Breakfast was not on Leia’s to-do list. Never mind that her stomach was grumbling. She’d lingered too long over stolen battleship schematics, and breakfast hours were long past. Not that it mattered. She wouldn’t have had time to eat anyway. It was more important to inventory the ordnance, inspect the maintenance logs, research the feasibility of selling energy coils on the black market, and maybe -- if she had time left over -- ponder how it was possible to want to hug and slap her brother at the same time. There was also the small matter of liberating the galaxy from the First Order.
Well, not the whole galaxy. Just her corner of it. That should be achievable, right? Sometime before the end of her natural life, anyway. She sighed. Sometimes it felt like she’d been at war forever. Sometimes she thought she liked being at war. Would she even know what to do with herself when it was over, now Ben and Han were gone for good?
She pushed the thought out of her mind. She could figure out the rest of her life after she’d signed off on next month’s kitchen requisition.
The mess hall was quiet at midmorning. It was too late for breakfast and too early for lunch, and the sky outside was too blue for anyone to want to linger among the scuffed tables and mismatched chairs. For a blissful second, Leia stood in the middle of it and reveled in the silence, emptying out her mind the way Luke at taught her all those years ago, when she thought she might become a Jedi.
Just when she started to feel peaceful, frantic footsteps shattered the silence, accompanied by muffled swearing. Leia steeled herself for as many disasters as she could think of: First Order attack, fire in the maintenance bay, explosion in ordnance room… It was a long list. But when she turned around, she only saw Rey.
“Shit,” Rey was muttering. “Shit, shit, shit. I missed breakfast.”
“Hungry?” Leia asked.
Rey jumped. She looked at Leia with wide eyes, drawing herself up to attention.
“I’m sorry. I overslept,” she said, looking slightly awestruck. “I’ve never done that before.”
If anyone else had told her they slept too late for breakfast, Leia would have said that sounds like a personal problem. She was tempted to say that now, but only because she was tired and cranky. But Rey was new here, she’d stuck around even after Ben -- no, Kylo Ren -- had tried to rape her mind and take her captive. Breakfast was probably the least Leia owed her.
“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” Leia said mildly. It occurred to her that Rey might actually mean she had never slept late in her entire life, and the last of her irritation faded. “Come on, I’ll get you a ration bar,” she said, walking toward a forlorn-looking cardboard box that sat askew on one of the back tables. She rifled through it and came up with a handful of different flavors.
“Which ones do you like? Personally, I think they all taste like stale bantha fodder, but Poe swears by the green ones,” Leia said, holding out her hands. “Take as many as you want.”
Rey reached out and carefully plucked two ration bars from Leia’s hands, one green and one blue. She tucked them into her bag quickly, pushing them down into a pocket where they couldn’t fall out. She was still staring at the colorful packets overflowing from Leia’s hands.
“Give me your bag,” Leia said sternly.
Rey stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, then passed the bag over hurriedly. Leia dumped the rest of the ration bars inside.
Rey swallowed and took a deep breath. “All of that? I can have all of that?” she asked, her eyes wide.
Whoever left this child alone and hungry on Jakku, if I ever find you I swear I’ll… Leia didn’t finish the threat. Anger was of the dark side, after all.
“All of it,” Leia said firmly. “And now we’re going to get some real food.”
Rey shook her head. “I can’t,” she said quickly. “I mean, that’s very kind of you, General, but I’m already late for my shift…” She was already backing toward the door.
Leia frowned. “You’re on the R&R list today. I checked the duty rosters this morning.”
Convincing the workaholics of the Resistance to take a day off now and again was a skill Leia had perfected over her years as General. She had witty repartee on the subject, a caring grandmother routine, and -- her personal favorite -- logic. No one could help the Resistance by working themselves to death. It was an indisputable fact.
But Rey didn’t try to argue. She looked genuinely confused.
“Rest and relaxation?” Leia tried.
“Oh.” Rey shrugged her shoulders. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather eat.”
Now it was Leia’s turn to look confused. She had to hand it to the girl -- not a lot of people could leave her at a loss for words.
“Well, if I don’t work today, I can’t eat today, right?” Rey said, almost as if she were explaining something to a child.
Leia felt like an idiot. Of course that was how things worked on Jakku, and no one here had thought to explain that the whole galaxy didn’t function that way. Suddenly, every deprivation Leia had ever endured seemed very small.
She took Rey by the shoulders and said, “Rey, as a General of the Resistance Army, I give you my word that you will receive food every day, even if you are sick, even if you are injured, even when you are assigned a day of R&R. That is not a favor to you. It is how we work here, and it applies to everyone on base.”
“You mean I can do anything I want? All day?” Rey asked, a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Leia felt herself smiling too. The sensation probably shouldn’t have felt so alien. “Yes,” she said. “And to start with, you’re going to eat something for breakfast better than these ration bars.”
With that, she marched into the kitchen storeroom and gathered up rolls and jam, a few nice pieces of fruit, and a large carton of juice. She put them down on the table in front of Rey, then crammed one of the ration bars into her own pocket. Now that her charge had been fed, she could get back to her work.
But before she could walk away, Rey divided the food into two even piles and put half of it in front of Leia. “Don’t generals need to eat?” she asked, pouring two glasses of juice.
Leia almost refused -- she had work to do, after all -- but Rey held out the glass of juice, and Leia took it automatically. Then Rey shoved a jam-drenched roll into Leia’s other hand, and there was really no choice but to sit down and eat.
“Dirty trick,” Leia muttered, and Rey smiled around an enormous bite of her roll.
It was the last thing Leia had time to eat that day.
She didn’t even bother to look at the clock when she finished her work. She didn’t want to know what godawful hour of the night it was. She didn’t even want dinner anymore, or a shower. Going to bed hungry and smelly would be just fine, thank you very much.
She was almost back to her quarters when she heard the door to the residential wing slide open slowly. Her foot was poised on the private stairway that led to the senior officers’ corridor. One more step, she told herself. One more step and the day is over and you can sleep.
She heard footsteps shuffling across the worn tile.
“Quiet!” someone hissed.
You don’t want to know, Leia told herself. Black Wing had had R&R today. If she walked around the corner, there was no telling what she was going to see.
A cough echoed down the corridor, followed by a sneeze.
“Come on, just a little farther,” a voice said. Poe Dameron.
Leia most certainly did not want to know. But she was going to find out, because Poe was going to have to walk past the stairway to get to his quarters. She drew herself up, ready to be a general for five more minutes at least.
Poe rounded the corner, then Finn. In between them was a smaller figure, dripping wet, wrapped in an emergency blanket. It was Rey, and she was shivering.
Leia stepped out in the corridor, her arms crossed over her chest.
Poe saw her first. His eyes widened. He looked just like a ten-year-old boy with his hand in the cookie jar. Leia noticed that he was dripping too. Odd.
“Poe Dameron, it’s thirty minutes past curfew,” Leia said. She didn’t have to feign indignation. The curfew existed for good reason. If one stray Resistance fighter were picked up by a First Order patrol, everyone was in danger. And she depended on Poe to set a good example for the others.
“It is,” Poe said hurriedly. “We’re sorry.”
Leia frowned. She’d expected a retort. Instead Poe was shifting slowly on his feet, trying to block her view of Rey.
“What exactly happened here?” she demanded, stepping around Poe so she could get a better look at the girl, who was still shivering beneath the emergency blanket. She directed her glare at Finn, who seemed more likely to crack under pressure.
Finn swallowed. “We - we took her to the swimming hole, General, and --”
Leia cut him off with a sharp look and spun around so she could glare at Poe. “A swimming hole? You took a girl from the desert to a swimming hole?”
Poe blanched. “I swear, we were going to tell her about the place where the edge dropped off --”
“And the current from the waterfall,” Finn added, even though Poe was shaking his head frantically.
“You took her to a swimming hole with a waterfall in the dark?” Leia took a step toward Poe, who was trying to back away slowly.
Rey started to cough again, and Leia reached out automatically to smooth away the wet strands of hair stuck to her face. She looked alright, though slightly worse for the wear -- which was to be expected. Since two idiots had nearly drowned her.
“Look, I didn’t know she was just going to go out so far that fast,” Poe said. At least he had the decency to look rattled.
“Do I have to be reconditioned now?” Finn asked, and Leia’s head snapped up.
“If anyone’s being reconditioned, it’s him,” she said, still glaring at Poe. She couldn’t really be angry with Finn; she could hardly expect someone who’d never made his own decisions to have good judgment. Poe, on the other hand…
She saw the look of horror on Finn’s face and sighed. Of course the poor boy wouldn’t know she was joking.
“We don’t recondition people here,” she said. “We don’t know how, and even if we did, we wouldn’t do it. Because it’s wrong.”
He nodded, but the wariness didn’t leave his eyes.
“Do you seriously think someone like me could survive in an organization that erases people’s personalities?” she asked.
Finn opened and closed his mouth. Finally, he said, “No. I mean, you seem too, ah...”
“If you were going to say too much of smart ass, you’d be right,” Leia said, looking back and forth between Finn and Poe. “Nobody’s getting reconditioned, but you are taking her to medical to get checked out. And then get her something hot to drink.”
Both Finn and Poe nodded eagerly. Poe wrapped an arm around Rey’s shoulders to shepherd her toward the medical wing. Finn looked on uncertainly for a moment, then looped his arm around Rey’s other shoulder. Leia watched the three of the walk down the hall arm in arm before she came to her senses and called after them, “I mean a hot drink of tea. None of that hooch Jax brews in the maintenance bay.”
Poe flinched, and Leia snorted. Then she pulled out her data tablet and tried to decide how to carve a few hours out of her schedule. Someone was going to have to teach Rey how to swim -- and if she wanted Rey to survive the experience, that someone was going to have to be her.
She reached for a box labeled “miscellaneous clothing” and yanked out a tangle of black fabric. It was possible that it was a bikini. Mostly, it appeared to be a jumble of thin straps, held together by a napkin-sized piece of cloth. At what point in her life had she understood how to put on something like this? And how had Han gotten her out if it? It was a wonder she wasn’t trapped in it still. She dropped it back into the box and dug a little deeper, angling it toward her so she could see inside.
A data cube fell out and clattered onto the floor. The play button must have gotten activated somehow, because a hologram of Ben suddenly appeared in the middle of her shoe rack.
He must have been about ten years old. His hair stuck up in odd directions and he wasn’t very tall, but his face had lost its roundness and his limbs were long and lean.
“Happy birthday, Mother,” he said. His voice was thinner and softer than she remembered it.
He shuffled his feet and cleared his throat. Then the nervousness vanished and he shot an annoyed look at someone Leia couldn’t see. “You’re not holding the holocam steady,” he complained, staring into the distance.
“Easy, kid, she’ll love it,” Ben’s invisible companion said. Han, of course. Hearing his voice shouldn’t have startled her, but it did. She clenched her fingers around the fabric in her hands and swallowed a lump in her throat.
“Motherhood is a precious gift,” Ben intoned solemnly, reading from a tablet in his hand. “It can’t be bought or sold, but its value is far greater than a mountain made of gold.”
Leia tossed an old shoe at the data cube, and the hologram vanished before Ben could read any more of the poem.
“That will be quite enough of that,” she said. She paused to wipe her eyes, then dug through the box till she found a white one-piece that looked small enough for Rey to wear.
When Rey saw Leia, she smiled and eased herself out of the hatch, dragging a bag of scrap metal and twisted wires behind her.
“Can I help you with something, General?” she asked, hefting the bag as if it weighed nothing. Just the thought made Leia’s back ache.
“Leia, please,” Leia said. “And I need you to get us to that speeder” -- she pointed across the bay -- “without anyone seeing me or asking me a question. We’ve got two hours before someone notices I’m gone.”
Rey tucked her bag of scraps behind the X-wing and set off across the bay without even raising an eyebrow. They ducked in between the hulking remnants of damaged ships and weaved back and forth between the pillars. It reminded Leia of the early days of the New Republic, when Han used to smuggle her out of her office, past legions of aides who would have assaulted her with questions had they caught so much as a glimpse of her retreating back.
Rey programmed the coordinates Leia gave her into the speeder and asked no questions until the base was a tiny dot in the background. Then she turned to face Leia, her eyes alight. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“Swimming,” Leia said.
A branch snapped against the side of the speeder, and Rey’s eyes snapped back to the dirt track they were following. Even in profile, her smile was incandescent. “Swimming?” she asked. “You’re taking me swimming?”
“Well, I do like to keep my fighters alive,” Leia said. “Finn and Poe weren’t doing a very good job of that yesterday.”
“But you’re a general,” Rey said. “I’m no one.”
Leia blinked. What stung about Rey’s words was how matter-of-fact they were. In her mind, being no one was a simple fact, just like not getting to eat on days she didn’t work. But this wasn’t something that Leia could correct with a simple explanation of the Resistance’s rules. It might not be in her power to fix at all.
“I think you’re someone,” Leia said simply. It sounded like a platitude, but it was the best she could do.
In the end, they didn’t get to learn how to swim. They’d been floating for perhaps half an hour when Leia’s comm unit began to beep and flash from the lakeshore. Leia stood up with a sigh, and Rey followed her back to the shore. Admiral Statura was waiting on the line, and Leia knew he wouldn’t have called without good reason. She and Rey dried off quickly and climbed back into the speeder.
“Some other time, alright?” Leia said when Rey dropped her off at the base’s back entrance.
Rey smiled, looking unconcerned, but Leia couldn’t help but feel guilty. She’d told Rey that she was someone -- and then she left as soon as she got a call from someone more important. How was she supposed to make anyone feel like they mattered when she was always rushing off to do the next thing? The feeling stuck with her for the rest of the day, all the more annoying for its familiarity. How often had she faced the exact same dilemma -- and made the exact same decision -- when Ben was young?
There was a soft tap on her office door, and Leia winced, hoping it wasn’t Rey. People might actually die if she didn’t finish reading these intelligence reports, but she didn’t want to tell Rey twice in one day that she didn’t have time for her. She rolled her chair back from the desk, twisting her head back and forth in a futile attempt to get rid of the cramp in her neck. It didn’t work.
When she opened the door, Rey was standing on the other side, looking hesitant.
“What can I do for you?” she asked, trying not to think about the intelligence reports clamoring for attention on her desk.
“Nothing,” Rey said hastily. “I just wanted to thank you. For this afternoon, I mean.”
“No thanks necessary,” Leia said firmly, fighting back the urge to warn Rey that she was, at best, an inconsistent and easily distracted friend.
Rey shifted uneasily on her feet, and Leia stepped aside, inviting Rey inside. “I haven’t got very long, but would you like to sit?” she asked.
Rey shook her head. “I can’t. I’m meeting some of the pilots for a game of -- well, I don’t really know what it is.”
Ominous possibilities flitted through Leia’s mind, but before she could formulate a warning, Rey reached into her bag and pulled out a small object.
“I wanted you to have this,” she said, pressing it into Leia’s hand. “It’s not much, really. I used to make them out of scrap, back on Jakku. I traded them at the market sometimes.”
It was a twelve-pointed star, fashioned from a kind of metal Leia had never seen before. When she held it up, light raced back and forth along the points, fragmenting into little rainbows.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, reaching out to squeeze Rey’s hand.
That night, she put it on her bedside table in the empty spot where she used to keep a holo of Ben. She watched the colors shift across it in the moonlight until she fell asleep.
She hardly needed to witness the process for a third time -- especially not at midnight, and especially not in the middle of an unusually delicate financial negotiation with the Resistance’s most important patron.
She actually did force herself to walk past Rey. Then she turned around and doubled back. Who was she kidding? She wasn’t going to sleep anyway.
She poured them each a cup of caf and sat down at scuffed mess table. “Building your own lightsaber?” she asked.
Rey sighed. “Maybe. Is impatience of the Dark Side?”
“Most normal human emotions seem to be,” Leia said. It was reason number 1,586 she had never actually become a Jedi. She pointed at a tiny sliver of wire that Rey had discarded at the edge of the table. “Try that one.”
Rey raised her eyebrows. “Have you done this before?”
“A very, very long time ago,” Leia said, taking a sip of her caf.
Using a pair of tweezers, Rey slipped the wire Leia had suggested into place. A faint hum resonated through the empty mess hall, and Rey’s shoulders sagged with relief.
“How long did it take you?” she asked.
“Six months,” Leia said, then shook her head at Rey’s alarm. “I wasn’t nearly as good at mechanics as you. And not even half as devoted to my training.”
The truth was, Han had finished her lightsaber. I don’t give a shit about the Force, Leia, he’d said. It’s a machine. I can do machines. Then he’d said a lot of things about focused light beams that she didn’t understand and snapped the last few circuits in place. She hadn’t been sure whether to yell at him or fuck him, so she’d done both. In the morning, she’d arrived at training with a lightsaber of her own, and if Luke had known who finished it, he’d never said. Leia intended to carry the secret to her grave.
When she looked up from her reminiscing, sparks were flying across the table and Rey was swearing under her breath. Leia gently slid the tools out of her hands and held out the cup of caf.
“Take a break,” she said firmly. Building a lightsaber wasn’t possible when you were even slightly frustrated or angry -- that was probably why it had taken Leia so long to finish hers.
Rey nodded, and for the first time, Leia noticed the bags under her eyes. They sipped their caf together quietly for a few minutes, and then Rey asked, “Why didn’t you become a Jedi?”
The old answer slid off Leia’s tongue easily. “I didn’t have time, and my place was with the government anyway. Besides, there was vague rumor that Jedi were supposed to practice celibacy, and that was not for me.”
Rey giggled, and Leia could imagine how their conversation would go on from there. Rey was beautiful and energetic, and there was no shortage of attractive people on base. They could gossip about Poe until the sun came up. Or they could talk about Finn, who was clearly interested in Rey -- or perhaps even Jessika Pava. It wasn’t right of her to assume that Rey was straight.
Of course, it also wasn’t right of her to lie to Rey. She deserved better than that, even if it meant a more serious conversation.
“The truth is, I didn’t want to be a Jedi,” Leia said. “I was -- I am -- far too angry.”
“You don’t seem that way,” Rey said, looking surprised.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Leia said. She tried to keep the fire inside, where it didn’t burn anyone else, but it was always there. “I tried not to be so angry for a long time, but I can’t help it. I see injustice, and I get mad. It’s not an awful characteristic in a politician, but in a Jedi Knight, it’s dangerous.”
When Rey looked up, her eyes were full of fear. “I don’t know if I could stop training like that, even if I needed to. I love it too much.”
Leia smiled. “Well then, you have to make sure you love it for the right reasons. There’s a steadiness in the Force. It lasts through war and death and destruction and everything else you think you can’t survive. That’s the part you have to love, not the part that gives you power over others.”
Without really thinking about it, she reached out with her mind. Slowly, the wires and tools on the table rose into the air, some higher than others. Those, Leia knew, were the ones they needed to complete the lightsaber.
“Do you feel that?” Leia asked, reaching for Rey’s hand. She didn’t need to look. She could feel where it was.
Rey nodded. Her voice sounded thick. “It feels like everything is connected, and you can feel the past reaching back for thousands of years, and the future stretching out in front of you, and whatever you feel right now doesn’t matter.”
Leia squeezed Rey’s hand and let the lightsaber parts drift back down to the table. “The Dark Side lives in the moment. The Light Side is forever. That’s the part you have to love.”
“Come down this instant!” Leia called. Life in the Resistance was risky enough already. They hardly needed to court danger in their free time -- or endanger the whole base by treating valuable equipment like a climbing gym.
“I’m sorry,” Rey said when she reached the bottom of the antenna. She’d climbed down faster than Leia could have imagined possible, and though her cheeks were red, she was barely even breathing hard. “I know we’re not supposed to be up there. It’s just...well, everyone here is very nice, but I’m not used to having so many people around.”
“Well, that’s one way to get some peace and quiet,” Leia said mildly. Her attention was distracted by the mass of frayed wires bulging out of Rey’s pockets. “Tell me those didn’t come out of the deflector dish.”
“I replaced them with better ones I found in one of the decommissioned X-wings,” Rey said. “D’you mind if I keep these old ones?”
“Help yourself,” Leia said. “You might have just saved all of our lives.” She made a mental note to let Rey climb anything she wanted, if it meant she’d solve deadly electrical problems before they even started.
She watched as Rey carefully tucked the wires into one of the pockets of her bag. When she turned around, Leia could see that her hair had been braided -- badly. One of the strands was too fat, and the weave was uneven and riddled with odd holes. A forlorn bobby pin dangled from the side of Rey’s head, as if she’d tried to pin her hair up and then given up on it.
“Can I help you with your hair?” Leia asked. She did owe the girl a favor, and she remembered how frustrating it had been to learn how to do her own hair when she’d gone away with the Rebellion for the first time and hadn’t been surrounded by maids.
Rey’s face lit up. “Jessika Pava showed me this tutorial holo. It showed everything from every angle, so it was supposed to be foolproof, but I couldn’t make it work,” she said, toying idly with the ragged end of her braid.
“All you need are the right tools,” Leia said, steering Rey downstairs toward her quarters. Maybe they wouldn’t be interrupted this time.
She parked Rey at the tiny dining table that she’d shoved next to the wall to make room for a large desk. Eating in her quarters was a rarity. Working, on the other hand, was a daily occurrence. Her first impulse was to take care of Rey’s hair quickly, before some emergency forced her back out into the base, but Rey’s eyes fluttered shut almost as soon as Leia began unweaving the terrible braid.
“Nobody ever touched me on Jakku,” she blurted out. Her cheeks turned pink.
“That sounds terribly lonely,” Leia said. She’d undone the braid by now, and she ran her fingers slowly through Rey’s hair. It was smooth and silky against her fingers.
“It was,” Rey said. “But now I’m here, and there’s so many people. There’s six girls just in my bunk, and they all talk to me. Everyone does. And it’s nice, but…” She trailed off uncertainly.
“Overwhelming?” Leia suggested. Privacy could be hard to come by on the base -- even for a general with her own quarters. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. There was no place to hide.
“Yes, exactly,” Rey said. “On Jakku, everything was the same every day. You ate the same things, saw the same things, threatened the same people when they tried to take your things...Here, there’s just so much. And it’s the nicest place I’ve ever been, but sometimes I wish I could just find someplace simple. That’s why I was up at the top of the antenna. It felt like...home.”
Leia nodded. There wasn’t much use telling her that the base would start to feel like home, because they’d probably have to abandon it in a few months. Maybe they would even have to leave it tomorrow.
“I haven’t been home in a very long time,” she said. She wasn’t sure what she would even consider home anymore. Alderaan? The house she’d shared with Han and Ben? It didn’t matter; she couldn’t go back to either one. “I suppose you just keep doing what you’re good at, and that’s a kind of home too. The kind you can’t lose.”
Leia’s home was fighting, which was possibly not healthy. Rey’s was salvaging what she could and fixing things that seemed broken beyond repair, which struck her as a slightly more promising future.
Rey reached for the tiny holoprojector on the edge of the table, and Leia braced herself for the moment when Han appeared, grinning in the pilot’s seat of the Falcon. Sure enough, after a few minutes of idle wandering, Rey’s restless fingers tripped over the play button. At least she didn’t recoil in horror the way Admiral Statura had when he’d done the same thing a few weeks ago. Instead, she smiled softly.
“He was nice,” she said quietly.
“Nice?” Leia asked, rubbing a bit of texturizing cream through Rey’s hair. “I’ve never heard that one before.”
Rey snorted. “Well, maybe not exactly nice. But he offered me a job. It was the first time anyone ever looked me...well, like I was worth something. And he wasn’t nice about it, but he told me what to do at Maz’s, and he gave me a gun. He wanted me to be safe.”
Leia started making little braids on the sides of Rey’s face. She could pull them together in the back when she was done. “I imagine he saw a lot of himself in you,” she said.
“Really?” Rey asked. Leia couldn’t see her face, but she could hear the smile in her voice loud and clear.
“I never liked to admit that he could solve a problem I couldn’t, but there were times we’d be trapped in some desperate situation, and he’d always try something and make it work. He flew the Falcon through an asteroid field once, and then he landed it in the mouth of some enormous space worm. But we got away from the Empire, and that was what mattered. Anyway, you’re the same as him. You can start off with nothing and still find a way to survive. Han admired people like that.”
Leia held up a few stands of Rey’s hair, contemplating what to do with them. She could finish now if she wanted to, but the truth was, she didn’t want to. Rey wasn’t the only one who’d been starved for touch -- and anyway, every mother of a son had daydreamed once or twice about what it would be like to braid a little girl’s hair. She had no illusions that Rey was little, or her girl, but there was no harm in enjoying the experience for a few minutes longer. And anyway, it would give her a chance to ask a question she probably ought to have asked long ago.
She undid a section of braid she didn’t quite like and ran a comb through Rey’s hair to smooth it out. If she kept her hands busy and her attention focused on the rather elaborate hairdo she was building, maybe the answer wouldn’t hurt too much. Or she could pretend it didn’t, anyway.
She had only heard Chewie’s version of what happened to Han, which went something like this Kylo Ren does not deserve to bear the names of Organa or Solo. He is a coward who lies with dead bantha -- if he lies with anything at all. Most likely he knows only the pleasure of his right hand. He is a weakling who fights without honor, and I regret only that my aim was not true. I swear upon the honor of my clan, if I find him again, I will bend him over my knee and spank him before I dump him into the gaping maw of the Almighty Sarlaac.
Leia did not disagree on any particular point, but as a narrative, it left something to be desired. But Chewie couldn’t talk about Han’s death any better than she could, so Leia had left it at that. Until now.
She took a breath and said, “Tell me, how did he die?”
Rey went stiff and still. “You don’t know?” she asked, her voice edged with fear.
“I know Kylo Ren killed him,” Leia said. She’d never doubted it, and Chewie’s invective had confirmed it. Her voice stayed steady, and so did her fingers as she worked through the next section of Rey’s hair. “I just want to know what happened exactly. Did you see it?”
“Not the beginning,” Rey said, and some of the tension slid out of her shoulders. Maybe she needed to talk about it too. “Finn and I were climbing up from the outside. When we got to the top, Han and Kylo Ren were standing in the middle of a bridge.”
Leia snorted. “How terribly symbolic.”
“I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Kylo Ren took off his mask, and then he took out his lightsaber. He didn’t turn it on though. He never took his hands off it, but he looked like he was going to give it to Han, and Han reached out and took it.”
Leia froze. “He did what?”
Of all the idiotic things Han had ever done… Why would he do that? He had been so good at not letting people kill him. He’d smuggled illicit cargo, escaped bounty hunters, led the Rebel Alliance into battle. And after all that, he’d walked unprotected into the middle of a bridge and put his hands on someone’s lightsaber. Anger washed over Leia -- not at the person who’d once been her son, but at Han. For doing something so unbelievably stupid. For not being here so she could yell at him right now. For not coming home.
“Han took the lightsaber,” Rey said slowly. “But Kylo Ren didn’t let go. There was a moment when they just looked at each other, and then Kylo Ren turned it on.” Rey twisted in her seat so that she could face Leia. “I knew -- I knew what was going to happen, but I - I couldn’t do anything. And I’m so, so sorry I didn’t bring him home.”
Leia let out a long, slow breath and tried to push some of the anger out with it.
“You couldn’t have done anything,” she said, smoothing a few strands of hair back from Rey’s face. “Han always did what he wanted to do. It was one of the things I loved best about him.”
He had known what would happen when he walked across that bridge. Leia was sure of it. But he’d had to try anyway, because he didn’t want their son to watch him leave one more time.
When she woke up the next morning, her eyes were red and her throat was scratchy, but she splashed some water on her face and did what she did best: work.
Black Squadron had blown up an important First Order installation, and -- miracle of miracles -- had come back with all personnel and spacecraft intact. Almost everyone was celebrating. Leia had allowed herself mild satisfaction, followed by a nice evacuation plan in case one of the X-wings had been followed back to base.
She found Rey sitting in a corner of the hangar bay, not far from the raucous party.
“You alright?” Leia asked. Rey had squinched her eyes shut, and her hands were clenched into fists at her sides.
“Everything is spinning,” Rey said. She opened her eyes and squinted up at Leia. “Why are there so many of you?”
“Because you’re drunk,” Leia supplied. She had had a very similar conversation many years ago with Luke, who’d had his first drink not long after blowing up the Death Star.
“I’m not drunk,” Rey said, sounding irritable. “I wasn’t even drinking alcohol! There were just these little glasses --”
“Those are called shot glasses,” Leia interjected. She was going to have to have a word with Poe.
“I had a drink on Jakku before,” Rey insisted. “It was all...burny and awful. That’s not what this was like. They were these tiny glasses filled with colored gelatin stuff, and they were quite nice. Like candy.”
“Yes, candy-flavored alcohol,” Leia said. “Come on, up you get.”
She tugged on Rey’s arm, and Rey lurched up clumsily, almost pinning Leia against the wall. Leia winced. She was really getting too old for this. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d had to cart some lightweight back to their quarters. Probably Luke’s thirtieth birthday -- and no, she was not going to calculate how many years ago that had been.
Moving slowly, she managed to steer Rey past the corridor to the enlisted barracks and dragged her up the stairs to her own quarters, where she deposited her in front of the toilet.
Rey looked around, bewildered. “These are your quarters. Why are we here?”
Leia wished she’d stop looking so damned surprised when people were nice to her. “Because Poe and Finn are doing a terrible job taking care of you.”
“Finn’s been drunk for ages. Almost since the party started. There was this blue and orange thing, and I told him not to drink it, but he didn’t listen,” Rey said matter-of-factly. She was leaning her head against the toilet bowl, which seemed unsanitary, but Leia didn’t object. Suddenly she looked up at Leia again. “You could’ve just taken me back to my quarters. I wouldn’t have minded.”
“I would have minded,” Leia said. She hadn’t actually even considered leaving Rey alone to be sick, or to drink more, or to fall in the arms of some unscrupulous pilot. The mothering instinct did not go away when your children disappeared or turned villainous. Apparently it just transferred itself to other similarly-aged Force-sensitive children.
Rey looked like she wanted to say something, but instead she vomited. Leia rubbed her back through the worst of it, and then deposited her on the couch with a pillow and an emergency shock blanket. Possibly, it was not the homiest thing Leia had to offer. On the other hand, it was warm and easy to wash, so she supposed it would do.
“Drink some water and swallow a couple painkillers before you go to sleep,” she said, depositing a pitcher and a bottle of pills on the coffee table. “And try not to look at any bright lights in the morning. I’m afraid I can’t take you off duty. We don’t have the pilots or the mechanics to spare, but at least everyone else will be as hungover as you are.”
She patted Rey on the shoulder and stood up slowly. She ought to get some sleep herself. The day after a successful mission was always busy.
But Rey caught her hand before she could go.
“You’re a really good mother,” she said, squeezing Leia’s fingers.
Leia froze, then carefully pulled back her hand. “No,” she said. “No, I’m afraid I’m not.”
“You are,” Rey said, her eyes shining in the dark. “Ben, Kylo Ren, whatever he calls himself...he was stupid to leave you. If you were my mother, I’d stay forever.”
That was the morning Poe accused her of isolating herself -- or tried to, anyway. It was more that he chased her down a corridor, shouting about irresponsible things like having fun. He finally caught up to her outside her quarters, which she couldn’t get into because she’d just washed her hands and the antiquated scanner refused to read her wet thumbprint.
“You could slow down a little bit, you know,” Poe said, panting. “All I was saying is that it’s good you’ve been spending so much time with Rey. You’re good for her. I think she’s good for you.”
“Will that be all?” Leia asked. She pressed her thumb against the scanner one more time, and her door finally slid open.
“Nope,” Poe said firmly. He followed her inside without an invitation. “You need to stop avoiding her. Actually, you need to stop avoiding everyone.”
“I’m not avoiding anyone,” Leia snapped. “I have work to do. A lot of work. Important work.” Why was she even indulging this conversation?
“Yeah, we all have important work to do. There’s not one expendable person on this entire base, and you still spend half your time telling them to take a day off once in awhile. And you think since you’re the General, nobody’s gonna tell you to do the same. Well, you’re wrong. I’m here to tell you to make some damn friends and cut yourself a break.”
Leia wanted to leave, but storming out of her own quarters would have been childish -- and anyway, Poe was standing in front of the door.
“Poe Dameron, I assure you that I have ample experience looking after for myself, the Resistance, and the Rebel Alliance before it. I do not need you, or anyone else, to tell me how to use my time.” She picked up her data tablets and tried to step around Poe, but he shifted just enough to block her way.
“Actually, you do need someone to tell you when to stop, and the person who used to do that is gone. And believe me, I miss him every day too. You can be mad at me if you want, but if you’re not gonna ask for help, I’ll just take my best guess what you need and give it to you.” He crossed his arms over his chest, looking very resolute and irritatingly unafraid of Leia’s notorious temper.
“And what exactly do you think I need?” she asked, biting off every word.
Poe surprised her by putting a hand on her shoulder. “To hear that what happened to Han wasn’t your fault.”
Leia opened her mouth, but no words came out. She swallowed hard and looked down at the floor. “I told him to bring our son home.”
“Yeah, and Han always did things just because you told him to. Walking out on that bridge was his choice. And what Kylo Ren became wasn’t your fault either.”
Leia sat down on the couch, feeling shaky and weak and tired and a lot of other things she wasn’t used to feeling. “Of course it was my fault, Poe. I’m his mother. I should’ve seen it coming. Maybe I would have if I’d been home more often.”
Poe flopped down on the couch next to her. “None of us saw it coming. If he was pissed off that you worked too much, he could’ve rebelled the same way the rest of us did. There’s a lot of perfectly good drugs in the galaxy, you know? And plenty of unsuitable sex partners to go around.”
“And plenty of spacecraft to steal?” Leia asked. Poe was lucky to be alive after the time he “borrowed” the Falcon.
“That too.” Poe put his feet up on the coffee table and tossed her a dazzling smile. “I’m gonna stay here till you tell me how I can help. I’m prepared to settle in for a long wait.”
Leia sighed. “There’s a data cube on the closet floor. I want you to get rid of it.”
Poe gave her a confused look, but Leia shook her head. “No follow-up questions. I don’t even want to know what you do with it.”
She’d been avoiding her closet since that damned recording of Ben had fallen off the shelf. It was a terrible solution. She’d been living out of her laundry basket for two weeks, and her quarters were getting uncharacteristically messy.
“Whatever you want, Princess,” Poe said, looking bemused. He opened the closet door, looking bemused.
“If you can’t find it, it’s probably under a shoe,” Leia called. She busied herself cleaning her desk so she wouldn’t have to hear the crunch if Poe decided to smash it to pieces.
Poe emerged from the closet a few minutes later. “One mysterious data cube, mysteriously disposed of,” he said. “What else can I do for you?”
Leia rolled her eyes. “Nothing. Thank you, Poe. I’ll be alright. You can leave.”
Poe shook his head. “You’re not gonna like this, General.”
“What?” Leia asked, shooting him her most withering stare. Poe didn’t even flinch.
“Admiral Statura and I locked you out of the mainframe. You can’t do work today,” Poe said. He even had the audacity to look smug about it.
As a rule, Leia did not panic, but the fluttering sensation in her chest felt very similar to panic. “What if there were an attack? Or an emergency transmission? The intel team on Regulon V could report back today. Of all the dangerous, irresponsible things you could have done --”
Poe put up a hand. “We can handle ourselves. And if you take a day off now and again, we won’t have to do this again. By the way, there’s somebody who’d really like to see you, and I think you know where to find her.”
With that, Poe departed, leaving Leia to stare incredulously at her darkened computer screen.
She tried to make herself walk past the entrance to the galley, but she couldn’t. It was just as tiny as she remembered it, but much cleaner than the rest of the ship. First she hoped that whoever had cleaned it had also repainted the bulkheads. Then she hoped they hadn’t. Finally, she forced herself to look in the back corner next to the cold storage unit.
Nobody had painted. The wall was still covered with thick black tick marks, each announcing one of Ben’s growth spurts. The earliest ones were clumped closely together. For years, Ben had been convinced he would never grow. He’d shot up suddenly when he was thirteen. The highest mark was several inches above Leia’s eye level. He’d been fifteen then, and Leia wondered absently if he’d grown since then.
She traced her fingers over the wall, and memories flooded back.
Han telling her to use a marker, not a pencil. What, are we keeping the place nice now?
He’d been smirking, but Leia had known what he meant: he wanted the evidence of their family to last. He wanted to stay.
Ben begging her to measure him almost every month. How hard it had been to comfort him when he cried over not getting taller, because she hadn’t wanted him to grow.
By the time he finally did grow, he was too old to want to be measured. Come on, Ben, just one more time, she’d pleaded, and he’d acquiesced reluctantly, dragging his feet across the scuffed floor. And it was the last time. She’d sent him away for training a few days later, and neither she nor Han had ever seen him again.
For the first time in a long time, she didn’t wipe away her tears and go back to work. She just stood, staring at the marks on the wall, letting herself remember. She and Han and Ben had been good together once. It didn’t last forever, but that didn’t mean every happy memory was a lie. Remembering hurt, but forgetting did too.
Leia wasn’t sure at what point she’d slid down to the floor, or when Rey had joined her there. They were both sitting with their backs to the wall, and Leia was studiously avoiding looking at her reflection in the metal door of the cold storage unit. She did not even want to imagine what she looked like.
“I don’t know what to do when people are sad,” Rey confessed. The words came out in a rapid burst, the way they always did when she wasn’t sure of herself. “I was always alone on Jakku, so I never learned how to be anybody’s friend.”
Leia snorted. “You’re at least as good as I am,” she said. “How did you get through it? All that time alone, I mean?”
Leia had felt alone often enough. Her life experiences had been rather singular -- in a three year period, she had watched her home planet explode, almost fallen in love with her secret twin brother, and discovered that her biological father was the very man who’d captured her and tortured her on the Death Star. But even though all of that, she hadn’t been alone. Rey had.
Rey just shrugged. “It wasn’t a choice, really. I knew I wasn’t going to whore myself like some of other girls I’d known. So I just...did the best I could. And at the end of the day, there was always at least one nice thing, even if it was only the sunset. Besides, I always believed my family would come.”
Leia looked over at Rey for the first time. She looked almost incomprehensibly hopeful.
“But they didn’t come,” Leia said. Then she winced. “I’m sorry. That was terrible thing to say.”
But Rey didn’t look bothered. “They did come,” she said matter-of-factly. “Granted, it wasn’t the people I was expecting, and they didn’t exactly arrive the way I thought they would. But I do have a family now.”
She looked at Leia, who told herself very fiercely that she was not going to cry again.
“I found something I thought you’d want,” Rey said briskly, pulling a holo cube out of her pocket. “It was wedged in between the bunk and the wall. I only found it because the mattress needed to be fumigated.”
“Or burned,” Leia said absently. She thought that was probably the best option.
“I suppose it’s alright to throw things away now and again,” Rey agreed. She held out the holo cube expectantly, looking a little hurt. “Don’t you want it?”
“Tell me what’s on it first,” Leia said. Deciding to remember her life with Han and Ben was all well and good, but she didn’t think she could handle being ambushed by another birthday holo.
Rey cleared her throat. “Well, it’s you and Han,” she said, looking a bit embarrassed.
Leia’s eyes widened. She wasn’t a praying woman, but she’d give a lot to any deity who could promise Han hadn’t left that kind of holo under his bunk.
“And you appear to be making an obscene gesture at a chapel of some kind,” Rey finished hurriedly. “But you look very happy.”
“That was the day we didn’t get married,” Leia said, finally taking the cube out of Rey’s hand and switching it on. She was wearing a red dress, and there were flowers in her hair. Han looked unusually un-scruffy. “Somehow we convinced ourselves that since we had a baby, we were supposed to be married. I’d never seen Han look more terrified than he did in front of the altar -- and he said I looked the same. Before the minister could even start the vows, we ran back down the aisle. Ben was the only wedding ring we ever needed.”
She twisted the holo cube in her hand, and the image flickered for a moment, then reappeared as good as new. If she zoomed in, she could see the faintest trace of spit-up on the shoulder of her dress. “Ben’s gone,” she said quietly. “He’s not ever coming back.”
Rey nodded. “After what he did -- No. He’s not coming back. Sometimes people do that -- leave and not come back, I mean. People we love, even. Sometimes you just have to let them go, and move on with whoever you do have. Because the people who disappeared aren’t the only ones who can love you.”
Rey stood and held out a tentative hand. Leia took it, even though she had no idea where they were going.
“Come on,” Rey said. “You still owe me a swimming lesson.”