Dark AU/Action/Drama. Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Palpatine, Leia Organa, Darth Vader, Ben Kenobi.
Emperor Palpatine has stepped forward to take control of the totalitarian dictatorship he has built, hunting the remnants of the outlawed Jedi Order down and forcing any opposition into hiding as he pursues his own absolute power. In the chaos of conflict, two children are smuggled to safety, separated at birth and given new identities to keep them safe from the Sith Emperor's attention.
It will not be enough.
Their lives take very different paths, one raised as the Alliance's final hope, and the other as the Empire's Son.
Just a quick clarification: this is a completely new AU set in a new Star Wars Alternate Universe—it has nothing at all carried over from my other work (except George's characters of course!). That applies to character histories, timelines, motivations and rationale, places, circumstances, practices…everything. It's all starting afresh, spinning off from Revenge of the Sith canon.
The background story concerning events pre and post the Death Star's active status is, however, based on canon events, with only slight twists to account for canon ambiguity, inconsistencies (see, it's not just me!) or logical AU changes, the reasons for which you'll read in the first chapter. And yes, the events leading up to the Death Star's active status have been brought forward two years; no particular reason, I just like the characters being a few years younger than they are in canon, so I tend to reset that date in everything I write!
I should also say that this is, purposely, a much smaller tale—after writing a whacking great big trilogy, I felt like something a little less elaborate was the order of the day, so this is an attempt to hit the standard novel length with a simpler and more intimate plot. Hope you enjoy it.
Oh, I of course don't own Star Wars and make no money on this - ain't no plaid shirts here. All due respect to the man who wears them :)
A couple of thanks:-A bhuí and domo arigato to Gabri-Jade, who did much checking of canon on the Cron Drift, from sources I didn't even know existed, and to TalonCard, who provided in one fell swoop the canon timeline leading up to the launch of the Death Star that I'd been making my head ache trying to get together for weeks!
And as ever, huge, huge thanks have to go out to my wonderful Beta, Jedi-2B (yaay!), who trudges through acres of text, always in great time and without a single complaint (save the ones about my grammar, and I can't blame her there P ) For your endless thoughts and patience, I'm eternally grateful.
It came out of hyperspace in a blaze of color and power, the accompanying contingent of smaller security ships whipping into real-time about it as the small flotilla came to a halt with the kind of pinpoint precision only ever accomplished by the military.
It was Nubian, the new ST12000, a big, sleek yacht designed for the high-end market and every bit as luxurious on the inside as the outside. About it were six small frigates and two fighter wings, everything spotless, as befitted the travelling mode of the Alderaanian Royal Family.
A big contingent, they were firing up sublight engines and closing ranks now that they had their bearings and had synchronized systems again. Unusually large, considering their destiny—though in truth, it was their destiny which had prompted it.
Still, refusing to attend the State Celebration on Coruscant to commemorate seven years of Imperial rule—the planet had now been renamed Imperial Center in the Emperor's effort to claim it, though no one referred to it as such privately—was not an option, even for Bail Organa, ruler of Alderaan and its representative in the Imperial Senate. Or rather, what was left of the Senate seven years after Supreme Chancellor Palpatine had taken the Chair and declared himself Emperor in an overwhelming, lightening-fast coup.
Bail, and therefore Alderaan, had been on the wrong side of that coup but had survived, if only because the upheaval in those first few years had necessitated a certain leeway for those in the public eye.
But such allowances were long gone now as the Emperor gained ever tighter control, and Bail knew full well he had to hide his dissent from prying eyes or end up a near-pariah, like Mon Mothma, long his advocate in the Old Republic's Senate.
And he had other reasons to be anxious too, as the glowing orb of Coruscant came slowly into view on the bridge of the yacht—reasons far closer to home and heart.
Fifteen stories below, the door to the sumptuous living quarters slid smoothly back into its cavity, turning Queen Breha's head toward it as a small model of an Alderaanian zero-g fighter was guided in at stomach height to an accompanying 'vrrrrrrr' of engine noise, the small boy who held it before him now beginning a slow pass of the room, trailing the toy along the walls, one eye closed.
On its path, the small toy made a brief detour to trail across the surface of a low table scattered with colored pencils and creased, smudged pictures, every one of which Breha would keep to pin in bright drifts across the walls of his room, always the proud parent, encouraging her son endlessly in this, as everything else.
"What do you have there?" Breha asked, smiling indulgently to hide her unease before her son as he continued his circuit, his mop of blond curls and round apple cheeks all that were visible with his head tilted in applied concentration as he continued his loop, answering absently without looking up.
"This is a fighter—my fighter. I'm the pilot flying the fastest ship in the galaxy."
"And who gave you that?" Breha smiled.
"Captain Antilles," the boy said, of Breha's second cousin and loyal family retainer, always close to hand.
Though even Raymus Antilles didn't know the truth about Luke's heritage—even that was too much of a risk to take. As, in Breha's mind, was bringing her son here to the Imperial Court, even if only for a few days. But the 'invitation' had been very specific: the Alderaanian Royal House was commanded to attend the three-day celebrations to mark seven years of Imperial rule.
Seven years—the boy's lifetime. Knowledge of that only made Breha more uneasy, but she hid it before her son, for his sake. "And where are you flying to, little pilot?"
"Home," he said absently. "At a hundred thousand million clicks—faster."
"Faster than that?" she asked indulgently, wondering whether he had picked up on the nerves of herself and her husband anyway. He'd slept only fitfully for the last few nights of their journey, though generally he loved being on the yacht.
"But you've not even seen Coruscant yet, little pilot. Don't you want to see the center of the Empire?"
He shook his head decisively, slowing to a stop, big blue eyes still on the toy in his hand. "It's all…shadows and tangles," he said without looking, clearly struggling to put into words the thoughts in his head. "Like a forest at night."
His mother stilled, unsettled, before smiling again, her voice brittle. "Forests are beautiful places, Luke, even at night. Enchanted; full of fairies and sprites."
"And monsters and ogres," he muttered, still without looking.
As the slow turn of the yacht brought the majestic phenomenon of the ecumenopolis of Coruscant into view at the edge of the room's viewpane, Breha set forward and took her son's hand in hope of dispelling his reluctance, feeling the slight pull as he resisted.
"Look—look, here it is now. See how beautiful it is? It's never dark on Coruscant, Luke. Look at all the lights!"
"Look at all the shadows in between." He pulled back against his mother's hand, uncharacteristically reluctant, his usual bright anticipation at seeing any new planet completely quashed. "I don't like it."
Normally he was bouncing off the walls with excitement at this point in any journey, dashing between the Bridge and the exit ramp, whipping himself up into a whirlwind of animated enthusiasm. Was this just a childish mood, or something deeper?
"Luke, how can you not like it, you haven't been there yet." Breha crouched down to wrap her arm about him, giving him a slight squeeze as he leaned into her comforting presence, reassured as only a child in the arms of his mother could feel.
"It's…shadows," he repeated inarticulately, leaning into the curve of her neck as he wrapped an arm about her. "Shadows and tangles."
The Royal yacht came to rest on the black-slabbed landing platform of the near-completed Imperial Palace, a huge, hulking ziggurat whose massive, angled walls of blue-gray stone stood a mile square at their base, casting deep, far-reaching shadows in the evening light. Hunched upon the brooding bulk of the main building, a second stage of near-equal proportions rose skyward in angled banks so vast that they seemed absolutely without scale. Only the vague lines of endless scaffold from which construction droids worked day and night gave any true sense of the whole structure's immense scale.
Built to awe rather than inspire, its daunting magnificence declared the unassailable supremacy of the new Empire...and absolute power of its Emperor.
Glancing out across the bleak austerity of its imposing grandeur, Bail Organa, Viceroy of Alderaan, steeled himself for the days ahead. The ramp had lowered to face eight parade-ground rows of white Imperial armor, lined with just one narrow row of familiar chalcedony-blue, the livery of House Organa. Bail glanced to his son, brought to the entrance ramp by Breha, her worries hidden with iron will behind her sweet, serene face.
"Three days, Luke, that's all," he assured, unsettled by Luke's solemn silence—though in truth, he didn't know whether he was seeking to reassure his son, his wife, or himself.
The usual formal pleasantries were exchanged with the Emperor's representatives—the man himself was seldom seen, even here—before Imperial pilots boarded the yacht to remove it to a more remote site, 'due to the number of vessels attending the celebration,' of course.
Which meant that now they were effectively stranded in the Palace, just like every other dignitary here. Even without an appearance, their glorious Emperor was adept at reducing the most influential of figures to precarious vulnerability in the name of palace protocol.
And so the endless tirade of functions and festivities began, a show of Imperial solidarity before a deeply wary public, all empty smiles and nervous glances, nobody daring to speak the truth and have the Empire's wrath turned on their planet—those who were even allowed to attend.
The Emperor had long since stopped bothering to court any non-human species, going as far as to turn a blind eye to the outrageous exploitation of many on Rim worlds which fell nothing short of slavery. Bail had long been a critic of Imperial policies in this, but it had achieved little other than to gain Alderaan a reputation as recalcitrant and fractious. Neither Bail nor Breha regretted their stands in the name of democracy, though as time passed they had both become aware of just how dangerous such dissent was becoming, particularly with a young son to protect.
So here, now, they conspired to have Luke remain always in the apartments which had been supplied to the Alderaanian Royal House within the Imperial Palace for the duration of the functions, desperate to protect him. To have refused to bring him would have only drawn attention to the boy—better to keep him hidden in plain view, hoping that the Emperor's legendary dislike of children would mean that although they had followed to the letter the command to attend, they would not need to expose him to any more danger than necessary.
The fact that Darth Vader, Palpatine's henchman and more importantly, a Force-sensitive, was not attending the event had been an indescribable relief to himself and his wife; both knew that the son they raised as their own was the product of an illicit union between a long-dead Jedi and a fellow Senator whom Bail had known well and missed deeply, Amidala, the abdicated Queen of Naboo.
When Bail had taken the boy from Kenobi, the Jedi Master had identified the father as his old padawan. Skywalker had been acknowledged by all as a powerful Jedi despite his youth, and it was clearly expected that his son too would be an exceptional Jedi—if they were to train him.
Amidala herself had protected the father's identity to the grave, aware of the gravity of their transgression; Jedi were strongly discouraged from making any emotional attachment, Bail knew, due to the ties, ambiguities and distractions it caused. Children in particular were strictly censured. It had long been known that the direct offspring of a Jedi tended to contain abnormally elevated levels of midichlorians—a concentration notably higher than the donor parent, inducing an unprecedented connection to the Force in all its facets.
As such they were considered inherently unstable, their attuned abilities too great to control, generally thought to be a high risk to train as opposed to those with natural, spontaneously occurring Force sensitivity. Though there had not been such an individual for generations, Bail had heard whispers that the last unfortunate was secreted away by the Jedi and spent her entire life interned within the confines of the Jedi Temple, certainly never ill-treated, but constantly constrained, her every action monitored by the Council. Who would want such a stifling fate for their child, even with the best of intentions of a greater good?
Even if she were alive, Amidala's son—one of twins—would still be in mortal danger in the new Empire simply by virtue of lineage; Jedi were now considered enemies of the state subject to summary execution, and in the weeks following the coup it had become sickeningly clear that this edict applied to any and all Force-sensitives, regardless of age and training. It was telling indeed that the first act of the new Empire had been the total genocide of a unique race, accomplished with cold precision and unconditional prejudice.
Bringing his adopted son to Coruscant then, had been a daunting prospect for Bail—far more so if Lord Vader had been stalking the halls of the Imperial Palace.
Highly placed in the Emperor's Court, Vader had been charged with the annihilation of all Jedi and had followed this command with legendary zeal. The surviving Jedi whom Bail had occasionally helped to avoid Imperial 'justice' had all claimed that Vader was Force-sensitive, perhaps even a fallen Jedi—the reason for his unprecedented ability to track and single out remaining Jedi.
Though none knew the history of Bail's adopted son, many of these fugitives had realized very quickly when in his company that the boy was Force-sensitive, all turning to Bail with somber, regretful eyes and warning to keep the boy hidden. Master Yoda, who had been present when Kenobi had first handed the newly born Luke over to Bail, had cautioned in solemn, serious tones that the boy must remain safely distant from Coruscant until he was old enough to be brought to Yoda by Master Kenobi for training.
His late father had been an incredibly powerful Jedi, only just finding his feet as the galaxy about him crumbled, still testing his limits when the coup had been launched. It had always been accepted that Anakin Skywalker was different; that he had, in some way, a destiny to fulfill linked with the old prophesies from the Journal of the Whills. When this did not happen, it was Anakin's son on whom anticipation of the prophecy fell.
Exactly what happened to him following Palpatine's coup no one seemed willing to say, though Bail had an idea that his Master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, knew the truth. Presumably he had fought and fallen alongside his fellow Jedi, despite his exceptional ability.
Because of his father's aptitude, it had often been implied that Luke would one day be expected to train as a Jedi—that he would lead the covert Rebellion that Bail had spent years surreptitiously supporting and funding. To have a Jedi—a particularly gifted Jedi—stand at the head of such an army would, he knew, not only be a counter to Vader, but a rallying point for those who needed such icons to follow.
Leia too would be closely watched, they hinted, her own destiny carefully shaped. It was Luke though, on whom both Kenobi and Yoda had seemed to concentrate their expectations.
Such a heavy fate hanging over his son's head filled Bail with dread sometimes, to the point that he occasionally wished that he'd upheld his original choice to take Luke's twin sister instead. But having contacted Breha and talked it through, their decision had changed, and he had not for a single moment regretted taking Luke.
Just six days old when Bail had brought him to Alderaan, hiding Luke's arrival had been so easy in the upheaval of Civil War. Breha had gone into seclusion for a few months, before his 'birth' was announced as if he were the natural child of the Regents. It had necessitated his birth certificate listing Luke as five months younger than his real age, but the boy was small and fine-boned, delicate like his mother, and the discrepancy had never been queried.
And every day—every day he grew a little more; so fast. Already Bail could see the hint of a headstrong, idealistic young man in the spirited, inquisitive child who ran with such buoyant irreverence through the hushed halls of the Alderaanian Royal Palace, upending Court and terrorizing his tutors. His son had become the center of his life—so brimming with eagerness and optimism, with an unstoppable enthusiasm for, and curiosity about, everything.
Bail smiled warmly at that, aware of how often he felt like he was trying to hold on to a whirlwind. So much so, that he worried about taking Luke to the ever-solemn Master Yoda for training when the time came; fretted that his son would run endless hoops around the venerable Jedi and make the poor creature's life one long, head-spinning string of answers to endless questions as to 'why?' and 'how?'.
And just as much, he worried simply that he would miss the boy—that he would miss this tiny tornado of endless energy and boisterous exuberance. Often the only reason that Bail could carry on this distasteful pretense day after day was in the hope that ultimately it would provide a better galaxy for Luke and his whole generation.
And now–now he was here on Coruscant. The one place Yoda had warned against going. But what was Bail to do? He had tried to contact Master Kenobi, still in hiding on Tatooine, watching guard over Leia in a way which would have been impossible for him to do with Luke on Alderaan, the presence of a trained Jedi so close to the Core systems too easy for Vader to detect. But he had received no return communication, so he and Breha had relied on their own council to protect the boy.
Luke had been hidden for so long in plain sight that surely, since Vader—the only known Sith and therefore the only possible threat to Luke's anonymity—would not be in attendance, it would be less obvious to simply brazen out the trip for three short days, they had reasoned.
Three short days… Now that they were here, every one seemed an eternity.
Having attended functions throughout their final day, tired and wired, with plastic smiles frozen on aching faces, Bail and Breha were returning to their apartments to change for the massive State banquet which would be held tonight. Behind them, their honor guard of four Alderaanian troops were closely flanked by two dark-uniformed Palace Guards, but they were far enough back that Bail felt, if not comfortable with their presence, then at least not threatened by it.
This final night of the celebrations would be the first time that the Emperor himself would be attending, a rare personal appearance from the reclusive man who held Court by night and seemed forever reluctant to step into the light of day.
Once again, at Bail's casual request to the Emperor's Adjutant, Saté Pestage, he had been able to excuse his son from the banquet due to his young age, the poor boy having spent the last three days cooped up in the austere, oppressive surroundings of the cavernous, soulless suite of rooms assigned to the Alderaanian Royal House. He'd remained quiet and subdued, somehow knowing not to make a fuss or a noise, not at all the usual bright, excitable seven-year-old Bail knew and loved.
"Almost done," Bail murmured to his wife in reassurance. "One more night and then we're gone."
"And next year?" Breha queried, tiredness audible in her voice.
The celebrations were an annual event and though this was the first time that Luke's age had led to his being included on the invitation, it clearly would be standard from now on. Bail sighed heavily, turning the last corner of the tall, cavernous hallway leading to the sumptuous apartments—
And froze, heart in his mouth.
Eight scarlet-robed Royal Guard stood to smart attention outside the door, the six Alderaanian guards who were presently on watch there eyeing them with wary, helpless stares, everybody tense.
Bail set forward at a near-run, rushing into the apartment and heading for the door before which a further two Royal Guard stood without turning, Pestage, the Emperor's adjutant, in the doorway.
He burst into the room, breathless—
Luke sat on the long, heavy chaise, back very straight, still small enough that his feet were dangling clear of the floor, hands clenched nervously on his lap. Abandoned beside him on the dark, richly brocaded chaise were pencils and paper, a flash of vivid color in the unrelentingly gloomy chamber. His pale blue eyes turned anxiously to his father as Bail stepped forward and though he clearly wanted to run to Bail he held his place, frozen to tense immobility.
Opposite him, dressed in heavy black robes and a claret-colored cowl, sat the Emperor.
He turned, pale yellow eyes regarding Bail with arrogant amusement, his thin, reedy voice grating up Bail's spine. "Ah, Senator Organa. You have an intriguing son—quite captivating."
For several seconds Bail could only stare, voiceless, hearing his wife rush into the room behind him, hearing the slight inarticulate sound, half-shock, half-fear, escape the back of her throat—
Then he gathered his wits and bowed deeply to cover his unease. "Your Majesty, this is an unexpected honor."
"Really? Unexpected?" There was a note of dry derision in the Emperor's tone as he stood in a rustle of raven robes and Bail remained silent, afraid that anything he did would condemn his son, terrified his own guilt would be written over his face despite years of political expertise.
He knows nothing—how could he, without Vader? Stop panicking and think!
"Forgive me, Your Majesty; you have met my wife, Queen Breha, of the House Antilles. And this is our son, Luke." As he spoke, Bail reached out his hand in invitation but Luke remained frozen, hands together, small fingers tightly laced.
"We have been speaking, your son and I," the Emperor said, turning to the boy as he ignored Bail's words completely. "It seems we have a great deal in common. And Saté tells me that you have kept the poor child cooped up in these apartments since your arrival, Viceroy."
"At your indulgence, Your Majesty, I feel he is perhaps a little young to…"
"Nonsense," Palpatine dismissed without allowing Bail to finish. "The sooner a child learns his place in the galaxy, the sooner he will settle, don't you agree?" The last was issued with permasteel behind it, Palpatine already turning away, a response neither expected nor encouraged.
He looked to the young child, who withered back, eyes wide as the Emperor rose, casting a dark shadow across him. "Come, boy. I will show you my Empire—and I will tell you your place in it."
Luke glanced to his father in alarm, looking for assistance, but Palpatine spoke out before Bail could reason a reply. "Your parents must make ready for the banquet tonight. I will take you to the roof and show you the Oval, the building they will travel to, less than a mile from here in the grounds of my Palace."
When Luke still didn't move the Emperor's voice came sharper, twisting like a knife in Bail's knotted stomach. "Stand up!"
"It's all right, Luke," Bail assured quickly, trying hard to hide the fear in his voice, hearing the pounding of his heart in his breath. "It's fine, really. You can go—we'll be right here. It's fine."
Palpatine smiled a death's-head grin, spoiled teeth against wan flesh. "You can watch your parents' speeder leave, on its way to the Oval. Wave them goodbye."
Luke lowered his dangling feet down from the massive chaise, blond curls bobbing as he stood uncertainly, hands clasped to his chest. He was desperately scared and clearly aware of the tense atmosphere in the room, of the fear rolling off his father and the overwhelming confidence of the dark-dressed man with the yellow eyes.
He took a quarter-step forward, eyes to his father…
A pale, withered hand reached out from the Emperor's black robes, long fingers bone-white, nails curved to yellowed claws. "Give me your hand, child."
Both Bail and Breha remained somehow upright as their son reached tremulously out, his small, delicate hand engulfed by the Emperor's, the action both controlling and claiming in the same moment.
And what could they do but stand aside as Palpatine set forward. Luke reached out as he passed his mother to trail the tips of his fingers across her powder-blue gown, before the two Royal Guard at the doorway fell into place behind him as he glanced back through their ranks, pulled reluctantly forward by the man who held him now.
The Emperor paused imperceptibly, eyes meeting Saté's, who lowered his gaze in a half-nod of acknowledgement.
As they turned the last corner out of the apartments Bail reached out to grab his wife, who had set forward with a broken cry. Holding her to himself, he whispered reassurances he wished he believed. "It's all right—it's all right, Breha. He'll be back within the hour. He'll be fine. He'll be fine if we can just brazen this out."
He steered her firmly away, trying not to make a scene before the eight Red Guard who had remained at the doorway to the apartment, knowing it would only endanger their son further. The Emperor knew nothing—without Vader's Force sensitivity he had no reason to suspect Luke of being anything more than he seemed: Bail and Breha's son. This was simply a power game, a chastisement for Luke's non-attendance during the last few days' official events, probably pointed out by Pestage.
Still, it had brought home to Bail his son's vulnerability here and he simply couldn't risk Palpatine's further interest. With hushed encouragement he walked his wife through to the dressing rooms where their somber, dark evening clothes were laid out ready, motioning for Captain Antilles to follow.
Breha collapsed down onto a chair, hands trembling as she brought them to her mouth, torn inside by the sight of her son being led away. Bail was barely able to console her, himself still struck by the memory of Luke's eyes, wide with fear and confusion as to why his father would tell him to go—would let the stranger take him.
As Captain Antilles leaned in, Bail whispered, "We need to smuggle Luke off-planet tonight—quickly and quietly, the moment he gets back. Get him to one of the Corvettes and hit lightspeed. Don't return to Alderaan—go to Tatooine. Find Kenobi."
Antilles nodded without blinking, though he did think to ask one more question, glancing to his cousin Breha. "Yourself and the Queen, Sir?"
Bail blinked, not having thought any further than his son's safety; in removing Luke they condemned themselves too, but the alternatives were too horrific to consider.
His whole life, his plans—for his son, for his wife, for his people—everything was turned upside down in an instant…but the sight of Luke's hand as Palpatine's had engulfed it, of the fear in his son's eyes, was burned into Bail's thoughts.
"We'll get out as soon as you send a comm confirming that Luke is off-planet. We'll go immediately after the State Banquet, but we need to brazen this out until then or they'll suspect something. Make preparations with the guards—we'll commandeer the transport which brings us back to the Palace and go straight to the landing platform. Be sure there's a transport prepped and tell the yacht to make ready to run—quietly."
Raymus Antilles nodded briskly and left, mind already racing with what needed to be done.
He was in the turbolift, thoughts on tactics and timings, when the scarlet-robed Royal Guard who had remained outside the Organas' apartment turned to enter, intent on carrying out the Emperor's commands to the letter.
Luke stood on a high, open balcony near the top of the daunting bulk of the Imperial Palace, its dim, faceted sides scaling endless stories before trailing into open pipework and scaffold which stretched up into the cold pitch of night, the tiny lights of construction droids weaving in and out of the hulking construction far above. Staring along its vast, open structure, a stray memory burst with absolute clarity for Luke, sending an involuntary shiver up his spine: that of a dead kobuck he'd come across that spring in the open ranges close to home, whose pale, delicate bones had pierced through its decomposing hide. This place too seemed a dead, skeletal thing, bones breaking through its hulking carcass.
Led through endless halls of identical, dark-dressed stone, the dark man's fingers tight about his wrist, Luke had no sense of where he was any more, or how to get back to his parents and safety. He stood as far as he reasonably could from the cloaked man, his back to the corner at which the wall and the open balcony met, his fair curls whipped up to disarray by the high wind which pierced the dark shadows and sheeted across the sheer drop before them.
"Look," the dark man intoned, vibrant yellow eyes searching Luke, leaving him more and more anxious. "Look anywhere, in any direction. This is my Empire—everything in it belongs to me. Everything."
As he spoke he made an expansive gesture with his arm—and in the next second he'd grasped Luke's wrist, yanking him forward and lifting him up, helpless.
Luke gasped but didn't cry out, shocked by the speed at which the black-robed man moved. He was hauled up and out, his feet hanging precariously over the towering drop for long, breathless seconds before he was placed with solid force on the carved slope of the balustrade's handrail. He slipped and scrabbled, struggling for grip, forced to grab at the arms which grasped tight about his ribs, holding him at the very edge of the precipice.
"Everything here is mine, to do with as I will. Even you," the dark man said ominously, leaning in to Luke from behind and forcing his balance off so that he had to press back against the man's shoulder to keep from lurching forward, desperately unstable. The hands which held Luke loosened and he gripped tightly to the dark man's arm, his slight form buffeted by the high winds which whistled through the open scaffold. One foot slipped forward off the handrail, the back of his calf smarting and stinging as it grazed against the edge of the carved stone, his shoe lost to the drop, disappearing into darkness.
"Stop!" Luke's voice was small and scared and angry all at once, breath stolen away by the wind.
The dark man paused as if realizing. "Are you afraid?" His voice was a mocking dare as he loosed his hands, his hold slackening completely. "Stand up, child—I won't let you go."
Luke struggled to maintain balance, hand grasping uselessly at the loose folds of the Emperor's sleeve as that last support was pulled away to leave him balanced precariously on the uneven surface, hand outstretched over the terrifying drop into darkness.
"Is that so hard?" the dark man asked—and Luke turned to realize that the hands he'd thought would be close behind him were gone completely, loose at the dark man's sides, and Luke was alone on the narrow ledge, no support, no safety…completely alone.
Heart in his throat, he turned in slow, deliberate movements, taking two cautious steps along the narrow, angled stone to the high wall at the edge of the balcony, the winds dragging at him as he grabbed it like a lifeline. He crouched, moving his grip to the handrail, finally balanced enough to scramble down to the safety of solid ground, heart pounding against tight ribs, adrenaline burning his throat.
"You let me go," he said, bewildered. "You said you wouldn't let me go and you did."
"I lied," the dark man said easily, completely unmoved by Luke's breathless disillusionment. "That is my first lesson to you and the only one that I will ever give you for free: I cannot be trusted, child. Nobody can. Ever."
There was the cut of a blade in those words, delivered like a blow with neither guilt nor accountability, and Luke was left to uneasy confusion beneath them, legs still trembling, as the baleful man continued.
"You are alone in this life, child, remember that. No one will help you, no one will defend you, and no one will provide for you. Whatever you gain, it will be by your own hands and your own will. You are utterly alone."
"...is nothing," he spat, derisive.
In that second, fed by fear and fury and the adrenaline of the moment, Luke's lips narrowed to a terse line and his hand balled to a fist as he pulled it back to deliver a roundhand blow at the man who had spoken so harshly of his mother.
The dark man caught it mid-swing as if it were nothing at all, long fingernails digging into Luke's wrist as he hoisted it up, almost yanking Luke from the floor as he shook it. "What a malicious little streak of temper you have. You need to learn respect."
"Let me go!" Luke fumbled uselessly at the unyielding grip on his arm, soft skin bleeding beneath the drag of those nails. "I want my father!"
The grating sound of mocking laughter fell on Luke from above as the old man effortlessly twisted him about by the arm he held and dragged him forward, locking Luke in place between his body and the heavy carved balustrade as he pressed behind him, leaving him helpless against his tormentor's strength. "See? There are your parents, child. Down below."
All defiance was instantly forgotten as Luke saw the distant figure of his father walk over one of the scattered landing platforms set into the angled walls of the palace far below, to the enclosed executive speeder which waited. Still in the pale grey suit he had worn earlier, his father was little more than a distant speck against the unremitting black of the polished basalt landing platform, his mother close behind, the train of her powder-blue dress lifted and tugged by the squall. The memory of the warm brushed silk, soft against his fingers as he'd reached out for her when the dark man had led him away, made something inside Luke twist and snap in fear.
He stretched on tip-toe to shout out to them, wriggling one arm free to stretch his fingers out across the dark divide. But they didn't hear, the wind which howled through the open pipes of the scaffolding whipping the words away into the night as soon as they left his mouth.
The sedan speeder set off at a graceful pace from the platform.
"Say goodbye, child," the dark-dressed man said with expectant relish.
Still standing on tip-toe to see over the heavy balustrade, Luke was taking a breath, about to shout his father's name…when the speeder exploded in a violent blast of color and fury, the heat of the shockwave rumbling past a split-second later to rake through the curls of his hair, leaving the word, the memory, the hope dead, stolen away in a blazing, sun-bright instant.
Just three weeks into her eleventh year, Leia Skywalker pulled her loose hat down against the all-pervading rays of Tatooine's twin suns, squinting against their brilliance and the mirages they conjured... But no, there really was a man walking alone and on foot across the plains, heading for the homestead, the distortion of the heat haze making him appear to float just above the pale sand.
She turned to run the short distance to the edge of the sunken courtyard, yelling the whole way. "Aunt Beru—Aunt Beru! There's a man walking alone…walking alone in the suns."
Wiping her hands, Beru came from the kitchen, looking up from the sunken well of the courtyard, barely shaded as the suns began to sink. "Do we know him, sweetie?"
Leia turned back, pulling her hat off to reposition it, short, chocolate brown locks bleached to pale highlights beneath the fury of those suns. Her skin too was a rich, dark tan from years of play beneath them, her pale trousers and short white tunic dusted with a fine layer of dry sand, as everything was here, inside and out.
"No…no, I don't think so."
Uncle Owen had come from the garage now, drawn by the noise. "Leia, would you quit yelling like a Tusken."
Leia glanced back across the plain. The man had grown closer, his feet firmly on the ground now. Dressed in a long cloak, its wide hood pulled up as defense from the relentless suns, he walked with an easy, measured pace, unyielding even to Tatooine's incredible heat.
"There's a man…"
Uncle Owen was already climbing the worn steps out of the courtyard. He slowed as he reached the top and was finally able to see for himself, and his perpetual frown deepened, lips pursed to a thin line.
"Leia, go inside." He rested one hand to her shoulder to hurry her along, turning to Aunt Beru below. "It's Kenobi."
She heard little of the exchanges, though the raised voices scared her, as she stood with her ear to the closed door of her room. Fragments of her uncle's words, barked in anger, drowned out the calm even tones of the cloaked man who had walked alone in the desert.
"Can't come here and expect… We can protect her—can you? …Safe here… Rubbish! You're talking rot, with your theories and your maybe's…"
Then came the man's voice again, quietly insistent. She knew of him, of course—had heard her aunt and uncle, as well as others in Anchorhead, speak of his eccentricities—but she'd never met him. In fact, she was surprised Uncle Owen had let him in the house, after all that he'd said.
There was the low thrum of the main room's holoprojector activating…then a long, fraught silence, in which Leia could hear the muffled sound of a holo: a voice talking about Coruscant, about a celebration there…a news-holo maybe, from the tone of the voice. It paused, then played again, exactly the same words. Curiosity overtaking her fear, Leia cracked open her door and leaned into the hall. From there she could see the glow of the holo on the far wall of the living space…could see the edge of the image itself. It was a zoomed, shaky image of a wide balcony, beings with rich clothes and somber faces stood well back, looking down.
"There!" The cloaked man paused the image. "There—you see him?"
"There—the boy dressed in black! Wait, he comes forward in a moment. Palpatine pulls him forward."
There was a prolonged pause, and Leia risked leaning round the corner again to see the shaky image, but was forced to pull back quickly as her uncle straightened, voice dismissive. "That could be anybody."
"We've enhanced the image and…"
"You said he was dead." Her uncle's voice, brusque as ever, broached no argument.
"We thought he was. The palace declared at the time that there were no survivors of the assassination."
"We know it's him, Owen—we're sure. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. It's just not safe here anymore."
"Of course she's safe. Who'd look here?"
"Anakin might. Owen, if he knows he has a son, he may know the complete truth. If the boy's alive, then we have to assume that he's been on Coruscant, hidden, since Bail Organa's death. And we simply can't afford to..."
"Bail was killed four years ago, and whatever he knew died with him—the boy probably knew nothing."
"I can't afford to take that chance, Owen. I'm sorry."
"It's not your decision to make."
"… Are you seriously telling me you'd choose to take that risk on Leia's behalf?"
Leia frowned at the mention of her name, aware from the tension in their voices that everyone was acutely serious.
Her aunt spoke out, voice trembling with emotion. "Owen, we knew…we always knew that this might happen."
"Beru, he comes in here with some barely visible image and says it's the boy…"
"Owen, we have to think about what's best for Leia now… Owen, please."
"He just comes in here and…"
"Wait…" There was a rustle of rough cloth as the cloaked man turned slightly and Leia paused, holding her breath. "She's listening."
Aunt Beru came quickly into the hallway as Leia retreated, but she didn't shout or scold when she caught her. Instead she gathered Leia up in a hug so close it stifled and scared her. "Oh, you will always be my little piri, Leia. My little desert flower."
"Is something wrong?"
"No, sweetheart, nothing's wrong. You just have to go away for a while, that's all. Oh, I'll miss you so much."
"I don't want to go." Leia heard the near-panic in her own voice.
Aunt Beru leaned back to smooth a wisp of hair from Leia's face and tuck it behind her ear. "I don't want you to go either, sweetheart, I really don't. But we can write all the time, send messages and pictures—you'll do that, won't you, you'll send me lots of pictures?"
"And Ben will look after you, he really will. He'll take you somewhere safe. Come and meet him, sweetheart, come and say hello."
Leia held back against her aunt's pull. "I want to stay here."
"But you'll get to ride on a starship, Leia, won't that be fun? A real starship in space!"
Leia softened a little at that, looking back towards the living quarters where the man had leaned around the corner, smiling sadly. He crouched to her level as she allowed herself to be coaxed in by her aunt, his hand out to her. His greying hair was streaked with dark blond, more of the same in the salt-and-pepper colors of his gruffy beard. And his eyes, like his voice, were kind and gentle.
"Hello, Leia, I'm very pleased to meet you. That's a nice hat you have."
She softened a little at his praise. "It keeps the suns from my eyes… You should wear one."
"And you shouldn't go walking in the desert alone. Everybody knows that."
"You're very right."
"…Do you have a starship?"
"No, but I have a very good friend who has one, and she's waiting at Mos Eisley. Would you like to see it, maybe take a ride? Perhaps we can sit you in the co-pilot's chair, have your first lesson—would you like that?"
"Leia," her aunt's hand rested reassuringly to the small of Leia's back, "this is Ben Kenobi. He's been here on Tatooine for a long time now, helping us to keep you safe."
"Helping?" Leia bunched her features in doubt. She might not have met him, but she'd sure heard her uncle talk about him. "But Uncle Owen says he's crazy."
Behind Ben, her uncle straightened uncomfortably, and Aunt Beru let out a horrified, "Leia!"
"No, that's all right," Ben said, amused. He leaned forward conspiratorially. "I'm incognito."
"Is that another word for crazy?"
"Leia!" Both Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen spoke out this time.
Ben only grinned beneath his beard, fine lines creasing about his eyes. He winked at her, as if sharing some common joke.
"But why do I have to go?" Leia wailed, clutching for Aunt Beru's skirt.
"You just have to, sweetheart," her aunt said, voice breaking.
Before her, Ben Kenobi tilted his head. "Leia, something very important has happened, a long way from here…but because of it, we know you're not safe any more. Not here. I'm going to take you somewhere where you will be. That's why I'm here."
"I don't know yet. But I know that you'll be safe there…and I know that we have to go today."
"I have school tomorrow." It was a last-ditch protest and she knew it.
"You'll learn lots of new things, Leia—I promise."
There was something in his voice that hinted at more than sand-dusted schoolrooms and the same old text on the same old datapads…
Her aunt leaned in, gently pushing to try to turn Leia about. "Why don't we go and pack some things, Leia, so you're all ready to go."
Leia's momentary fascination dissipated. "But I can come back, right?"
Her aunt and uncle remained silent, but the cloaked man—Ben—nodded, his smile visible beneath that sandy-blond beard. "Well, we need to sort a rather large problem out first, and it may take quite a while, but I certainly hope so. Perhaps by that time, you'll be able to fly your own ship back, what do you think?"
For the first time since Ben had arrived, Leia smiled, taken by the thought that she would do just that.
It was just another ramshackle launch bay on the edge of Mos Eisley, but when they entered through the battered, sand-scoured door, the starship which rested within caught Leia's eye immediately, its sleek lines and gleaming finish too clean and too new for its surroundings.
She was tired and she was dusty, and Ben had taken to carrying her across town to the spaceport, her bag over one of his shoulders, her head rested against the other. But she turned as he entered the bay, nothing more elaborate than a banked dish hollowed from the ground, Tatooine's all-pervasive sand making a credible effort to reclaim even that.
And then the woman walked from the ship.
Wearing a beautiful shift dress of pure white and a wide, golden chain about her neck, she glided down the ramp towards them, smiling beatifically. Tall and straight, with fine features and russet hair, she had a face Leia instantly trusted.
Ben leaned forward to put Leia down, straightening with a quiet groan. "Leia Skywalker, this is Mon Mothma, a very good friend of mine. She'll take us to our rendezvous, where the Alliance are waiting. That's where we'll stay from now on—with them."
Leia barely heard, squinting up in awe at the woman's serene expression…and the words came easily. "Are you a queen?"
The woman glanced to Ben, her regal features softening further. "No, I'm not a queen, Leia… I'm a politician—or rather, I was."
"You're not any more?"
"No, I gave it up to travel with a very special lady, on General Kenobi's suggestion."
Leia glanced back to Ben…General Kenobi?
"We should...get underway," Ben said, glancing about.
Mon looked immediately to him. "Is there something wrong?"
"No, but the sooner we can get Leia under the protection of the fleet, the better I'll feel."
They turned to walk to the ship and Leia glanced up from between them, reaching out across Ben to run her fingers along its smooth, spotless hull.
"Ben said I could sit in the co-pilot's seat and learn to fly," she tried, not really expecting to be allowed, having seen the ship. Still, if you didn't try, you never got anywhere.
Mon Mothma glanced to Ben over her head, and even Leia heard the embarrassment in his voice. "I said…uh—well, I thought..."
Mon's hand rested on Leia's shoulder, her warm voice tinged with amusement. "Well then, we'll have to see what we can do. I wouldn't want to be responsible for a Jedi Master not keeping his word."
Leia glanced briefly up, rolling that word about in her head: Jedi. They were, she'd been taught at school, the betrayers, the traitors… But always, Aunt Beru had rebuffed such things with quiet scorn, and even Uncle Owen, who had zero interest in dealings outside of Anchorhead, never mind Tatooine, had dismissed it out of hand, grumbling about governments and spin.
Aunt Beru may have been being her usual tolerant self, but Uncle Owen? He had a mean streak the width of the Dune Sea, so if he still said it was a load of eopie dung, then the matter was pretty much settled, to Leia's mind. What wasn't settled, was why her teacher and her history texts were wrong. She glanced up, about to voice her question, but the conversation had moved on about her, as Ben leaned slightly forward to place a hand to Leia's back.
"Thank you, Mon…Leia?"
All of Leia's questions were forgotten in the flare of realization that she was actually going to get a chance to sit in the pilot's seat, and fly. She, Leia Skywalker, was going to be a pilot! Nudged by Ben and knowing her part, Leia smiled genuinely. "Thank you, Mz Mothma."
"You're very welcome, Leia—and I think you should call me Mon, since we'll be seeing a lot of each other."
Eyes everywhere as she held on to the rough fabric of Ben's cloak, Leia allowed herself to be guided up the ship's ramp, the gracious tone of his voice already familiar enough to be soothing.
"I very much appreciate all that you're doing, Mon—and so will Leia, though she doesn't know it yet."
As they stepped into the cool interior Leia was barely listening, endlessly impressed by the pristine ship. Unheeded, Mon's voice held a grave tone, edged by steely determination. "Well, as you say, it's our duty to prepare her, Master Kenobi. And if so, then we should prepare her for anything…and we should start today."
Coruscant, four years later
Lieutenant Han Solo stepped off the transport and pulled at the high collar of his standard-issue officer's uniform, undoing the top three buttons as he walked to the edge of the platform, a two-day leave pass and twelve weeks' pay burning a hole in his pocket.
The trooper at the guard box ran Han's passcard through the system and handed it back, saluting smartly. "Have a good weekend, Lieutenant."
Han glanced about; back on Coruscant after his third run to the back of beyond, he knew he was near the Mosiin province, but that was about it. "Any interesting night-life around here?"
The stormtrooper looked him up and down a second, but they were close enough in rank that he answered honestly. "How interesting are you looking for, Sir?"
Han shrugged, glancing at the distant lights. "I got two days—it'd better be pretty damn interesting."
The trooper nodded his head to the side. "Try the Dyging district, near the Palace. There're a couple of good cantinas there, but they're way down in the depths. The Atlas is good if you're looking to gamble your money, the Dirty Dug's good if you want something in return."
"Thanks." Han turned, gesturing with his hand. "That way?"
"Go down ten levels and you can get a public speeder. It's not really the kind of walk you should do alone, Sir."
Han nodded, turning and setting off into the night as his breath misted before him. How the hell did he always seem to get shore-leave on the part of a planet that was winter?
The Dirty Dug had four bouncers on the door, but by the time he got there Han had already taken off his Imperial Navy jacket and pulled on a more comfortable pilot's jacket he had from his time on Carida. It still singled him out as Imperial Navy, but this far down in the depths there was a galaxy of difference between being a grunt and being an officer. He shoved the dress jacket into his duffle and pulled up his collar, paying the speeder cab and stepping out into the Coruscant night.
On his fifth drink and finally getting that warm glow, Han leaned back against the bar and took in the room. It was big and smoky—so smoky you could probably get high on the fumes without actually bothering to buy the spice sticks. A tough childhood growing up the hard way under the scant care and absolute rule of a smuggler, bounty hunter, con-man and all-round lowlife bruiser named Garris Shrike, still let Han pick out the various types with ease. The booths against the walls were mainly pushers, dealers and buyers, looking to ply their trade with minimal trouble. The rowdy crowd to the center of the room who sported fast-draw holsters and confident grins were smugglers and gamblers, looking for the next job or spending the credits they'd earned on the last one. And moving between them all with the smooth grace of the predators they were, smelling out their prey and providing living proof of the age-old adage that a drunk and his credits were soon parted, were the frails and the twinks, looking for a trick.
He sighed comfortably, leaning back; somehow the Academy had never quite gotten that deep-rooted sense of feelin' right at home in a joint like this out of Han.
Roving the crowd, his eyes paused at the booth in the corner, mainly because the small glowball at the center of the table, which was the only light in each booth, was broken, consigning its lone resident to the shadows. The bright tip of a spice stick flared momentarily, lighting its occupant's face in an amber glow. Not much more than a kid, he was maybe fifteen at the very most, with wild, fair hair and a fading bruise on his jawline that looked like it had already turned every color of the rainbow. Slouched back, he had his booted feet up on the table, ankles crossed, the empty shot glass balanced on his lap already filled with ash. Head resting on the back of the seat, he stared up at the ceiling, the stump of a spice stick in his mouth, looking way too comfortable in a joint like this.
Han's eyes lingered as he tried to categorize the kid, but he just…didn't fit; didn't quite fit any of the types here. Probably a twink, cruising for a trick; yeah, he was the right age, right build—fresh-faced and old-eyed. Han set his head to one side in consideration; kid sure didn't seem to be trying too hard, though. Maybe he was just a buyer—the shot glass on his lap already had three stubbed spice-sticks in it, and the kid didn't look like he was planning on leaving any time soon. Han turned away, resuming his scan of the room to look for something a little more to his tastes, the kid instantly forgotten.
The night passed and the bar filled and the room got so noisy you had to shout to be heard, but Han liked 'em like that, so he was grinning at one of the working girls who had hit him up for a drink and was starting to talk business when the conversation behind him, shouted over the noise, drifted into hearing.
"Hey, hey! Someone's tryin' to hit on Spice-boy!"
It was the amused enthusiasm of that last voice which caught Han's attention.
He knew instantly who they were talking about, and as the evening had progressed, he'd ended up pushed further and further along the crowded bar towards that last dark booth, so he only had to take a step to the right to get a view, pushing the pink-haired frail who was all over him to one side.
Sure enough, a big burly spacer was leaning over the table in that last dark booth, weaving slightly, a Weequay half a step behind him, egging him on. Clearly the kid had ignored him once, because now the burly human was pressing forward and nudging him none-too-gently. Han didn't hear what the guy said, but the kid glanced up this time, singularly unimpressed.
What was weird was that despite the incessant noise, the kid's quiet, clipped voice carried perfectly. "My name? It's 'Get-the-hell-out-of-my-face, nerf-breath'."
About the same moment as Han pulled a brief face, amazed at the kid's lip, he heard the two spectators at the bar beside him both go, "Yeah!" and "No way."
It took a good three seconds for the brawny spacer to register the insult, then he let out a roar—
And all hell broke loose.
The kid was grabbed by the scruff and hauled bodily out of the booth, several patrons around him knocked back in the flurry as the drunk spacer backpaced, still hold of the kid by the scruff, drinks and curses loosed as the knock-on effect spread outwards like a wave. In the center, the big spacer had dragged the kid clear when he suddenly staggered back a few steps, clutching his midriff. The moment he was loosed, the kid took a half-step back and landed a high kick on the spacer's jaw as he bent double, snapping his head round with a resounding 'clack' of teeth.
Grimacing, Han got his first real glimpse at the twink—and realized just how much of a kid he really was, less than shoulder-height to the drunk spacer, slight and slim and seriously outgunned. In fact, if the kid had any sense at all, he would have taken the opportunity and made a run for it because clearly the spacer, who was probably carrying twice the kid's bodyweight, was now madder than all hells.
Instead, as the guy straightened and powered forward, arms wide, the kid made a few fast steps on the spot to set his bodyweight in anticipation, bracing. Han flinched at the coming blow, wondering if the kid had a death-wish—
Then the big spacer was staggering to the side and the kid hardly seemed to have moved, save for a half-twist to drop a fast knee into his opponent's side as he passed, making the spacer stagger into a heavy table, winded. Dragged half-round with him when he'd made that last blow, the kid caught his balance, hand out before him in warning as the thickset spacer rose with a roar, upturning the table.
"Don't—" That was as far as the kid got. The big spacer plowed forward—
The kid pulled off a lightening fast snap-kick to his throat, dropping him on the spot and leaving him gasping for air…
Han had no intention of interfering, simply enjoying the show with everyone else, when the flash of something bright and reflective caught his eye in the Weequay's hand as it advanced on the kid's back—
"Hey!" Han pushed through the crowd, close enough to reach out as the Weequay pulled his arm back to make a strike for the kid at neck-level, a vibroblade humming in his grip—
Hand tightening about the Weequay's wrist, Han yanked backward, twisting it against its natural movement. The wicked blade fell to the floor with a heavy metallic clatter as the kid twisted about and dodged to the side in anticipation.
The Weequay turned on Han with a guttural growl as Han backed up a step, hands out to calm him…
Then a high-powered shot rang out, flashing over the heads of the melee and forcing everyone to duck. The band, which had continued merrily on through all of this, finally stuttered to silence.
Han turned…to see four stormtroopers at the doorway, blasters trained on the crowd.
Great; he'd been on leave all of four hours and he'd managed to get himself arrested… Just great.
All four of them got detained, their ID's taken before they were even loaded into the back of the transports, Han and the kid in one and the two spacers in the other. The Weequay muttered something in patois as he passed, and the kid shouted something back in pretty passable Weequay as the trooper restrained him, voice weary. Clearly this was the end of a long shift for him.
"Hey—hey, you're in enough trouble as it is."
"I'm in trouble? Have you read that ID?" The kid knocked at the trooper's hand but he didn't loosen his grip.
"Yeah I read it. Aren't you a little young for Intel?"
The second trooper laughed, the sound rough and metallic coming through his vo-coder.
The kid turned, voice ice. "Back off, trooper."
This time the troopers found it less amusing. The one who had hold of the kid's arm shook him roughly. "Hey, you want to make it resisting arrest too?"
The kid glared and for a moment Han thought he might actually make a go of it… Then he suddenly seemed to calm and let out a short laugh. "No, what the hell, I got nothing else to do tonight."
So now they were sitting on bunks to either side of a cell, Han wondering how the hell two days' leave had managed to go so spectacularly wrong. Four hours was a new low, even for him.
The cell was small and plain, no allowance for creature comforts made, so each of them sat at opposite sides on the hard shelf-like bunks, as the kid chewed his nail and stared silently through the clear plasteel wall and into the empty security corridor beyond, lost in his own thoughts. Han couldn't work out whether he was putting on a very passable indifferent front for his cellmate's benefit, or whether he really was that unfazed. Maybe the latter; twinks in any port got themselves arrested on a weekly basis. Most of the troopers knew the ones on their beat by name.
Slight and sinewy, this one wore dark hide pants and a fitted gray shirt in fine fabric, casually undone halfway down his chest. As he moved, it fell slightly open to reveal a glimpse of a blue-black tattoo there, the whole impression effortlessly dissolute. Aware of being studied he turned slowly to Han without blinking, and Han held his eye a few seconds before he looked casually away; he wasn't gonna be stared down by some pint-sized juvenile.
The kid watched him a few seconds more before, distractedly, he patted the pockets of the dark, fitted jacket he wore and pulled out a small pouch. Glancing from the corner of his eye, Han frowned; surely not…
The kid pulled a slim, neatly twisted roll and an engraved pewter strike-lighter from the bag, leaving han a second to wonder how the hell they hadn't been taken off him. Depressing the strike until its end glowed, he absently lit the spice stick.
"Sith, kid, what the hell you tryin' to do, get us shot?"
The kid looked to Han for a few seconds, as if remembering he was there, then turned away again to stare into nothing.
Han pursed his lips. "Fine. You know what? Go right ahead and get yourself shot, I don't care. Let 'em take you out back and try to knock some sense into you. Hell, it might even work."
"It never has before."
Han turned away, annoyed at the smartass backhand comment; fine, if that's the way he wanted to play it, let him. He glared at the empty corridor…and lasted all of three seconds before he turned back again, finger pointing. "Hey, in case you didn't notice, it was me who pulled that Weequay with the vibroblade off your back."
The slight kid glanced back, looking Han over through the haze of smoke from the spice stick. "I already had him pegged."
Just at the moment when Han had taken a breath to tell him a few home truths, the kid added quietly, "But thanks."
It was blunt but sincere, and Han relaxed again, studying the kid. Now, looking closer, despite his bruises and his dark-rimmed eyes he was way too well-dressed to be a twink, though he still had that worldly air about him. Had a Coruscant accent though; definitely upper-class refined.
Again the kid took a long time to answer, as if trying to decide whether to admit even that much.
"Hey, makes no odds to me," Han said in reassurance. "Look, just ask 'em not to press charges 'cos you want to enrol in military school when you're eighteen. They know that you won't get in with a record, an' if they think you want to join up, they'll go easy on you."
"I'm sure they'll let me out any time now," the kid said with quiet, understated confidence.
"Whatever. Just tell them the military school thing, okay? Tell 'em you're tryin' to get into Carida."
"Like you did?"
Han frowned, surprised, and the kid nodded his head toward the patch on the arm of Han's old flight jacket. "Carida."
Han shook his head. "It doesn't say Carida."
"It has a pale blue rim with a gold edge on the unit patch—that means you trained on Carida."
Han nodded; kid was good. "Don't tell me—military family, right?"
For a moment Han thought the kid wouldn't reply, then he nodded. "You could say that."
Rich kid then, Han thought. Probably end up at Carida one way or another anyway. "How old are you?"
The kid took a long drag on the spice stick. "Too old."
It should have been funny, ridiculous even…but Han frowned at the grim cynicism in that remark. "You worried your folks'll find out?"
He'd seen a few of them on Carida—the insular, reticent ones from wealthy families. Those whose arrogant, career-military fathers and pretentious, over-ambitious mothers pushed them to be something they weren't. You soon realized that despite their wealth, you actually pitied them.
"Listen, if you don't want your folks to know, just plead the Carida thing. Tell the duty officer who processes you that you regret everything and you realize you were in the wrong…but lose the spice stick," Han added pointedly.
"It's fine," the kid dismissed evenly without turning. He paused, glancing to the empty corridor as he stood. "In fact, here's my ride now."
Han frowned—and seconds later, the heavy door to the detention block slid open and a mature man in a seriously expensive suit walked into the detention center's corridor, glancing worriedly through the clear cell walls.
"Luke?" The man paused before the cell door, turning to the Duty Officer with undisguised scorn in his voice. "Open the door."
It was the speed at which the duty officer complied that piqued Han's interest.
"Are you all right?" The man glanced the kid up and down as he walked calmly from the cell without answering. As the kid passed him, the man took the spice stick from his mouth and dropped it to the floor, stubbing it out beneath hand-stitched boots without comment from either of them. "You said you wouldn't do this again."
"No, you said I shouldn't do this again."
"If he finds out…"
"I'm sure he already knows by now," the kid said cynically, then paused, turning. "Are you staying there?"
Han rose quickly. "Me? No, not if the door's open."
The well-dressed man frowned at Han, cool gray eyes beneath trim, dark hair, greying at the temples. For a moment it seemed like he was going to argue the point, but the kid was already leaving the detention block. Han passed the older man, treated to a haughty stare but not stopped by either him or the duty officer. Kid was clearly from a very wealthy family, he reflected.
Just how wealthy became clear as he stepped out into the sharp dawn air and saw the stately closed-top ambassadorial speeder double-parked outside the stationhouse, a military speeder ahead of it and another behind, the small flags on its wings denoting serious rank. Two very badly disguised plain-clothes bodyguards stood beside it, eyes everywhere, hands resting very close to the openings of their carefully tailored jackets.
Considering the area, Han didn't blame them.
The well-dressed man stood expectantly beside the open door of the speeder and the kid paused, turning to Han. "I'd offer you a lift, but trust me when I say it would be very bad for your career—and your health."
Han shrugged, dragging his eyes away from the smart sedan and the plain-clothes minders. "Well, my career's already shot, but I kinda like my health so I guess I'll start walking." He looked the kid up and down. "Thanks, kid, it's been…interesting. I always like to spend half my leave in a detention center. Reminds me of home." He paused, suddenly unwilling to leave, freshly aware of how slight and young the kid really was, little more than shoulder height to Han. "You gonna be okay? They look pissed."
The kid glanced to the sedan, casually dismissive. "They're just worried I'm going to make a break for it. I'm tempted to, just to see what they'll do."
Han looked to them, unsure if the kid was joking or not. "They look awful twitchy."
The kid remained still, suddenly talkative, clearly reluctant to get into the speeder. "That's because they're listening to every word we say and now they're worried I might do just what I said. Like you are."
The suited man took a half-step forward, arm outstretched. "Luke?"
The kid paused for just a second more, then walked away without another word, the door auto-closing as the well-dressed man entered the sedan behind him. The two minders gauged Han with professional appraisal before turning away.
Stood in the light dawn drizzle, Han watched them enter the speeders before and behind the big, blacked-out sedan, then the whole cavalcade set off with smooth precision, leaving Han to gaze at the military registrations as they rose upwards.
He stared for a few moments more before pulling up his collar and setting off into the breaking dawn, eager to be gone before the stormtroopers who were watching from the viewpanes of the stationhouse behind him changed their mind.
When you've finished each chapter, you may want to check them out on my website, where there's a little extra at the end of each chapter - hope you'll enjoy!
(There's a link to my website on my bio page)