Vader was here, and all Luke could think was, well, fuck.
He didn't do much else though, aside from slump back in his chair, wu=ith an irritated expression as he rubbed a hand over his face. Wes, on the other hand, was having a dramatic mental breakdown, eyes the size of saucers as he leapt to his feet.
"Oh, holy shit Luke! What are we gonna do?" He slammed a hand down onto the table, nearly spilling his glass and hastily fumbling to right it back up. His hands were still shaking, though. "Luke! Fuck, Luke! Fuck, fuck, fuck."
He took one look at his friend, who seemed to have stared down death in the face—or at least heard he was in the atmosphere, at any rate.
Luke made an exasperated noise. "Would you sit down?" A couple patrons on the balcony had looked curiously over at Wes' outburst, and the last thing they needed to do was attract attention.
The boy did so, with a dazed expression.
Luke took a deep breath, feeling the need to calm himself as well. The force around him was tingling with anxiety, and he knew it was coming from him. After a few moments of meditative silence, he opened his eyes again.
"We're gonna play it cool." Luke explained, leaning in close. "And we're gonna get the hell off this planet before more shit comes up. What'd Han say?"
"Something about Leia…" Wes trailed off uneasily. "But then the connection shot off. Krith… what in the galaxy is Vader doing here?"
Luke shrugged. "Sniffing out the rebels, probably." And then, after a beat. "Which mean's they're here as well."
"What is this, a showdown in the middle of bum fuck nowhere?" Wes groaned.
The blonde's lip quirked slightly, but it was an empty smile. "I guess so. Listen, I'm going to try and connect to them again; why don't you check on the planes? If they're not ready to go in the next thirty minutes, double the pay and tell them to hurry it up."
Wes nodded, looking relieved at the thought of getting off this awful, oppressing, heated planet even though Darth Vader was just outside the atmosphere. The boy pedaled off, and Luke dropped some money on the table as he made his way down as well.
Lule had to admit, the idea of Vader in the system had him pretty much at the same level of terror as Wes. Fortunately, he was just better at hiding it.
Or maybe just more prepared for it.
He dialed Han's number first, the comm making scratchy noises from all the interference. Luke frowned. After living in Tatooine for so long, he was aware satellite transmissions wouldn't work in a sandstorm. Low frequency two ways, like the one he was using, should work just fine, as long as he wasn't making a long distance call to Coruscant or something. So what would cause the interference?
Luke's eyes widened.
Han answered the phone. "Yo star boy—
But Luke immediately hung up, glowering into the sky. So the empire was monitoring the calls—but why? Did they suspect the rebels to be on planet?
In case Han decided to call him again, Luke shut off his phone. Knowing Han, it'd actually be more like several calls, and something like that would look suspicious. At any rate, it was useless being down here, on the planet he hated more than anything.
Just his luck they'd be stuck here, empire and all.
He slinked off into the alley ways, keenly aware of the padded boots shuffling in the dirt behind him. Stormtroopers already? This wasn't just a showdown in the middle of bum fuck nowhere—this was an ambush. Clearly Vader knew that the rebels were making for this planet. Luke wondered what he thought of that.
Wasn't it a Sith ritual to cut ties with all of that?
"The Space Lion, right?"
Luke startled subtly at the voice, caught off guard at the low baritone, a mixture of exotic accents amongst a sea of Huttanese, and cursed under his breath. He was rarely referred to as anything but Luke by people who had met him in person, but his bounty hunter name was notorious—
And unfortunately, infamous among other bounty hunters.
"That's what they call me." The blonde answered neutrally, not looking in the direction of the voice, but attuned to it all the same.
A bounty hunter on Tatooine wasn't an uncommon sight. But perhaps it was too coincidental for a bounty hunter to approach him, at this particular moment, with the rebels trapped in orbit and the Executor closing in on its prey.
"What they call you means a lot around here." The bounty hunter observed, sifting out of the sandy shadows. The dull glint of his armor gave him a droid like appearance.
But the voice was entirely human.
"Boba Fett." Luke greeted, cordially.
"You work with the squad, don't you?"
"You've been following us." Luke noticed, suspicions confirmed. Their encounter on Zeba was anything but coincidental.
Fett inspected his blaster idly. "I might've." The hunter answered noncommittally. "You lot stir up a lot of trouble with the empire."
"With everyone, actually." Luke refuted, collectedly/ And then, turning his unnervingly blue eyes to Fett. "Do you need something?"
And again, "I might." Another noncommittal answer.
Let the Empire do what it wanted—it always did, anyway—he wasn't about to get in a fight, or even get his hackles raised, over such a stupid, insignificant bounty hunter like Boba Fett. His reputation may reach the farthest flung planets in the galaxy, but his nonexistent mark in the force told Luke that he was entirely infinitesimal.
"Do what you want." The blonde bit out, turning away. "Just don't get in our way."
The bounty hunter watched him go, idly tapping the steel rim of his gun, blazing brother suns blinding Luke in gold.
THE SPACE LION
The image lingers in his head, festers there like a wound that won't heal, picked open idly in the waking hours, where the dark heat overtakes him completely. It's not an image really, a moment perhaps, a lapse in time, continuously replayed on the security footage in an infinite loop.
It was the first time Fett had ever heard or seen of the Space Lion.
He wondered at the name. Fett himself had many of those, in a variety of tongues—nicknames of infamy that came inevitably in his line work. Not to mention his armor was quite… eccentric, and generally people knew of him by sight alone, but he knew that his reputation preceded him, as it did with all bounty hunters. He wouldn't get nearly as good of business if it didn't.
The name, though. Why?
Maybe it was because of the hair.
Even in the poor lighting of the docking bay security camera Fett could see the way it lit up gold in the sun, like a fiery blonde mane. Lions were fearless—there wasn't any other way to describe the way he charged through the base, moved with a fluidity that was almost omniscient. He dodged bullets nimbly, moved like a predator as he took down his prey. There was something ruthlessly mechanical to the merciless takedown, something inhuman to the stone of his face.
And then he was off, just like that. Tearing through space in that sleek, silent X-Wing, blending in with the stars with the barest of moments, leaving thousands of credits of damage in his wake and a mission accomplished under his belt.
Fett's client was enraged—so enraged he'd hired a bounty hunter of his own to protect his assets, regardless of the fact Fett was being overpaid for glorified baby-sitting duty. The Space Lion wasn't coming back. Word of mouth was that he had a new crew he hung with, had disengaged from the rebel circles and was into something else.
Lord Vader didn't look up as the doors to the antechamber slid open, revealing a bounty hunter dressed entirely in armor.
"Lord Vader." Fett greeted cordially.
At this, the machine like man looked up. "Fett." And then, with the barest hints of confusion. "Have I required your services?"
Boba Fett examined the tips of his gloves. "No, not recently."
"Then you are dismissed." Said Vader, looking uninterested, turning back to his monitor once more.
But Fett wasn't deterred. "You have a diplomat in those chambers, right?" He nudged his head in the direction of the prison cells. "A one…Princess Leia, right?"
Vader paused, the computer beeping fervently, and Fett could almost feel the palpable waves of annoyance radiating from him. This was certainly a dangerous game. "Speak your piece, hunter." Ah, so this was a sore spot then.
"I have information that she's quit the alliance some time ago." Spoke Fett, idly, once more continuing to brush off nonexistent dirt from his careful study of his gloves. Vader turned to him now. "Between us bounty hunters, there's been a lot of competition between solo bounty hunters and this new… company of hired mercenaries. I hear she works for them now."
"Them?" Vader repeated, scoffing. "What a ludicrous idea. If you've nothing else to say—
"They call them the Squad." Fett continued onwards, moving forward with stunning temerity in this dangerous game. But Vader hadn't killed him yet, so… "They take missions from anyone—whoever'll pay the best. Last I hear, the rebel alliance paid quite a sum of credits for their latest retrieval mission to be completely wiped off the books."
"You speak of the Death Star plans." Noted Vader, flatly, clearly not in the mood to beat around the bush, nor to question where Fett had gotten the information. There was a reason Vader hired him, after all.
Fett looked up at that. The Dark Lord of the Sith had ceased monitoring calls, and had given him the majority of his attention—a feat which the bounty hunter had never achieved before.
"I do." He answered, honestly.
"And what do you suggest… with this, 'squad'?"
"They're around here somewhere." Fett shrugged. "I met a few of their guys on world. Those plans… they could very well be long gone."
Vader made a frustrated noise, and hastily, Fett backed away. In good time, too, as one of the machines he'd been leaning on began to fizzle, smoke wafting into the air before all the circuits seemed to simultaneously erupt, causing him to leap back from the sparks.
"Find me those mercenaries." Vader commanded. "And I will deal with them all."
"There's too many of them to properly get a hold of. And the moment they suspect you're onto them they'll take off faster than a Wookie in the tropics. I suggest an easier way, my Lord."
Vader paused, seeming to contemplate him. "And what would that be, bounty hunter?"
And, with a smile that neither could see, "Hire them."
There was little to like about captivity in a holding cell, Leia grumbled to herself. Let alone the uncomfortable bed. If it could even be called so. Rather, it was a long white block that, if she tried hard enough, could possibly give her a few hours of restless sleep.
She didn't have to worry about that, though, as the doors slid open with a sharp hiss.
"Princess." Greeted Lord Vader, with nothing but the barest inclination of his head.
Leia glared at him. "Do you need something, Lord Vader?" She asked, blithely. "I was just getting ready for an afternoon nap."
"I do indeed, Princess." He returned. "I know you've hidden the plans."
"I have nothing to do with the rebel alliance!" Leia protested hotly, looking away with a sniff. "To think you've locked me in this cell without even a wink of evidence—
"That you're part of the alliance? No… that you've stolen the Death Star plans and hidden them?" And then, with a hint of amused inflection to his voice. "Does your Squad know you're here?"
"As I suspected. Third party's are liable for accessory charges." Vader reminded. "However, considering the depths of your skill, I may be willing to make a deal." He offered, magnanimously.
Leia arched her brow, crossing her arms and standing at her squared height of five feet. Even though Darth Vader had nearly two feet on her, she wasn't to be intimidated. "We don't make deals." She refused loftily.
"You'll find you don't have a choice, Princess." Refuted the Sith Lord.
Her eyes narrowed with determination, anger, and something the Dark Lord relished in—fear. Fear not for herself, but her companions in this silly little band of hunters.
Vader inclined his head.
"How much?" Leia repeated, bitingly. "It's not free."
"Then you'll find that this one will be on the house." Was all he said, walking out of the cell with a shadowy swish of his cape.
Irritated beyond belief, Leia dropped onto her cell bed, getting angrier by the minute. The nerve of that man… machine! But behind all that anger was something a little more worrying—a concern for the rest of the team which had been lingering in the back of her head since she'd tentatively accepted the distress call from the Alliance. And to think that stupid idea could very well get them all killed.
She swung an arm over her face.
Hopefully Luke was okay…
Luke sneezed, just as he finally managed to get his x wing off the ground. Beside him, Wes already gunned his engine and tore down the runway, out into the blistering sky. Luke followed hastily, wondering what such a twinge in the Force could mean… after all, the elusive mystery of the galaxy certainly didn't come with an instruction guide.
Nothing good. Luke thought, irritably. How did Leia always manage to get herself into trouble?
"Wes," He called over the radio. "Let's stick with the local frequency for now, okay?"
"Sure, sure." Replied his wingman, distracted with the feel of his controls underneath him once more. And, with a hint of pleasant surprise; "Damn, those guys did a pretty good job!"
Luke smirked. "Yeah, Tatooine's got a few reputable guys down there…" And then, hastily, "So I've heard, anyway."
"How the hell do you always know these things, Luke?" Wes laughed, thankfully good-naturedly. He seemed more concerned with his power generators than figuring out the mysteries of Luke.
"Oh I dunno… I pick things up here and there." He answered vaguely, igniting his thrusters and taking off into the cold bliss of space.
Anything was better than Tatooine, that godforsaken planet that may as well have been a drifting hole of deplorable morals.
Wes cursed, slowing his X-Wing down as they finally broke atmosphere.
The Venetus Cruiser was a glorious sight to see, an imperious block of clean alloy, air conditioning, good food, and regulated temperatures. From this angle, Luke could see the bay windows of the mess hall, double-enforced plexiglass that always showed the most breathtaking view of the galaxy. Every time they came back to it, Luke always felt remarkable relief, like coming back home.
But not with the Executor docked beneath it.
"Krith spit!" Wes howled, looking livid from what Luke could see of his profile.
But the blonde was too numb to curse, to numb with fear, trepidation a slow, but inevitable rise in his throat like bile working its way up from his stomach. He'd come to terms with being on Tatooine, that restless, itchy, incessant need to leave finally relinquished as they wrenched through the atmosphere—and now this.
"—should we do?" Wes chanced a glance over to Luke's X-Wing, faintly making out a dark expression to his friend's face that seemed to go well with his sleek, black plane.
"Luke?" He repeated.
The blonde jolted out of his thoughts. "Huh?"
"I was asking what should we do." Wes swallowed. "Should we turn back? I mean, it isn't too late… we're probably not on their scopes yet. We could try to contact them later, or maybe—
"No." The blonde sighed. "That'd just be delaying it. I have a feeling I know what they want."
"…Luke?" Wes blinked, not following.
"It's okay Wes." He could almost feel the blonde's smile. "We'll just dock and see what's going on."
"If you say so…" The dark-haired pilot drawled, unsure.
It was only a few more minutes until the Exectur's specs had picked them up, hailing them both. Wes gave him a quick look of fright, which Luke ignored in favor of his own nerves.
The slow ascent into the Executor hangar bay were some of the most terrifying moments of Luke's life—he felt like very nerve ending had gone numb, leaving his head cold and void. The force around him shook, and he could feel it, the heady, overbearing darkness of Vader's presence, lingering in the air, crawling under his skin.
Wes wasn't doing any better.
He'd never met the guy personally, but it was Darth fucking Vader. Didn't take a genius to know what that meant. The guy was a legend for a reason. Not to mention the right hand man to the Emperor—why in the fuck was he here? Sure, the Squad was pretty fucking famous, yeah, but only in name, and only in certain circles. Other bounty hunters grew to fear and hate what a community of mercenaries working together would mean for them and the industry, but that certainly wasn't enough to warrant a visit from Vader himself.
Maybe he was here to kill them all, deciding the galaxy needed to be rid of them.
Maybe they were too much of a threat.
Wes was shaking, clammy and cold suddenly even in the regulated temperature of the Executor's hangar bay. His weight was hard to balance on wobbling feet, bile was crawling in his throat as the storm troopers came into view.
Good god, just a few months ago he was a rebel. Being in this ship would have been a death sentence.
Might still be a death sentence.
He glanced over at Luke, but as usual, the guy was a fucking mask. If he felt anything at all, it wasn't showing on his face.
Krith, how could the guy be so calm, all the goddamn time?
They stood in the bay for a few moments, a line of troopers standing to attention in front of them, blasters raised. Luke slowly raised his hands to his head, and Wes hastily followed his lead.
Eventually, one of them parted the sea of white, coming to stand in front of them.
"Are you two members of the Squad?" He questioned.
The trooper motioned for the others to lower their weapons.
"Good." Was all he said. "Follow me."
It was one of the worst, longest walks of his life. The hallways of the imperial starship were as hollow and quiet as death, like walking through a tomb. Or maybe just to their death. God, Wes couldn't stop thinking about death. Was he going to die right now? Never had the question seemed so pertinent until he was about to come face to face with the most terrifying guy in the galaxy. Guy. Machine. Whatever the hell Vader was.
As if summoned with the very thought, the deathly quiet of the walkway suddenly opened up into the mouth of the deck, and an ominous, mechanical hiss filled the air.
Wes tensed up, feeling every single hair on the back of his neck prickle at the perfectly timed, mechanical breathing.
This was it, then.
The room opened up onto the observation deck, bustling with dozens of stormtroopers, all somehow entirely silent, aside from the occasional tapping of a keyboard. Tatooine hung low against the windows, a rim of searing orange that expanded infinitely below them, the stars and galaxy behind it seemed so distant with the looming presence of the desert planet. And there, standing almost unnaturally tall on the catwalk was the man himself.
Clearly the man lived up to his reputation. Even this far away Wes sort of had to crane his neck to get a good look at him. Dressed completely in black, it was difficult to tell if he was actually human at all. He certainly didn't look it, cloaked in gloom, the only light coming from the array of blinking lights on his chest. The set of his mask looked decidedly angry.
And there, next to him, was Leia.
She seemed that much shorter next to him, the top of her elaborate hairstyle not even brushing the height of his shoulder. She looked like the antithesis to him, dressed in white with a pinched, contrary expression, juxtaposed by his expressionless black mask. Wes almost wanted to laugh. How typical Leia—even when standing next to the most fearsome man in the galaxy she still looked annoyed.
The masked man looked to her. "And these are members of your squad?"
Leia's gaze narrowed, before she replied, scathingly. "These are some of my companions, yes."
Vader turned to them. The eyes of his mask were dark and empty, and yet seemed to burn into Wes' soul.
"The Princess here has… kindly offered your services to me. Until you have accomplished the tasks I set for you, your ship will be under my jurisdiction. I expect the best of your team to assemble at 0900 for mission briefing… Consider this a trial of sorts. If you do this job well, perhaps I'll hire you for real."
The idea of Vader hiring them again, ever made Wes want to vomit. He'd prefer to never live this experience in Vader's presence ever again.
Next to him, Luke had yet to move a muscle. It was a moment before Wes realized that Vader wasn't really looking at him… but at Luke. They seemed to be clashing, somehow, and Luke held his gaze with a certain foolish brazenness. Foolsih, but somewhat inspiring. Wes would never have been able to stare Vader down in the face and look as fearless as Luke did in that moment.
"That's fine." Luke bit out.
At the words, Leia seemed to snap to attention. She folded her arms, and looked to Vader loftily. "Am I free to go, then?"
Vader seemed to exert great effort in looking all the way down to her, almost comically craning his neck. "Expect to be watched."
Her anger was almost palpable, but she said nothing. She only turned her nose with a dramatic flip of her extravagantly styled hair, waltzing over towards Luke and walking away from him without a backwards glance. How in the hell the two of them were completely okay with blowing off Vader like this… Wes didn't know. He only followed them numbly, unsure of what else to do. The very idea of putting Vader at his back had his nerves shot, but he managed to do it.
The moment they were out of earshot, Wes had a few hysteric words—or maybe just hysteric shouts—for the two of them, but Luke and Leia were stonily silent as they walked back towards the hangar bay. Once there, the stromtroopers allowed them back onto their ships, Luke and Wes into their X-Wings and Leia into her Y-Wing, and the three headed back into their own ship. The comm was completely silent.
And then finally, finally, they arrived in the safety of Squad Venetus' headquarters.
Leia seemed to blink out of her impassive façade, turning big, pleading eyes toward Luke.
"Luke, please, don't—
"I'm going to go." He interrupted her, turning to look out the bay windows. The Executor was a demanding curve at the bottom of the glass. "I'll take Han. Wedge, if he's up to it. We'll see how it goes."
Leia looked as if she had more to say to that, biting her lip. Whatever it was died on her lips. "I'm so sorry, Luke." She said instead. "I should have never listened to them—I knew they were only in it for themselves. I just… I just never thought they'd betray me like that even after all I—
"It's really not your fault." He cut her off, a certain softness to his voice. The wrinkles in her face slowly eased away. "You were tricked, Leia. They didn't tell you they were being pursued."
"Regardless," She huffed. "I put the squad into jeopardy. I shouldn't have done that."
Luke shrugged, not looking particularly perturbed by this. "We've all done it at some point."
Leia gave him a dubious look.
"Either we have already or we will eventually." Luke pointedly added. "Anyway, if I play my cards right… I might be able to get this to work our way."
At this, Wes blinked. "Wait. Seriously? How can you possibly see any beneficial outcome to working with Darth Vader, the krithing Sith Lord?-!"
Luke turned to him, running a hand through his hair. "Look, so he's after the Death Star plans, right?" He looked to Leia. "I'm assuming he's unaware of how much you had a hand in disposing of those."
She pursed her lips into a thin line. "Hopefully not."
The blonde nodded. "Right. So, it won't be difficult for us to retrieve them—which is what I'm betting he intends for us to do. If we can swing it right, we can lead him to believe that you were just doing your job, Leia. The alliance was tight-lipped about everything; they just wanted you to whisk something away without a trace. Pretty typical job for a group of mercenaries, right?"
She nodded cautiously, clearly unsure of where he was going with this.
"So, doubtlessly he's not going to be the one to tell us what it is, either. We can play dumb, go collect the plans and give the back, and pretend like we never knew anything else. Hopefully if we can act the part, Vader will never know the difference."
Leia blinked rapidly, incredulous. Wes sputtered.
"You can't expect that to work." She said finally, at great length. "Vader's no fool, Luke. He'll suspect we know more than we let on."
Luke ran a hand through his hair, looking resigned and yet determined. "I really don't see any other way to do this. Also, that's part of the reason I'm going to bring along Han—he's the perfect personality to solidify our image. All Vader will see is a bunch of social outcasts looking for money and fortune. If we're lucky, he wont' care much more after that."
Leia pursed her lips, still looking doubtful. "Alright." She conceded, "Say we do this, say the plan works. Luke, the Death Star is terrifying. What they plan to do with that monstrosity is inhuman and wrong. They could blow up entire planets with that thing! The Empire would be indestructible! I may not be part of the Alliance anymore, but not because I don't believe in what they stand for—they may have been run by a bunch of krithing morons, but they have the right idea. I can't, in good conscious, return those plans. I'd honestly rather die." She ended with frank honesty.
Wes looked between the two of them warily, the tension almost palpable. He'd always thought that Luke and Leia seemed to be able to communicate telepathically with their minds—though he sort of thought that about Luke in general—and right now they're eyes seemed to be arguing without the need of words.
Finally, Luke smiled. "That's the thing, Leia. We're not really gonna give them back."