Somewhere in space, Alliance Council's Executive Ship 'Revolution', Quarters assigned to Skywalker/Darklighter
After re-reading the same paragraph for the fifth time, Leia finally admitted defeat and dropped the datapad back to the desk with a sigh. So much for immersing herself in mindless, bureaucratic detail to distract her from the troubles circling her mind. Not a single word of the report on the latest struggles in trying to unite two bickering Rebel cells was making it any further than her eyes.
She leant back in the chair and massaged her forehead with her fingertips. She should probably go back to her own quarters to finish this work, but the quiet sound of Biggs talking on the comm. to the sim operator was oddly comforting. And besides – she was waiting for Luke to return from his daily conversation with Vader. She wanted to see the grin on his face when she told him about the flight simulators.
There were times when, whilst working for the Alliance, she felt old beyond her years. Her father had even commented on it, had almost seemed saddened by it at times. But he had accepted that it was how Leia was able to work in politics: that she needed that hardened outer shell of maturity to protect herself from being drawn too deeply into the human suffering beneath the diplomatic manoeuvring.
Strange, then, that with her father gone, it was now that she felt terribly... young. And alone.
She stood from the chair, wandering to the bulkhead viewport and watching the stars slip slowly past. The Revolution had paused in its endless retreat from the Imperial forces to restock on supplies, and part of Leia was tempted to turn and sprint down the corridors, run for the docking bay, towards the shuttles carrying supplies to them. Running to them for a chance for... what? Freedom?
She felt like she was being suffocated on this ship. Confined, contained. Her identity taken from her, by a cruel twist of fate that had left her simultaneously without a family and without a role in the war - not beyond that of an Alliance figurehead, anyway.
She pursed her lips in frustration. She believed in the Alliance. She believed in their fight. But she couldn't be a politician who sat on the sidelines hiding from the action. She wanted to be out there, among the pilots and troops. Fighting, dying even. Just doing something.
But that wasn't her 'place'. She'd been told since she was a child, from when she'd wanted to play with toy blasters and ships rather than dolls and make-up. It wasn't her place to be a fighter. She was royalty – she could do so much more with words and a smile than with a blaster.
She smiled slightly, remembering how hard her aunts had worked at making her more of a princess. And they'd succeeded, at least whilst Leia had felt there was a fight to be had even as a princess. But now... now there was so little she could do from aboard this ship. And she itched for a fight.
Maybe that was why she'd found a way for Luke and Biggs to try their hand on the flight simulator. Maybe she hadn't been joking when she'd told Biggs she might try it out herself. Maybe she wanted them to have the skill to take on the Death Star so they could take the fight back to the Imperials.
What help were 'maybe's?
Maybe she didn't even know herself, anymore.
The door opened behind her and she turned. Luke walked in, his guard escorts just visible as the door shut behind him.
"Hi," she said, and smiled at him.
Biggs forced himself to breathe steadily as his hands flew over the comm. He kept wanting to glance over his shoulder, fearful that Leia had crept up behind him and was watching as he took her trust in him and walked all over it. But with a stubborn force of will, he kept his eyes on the controls and worked quickly.
Guilt churned in his gut, but this opportunity was too good to miss. Leia had given him access to the comm. system, allowing him to talk to those in charge of the simulators on his own. She'd moved to sit on the other side of the quarters, leaving him behind the privacy shield of the comm. Leaving him with open access to the communications system.
His gaze flicked to the side at the sound of movement from across the room. He watched Leia stand and walk to the viewport, her arms folded. He heard her sigh. She seemed tired and distracted – distracted enough to give him this. Although how was she to know he was going to betray her?
His hands trembled as he turned back to the comm. Whilst he worked, he continued to talk to the guy in charge of the tactical division on this ship about getting on their sims. But he wasn't really listening to the conversation.
He couldn't just send out a message to Vader – he couldn't risk that there was a monitor on communications. But if he could persuade the system to send out an innocuous spike, something that looked like a glitch rather than a message... he could bounce it through the planet's local relay system and back to him... which should give him the message's co-ordinates of origin and the ship's transponder signal attached.
He hoped so, anyway. He had no technical expertise. But he had to try something.
He heard the door to the quarters open, and then Luke's voice. Then Leia talking, answering him.
Gritting his teeth, Biggs tuned out the siblings' conversation and concentrated on his task.
"You're kidding! Right? You've got to be kidding!" Luke gasped.
Leia grinned at his response, his delight instantly infectious. He was staring at her with eyes that had gone huge with disbelief He'd had a melancholy look on his face when he'd returned to his quarters from his daily interrogation by Vader. She hadn't been able to resist wiping that melancholy away with her news.
"I'm not joking, Luke," she said. "We've only got a couple of old simulators aboard but we're going to update them when we-" She never finished the sentence - instead she shrieked in shock as Luke abruptly yanked her into a hug and began spinning her madly. "Luke!" She laughed. "Put me down!"
He stopped spinning but he didn't let her go. "Oh, stars - thank you, Leia."
"You don't have to-"
"Kriff, do you know how long I've wanted to get in a sim?" He hugged her again and she returned it warmly. "Wait 'til Biggs hears this!"
"He already knows," she said. "He's on the comm. to the simulator room now."
"Thank you," Luke whispered, the words stirring the hair on the top of her head. "I was going mad, locked up here."
She smiled against his shoulder. "Well, we can't have that, can we?"
Something about Luke… something about the way he hugged her, the way he felt, sparked something inside her. Not quite desire, or at least not the kind of physical desire she'd occasionally felt for other men. More like a familiarity - like going home. And she felt so homesick at the moment, her planet and her family gone, her belief in the Alliance rocked... She clung to him, pressing her face against his shoulder.
He smelt familiar, too. Like a half-remembered dream from long ago. Comforting, though that made no sense. She sighed, feeling muscles she hadn't even realised were tense relaxing in his hug. She felt… safe….
His hold tightened fractionally and then he let her go, taking a step backwards. He stared at her, his eyes alight with that same intensity that had first fascinated her aboard the Death Star. It felt so familiar….
"I mean it, Leia. Just the chance to get out of these quarters is fantastic - but to try out the flight sims? Krith, I spent a whole season saving for a session on the ones they have at Mos Espa. They're really old ones, Headhunters I think. But I never… well, there was a sandstorm in the south field and Uncle Owen needed the money for the parts to fix the 'vaporators and… well, it doesn't matter. I'm just, well, I-"
He stopped abruptly, because on impulse she had leant up and kissed him on the cheek.
He stared at her. His mouth moved, but no words came out.
She grinned. She tightened her grip on his tunic, her fingers clutching at the fabric she was holding, wondering if what she wanted to do was going too far, if he'd think she'd gone crazy, or if he wanted it, too. Only one way to find out… she leant up, moved forward as if to kiss him.
He didn't make any move to stop her. He didn't make any move at all. She felt dizzy, lightheaded with expectation, her lips close enough to Luke's that she was breathing his breath.
- there was a loud crashing sound behind them, throwing her awareness back to the room. She turned to look in the direction of the sound, and she felt Luke turning with her.
"Whoops," Biggs said, staring down at a pile of datapads he'd knocked off the small table. Leia stared at him - he bent down to pick them up. "Hi…" he said. "So… I'm finished on the comm., by the way."
One hour later
Somewhere in space, Alliance Council's Executive Ship 'Revolution', Training Deck
A thrill of expectation ran through him, setting his nerves alight. Luke gripped the control stick in his hands, feeling slightly dizzy with anticipation. In front of him, the cockpit controls flickered from red to green, one by one. The cockpit trembled with the sound of a sublight engine rumbling into life. The sound went right through him, shaking him, rattling more adrenaline through him. He grinned.
"I hear you," his friend responded through the earphones in Luke's helmet. "Boy, this is nothing like a TIE."
"Reminds me of my T-16," Luke said. On the screens that simulated the canopy, stars appeared suddenly. The words 'STAND BY….' flashed in front of them, in big white letters. This is it, Luke thought, flexing his fingers in the tight flight gloves. Hells, yes, it was only a simulator - but Luke could feel his body responding to the simulation, buzzing with excitement. "Here we go," he whispered.
Then the words dissolved and the ship jumped as if breaking free of the frozen image, leaping forwards. He was pressed back in his seat, and the stars seemed to fling themselves towards him. He sucked in a breath, the small, abstract part of his brain that wasn't too busy cheering deliriously, marvelling at the feeling - at how real it seemed.
Ahead of them, a distant flock of TIEs circled the dark shape of a small moon – their target. The briefing had been straightforward enough – find and destroy a bunker hidden in the ancient, long dried-up river systems on the moon. Simple. Piece of cake. Luke pressed the throttle forward.
"Guess that means you're taking point, then?" Biggs' voice said, sounding mildly amused.
Luke grinned, pushed the flight stick further forwards, accelerating more. "You mind?"
Biggs laughed. "No. Just watch yourself."
Imperial Fifth Fleet staging post, Star Destroyer 'Devastator', Darth Vader's personal wing
Standing at the exit to his quarters, Vader listened with only half an ear to the updates from one of his personal aides. The man related his news with a clipped, dignified efficiency, taking Vader's silence as his cue to continue to the end of his report.
The Darklighters remained in detention aboard the ship. An escape attempt had been made, but had been unsuccessful. One of them had minor injuries. Food had been rationed as punishment.
Intel had no news of the Revolution. No sightings, no hint of where it might have been or where it might be going. Whilst many of the dissenting voices in the Empire had suddenly grown quieter since the destruction of Alderaan, a handful of worlds had been pushed in the opposite direction - towards rebellion. The Revolution had not been sighted near them, however.
And finally, the Emperor had departed Coruscant, on an official inspection tour of the Death Star.
"What?" Vader interrupted sharply.
The aide hesitated only briefly. "Emperor Palpatine is en route to rendezvous with the Death Star, Lord Vader, in the Seswenna Sector. His ETA is twenty-five hours."
Vader frowned at that. Palpatine had said nothing about any such plans to Vader, and that lack of communication alone unsettled him. That Palpatine was going at all was... interesting. There were many possible, plausible reasons for his tour. To officially unveil the station, perhaps – although surely there were more auspicious places to hold such a ceremony than Tarkin's own Outer Rim territory.
Palpatine might also be seeking to ensure that the Death Star was being appropriately commanded, now that Vader had left and was no longer there to oversee Tarkin's actions. Or to visibly remind any further dissenters of the weapon's destructive power and Palpatine's willingness to embrace it.
Possible, plausible, and entirely non-threatening reasons.
But something told Vader that Palpatine's motives were far from neutral. Instinct told him that Tarkin had a hand in this impromptu visit.
He sucked in an irritated breath, ignoring the aide silently standing to attention at his side.
So. Time had turned against him, yet again. Vader had anticipated that Palpatine would eventually want to visit and gloat over his new weapon, but he had not thought it would be so soon after the destruction of Alderaan. He had been keeping the certainty of a visit by Palpatine aside as a contingency plan: the ideal opportunity to get rid of both the Emperor and his ludicrous toy in one fell swoop, should the need arrive.
A clean, swift coup – but one that required Vader to be there for the fatal blow. Because only a Force-sensitive would be able to target the exhaust shaft that lead to the station's one vulnerability. Only Vader could target it, and only Vader knew it was there.
He'd thought he would have the luxury of choosing his moment... but if Palpatine and Tarkin were meeting without his knowledge... they could well be plotting Vader's downfall, whilst he was chasing the Rebels who held his son.
His son. Vader forcibly cooled his anger at the memory of what was at stake here. He needed to find Luke before he could deal with whatever treachery his master was planning. Both for his own sanity and because, were Vader to lose against his master and Luke's existence was revealed... then the boy would never be safe.
It had been over a month since he had spoken to Darklighter, and his patience was running dangerously thin. But in a few hours it would be time for his daily conversation with Luke. Perhaps through his son, Vader could get a message to the Darklighter boy. He would have to be circumspect about it... but time was running away from them. And if that was true... then Darklighter should know that his family's fate would mirror Vader's own.
Somewhere in space, Alliance Council's Executive Ship 'Revolution', Training Deck
The last TIE was on its way out, one engine venting gas into the vacuum as it tried to twist around for a last-chance shot. It never got that chance. Biggs' fire skittered across the ship's side, the last two quick-fire blasts overwhelming spearing through to the other engine. The ship wobbled for a moment before bursting into a brief, violent explosion.
"Hey!" Luke called over the comm. "No fair – he was my shot."
Biggs grinned. "Too slow, Luke. You daydreaming in there?"
There was no answer. Biggs glanced to his scopes, looking for Luke's ship, expecting it to be a couple of klicks in front from him. They were flying parallel to the surface of the mocked-up Imperial base, the city-like structure sprawling across the shadow side of a small moon, difficult to make out in the darkness. Luke should have been just ahead of him...
He shut up quickly as a blast of fire from the moon's surface arced towards him. He stepped down hard on the right stabiliser, angling away from the fire, but the barrage tracked him, spitting green laser bolts closer and closer, closing the distance as the laser turret turned towards him.
He dropped the ship suddenly, hoping the turret's fire would overshoot him. It didn't. It didn't fire at all. A flare of orange light lit up his starboard and he turned to see the turret's explosion dwindling into the vacuum. An X-wing raced through the dying flames.
"Luke!" he called, half relieved and half exasperated. "Why didn't you tell me you were going for the ground cover?"
Luke's laughter bubbled over the comm. "Sorry – must have been too busy daydreaming," he chuckled.
Biggs rolled his eyes. "First rule of combat, Luke – you tell your wingman what you're going to – whoa!" he yelled in warning as they crested the terminator of the moon, the sudden wash of sunlight from the nearby star revealing a deep, straight trench stretching into the distance – and a hundred turbolaser stations protecting it. "Pull up!"
Apparently Luke didn't need telling twice – he was already pulling away even as the first foray of fire spat towards him.
"The brief said it'd be heavily guarded, but that's ridiculous!" Luke called back.
Biggs silently agreed. This was one hell of a training mission – none of the Imperial training sessions he'd been on had been this intense.
"There's no way we can fly down that gauntlet," Biggs said. "If this was for real, I'd be high-tailing it out of here for backup."
"I'm not giving up," Luke shot back, stubborn determination etched into his voice. And despite the impossible odds, Biggs smiled. What the hell, it was a training mission. They were probably supposed to be learning not to bite off more than they could chew. Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad lesson for either of them. "If we go in fast, those turbolasers won't be able to catch us," Luke added.
"We'll be going too fast to hit the bunker," Biggs replied automatically, although silently he was game for trying. "And look on your scopes – that trench ends about a half-klick from the target. You're more likely to make an ugly smudge on that back wall than you are to hit the mark."
"Better that than turning and running," Luke shot back. There was something playful in his voice that Biggs hadn't heard in a very long time.
"All right," he said. " Just keep it full-throttle. I'll cover you."
Somewhere in space, Alliance Council's Executive Ship 'Revolution', Military Deck, Office assigned to Alliance Tactical Division.
The office that belonged to the head of the tactical division of the Alliance military was dark and airless, and Leia hesitated at the entranceway, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the change in light levels.
"Come in," a voice said, from off to her left.
She blinked rapidly, concentrated on making out the shapes in the relative darkness, and stepped inside. With the light of the corridor shut out, it became easier to see, and her gaze moved to the flickering blue light of a tactical monitor, and the man illuminated by the ghostly light from it.
She moved towards him.
"Have a seat," he said, not looking up from the screen. She looked around, found a pull-out chair, wondering if the darkness of the room had a purpose other than to disorientate her.
Seconds passed, the man still staring at his screen, gaunt cheeks deepened by the shifting light patterns reflected off the screen. Leia waited, but he didn't seem inclined to bother with any pleasantries. Which was fine with her. "How are they doing?" she asked.
His eyes moved to glance at her briefly. "Hmmm," was all he said for several minutes. Then, "They're not Alliance pilots."
It wasn't a question – she didn't deny it. "No, but are they any good?"
A flicker of a cynical smiled turned up the corners of his mouth. "Good? Depends on your definition of 'good'," he said.
Leia sighed inwardly. She really wasn't in the mood for cryptic word-play. "Go on," she said, drawing on a thin reserve of patience.
"This one," the tactician said, point at the screen although Leia couldn't see the picture and data scrawling across it," is Imperial trained. He's very good, very sharp. Some of the tactics he's using are beyond your average TIE pilot. He'd make an excellent addition to the navy." He looked up at her. "Not that you've moved into navy recruitment."
She smiled wanly. "And the other?"
For the first time, a true expression crossed his face. His eyes glanced at her mischievously, as if silently sharing a joke with her. "Him? No training, no trademark tactics, nothing."
"But," the tactician continued, "with raw skill like that – who needs training?"
She suppressed the smile that wanted to meet his. "I see," she said. "How did he-"
"And," the tactician interrupted her, as if she hadn't spoken, "he hit the target. It took three runs, but he got it."
She nodded, a breath of excitement bubbling in her chest. "How does that compare to the others who've tried the Death Star simulator?"
He smirked at her. "Compare? It doesn't. No one else has hit it."
"No one?" she whispered.
The man shook his head, a flicker of animation finally appearing in his body as he leant towards her. "No one," he confirmed. "After hours of training, no one has managed the right targeting angle."
"Not even by chance?"
He smiled grimly. "Only your man here. If that was chance."
Leia let out that breath of excitement, her head feeling light. If that was chance. She felt a terrible rush of hope running through her, coming on the heels of the acknowledgement that the only hope they had lay in the lap of the boy they'd fitted with a slave tracker and locked in a room for over a month.
The tactician was staring her. Suddenly, that last sentence of his sounded more threatening when she re-ran it through her mind.
If that was chance.
She schooled her expression into pleasant neutrality. "Thank you," she said. "It's good to know someone can hit it."
He didn't respond, just continued to stare at her, the sickly blue light playing over his face.