Disclaimer: The Flanneled One owns all. I own all of nothing. Zekk doesn't belong to me either. Oh, well. Things've been this way for a while. I'm getting used to it.
A/N: I've always been intrigued by the backstory of various characters and the possibility of filling in the holes thereof. And Zekk is one of my favorite characters. So it was inevitable that I would write this fic sooner or later.
Lost and Found, Part One
The starport was a busy place, bustling with life and energy in a kind of low thrumming vibration, like the hum of an active hyperdrive, somewhere deep in his chest. It was filled with beings of all kinds, ones he'd never seen before or even imagined existed, and all of them were hard, busy, preoccupied with their own business, not giving a slagging minute for the affairs of a ragged dark-haired human boy hanging around the edges of the hangar and watching the incoming ships and the spacers going about their business.
But that was okay; Zekk was getting used to it. In some ways he liked it better that way. It was better not to be noticed than to look like a tempting target. He'd figured that much out already. He rubbed at a fresh bruise on his cheek and tried to blend into the shadows cast by the crates of cargo he leaned against as best he could, letting his eyes travel aimlessly over the ebb and flow of beings before his eyes. It was a seedy dive of a place and he didn't even know the name of the planet, but it wasn't Ennth, and that was what mattered. His mind flashed back to the cold of the transparisteel as he pressed his fingers up against the viewport and watched the planet far below him, felt the crushing forces of the ground rising up and crashing together, felt as if his muscles and bones were being smashed into nothing, and knew that they were never, ever coming back—
He set his jaw and ground his teeth together and blinked the tears stubbornly back.
Zekk was starting to have a hard time keeping track of all the starships he'd stowed away on or found work with and all the starports he'd visited since he'd left home. He'd found out that a lot of sentients weren't too eager to pay an undersized human boy for his work, even when he'd worked hard. And what was he supposed to do about it? Talk back and get himself slammed in the face again, or maybe worse? Better just to shut his mouth and take himself elsewhere. There were a lot of people here. Surely he'd be able to find someplace to make a few honest credits. He was a hard worker, after all.
His eyes followed the passage of a repulsorcart full of blumfruit, and he became newly aware of the hollow, grinding ache in the pit of his stomach, the grumbling complaints of his empty belly. He wasn't too sure when the last time he'd eaten something that looked half that tasty had been, and it was hard to bury the thought that the back of the cart was unguarded, and he was small and quick, and it wouldn't be tough at all just to grab a few. Zekk swallowed hard against the saliva prickling in his mouth and pushed the thought away. He wasn't a thief. He never had been. He was looking for honest work.
But he'd used up the last of his credits just to get here and on that meal however long it had been ago, and honest work hadn't fed him over the past couple of days.
Zekk hunched down over his crossed arms and turned away. He wasn't going to get anywhere standing around staring all googly-eyed at other people's cargo that he'd never be able to pay for. Time to start looking for something better to do. Something that could make him credits.
He had a second of warning, but it wasn't enough. A big hand came down heavily on his shoulder and spun him around, and then he was looking up into the narrow, swarthy face of the chief mechanic's assistant from the last ship he'd worked. Zekk tried hard to bury the sudden icy fear that clenched his insides into a frozen little ball, but he knew and he was afraid the other mechanic did too that the man absolutely terrified him. "Well, what have we here," the man said, grinning and showing pointed teeth that he'd probably had to file to actually get them looking like that. "If it isn't our little womp rat." He shoved Zekk backward and took a step forward, and Zekk's shoulders hit the cool plasteel of the crates behind him. He was trapped.
"I—I don't work for you now, Dreno," he forced out, and hated the way his voice trembled, stumbling over the words. "I'm not signed on with the Nebula Drifter anymore." And I don't think I ever was in the first place, you slimy Huttspawn, he thought angrily. You just told me I was hired and let me do all the work and shoved me around and kept the credits. I hope you end up as schutta-bait, you scum-sucking slimetrail.
"Funny about that," Dreno said with a wide, pointy smile that made him look more like a nexu than a human, just minus the fur and claws. "I'm not either." He shoved Zekk again, almost playfully, and Zekk bit his lip and clenched his hands into fists against the slick surface of the cargo box as Dreno's hand thudded into his shoulder, probably hard enough to bruise. "No," he continued. "I've got a new berth now, as chief mechanic on the Alderaan Star. What d'you think of that, y'little vent-crawler?"
Zekk fought the urge to close his eyes and let himself slump back against the box as a wave of despair swept over him like the waters of a flood. He'd spoken to one of the engine crewers aboard the Alderaan Star yesterday about a job, and it'd seemed hopeful at the time, but with Ton Dreno as chief mechanic he might as well throw himself down a Sarlacc pit because the only job he'd get there'd be the same kind he'd had aboard the Nebula Drifter, and Zekk didn't think much of his chances of escaping from Dreno's grasp a second time. He'd be stuck as an unpaid laborer to this lazy Hutt-slime for the rest of his life, which probably wouldn't be long, getting hit around and sent to do all the dangerous jobs and fed less than you'd give a pet pittin.
"Don't see what that has to do with me," he managed to force out unevenly and glanced around, looking for an escape route. He could probably lose Dreno among the crates if he made a run for it, there were some advantages to being small, and if this hanger was anything like the other ones in this starport there should be a service hatch just behind where the boxes were stacked more loosely over there. If he played things right, he could hide back in there for a bit, and pretty soon Dreno'd lose interest and go away. His attention span wasn't all that long.
"Hey," Dreno said sharply. "Where d'you think you're looking, you little brat?" He reached down to grab for Zekk, but he was already moving, ducking out from under Dreno's enclosing arm. He reached up and with a grunt of effort hauled himself up on top of the nearest crate. His muscles burned and trembled, complaining bitterly about being made to work so hard on top of the inadequate nourishment he'd been providing them with, but Zekk forced himself to ignore his shaking limbs as he scrambled around the side of one of the stacked boxes. His hands, sweaty with fear and exertion, slipped stickily along the side of the boxes as he squeezed between two of them and out the other side.
He was closer to the wall now and completely separated from Dreno by the crates, though he could still hear the man's muttered threats, threats Zekk had no doubt the man would carry out if he ever got his hands on him again. He swallowed hard and felt sick to his stomach as he struggled to quiet the ragged thumping of his heart. He didn't even want to think about the things Dreno was talking about, let alone them happening to him. He forced himself to ignore that deep, raging voice and focus on wriggling his way back further into the stack of crates. The slippery surface of the boxes made for uncertain footing, and he had to concentrate on where he was putting his feet or risk falling, and who in stars knew what would happen to him then. Zekk shivered and gritted his teeth and squeezed back in further.
Dreno was shifting crates now; Zekk could hear his grunts of effort and the rasp of the plasteel surfaces as they were dragged roughly across each other. Maybe Dreno'd get in trouble for moving someone else's cargo, he thought hopefully, but it was a vague hope at best and nothing to bet his survival on. Hopes hadn't saved his Mum and Da and—and they wouldn't save him. Zekk swallowed stubbornly against the hard lump of stinging pain that formed in his throat whenever he thought about them and searched for the next place to put his foot.
He thought he'd found a good one, but as soon as he set his weight down on it, little as that was, especially these days, the battered old spacer's boot a couple sizes too large for him slipped off the edge, and he lost his balance and his hold on the boxes around him. He flailed for balance, going hot as molten adrenaline slammed though him, then icy cold as his fingers slipped off again and he teetered on the brink of slamming back against the box behind him and bringing the whole stack crashing down on his head. If that happened, he wouldn't have to worry about Dreno anymore, cause he'd just be dead. Squished as flat as Mum and Da.
Incredibly, though, his fingers stuck in a deep crack on the edge of one of the boxes, and he managed to pull himself back to steadiness with it even as his wrist wrenched painfully from the stress and the awkward angle. He lurched forward again and only just found purchase on the box he'd nearly fallen away from, ending up plastered along the side of it, shaking and freezing with cold sweat and feeling like he was about to cry, his heart pounding so hard his chest hurt. He clung there for a moment, panting and scared and trying to convince himself that he hadn't just almost died.
But he could still hear Dreno moving boxes and cursing at him, and he knew he didn't have time to huddle there and shake, much as he'd like to. Zekk forced himself to pry his hands away and slowly shifted himself around until his back rested against the box. He was only a few boxes away from where the service hatch should be. He could only hope that all the hangars followed the same plan the way they seemed to and that Dreno wouldn't find it, that he'd be safe there, because if he wasn't and Dreno did find him it'd be too late to form another plan.
No use shaking himself to pieces over it now. Zekk swallowed hard again and stepped forward, carefully this time, onto the next box, trying to ignore the unmistakable sounds of Dreno getting closer, his curses increasing in virulence the whole time. One more tight squeeze between crates, and then he was dropping down behind all of them, squishing himself between the last one and the wall. He was suddenly glad of his skinny frame as he edged along the dirty durasteel wall. There it was, the hatch—he let out a silent breath of relief and started to struggle with it to wrench it open.
The effort left his fingers grease-stained and bleeding, but finally it came loose enough for Zekk to squeeze himself through, if he sucked in his breath and made himself as flat and thin as possible. Even so, he banged his hips and shoulders painfully in the process, and if he'd been eating at all regularly over the past month or so he had the feeling he'd never have managed it at all.
The space inside was barely big enough for a mynock and filled with protruding wires and conduits and plugs, but Zekk swiped them away from him, careful not to pull anything out, and turned to tug the hatch closed behind him. It wouldn't quite closely completely, but it was just close enough that he figured there was a chance no one would notice, especially with all the boxes in the way. The space inside was cramped and tiny and smelled strongly of tibanna gas and engine exhaust, but Zekk only just fit, and it seemed safe enough to breathe.
Zekk wedged himself a little further in, settled himself uncomfortably with plugs and wires poking into his back and sides, and drew his knees up to his chest, trying to make himself the smallest he possibly could. When he was curled up into a tight, awkward little ball, he laid his head down on his knees and bit down hard on the inside of his lips as he tried to quiet his loud, ragged breathing. He was still shaking, his body practically vibrating with tension, like a power cell or something. He clamped down hard with the arms around his knees and struggled to be still.
He could still hear Dreno outside. He sounded slagging close. Zekk squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to think about what would happen next if Dreno found him in his makeshift hiding place. He'd drag him out first—he could already feel the bruising grip digging into the muscles of his arm—and then probably rough him up a little, how much probably depended on how angry he really was, and then—and then what? He'd be dragged back to Dreno's new berth and made his unpaid servant for as long as he survived. Who'd care what happened to a little drifter without a credit to speak of? Everyone else had enough to worry about already, their own problems. He couldn't blame them for not caring about what happened to a nobody like him. Why should anyone care?
The sound of another box shifting echoed above him, and Zekk winced and buried his head against his knees.
"Hey," came a gruff, scratchy voice from above him. A new voice. "What're you doing with my cargo?"
Zekk didn't dare to even breathe. Was it even possible? His throwaway thought about Dreno getting in trouble for tossing someone else's cargo around had really happened? He couldn't believe it.
"This is New Republic stuff, this is," the new voice continued. "Medical supplies for relief on some of the worlds hit by that crazy schutta Daala couple'a years back. Whaddaya think you're doing?"
A little spark of bitterness managed to burn its way through the cool wash of relief flowing through Zekk. He had no idea who Daala was and couldn't have cared less, but Ennth needed disaster relief now, more than someplace that'd gotten slagged up a couple of years ago did.
A second later he felt shame, hot and liquid, working its way up from his belly, and clenched his arms tighter around his knees as tears stung the back of his eyelids. A lot of people had been hurt on Ennth, a lot of people had died. He still remembered the tearing pain in his chest, as if someone had set off a blasting charge inside him as he watched the planet break apart, knew people were dying, felt them die. He didn't see how he could ever forget. He wasn't going to wish that on anybody else just 'cause his parents had died too and left him all alone, and if those supplies could help anybody anywhere they should go there.
"I—I thought I saw a Eriaduan rat," he could hear Dreno explaining lamely. Zekk had to fight to hold back a snort of derision. That was the best Dreno could come up with? He could've done better than that. "You know how they get. It ran back in there. I was looking for it. You want to kill those things fast, don't want them getting loose in the power cables, having litters."
Apparently the owner of the other voice thought that explanation was just as lame as Zekk did. "A rat," he said. "Uh-huh. Get out of here, and if I catch you around here again I'll report you to security at the end of my blaster. Now move it."
Zekk could hear Dreno's angry reply, the clink of his boots against the floor as he stalked off, could hear the other man mutter, "And cut down on the spice, you stars-damned glitbiter, nosing around my cargo," as he did, and had to stifle a slightly hysterical laugh. A moment later, he could hear the spacer who'd sent Dreno packing mutter something about there always being more work to do. The sound of his boots followed Dreno's off into the distance. Zekk held completely still for a moment more, but all was silent from the vicinity of the boxes. He let himself relax a little, let his feet stretch out enough to brush up against the access hatch.
He'd stay in here a while longer to be certain they were gone, but he'd have to get moving again soon. He'd have to start his search for a job all over again, he guessed, 'cause he sure couldn't work a ship Dreno was working. His stomach roiled, curling in around nothing but emptiness. He felt hollowed out inside, cold, like the vacuum of space. What had been the last thing he'd eaten? Had it been that half-eaten slider he'd dug out of the trash? No, that'd been days ago. All that overripe fruits he'd seen rotting in the discards outside that diner, maybe. He'd eaten so much of those that he'd thrown up a few hours later. That still struck him as being kind of a waste. It didn't really matter, though, he supposed. He didn't remember now anyway.
Zekk laid his head down sideways on his arms and let his mind wander back to Mum's nerf-meat stew and flatbread and fizz-pudding for dessert, too tired to fight the memories anymore the way he had been doing. It didn't even seem real anymore. Now his reality consisted of scrounging for credits, and skulking around the holds of spaceships crewed by beings he'd never even seen pictures of before, and trying not to sound too pathetic when he asked yet another spacer to give him a job because, no, sir, I really am a hard worker, and yes, sir, I know I'm small but I'm stronger than I look, I really am, and his stomach always hurting and trying too hard not to remember.
Mum had always smelled like flour and sweet-blossom, and he had her two-tone emerald eyes, and he could still see the swirl of her skirt and her brightly colored shawl, the one Da had bought for her and that she always wore even though she'd laughed at him for it and said it didn't match a thing she owned, and she'd held Zekk's hand on the shuttle away from home and told him that things'd be different when they could go back home but that they'd be back soon anyway, and she'd always teased him for taking things apart and called him her little grease-mynock. Da had been tall and dark and would take Zekk along as he worked the fields and make stupid jokes and laugh at them anyway and now they were dead, because they'd left him and gone away, because even though he'd been close to crying, and he never, ever cried—not then—and definitely not in front of all those other people, and begging them not to go 'cause something bad, something terrible, was about to happen, he could feel it, but they'd gone away anyway and left him alone, and he wasn't going back, he wasn't, because it would never be home, not without Mum and Da there, and he hadn't been important enough and they'd left him and gone away and they were never coming back. Never.
He woke with a start at the sound of a low, gravelly voice, terrifyingly close. He banged his head against the top of the hatch and smacked his arm hard into a power coupling as he flailed awake, and then he blinked sleep out of his eyes and was staring, panting and terrified, into the grizzled face and clear blue eyes of a middle-aged spacer.
Zekk knew subconsciously that it wasn't Dreno, but he couldn't help the avalanche of panic that tumbled over him like a load of crushing rock, drove him to flinch away from the man's outstretched hand, press himself further into the sliver of room left at the back of the hatch, trying to make himself as small as he possibly could. For a long moment there was nothing except the dark, shivering, suffocating terror, and he couldn't breathe and everything was pressing in on him, and he couldn't hear over the thundering of his heart in his ears. He didn't seem to be able to stop the fear or push it back, and he was left shaking and breathing hard and sick to his stomach with the shame of it.
There was a dawning understanding in the man's eyes, even as Zekk shook and struggled to get a grip on himself, and then he said, "So you're the rat that gundark was talking about, huh?"
His eyes looked honest and kind, surrounded by crinkling lines that suggested he spent a lot of time smiling, but Zekk just couldn't be sure. Bad enough that the man'd found him hiding back in here; he figured it had to look pretty suspicious. He swallowed hard. "Sir?" he said, keeping his voice carefully blank.
The spacer looked at him as if measuring something, then gave a low chuckle and shook his head. "Can't blame you for hiding from that guy, kiddo," he said. "He looked mad enough to bite the ears off a bantha."
Zekk shrugged uncomfortably. "I don't know what you're talking about, sir," he said.
The man raised his eyebrows. "Oh, you don't? Whatcha doin' hiding back in there, then?"
Zekk lifted his chin in defiance, even though he knew the whole thing was ridiculous. "Sleeping," he said. "Y'know—the spaceport's loud, and busy, hard to find a private place to take a nap."
"Sleeping," the spacer repeated. He gave Zekk an incredulous glance.
Zekk bit his lip. "This's a public spaceport, isn't it?" he asked, but he thought it came out a little more defensively than he'd wanted it to.
The spacer seemed to give the matter some thought then decide to let it drop. "Sure is," he said. "Come on, kid, let me give you a hand out of there." When Zekk hesitated, appeared to guess to the reason and said, "He's long gone, I promise, and I won't stand for him loitering over here around my cargo again, no matter what the reason he was hanging around."
Zekk though that coming out now was kind of like admitting that Dreno was the reason he'd been hiding in the first place, but he accepted the man's hand anyway. It was covered with nerf-hide gloves so that only the tips of callused fingers brushed against Zekk's skin, and he let him tug him out of the service hatch and up to his feet. His muscles shot awake with pain after remaining in the same awkward positions for so long—how long had he been asleep?—and his bad wrist stung, and he had to bite back a groan as he almost overbalanced and fell over, but the man steadied him without saying anything about it, and for that he was grateful.
"But—uh, that's what I've been doing, isn't it?" he said, not meeting the man's eyes as he rubbed his grease-stained hands on his even grimier jumpsuit. "Loitering?"
The spacer gave him another assessing glance. "You're pretty quick for a kid," he said. "I'll give you that."
Zekk just shrugged and looked away. He wondered if this spacer needed any help hauling his cargo or keeping his ship up, and if he dared ask. At least this man seemed a little nicer than most of the others had. Then, so had Dreno, at first. But Dreno'd always felt mean, somewhere far underneath, Zekk thought. He just hadn't paid attention to it at first. He felt nothing like that from this man. It was amazingly dumb to trust himself to a feeling, but how much choice did he have these days? He shot a look at him out of the corner of his eye. The man was weathered, unkempt, sort of scary-looking with his beat-up coveralls and side blaster and unruly graying brown hair, but his eyes had seemed kind. How many people had looked at Zekk like that since—well, that didn't matter.
"Shouldn't you be somewhere else, kid?" the man said suddenly. "It's getting pretty late."
Zekk bit down hard on the inside of his lip and didn't look up to meet his eyes. "No," he said shortly. It was all he could bring himself to say.
"You sure?" came the dubious reply.
"I'm sure," Zekk shot back. He clenched his hands into fists and told himself it was probably hopeless so not to get his hopes up and running, and looked up to meet the man's clear blue eyes. "You're a cargo hauler right do you need any help on your ship," he said all in one breath, then blew his breath out and forced his hands to relax, rubbing them on the torn sides of his jumpsuit. "I mean," he said more slowly, taking care to enunciate the words properly this time, "I was wondering if there might be a space open on your crew, sir."
The man blinked down at him. "That so?" he said. "You good at anything, boy?"
Zekk told himself not to take offense, that he was small and ragged and dirty and looked like trash. "I'm a mechanic," he said. "A good one." When the man just looked at him disbelievingly, he felt more desperate words slipping out from between his lips. "I'm good at finding things too."
"Well, now," the man said, "I've been doing fine on my own so far."
Zekk's stomach felt like it had fallen in, and he had to work to get the words out past the hitch in his throat, but he said," Oh. Okay. Well, that's all right, then," and started to turn away so the man wouldn't see the disappointment written across his face, see him fighting back tired tears. He shoved his hands into his pockets. He shouldn't have expected anything. He really shouldn't have. That'd been dumb.
"Still," the man continued, as if Zekk hadn't said anything. "Wouldn't hurt to show you my ship, see what you can do, now would it? Always been my policy to give beings a fair chance."
Zekk stopped in mid-turn and then slowly shifted himself back around. "You're giving me . . . a chance?" he asked in a low voice, hardly able to believe he'd heard the man correctly. But he didn't look like someone who was lying or who was just toying with him. He looked, he really looked, like he was telling the truth.
The man shrugged. "Sure," he said. "Come on, kid, she's over this way." He started off in the direction of the far side of the hangar, apparently unconcerned whether Zekk followed after him or not. "I've got to warn you, though," he said. "She's a temperamental little lady. Call her the Lightning Rod."
Zekk had to scramble to keep up with him after he'd gotten past the shock, persuaded his muscles to start working again. "Why the Lightning Rod?" he asked.
The spacer grinned down at him. "Funny you should ask, because that's quite the story," he said. "I was out on Mon Calamari picking up a shipment this one time, and this storm blew up—you wouldn't have believed the strength of this storm, clouds covering the whole sky—and then . . . ."