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How To Give A Presentation To The Imperial Court While Accidentally Committing Light Treason By Making A Friend

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Watching the lights of Imperial Center shrink down to fine, glowing lines as the lambda shuttle traversed the atmosphere, Luke thought that he would likely never get tired of this.

Space all around them, a whole planet beneath them, and nothing but endless possibilities ahead. The sheer giddiness of exiting an atmosphere and flying out to places unknown certainly hadn’t worn off by the second time, and he doubted it ever would.

Marveling at the sights around him, Luke didn’t even realize that Vader had stepped closer to him until a familiar weight rested upon his shoulder again. Shaking out of his reverie, he grinned up at the man, basking in the glow of warmth and contentment that surrounded the man. He wasn’t quite sure how, but they’d both made it through the week and the Lady was almost within sight again. And against all odds, the whole ordeal had turned out better than he’d ever suspected. He looked back at the slowly shrinking planet outside the view ports and recounted all that’d happened in just a few short hours.

The finishing touches had been made to the SUTA Project that morning, and the whole thing would likely be able to proceed without much more of his input, though he remained the primary consultant for nearly everything that could and probably would go wrong.

They’d seen off Zev along with the other officer’s family members only a few hours ago on an early shuttle, talking about everything and nothing as they saw him to the boarding ramp. They’d talked about Scrap Hunting, about more differences between the outer rim and the core, some of the more intricate and unintuitive facets of politics, and finally, in a moment where the usual eyes on them weren’t looking, they’d exchanged private comm codes and he’d gotten Zev to promise to keep his head down just a bit longer, just until they could get him out.

Zev had laughed softly and agreed, saying that it would be much easier to bite his tongue now that there was a countdown on how long he had to do it. They’d shook on it and before he knew it, Zev’d been ushered aboard and the shuttle with his friend on it had been nothing more than a spot in the sky with the promise that they’d see each other again in just a few weeks’ time.

Somehow that moment felt like it was days ago, even though it’d happened only just this morning. He subtly fished his comm out of his pocket and flicked on the screen, a candid holo popping up he’d only just taken yesterday. Pictured on the small screen of his comm, were Zev, Leia, and him, laughing and smiling as they hung in over his shoulder while he took the holo, the goofy and cheerful expressions of him and his friends so at odds with the formal wear they were sporting. He smiled along with the holo as the memories of yesterday evening came back, fresh and light like bubbling spring water.

They’d talked about much that evening, Zev, Leia, and he. The Princess, for all that it been a pleasant experience, certainly hadn’t gone easy on him when she gave him a third degree grilling over how and why he’d ended up working for the empire despite his own distaste of the whole ordeal. She’d understood in the end, and cheerfully debated with him on the specifics of how awful the Hutts truly were even as she said that she was saddened that he hadn’t had another choice. He didn’t tell her that even if he did have a different choice now, he wouldn’t leave even if he wanted to. He had a couple of Vows to uphold.

Nonetheless, they’d exchanged private comm codes as well, with the promise to keep in touch. A promise that they’d both promptly fulfilled that morning by swapping the latest memes his little stunts in the Senate and Court had spawned (and hadn’t that been an experience when Zev had shown those to him?). He was happy to see that even though he and one of his oldest holonet friends had finally met face to face, there was none of the disillusionment that he’d sometimes dreaded. He was just Luke, after all, and though he’d never pretended to be anyone else in Scrap Hunting, misunderstandings did still happen. Not this time though, and he counted himself lucky to have made not one, but two friends in this tailspin of a week.

It was over now though, and everything would go back to more or less normal the second they stepped back onto the Lady. Or well, he glanced back up at the silent figure of his mentor, almost normal.

He wasn’t quite sure as to how it would translate over to the atmosphere of the Lady, but they’d definitely grown closer during this whole crazy experience. Never mind the revelation that Vader had, some-fucking-how, choked Ozzel for being rude to Luke without ever touching him in a move that was as extreme and unwarranted as it was oddly touching. To know that his mentor would choose him over his own Admiral in a fight was… not something Luke had expected, but something that’d warmed him nonetheless once he’d had a few minutes or so to think on it.

He did ask the man not to do it again, and while the evasiveness of the answer he’d gotten to that request hadn’t been ideal, he had at least been able to get the man to agree not to do it again unless it was “truly necessary.” He’d decided it would have to do.

Besides, if he’d learned anything growing up, it was always a good thing to have someone who’d have your back in a fight.

Not that he was planning to fight the Admiral. Definitely not.

Slipping his comm back in his pocket, he looked back out to where Imperial Center was slowly spinning away below them. The shuttle began to reangle itself, and with a sweeping turn, the planet that’d housed him for the last week spun out of sight, the vast infinity of space opening up in front of them. And there, bathed in the light of the nearby sun and swimming between the stars, was the Lady, waiting to welcome them all home.

The shuttle glided swiftly through the great void and before they knew, the Lady was looming over them in all her nineteen klicks long glory as they skimmed beneath her keel towards their designated docking bay. The shuttle veered to the right as they approached their destination, and along the side Luke saw the familiar doors of the airlock glide open, welcoming them back into the protective embrace of the Star Dreadnought they all called home.

The docking procedure went smoothly, and before he knew it, they were back in their own territory, and Luke fidgeted with restless energy to get back to his familiar stomping grounds. They were back in the hangars that he’d called his workspace for the last few months and there were people to see, ships to tune up, armor to produce, and so, so many projects to get started on! He had gotten a little done while down in the palace, but Suns, would being back in his workshop make a world of difference.

A soft squeeze to his shoulder startled him out of his whirlwind of thought and anticipation, jerking his gaze upwards towards his mentor. The mask was tilted down to meet him, and he could feel the significant look Vader was giving him behind those lenses, the slight admonishment to be patient and the amusement underlying it hanging thick in the air. He smiled sheepishly back at the man, shrugging a shoulder in a “what can you do” gesture, and a soft frizzle of static told him he wasn’t exactly being disagreed with. Apparently, neither of them preferred the hustle and bustle of Imperial Center to daily rhythm of the Lady.

The shuttle touched down in a perfectly executed landing that barely even jostled the ship, the pilots reading off the last of the mandatory comm chatter, and just like that, the great adventure of Imperial Center was over.

Thank the Desert for that, Luke thought, perhaps a bit uncharitably. Even if it hadn’t been all bad—far from it actually—at least he didn’t have to deal with all those endless meetings and nobles anymore.

Vader squeezed his shoulder gently once more in a bid to draw his attention, and subtly nodded towards the door leading to the main hold where the ramp was no doubt already being lowered. Nodding back swiftly in understanding, Luke took up his position at Vader's side once more, matching the taller man’s gait as best he could as they made their way back out of the cockpit and through the main hold, all officers snapping to attention as Vader passed by.

The ramp deployed with a sharp gesture from Vader, and outside Luke could already see the bustling chaos of various troopers, officers, and members of his Corps cluster around the ships. Hurrying off the ramp to keep pace with Vader, he was happy to see that one of the faces that came up to greet them belonged to Erribas, the man coming to a halt just behind Lieutenant Allter and saluting Vader sharply alongside her.

‘I trust you had an uneventful trip, my Lord?’ she said in a tone that wasn’t quite questioning, eyes flitting over to Luke for a moment, a trace of geniality flashing through them and he shot her a warm smile in return.

He didn’t know Lieutenant Allter very well, but she’d been diligent in filing reports whenever she found any kind of hitch in the Lady’s systems and always made it a point to file them correctly with all the shens dotted and the jenths crossed. Something that automatically put her in his good books for saving him the work of having to chase her down to get the whole report filled out so he could actually fix the damn thing like he had to do with some of the other officers.

‘Indeed it was, Lieutenant,’ Vader rumbled back. ‘I trust that you have nothing of note to report?’

‘Nothing save for a few maintenance and supply reports, my Lord,’ she confirmed easily. ‘It’s been a quiet week, but the down time has given us the room necessary to shore up the Lady’s supplies and maintenance schedule.’ She paused and gave a slight smile towards Luke. ‘Or well, just the supplies in this case. The ground technicians and engineers were hard pressed finding anything wrong with her that would need fixing. As far as they are concerned, the Lady is operating at a hundred-and-ten percent and ready to once more traverse back into deep space,’ she finished easily, folding her hands behind her back.

‘Very well, Lieutenant,’ Vader said with a nod. ‘Give orders to the bridge; we depart for our last known position along our patrol route immediately. It is time for the Lady to resume her duties.’

Lieutenant Allter dipped her head swiftly. ‘Yes, my Lord, at once.’ With that she snapped of another salute, did an about face and marched off to give the bridge their orders, the tail end of her navy green, standard-issue headscarf fluttering behind her.

Watching her go, Luke sighed softly. ‘I probably should get to the workshop to see what those maintenance reports are all about,’ he muttered quietly to Vader. ‘Just in case the ground crew missed anything.’

‘A wise idea,’ Vader rumbled back softly. ‘I do not trust them to not have overlooked a potential engine failure waiting to happen.’

Implying that he did have that faith in Luke, something which warmed him even as he tried to tell himself it was nothing major. Nodding at his mentor and receiving a slight nod in turn, Luke left Vader to deal with any further issues that might arise, gesturing for Erribas to join him as he headed over to the local rail station. Something which the man seemed more than happy to do.

‘Had a good trip, sir? I trust the nobles didn’t pester you too much,’ they said with a bit of a grin.

He snorted. ‘Oh, they tried,’ he told the man, ‘They really did. Though thankfully, Lord Vader put a stop to it after it got out of hand.’ He pulled a face as he remembered the horrible sight that was his overstuffed schedule. ‘They did make a good bid at driving me barking mad just before that though. Got a hold of my emergency conference codes and everything.’

Erribas whistled lowly through their teeth. ‘Sounds like a headache and a half,’ they agreed sympathetically. ‘Though how did they get those codes to begin with?’

‘Apparently,’ he muttered darkly, ‘Someone leaked them in a deliberate attempt to waste my time. They succeeded at it for a few days too.’

Erribas winced and made a low sound in their throat. ‘Any idea who?’

‘No idea,’ Luke said back as he tried to recall the particulars of that conversation. ‘Though Lord Vader seemed to have a pretty good idea, he told me not to worry about it—’ He cut himself off abruptly as a familiar whisper swelled to shriek at him in warning, and he spun out of the way just as someone brushed past him, close and fast enough that they would’ve sent him sprawling onto the floor if they’d made contact.

‘Whoa, careful!’ he called out as he turned around to his unexpected assailant. ‘You almost hit me!’

He wasn’t sure what he expected when he turned around, but it certainly was the downright livid expression of one Admiral Ozzel glaring back at him. The man looked like he was about two steps away from spitting and red in the face in a manner that would’ve immediately had Luke put him down as sunburnt if it weren’t for the fact that they were on a space ship.

‘I could say the same for you, Engineer,’ the man spat with a venom that took Luke aback. ‘Though I suppose I can’t expect some backwards outer rim hoodlum to practice the same situational awareness of a trained military man.’

Okay, that was uncalled for! ‘You nearly bumped into me, sir,’ he pointed out with a bit more bite to his words than was strictly polite. ‘I was just walking here and had my back turned to you.’

‘Watch your tone, you insubordinate wretch!’ Ozzel hissed, eyes flashing with something rabid. ‘Lord Vader's inexplicable favor may have shielded you from proper disciplinary actions thus far, and you may have everyone fooled into thinking you are more than you are.’ Luke leaned back when the man jabbed a finger in his face, leaning in close enough that he could see the spittle sitting at the corner of the man’s mouth. ‘But I see you, you worthless degenerate, and I am telling you now, you will never be more than what you truly are,’ the man spat, jabbing his finger at Luke with each word for emphasis.

‘A lowborn.’ Jab.

‘Lowbrow.’ Jab.

‘Impudent.’ Jab.

‘Insignificant.’ Jab.

‘Barbaric.’ Jab.

‘Misbegotten.’ Jab.

‘Outer rim-born, half-witted cockroach.’ Jab, jab, jab.

‘Who will never amount to anything,’ Ozzel finished with a vindictive satisfaction that made all twelve generations of slaves in Luke's blood boil with the cold rage of a midnight Sandstorm.

For a moment all lines ceased to exist and all proper military protocol he’d gotten drilled into him a breakneck crash course faded from existence. All that mattered was that Ozzel was looking at him with all the smug contempt and disdain of a Master who was convinced he’d won, and Luke?

Luke was twelve generations of slaves looking back. Luke was a Skywalker. And Luke was Free.

He let his shoulders sink into a deceptively relaxed stand, straightened his spine, and put a hard look in his eyes that he knew made even Biggs uncomfortable and ready to back down, even at his most bullheaded. He poured every last ounce of cold fury, blazing pride, and hard-won Freedom of the Skywalker Clan into his presence and grinned in a vicious victory when Ozzel’s eyes widened as he stumbled back a step, teeth sharp and on proud display as the one weapon even a slave had.

‘Yeah?’ he hissed softly, the Suns of the Desert snarling in his very breath, rumbling in the voice of the Sandstorm. ‘Watch me.’

He was Luke Skywalker, and he was Free.

He could do damn well anything.

And it seemed like Ozzel realized that too as he slowly backed away, expression flickering between outraged bafflement that Luke would dare to bite back and the faintest glimmers of a kind of fear Luke recognized from the faces of slavers when they realized this scrawny little runner would be their death. Luke had won this altercation, and they both knew it.

Then a mask of haughty superiority visible slid over the man’s face as he unconvincingly tried to stare Luke down along the length of his nose. ‘Vulgar wretch, you will pay for that,’ he tried to spit, but the tremor in his voice had the threat fall flat and Luke's grin only sharpened.

Ozzel visibly flinched backwards at the display, and seemed to come to the conclusion that it was best to cut his losses before something happened that could shake him even further. Shooting Luke one vile look, the Admiral spun on his heel and marched off, head held high in a display of authority that Luke could tell he didn’t truly feel at the moment.

‘Have a pleasant day, Admiral Ozzel,’ he called after the man’s retreating back, and while he felt a flicker of rage waft off of the man, the Admiral resolutely didn’t turn around. Folding his arms, Luke grinned, pleased with the result of that little argument.

A soft sound drew his attention away from the fleeing Admiral and towards Erribas, who’d been silently watching the confrontation unfold and was now looking at him with wide, awestruck eyes.

‘Sir,’ they muttered with a kind of reverence that would’ve made Luke feel bashful if he hadn’t still been riding the high of adrenaline and catharsis. ‘Pardon my language, but that was badass.’

He ducked his head slightly and let his grin turn just the slightest bit proud. ‘Thank you, Erribas,’ he said sincerely as he looked up to meet his second’s eyes. ‘Might I suggest we keep this incident between the two of us unless Ozzel starts to kick up a fuss?’

Erribas snorted out a laugh. ‘Like you even need to ask, sir,’ they said with a lopsided grin. ‘They won’t hear it from me, but if I hear the scuttlebutt spreading the wrong version of the event—’

Luke laughed as he shook his head. ‘Fine, fine, you’re allowed to correct them. Just stick to the truth if you do, okay? No need to blow this out of proportion.’

‘Like I’d even need to,’ he heard Erribas mutter under their breath. ‘But anyway, sir,’ they said out loud this time, ‘What was that all about?’

He sighed. ‘Ozzel and I had a bit of an argument yesterday at the gala, or well,’ he adjusted, rubbing the back of his neck as he recalled the exact nature of the whole ordeal, ‘The Admiral got offended on behalf of the emperor because I turned down a job offer he’d made me.’

‘’Scuse me?’ Erribas interrupted, their voice high pitched with disbelief. ‘The Emperor offered you a job?’

‘On behalf of the grand moff, yes,’ Luke confirmed. ‘They wanted me for the Tarkin Initiative. I told them that there was no way I was leaving my post on the Lady. That was pretty much the end of it.’

‘Hold up,’ Erribas told him, grabbing his upper arm and flipping him around until he was facing the man. ‘Rewind. The Emperor asked you to join the Tarkin Initiative on behalf of the Grand Moff?’

‘Yes,’ Luke said, brushing the man’s hands off of his arms. ‘And I turned him down. Like I said, that was the end of it, but Admiral Ozzel was rather offended on the emperor’s behalf. He huffed up a storm over it, Lord Vader took my side and—’ he cut himself off before he filled in the last part of that sentence, judging it probably a bad idea to let everyone know Vader choked the Admiral on his behalf.

It was probably too late for that, however, as Erribas shot him a concerned look. ‘And?’

He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly, feeling a bit embarrassed on his mentor’s behalf. ‘And he may or may not have choked the Admiral a bit when he began insulting me,’ he added begrudgingly, feeling a flush of heat stain his cheeks as he remembered standing there gaping like a bantha as the Admiral had clawed at his neck, too stunned at what was happening to really register why it was happening for an embarrassingly long time. ‘Maybe.’

Erribas’ eyes snapped over to him, face cycling through enough expressions that Luke thought the man just might overload, before abruptly switching to acceptance. ‘No. You know what?’ they said resolutely, ‘I refuse to be surprised. Of course Lord Vader choked Ozzel because he was insulting you. Of course.’ They nodded firmly like it all suddenly made sense. ‘Anything else I should be concerned about, sir?’

Surprised but grateful for the sudden switch around in attitude, Luke didn’t bother to ask why Erribas refused to be surprised. He figured he probably didn’t want to know the answer anyway. ‘Only that the Admiral will likely be none too happy with me the coming days,’ Luke admitted, before a memory suddenly made itself known again. ‘Oh! And Lord Vader suggested I take on a secretary to help manage my schedule so the incident with the emergency codes doesn’t repeat,’ he informed his second. ‘I already made my choice on who it’s going to be, but they still needed to finish their education first, so they’ll be joining us in a few weeks’ time. A few months at most.’

Erribas whistled lowly. ‘A secretary, huh? You’re moving up in the world, sir, I can’t even recall a time where I might’ve needed one.’

‘Suns,’ Luke groaned lightly, ‘I wish that were me. I swear, some of those people are like blood-ants, one of them finds you and the rest just swarms in. At least they were scared enough of Lord Vader to leave me alone during the parties for most of the part, or they really might just have eaten me alive.’

Erribas laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Well, sir, you survived. And I doubt you’ll have to do it again anytime soon unless you plan on revolutionizing another branch of military tech, so you’ll be back to fixing up TIEs before Lord Vader inevitably crashes them again in no time.’

Luke whacked him in the arm for that one and Erribas didn’t so much as have the good grace to pretend they even felt it and only laughed louder. ‘Shut up,’ he grumbled, sure that the effect was being ruined by the smile he couldn’t keep off his face. ‘By the way, did that TIE AD-X1 ever even finish getting its tune up before his whole bushwhack started? With all the last-minute prep it completely slipped my mind to ask.’

Whatever the answer to that question was, it was enough to sour Erribas’ expression immediately. ‘No,’ they groused, looking mutinous, ‘And there was no way we ever were going to manage it in a week either. Sir.’

Uh oh. That didn’t sound good. ‘How come?’ he asked, frowning in confusion. ‘I’m pretty sure I left all the schematics behind this time.’

‘Which is the exact problem,’ Erribas bit back, not exactly angry, but definitely frustrated to the point of breaking with their usual manner of doing. ‘Just the targeting computer alone had three different references to “consult file 5-point-who-fucking-cares” which were each located in entirely different files. And then those files told us to consult different instructions also in different files, and so forth, and so forth, until just the targeting computer had no less that twenty-seven different files associate with it!’ they growled out, yanking a bit on their dense curls of hair. ‘It just—’ They made a frustrated sound while giving him a baleful look. ‘With all due respect; what the fuck, sir?’

Well— uh. Shit. He knew he hadn’t quite gotten the hang of the way imperials organized their schematics yet, but he would’ve thought he’d done it a bit better than that. He knew that the way he did things—down to the very soldering techniques he used to minimize things like bridging, tombstones, flags, pinholes, and whatnot—were completely non-standard within the empire, so he’d put short instructions with some of the definitions he’d used and attached them to the relevant schematics. Until he’d realized that to add said instructions to every schematic would quickly clog up the things like there was no tomorrow, at which point he changed tactics. He thought that having the instructions in one file and putting down a note to consult them in the schematics proper would be enough but evidently all it had done was get one his second’s nerves in a big way.

He swallowed nervously as he sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck. ‘If I tell you that that was actually an attempt at making it easier on you all, are you liable to shoot me?’

Erribas’ eye twitched dangerously before they squeezed them shut and heaved a heavy sigh, rubbing their temples. ‘Of course it was,’ they muttered under their breath. ‘Of course.’ They breathed in deeply, pressing their hands together in a gesture that reminded Luke of a prayer and then pointed them at him. ‘Explain that statement, please, from the top.’

Right. He could do this, he’d had this conversation with Erribas many, many, many times before whenever he did something out of protocol the first few months. With a deep breath, he began to explain his thoughts to his 2IC, trying to explain the fact that yes, he was deliberately breaking all the rules the Engineering Corps had again, and no, he wasn’t going to stop, but really, it was all for a good reason and absolutely worth it.

Erribas eventually seemed to come around to his point of view, but nonetheless still looked like they were rather annoyed with Luke. ‘Alright,’ they said, rubbing their temples. ‘I understand the need to make sure we did everything right. But please, for the love of the Force, tell why you didn’t just make one grand archive of the things, or hell, taught us the proper techniques in the first place in some sort of seminar or presentation. And don’t—’ they glared at Luke, ‘—say you wouldn’t know how. You’ve given at least a dozen of them these last few weeks. You’re more than capable. Sir.’

Okay, he was walking on quicksand here, clearly. ‘I—um,’ he mumbled, ‘Didn’t want to tell anyone how to do their jobs? I mean, clearly you’re all plenty capable and— I didn’t think it would be appreciated?’ He cringed at his own words, hating how they sounded so unsure. But it was the truth. He was more than aware of his status as a newcomer aboard the ship, and while he knew his corps had come around to obeying someone who was, in most cases, decades younger than them and also often half a head shorter at the very least, he also knew that was an entirely different thing from that selfsame person—a.k.a. him—suggesting they didn’t know how to do their jobs correctly.

And that was what this essentially was. Him telling experienced and accredited engineers how to do some the most basic things in engineering. He couldn’t imagine that would go over well.

But Erribas merely stared at him in disbelief before pinching the bridge of their nose. ‘Sir,’ they muttered out, voice slightly muffled by their hand. ‘With all due respect, it’s your fucking job to tell us how to do our jobs. You are the head of our Corps here, and for good reason. That means you tell us how things are done.’

And well— okay, Erribas did have a point there. But still! ‘Oh sure,’ he said, sarcasm dripping off every word. ‘The rusted gearheads will really appreciate being told what to do by the shiny.’

‘In this case, the shiny is both their CO and the guy who just overhauled the whole Stormtrooper Corps in two months flat,’ Erribas countered flatly. ‘So yes, they damn well better appreciate being told what to do. And if they don’t, sack ‘em,’ they finished bluntly, ‘They aren’t worth their pay anyway.’

Luke blinked at his 2IC, hard pressed to argue with that kind of conviction and deciding that he was probably better off not to bother. ‘You sure of that?’ he asked, just to be sure.

Erribas nodded without hesitation. ‘One-hundred percent, sir.’

Well. ‘Alright then,’ he agreed evenly, sounding a lot calmer than he felt. ‘How would you suggest going about it?’

That seemed to catch them off guard. ‘Excuse me?’ they asked, blinking down at him.

Luke shrugged, letting a small smile play over his face. ‘I don’t know what else to tell you, Erribas. You’re right, and I’ll need to do something about it. But you were their CO for a lot longer than I’ve been, so I'm asking you how you think we should go about telling a whole Corps of people they’re doing their jobs wrong.’

Erribas blinked again. ‘We?’

He grinned. ‘Yes, “we,”’ he confirmed easily, folding his arms over his chest and raising an eyebrow at the man. ‘You’re not getting out of this one that easily, Erribas. You gave the suggestion, you get to help me set it up and take what credit’s due. I’m not fucking this one up again and it seems I need someone to make sure I don’t.’

To say that his second was looking rather gobsmacked would be an understatement, and if there weren’t so many ways that expression could be taken, Luke would even be amused. Erribas blinked once, twice, thrice, and then seemed to give up as they shook their head with a disbelieving grin. ‘You never do as you’re expected, huh, sir?’ they muttered.

‘I make it a point not to,’ Luke agreed happily. ‘So what do you say? Ready to help me figure out this mess?’

They huffed out a sound that wasn’t quite as resigned as they probably wanted it to come over, what with the small grin still stretching across their face, their scar only accentuating the laugh lines. They looked him square in the eyes as they straightened up, tall and proud. ‘It would be my honor, sir,’ they said, saluting him in a way that should’ve been mocking, but only came over as deeply sincere.

Luke heaved a deep sigh of relief. ‘Good,’ he said, ‘Because I would be fucked otherwise.’

‘Yes,’ Erribas agreed, dropping the salute with a self-satisfied grin. ‘Yes, you would.’ Well, at least they knew it too.

He jerked his head over to the rail station entrance. ‘Come on then, we have a new system to work out before I drive you all nuts with the current one, and I apparently have a TIE AD-X1 to finish along with double-checking the ground crew’s reports.’

Erribas gestured to the path ahead. ‘Lead the way, sir. By the by, besides the schematic issues, there have been some others that might need your attention.’

‘Oh?’ Luke raised an eyebrow. ‘Tell me on the way there.’

With Erribas rattling off a short laundry list of recurring issues that the mouse droids had apparently reported and the general shenanigans that came with keeping a ship the size of the Lady in tip-top shape, Luke greeted the troopers manning the station, and before they knew it, they were on their way towards the main hangar and his workshop.

Time passed quickly after that, and before he knew it, he and Erribas were stepping off of the rail car into the main hangar, several members of the Engineering Corps waiting to welcome him back from his week-long “vacation” as they teasingly called it.

Letting his attention fall away from his 2IC for a moment, Luke focused on reconnecting with all the people he come to call his own over the last few months. Joking, laughing, and requesting that he spill the juicier details of the trip, his Corps was happy to have him back, and the feeling was more than mutual. But once the backslapping and good-natured ribbing had run its course, and once he’d promised he’d give them the rundown in the mess hall later that evening, he set them all back to their duties and shifts. An order that was followed with only minimal complaining and bellyaching as everyone dispersed back to their own part of the monumental task that was the upkeep of a warship the size of a small city.

He huffed out a laugh as Gearbox, one of the clone mechanics and the most rusted out of all of them, gave his hair a playful tussle when he passes by, shoving the man off in turn in an exchange that was about as far from proper protocol as it could be, but which had become commonplace ever since Luke took the reigns of the Corps. He could deal with being called “sir” if it meant they were comfortable enough to laugh along with him.

‘Tsk.’ Erribas clicked their tongue disapprovingly, as they walked through Vader's private hangar bay where the TIE AD-X1 was still stationed in the maintenance drydock. ‘You really let them get away with too much, sir,’ the man opined. ‘I get allowing the Corps to speak freely and as they please, but they’re still your underlings.’

Luke rolled his eyes good-naturedly; he could already recite this conversation in his sleep. ‘And as I’ve said once, twice, three dozen times already, Erribas, I’m not going to make them stop. If they’re comfortable with me instead of seeing me as some sort of distant authority figure, they’re more likely to come to me if there are issues; something which I want to encourage, not dissuade.’

Erribas sighed loudly, though with less irritation than they used to, and if Luke didn’t know the man better by now, he’d almost say it was mostly for show. ‘If you must.’

‘Indeed I do,’ Luke retorted happily, fishing out his code cylinder as they approached his workshop. ‘Now then, I believe we have our own duties to get to. Starting with me handling a couple of reports, and ending with you helping me fix up that TIE before it’s inevitably crashed while we try to sort through the task of getting the rest of the Corps up to speed with the way we’ll be doing things from now on. Think you can handle the TIE on your own for now?’

Erribas agreed, and with a click of the code cylinder and a hit on the control panel, the blast doors to his workshop slid open, revealing the multi-tiered room beyond. With another hit on the control panel, the room woke up out of sleep-mode, lights blinking on and holodisplays flickering back into existence, revealing all the work Luke’d had to drop like hot stones after that message from the emperor came in.

Looking around the slowly reawakening room, he breathed in deeply as he took in the space that was probably the closest to “his” aboard this ship. Not even his quarters had this much of his essence weaved into the very atmosphere, his presence made known in every scraped prototype component and unfinished project strewn about the room’s workbenches, in every holodisplay that featured a slowly rotating unfinished schematic, and in every hum and whir of the improved machinery used to make his creations. This was where he made his own special brand of magic happen.

He grinned wide, weaving his way around the workbenches and adjacent machinery in movements that were pure muscle memory at this point. It was time to get to work.

His comm array stationed in the corner indeed held a message from Lieutenant Allter with the relevant reports, and sinking back into the workflow he’d honestly missed more than anything else this week, he began to sort through the inevitably lacking reports from the ground crew, though he sent a quick prayer of thanks when he noticed Lieutenant Allter had done her best to supplement the lacking information. Honestly, he understood Vader's appreciation for Captain Piett more and more each and every day he had to deal with some of the other officers. What did they even mean when they reported a “fuel leak in the TIE Fighter was fixed”? They had a complement of over fifteen-thousand TIEs! How was he supposed to know which TIE they meant unless they gave the serial and drydock number!?

Grumbling uncomplimentary things under his breath about the ground crew officers in question and just where they could stick their shoddy reports, Luke began sorting through the pile of information, pulling up his people’s daily schedules to add various notifications to double check the ground crew’s work. He’d rather chew glass before letting a pilot get sent into a dogfight without proper shielding because those nerfherders undid one of his mods on the damned things.

Thankfully, he noted with a touch of pride, the report list seemed to be rather short thanks to his own crew being more than up to snuff in their skills and work ethic. He may have to find a way to switch them over from the empire’s way of doing mechanics and engineering (which he noted were marked with an emphasis on speed and efficiency over all else, even quality and durability) to his, but they were very much still the best at what they did. It was just his job to make sure they could do even better.

 Closing out the last of the reports with a grin, he stretched his arms out over his head, satisfied with the knowledge that the gearheads in his Corps were still better at keeping their Lady whole and happy with only the tools they could bring with them than the whole of Imperial Center’s dirtside pit crew with the most bleeding edge voiddocks. Chalk one up for the ship rats.

Quickly slipping out of his dress uniform and hanging it up in his locker to pick up later, he grabbed a spare set of overalls and pulled them on, exchanging his dress boots for his regular steel-toes work boots. Grabbing his TIE toolbelt and a headband magnifier from the rack, resting the magnifier on top of his head and buckling the belt on with practiced movements, he stumbled back out of the workshop into the hangar bay where Erribas was already fully immersed in the TIE’s tune up. Fully engaged with the data that was displayed on pad hooked up to the TIE’s mainframe, they didn’t even notice Luke's approach until he was pretty much standing next to them.

Glancing up only briefly enough to confirm his presence, they went back to frowning at the numbers filling into the screen. ‘Done with the reports already, sir?’

‘Yeah.’ He finished buckling the last strap around his thigh, keeping the holster for his heavier equipment firmly in place. ‘It seems we’ve kept on our toes enough to stay one step ahead of the pit crew; there was hardly anything worth assigning for double checks.’ He paused as he contemplated that statement. ‘Though that might just’ve been the fact that none of them can file a report worth for shit,’ he amended.

Erribas made an amused sound somewhere deep in their throat. ‘Likely a bit of both, sir,’ they muttered. ‘Pit crew is usually the ones who couldn’t hack it on the ships without extensive machinery to stand them by. But then, I don’t think the whole crew aboard the Lady has ever been this invested in making sure proper machine and report protocol is observed. Now, when something goes wrong, instead of just shrugging their shoulders and ignoring it, they actually file the proper reports, so it might just be that we’re catching the disasters now before they actually happen.’

He blinked at Erribas’ explanation. ‘Huh,’ he said, recalling all the times they got a report filed that prevented something Bad from becoming Catastrophic. ‘I guess so.’ Then he registered the rest of the sentence. ‘Wait, what do you mean “they’ve never been this invested before?”’ he asked, side eyeing the man still engrossed with their numbers.

They waved a dismissive hand as they highlighted another stream of numbers rolling in, this time from the weapons output. ‘Exactly that. Before you came aboard, we were roundly ignored and dismissed by most of the crew whenever we told them to file their damn reports so we could fix that annoying leak before it could become a dangerous leak. Then you show up and suddenly we have a whole army of mouse droids to help us out and people are nearly tripping over themselves to file those reports in.’ They glanced away from the screen to fix Luke with a piercing look and a wry smile. ‘It’s been a lot easier going in the day-to-day grind since you showed up, sir, I can tell you that much.’

Well then. ‘Glad to be of service,’ he returned bemusedly, before refocusing on the TIE. ‘Now then, how far are we in the check list?’

‘The targeting computer,’ Erribas responded drily. ‘Like I said, sir, you’ll have to check the sensor output yourself. I worked on it the whole week while following your instructions but it still doesn’t seem quite right.’ With that he handed the datapad over to Luke.

Scrolling through the sets of numbers, he could see what Erribas meant. The output was far too high in some places and far too low in a few others. Mentally scanning the schematics of the sensor array out, he began to formulate possibilities of why that could be. Everything from a catastrophic equipment failure to a glitch was on the table until—

He frowned as he tapped a specific set of numbers where the output almost seemed to—

Oh.

Something hummed in triumph in the back of his mind, and with a theory created that sang with something right, he shoved the pad back into the man’s hands as he stalked over to the TIE in long strides, fishing a screwdriver from his belt. Popping the casing from the exposed mainframe open, he carefully sorted through various bundles of wires and transmitters until he found the board in question. Flipping the magnifier down and adjusting the lenses, he began to look for what he suspected he would find. Sure enough, with a bit of searching he found the culprit. A solder bridge between two adjacent pads that was fucking with the whole system.

Growling deep in his throat, he called over to Erribas. ‘Shut down the power, I’ve found our issue! It’s a fucking solder bridge in the sensor array!’ Twisting his head this way and that to get a better angle on the situation, he heard Erribas curse loudly as the man shut down the power before footsteps indicated that he was coming up behind him, still cursing.

‘Agreed,’ he muttered, carefully maneuvering the delicate machinery forward for modification. ‘Still, we can fix now we know about it and then get on with things. Hand me my soldering iron, if you would be so kind? And the flux tube too, please. Right side of the belt.’

‘No solder wick?’ Erribas asked while fiddling with the toolbelt. ‘You’re working in a tight space; your hands might not be steady.’

He laughed softly. ‘Haven’t used the stuff since I was twelve,’ he muttered while reaching a bit deeper into the machinery. ‘I’ll be fine, I’ve got my ways. Now let’s get to work.’

Luke did, indeed, not need the solder wick, and as soon as the soldering iron was heated up and handed over the issues was fixed in just a moment, the excess solder easily wiped off in a brass sponge. With the issue cleared and the mainframe closed back up, they checked the output again, and lo and behold, the thing was no longer glitching in numbers like mad or switching up outputs. All in all, not too bad of an outcome. The damn thing could’ve just short-circuited the whole array instead.

With that out of the way and both having colorfully cursed the whole existence of soldering and the need for it, they began their work on the rest of the check list, cheerfully chatting away over the possible ways in which they could get the whole Corps up to speed with the way Luke operated instead of the empire’s. Which was a speedier, but also shoddier method the empire taught its engineers in whatever fancy schools they had. And while they were hardly a fan of playing outside the rulebook, even Erribas saw the reason of prioritizing quality and durability over quantity when it came to maintaining the one thing standing between you and the endless void of space.

The work might take longer to complete until the Corps had gotten as handy in the methods as Luke was, but that could easily be fixed by simply hiring a few more hands to man the deck. Something which Erribas emphasized would have to be a request specifically made by Luke to make sure it got through, for whatever reason. He wasn’t questioning it, as the Head Engineer it was technically his job anyway to hire on new souls, but the insistence on him making that request in person instead of proxy felt oddly pointed. Still, he agreed.

They eventually settled on a system that’d have him teaching a few short, but mandatory classes for his Corps alongside making use of his Scrap Hunting skills once more by filming a series of instruction videos. They’d be put in a general archive so he could link the video URL to the redirects he’d already put in the schematics, instead of the file system he had now. It’d clean up the process, and anyone in the Corps would be able to access the videos at any time, allowing for quick refreshers until the process became natural. He was still slightly uncomfortable with the idea of making his Corps sit in on those lessons, but Erribas’ backing was enough to convince him of the idea’s viability.

With the plan set up and Luke there to smoothen the process of working with the schematics for the TIE AD-X1 mods, work progressed swiftly, and even with all the time they spent chatting away about what they’d both missed in the other’s week, the last checkbox was soon ticked off and the TIE marked for transport from the drydock into the hangar bay.

Hooray, Luke thought sarcastically, let’s see how long it takes before this one meets its end on some barren rock.

Erribas groaned as they stretched themselves, their back cracking loudly. ‘Force, that was a chore and a half,’ they complained. ‘But at least it’s done. Finally.’

Luke chuckled tiredly. ‘It’ll get a lot easier once you understand what I’m going for in the schematics,’ he promised. He rolled his neck to work out some of the soreness. ‘But until then, I guess Lord Vader's TIE is still solely my responsibility.’

Erribas scoffed, rotating a shoulder. ‘Oh please, it’ll be your responsibility no matter what. Even when I was still in charge of the gearheads, he didn’t make these kinds of requests or allow this kind of liberty with his ships.’ Switching shoulders, they gave Luke a significant look. ‘He did any modification himself if he absolutely felt the need. But give free reign like he does with you, sir?’ He shook his head. ‘No, that’s just you.’

Luke shifted uncomfortably at the surety with which Erribas spoke those words. As if they were the absolute truth. And a week ago— a week ago he would’ve protested, would’ve said that Vader would probably give it a shot if they asked (which he knew they didn’t. No one aboard the Lady asked Vader anything and he was still mystified as to how they expected to get any answers like that), but now? Vader had choked a man to defend him from petty insults. He still didn’t quite know how he’d done it, but he’d done it! Granted, that man was Admiral Ozzel and the Desert knew that he thought the man could do with a bit of attitude adjustment, but still!

Vader had picked his side for all to see in that moment, and regardless of cultural differences between the core and the outer rim, that had to be a universally big gesture.

Unsure of what to say to Erribas, he simply swallowed and nodded, busying himself with wiping the dust and grease off his hands with a spare rag. Something which evidently unnerved his second.

‘Sir?’ they asked softly, worry leaking into their voice.

He shook his head as if to clear his thoughts with it and smiled weakly at the man. ‘Nothing to worry about, Erribas,’ he assured them. ‘Just… thinking of all that happened this week.’

His second gave him a considering look as they tilted their head. ‘Hm. I take it a lot has happened, sir? Perhaps concerning that earlier choking incident you mentioned?’ they asked with a knowing tone.

He laughed softly. ‘Nail meet hammer,’ he admitted. ‘I’ll have to tell you about it later.’

‘Well,’ Erribas drawled, ‘Considering it’s currently—’ they fished out their comm, ‘—eighteen-hundred-thirty hours, I’d say “later” is going to be in the mess hall, sir.’ Stuffing the comm back where it came from, they hooked their thumbs in their pockets. ‘And I’d say that’s as good a time as any, you did promise the Corps a rundown of your adventures,’ they finished with a smirk.

Rolling his eyes, he didn’t even bother to hide a grin. ‘Alright, alright, I get the message,’ he grumbled playfully. ‘Tell the gearheads they’re getting their story time.’

A thought struck him as he glanced down at his smudged and stained outfit. Wrinkling his nose, he made the executive decision to prioritize in the way his Aunt had taught him how. ‘But first, I could probably do with a quick wash and a change of clothes,’ he said while prodding at one especially bad grease stain.

Erribas barked out a laugh as they exaggerated eyeing him up and down. ‘Yeah, I’d say so, sir.’ Then they looked down at themselves and pulled a face. ‘Force, so do I, I guess.’

Luke snorted and tossed them the balled-up rag, which they caught and immediately began wiping at a smudge on their forearm with. ‘Guess we’ll both see each other in the mess hall after a quick wash up then?’

Erribas glanced up from where they were busy making themselves at least semi-presentable for the walk back to their quarters and nodded, quirking up a corner of their mouth in a lopsided smile. ‘How about the first one there wrestles the other a ration from the cook, sir?’

He laughed, light and warm. ‘You’re on!’ he told the other man, playfully pointing a finger. ‘Anyway, I gotta get going. I probably have some luggage to unpack anyway. See you in a bit, Erribas.’

His second gave an easy salute and nodded after him. ‘See you in a bit, sir.’

Making his way through the main hangar, he took a moment to look around at all his people. Suspended in one of the larger drydocks was a Gamma-class ATR-6, the stealth systems being overhauled on his orders after he figured out the main motto of the pilots was basically “hope the shields hold and pray.” In theory the craft was fine, it focused on heavy armor, shielding and— that’s it. That’s what an ATR-6 relied on. Not ideal considering the fact that it’s main role as an assault ship was to ferry trooper companies through the fire line when combat raged for high-value boarding operations.

To “make up” for the lack of stealth, the ships were equipped with four turrets that could fire on all arcs. But considering the fact that everyone in a fight knew that the assault ships themselves were high-value targets due to their aforementioned use as boarding parties, and considering the fact that almost every ship from snub fighters to destroyer was likely willing to spare at least a shot or two for a boarding ship, it was hardly enough. Something that was usually countered by sending multiple ships out in a sacrificial gambit so horrifying and barbaric Luke had immediately ordered their modification without even bothering to check with Vader. Not that the man had protested.

And so the great ships now rested in the drydocks, being modified and altered and bettered with the hope that their passengers would be a little bit safer when plasma and lasers alike raged through the black void of space. They were an ongoing project of his and would be for the next few months, but hopefully, once they were finished and had their earned their battle scars, he could begin drafting the files arguing for the mods to become permanent alterations to the ship class.

A few members of his Corps were still tending to them, but it was mostly to tide the ships over until the night shift arrived to pick up where the day shift left off. Still, the hangar rang with the clanging, humming, and whizzing of machinery being used in a familiar beat that had become as much a part of him as that of his own heart.

Striding over to where the troopers were manning the elevator and rail stations, he gave them a friendly but tired smile, to which they thankfully responded only by naming him the elevator he would have to take to get to his quarters and a polite wish for him to get some rest. Preferably before Lord Vader came back down to notify him of the same thing.

Grinning at the two troopers, he nodded at them and headed through the station, only a short elevator ride and walk separating him from his quarters, located so very conveniently close to the hangars. He smiled to himself, sometimes being the Head Engineer had its perks. Like a private fresher with a sonic shower.

Humming softly as he fished out his code cylinder for his quarters, he hit the control panel, some part of him sighing in relief. His workshop may be the closest to “his” aboard this ship, but his quarters were a close second. As an officer, he had his own private cabin aboard the Lady and since she had the space to spare, it was even all pretty decently sized, certainly bigger than what he’d had back on the Homestead. Consisting of a small office/living space, a bedroom (with a real bed instead of bunk), and a private fresher, Luke's cabin was his own little bubble of privacy that he knew was practically an obscene luxury in a place like a space ship. And at the moment it was something for which he’d never been more grateful.

Kicking off his boots and making sure to fish out his knife, he made his way past the tiny seating area with two plush chairs, throwing his datapad on one of them with his mind already halfway in the sonic and fresh clothes. Perhaps halfway too far, in fact, as he’d nearly missed the innocuous parcel wrapped in brown paper perched on his cafftable.

Blinking in befuddlement at the parcel, he quickly glanced around the room to see if the person who’d left it was still around, even as some part of him knew that the culprit was long gone. Focusing back on the unexpected object in his cabin, he slowly approached the cafftable, some part of him irrationally afraid that the thing would blow any moment.

When he’d come close enough to touch the parcel and the thing still hadn’t so much as puffed out a plume of smoke, he tentatively picked it up.

It was definitely heavier than expected, and turning the parcel around he found a small note attached to it that read “FRAGILE” in perfectly blocked, but handwritten aurebesh. He huffed out a soft breath, thank the Desert he hadn’t shaken it then.

Curiosity now firmly awake, he carefully began peeling away at the nondescript brown wrapping paper, slowly revealing a sleek black box with a similarly black card nested on top of it. Balling up the paper to be discarded later, Luke picked up the card and flipped it open. The handwriting inside was in the same distinctly blocked penmanship, and within five seconds of reading the contents of the card he knew there was only one person it could belong to.

 

    “To Hd. Eng. Luke Lars,

    A great disappointment indeed that one would make such little use of flora within their dwellings.

    Consider this my attempt to ratify that.

    —Someone who was once similarly disappointed”

 

Luke stared incredulously at the small card held within his grasp, suddenly feeling like he was holding something unaccountably fragile and precious. Stroking a finger over the fine, sharp lines of the letters, it suddenly occurred to him that someone—oh, call it what it was—that Vader had sat down and taken the time to write something out for him by hand.

Something light and sparkling like spring water bubbled up inside him, leaving him feeling both dizzy and refreshed and strangely lightheaded. This was a gift. This was a gift from Vader. A smile spread unbidden across his face, and he probably looked rather silly with a wide, goofy grin stretching ear to ear, though he couldn’t care in the slightest at the moment. This, he could tell that this was a precious moment, and it deserved to be felt freely.

Setting the card down with slightly trembling hands, he refocused on the parcel— no, gift, still situated in the featureless black box. Thumbing open the lid, he carefully removed both it and a thick, jet black insulating material from the top and—

A soft white light spilled into the room from out of the box.

Situated within the box was a glass dome, a little knob on top filled with some matter of substance that emitted a constant pale glow. Staring in wonder at the strange thing that he had suddenly found in his possession, Luke carefully slipped his fingers around the domed top of the glass and knob, lifting out the object.

What he had thought was a glass dome turned out to be some kind of glass bell jar, or perhaps even a bottle, and situated inside, bathed in soft light, was a beautiful little plant.

A sound escaped him that sounded suspiciously like a gasp of awe, but Luke could hardly care when he held one of the most precious treasures of Tatooine within his hands. A plant. A real, live, healthy green little plant, growing in rich, near-black soil covered in emerald bright moss.

Carefully, slowly, as if he was holding something made of spun sugar instead of solid glass, Luke placed the bottled plant within his lap, unable to tear his eyes away.

It was small, and looked for all the world exactly like a miniature tree, with a pale, wooden stem, deep green leaves tightly clustered tightly together, and tiny star flowers in the most pristine shade of pale blue Luke had ever seen decorating the branches, peeking out from between the green. All bathed under the soft light of the strange bulb that made the whole bottle glow ethereal.

It was weird, it was odd, it was like nothing Luke had ever seen. And it was absolutely perfect.

Staring fixated at the little miracle that had been dropped almost literally into his lap from out of nowhere, Luke basked in the fact that he was holding something small, and precious, and humming with life before a thoroughly unwelcome thought broke through his wonder.

He had no idea how to care for it.

A sinking feeling of dread made itself known in his stomach as he worriedly looked at the tiny tree that’d been gifted to him, remembering the reason why he hadn’t bought any plants on Imperial Center in the first place. Slowly setting the bottle back on the cafftable with the greatest care, he picked the box back up again in the hopes that it would provide some sort of hint on how he could avoid helplessly watching his gift wither away and die due to his ignorance.

Thankfully, miraculously, he found something. Another note pressed to the side, once more written in that same handwriting, though it seemed almost more… hesitant.

 

    “Little One,

    I trust this gift finds you well.

    Contained within this terrarium is a mature specimen of the shiranaa tree, whose native environment constitutes the arctic circles of Naboo. It will not grow any larger than this, and due to the fact that the terrarium constitutes a closed system, neither will it need tending. All that this specimen needs is already present within the terrarium, including water and light. You need not worry about it.

    Considering your predilection for flora, I hope it will bring you some small measure of joy.”

 

Luke stared at the note, blinking at the words written.

A tree. Vader had gotten him a water-true tree. That was— that was more than Luke knew what to say to, and for just a moment, he was grateful that no one was there to see him gaping at the note like a sun-stung bantha.

Vader had given Luke a living plant. Vader had given Luke a living plant. That was—!

He breathed in deeply and told himself to cool it. This wasn’t Tatooine, and he’d just spent a week in the kind of place Vader frequented. Giving a plant would not have the same kind of meaning to the man as it would to him. Even if he kinda did want it to.

Looking down at the card, he idly thumbed the words, tracing their shape with his eyes but not really reading them, and thought deeply. On Tatooine, giving a live plant to anyone was one of the deepest and most personal gestures a person could make. It was a declaration of a kind of respect and… affection? Adoration? That meant you held the other person in the highest of regards. The gesture itself could be done in any kind of context, but the core message was always the same. He swallowed deeply as a memory rose unbidden of he himself offering Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru a little succulent when he’d been six. He’d found growing in the shade of a large rocky overhang and it had sung loudly enough that he knew immediately what to do. “You are my Home,” he’d said, and meant it.

They had that little succulent still, well cared for and still singing with life and love.

And now Vader had gone and given him a whole tree from a planet he’d only vaguely recalled hearing of, planted in such a way that apparently even he would be able to keep it alive.

It didn’t mean the same thing to Vader, he knew that, but… the man had still obviously put a lot of thought into this. He’d been listening when Luke had gone on and on about what kind of plants he’d love to have all over the place and then decided to get him a tree. If nothing else, that demonstrated a kind of care and fondness that frankly had him floored.

Setting the card down beside him with hands that still hadn’t completely stopped shaking, he picked up the— terrarium, as Vader had called it? And placed it in his lap again, softly stroking along the cool glass as he allowed himself to be mesmerized with the little plant within.

Whatever this meant to Vader, it was clearly something special, what with the handwritten notes and the fact that he would’ve had to take the time to deliver it to Luke's cabin while still dealing with the busy aftermath of their little dirtside adventure. And that alone was enough to fill Luke with a soft warmth that left him smiling.

Basking in the gentle glow of the… Shiranaa tree? He checked the card again for the name Vader had given him for this tiny tree and felt a fission of curiosity bubble up inside of him. An arctic tree from a planet called Naboo… Nearly every word in that sentence was so contrary to everything Tatooine was that Luke could’ve hardly stopped himself from wanting to know more if he tried.

As it was, he wasn’t trying, and he’d already grabbed his datapad from the other chair to type in “Shiranaa tree Naboo” in the search bar.

Immediately countless results popped up, and he picked the one that went to the Nubian cultural heritage site. Apparently, his little tree was a big enough of a deal that it was a part of a cultural heritage? Thoroughly intrigued, he began reading.

    “The Shiranaa Tree.

    Unassuming and small, this arctic tree nonetheless has a rich history amongst the Nubian people. While it’s small stature may have it easily overlooked even on the baren tundra, it’s elegant shape and steadfast tenacity give it a certain appeal that cannot be denied. And though its beauty was most certainly a contributing factor in cementing it in Nubian culture, it is the tree’s extraordinary longevity that give it its fame.

    Rumored to live for over fifty thousand years, and with several confirmed cases of an age of twenty thousand being reached, a single specimen of the shiranaa tree takes on average around four decades to reach its mature size, at which point the tree dedicates the rest of its considerable life to extending its root system. It flowers once every year in spring, and this annual event marks the festival known as Féllcantúr, the festival of life and death dedicated to eldest of the triple lunar goddesses, Shiraya. Ancient Nubians believed that the flowering of the shiranaa tree marked the passage of time in which the souls of the dead from the year past would depart and the souls to be born in the new year would arrive under Her watchful gaze.

    Due to this belief and the nature of Shiraya as a deity of life in all its stages, the flowers of the shiranaa tree have a unique cultural dualism to them. They are used both to celebrate the birth of new life, and to mourn the passing of one at funerals. Despite this somewhat morbid connotation, the shiranaa tree remains a beloved—if rare—gift to bestow upon those who are celebrating the welcome of a new life into the family—"

The datapad clattered onto the ground, Luke's fingers having gone too slack to keep holding on to it.

What.

His eyes shot downwards to the innocuous tree still resting in his lap, glowing faintly under the light of the bulb with no indication that it might have just conveyed a message that would send Luke's whole worldview spinning topsy-turvy.

Had Vader just— Did Vader just—!?

Luke forced himself to take a deep, deep breath and think rationally about the whole situation even if he would very much like to do something reckless and dangerous right now, no preferences as to what.

Vader had given him a tree.

Vader had given him a shiranaa tree, which was apparently a much bigger deal than he originally would’ve pegged it for.

If he followed both Tatooinian and Nubian customs, the man had just essentially told him “I see you as my child and you are my Home.” Which— did the man know that!? Did he know what statement he’d just made by giving Luke this specific tree as a gift? Did he really—?

Luke forced in another deep breath. Okay, okay, rational thoughts. He could do that. He could.

First things first, he didn’t know from what planet Vader came, but he figured Tatooine was a rather unlikely candidate out of the billions of planets within the galaxy, so he nixed the latter half of the potential meaning to the message Vader had intended to send. His mentor probably just wanted to give him something he had told the man he liked.

But the Nubian meaning… regardless of how ridiculous the thought might be, it seemed at least far more plausible to him that Vader would know of Nubian culture even if he wasn’t from Naboo himself. Which put the former part of the potential message down as a solid “maybe” that grated on Luke's nerves, but fact of the matter was that he didn’t know if Vader had meant to convey the message Luke had unintentionally dug up or not. Nothing in the note had mentioned the special meanings the Nubian people ascribed to the tree, and there weren’t any too overt hints to indicate that Vader knew of any deeper meaning either asides from the fact that he had chosen this specific tree to gift to Luke.

Which could be a coincidence.

But might not be.

Luke huffed out a breath and shook his head, softly stroking the glass covering his little conundrum as he caught the way his thoughts were heading. That way lay madness if he began to overthink every little thing.

Fact of the matter was, he didn’t know whether Vader had intended this gift as merely a friendly gesture or as something indicative of a deeper meaning, and he wouldn’t know unless Vader told him. And that wouldn’t happen unless Vader brought it up himself, with how tightly the man was wound around himself. Not even if Luke asked, damn the impenetrable walls the man put up around himself when caught off guard.

He blew out a breath with some frustration as he tapped a finger on the glass. He supposed all he really could do about this situation was to ask himself what he wanted the answer to be. Did he want there to be a deeper meaning to all this?

Vader was… difficult, sometimes, to really understand or get along with. He could be bad tempered and incredibly unpredictable, with little patience or tolerance for other people, even if Luke was slowly beginning to realize that he was something of an exception to that. He knew that Vader had an utterly ruthless side to him that wasn’t necessarily fazed by cruelty, as evident by his reputation (of which at least some parts had to be earned), by his casual confession to executing his own underlings for failure, and by his… attack on Ozzel when he came to Luke's defense.

Whatever else could be said about Vader, it was clear that the man’s conscience was far from clean and that he was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to reach his goals, even if “his” goals were more often than not that of the emperor’s. There was at least some truth to the monikers of “The Black Death” and “The Empire’s Fist” that even Luke couldn’t say were exaggerated.

But.

Vader could be kind as well. He had shown patience, care, compassion, and an incredibly gentle side to Luke, despite the fact that he could tell the man was unfamiliar and unpracticed in allowing himself to be vulnerable with other people. He often stumbled and clammed up when a situation left his guard a bit too open for comfort, but it was clear he tried for Luke, despite the fact that he didn’t have to and didn’t always succeed. He listened to Luke, remembered what was said, and went to great lengths to show Luke that he cared for ostensibly no other reason than that he did.

And that wasn’t even accounting for the fact that Luke could effortlessly sense the deep wells of warmth, fondness, and affection within his mentor whenever he interacted with Luke. Vader cared for him, and he made sure Luke knew that, clumsy though he sometimes was with it. Vader cared for him, taught him, watched over him, and now stood up for him in a most dramatic fashion.

Vader cared, and that was also a fact that couldn’t be denied.

Luke blew out a soft breath. What was it his Uncle had always said on these kinds of things? “People are like storms, Luke, you’ll never know which shape they’ll take next.”

He supposed if anything could describe Vader accurately, it would be a storm. The man was a force of nature; fierce, powerful, and unrelenting. But at the core of it all was an eye of the utmost calm and safety, where you could reside without any fear until the storm passed on. His Uncle had been right in that aspect.

His Uncle…

He let out a shuddering sound. Uncle Owen had never wanted to Name Luke as his Son, nor had he allowed Luke to Name him as a Father. He’d always told Luke that he wouldn’t dishonor his step-brother’s spirit by claiming the role away from him, and Luke had respected that as best he could once he was old enough to understand it, but it still stung. By all rules and traditions of the Desert, Luke had a right to Name Uncle Owen “Father” and Uncle Owen had a right to Name him “Son”, but the Names were never used. Couldn’t be, not without both parties agreeing to Name each other.

So Luke had grown up with the spirit rites of passage while his Uncle watched on, an observer but never a part of them. He knew that the fact it was his father’s spirit guiding him through them didn’t make his rites any less real or important, and he knew that Uncle Owen had every right and reason not to Name him, but…

But his Father wasn’t there. Wouldn’t ever be, no matter how often Luke had wished for it, and by all laws of the Desert, he had a right to Name someone as his Parent and be Named as a Son in turn. It didn’t have to be Uncle Owen.

He sighed. The question was; did he want it to be Vader?

Did he want Vader, and all the man entailed, to be his Father? Would he let his mentor Name him as Son?

And maybe the answer to that question should’ve been harder to come by. Maybe he shouldn’t be able to look inside himself and find a single word echoing back as if it had already been spoken a long time ago, backed by the contented whispers of something ancient in the back of his mind where he wasn’t entirely him. Maybe he should’ve been more bothered by the darker part of Vader's personality that marked him out as far from perfect.

But Luke didn’t want perfect.

He just wanted a Father. His Father.

Yes, the answer rang out, clear and bright and true. Yes, he wanted Vader as a Father, would Name the man as his Father and allow himself to be Named as Son. Yes, if Vader had intended the gift as a message, he would accept, and damn the consequences. Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru had a right not to Name him as Son in a show of respect to his parents’ spirits, but he as a Child had a right to Name someone as a Parent regardless. Everyone honored the spirits of those before them in their own way, and Luke hardly felt a kinship to a way that left him an orphan forever. If the Desert’s Suns and Moons were kind enough to allow it, if the Sandstorm would bless it, he would Name Vader as his Father.

And be Named in turn.

Luke sighed.

Well, he thought with a smile, that answered that question. He knew what he wanted this gift to mean, regardless of what the true intent had been or what meaning may or may not be hidden within the glass terrarium. That didn’t mean much of anything if it all turned out to be a massive misunderstanding—which he estimated to be at somewhere around are-you-kidding-me-high to one odds—and he was probably reading far too much into it, but it was nice to think of anyway.

And at least now he knew where he stood in all this, though he still didn’t have the faintest as to where Vader stood. For all he knew, the tree was just a tree. A very nice tree, but still not one with any kind of deeper meanings attached to it.

Setting the terrarium carefully back down on the table, he picked up the card once more and read through the words, tracing the lines to see if he had missed anything. His mentor had certainly spent a lot more time instructing him on what his gift was exactly, rather than what it meant, but the small snippets that he had allowed to express sentiment were nothing short of sweet. And there was a word he’d never thought he’d associate with the black behemoth that was Vader.

Snickering quietly at his own thoughts, he put the card aside and stood up. Whatever Vader's intent had been with all this, it was still a very nice gesture that could be appreciated even without anything else tied to it.

Suns and sand, the man had gotten him a tree for his quarters because he’d playfully complained about there being no plants anywhere. Something with which he could apparently sympathize enough that he’d get Luke something to alleviate the disappointment. What was that, if not a blatant show of affection and care, regardless of what kind of sentiment came attached to it?

Even if Vader would likely never see him as a Son like Luke could learn to see him as a Father, he still cared in his own, sometimes slightly awkward ways, and that was more than enough for Luke.

Leaving the terrarium on his cafftable, he picked up the cards and displayed them proudly next to them, their blank, black sides facing outwards in case he needed to entertain anyone in his quarters. He doubted Vader meant for those words to be read by anyone but him.

Sparing a moment to look over his handiwork with satisfaction, he nodded firmly and picked up the ball of brown wrapping paper. There was a waste disposal in the fresher, and he’d probably lost enough time as it was already.

Erribas and his Corps were waiting for him and he hadn’t so much as picked out a fresh set of clothes to wear, let alone gotten around to hopping into the sonic.

Ah, well. Zev had told him there was such a thing as being fashionably late, and it wasn’t like he wasn’t the person who set the mealtimes for his Corps anyway. Though Chatter and Tirian would’ve probably finished off all the rations by now if Erribas hadn’t manage to grab anything for him. And despite the fact that he could probably drop by the officer’s lounge and get something there that way, it was the principle of things, damn it!

With that thought, he dipped into his bedroom just long enough to grab a fresh set of overalls and whatnot, before spinning around on his heel towards the fresher. A quick sonic, fumbling with sleeves and zippers, and bouncing on one leg as he pulled on his socks later, and he was all ready to face the music once more.

Strolling of the sonic feeling all kinds of refreshed and relieved, he headed over to where he’d kicked off his boots. Pulling them on, he paused for a moment to snatch up his datapad, quickly stuffing it back into his uniform.

Running his mental checklist of things he needed before throwing himself back into the fray again, Luke was almost out the door with the last checkbox when the glow of the terrarium caught his eye again, the soft humming of life trilling through his mind.

He didn’t know why, but something in him… paused for a second. Held still and told him to look back just one last time. Glancing back over his shoulder, he let the soft, peaceful humming of life wash over him once more as he looked at innocuous plant that had turned his whole afternoon and perception of himself in relation to his mentor on its head.

A soft smile spread across his face. He might not have expected… any of this. Frankly, the tree was only the very elaborate period at the end of this sentence of concentrated madness that had been this last week, but it was perhaps the best representation of it.

Unexpected, confusing, and perhaps just a little frustrating, but filled with so much joy and wonder too.

He’d made a friend this week and helped them plot their own little private rebellion, met another old friend face-to-face at last and had a grand old time at the gala, forged closer bonds than ever before with some of the people close to him and completed the project that began it all.

Oh, and gotten a commendation from the emperor, he supposed.

All in all, while some things had sucked to the point that he would rather sit through another ten meetings than do it again (talking to the emperor came to mind), he wouldn’t change a thing.

And with the projects yet to be planned, plans yet to be carried out, and work yet to be done, he could only hope that he still had enough time to spend with Vader to see if he couldn’t figure out what that tree now actually meant. He grinned. Maybe he could even get the man to admit to the fact that he did sneak around on purpose, seeing as he hardly would’ve let anyone see him sneak into Luke's cabin.

And it’s not like he would give the task to anyone else and risk starting a rumor that he cared, or some such nonsense.

Laughing softly at the mental image of Vader puffing up in indignation as he was wont to do if Luke made the insinuation that he was not just a great big ball of spikes and intimidation, Luke cast the little tree one last look, before resolutely turning back out the door and towards the mess hall where his people were waiting.

Regardless of what was to come, Luke had a feeling that they’d be just fine.