Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
--Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare
He started out visiting Luke once a week and sharing a meal with Owen and Beru. But he's still featured prominently in the Empire's reels about the traitorous Jedi and his presence makes them uncomfortable. Once Luke starts toddling about the homestead, Obi-Wan brings toys, tosses Luke in the air, and moves things around in the Force for Luke to follow with his eyes and try to catch, as he had done with the infants in the Temple nursery. He's delighted to the point of weeping when he hears Luke call him "Ben" for the first time. But Owen forbids the lightsaber toy he's fashioned and Beru starts crying. They are, justifiably, terrified of the purges and the real possibility that he could bring the Empire down on them. So, he stays away. He's not visited the Lars family and Luke in months. He keeps an eye on them, and they know it, but always at a respectful distance. Owen and Beru can reach him over comms if there's an emergency.
There never is.
When not watching over Luke and his family through binoculars, Obi-Wan takes to wandering about Tatooine. He's lonely. He knows that. He's not spent this much time alone in ... well, ever. At first, there were the other novices at the Temple, and then he was Qui-Gon's Padawan, then Anakin's Master, and then, if not with Anakin, with his Clonetroopers.
So, though he's not examining it too closely, he knows he starts looking for her, maybe even before he actually notices her. He's not sure how long she's been planetside but it's not been too long given her pale, smooth complexion. She was in the Anchorhead marketplace at least twice over the last month when he went into town for supplies. He remembered thinking it odd that a strikingly beautiful human woman was talking with Jawas outside a parts dealer in Bestine. She had not just been talking, but laughing as well. Who laughs with Jawas? A few days later, when he exchanges news with Chewbacca at Chulman's, he sees her talking to a pilot, a Twi'lek female, near the docks. They actually exchange a glance. She has piercing blue eyes and he looks away before she does. The Force tells him what is also obvious from plain observation - she's not from around here.
He spends more thought than he should wondering if she's shipped out and is irrationally pleased when he sees her again when he's in Mos Espa upgrading the drive for his landspeeder. She's going into the Arena and, as much as he detests podracing, wants to follow her. His dealer, though, is slow and chatty and, by the time they finish the barter, he's lost her in the crowds.
Another ten days pass, and he reasons that he's just testing out the speeder but ends up scouting about more than he needs to or really should.
He's been avoiding it because he can just hear Anakin mocking him and he doesn't want to know what Qui-Gon thinks so he doesn't ask. He finally relents and seeks guidance in the Force. And surprisingly, there is a gentle nudge, directing him back to Mos Eisley.
Just as he enters Chulman's, she comes out, with a pack on her back, goggles on her head, and purpose in her step. He opens his mouth to say something but she says, "Excuse me," and trots off. Her voice is deep and there's a confident tone of someone who is accustomed to giving orders and being obeyed. In a moment of rank cowardice, he decides to go into the bar rather than follow her. He orders a drink, or three, pretends to read the feeds on his datapad and watch the podracing on Malastare, even though he caught up on the news before he left that morning and couldn't be less interested in which drivers have murdered themselves and each other on the course that day.
The curiosity is an itch he can't stop scratching. He chats with Kabe and Muftak and learns that the human female, they don't know her name, was no easy mark and picked Kabe's pocket before they could get hers. She returned Kabe's blaster and credit chit with a smile, a few pointers, and a stern warning to not test her again.
<<She's here learning languages,>> Chewbacca tells him two drinks later.
"Why?" Obi-Wan asks. That's what droids are for.
Chewbacca shrugs. <<She did pretty well with the Shyriiwook I taught her. She wants to visit Kashyyyk now.>>
"So she is a linguist and either ignorant or a fool?" Kashyyyk is under Imperial occupation.
Chewbacca laughs. <<Linguist, but no fool. Possibly ignorant or ... >>
The Wookiee says something he doesn't know. "What was that?"
There is a roowrrgrrah sound again and Obi-wan nods. "Yes, that." In his experience, Shyriiwook has more single words that express complex concepts than any language he's ever experienced - there is a word for everything.
<<Engaging in risky activity knowing it might kill you because, in your heart, you hope to die.>>
<<She said she was going to visit a Tusken camp to learn their language.>>
Obi-Wan almost spits out his drink.
<<She was confident they wouldn't kill her. She was bringing water as a gift. And carrying a modified light bowcaster. I have no idea where she got it but it's nicely crafted.>>
Chewbacca jerks his head toward the door. <<She might need rescuing.>>
Obi-Wan pays his bill and Chewbacca's - you always pay your bill at any cantina near a space port and especially at Chulman's.
He hurries out, rounds the corner of Chulman's where he locked down his speeder and...
She's sitting on the passenger side. Her goggles are still perched on her head and the pack and bowcaster - it is very nicely crafted - are wedged in the backseat. She puts out her hand.
"Hello. I'm Susan Pevensie."
He shakes her hand and, unexpectedly, it takes real effort to let go. It's the first physical contact he's had with another human since he last played with Luke.
Touch. Real, human touch.
There's nothing that should be remarkable about it. There are no Force klaxons sounding or romantic, holovid style swooning. It's simply that touching another human's skin is something he's been without for an achingly long time.
"Forgive me if I interrupted your plan to steal my speeder."
"Oh, is this yours? I had no idea."
He knows she's joking - lying. The Force tells him that. There's also no attempt at subterfuge.
"Were you trying to steal it?"
Susan leans forward and runs her hands over the console. "If I were, I would have been gone by now, Ben."
"So you are a thief?"
She looks thoughtful and he catches a phantom of something sad. He almost regrets pressing the point but curiosity, and attraction, are stronger. Seeing her hands caress the console have unlocked a rush of fantasies he's been suppressing for the last month.
"I was," Susan finally says. "A very good one, actually, which Kabe learned to her cost."
"Are you an assassin? A bounty hunter?" The Force tells him otherwise but he's been deceived before.
The words "assassin" and "bounty hunter" distress her too much for either label to apply. Susan shakes her head. "No, I hate killing." She tilts her head toward the bowcaster. "I will protect what needs protecting from harm and in service to worthy causes."
It's a precocious statement but also comes from a place of deep sincerity and passion. Susan is not lying to him, though he suspects she is a very good liar. Another, more obvious conclusion follows as the pieces fall into place. "You're a spy."
"You are very perceptive, Ben. I was, in fact, an even better spy than a thief."
"But you are not spying now."
As she shakes her head, he feels another wave of sadness, this one stronger than the last. He senses her push the pain away and bury it deeply, where it sits on top of thick layers of loss. Her saucy quality returns and there's a hint that he's being obtuse. "As with the theft, Ben, if I were spying on you, you would not have been seeing me since the bazaar in Anchorhead."
She's revealed more than she is aware of. Susan does not know who he really is or even that he's Force sensitive.
"So neither spy, nor thief, yet loitering about my speeder and making certain I noticed you. What then are you, Susan?"
She leans back, props her elbows up on the seatrest, and boldly stares back, her eyebrow arched with a hint of disbelief. "You don't know?"
I want to hear you say it.
"I'm like you."
"In what way?"
"I'm very much alone."
Everything that follows is a long, slow, inexorable slide to an inevitable conclusion. It's a dance of manners, courtesy, teasing, and curiosity that mask a mutual raw need.
He feels a little shy about it but has no misgivings. "I have a home by the Dune Sea. It's very small but you're welcome to join me. It would be a closer base of operations for your Tusken explorations."
"Chewbacca told me it was a death wish to go there."
"He's correct. I have some contacts in one of the clans and can arrange an introduction with less risk of deadly consequences if you like. I hope to persuade you to take advantage of that opportunity."
"You persuaded me weeks ago, Ben."
He manages to not blush. Flirtation has never been a skill he cultivated. Susan, in contrast, is an expert, though there's nothing coy about it. It's as blatant a promise as she can make without saying anything outright. They are both being very civilized, which might seem odd in the Tatooine backwater, but feels right to him. He is, after all, Temple-trained and Coruscant-educated and Susan comes from some similar genteel background, though he is hard pressed to identify it. Her vocabulary and pronunciation are as cultured as his own but he cannot place her accent at all.
They are well beyond any preliminaries when he joins her in the speeder and they leave Chulman's. Chewabacca has come out to watch the proceedings. Obi-Wan doesn't wave good-bye; Susan does.
Susan is camping at a place that rents by the day and, sometimes, for shorter durations than that. They load her adequate but meager supplies in the speeder and head out across the flats. He raises the canopy so they can continue to talk and notices how closely she studies the controls and features as he drives. She might have tried to steal it, but he doesn't think she's very familiar with the speeder, which raises some obvious questions.
"Where are you from?"
"Do you mean Lonera? Or Lothal?" She shakes her head and, as widely traveled as he is, has no idea what she meant. Or where.
"No, nothing like that," Susan replies. "Where I am from is very far away. And very difficult to explain."
"How did you end up here?"
She brushes dust off the dashboard that just settles over both of them, then snorts and stares moodily out at the Dune Sea flats. "Some combination of bad luck, choking irony, and an unasked-for character-building exercise."
Susan's character seems sufficiently well-formed already.
"You aren't fond of desert?"
"Not especially. My greatest failures have arisen out of the desert. It's distasteful to constantly be reminded of one's mistakes."
"Yes, that would be hard." He could not imagine being forced to live on Mandalore or Mustafar. It is, at least, more neutral on Tatooine, with the added benefit that Darth Vader would never come here. "Tatooine isn't an easy place even without negative associations."
"For not plying me with forgiving platitudes when you have no idea what the situation was or its severity."
So they both bear secrets and guilt. There are a dozen empathetic and understanding things he can say and they all lead to things he's not prepared to disclose.
"Of course," Ben responds, as blandly as he can manage and then decides to conclude with humor. "It is very annoying when someone tries to talk you out of a really good wallow that you know is completely deserved."
She laughs. "Exactly! It takes effort to get there and I won't have someone deprive me of it!" Her mood evaporates and the teasing returns. "So what about you, Ben? Where are you from and how did you end up in this not-easy-to-live place?"
"I grew up in the Core Worlds. How I got here is, as with you, very difficult to explain."
He thinks she'll probe the how and the why. Instead, surprisingly, it's the where. "Tell me about the Core Worlds. I've heard them referenced on the news, like Coruscant, but it's one of those terms that's so well understood, no one ever explains it."
It's an odd query but he doesn't mind. He begins with the principal systems and the hyperspace and trade routes that join and connect them. When Susan shows no sign of getting bored, he talks of home and the soaring gleam of Coruscant where you can find anything at that center of the galaxy, the calm beauty of the natural places like Chandrila and Alderaan, the wealth and technology of the Kuat system, and the seedy underside of Corellia which, if you know where to go, has some of the best greasers, engine parts, and noodle dishes in the Core.
Her questions are wide-ranging and intelligent about races, languages, technology, climates, trade, arts and culture. They also reveal, as Chewbacca had hinted at, profound ignorance. What she does know has obviously been gleaned from public newsfeeds in cantinas. She's depressingly current on podracing standings.
Beautiful, enticing, intelligent people with soft dark hair and piercing eyes who he is deeply attracted to aren't supposed to like podracing.
"It's a horrid, corrupt, and murderous spectacle!" he cries. He won't deign to call it a sport and his antipathy is getting the better of him.
"But so exciting!"
He harrumphs and she laughs and captures his hand in her own.
He's starving, and impatient, for more of her touch and will forgive even podracing for the feel of Susan's skin. Handholding is reducing him to a mess of quivering need. He squeezes her hand and draws her closer to him in the speeder.
They drive another few kilometers, the Dune Sea beginning to give way to rock. They'll be in the foothills soon.
He finally, carefully, raises the one glaring omission in her otherwise insightful questioning. "You've not asked anything about our politics, Susan, or our military actions."
"Come now, Ben, surely you know the importance of the dog that didn't bark."
"I don't follow your reference." He's heard of dogs on Anoat and has been called a "Jedi dog" more times than can be counted.
"If a dog that would normally bark does not, there is significance to that absence."
So her silence is deliberate. He's trying to suss out where Susan might stand and becomes distracted by the whorls she is tracing in his palm. This might also be deliberate.
"And?" he prompts as her fingers trail across his wrist.
"I am so sorry for your losses, whatever they are and whoever they may be." There is such enormous empathy in her words, it is not the least bit surprising when she continues. "I, too, have survived a great war that engulfed my whole world and left millions dead. And before that, I survived the campaigns of terrible, murderous despots. As a consequence, I know when it is better, and healthier, for all concerned, to keep one's mouth shut, and one's eyes and ears open."
"You are a very good spy, Susan."
The suns are beginning to set as he turns into the canyon and begins the climb up to the plateau where he lives. Ben slows and lowers the speeder canopy so she can better admire the rich ochres of the rock walls and the cool, dark shadows stretching across them. The last, tight turn up the canyon opens to a vista across the dunes. "We're almost there, but I thought you might enjoy this view of the Twins at sunset."
Susan tilts her head and tries to rest it on his shoulder but the divided seat and console makes it too awkward so she pulls away with a grumble. "Are you trying to persuade me that the desert is not horrid?"
"No. I respect that it is associated with painful failure for you. But perhaps this might let you see some of the beauty of it, too."
"That had better not be a didactic metaphor."
He laughs and pushes stray hair from her face that's blown about and tangled in her goggles.
Her gaze rests on the horizon and then she tilts her head to study the stars beginning to wink on in the fading lights. "It's so different. I've known the suns and stars of two different worlds, galaxies, I suppose. I never thought I'd see a third."
Three galaxies? She's not lying. Susan has been, as near as he can tell, wholly and completely honest with him, about everything. She is a profound contradiction. "How?"
She turns back and he senses apprehension rise in her. "If I said, 'magic,' would you believe me?"
"The Force is magic to some. Technology is magic to others."
He lifts the hand not twined with hers, moves his fingers, and orange dust outside the speeder rises and swirls like a dancer. Her blue eyes, reflecting the light of the fading suns, follow the motes and a smile pulls at her lips. He drops his hand and the dervish settles back to the ground.
"That is charming, Ben. Does it extend to other…"
He supplies the word she is searching for, "Skills, yes. The Force lends itself to many disciplines and abilities."
"And yet you end up here?"
A Krayt bat flits across the nose of the speeder, chirping cheerfully. He hears a scurrying underneath them of small claws on pebbles; they've disturbed a lizard who should be in for the night.
"It's complicated," he finally says. "As with you, and as you have surmised, there was a terrible war here that spanned the galaxy. My side lost. Everything," he decides to add. "Everyone died. But I survived. And I came here, three years ago, now."
"As a punishment?"
It's a curious statement, either enormously intuitive or she's projecting her own experience. He has thought about it, indeed dwelt on little else during the lonely days and nights. There's his own culpability - he actively abetted the blindness among the Jedi that refused to see what Palpatine was; he didn't do enough for Anakin, he couldn't save Padmé, or Satine.
"Penance," Obi-Wan decides.
"Penance," she repeats and he feels a swell of empathy. She extends the same courtesy of not saying, Oh, surely, it wasn't that bad.
She's still holding his hand and rubs her fingers over his knuckles. "Penance implies to me efforts at making amends. Are you doing that?"
"You are criticizing my manner of exile?"
"I wouldn't dream of it, Ben. I understand."
She edges closer, raises his palm to her lips and kisses it. He's amazed he doesn't freeze up completely and instead manages to stroke her cheek. It's not enough. He wants so much more. All of her. No skin should be so soft on Tatooine. Is she like that everywhere?
"What I said before. I cared for someone, respected him. He was from a desert like this one. But it was a mistake, I was played, and people died. My brother and sister could have died. I spent years trying to atone. I went to war. And we won, though at terrible cost. But after, there was a stupid-" she speaks the word with real venom and self-loathing - "stupid argument and every member of my family died. And then the one person who helped me through that unimaginable loss died, too."
A dune owl called out; her haunting, lonely cry was answered by another, deeper call. Susan took a deep breath. "So you see, Ben, after all of that, your desert exile does not seem a bad option to me."
"You've come to share my solitude, then?"
Susan laces her fingers in his own and in her is a thrum of the same thrill he feels. Leaning over, she braces herself against the armrest and kisses the corner of his mouth.
"For a little while, Ben."
He feels like the rankest amateur adolescent with such unbridled eagerness but Susan has no restraint at all. She's worse. By the time he pulls up to the hut, she's in his lap; the divided seat no obstacle at all to her enthusiastic explorations.
It's all utterly ridiculous and completely undignified and her efforts to clamber off him are comical. He's laughing, at her and at himself. He does not care. She is delicious and he can't wait to taste every part of her.
"I warned you, it was small," he tells her.
"Now, no false modesty, Ben. That's not what I was feeling."
"That," he emphasizes, pointing at the hut.
He extracts a little revenge when she bends over to retrieve her belongings and he indulges in some rough groping that has her gasping and squirming. Under the layers of cloak, shirt, and trousers, she feels marvelous, soft, firm, hot and ravenously eager for him.
All he gets, though, is a playful swat. "I have a bowcaster!"
He almost responds with, "And I have a lightsaber," and realizes for a host of reasons, it is the wrong thing to say. "I am not without my own defenses."
"I should hope so, particularly as I'm without a critical one!" She tosses her bag over her shoulder and hefts her nicely crafted bowcaster. "You do have condoms, don't you, Ben? I've not seen any in the markets."
He opens the palm lock to the house and the lights come on in the humble space. It's clean, private, and his own, and he hopes she doesn't find it too wanting.
"Do I have what?"
"Condoms." Susan sets her things down and looks around. "Ben, this is delightful and charming. Thank you."
He's pleased that she's not put off by something so humble, though it is a significant step up from her campsite. "Condoms?" He repeats the unfamiliar word.
A look of real concern crosses her face. "Oh dear. Condoms are contraceptives. To prevent pregnancy? You don't use them?"
"I have no idea what they are. I've had the prophylaxis injection, of course. It's good until the end of next year. And I am disease-free. I will show you my record, of course." He's surprised she hasn't already offered her own or asked to see his. He doesn't have a lot of experience here, but it is part of the standard protocol and no civilized being would depart from its three core elements - consent, contraception, clean health.
Susan sits down heavily on his sleeping cot and he realizes she's deeply surprised, shocked, even. She has no idea what he has just said.
He sits next to her and gently helps her tease the goggles from her tangled, black hair. "You really are not from anywhere in this galaxy, are you?"
Susan is, truly, completely and utterly alone. She has even less than he does.
"Where I am from, there are no blasters or spaceships, land vehicles don't glide across the ground without wheels or combustion engines, and methods of contraception are primitive and not," she scoffs, "injections."
He lets the goggles drop to the floor and runs his fingers through her hair. She arches her neck and makes a soft, pleased sound that asks for more. "Magic was not a euphemism then, was it?"
"It was not. I will take you there, Ben, so you can see it for yourself."
Susan wraps her arm around him and her fingers worm their way through the folds of his tunic and under his belt to find sensitive skin. He gently moves her searching hand so that it is flat against his ribs and sighs for the deeply missed pleasure of so simple a thing -- the intimate touch of another.
"Perhaps, Susan, you can show me that magic tomorrow."
It's three days before they finally conclude that they cannot subsist solely upon a diet of sex. She's left scratches all over his body; her lustrous skin - which has a number of impressive combat scars he has thoroughly reconnoitered - is raw. He's very concerned about her basic health and they can't let it go as much as Susan tries to avoid it.
Susan is wearing her favorite garment - one of his few shirts. He'd complain more but Susan has even fewer clothes than he does and, with the tunic opened to her waist, and just covering her hip, she looks outstanding in it. And out of it. She's perched in her preferred place, his lap, and wriggling, in very deliberate, provocative ways that, the three previous times, devolved into grappling, grinding sex.
This time, he grits his teeth and won't be put off. He finally catches one of her flailing hands and brandishes the analyzer in the other. "It's one prick. It's seconds. You'll get nothing more from me until you do."
"Is that a threat?"
"A promise backed by serious resolve and concern for your safety."
"Oh very well." Susan proffers her index finger and slides it into the device. "Ouch," she mumbles.
"It didn't hurt."
"No. But I thought I should complain anyway to maintain credibility."
The analyzer blinks and the console across the room lights up with the read-out. "See?" He points to the console. "All those blinking red lights mean you are missing life-saving immunizations. I don't even need to look at them to know you need a full panel."
"I've had a smallpox vaccine. Tetanus!"
"Which will not protect you from any of the plagues, flus, and fevers you can contract on any number of planets, including this one."
"Fine. You have made your point." She tosses the analyzer away, grabs his hand and shoves it between her legs. "I expect a reward now."
That's when he realizes he's been had and it's just been a plot all along for more sex. Delivering said reward is a task he happily undertakes. In retaliation, he takes a very long time with it and doesn't relent until Susan is swearing, pleading, and, finally, completely limp and exhausted.
"You should have led with that," she murmurs.
He takes advantage of her sated lull to clean up and manages to actually put real clothes on, then rouses her. With a gentle push, Susan smugly oozes off to take her turn in the fresher - which she calls bathroom and lavatory. There isn't room for both of them - they tried.
"Don't use all my water allotment!"
He settles at the console for the first time in days and discovers another issue when he tries to arrange Susan's appointment at the clinic in Anchorhead. He knows Susan is "not from around here" but she's also from nowhere. At all. Anywhere.
He has access to the Rebel Intelligence network which is still nascent but the slicers are plugged into the far reaches of the HoloNet and have managed to preserve or reconstruct many Republic databases and are expanding access to the Imperial ones. There's no record of Susan Pevensie anywhere.
Susan is a ghost.
"Those are things you probably should have discovered earlier in the relationship, Obi-Wan."
Ben glances up from the console. "Or you could have warned me if there was any danger," he tells his old Master. Qui-Gon is hovering by the kitchen. He is glad the ghost is not by the cot - it's quite a mess. "Thank you for not coming by earlier."
"It seemed prudent to avoid any awkwardness."
"For me certainly. Can Susan see you?"
"See who?" Susan asks, emerging from the "bathroom." She's naked, of course, and he tosses her a towel hanging over the chair. Though at this point, if Qui-Gon... better not to think on that.
"I told you about Qui-Gon, my teacher, who died several years ago. He has the ability to appear to me as a Force apparition. He's standing right over there." He doesn't mention that Qui-Gon is staring at Susan.
"Well you cannot. He can."
Susan shrugs, begins drying her hair, and waves in the direction of the kitchen. "Hello, Qui-Gon. Lovely to not see you. I'm just going to squeeze back into that closet Ben pretends is a bathroom and get dressed."
The door shuts and Qui-Gon floats closer to where he is sitting. He can guess what is coming and as surely as the Twins will set, "Obi-Wan, do not let this cloud your judgment or compromise your obligations."
He manages to keep his voice level. "I'm not a prepubescent padawan, Qui-Gon. I held to my duty even through Satine. I am not going to forsake it now, though I do wonder at the continuing applicability of the Order's rule forbidding attachments when there is no Order."
"You have been engaged in some self-justification, haven't you?"
Ben laughs and his irritation ebbs. "Yes, Master, perhaps a little. It's an old habit. I have been mentally rehearsing my justification to a Council that no longer exists."
"My admonition was only intended to urge you to not be so blinded by your enjoyments that you fail to see or use Susan's strategic potential. It is considerable."
Now that was a wholly fair criticism.
"You also have a three-day old message from Bail Organa." As Qui-Gon fades out, he adds, "If you don't respond, he might come looking for you."
He is still staring at Bail's message when Susan emerges. "Has he left?"
"Yes. You didn't seem very bothered by a surreptitious presence you cannot see."
"I did tell you I was a Queen once."
She joins him at the console, wraps her arms about his shoulders and rests her chin on the top of his head.
"You did. And made a point of saying that I was moving up in the world from a mere Duchess." He had actually been moving down at the time.
She kisses the top of his head. "As Queen, I was accompanied by a Guard everywhere, at all times. I became very accustomed to always being observed. I'm no voyeur but one's expectations of privacy are forever skewed."
She's been studying the console and leans forward to look at Bail's message more closely. "It's code, isn't it?"
He should have closed it out before she saw it. "Yes. It's from a …"
"Don't say any more, Ben. But tell him that it's a bad code and if he doesn't want to be disclosing his..." Susan pauses and traces a figure across the screen. "Fulcrums, he should get a better one."
She's just cracked the most critical part of Bail's code without any effort at all and he was still piecing through it, letter by letter. "How did you do that? Apart from, as you say, being a good spy."
"A very good spy." She taps the word on the screen. "Bad codes create discernible patterns. That word appears too many times and I was able to translate it." He had been able to translate fulcrum relatively easily and had even been relieved with its repetition. And therein was the problem. If it was easy for him to read, it was easy for someone else to break.
"So how would you make a good code, an unbreakable one?"
"Well, in my experience, unbreakable codes are a myth. You can make one through true randomization and no repetition, ever. But they are only as good as the discipline of the people using them and, eventually, people make mistakes or get lazy."
As he had just demonstrated. Bail had also probably done it deliberately to make it easier.
"The best you can hope for is to make them really difficult to break so that you accomplish your goals before your enemy learns what they are."
Susan nods at the console. "Tell Bail his codes need some work." He'd not mentioned Bail's name but she has discerned it and his gender in the span of just looking over his shoulder. "And I read upside down, too."
He tries to respond to Bail with a brief warning but it takes a long time because Susan insists upon providing highly technical coding advice. "Ben, it makes me physically ill to see a job done poorly. This is just intolerable." It's times like this that he takes her Queen title very seriously.
"You can teach me proper cryptography and, if you get your immunizations, you'll be cleared to travel to Alderaan and teach him? Alright?"
With that promise, she relents in her criticisms.
"For you to travel, you'll need ID. I'll need to ask Bail to have his slicers make some for you."
Susan looks thoughtful. "I don't have any footprint here, do I."
She made an observation, not asked a question. Susan probably appreciates the full implications of her total anonymity better than he does.
As he begins entering the message, Susan follows his keystrokes. "Bail has access to competent forgers?"
"I believe so, yes."
Susan reaches down and blanks the console, deleting his message and its history, something she's probably figured out just in the few minutes of watching his correspondence. "It's very good of you, and Bail, to do this for me. Thank you. But please don't send anything to him about me just yet. I need to think about the pair of shoes I should be wearing here."
He's utterly mystified. "Shoes?"
"Shoes are a legend, a fake background. I'll want one that I can slide into comfortably."
Anchorhead, Susan says, is where the magic is that brought her here. He still wonders if it's some novel application of the Force. After observing for so long what Dark and Light Side users can accomplish, he's not discounting the possibility of trans-galactic travel as a heretofore undocumented Force skill.
She's unusually quiet on the drive to Anchorhead and he can guess the direction of her thoughts. "If your Hitler had been a Force user, I think he might approximate Emperor Palpatine."
Susan nods. "Yes, though Hitler also had more constraints. He had to conscript slaves from occupied territories and eventually sent children to the lines; he couldn't regrow an army in cloning pods."
Susan hadn't known what a clone was two days ago.
"Palpatine has done that too," Ben replies.
"Even without spaceships, clones, or the Force, Hitler killed, directly or indirectly, tens of millions of people. We're still trying to get an accurate count, but it's at least 30 million, probably much higher." She lets out a sigh. "The others, by comparison, were just pretenders. Jadis was a magic user but she was content with absolute control of a very small territory - she never had designs to build an empire. Miraz had a bigger vision but was just a very ordinary, very male, oppressive, racist, murdering idiot."
These were, he's learned, the villainous rulers Susan and her now dead brothers and sister had also personally deposed.
"Ben, am I correct that Palpatine has centered power in white, male humans? And that he built his army of cannon fodder from clones of a dark-skinned man?"
"Yes. It's no accident that the war he manufactured was primarily against non-human races. Subjugation, enslavement, and outright murder of non-humans is one of the central pillars of the Empire."
"Of course it is!" She slaps her gloves against the console and mutters some epithet he doesn't recognize. "I have no tolerance for intolerance. Three galaxies, and the racism is always the same. It's as if tyrants all come from the same factory assembly line with the same component parts."
"Welcome to the resistance?" he quips. "Again?"
"Resistance? A resistance is sabotage, harassment, sapping morale, and forcing your enemy to sacrifice ten troops for every one of yours. But to actually defeat Hitler, it took 20 allied nations, including with one with an inexhaustible industrial base, and 6 years. And that was on a mere planetary scale, not a galactic one."
"It's evolving. It will take time."
"Which you do not have. I hate war, Ben. I've lived in it almost my entire life. And it has taught me that against murderous dictators, pacifism, bargaining, and appeasement are folly; they will never be content with just one more annexation. They keep going until you take a stand and stop them. And the longer you wait, the more people die."
He had thought he might need to persuade her to join their cause. Now, Ben is doubting he could stop her.
They roll into the clinic first, just a dingy, private place with a roster of basic services and a full screen of vaccines and preventives for a Galactic human female. With the absence of any record, identification or, he discovers, credits, Ben uses Force manipulation to get Susan in and out quickly.
"Now you can go to Alderaan and berate the Viceroy of the Royal House and Consort of the Queen, without the risk of contracting a hemorrhagic fever, parasites, or pox."
Susan leans over and kisses his cheek. "I am grateful, Ben. It's just been embarrassing to be so ignorant and dependent on you."
"You amaze me constantly, Susan, with how quickly you absorb everything. I am deeply admiring of how you have acclimated."
"Thank you. And, I didn't want to admit it, but I was afraid to enter a hospital again. I was relieved it wasn't like what I was expecting. Once you've looked at so many dead bodies, you don't want to go back."
Ben slides an arm around her waist. "I should have understood that without you having to say it." It would have taken far more than inoculations to get him back to the Jedi Temple.
It's nice to walk together, arms about each other, as normal human couples might do. It's the first time he thinks he's ever done anything like this, in public with someone. It's very strange. He likes how she leans into him and how they match steps. It broadcasts, "We're together."
"We're going to the fountain, around the corner from the marketplace," Susan says.
Anchorhead is a true community and doesn't have the seedy quality of Mos Eisley, nor in truth, much in the way of a quality cantina or amusements. The fountain is a public communal water source fed by a deep, underground spring. Locals can water their animals and augment rations. It's a busy place where the residents, mostly merchants and farmers, come for news and gossip. There are eopies and rontos being led around to drink and children splashing and playing in the mud they leave.
Susan leads him under the shade of an awning where the ground squelches a little under his boots. From within the folds of her shirt, she draws out a little bag she's been wearing around her neck since he met her. "Stand on my left." She carefully pulls a glove onto her left hand.
"So, we can do this from anywhere but when we come back, we will return to this spot. It doesn't always work that way but I think, on Tatooine at least, it has to do with the spring here, maybe because there is so little natural water on the planet."
She carefully pries open the bag and drops a yellow ring and a green ring into her gloved hand. It's odd. He doesn't feel anything in the Force from the rings. But …
"Yes, they hum. I don't know why." She carefully eases the yellow ring into her right pocket and the green into her left. "I'm being so careful because they are powered by the touch of human skin."
Like so many other things.
"Now, you will need to hold on to my left hand. Don't let go. Once I touch the yellow ring in my pocket with my right hand, it will drag us through what feels like water. Don't worry. It won't last long, less than ten seconds."
He senses a spike of unease and discomfort as she extends her gloved hand and takes his own. "Susan? Are you alright? Is there something wrong?"
"I just don't like the rings, Ben. I feel about them the way I do about the desert."
A place of failure.
He squeezes her hand as she asks, "Are you ready?"
"For what, I have no idea, but yes."
"Three, two, one."
On one she clenches his hand tightly and then he's whooshing through blue-green water. He can't feel anything except Susan's hand in his. He wants to kick and push and he shouldn't be able to breathe.
And then he's clutching Susan's hand, is completely dry, and they are stepping out of a pool of water into a thick forest of trees. There are identical pools of water stretching out as far as he can see.
He takes a deep breath, reaches out in the Force, and gets an answer that is not quite the Force, but not unlike it either. Is that magic? Similar to the Force, but not?
"Where are we?"
"We call it the Wood Between the Worlds. Time does not pass here, so we'll return to nearly the same moment we left."
"And this is what you call magic?"
She shrugs a little. "There are some theories the rings are made of dust from this place that act like magnets to attract or repel. But that was before my time and the person who told the tale was a very poor Magician and not the least bit reliable. Each pool will take you to a different world if you touch the green ring and step into it. The yellow always brings you back here and you emerge from the pond you jumped into."
Susan points to the pool they just emerged from. "That's Tatooine." There's a pile of rocks and a ribbon to mark it, which once he sees all the completely identical pools, perceives the wisdom of.
"Yes," Susan says, speaking his concern aloud. "One could get lost here." She waves at another, similarly marked pool, a few meters away. "That's where I am from. London, England. Somewhere in here is Narnia, I suppose, but I haven't found it. I don't know if the pool to Tatooine is the only one to your galaxy but, no matter where I've been on the planet, the green ring always takes me back to the fountain at Anchorhead."
Ben suddenly yawns, feeling inexplicably fatigued. He blinks and shakes his head. "My apologies. I don't know what came over me."
"It would be pleasant to say, too 'much exertion,' but sleepiness is an effect of the place. You don't want to fall asleep here. You may never wake up."
She looks at him curiously. "Do you sense anything? I never have - no smell or sound, nothing alive but the trees and the grass."
He settles in the Force and reaches out. The green and the water are teeming with Force energy. It feels all bound together, not something made of separate living things, but as if the Wood is one living thing. "The Force is here," Ben says. "It encompasses the whole of the Wood. The Force we brought with us is different than what is here. I can also feel resonances coming from pools." He steps around the pools to one about two meters away and makes a divot in the turf with his boot. "I wouldn't want to go into this one unless I knew what I was jumping into and was heavily armed. It feels very wrong. The Wood, itself, feels like an in-between place. I can't really describe it."
"Does it..." She hesitates and whatever follows is coming from the same place as her feelings about the rings. "Does it feel like death?"
"No, not the Wood itself. Some of the pools do, but not the Wood itself. Indeed…"
Her question allows him to pinpoint the strangeness. "The Force dwells in the natural cycle of life and death, birth and decay. The Wood is different because it is static and unchanging. There is life, but no new life is being engendered here and what is here is neither growing nor dying. It just is."
He can't tell if Susan is relieved or disappointed.
"Why do you ask?"
"I mentioned the argument that resulted in everyone dying? It was about the rings. My brother, Peter, wanted to use them and he persuaded the others. They all died. They were in his pocket when I found his body."
"So you took them?"
Susan nods. "I thought about destroying them but wasn't sure what would happen or if I could. I couldn't risk anyone else getting them. And, to me, they reeked of death and arrogance." She laughs bitterly. "I hid them in a high heeled shoe in my closet and got married. But death and the rings weren't done with me. My husband died on a mission two years later. I wasn't even able to recover his body. So, I went back to England, got the rings, and..." Susan gestures about the Wood.
<<Roowrrgrrah>>. Ben repeats the word Chewbacca taught him. Engaging in risky activity knowing it might kill you because, in your heart, you hope to die.
"Yes," Susan says.
He looks again about the pools. There are hundreds of them. Thousands.
"You didn't have to stay on Tatooine, though. You could have gone anywhere."
You could have gone somewhere easier that wasn't a constant reminder of the greatest failure of your life.
"Yes," she repeats, "until I began watching the newsfeeds. I couldn't just leave, not after what I've lived through."
"You chose our struggle."
"Yes, but not that alone. I chose you as well, Ben."
"The one person across two galaxies who seemed as lonely as you were?"
He hoped that didn't sound pathetic.
"The one person who has lost as much as I have."
Ben takes her hand - the gloved one. It's a poor substitute but only temporary. "We had best get back, Susan. You have another world to save."
"Galaxy," Susan says smugly. "I have another galaxy to save. I'm going bigger this time."
Hand in hand, they jump together and the water of a world rushes up to meet them.
I have mountains of additional head canon and another 1500 words or more written with an additional ending set much further in the future. A huge thanks to Syrena and Vialethe for prompting this pairing that I never would have thought of and fell hard for. Thanks to Pencildragon, WingedFlight, and LARM for the beta assistance.
Also, obviously, and as sharper_pen pointed out in a comment, written as this is in August and September 2020, so many of us have gone months without feeling the caring touch of another. This is a terrible time.