there was no sign of him, no sliver of light peeking out from the door as he slipped back into the service hallway.
He was alone.
Alone with the music digging into his eardrums, the strobes piercing straight past his pupils and into a blazing headache--Poe’s heart raced and his stomach flipped upside down and he had to get out. If Finn wasn’t here and Sinjir wasn’t here and Jessika wasn’t here, he had to leave. Too much, beyond too much. He pushed past the knot of Twi’leks beside him and to the far wall--there had to be an exit, somewhere, right?--stepping on someone’s foot in the process. They squealed in pain and he tried to apologize, spinning around to find them--gravity shifted beneath him again, throwing him into the door and then to the ground as it swung open.
The air was cooler here, breathable, empty of the raucous noise and--he was outside. That was why. He flipped onto his back and stared up at the night sky. This close to the Hapes Cluster, most of the constellations he knew were drowned out but he searched anyway as his head spun.
He could lie here for a moment; he probably ought to, all things considering. He would lie here, find the shoe that he stepped out of as he fell, and make his way back to the central atrium after a short walk out here to clear his head. Simple.
Above, the Hapes Cluster twinkled and winked at him. “‘M telling the truth,” he muttered back. “Really. It’s going to be the easiest…” His fingers curled around the rocks under his palm, reaching for--what, a hand? A hand, okay, he could admit that. The galaxy was immense, could swallow beings his size whole without a blink of regret, and a hand in his could fill some of the emptiness that seemed to make that so easy.
He couldn’t keep running, then--it was what the galaxy wanted. He could prove that, could point at the dates and the timestamps of every incident that bit at his heart.
So then, a hand: to hold him still, to ground him, to give him the chance to offer the same.
As soon as he stopped feeling the rotation of the planet beneath him, he’d find Finn. He’d find him and build this guard against the galaxy’s fire with their open palms.
When the Cerean told Jessika that Sullustans went to the sabacc tables in the morning, what she failed to mention was twofold: one, they are by far not the only group to get in their early gambling fix; and two, the sabacc tables take up a space larger than a couple of the hangars back on base.
“Well, this is going to be fragging difficult,” Snap mutters over the sea of heads. He eyes the table closest to them where a Geonosian and native Zeltron are glaring at each other over their hands, the tension the kind of thick that only shows its face in life-or-death situations--or, in this case, when credits are on the line. From the way they’re staring, Poe guesses there might not be any difference.
After a moment, Karé sighs. “If no one else has any ideas, I’d like to make a suggestion.”
They don’t. So she lays it out: no one goes alone with the First Order lurking about, and a central point needs to be manned so they have someplace to come back to. “So we don’t lose each other,” she says, massaging a temple. “I am not doing this all over again.” She, Snap, and Finn will venture out between the tables, while Poe and Jessika wait just inside the door. If they see anything suspicious waltz in the gambling hall, Jessika will call Snap on her comlink.
With every step the three of them take into the maze of tables and people, Poe’s stomach sinks into the floor an inch; when Finn throws him one last look back, it falls straight through the stories below and into the ground. “You think this is a good plan?”
“It’s fine,” Jessika says. She’s pulled up two extra chairs from the corner and motions for him to take one. “Karé and Snap aren’t going to kill each other, much less on Finn’s watch."
“No, I mean--”
“Oh, right. The other thing. Well…” she says. “Same conclusion. Just pretend that I repeated what I said with different names. We’re going to be fine.”
“Didn’t you say something like that before we landed here?”
She shrugs, pulling her hair out of the mess she put it in back by the pods and working out an actual braid. Her eyes don’t leave the mass of heads before them, nor the packs coming and going; her fingers weave on autopilot, and slowly her jaw unclenches from the tense set she’d been holding since they headed up this way.
“I like to think we’ve learned,” she says.
“You know… learned from last night. We’re not morons--I mean, Iolo and Bastian might be, but… you get what I’m saying.” She wraps her usual black tie around the tip of the braid and throws it back over her shoulder, trying to elicit at least an uptick of his mouth with her own wide grin. He knows that look, the first sign of an upcoming swerve into a subject she doesn’t want to breach but knows she has to. “I don’t know how much Finn told you about what happened after you disappeared but I didn’t mean for it to happen. Ati-Gor-Nulla had the stuff and you know, everything seems like a good idea when you’re plastered, and of course she waited until after we’d taken it to tell us it was a strand of banthazolate--”
“A less potent one! Less potent!” Her face collapses into the most intense grimace he’s ever seen from her outside of a funeral--at least until she buries her face in her hands. “She and I found Karé but lost Finn and I’m sorry.”
He can hear Finn’s voice in his head from earlier that morning--nightmare material, he said, a testimony that lines up well against his father’s warnings before Poe left for the Academy about life on an urban planet. (“Don’t go out alone at night, always be aware of your surroundings, and if anyone offers you spice or deathsticks or anything you can’t recognize--” And it was always at that point Poe had said I know, Pa, I know enough to shut the rant down.)
“Wait,” he says, holding up a finger. “Why are you apologizing to me and not Finn?”
She blinks at him a couple time. Frowns like she’s about to lump him in with Iolo and Bastian. “You’re my commander, for one, and I kriffed up. For two…” She leans forward like it’ll help him finish her sentence more quickly, because apparently everyone else really does know something he doesn’t but should. “Oh, come on, Poe.”
“Can we not play a guessing game, please?”
“If anything happened to Finn, you would double murder whoever was responsible,” she says, rearranging herself on the chair to sit cross-legged. “This is a widely-known fact of life in our squadron and don’t--” Her finger lands squarely on Poe’s mouth just as he was about to open it. “Don’t try to deny that.”
If Poe’s going to be honest with himself, denial never crossed his mind. Inquiring what Jessika meant by “double murder,” sure, but denial? Not quite. And he still wants to know what that would entail, double murdering, but she hasn’t removed her finger from his mouth. If anything, she’s started to press harder and the devilish smirk he’s learned to fear is creeping onto her face. As if he needs the extra sense of dread.
“I want to hear you say it yourself,” she says. “I want you to admit what happened last night.”
“Move your finger.” He isn’t completely sure what he said was intelligible but he trusts she can decipher it given who she is as a person.
The finger falls. Briefly Poe considers proposing that they put this conversation on hold until their lives aren’t teetering on the edge of being at risk, and yet again there is the issue of who Jessika is as a person. “All right,” he says. “You heard it here first: I blacked out. Poe Dameron could not stomach the booze.”
“That is not what I’m talking about--”
The Geonosian at the nearby table slams down his cards, the sound of empty glasses tipping over barely audible over his guttural clicking tirade. Whatever he’s saying, the Zeltron hardly appears phased. A flash of teeth, a flyaway of deep blue hair tucked behind her ear, and the Geonosian stands down.
Jessika tears her eyes away from the table. “Anyway. Try again.”
“Testor, I blacked out,” he says. “Seriously. There’s a lot I don’t remember.”
She squints at him. “Really?”
She lets out a low whistle, shakes her head. “Yikes, man. No wonder…”
“Hey, no--you don’t get to be vague right now.” He gives her shoulder a light smack as she tries to hide her snort. And she never hides it well, likely because she doesn’t actually want to. The illusion that she doesn’t want to laugh at you even though it gives her a certain palpable amount of joy--it’s about as much diplomacy as he can expect. “Let me in on this secret everyone apparently has.”
Further into the sabacc hall, a glass breaks. A couple heads turn--including the Zeltron’s, Poe notices, which gives the Geonosian a chance to swap a card from his hand with one that had been hidden under the table.
“Are you picking up the same weird vibe that I am?” Jessika says, voice low. “Something’s tense.”
“More tense than it should be when only credits are at stake,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Y’know, noteworthy.”
Ignoring the narrowed glares over the hands of cards before them, Poe can sense a vibrating undercurrent of something unusual. Four or five tables down the row behind the Geonosian’s, the credits gain airtime as they’re shoved to the center, knuckles glow white gripping the cards, and beneath it all, invisible, a taut wire coils around all of their ankles, tugging until it sings. All the way to the very back wall it runs, stalling as it hits against the shapes of the rest of the squadron.
“They probably just found Nien,” he says. “Trying to pull him away mid-sabacc hand… he’s not going to be too happy about that.” But that’s only the best case scenario, and they both know it.
“Look, Poe,” she says after a few moments. “I just want you to be happy. We all do. And--”
“Must have been quite the night if you’re getting all sentimental about it.”
“Shut up, will you?” She scowls at him, pats him a couple times on the knee--the closest she’ll ever get to a physical display of affection outside the comfort of her own bunk. And even then, she’d make sure the door was closed. “Just--promise me you’ll talk to Finn when all this is over, okay?”
Finn? So he does have something to do with this after all--and he holds up a finger to hold the conversation there, keep it from wandering away from her point, but further into the hall the crashing returns. Louder this time, glass and metal and shouting, and all the tables in their line of sight pause their games to see what’s just happened.
“Hm…” Jessika untangles herself to sit on her feet, stretching her back as far as it’ll go to peer over the crowd without attracting too much attention. “Maybe someone got upset when they lost a hand?”
“Can you see anything?”
Even the gossipy murmurs among the other players around them have fallen silent as the yelling at the back keeps at it, rendered unintelligible by the chairs knocking into each other, shattering plates and bottles, a range of yelps from species across the galaxy as boots crush toes and tails and every other appendage imaginable.
“You don’t think…” he starts, and then he sees the top of Karé’s blonde head as she jumps over something in her path. “Uh oh.”
“Yeah, I’d say so,” Jessika says. She slowly gets to her feet, pulling Poe up with her right as Finn rounds one of the tables and into view.
“Go!” he shouts. “GO, we gotta run!”
“What?” Jessika says. “What in the frag did you--”
An oblivious Rodian steps in Finn’s path and he shoulders him out of the way, straight into a crowded table of Dugs and nearly upending it. More bottles crash and bust on the thin carpet, the sealed ones hissing as the booze sprays up to soak everything from the ceiling to exposed comlinks. Finn’s still running, and not alone: Karé is close behind, with Snap on her heels trying to push Nien in front of him.
And an arm’s length over Snap’s shoulder, Poe spots three men in all black with caps pulled down over their eyes.
“Kriffing bantha shit,” Jessika mutters. Grabs Poe’s wrist and pulls so hard that he trips over his own ankles before getting his center of balance back.
The rest of the squadron doesn’t take long to catch up to them as they round the corner into a long straightaway--the same set of bars where they’d earlier come across Snap. More patrons of the city have woken up by now, standing idly by as the lone bartenders behind each counter put together a morning cocktail or pot of caf, and Jessika dodges an absent-minded group of Lasats circled around a datapad in the center of the walkway.
“Great place to congregate,” she hisses.
With Jessika still guiding him with her grip on his wrist, Poe sneaks a look behind him: Finn maneuvers around them without incident but Snap trips over a foot, a hand flying into a nose, and they’re all tangled up in the knot.
“Sorry!” Poe calls to the tallest of the group, trying not to let on that their flaring nostrils have sent his heart rate to a skittering pace. “Hope you all have a much more pleasant rest of your day!”
“Regular diplomat, aren’t you?”
“I don’t see you trying anything, Testor--”
“Can it. Our crew still with us?”
There’s a few more steps’ worth of distance between them but they’re keeping up--but so are their pursuers. First Order, he has to assume, unless Nien tried to leave his sabacc table with substantial debt tied to his name. And while Nien could be tricky with his gambling, he never crosses the line into reckless.
So: First Order. On their tail.
They can’t keep running forever, not from here to the shuttle without risking a tracker latching onto anything they leave with. Up ahead, the bar hall ends in a corner, a sharp ninety-degree turn--something on the other side of it has to offer a hiding spot. (They’re pilots, after all; cardio is none of their strong suits.)
“Hold on--” Jessika says as they come to the turn without slowing. Tilting into it, an old ankle injury from his childhood whines in protest--as do Nien and Karé trying to follow--but a couple dull slams behind them hint at a small victory. “What--”
“They ran into the wall!” Finn says. Poe hears the bright grin in his voice and optimism buoys in his chest. “Up ahead!”
A banner on the ceiling has three arrows marking the fork in the path: straight ahead for more bars, right for the spa, and left toward--
“So where are going, Commander?” Karé yells.
Poe looks over his shoulder--the men from the Order had quite the crash and are just now starting to get back on their feet. The spa would be crowded, the bars more of the same, and the left--private ’fresher pods. Nothing better to duck into, at least. Not at the moment.
“Follow me, all right?”
“Very illuminating,” Nien mutters.
Poe pulls his hand from Jessika’s grasp and takes the lead. The left passage is narrow, a staircase lowly lit with red light better suited for a seedy dive bar tucked away on the sixth floor. Both walls are lined with doors to the ‘fresher pods, all the way up the stairs, onto where it levels out on a landing, and likely beyond wherever it leads. But a bright red X emblazons each door they come to, handles refusing to give under their hands and startled shouts in every tongue imaginable following quickly after.
“Stars, just keep going!” Snap yells from the back. “One of them has to be empty, right?”
Poe’s heart jumps into his throat--they’re almost at the landing but the First Order operatives have just skidded to a halt at the foot of the stairs. Poe doesn’t wait to see if they pause to catch their breath before climbing after them but from sound of boots on hardwood, they must not.
“You got a backup plan?” Finn asks.
“Well--” All along the landing--a lengthy straightaway cutting into the center of the building--the red X’s stretch as far as he can see, glaring almost sentiently. “Working on it. Come on!”
The men behind them are fast. Too fast. Whenever Poe has faced anyone from the First Order ranking higher than a stormtrooper, they never showed this kind of physical endurance. At this rate, their own crew’s likely to tire before they can shake them, and that’s not an outcome Poe wants to envision, and still no door in sight is missing a kriffing red X--
Something like squeaky hinges screeched in the close space, followed immediately by a sick crunch. They whip around and find one of the doors has slammed open in the face of the lead operative with a teenage girl still gripping the inside knob. She tosses her hair out of her eyes and speaks quickly into the comlink on her free wrist--“Resh-1 to Jenth-2, contact established with the purrgils. Sarlaccs in pursuit.”
“Copy Resh-1,” replies a garbled female voice. “Alerting Senth Leader.”
“Who the frag are you?” Nien says, but the girl looks at him like he’s grown a set of tentacles out of his forehead.
“Don’t just stand there,” the girl yells. “Run! I got this. We got you!” She hops out of the ‘fresher pod and swings the door shut in one fluid sweep, the base of her hand cracking against the temple of the operative with blood already running down his chin. He crumples at her feet and his deadweight of a body offers the perfect step up to pull the others’ hats down over their eyes. “I said move! Stars, Dameron, you’re dumb even when you’re sober!”
“You know her?” Nien says, and he’s halfway to saying something else when the girl shouts at them again to get a kriffing move on already, how many times did she need to repeat herself.
“Apparently?” One last look gets him a view of the girl jamming the toe of her boot between one of the operative’s legs and then both Finn and Jessika are pulling him forward down the hall. “I guess? But--”
“Second guess yourself later,” Snap says. He’s close enough behind him at this point that he’s stepping on the back of Poe’s boots.
And this wouldn’t be a problem--or much of one--were they not coming up on the end of the straightaway; either the hall ends at a sheer drop-off or leads down a flight of stairs to mirror the ones behind them, and whichever falls under their feet would thrust them out into the open again. Hiding places would be limited, and they can’t know for sure that the three operatives are acting alone.
They just need a way to get back to the shuttle. Simple. Simple.
So the hall ends in stairs, thankfully, though Poe is unsure why someplace as debauched as Praxxa would construct the other option--and the commotion behind them between the girl and First Order erupts into shouting. A couple more loud slaps of boots and fists on skin. Fortunately nothing that could come from the end of a blaster.
The stairwell empties out into a larger foyer, complete with the usual bar setup and smattering of patrons. A quick scan finds no one suspicious, just a few consorts of humans and a lone sad-looking Nautolan slumped over a mug of caf in the corner. But for which direction to go--
“There you are, come on.” A hand wraps around his wrist and pulls, and he tries to break free on instinct to no avail. “Please don’t be difficult right now, Dameron. There will be more than enough time for that later.”
“I said come on--”
“Sinjir.” It’s Snap, far quieter than they’re used to, but Snap all the same--and it’s enough to get the man to stop, to loosen the grip on Poe’s wrist to a point where he can slip out unnoticed.
The man, apparently, being Sinjir Rath Velus.
“Temmin,” Sinjir says. His sense of urgency drains from his face as he gives Snap a once-over. “You’ve gotten old. Nice beard, though.”
Snap grins tightly, ignoring Jessika’s snorts about his real name buried into her fist.
All at once, Sinjir seems to remember where they are; his hand latches around Poe’s arm again, but he reconsiders. Two fingers pinch his earlobe instead, and he yanks as if to make up for lost time. The pace he sets is unrelenting.
“We’ve got to get going,” Sinjir says. “Ralla will slow them down but she and I both know she can’t stop them on her own.”
With Sinjir’s hold on his ear, Poe can’t turn around to check that everyone else is behind them, though the clatter of boots on the tile flooring is enough to reassure them that they are. And after a few dodges and sidesteps of groups starting their days, another hand finds his elbow--the careful touch of the fingers through Poe’s shirt tells him it’s Finn.
“Ralla?” Finn says right behind him. “That was that girl’s name? And you know her?”
“Can we save the interrogation for--” Sinjir sneaks a look over his shoulder. “Oh. Oh. You’re… what was your name? Finn?”
“I--Yes? How do you--”
“Doesn’t matter.” His eyes fall on Poe for a moment before turning back ahead. “Like I was saying, Finn, can we save the interrogation for when we have a second to collect ourselves?”
At the next corner, Sinjir swerves over to the wall and punches a code into a small datapad, sliding open the door to a supply closet. It has the depth and space of a room with an alternative purpose despite the reeking stain of bleach in the air, which only grows stronger once the door slides them back into darkness.
“Is the pitch-black thing on purpose, or what?” Nien mutters.
“What did he say?” Sinjir says. “My monolingualism does me no favors.”
“He wants to know if you can turn on a light,” Poe says.
Sinjir snaps his fingers twice in quick succession and a dim overhead light flickers to life, pushing the lines in his face deeper than they likely go. He runs a hand through his hair, holds up the other to keep the chatter down--he seems to be listening past the door, and right on time the rhythmic pounding of First Order boots rises and falls. “So. Resistance, are you? Glad we found each other--sober, especially.” His thumb jerks over in Poe’s direction and soon all eyes are on him. They’re not heavy, not like the foggy memories he has of Karé’s stares from last night, but they’re penetrating all the same and they send a squirming shiver straight down to his ankles.
“Did… I, uh--” Poe starts, and Sinjir only has to grin to cut him off.
“Yes, your fellow rebel and I ran across each other while he was in quite the state last night,” he says, and with enough dramatic flourish for Jessika to narrow her eyes in suspicion. “So, of course he doesn’t remember. A shame, really. You were such a mess--”
--an impressively gay mess.
The image is hazy and blurred neon, flashing and static all at the same time. Sinjir stands close, directly before him with hands on his shoulders, and gay mess falls out of his mouth so slowly that the pitch bottoms out and slurs. A shadow lies on his bottom lip, just dense enough for Poe to sense it, and he grabs hold, tracing it back from that moment staring Sinjir down by the bar until it’s Finn chasing his eyes. His pulse rattling against a gentle warm presence on his neck, a groan in his mouth that didn’t come from his own throat--
His face burns, and Sinjir’s kept talking. He’s moved past the accusation of messiness and Poe tries to pay attention, he does, but Finn is standing next to him. Close enough that the heat from his hands can reach out to his without touching, and the urge to hold the warmth still in his palm sends his thoughts spiraling away from whatever else they’re discussing.
Not the brightest move considering the circumstances--
“You knew we were here and looking for you since early last night?” Jessika says. Loudly. Karé tries to shush her and Poe has to wonder why she bothers. It’s never worked before. “And you just let all that happen? What is wrong with you?”
“Depends on who you ask, but I would argue that I had my reasons,” he says shortly. “You all were under the influence of who-knew-what and the First Order was already following you. Please be reasonable. If you can.”
“Try me again,” she says, “and I’m going to break your nose.”
“Sinjir, please,” Snap sighs. “We want to get you back to our base. Do you have a… plan? Or anything like one?”
Snap and Sinjir glance at each other from across the span of the closet--Sinjir stares at him like if he can squint hard enough that the thick layer of unfamiliar years will stop making everything blurry. And Snap, too, holds form: perhaps not breathing, waiting for another shoe to drop before saying anything further.
The closet can hardly hold it all in and in the tension, Finn reaches for Poe’s hand, wrapping softly around his palm and the knot in Poe’s throat has never been this large. Not when Muran laced their fingers together when he led him through the Praxxa crowds those years ago, and not even when they said I love you for the first time.
His stomach crashes down to his knees, ice cold waves drawing him taut from muscle to bone. And Finn pulls away, tucks his hand back in his jacket pocket.
No--no, that wasn’t about you--not in the way you think--
“We can get you back to your shuttle more easily if we don’t go as one group--yes,” Sinjir says, “I know what happened to you last night, but look!” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out three comlinks. “It’s a miracle what one can do with technology, isn’t it?”
He hands one to Jessika, Karé, and Nien; another to Snap, indicating he’ll be on his team; and the last comes to Finn and Poe, not that Poe expected anything else. The look Sinjir threw at him on their way to this supply closet was enough of a hint that he knows--if not everything, then at least something.
“Keep them on so we know where you are. My people, as you briefly saw, are already on it. So it shouldn’t be too--”
“You mean that girl?” Karé says, hands on her hips. “She can’t be older than fifteen. How is she part of ‘your people’?”
“It’s a bit of a long story, Miss--”
“Kun. Karé Kun. And I’m sure you’re smart enough to give us a summary.”
Not everything from the night before has come roaring back, but Poe has an inkling that the summary wouldn’t do Karé’s question much justice. Sinjir chews at his bottom lip before rolling his eyes. Beside him, Finn shifts his weight from foot to foot, expectant, and Poe is about to crawl out of his skin. He’s had this nightmare before: showing up to the village secondary school or Academy late, the day of the most crucial exam, and every answer that’s twiddling its thumbs at the base of his tongue has been hollowed out. Useless.
Sinjir clears his throat. “Well. You know that friend who once probably saved your life? You know… they carried you from the ‘fresher on your birthday after you vomited for half an hour and force-fed you water and a bagel? Those four kids are that for me. They even knew who I was in the context of things… didn’t stop them--”
“Why would it have?” Finn says.
This, Poe should remember this. Something at the back of head is screaming. Shrill and worrying at a dull pain that can easily blossom into a full-blown migraine, the kind that would lay his father up for half the afternoon.
“They… have a certain history, see. Not one they’re sticking to going forward, mind you, but--”
“Do you want to get to the fragging point?” Karé says.
“Not really, if I’m being honest.”
Again he glances over to Snap, and Poe wants to follow the line of it. He doesn’t--something tells him this isn’t the kind of thing that needs multiplying, the white noise drowning out attempts at old unspoken language and inserting itself into the gaps where they can no longer remember the grammar.
“Rest easy, at least,” Sinjir says finally, turning back to fiddle with his shirt collar. “They’re intimately familiar with our adversary’s strategies from their unwitting starting place in life. So let’s get on, then--”
“Wait.” Finn steps forward, holds out an arm as if he’s going to block Sinjir from leaving even though no one else has made like they were going to follow his suggestion. “Are you… saying what I think you’re saying?” His voice shakes.
Sinjir’s annoyed scowl melts into something else Poe can’t place, even when they lock eyes for a moment. “...I didn’t realize the first defector--um. I didn’t realize that was you,” he says, stumbling over the last few words. “I knew… the Resistance had--nothing past that--”
“You gotta bring them back to base with you,” Finn says. “With us. General Organa and--well, everyone--”
On the other side of the closet door, louder chatter passes by, muffled, though not enough to hide the worry in the patrons’ voices. The fight they escaped likely has moved out of the ‘fresher hall.
“Kriff,” Sinjir says. “We can pick this back up after we get you lot away from them, all right?” Stepping toward the door, he puts a hand on Snap’s shoulder and guides Nien, Karé, and Jessika back out into the main floor right as a boisterous group of Naboo elites swamps the area from wall to wall. “I know you’ve got questions--”
“Well, yeah, obviously--”
“And I’m sorry. I want you to note that, by the way,” he says to Snap. “I am sorry. Come on.” He takes Snap’s elbow and they disappear into Praxxa proper, and the quiet they leave behind only presses on Poe’s chest more startlingly with the labored way Finn is breathing.
“Hey, hey.” When Poe takes his hand this time, he doesn’t pull back. Lets himself be guided until they’re close, standing face-to-face even if he’s staring at a place just over Poe’s right shoulder. And Poe waits, waits for his breathing to ease to a slower rate, until parts of it aren’t stuttering, and he guides Finn’s eyes to his with his free hand. Keeps it on his cheek, gentle. “You still with me?”
“Poe, there are more of them. More of me. And they’re hiding out here--just--” He pauses. Inhales steadily, careful not to trip on the way to his lungs. “How long were they alone? And they’re young, Poe. They’re so young.”
“And they’re going to fit in so well on base. We have to get there first, though. Right?”
“Right,” he says. “You’re right.”
Just as Poe is about to move to peer out past the door, Finn leans into his touch, brow furrowed. But it only lasts a moment.
The floor beyond their closet stays suspiciously empty for far longer than Poe is comfortable--likely not longer than five minutes, but in that time his head has enough space to twist the worst possible outcomes into existence. He should wait for a bigger crowd for them to hide in but the group of four Twi’lek women will have to do, given his own anxieties and the restless shifting Finn has taken up beside him. As soon as their backs are to the closet door, Poe pulls Finn out, takes them both as close to the back of the four that they can get without attracting their attention. From the way the women are engrossed in their conversation, though, it appears unlikely: they’re going on about something in what is definitely Basic but too fast and heavily-accented to properly eavesdrop, and one nearly bumps into a chair from not watching where she’s walking.
Still Poe can sense Finn’s trepidation, so he maps out a plan--they’re on the eighth floor, on the far side of the building away from where the main entrance sits on the ground level. Ideally, all they would have to do is find a stairwell, weave their way down, and make a beeline for that corner of the atrium, but. But. Indirect routes, that’s where Poe runs into trouble. Praxxa has another four floors above them and innumerable secret paths and cut-throughs, the most useful of which--as he’s starting to remember from the night before with Sinjir--are barely marked.
He’s pulled from his mental drawing board when Finn taps against his wrist, nods as subtly as he can manage toward the man walking toward them--the emblem on his breast pocket unmistakable.
“It’s okay,” he whispers. “Act casual--”
“I don’t know how to be more casual than this! We’re just walking!”
The operative stops. Approaches the Twi’lek at the front of the group, a tall woman with deep purple skin and a fluorescent tint to the wrap around her head; and now they all have to wait. Only all the Twi’leks have no idea why.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” the operative says. “I’m looking for a number of fugitives from the law.” He pulls a small holoprojector from his pocket and clicks on the power, showing a quick slideshow of faces: Snap, Jessika, Finn, Poe himself. Likely the slideshow would have continued, but he’s apparently in a hurry. “They’re wanted for conspiracy to commit violent acts of terrorism and we have reason to believe they are hiding here in Praxxa.”
Moonlighting as some sort of generic law enforcement officer might have worked later in the night, long after logic and sensible thinking dissolved with the questionable substances in their bloodstreams. The Twi’lek grumbles something close to a sigh and places her hands on her hips as the rest of her cohort exchanges glances. With a hand on Finn’s shoulder, Poe takes advantage of the collective shifting and steers them both to a more hidden spot behind the back two.
“Haven’t seen them, officer,” she says. “We’re actually running a bit late for a spa appointment, so if you don’t mind, we’d like to get going.”
“I think we can still make it if we hurry,” the pink Twi’lek to her right says pointedly.
“Very well,” the operative sighs. “Be on your way, I guess.”
The women take no time in doing so, nor does the operative--continuing past their group, facing straight ahead, and Poe wonders how good this man’s hearing is, if the forceful thumping against his ribcage is loud enough to cross the hall. That’s all it would take, one glance behind him. Finn’s wearing the same jacket from the holo, instantly recognizable, especially with Poe standing beside him.
Finn shoots him a panicked look but doesn’t dare say a word. The hall bends around the corner close enough to see it but too far to be a comfort and the Twi’leks aren’t hurrying like they said they would.
No matter, no matter, Poe says to himself. It’s no matter. Just as long as he doesn’t look back.
“Tanza, hold on.” A shorter woman in the group reaches to tug on the sleeve next to her while looking in her bag. “I left my medicine back at my pod. I’m going to have to go back and get it. Go on ahead without me--”
“No, no, we’ll come with you--”
“Yeah, the buddy system is crucial here. The horror stories I heard from my Academy roommate…”
They all turn around before Poe even registers to look for a place to duck out of sight and come half a step from walking straight into them.
(When he was small, he used to beg his mother in clumsy, plodding words to take him up in the old A-wing she saved from the war; and always she would tell him no. That at three years old he was too young and the safety harnesses wouldn’t fit. He had to grow more, eat those bitter greens his father cooked up every night at dinner. But she wouldn’t leave him to pout--no, there was training! In order to fly an A-wing, the body had to grow accustomed to being away from the ground. She would lead him to the front yard by the Special Tree and toss him in the air, catch him in her arms, repeat. That second where you float and your tummy flips, she’d say, that’s what it’s like up there.)
(She never said that feeling would claw back into his skin whenever he comes untethered, how the soaring so quickly twists sour.)
“Who are you two?” the short Twi’lek says after a long beat, and her voice carries.
Finn and Poe both look over their shoulders and find the First Order operative staring back at them, pointing and spluttering silently as he reaches for his comlink.
“Not important!” Finn grabs Poe’s hand and sets off at a sprint around the Twi’leks and toward the corner they’d been eyeing. “If we are where I think we are, there’s gonna be a stairwell a little further up here--”
And there is; Finn shoulders his way through, the door slamming all the way back on its hinges until the knob digs into the duracrete, and their hold on each other’s hands tightens as they bound down the stairs trying not to lose their balance. Eight floors. They have to get eight floors down, and Poe runs the fact through his head like a mantra--feet slamming on the first landing, rounding the turn, eyeing the large number seven bolted next to the door below. Another turn, another landing, another squeeze of his knuckles together under Finn’s touch.
“Wait.” Finn pauses, leans over the railing to peer through to the bottom. “Hear that?”
Quick footsteps rising higher from below, terse commands garbled from the echo. “Kriff--”
Finn jumps down the stairs two at a time, pulling Poe with him. “Sixth floor it is, then.”
Of course it is. Of course it’s the kriffing sixth floor. They exit into a small crowd who can’t be bothered to pay them any mind--it’s later in the day, after all, with hangovers abated and boredom to swat away before it all cranks up again after nightfall. The performers they encountered tracking down Iolo and Niv first thing that morning have been replaced by those with more mass appeal--or so Poe would assume, since they all appear to be women.
It’s a cursory glance at best--Finn navigates them between all the mingling spectators, an effort that becomes slower by the step until the dense crowd empties out into a wide hallway--no stages here, so no reason to loiter.
Behind them: shouting, the same voices from the stairwell but clearer now.
“We gotta hide somewhere--”
“Up ahead!” Poe knows the look of the discreet doors lining the right wall, the same occupancy indicators as the ‘fresher pods but smaller, subtler, and only one still burned green. “Before they get by all those people--”
They scramble, tripping over their own ankles, and when they arrive at the door, Poe’s sweaty palm slips on the knob three times before he tears it open and shoves them inside. The door slams behind them and he flips the switch to busy: red light, occupied, deadbolts sealed into the wall. Whatever the city used to build these chambers mutes the noise from outside and they’re left with their own attempts to claw air back into their lungs.
“That was close,” Finn says once he’s caught his breath. He falls back into one of the chairs near the back futon and pinches the bridge of his nose. “You think everyone else is all right?”
Poe fishes the comlink from his pocket--a text alert from Jessika says her group already rendezvoused at the shuttle and that Snap and Sinjir had run into some trouble. Nothing to worry about yet, apparently, seeing as she hadn’t yelled at them to go help. He shoots off an acknowledgement and little else. They aren’t in trouble yet themselves, as Poe sees it--trouble would be a less effective hiding spot, getting separated or injured. This is merely a shift into a backup plan.
Finn’s brow softens when he relays Jessika’s message, but it doesn’t take long to wrinkle again after he gives the pod a once-over. “Uh… Poe?”
“Is this place used for what I think it’s used for?”
Praxxa only believes in discretion part-time. Within these pods, it’s off the clock. “Well… it would seem so.” Poe takes the seat across from him, hoping his light tone wouldn’t betray that wasn’t a guess--he knows. Remembers vividly, even, what each cabinet embedded in the floor holds, or that tapping the wall would prompt a rotation of the other implements hanging over their heads.
Finn can’t meet his eyes. “So people come to the sixth floor to watch and then also have sex.”
“At least the first one, yeah.”
Sighing, Finn mutters to himself under his breath. And Poe can’t say that he blames him: the flashes from the night before that his brain’s recovered are looping on themselves just behind his eyes, filling in the gaps. Real or fabricated, Poe doesn’t know, but in Finn’s continued murmuring his neck tenses, accenting a tendon he can almost taste on his tongue. Faded but enough to make him fight the urge to squirm in his seat.
Jessika’s words from the sabacc hall make an appearance in the loop--if he could understand what it is to double murder someone, would that be what befalls whoever let something happen to Finn? (No, not literally, but the point remains: she could see how much he cares, how it could make him reach past himself to pure red instinct.)
“We’re going to get out of here,” Poe says after a few moments. “All of us. Even those kids. Trust me.”
Finn nods, mainly to himself. He keeps the fidgeting in his hands, knots his fingers together to hold the rest of him still, all while avoiding looking at anything that isn’t Poe or used for sex--because of course. Of course. If the flashes of what Poe remembers are driving him up the wall, then Finn--
“I’m sorry for running off last night.”
And then Finn meets his eyes. Says nothing at first, and Poe scrambles to put together what he wants to say next, but then Finn bites his bottom lip. Flushes it pink under his teeth and Poe’s thoughts grind to a halt. “No, it’s… it’s okay. I understand.”
“I…” Poe clears this throat. “I don’t know what came over me.” (A small lie: he knows the what but not the why this, not the why still.)
“I said it’s okay.”
“Would it still be okay if I said I remember what happened?” He pauses, and Finn doesn’t move, doesn’t make any indication that he even heard what he said. “Running into Sinjir jogged my memory.”
Finn’s silence eats at him, a slow and steady rise up his body like quicksand. All morning, into the afternoon now, he’s been hurting; and Poe’s instincts had been right. His hands played a part in it from the moment they latched onto Finn’s hips under the neon, and a fist clenches around his lungs thinking of the bruise the memory has left there. It clenches harder than the fear of what awaits them on the other side of the pod door.
“I said it’s okay,” Finn says finally, and he hangs onto the last syllable like he’s unsure he wants to continue. But he does. “I said it’s okay because I get it. I do.” The earnest tone to his voice is threadbare, and Poe can see how hard he’s trying under it. “I’m not him.”
“He sounded perfect for you. I mean…” He jumps to his feet and starts pacing in the small space. It’s unclear whether he’s aware he did so or not. “He was a pilot and smart and brave, and had a good enough taste in music to be able to confidently make fun of yours. And I know he was handsome because that’s how the galaxy works, isn’t it? It makes the matches kind of equal?”
“Wait, you don’t think you’re good enough? Is that it?”
Under the soft overhead lights, Finn shines brighter than the Core.
“Poe, you still wear his ring--”
The pod being as small as it is, Poe only takes two steps before he’s flush with Finn’s chest, taking his face in his hands and kissing him. The words from his incomplete thought sit impatiently on his tongue and Poe swipes them away, searches for the doubt and the resignation to siphon those too--so Poe can be a bit of an idiot, anyone who’s been in his squadron for any length of time can attest to it, but he self corrects. He’s trying now. He lets his fingers curl desperately against Finn’s cheeks, his mouth worry over Finn’s bottom lip like it’s keeping him alive--and it might as well be.
As Finn latches his arms around Poe’s back, he walks him into the wall and takes a moment to peel back, pull his eyes over Finn’s face against the pale cream paint, his mouth with his breath coming quick and shallow. “Don’t talk yourself down like that,” he says, and his heart flutters when Finn’s eyes go soft. “It’s all lies.”
Then Finn’s mouth is on him--again, as more and more from the night before steps out of the shadows. Teeth gentle on his neck, hands pulling at the tangles along his nape--and Poe has more to say, important details waiting at the tip of his tongue but when he goes to speak, it comes out as a whine. Against his skin, Finn laughs.
(So the timing isn’t right. They should probably wait but the idea of removing himself from Finn’s touch is unthinkable, burns a hole at the center of his breastbone.)
The back of his knees slam against the edge of the futon’s platform--Finn’s guided them there, his hands trailing up under Poe’s shirt, along his stomach, tracing the raised lines of blaster scars. “Stars--”
Poe reaches to his back collar and yanks it over his head, and Finn mirrors him; when they come back together the heat from their bare chests sears white-hot and as they scramble onto the futon, they make quick work of every other piece of clothing in their way. It’s the least dignified strip job Poe’s ever done--fingers shaking, feet clumsily kicking off his undershorts--but he’s never cared less. The faster he acts, the sooner Finn’s hands are back at his bare hips; with the anchor there, he rolls on top of Finn, runs his hands down his stomach. Just looking at him, heart pounding. They’re both aching for it by now, he can see that. But he has to have this moment, cupped in his palm, because he needs to make sure it’s preserved.
“I think I was just scared,” Poe says softly. “Going through all of that with someone else, the way things are right now--”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Finn smiles up at him.
Poe leans down, hovering over his face. “That’s… that’s good to hear.” Closing the distance between them, he kisses him slowly and relishes the hum of Finn’s growing moans against his tongue.
He reaches for the wall, knocks his fist against it like he remembers from that night years ago, and thankfully not much has changed--a panel falls forward with a supply of lube, condoms, dental dams, a whole host of other implements for other species he can’t begin to wrap his head around, especially in this state. He pulls away from Finn just long enough to secure what they need, and when he turns back there’s a hand between his shoulder blades; Finn flips them, kisses Poe at the corner of his eye. Takes the small bottle from Poe’s hand and carefully starts to work him open.
“Yeah, yeah--frag, Finn--”
When he laughs, his eyes squeeze shut and it must be official by now that Finn isn’t as bright as the Core--he’s brighter, the kind of dazzling that the ancient Old Republic kept alive in myth when they had yet to explain the novas bursting in the night sky.
Finn groans low as he enters him and it’s the only thing Poe can focus on outside of his own body; and he starts out gentle, careful, reaching up to weave their fingers together. Each thrust runs electric up his spine, arching it, sending him gasping--and when the gasp finally breaks into a stuttering moan, Finn tightens his grip on his hands, hips faster now. There’s a feverishness to it and Poe can’t recognize the noises coming from his own mouth, can hardly parse what Finn is saying into his neck between clumsy kisses to his pulse point.
It hits him without warning--Poe’s legs spasm as he comes, and the shout pulled from his chest quiets with Finn adjusting himself to hold him close through it, even as his own movements grow desperate and uneven. It’s still blazing through Poe, the aftershocks, when he whispers a string of encouragement in Finn’s ear: “That’s it, that’s it, stars--”
Finn follows with something that sounds like a sob, a couple last shuddering jerks of his hips, and Poe holds his head to his shoulder as he catches his breath. He nestles in there with the tip of his nose pressed up against his neck--Poe’s heart flips on itself, hot, and he’s never been so relieved to have someone else’s hands holding it in his chest.
A muffled beeping cuts through the silence in the pod from the base of the futon, and after it cycles through the pattern once it gets louder and more grating.
“The comlink,” Finn says. He pulls himself off of Poe and starts digging around in the pod’s other cabinets for something to clean them both off. “Kriff, come on--”
Poe hangs off the end of the futon and digs around in his pants pocket until it’s wrapped in his sweaty hand. The call is from Jessika. “Hey, Jess--”
“Where are you two? Snap and I have been messaging you for the past ten minutes--you better not be dead, Dameron--”
“Do I sound dead?” A towel flies across the pod and lands on his head, and Finn makes a number of incomprehensible gestures that must mean something along the lines of hurry the frag up.
“What was that? Sounded like something hit the comlink speaker.”
“It’s nothing,” he says. Wholly unconvincingly. “Is everyone all right?”
“Yeah, we’re all fine,” she says. “For now, of course. Hurry your asses up and we might get to stay fine.”
The line cuts out with a click. They say nothing to each other as they clamber to get dressed and as Poe squints through the door’s peephole into the hallway outside, he has a stray thought about the state of his hair, how it will be immediately evident what caused their delay should he not get a chance to fix it. But better embarrassed than captured or dead.
“I don’t seem them,” Poe says. “You ready to get out of here?”
“Definitely.” Finn takes his hand and squeezes, pulling the door open with the other.
The hall is emptier than it was when they left it, though not for the lack of any performers--the commotion must have dispersed the crowd to other parts of the floor or off of it completely, and whoever is left is keeping their heads down when they’re not eyeing one of the stages.
“This way,” Finn says. He jerks his head in the other direction, and Poe follows. “The building’s pretty symmetric so there should be another stairwell over here.”
They wander through a room similar to the one Iolo and Niv turned up in, around a few handsy couples clearly looking for an empty pod. Everywhere they turn, there’s a stage with another explicit display with a free galactic anatomy lesson, only this time Finn doesn’t make a point to avoid eye contact. And when they finally arrive at the door to the stairwell, it’s sectioned off.
“Are you kidding me?” he says, and Poe stops his hand from reaching past the caution tape.
“Accident there last night,” a gruff voice calls behind them. The man, apparently the bartender for the tiny station in the corner, has his chin propped in his hand and a bored sheen to his eyes. “Couple guys pushed each other down a few flights… local security trying to figure out if it was intentional or just the grog…”
Finn and Poe exchange blank, calculated glances before looking back to the bartender. All of Poe’s internal alarms are ringing in his ears: who knows if he’s telling the truth, has he been compromised by the First Order into perpetuating a lie, how much can they tell him, if anything?
“Rough luck,” Finn says finally.
“Tell me about it,” the man says. “It’s cut down traffic to my bar by fifty percent today already.” He sighs, peers down the hall on either side, noticeably quiet. “There’s an elevator a few rooms up, if that’s what you need.”
Poe quickly thanks him, ducking Finn and himself out of his line of sight as soon as they pass over the threshold into the next section. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
“What do you mean? This place is a mess… what he said about the stairwell is totally believable.”
“Clearly,” Poe says. “But still.”
It’s all too easy--after the night and morning they’ve had, waltzing down to the shuttle bay without anyone getting in their way would be the kind of easy they never anticipate on missions, an ignorant type of easy. There’s of course the easy they use when they try to convince themselves whatever is coming down the pipe for them won’t be a nightmare, but it’s never this unsettling.
Finn doesn’t press him about it. When they arrive at the small elevator lobby, he presses the down button with a reassuring grin thrown Poe’s way--and then they wait. Still hand in hand, still halfway looking over their shoulders for fresh-pressed black ensembles with sinister motives. A few minutes pass and the elevator dings, opens to an empty cab that’s almost too ornately decorated for its purpose.
“Let me have the comlink,” Finn says as they start to descend. “I’ll let Jessika know we’re almost there.”
He starts typing out the message and they stop at the next floor down--three Togrutas step inside and hardly pay them any mind. They’re pressed to the back of the cab, gravitating towards one of the corners. Poe maps out the rest of Praxxa in his head: once they exit onto the ground level, the atrium should be just around the corner with the shuttle bay along that same side.
“I swear I lost a thousand credits on that last Five Sabers race,” one of the Togrutas says, and their two companions start talking over them--assurances, perhaps, that a thousand credits isn’t that bad in the long run or that those races are tricky to bet on anyway. It’s a jumble, impossible to understand, so Poe can only fill in the blanks with what he’s heard Admiral Statura and Major Ematt mutter about over the holo recaps.
He’s so engrossed in his eavesdropping that the second stop takes him by surprise: third floor, doors sliding open to a crowd, and two operatives step on. They’re muttering lowly to themselves, only eyeing the Togrutas and their tall montrals like they’re worried they’ll scratch the expensive tile work. And honestly, Poe hopes they do--it’s the kind of petty offense to keep them distracted from the fact their two marks are in the same elevator, making themselves as small as possible.
Thankfully the Togrutas between them are tall without the added height of their montrals but Finn’s moved his hands to grip at the bottom of Poe’s shirt, away from where he could press any bones to the breaking point. At some point they have to have a plan. They have to maneuver away from these men without getting caught or injured or worse, and Poe can’t bear to think about worse. Not now. Not after baring that fear to Finn before coming undone under him. There’s been enough of that for one lifetime.
One of the operatives whispers into his partner’s ear. Poe knows the move, the signs of heightened suspicion before quickly checking over the shoulder. The Togrutas between them, they’re not a wall--if he were to glance to his right, Poe’s face would be in plain view. Finn’s too. And then the gig would be up, stuck in an elevator with nowhere to run.
“C’mere,” he says as quietly as he can manage, pulling Finn close. Kissing him, pressing him up against the corner and hiding his profile with wandering hands. There’s a confused frown pulling onto his face but it doesn’t last long, morphing into something unplaceable that’s trying to turn Poe’s knees to jelly with the slow slide of his tongue.
“Ugh, stars…this is why I hate Praxxa,” a voice from the front mutters. Clipped tone and an underlying bitterness--likely not one of the Togrutas. “Don’t turn around, Ostor. You’re as embarrassing as they are--”
The Togrutas begin to whisper to themselves too, but Finn smiles against him and kisses him harder, a gentle hand tracing Poe’s hairline when one of the operatives grumbles again. They’re not in the clear yet, not by a long shot--yet the tension loosens from Finn’s shoulders, the hold of his back. Not unraveling completely, but enough to flex and stretch in the face of those who had tied the knots in the first place.
(Poe wonders how Finn fits all that courage in his heart without bursting his chest wide open every time he breathes.)
The bell for the lobby rings and the cab slides to a stop. Poe listens for the footsteps before pulling himself away, trying to split his attention between two poles demanding all of it, and Finn’s lopsided daze grin throws off the balance for half a second before everything else rolls back in. It’s not fear. In the field, Poe Dameron is never afraid--and if he is, he just renames it.
This time, it’s a stone in his stomach and he kicks it to the side without a glance back.
“Ready to run?” he says, holding the elevator door open as it starts to slide shut.
“If we have to, I guess.” Finn steps out first, beckons for him to follow. The hall is abandoned, quiet except for an old jizz tune playing over the speakers; and through an arch lies the atrium, all midday light and small collections of people hovering between periods of tenuously-controlled debauchery. Beyond that, the hangar.
They walk slowly towards the atrium, hands brushing, and Poe tries to remember where he’s heard the song before. Not at home, where his parents played smazzo records in the kitchen as dinner simmered on the stove. Not at the Academy, where Jessika left “Best of DT Spool and the Skroaches” on his bunk pillow. But somewhere the melody pokes at his head: hard enough to sense but too fleeting to grab hold of.
So maybe he lets his guard down. A couple strides short of the atrium, Finn makes a questioning noise and stares up at one of the speakers embedded in the ceiling, murmuring to himself. The hall is empty--it echoes. Just enough. Voices bounce back, curious and barbed, and when Poe glances over his shoulder, the operatives have rounded the corner. Pointing. Breaking into a run.
“No…” Finn groans, but Poe has already grabbed his hand, pulling him forward as fast as his legs will let him. “I can’t believe--”
“Let’s get to the shuttle first, okay?”
The Resistance officer training must be nothing like that for the First Order--these men are fast, showing no sign of complaining muscles or lungs, and by the time Finn and Poe cross the threshold into the atrium, they’ve halved the distance between them. The thin crowds scatter and swallow their alarm in their fists until it flows over and fills the whole room. Poe skids to a stop, gets his arm nearly yanked out of its socket as Finn tries to keep going--they both turn behind them in unison just in time to catch a small fist digging into one of the operative’s cheekbones.
“More of his people?” Finn says, and he starts to step toward them to join in the fray when a carbon copy of the surprise assailant swings in from the opposite side.
There were twins in Sinjir’s enclave, weren’t there--
“Looks like it.”
The second twin jabs her knee into one of the operative’s chest as he struggles to right himself, winding him, but she barely has time to breathe before the other man’s hand starts swinging. The sharp point of his elbow cracks against her nose and a couple blobs of red fly onto the white flooring.
This isn’t what Sinjir had in mind, surely, when he spoke of this earlier. It doesn’t sit right in Poe’s gut, and when he turns to motion to Finn that they should act, he’s not there. Back toward the skirmish is the unmistakable back of the jacket they’ve shared, all the stitchings and burns, and it flies around Finn’s body as the back of his hand connects with the man’s face.
Poe runs to join him, watches as Finn puts himself in the middle of everything even as the twins try to dance around him--it’s a tight fray already, the five of them, not showing any signs of letting up. Something, he needs something, and it’s not a bright idea but the bartender passing him is carrying a tray of old empty bottles back to his station and he won’t miss one of them, right? It’s sticky under Poe’s fingers when he grabs it along the neck, stickier still when he shoulders into the fight and smashes it over one of the operative’s heads and a small dribble of blood slips between his fingers.
“All right, that’s one way to do it. Watch the glass,” Finn adds, pushing one of the twins back.
The other slams the sole of her foot into the other man’s face, and he falls beside his partner. Not unconscious, but groaning. Reluctant to try anything else, at least for the moment.
“Come on, we gotta go--” But he stops. Because the twins have stopped. They’re not much shorter than he is but Finn might as well stand eight feet tall from the way they stare: mouth agape, eyes wide with a cautious disbelief. “What? What is it?”
“It’s you,” one of the girls says.
“You escaped from the Finalizer,” the other says. “The FN squadron cadet…”
Finn looks between the two of them and then back to Poe, face blank and unreadable save for a softness at the corners of his eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s… me,” he says. Pauses. Grins, too, but it’s dense from the layers and layers of all he’s held close to his chest since he took Poe from his interrogation room and pulled the helmet from his head in the corner. The twins see the grin when he looks back at them and they understand. The density is a perfect mirror.
“We heard about you all the way in JV squadron,” she continues, and she’s got the glint in her eyes like she’s ready to keep going until the sun falls back behind the horizon but the operatives start to stir on the ground--and right, this should be put on pause. For now. No matter how much Poe doesn’t want to rob any of them of this moment.
“We have to go,” Poe says. He waves the twins forward, gets a hand on Finn’s shoulder blade to move him behind them as they dart across the atrium. The rest of the room is frozen where they stand, unsure whether to clean up the mess around the men in dark suits or who to tell security instigated the brawl.
Again Finn grabs his hand and a knot Poe didn’t even know had twisted into existence pulls apart, threading more energy into his legs, and on the other side of where they entered the night before, he can see it: the battered old shuttle General Organa slipped out of a New Republic shipment headed toward a scrapyard, door open, Karé and Jessika spotting them from a distance and pointing, undoubtedly shouting. Sinjir’s head rounds the corner of the shuttle door as the two of them scramble to prepare whatever they’ve planned for and he steps out into the hangar with the caution that comes from old sticking joints.
“Are we coming with you?” Only one of the twins says it but they both look back at them. “Sinjir didn’t mention that this morning--”
Noise erupts behind them--Poe recognizes the voices of the men they took down, but a third has joined them, shouting loud enough for the echoes to occupy the entire room and smother any other conversation that’s crept up out of the shock.
“You two,” Finn says to the twins. “You two keep going--go to the shuttle, we’ll take these guys out and meet you there--”
“That was our job--”
“And we have names you know--”
“Right, of course.” Finn pulls them all behind one of the bars, ducking between a couple of the stools bolted to the floor. “What are they?” he asks as he peers around the corner only to slide back beside them. Something’s changed, Poe can feel it in the way Finn’s squeezing at his hand, but he can’t pinpoint exactly what.
“I’m Juva,” one twin says. “And she’s Jevi.”
“Those are nice names,” he says with a grin that’s mirrored back at him tenfold. “Look…” He points toward the hangar where Jessika, Karé, and Snap are mingling in the doorway, feet poised to spring them in any direction they might need to go when the time comes. “Those are our friends. Get over to them, all right? We won’t be far behind.”
Juva huffs. “But--”
“Trust me.” Any arguments die in their throats. “Try to stay low. Don’t run in the open if you can.”
The twins nod without another word, dodging behind a couple nearby tables between them and the next bar station on the way to the hangar; and once they’re reliably too far to glance back at them, Finn lets the calm facade drop.
“The third guy snuck a blaster into the city,” he says. “I saw it tucked into the back of his pants.”
“Are you sure?”
“Not sure what else it could be, unless there was something in that room we were in that you weren’t showing me--”
“All right, all right…” He looks back toward the hangar, spots the twins’ tightly curled hair cresting over a set of high tables. They wait a few moments before darting to the short hall leading out of the atrium, and Jessika jogs forward to meet them. “Good,” he sighs. “So they’re safe. One problem solved.”
Though Finn’s head is peeking past the corner again, watching the progress of the men, he still nods. Still squeezes at Poe’s hand like everything he said had all of his attention and more. “The third guy was too busy getting the other two back on their feet to notice them,” Finn says, suddenly less than an inch from Poe’s face. “Plus… they’re shorter. They hide easier. Us…”
“Not so much. Yeah.” All the ground skirmishes he’s been in flash to the front of his mind’s eye--Jakku, the run-ins with Terex, the sick feeling knowing when he ran that his fate laid in the quality of the others’ aim. Luck kept his legs pumping, and it’s not a resource he’s sure is renewable. “You got a plan?”
“No.” He frowns, considers changing his answer. “Not other than running for it.”
Far on the other side of the bar where they’re hidden, the third man growls questions at bystanders still stuck where they stand, berates his two companions to look alive. Stop acting like that resistance garbage got the best of you!--it doesn’t come out of his mouth but the mouth of Captain Phasma on Jakku, ushering an injured trooper back on the ship. The same tone is there, the same bite and lack of feeling beyond one’s own ribcage.
“I can do that,” he says, and before Finn can argue, he adds, “We both can. Nothing could take down the two of us when we’re together.”
“That’s the corniest thing I’ve ever heard, but I’m not even mad about it.” He smiles, big and wide enough to put a stutter in Poe’s heart, then tilts his face up by the chin to kiss him. A taste of teeth sinks into his bottom lip for half a moment, the way that Muran would tell him I hate you but I love you more after a bad joke, and for the first time since he watched his ship burn up in space, he let himself breathe in the comfort of home.
“You ready?” Finn says as he pulls away.
They don’t even bother to check before jumping to their feet--and maybe they should have, but they’re a quarter of the way to the hangar before the operatives seem to register what’s happening, and then it’s all a mad scramble. The third man is yelling, Jessika and Karé are yelling louder, and when Poe looks over his shoulder the other two operatives’ knees buckle, collapsing into a chair or simply letting the floor catch them.
“Resistance scum… you thought you could leave your precious Ileenium system without detection, did you?” A couple blaster shots fire, pop against a passing table or decorative light post. “You’re just as naive as we’ve heard. I didn’t think that was possible.”
The blaster rings out again, rapid-fire shots close enough to draw an outline of them running for their lives. Poe’s heart hammers in his ears, bruising his breastbone, and before him Jessika runs forward with a long pole, the others behind her searching for anything heavy to put in their hands--
“Jess--” Finn calls.
“I found a stick! I’m going to kick their asses with it, I swear to--”
“Unless your name is Rey, I really don’t care!” he shouts back. “Get the ship ready to take off--”
Another shot grazes Poe’s arm--the sting burns away some of the sleeve but misses his skin, but it still throws an extra slot of energy into Finn’s muscles, pulling them toward the hangar even faster.
Jessika throws the pole down at her feet with a clang and rounds the rest of the squadron up, herding them back into the shuttle. Sinjir hangs back, milling about by the cabin door as the four kids hop on behind Snap and Nien; Jessika’s got one foot in the shuttle and one foot out, and Poe knows that look, the you’re being an absolute laserbrained idiot glare he’s received more times than he can count.
It hits him all at once: the kids want to go, and Sinjir is trying to stay behind.
One last burst of speed gets them out of the atrium but not out of the line of fire, though the man’s aim has only worsened as they ran on. The shots land far outside anywhere that can be considered a threat but he’s still running, still trying to close the distance between them, and Jessika and Sinjir are still fighting by the time they skid to a stop between them.
“The entire kriffing reason we came to this place was to get you,” Jessika hisses through her teeth. “Get in the fragging ship.”
“I had my time as a rebel. I’m through. I can’t do that life again--”
“Repeat that line again and Dr. Kalonia will have to fit you for false front teeth when we get back--”
Poe puts a hand on Jessika’s shoulder and steers her up into the cabin. “Hey, hey… go check that everything’s ready for take-off, okay? You’ve said your piece.” She shrugs him off but follows anyway, nudging past Juva, Jevi, and the other two kids on her way to the cockpit--their eyes don’t stray to her, but fall on Poe. Then Sinjir. And back again.
“Listen,” Finn says, and a couple more shots leave blacked streaks on the wings. “We don’t exactly have a lot of time--”
“Right, so you all should get going.”
Sinjir tries to walk away but Finn grabs him by the elbow. “Look. I don’t care if you don’t want to be part of the Resistance. You’ve obviously seen your fair share of war. But… come on…” There was a resolute set to his brow when he first kept him from walking away, but it’s visibly melting into something Poe wants to curl into his chest away from all the dangers of the galaxy. “If they’re coming with us”--he nods over to the four kids--“then… you’ve been there for them since they got out. I live in their shoes every day. You can’t leave them now.”
Poe looks back toward the atrium--the operative has slowed to a walk, visibly heaving and out of breath with the blaster down by his side. Turning back to Finn and Sinjir, he has little else to add though he wants to, he wants to underline everything Finn’s said and get him to listen, to come back and reconnect with Snap as an adult and not spend the rest of his days alone in the corner of some bar racking up a drink tab.
“You owe it to them,” Finn says. “Maybe you don’t think you owe the Resistance anything, but you do owe them.”
Sinjir deliberates--silently, of course, but he wears it plainly on his face. “Fine. I’ll come. But only because I don’t trust your mess hall with Ralla’s allergies.” He glances down at Ralla when he hops on board, and from the way she grins at him, he must have offered her a wink. A similar grin. Something. But by the time he turns back around to ask Snap where he should sit in the mess of the cabin, he’s back to the resigned glower.
“Stop!” The last operative fires another round of shots--first at Finn and Poe as they jump into the shuttle, then at the revving engine. “Or the Resistance will pay dearly in due time--”
One shot sparks something in the engine, something important enough for Jessika to start cursing, and Finn pushes Poe up into the cabin and toward the cockpit to help investigate. Behind him, the door groans shut, pinging off another couple rounds from that poorly-aimed blaster, and by the time he’s standing over Jessika’s shoulder, she’s shoving him out of the way.
“It’s nothing that won’t keep us from getting home, all right?” she says. “Just sit down. We’re about to take off.”
“Jessika…” Snap says carefully from the cabin.
“We’ll be fine. I’ll get Rose to check it out later so she can vindicate me.”
The ship shudders and whines under Poe’s feet, tipping him back towards the main cabin and an empty seat between Finn and Sinjir. The small window between Nien and Snap’s head across the aisle offers a thumbnail of Praxxa falling away, shrinking to a dark dot on the blank surface of the planet, and soon they’re high enough to spot the line where the Zeltros sky officially ends.
The chatter starts almost immediately: Snap pressing the shuttle’s comms into Iolo’s chest to send a message to the General, Jessika yelling at everyone to keep it the kriff down so she doesn’t botch the hyperspace calculations, Karé grumbling as she fetches Bastian a clean bag to retch into. At the back, Ralla traces the line of a long cut from her brawl with the operatives, grinning widely while she spins the stories for the other three. And amid it all, they’re almost alone in a crowded ship--Finn slips his hand back into Poe’s, releases the sigh that was held tight in his chest. Sneaks a quick kiss to Poe’s temple.
Save for Jessika’s swearing at the helm, the squadron falls silent quicker than Poe’s ever seen.
Karé looks as if she’s about to say something but Sinjir clears his throat before she can open her mouth.
“I’m glad you listened to me about something, at least,” he says.
Poe turns his entire body to face him. “Excuse me?”
“Oh right. You don’t remember, do you?” Sinjir sighs. “Doesn’t matter. You still listened. Excellent work.” He leans forward and repeats excellent work at a whisper to Finn, and from where he sits, Snap looks like he wants to die on the spot.
“Commander,” Nien says, “I think I speak for everyone when I say ‘thank fragging stars.’”
“I hope he’s making fun of you,” Sinjir says.
“What else would I be doing?"
Poe tries to tune out the rest of the cabin, the discussion of bets to be collected, Iolo’s harried messages back to base on the comms, Jessika’s final warning before the ship flung forward in a long streak of stars. All of his focus dials down to the space between Finn’s hand and his, the warmth there and seeping past his wrist to the rest of him. And Finn lets him sit in his own quiet, rubbing his thumb along the back of his hand every so often even as he fields each probing question Juva and Ralla and the rest of them can think of. If Poe were to open his eyes, look over at them, he’s sure he would find them staring at Finn. Awestruck.
It’s a look Poe can understand, one hiding under his own cheekbones even now--the awe of the ongoing rescue, from the Finalizer to here, now, with his head coming to rest in the crook of Finn’s shoulder on a shuttle hurtling across the galaxy to home.